Sunday, 21 September 2014

Saturday Interview: Anna Chen

Anna Chen is a London-born writer, poet, broadcaster and Orwell Prize shortlisted blogger. She was the co-ordinating press officer for the Socialist Alliance (2000-1) and the Stop the War Coalition (2001-3). Her documentaries for BBC Radio 3 and 4, pioneering explorations of race and class, include the groundbreaking 10-part series, Chinese in Britain (2007). She writes and presents an arts series, Madam Miaow's Culture Lounge, for Resonance FM. You can follow Anna on Twitter here.

- Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging as Madam Miaow in 2007 to stop me chucking heavy objects through the television screen. I needed not only to vent, but to order my thoughts when faced with the all-pervading mess out there. I'm sure there are many of us who have been kept sane by having the option to communicate our views to an audience, even a small one. It's a healthy way to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world.

- What's been your best blogging experience?

Being shortlisted and longlisted for the Orwell Prize and then being invited to hold a poetry workshop for them for schoolchildren in Wigan.

- Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Be aware that blogging has peaked. Every journo now has a blog so the brilliant democratising platform that was blogging has already been skewed in favour of the establishment. It's significant that the Orwell Prize dropped their blogging prize last year.

Having said that, it's very useful as a personal journal and a great way to place your world-view on the record. Don't write humungous long screeds unless you will otherwise burst. Try to keep it to 400-800 words per post, and be entertaining and witty as well as wise and wonderful. Everybody's pushed for time nowadays — make it worth their while spending a little of it on you.

- Do you think blogging's changed much since you started?

There are a lot more of us and a plethora of platforms. It's a boon for general literacy — I've seen various writers grow and improve their craft over the years.

- Do you find social media useful for activist-y-type things?

Anything that helps communication and gets different perpectives out there challenging the status quo must be a good thing. Useful for shining a cleansing light in all those nooks and crannies. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

- Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

George Orwell for giving us the language tools to nail what the Stalinists were doing; Patrick Heron on art (especially on what the CIA did with modern art when imperialist hegemony was played out on canvas); Robert McKee on cinematic story structure; Joss Whedon on televisual story structure; Greg Benton and Jonathan Spence on Chinese history; Maya Angelou; bell hooks; Rosa Luxemburg; the NME writers of my childhood who were like big brothers and sisters navigating me around the culture ... I'm quite eclectic and a working-class autodidact, having left school as 16, so it's difficult to pinpoint.

- What are you reading at the moment?

The Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph W Esherick. Ricky Rouse Has A Gun, a graphic novel by Jorg Tittel and John Aggs.

- What was the last film you saw?

Southland Tales. My first was Disney's The Sleeping Beauty and George Pal's The Time Machine. Now THAT was a really powerful influence — who are the Eloi and who are the Morlocks? And who is the Traveller?

- Do you have a favourite novel?

I had a Chuck Pahlaniuk craze for a while (Fight Club and assorted novels and short stories). Animal Farm and 1984 have been faves, as was The Magus when I was a teen. I loved Evelyn Waugh's savage humour when I was a kid.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

I was sympathetic to the Yes-vote in the Scotland independence referendum until I was won over to the argument that this was actually about class solidarity over nationalism. Emotionally, I'm with them and share their disgust over Westminster's austerity policies — and I remember how they got the Poll Tax before anyone else. However, some Scots nationalists seemed to be saying screw you to the English working class. Instead of uniting to get rid of the unelected Tories and their LibDem shills, it was "devil take the hindmost".

It looked more like a battle between contending ruling-classes than liberation for the Scottish people, which is how it was being sold by SNP "Tartan Tories" tacking left for the vote. Would it really have been an improvement being ruled by Brian Souter, Ann Gloag, Rupert Murdoch and Angela Merkel?

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

The SWP and their reboot of the Socialist Alliance (SA), and I also established and ran the press for their offshoots, the SA, Globalise Resistance and the Stop the War Coalition. See this.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

A rising tide floats all boats. Rosa Luxemburg's warning that the choice would be between socialism or barbarism grows truer by the minute. Socialism is supposed to about an egalitarian, freeing society; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need, not a wholesale troughing down by power-hungry opportunists.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Nationalism, anti-immigration, racism, sexim. I would include reformism if only there was a socialist alternative.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

R D Laing's Knots when I was 16. The George Orwell canon.

- Who are your political heroes?

Rosa Parks and her compadres who were defying America's racist laws. The Wobblies who recruited American Chinese farmworkers into the labour movement when scumbags such as Denis Kearney and his Workingmens Party of California were stoking up lynchings. My father who came to Britain in 1927/8 as a seaman, helped establish the Chinese Seaman's Union and campaigned against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931) and invasion of China (1937) — it got heavy!

- How about political villains?

Anyone who rises through the left only to take an axe to the movement as soon as they see an opportunity to climb the greasy pole — they have done so much damage to the movement and proper socialism which should represent liberation for the majority. The SWP analysis in the late 1990s predicted that Blair would be right-wing and betray the working class who would move rightwards so it was vital that we build an alternative to Labour. They were correct in that instance yet here we are over a decade later with the left worse than ever following pointless sectarian punch-ups mostly initiated by the SWP when a strong principled left has never been more desperately needed.

The uber villains are the vulture capitalists (as exposed by investigative reporter Greg Palast in his book Vultures' Picnic) who want it all but, in a grisly way, they are the logical conclusion of capitalism in old age. And, of course, Tony Blair and all the Labourites who allowed this monster to take the helm. I mean, trousering £2-3 million a year from J P Morgan, the bank that just happened with be awarded the lucrative co-ordinating role of extracting money from Iraq after Bush and Blair's war? WTF?!! Talk about the banality of evil.

