Saturday, 30 January 2010

John Terry and "Press Freedom"

It's not often I talk about the love lives of the rich and famous, still less footballers. But the case of Chelsea and England footy captain John Terry sits uneasily with me.

For those of you who don't bother with the mainstream press, most tabloids today have led with the story that Terry (a married father of two) has been having an affair with his best mate's then-girlfriend.
The Sun takes great delight in revealing the devastation Terry's infidelity has wrought on his nearest and dearest, exposing the hypocrisy of 2009's 'Dad of the Year' and decorates the piece with a lingerie photo of Vanessa Perroncel, Terry's lover. And just to put the boot in there's a list of his past indiscretions too.

When rumours about Terry's affair began to circulate his legal team reached for a super injunction. Made infamous by the
Trafigura case in autumn last year, super-injunctions prevent not only press reportage on a particular topic but cannot even acknowledge the existence of a gagging order. Furthermore, The Sun claims Terry had Perroncel sign a confidentiality agreement. The whole super-injunction collapsed after a High Court judge refused to renew it. According to Murdoch stable-mate, The Times, the judge was of the view that public figures should be open to media scrutiny and criticism, and that Terry's legal actions were more a desire to protect his professional interests rather than make good the damage inflicted on his relationship. Both The Sun and Times go on to speculate about the impact on his sporting career. Could Terry be the British Tiger Woods?

On the one hand it's good to see another super-injunction bite the dust. Leaving aside the raft of authoritarian legislation introduced by the government, it's difficult to name a development in (case) law that is so obviously incompatible with democratic politics. But this is not a triumph for 'freedom of speech' or anything of the sort.

As far as the tabloid press are concerned, Terry's super-injunction got in the way of their reporting of tittle-tattle. Even among those who get their jollies from voyeuristically peering into the scandalous goings-ons of celebrity sex lives, does anyone really give a shit? While it's a very sad episode for the family, does it mean Terry is incapable of acquitting his footballing duties ?

This is what makes me sick about
The Sun and its ilk. They continually trumpet the freedom of the press as if they are holding the rich and the powerful to account. But they don't. Free speech for them is the right to smear those who displease and challenge its masters, and/or pick over the bones of dysfunctional celebrities. If tabloids were prevented from digging up celebrity dirt they would have very little to write about. News offices might have to spend money on sending more journalists out into the field instead of ripping off blogs or embellishing on other internet material. They might even have to do in-depth investigative journalism or, heaven forfend, report real news. For the tabloids, it's not a commitment to journalistic ethics that have them kicking against super-injunctions. It's their overriding concern with their bottom line.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Gramsci on Education

One of the points Gramsci emphasises in his notes on intellectuals (see the previous post) is the links between increasing intellectual specialisation and the division of labour. This is the starting point for Gramsci's brief notes, grouped in the Selections under 'The Organisation of Education and Culture' and 'In Search of the Educational Principle'. The piece begins:
It may be observed in general that in modern civilisation all practical activities have become so complex, and the sciences so interwoven with everyday life, that each practical activity tends to create a new type of school for its own executives and specialists and hence to create a body of specialist intellectuals at a higher level to teach in these schools (Gramsci 1971, p.26).
In the Italy of Gramsci's day, education had prior to Mussolini been divided by class. There was a distinction between vocational schooling, which to all intents and purposes were for proletarian and semi-proletarian layers of Italian society; and the classical schools which offered an undifferentiated and universalist education befitting the class born to rule.

As industrial capitalism took hold in the 19th century the demands of unceasing expansion and technological advancement required a new type of urban intellectual. As we saw previously these professionals tended to be drawn from the big city bourgeoisie and other urban middling layers. Furthermore, rather than benefiting from a traditional classical education these entered and graduated from new (non-manual) technical schools. While the end result of proletarian vocational education was to equip them with basic skills and habits to enter industry, the urban professionals learned how to organise it.

A consequence of this was to erode "disinterested" general education. What elements of it fed into the vocationally-oriented education of the many were put under pressure and gradually expunged. General education became even more a property of elites. This situation of course was not unique to fascist Italy - today it is increasingly difficult to defend academic disciplines not immediately connected with "usefulness" defined almost exclusively in neoliberal terms.

This link between education, class and capital is not the only one. There are other ties that bind too. In the first place, specialisation in the division of labour has a tendency to generate their own 'post-scholastic' institutions. These act as bearers of disciplinary culture, carry news about the latest developments, and are generally the public (expert) face to outsiders. These bodies are important for all forms of governance too. Gramsci reduces deliberative political bodies to two functions (whether they are democratic or not is immaterial). The first is their essential deliberative functions. The second are 'technical-cultural activities', that is complex and sometimes very technical issues they need to make decisions on. Often this is beyond their immediate competence and requires experts to analyse and make recommendations about the issues - which is where the professionals of the post-scholastic institutions come in.

It is difficult to see how this mediating role of expertise can be avoided - even the mass democracy of technologically advanced socialist societies will have to make use of specialist knowledge by 'lay' delegates and representatives. But in capitalism, this mediation is one means by which the system erodes the depth and quality of democratic decision making. Expertise, which is united by its informal disciplinary bodies, is in reality distributed across bureaucracies consisting of universities, think tanks, consultancies, enterprises, etc. Despite the disinterested, "free-floating" conceit of intellectualism, they are bound by a thousand and one bureaucratic links to public and private finance, which has the effect of defining/conditioning the parameters of expert scrutiny and the recommendations they make. Therefore when politicians turn to experts for advice, the latter's mediation helps align the (often unspoken) interests of capital with the outlook of politicians.

As an alternative to education geared around the needs of capital, Gramsci advocates a more comprehensive system drawing on vocational and classical education. He upholds a distinction between primary and secondary education. In the first phase of schooling it should provide information about rights and responsibilities and inculcate a basic world view at odds with folklorist superstition (which was still a live issue in early 20th century Italy, particularly in the countryside). Primary schooling should also be prefaced with pre-schooling. Gramsci notes that the cultural backgrounds of parents do matter - children of city dwellers come to school better habituated to the rhythms of education and school discipline (those with a background in the intellectual strata even more so). Pre-schooling can potentially "level-up" children without this background advantage.

In secondary education there is a renewed emphasis on 'humanism', which Gramsci identifies with the inculcation of the moral discipline and independent intellectual activity necessary for specialisation. Hence secondary education needs to be creative, but with limits placed on intellectual libertarianism. It must expand the individual personality and potential of its pupils appropriate to the demands of a technologically sophisticated society, but do so on the basis of a common morality. For Gramsci, the latter is inculcated in the primary phase - authority, instruction and discipline are important, but this form of comprehensive education will only really work if the result is 'dynamic' conformism.

In the second section of his notes on education, Gramsci returns to the education system prior to the fascist era (Italian education was significantly reformed by the 1923 Gentile Reform). The vocationalist education "enjoyed" by the working class and peasantry taught some of the basics of natural science, and some ideas around rights and responsibilities. For Gramsci the science was designed to prepare children for the 'realm of things', and the latter the state and civil society. Both helped move the child away from notions of natural philosophy and aimed to construct an appreciation of society - of understanding the world and how society has the power to change it. In other words, for Gramsci, the guiding principle of this education was work.

