Saturday, October 30, 2010
Secondly, it is not true that there is anything scandalous or 'greedy' about firefighters claiming London weighting while living outside of London. Such 'weighting' applies to where you work, not where you live, and the rules are the same for everyone. So, when the LFB management leaks the full home address of every firefighter to the tabloids in order to hound firefighters this is a sleazy, dishonest tactic of class war. Thirdly, it's not acceptable for LFB management to use comments made by firefighters on Facebook groups as grounds for suspension. But that is what has been happening, and it is a sleazy and dishonest tactic of class war. Parenthetically, one firefighters' support group with over 20,000 members disappeared from the social media site after comments made on the page were used by management against members. In addition, a number of individuals who were active on the group had their accounts deleted.
The use of smears, bullying and dirty tricks by LFB management should not surprise anyone that has followed the negotiations. Let's recall how we got here. First of all, there is an important distinction that is apt to be lost in this discussion. The dispute is about shift patterns and the threat of cuts to night-time cover, but the strike was prompted by management's bullying tactics, wherein they used a section 188 notice to threaten all workers with redundancy unless they accepted the new terms. Were it not for this threat, the strike would very probably not have been called, and the outcome would be determined solely by talks. But management pulled out their ace with the section 188, their last resort of coercion, and left the union with no choice but to strike. Such moves are taking place all over the country as part of the government's cuts agenda, as tens of thousands of council workers have been threatened with the same threat of redundancy unless they accept lower pay. This is a tactic of class war. It is designed to undermine the position of organised labour, and bully workers. It is designed, in short, to weaken the bargaining power of labour and restrict the consumption of the working class. In context, it is part of a package of political measures designed to transfer wealth from the working class to the ruling class, the financialised fraction of which stands to gain most in the immediate term. It is also part of a project aimed at fundamentally restructuring the political economy of British capitalism, such that the welfare state, trade unions, and other features of society that buttress labour's position are fundamentally weakened, and the power of the City, of the CBI and of entrenched business interests is fundamentally strengthened.
So, in the last analysis, they're smearing the firefighters as part of a wider project of redistributing class power. However, there is a more immediate reason for the smears. LFB are losing. They are losing big time, so comprehensively that it's almost laughable. The incompetence of the scab replacement firm, Assetco, has become nearly legendary. Destroying vehicles, letting houses burn to the ground, calling out striking firefighters to handle situations which they are just not trained or equipped to handle, are just a few examples of their last display. Assetco workers don't want to cross the picket lines, and Police Silver command are refusing to provide escorts for them. In fact, my understanding is that Assetco have made it plain that they are not in a position to cover the city during the upcoming 47 hour strike, they simply don't have the means or adequately trained staff. LFB management are panicking and, as a result, lashing out by all available means. They are desperate, on the backfoot, and - if the FBU stick to their guns - will have to back down and reach a serious, negotiated settlement with the union. I note that the NUJ are also out on strike on 5th November. Many RMT workers refused to work in unsafe conditions during the last strike, causing a complete shut-down on the Jubilee Line. It is fairly certain that the same will happen next week. Trade unionists from across London are rallying to the fire fighters, and undoubtedly watching the outcome. Whether the Tories hold the line with the FBU and the RMT will communicate something important to other trade unionists about the state of play. This is why it is vital that firefighters are not demoralised by the constant attacks of management and tabloids, nor swayed by the appeals for timidity from the liberal media. They can win, they have every right to win, and those supporting them need them to win.
ps: relatedly, I like Latte Labour's terse, tart and angry responses to David Allen Green on 'the ethics of strike action'. See Latte Labour here and here, and Green here and here.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
It has become a cliché to say that the Tories' spending cuts are "ideological" . Such is the burden of Labour's evolving critique. Cuts, they say, are unfortunately necessary to assure Britain's fiscal stability, but the Tories go much further than this. They intend to create a smaller state, for ideological reasons. This has a superficial plausibility. After all, the Tories have stated that their aim is to make these deep spending reductions "sustainable", ie permanent. This is not a temporary tightening of the belt, but a project to fundamentally restructure the economy. And there is a fascinating ideological pedigree behind the Tories' plans. But to reduce it to ideology won't wash...
Neither 'ideology', nor 'pragmatism', but praxis.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Secondly, the annual Historical Materialism conference is coming up. I will be speaking at it on Sunday 14th November on the subject of "Thoroughly Modern Tories: From One Nation to the Big Society". Lastly and leastly, it's my birthday tomorrow - a chance for me to celebrate another year of occupying one third of a cubic metre of otherwise useless space. Indeed, I am presently available to occupy useless spaces all over the country, fee negotiable. Apply within.
>The Mail's story is based on a DWP press release, and some rudimentary examination of this DWP report [pdf].
> The Mail's story is mince. It does not show that 75% of disability claimants are fit to work. It shows that 75% of those who apply for the benefit under a new system of testing introduced by the Department of Work and Pensions under New Labour, wherein outsourced medical professionals are incentivised to reject patients, are either rejected or withdraw their applications, which means that the new system is designed to exclude the vast majority of those who apply. Whether or not this means those rejected by the assessors are actually fit for work is not clear. Even if those rejected were indeed fit for work, this would tell us nothing about those currrently on disability allowance.
>The Mail does not discuss the failings of Atos Origin - the private sector assessment contractors whom they mention in their article. It is their assessments that are resulting in the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of people from incapacity and disability benefits. Yet, as they have been hired to help the government meet its target of driving 1 million people of disability rolls, they have a vested interest in finding people to be fit for work. The Child Poverty Action Group has written to Chancellor Osbourne complaining about "the woeful inadequacies in the design of the Work Capability Assessment and shortcomings in quality of assessments undertaken by Atos". The assessment quality is often a problem because the medical professional used by Atos to undertake medical examinations or review the evidence may not have the qualified experience necessary to make a judgment on complex medical problems that people can have. Just as often, it is a problem because the investigation is perfunctory, and unilluminating. (See this discussion). Because one has been deemed 'fit to work' by Atos does not mean that one has been properly examined, or that one is indeed fit to work.
> The Mail relies on the suggestion that people are 'trying it on', and that if the new testing system was applied, perhaps as many as 75% of those who receive the benefit would be rejected as workshy chancers. The evidence of past research shows that the vast majority of those claiming disability-related benefits are in fact disabled. Most such claimants are concentrated in former industrial areas where manufacturing and mining industries regularly produced crippling or disabling accidents. The research finds that at most the government could expect to remove half a million from disability allowance by introducing stricter definitions and procedures. That's not a negligible sum, but a) it's less than 20% of claimants, not 75%, and b) there's no evidence that those who would be removed are deliberately evading work or have trivial complaints. Rather, they would find themselves compelled to undertake various forms of education and training that would make them apt for some forms of work, so that they could be reclassified as jobseekers and put on lower benefits. Surveys of disability benefit claimants find that there are about a million of them who would like to return to work if properly supported. But there isn't such support in place, and there aren't actually millions of jobs waiting to be filled by such people, nor has the government made any indication that it will seek to create those jobs - quite the contrary these days - so the changes introduced by the last government, with Tory support, are actually about reducing the income and consumption of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
> The Mail relies on apparently shocking, but false, and irrelevant, claims to bolster its case. For example, the Mail thinks this is a right laugh: "Incredibly, 7,100 tried to claim because they had sexually transmitted diseases and nearly 10,000 because they were too fat." The DWP breaks up initial self-assessment claims according to the categories of the International Classification of Diseases. The Mail has, shall we say, taken liberties in decoding the technical jargon used. Let's start with the figure for being "too fat", which corresponds with the category in the DWP report labelled "Endocrine, Nutritional and Metabolic Diseases". This category includes all sorts of problems such pituitary, thyroid, and pancreatic disorders. These are not reducible to being "too fat". As it happens, however, obesity-related disability is a genuine problem and is about more than fatty tissue. There is a strong relationship between obesity and health problems limiting one's ability to work (see). Being obese is often a symptom of underlying problem - a sudden change in metabolism or rapidly diminished mobility. It can create severe functional impairments that prevent people from working. There's nothing in this to laugh at - unless you're a Daily Mail reader, or Top Gear fan. Now let's consider the claim concerning STDs and disability. This figure corresponds to the DWP category "diseases of the genitourinary system". This includes such problems as acute renal failure, renal tubular acidosis, bone and kidney diseases, breast hypertrophy, etc etc. These are not sexually transmitted diseases, but they can be serious disorders and highly painful and debilitating conditions. Again, the only humour available here is the comedy of the psychopath. The Mail's claim is absurdly, flatly false - a downright lie.