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Demonstrating that proper socialism can actually function for the majority, not an easy task when you see the destructiveness of so-called socialists: from the guys who rose through the ranks to rule the Stans, to our own homegrown efforts in the UK. The creation of so many billionnaires in China just makes me weep. So often it is merely a conduit to power for sociopaths. May we be honest and look at why socialism is such a dirty word for so many who would actually benefit from it?

- If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Taxing the rich is a perrenial favourite. Lobbying for an international tax system that challenges evasion and havens (hello Britain!). TTIP is an evil the world can do without.

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

The constant upward suck of wealth with our resources accreting in the hands of a tiny global elite. This can't carry on without major crises and a battle to redistribute fairly. Trouble is, they now have the technology to hang on to their ill-gotten gains and leave us behind. Recent "revolutions" have not been inspiring, they've simply meant a change of personnel at the top as die alte scheisse takes over.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Beware inadequates — they loathe you. Learn to tell the difference between lip-service and action. If love isn't part of your politics, then you have no business telling others what to do and how to run the world. Far from being romantic nonsense as so many cynics would have it, love is the highest plane on which human beings as social animals interact. We need to develop 360 degree abilities and wider bandwidth.

- What is your favourite song?

It changes but at the moment it is the Dusty Springfield version of Windmills of Your Mind, turning trite hippy lyrics as sung by Noel Harrison into something genuinely profound. Also, Why'd Ya Do It?, lyrics by Heathcote Williams and sung by Marianne Faithful.

- Do you have a favourite video game?

I got all the way to the end of Doom. Does chess software count?

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Capacity for love — not the romantic kind, the other bigger one that encompasses generosity, solidarity and comradeship. Intelligence versus cleverness.

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

My own? Naivety. Over-eating. Being useless at maths.

In others, cowardice. Not physical cowardice, but personal, ethical, intellectual and moral.

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

The lack of any social force in the world that can challenge the feral ruling class and its mechanisms for extracting money, labour and soul. And a dehumanising callousness at every level, in every sphere, spreading like ebola and threatening to be the death of us all.

- And any pet peeves?

Mockney accents on posh leftists who tell working-class people how to be working-class. Purported progressives and anti-racists I've never met projecting their yellow peril fears onto me. Leftists who fall over themselves to appropriate your labour and the comrades who turn a blind eye. The snowy blinding WHITENESS of the left groups and the obvious lack of diversity, often manifesting as outright hostility towards Other. Organisations that bolt themselves to the front of other people's struggle and then claim leadership rights. None of this helps us advance our political cause.

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Use softening rose water instead of tonics that strip your skin and dry it up. Don't smoke or stay in the sun too long.

Don't go anywhere near the British far left. Too many charlatans, careerists and snake-oil salesmen and women with ambitions who are happy to plant their boot in your face if it means personal advancement as soon as something's up for grabs. Suddenly, gay rights are no longer a "shibboleth", that rape never happened and "what's yours is mine". Wise up to the fact that, just because someone says the right thing, it doesn't mean they live it. No-one on the left has your back if you are already a marginalised minority because so many of them are insecure, chasing status, career, youth and power, and they harbour a deep contempt for those who they see as occupying at the bottom of society, whatever lip-service they pay otherwise — it's their own self-loathing projected out. Just because you are comradely, principled and non-sectarian, it doesn't mean everyone else is, too, simply because they've read the right books. Watch out for the middle-class ones who sneer at ethics and morality as "bourgeois", forgetting that Trotsky wrote a book called Their Morals and Ours, not Their Morals and We Ain't Got None.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading, gardening, cooking, writing poetry and fiction. I enjoy performing poetry. I have a collection out, Reaching for my Gnu, which has a political dimension, both explicit and implicit. I used to draw a lot — that's something I'd like to take up again. And playing chess.

- What is your most treasured possession?

A lock of hair from my late boyfriend of 23 years ago.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Oh yes! Watching Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

- What talent would you most like to have?

I'd like my old eiditic (photographic) memory back. I used to have one until I had some sort of aneurism when I was 19 and then spent ten years relearning how to string a sentence together.

- If you could have one realistic(ish) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

To live a happy, productive life surrounded by loved ones in a peaceful world.

- Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

My NICS and income were disrupted when I worked for the left for no pay on top of the ten years I was ill, so some sort of a pension would be nice. It would mean no more fear of dying in poverty.

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Edward Asner, Mary Shelley, Hong Xiuquan (the leader of the Taiping rebellion). I met Ed and found he was my ideal father figure. I developed a little crushette on him.

- As a non-Labour labour movement person, do you think Labour will win next year?

Not if they carry on the way they are, trying to out-right the right — we have one of those already, thankyou. The Tories and their Lib Dem human shields are so loathed that they should be a shoo-in but I wouldn't put it past them to nause it up.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

What Next for Politics?

It's been a huge week, a profound week for British politics. What does it all mean for the parties and movements jostling for position in the referendum's aftermath?

