Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Stoke as a Place of Beauty

'Stoke' and 'beauty'. There's two words that don't go together, a bit like 'Liberal Democrat' and 'promises'. But in his new book, The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent, Matthew Rice argues my home of 15 years, blighted as it is by joblessness, derelict property, wasteland and Port Vale football club, possesses a proud heritage and a unique beauty. And this provides the key to the successful regeneration of The Potteries. Way back on 14th November about 80 upstanding citizens and I were invited to his book's launch at Fat Cat's in Hanley. The evening was compered by Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt and saw contributions from the writer AN Wilson, historian and Sentinel columnist Fred Hughes, English Heritage and the National Trust speakers (whose names I didn't catch). And lastly the eponymous Matthew Rice himself, who spoke first.

His opening set the tone with a lamentation for what The Potteries has lost. We live in a city that is abused and not cared for, an industrial city in a post-industrial age desperately in need of regeneration. For outsiders, he mused, the impression Stoke conveys is a place that's falling to bits. But under the surface still lies the ceramic capital of the world. The pottery industry remains a strategically important employer and driver of the local economy, and it would be churlish to turn our back on it in the name of moving forward. The buildings of the city, at least those that remain from Stoke's halcyon days, offer a framework for collective memory. For good or ill they anchored Potters' identities in place: the factory, the methodist chapel, the pub, the cinema. Leaving them to rot or wiping the slate clean for regeneration projects effaces that memory. With each bottle kiln pulled down Stoke becomes alienated from the history that made it. Every new mini-megaproject makes the past more strange, more foreign. Regeneration therefore should be people-focused. Investment in the people of Stoke will give them the capacity to regenerate the six towns themselves.

Fred Hughes more or less repeated Matthew's argument, but (perhaps inadvertently) flagged up the problems Stoke's parochial culture has bequeathed business and local politics. The pottery industry grew up as family concerns in particular localities where there were already established villages and towns. As the factories expanded workplaces and business were infused with a localist flavour. For instance, Fred said his granny - a proud Burslem resident - prided herself on never having visted Longton (and this attitude is very much alive today). So despite the 1910 federation of the six towns into the glamorous metropolis of Stoke-on-Trent this localism has persisted. But during the 'heroic' period of Stoke's industrial expansion it found an outlet in architectural expressions of civic pride, such as the Telephone Exchange in which Fat Cat's sits. All of it contributed to a sense of place that appears to be absent today.

AN Wilson talked about his family's roots in The Potteries. His grandfather, Tom Wilson, was described by contemporaries and historians as the 'last of the great potters'. And later on his own father was MD of Wedgwood. Stoke's decline however lies not in the whirlwind of deindustrialisation that howled through the city in the 80s but much earlier. The first was the Wall Street crash and the second was the floating of Wedgwood on the stock exchange in 1962. By changing the traditional pattern of outright family ownership Josiah Wedgwood V (apparently a self-confessed Marxist) exposed the firm to the rapaciousness of international capital and imported its dog-eat-dog ethos to North Staffordshire. Family firms folded or were absorbed by big business and then the whole system undermined itself as money was chased to the exclusion of all else. He argued that the burgeoning ceramics industry in China is based on the lessons of what made Stoke an industrial powerhouse, of close-knit family businesses rooted in communities. There was more than a hint that if we can go back to basics, then Stoke has a chance of breaking out its cycle of decline.

The speaker from English Heritage said ceramic production in North Staffs goes back to the Roman occupation. Two thousand years on the city is literally built on centuries of pottery waste. When a lift was built onto the back of
Burslem School of Art a few years ago, piles of rare 15th century pottery was unearthed. He concluded by saying a successful regeneration process has to incorporate this heritage.

The National Trust speaker said the cultural legacy of Stoke is of national importance. Quite apart from the global contribution the city has made to ceramic design and manufacturing it has made itself felt in
literature and scholarship (and music, then again ...). Stoke's home to buildings and sights immortalised by Bennett and Hoskins, and they deserve preserving. She thought Matthew's book offered an optimistic vision of the city, and what policy makers and the city's people have to do is create new stories to animate the space. The NT's contribution is make the case for beauty, which can still be found in Stoke, but it is a beauty that has to be "reclaimed" to find its place in the city's future.

The subsequent questions came thick and fast: how important are ceramics for Stoke's future? What to do about 'generic' new builds? Are Stoke's difficulties cause by the state? Does Stoke need better marketing? Is the obsession with the past preventing Stoke from moving on?

New builds are obviously a bugbear for Matthew. He argued contemporary designers have lots of good intentions but exciting elements tend to evaporate. They require vision, good planning, and the participation of the Potteries public. Unfortunately, AN Wilson couldn't muster much optimism. He believed the fate of the city is governed by forces external to it. But he did speak approvingly of the
Potteries Museum, which he felt possibly homes the most aesthetically pleasing collection of pottery in the world. The problem is no one nowhere is coming close to the craftmanship of Stoke's early industrial period today. If ceramics is going to make a big comeback this is where Stoke's heritage offers it an incomparable advantage.

Closing the formal part of the night, Tristram observed that at least where ceramics are concerned the pendulum of competition maybe swinging back in Stoke's favour. Paul Farmer, MD of
Wade Ceramics reckons he can come to within 10 pence of Chinese prices thanks to automation. Will the plants shipped out to China and Indonesia make a return to Stoke?

In all it was an excellent evening peppered with free drinks, nibbles and establishment networking opportunities. But what I found very interesting was the nostalgia on display. The platform didn't so much as enunciate a longing for an England of Spitfires and sonnets beloved of home county Tories but a very specific appreciation of the past that maps onto a fraction of manufacturing capital: the fraction that was eviscerated when Thatcher turned Britain into a neoliberal laboratory. The contributions of Matthew and AN Wilson hark back to a time when people did useful things and they, or rather their ancestors, could be sure of their position. The transition from a more "caring" capitalism to one in which all human relationships were reduced the cold cash nexus sundered the intimate ties binding pottery families to their workforce. The ceramics and buildings of bygone eras speak of the talent and patrician pride their class fraction once had. Now heritage is a weapon they wield to try and exert its influence once more as Stoke is remade by
public projects and big business. It is a rearguard action to try and convince the next generation of organic entrepreneurs of their validity for the 21st century.

