Friday, 28 November 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 28 November 2008

Last week, one of my best friends died. I first met Patrick Fitzgerald at a meeting of the Oxford Anarchist Group in the first week of term when I went up to university in October 1978. It was in Danny Simpson’s Exeter college room in a house on Turl Street.

We were both 18, but Pat was a seasoned veteran. He’d been an anarchist for all of two years and a university student for one, having started at Keble at a tender age because he was such a brilliant mathematician. And he was rather suspicious of the influx of raw new recruits to the anarchist group from freshers’ week. He sat on Danny’s bed looking sullen, smoking, rigged out in unfashionable denim – flared trousers when flares were out – and a Chelsea scarf. Pat’s style was always his own.

We didn’t make friends at first. We were rivals over several girls – and Pat always won. But, through a shared enthusiasm for pills, booze and rock’n’roll, we bonded. And we became – literally – partners in crime.

I have no idea how he acquired the knack, but as a youth Pat was an accomplished cat-burglar. He was always one for digging up dirt – and one of his main means of doing it when he started out in the late 1970s was the break-in.

He burgled dons who were recruiting for MI5, and wrote up his findings in Back Street Bugle, Oxford’s alternative paper. He burgled the army recruitment office. And he burgled college bars for money – an enterprise that went badly wrong when he and two others were caught red-handed.

When the Oxford University Student Union had a general meeting at which the left hoped it would secure a majority to occupy a building that became the social science department library – the idea was that we’d turn it into a proper central students’ union that put on gigs – it was Pat who waited with the crowbar for the call that never came from the meeting. (He was waiting with Sarah Baxter, now of the Sunday Times, who had a bicycle.) It was Pat too who cut the outside broadcast link from Billy Graham’s Christian revivalist meeting in Oxford town hall that we disrupted as a protest against – well, Billy Graham.

I only once benefited materially from any of this, and only in a small way. The heist – and it was a great one – was of booze from an Oxford college boat clubhouse, the getaway transport a punt on to which crates of summer drinks were loaded before it was inexpertly floated a couple of miles down the river, where a waiting crew spirited the haul to their bedsits in east Oxford. Ten years later there were still unopened bottles of Pimm’s in many former Oxford anarchists’ parents’ drinks cabinets.

Meanwhile, Pat got serious. After he left Oxford, he started a doctorate at the University of Kent but soon decided that his vocation was as an investigative journalist. He did work for various radical magazines – including Tribune from the mid-1980s – and Fleet Street newspapers, but put his main efforts into books. British Intelligence and Covert Action, co-authored with the émigré South African journalist Jonathan Bloch, appeared in 1983. A ground-breaking exposé of secret operations since the second world war, it met a furious response from the political and military establishment, but its accuracy on all its key stories remains unquestioned. In 1987 came Stranger on the Line, co-authored with Mark Leopold, an exhaustive account of the British state’s enthusiasm for phone-tapping, and a side project, The Comic Book of MI5, with illustrations by the Irish cartoonist Cormac.

Pat was an enthusiastic hedonist, and at times in the late 1980s and 1990s he overdid it, but he kept up an impressive journalistic output, covering intelligence and security issues for Tribune and the New Statesman among others and earning money writing business travel guides. He was less obviously prolific in recent years – partly because of lack of outlets, partly because of poor health – but still managed a great deal, most recently doing a substantial body of work on a soon-to-be-published book on the war on terror with Jonathan Bloch and Paul Todd.

He’d not been well for some time – he contracted cellulitis earlier in the year, and the treatment had dragged on and on without apparently working – but his sudden death was a shock to all his friends, not least his partner of 20 years, Leila Carlyle, with whom he lived in east London. Frighteningly intelligent and well informed, immensely funny and above all extraordinarily kind, he will be missed. There’s a wake for him tonight (November 28) in the Calthorpe Arms in Gray’s Inn Road, London EC1, just up the road from Tribune’s old offices.

Friday, 31 October 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 October 2008

I hope that somewhere else in this magazine there is a cheery announcement that Tribune has secured financial backing and that this will not be the last issue. But I’m not sure there is, so I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you, dear readers, for having me. It’s now more than 22 years since I first wrote for Tribune and 10 since I started this column, and your persistent poisonous sniping and personal abuse have sustained me through many a dark hour.

Seriously, if this isn’t the last issue – and I don’t think it is – it has been a damn close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington didn’t actually say of the Battle of Waterloo. Perhaps it’s not quite as close as it was in 1988, when we ran a front page adorned with the words “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” after the then board of directors decided to pull the plug in a week – this time, the magazine has had all of a month to organise a rescue. But it’s closer than at any time in the intervening two decades.

Of course, Tribune has a glorious history of financial crisis. It was launched as a newspaper in 1937 by two rich Labour MPs, Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss, as a vehicle for the Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to unite the Labour left with the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, with Cripps and Strauss putting up £18,000 of their own cash (roughly £800,000 in today’s money). They assumed they would achieve a break-even circulation of 50,000 in a matter of weeks and then recoup their investment – but in fact the paper used up all the dosh in nine months and barely hit 25,000.

Cripps continued reluctantly to subsidise its losses through 1938 and 1939 – a period when Tribune became an adjunct to the publisher Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club – but then lost interest and dropped out of completely in spring 1940 on his appointment as ambassador to Moscow, leaving control of the paper to Aneurin Bevan and Strauss. Strauss picked up the tab and continued to do so for several years – but he too blew hot and cold and dropped out on becoming a junior minister in the 1945 Labour government.

