Now -read the book!

Here is a link to my memoirs which, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can purchase online at
Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Hypocrisy and Emergency Motion Two at UNISON National Disabled Members' Conference

UNISON’s National Disabled Members Conference is in Brighton this weekend. As you might imagine, the large number of UNISON activists will be debating numerous motions addressing the interests of our many disabled members (among whom I suppose I should probably now count myself).

However, supporters of UNISON's Ancien Regime have predictably seized the opportunity to try to provoke something of a faction fight. One of the members of the recalcitrant minority on our NEC, and a former President of our trade union, took to Twitter to express her excitement about an emergency motion which had today been admitted to the agenda.

The background to the aptly named emergency motion "Number Two" is that the two NEC members elected to represent the interest of disabled members took the opportunity of being asked to provide content to the annual report of the National Disabled Members Committee to make a series of tendentious observations and allegations against other members of the NEC.

Having myself spent seven terms on UNISON’s NEC as part of a small minority, and being something of an inveterate troublemaker, I recognise a transparent attempt to provoke an overreaction when I read one. I myself was never able to make such criticisms in official UNISON documents, because UNISON officials censored me when I tried to breach what was considered at the time to be the "collective responsibility" of the NEC as a whole. (These days it seems paid officials of our trade union are much more supportive of those making criticisms of the elected leadership of the organisation which employs them.)

Unfortunately for the authors of the ill judged attack upon their fellow NEC members, our President was not drawn into the overreaction for which they had so obviously hoped. In fact, all she did was send an email to her two NEC colleagues complaining to them about the content of the report. Given the President’s responsibility to support and defend the integrity of NEC colleagues, her measured and responsible approach was the very least that she could have done. It certainly wasn’t any sort of unreasonable bullying (and I can say that having been on the receiving end of such bullying when I was on the NEC). 

This left those who have been looking for a faction fight in the embarrassing position of having to make a mountain out of a molehill. They had been hoping, having provoked an overreaction by publishing petty and spiteful criticisms of individuals, to be able to launch a "Defend the NEC Two" campaign in order to whip up opposition to the elected leadership of UNISON in the run-up to the forthcoming NEC elections. The measured and mature approach adopted by the President frustrated their achievement of this objective.

Hence the National Disabled Members Committee find themselves in the embarrassing, if not slightly ridiculous, position of putting an emergency motion to the National Disabled Members Conference instructing the National Disabled Members Committee (i.e. themselves) to write to the President. This amusing circularity should probably have led to the motion being ruled out of order by the Standing Orders Committee, since if the National Disabled Members Committee really wanted to write to the President they could already have done so. 

However, although at last year's National Delegate Conference at least one motion from the National Executive Council was ruled out of order on precisely these grounds (that the NEC did not need a Conference decision to take the action called for) it would appear that in today's UNISON, Standing Orders Committees can be surprisingly solicitous of those who wish to make criticisms of the majority of the NEC. Hence the delighted tweet.

For my part, what is most amusing about this episode is that the individual who is so excited at the opportunity to attack the NEC leadership at a National Self-Organised Group Conference was, in her time, party too far less measured and reasonable responses to criticism and dissent than that which has been exhibited by our current President.

When I was attacked by the Tory media for calling scabs “scabs” after the 2011 pension strike, as a Vice President she was part of the meeting convened by the then General Secretary to criticise me and warn me that the trade union could not defend me if I were attacked by the employer. She joined the collective criticism of me with a vigour and glee very different from the measured approach taken by UNISON's President in 2022.

Some 18 months later, when the media once more criticised me for publicly celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher, the same individual was there when I was called to a meeting is at UNISON HQ with the intention of reprimanding me. I remember her saying that she was disappointed that this was the second time during her term on the Presidential Team that she had had such a conversation with me. Memorably, she went on to say; "I will say now, what I said then. This is the last time.” 

Two and a half years further on, the same individual (this time in her continuing capacity as a trustee of UNISON) was one of the authors of an email circulated widely throughout UNISON intending to discredit me for having exposed wrongdoing in the Greater London Regional Office during the 2015 General Secretary election. 

The email, to which she willingly put her name, suggested that the recording of a staff meeting at which the former Regional Secretary had wantonly broken the rules of the union was somehow inaccurate. The recording was not inaccurate (as UNISON would officially recognise soon thereafter) and the email attacking me was utterly unjustified.