On one level, the battle is won - no one disagrees that Stoke might recapture its civic beauty if the old is restored and the new respects the city's vernacular. But the decisions about how the city looks is taken elsewhere, by remote state and private bureaucracies. To reclaim that control, to realise the vision of Matthew Rice's book demands - as he recognises - the mass participation of locals in the city planning process. His position concedes the day of enlightened local elites is long over. If Stoke is to recapture the glories of its heroic period and surpass them, now the city's working class is the only social force capable of realising it. What this shows is how abstruse debates over art and architecture within elite circles can overspill and become an object of class struggle itself.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Lewisham Town Hall Stormed

Like dozens of others up and down the country, it was going to be just another local anti-cuts protest. Lewisham Council, a Labour-controlled authority wants to cut £60m from its budget between now and 2014 (full story here). But no one going on the march to protest outside tonight's council meeting could have foreseen what was to happen. This is best left to Kate B's Twitter commentary, bits of which are reproduced below:

Lewisham council protest 2nite 6pm Catford town hall: fury @ Bullock's huge cuts list for a deprived borough ... Cops losing control at lewisham ... Ppl screaming let us in ... This is mad never seen protest like it ... Ppl have broken past cops into town hall ... Riot cops at a council meeting jesus ... Now ppl fighting riot cops ... Think yr going to need some bigger cops gideon ... Jesus ppl r going for the police theyre fighting back ... Whole street outside lewisham council is closed + full of coppers ... Everyone at this protest sayng theyre inspired by the students ... Gideon youve got a big fuckn problem here Ive never seen ppl take on riot cops ... Lewisham is a Labour council too. Jesus man that's anger ... Lewisham is a v poor borough. What does the govt expect?

When was the last time an attempt was made to storm a council meeting by a 400-strong protest? I don't know but there's a report
here and a video here.

Kate's final comment is right. In my experience over the last few years of doing stalls and speaking to hundreds of people on the streets and their doorsteps there has been an undercurrent of anger, but an anger tempered by isolation, impotence and hopelessness. You can strike and protest as much as you like, they'll never solve anything. Indeed when I was in the Socialist Party one comrade called this 'proxy consciousness': a disillusionment with, irreverence toward, and alienation from official party politics married to a fundamental lack of belief in one's ability to change things. Many a conversation took place where someone would agree with your points about class, inequality, New Labour, pensions, banks, NHS and whatever, but after they'd leave with a nod of the head and wish you good luck. They were issues people cared about, but they didn't see them as issues they should take charge of and fight for: that was what we, "the activists" did. And how could it be otherwise after the defeats of the 80s, the throwing back of working class consciousness, the collapse of a world-wide alternative to capitalism (despite its obvious problems and grotesqueries), the expunging of socialism from everyday politics and the successful sell of consumerism to millions of atomised people?

Nevertheless the combustible material was there and now it is being touched off. I can't remember who said students are the advance guard of the working class, but the support and solidarity the 10.11.10 protest and subsequent days of actions and occupations have inspired is bleeding into wider layers of the population. As Kate notes, "everyone on the protest saying they're inspired by students".

It does also mean the labour movement and the left have to up its game. I'm sure it's the same for many others reading this: up until this year really - and leaving aside the build up to the Iraq war - my experience of the period has been a series of small-scale set pieces. A strike here. A campaign against a closure there. Struggles have been isolated with little in the way of mass expressions of solidarity. But now all bets are off. Class struggle, previously subterranean has now exploded out into the open. Confidence is building rapidly, especially among younger people and no one has the ability to shut it down. A new carnival of protest has ridden into town seething with energy and vitality. For many people who've been knocking around the labour movement for years, the sudden explosions of activity are as strange and alien to us as it is to the raw demonstrators and occupiers who are tasting activism for the first time. And while this is an unfamiliar situation to us, it is doubly so for the powers that be. As tonight's scenes from Lewisham repeat themselves over the coming weeks and months ahead, the discomfiture of having a movement breathing down your neck will be felt by politicians from all parties who vote to cut, however reluctantly they may do so.

The left has to adapt and win this new movement to socialism by persuasion, passion and above all politics. That is the acid test the situation demands. It is how we will be judged by the movement before us and the generations who come after us. Are we up to it?

US and France on Russia and Venezuela

You've got to laugh. The US and British government have been falling over themselves condemning Wikileaks for the latest release of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports. I'm not surprised either. The snippets released so far show the movers and shakers in international relations to be venal dummies who base their opinions on received prejudice and caricature. If it were not drawn up in dry language and festooned with the bureaucratic topiary of officialdom you could be forgiven for thinking their opinions were straight out of the Daily Mail's letters' page.

The bits I've reproduced below are from a cable reporting the outcome of a meeting between Assistant US secretary of state Phil Gordon and a clutch of French diplomatic spads on September 11th last year. The full text is available
here. This discussion was about the US and French governments' approach to Afghanistan, Turkey, NATO, Russia, Iran and other bits and bobs. This quote is about Russia:
Galharague described Russia as a state with the trappings of democracy but without any mechanisms for the public to influence government decision-making. "The root of the problem is the regime," he said. Presidential advisor Loras added Russian leaders lacked sufficient, long-range vision for their country and instead, focused on a six-month time horizon and their business interests.
Monsieur Galharague could almost have been talking about the British cabinet.

The cable also notes Medvedev has started to chart a course independent of Putin. There's one relationship that's going to end well.

But the (short!) section on Venezuela is very revealing. Despite winning more free and fair elections than any incumbent presently at the helm of a Western power, Hugo Chavez comes in for some stick:
Levitte observed that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is "crazy" and said that even Brazil wasn't able to support him anymore. Unfortunately, Chavez is taking one of the richest countries in Latin America and turning it into another Zimbabwe.
As if the two are remotely comparable. Let me hazard a guess. I imagine Monsieur Levitte finds Chavez objectionable because of his rerouting of oil profits into welfare spending and infrastructural projects rather than Venezuela's wealthy elite (an oil multinationals). How very dare he!

With more releases to come over the coming days there'll be enough material to keep snarky bloggers going 'til Winterval.

NB: No CIA agents were harmed in the making of this post.

Between Protest and Parliament

I can't refrain from commenting on Sayeeda Warsi's letter to Ed Miliband concerning John McDonnell's speech at this weekend's Coalition of Resistance conference. In his contribution, John expressed solidarity with the 15 university occupations and support for students against the ConDems' plans to sink higher education. In other words, he was doing what any decent socialist should be doing. But this was too much for the current chair of the Conservatives.

According to the BBC, Warsi wrote "A member of your party, John McDonnell MP, has been quoted in the press suggesting that he is involved in a 'programme of resistance' which includes the potential incitement of rioting." Actually, Warsi is putting words into John McDonnell's mouth here, and she knows it. But for Warsi and her like any kind of politics taking place outside the rarefied atmosphere of parliamentary constitutionalism is potentially dangerous. You see, it involves people (or, as Tories might see them, 'the mob') getting together and pursuing political objectives independent of their elected representatives. As far as they're concerned, demos, occupations, strikes, protests, rallies and riots are all members of the same species. Tories instinctively sense an essential identity lurking beneath the noisy and colourful stirrings of the dangerous class, and this makes them feel very uneasy indeed. Always and at all times the most timid of protests are only a step away from full-blooded insurrection.

