Friday, 17 December 2010


Paul Anderson, review of Decline and Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 17 December 2010

The first volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries, The View From the Foothills, was one of the political publishing highlights of 2009 – a candid, witty and beautifully written account of the author’s life as a junior minister between 1999 and 2005 (with a gap in 2001-03) – and the second volume is even better.

Decline and Fall takes the former Tribune editor’s political journey from his dismissal from government up to this year’s general election, a period he spent on the back benches as Labour MP for Sunderland South. Unlike most political diarists and memoirists, Mullin makes no claim to be offering an insider’s view of the power struggles at the heart of government: his is the perspective of the poor bloody parliamentary infantry who catch fleeting glimpses of the general staff and pick up scraps of gossip in the mess.

The book is no less revealing for that. Mullin captures better than anyone the humdrum everyday existence of the backbench MP: the often frustrating, sometimes inspiring, always time-consuming work on behalf of constituents, the long train journeys, the routine business of parliament, the nervy election campaigns.

He is also a perceptive observer of what is going on inside government – and what a lot he has to observe here. There’s the slow demise of Tony Blair’s premiership as “The Man”’s authority is whittled away by the loans-for-peerages scandal and the growing restiveness of Labour MPs. Then comes Gordon Brown’s accession to the Labour leadership and all-too-brief political honeymoon, then the financial crisis that broke in 2008 and then the MPs’ expenses scandal, all topped off by Labour’s last year in office when no one in the party thought it could win under Brown but there was no obvious way to replace him.

On all this and more, Mullin is shrewd and funny, even when he reports feeling gloomy about the “madness” all around him. He has an acute sense of Brown’s inadequacy by comparison with Blair as a political leader – but he still records his dismay at the barrage of media hatred aimed at Brown every day, and he never wavers in his sense of pride in what the Labour government, for all its faults, has achieved.

Always warm and humane, never sensationalist or self-serving – except in the sense that Mullin gets the royalties – this is the best account yet of the death agonies of New Labour. I can’t wait for the next volume, on Labour in opposition before 1997.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 November 2010

“If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter,” Pascal famously remarked, “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

His point was that the Egyptian queen was so extraordinarily attractive that she was able easily to seduce first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, the two most powerful Romans of her era – and that these liaisons had earth-shattering results.

Which seems fair enough … until you do a little thinking. For a start, there’s no evidence that it was Cleopatra’s nose that turned the lads’ heads, rather than, say, her delightful smile, her powerful thighs, her ready repartee or her fabulous wealth. And though their heads were undoubtedly turned, it’s not at all clear how that changed the course of events. Maybe Caesar would have pissed off fewer key people if he hadn’t been carrying on with Cleopatra, and so would have avoided assassination – but it’s just as plausible that he would he have been a less successful general without regular leg-overs. Perhaps Mark Antony would have done rather better against Octavian in the battle of Actium if he’d been able to stop day-dreaming about Cleopatra. Then again, it’s more than possible that he’d have met a sticky end if he’d spurned the come-on when they first met.

In other words, there is no way of telling what would have happened differently had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter. All we know is that it wasn’t, and what happened, er, happened. It might be fun to speculate about the broader impact of apparently trivial historical phenomena, but, as Bertrand Russell pointed out years ago, it is not serious history.

As with Cleopatra’s nose, so with Harriet’s goose. Thanks to the efforts of various assiduous journalists and contemporary historians, we can now be pretty sure that Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, hosted a dinner party last New Year’s Eve at which, over roast goose, she, Patricia Hewitt and a couple of other senior Labour MPs concocted a plot to force Gordon Brown’s replacement as Labour leader ahead of the spring general election.

That meeting was followed, of course, by the farcical attempted coup against Brown of January 6 this year, when Hewitt and Geoff Hoon circulated a letter demanding a ballot of the Parliamentary Labour Party to “resolve” what they described as “the question of the leadership” – an initiative that fizzled out when not a single member of the Cabinet came out publicly in their support.

It was obvious at the time that Hewitt and Hoon had expected more, and easy enough to guess which Cabinet members most wanted Brown out. Now, 11 months on, the full extent of the plot has emerged. Cue an orgy of speculation by Blairite nostalgics to the effect that if only Jack Straw had brought matters to a head with Gordon on January 4, if only Harriet hadn’t wavered, if only Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson and David Miliband had been properly brought on board, Gordon would have gone, David would have stepped up, Labour would have soared in the polls and won the election …

A credible scenario? Well, up to a point – but no more so than any number of others with less happy endings for Labour. What if Straw and Harman had told Brown he should go and he had refused, then fired them? What if the goose plot had succeeded and the Brownites had resigned en masse from the government?

I know, it doesn’t matter in one sense, because of what actually transpired. But in another it does. The Blairites’ insistence that the party lost in 2010 only because of Brown’s unfriendly public persona and his hostility to the nostrums of New Labour is symptomatic of their failure to grasp either how uninspiring so much of the New Labour package had become even in the latter stages of Tony Blair’s premiership or the substantial political continuities between Brown and Blair.

Yes, there were good things about New Labour both in opposition between 1994 and 1997 and in government thereafter. Blair appealed to voters previous Labour leaders could not reach, and his government delivered ten years of prosperity, a swathe of constitutional reforms (albeit cut short), the minimum wage, hundreds of new schools and hospitals, Sure Start and a lot more besides. But the party’s electoral touch was on the wane by 2005 – and the list of its failures in office is long: Iraq, the culture of spin, MPs’ expenses, housing, financial regulation, civil liberties, prisons, energy, transport. If Labour is to win in 2015, it has to get to grips with where it went wrong between 1997 and 2010. And although Brown deserves to take his fair share of the blame, it is frivolous to think that everything would have turned out fine if only another hand had been on the tiller for the general election campaign. Ed Miliband is right: Labour needs a fresh start.

Friday, 12 November 2010


Paul Anderson, review of Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed by Mary Heimann (Yale, 2009), Tribune, 12 November 2010

Mary Heimann’s history of Czechoslovakia is both a supremely competent and detailed narrative account of the short lives of a central European state (1918-39 and 1945-92) and a brilliant piece of iconoclasm.

For most in the west, Czechoslovak history means four things: the Munich crisis and its aftermath, when a plucky little democracy was betrayed to Nazi Germany by the appeasing governments of Britain and France; the communist coup of 1948 that put paid to a nascent democracy; the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet tanks snuffed out a brave experiment in “socialism with a human face”; and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when peaceful protest forced the collapse of the communist regime.

Heimann tells all these stories with verve – but in doing so makes it clear that there was more to each of them than most in the west realise. Czech and Slovak chauvinism were “among the principal causes of the instability that led to the Munich crisis”, she argues; and the same phenomena played a major role both in the anti-Jew and anti-gypsy persecutions of second world war years and in the hardline Stalinism that characterised the country’s communist regime for most of its existence. Czechoslovakia, in other words, was not simply a put-upon victim but at least to some extent the architect of its own misfortunes.