> The Mail seeks to give the impression that even those who have been turned down for incapacity or disability benefits have grabbed millions from the system: "Even so, those who have failed or avoided the test since it was introduced have managed to claim as much as £500million in total before being screened out." In fact, during the first three months in which the assessment takes place, claimants received £65 a week, exactly what they would receive on jobseekers' allowance. They have not duped the system out of money to which they are not entitled. In fact, jobseekers' allowance is a very small benefit that has been steadily declining in value since the 1980s, from about 16% of the average wage in 1987-8 to 10% in 2007-8.
> Last thing. I've picked on today's Daily Mail front page. It's actually the same as the Express front page from two weeks ago. And it's almost identical in the nature of its claims and basic agenda to recent Daily Mail articles, and to numerous other front page shock exclusive reports made for the last few years by the right-wing tabloids, inspired by DWP press releases. It's also identical to ignorant claims made by the former investment banker David Freud while he was working with the last government to 'reform' welfare. It is a propaganda line, constantly promoted by the state, business and the right-wing media. It fits in which the agenda of capital, but is rejected by trade unions, charities, and disability groups. The regularity of its appearance in widely read newspapers is more decisive as a factor in its acceptance than the reliability of its conclusions. Undoubtedly, this will have contributed to a situation in which most people, who lack access to the kinds of information that would expose the propaganda as a sham, will either endorse or acquiesce in cuts to such benefits. It is repeated far more often than any criticism of business, or of bankers, and certainly of the capitalist system which produces mass unemployment and incapacity. This is, in other words, a concrete example of the ideological power of capital.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn't read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative "wants peace and is content only with peace." The true conservative's endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he'd like it to be.
The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it's true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. "I enjoy wars," said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. "Any adventure's better than sitting in an office." The conservative's commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It's philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, "Only the dead have seen the end of war," or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.
Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: War is life, peace is death.
The unions have called for two further days of action - one of strikes and demonstrations on 28 October, during the week of a parliamentary vote, and a second of ‘mobilisations’ on 6 November, ahead of the promulgation of the law by the president. All of which might on the face of it suggest the union leaders remain committed, and that the movement will continue. Le Monde’s reporter describes how the union leaders are conscious that the persistence and strength of actions since the beginning of the autumn “renders impossible a premature halt to the movement.”
The mobilisations will continue both during the coming week’s All Saints holiday that Sarkozy has hoped would interrupt and drain the energy of the movement - particularly of students and pupils - and afterward. All the ‘reformist’ unions (Le Monde’s term for the more conservative unions, not mine) - the CFDT, the UNSA, the CFTC, and even the ‘tres reservé’ CFE-CGC - have all called on their troops to keep up the pressure.
However, as the journalist accurately notes, “the centre of gravity has shifted and the hardliners have lost ground.”
The FSU and Solidaires union centrals, both of which had wanted earlier days of action, and Force Ouvriere, which continues to call for a general strike, did not win the day. (The latter two did not sign the resulting intersyndicale communiqué, but the FSU did.)
The crucial quote in the article is the one from Marcel Grignard, the ‘number two’ in the CFDT, the union central close to the Socialist Party, which quietly, and not so quietly in the form of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and frontrunner to be the party’s presidential candidate next time around, has supported the pensions reform.
Grignaud: “Our responsibility as trade unionists is to construct compromises that make sense, and not to threaten the legitimacy of parliament or politics.”
The intersyndicale communiqué reminds that the mobilisations will continue “respecting property and people” and makes no mention of other actions and strikes concurrently underway, making links with other confrontations and thus generalising the movement.
Finally, reading between the lines, the UNSA and CFDT have already signalled their surrender, so long as Sarkozy is able to complete passage of the law, saying in essence that this would end the current level of industrial action.
“We will stay together for as long as the parliamentary debate lasts and the imposition of this reform,” said Jean Grosset of the UNSA.
“For the CFDT, the closure of parliamentary debate and the promulgation of the law will create a new situation,” said Grignard.
The CGT, the union close to the Communist Party, for its part has effectively done the same. In the words of Nadine Prigent, a member of the CGT executive: “We demand the immediate opening of negotiations. We will see what the head of state decides and will proceed step by step.”
The reporter is clear to say that none of this suggests a progressive “atterrisage” or “landing” of the movement: What direction the leadership of the CGT takes to manage the various internal tendencies within the union is crucial in the coming days, such as signs of a “wise prudence” on their part. She notes that the desire on the part of the CGT to maintain a unity of action with the more moderate CFDT weighs heavily: “The CGT knows that the the unitary character of the movement is decisive,” remarked Prigent on Thursday night.
“Given these conditions,” writes the reporter, “6 November could be the last day of mobilisations and demonstrations.”
All of this is less important for what occurs in France as far as this particular law goes than for the rest of Europe in the face of the imposition of austerity. The markets, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the IMF, and Berlin, the invigilator of EU member-state fiscal policies, are all watching the balance of forces in two member states in particular: France and Greece, where opposition forces are the most organised and politicised.
Last week, the IMF and the Greek government began to tentatively discuss an extension repayment of Greece's €110 billion loan. While Brussels and Berlin immediately rejected the idea out of hand, Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek economist at the University of London, told the EUobserver, the EU affairs online newspaper, that he believes that this opening of the discussion on Greek debt repayment is actually an indication that the Greek government and the IMF are beginning to feel more confident that the austerity shock measures are working.
"This is basically signalling a new phase of the crisis. They believe that they are meeting success in stabilising the deficit. The recession is still unfolding and is pretty serious, but the government believes that this is looking like it will be within what the IMF expects for this year," he said.
He also said that a second crucial factor behind the comments is that the IMF and Greece have managed to push through the programme without stirring massive popular opposition to the extent that was originally feared.
"There has been discontent, to be sure, but not in an organised or decisive fashion that could threaten the political situation."
Elites feel, with some justification, that they have held the line in Greece. Thus it is not even that the failure of the French popular movements to halt Sarkozy’s pension reform will only add to their overall confidence, but that it will send a signal to them that they can push through anything.
The struggle in France is pivotal. The state of the struggle across Europe hinges upon what French grassroots forces beyond the trade union leadership are able to achieve in the republic in the coming hours and days.
For additional information and perspective, see the following pieces: "The Revolt Shaking France", and "France: a key moment as unions meet to consider next move".