In calling for John McDonnell's head, Ed Miliband should have told Warsi where to get off. If the unelectable fears the ungovernable, that's something she's going to have to learn to deal with. But instead of standing up to this blatant attempt at driving a wedge between Labour and the burgeoning student movement, Ed just rolled over. According to the same report McDonnell "will be spoken to by the opposition whips office". Pitiful.

This episode, which will surely be as forgotten in a few days as this year's
X-Factor Christmas number one will be 12 months hence, says a lot about the contradictions of Ed Miliband's position and Labour as the official parliamentary wing of the labour movement. We've been here before regards Ed and the middle ground and much of it remains the case. The everyday political reality Ed and the leadership inhabit is one conditioned by the received political wisdom of the New Labour years and elite opinion expressed through the media. Pressures from life outside are filtered through opinion polls and focus groups, which are then treated as immovable realities to be adapted to, not changed. So unfavourable coverage of student protests in the press = a belief that most people are opposed to the demos and occupations.

Steps can be made to remedy the situation. The weekend's
announcement of a two year review of the party offers an opportunity for the left to argue for more democracy and therefore restore the linkage function parties are, according to political science scholarship, supposed to perform between supporters and political elites. But this can only go so far. Ed's attempts to play the Westminster game are rooted in the contradictory location of Labour itself, of being the party of the organised working class which has to appeal to the whole nation to win elections, of the repository of working class interests and aspirations while being one of two parties of capitalist governance, of being sustained by extra-parliamentary movements while its high politics are completely focused on parliamentarism, and of simultaneously being a party of labour and capital. How Labour has negotiated this contradiction historically is to play the constitutional game at all costs, even to the extent of hollowing itself out.

Therefore the leadership's capitulation to Warsi's whinging is rooted much deeper than shallow analyses of the "latest betrayal" would have you believe. While it'd be fantastic if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations (in much the same way the NUS leadership has been
shamed into doing), he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour's contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts on the one hand; and the prevarication of politics as usual on the other, he will plump for the latter every time.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Stoke Protest Against the Cuts

DEMONSTRATE AGAINST CUTS!

Organised by

North Staffs Against the Cuts and North Staffs Trade Union Council

SATURDAY 4th DECEMBER

10.30am – LICHFIELD ST CAR PARK, HANLEY

All banners and placards welcome.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Downfall: Dave Reacts to Student Protests

ConDems: A Lasting Marriage or Heading for Divorce?

The grey man of British politics has let go the reserve former prime ministers usually keep to venture forth his opinions on the Coalition. Unlike Thatcher's embarrassing interventions, since leaving Number 10 John Major has occasionally chipped in with bits and pieces of advice for his successors. In this tradition I can't see his latest musings upsetting anyone's applecart.

Major argues that it makes sense for the Tories and LibDems to cuddle together for now because they have a sufficiently large electorate between them to ram through their programme of "necessary" cuts without paying too heavy a political price. But in the event of the wheels coming off the legislative timetable the two parties should consider extending the coalition arrangement beyond the lifetime of the present parliament (there is also more than a hint that Major would like it to continue regardless).

There are two things going on here.

During the election and after Little Dave's impressive performance in the
leaders' debates, quite a few Labour people and the odd LibDem thought a liberal-left coalition could happen, and as such it became the repository of all manner of fantasies. The most common was a vision of government evolving in a more Keynesian direction minus New Labour's baggage of petty authoritarianism and the bolting on of decent electoral reform. It would be a government determined to tackle the deficit and prepared to make cuts, but not as savage or as deep as those favoured by Dave and the gang. And what is more it would constitute a 'progressive majority' that might keep the Tories out in perpetuity.

As we know now its possibility was rendered null and void by the electoral arithmetic of the hung parliament and Dave 'n' Nick's whirlwind bromance. But the argument underlying Major's praise for the coalition follows the same logic. LibLab becomes ConDem. A long government of the progressive majority is supplanted by a (hoped for) semi-permanent centre right Coalition, an arrangement what would use state power to reshape British society even more completely around neoliberal dogma. BigSoc is the philosophical garnish sprinkled on this explicit class project.

Second is the marginalisation of the hard-right Europhobe/dingbat wing of the Tories so ably represented in parliament by Bill Cash and the increasingly erratic Nadine Dorries. As
Andy argues (and noted here before), building an alliance with the Orange Book'er LibDem leadership puts clear distance between Dave and the uncaring and the unacceptable. The Coalition has been the means for strengthening liberal Tories and "sensible" patricians in the party, and it's this that has caught John Major's eye. From the pound's messy retreat from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on the Tories were plagued by incompetence, scandal and backbench unrest. Let's face it, the right wing "bastards" of the 1992-97 school make today's clique of grumbling Blairites look like nodding dogs. Major's not muzzling them himself, but he must be feeling more than a little schadenfreude to see his former enemies getting slapped about and ignored.

Major's comments come at a time the Coalition faces its first major test. The size and militancy of student protests and demonstrations have put the LibDems under
severe pressure. More protests next week plus rumours of NUS legal action against LibDems will keep them sweating - and deservedly so. To be sure the rebellion of sufficient numbers of their MPs plus the odd recalcitrant Tory could bury this awful government as surely as its insidious plans for higher education.

So what are we looking at here? The normal ups and downs of the average marriage or the beginning of divorce proceedings? Whatever it is, the future of the relationship will be decided over the coming weeks.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Don't Let the LibDems Off

Who says protesting never changes things? In the wake of Wednesday's mass actions around the country (see here, here, here, here to name but a few) the LibDems are looking decidedly wobbly in the face of mass student anger. After spending a week or so denying they had broken any promises, Lorely Burt was shuffled out on Wednesday night to say she and a number of colleagues are considering abstaining on the vote to increase tuition fees. With an eye to the dreadful polling figures and tumbling donations, Little Dave has been hinting he and Uncle Vince might abstain to save their political bacon too.

Short of injecting cement into the LibDems' spine and have them pull out of the coalition, the next best result is making sure LibDems vote against these regressive plans for the university sector. Abstaining is not good enough. Opting out lets them salve what's left of their consciences while doing bugger all to stop fee increases from going ahead. Simply put, an abstaining MP will not close the gap between votes for and against. It's a bit like saying "good luck" to fellow workers as you cross their picket line.