This is a controversial thesis, but Heimann marshals her evidence convincingly, never overstating her case. She shows that the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-38) was never a straightforward liberal democratic utopia. It was, as its architects intended, dominated by Czechs (the majority population in the western two-thirds of the country, Bohemia and Moravia), with the Slovaks (the majority in the eastern third, Slovakia) and other nationalities (Germans in the west, Hungarians and Ruthenes in the east) marginalised from the start and increasingly attracted to authoritarian and fascist anti-Czech nationalism.

She then tells the unsettling story of the short-lived second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-39, after Munich), in which anti-semitism took hold of popular opinion as the far right rose in what remained both of Slovakia and of Czech-majority Bohemia and Moravia – paving the way for widespread willing co-operation with the Nazi Final Solution – and goes on to make clear how far nationalism and anti-semitism embued the communist regime that seized power in 1945.

All that changed after 1968, when the regime was rescued from collapse by Soviet arms and its claims to represent the national interests of its peoples lost all credibility: the next 20 years, Heinmann says, were widely felt as a “foreign occupation”. And when the system finally cracked, it took only three years for tensions between Czechs and Slovaks to reach breaking point. The Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate states on January 1 1993.

This book is a fascinating study of the enduring importance of nationalism and an eye-opening expose of the myths behind received historical wisdom. It is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century central European history.

Friday, 29 October 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 29 October 2010

I can’t be alone in feeling that the immediate response of the Labour leadership to the coalition government’s savage cuts programme has been appallingly lacklustre.

All right, no one knew exactly what George Osborne was going to unveil in the comprehensive spending review last week – and, because Labour wasted four months on a leadership election campaign that could have been conducted in six weeks, members of the shadow cabinet had just 10 days to master their briefs before Osborne got to his feet.

And OK, Labour was stymied by the fact that the speed of deficit reduction was one of the few issues on which the candidates disagreed during the leadership campaign and one of the few on which Ed Miliband had to do some swift manoeuvring after winning. Miliband knew that anything less austere than sticking to Alistair Darling’s pre-election plan for halving the deficit in four years would be portrayed by the Tories and their allies in the press as a deficit-denying lurch to the left. Hence the appointment of Alan Johnson rather than Ed Balls as shadow chancellor.

In the circumstances, I suppose, Johnson did a decent ad lib job of the instant riposte to Osborne’s speech in the House of Commons – and Yvette Cooper’s denunciation of the government’s plans for disproportionately targeting women was well made. John Denham was pretty good on Question Time, Darling more-or-less convincing on Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, Douglas Alexander all sweet reason on Andrew Marr – and Ed himself had a cogent piece in the Observer.

But, and it’s a big but, there’s a limit to the impact of well improvised speeches in Commons debates and lucid contributions to the highbrow media – and there’s a limit too to the credibility of Labour’s excuses for not having done much better.

The cuts programme had been widely trailed even if Osborne did spring a few surprises. More important, the grotesque iniquity of making the poorest bear the brunt of the cost of crazily rapid deficit reduction through swingeing cuts in various benefits is so easy a target that Labour should have hit it hard at once, regardless of lack of preparation. It didn’t. Ditto the proposals for throwing public sector workers on to the dole, the slashing of local government services, the giant reduction in higher education spending, the massive hikes in train fares – and the failure to make the bankers pay for the mess they got us into. If the party’s leaders don’t give it a bit more welly than they have this past week, they will soon find either that they have lost the argument to the coalition or that they have lost touch with a rapidly growing wave of popular anger at what the coalition is doing.

Not that the trade unions have been any better. The union leaders all knew way back in early summer what was happening on October 20 and do not even have the excuse that they are all new to their jobs. They dutifully turned up in the TV studios to denounce Osborne on the day. Yet despite four months’ notice they did virtually nothing to mobilise their members to protest, except in Scotland. Last weekend’s anti-cuts demonstrations south of the border were poorly publicised and thinly attended.

Why do we have to wait until next March, for heaven’s sake, for an official TUC march in central London, when even by the government’s own admission some 500,000 public sector workers are going to lose their jobs as a result of the spending cuts and large swaths of the welfare state face destruction? Isn’t this the sort of vicious assault on working people and what used to be called the “social wage” that demands an urgent response – at very least a major national demonstration In November?

And no, I’m not turning into a bulging-eyed Trot chanting “They say cut back! We say fight back!” I don’t think that a simple anti-cuts campaign is a panacea for Labour or for the trade unions, even in the short term. I know that the coalition’s assault on “welfare scroungers”, however mendacious, is popular. And I accept that the deficit needs to be reduced as soon as economic recovery is secured (which seems unlikely for some time under any circumstances and even more unlikely once the cuts have sucked demand out of the economy).

But the coalition’s plans are so callous, so dangerous, so unfair that they demand an immediate and vigorous co-ordinated campaign of opposition not just in parliament but on the streets, in public meetings, in the media, in workplaces and on the doorstep. We don’t need to wait until spring, let alone until Labour has worked out every last detail of its alternative to the coalition’s slash-and-burn gamble.

Thursday, 30 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 2010

Weird Labour Party conferences have been the norm for so long now I've stopped being surprised by them – almost. But this week's has been weirder than any I can remember, even including last year's, when Peter Mandelson was cheered to the rafters after making the campest speech delivered on a public platform in my adult lifetime.

Just about everything about Manchester has been bizarre from the very start, when Gordon Brown bade a belated farewell as a prelude to the announcement that Ed Miliband had won the leadership by the narrowest of margins from his brother David. Ed looked almost shell-shocked at his success, and the reaction of the conference was almost as surprised. OK, there had been a lot of talk about Ed picking up second-preference votes and maybe pipping David to the post - but hardly anyone really expected it to happen, let alone that he'd do it on the back of second and third preference votes by trade unionists in the affiliated organisations section of Labour's electoral college.

That was a gift to the columnists in the right-wing press – which was then wrapped beautifully by none other than Charlie Whelan, outgoing chief fixer of the largest affiliated trade union, Unite, who boasted that Ed would not have won without his union's efforts. Cue mad pieces all over the place claiming that “Red Ed” is a fundamentalist Marxist prisoner of the union barons, Neil Kinnock hailing Ed as his protégé, David Blunkett claiming that he is indecisive, lots of guff (not least from Ed himself) about how Labour has moved on a generation, David being a bit too sweetly generous in defeat.

And all this before Ed's first leader's speech on Tuesday, which was hailed by Edites as proof-positive that the new man was, er, a new man and condemned by anti-Edites as a reversion to the politics of class-envy...

It's certainly been fun to watch, but, as Charlie Whelan would have put it in his pomp, what a load of bollocks so much of it has been.

Of course, the Labour leadership matters – and the closeness of the result would have been remarkable even if the two main protagonists had not been related. But for all the unmissable psychodrama of the past week, as it seems compulsory to describe it, not a lot has actually been resolved apart from the identity of Labour's new leader.