As far as Westminster is concerned, a bullet has been dodged. There is a cloying desire for a return to business as usual, and just as many determined to carry on as if it has. Not least among them is our old pal Dan Hodges. With the referendum done he's turned in one of the worst, most complacent articles I've seen. On the basis of Dave hitting the TV cameras yesterday morning to announce he's tying further Scottish powers up with English votes on English laws, the election next year is all wrapped up. Slam dunk. Unfortunately for Dan, good speeches don't win elections. As confident as Dave appeared let's not pretend his position is anything but precarious. His panicky sojourns to Scotland exposed him - again - as weak. This is the Prime Minister reduced to saying "please, please, please, please, please vote no"; who referred to his own party as the 'effing Tories'. Is this behaviour of a man secure in both party and parliament? Is a leader bounced by backbench revolts into promising a two-speed Westminster someone in control? Dave and Crosby think hitching English votes to Scottish powers is a trap waiting for Labour, forcing them to renege on promises made, but most people will see it for what it is: a cynical wheeze to buy off restive MPs. Unlucky for him, the path to the new Scotland Act is not entirely in Dave's hands. The renegacy is all Dave's should he try and delay it.

The only good thing Dave did in this campaign was to concede the referendum in the first place. In true Tory fashion, the No campaign was outsourced to an alternative provider: the Labour Party. It was they who held the line in Scotland, provided the energy and activism, knocked on the doors and got out the vote. Dave absented himself from the field while Alistair Darling and a resurgent Gordon Brown made the case. Not only was Labour effectively alone on Scotland's streets defending the union, they were seen to be the only party batting for it too. That most stubborn of breeds, the Scottish Tory, saw their party vanish. Don't be surprised if a few of them punt on Labour next time. Similarly in England, centrist pro-union voters will have noted the same thing. And don't expect Ed Miliband to be too quiet about it. His One Nation scrapped with 'two-nationism' and the 'one state solution' emerged the winner. He'd be crackers not to try and capitalise on it over the coming months. Not all is rosy though. Many comrades who headed north were shocked by the decrepit state of Scottish Labour. Hardly surprising when you think positioning yourself to the right of the SNP's soft social democracy is the best thing a centre left party can do. Yet while the organisation isn't in the rudest of health, one shouldn't automatically suppose big Yes votes in Labour areas means its support has collapsed. According to Lord Ashcroft, 40% of Labour and LibDem voters supported Yes. Similarly, 14% of SNP voters said no. Are they going to suddenly switch? When it comes to May next year, I suspect too much is being read into Labour's "collapse".

I think everyone can agree how blissful it has been to have had a politics mostly free of Nigel Farage and his squalid little band. But now the referendum is done, they're determined to make the most of the constitutional opening. Yesterday he was out posting letters to Scottish MPs to ask them not to vote on "England-only" issues. Yet, for once, the media aren't entirely biting. Crosby and Dave we'll cheery toasting a few into thinking they've headed UKIP off at the pass - on this issue at least it's the Tory leadership who'll be doing the running. However, their clever clever silver lining comes with a big dark cloud. English votes for English laws is all about embedding Tory party influence in England. It has hijacked "fairness" to ensure its legacy in England cannot be repealed should they retain a majority here. Dave wants to log jam future governments in the belief Tories will benefit electorally from inevitable crises. What this silly man doesn't realise is it could end up helping his UKIP nemesis. In next year's tight election, the message is a clear "vote UKIP, get Labour". But the fixation on England betrays his thinking that this is safe Tory territory. The more Dave intimates that the Tories will get in in England, the more he undermines his line of attack against UKIP and the less likely Tory/UKIP switchers sympathetic to that message will break his way. It also emboldens those Tory MPs excited by the fantasy of a Tory-UKIP pact, if they think such a lash up would thwart Labour in perpetuity.

Last night's ugly scenes in George Square were depressing as they were predictable. Had Yes won out I have no doubt this repulsive mix of loyalists, assorted fascists and EDL/SDL/Britain First scum would have done the same to "remind" Scotland that they're staying put. But in terms of more significant political shifts in the bowels of Scottish society, it's what's going to happen to the Yes movement that could have greater repercussions. Much has been made of its class character, but noted here earlier in the week, the movement was under the SNP's thumb and as such would probably demobilise, leaving our movement, the workers' movement, no stronger. On cue Nicola Sturgeon has reported that the SNP recruited 4,000 people in 36 hours. A soft left nationalist movement led by a bourgeois nationalist party ends up strengthening that bourgeois nationalist party - didn't see that coming. Still, we can take comfort that Socialist Party Scotland signed someone up too. Okay, I am being a bit naughty. The strong relationships and weak ties forged between different camps will, I hope, feed into more left and socialist activism over the longer term. But it hasn't got off to the most encouraging of starts.

Twitter regulars will have seen thousands of Yes'ers rebadge themselves as 'the 45'. So named after the 45% who gave independence the thumbs up, you can understand the desire to hang onto the camaraderie forged in the heat of political struggle. Yet all this is achieving is identifying themselves with a large "enlightened" minority against the forelock-tugging drudges who filed into the polling booths to vote no. It's an internalisation of division, the logical culmination of a nationalist project. While some, a small minority it has to be said, are trying to move the emerging sentiment toward an internationalist perspective, they are outnumbered by those for whom the 55% were scabs and traitors. So much for Yes's sublimated class politics. Bugger the 99%.

After the referendum, what now? For Scotland, it's to make sure the promises made last week are delivered as per the promised timetable. For the rest of the UK, and England particularly, it's to ensure a new UK-wide constitutional settlement fires the imagination and engages masses of people. Yes to a democratic convention, no to the narrow nobbling of parliament.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The UK's Would-Be Assassins

I take no pleasure in seeing an enthusiastic mass movement thwarted when it came down to it, but there is a consolation for disappointed Yes people as they woke up this morning. The Scottish referendum has changed politics forever. In order to save the union, they almost had to kill it. The new constitutional settlement for Scotland has to be followed by more powers for Wales, Northern Ireland and, yes, England too. It goes without saying that local government should get more clout and that the centralised farce of the jerry-rigged UK be replaced by a federal state befitting a family of nations.