By the late 1940s, Tribune was on its uppers again and resorted to selling editorial space to Labour Party headquarters – and in 1950 it was forced to go fortnightly, resuming weekly publication only in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, it survived only thanks to non-stop fundraising, most of it from readers but some from anonymous rich benefactors. One of these was the maverick Tory press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who handed over £3,000 when his rival Lord Kemsley sued Tribune for libel.

The 1960s and 1970s were decades of relative stability for the paper despite a slow decline in circulation – largely because many of the trade unions were left-led and were persuaded to take bulk orders and solidarity advertising – and in the early 1980s Tribune’s finances were buoyed by advertisements from local councils under left-wing Labour control, particularly Ken Livingstone’s GLC. But in the mid-1980s the financial situation deteriorated rapidly. The unions, with membership in decline, tightened their belts and merged. The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government and the rules on local council spending were tightened. By the end of 1987 it looked as if the writing was on the wall, and in early 1988, with circulation around 5,000, the board decided Tribune would have to close.

It didn’t, for two reasons. The paper’s readers rallied round magnificently, raising £40,000 in a little more than a fortnight, and the unions agreed to pay for a promotion campaign. That worked, but not quite well enough, and there was another minor crisis in early 1991 that led to the paper going down from 12 tabloid pages to eight for six months. In the meantime, however, we raised sufficient funds to buy desktop publishing equipment, which slashed production costs – and the rest of the 1990s were plain sailing.

There was another wobble in 2002-03, which was resolved by a consortium of unions taking ownership of Tribune and promising long-term investment – but by this spring they had got cold feet, and last month they decided that this would be the last issue unless a buyer could be found. Every time I’ve spoken to the editor since, he has expressed cautious optimism about the prospects. I’ve just been keeping my fingers crossed: I hope we haven’t used up our nine lives.

And the moral of the story? Well, there isn’t one, except that it has always been difficult to sustain left-wing newspapers. Whether it is more difficult now than it used to be is a moot point – but that’s for another column. If there is one …

Saturday, 4 October 2008


Paul Anderson, review of The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson (Faber and Faber, £25), Tribune, 3 October 2008

The Italian front in the first world war has not been a favoured topic for historians writing in English. It would be wrong to say that it has been completely ignored – but by comparison with the western front, the war at sea, Gallipoli, the eastern front or even Palestine it has received scant attention, apart from two key battles: the central powers’ rout of Italy at Caporetto in autumn 1917, which was followed by a spectacular Italian retreat; and the Italians’ decisive triumph of Vittorio Veneto a year later, after which the Italians recovered all their lost territory (and seized some more) in the last days before the war ended.

In some respects, this lack of attention is hardly surprising. Italy joined the allies late – in spring 1915 – and the front lines established by the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian empire within days of the start of hostilities changed only marginally over the next two-and-a-half years. For the western allies (Britain and France), Italy was a sideshow compared with the western front and the German blockade, and they committed few troops and little hardware until almost the very end; for the Russians, the Italian campaign was of interest solely because it tied up large numbers of Austro-Hungarian troops that would otherwise have been sent to fight them. Germany was directly involved in the Italian campaign only briefly (although its intervention was almost decisive).

Yet, as Mark Thompson makes clear in this fascinating book, the Italian front was rather more important than it seemed at the time to outsiders or has since appeared to most non-Italian historians. It is a commonplace that the experience of war is socially and politically cathartic, and many historians have remarked on the importance of the first world war in the breakdown of Italy’s fragile, flawed democracy and the rise of Mussolini’s fascists: 1.2 million Italians died, nearly half of them civilians. But Thompson makes that process extraordinarily vivid, using an impressive range of sources – official reports, newspaper articles, veterans’ memoirs, intellectual manifestos – to put into context and humanise the story of military actions and casualty statistics.

The picture he paints is little short of horrifying. Italy was bounced into war by a cynical nationalist propaganda campaign in which most liberals and socialists acquiesced. Then the Italian commander-in-chief, Luigi Cadorna, adopted tactics of breathtaking stupidity – frontal assaults up bare mountainsides against well-defended Austro-Hungarian positions – that he stuck with, despite shocking casualties, for more than two years. The troops were treated as dirt, even when they were not being sent to their deaths in futile attacks on mountain redoubts: their rations and clothing were inadequate and their leave minimal, and summary execution of supposed malingerers and cowards was the norm. (This extended to the systematic execution of soldiers chosen by lot to discourage their comrades from mutiny or desertion.)

Cadorna regarded the democratic politicians that were supposedly in charge with utter contempt – and was cheered on loudly by Mussolini (miraculously transformed from socialist militant into ultra-patriotic publicist) and other extreme nationalist intellectuals, among them the poets Gabriele d’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Cadorna was sacked after the debacle of Caporetto, but by then Italy’s liberal political class had lost the plot. After the war ended, it found itself outmanoeuvred by insistent and hysterical right-wing nationalist demands for Italy to be rewarded for its sacrifices with Trieste, Fiume and a large swath of the northern Adriatic coast – and, to cut a long story short, it capitulated.