Despite the months of leadership campaigning and thousands of words of analysis in every newspaper, Ed remains a largely unknown quantity. What he is not -- contrary to the scare-mongering of the right-wing press and the wishful thinking of much of the traditional left -- is either a throwback to the hard left of the 1970s and 1980s or a clean break with New Labour. For better or worse, and for all his protestations otherwise, nothing he has said or done has deviated much more than a millimetre from New Labour. What he turns out to be like as leader remains to be seen – but there's no reason to expect anything other than a sensible centrist social democracy from him: a bit more adventurous than Blair or Brown on green issues or constitutional reform or financial regulation, perhaps, but otherwise very much in the same mould.

There's also no reason to believe that Miliband will be the tool of the unions as leader. It's true that Labour has been reliant on union funding for the past five years, and it's true that the votes of trade unionists won him the top job. But there is no evidence that the unions are any more capable of “holding Labour to ransom” than at any time in the past 20 years – the current crop of union leaders is as unimpressive as could be imagined. And the trade unionists who voted for Ed were individuals voting as they chose, not union leaders wielding block votes for their unconsulted or phantom members.

The real worries about Ed are that he's unknown to the majority of the public and inexperienced as a senior public politician. As he showed as a government minister and has shown again this week, he is a competent platform speaker and good on TV. But what is he going to be like confronting David Cameron at prime minister's questions? And how is he going to handle the shadow cabinet? Most important, where is he going to take Labour politically in response to the Con-Lib government's slash-and-burn cuts programme?

Manchester has given little indication of the answers to these questions, but they will come along frighteningly fast. Ed has no time to learn to swim: he has been thrown into the deep end. I reckon we'll know by Xmas whether he's got what it takes.

  • This went to press before David Miliband announced that he was withdrawing from front-line politics.

Friday, 3 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 September 2010

Do you hark back to a previous age? I certainly do. In fact, I hark back to several – and I suspect most people are the same. I had a very happy childhood in the 1960s, and nothing will ever quite recapture the excitement of being a teenager in the 1970s: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, scorching summers, hitchhiking, Ipswich winning the FA Cup. And then there were those halcyon years at university doing just as I chose – and after that the thrill in my twenties of being paid to be a leftwing journalist, fantastic love affairs, meetings with remarkable men and women … Ah, those were the days!

Not, I hasten to add, that my life is dreadful today, let alone that I’ve given up hope for the future, still less that I think I can turn the clock back. But recognising that some of life’s past highs are unrepeatable and remembering them with fondness are not in themselves pathological symptoms. On the contrary, anyone who feels that there is nothing worth looking back upon with yearning is surely as miserable as someone who feels that there is nothing to look forward to.

As in life, so in politics. This week Peter Mandelson caused a minor stir with his remarks to The Times warning of the danger that Ed Miliband as Labour leader would somehow create a “pre-new-Labour future for the party” and dismissing “people of a certain age like Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley” whose support for Miliband junior was the result of their wanting to “hark back to a previous age”. Paradoxically, however, that’s just what he was doing himself.

What he was talking about was Ed Miliband’s argument that Labour’s highest immediate priority in electoral terms is to win back the support of working-class and squeezed middle-class voters, outlined in a Fabian essay last month. Mandelson believes that Labour needs instead to appeal to a cross-class coalition of voters, including the well-off.

For what it’s worth, I think both Miliband and Mandelson are right. On one hand, the so-far scanty data show that Labour’s loss of support between 1997 and 2010 was proportionately greater among manual working-class voters (the C2DEs) than among clerical workers, managers, professionals and executives (the ABC1s). On the other, the manual working class thus defined is a declining proportion of the population as a whole and Labour has never won a general election by concentrating its efforts solely on attracting its members.

The real argument here is not about whether to reconstruct a winning electoral coalition but about how. Ed Miliband thinks Labour can gain from an explicitly redistributionist message (a permanent 50 per cent top rate of income tax, a high pay commission on top salaries, a living wage and so on); Mandelson thinks such measures would scare off rich and, more importantly, wannabe-rich voters.

Being of a certain age, I recognise this disagreement from long ago – the aftermath of the 1992 general election, which Labour lost after promising (very modest) income tax increases on higher earners to pay for (very modest) income tax cuts for lower earners and (very modest) increases in key areas of public spending. Rightly or wrongly, these promises were blamed by the party leadership for the election defeat, and well before Tony Blair became leader and inaugurated the age of new Labour they had been unceremoniously dropped.

Of course, Labour won in 1997 promising “no new taxes”, and bliss it was in that dawn to be alive for every Labour supporter. I hark back to it myself, and so, even more, does Peter Mandelson.

There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, nor is there anything wrong with arguing that Labour today can learn from the 1980s and 1990s. But we’re not where we were then. What was toxic about Labour in the 1980s and still toxic in 1992 is not, on the whole, what is toxic today. Then it was the legacy of the inflation and union militancy that undid the 1970s Wilson and Callaghan governments, the continuing fallout from Labour’s bitter early-1980s left-right schisms over Europe, defence and economic policy, the general air of incompetence around the party. Today, like it or not, it is parts of new Labour’s record that need to be flushed out: the culture of spin and the poisonous personal rivalries of the Brown-Blair years, Iraq, MPs’ expenses, loans for peerages and, yes, the ever-increasing inequality that led so many onetime Labour voters to believe that the party had abandoned them while indulging the rich.

i'm not voting for Ed Miliband, but to suggest that Labour needs to go beyond reheating the leftovers from the 1990s and early 2000s is not to retreat into old Labour sentimentalism but to begin to face up to reality. Mandelson is not only part of the problem but, in his insistence that Labour should simply be accentuating the positives of its 13 years in office, much more of a nostalgic than those he berates. A period of silence on his part would be welcome.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 August 2010

Whoopee! It’s the holidays. School’s out, parliament’s risen, the interminable Labour leadership hustings are over – and it’s raining. Just what you need to wash away the blues …

And, boy, do I need cheering up. A sense of gloom about British politics has been gnawing at me for rather a long time now. I’m not sure exactly when it started, fitfully at first – some time around the 2005 general election, I guess – but it has been pretty much relentless for nearly three years. I had a brief surge of optimism about Labour’s prospects after Gordon Brown became PM. Perhaps, just perhaps, he could rescue a government that had squandered the potential of 1997 in caution, bickering, kow-towing to big business and ill-thought-out military adventures? Well, he couldn’t, though he did a good job of handling the 2008 banking crisis. The polls dipped again, the bickering resumed, the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, and from then on it was a matter of clutching at straws as election day approached.

The election itself was bad enough – a comically incompetent national campaign followed by a near-wipeout for Labour in the south and east of England outside London. But since then it’s just got more and more depressing for anyone on the left. Despite the coalition’s kamikaze economics and breakneck-pace schemes for “reforming” the welfare state while cutting it to the bone, it has enjoyed a remarkably good honeymoon press. And so far Labour has done little to sketch out an alternative. The leadership election has involved an immense expenditure of effort to generate a minimum of light.

All right, that’s pretty much what I expected, it’s early days yet, everyone needs a break, and the battle against the coalition resumes on 25 September when the Labour leadership election result is announced. Looking on the bright side, at least there’s little sign of Labour descending into a self-destructive ideological battle as it did between 1979 and 1983. And the coalition does look vulnerable: there are an awful of lot of on-diary banana-skins coming up in autumn, not least the Lib Dems and Tories’ separate party conferences, that could make for some good political slapstick.

