Friday, 17 December 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 December 1999

Since there's not been much going on to disturb the winter silly season – apart, of course, from the defection of Shaun Woodward to Labour, of which more later – there's not a lot for it but to ruminate on the date.

Yes, it's 2,000 years (give or take a few) since the birth of Our Lord, and 100 since the birth of Our Party. Most Tribune readers no doubt think the latter anniversary deserves more attention in these pages than the former – which is fair enough in the light of the Labour leadership's embarrassment at the antiquity of the organisation it claims to control.

Be that as it may, I'm more concerned about the celebrations of the 2,000th birthday of the man considered by Christians to be the saviour of the human race.

Of course, it's not really his 2,000th birthday. No one knows exactly when Jesus lived. Indeed, we can't be entirely sure that Jesus ever lived, though there are documentary fragments suggesting that there really was once a man vaguely answering to the descriptions in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But even if it is his birthday, what is there to celebrate? I know I'm not alone in finding the central Christian myths of Jesus's life, from the immaculate conception through the miracles to the resurrection, utterly incredible. And ever since I first started thinking about these things, I've been unable to understand why there is still a social convention that people who believe in this nonsense deserve respect for their credulity.

Not that I'm in favour of persecution. We all have the right to believe whatever we want. The point is that we don't have the right to have our beliefs protected from ridicule or otherwise privileged by the state.

A group of people who expressed the view that little green men from Mars had brainwashed Tribune's editor and were dictating its editorial policy on Europe could expect to be greeted with derision. They would certainly not be granted money from the public purse to propagate their barmy theory.

Yet, despite the collapse of Christian observance in the past century, Christianity remains enormously privileged in our society. The blasphemy laws remain on the statute book, bishops sit in the upper house of our legislature and the state pours subsidies into denominational schooling. Even more incredibly, the fashionable liberal view is that the privileges accorded Christianity should be extended to other religions.

But I digress. The main reason for balking at the idea of celebrating 2,000 years or so of Christianity is not the absurdity of Christian beliefs or even the bizarre way they are protected and encouraged in contemporary Britain. Rather, it is the appalling historical legacy of Christianity. Over the ages, millions have suffered under the Christian yoke – most obviously the victims of holy wars and of inquisitions, but also those whose native cultures were destroyed by Christian missionaries and those today who are denied contraception by the teaching of the Roman Catholic church.

To my mind, the most fitting long-term use of the Millennium Dome would be as a memorial to the victims of Christianity – or better still, to the victims of all organised religion. There might not be as many of them as there were victims of twentieth-century totalitarianism, but as I argued in this column a few weeks ago, it's not the size of the pile of corpses that matters but the very fact that there is a pile.


My pre-millenium blues dissipated a little the week before Xmas with the defection of Shaun Woodward, Tory MP and former Central Office spin-doctor, to Labour. For Tony Blair, I'm sure, it's rather like Luke chapter 15 verse six – "Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" – as accurate a summary of Blair's view of his own party as it's possible to find. For me, it's just good news to see William Hague squirming.

Hague is right, though, about one thing. Woodward should resign his seat and fight a by-election. Back in the early 1980s Labour was loud in its demands that the MPs who defected from its ranks to the Social Democratic Party put their apostasy to the voters who originally elected them as Labour representatives. With one exception, they didn't. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Friday, 3 December 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 December 1999

This weekend should turn out to be a bit special for anyone on the British left with a sense of history. Democratic Left, the organisation that used to be the Communist Party of Great Britain, is holding a special conference at the University of London Union. And if its executive committee gets its way, it will decide to abandon the last vestiges of the structure of a political party and turn itself into an umbrella group supporting a variety of radical democratic initiatives, the "New Times Network".

The dissolution of the official wing of British Bolshevism, a small but highly significant political force for more than 70 years after its foundation in 1920, will be complete.

For every democratic socialist, this is cause to break open the champagne. And you've got a chance to do precisely that tonight (Friday), on the eve of the conference, at DL's "Transformation Party" at the October Gallery in Holborn.

Here I must register an interest. Despite being, in the language of 1917, a Menshevik with anarchist sympathies – I fancy that if I'd been a Russian 70s years ago, even before the CPGB was formed, I would have been rotting in the Lubyanka, though probably with the privileges accorded to a "political" – I am currently deputy editor of New Times, DL's monthly, which will be at the core of the new umbrella organisation.

The editor, incidentally, is a former Trotskyist who has sold his soul to Menshevism, Kevin Davey, well known to Tribune readers of a certain age for his reviews of obscure French books in the late 1980s. In Russia in the 1930s, he would have been shot.

Of course, the worst that could happen to either of us now is that we'd lose our jobs if the special conference decided to close down New Times. DL is not the CPGB, let alone the Soviet Communist Party of Lenin or Stalin. It is a democratic rather than democratic centralist, organisation, and it has done a lot of worthwhile things: promoting a constructive left engagement with Europe, playing a key role in the campaign for democratic constitutional reform – most recently as a key sponsor of Make Votes Count – and giving succour to democratic reformers in the trade union movement.

But I've never joined DL. I've always felt that it was too much like the old CP in its pretensions and culture. Everything good that DL has done has been a matter of getting people together from different parts of the political spectrum in ad hoc coalitions to push on key specific issues. Yet despite having only 800 members it has retained all the policy-making structures and petty bureaucratic procedures of a party that believes it has a serious chance of winning state power in the foreseeable future.

There's a point at which you have to admit the game is up – and unless DL does it now it doesn't have a future. If it doesn't concentrate its remaining resources on what it does best, it will simply fade away.


On a different subject entirely, I've been amazed at the way most of the Labour left has got into a lather about Tony Blair's discussions of coalition with Paddy Ashdown, revealed the weekend before last by the Sunday Telegraph.

Of course, it wasn't very pleasant of "Number Ten sources" to go around spreading rumours that Gavin Strang and David Clark were incompetent and likely to be sacked. But wouldn't the government have shifted to the left if the Lib Dems had joined it?

They would certainly have given momentum to the government in the area of constitutional reform – on proportional representation, on replacing the House of Lords, on regional assemblies in England, on freedom of information – and would have stiffened its resistance to Euroscepticism. They are notably greener than most Labour ministers. And they might well have scuppered much of Jack Straw's illiberal home affairs legislation and perhaps even some of New Labour's mean-spirited benefit reforms. Not for the first time, I've found myself this past ten days cursing the left's pig-headed tribalism.

Wednesday, 1 December 1999


New Times, December 1999 

Paul Anderson reports on differences inside the Socialist International

It had been billed in the left-leaning left-leaning French press as the great showdown that would determine the future of social democracy, but as it turned out the 21st congress of the Socialist International in Paris last month was nothing of the sort.