This is presumably not the same type of scheme. For one thing, it's far too brazen a form of 'social cleansing'. Councils in the centre of London are openly organising an exodus of 200,000 of the capital's poorest people into outlying areas such as Reading, Luton and even Hastings. This is the result of a combination of cuts in social housing benefit, lower levels of socially affordable housing, higher rents and the failure to impose any kind of rent cap on landlords. It adds a new layer of callousness to Iain Duncan Smith's demand that the unemployed should "get on the bus" and find work - this from a minister whose job is to know that jobseekers are already compelled to travel far and wide in order to take work if it's available.
The alternative to being shunted out of the capital, away from friends, relatives, communities and - interestingly enough - jobs, will possibly be to sleep on the streets as, according to the National Housing Federation, the cuts to housing benefit "could see more people sleeping rough than at any stage during the last 30 years". And then it will be the job of the cops to keep the problem invisible - in the tourist areas anyway - by arresting and 'moving on' said rough sleepers who find a shop doorway or station entrance to curl up under. Such 'social cleansing' is, to different degrees and in different ways, an aspect of all spaces where neoliberal accumulation is the rule. The rule is for a global system of opulent, highly securitised 'green zones' to proliferate, with the working classes compelled to commute for hours a day from outlying, dilapidated suburbs, banlieues or ghettos, to work in shops they can never buy from, clean hotels they can never sleep in, sweep streets they have no stake in, and make goods they will never take home. The combination of economic pressures - high rents and consumer prices, declining relative wages, unsustainable debt levels, etc - would tend to have 'socially cleansing' effects in themselves, forcing the city's working classes to seek affordable accomodation in outer London overspill areas like, say, Barking. The Tories, by attacking housing benefits, have just made such tendencies into official policy.
Oh, and by the way, spare a thought for this scumbag, who has been struggling with his conscience.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
The fire authority isn't admitting to any of this. The Mirror's report cites fire bosses saying that they have all 27 vehicles out with 162 "contract staff" working them. And the band played, 'believe it if you like'. Reports from Woodford, Holloway, Poplar and elsewhere that I've heard about evince a huge amount of popular support, with cars and buses tooting on the way by. Socialist Worker has some picket line photos here. I hear that Police have turned up at a couple of picket lines, but they aren't intervening so far, and the scab workers aren't interested in having a confrontation with the firefighters, so a lot of the stations that were supposed to be used for scabbing have actually not been used at all. At the same time, striking workers are actually leaving their pickets to deal with one or two severe emergency situations that the scabs aren't able to deal with.
You'll remember I suggested that Brian Coleman, the Tory assembly member and head of the London Fire Authority who is provoking this dispute, didn't appear to have the ability to beat the firefighters. Of course, there's nothing to say that he and the commissioner won't improve their game, learning from experience so that they handle the next strike better. But the system is already stretched thin as it is, and even the various measure short of strike such as an overtime ban have hit hard.
It seems to be a similar situation with the tube. Anyone who has used public transport in London this week, as expensive as it increasingly is, will have heard of or experienced directly some of the chaos that is already taking place. This is in part because of a loss of good will on the part of staff, as bosses are looking to shed thousands of jobs. Even by 'working to rule' - that is by declining to do more than they are contractually obliged to do - they have demonstrated that the system works effectively because of the good will and small sacrifices made by workers on the job every day. If London's Tory administration wants to keep pushing these delinquent, ruthless cuts - and it is about cuts - then I hope there'll be coordinated action by all the workers affected.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Duncan felt a bit uncomfortable for another couple of minutes. He thought about Liz, but even here, just in the street outside the record shop, he couldn’t remember what she looked like. Now he could only see Maria.
But he’d got the record. It was a good omen. Killie would surely win, although with these power cuts you didn’t know for how long football would be on as the nights would start to draw in soon. It was a small price to pay though, for getting rid of that bastard Heath and the Tories. It was brilliant that those wankers couldn’t take the piss out of the working man any longer. His parents had made sacrifices, determined that he wouldn’t follow his father down the pit. They insisted that he was apprenticed, that he got a trade behind him. So Duncan had been sent to live with an aunt in Glasgow while he served his time in a machine shop in Kinning Park. Glasgow was big, brash, vibrant and violent to his small-town sensibilities, but he was easy-going and popular in the factory. His best pal at work was a guy called Matt Muir, from Govan, who was a fanatical Rangers supporter and a card-carrying communist. Everybody at his factory supported Rangers, and as a socialist he knew and was shamed by the fact that he, like his workmates, had obtained his apprenticeship through his family’s Masonic connections. His own father saw no contradiction between freemasonry and socialism, and many of the Ibrox regulars from the factory floor were active socialists, even in some cases, like Matt, card-carrying communists. — The first bastards that would get it would be those cunts in the Vatican, he’d enthusiastically explain, — right up against the wa’ wi they fuckers.
Matt kept Duncan right about the things that mattered, how to dress, what dance halls to go to, who the razor-boys were, and importantly, who their girlfriends were and who, therefore, to avoid dancing with. Then there was a trip to Edinburgh, on a night out with some mates, when they went to that Tollcross dancehall and he saw the girl in the blue dress. Every time he looked at her, it seemed that his breath was being crushed out of him. Even though Edinburgh appeared more relaxed than Glasgow, Matt claiming that razors and knives were a rarity, there had been a brawl. One burly guy had punched another man, and wanted to follow up. Duncan and Matt intervened and managed to help calm things down. Fortunately, one of the grateful benefactors of their intervention was a guy in the same company as the girl Duncan had been hypnotised by all night, but had been too shy to ask to dance. He could see Maria then, the cut of her cheekbones and her habit of lowering her eyes giving an appearance of arrogance which conversation with her quickly dispelled. It was even better, the guy he befriended was called Lenny, and he was Maria’s brother.
Maria was nominally a Catholic, though her father had an unexplained bitterness towards priests and had stopped going to church. Eventually his wife and their children followed suit. None the less, Duncan worried about his own family’s reaction to the marriage, and was moved to go down to Ayrshire to discuss it with them. Duncan’s father was a quiet and thoughtful man. Often his shyness was confused with gruffness, an impression accentuated by his size (he was well over six foot tall), which Duncan had inherited along with his straw-blonde hair. His father listened in silence to his deposition, giving the occasional nod in support. When he did speak, his tone was that of a man who felt he had been grossly misrepresented.
— Ah don’t hate Catholics, son, his father insisted, — Ah’ve nothing against anybody’s religion. It’s those swines in the Vatican, who keep people doon, keep them in ignorance so that they can keep filling thir coffers, that’s the scum ah hate. Reassured on this point, Duncan decided to keep his freemasonry from Maria’s father, who seemed to detest masons as much as he did priests. They married in the Register Office in Edinburgh’s Victoria Buildings and had a reception in the upstairs rooms of a Cowgate pub. Duncan was worried about an Orange, or even a Red speech from Matt Muir, so he asked his best pal from school back in Ayrshire, Ronnie Lambie, to do the honours. Unfortunately, Ronnie had got pretty drunk, and made an anti-Edinburgh speech, which upset some guests and later on, as the drink flowed, precipitated a fist-fight. Duncan and Maria took that as their cue to head off to the room they had booked at a Portobello guest house.