If we assume, however, that the coalition is not all over by Xmas, Labour has got a problem. It can of course continue relentlessly to oppose the cuts – and indeed it should – but that will not be enough to regain the credibility it has lost as a governing party over the past decade unless it also manages to popularise the practices of Keynesian demand management in the short term and redistributive taxation and a big state in the longer term.

Lest we forget, this was something it failed to achieve either in government in 2008-10, when it was actually doing big-state redistributive demand management, or in opposition in the 1980s, when a Keynesianism of sorts was still the orthodoxy among most economists and Labour still thought it could sell tax increases to the electorate. Perhaps an explicit “invest, borrow and tax for security and jobs” line would fare better in 2015 than the watered-down versions did in 2010 or 1992 if it were closely argued and costed. I’d certainly like to think so. But it’s a big risk, and I’m not convinced that Labour has the intellectual confidence or coherence to take it.

Beyond that, what? There’s certainly room for Labour to unlearn some of its more idiotic mangerialist and authoritarian-populist traits of the 1990s and 2000s. Everyone has their own bugbears – my own are the pub smoking ban and the ever-more-intrusive (but utterly useless) “quality assurance” regimes imposed on education and other public services; others care much more about ID cards or ASBOs or detention of terrorism suspects without trial or ringfencing of local authority budgets in key areas. But reining-in the over-centralised nanny state and embracing civil liberties are what the coalition says it wants to do, and it will be difficult for Labour to seize the initiative even though many coalition plans are fraudulent – most importantly GP commissioning and school “independence” – simply because of its enthusiasm in office for stultifying bureaucracy.

In foreign and defence policy, there is similarly limited space for manoeuvre: getting out of Afghanistan ASAP is coalition policy (and not a good one, though popular); and even the Trident replacement programme looks vulnerable to the squeeze on military spending. Worse, there doesn’t yet appear to be a great deal of wriggle room on constitutional reform – unless Labour comes out straight for proportional representation, which would be a real act of daring – or on the environment or on benefits reform. (The last of these is also a potential minefield for any Labour leader, but that’s another story.)

Oh well, at least it has stopped raining. Time to get out the rucksack and the walking boots and the pile of books I’ve not read in the past six months, and do some serious thinking. See you in September.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 July 2010

It is easy enough to see why Nick Clegg supports introduction of the alternative vote for elections to the House of Commons. All the indications are that it would make it much easier for the Lib Dems to retain the parliamentary seats they currently hold – and they could well need all the help they can get after jumping into bed with a Tory party that seems intent on crashing the economy just as it did in the 1980s.

Why anyone apart from Clegg and his party should want AV is, however, something of a mystery. AV would do nothing to address the major flaws in the first-past-the-post system we currently use for Westminster elections, which are its gross disproportionality and its concomitant tendency to turn general election campaigns into battles for the votes of a few hundred thousand wavering voters in a hundred of so marginal seats. And AV might make these flaws worse.

AV is not, repeat not, proportional representation. It is not even a step towards it. It is the electoral system used in Australia for the House of Representatives, in which voters in single-member constituencies rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) rather than putting a single “X” next to their first choice as we do in first-past-the-post elections in the UK. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences are redistributed. The process is then repeated until one candidate reaches 50 per cent plus one of votes cast.

AV has two superficial attractions over FPTP. Every winning candidate under AV can claim to have the support (however grudgingly faute de mieux) of a majority of his or her constituents; and AV makes the practice of tactical voting much less of a guessing game for voters. A UKIP supporter in a Tory-Labour marginal who prefers the Tories to Labour, for example, would be able under AV to vote “UKIP 1, Conservative 2” with a reasonable level of confidence that the second preference would count rather than, as now, having to decide whether or not to put an “X” next to the Tory candidate’s name for fear of letting Labour in by “wasting” a vote on UKIP.

But there are downsides even to these attractions. Is a candidate in a three-way AV contest who wins by 51 per cent to 49 per cent with the help of second preferences, having trailed 46-29 on first preferences, more democratically legitimate than someone who wins a three-way FPTP contest 46-29-25? Why should your second choice have the same weight as my first choice?

AV encourages the worst kind of lowest-denominator politics – every marginal contest is a sordid scurry to be everyone’s second choice – and, partly because of this, it delivers more ludicrous landslides than FTPT whenever one political party is no one’s second choice despite having a solid core of first choices. Labour was massacred in 1983 under FPTP: it would have been worse under AV. Ditto the Tories in 1997.

Sorry, but this is a farce. FPTP is crap – but so is AV. We are going to be asked to choose between the two, if the government has its way, in a referendum next May. The choice is an insult. If the referendum bill cannot be amended to include a genuinely proportional third option, reformers should spoil their ballots in the referendum by scrawling “AV is not PR” across their papers.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I was sorry to read last week of the death of Ken Coates at the age of 79.

I first met him in the early 1980s through European Nuclear Disarmament, when he was chair of the co-ordinating committee that organised annual anti-nukes conventions for thousands of activists from across the continent. He had recently fallen out with most of the rest of END in the UK over who ran the organisation’s magazine – Edward Thompson referred to him as “the renegade Coatesky” (if you don’t get the joke, don’t worry) and I was in the Thompson camp – but he struck me as a strangely impressive figure.

A veteran not only of the implosion of the Communist Party after 1956 but also the first wave of CND, the early-1960s revival of Trotskyism, the anti-Vietnam war campaign and the early-1970s movement for workers’ control, he was extraordinarily well connected and well read … and a faction-fighter of the old school. He became a Labour MEP in 1989 and worked impressively to persuade the world of the benefits of a co-ordinated European full-employment policy before falling out irrevocably with Tony Blair as Labour leader, being expelled by Labour and fighting the 1999 European election as an independent.

I disagreed with him a lot, but he was personable and kind and a Tribune regular for more than 40 years. RIP.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


Paul Anderson, review of More Work! Less Pay! Rebellion and Repression in Italy 1972-77 by Phil Edwards (Manchester University Press, £60), Red Pepper, July-August 2010

Unlike anywhere else in Europe, Italy experienced a "second 1968" during the mid-1970s – an extraordinary wave of student occupations and innovative mass wildcat direct action in its major cities. Reaching a climax in 1976-77, it involved hundreds of thousands of people, and included rent and fare strikes, large-scale squatting, organised shoplifting and a widespread "refusal of work" by young people.

The movement was chaotic and diverse, embracing unreconstructed Leninists and stoner anarchist pranksters, radical feminists and macho leather-jacketed street-fighting men, university lecturers and ex-cons. It was also riven with differences on political tactics, particularly on the use of violence. Some participants were pacifists, others out-and-out enthusiasts for armed struggle. Most were somewhere in between.

These differences ultimately proved to be the movement's nemesis. Faced with the unrelenting hostility of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the main party of the left, which at the time was attempting to effect an "historic compromise" with the centre-right Christian Democrats, a small but significant minority of activists opted for armed struggle to the exclusion of all else. After that the state came down hard on anyone publicly associated with the "area of autonomy" (regardless of what they had actually done), arresting and incarcerating hundreds from 1978 onwards.