This email would go on to be described by the Assistant Certification Officer as “quite an extraordinary email” and as “a classic example of an attempt by the victors to write the history (regardless of accuracy) and denigrate those whom they see as their vanquished adversaries.” Needless to say, I'm still waiting for an apology from any of the authors of the unjustified bullying email, including the individual who is this evening drinking to the success of emergency motion two tomorrow at National Disabled Members Conference.

Readers of this blog will, I am sure, understand my appreciating the irony of this individual supporting so enthusiastically a sham emergency motion calling for NEC members to be treated with “respect and dignity" in the light of her treatment of me when I was on the NEC. Our current President, a fine trade unionist, certainly treats NEC members (and, I am sure, UNISON members generally) with far greater "respect and dignity" than this former President ever did.

This emergency motion is indeed "number two".

Update 31/10/22. The Conference did not reach the Emergency Motion. The faction-fighters issued a statement trying to resurrect year old arguments but failed to incite the division for which they hoped. It's all gone quiet on twitter...

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Darkness at Steadfast Noon - war games make the case against NATO

In Belgium this week NATO will be testing and exercising its procedures with regard to the dropping of nuclear bombs.  Fighter-jets from at least ten NATO nations will carry out flights and exercises from the air force base at Kleine Brogel in Limburg. The exercise, titled "Steadfast Noon" is intended to familiarise pilots and crews with the techniques involved in the possible use of nuclear weapons. 

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) have recently, and rightly, pointed out that Russia’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of the war in Ukraine have heightened tensions, reduced the threshold for use of nuclear weapons, and greatly increased the risk of nuclear conflict and global catastrophe. ICAN correctly identify that the correct response to these irresponsible criminal threats is to do everything possible to delegitimise the threatened use of nuclear weapons.

This approach - of delegitimisation - was exemplified by the statement adopted this summer by the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) when they said that; “We are alarmed and dismayed by threats to use nuclear weapons and increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric. We stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”

ICAN have pointed out that the coming into force of TPNW has rendered nuclear weapons illegal under international law - like biological and chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. NATO however has set its face against international law and and the wider global community by its opposition to TPNW. NATO opposes “any attempt to delegitimise nuclear deterrence” (that is to say that NATO opposes attempts to delegitimise a military doctrine based upon the threatened use of nuclear weapons).

When I was a teenage peace activist (often advised to "go back to Moscow" by reactionaries opposed to our peace protests) we were told that NATO was a purely defensive alliance established, in 1949, to "protect us" from an aggressive, expansionist Soviet Union and its allies. When the Cold War came to an end it turned out that the military/industrial establishment in the United States and Western Europe still had a use for NATO as what has been described, by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, (CND) as “an ever-expanding interventionist bloc, operating on a global scale.”

We were told lies about the justification for the existence of NATO during the Cold War and today we are told new lies, that NATO supports an “international rules-based order” (almost as if the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had been in accordance with international law and had promoted global peace and harmony…) NATO states quite plainly that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” Therefore, as long as NATO exists, the goal of universal nuclear disarmament will be forever out of reach. NATO institutionalises and perpetuates an eternal nuclear arms race. 

The war games being played in Belgium this week are a chilling reminder of the consequences for humanity if and when the military doctrine which relies upon the threatened use of nuclear weapons leads to that use (as one day it will). If we want to avoid these consequences we need to replace the institutional architecture which embeds nuclear weapons as a permanent feature of international relations - and that must mean (as I have argued here before) opposition to NATO.

Socialists, trade unionists, and Labour Party members need to oppose the ill-founded attachment to NATO expressed by the Party leadership. As long as this country remains a member of NATO we are trapped in a system which forever creates and recreates a perpetual risk of nuclear war. 

Saturday, October 15, 2022

The continuing shame of Labour racism

As a Labour movement activist in Lambeth in the late 80s, I remember the controversy around the party's shameful refusal to permit a Black candidate to contest the Vauxhall by-election in 1989. This condemned the electorate of a safe Labour seat in the centre of London to three decades of representation by a Member of Parliament noted for her support for foxhunting, Ulster Unionism and Brexit.

Given our “first past the post” electoral system and the two-party system which exists in symbiosis with it, the selection of Labour’s candidate in some inner-city constituencies, many of which have large Black and ethnic minority populations, is - in effect - the selection of the next member of Parliament for that constituency.