However, whatever model of education one favours Gramsci was fully aware it is not received in a vacuum - hence his argument for pre-schooling. But even then this will not and cannot engineer 'dynamically conformist' pupils. He explains:
The individual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of children reflects social and cultural relations which are different from and antagonistic to those which are represented in the school curricula: thus the "certain" of an advanced culture becomes "true" in the framework of a fossilised and anachronistic culture. There is no unity between school and life, and so there is no automatic unity between instruction and education (p.35)
Therefore hunting for an ideal method of teaching that will produce the right results (an assumption that undergirds most right wing grumbles about what's wrong with schooling in Britain) is as pointless as it is idealist. Bridging the gap between education and instruction can only be done by the teacher's practice, and for it to work they need to be aware of the gulf between their culture and society and that of their charges. The discipline and conformism necessary to imbibe formal education may (and often is) in direct contradiction with the life experiences of the pupils. As any teacher will tell you, there's nothing more difficult than teaching children who don't want to learn.

And this presents a fundamental problem socialist politics has to overcome. For large sections of the working class, there is a general lack of social competencies appropriate to the mores and discipline of formal education. And yet we need to build the capacity for intellectual work within our class to develop Marxist concepts AND the millions of organic intellectuals through which the class can become conscious of its interests.

Whether you can argue Gramsci's analysis of the situation in early 20th century Italy is appropriate to early 21st century Britain is a matter for debate. While it is true formal education is a complete turn off for significant layers of working class people, it is also true the workforce has never been more highly educated as at present. According to the 2001 Census, 30 per cent of the work force have no qualifications while 20 percent are university graduates or have a higher qualification. We may be a long way off Labour's target of 50 per cent, but undoubtedly the numbers have increased since this data was collected. So while the culture clash problem Gramsci identifies has not gone away, it would appear to be less of a problem now.

But of course, there is a related problem. Despite a highly educated work force class consciousness remains at an historic low. People are being educated, but not politically. The difficulty of propagating socialist politics, working class history, and suffusing our class with the confidence to act for itself remains - and is probably even more acute than it was in Gramsci's day.

A list of posts in this series on the Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Spot the Bias

There I was whiling away 10 minutes this evening filling out a YouGov survey (only four and a half years to go before I receive my £50 cheque!) when I came across this question: Which of these best describes your job title?.

The options were:
Owner/partner/proprietor
Chair/President/Chief Executive Officer
Managing Director
General manager
CFO/Treasurer
Chief Operating Officer
Chief Information officer
Chief Technical Officer
Other Chief Officer
Director/VP
Head of Department
Other senior management (please specify)
Other management (please specify)
Professional (accountant, architect, lawyer, teacher, etc)
Government Official
Hmmm, something's missing from this list of occupations. Call me nitpicky but I see no options for the millions who work in low wage, low status jobs, nor the legions of middle-ranking administrators, factory workers, shop assistants AND the 2.5 million unemployed.

How can Yougov write off over half the population and *still* be widely regarded as reliable pollsters?


Saturday, 23 January 2010

Stoke Protests Against the EDL

Since the English Defence League was formed last year, it was inevitable they would come to Stoke because of the pockets of significant support the BNP has built up in the city. While the EDL claim to be hitting the road to protest against the existence of extreme Islamism, in reality this is a pretext for footy hooligans to mix it up with asian youth and anti-fascists. The EDL's record of their visits to Luton, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and now Stoke can leave no doubt that peaceful protest is the last thing on their mind.

In Stoke the police shipped the majority of EDL (who came in on coaches) to Wetherspoons in Hanley from midday. Below is footage from inside the pub:




This is not the first time Wetherspoons have played host to AND profited from an EDL outing (you can tell them what you think for making their outlets available to thugs here).

According to Tony and Mike of local Stoke blog,
Pits n Pots, the EDL's mood turned ugly very quickly. Several attempts by the EDL were made to break through police lines - presumably to reach the anti-fascist mobilisation around the corner. The irony of an avalanche of missiles pouring onto police lines while an EDL banner bearing the legend 'marching peacefully against extremist Islam' fluttered in the background was not lost on bemused locals.

I was unable to estimate EDL numbers - the anti-fascist demo was only ever in line of sight with very small groups of EDL supporters.
According to the BBC, there were 1,500 EDL in attendance - which is way above the numbers I heard on the day. According to two comrades who were mixed in with the EDL for a period, they had approximately 700 bodies on the streets/getting rat arsed in the pub.

In all, the confrontation with the police and subsequent minor disturbances after the "demonstration" saw 15 EDL arrested for a variety of public order offences. There were also reports of scuffles *between* EDL'ers - hardly surprising considering their backbone is composed of rival footy firms with their own histories and animosities.

By way of contrast, the anti-fascist demo, organised under the auspices of North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, North Staffs TUC and Unite Against Fascism was entirely peaceful. As we assembled we were treated to speeches from local trade unionists, as well as UAF secretary Weyman Bennett. Weyman's speech probably stood out - not confining himself to the usual anti-fascist nostrums, he rightly argued that the likes of the EDL and BNP scapegoat Muslims, and yet it is the banks that have wreaked social devastation across Britain.

By the time we curled out of the North Staffs Afro-Caribbean Association and headed up the road to Hanley we had mobilised approximately 300 people. I marched near to Staffs Uni students' union president, Assed Baig (pictured), who was excellent on the loud hailer - it was a wonder he had a voice left to give a speech at the end of the rally! Once we fed into Albion Square the police formed cordons around the perimeter of the protest. Occasionally small groups of EDL would try and get through the lines while Weyman would taunt them from the platform. At one point three local BNP councillors reared their ugly heads and hurled abuse at us (I'm sure it was entirely coincidental these BNP'ers were in Hanley at the same time the EDL were spoiling for a ruck).

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with the UAF/SWP presence. Lessons have clearly been learned since the
demo against the BNP about 18 months ago. The SWP presence was large but low key - there were no 'smash the BNP' placards and comparatively few paper sellers. Even though the UAF did more or less take over the protest (an inevitability really considering they're the ones with an apparatus, staff and money) they were much more sensitive to local concerns. If there was one criticism I could make it was Weyman's frequent lapses into revolutionary inflation. Apparently we were bigger than the EDL - which certainly wasn't the case. And he often made the point that we had successfully "defended" the square from EDL "attacks" - a claim that writes out the 5-deep police line holding the EDL back round the corner and the two dozen plod around our protest's perimeter! Still, at least he provided some unintentional light relief.

I'd estimate about half our crowd was local. The usual suspects were outnumbered by lots of - mainly young - new faces and it was especially good to see Staffs Uni turn out a respectable contingent. Assed Baig
gets a lot of stick but his presidency has had a galvanising effect on what has been quite a passive student body (at least in the 15 years I've lived in Stoke).

Cynics may ask what the point of this protest was. We were never in a position to "stop" the EDL and it was obvious had the police not been there the EDL would have beaten us to a pulp, but nonetheless it was important we mobilised. In the first place it nails the lie - often used by the EDL and BNP - that violence is always the fault of counter-demonstrators. But they cannot attempt to make that argument after today's events. It was
they who attempted to break through police lines towards our protest. In short, one objective NorSCARF set itself has been met - anti-fascism kept the moral high ground while the EDL discredited themselves in front of the Potteries' public and national television cameras.