Back at the factory and back at the machine, Duncan was singing The Wonder of You, the tune spinning in a loop in his head, as metal yielded to the cutting edge of the lathe. Then the light from the huge windows above turned to shadow. Somebody was standing next to him. He clicked off the machine and looked up. Duncan didn’t really know the man. He had seen him in the canteen, and on the bus, obviously a non-smoker, always sitting downstairs. Duncan had an idea that they lived in the same scheme, the man getting off at the stop before him. The guy was about five-ten, with short brown hair and busy eyes. As Duncan recalled, he usually had a cheery, earthy demeanour, at odds with his looks: conventionally handsome enough to be accompanied by narcissism. Now, though, the man stood before him in an extreme state of agitation. Upset and anxious, he blurted — Duncan Ewart? Shop Steward?
They both acknowledged the daftness of the rhyme and smiled at each other. — I art Ewart shop steward. And you art? Duncan continued the joke. He knew this routine backwards.
But the man wasn’t laughing any longer. He gasped out breathlessly — Wullie Birrell. Ma wife … Sandra … gone intae labour … Abercrombie … eh’ll no lit ays go up tae the hoaspital … men oaf sick … the Crofton order … says that if ah walk oaf the joab ah walk oot for good … In a couple of beats, indignation managed to settle in Duncan’s chest like a bronchial tickle. He ground his teeth for a second, then spoke with quiet authority. — You git tae that hoaspital right now, Wullie. Thir’s only one man that’ll be walkin oaf this joab fir good n that’s Abercrombie. Rest assured, you’ll git a full apology fir this!
— Should ah clock oaf or no? Wullie Birrell asked, a shiver in his eye making his face twitch.
— Dinnae worry aboot that, Wullie, jist go. Get a taxi and ask the boy for the receipt and ah’ll pit it through the union.
Wullie Birrell nodded gratefully and exited in haste. He was already out the factory as Duncan put down his tools and walked slowly to the payphone in the canteen, calling the Convenor first, and then the Branch Secretary, the clanking sounds of washing pots and cutlery in his ear. Then he went directly to the Works Manager, Mr Catter, and filed a formal grievance. Catter listened calmly, but in mounting perturbation at Duncan Ewart’s complaint. The Crofton order had to go out, that was essential. And Ewart, well, he could get every man on the shop floor to walk off the job in support of this Birrell fellow. What in the name of God was that clown Abercrombie thinking about? Certainly, Catter had told him to make sure that order went out by any means necessary, and yes, he had actually used those terms, but the idiot had obviously lost all sense, all perspective.
Catter studied the tall, open-faced man opposite him. Catter had encountered hard men with an agenda in the shop steward’s role many times. They hated him, detested the firm and everything it stood for. Ewart wasn’t one of them. There was a warm glow in his eyes, a sort of calm righteousness which, when you engaged it for a while, seemed to be more about mischief and humour than anger. — There seems to have been a misunderstanding, Mr Ewart, Gatter said slowly, offering a smile which he hoped was contagious. — I’ll explain the position to Mr Abercrombie.
— Good, Duncan nodded, then added, — Much appreciated.
For his part, Duncan had quite a bit of time for Catter, who had always come across as a man of a basically fair and just disposition. When he did impose the more bizarre dictates from above, you could tell that he didn’t do it with much relish. And it couldn’t be too much fun trying to keep bampots like Abercrombie in line.
Abercrombie. What a nutter.
On his way back to the machine shop, Duncan Ewart couldn’t resist poking his head into the pen, boxed off from the factory floor, which Abercrombie called his office.
— Thanks, Tarn! Abercrombie looked up at him from the grease-paper worksheets sprawled across the desk.
— What for? he asked, trying to feign surprise, but his face reddened.
He’d been harassed, under pressure, and hadn’t been thinking straight about Birrell. And he’d played right into that Bolshie cunt Ewart’s hands. Duncan Ewart smiled gravely. — For trying to keep Wullie Birrell on the job on a Friday afternoon with the boys all itching tae down tools. A great piece of management. I’ve put it right for ye, I’ve just told him to go, he added smugly.
A pellet of hate exploded in Abercrombie’s chest, spreading to the extremities of his fingers and toes. He began to flush and shake. He couldn’t help it. That bastard Ewart: who the fuck did he think he was? — Ah run this fuckin shop floor! You bloody well mind that!
Duncan grinned in the face of Abercrombie’s outburst. — Sorry, Tarn, the cavalry’s on its way.
Abercrombie wilted at that moment, not at Duncan’s words but at the sight of a stonyfaced Catter appearing behind him, as if on cue. Worse still, he came into the small box with Convenor Bobby Affleck. Affleck was a squat bull of a man who had a bearing of intimidating ferocity when even mildly irritated. But now, Abercrombie could instantly tell, the Convenor was in a state of incandescent rage. Duncan smiled at Abercrombie and winked at Affleck before leaving and closing the door behind them. The thin plywood door proved little barrier to the sound of Affleck’s fury. Miraculously, every lathe and drill machine on the shop floor was switched off, one by one, replaced by the sound of laughter, which spilled like a rush of spring colouring across the painted grey concrete factory floor.
— Irvine Welsh, Glue, 2001
"I understand people are very fearful. Fear is a very powerful emotion. It pushes everything aside. I ask people to have a little bit of perspective. We believe... that it is done as fairly as we possibly can, where the richest are genuinely paying the most. We've tried to make sure particularly the elderly and the young are protected. If people can just look at some of the variety of the announcements we've made, rather than respond to a totally understandable anxiety, they'll see the picture is a lot more balanced."
It all sounds so familiar. Where have I heard that condescending, evasive, vapid, aloof, placatory, but at the same time wheedlingly hectoring tone before? (Similar style here). Could it be? Has the antichrist found a new host...?
- Lutfur Rahman, Independent - 23,283 (51.76%)
- Helal Uddin Abbas, Labour Party - 11,254
- Neil Anthony King, Conservative Party - 5,348
- John David Macleod Griffiths, Liberal Democrats - 2,800
- Alan Duffell, Green Party - 2,300
This is a wholly deserved defeat for the Labour Right, who have already proven their inability to command support in London with their inept campaign for Oona King. They must have thought that in seeing off Respect in the 2010 elections, they had seen off the leftist insurgency in their own back yard, as it were, and go on a purge. But it doesn't work that way. And it's as well it doesn't because, as I say, this was as much about fiscal priorities and the cuts as it was about anything else. The new mayor will have enormous executive power over budgets, and has said that he will oppose the cuts. Whether or not he intends to put something behind his promises, the vote shows that Tower Hamlets residents are not in a compliant mood.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Relatedly, check out China Mieville's 'letter to a progressive Liberal Democrat'.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
*£7bn additional cuts in welfare spending. That's a huge figure. Total welfare spending including income replacement benefits and social exclusion spending is £60.4bn. If it's coming out of the whole, it's more than 10% cuts. If it's just coming out of income replacement benefits, it's closer to 26% cuts. Judging from the BBC's coverage, it's mainly coming out of income replacement benefits. Either way, it's going to be extremely messy if you're disabled, on the dole, or on low incomes.
*7.1% a year reductions in council spending for four years, which I think is a total of 28.4% cuts - that's your libraries, rubbish collection, street lighting, paving, all the basic quality of life stuff, savaged. Social housing is to be 'reformed', which basically means torn to pieces.
*7.1% cuts a year in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, which deals with higher education, investment in R&D, consumer protection, trade issues, etc. Over four years, I guess that amounts to 28.4% cuts.
*40% cuts to higher education are included in that figure. This was anticipated by the Browne review, which basically recommended tearing up funding for teaching, while keeping most research funding.
*3.4% cuts in the Department of Education, with 40,000 teaching jobs lost.