As Will Straw rightly notes, the abstention of every single LibDem MP will still see the legislation pass through parliament - except perhaps in the extremely unlikely event of Tory backbenchers having an attack of the vapours and voting with Lee Scott against the increases. With him in the bag and going by Will's figures, just 16 LibDems are now required to rebel against the provisions of the Coalition agreement.

The one thing all sections of the student movement agree on is the need to keep the pressure up on LibDem MPs. They need to realise in no uncertain terms that anything less than a vote against is tacit support, and that going with their precious agreement means they are sunk beyond the lifetime of this parliament. Targeted actions against LibDems, the whole avalanche of petitions, letters, office occupations and protests are already focusing their minds. Sustaining it could yield the 16 MPs needed to save higher education provision as is.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Inside the SOAS Occupation

Ahead of today's day of action against the tuition fee rises, SOAS students have moved into occupation. Here's a video from inside courtesy of Counterfire:



In his comment on the call for another national protest on Socialist Unity, Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football argues occupations, walkouts, and demos are a "disastrous" strategy that will not stop the fees. Instead, echoing the NUS's line, he suggests students ought to be targeting LibDem marginals and particularly those that were won thanks to tactical vote-switiching in the election.

Right now that is a recipe for demobilisation and failure.

Firstly, the 'unofficial' student movement is a decentralised beast. While figures are beginning to emerge with a certain level of authority it is down to local groups at individual universities who are taking up the slack and organising actions. While
Clare Solomon did an excellent job of challenging the establishment narrative in the media, radicalised and radicalising students are more likely to follow the lead of the people they know at their institutions. This means at present a coherent strategy is very unlikely to be adopted by the movement (which, of course, does not preclude anyone from arguing for one).

Second, the movement has momentum. The leadership of the NUS would like nothing more for students to return to their classes and engage in letter writing campaigns to LibDem MPs. It's safe, it allows the leadership to manage expectations and control the opposition against fee rises, it enables them to
lead a quiet life and, most importantly, it doesn't jeopardise their future careers.

Thirdly, the wave of occupations and protests does not stop putting pressure on LibDem MPs. No one is arguing the NUS shouldn't lobby LibDems, rather what many in the student movement find objectionable is their desire to limit it to those kinds of "action". In fact, the more protests, the more occupations, the more marches
strengthen the hand of the movement vis a vis LibDems worrying about their parliamentary seats. You can bet some of them are more worried now after the massive angry demo on the 10th than they would be had students, as in previous years, resorted in the main to polite lobbying.

Mark falsely counterposes the two approaches and ends up backing the 'steady-as-she-goes' letter writing campaign of the NUS. He fails to realise that in politics the constitutional niceties of business as usual is always conditioned by what is happening outside the Westminster Village. By undertaking direct action in large numbers students are demonstrating to the powers that be how angry they are. LibDems who choose to ignore it do so at their peril.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Tory Attack on Aspiration

spEak You're bRanes does a fine job of sending up the most absurd comments found on BBC's Have Your Say and the soon-to-be-switched-off Ceefax teletext service. But very occasionally a diamond shines out among the bigoted rough. This one, from yesterday's letters' page, skewers the Tories' latest plans on council housing:
So social housing tenants may be evicted if their finances are "deemed to have improved enough".

In other words if tenants get a job and come off benefits they'll stand to lose their home.

Not what I call an incentive. How lucky we are to have a government made up of thinkers of genius.

TW, North Yorks
Tories really do believe the root of benefit dependency is the "over-generosity" of the system. So even within their own terms this latest attack on the welfare state makes no sense. What's going on?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Uncle Vince's Logic Gyrations

I sometimes feel sorry for Uncle Vince. On more than one occasion he's sat there on the front bench looking like his soul's been forced through an industrial strength cheese grater. But like the Tories, he and his fellow Orange Book'ers have learned that power always comes before principle. So way before Vince hits the Strictly dance floor for the Christmas special, he's had plenty of practice gyrating and contorting "in the national interest".

His
latest move however has all the elegance of a John Sergeant/Ann Widdecombe pairing. Vince says the Coalition agreement between the LibDems and Tories trump any commitments and promises made in the party's manifesto. In his own words:
We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour.
Someone ought to tell Vince he's being a silly sausage. If I promise to my nearest and dearest to take her out for a drink, but then a couple of acquaintances ring up and invite me and not her to dinner, by accepting their invitation I break my earlier promise. Justifying my actions by saying I had a better offer would be like dousing her anger with paraffin. And so it is with tuition fees. Whichever way you slice it, a broken promise is a broken promise and Vince's attempt to make it look like anything else comes across as feeble and desperate.

As we now know, the LibDem leadership made another rod for their back by signing personal pledges to vote against tuition fees, even at the
very moment they were considering abandoning the pledge. By signing them, Uncle Vince, Little Dave and all the rest made personal guarantees to their electorates over and above the party position. This means the crisis of LibDem support is simultaneously a crisis of their standings as politicians.

No amount of political wash powder will shift this stubborn stain on their character in a hurry.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Being Political Education Officer

As longtime readers will know since joining Labour last February I have become the Political Education Officer for Stoke Central CLP. Holders of the office can more or less do with it what they like and it's not unknown for members to simply take on the role so they can have a seat on the local party's executive. I'm not of that view.

One of the chief strengths of far left organisations is the emphasis they place on political education. The Socialist Party always had a political discussion as the chief item on its branch agenda. I don't know how they do things in the SWP these days, but when I attended Derby SWP meetings in the summer of '96 that was the same too. Yes, the quality of lead-offs and discussions varied greatly, but it offered an opportunity for members to learn about working class political history and helped round them out as activists who can effectively fight for their organisation's politics in a number of different settings.

I've taken this culture with me and tried importing it into the local party. My branch now has a political discussion in each meeting and it's gone down well with members. I'm told politics did used to take pride of place many years ago, but as membership dwindled and the party became ever more top heavy this tradition withered on the vine. I wouldn't want to jump to conclusions but now the local party is growing again and new faces are appearing at meetings, the readiness with which this has been adapted might be suggestive of a new mood and a new set of expectations members have.

Political discussion in the monthly CLP meeting is slightly different as this is usually a pure business meeting. A typical meeting has of late looked like this:

As Stoke is facing all-out elections for the council next year a lot of time has had to be put into the intricacies of candidate selection, the format of interviews, their progress and what have you. This has necessarily eaten up a lot of the agenda. We also hear from the MP, Tristram Hunt, who tells us about his activities over the last month in parliament and the constituency. The meeting receives other officers' reports, including my own. Members' presenting items are often heard and at times floor-led discussions can arise from questions to officers and the MP. And when all is done 90 minutes has passed and it's time to call it an evening.