Second, there were more local black and asian people on the march than last year's. The EDL seeks to divide people along racial lines. At a modest level we demonstrated today that they have not done so. Plus images of our rally shows the EDL grunts only for itself - there are many white people in Stoke prepared to stand against Islamophobic scapegoating and racism.

More info on the
#edlsot and #uafsot Twitter hashtags. Also keep an eye on the PottEye blog - its contributors were also at today's demo. Local priest @frpeter has uploaded his Flickr stream, as has Pits n Pots here.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Blogging, Academia and Sociology

Here's the text of a talk I gave this afternoon at Warwick University as part of a joint presentation on the 'sociological' uses of blogging and Twitter, and how it intersects with activism. In the subsequent discussion a point was raised about the ethics of writing about academic seminars, which are simultaneously public but are often quite informal and sometimes represent ideas/research that is not fully formed and/or ready to be opened to wider public scrutiny. This raises wider issues about having 'permission' to blog without 'consent' and ethics of responsibility one has to those who are named in blog posts. I'll revisit this topic in a future post.

A Very Public Sociologist has been active for over three years. Since the start of 2010 it has been averaging 496 unique visitors a day, which places it in the mid-rank of British political blogging. It is relatively well known among the so-called Bloggerati - in 2009 it was voted number 12 in Total Politics magazine's
top 100 left-of-centre blogs, and 41st in the overall politics top 100. Also I'm number 64 in the list of top 100 political bloggers on Twitter (though, hands held up, I did compile that myself). But none of these figures are bad for a blog that is more or less pure comment. I do not break exclusives and audience boosts from the big mainstream UK politics blogs - particularly right wing bloggers Iain Dale and Paul 'Guido Fawkes' Staines - are not a regular occurrence.

What has this got to do with sociology and the theme of today's talk? Despite having a reputation as a political blogger, the blog's name suggests I very clearly identify myself as a sociologist. I even began the blog thinking it would be a sort of online diary of the remainder of my PhD - though very quickly (perhaps even straight away) I couldn't resist blogging about politics and wider issues. Nevertheless I do try and make sure the 'sociological' strand of my blogging, if you can call it that, isn't entirely eclipsed by postings on other matters.

So how do I 'do' sociology on my blog? In broad terms, there are three ways I've gone about it:

1) Blog reports on research seminars I've attended and other academic-related activities.

2) Using my social science training to offer fairly unique perspectives on issues that are exercising the media and blogging commentariat.

3) Disseminating/reflecting on my previous academic work, and my (recently completed) PhD thesis.

I'll talk about these in a little depth.

As well as blogging, one of my favoured methods of procrastination was (and still is) the attendance of research seminars at
Keele University and elsewhere. After I started maintaining the blog I realised that very often these seminars were perfect material to blog about. I try and present the positions of the presenters as fairly and as accurately as my note-taking skills allow me (things are not helped by my not knowing shorthand) and give a flavour of the subsequent discussions. For example, I did this with a series of seminars on the theme of public sociology up the road at Birmingham University a couple of years back. And last year's day symposium on Pierre Bourdieu here at Warwick received similar treatment. Perhaps I'll do the same with today's proceedings?

Blogging about research seminars does two things. In the first place it demands an extended reflection on what is being presented. I have to think through and understand concepts and arguments almost to the same depth as a paper's discussant. This is a useful exercise in itself in terms of broadening one's knowledge. Second, and perhaps more importantly from the point of view of our discipline, blog posts on research seminars introduces their topics to a wider 'non-professional' audience.

Second, because UK political blogging is very crowded (
Total Politics magazine links to approximately 2,000 blogs in its directory). To attract an audience you need, to borrow a horrible phrase from marketing, a unique selling point. One of mine is to offer a slightly different take on the issues of the day. For example, with regard to the interminable plots and rumours of plots to bring down Gordon Brown as the leader of the Labour Party, this week I posted a piece drawing on an old political science paper written in 1994 to see if it, along with our would-be Blairite assassins, believes political leadership has decisive effects on the outcomes of elections. I've also written blog posts that have used Pierre Bourdieu to look at high-profile spats between leading bloggers, used Althusser's understanding of ideology as a lived relation to see if pornography can be treated as an ideology, and Marx for everything from the 2008 stock market crash to the economics of chicken sheds.

Thirdly blogging has been an essential part of self-clarification and self-reflective practice with regards to my PhD work. Just to quickly tell you about it, my work uses life history interviews to make sense of the processes at work in the radicalisation and continued commitment of a sample of Trotskyist activists. Some were drawn from the Socialist Workers' Party, but the majority were members of the Socialist Party (formerly known as the Militant Tendency). This was complicated by the fact that I am too a member of the Socialist Party, which led to all kinds of access issues and problems of sociological knowledge production, power relations, and reflexivity which I don't have the time to go into here. But I have blogged about these issues and received feedback from other activists, which affected my thinking about these subjects. Blogging's also been a useful arena for trying out certain ideas too, even if only to see how they work written down. For example a rough of a section of my PhD's methods began as a blog post and was then worked into the thesis. Probably about half a dozen posts made the transition as well as a number of other ideas that first appeared on the blog.

In addition to this blogging has enabled me to dust off old pieces of work that have been sitting on my hard drive for years and wouldn't have seen the day otherwise. This includes
texts of old presentations, recycled bits of masters degree essays as well as an old dissertation comparing Marxian and Foucauldian approaches to power. Again these have reached an audience who are unlikely to open a political science, cultural studies or sociology journal. So you could say the blog manages, albeit very modestly, of taking sociology to the "public" and justifies the name.

But there are problems with my approach to blogging. Like every political blogger should be I'm not backward about being forward with my opinions, and I understand that my particular brand of socialist politics are not to everyone's tastes. So from the outset I have assumed a level of relative anonymity. This is partly for personal security reasons - I do receive visitors from far right blogs and forums, especially if I'm writing about the BNP. Other friends of mine have appeared on Red Watch for simply attending a demonstration or having themselves pictured in a socialist newspaper. And there are career reasons too. Even today with Trotskyism in Britain a shadow of an already marginal political tradition it's not a useful strategy to advertise your activist record to potential employers in higher education.

By way of a conclusion, like all user-generated content on the internet, blogging is what you make of it - whether you write about sociology, kids TV or needlework. It can be incredibly useful as a tool of ongoing self-reflection for all sociologists of whatever level, and it can be addictive too. But beware of the pitfalls - blogging might get you into scrapes that could impact negatively on your career, especially if you're early career. So, as my mum used to say, if you can't be good be careful!