The White War – the title refers to the snow and limestone of the mountains over which most of the Italian campaign of 1915-18 was fought – is meticulously researched and a gripping read. I could have done with a big fold-out map, but otherwise this is an exemplary and erudite work of popular history.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 October 2008

So – surprise, surprise – there was no attempt to topple Gordon Brown in Manchester last week, and he lives to fight another day. Indeed, thanks largely to a better-than-expected speech that seems to have given Labour a big bounce in the opinion polls, his position appears significantly stronger after Labour conference than it did just before.

How lasting this new strength will prove is another matter. It might well have started to dissipate by the time you read this – the first polls after David Cameron’s main Tory conference speech were due to be published as Tribune went to press – and there is so much that could go wrong for Brown in the very near future. The sullen internal Labour Party truce observed (for the most part) in Manchester is fragile at best, and it would not take a lot for hostilities to break out again: a botched reshuffle, a couple of really bad polls, defeat in the Glenrothes by-election, you name it …

But the best guess is that Brown has won himself some breathing space. The young pretender, David Miliband, no longer looks quite such an obvious alternative as he did in summer. The media consensus is that he had a poor conference – his nadir being pictured holding a banana, which is apparently something only done by nerds. Whatever, there is no one else remotely credible as a would-be prime minister.

So the likelihood is that what will determine both Brown’s and Labour’s fate is the way the government handles the economy in the next six to 12 months.

The only certainty here is that it will not be easy. Economists differ on precisely how severe a downturn Britain will experience as a consequence of the combined credit crunch, energy squeeze and banking crisis. But nearly all agree that it will be severe, particularly if the housing market, currently pretty-much frozen, goes into meltdown US-style. The worst-case scenario, horribly plausible in a way that premonitions of slump have not been for 30 years, is of a vicious circle of collapsing consumption, business failures, rising unemployment and mortgage defaults that creates the worst recession in living memory.

Brown and Alistair Darling are aware of the threat – which is more than can be said of the Conservative opposition, whose economic illiteracy this week has been utterly breathtaking. The prime minister and the chancellor both made it clear in their conference speeches that current economic conditions necessitate the state playing an active role not just in restoring confidence in the banking system but also, crucially, in maintaining the overall level of demand in the economy and in ensuring that the poor do not bear the brunt of the downturn.

In other words, unlike the Tories, they do not appear to be singing from the same song sheet as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in 1931: in the medium term at least, Labour will borrow and spend to compensate for the effects of tight private credit and will not slash the welfare state.

But if that’s reassuring, it’s not enough. Coded statements of intent in conference speeches are all very well, but they need to be translated into hard policy to have any serious impact either economically or politically – and so far the government’s proposals have been timid, unimaginative and short-term. Of course, dealing with the immediate financial crisis has to be the priority and is in itself a daunting challenge, but the government also needs to come up with concrete medium-term plans for taking the sting out of recession.

The key here is a serious programme of public works – social housing, renewable and nuclear energy, dedicated cycle tracks in every city, urban trams and light railways, a high-speed rail network – to take up the slack in the economy. Needless to say, it would take time to assemble and cost, but that is precisely why the government should be working on it right now even though the scale and duration of the downturn are unclear.

Bad economic times generally do governments no good, and it would be foolish to be too optimistic about Labour’s chances of weathering the gathering storm. The opinion polls are dire even with the post-conference bounce. The party’s position is not, however, completely hopeless. The Tories have no credible economic policy to deal with the recessionary times in which we are now living. With a coherent and bold programme of state intervention to alleviate the pain of market failure, Labour might just persuade the voters to give it another term in spring 2010. Who knows, it could even manage it under its current leader.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 September 2008

There’s a lot that is simply depressing about the Georgian crisis of the past month. There’s the extraordinary stupidity of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in thinking he could retake the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force without the Kremlin using it as the pretext for rolling in the tanks already waiting to go in.

Then there’s the type of force the Georgian military apparently used: an artillery barrage against a small town, which, although small-scale by Russian standards in Chechnya and a long way short of “genocide”, presented Moscow with a better excuse for moving in than it could ever have imagined.

But most of all there’s the premeditated Russian invasion itself – prepared over years by issuing Russian passports to South Ossetians and over months by amassing a serious invasion force – and its aftermath of brutal ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and beyond, mainly by irregular paramilitaries. As I write, the Russians are still occupying swathes of territory they promised to vacate and have recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, quite obviously with the intention of absorbing both into the Russian Federation in the not-too-distant future.

It should not have come to this, and that it has speaks volumes both of the sick state of Russian politics and of the failure of the western democracies to support Georgia.

Why did Russia invade? Forget the cant about protecting ethnic minorities and defending the right to national self-determination: this has been an exercise in blatant power projection aimed at showing Georgia who is boss. A large part of the Russian elite – backed by public opinion – cannot stand the humiliation of having been rejected by Georgia in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been spoiling for a fight ever since.

But the Kremlin would probably not have pushed it as far were it not for the incompetence of western policy on Georgia, particularly in the past six months.

Georgia is not an easy country to deal with. Its democracy is new and flawed. Corruption, endemic five years ago, is still widespread, and its record on human rights is patchy. South Ossetians and Abkhazians are so few in number they could never form viable independent states, but they have genuine cause to fear Georgian “territorial integrity” since the vicious civil wars of the early 1990s (though many more Georgians found themselves forced from their homes then than anyone else). And of course there is the role of Russia, backing the secessionist enclaves and professing outrage about western interference in its near-abroad – just as the west’s reliance upon Russian energy supplies has become critical.