Instead of a gladiatorial contest between French prime minister Lionel Jospin and British prime minister Tony Blair – backed up by German chancellor Gerhard Schroder – over Blair and Schroder's supposed capitulation to “neo-liberalism”, the 1,000 or so delegates from more than 130 countries were treated by Blair and Jospin to a fascinating but hardly spectacular exercise in talking in code. (Schroder, under fire at home after a string of disastrous election setbacks, sensibly decided to limit himself to platitudes about the importance of building “an economically efficient continent but also a socially just one”.)

Blair's speech in the opening session was a reprise of familiar themes and soundbites. “The debate today is longer about whether we modernise, but how and how fast,” he declared. “The left and centre-left has to stay true to its values but rediscover fundamental radicalism in applying those values to the modern world and jettison outdated doctrine and dogma that stands in our way. We must take on the forces of conservatism, left and right, who resist change – whether it is the right who believe that the knowledge economy is just a passing fad or those parts of the left happy defending the status quo, promoting tax and spend or yielding up the territory of law and order to the right.”

The key to changing today's world, he went on, was to understand “the sheer pace, scale and force of change: economic, technological and social”. Social democratic parties should not “become conservatives of the left, protecting vested interests and bureaucracies and old ways of working in the name of social justice and actually causing injustice by failing to act.

“What I have called the Third Way, but in reality is modernised social democracy, is to become the champions of change, managing change in a way that overcomes insecurity and liberates people.”

Who precisely were the “conservatives of the left' who resist change and defend vested interests he did not make clear, but there were many in his audience who thought he meant them. His speech, with its “ten steps” for “successful left government in the 21st century” – including “financial discipline and strong, stable economic management', massive investment in education, embracing the “knowledge-driven economy”, pensions reform and stimulation of small business – was given a distintinctly cool reception.

By contrast, Jospin, on home turf, went down very well. He had refused to sign the joint statement by Blair and Schroder, The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte, published just before June's European elections — and unlike the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats, his Socialist Party had subsequently done well at the polls. It had been widely reported that his speech to the Socialist International would – at last – outline his alternative to the deregulationist Blair-Schroder line.

And so it did – up to a point. “The superiority of the market over central planning has clearly been demonstrated,” he said. “The market is an instrument, an efficient and precious one.” But, he went on, “it is only an instrument. It needs to be regulated. It must remain at the service of society.” Socialists should not “turn the market into a value”, he said. “We refuse the marketisation of society ... Capitalism must constantly be controlled and regulated ... To be socialist is to work for more organisation and regulation.”

But if the difference of rhetorical emphasis between Blair and Jospin was clear enough, it was difficult to work out what precisely it meant in practice. Both studiously avoided references to specific policies – and both happily signed up to a rambling anodyne declaration, passed on the second day of the conference, on the challenges of globalisation.

In practice, Jospin's centre-left government in France has been as enthusiastic for privatisation as Blair's in Britain. Both governments have pursued rigorously anti-inflationary monetary and fiscal policies and have given a central role in economic policy to education and training. Many commentators have remarked that the big difference between the two is that Jospin has to keep the left, particularly his communist coalition partners, on board, whereas Blair does not.

So is there, behind the rhetoric, what the new chairman of the Socialist International, Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres, called “a great coming together of positions”? Not quite. However much the rhetoric of difference masks convergence, one thing still stands out. Jospin's flagship labour-market policy is the 35-hour week. Blair's is workfare.


New Times, December 1999

Paul Anderson talks to Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett

“Two years ago, hardly anyone had heard of genetically modified food in this country,” says Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth. “Today, the controversy is raging throughout the media, the supermarkets are falling over one another to declare themselves GM-free and the government is under immense pressure not to allow GM crop cultivation.

“One of the main reasons for this is the work that Friends of the Earth have put in. Of course, we’re not alone in campaigning against GM food. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re the people who have played the biggest part in raising the profile of the issue.”

It is difficult to disagree with this assessment. The first stirrings of public interest in GM foods can be traced to the beginning of last year, when FoE campaigners alerted local newspapers of GM crop trial sites in their areas. Subsequently, FoE has played a pivotal role both in getting retailers to stop stocking GM produce and in making life difficult for the government.

Earlier this year, FoE’s surveys of supermarkets’ policies on GM food – identifying which chains stocked GM produce and which did not – were seized upon by the press, and the blaze of publicity had the almost-immediate effect of forcing previously GM-friendly retailers, notably Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, to cease stocking GM produce. It was FoE that first kicked up a fuss about the conflict of interest inherent in David Sainsbury’s position as supermarket magnate and government
minister determining policy on GM crops. It was FoE that drew attention to US President Bill Clinton putting pressure on Tony Blair in favour of GM foods. And it was FoE that organised scientists to come out in support of Arpad Pusztai, the researcher whose work on the effects of feeding GM potatoes to rats has been a running story for the best part of a year.

“The GM campaign stems from a decision FoE made five years ago to campaign on food, with the emphasis on appealing to consumers and putting pressure on retailers and manufacturers,” says Ian Willmore, a former researcher for environment minister Michael Meacher who is now one of FoE’s two press officers. “We’ve done well for several reasons. We’ve done good research. We’ve been able to get newspapers like the Mail and the Express to take an interest. And we’ve been able to play off the supermarkets against one another.

“We’ve also been helped by our opponents. Blair’s appointment of Jack Cunningham as the minister responsible for persuading the public on GM foods was disastrous. And the big biotech companies have been incredibly incompetent in getting their message across.”

Founded in 1969 in the United States and in 1971 in the United Kingdom, FoE now has sections in 58 different countries, with an international headquarters in Amsterdam. The section covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FoE Scotland has been independent for five years) is one of the biggest, with a total of 160,000 supporters, 90,000 of them regular financial contributors, and 240 local groups. FoE EWNI had a turnover of about £5 million last year, nearly all of it raised from individual donors. It now employs 100 staff, 80 of them in its London headquarters and the rest in regional offices.

The local groups and regional offices mean that FoE EWNI is able to campaign effectively at constituency and local authority level as well as nationally. This year, for example, local groups, supported by the regional offices, have made a priority of pressing MPs – particularly Labour MPs – to ask the government to include a Wildlife Bill in its legislative programme.

But it is on its national campaigning that FoE concentrates most of its resources. The hub of its operation is its campaigns department, which is divided into five teams dealing with different subject areas, along with a parliamentary unit, a legal unit and a research unit.

The GM foods campaign is the responsibility of the food and biotechnology team. Other teams cover a multitude of other campaigns on issues as diverse as urban traffic reduction and global warming.
Insiders say that the sheer scope of FoE’s interests and internal competition among campaigns for profile and resources sometimes makes it difficult for the organisation to decide its priorities -though things are a lot better now than they used to be. As director since 1994, Secrett has made a priority of streamlining the way FoE works – most importantly by setting up a communications department to co­ordinate media relations.