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Socialist Party Anti-EDL Leaflet

Among the numbers due this Saturday at the anti-English Defence League demonstration in Stoke, Stoke Socialist Party (assisted by comrades from all over the country) will be making the case for a socialist response to the presence of fascists on our streets and in the council chambers. The need to do so is perhaps more vital now than ever, especially as Stoke Central's sitting Labour MP, Mark Fisher, will face a strong challenge from the BNP, the former BNP group leader on the council *and* possibly the EDL itself. Even if they come nowhere near to Labour's majority they will undoubtedly build their support and reinforce existing racist sentiment. This is the text of the leaflet Stoke SP will be handing out.
Oppose the Racist English Defence League
North Staffs Campaign Against Racism & Fascism (NorScarf) has organised the Unity Rally in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent on 23rd Jan. to mobilise opposition to a planned ‘march’ by the nationalist and racist English Defence League.

Whenever the EDL (which aims to build amongst football hooligans) has reared its head in other towns and cities, it has been opposed by local community activists, trade unionists and anti-racist campaigners defending their communities.

The EDL’s claim to be non-racist and only against “Militant Islam” is a cover for trying to whip up racism against Muslims. Wherever the EDL surfaces there is a vile racist atmosphere; footage exists of appalling anti-Islamic chanting and Nazi salutes. There are also reports of racist attacks occurring near to where their supporters are.

The EDL repeatedly use the plight of British troops in Afghanistan to try to fuel their racist propaganda, and they may do so again on this occasion. While socialists and activists within NorScarf oppose the war in Afghanistan and call for British troops to be brought home, NorScarf stresses that their rally is against the EDL and not against British troops.

Some try to discourage any opposition to the EDL and their activity rather than speak out against them. They seem to see the opposition to the EDL as the problem. But we’re not fooled by claims that the EDL is non-racist and oppose them because their divisive aims pose a threat to the much needed unity of ordinary working class people.

Experience elsewhere has shown that if there is an opportunity, the EDL will try to march. Unlike the EDL, NorScarf does not want provocation or violence on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent, but at the same time is mobilising to show that threats of racial or religious violence and intimidation will be opposed by sheer weight of numbers.

Some people argue that it is better to boycott the NorScarf counter rally and ignore the EDL. Some other local and national politicians from the main political parties are silent on the EDL's appearance, probably because they have no alternative to offer that would cut across division by raising living standards for all communities of whatever background. Instead of tackling unemployment, poverty, homelessness etc, they seem more concerned about bailing out rich bankers.

However, allowing them to organise on our streets would give them the confidence to continue their divisive, racist activities. We are determined to expose and oppose them, by organising a large, well stewarded and peaceful counter event.
For Jobs, Homes and Services, Not Racism!
The far right EDL & BNP try to exploit the devastating economic crisis to promote racist ideas but they have no solutions to the misery caused by this crisis. The EDL are specifically scapegoating Mulsims.

Over one trillion pounds of our money has been used to prop up banks while top bankers continue to pay themselves massive bonuses. The bosses and their politicians want us to pay for bailing out the bankers!

New Labour, Tories & Lib Dems are competing over who can carry out the most savage cuts in public services, already cut to the bone. It’s no surprise that electoral support for parties like Labour has collapsed and this has allowed the BNP to make a breakthrough by getting 2 members of the Euro Parliament elected in June.

Leading BNP members try to hide their Neo-Nazi ideas and past activities but not because they have changed their ideas or their long term aims. They know that if they tried to build an openly Neo-Nazi party with an organised street fighting wing to carry out physical attacks on trade unionists and large scale racist attacks – they would get limited support and be defeated as they were in the massive mobilisations of the late 1970’s & early 1990’s.

This does not mean that the BNP are not dangerous; their electoral success and increasing media profile mean their divisive ideas are reaching a wider audience. The main three parties all whip up prejudice and racism when it suits them and their pro-big business agendas.

They are aided by the right wing pro-bosses media which blames Muslims, asylum seekers and immigrant workers for the problems caused by government policies and the economic crisis. The BBC give Nick Griffin a platform on
Question Time but exclude elected reps from socialist organisations and left trade unionists like Bob Crow of the RMT in national political debate.

Where the BNP has a presence racist attacks increase. Their electoral success also encourages far right groups like the EDL who organise demos aiming to whip up tension & violence and demonise Muslims. Groups like the EDL want to provoke violent reaction from Asian, Black and migrant communities to create conflict.

Hardline fascists among BNP voters are a tiny minority. We need to build a movement strong enough to convince those who have been conned by the BNP or voted for them in protest against the 3 main parties. But it’s not enough to just call on people not to vote for them!

To decisively defeat the far right, we need to put forward a positive political alternative to the three main parties who have opened the door to the BNP. We need to campaign for decent jobs, free education, homes and services.

The recent Euro elections saw the far right make gains in a number of countries. But their support has been undermined by new forces on the left that have provided a political alternative. In Germany, the electoral success of the Left Party has meant support for the far right NDP has been limited. The economic crisis does not automatically mean electoral success for the far right. In Ireland, hit hard by the crisis, Socialist Party activist, Joe Higgins was elected putting forward a fighting program.

We need a new mass workers party based on the trade unions and young people that puts forward a fighting programme of a united struggle against attacks from the bosses and their politicians that would tackle the root causes of racism and fascism – unemployment, poverty, homlessness etc and cut across the lies of the far right
Unite against the EDL! Defend our communities!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

NorSCARF Anti-EDL Leaflet Text

Below is the text of the leaflet the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF) has been handing out and delivering around Stoke-on-Trent this week in preparation for the arrival of the English Defence League this Saturday. It was written at short notice by well known local anti-fascist and president of Staffs University Students' Union, Assed Baig. The mobilisation details for the NorSCARF-led counter demonstration is at the foot of the text. The leaflet concentrates on who the EDL are and why they should be opposed. Needless to say a good turnout from all over the city and further afield is key to the success of our action.

Nazi EDL are not defending us!

They say "we're not racists" ...
But the EDL are regularly heard chanting racist abuse and making Nazi salutes. A look at the EDL website and its supporters' comments prove what they really stand for.

They say "we're not the BNP" ...
But there are many close links between the EDL, BNP and other Neo-Nazis. The EDL website was designed by a BNP man. Major EDL funder
Alan Lake runs internet services for far right groups across the world. BNP member and activist, Davy Cooling administers the Luton EDL Facebook page and David Tull, a well known former National Front member has been arrested twice for using foul and abusive language during EDL demonstrations.

The blame counter-protests for violence
But the facts tell a different story. There is worse violence where no one stands up to the EDL. In Luton 300 EDL went on the rampage overturning cars, smashing windows and attacking passers-by, especially Asian people. And at their demonstration in Nottingham, the police said "We were with both groups. The difference in the way we policed related to the way the groups were behaving. We escorted Unite Against Fascism whereas we had to control the EDL."

They say they're defending Freedom of Speech
The eDL want the right to spread their lies and hatred - but when journalists and photographers have exposed their violence and caught them making Nazi salutes, the EDL have retaliated by telling their supporters to treat reporters as "hostile", thrown missiles at them and made death threats by telephone and on the internet.

The say they're defending the rights of women
Most women will find it ironic that a group with its support base in hooligan gangs claims to be defending the rights of women, which it claims are threatened by Sharia Law. But football-related violence does hurt women here in Britain every week: incidents of domestic violence are higher on match days. And it's the macho, drinking-and-fighting culture promoted by groups like the "Casuals" who are the backbone of the EDL we have to blame for this.