Yet none of this can excuse the way the west has messed up. The first decade of Georgian independence – under the presidencies first, briefly, of the chauvinist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, then the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian former Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze – made it abundantly clear that Georgia still had a long way to go before it could be considered properly democratic.

Rightly, western governments and non-governmental organisations, particularly those funded by the financier George Soros, gave support to Georgians attempting to open up civil society and institute a real democracy – and as such played an important though hardly determining role in the protest movement against rigged elections that became the “rose revolution” of 2003, which led to Shevardnadze’s resignation and new elections in 2004 that Saakashvili won convincingly.

Saakashvili as president deserved western support, but not the wholly uncritical sort he got from the Bush administration. It should not have been beyond the EU and the US to negotiate a plan for Georgian accession to the EU after cleaning up Georgia’s human rights record and negotiating substantial autonomy for South Ossetia and Abkhazia – with possible Nato membership much later. Instead, stupidly, Georgian membership of Nato became the big immediate issue, on Georgian and American insistence, and as soon as it became clear earlier this year that France and Germany would not sanction it, Moscow knew it had the perfect opportunity to teach both Tblisi and Washington a lesson if it could provoke Saakashvili to act against its secessionist clients.

What next? Gordon Brown and David Miliband are surely right to argue that the world should not acquiesce in Russia’s aggression, but it is difficult to see how Moscow can be persuaded to return even to the status quo ante of the beginning of August. It’s a matter of making the best of a bad job, making clear in small ways that the democratic world disapproves of Russia’s actions while giving Georgia serious material and political support – say by offering it EU membership in five years and Nato membership in 10. Would that set off a new cold war? Probably not, but if it did the prime responsibility would lie with the irredentists in the Kremlin.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 August 2008

What an extraordinary fortnight in politics. Labour, in the doldrums in the polls and recently humiliated in local elections in England and Wales, loses what was a safe Westminster seat in a by-election in urban Scotland, and there is an outbreak of apocalyptic doom-mongering among columnists and backbench MPs. Then the prime minister goes on holiday – and the foreign secretary writes a comment piece for the Guardian in which he says that Labour has rather a lot to be proud of but should admit it has made mistakes…

At which point everyone goes completely bonkers. For ten days the papers are filled with denunciations of Gordon Brown, profiles of the young pretender David Miliband – has he got what it takes? – and rumours of plots to unseat the PM, one of which is apparently aimed at getting him out by the end of the month.

All right, I’m out of the loop, and it’s entirely possible that, as I write, Miliband and his supporters are furiously phoning, emailing and texting colleagues in an attempt to get them to ditch the hopeless Brown before Labour conference – but somehow I doubt it.

Miliband’s article and subsequent media appearances undoubtedly constitute a conscious attempt to position himself as the front-runner for the Labour leadership should a vacancy arise – but the qualification is important. I don’t think they presage an attempt to challenge Brown directly, even though it’s quite apparent that Miliband (just like every other Brit with an interest in politics) recognises that Brown is completely incapable of winning the next general election.

The reason Miliband’s actions don’t seem to me the prelude to a straight leadership challenge is simple: Labour Party rules. When Labour last changed its arrangements for electing its leader, way back in 1993, it made it ludicrously difficult to depose a Labour prime minister. I once asked Larry Whitty, the party’s general secretary at the time of the rule change, how it could be done – and his response was that, as a former Stalinist, he’d made sure it was impossible.

He was joking – but only a bit. By the rules, the only way an incumbent Labour leader, however useless, can be ditched is by a de facto vote of no confidence at party conference. To organise that except in the most extreme circumstances would be as near to impossible as you can get. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don’t think Gordon is going to be given the boot by the massed delegates in Manchester next month.

There is another way formally to force a leader out. No parliamentary Labour leader could continue without the support of Labour MPs. Again, I might have missed something, but I don’t think the PLP is in the mood to organise a vote of no confidence against Brown, however poorly it rates him, and even if it was I’d doubt its ability to do it.

Which leaves the proverbial men in grey suits – a delegation of senior cabinet and party figures that goes to see Brown and tells him his time is up. It’s not impossible; it might just happen. But to have any chance of success the delegation would need to include several hardcore Brown allies: I’d say Alistair Darling, John Denham and Harriet Harman, all of whom have professed undying loyalty this week. No go, there, it seems, at least for now.

So – it looks like it’s a matter of persuading Gordon to go gently, drip by drip. It doesn’t need a plot: everyone who meets him simply needs to tell him straightforwardly and politely that he hasn’t a hope of winning the next election and that he ought to resign (at the right time) for the sake of the party. If he ignores the advice, so be it – but then Labour can guarantee disaster 1931-style at the next general election, with or without Derek Draper.

Miliband is the blindingly obvious alternative to Brown. He is not perfect, but he is a good man. He is a centrist in the current Labour Party (not a Blairite). He is young and attractive. He has done a decent job as foreign secretary. And he has some sensible ideas about how Labour can renew itself that are not the usual bollocks. He is also remarkably uncontaminated by the vicious infighting at the top of the Labour Party over the past 20 years.

My fear is that Brown holds tight then loses disastrously. Then it would be 2019 or 2020 at least before we see another Labour government again – by which time I’ll be drawing my pension. Gordon, please agree to go. Please. It’s been nice having you, but your time is up. We can’t force you out but you know what you need to do. Sword. Fall on. Early next year. The party will be grateful.