Phil Edwards first caught wind of what was happening in Italy as a teenager reading the British anarchist press, and his book is the product of many years' research. It is very much a hybrid – in part narrative history, in part a contribution to the political sociology of social movements.

He argues convincingly that it is wrong to look at the mid-1970s rebellion merely as an aftershock of Italy's 'hot autumn' in 1969, when a wave of worker and student militancy rocked Italian society. By the mid-1970s, a new generation was involved and Edwards makes telling points about the short-sightedness of the PCI's anathematisation of the new movement. In its single-minded pursuit of the "historic compromise", he argues, it lost the chance to renew itself by taking on at least some of the movement's demands.

This is a serious piece of work that deserves a much wider readership than it is likely to get retailing at £60. Steal this book!

Thursday, 10 June 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 June 2010

So, as the Clash put it so memorably in one of the stand-out tracks of their London Calling album in 1979: “What are we gonna do now?”

Well, to judge by the rhetoric of the contenders in Labour’s so-far somnambulant leadership election campaign, not a lot different from what we did between 1994 and 2010, but without Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

Not one of the credible contenders to become leader of the opposition – Miliband, Miliband, Balls, Burnham – has deviated more than 0.5 degrees from New Labour magnetic north. One of them is not quite sure about Iraq, another thinks the former government made a bit of a hash of getting across its immigration policy, another believes a slightly more Eurosceptic line would have made sense, another hints that clamping down more vigorously on anti-social behaviour might have made a difference. All of them are keen on warm words about reconnecting with Labour’s grass roots.

In some ways, this is hardly surprising. I have written before about how party leadership elections are rarely the occasion for fundamental debate about the overall political direction a party should take, and it looks as if Labour’s 2010 contest will not be an exception to the rule.

It is too soon after the general election defeat for a serious rethink of Labour’s fundamental strategy, and all the young-ish men who made it on to the ballot paper were cabinet ministers in the last government and implicated in its controversial decisions. On the biggest issue of the day, the Con-Dem coalition government’s policy of slashing public spending even as we search for the green shoots of recovery, there is a real prospect of Labour making hay – and the coalition looks (in some lights at least) a fragile jerry-built construction that might be easy to demolish. In opposition, in any case, what a party leader can do in the short term is rather limited: change the party constitution a bit, come up with vague policy initiatives that suggest modernity and change.

So everyone plays it safe, which is fair enough – except that Labour needs a Plan B if the coalition does not implode. Everyone knows that “reconnecting with Labour’s roots in the unions”, “selecting more women and ethnic-minority candidates” and “making sure that party members’ voices are heard in its upper echelons” are Good Things, particularly if you are standing for Labour Party office. Labour has to re-engage its members and recruit a lot more of them. But changing the internal organisation and culture of the Labour Party will not solve its problems, which are more fundamental.

In large swathes of England, lower middle-class and skilled working-class voters have abandoned Labour in droves. Their reasons for doing so are many and varied – and so far yet to be researched in detail – but on the basis of anecdotal evidence they do not suggest that there is an easy way for Labour to win these voters back. They stopped voting Labour because they were worried about their house prices going down, worried about their jobs disappearing abroad or being taken by immigrants, worried about their pensions. They didn’t like Gordon Brown, they didn’t like MPs who made small fortunes on property speculation at the public’s expense. They had ceased thinking Labour was fair or economically competent or interested in them. They had had enough of spin and endlessly repeated soundbites.

However attractive most readers of Tribune might find the supposed policy panaceas of the traditional Labour left – ditch Trident, leave Afghanistan, build more social housing, extend trade union rights – none of them apart from housing addresses the core concerns of those who didn’t “come home” to Labour on 6 May. And the prescriptions of the Labour right – tougher on crime and immigration and, er, that’s it – are the policies on which Labour lost the election. Meanwhile, constitutional reform and environmentalism have been appropriated by the coalition. I never thought I’d write this, but to get an elected Lords, Labour in opposition will have to support a Tory-dominated government. The same goes for green energy policies.

Maybe I am being overly pessimistic, but my hunch is that Labour faces a bigger challenge in reinventing itself now than it did after it lost power in 1979. At very least it needs a leader who – as well as exploiting the weaknesses of the coalition day-to-day – is prepared once elected to think through the options for British and European social democracy as thoroughly as any Labour leader has ever done. I believe the best choice for this task (by a small margin) is David Miliband. He is bright, sophisticated, personable, experienced and telegenic. But the clincher for me is that he used to play cricket for Tribune.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 2010

Quite understandably, most political commentary on the general election has focused on the extraordinary aftermath – Gordon Brown’s decision to stay in Number 10 Downing Street, David Cameron negotiating terms for coalition with Nick Clegg, Brown’s resignation – but I’m not going to deal with any of that here. I'm filing before it has all been sorted out.

Instead, I want to concentrate on the results and what they mean for Labour. Like every other Labour supporter, I went into election night in a nervous mood. Labour’s election campaign had been very variable in quality and energy. Brown ended on a high, but before that plumbed the depths of campaigning incompetence, and anecdotal evidence suggested that Labour’s local efforts were far from uniformly vigorous even in marginal seats.

The polls forecast a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party, but the figures were so tight that anything seemed possible from a safe Tory majority to Labour emerging as largest party despite coming third in share of the vote – and who could tell whether the polls were right?

As became clear in the course of the night, all the polls apart from the exit poll had got it significantly wrong, underestimating Labour’s share of the vote and overestimating the Liberal Democrats’. And although the exit poll got overall national shares of the vote right and forecast the seats each party would win astonishingly accurately on the assumption of uniform national swing, there were actually wild variations in swing among different regions and among constituencies in the same region.

There are nevertheless some general conclusions that can be drawn. First, Labour did a lot better overall than pessimists had feared, performing very well in Scotland and London and to a lesser extent in Wales and its northern English heartlands. Second, however, it did very badly (with notable exceptions) in East Anglia and southern England, and almost as badly (outside the major conurbations) in the Midlands.

Labour now holds only two seats in the East Anglia region – Luton North and Luton South. It lost 11 out of 13 seats won in 2005, including all of them in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

In the south-east region, the party lost 13 of its 17 seats: its representation is reduced to Oxford East, Slough and two seats in Southampton. There are no Labour MPs any more in Kent or Sussex. In the south-west, Labour lost eight out of 12 seats it held, in the East Midlands 12 out of 26 (but with one gain), in the West Midlands 14 out of 38.

Of course, history never quite repeats itself – but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu. For Labour, it’s 1987 all over again, with the major difference that the Lib Dems did a lot better this year than the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1987 and the Tories under Cameron did a lot worse than under Margaret Thatcher. Labour is back to where it was not just before New Labour, but before Neil Kinnock’s policy review.

The first analyses of voting by class appear to show that Labour’s 2010 problem is much the same as its 1987 problem. Relatively affluent lower-middle-class and skilled working-class voters in the south, the east and the midlands, the C1s and C2s who voted in their droves for Labour in 1997 and mostly stayed on board in 2001 and 2005, feel that the party has nothing to offer them.