*Higher rail fares, which will raise by 3% above the rate of inflation until 2012, presumably to make up for a shortfall in investment. Rail fares in the UK are already among the highest in Europe, especially in London - where the system is going into chaos under Boris Johnson.
*Retirement age to rise to 66, thus saving on pensions in the long-term. The Hutton review, which has already recommended cuts to public sector pensions, is cited in support of this measure - thanks again, New Labour.
*490,000 public sector job losses are expected, and if this government's track record is anything to go by, that's an optimistic assumption.
There are also a whole swathe of cuts coming in environment, justice, the foreign office, and the department for energy and climate change. Apart from everything else, this is not a green budget. Let's also take a quick look at police and defence. The police are going to lose 16% of their budget over the next four years. That's quite shockingly high to my mind, more than I would have expected, and it takes a risk with the police's political support for the administration - which I would have thought they would want to safeguard in a potentially turbulent era. The MoD is going to lose 8% of its budget - way lower than the 20% initially flagged up, probably due as much to US pressure as to pressure from the military brass itself. But it does mean fewer troops, and a delay in the replacement of Trident. For Cameron, this probably means not a break with the 'special relationship', but much more dependence on the US.
Well, that's it. The Tories, of course, have tried to sell this as 'progressive' in that they claim it will affect the rich more than the poor, and are massively overselling a puny bank levy which they claim will raise £2.5bn a year. No one is going to buy the progressive sell, beyond the dippiest of Liberal loyalists. I await a fairly comprehensive trashing of this dubious cover from the Institute of Fiscal Studies or a similar think-tank. The situation could not be clearer: either we stop them or they finish us off.
"His economic strategy is to cross his fingers and hope that the private sector will create 2.5m jobs within five years, despite the fact that between 2000 and 2008 only 1.6m private sector jobs were created. Recovery is going to be a long slog. Contrary to claims made by various members of the government, there is no believable evidence that fiscal tightening on the scale that is being proposed has ever worked. When Canada implemented its fiscal tightening its neighbour was experiencing the Clinton boom, plus it was able to cut interest rates ... And there is no evidence whatsoever that the markets are actually demanding these cuts. The government continues to be able to borrow cheaply. It is true that government bond rates in the UK have fallen since the ConDem government took office, but they have fallen even faster in the US, which is not engaging in a suicidal austerity programme." - David Blanchflower, The Guardian.
"The big argument in favour of the UK government's austerity is that the alternative might, in the words of George Osborne, be 'bankruptcy'. Why a country whose actual and prospective public debt will remain below the average of the past two centuries should be in such dire straits is very far from evident." - Martin Wolf, Financial Times.
"Lower aggregate demand will mean lower tax revenues. But cutbacks in investments in education, technology and infrastructure will be even more costly in future. For they will spell lower growth – and lower revenues. Indeed, higher unemployment itself, especially if it is persistent, will result in a deterioration of skills, in effect the destruction of human capital, a phenomena which Europe experienced in the eighties and which is called hysteresis. Lower tax revenues now and in the future combined with lower growth imply a higher national debt, and an even higher debt-to-GDP ratio." - Joseph Stiglitz, The Guardian.
"Public bodies whose purpose is to hold corporations to account are being swept away. Public bodies whose purpose is to help boost corporate profits, regardless of the consequences for people and the environment, have sailed through unharmed. What the two lists suggest is that the economic crisis is the disaster the Conservatives have been praying for. The government's programme of cuts looks like a classic example of disaster capitalism: using a crisis to re-shape the economy in the interests of business." - George Monbiot, The Guardian.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Throughout the 20th Century, the Tories could generally rely on the support of approximately a third of workers. Without this support, the Tories could never form a parliamentary majority. Further, without the active and voluntary participation of many workers in the Conservative Party apparatus, its ability to fund and sustain its operations would be seriously weakened. The Tories have been aware of this situation since workers first achieved the franchise. However, it was the emergence of a mass Labourism with stable support after WWII, and the emergence of modern polling, that led the Tories to adopt a focused electoral strategy of building support among the lower middle class and skilled workers. The fact that the Conservative Party is the single most successful electoral vehicle in the United Kingdom in the 20th Century, and specifically since 1945, is a direct result of the Tories targeting and cultivating working class votes. Yet the success of this strategy demands explanation, for it would seem that the Tories have little, materially, to offer the working class. Workers who directly benefited from the NHS, social security, council housing, etc., have nonetheless voted for the party that put up most resistance to these measures. It would be like urban workers backing the Tories of the 'Corn Laws'. So what gives? The following mainly discusses explanations focusing on deferential political attitudes.
Embourgeoisement or deference?
A great deal of left-wing academic work has been done to unpick and disentangle the motives that lead workers to vote for a party of the ruling class. A 1960 study by the marxist sociologist Raphael Samuel suggested that working class Tories were ‘deference voters’. Much mainstream analysis at this point in the postwar era hinged on the idea that workers were becoming more ‘middle class’. These workers, it was held, identified with the Tories as a party reflecting their changing status, and their ability to ‘get on’ in the world. This was not a new idea. Marxist theory at the turn of the 20th Century had focused on the impact of bourgeois culture on workers, and their concomitant aspiration to become middle class or ‘petit bourgeois’. Engels himself had been repulsed by “the bourgeois 'respectability' which has grown deep into the bones of the workers” of England. Lenin was of the view that ‘bourgeoisified’ workers constituted a ‘labour aristocracy’ who benefitted from the profits of imperialism and were thus in alliance “with the bourgeoisie against the mass of the proletariat” - a theory with more than a few gaping holes in it.
But this focus on ‘embourgoisement’, Samuel argued, was misleading. There were then, as there are now, a great many workers who thought of themselves as ‘middle class’, and whose support for the Tories reflected aspirations that they felt could be fulfilled within the system. But such aspirations were just as compatible with reformism as with conservatism. In the main, Samuel found, workers who voted Tory identified themselves as working class. They looked up to the Tories, and their support was more deferential than aspirational. This was as true among younger voters in urban environments as it was among older voters from more stable, hierarchical rural communities. Typical of the quotes assembled was this, from a 61 year old plumber: “The Conservative Party is the gentleman’s Party. They’re the people who have got the money. I always vote for them. I’m only a working man and they’re my guv’nors.”
This recalls John Stuart Mill's summary of deferential politics: “The relation between rich and poor, according to this theory (a theory also applied to the relation between men and women) should be only partly authoritative; it should be amiable, moral, and sentimental: affectionate tutelage on the one side, respectful and grateful deference on the other. The rich should be in loco parentis to the poor, guiding and restraining them like children.”
Tory voters believed that those with money knew how to handle it better than those without, that that they were made to rule. “Ruling,” the sentiment went, “should be left to the ruling class”. Another quote from a Clapton warehouseman ran: The Conservatives have got more idea of what they’re doing than the people who come up from the working class - the mines and such like. Working class people are not the sort to run the country, because I don’t think they understand it really. I’m sure I wouldn’t if I got up there.” Importantly, in the era of Butskellism, it was believed that the Tories looked after the poor: “A few years ago I would have said they stood for themselves—making money and getting rich. But now they’re certainly looking after us.” Lastly, Samuels argued, Labour itself was increasingly distant from its working class base, and declined to attack the prevailing nationalism and business ethic which the Tories were promoting.