Thursday, 10 July 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 July 2008

Forget the Henley by-election, 42 days detention, the resignation of Wendy Alexander and whatsisname’s no-show at the Glasgow East selection – the worst news of the past few weeks for Labour is the economy, stupid.

Any hopes the government had three months ago that the worst of the credit crunch was over now seem certain to be dashed. With property prices in free-fall, the housing market has seized up. Construction companies are laying off workers. Retailers report that the buoyant consumer demand of the early months of the year has evaporated. Britain looks to be heading for recession just as soaring commodity prices, most noticeably oil and food, have introduced a nasty dose of inflation into the economy – which effectively rules out the obvious monetary policy response to the threat of recession, interest rate cuts.

So the government is in a tight spot. Voters have been hit by hikes in food, gas, electricity and petrol bills (and in many cases mortgage payments) just as the value of their homes has plummeted and the chances of losing their jobs have increased. Unsurprisingly, they are angry – and most blame the government.

This is a bit unfair. It is not the government’s fault that the US house price bubble burst last year, leading large numbers of Americans to default on their mortgages, which in turn led to banks everywhere refusing to lend to one another because no one knew how exposed anyone else was to “sub-prime” loans, which in turn caused the general credit crunch that burst the UK housing bubble. Nor is it the government’s fault that the rapid growth of India and China has increased global oil and gas demand or that there have been bad harvests in much of the world in the past year.

But it’s no good Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling pleading they are the victims of unforeseen circumstances beyond their control. For a start, it’s not the whole truth. The government allowed the UK housing bubble to grow as big as it did, and plenty of people had predicted it would burst, even if no one identified the mechanism. The vulnerability of the UK economy to the rampant oil price speaks volumes of Labour’s failure to invest in rail, renewables and nuclear energy. And, most important in terms of public opinion, it is the government that introduced income tax changes that hit the poorest hardest and the government that is blithely exacerbating the pain of petrol-price increases with new taxes.

There is little point, however, in wondering what might have been: the question is what the government can do now to rescue the situation. Its credibility on economic management has been severely damaged, it has less than two years before the next election – and the indications are that things are not going to get better for some time whatever it does.

But the position is not hopeless. With a clear strategy and a little luck, the government could yet haul itself out of the mire.

The first thing it needs to do is make amends for its recent faux pas on tax to make the tax regime more equitable. That means apologising for the 10p starting rate fiasco and ditching the planned motoring taxes, then reforming the whole tax system to ensure that the rich rather than the poor pay. The devil is in the detail here: the last thing Labour needs is to frighten middle-class voters. But there are all sorts of possibilities: increased personal allowances paid for with a 60 per cent top rate on incomes above, say, £200,000 and ending the upper earnings limit on national insurance; or maybe abolition of council tax bands so the contribution of those living in palaces is not capped. Redistribution from rich to poor makes sense in tough times. The poor spend their cash locally, which means more jobs and spending in the UK; the rich go on holiday in the Bahamas and import yachts. OK, I’m exaggerating – and it’s less of a no-brainer than it used to be because of the globalisation of industrial production – but you get the principle.

The second pillar of Labour’s anti-recession campaign should be a major public works programme to take up the slack left by withering consumer demand. This should not be paid for by an overall increase in taxation, which would be counter-productive, but by borrowing, both directly by the state and – insofar as they remain viable post-credit-crunch – private finance initiatives. There is no shortage of projects worthy of support: a high-speed rail network; dedicated cycle routes in every city; expansion of wind, wave, tidal, hydro and nuclear electricity generation; social housing; et cetera … Yes, it would bust Gordon’s rules on borrowing – or would it? – but needs must.

New Labour it ain’t, but sensibly countercyclical and social democratic it is. Actually, it’s straight John Maynard Keynes circa 1930. Anyone got a better idea?

Friday, 13 June 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 June 2008

I might have said it before, but I’ll say it again. One of the most frightening things about middle age is realising that events you consider recent actually took place ages ago.

The thought strikes me often because I work as a university lecturer, and each year’s intake of students is younger than the last. I’m currently recruiting undergraduates born as recently as 1990 for entry in September. They’re still Thatcher’s children – or at least the Brits among them are – but only just. The other week I went out for drinks with a group of students to celebrate a 21st and was taken aback to discover that the birthday girl had a strong recollection of Labour winning in 1997 because she was 10 the day that Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street. There are still mature students and postgrads with teenage memories of John Major or Monica Lewinsky, but year after year their numbers get fewer.

What really got me this week, however, was not the youth of my students but the jolt of recognition that it’s 25 years since I decided I ought to join the Labour Party. I’m not expecting anyone to start a collection for a long-service presentation – apart from anything else, I didn’t in fact sign up for some time, and the only award I deserve is for most indolent party member not sitting in the House of Lords.

And who would want to draw attention to the circumstances of my mini-epiphany? It was, of course, the general election defeat of June 9 1983, when Labour’s national share of the vote slumped to under 28 per cent, only just ahead of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, and Labour won just 209 seats in the House of Commons. Labour doesn’t want to remember it because it was a humiliation, and for the Tories to commemorate it would seem hubristic. Apart from one meeting of Labour historians in the House of Commons that I missed, the anniversary has gone unmarked.