Don't let the EDL turn you against your neighbour
We all know where making scapegoats of a minority leads - January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. Have we forgotten that the worst post-war atrocity in Europe was the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered?

Don't play the EDL's violent game
What matters most on Saturday 23rd January isn't that there are more of us then the EDL - though that would be great! And it isn't whether we make more noise than the EDL - though we'll have live music and excellent speakers. What really matters is that we are better than the EDL, and the people of Stoke-on-Trent get to see that for themselves.

Say "NO!" to hate in Hanley - join the Peace and Unity Vigil

12:30pm onwards: Assemble at Cannon Place, Hanley, ST1 4EP
2:00pm: March into Hanley (Stoke-on-Trent City Centre)
3:00pm: Peace and Unity Vigil at the Cenotaph outside Hanley Town Hall, Albion Square, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, ST1 1QQ

Write to NorSCARF at PO Box 1960, Stoke-on-Trent, ST6 1WF

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Does Political Leadership Matter?

As we saw with the Hewitt and Hoon affair, the question mark hanging around Gordon Brown's leadership is clinging to the Parliamentary Labour Party like a bad smell. But in the grand scheme of mainstream politics does leadership really matter? Does it make a difference to how a party is perceived and the number of votes it can expect in an election? The Blairites seem to think so - if only hapless Brown was swept away and an alternative leader was installed all would be rosy in the New Labour garden and it would romp home to an historic fourth term. But is this just wishful thinking on their part?

Political science has something to say about political leadership. The first notable study on this issue came in a contribution to the edited collection
Labour's Last Chance? The 1992 Election and Beyond. In a paper called 'Did Major Win? Did Kinnock Lose? Leadership Effects in the 1992 Election' by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King, the authors asked if the respective leaderships of John Major, Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown in some way determined the outcome of that election.

Crewe and King's starting premise was that political science has traditionally been very quiet on the question of political leadership. Their paper is dotted with anecdotal evidence of how political scientists, like any other interested observer of politics, will speculate on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of particular political leaders in informal settings, but when it comes to formal research this topic has been neglected. For example in Anthony Heath's (1991)
study of the 1979-87 period, Thatcher receives only three mentions and none of them address her leadership - despite the political dimensions her personality assumed over that period. To counter this lack, Crewe and King offered two hypotheses on the bearing leadership has on election results.

First a leader can make the policies, ideology, and identity of their party more attractive. Here the leader’s effect on the electorate is indirect and mediated by the party machine.

Second (and sometimes simultaneously) the leader can have a direct impact on the electorate independently of the party’s image. For example, Crewe and King argue Kinnock's leadership managed to enhance the standing of Labour by moving it towards the political centre and making it more of a serious electoral threat to the Tories while his leadership was held in low esteem by the electorate.

To demonstrate it more thoroughly, Crewe and King drew on contemporaneous Gallup data on the standing of Thatcher in her last 15 months of office, and Major’s first 15 months compared with Kinnock's status over this period. In 1989-90 polls put Labour’s lead over the Tories at an average of 13 points. Over 1990-2 the Major-led Tories transformed this into an average 2 point advantage over Labour. Kinnock’s approval rating averaged 10 points ahead of Thatcher's, whereas Major’s stood at 15 points over Kinnock.

But how does this translate into the study of leadership effects? How does one go about it?

In political science Crewe and King identified two possible (and complimentary) analytical strategies for determining leadership effects. The first is that of ‘improved prediction’. This assumes that by looking at the demographic background and ideological dispositions of individual voters, the ability to predict their judgements of a party leader is improved. The second involves performing ‘thought experiments’. This method tries to measure the appeal a party would have had if led by someone else. For example, many polls have been carried out to try and gauge whether Labour would now be any more electable if someone other than Brown was as the helm, and these often apportion results by previous voting preferences/party identification.

A similar Gallup poll from 1992 cited by Crewe and King shows up the kinds of results we can expect from a thought experiment. They asked how the Tories would have performed if led by Thatcher or Heseltine as opposed to Major vs. a Kinnock-led Labour party, and a Smith as opposed to Kinnock-led Labour party against Major’s Conservatives. It found that under Thatcher 10% Tory-identifiers would have been likely to have voted Labour, 34% less likely, and 56% no difference/don’t know. For Heseltine the respective figures were 7%, 19%, and 74% whereas for Smith it was 22%, 6%, and 72%. However Crewe and King were careful to emphasise that these figures can only be taken as suggestive: they note respondents are unlikely to accurately predict how they would have acted in situations they did not experience.

Crewe and King were quick to point out that party preferences do not automatically translate into leader preferences. The same data showed 54% of Conservatives rated Major most highly, 36% of Labour rate Kinnock highly, and for the LibDems 35% positively endorsed Ashdown, leaving significant gaps. Tories scoring Kinnock and Ashdown highly were 1% and 8% respectively, Labour supporters 4% Major and 9% Ashdown, and Major 9% and Kinnock 4% for LibDems. The Tories rating Major and Kinnock on an equal footing were 3%, 7% for Labour, and 2% LibDems. On Major and Ashdown’s equal rating, it was 30%, 4%, and 27% respectively, and on Kinnock and Ashdown the figures were 1%, 24%, and 10%. Rating all three equal the figures were 4%, 17%, and 13%. Overall 91% of Tories placed Major on a par with or above the other leaders, whereas the respective level of party support for Kinnock and Ashdown were 84% and 85%. The issue for Crewe and King then is whether the deviant leader preferences lead to “deviant” voting behaviour.

Using the same batch of figures the proportion of Tories who rated Major highly, but then gave their votes to another party was just 3%. Those who placed Major on a par with the other leaders saw deviant voting increase to 11%, and for those who rated Major lower than Kinnock and Ashdown saw the deviance rate hit 27%. For Labour identifiers the figures were 4%, 9%, and 33%, and for the LibDems 9%, 29%, and 47%. So the likelihood of voting deviantly increases as one moves away from strong support of the leader. But also the figures seem to suggest that Major had qualities the other leaders lacked, making Tory identifiers far less likely to switch their votes. Or it could be that the ideological baggage associated with long term adherence to the Conservatives demands stronger leader identification than either the Labour or Liberal traditions?

Crewe and King then perform an improved prediction strategy to gauge leadership effects. They looked at voters' feelings toward the parties and actual votes cast in the 1987 election, and compared those figures with their 1992 vote. They argue that their prediction of Conservative voters who were favourable toward their party, voted for it in 1987, and would therefore vote the same in 1992 was 87.9% accurate. For Labour the prediction rate using the same operation was 87.1%. However when leader preferences are factored into the calculations the prediction rate increases by 1.1% and 0.5% respectively, giving figures of 89% and 87.6%. Therefore while leader effects can be calculated, for Crewe and King they are rarely decisive, and would only be significant in marginal contests.

Therefore in the case of the 1992 election and despite the extensive media commentary on the issue, the outcome was not really a case of either Major winning or Kinnock losing. To back up this conclusion they cited poll evidence of Labour under Smith which shows no significant improvement on the personal approval ratings obtained during the Kinnock era, suggesting Labour’s then problems were more about politics than personality.

