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.”