The American social theorist Eric Nordlinger also emphasised the importance of deferential attitudes, arguing that conservative workers were influenced by a particularly English tradition of deference with roots in the Norman conquest and the creation of a centralised state – a claim that remains controversial, to put it no more strongly than that. Nonetheless, the prevalence of deferential attitudes driving working class Tory voters was one of the most commonplace findings of researchers working on this topic in the 1960s. Mackenzie and Silver, in contrast to Raphael Samuel, did detect a lower prevalence of ‘deference’ voting among younger conservatives. They also noted that ‘deference’ was negatively correlated to income: the higher up the income scale voters were, the more ‘secular’ and less ‘deferential’ their motivations were.
If it was true, however, that deferential attitudes underpinned conservatism among the working class, what could explain these attitudes? The sociologist Frank Parkin argued that the problem should be reversed: given that the dominant institutions of society were far more amenable to Conservative ideology than to socialist ideology – with exceptions being the Labour Party, the trade union movement, the cooperatives and the Methodist churches – the real question was how working class socialism proved to be so resilient. This was partially a satirical attack on the idea that there was something ‘deviant’ about conservative attitudes among the working class.
But by drawing attention to the effects of the dominant ideology in workplaces, schools, the armed forces, the monarchy, the established church, and the mass media, he offered a pluralist explanation of working class conservatism that is strikingly similar to that offered by some marxists. A study by the marxist sociologist Bob Jessop, for example, argued that deference in political culture resulted from the pressure exerted by dominant value systems produced by the public schools, private enterprise, the armed forces, the monarchy, etc. Through these institutions, Jessop argued, the ruling class socialised the subordinate classes to accept their domination. Subordinate value systems, those dissident cultures developed by the working class, were under constant pressure from the ruling culture to moderate themselves and internalise the logic of the capitalist system. The Tory Party was, as a party emerging from the aristocracy and committed to hierarchy, right at the centre of the dominant instutions producing this servile, deferential culture.
Or something completely different?
But deference of the type identified by Raphael Samuel cannot explain working class conservatism today. And while I stick to my point that the Tory base is narrowing over the long-term, and that the decline in support among workers has a lot to do with this, it still makes sense to speak of mass conservatism. Since the 1960s there have been enormous social changes associated specifically with an attack on deference toward elites and existing institutions. When Jessop was writing, the Conservative Party's long dominance was in serious trouble, its ability to operate as a hegemonic party of the ruling class endangered by the miners and the shop steward movements, by political radicalisation, by changing demographics and by a tremendous fall in the standing of the establishment. Thatcher's transformation of the Conservatives adapted to this. Though a 'traditionalist' in many ways, she was also noted for being hostile to many of the traditional objects of deference. And the more gauche 'estate agent' element in her support could hardly have been classified as 'deferential' in its social attitudes. Furthermore, the Tories under Thatcher abandoned the paternalistic Butskellite policies that attracted 'deferential' support in the Fifties and Sixties.
The most comprehensive study of the Conservative Party after the Thatcher era, by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson, found that the existence of explicitly deferential attitudes among the Tory members, never mind the voters, was negligible. Asked to agree or disagree with the view that 'It is best to leave government to people from the upper class', only ten percent either agreed or strongly agreed, with 79% disagreeing. There is a slight class correlation with deferential attitudes being mildly more prevalent among petty bourgeois (12%) and working class members (15%) than among the 'salariat' (ie, professional middle classes, company bosses etc.). There is also a left-right distinction, with 20% of those on the hard right of the party either agreeing or strongly agreeing with such ideas, compared to only 6% on the party's left. And members over 65 tend to be more likely to endorse such sentiments. But these are trends within a minority subset of opinion among the most committed Conservative supporters, and it is not clear how decisive a factor such ideas would be. It's also worth saying that in the same period in which deferential values experienced secular decline, so did the Tory vote, and so did the strength of party identification, with the number of 'very strong' Conservative voters dropping sharply. This would suggest that there has been a 'secularization' in the motives of Conservative voters.
So, deference in the sense of accepting the benign dictatorship of an aristocratic elite is present in the Conservative Party, but not common enough to explain the bulk of working class conservatism. On the other hand, deference is a complex attitude and has many different registers. If we follow Jessop's lead, seeing political deference as one aspect of a wider commitment to the institutions of capitalist society, we can see how deference would survive in different ways in a post-aristocratic age. Working class conservatives, Whiteley et al found, tend to be more likely to hold socially authoritarian attitudes, and economically interventionist attitudes, than the salaried and petit bourgeois members of the Conservative Party. They tend, that is, toward statism.
This isn't necessarily 'progressive' or egalitarian in economic terms. While working class Tories are far less likely to support private medicine than the lower middle class and the salariat, they are also slightly less likely to support spending more money to alleviate poverty. More generally, despite Thatcher's attack on corporatist institutions, there is still a strongly interventionist attitude among a large number of Tory members, almost half of whom would favour an incomes and pricing policy to control inflation. The impact of socialisation is important here - younger Tories, who had been raised in the era of Thatcherism, who had never known the Macmillanite version of Conservatism, were far more likely to have internalised economically anti-statist views. But I think we can start to see a trend here for working class Tories in particular: if they are not deferential toward an aristocratic elite, they are deferential toward the national state. The nation-state, which the Tories are by way of vociferating about most stridently, is for them the best defence against trade unions, immigrants, wideboys and spivs, and the best guardian of a stable, cohesive, well kept society.
Lastly, there is no Platonic, essential 'working class conservative'. There are millions of working class voters whose support for the Conservative Party is 'secular' and thus highly changeable. For example, millions of skilled workers abandoned the Tories as the effects of Thatcherism made themselves felt, and David Cameron has only succeeded in winning a minority of these back. There are many working class Tories who, for example, are basically pro-market individualists with liberal social attitudes, and a sizeable minority who are 'progressive' in the sense of favouring some forms of redistribution, more grassroots democracy, less punitive social attitudes, and a more inclusive nationalism. Those are the folks, I suspect, whom Cameron won over. But the 'deference' voters, today those who vote Tory out of authoritarian patriotism, probably constitute the core Tory support among the working class.
Cllr. Abbas responded to this outcome by accusing his victorious rival of having 'pocket' (fake) members supporting him, and of introducing an atmosphere of intimidation in the council. He claimed that the Islamic Forum of Europe had "brainwashed" Rahman, about which more in a moment. I should stress that these allegations would, even if true, have no bearing on the outcome of the selection, which was run by the regional Labour Party, and where only identifiable members with photo ID were allowed to participate. But Labour, apparently determined to replace Rahman, dealt with the issue at a chaotic NEC meeting, allowing the chosen candidate no opportunity to refute the allgations. They suspended him, deselected him by fiat and chose Abbas instead - the least popular of the main three candidates, and the man whom they had previously imposed as council leader after the local elections gave Labour more councillors in Tower Hamlets.
Now Rahman is standing as an independent candidate, backed both by Respect and, I would gather, much of the London Labour left. Eight local Labour councillors have already been expelled for backing Rahman, along with a number of officers and members. Labour's mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has expressed support for Rahman. He has said that it was a "moment of madness" for Labour to replace Rahman after having just rebuilt the local party following Oona King's defeat in 2005. He's not wrong. Respect had made it clear that they would back the Labour candidate as Rahman was a popular candidate whose policies were close to their own. Labour could have taken this powerful executive post with no difficulty had it stuck with Rahman. Instead, in a spiteful and petty act, the NEC attempted to establish the Blairites' control over a region that has an established propensity for rebelling against such encroachments.