I’m not proud to admit it now, but I treated that election purely as a spectator sport. I was far too left-wing to get involved, and anyway – whatever the opinion polls said – I was confident it would result in the Tories being defeated and some centrist Keynesian corporatist Labour-Alliance coalition taking their place. That would leave the serious left to push for social revolution through rank-and-file workplace organisation and grassroots social movements. In other words, I thought it would be back to 1960s-1970s business-as-usual (as I then understood it, need I emphasise).

But in the early hours of June 10 1983, as the results came in and the beers went down, it dawned on me with horror that I had got it completely wrong. It was a straightforward Tory landslide. The authoritarian free-market right was utterly triumphant. The idea that somehow there would be space for anything other than desperate defence of the welfare state and trade union rights against the Thatcherite onslaught suddenly struck me as incredibly stupid. Whatever was wrong with Labour, the only alternative in a first-past-the-post electoral system was the Tories – and they were a great deal worse.

A statement of the bleeding obvious, you might think. I certainly do. I’ve not wavered in my belief that Labour is the lesser evil for a whole quarter-century (even while advocating tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats on occasion, though that’s a different story).

But it doesn’t seem that way for rather a lot of people right now. The opinion polls in the past few weeks bear a frightening resemblance to the result of the 1983 general election, and so did the local elections last month. My own focus groups – well, actually, the people I meet in everyday life – confirm all the trends. Gordon Brown is hopeless and Labour is finished if it continues on its current course.

Yes, it’s mid-term; yes, the economy might not be in quite as dire a state as the pessimists claim; yes, the Tories are coming back from a performance in terms of seats that was little better than Labour’s in 1983. But it’s looking less and less likely that Brown will be able to pull anything out of the hat. He is the day-before-yesterday’s man, and nothing he has done this year suggests that he has a clue how to restore Labour’s fortunes.

If Labour wants to avoid a repeat of 1983 in 2010, Brown should not be leader then – and the efforts of all party loyalists for the next few months should be devoted to persuading him to fall on his sword in an orderly manner. I don’t think he’ll do it, but it’s at least worth a try. The other options, professing undying loyalty to a leader who has no hope of winning or attempting to force him out, are recipes for electoral disaster.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 May 2008

So, farewell then, Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, as Private Eye's resident poet E. J. Thribb would have it (though only if Mullin had died, which of course he hasn't).

Last week the former Tribune editor – that's Mullin not Thribb – told the Sunderland Echo: "After careful thought, I have reluctantly concluded that my useful life in parliament is over. I will not, therefore, be a candidate at the next election."

Mullin will be missed. He held only junior ministerial office, from 1999 to 2001 and 2003 to 2005. But – like Gwyneth Dunwoody, who has died – he played a crucial role in fearlessly chairing a select committee, in his case home affairs from 1997 to 1999 and 2001 to 2003. He has been one of the most effective backbench MPs of the past two decades and parliament will be the poorer without him.

But that's enough elegiac fawning – ed. Or maybe not, because another admirable thing about Mullin is that he's decided that it's time to quit after carefully considering how much he could achieve by staying.

As such, he's unusual among Labour MPs. There are now 351 of them sitting in the House of Commons. I have not kept a record of who is stepping down in 2010 – we can safely assume the election date, I think – but the pollster Anthony Wells has, on his excellent UK Polling Report website, which lists 26 Labour MPs as having announced that they are retiring at the end of this parliament.

If you add Mullin and Clare Short, who was elected as Labour but resigned the whip, the figure comes up to 28, but so what. The point is that very few Labour MPs have said that they are bowing out, and most of those that have are either very old or represent seats that will be abolished through boundary changes – or both.

It's true that the election is two years away. It's also true that on past form quite a few veteran Labour MPs will hang on until the last moment before announcing their retirements – a course of action that has historically been a good way of securing a peerage, because it allows the grateful Labour leadership to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats irrespective of the wishes of local Labour Party members.

Arise, I suspect, Lords Mitchell of Haddock and Chips, Skinner of Legover in a Baseball Hat and Meacher of Mad Conspiracy Theory.

All the same, the small number of announced retirements is noteworthy, even though it's easy enough to explain without reference to where we are in the electoral cycle or the cynicism of might/might-not retirees.

Labour won a landslide in 1997, in which no fewer than 178 of its 418 MPs were elected for the first time, and more than a third of the 240 others elected that distant glorious day have retired, died or been defeated since, most of them replaced by Labour members despite the losses of 2001 and 2005. I've not worked out the precise numbers, but the Parliamentary Labour Party now has a large majority of MPs first elected in 1992 or after. And those MPs think, some with justification, that they still have a way to go before they pass their sell-by dates.

But it's easy to get sell-by dates wrong. Labour's problem right now is that it is as appetising as the steak-and-kidney pie you discover at the back of the deep-freeze labelled "Best before July 2007". It might be safe to eat, but do you take the risk or make your supper from the stuff Sainsbury's delivered this morning?

It's most critical at the top: if Gordon Brown fails to turn round his and Labour's dismal opinion poll ratings before the autumn, he should take a deep breath, admit he isn't the man for the job and resign to let someone new – let's say David Miliband – take over before the next general election.

But it's not just Gordon who should be thinking he's not as fresh as he could be. There are several cabinet ministers with nothing left to give: Jack Straw springs immediately to mind, but there are others. And there are dozens of Labour MPs elected in 1987, 1992 and 1997 who have done a lot less in their time in parliament than Chris Mullin and who have no prospect of making any difference if they hang on.