My political education report, of which I give the briefest of brief verbal overviews, tends to follow a standard format. Rather than writing an essay stuffed full of my correct views on everything, I write a brief preamble summarising recent political developments and then produce a list of ten links referring to pieces that have caught my eye or feel are particularly pertinent. As the CLP has members from all wings of the party I try and ensure my selection covers every shade of Labour opinion. And of course, as a blogger (and because bloggers are producing the bulk of the freshest and most incisive political writing these days) I make sure they get the lion's share of the linkage.

As not all members are online I always append a complete piece. This month it was David Lammy's
defence of the liberal arts. The text of this month's report can be found below sans the full text from Left Foot Forward.

Producing a monthly report is just one aspect of the PEO role. When we've finally got Labour Students up and running at Staffs Uni I will assist those comrades in developing a programme of political education. Doubling up my responsibilities as Trade Union Liaison Officer I have received backing from two large union branches for a 'trade unionists in Labour' meeting in the city in new year, something which could become a semi-regular fixture. And there was the recent all-members meeting under the auspices of the city party on alternatives to the cuts (see 'Labour Councils and the Cuts', below). But the best political learning experiences come outside of programmes and meetings, and that's when you knock on doors or ring people up. The PEO role therefore is not just about education with a capital E. It is responsible for ensuring the experiences of every member becomes the property of the collective, of making sure that the party not only knows about the issues concerning real people (not medialand's constructions of 'real people'), but responds to them too.

The Political Education Officer's role is a crucial one. If Labour is to be rebuilt as the party of a renewed labour movement PEOs in every CLP have a part to play.


Political Education Officer's Report 19.11.10
If a week is a long time in politics, then a month must be an eternity. So many things have happened since the CLP last met that it would be impossible to list them all. Not that that will stop me from having a go: we’ve had the suspension of Phil Woolas from the party for defaming his LibDem opponent during the election (though since entering the coalition, our yellow friends have done a pretty good job of that themselves). George Osborne announced his package of cuts, a package tantamount to unleashing class war on millions of workers, benefit claimants, and service users. Tuition fees are set to rise to £9,000/year, which will result in tens of thousands being put off attending university. Meanwhile, the fantastic demonstration in London last week showed students are not taking this attack on aspiration lying down. Ireland and Portugal are on the brink of the economic abyss – again. One man was convicted and fined for posting a joke to his Twitter feed, and lastly a young couple from wealthy backgrounds announced their engagement to a hysterical reception from the press.

In this report and from now on I will be featuring pieces produced from the various think tanks, groups, and policy platforms that exist in the party, alongside the usual culled from bloggers and columnists. From Progress to Compass, from the Fabians to the Labour Representation Committee, each of these prove Labour remains a broad church of contending and clashing ideas. They all play a role in keeping the party's political life vibrant and help shape policy, set agendas, inspire members to become more involved, and (in some cases) get comrades off their bums and onto the phones and into the streets. So, without further ado …

All’s Fair by Tristram Hunt

Cutting It: The ‘Big Society’ and the New Austerity by Anna Coote

So Will Barclays Carry Out Its Threat to Leave UK? (Or the “Exodus” that Never Quite Happens) by Anonymous/Fabian Society

Housing Benefit Reforms Will Cause “Immense Human Suffering” by John McDonnell

Sinners and Sanctions by Eugene Grant

The Power of the Broken Pane by Laurie Penny

Will the Euro Break Up? by Arthur Bough

Labour Councils and the Cuts by Phil BC

Cuts? Women Will Take Them on the Chin by Fionnuala Murphy

A Short Guide to the Financial Crisis by The Flying Rodent

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

More Crap Writing

Only time for a quick foray into Philistines' Corner tonight.

I've
done this one before but it really is shameful when self-described Marxists try and play the inscrutability game. How can socialists who've not had the dubious benefit of "professional" philosophical training access important theoretical issues when writers insist on applying the technical vocabulary with a trowel? The below comes from the English translation of Sebastiano Timpanaro's On Materialism and was published when Althusser-speak was all the rage in academic Marxist circles, so there's your context.

Anyway:
Generally, its point of departure are real and serious problems in the epistemology of the sciences, related to the need for a re-examination of the very foundations of scientific knowledge. But this epistemological crisis is quickly used in order to reassert an absolute, mythological creativity and freedom belonging to man, and in order to be able to disregard both the real conditioning to which man is subject and the way to overcome it. It then becomes possible to proclaim a completely rhetorical and mystifying subjectivism-voluntarism (p.123).
According to this obituary by Perry Anderson our Seb was "one of the purest and most original minds of the second half of the century." Pity more than a few will have been put off by his impenetrable prose.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Blessed Be the Royal Couple

I've never had any time for the Royals. Even when I was a teenage Tory I had zero respect for Queen Elizabeth II and her family of Britain's wealthiest benefit claimants. So strong was this dislike for the pomp and pomposity of the monarchy that even at my most nationalist I refused point blank to sing the national anthem. There was something archaic and faintly ridiculous about them that deeply went against the grain of whatever I was thinking - and this was well before my introduction to the socialist critique of constitutional monarchies.

I haven't mellowed with age either. Just thinking about Royal weddings, "Squidgygate", the fire at Windsor Castle, the North Korean-style official mourning for Diana Windsor, the jubilee, the funeral of the ludicrously titled 'Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother', and all the petty palace intrigues the papers trade in is almost enough to bring me out in a rash. The fawning of the media, particularly the BBC's royal correspondents, is guaranteed to put me in a paroxysm of fury.

So no. I will not be falling over myself to watch the heir to one of Britain's wealthiest families wed the daughter of millionaires at the taxpayers' expense. In fact I confidently predict I'll be doing everything in my power to avoid all coverage. Perhaps I'll join the protest against this waste of money down in London. Or maybe I'll voice my displeasure by penning some Marxist screed or another on why Britain is still lumbered with such an absurd constitutional set up.

Until that time, the best comment on the engagement of William Windsor and Kate Middleton by far comes courtesy of the
Caledonian Mercury. This is their front page:
Couple Who Met at University to Marry
By James Browne

Two people who went to university together are to get married, it has emerged.

William Windsor (or possibly Wales or possibly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and Kate Middleton, both 28, met at St Andrews University eight years ago.

Mr Windsor is a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF – and also a prince.