So what to do? The extraordinary circumstances of the moment mean that very few Labour minds are focused on what the party needs to do to revive its electoral fortunes in the medium term. But under any possible scenario – including the very unlikely one of the next general election taking place under proportional representation – the thinking is going to have to start soon. Whatever happens, Labour is going to have to work out how to change to attract the C1 and C2 voters it has lost, in terms both of programme and of personnel.

It will not be easy. Recycling the old New Labour riffs about being tough on crime and immigration – which were at the core of the party’s message during this campaign – cannot cut the mustard. Nor can the Blairite mantra of public service reform. “Economic competence” is a busted flush, and there are few votes in constitutional reform or environmentalism. The obvious left alternative, a return to an early-1980s “fight the cuts” agenda, is a recipe for disaster.

Brown is going, but to be replaced by whom? It has to be someone fresh yet credible both with the party and with the voters. I’d go for David Miliband myself – but will the party as a whole?

This looks like being a tough time for Labour. At least, however, there is no sign of a hard-left revolt against the party establishment as happened 30 years ago. We might be all at sea, but no one yet is insisting that we steer bravely for the rocks.

  • Written before David Cameron and Nick Clegg signed up for coalition

Friday, 16 April 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 April 2010

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly 30 years of writing about politics, it’s that it’s very easy to make a fool of yourself by predicting what’s going to happen next.

I haven’t done it – I think – since 1989, when I rashly announced in these pages that we were unlikely to see German unification in our lifetimes, or something like that (the embarrassing article is missing from my file of cuts for some strange reason, and I don’t have the time or the inclination to look it up in the Tribune archive). I’m certainly not going to risk whatever residual reputation I might have by forecasting the result of next month’s general election.

Actually, I twigged the danger of predicting general elections some time before that faux pas, because I’d already managed to get all three elections of my adult life – 1979, 1983 and 1987 – quite spectacularly wrong.

In 1979, I’d expected a close result: what actually happened was a thumping Tory victory. In 1983, I thought that Labour would recover lost ground and that the SDP-Liberal Alliance might be in a position to act as kingmakers in a hung parliament: the Tories won by an even bigger margin. And in 1987, I really believed that Labour had a good chance of winning or at least becoming the largest party in the Commons: it didn’t turn out that way, as the Tories were returned with a safe majority.

OK, there’s not much on the record that shows how wrong I was – a piece in Solidarity, a small libertarian socialist magazine in 1981 (pre-Falklands, all right?) suggesting that the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher’s government was such that some sort of Labour-Alliance coalition and a return to Keynesian corporatism was pretty much in the bag; and one for New Socialist in 1986 (when the polls showed a slender Labour lead, believe me) chewing over the possibilities for centre-left collaboration when Labour became the largest party, as it surely would.

Still, by the end of election night 1987 I had resolved never again to go public with my incisive predictions of general election results – and I never have. Which is just as well, really, because I got 1992 wrong (I really thought Labour would scrape in, even after the awful Sheffield rally) and I misjudged 1997 (the scale of the Labour victory was much greater than I expected). I was right to think that 2001 would be a big Labour victory, but in 2005 I fretted until the very last about the Tories making sufficient gains to deny Labour an overall majority.

Does all this make me a particularly inept political journalist? You can be the judge of that, but I don’t think so. There were plenty of other people who were surprised by the scale of Thatcher’s victory in 1979, and in 1983 and 1987 there was real uncertainty right up to the last minute about what would happen on election day because the opinion polls were erratic and no one knew how well the Alliance would perform. In 1992, there was the inglorious farce of the BBC’s exit poll suggesting a Labour victory, which prompted premature champagne-cork popping among Labour supporters throughout the country – which was followed as the results came in by the gradual half-cut realisation that the poll had got it wrong.

Since then, Labour has had three victories in a row, with the pollsters getting the victor right each time. But don’t forget that in 1997 nearly all the polls had Labour down for an even bigger victory than the one that transpired, and that 2005 looked likely for much of the campaign to be a much closer-run thing than it turned out to be. Had the Tories not been led by Michael Howard it might have been very different.

So what about May 6 2010? I’m sticking to my policy: no predictions. The polls suggest a Tory lead of between four and 10 percentage points, probably enough to make them the biggest party but possibly not enough to give them a majority. But you can’t trust the polls. No one has a clue whether the pollsters’ sampling techniques are sound, how the parties are getting on in the key marginal seats or what the impact will be of the MPs’ expenses scandal. No one knows how the small parties will fare or what turnout will be. There are three weeks to go before we actually vote, and at the time of writing we’ve witnessed only the preliminary skirmishes of the campaign. The Tories looked slick at the start, but last weekend Labour started punching its weight, and the Labour campaign launch on Monday was impressive. There is everything still to play for.

Get out there on the stump to support your Labour candidate. Keep the Tories out. We can win this. Ooops! I did it again!

Friday, 19 March 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 March 2010

Several people have asked me over the past few months when I’m going to outrage the readers of Tribune by publishing a list of the constituencies where Labour supporters should vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election to keep out a Tory. That’s what I did in 2001 and again in 2005 – and I’ve never found a better way of filling the letters page with indignation and bile.

I regret nothing, but this time it’s different. It’s not that I no longer believe tactical voting against the Tories. If I had a Lib Dem MP and the Tory was in second place last time with Labour way behind in third, I’d almost certainly vote Lib Dem on May 6 (or whenever it is). I’d probably vote Lib Dem if I lived somewhere with a Tory MP where the Lib Dem came second last time, too.

It’s just that I can’t be bothered to make a big thing of it, let alone spend hours putting together a list, because, well, it doesn’t really matter in the same way now. In 2001 and 2005, the general election results were never in doubt: everyone knew Labour was going to emerge with comfortable Commons majorities as long as it got the vote out. But in both elections anti-Tory tactical voting appeared to be a serious opportunity to do major damage to the Tories – and doing damage to the Tories has been the most honourable cause in British politics for three centuries.

In 2001, there was an outside but genuine chance that, with a good showing for the Lib Dems in parts of rural England where Labour trailed badly, the Tories could be reduced to the status of third party nationally. It didn’t happen, but there wasn’t a lot in it, and, boy, was it worth dreaming.

In 2005, the picture was different. But even in 2005 there were many Tories who appeared vulnerable to anti-Tory tactical voting, among them Michael Howard in Folkestone (if Labour supporters from 2001 voted Lib Dem) and, lest we forget, David Cameron in Witney (if Lib Dems from 2001 voted Labour).

All right, defenestration of the likes of Howard and Cameron was always wishful thinking. The point is that 2001 and 2005 were both elections in which anti-Tory tactical voting was a potentially destructive offensive weapon. This time it isn’t. The Tories are now on the march, and in nearly every part of the country the priority for Labour and for the Lib Dems is to hold on to as much as they can of what they’ve got. To complicate the picture, no one quite knows precisely who’s got what. There are significant boundary changes, and the number of retiring MPs is unprecedented, largely because of the Commons expenses scandal. Eighty-seven Labour MPs have announced they are quitting, and the whips expect another 10 to go before polling day.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have moved to the market-liberal right under Nick Clegg, and are markedly less open to social democratic ideas than they have been for more than 25 years. In local government, they have made opportunistic alliances with the Tories. The prospect of Clegg going into coalition with Cameron is plausible in a way that Charles Kennedy joining William Hague or Howard never was. The battlefield has changed.