This is the culmination of a Muslim-baiting war by the managerialist right-wing in local Labour circles, fronted by Jim Fitzpatrick MP, with the connivance of Tory media and Andrew Gilligan. You'll recall that a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4, made by Gilligan, claimed that Rahman had become council leader with the assistance of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), a group close to the Jamaat e-Islami in Bangladesh, and had distributed millions in council funds to organisations supported by the IFE. Specifically, it was claimed, Rahman had helped turn ten million pounds in public funding over to the East London Mosque, which is allied to the IFE. (The mosque refutes these claims). Fitzpatrick alleged that the IFE had 'infiltrated' the local Labour council. The documentary concluded that the IFE was attempting to impose an Islamic social and political order on everyone else. These and subsequent allegations made by Gilligan at his blog on the Daily Telegraph website were cited by senior Labourites in the NEC's decision to suspend Rahman. Indeed, when it was decided that the candidate would be selected by the local members, Andrew Gilligan expostulated in disbelief that the Labour leadership would allow something like this to happen - didn't they know that Labour members were IFE affiliates and would just pick one of their Islamist brothers to lead the revolution?
What of these allegations? Most of the prosecution witnesses, if you like, were either notable Islamophobes or, like Fitzpatrick (then defending an 8000 majority against George Galloway) had a direct interest in representing their opponents as frontmen for an Islamist incursion. The documentary was denounced by a wide array of trade unionists, leftists and liberals for whipping up racist hatred and giving the EDL an excuse to (try to) march on the East End. Discounting for this, for the shrill reactionary politics of the documentary, and for any factual leaps that it may have made, what is left? It is well known that the IFE is influential locally, and that it is socially conservative. It is also well known that the IFE has backed Labour and Respect candidates in the past. There is also a complex and murky history of municipal clientelism, and not only in the East End, wherein Labour politicians make deals with local businessmen and lobby groups to help get elected. Labour Party member Dave Osler describes some of this history here. But I see no evidence that the IFE has taken over the Labour Party, nor is it remotely plausible that the IFE has such weight that it could impose Lutfur Rahman as the leader of the local council. Even if its influence allowed it to extract public funds on a clientelist basis, this is unlikely to be anything more than standard rent-seeking behaviour. And clientelism isn't going to be dealt with and finished off on the basis of racist scaremongering, any more than 19th century 'machine politics' was terminated by scapegoating the Irish. The idea that there's an Islamist plot to impose a theocracy on the East End of London is a paranoid racist fantasy.
Nor, I might add, does it seem plausible that Rahman is the IFE's Manchurian Candidate. Regardless, Fitzpatrick and his supporters continued to push the idea that the East End was on the brink of an Islamist takeover and that Rahman was at the centre of this web of conspiracy. This witch hunt brought to its hysterical culmination in the pages of the tabloids and the Telegraph, the Labour establishment prepared Rahman's auto de fé, deposing him as council leader as soon as the 2010 elections were concluded. Cllr. Abbas' allegations are thus continuous with this witch hunt, inasmuch as Rahman is depicted as an 'Islamofascist' terrorising the community. They are also of a piece with his own previous careerist manoueverings, which at one staged involved him in an alliance with... well, one Lutfur Rahman. No surprise there - the careerist's only permanent friend is himself.
But what is the difference of substance between the two candidates? Judging from their campaigns, there is a straightforward left-right divide. Rahman considers himself a social democrat to the left of Cllr Helal Abbas. Oliur Rahman, the former Respect councillor and recently expelled Labour councillor, says: "Lutfur introduced the London living wage for Tower Hamlets council workers. We bought back council houses and rehoused over 500 overcrowded households. We started building over 1,000 social homes. These are just some of the policies Lutfur implemented. If he’s not mayor, things will go the opposite way. If elected he will fight to save jobs and services." Lutfur Rahman has pledged to oppose the government's cuts. At any rate, the result will make a material difference to the council's decisions. I understand that the council is currently holding back on some of its cuts and job losses until the outcome of the election is known. Abbas' campaign, by contrast, focuses on "social cohesion". You don't need me to tell you what that means. But if you're baffled, I'll point you in the direction of Rushanara Ali MP. Ali, of course, has a personal beef with Rahman for refusing to publicly endorse in the election against her rival, Respect candidate Abjol Miah, and her views were taken into consideration in the decision to suspend Rahman. It's a clear choice, then, between unpleasant bullies who have a patent disregard for democracy and whose message to ethnic minorities is to behave better than everyone else, be above reproach and effectively capitulate to racist hatemongers, and a campaign by the victor in the contest to be the Labour candidate who is foregrounding the material needs of the working class, such as housing and incomes.
The Labour NEC's decision was perhaps predictable, but it is still self-destructive. Dave Hill, no supporter of Rahman, reports 'whispers' from the Abbas campaign that the wind is going Rahman's way. Even if Labour pulls its campaign back from the brink, the fruits of this deranged kulturkampf will mostly be harvested in the form of a depleted and demoralised base, an even more arrogant, tyrannical and disconnected Labour establishment, and a re-fuelled racist hysteria that can only benefit the far right.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Strikes and demonstrations are rocking France as union federations join with students and left-wing activists for mass protests against a planned "reform" of the country' pension system championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Last week saw the two more national days of action honored by all the country's main unions. On one of the days, October 12, more than 3 million joined a one-day general strike call. However, some groups of workers are continuing their actions between days of action, deciding day by day whether they will keep striking.
The strikes are hitting hard across the whole economy, but the biggest threat right now are the oil workers, one of the best-paid section of the French working class, whose actions at port facilities and the country's 12 refineries are causing shortages of gas and diesel fuel. Charles de Gaulle International Airport will run out of fuel early this week if the strike keeps up, grounding planes at the country's main airport...
While we're on the subject of resistance, here's Panos Garganos on the Greek insurgency, from the latest ISJ.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
For all that, the film intelligently grapples with the many dimensions of that struggle. I've already written a bit about the political economic background to the this strike that was so decisive in winning the Equal Pay Act, so won't go into detail. But you have the women resisting pressure from some of the male workers, from the trade union bosses, from the Ford bosses, from the media, and from the government. You have them building up confidence through struggle and gaining through it, as one character says, "a glimpse of how things could be". You have the Ford bosses dreading the prospect of a higher wage bill - womens' oppression is efficient business practice for them. You have union bureaucrats worried about whether this will divert resources away from "the blokes". You have the government desperate not to alienate Ford, and the media condescending to the women. And you have some of the most oppressed and exploited sectors of the working class winning an outstanding victory, contributing hugely to the wave of militancy that followed and peaked four years later, and gaining a sense of their potential power in doing so. Not bad for a night at the cinema.
About those small and debatable hostages to fortune? Well, here's one. Barbara Castle is too lovingly depicted. Her drive to 'regulate' the unions was compatible with Labour's agenda of building an expansionist corporate state. But, as this drive essentially involved suffocating rank and file militancy with restrictive legislation, it does not sit well within a film about rank and file militancy taking on and defeating the world's most powerful capitalists. Perhaps for that very reason the proposed 'regulations' are not dwelled upon. Another? Well, the political support behind the strike is underplayed. The sexism among many of the men is shown, but not the real support that came from many of the male workers at Ford. I raise this, though, merely to have something negative to say. It's a remarkably timely film intended, so its director suggests, to encourage people today to "have a go".