The exclusion of Maurice Mcleod from the long list for selection as Labour’s candidate for Camberwell and Peckham at the next general election echoes the racist arrogance shown by the Party in Vauxhall in 1989. In spite of the alarming findings of the Forde report concerning racism in the Labour Party, the party has made no real acknowledgement of or apology for this disgraceful situation. This is not a state of affairs which should be acceptable to any socialist, trade unionist or anti-racist.

Labour Party members must not permit our burning desire to see an end to the Tory government to gag us from criticising unacceptable, undemocratic and racist conduct within our Party. There will be those, disgusted at the conduct of the Party leadership and officialdom who will leave Labour, but they will be less well placed to resist those who have angered them when they do. Those of us who are angry at what is happening in today's Labour Party need to recognise that we are part of a long struggle and that we are not presently in a strong position.

With the Tory government imploding, it is clear that the Party leadership, justifiably increasingly confident of victory at the next General Election, feel no need to appease or compromise with left-wing members in the rank-and-file of the organisation (or, for that matter, elsewhere).  Knowing that voters who want to see the back of the Tories will, in the great majority of cases, have no choice but to vote Labour, Starmer and his supporters feel no need to take into account the views and aspirations of voters in safe Labour seats.

There may be no immediate prospect of there being any viable national electoral alternative to Labour for progressive voters (for all that those with little understanding of Labour history may, time and again, pursue this chimera). However, in the longer term, the experience of the so-called "red wall" seats in 2019 shows that if our party takes its core supporters for granted for too long it will find that they are no longer its core supporters. 

There were certainly exceptional factors at play in the North Evington by-election in Leicester this week, but the result clearly demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable about Black and ethnic minority voters in the inner-city supporting Labour. Disgraceful recent attacks upon party democracy in Newham (as exposed by Al Jazeera) and Haringey could easily see those boroughs follow Tower Hamlets away from Labour control.

Socialists in the Labour Party need to continue to work for a Labour Party which is worthy of the support it receives, including from Black and ethnic minority voters, and which will therefore continue to command such support. In such a party ordinary members would have the option to vote to support representatives such as Maurice Mcleod.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Class struggle and the next Labour Government

The Labour Party is enjoying a lead in the opinion polls which is unprecedented this century. Whilst strong supporters of the current leadership will see this as the product of what was, in their terms, a successful Party Conference, it seems more likely that the economic chaos created by the Truss government is at least as important.

Opinion polls have put Labour consistently ahead of the Tories this year. This is a significant improvement on this time last year when Johnson's Government were ahead of the opposition in the polls, and the latest poll gives us the largest lead we have had since the 1990s. However, we do not (yet) have a long-term consistent lead in the polls such as preceded previous occasions when we ousted a Tory government.

Last time Labour kicked the Tories out of government, winning a significant majority, our position in the polls had been even more impressive. From 1993 until the 1997 election Labour was ahead in the polls consistently over a period of four years. 

A generation before, in the run-up to Harold Wilson's victory in 1964 the Tories had not been ahead in the polls for three years from mid 1961 until the period of the election campaign itself when they closed the gap considerably (so that Wilson achieved a tiny majority and had to call a further election in 1966)(credit to Mark Pack for this historical data).

It is received Westminster wisdom that Oppositions do not win General Elections, Governments lose them. The received wisdom is not always wrong. In particular the political history of the UK since the Second World War suggests that Labour Oppositions do not win General Elections, Tory Governments lose them.

As David Coates wrote in the run-up to 1997;”In electoral terms, it is striking how much assistance from external events and forces the Labour Party has always needed to create an electoral bloc sufficiently substantial to give it parliamentary power. It is also striking just how quickly that bloc has then eroded. After all, it took two world wars and a massive capitalist depression to wean sufficiently large numbers of UK workers away from an electoral loyalty to Liberalism and Conservatism, to give Labour its first (and still its largest) parliamentary majority in 1945. It then took another thirteen years of Conservative mismanagement and anachronistic fustiness to enable Harold Wilson fleetingly to reconstitute the width of that electoral bloc in 1966; and in neither instance did Labour manage to retain over the long term the majority it had so gratuitously won.