This doesn’t mean abjuring anti-Tory tactical voting. The Lib Dems are still (just) of the centre-left, and many of their sitting MPs are much better than the Tories who would inevitably replace them if they lost. The same is true of the brave band of Labour MPs who have decided to fight again rather than walk away.

What of the new candidates, though? Well, they need some research. So far, the Sunday Times has managed a cretinous 1987-style red-scare piece claiming that Labour is selecting dangerous militants. “We found that 53 per cent either declare themselves to be a member of a trade union or have links to leftist groups in the party such as Compass, the Grass Roots Alliance or Save the Labour Party,” the paper declared last weekend. The same day, the Sunday Telegraph made a lot of the role of the Unite trade union in pushing its people into safe seats, though the author, Andrew Gilligan, couldn’t quite work out whether they were being granted a favour or being pensioned off.

The reality as I see it is more mundane: nearly all the Labour candidates so far selected are much what you’d expect in the circumstances – no porn-movie directors, no big-name media academics, lots of clean hands who have earned their chance through years of work in the unions, local government and NGOs, a few retreads. The Lib Dems, with the exception of the porn movie director, are the same: overwhelmingly local government and NGO worthies.

So – same old same old, but different. Tactical voting when you’re on the defensive doesn’t require lists, and the Lib Dems can look after themselves. Labour needs a concerted campaign in seats it holds, with a simple message: “Keep the Tories out: vote Labour”. Anything else is superfluous. It’s backs-against-the-wall time.

Friday, 12 March 2010


Paul Anderson, Chartist, May-June 2010

The death of Michael Foot at the age of 96 in early March has been marked by dozens of appreciative obituaries – and a few examples of shameless scandal-mongering – but so far few have had much to say about his long association with Tribune. Even the appreciations published by that paper mentioned it largely in passing, preferring to concentrate on his roles as a politician and as an author of pamphlets and books.

This is quite understandable in some respects. It is primarily as a key player in the 1974-79 Labour government and as Labour leader between 1980 and 1983 that he is remembered by anyone under 60 today, and very few people under the age of 70 have any but a childhood memory of Tribune even at the very end of his second spell as editor in 1960. Just as important, Foot’s lasting legacy is most likely to be his prodigious output between hard covers, in particular his 1957 book on Jonathan Swift, The Pen and the Sword, and his massive biography of Aneurin Bevan, which appeared in two volumes in 1962 and 1973.

But it is worth highlighting his Tribune connection, which lasted from the paper’s foundation in 1937 to his death (with a few gaps while he was otherwise engaged or at odds with an editor). He was hired as a junior journalist when the paper was launched by Stafford Cripps as the organ of his Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to forge a united front against fascism and war among the Labour, Communist and Independent Labour parties; one of his colleagues was Barbara Betts (later Barbara Castle), who was having an affair with the paper’s first editor, William Mellor.

Foot resigned from Tribune after 18 months in sympathy with Mellor after Cripps fired the editor for refusing to take a political line much closer to the Communist Party’s than hitherto – and Foot went off to make a reputation in the journalistic mainstream, first as a writer on Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard and then from 1942 as its editor. He gave that up in 1945 after being selected as Labour candidate for Plymouth Devonport – which he won in Labour’s 1945 landslide. Soon after becoming an MP, he took over the political direction of Tribune (which had long since abandoned its sympathies for the CP) from Bevan, who had joined the cabinet, and in 1948 he formally became joint editor with Evelyn Anderson.

They stepped down in 1952, but Foot remained the dominant political voice in Tribune, and in 1955, after losing Devonport, he became sole editor – a post he relinquished in 1960 after being elected as MP for Ebbw Vale as successor to Bevan. He was a contributor (sometimes more than others) for the rest of his life.

It is no disrespect to anyone associated with Tribune since to argue that the Foot years marked the height of its influence in Labour politics in particular and British politics more generally. In the late 1940s, it played a critical role both in the Labour left’s attempt to forge a “third force” foreign policy in 1946-47 in opposition to Ernest Bevin’s Atlanticism and then in turning the left in favour of Bevin’s policy in 1948-49. In the 1950s, it was the organ of the Bevanite movement, one of the most outspoken critics of the Eden government on Suez and a major player in the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the cause on which Bevanism foundered. A lot of that was down to Foot. He wasn’t the only great British left-wing editor of the 20th century – but he was certainly one of the greatest.

Friday, 29 January 2010


Paul Anderson, review of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating by Frank Furedi
(Continuum, £14.99), Tribune, 29 January 2010

Frank Furedi is the leading light of that strange, strange group around the website spiked online and the Institute of Ideas that used to be the Revolutionary Communist Party way back in the 1980s and turned into LM magazine in the 1990s. Starting off as (fairly) orthodox Trotskyists, with a penchant for the Provisional IRA and anti-fascist street-fighting, they have transmogrified into a bunch of media-savvy contrarians whose place on the political spectrum is hard to define.

They’re still very much of the Leninist left in their visceral anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism – and at least to my knowledge they have never disavowed the crazily pro-Serb position they took in the 1990s that led them, notoriously, to claiming that entirely genuine pictures of Bosnian Muslims in a Serb prison camp that had appeared on TV and in newspapers throughout the world were faked. But on GM foods and climate change they’ve taken a line aggressively at odds with the left-environmentalist consensus – and they’ve been pretty-much libertarian on issues of censorship and free speech and on migration. On parenting and education, there’s a strong current of traditionalism in their ideas.

It’s a weird mix that few would swallow wholesale, but at least they’re not afraid to go against the grain – and for the most part they argue their case with some sophistication and verve. Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, is their most prolific writer and thinker and also the most stimulating, particularly on education. As well as writing weekly on spiked online and turning out a hefty book every year or so, he’s a regular in the pages of Times Higher Education, where he has been a trenchant critic of – among other things – the philistine managerialism now dominant in British universities and the dangers inherent in treating students as customers.

His new book, Wasted, had been widely trailed, and my expectation was that it would develop some of the themes he has pursued in THE and elsewhere. It does, up to a point, but it’s essentially about schools, not universities.

Furedi, ever the contrarian, argues that school education is failing because the whole political and educational establishment has lost sight of the primary function of education, which is to transfer humankind’s knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. Instead of valuing education for its own sake, all the emphasis in contemporary schools is on equipping students for life after they leave school, whether as workers, consumers or citizens.

“Old-fashioned” and “useless” “subjects” are replaced in the curriculum by “relevant” and “useful” “themes”. The authority of the teacher is relentlessly reduced as his or her role becomes that of “child-centred” therapist and agent of socialisation rather than imparter of knowledge. Children’s respect for teachers is undermined, discipline breaks down, parents start panicking about the standard of schools, there’s more and more pressure to teach to the test … and so government comes up with fresh initiatives that unintentionally further dilute the intellectual rigour of schooling.