For years the 55/45 outcome of the Scottish referendum will be debated. Was the early triumphalism of Yes Salmond's "Sheffield moment"? Did the Project Fear of no have the desired effect? And can Gordon Brown add 'saving Better Together's bacon' to his CV? I want to get away from the proximate causes of the result and take a step back. I want to point fingers. As far as I'm concerned there are three political villains of the piece mainly responsible for almost breaking this island in two. These are more responsible than anyone else for fuelling independence.

Our first villain is Margaret Thatcher. Heralded as one of Britain's greatest peace time prime ministers by Westminster pygmydom, perception of her legacy depends very much on whether you won or lost during the 1980s. Our class didn't win. We might have emerged from the decade with the right to buy our council housing and enjoy cheap consumer durables, but the price paid was the smashing of our communities, the evisceration of our industries, and the brutal beating of our movement. The Scottish working class experienced this along with dozens of English and Welsh cities and towns. But to rub it in, Thatcher experimented with the Poll Tax in Scotland a full year before its introduction in the rest of Britain. If that wasn't bad enough, tax receipts from Scottish oil wealth went down south to subsidise the obscenely rich. Well done that woman for giving Scottish nationalism legs. Well done for thinking that it would have no consequences.

Our second villain is Tony Blair. This isn't because his government delivered the Scottish parliament as part of a package of measures aiming to modernise the British state which, in typical Labour fashion, didn't go far enough. His neoliberalism with a smiley face didn't repair the damage done to Scotland, but even that by itself was less significant than the third facet of his premiership: Iraq. Let me clarify. Scotland was no more opposed to invading Iraq as anywhere else. On the day a couple of million people marched in London, 100,000 or so took to the streets of Edinburgh. Yet this huge movement wasn't enough to derail the war locomotive. Blair blithely ignored public opinion and went ahead. The result wasn't popular revolt, but a collapse into despondency. If masses of people can be safely ignored, then what's the point in conventional politics? What Blair did was do the spadework for cynicism, powerlessness, and anti-politics. His premiership more than any other cut Westminster adrift and set it against the electorate, it's them vs us. This is fecund soil for populism, which Scottish nationalism has since proven adept tapping into.

The final wrong 'un is David Cameron - who else? Asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister, he reportedly replied "I thought I'd be rather good at it". What pish. Dave will go down in political history as the worst leader ever to grace Number 10, and this time his incompetence almost split this island in two. To keep devo max off the paper in defiance of SNP wishes and then, in blind panic, conceding no effectively means devo max beggars belief. Yet Dave's villainy lies not in his incompetence but his complacency. As soon as the Tories and their LibDem bag carriers got their feet under the table the same old Thatcherite crap returned. Unlike Thatcher, Dave has made no bones about his government being the most sectional, most backward administration to have blighted these lands in modern times. As he has shovelled gold into the maws of his base, he has pinched pennies from the poorest and most vulnerable. Every time an opportunity has come to shore up the narrow interests of his class, he's used it. If an occasion has passed to kick working class people, he has done it. Small wonder a million and a half Scots jumped at the chance of kicking against this nonsense. And the price almost exacted for the obscene transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich was the country his party professes to love. If he had any decency, rather than oversee his 'English votes for English laws' wheeze, he should resign.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

An Open Letter to Yes-Voting Socialists

Dear Comrade,

There are many things on which we can agree about the referendum campaign. The mobilisation of masses of people in Scotland is a good thing. Whichever way the vote goes I hope the energy and positivity mobilised by Yes can feed into progressive politics and positive social change. It's also kicked the complacency of establishment politics into touch in the rest of Britain. Seeing the powers that be panic as a huge movement blew up before them is something not seen too often. I hope the people of England and Wales are taking notice and the union, with or without Scotland, is radically recast. To be sure, after tomorrow we on the left have a hard job ensuring that not only is a new constitutional settlement for the rest of Britain argued for, but that it reflects the interests and aspirations of our class. These moments seldom come and to cede it to the wonks, the constitutional specialists, and the little England isolationists would be a terrible squandering of an opportunity.

For all that, I remain extremely wary of a Yes vote in Scotland winning. In spite of the engagement, the grassroots organisation, the outbreaks of political optimism, I think socialists and leftists are making a big mistake agitating for independence. This isn't because the soft social democracy assiduously cultivated by the SNP fails a revolutionary purity test, or for whatever scaremongering reasons financial institutions can cook up. For me and other no'ers on the left, our scepticism and concerns are founded on answers to two basic questions.

1. Does Scottish independence strengthen or weaken the labour movement?
2. Does Scottish independence strengthen or weaken British capital?

Taking the questions in turn, it's no use pretending the labour movement isn't weak. I'm sure you would agree that the key political struggle facing the left - regardless of individual politics, party affiliations, and position on independence - is rebuilding it. This means reconstructing workplace organisation and doing ceaseless battle against the dog-eat-dog common sense of the age. It's not a linear process by any means, nor does it unfold according to some schematic timetable. Prosecuting our interests, our class interests, means identifying opportunities that come to hand and scrambling to seize them. One such opportunity is the general election next year where there is a real possibility of returning a Labour government. Now, its policy agenda hardly heralds a coming red dawn. Yet it combines immediate relief for some of our most poorest and vulnerable people with the scrapping of the bedroom tax. It will curtail and partially reverse NHS marketisation. Labour is going to undo the iniquitous cash-for-tribunals system and significantly devolve power to local authorities. These and other measures create a more favourable structure of opportunities for the left. There is a world of difference between this policy agenda and a mad Tory one that so dysfunctional that it's injurious of their class. Would a newly independent but necessarily inward-looking Scotland afford the same political opportunities, especially when the price paid is a greater chance of Tory rule over the remaining 58m people of the UK?