But does this situation still pertain today? Like Kinnock Brown is more unpopular with the wider electorate than his Tory opponent. If the findings from the (admittedly dated) study remain true then it won't be leadership that decides the outcome of the election. But then again the Blairite's whole electoral strategy is premised on retaining/winning marginal seats, which hold the key to who forms the next majority. In tight contests the perception of Brown's leadership might just edge it for the Tories. The hope then for Labour lies not in trying to prettify Brown with
smiley YouTube appearances but with a credible policy alternative to the reckless slash and burn proposed by Dave and friends. Unfortunately for Labour, Brown's speech on Monday was a return to the empty 'aspirationalism' of the Blair years designed to appeal to the so-called Middle Englanders that will supposedly determine the election's outcome. By narrowing the policy difference between the government and the Conservatives, Brown is creating a contest where the marginal impact of leader effects could prove decisive. It raises the awful prospect that the Blairites might just be right.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Stoke BNP Split

Last week was pretty poor for the BNP. Nazi Nick's attempt to do a Pat Robertson and attract publicity by making outrageous remarks about the tragedy in Haiti was barely noticed by the mainstream media. Then there was the embarrassing news that Terrance Gavan, one of their members was jailed for 11 years for stockpiling a cache of weapons in his bedroom (has anyone else noticed a correlation between would-be BNP terrorists, middle age, and a tendency to still live with their parents?)

But the most damaging revelation came on Friday. Hours before Nick Griffin and his odious sidekick, Simon Darby came to Stoke to launch the BNP's general election campaign, Alby Walker, former leader of the BNP group on the council,
announced that he too would be contesting Stoke Central - the same constituency Darby has been parachuted into! When fascists fall out they really fall out!

Actually, it's not too surprising Walker has behaved this way. Since supplanting the utterly tool-like Steve Batkin as BNP group leader, along with his wife and fellow councillor, Ellie, the Walkers have proven less gaffe prone than the hapless Batkin and have worked to portray the BNP as community activists (needless to say their "community work" is
problematic). Nonetheless appearances count and they've served the BNP's profile in the Potteries well.

So Alby was most displeased when he got wind that the BNP's number two (in both senses of the term) had decided to contest Stoke Central. Given the record of electoral support for the BNP (six of the council group represent wards in the constituency) they can be forgiven for fancying their chances. But this support only exists because of the consistent work that's been put in - especially by the Walkers. By parachuting Darby into Stoke Nazi Nick is basically saying "thanks for all the work - now fuck off". Of course the fuhrer has form on this - remember how he elbowed Barnbrook aside in Barking? And as if to add fuel to the fire, there's a rumour doing the rounds that the English Defence League plan on contesting the seat too. Brilliant!

There is a bit more to this than sour grapes. According to Walker's
statement supporting his Stoke Central candidacy, he's come to the conclusion that the political infighting - between and within Stoke's parties - is placing the regeneration and the welfare of The Potteries in jeopardy. The present stance of the BNP couldn't have helped either - they're very good at criticising but never offer much in the way of alternative policy (a stance at the root of a small scale split early last year).

Apart from Walker's drift into a more generalised anti-politics (it'll be interesting to see if he dumps the BNP ideological baggage), what the BNP does conflicts with his own practice as a "community councillor". As Edmund Standing
points out, the BNP's political practice is about keeping the quasi-religious cult of the non-personality around Griffin on the road. Populist lies about immigrants getting a better deal than old folks are just that. They're designed to get the votes in and accumulate monies and prestige (if it can be called that) for the national leadership. BNP activists aren't actually expected to give a shit about the people they represent (the party's accounts certainly demonstrate the leaders couldn't give a hoot about the led). But it seems in Walker's case that he actually, genuinely does. In the end he had to make a choice - carry on being Stoke's public face for a bunch of chancers and criminals or carry on in his community activist mould. And within the terms of his own politics he did the decent thing. Were he not a fascist I would applaud him.

In fact, today Walker made the breach with the BNP official. He informed the City Council that he's stepped down from the BNP council group and resigned his party membership. There is also a
strong rumour Ellie Walker will be resigning too with the possibility of a third. None of this negates a need for a strong anti-fascist campaign in Stoke during the general election, but these splits will severely blunt the BNP's chances.

Photo taken at the BNP's
press conference on Friday. Unfortunate seating position, Nick!

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Gramsci, Intellectuals and Class

Gramsci's approach to intellectuals has been much abused in academia since the first publication of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks in English in 1971. In this piece I will set out as plainly as possible what Gramsci's understanding of intellectuals was and how he ties them in with the class relationships of capitalist societies.

Gramsci begins his short two-part piece, 'The Intellectuals' with a basic distinction concerning the class origins of intellectuals. 'Traditional' intellectuals are rooted in the classes that have hung over from pre-capitalist society, and as such express the interests of landed aristocracies, monarchs the church. Where these relationships have persisted into the modern era feudal classes, according to circumstance, have retained some ability to produce traditional intellectuals. But this is tempered by the ever-growing ensemble of social relations that is subject to capital. Where capitalist and feudal relations of production exist simultaneously there can be found battles that pit one set of intellectuals against another in a struggle for ideological supremacy. However, because of the greater dynamism of capitalism traditional intellectuals are onto a loser and either retreat and/or co-opted by the intellectual apparatus of the rising class - in this case, the bourgeoisie.

The other type of intellectual, the 'organic' intellectual is rooted in capitalism. They are produced by and serve the fundamental classes of that system i.e. the bourgeoisie or the proletariat (it is possible to have organic intellectuals who come from proletarian origins who go on to serve capital, and vice versa). As far as the peasantry are concerned, they do not produce organic intellectuals in the same way the bourgeoisie and working class do. Because of the historical division of peasants into semi-self sufficient households/families and their absorption by immediate concerns and interests, the peasantry has not been able to articulate its interests separately and distinctively from capitalism's fundamental classes. This isn't to say it cannot and has not produced intellectuals, obviously it has. But these have tended to be assimilated to the interests of the other classes. Therefore, Gramsci notes:
Every social group [i.e. class] coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields (Gramsci 1971, p.5).
So we have established the two different types of intellectual and how they are related to social class. But what *is* an intellectual? Gramsci notes "all men are intellectuals ... but not all men in society have the function of intellectuals" (p.9). Therefore an intellectual is defined by the qualities of their activities, but being an intellectual is more than just being involved in "brain work". In capitalist societies, the numbers and types of intellectuals and the ideas they employ are variously elaborated in conjunction with preceding intellectual activity and ongoing 'muscular nervous activity'. In other words, the specialist knowledge developed in conjunction with the ever-growing division of labour allows not only for the examination of the practice(s) of that division, and the suggestion for improvements/new practices. This existence as a specific form of intellectual practice forms the grounds for new ways of seeing the world. As far as Gramsci was concerned, these sorts of intellectuals are specific to capitalism and are therefore of a 'new type' that differs from the received contemplative connotations of the word 'intellectual'. He says:
The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor and organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator ... from technique-as-work one proceeds to technique-as-science and to the humanistic conception of history, without which one remain "specialised" and does not become "directive" (specialised and political) (p.10).
Therefore Gramsci demonstrates how intellectuals as organisers of capitalist production set in train a tendency that leads to the formulation of gradually more abstract ideas to the point where they are formally divorced from economic organisation altogether. That is, as intellectuals organise the class relations of production they have the effect of organising class consciousness too. As you might expect, because the bourgeoisie are the ruling class in capitalist societies and its interests are bound up with the creative/destructive chaos of capital accumulation, there is a great concentration of intellectuals of every conceivable specialism clustered around it.