Secrett has also given FoE a much harder political edge than before. Long before the 1997 general election, he made it clear that he would pull no punches in criticising new Labour whenever it deserved it, and since Tony Blair came to power FoE has been a constant thorn in new Labour’s side -particularly on GM food, but also on nuclear power and transport policy.

It is plain to see that the government is irritated. During the summer, Blair complained of the “tyranny of pressure groups like Friends of the Earth” after it embarrassed the government for the umpteenth time on GM foods. And last month, John Prescott, whose giant Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions has been taken to task several times by FoE, lashed out at FoE during a meeting of the Green Alliance, the umbrella organisation of environmental pressure groups. “It is your right to criticise but some of you should think about whether the way you do it helps achieve the environmental change you want or hampers it,” he warned.

Prescott took particular exception to FoE’s scepticism about the government’s actions on rural transport. “When we announced extra £150 million for rural public transport, Friends of the Earth said it was not worth a wheel nut on a bus,” he railed. “In fact is has provided 1,800 new services.”

Secrett is unrepentant about FoE’s stance. “Our impressive campaign track record speaks for itself,” he says. “We’ll not sacrifice our independence or effectiveness for anyone.

“Governments have to learn to live with informed criticism. Our campaigns are based on facts and supported by the evidence. We praise ministers when they deliver what they promise and what needs to be done. It’s bad news for democracy when the most senior figures in government react this sensitively and inappropriately.”

Friday, 12 November 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 November 1999

To cheer myself up over the past week, I've been reading The Black Book of Communism, a collection of essays, translated from French, cataloguing the crimes of communist states since the October revolution in Russia.

The book caused a furore when it was first published in France a couple of years back, and it's easy to see why. Its editor, Stephane Courtois, believes that the scale and nature of the crimes of communism – 100 million civilian deaths in total – warrants trials modelled on the Nuremburg tribunal. And he is not one to pull rhetorical punches.

For him, communism is as bad as Nazism, full stop. Anyone who thinks that the guilty men and women should not be brought to justice is, well, at best a dupe.

Unsurprisingly, this line of argument did not go down very well with the French Communist Party, which although a shadow of its former self remains a power in the land, not least as a junior partner in the Lionel Jospin's centre-left government coaltion. Courtois was pilloried for playing down the Holocaust, and two of his own contributors dissented publicly with what they described as his "bolder" conclusions.

I'm with the contributors on this one. I have never been able to see the point of getting into an argument about the relative merits of mass murderers: the Nazis would not have been significantly "better" if they had wiped out "only" two million Jews. And I don't think Nuremburg-style tribunals are the best way to hold the perpetrators of communist crimes to account.

But this is not to say that The Black Book should be ignored. Apart from Courtois's somewhat obsessive introduction and an even more contentious foreword by the American academic Martin Malia, which blames the whole disaster of communism on egalitarianism, it is a sober and balanced piece of work. It is particularly good on the origins of the Soviet police state under Lenin and on Stalin's Great Terror.

It should be read by anyone who still has illusions that the Bolshevik revolution was a good thing – and anyone who believes that something worthwhile was lost when Berliners destroyed the Wall ten years ago. I hope that doesn't include too many readers of Tribune these days, but I've a horrible suspicion it does.


The other thing I have been doing in my spare time recently is arguing with friends who think that Ken Livingstone would be a disastrous choice as Labour's candidate in next year's London mayoral election.

I'm quite surprised by the vehemence with which quite a few of them express their views. I wasn't a great fan of the Greater London Council when Livingstone ran it in the early 1980s, and over the years there is plenty I have disagreed with him about politically. I thought his ideas about Irish republicanism were nonsense – and he once denounced me as the most right-wing editor Tribune had ever had after I refused to back some "left unity" initiative he was sponsoring.

But I cannot for the life of me understand why so many people – by no means all of them New Labour types – see him as the devil incarnate. The worst that can justifiably be said of the GLC under Livingstone is that it bit off rather more than it could chew. And the worst that can justifiably be said about Livingstone as an MP is that he is something of a loose cannon.

Of course, the mayorship would give him another platform from which he could attack the government – but he would be foolish to use it as such. Londoners will judge the mayor on his or her success in dealing with the capital's problems, particularly transport, not on what he or she thinks about Gordon Brown's economic policies or Jack Straw's line on asylum-seekers. If the New Labourites are keen to shut Livingstone up, surely the best thing they can do is give him a shot at a job that will keep him too busy to write his Independent and Tribune columns?

  • The Black Book of Communism by Stephane Courtois and others is published by Harvard University Press at £23.50

Monday, 1 November 1999


New Times, November 1999

The recent outburst of spy mania needs to be taken with a large dose of salt, writes Paul Anderson. But we should resist the notion that Soviet intelligence agents in Britain were harmless saps

It almost goes without saying that you have to be highly sceptical about the recent spate of hysteria in the media about British subjects who acted – or are alleged to have acted – as agents and informers for Soviet bloc intelligence services during the latter stages of the cold war.

After the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive by Christopher Andrew and Vasily Mitrokhin and the screening of David Rose’s BBC Two series The Spying Game, newspaper editors fell over one another in the rush to publish juicy tales of intrigue and deception, taking little care to ensure the veracity of their sources.

Some of the claims that appeared are outrageous smears – in particular the suggestions that Dick Clements and Bruce Kent were “agents of influence”.

Clements, as editor of Tribune from 1959 to 1982, certainly had contacts among Soviet bloc embassy staff whom he knew were intelligence officers – just like scores of other journalists, myself included. (My contact at the Czech embassy, Jan Sarkocy, was thrown out of the country for espionage in 1989.) He also encouraged Soviet bloc press agencies to advertise in his cash-strapped paper. We did the same when I was Tribune’s reviews editor in the late 1980s.

But the idea that he was an “agent of influence”, as claimed by the Sunday Times, is preposterous. Journalists are public figures by definition. Their “influence” comes down to what they write or, as editors, publish by other writers. And Clements is, and always has been, a democratic socialist with libertarian leanings.

His first published pieces in Tribune were on the plight of anarchist political prisoners in Franco’s Spain. Under his editorship, the paper took a principled stance against Soviet totalitarianism, backing the dissidents in the Soviet Union itself, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the demands of Solidarity in Poland. One contributor to the Clements Tribune, Ken Coates, even managed to compile a book attacking the anti-democratic “socialism” of the Soviet bloc from his contributions to the paper.

Similarly, Kent, as general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at its height in the 1980s, took a less critical position on the Soviet Union than many people in the European Nuclear Disarmament group – myself included -would have liked.

But the suggestion that he was a tool of Moscow is incredible. He was a founder supporter of END, which was hated in official Soviet circles because of its support for dissidents and its criticisms of Soviet militarism. Under his leadership, CND consistently maintained its opposition to the nuclear weapons of both sides in the cold war.