Surely this view has been rendered null and void by the intrusion of many millions into the Scottish debates? Unfortunately, for all the networked organisations, the radical independence outfits, and non-affiliated people this is a movement under the undisputed leadership of the SNP. Its reach is powered by a soft left-populist rejection of Westminster and, despite the hopes I have for it, is likely to simply demobilise in the event of a Yes victory. I say this not because it's convenient, but by looking at the mobilisation of similar movements elsewhere. Remember the mass movement against Le Pen in 2002? Where did it go? What happened to the defeated movement for Quebec independence? Or what about the mobilisation of the grassroots for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign? Even huge working class mobilisations under ultra-correct revolutionary leaderships can quickly fade, such as the 'victorious' anti-Poll Tax movement. With radical groups present but by no means hegemonic, I can see Yes heading the same way. I understand you may feel different, but enthusiasm in the absence of a unifying organisation can dim very quickly. Once the job is done, if the job gets done, what next? How can the momentum be maintained at the moment its SNP lynchpin works to shut it down?

Then there is capital. Putting aside blood-curdling business screams, there are two matters that need addressing here. While the SNP are by no means guaranteed to be the government of an independent Scotland post-2016 (a Gordon Brown-led Labour government is not beyond the realm of possibility!), their stated desire to undercut corporation tax in the rump UK by three pence is illustrative of a wider problem: the new border encourages a race to the bottom. Who can offer the most "attractive" environments for international capital? Edinburgh? London? Whoever wins, it's not working people. Similarly an independent capitalist Scotland is weaker vs North Sea oil interests, the bond markets, finance capital, and large concerns like StageCoach and News International. It was only last October that Ineos threatened to scrap Scotland's oil refining capacity. The same will be the case for the rump UK too. Smaller states are easier to bully, especially when the elites who run them - as in Scotland and rUK - are utterly beholden to neoliberal common sense.

The British state is hardly a repository of socialism. Time and again it's been used as a battering ram for bourgeois interests at home and abroad. And yet, like all liberal democratic states it is vulnerable to pressure from below. That is the case right now. The 307 year old union is done come what may. But there is an opportunity to make it anew, to re-establish Britain as a multinational, federal state that has come together on the basis of a voluntary union of peoples. If you, your comrades, the radical organisations and the Scottish labour movement stay with us, that might be the prize. No guarantees of course, beyond more organising and struggle. But what a win it would be.

Unfortunately, this in mind I cannot see how independence would strengthen our class across Britain, weaken capital, and give the Tories anything other than a satisfying slap across the face. As your comrades we want and need you in the battles to come. To steal something from Ken MacLeod:

(I'll explain this better
in the cold light of day,
but I'm voting No,
And here's what I say)

Let's team up together,
Keep the Tories out,
We all have English friends,
Give them a shout.

We have a common enemy,
English ain't all Eton Boys,
Let's get them out together,
And make some noise.

Westminster don't represent
The Ferry or Newcastle,
So let's get together,
And show them some hassle.

The Tories hurt us all
Let's show them how it's done
Let's team up together
We'll fight them as one.

(by a 'Young Lady Comrade')

Please stay with us comrade. Your class here in England and Wales needs you.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Politics and Independence: How Do You Feel?

Better Together has been short on emotion, and all of a sudden it's there's shouting and bawling all over the place. Almost. The Prime Minister has ventured north from Westminster twice to make heartfelt pleas to Scottish voters. And Gordon Brown (Gordon Brown!) has been stomping around making the passionate case for the union. Too little too late when compared with the apparent enthusiasm of the Yes campaign? We'll only know for sure come Thursday.

But I want to be indulgent for a moment. I want to pause, and reflect. Way, way back in October 2008, as ears were ringing to the cacophony of crashing stock markets and all those ten-a-penny Trotskyist forecasts of economic crisis came to fruition, I took a brief break from thinking and blogging about those events to talk about how I felt. After all, the received political and economic wisdom was vaporising faster than sub prime mortgage trades. Having one's coordinates suddenly shift was disconcerting and exhilarating, and while you could see the attacks to be unleashed on working people to pay for this crisis coming a mile off, for a brief moment it felt there was everything to play for.

The Scottish independence referendum is very similar. Everything we know about British politics is upended. Whatever happens, the union cannot be the same again (and the left should champion its remaking, especially in England). The cosy Westminster consensus has not so much been shaken but rudely shoved into a blender. And how wonderful it is not to have politics blighted by UKIP and the festering lump of decomposing Toryism. Questions of social justice are front and centre, not immigration or benefit bashing.

What about feeling? It's all a bit unreal. It's frustrating for one. I'm stuck here hurling my opinions at the thousand or so regular drop-ins when I want to be out with other WestMids comrades who've made the trip to Scotland and making the left case for no. Penning long screeds and snarking on Twitter are poor substitutes for getting face to face and patiently explaining your point of view.

There's anxiety too. If Scotland opts for independence, yes, official politics is struck a blow. But when the dust has settled I believe capital will be strengthened, and labour weakened. A lot is it stake and the wrong decision will very likely be a severe setback for socialist politics across Britain. Because it's so close, all socialists and labour movement people should feel a little angsty.

