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.