For in each case Labour was largely the passive recipient of electoral swings. Its own politics never normally possessed sufficient magnetic force to redraw the shape of electoral Britain by the power of its own programme and possibilities alone. The forces shaping that electoral map were largely external to Labour and beyond its control. They came (and the Labour Party flourished); they went (and the Labour Party was unable to prevent their going). It is true, of course, that the Labour Party did slowly build up its core vote by its own organizational and ideological efforts: defeating the Communist Party for the loyalty (by 1945) of the majority of unionized workers. But its capacity as a party to sweep up the bulk of the unorganized working class (in 1945) and of the new white collar and managerial strata in the private sector (in 1966), was largely not of its doing.”

Something similar was already happening when David Coates wrote those words. Following "Black Wednesday" in 1992, the Tory Party lost and did not regain its fabled reputation for "economic competence” (a trick which Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng may just have repeated a generation later). John Major's Government then became mired in scandal and division.

Had he lived, John Smith would have led Labour to victory in the 1997 General Election, but as it was it fell to Tony Blair to benefit from the re-creation of the electoral bloc which had put Labour into Government in 1945 and 1966 (although with a lower share of the popular vote then either Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson had achieved). 

“New” Labour subsequently benefited both from relatively favourable economic circumstances (prior to the crash of 2008) and from the parlous state of the Conservative party as it worked through its divisions over Europe that would eventually lead to Brexit. Although Labour lost votes in 2001 and, even more so, in 2005, the Tories were not able to overtake us.

These factors together meant that the government which was elected in 1997 lasted longer than its predecessors that had come into office in the 1940s and 1960s. However, the achievements of Labour in office between 1997 and 2010 did nothing to invalidate the cautionary observation made by David Coates in 1996; "We need to remember how regularly hopes have been created only to be dashed, promises made only to be broken, agendas set never to be sustained. We need to remember how previous generations of Labour politicians—both in opposition and in power—tended to fall short of even the most modest aims of the people sustaining them; and we need to contemplate at least the possibility that a Blair-led Labour government will disappoint its supporters in a similar way. Amid the understandable pleasure, for many on the Left, at the prospect of a Conservative electoral defeat at last, we need to keep a very tight grip on any creeping sense of euphoria.”

Given our recent experience of the brutal sabotage of the Corbyn leadership of our Party and the subsequent witch hunt of socialists under the current leadership (as recently exposed by Al Jazeera), many left wingers will find it  much easier to avoid a “creeping sense of euphoria" than we did in the mid 90s. Once again, the Labour Party can only approach Government having been sanitised and made fit to manage British capitalism.

I find myself increasingly reminded of an experience whilst out canvassing in the 97 general election campaign. One of the many right-wingers who were by then dominant in Lewisham's Labour Party asked me what I was doing campaigning when they knew I didn't support Tony Blair. I said that it was true that I did not support Tony Blair and that indeed I knew that if Tony Blair became Prime Minister the country would likely get worse. However, I pointed out that if John Major remained Prime Minister the country would get a lot worse a lot faster. I still think I was right on both counts. As they say, the worst day under a Labour Government is always better than the best day under a Tory Government.

Unfortunately, because Labour’s victories are always fundamentally Tory defeats, we have repeatedly ended up with Labour Governments which inherit problems from their Conservative predecessors (and confront the inevitable contradictions of a capitalist economy) for which they are eventually  themselves blamed, paving the way for a return to the UK’s political default setting, which is a Conservative Government. 

Had we been able to create the mass Labour Party rooted in working-class communities, of which some of us caught a distant glimpse in the period after 2015, we might have been able to win on the basis of the sort of radical transformative policies which proved so popular in 2017. In the absence of such a vibrant extra-parliamentary power base, no Labour Government can do more than ameliorate the worst of inequality and oppression (and, indeed, we will be lucky if it does as much as that).

The campaigning and strike action which is happening up and down the country today in opposition to the current Tory government will need to continue up to and beyond the next General Election, regardless of the outcome of that election. Our standard of living, our employment rights and our public services are under attack. These attacks may reduce under a Starmer (or post-Starmer) government but we would be naive to imagine that they will cease.

Trade unionists and socialists (including, crucially, the many thousands of socialists inside the Labour Party) need to focus our attention upon defending our class, now and in the future, from the war being waged upon us by our adversaries. When the General Election comes, there will be sitting socialist MPs (if not many new socialist candidates) to campaign for, but before and after that there will be struggles which need to be supported.

We have been here before. We may very well be here again. As Tony Benn said; "There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again.”