Yet there's a weird sort of excitement too. Part of me wants it to be over, but to be on the cusp of change ... well, whatever I'm experiencing must be a pale reflection of the intensity of being directly involved. The thrill of the new, for good or for ill, is very much in the mix.

Thankfully, there is one emotion missing. The tendrils of despondency have kept at bay. If the worst comes to the worst, the fluxes and shifts of politics will still afford new opportunities for the left and the labour movement, even if they're somewhat truncated. The tough job of work is to get the labour movement to seize those moments - and likely that means a return to frustration! It's a good job I'm predisposed toward optimism.

Less than 48 hours before the polls open, how do you feel?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

A New Constitutional Settlement for England

We could well be days away from ending the 307 year old union between Scotland, and England and Wales. This penny has finally dropped with establishment politics. They have looked into the abyss and are terrified that irrelevance could be staring right back at them. Characteristically, their attempt to ward of the spectre has been threat and promise. The former has been the gift of Scottish financial institutions this week, pledging to move headquarters down to London in the event of a Yes vote. Particularly amusing was Deutsche Bank's David Folkert-Landau warning that Scottish independence would be a decision right up there with those that triggered the Depression. No need to pull your punches, David! On promises we've had the peculiar resurrection of Gordon Brown. Our political Lazarus dusted off the backbench cobwebs by manfully seizing Better Together by the throat. He threw down proposals for new Scottish powers that were eagerly seized upon by the Westminster parties, even though all three are signed up to further devolution (not that you'd know it thanks to BT's negativist campaign). Now is not the time for a novice indeed.

What's missing from all this is England and Englishness. Yes or no, the constitutional settlement has to be redrawn. With Scotland in more powers for it, Wales and Northern Ireland will surely follow. That means devolution for and in England has to be addressed. And if Scotland goes, it likewise means the rump UK is in for some major renovation. With the EU crowded out by existential crisis, already some on the right have begun staking out territory. Farage has been talking about federalism. Likewise Paul Goodman at ConHome, raising the prospect of nation specific referendums on devomax as well as House of Lords reform. And John Redwood is banging the drum for an English Parliament. From the centre left are Ed Miliband's proposals to hand more power to Wales and local authorities generally and that's about it. Not good enough. Every trade union should follow the lead given by Paul Emebery, the London regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. Now is not the time for leaving politics to the politicians. Questions of how we are governed are in the direct interests of working people, and our movement needs to wake up to it. Leaving the field to our opponents and our enemies is folly.

What could a new constitutional settlement look like? I think we need to keep two intertwined principles in mind. We need a politics that is accessible and as close to the electorate as possible to overcome the rancid legacy of anti-politics, a system that does not disenfranchise massive numbers because they happen to live in safe seats, and a settlement that encourages and rewards an active citizenry.

I would like to see devolution in England handed to regional assemblies. It makes practical sense that Scotland/Wales-style settlements would work for the likes of the South East, the WestMids, etc. because of their roughly proximate sizes. London, of course, already has its own regionalised devolution. The problem with an English parliament is that England is so much larger and more diverse than the UK's other nations and may replicate all the sins of Westminster. Then there is a certain wariness of giving English nationalism a boost. Understandable as it has come to be associated with insularity and xenophobia (ably assisted by UKIP). Yet I think the left needs to bite this bullet. We can't really start talking about remaking England if, at the outset, we regard England and Englishness as something illegitimate. An English Parliament it is then. One would assume it would be subordinate to the federal parliament at Westminster on foreign affairs, energy policy, UK-wide tax regimes, etc. and pick up responsibility for the NHS, education, social security, and so on. But if the left are serious about making it work, we need to work to establish its legitimacy from the off. It means setting it up away from London - Stoke-on-Trent or Derby will do! But requires a voting system that presses the democracy on offer downwards, so the relationship is much closer. The left should advocate the Single Transferable Vote, which combines the much-vaunted constituency link with proportionality. (See here and here).

An English Parliament is not the be-all and end-all of devolution. Ed Miliband's commitment to give more power to local authorities is a good idea, and one I hope will be implemented across all of the UK (assuming Scotland votes no). In addition, it's high time the state had a written constitution specifying the legal, political, and social rights and responsibilities of UK citizens, and how the organisation operates. If the overwhelming bulk of countries, never mind organisations from chess clubs to local authorities have constitutions, then we should have one too. The moment is also ripe for Lords reform. Peerages should no longer be the province of Westminster cliques. Direct elections are the only way a second chamber can hope to retain legitimacy. Questions around accountability, including the right of recall require implementation. And while we're at it, party funding reforms need bringing in. It is not right that the Tories get around transparency rules in relation to donations. It's time these were toughened up. I would also like to see tough rules governing private lobbying of political offices (civic organisations are fine, big business is not), a professionalisation of the arrangements governing MPs expenses and offices, and - as the constituency link is embedded into the English Parliament - a shrinkage of Westminster MPs and their election via a PR system. FPTP is probably best retained for local elections only. Lastly, so the federal parliament is properly constituted the reserve powers held by the monarchy should be invested in and subject to democratically elected and accountable authority.

Proposing a new settlement is not a matter for the wonks, nor is it an exercise in constitutional cretinism. It is driven by the kinds of politics you want to see prevail. As a socialist, I hold to the old idea that our politics are everywhere and always conditioned by the need to shift the balance of power and wealth decisively in favour of working people and their families. In that regard, the shopping list above are just some suggestions. But whatever happens on Thursday, the Scottish referendum gives us an opportunity to reforge politics anew. The labour movement should seize it.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Significance of Eric Prydz's Call On Me

It wasn't one of my favourite dance songs of the 00s, but thanks to its video Eric Prydz's Call On Me is probably the best remembered, if not notorious video of that decade. And yes, believe it or not it's ten years to the day since its official release. If you really must watch it again here it is, and here's the even worse unofficial follow-up. They're not work safe or suitable for folk afflicted with ooooh matron! syndrome.