Wall-to-wall, dewy-eyed hysterical coverage can be found in every other media outlet.
If only the rest of the media followed suit.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Merit Not Money, Debt Isn't Funny

Back in 1997 I had few illusions when it came to Tony Blair and New Labour, but that didn't stop me from sitting up with my housemates late into the night cheering as Tory seat after Tory seat tumbled to the red tide sweeping the land. To paraphrase Blair's words a new day may have broken, but politically speaking it looked little different to the neoliberal yesterdays of the previous 18 years. Sure, the New Life for Britain pledge card that committed New Labour to cutting class sizes, cutting NHS waiting lists, cutting the number of under 25s on the dole were the kind of cuts lefties would like to have seen more of, but the clear distancing from anything redolent of traditional social democratic policies, let alone socialist ones, said all I needed to know about New Labour's trajectory over the coming years. Nevertheless Blair's key announcement on higher education that summer came as a bombshell.

A year prior to the election, the Tories appointed a committee of the great and the good to look into the funding of higher education. The
Dearing Report (as it became known) made its recommendations in July, arguing the status quo of free education backed by a maintenance grant for the poorest and the availability of low-interest student loans be replaced by the abolition of the grant, the introduction of up front £1,000/year fees and targeted support for the least well-off. Unlike today, the report didn't try and pretend its recommendations were "progressive", and the government adopted them lock, stock and barrel.

At the time I had managed to scrimp and save enough so that I didn't have to work over the summer. I spent my holidays reading a ton of books a sozzled lefty lecturer had lent me, working on my undergraduate dissertation, and knocking about with
Workers' Power. Coincidentally I was reading around the US student movement of the 60s and 70s when the government announced its intention to abolish free higher education. The changes wouldn't have effected me or those who were in the year below, but I was outraged. I could not believe that a Labour government, even if it was the most right wing and cravenly pro-business outfit the labour movement had ever produced, was going to do in one fell swoop what the Tories had been working towards piecemeal over the Thatcher and Major years. But not only was I angry, I earnestly believed others would be too. My girlfriend was angry. A handful of my mates who had a passing acquaintance with politics were narked. And even my over-the-top Tory mate was pissed off. I believed university would be a seething mass of discontent on my return and students would once again be party to scenes of occupations, demonstrations and militancy. I was hoping for a different kind of 60s revival.

If only.

The one thing more shocking than the government's plans was the near indifference that greeted it. There was nothing in the student rag, no sense of anger or injustice among my wider circles of friends and acquaintances, and even some quiet support for the proposals (after all,
they didn't have to pay). Eventually we managed to corner our union's president and he came across as clueless and seemingly unaware that he and the sabbatical team should be doing something about it. It wasn't entirely his fault, the noises coming from the NUS itself were already tantamount to capitulation. Then president and Labour Students' place man Doug Trainer said they were happy to see the grant go but were concerned about the introduction of fees. With a leadership who flies the white flag at half mast before a single shot had been fired what hope did we ever have of beating off the government's attack?

Two sabs were eventually given the responsibility to organise anti-tuition fees stuff. A small campaign group consisting of my house and a couple of other union hacks met regularly with them to plan local actions. The first was a lobby of then Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher, who was a junior culture minister at the time. I went out with Brother A of
Stoke Socialist Party and a friend I dragged along to leaflet one of the local FE colleges to get a good turn out for Mark's surgery. In all about a dozen turned up to lobby him. Three of us went in and sat on a hard bench for about half an hour before being informed that Mark refused to see us as he'll make a brief address outside. We mingled on the Town Hall steps and when he finally emerged he refused to answer questions beyond a statement committing him to supporting the government's position. A month or so later the protest group managed to get him to agree to a debate in one of the union's bars. But that wasn't to be. He came to take questions all right, but none were from the floor: he insisted on their all being pre-screened! It was a truly shameful performance as he stuck to the script and trotted out the same arguments we're hearing today to justify the Tory/LibDem plans for higher education. (NB, after Mark was dropped from the ministerial payroll he once again found a left wing conscience and came out against fees, among other things).

Meanwhile we were working towards the 1st November day of action against fees. For reasons never fully explained the NUS leadership had decided to hold separate demonstrations in 14 different cities instead of concentrating our forces and maximising our impact down in London. For our part we designed branded t-shirts and badges, coined slogans (my housemate Nikki and I came up with 'Merit Not Money, Debt Isn't Funny') for campaign material, and canvassed halls of residence to get bums on the seats of the two coaches we were taking down to Birmingham. Of all our activities this was the most depressing. Speaking to dozens of first years, who were facing a halving of the grant the following year and then its abolition, it was very difficult to find many takers for tickets. We had to resort to selling them off the back of a free night in the union in many cases. Other friends of ours, who didn't have a political bone in their bodies, had to be encouraged onto the demo in the name of the amorphous 'student experience' ("how can you go to uni and not be involved in a protest?")

The demo itself was probably the most dispiriting I've ever been on, and I say that as someone who's attended a march of 17 people since. The Brum demo attracted around 4,000 - 6,000 participants and we set off on a tour that seemingly took in all the second city's backstreets. It was as if the NUS went cap in hand to West Midlands plod and begged to be allowed to march the least disruptive route possible. At the end I don't recall any speeches, just an opportunity to do some shopping and have a post-demo pint. Politics were supplied by the ubiquitous SWSS signs and the odd paper seller - I can't even remember if the NUS bothered to put out its own leaflets and material beyond its own 'say no to tuition fees' placards.

After that the campaign more or less fizzled out. The message came from on high that the NUS were busily lobbying their Lordships. They believed some constitutional shenanigans in the Lords would delay it and might, on the off-chance, encourage the government to have a rethink. It was a
forlorn hope. The movement revived again at the beginning of the 1998 semester, resulting in a few handfuls of students refusing to pay and some occupations, but by then the NUS had given up.

This was the first time I'd been involved in a "proper" campaign and found it completely dispiriting - it was a few years before I took up activity again, that time as a shop steward with the T&G. I knew from all the Trot and anarchist material I'd read in the years previously that a leadership body like the NUS tops were only good for leading people up the garden path, but it's something else to go through that experience yourself. It seemed to me they were not interested in leading a decent campaign and were more interested in one-on-one lobbying with sympathetic MPs and peers over coffee and croissants. Failing to call a national demo and scattering your limited forces across 14 different sites on a day of action has to take pride of place as the most serious tactical error, but if you subscribe to the view they didn't want to give the new government a hard time this all makes perfect sense.