Of course, getting new people in isn't a panacea. Rejuvenating Labour is much more a matter of new ideas, of which we've heard virtually nothing, than it is of new people. But people matter. The lot we've got are not, on the whole, very impressive, and very few of them would be missed. And in the worst-case scenario we'd be better-off losing with a bunch of hungry youngsters than going down with battling old pros.

Thursday, 24 April 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 April 2008

Unlike dozens of 40-something lefties I know, I'm not going to be wandering around the Love Music, Hate Racism carnival in Victoria Park this Sunday reminiscing fondly about the day 30 years ago when the very same place was the site of the first Anti-Nazi League carnival with the Clash, the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and others.

Don't get me wrong: I've got nothing against Love Music, Hate Racism and I'd be there if I could, but I'm working. And even though I can't make it, I shall pause during my shift to indulge in a little misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1978 carnival.

I hitch-hiked down from Ipswich for it with a posh girl from Colchester called Gabriel whose parents would have gone bananas if they'd known where we were going and how. And it was one of the two best days of many good ones I remember from that spring. (The other best was Ipswich beating Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup final a week later.) Victoria Park was heaving with people – something between 80,000 and 100,000 showed up – and the gig was brilliant. On the way home Gabriel kissed me... I wonder what she's doing now?

But enough of that Miss J Hunter Dunn moment. I hope everyone has as good a time on Sunday as I had 30 years ago – and that no one spends too long thinking seriously about historical parallels between 1978 and 2008, because that could all too easily spoil the party.

The context for the 1978 carnival was of course the rise of a xenophobic far-right gang in electoral politics, the National Front – and obviously there is a contemporary equivalent in the shape of the British National Party. If Sunday does anything to galvanise opposition to the BNP in the run-up to next week's London elections, it will have performed an extraordinarily useful function.

Yet, unpleasant as the prospect is of the BNP sitting in the London Assembly, the rise of the far right in London is not the most disturbing similarity between 1978 and now. That distinction goes to the national political scene, where now as then a deeply unpopular Labour government seems to be stumbling towards oblivion in the face of a Tory revival.

I know there are differences. The Labour governments of the 1970s had bigger problems than Gordon Brown has today - runaway inflation, growing unemployment, dire industrial relations, a currency crisis - and from 1977 Labour had to rely on a pact with the Liberals for a majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, Brown has (on most things) a comfortable parliamentary majority, growth has been continuous for a record period, inflation is relatively low and unemployment is falling. The unions – teachers' days off aside – are supine.

But Labour's economic prospects today look much less rosy than its recent record – and the Brown government shares with the Callaghan government of the late 1970s an aura of aimlessness and exhaustion that augurs very badly.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crisis over the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax. The measure was announced in Brown's final budget as chancellor of the exchequer last year as part of a package that included reduction of the basic rate of income tax from 22p to 20p – and at the time nearly everyone heralded it as a master stroke. (I demurred but so limply it is embarrassing.) The very few critics who asked how it would affect people on low incomes were reassured that any ill-effects would be minimal as tax credits would compensate.

This was simply not true - as Labour backbenchers came to realise long after they had voted the tax changes through parliament. In fact, abolition of the 10p rate means that some 5 million low-paid people will be worse-off, some of them by nearly £4 a week.

It's difficult to fathom what was going on in Brown's head when he hit on these tax reforms. If he did not realise what their impact would be he was stupendously careless – and if he did realise but thought no one would notice he was plain stupid.

Not that the MPs who were this week threatening to rebel over the issue have much to be proud about. It should not have taken Labour backbenchers the best part of nine months to discover that rather a lot of people would be hit hard by Brown's changes. To mix metaphorical clichés, the threatened backbench rebellion was one of headless chickens trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted. They got Brown to U-turn, in the end, but at a massive price to not only his but their party's credibility.

Will Brown survive this fiasco? I think so, but whether he does or doesn't I'm starting to get a feeling in my bones that the next prime minister will be David Cameron. It would take a massive swing for the Tories to win the next general election. But on the evidence of the past few weeks, I have a hunch they could do it. Right now, Labour isn't working – as the famous 1978 Tory poster had it.

Friday, 25 January 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2008

All right, I know this makes me sound like a Guardian leader-writer, but I can see both points of view in the gigantic spat that has erupted of late between Ken Livingstone and his media critics, most recently the makers of Monday's Channel Four Dispatches programme on the London mayor (available through Channel Four's on-demand service here: registration and so on take a couple of minutes).

On one hand, Livingstone is, as the Dispatches programme's presenter, Martin Bright, puts it, an entirely legitimate subject for journalistic investigation – and some of the material Bright and others have dug up on him and his administration does not cast Ken and co in a favourable light.

The Dispatches programme showed conclusively that Livingstone has indulged in serious cronyism, with a coterie of old mates, many of them veterans of the Trotskyist groupuscule Socialist Action, occupying key positions at City Hall and getting very well paid for it. And one of Ken's buddies, Lee Jasper, the mayor's senior policy adviser on race, is alleged (by the Evening Standard rather than Dispatches) to have engaged in serious cronyism himself: projects run by his pals are said to have received a disproportionate share of financial support from City Hall. These are precisely the sorts of things that journalists should probe, and Livingstone's dismissal of the Dispatches programme as a "hatchet job" and his attempt to get the programme pulled at the last minute were way over-the-top.