Bizarre it may seem now, Call On Me was something of a seminal moment. By the time of its appearance, a recrudescence of sexual objectification of women was well underway in music videos, and especially in rap and dance promos. This positioning has always been there but it was getting increasingly regular and, if truth be told, creepier. Whereas women were typically featured as dancers and/or ornaments hung on male popstars, the 'meta' music video by 2004 was all about sexual attributes. For example, Tim Deluxe's It Just Won't Do and Benny Benassi's Satisfaction typify the trend. Bums 'n' boobs were in like never before. So when Call On Me struck, dance culture had been softened up for it.

If you want to be generous, the video could be read as a flirtation between the instructor (Deanne Berry) and the token male dancer (Juan Pablo Di Pace). Albeit one mediated by a class full of women writhing around on the floor, squeezing their breasts, bouncing their backsides, bumping, squatting, grimacing, snarling. But all this pales before the moment. The camera pans down between Berry's legs and just as your eyes register the tiniest slip of her leotard, she starts thrusting her hips. It's enough to make anyone fall off their rowing machine, as Tony Blair reportedly did. Berry's legs fly akimbo, she repeatedly bends over, and the sliver of her costume leaves nothing to the imagination. Basically, the video is porn with a half-decent sound track.

Yes, porn. The early 00s were the great internet land rush. It became ever more indispensable and ubiquitous. And along with it came the spread of easy-to-find porn. Established adult entertainment firms and San Fernando start ups were readily exploring the medium with subscription-only websites, and using websites to sell DVDs - discreetly - direct to their customers. It also meant a lot of free content was swilling around bulletin boards, listservs, instant messengers, and proto-social media like Yahoo Groups. What was being viewed privately at home was impressing on public tastes, and bending it toward tolerance. Going by their risque content, producers of dance music videos were obviously informed by the aesthetics of porn, and its acceptance by wider society meant promos could get away with a lot more than had hitherto been the case.

Just how broad is what Call On Me points to - the ubiquity of genitalia. Since the first razor wwas marketed at women for shaving "unsightly underarm hair" prior to the First World War, the gaze, which is both male-centred and commodifying, has placed ever greater areas of women's bodies under scrutiny. It's as if the century slowly stripped women's bodies of autonomy and valorised a surrender to a power outside of themselves. The internet's take up accelerated this process. The conventional body type celebrated by magazines, columnists and TV shows aimed at women extended what is and isn't acceptable right down to what's inside their underwear. Apparently because of the practicalities of lighting, photography etc; the hegemony of the waxed/shaved vagina in porn became so ubiquitous that it quickly established itself as the new norm in wider culture. Sex and the City ran several stories on the theme. Magazines debated and raved about "smoothness". Hollywood stars would chime in and let it be known what they were rockin'. Cosmetics companies fell over themselves to provide more depilatory products, and salons sprang up offering a cocktail of options. And men, now habituated to the norm of bare lady bits in the same way women and men previously accepted shaved legs and underarms as "standard", pressed their partners into doing away with the bush. The vagina is now another zone to be patrolled and contested. Women's private parts are very much public parts, as the recent leak of stolen celebrity nudes reminds us.

Call On Me's video condensed these - then new - cultural logics into a few crotch shots. Its significance lay not in heralding what was to come. Semi-pornographic music videos remained fairly standard for the remainder of the decade and would have continued were this promo not made. Instead it marked what had already been accomplished; that vaginas were expected to be "presented" in a certain way; that this sensibility had gone utterly mainstream, and what had been concealed was for all to see and surveil. It announced on the 13th September 2004 that the aesthetics of the pubis had officially arrived. 

Saturday Interview: Catriona Grant

Catriona Grant is from Edinburgh and has been active in the Trotskyist and women's movements. Presently a social worker, Cat is also campaigning for a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum. You can follow her on Twitter here.

- Do you regularly read blogs? If so, which ones?

Not really, I probably read your blog the most regularly. I used to read Richard Seymour's Lenin's Tomb and get sucked into Socialist Unity but the past year I don't tend to follow blogs any more. I will look at blogs if they flagged up on facebook or twitter. Male leftist blogs bore me now, I much prefer radical feminist ones - one about recipes and follow a friend whose child has cancer. I used to be a blog addict but I'm alright now!

- You did used to blog many moons ago. Why did you stop?

Yeah, I've got a blog. I've had a couple. Was involved in a great blog - The Independent Republic of the Canongate - which was a blog about Save Our Old Town against developers Mountgrange who in cahoots with the Edinburgh Council wanted to knock down parts of Edinburgh's Old Town to build a five star hotel and conference centre. The blog was a central part of the campaign, there was a small group of us. It was exciting talking about what the daily blog would be - it would fluctuate from factual campaigning information to nonsense, for light relief. I was a guest blogger on StroppyBlog and have a blog which I rarely blog on. I just can't think of orginal things to say and the stuff I might want to say might get misinterpreted. I find it a bit of a bind to tell the truth.

- Have you ever been tempted to give it another try?

I have my blog if I feel a blog piece inside of me. Been tempted to write on the referendum on how rubbish the Brit Left are being but don't want to be seen as anti-English or vitriolic or grumpy so I just say it in my head or on facebook.

- Do you find social media useful for activist-y-type things?