But a decent leadership can only go so far. Contrary to what some on the left still think, the crisis of the moment, then and now,
cannot be reduced to the question of working class leadership. Blair announced his plans to scrap free higher education right at the start of New Labour's long honeymoon. There was no one else at that time the student movement could link up with to prosecute its agenda. Combine this with the political weakness of the labour movement (of which New Labour was a symptom and later a contributing factor), the common sense acceptance of neoliberal consumer capitalism, the disappearance of socialist ideas from the political mainstream, and the thousand and one other processes contributing to a period of working class political quietude, it was no wonder only a minority of students were exercised by the introduction of fees (though, of course, I didn't realise that at the time). So Matt Bolton, writing on Liberal Conspiracy about the struggle against top-up fees in 2002-3 is too hard on himself and his cohort of students ("My generation was mollycoddled, complacent and, ultimately, complicit"). You can't short-circuit popular consciousness if neither the will, the anger, the belief, the organisation, and the opportunities to beat off a government attack aren't there.

But Matt is also spot on. There
is something different about today's student movement that the campaigns against fees, top-up fees, and the lifting of the cap lacked. And unlike previously, students now will find ready allies among other workers and sectors of society facing the thin end of a very large cuts wedge the Tories and LibDems are determined to batter us with. As the Tories are fond of saying, we really are all in it together, but not in the sense they understand it.

(Also at
Socialist Unity)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Protest and Political Privilege

"Anarchists, Trots and Idiots" were responsible for the violence on Wednesday, according to Caroline Flint on Question Time this week. She wasn't there, of course: she just knew. Someone ought to get James Randi on the phone because Luke Akehurst is exhibiting a similar talent with second sight. Luke's 'The Old Cancer at the Heart of the Student Riot' on Labour Uncut stands as the most miserably wretched commentary on the 10.11.10 demonstration to have been produced outside Tory circles (and even then he gives them a run for their money).

After whinging about how the protest was supposedly spoiled by a
tiny minority (in reality, the occupation of Millbank was a mass action, involving anywhere between 2,000 - 5,000 people), we are informed that this was inspired by a most sinister enemy within. Luke writes of the protesters, "I’m not convinced they were all even students – I’m sure there were a good few rent-a-Trots and anarchists there who just came along for the scrap and wouldn’t have cared what the issue was ... Probably the same grizzled veterans of the struggle for dictatorship of the proletariat planned this little jape, updating their efforts only to employ social media as an organising tool." And Luke's evidence? Um ... he doesn't actually have any. There were no plans for insurrection organised via Facebook, no direct action organised on Twitter. Going by the accounts of people who were really there - including actual anarchists - it sounds as if the invasion of Millbank caught everyone on the hop. Police, NUS stewards, Trots, anarchists, all were left responding to the situation. If Luke has evidence to the contrary gleaned from afar via astral projection, he should present it.

He won't of course. Luke
has form when it comes to this sort of thing, and just like witch-hunters of old suspicion is evidence enough. But Luke's pathetic calls to hammer the hard left, which hasn't been in the rudest of health for many a year anyway, show he's not only completely out of touch, but also is voicing the commonsense assumptions of a rigid and dogmatic form of thinking that is shared between Tories, LibDems and plenty in the Labour party: the idea of politics as a minority pursuit. In their world, only people like them are able to understand the problems society faces and have the political education necessary to make "tough" decisions. Differing opinions are okay if, and only if, they're relevant to and couched in the language of their managerial politics. The "activists" and the "grassroots" have some funny ideas, but as long as they knock on doors, stuff envelopes, do as they're told and try not to win positions in the party for themselves and their opinions, they're tolerated as a regrettable necessity.

As for the broad mass of people they're little more than spectators. They don't have opinions and interests of their own. They're a herd to be managed and manipulated. So if large numbers spontaneously begin doing things off the official script - such as protesting and occupying it
must be the troublemakers of the far left who are to blame. For our political managers behind every outbreak of direct action or mass anger are the machinations of a shadowy central committee or the whispering of balaclava-clad anarchists. That people might be genuinely and violently pissed off is something that cannot be entertained: it challenges their elitist view of politics and the chummy constitutional carve-up on which their positions of privilege depend. Politics is their property, and they don't like being elbowed aside by manifestations of people power one bit.

What Luke and his ilk cannot see is how adrift they are from the people they claim to represent. They exist in a bubble governed by the rules of politics-as-usual and the media. It believes it condenses the defuse concerns of atomised Britons but in fact it only reflects back what they
think these concerns are. And unsurprisingly these tend to reinforce what passes for their commonsense. Chris Dillow recently wrote that Nick Clegg can no more see his privilege than a fish can see that water is wet. He could almost have been writing about the inhabitants of the Westminster village.

Next time worthies pronounce on protest movements, offer advice and condemnation, or try to separate out particular minorities from the mass; remember that not only are they voicing their own interests and prejudices, they do so from a position of contemptuous ignorance too.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Clare Tells It Like It Is

Many congratulations to Clare Solomon of ULU and Counterfire for standing firm in the face of media pressure and remaining four square behind the student occupation of Millbank on Wednesday. While NUS president Aaron Porter exposed himself as being completely out of his depth, Clare's voice has been one of the few in the media that has dared to contest the official version of events and has quite rightly argued the violence the Tory/LibDem attack on higher education entails is an order of magnitude above a few broken windows.

In the recording below, which was broadcast on Thursday, Clare debates Tory MP Roger Gale on the Jeremy Vine Show. Gale is clearly rattled by Clare's arguments and at times sounds as though he can't believe a member of the
hoi polloi has the temerity to question what passes in Tory circles for received political wisdom.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Students Demolish Millbank, Smash Capitalism

"Thugs." "Students Storm Tory HQ in Bloody Day of Riots." "Anarchy in the UK." "Tory HQ Ransacked as Peaceful Demo Ends in Terrifying Violence and Bloodshed." Going off the back of these headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking Central London briefly resembled downtown Sarajevo circa 1994 yesterday afternoon. Apart from one particularly idiotic incident, the "violence" at the UCU/NUS march against the Coalition's plans to dismember higher education was overwhelmingly directed towards property, and hardly different to the argy-bargy you can expect after the average footy match. And in the grand scheme of things, the scenes plastering 24 hours news and the press are but a thimbleful compared to the very real violence the ConDems are rolling out. Theirs might not come at the end of a policeman's baton (though of course, it's always backed up by it), but the misery they're about to inflict on millions of people who depend on cut services, benefits and jobs is infinitely more devastating than a few broken windows at Tory HQ. I think Goldsmiths UCU nail it on the head:
We the undersigned wish to congratulate staff and students on the magnificent anti-cuts demonstration this afternoon. At least 50,000 people took to the streets to oppose the coalition government’s devastating proposals for education.

We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.

The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.

Today’s events demonstrate the deep hostility in the UK towards the cuts proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review. We hope that this marks the beginning of a sustained defence of public services and welfare provision as well as higher education.