Even where there is evidence to support the spying allegations – and it is significant that Clements and Kent are not named in The Mitrokhin Archive and were not mentioned in The Spying Game – there are plenty of reasons for taking the stories with a large dose of salt.

Of the Britons alleged for the first time to be spies in the book and the TV series, only one, Melita Norwood, had any access to state secrets – and it is by no means clear that the information she passed to the KGB made any significant difference to the Soviet atom bomb programme or indeed anything else.

Neither Tom Driberg nor Raymond Fletcher, the two Labour MPs named as agents in The Mitrokhin Archive – somewhat implausibly given Driberg’s love for unreliable gossip and Fletcher’s dipsomania – had significant influence in the Labour Party.

Vic Allen, the Leeds University professor who passed on information about CND to the East Germans, was not a “CND leader” – as the Sunday Times had it and The Spying Game implied – but merely the most prominent member of a tiny pro-Soviet faction in the organisation that had little influence on its policy and was distrusted by everyone else.

As for Robin Pearson, the Hull University economic historian accused of reporting on fellow academics to the East German Stasi, there is no evidence to suggest he handed over anything that was not already in the public sphere.

Perhaps most important, all the material on which the stories are based is tainted. As historical sources, intelligence and secret police files are notoriously unreliable by their very nature, if only because the reports on fellow they contain were written by people with a vested interest in exaggerating their own successes to their superiors.

To make matters worse, the material from the KGB archives copied and smuggled out of the Lubianka by Vasily Mitrokhin has also been vetted by the British intelligence services to ensure that the book contains nothing they do not want revealed.

Nevertheless, it would be a big mistake to dismiss The Mitrokhin Archive and The Spying GameWith all due qualifications, there is much in the book that is new and fascinating, in particular on the activities of the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) in Spain during the civil war in the 1930s, on the KGB’s reliance on Western communist parties after 1945 and on its role in Eastern Europe as the Soviet system entered its death throes in the 1980s. (On Britain, incidentally, contrary to the impression given by the newspapers, the picture Mitrokhin and Andrew paint of the KGB’s operations after the early 1950s is largely one of incompetence and failure except in the case of scientific and technical espionage.)

The work done by journalist David Rose for The Spying Game is much closer to home. Although the series is open to criticism for taking at face value the accounts given by spooks on both sides of the cold war concerning their own influence on events, Rose has unveiled a lot of important material – especially from the archives of the Stasi- about the 1980s.

As a one-time deputy editor of END Journal, END’s magazine, I was particularly struck by what he has found out about the exhaustive information gathering by communist states’ intelligence agencies on everyone from the West involved in contact with dissident groups in the East.

END was set up in 1980 by Edward Thompson, Mary Kaldor, Ken Coates and others to campaign for a nuclear-free Europe “from Poland to Portugal”. It made a point of its opposition to Soviet nuclear arms and of its support for independent movements in the Soviet bloc set up to oppose them. Throughout the 1980s, its supporters regularly visited eastern Europe to engage in face-to-face dialogue with dissidents and independent peace groups.

I was a minor player in all this. I went on one such trip, visiting East Berlin and Budapest in early 1985. In Berlin, after going to a conference in the West of the city, I went to a single meeting in the East with an independent peace group whose members subsequently became the core of the movement that toppled Erich Honecker in 1989. I then spent a week in Budapest wandering around the city visiting dissidents and independent peaceniks. When I got home, I wrote reports of my conversations for END’s co-ordinating committee and its working groups on the German Democratic Republic and Hungary.

Like every other ENDer involved in dialogue with dissidents, I worked on the assumption that I was being monitored by the security services. (In Budapest, I was tailed for one day by two men in large white macs, just like in the movies.) I also assumed that there were certain people in Britain who would pass on anything they could find out about the dissidents – the dwindling band of Stalinist supporters of “actually existing socialism” and the employees of the Soviet bloc embassies.

But I did not for a moment think that Soviet bloc security services had penetrated END. Yet that is what Rose discovered while researching The Spying Game. In the Stasi archives he found a substantial collection of END materials – among them my reports on my 1985 trip – that could only have come from an END member in Britain.

Precisely what happened as a direct result of this Stasi mole’s activities is impossible to tell. I doubt that many END contacts in the Soviet bloc were arrested, beaten up or intimidated by the secret police simply because the secret police had lots of boring END documents in their possession. I am sure that the mole thought the same at the time and does so now. But we both know we could be wrong – and, such was the publicity surrounding persecution of dissidents in the Soviet bloc, the mole must have known at the time too.

I find it difficult to get worked up about someone who, in the mistaken belief that the Soviet Union was a socialist Utopia, handed over scientific documents that might or might not have had a marginal impact on the Soviet atom bomb programme. But to hand over material to a secret police force that could only be of use in the persecution of fellow human beings is an unforgivable act of betrayal.

Friday, 15 October 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 October 1999

No sooner than it arrived, the spy mania that gripped the British media last month after the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive and the start of the BBC 2 series The Spying Game has disappeared into the ether.

After the Times blew the gaffe on Melita Norwood, the Stalinist granny who is alleged to have handed crucial British atomic secrets to her superiors in the KGB, every journalist in town wanted to jump on the bandwagon.

Allegation was piled upon allegation. Vic Allen, the creepy Stalinist academic who led the pro-Soviet faction in CND in the early eighties, was accused of grassing up fellow peace campaigners to the East German secret police. Other academics were alleged to have been recruited by the East Germans in the seventies and eighties.

More incredibly, the Labour MPs Tom Driberg and Ray Fletcher were reported to have been working for the KGB. So too – and here we are entering the realm of pernicious libel – were the former editor of this newspaper, Dick Clements, and, by implication, the former general secretary of CND, Bruce Kent.

But just as it seemed that the story was snowballing out of control, everyone lost interest. And a good thing too, you might think.

As plenty of people have pointed out, too many of the stories splashed all over the front pages last month were at best trivial or predictable (if true) and at worst of such dubious provenance as to make it almost certain that they were politically motivated smears.

In any case, 10 years after the Berlin Wall came down, there seems to be little point in reviving the paranoia of the cold war – particularly, in the minds of most editors, if there's a chance that m'learned friends might be called upon to fight libel actions by those wrongly accused of spying or informing for the Soviet Union and its satellite states.

Yet it would be a mistake to be too dismissive of the work behind the recent spate of allegations. The Mitrokhin Archive has undoubtedly been over-hyped.

As historical source material, its selections from the KGB files secreted away by Vasili Mitrokhin are tainted. Not only are intelligence and secret police files notoriously unreliable by their very nature (if only for the simple reason that the reports they contain were written by people with a vested interest in exaggerating their own successes); this lot has been filtered by British spooks to make sure nothing they want revealed will come out.