Completely! I think the Yes campaign have used social media to build support. I use it for feminist stuff and would never have found out about the shenanigans in the SWP if it wasn't for facebook, etc.

- Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

Hmmm, probably Karl Marx. But I have loads of influences Alexandra Kollantai, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Angela Davis, Beatrix Campbell, Sheila Jeffreys, Andrea Dworkin, Julie Bindel, Ann Oakley, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Gabor Mate, Paulo Friere, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky but really it's Bill and Ted (from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - "be excellent to each other") who influence me the most!

- What are you reading at the moment?

Alan McCombes and Ros Paterson's book Restless Land and China Mieville's The City and the City. I always have an unfinished book on the go, just now it's The Magus by John Fowles (it's an endurance). I've also got on the go Gabor Mate's book The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts about addiction and Minding the Child: Mentalization-Based Interventions with Children and Young People and their Families by Nick Midgeley

- What was the last film you saw?

At the pictures? Lego Movie. In the house? Jumanji. I live with two four year olds I would love to say it was a French Art House film but it wasn't.

- Do you have a favourite novel?

Oh yes, I love Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, I've read it about four times. The only novel I've read more is George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. The twins' favourite book of choice is that and The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Prostitution. I used to support legalisation or at least Toleration Zones. But now I see all prostitution on a continuum of rape and abuse, it's part of rape culture. I think it harms all women. I support criminalisation of the men who buy women and men for sex. I hate liberalism nowadays, I used to be more liberal that I am now! Oh and abortion, as a young person I was an anti-abortionist! I was a member of SPUC!

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Scottish Militant Labour, Scottish Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party. Been involved in campaigns and stuff. Is the Legion of Mary and SPUC a political organisation? I used to belong to them.

- What set of ideas do you think most important to disseminate?

Hmmmm depends on what I am doing, I suppose. But radical ideas but that is hard to define, just now it's "VOTE YES"

- What set of ideas do you think most important to combat?

Racism, islamophobia and rape culture.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Anti Climax by Sheila Jeffries introduced me to radical feminism in 1990. The Communist Manifesto I read in 1986. Pornland: How Pornography Highjacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines. Pornography: Men Posessing Women. State and Revolution by V.I. Lenin and 1491: The Americas before Columbus by Charles C Mann.

- Who are your political heroes?

Different times, it's been different people. Malcolm X, Angela Davies, Huey Newton, Nelson Mandela, Bernadette Devlin, Bobby Sands, James Connolly, Alexandra Kollantai, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Leon Trotsky, Thomas Muir, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn ha ha ha ha at one time Tommy Sheridan!!!

- How about political villains?

Life is too short for villians but the whole of the Lib Dems and the Tories, all fascists and ......... Tommy Sheridan. And those horrible people who go on Question Time - Melanie Philips, David Starkey etc. Oh and the entire SWP membership!

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

With less that 5 sleeps to go ............................... the referendum in Scotland!!!!! After that sexism , racism, homophobia and environmental destruction.

- If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Bring in real legislation and resources to protect women and children experiencing domestic abuse. All children to learn to swim, ride a bike, visit the beach, opportunity to play a musical instrument, opportunity to play sports and to have a free nutritional meal every day (probably a school dinner)

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?


- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Bill and Ted gave us great wisdom "Be excellent to one another"

- What is your favourite song?

Zoom by Fat Larry's Band.

- Do you have a favourite video game?

Pac Man in 1981, since then ............................ NO! Oh in the early 90s I had a flurry with Tetris. It was short lived.

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Hmmmm .....I'm kind and I'm tenacious. But I don't know really!

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

Bite my nails! Eat too much and don't exercise enough and I loose everything - despite no longer being a Catholic I remain on very personal terms with St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

I once read an article that jelly fish would take over the oceans, that worried me. When I was wee I worried that all the volcanoes in the world would explode at the same time! I spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about it, that and nuclear wars. I nowadays worry about really mundane things like have I turned off the hot water? Will it rain now that I have put out a washing? And my overdraft. Not very rock n roll, is it?

- And any pet peeves?

I am scared of snow globes, I call them shaky things. I hate them, they are everywhere, they give me the complete and utter creeps. The words gusset and pish. Soap operas. Social workers (even though I am one). The Brit Left. Fried eggs. Pink for girls!

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Get a proper bra fitting, life is too short to wear the wrong size bra. Relax and have fun. Go to university and study law. You don't have to read all those pamphlets and books by Lenin and Trotsky. Get fit and stay fit. Read Alexandra Kollantai's Love of the Worker Bees and Great Love sooner than 30. Travel the world, go to South America. Never have a credit card and DONT sell your flat in a bad mood one day because you "don't want to be part of capitalism". Be nice to your mum. Moisturise your hands and go to the dentist regularly.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Spare time? Are you having a laugh? That's a bourgeois concept!

- What is your most treasured possession?

My books! My memory!

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I like going out for tea and a scone, love a high tea. Going to the cinema on my own.

- What talent would you most like to have?

To play a musical instrument, to crochet and to swim fast.

- If you could have one realistic-ish wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

That I do my Diploma in Legal Practice and get a traineeship to be a solicitor firm/organisation.

- Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I'd buy a larger house. I would open a Women's Centre in Edinburgh. I'd live in Mongolia for a year.

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Genghis Khan, Boudica and Joan of Arc

- In the event of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum, do you think the Yes movement will feed into a wider reawakening of civic culture?
And will the same be the case in the event of a no?

Who knows Richard, who knows! I hope so, everyone in Scotland seems to be discusing politics, there is a mass movement going on or so it seems. I think even with a no vote that will still happen.