John Wadsworth, President GUCU; Des Freedman, Secretary GUCU.
Unfortunately my own experience of 'Demolition 10.11.10' was marred not by violence but an awful coach journey that saw us turn up *two hours* behind schedule. We joined the back of the demo (pictured) at the assembly point just over an hour after John McDonnell tweeted he was marching past parliament. As readers can see, the demo was still 20-wide, very loud and extremely enthusiastic. For once the official estimates of 50,000 were probably *too* conservative. Surely this makes it the largest weekday demo since Bush came to town in 2003?

The political fall out of the march? The demonstration was thrust to the top of *international* news. Far from being an embarrassment to London, as Met Police Chief Sir Paul Stephenson said, yesterday went some way to discarding Britons' reputation as the doormats of Europe. But also the automatic attraction the slightest bit of trouble has for the media means it will be all the more likely on future marches. If a small hardcore are responsible for instigating window smashing, then surely similar elements are going to do it again in the knowledge the media will be there to cover it. The unrepresentative minority and the upstanding journos are caught in a virtuous circle both are happy to escalate. This presents a stewarding challenge - it can't be left to simply happen to allow the great and the good to line up after offering their pious condemnation.

Second, yesterday represents the first major demonstration of anger against the cuts. The Vodaphone protests, the localised public meetings against cuts, none of these have really captured the depth of opposition that's out there. But now a touch paper has been lit that can fire up not just other students, but workers and service users too. It adds to the pressure on the unions to do something. It opens peoples' minds to alternatives, to the idea we don't have to roll over and accept the Tories' assault on jobs and living standards. And I strongly suspect most people away from medialand watching yesterday's events will be thinking 'about bloody time' rather than 'bloody students'.

Then there is the Coalition. As well as the police, the Tories and LibDems were caught on the hop. Typically the Tories condemned a little more and understood a little less, an advantage the labour movement will always have over them. But above all the weight of numbers will have focused not a few LibDem minds on tuition fees. With Dave away in China, all Little Dave could say - when confronted with his party's hypocrisy - was he should be more careful about signing pledges in future. Not that he will get a chance, unless he and his
Orange Book cronies are absorbed into the Tories and awarded safe seats before the next election. If I was a LibDem MP I would be very worried about my seat - it will be interesting to see what is strongest when the fees are put to the vote: loyalty to the party whip or the instinct for self-preservation.

NB:
The Daily Telegraph are inviting readers to write in and identify the ne'er do wells responsible for yesterday's trouble. Jolly good show. Email them on studentriots@telegraph.co.uk if you recognise the miscreants here and here.

(H/T
@catherinebuca for image and Torygraph tip)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Mail Attacks Trans' Right to Exist

Normally known for its frothing headlines, The Daily Mail does a nice sideline in sugar-coated bigotry in its 'Femail' pages. Femail concentrates on personal stories, relationships, cosmetics, fashion, celebrity, bunny rabbits and other sexist staples you can expect from "women's" magazines. If the paper proper uses a blunderbuss to blast out its rancid agenda, Femail prefers the quiet drip of conservative arsenic. And yesterday it was trans women who were subject to its subtle poison.

This piece, called 'A Very Peculiar Engagement' is the story of how Charles Kane, a man who transitioned from male to female and back again is now getting married. Ostensibly a story of his and his fiance's complex body image issues (she's a recovering anorexic) Kane uses it as a platform for his opinions about transgenderism. He says:
People who think they are a woman trapped in a male body are, in my opinion, completely deluded. I certainly was. I needed counselling, not a sex-change operation.
And on surgery itself:
Based on my own experiences, I believe sex-change operations should not be allowed, and certainly not on the NHS ... In many ways I see myself a victim of the medical profession.
One word comes to my mind: idiot. Kane is seriously arguing that because he thought transitioning to a woman was a bad mistake therefore everyone else should be denied that opportunity. It seems the desire to change your sex is something akin to a mental illness. Forget the tens of thousands of trans men and women who've transitioned and found it a life-saver (in some cases, literally) - this self-indulgent crap is grist to the mill of bigots, some radical feminists and "anti-essentialists" for whom the idea of fluid and unfixed gender identities are anathema.

Long time readers of
The Mail might recognise Kane. Two years ago he appeared in the paper bemoaning his single status. And before then too: I have a clear memory of reading his story around 2004 in the work's canteen. That The Mail have had to use one guy on at least three occasions to call for bans on trans surgery (even if it's "his opinion") just shows how representative he is of trans people at large. A useful antidote to Femail's venom can be found here.

Monday, 8 November 2010

How to do Comradely Polemic

The good old RNCPGBML might effectively spoof what remains of the Stalinoid far left in Britain, but the language employed isn't that far removed from bona fide Western Maoists. Below is a paragraph of a 1974 polemic between two American groups, Workers' Viewpoint Organization and the Communist League. As per the general rule of the tiniest of tiny revolutionary groups, the denunciatory decibels increase in proportion to the political proximity rival groups have to each other. Just witness some of the polemics between the Spartacists and its wayward progeny in the International Bolshevik Tendency and the League for the Fourth International, for example.

This comes from
Leftist Trainspotters, the one mailing list no discerning sectarian can do without. In this the WVO angrily takes the CL to task:
As we have seen, the "C"L's counter-revolutionary nature comes out of every pore, on every issue. Despite its Marxist-Leninist phrasemongering, the "C"L has its feet planted firmly in the worst of two worlds – the worlds of revisionism and Trotskyism. On its right foot, the "C"L wears the notoriously stinking shoe that the social-imperialist Khrushchev once waved in the United Nations, while on its "left" foot the "C"L wears the battered and soiled shoe that Trotsky once wore while trotting around the world demanding his "permanent revolution." The "C"L today proudly wears both of these shoes, stumbling around the "USNA," trying to build its "Party."
Aren't Maoist polemics a beautiful thing to behold? Don't you just love the "C"?

I wonder if the people involved in this spat, which probably numbered less than the four-strong curry evening I had a few weeks back, ever stopped to think if this nonsense
helped. It's one thing to fight for "theoretical clarity" (always the standard excuse for hyperbolic exercises of revolutionary identity politics), but quite another to rubbish your opponent to the point of self-parody. Did the thought ever occur that the working class they claim to lead might see it and *not* fall into line behind them? That it is so absurd that 36 years later an ex-Trot might seize upon it for blog filler (and a few cheap laffs) and show them up for the joke political tradition they are? Probably not - it's a job of work figuring out what groups of socialists you can denounce next as counterrevolutionary running dogs of US imperialism.