Nevertheless, with all due qualifications, there is much in the book that is new and important, in particular on the KGB's reliance on Western communist parties and its role in Eastern Europe as the Soviet system entered its death throes. (On Britain, incidentally, contrary to the impression given by the newspapers, the picture Mitrokhin and his co-author Christopher Andrew paint of the KGB's operations is largely one of incompetence and failure.)

Much the same is true of the work done by journalist David Rose for The Spying Game.

Although the series is open to criticism for exaggeration – for example of the importance of Vic Allen in CND – and for taking at face value the accounts given by spooks on both sides of their own influence on events, Rose has unveiled a lot of important material.

As one-time deputy editor of END Journal, the magazine of the European Nuclear Disarmament group, I am particularly struck what The Spying Game has revealed about the exhaustive information-gathering by communist states' intelligence agencies on everyone from the west involved in contact with dissident groups in the east.

END was set up in 1980 by Edward Thompson, Ken Coates and others to campaign for nuclear disarmament by both sides in the cold war, making a point of its opposition to Soviet nuclear arms and of its support for independent movements in the east to oppose them. Throughout the eighties, its activists visited Soviet bloc states, engaging dissidents in a dialogue about building a democratic demilitarised Europe.

We always knew we were kept under surveillance when we were over there, and most of us worked on the assumption that there were people in Britain who were prepared to pass on information about us to the eastern authorities.

But the people we mistrusted most were the dwindling band of British Stalinists – the Vic Aliens and Arthur Scargills – and the spooks employed by Soviet bloc embassies in London.

The more naive of us, myself included, did not imagine that there was a Stasi agent in the heart of our organisation who was passing even minor internal documents to headquarters in East Berlin.

Now, however, thanks to Rose's efforts, we know there was one. Precisely what happened to our friends and contacts as a direct result of that person's activities is impossible to tell for sure. But you don't have to succumb to the prevailing hysteria to wonder whether it might not have been extremely unpleasant.

Friday, 1 October 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 1999

One of the hardy perennials of British socialism has been the complaint that the establishment reinvents radicals as respectable 'characters' just as soon as they lose their ability to stir things up – most often, after they die.

It happened to Keir Hardie, Aneurin Bevan and Eric Heffer, and it has seemed about to happen to Tony Benn since at least 1983. When they were at the height of their powers, the Tory press treated them as lower than vermin. Dead or past it, however, they became loveable rogues, celebrated by their one-time mortal enemies for their brilliance in parliament, their extraordinary wit and their touching charm.

I always thought this retrospective rehabilitation of the awkward squad was a prerogative of the Tory right. But now new Labour is playing the same game. A campaign to erect a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament has won the support of chancellor Gordon Brown and a gaggle of ultra-moderniser Blair babes.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of Sylvia getting a statue. She was an important figure in early-20th-century British politics. She played a heroic role in the movement for women's suffrage. She was courageous in her opposition to the 1914-18 war. In the early 1920s, her paper Workers' Dreadnought took a bravely independent and critical line, publishing many of the leading dissident voices of continental European and Russian Marxism – among them Alexandra Kollontai, Gyorgy Lukacs, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek.

But she was not a new Labour sort of person. Indeed, she was for a significant period of her life an out-and-out revolutionary, too left-wing even for the Communist Party, let alone the (very old) Labour Party.

Pankhurst was one of the first people in Britain to rally to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and one of the first to argue for a British revolutionary socialist party to emulate the success of the Leninists in Russia. In 1918, she and her tiny Workers' Socialist Federation walked out of the Labour Party, declaring themselves opposed to parliamentarism and in favour of revolution.

She then played a major part in setting up a pro-Bolshevik propaganda office in London, the Russian People's Information Bureau, with money from Russia – which makes her one of the first recipients of the Moscow gold that sustained British communism whenever it fell upon hard times.

In 1920, after Lenin created the Comintern, the WSF renamed itself the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), taking a radical anti-parliamentarian line – much to the consternation of Lenin, whose diatribe Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was directed in part against her.

When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed with Lenin's approval a few months after the CP (BSTI), Pankhurst argued for her group to join and push it further to the left. She was expelled in 1921 for repeatedly criticising the party leadership in the pages of the Dreadnought – and for the next three years used the paper to denounce the CPGB and the Labour Party as lacklustre reformists.

Pankhurst's anti-parliamentarianism was unequivocal. As she put it in the Dreadnought in 1921: "The establishment of the communist life entails a complete breach, both in practice and ideas, with capitalism and its machinery. The parliamentary system is the characteristic machinery of the capitalist state . . . Parliament must be overthrown with the capitalist system if the proletarian revolution is to succeed; there must be a clean break wit the old institutions of government; the revolution must create its own instrument . . . The Soviets are destined to provide both the organisational machinery of communist society and to act as the instrument of proletarian dictatorship during the transitional period during which, while capitalism has been overthrown, the dispossessed owners have not yet settled down to accept the new order."

Some dismiss Pankhurst's left communism as an aberration – and it's true that her achievements as a revolutionary pale into insignificance next to her successes as a feminist campaigner. There was no British revolution, and the Dreadnought expired in 1924 for lack of funds.

But at the time the authorities took her very seriously. For a few years after the first world war, the notion that Britain might erupt in revolution did not seem so far-fetched. Pankhurst was kept under constant Special Branch surveillance and was gaoled for sedition after the Dreadnought called for British soldiers to mutiny.

I rather like the idea of a dangerously subversive anti-parliamentary communist gazing out over College Green. But it's even better that it should be supported by politicians whose policies make those of Ramsay MacDonald and Pankhurst's other reformist enemies look almost revolutionary. Gordon has a sense of humour after all, it seems.


New Times, October 1999

Paul Anderson talks to David Lipsey, journalist turned Labour peer and chair of the campaign for electoral reform for Westminster

“Electoral reform is still an elite issue at this stage,” says David Lipsey, the new chairman of Make Votes Count, the campaign for a more proportional electoral system for the House of Commons. “But at root it’s all about giving power to the people and taking it from the politicians.”

Acting as a figurehead and spokesman for a campaigning pressure group is something of a novelty for Lipsey. But he has been a player in Labour politics for a long time. I’m about as old Labour as you can be while still being new Labour,” he says with a grin. “I’m essentially a Croslandite egalitarian.” His main role to date have been policy adviser, journalist and sympathetic intellectual. He worked as an aide to Labour prime minister James Callaghan between 1977 and 1979, was on the Sunday Times from 1980 to 1986 and edited New Society from 1986 to 1988. After spells on the ill-fated Sunday Correspondent and The Times, in 1992 he became political editor of the Economist, a job he relinquished this year after being given a peerage. It was Lipsey who coined the phrase “new Labour”, in a 1992 Fabian Society pamphlet, The Name of the Rose. In 1997, he was an obvious choice as a member of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by Lord Jenkins, set up by Tony Blair to come up with a recommendation for an alternative electoral system for the Commons to be put to the country in a referendum.