On the other hand, Livingstone does have a case against the media coverage he has been getting of late, including parts of the Dispatches programme – so what if he drank whisky in the morning at a public meeting and is sometimes rude to people? The Evening Standard has undoubtedly been running a vendetta against him (although it gave him space this week to respond to his critics) and the misdemeanours of which he is accused (although not all the allegations about his advisers) are trifles, particularly when set against the GLA's achievements since he was first elected in 2000: the congestion charge, all the new buses, the Olympics and so on. The fact that Livingstone has a tight-knit group of Trots as his core team is certainly noteworthy and deserves to be in the public sphere – but isn't it weird rather than chilling?

Think about it. Socialist Action – if indeed it still exists as an organisation in any conventional sense – is an ideological blast from the past. Its origins are in the International Marxist Group, the erstwhile political home of Tariq Ali and one of the four biggest Trotskyist groups of the 1970s. Then, its members (mostly students) turned up to every demo and political meeting to harangue the masses about the necessity of making the IMG the leadership of the coming British revolution.

The revolution never came, and during the 1980s the IMG fell apart after a series of arcane disputes. Socialist Action was the tiny bit of it that was (a) keenest to work as "entryists" in the Labour Party and (b) least critical of Soviet-style socialism. Its members spent the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s keeping their heads down and attempting to lever themselves into key positions in Labour left organisations and campaigns – what used to be called in left circles "the long march through the institutions". Socialist Action people were prominent in the Campaign for Labour Democracy, Labour CND, the Labour Committee on Ireland, Campaign Group News and a host of other initiatives, most long-forgotten. They proved themselves hard-working and didn't give up – and that's what attracted Livingstone to them.

He needed a political machine to further his political ambitions – and he found it in the comrades of Socialist Action. Throughout his wilderness years in the late 1980s and 1990s, they supported him – and as London mayor he has rewarded them with jobs. John Ross is his economic adviser, Simon Fletcher his chief-of-staff and Redmond O'Neill his transport chief. (There are others.)

Now, this is a remarkable success for the Socialist Action strategy in one sense: the group's key people are in key positions. But if you judge Socialist Action by its original goals – world socialist revolution – it can only count as failure. In nearly eight years, these one-time revolutionaries have managed to increase the tax on London motorists and modernise London's buses – oh, and cut a rather dubious symbolic oil deal with a third-world populist. Man the barricades, I don't think.

I was never much of a fan of Socialist Action – but I must admit I have a sneaking admiration for the way Livingstone used the comrades. It's difficult to imagine where else he could have acquired a core team so completely loyal, and they have played a useful part in the leftist political gestures (support for the 2004 European Social Forum, the Chavez oil deal, initiatives to counter "Islamophobia") that will probably be enough to ensure that Livingstone does not lose many votes to the Respect or Green candidates in May. Whether you like him or loathe him, he's a wily old fox, that Ken.

Friday, 11 January 2008


Paul Anderson, review of Complications: communism and the dilemmas of democracy by Claude Lefort (Columbia University Press, £22.50), Tribune, 11 January 2008

Claude Lefort is one of the last survivors of the French intellectual left that dazzled even the Anglophone world for 30 years after the end of the second world war – a student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the 1940s, co-founder with Cornelius Castoriadis of the libertarian-socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, the subject of one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most vehement polemics of the 1950s and, since the 1960s, the exponent sans pareil of a radical democratic critique of totalitarianism and bureaucratic liberalism.

This book is his response to a raft of liberal triumphalist accounts of the history of communism published in the late 1990s, in particular those by the great French historian Francois Furet (who died in 1997) and the American Sovietologist Martin Malia (who died in 2004), authors respectively of The Passing of an Illusion and The Soviet Tragedy. Although it is late to arrive in English – it was published in French eight years ago as La Complication – it is a welcome addition to the literature that deserves a wide readership.

Lefort’s disagreement with the liberal triumphalists is emphatically not that of those Stalinist nostalgics who think that the Furets and Malias exaggerate Soviet crimes. Nor has he anything in common with Trotskyists and other Leninists who assert that everything would have been fine had Stalin not won the battle for control of the Soviet party-state in the 1920s. His argument is that the impact of the Bolshevik revolution was disastrous from the start – and that it was much more profound and much more pernicious than even enthusiastic anti-communist liberals admit.

Western communists and fellow-travellers worshipped Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia not out of ignorance, Lefort argues, but in admiration of the efficacy of its elimination of supposed counter-revolutionaries and deviants. The friends of the Soviet Union in the west were not deluded innocents, as Furet’s book title suggests, but enthusiasts for totalitarianism.

Just as important, says Lefort, we must be wary of history written with the benefit of hindsight. Even in the late 1980s, hardly anyone thought that the Soviet Union was anything but a permanent fixture on the world stage. To write now of the inevitability of the demise of communism is an act of intellectual bad faith.

Complications is hard going at times, mainly because Lefort is expressing complex ideas and makes frequent excursions into his own intellectual and personal history. (One chapter is devoted to Hannah Arendt, another to the history of the French Communist Party after 1945.) There is also a problem, however, with Julian Bourg’s over-literal translation, particularly on tenses. The convention in English is to use the present tense when discussing contemporary work: here everything is in simple past, as in the French original.

All the same, this is a minor gripe – and Bourg’s introductory essay is a model of clarity. Anyone with any interest in understanding the rise and fall of communism in the 20th century will find this book immensely stimulating.