Friday, October 15, 2010
Sticking with the point I made in my earlier post, I assume those provoking the strikes have a detailed strategy for beating them, just as the coalition must have a broad strategy for handling much worse exigencies than this. They know this sort of action is just the beginning, and they didn't walk into this wholesale attack on the welfare state without planning for national strikes. They've certainly been cultivating the media, who have tried to generate some sort of 'winter of discontent' hysteria about the union 'dinosaurs'. Additionally, judging from their actions at protests, I would infer that police forces across the country are determined to demonstrate that they can handle the political fall-out on the streets provided the funding is there. It would be prudent to assume that the whole state apparatus is gearing up for some sort of protracted conflict, even if the ruling class is increasingly uncertain about pushing it too far at this point. Further, it's a decided possibility, given the way the Tories are behaving, that they fully intend to provoke strike actions with the aim of defeating them one at a time.
Trouble in the metropolis
Take the firefighters. They did not want to strike, and only entered this dispute after repeated provocation. They are already working to rule, and applying a ban against overtime and 'acting up' (where a junior member of staff fills in for senior managers). They have been driven to this action by extreme bullying, particularly by the use of mass redundancy as a disciplinary and bargaining tool, and the slump in morale that has followed.
The ostensible reason for this high-handed provocation by the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, and by Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire Authority, is that they wish to impose shift changes that they claim will leave Londoners safer. In fact, leaked documents have shown that there are plans to cut night-time fire cover, which is what the shift changes are being introduced to enable. Reducing night-time cover has long been a strategy of local fire authorities seeking to save money, even though night-time cover is crucial because of the heightened risk posed by fires that start overnight. It was one of the issues that cropped up during the 2002 firefighters' strike, and it has been an issue in several local disputes since the demoralising letdown of that campaign by Andy Gilchrist. Some in the union are calling for conference to be recalled, because they believe this is the beginning of a national attack, and they should not be left to fight alone. Quite an urgent situation, then, and one brought about not by a union campaign but by a government attack.
Still, assuming that the Tories are on a Ridley-style mission to pick off unions one-by-one, one aspect of their planning for this dispute suggests that they may underestimate the seriousness of the fight they're picking. Specifically, Brian Coleman has set aside 27 fire trucks out of the whole fleet to cover London during the strike, and these will be managed by a scab firm called Assetco. That's just over 15% of the usual fleet on duty. That may be the London Fire Authority's idea of adequate coverage, or maybe they're relying on large numbers of scab workers crossing picket lines - not likely with such an overwhelming vote for strike action on a high turnout. However that turns out, the FBU has the ability to hit hard.
As regards the issue of public relations, the fire chiefs' problem is that they can't admit to their agenda, which is why they've had to brush off revelations about their goals by describing the leaked documents as mere "blue sky thinking". But if people get wind of the fact that night-time cover is an issue, I can't see much sympathy developing for AM Brian Coleman. Moreover, the involvement of a private firm will undoubtedly raise unwelcome thoughts such as, well, this disgusting and pathetic story. I detect a touch of hubris in Coleman's belligerent approach.
I get a similar feeling with the attempts by TfL to push through cuts in the London Underground. First of all, everyone whose uses the service already knows that the tube is in a mess. The RMT doesn't have to work hard to make that case. Secondly, the tube bosses are having to play coy by pretending that their cuts won't hit safety-critical jobs, as if getting rid of station staff isn't in itself a blow to safety. We've had enough rail disasters in this country, and there's no appetite for deep cuts that will make the transport system more dangerous. Thirdly, and most importantly, the RMT is one of the more successful, militant and entrenched unions, and Boris Johnson hasn't beat them yet. Ken Livingstone nearly did, but as far as I can tell Boris hasn't come close. The most recent strikes are hitting very hard, and the tube managers are weak. Given all this, I wouldn't have thought picking a fight with the RMT, however easy they are to demonise in the Murdoch papers, is the most sensible strategy. If Boris Johnson has to go crying to Tory conference, demanding tougher anti-union laws, that doesn't suggest that the London Tory establishment has a real strategy for breaking the RMT. It's just a rehash of his previous attempt to come up with legally enforceable no-strike deals.
A coordinated attack
On the other hand, that's just the capital city. A very sinister tactic is currently being deployed to whip other council workers into line, and it looks rather similar to the one being used against London's firefighters. Birmingham has already launched proceedings to sack all 26,000 of its council workers, allowing them to re-apply for their jobs under new, severely reduced pay and conditions - in some cases resulting in almost a quarter of take-home pay being lost. These are workers who are already finding their pensions under attack, with immediate increases in employee contributions, later retirement and a lower final value of pensions all on the cards.
Such bullying is only possible because of the febrile climate created by the government's ratcheting up of its cuts project, and is being extended across the country. Barnsley has done the same to its 11,000 council workers. Thousands of local government employees in Sheffield, Walsall and Croydon, and hundreds in Oldham and Havering, are being given the same treatment. It's happening in Labour-controlled councils as well as those dominated by the one or both of the coalition parties, and it's happening in a way that suggests a coordinated assault in anticipation of the spending review. But this may be an attack of the paper tigers. As aggressive as this is, public sector workers are skilled workers who are difficult to replace at the drop of a hat. As far as I have been able to tell, the preparations that would be necessary for a large scale scabbing operation don't appear to be in place. Just like with the FBU in London, the workers on the rough end of this attack possess a unique structural capacity to bring much of the infrastructure upon which the economy depends to a standstill, and there's not a lot that can be done to mitigate that.
For the moment, however, the employers are not backing down. This leaves us with what the unions intend to do. Alongside the FBU and the RMT, the PCS is certainly up for a fight. There is a fight on in the UCU for strikes over higher education pay, a combustible issue when university bosses have been effectively bribed to accept market-driven reforms by the promise of commensurate, inflated salaries for themselves. However, the leadership of the larger unions in the public sector - notably Unison, Unite and the GMB - has not thus far been terrific. The TUC has come a long way from its earlier conciliatory position, and has raised endorsed industrial action, which should open the way to . But there's still a gulf between the degree of coordination and resolution required, and that presently obtaining. This is all too predictable because, as I've said, the experience of past accumulated defeat, the demoralisation under New Labour, the slow decline in union density, and certain trappings of bureaucracy, add to the default intertia of such leaders.
The outcome of the Unite election campaign will tell us a lot about the state of rank and file opinion. It is the country's largest union, and covers many local government workers. The record of the current leadership has been pretty poor. Derek Simpson posing with page three models on a 'British Jobs for British Workers' stunt was painful and farcical, but the persistent sell-out of Bassa workers has been painful and tragic. Two of the candidates are on the Left, and oppose the cuts. The substantive difference between them is that one, Jerry Hicks, is based in the rank and file, and the other Len McCluskey, is based in the Unite bureaucracy. Len McCluskey is likely to win it comfortably if the nominations are any guide. But it's important that Hicks got on the ballot, and a good vote for him would signal greater confidence in grassroots initiative, which I think will be essential in the coming years.
The political leadership that we need - that, to be precise, our class needs - is not yet there. No single one of the parties, party factions, union platforms, union leaders, rank and file groups, or anti-cuts groups that is ready to take on the government is sufficient by itself to lead this fight. An alliance must obviously be forged between them, and one firmly rooted in those constituencies in the firing line, especially organised workers. That is essential. But more importantly, it will have to be more than the sum of its parts, and grow well beyond its existing bases. Lastly, the kinds of initiative and leadership that will be decisive may not yet be visible. These are early days, and we shouldn't assume that the whole cast of characters is assembled, and the plot disclosed in all of its essentials. One lesson of past political struggles is that movements coming into their element throw up individuals and social forces whose significance no one had previously anticipated.