Lipsey is taking to his new role with Make Votes Count with an almost boyish enthusiasm and some confidence – even though the Westminster rumour-mill has for some months been buzzing with stories to the effect that the Labour leadership has decided to abandon the promised referendum on electoral reform. Immediately after the publication of the Jenkins report electoral reformers were a little over-optimistic about the ease of the task ahead,” he says. “We had come up with an agreed system, which in itself was no mean feat, the press coverage was favourable and most electoral reformers accepted the Jenkins recommendations.

“But anyone could have foreseen that there would then be a very difficult period – first of all because some members of the cabinet were unpersuaded and secondly because of the impact of the new electoral systems for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and European Parliament elections. We live in a very conservative country: people always look for the downside of things. For a variety of reasons, there were a lot of people saying that they didn’t like this very much.”

Lipsey is now optimistic that the campaign to change the electoral system for the Commons can regain momentum. Those first elections are now behind us – and in retrospect, they were an advertisement for changing the electoral system, though I’m not a fan of the closed lists used in the European elections. If the European elections had been held under first-past-the-post, the Tories would have won 15 extra seats, Labour’s representation would have been unchanged and there would have been no seats in the European Parliament for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. I think the consequence of a result of that kind would have been a wave of rampant anti-Europeanism and headlines in the papers declaring that William Hague had bounced back. It would have been very bad for politics. A minority of people with hostile views on the euro would have been given far more influence than they deserve.

“As far as Scotland is concerned, if the elections there had been fought on first-past-the-post, we’d now be facing a choice between two ghastly options: permanent Labour hegemony, which would reproduce on a larger scale everything that is wrong with politics in the great Scottish cities, or the emergence of the Scottish National Party as the only feasible alternative, with the prospect that it would at some point lead Scotland to independence even though it had the support of less than half the electorate.”

The main priority now, he says, is to make sure that the case for the Jenkins proposals is made loud and clear in the Labour Party and in the Liberal Democrats.

Jenkins recommended a system known as “AV-plus”, under which all voters would have two votes, one for a constituency MP and one for a party. The constituency MPs would be elected by the alternative vote system, in which voters number candidates in order of preference. If nobody won 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preference votes of the candidate with least support would be redistributed to other candidates – and so on until one candidate secured more than half the vote. The party votes would elect up to 132 “top-up” MPs on the basis of proportions of the vote won by parties in 80 sub-regional areas.

Labour is holding a consultation on the Jenkins proposals that lasts until the end of the year, and Make Votes Count is making every effort to ensure that the result is favourable. The consultation is important not only in itself but also because of its influence on MPs,” says Lipsey. “The biggest obstacle to electoral reform has always been the difficulty of getting a bill through parliament. Reform potentially threatens the job of every single MP.”

He is nevertheless convinced that the reform lobby can prevail. There are two key arguments to get across in the Labour Party. The first is the “electoral deserts” argument – in other words, pointing to the way in which so many people live in places where they never get an MP from the party they vote for under the current system. The second, which is even more important, is the “inner cities” argument. Under AV-plus, inner city votes would count once again. Politicians could not afford to concentrate their effort just on a handful of affluent “swing voters” in marginal seats.  Already, he says, there is evidence that Labour’s grass roots see the need for change.
What, though, of the prospects of support for electoral reform at the top of the party? Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and Jack Cunningham are strong supporters of the Jenkins proposals. But John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Jack Straw are equally strong opponents – and, crucially, the positions of Labour’s two most powerful politicians, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, are unclear.

Lipsey is optimistic about Blair’s position. “He was as warm as anyone could have expected in his response to Jenkins, and -although I don’t have any inside source – I think that he was convinced by the report’s arguments, particularly those on ‘electoral deserts’. I don’t think he’s interested in proportionality as a concept, but neither is the Jenkins report. AV-plus is a more proportional system than the existing one, but proportionality is not the whole story.”

Some have criticised Jenkins precisely because AV-plus is not a genuinely proportional system. Because of the small size of the constituency clusters from which the “top-up” MPs would be elected, they argue, a party winning, say, 15 per cent of the vote across a region would be lucky to win any representation. Although the Lib Dems would benefit from AV-plus, they would not do as well as under a pure PR system – and the Greens and other small parties would be lucky to win any seats.

Lipsey counters this line of argument with characteristic candour. “It is absolutely deliberate that Jenkins isn’t really proportional. It is not an accidental side-effect. Any electoral system has to strike a balance between conflicting interests. Perfect proportionality gives tremendous power to small parties – witness the Free Democrats in the Federal Republic of Germany for most of the post-war period – and makes it very difficult for the people to throw the government out. I think it’s very important that the electorate should be able to cast the rascals out.

“There’s also a Realpolitik argument, which is that real proportionality is not saleable because MPs would not stand for it. I think the best way of making the case for electoral reform is not to say, look, this is a brand new continental import. It has to be sold as an evolution of our traditional British constituency-based electoral system to suit a country that no longer has two-party politics, preserving the best of that system while introducing the best features of other systems.”

Lipsey dismisses the claims of the first-past-the-post lobby that AV-plus would result in permanent coalition government. “If you look at past results, only two elections since 1945 would have had different outcomes under the system recommended by Jenkins. Ted Heath would not have won an overall majority in 1970 and John Major would not have won an overall majority in 1992. Otherwise, the results would have been the same: Labour majorities in 1945, 1950, 1966 and 1997, Tory majorities in 1951, 1955, 1959, 1979, 1983 and 1987, and hung parliaments in 1964 and both 1974 elections.”

Lipsey is an articulate and persuasive advocate. He would make an excellent spokesman for the reform camp during a referendum campaign. At this point, however, the battle is to make sure that the referendum takes place.


Chartist, October 1999

Continental social democrats are deeply ambivalent about Britain’s Labour government – though their reasons vary widely. Paul Anderson reports

When Labour won the 1997 general election, there was barely concealed rejoicing throughout the continental European political establishment. Tony Blair was an unknown quantity the other side of the Channel. But few mainstream continental politicians doubted that he was an out-and-out pro-European whose accession to power meant the end of a decade of Tory obstructionism in Europe.

Today, the picture is rather different. The sense of relief that the Tories are gone is still just about palpable. But Blair is no longer an unknown quantity. And although he is still much admired on the continent, doubts about new Labour are now widespread, particularly among left-leaning social democrats.

There are several things new Labour is generally seen to have done well. Most important, Britain is now firmly established as a co-operative member of the European family, not its black sheep. The Blair government has signed Britain up to the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty, has given substantial impetus to west European defence policy integration and has played a constructive role in the gruelling process of reforming the Common Agricultural Policy in preparation for EU enlargement.