It's at this point Gramsci introduces his famous notions of hegemony and civil society in order to bring out the significance of the functions of intellectuals. It's worth quoting what he has to say:
What we can do ... is to fix two major superstructural "levels": the one that can be called "civil society", that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called "private", and that of "political society" or "the state". These two levels correspond onf the one hand to the function of "hegemony" which the dominant group [class] exercises throughout society, and on the other hand to that of "direct domination" or command exercised through the state and "juridical" government (p.12)/
Hence not all the intellectuals at the bourgeoisie's disposal are of the technical/professional kind: there are intellectuals who to greater or lesser degrees (irrespective of subjective consciousness) organise ruling class hegemony, and therefore serve and defend the activities of this class. Academics, journalists, politicians and even celebrities define the parameters of public discourse, promote certain forms of common sense, provide spectacles (be they political or 'harmless' entertainment), and so on. This has the effect of naturalising existing conditions, co-opting radical grievances and protest, and seeing off alternatives through a mix of rendering them absurd/unthinkable/unworkable and/or crowding them out.

Just as the organic intellectuals of the bourgeoisie organise the hegemony of capital, hegemony (tautologically) justifies the existence of an education system appropriate to it. As one advances through modern mass education systems the degree of specialisation increases and multiplies into disciplines, sub-disciplines, and niches of sub-disciplines. The pursuit of qualifications legitimises educational hierarchies of prestige, as well as the intrinsic qualities of intellectual activity itself. Generally speaking, the more abstract a field is the more prestige accrues to it (this is certainly the case within Sociology - while careers can be made off the back of ground-breaking empirical studies, it tends to be social theorists who command lasting fame and influence).

Gramsci notes some strata tend to be 'traditional' producers of intellectuals. In the Italy of his day, middle land owners, the petit bourgeoisie and the urban bourgeoisie provided the bulk of capital's organic intellectuals. Some sons of land owners and rural/small town bourgeoisie ended up as state bureaucrats. The urban bourgeoisie found outlets for its offspring in the technical professions. Of course, the fate and growth of the latter is bound up with the spread of industry and the pace of technological change, and the further up the intellectual hierarchy you go the more and more it merges with the general business management staff of capital. Rural intellectuals on the other hand "belong" to the mass of the countryside in two senses. In terms of outlook, culture and standard of living they identify with the small town bourgeoisie. But in their everyday activity (at least in early 20th century Italy) rural intellectuals in the shape of teachers, lawyers and priests formed a contact point that bridged the gap between the peasantry and (local) state administration. They were pillars of the community and many a peasant family aspired to have their sons in these sorts of positions.

As we have seen, intellectuals are more than 'brain workers', they organise things. The bourgeoisie's organic intellectuals organise the production process and work to maintain its class hegemony over society. Proletarian intellectuals on the other hand seek to organise the working class in pursuit of its interests (more in a future post). As organisers, what is the relationship between intellectuals and political parties which are, at base, aggregates of certain interests of certain classes and/or class fractions that are pursued collectively? Is there a necessary cross over of parties and intellectuals? Gramsci thinks there is. He makes two points:

1) For the bourgeoisie, all members of 'their' political parties are 'their' organic intellectuals. The parties offer a way of training organisers and elaborating new ideas that can maintain bourgeois hegemony. Given the 'general' mass character of the political field, this is the only way they can be so organised. The isolation of technical intellectual activity from politics means this does not and cannot offer the requisite training.

2) For all classes, parties perform roles in civil society analogous to the position the state holds in political society. A bourgeois party tends to be an alliance of organic intellectuals and traditional intellectuals (where feudal relations have persisted in some form) and transforms them "into qualified political intellectuals, leaders and organisers of all the activities and functions inherent in the organic development of an integral society, both civil and political" (p.16). Regardless of the class character of a party, anyone who joins is submerged into a group of organic intellectuals and through it becomes linked to the class it represents.

In addition to these two points, regardless of size and political orientation all parties have a general character. The bourgeoisie has various associations, combines and industry bodies to tend to its immediate (economic) interests. The working class has trade unions that further its sectional interests. But only parties transcend this particularity and attends to (what it takes to be) the general interests of its class.

By way of a conclusion, intellectuals are organisers, and their activities - be they technical or political/social/ideological - are linked with organising one of the two main classes in capitalist societies, regardless of the level of abstraction they are working at (an abstraction that itself is an outcome of organising those classes in the production process). Gramsci is absolutely crystal clear about this - the bonds between intellectuals and classes maybe elastic but they are incredibly strong too. Which is why attempts to decouple hegemony and intellectuals from class, as so-called post-Marxists
attempt to do are problematic. It supposes hegemony is a free floating object that somehow exists rather than being the result of elaborations an struggles in the real world. Post-Marxism is simultaneously seduced by the intellectual fiction that somehow intellectuals (or more properly, academics) stand outside and apart from actually existing historical processes.

Attending to Gramsci rather than his pomo
epigoni, it could be suggested that nevertheless his understanding of intellectuals is problematic from the standpoint of socialist politics. Critics of Leninism have traditionally attacked Lenin's What Is To Be Done? for arguing that socialist politics needs to be brought to the working class "from without" by a vanguard party is elitist (the point Lenin made was actually far subtler than this, but that's for another time). Gramsci's treatment of the intellectuals could be similarly interpreted - that the working class "needs intellectuals" to organise and become aware of itself, that workers are incapable of understanding things and struggling for themselves, etc. However this position is only possible if Gramsci's understanding of what an intellectual is is twisted and pared down to its traditional meaning. It's self-evident that any class needs organisers in order for it to organise itself - and Gramsci's discussion of the part they play emphasises the importance of the left today needs to place on cadre building and training.

In the next piece we will turn to Gramsci's writings on education: how it sustains class relationships, legitimises itself, feeds into bourgeois hegemony, etc.

A list of posts in this series on the
Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition: Prospects

This week's issue of The Socialist carries an article on the official launch of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC, or 'tusk'). This is basically No2EU without the embarrassing euroscepticism, the Alliance for Green Socialism (if you accept this Weekly Worker piece as good coin) and, more significantly, the Rail Maritime and Transport union. To try and dampen anticipated disappointment some comrades (not least Socialist Party members themselves) will have with the RMT executive's decision not to support TUSC, the article goes on to note that it still retains the support of Bob Crow, the Prison Officers' Association general secretary (and SP member) Brian Caton, and various national officers of the Public and Commercial Services union (i.e. in all probability, leading SP members in the union). It argues "While there is no formal involvement of a national trade union, this is still an important coalescing on the political plane of the most fighting trade union leaders in Britain today."