The most common cause for continental grumbling about Britain under Blair is the apparent cooling of new Labour's enthusiasm for participation in the single European currency. In 1997, hopes were high among other EU governments of all political colours that Blair would take advantage of his extraordinary popularity among British voters and his giant parliamentary majority to call a snap referendum on Britain joining the euro in the first wave. That didn't happen – and the British government subsequently decided to rule out a referendum during the current parliament.

In the wake of this June's European elections, the Labour leadership has wavered again on the euro. Blair has agreed to front the pro-European Britain in Europe campaign – but only on condition that it drops its focus on arguing for British participation in the single currency and instead emphasises the benefits of Britain remaining in the EU. Blair has continued to argue for British membership of EMU when the time is right, but sources close to Gordon Brown have indicated that the chancellor is no longer as favourable towards sterling joining the euro as he once was. With the opinion polls showing strong public opposition to Britain joining EMU, it would not be surprising if Labour decides not to hold a referendum even in the next parliament.

Euro-zone politicians who want Britain in are not impressed – and they are right to detect a failure of new Labour nerve. Yet the truth is that Britain's dithering on the euro, however damaging it is to the political credibility of new Labour, does not make a great deal of difference to them. The euro "ins" have to make the single currency work regardless of what Britain decides to do. If disappointment with the British stance is widespread, it is not intense.

By contrast, there is deep hostility among some continental social democrats to new Labour's enthusiasm for deregulation and flexible labour markets, which they see as part of an attempt to replace the European model of workers' rights and welfare provision with something akin to what prevails in the United States.

Since becoming prime minister, Blair has consistently proselytised for policies to encourage competitiveness, doing his utmost to persuade his fellow social democratic leaders – and some moderate conservatives – to sign up to the "Third Way" represented by new Labour in Britain and the Clinton administration in the United States.

There is something about the 'Third Way' initiative that gives it the air of a desperate attempt by Blair to secure influence over euro-zone economic policy that British non-participation in the single currency has denied him. And so far, the results have not been spectacular: a few seminars and conferences and a pamphlet launched jointly by Blair and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder just before the European election, Europe: The Third Way — Die Neue Mitte.

But enough social democratic party leaders have become involved in the 'Third Way' initiative to give it momentum – and this in turn has set alarm bells ringing, particularly in the French Socialist Party, on the left of Schröder's SPD and among German trade unionists.

'We are different, unique,' French prime minister Lionel Jospin declared when asked why he had not signed up to the Blair-Schröder pamphlet. "We are less free-market, less attached to transatlantic ties. We favour global economic regulation." In Germany, the SPD has spent much of the summer arguing about whether the Blair-Schröder pamphlet played a part in its miserable result in the European elections, with the left and prominent trade unionists attacking its free-market thrust.

Not all the hostility to the Blair-Schröder pamphlet should be taken at face value. It is a moot point whether Jospin's differences with Blair and Schröder are much more than rhetorical. With the exception of its introduction of the 35-hour week, his government has been notably deregulationist, and his distancing himself from Blair and Schröder has more to do with his need to retain Communist Party support for his government than with anything else. Similarly, SPD left criticisms of the Blair-Schröder document have a lot to do with continuing resentment at the ejection of Oskar Lafontaine from the government in March and opposition to the austere budget package put forward by his successor as finance minister, Hans Eichel. The reality is that all the social democratic governments in the EU enthusiastically embrace the market even if they spurn the rhetoric of the "Third Way".

Nevertheless, worries that the Blair government is a Trojan horse for American-style labour-market and welfare practices are real enough, and they are unlikely to go away if it continues on its current course. If new Labour seriously wants to keep in with its social democratic sister parties in continental Europe — and they are in power in 13 out of 15 EU countries — it would do it no harm over the next few months to make it clear that it thinks trade unions, workers' rights and comprehensive welfare states are good things rather than impediments to enterprise. Come to think of it, that might even boost morale in Labour's own ranks. 

Wednesday, 1 September 1999


Paul Anderson, review of The Passing of an Illusion by Francois Furet (University of Chicago Press, £24.50), New Times, September 1999

In the 25 years before his death in 1997, the historian Francois Furet was one of the most influential intellectuals in France. His reinterpretation of the French revolution, based on a critique of the Marxist explanations put forward by the previous generation of French historians, played an extraordinary role in changing French perceptions of the past.

There was always a strong contemporary political thrust to his work. Most of the historians against whom he developed his reading of the French revolution were members of (or close to) the French Communist Party (PCF), to which Furet himself had belonged between 1949 and 1956. They celebrated the events of 1789-93 as an historically inevitable bourgeois revolution, excusing the Jacobins' use of terror on the grounds that the revolution was threatened from without – in line with the PCF's revolutionary ideology, its Marxist philosophy of history and its defence of the Soviet Union. Furet's arguments that the revolution was not 'bourgeois' and that terror was an integral part of the Jacobin ideology of revolution were direct assaults on the PCF's core beliefs.

So it was hardly surprising that, in his 60s, Furet turned directly to what Eric Hobsbawm describes as the 'short 20th century' – the period between the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 and the collapse of the communist regime in the Soviet Union in 1991. The Passing of an Illusion, published in France in 1995 but only now translated into English (by his wife Deborah), is the monumental result.

Furet explains in his preface that this is not a history of the Soviet Union or even of communism but 'a history of the illusion of communism during the time in which the USSR lent it consistency and vitality'. The 'illusion' was the notion, widely accepted in western Europe, that communism, as instituted in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, was a higher stage of civilisation than capitalism and one that was historically bound to prevail. 'It was a different type of illusion from one based on a calculation of means and ends or issuing simply from belief in a just cause,' he writes. 'For people lost in history, an illusion of this kind not only gives life meaning but offers them the comforts of certainty. Unlike an error of judgment, which, with the aid of experience, can be discovered, appraised and corrected, the communist illusion involved a psychological investment, somewhat like a religious faith even though its object was historical.'

This is a perfectly legitimate intellectual project. How the Soviet Union came to be seen as the salvation of humanity by a significant section of the western left – in some countries, by nearly everyone who was of the left – is one of the great puzzles of our century.

The Bolsheviks' contempt for democratic decision-making and working-class self-organisation was apparent to anyone who cared to take an interest long before Lenin came to power. By 1920, it was clear to astute left observers (including Bertrand Russell and the British Labour delegation with which he visited the country that summer) that Soviet Russia had become an extremely unpleasant police state.

Yet, somehow, by the mid-1930s – despite the regime in Russia becoming ever more brutal after Stalin's accession to power – the myth of the Soviet Union as the pioneer of the fate that history had laid down for the world was one of the core beliefs of much of the left throughout western Europe and north America. The myth retained its potency until well into the 1960s, despite the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Stalinist take-over in eastern Europe after 1945, Stalin's split with Tito, the 1953 Berlin uprising, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 . . .

Furet's attempts to explain all this are fascinating but flawed. His account of the way that many in the west rallied to the Bolshevik revolution as the legitimate heir of 1789 is brilliant. So too is much of his discussion of the symbiotic yet antagonistic relationship between communism and fascism. On the Popular Front in France, the Spanish civil war, the Hitler-Stalin pact and a lot more besides, Furet has extraordinary insight.

Yet there are also all sorts of bizarre omissions. Furet has little to say about the 'illusion of communism' in Italy, Britain or the United States and nothing at all to say about its role in anti-colonialism. In France, he ignores Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most influential postwar propagators of the illusion. There is little on the appeal of Soviet planning and industrialisation in the 1930s.

But the biggest problem is that Furet cannot resist going over the top. Time and again, he exaggerates the similarities of communist and fascist ideologies and regimes. Worst of all, he ruins a convincing argument that communism in the west really prospered only under the banner of anti-fascism by suggesting that anti-fascism 'was little more than a ploy by which communism cynically won itself credit in the eyes of gullible western liberals'. Tell that to the Russian survivors of Stalingrad or the veterans of the Resistance.

Sunday, 1 August 1999


New Times, August 1999

It is going to take a lot of work to restore the credibility of the European Commission after the scandal that led to the resignation of all 20 commissioners in March, but Romano Prodi, its new president, appears undaunted by the challenge.

He has used the four months since he was nominated by EU heads of government to put together a radical plan for strengthening and reforming the Commission, building on changes introduced in the Amsterdam treaty. All the signs are that – if the European Parliament approves his commissioners in the autumn – he has a good chance of overseeing the rehabilitation of a discredited institution.

Prodi wants a commission that 'will have the powers, the political awareness and the will to work as a team, to improve efficiency and transparency and to express a strong political programme'. In line with this, the central thrust of his reform programme is to make the presidency more powerful and the Commission much more like a cabinet government.
Before announcing his new team of 19 commissioners last month, he made a point of emphasising that he would not hesitate to use his powers to hire and fire – if necessary vetoing national governments' choices of commissioners. The new commissioners had to agree in writing that they accepted his right to dismiss them at will.

Prodi has created substantial new roles for his two vice-presidents and taken away their departmental responsibilities. The UK's Neil Kinnock will take charge of Commission reform, combating fraud, the budget and personnel; and Spain's Loyola de Palacio will deal with relations with the European Parliament and institutional reform. The agriculture and fisheries departments will be merged, as will those for justice and home affairs.

Prodi is also insisting that each commissioner's cabinet of advisers – hitherto generally treated as a private office and staffed by political allies from the commissioner's own country – become expert supranational bodies that 'serve as an instrument supporting the policies developed by the president and the commissioners'.

Finally, Prodi is moving most commissioners and their civil servants out of the central Brussels Breydel building, which will become the home of the presidency, the legal service and the head of the EU bureaucracy and will be run like the British cabinet office.

The main problem Prodi faces is the European Parliament, which has the power to reject the Commission – and might just do so. The June European election resulted in a change in the balance of MEPs, with the centre-right gaining at the expense of the centre-left. But 10 of Prodi's 19 commissioners are socialists, and the centre-right is not pleased.

There is also grumbling in the parliament about the reappointment of four of the members of the commission that fell in March – Kinnock, Italy's Mario Monti, Finland's Erkki Liikanen and Austria's Franz Fischler. None of them was implicated in the corruption scandals, but many MEPs insist that there should have been a clean sweep of commissioners as the parliament demanded. 

Friday, 23 July 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 July 1999

I'm afraid I came away from last Saturday's Tribune-sponsored conference, "Democratic socialism or 19th century liberalism?", feeling rather depressed.

It would have been the same whatever had been said. After more than two decades of going to left-wing conferences of one kind or another, I can no longer spend more than a couple of hours listening to even the best speeches without getting the blues. And it's always worse if it's a beautiful summer's day outside or if the speakers drone on or if most of the contributors from the floor are nutters.

Last Saturday was relatively nutter-free, and not too many people droned on, at least in the bits I caught. But it was a beautiful summer's day outside, which meant that the main hall in Congress House was stiflingly hot and stuffy. At one point during the morning, I dozed off — to be awoken with a start by a speaker demanding that the left take seriously "the nudist position on Ireland". "Hey," I thought, "naturism as the key to unlocking the peace process. That's novel." But then he mentioned the "new disposition" a second time and I drifted into slumber again.

My problem with left-wing conferences is that I find them for the most part brain-numbingly predictable. I'm pretty familiar with the British left. I've been around it for a while, and I read all its main magazines and newspapers. I don't want to come across as a know-all, but most of the things people say at left-wing conferences I've heard or read already.

So why do I persist in turning up to them? Well, it's always good to see old friends and have a natter during breaks, then down a few beers in the evening before going off for a curry. I suppose my ideal left-wing conference would have 15-minute opening and closing plenary sessions, 30-minute workshops, one-hour coffee and tea breaks and two hours for lunch, with a really massive party in the evening.

Of course, such an event would be useless as a means of attracting new people to the cause, forging new alliances and doing all the other serious things that left-wing conferences are supposed to do. But I'm not sure that the traditional-format talk fest is much better.

Last Saturday's do, for instance, was intended as a consolidation exercise for the Labour left. The organisers' idea was to bring together the constituency activists involved in the Grassroots Alliance's successful National Executive Committee campaign along with MPs and trade unionists critical of the Government's direction. And indeed, they all turned up — the stalwarts of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Briefing and Labour Reform, Barbara Castle, Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn, John Edmonds, Jimmy Knapp and a load more — and they all agreed that they didn't much like new Labour's control freakery and obsession with appeasing the Daily Mail-reading middle classes.

But what beyond this do they have in common? Enthusiasm for more union-friendly labour laws and opposition to various aspects of the Government's welfare reform programme, certainly — which is fair enough. But even on these issues there are massive differences over what should happen instead of what new Labour is actually doing.

Otherwise, there really isn't much to unite the disparate band that came along last Saturday. People pushing positive alternatives to new Labour policies were conspicuous by their absence. A lot of speakers expressed hostility to the Liberal Democrats and proportional representation, and there was a virulently anti-European tone to several contributions. Nearly everyone cheered wildly at Tony Benn's closing speech, reasserting the eternal verities of the old Labour left just as he did in the early 1980s.

But the truth is that these days the Lib Dems, PR and Europe divide the Labour left — particularly PR and Europe. 'Unity' on a platform of first-past-the-post and anti-Europeanism would be the unity of an impotent rump. And although Benn remains an impressive orator, sentimentality for the good old days when the left was a power in the Labour Party will not make it vigorous again.

So although the organisers did a great job, and although it was great to see everyone again, I don't think we're now on the brink of a great left revival. What last Saturday showed was that as much still divides the Labour left as unites it, and that it will be some time yet before it is able to offer a serious comprehensive project to rival New Labour's. Which is roughly where we've been since the late 1980s.