What prospects for the new formation? Leaving aside questions of electoral performance (which will surely be very modest outside 'star' candidates), there are two interrelated points against which it should be measured: can TUSC can break down the awful sectarian culture of the far left, and does it constitute a step toward a new left alternative.

On the first count, its potential is very mixed. Like No2EU and very much in line with the SP's favoured structure for alliances, TUSC has a federal character in the sense that a core series of policy positions exist but each participant is free to produce their own supplementary material. No one group rules the roost. This approach can provide a context for comradely relations across different organisations to grow "organically". But equally it can lock in the existing 'ourselves, alone' practice of the revolutionary left. With complete freedom for TUSC's components, would Communist Party comrades, for example, help out a SWP TUSC candidate (yes, they're sort of on board too) or concentrate their time and resources at a CPB challenge 20 miles up the road?

What about the role of independents? Again the federal structure is a double-edged sword. TUSC is operating a relatively open policy when it comes to candidatures. If left-inclined independents want to use its name for the general election, it's doubtful the steering committee would object (the cpgb's desire to use the name for their election campaign will probably be a different matter). But there's not a lot on offer for independents in areas where candidates are drawn from one of the core groups. Some might ask themselves if it's worth bothering participating in a campaign they have no say over.

Then there's the steering group itself. There are seats reserved for each of No2EU's core supporters, plus "stars" like brothers Crow and Caton. I imagine new "affiliates" would be co-opted - such as the SWP or localised groups like Wigan's Community Action Party - but, unfortunately, democracy is lacking. And where there is no accountability, the deliberations of the steering group are likely to remain opaque, just as it was in the secretive lead up to TUSC's appearance.

The next question to be asked of TUSC is what is it for? No2EU was very far from perfect, but at least for SP comrades there was a sense it was part of a process. Regular readers might want to cast their minds back to the European elections where I argued No2EU
was worthwhile because the RMT's involvement might have paved the way for other trade union-backed challenges in the future. As far as the SP was concerned, it offered an opening to advance its strategic perspective of founding a new workers' party. TUSC is viewed through the same prism. The article concludes it "is a modest but important step in the development of a movement of resistance".

The problem is, compared with preceding alliances in England and Wales, TUSC proceeds on a lower level than No2EU (i.e. lack of RMT), Respect (with its deep roots in a handful of communities) and the Socialist Alliance (which, despite its faults, developed its own relatively independent dynamic). It is more like the Socialist Green Unity Coalition - the skeletal electoral umbrella/non-aggression pact between several left groups during the 2005 elections - than its predecessors. It does possess more weight than the SGUC, but one shouldn't overstate the presence of comrades Crow and Caton. They will not deliver very many extra votes, nor is there any evidence they will attract union support from elsewhere (a point underlined by the No2EU experience). If the RMT were still officially involved (rather than its settled position of letting local branches determine who they wish to support, while the national union organises to make sure its sponsored Labour MPs are returned) it might be a different kettle of fish. But as it stands, regrettably, there's every danger TUSC could be less than the sum of its parts.

What makes this really frustrating is that after 15 years of regroupment projects, this is where the far left is at. Opportunities to lay the foundations for something lasting and with wider support has been squandered by sectarian interests, egos and petty control freakery, and each and every principal organisation of the far left shoulders a share of the blame. The lasting feature of our procession of unity initiatives has been the sinking of new wells of resentment - so much for the Marxist left being the socialist society of the future in embryo.

The window of opportunity the far left has had to make an impact outside its ghetto is closing. The Labour party is, once again, starting to look like the place where the issue of working class representation will be debated and contested in the coming years - despite the stranglehold of the apparatus and lack of meaningful democracy. This means TUSC's prospects, even if it becomes something more than an alliance of convenience, are probably very limited.

Alternative take on TUSC by Dave of Though Cowards Flinch
here.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Haiti Earthquake

I'm sure all readers have seen the distressing images coming out of Haiti throughout the day. There are no trade union aid campaigns set up at the moment but a number of non-governmental organisations have moved into action. Here's the appeal video put out by the British Red Cross:



Red Cross volunteers are already active in Port-au-Prince. You can donate to them here.

Oxfam have launched a similar appeal
here.

In addition
Channel 4 news have set up a Twitter list to aggregate information (the primary Twitter trend is here). There is also a Facebook group doing the same.

An early report comes from Cuba's
Granma.

As was seen with the
Italian earthquake in April last year, natural disasters do not occur in a political vacuum. In the CWI's article on the Haitian earthquake, Niall Mulholland puts this latest catastrophe in the context of the political shortcomings of the country's domestic elite and its relationship with the US. As Niall puts it, "President Obama issued a statement after the latest disaster: “We are closely monitoring the situation and we stand ready to assist the people of Haiti." But the record of US imperialism in Haiti, and indeed the region, is anything but helpful for the Haiti poor."

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Islam4UK Banned: A Socialist View

From the BBC:
[Home secretary Alan] Johnson said: "I have today laid an order which will proscribe al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK, and a number of the other names the organisation goes by.

"It is already proscribed under two other names - al-Ghurabaa and The Saved Sect.

"Proscription is a tough but necessary power to tackle terrorism and is not a course we take lightly.

"We are clear that an organisation should not be able to circumvent proscription by simply changing its name."
And so the amateur controversialists in al-Muhajiroun have had a banning order slapped on them.

However, from the point of view of the ever-eroding democracy we have in Britain this is indefensible. Nor is it particularly a wise move from a "security" point of view.

That al-Muhajiroun and its various front groups are deeply unpleasant and reactionary is incontrovertible. Yet they are perfectly entitled to their opinions. Ideologically they may be profoundly illiberal and downright anti-socialist, but as far as I'm aware they do not intimidate their opponents or seek to physically disrupt their activities. They pose zero threat to what liberals and conservatives call 'civil society', nor do they significantly challenge the labour movement. True, their brand of political Islam plays into the hands of Islamophobic scare mongering by the gutter press and the far right, but is that reason enough to ban them? That they have a membership among Muslims comparable to the most irrelevant and shrill elements of the Trotskyist left demonstrates the lack of resonance their ideas have.

According to the same BBC report, al-Muhajiroun's founder-leader Omar Bakri Muhammad said of the news "I think it is a grave mistake because it will force them underground". For once, he speaks a truth. Study after study has shown that there is a minority of Muslim-Asian youth who are profoundly alienated from British society for a whole host of reasons. While it is true al-Muhajiroun has only recruited a tiny percentage of this layer their victimisation at the hands of the state can act to *enhance* their status as a radical Islamic answer to the status quo. Is that really what anyone who cares about deepening democracy in British society wants?

Yes, it does appear there are "coincidences" between al-Muhajiroun membership and bomb plots, in the same way there's coincidences between BNP membership/support and would-be terrorists. But neither fundamentalist Islam or white nationalism by themselves *cause* terroristic actions. They, like the ideas they seek inspiration from, have their well-spring deep in the bowels of a deeply unequal, authoritarian and alienating society. Being tough on terrorism requires being tough on the causes of terrorism - and that requires a politics committed to profound social change. Unfortunately for Alan Johnson, while his ban on Islam4UK will secure some positive headlines it will do nothing to ameliorate the sources of disaffection.