There is a lot of sense here, and anyone who teaches “traditional” subjects at A-level or lectures at a university will recognise the phenomenon of students who are exemplary in their work-related personal skills (punctual, polite, neat CV), conscientious in their environmentalism and tolerance of diversity, sensible in their eating, drinking and non-smoking – but also utterly uninterested in intellectual debate and incapable of seeing the point of simply knowing more. Furedi makes his case well, though the book lacks empirical back-up and is too long. Inside this volume is a thinner extended essay waiting to get out.

Friday, 22 January 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 January 2010

Reforming the voting system is an anorak thing most of the time – but every now and again it breaks out of the closet, as it has in the past few months.

A year ago, electoral reform was barely on the agenda. Labour had won three elections in a row promising a referendum on the way we vote for MPs, and in government it had introduced different versions of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly. Roy Jenkins had laboured mightily during Labour’s first term to produce a report recommending a more proportional system for electing the Commons, published in 1998. But the promised referendum on the Commons voting system had not happened – and since becoming prime minister Gordon Brown had given no indication of interest in it.

Then, however, came the MPs’ expenses scandal – and suddenly electoral reform once again lurched into view. There were letters in the papers and petitions demanding change. At last autumn’s Labour conference Brown promised a referendum on the voting system to allow voters to choose between the first-past-the-post status quo and the alternative vote (in which you have single member constituencies and mark your ballot paper “1, 2, 3, 4” in order of preference instead of “X”). And last month, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said the government would legislate before the general election for such a referendum. Cue more letters in the papers and, of course, a backlash against the referendum among Labour MPs – apparently led by Ed Balls, the schools secretary – culminating in a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday that seems to have come to no conclusion whatsoever.

I’ve been an anorak on electoral reform for getting on for 25 years, but I’m afraid I’ve found it a bit difficult to get worked up about it this time round.

On one hand, what’s most likely to be on offer (if anything) is deeply unattractive. A multi-choice referendum with the options of the status quo, the alternative vote and a proportional electoral system would be fine. But a choice between first-past-the-post and AV is not. AV is not a system of proportional representation – and it’s not a step towards PR. Indeed, in many respects it’s worse than first-past-the-post when it comes to reflecting the spread of opinion in the electorate: voting “1, 2, 3, 4” and redistributing preferences means that the least unpopular candidate wins in every constituency. Big deal!

On the other hand, it’s a bit late for Labour to be changing the voting system. Yes, it’s a matter of democratic principle, and yes, I’ve signed the petitions, but legislating for potential change now, with a general election imminent and Labour 10 points behind in the opinion polls, smacks of desperate opportunism.

What ought to have happened is easy enough to spell out. Labour should have agreed in 1994 or 1995 to propose a sweeping new constitutional settlement for the UK in its first term, with proportional representation for Westminster elections integrated with a democratic second chamber based on regional and national devolution – so that, when implemented, we’d have had something like the federal republic of Germany as our political system. Of course, that’s just a bit too neat: there are plenty of things in the German basic law that wouldn’t have worked for Britain, not least because we’ve got three stroppy Bavarias to contend with, hazy boundaries to regional identities in England and a monarchy (at least in stage one) ... but you get my drift.

The idea of a “big package” constitutional revolution was first given traction by Stuart Weir, Anthony Barnett and others who set up Charter 88 in the wake of the 1987 general election. They were dismissed at first by the Labour leadership – Neil Kinnock famously described them as a bunch of “whiners, whingers and wankers” – but Kinnock and others gradually came round. By 1993, a Labour Party commission headed by Raymond Plant had recommended an end to first-past-the-post Westminster elections – and with a democratic Lords and devolution to Scotland and Wales solid Labour policy under John Smith (and John Prescott winning the argument on regional government for England in Labour circles), it looked as if a Labour government just might do the business.

Instead, Smith died, and Tony Blair decided that constitutional questions were a diversion. The focus groups didn’t see them as a priority. Labour rowed back from electoral reform and promised referendums galore on devolution. Lords reform was watered down.

What was left by 1997 was worth having, particularly devolution to Scotland and Wales. But the government lost all momentum on the constitution by 2001– both on Lords reform, which was appallingly fudged and then put out for endless consultation, and on electoral reform, on which nothing happened after Jenkins produced his report. English regionalism breathed its last as a cause (at least for now) after a farcical referendum in the north-east voted no to a regional assembly in 2004.

It is a sorry story of opportunities missed – and it would be great if the government could make amends, just a little, in the next couple of months. But something tells me that this is going to be one for the Labour manifesto after next.

Saturday, 16 January 2010


Paul Anderson, review of The Left at War by Michael Bérubé (New York University Press, £19.99), Tribune, 15 January 2010

“Whither the left?” books are an acquired taste, but once you’ve got it you can’t help yourself. My bookshelves are groaning with volumes, mostly deservedly long-forgotten, outlining how the left has got it wrong and what it must do next, the oldest of which go back to the French revolutionary era when the idea of a left-right divide in politics first took hold.

Whatever, the past year has not been a great one for the genre – at least in the Anglophone world. In the UK, the great debate, if that’s what it was, on the left’s response to 9/11 and the British government’s decision to join the US in invading Afghanistan and Iraq has become repetitive and boring. And it’s too early for polemical retrospectives on the New Labour years. (Who knows? They might not yet be over.) In the US, nearly all eyes are on Barack Obama, and it’s too soon to know what to think unless you made up your mind before he was elected.

Michael Bérubé, an academic who teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State University and is that rare thing in the US, a self-confessed social democrat, hasn’t much to say about Obama except that he hopes for the best. But he does have a take on Afghanistan and Iraq (and on Bosnia and Kosova) that goes beyond trotting out the old arguments for and against.

His line is that different parts of the left had (and have) radically different philosophies when it comes to the US and its allies using military force against rogue regimes that oppress their people and harbour or promote terrorists. There’s a “Manichean left” that says all intervention is evil imperialism (Noam Chomsky, John Pilger et al); a “liberal hawk” left – or maybe ex-left – that in the end backs any intervention against such regimes (Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen et al); and a “democratic left” that bases its judgments on evidence and international law, sometimes backing intervention and sometimes not.

Like me, Bérubé supported intervention in the Balkans and in Afghanistan but not in Iraq, and he sees himself as a spokesman for the “democratic left”. But although I’m coming from pretty much the same starting point, I’m not entirely convinced. A lot of what Bérubé says is on the money. His chapter on the “Manichean left” is a competent demolition of Chomsky and of the Leninist and anarchist anti-imperialist hard left, though it is far from comprehensive. He is incisive on the worst excesses of the “liberal hawks”. And his idea that knee-jerk counter-culturalism is an endemic problem on the left is spot-on.

But … well, he doesn’t get any of it quite right and then goes off on a tangent. He over-eggs the case against the war to topple Saddam (without, however, deploying one of the most important anti-intervention arguments, that, if Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction, it would have been irresponsibly risky taking on Saddam). Then he under-eggs the case for getting rid of Saddam, which was – yes, really – a lot stronger than he claims. And, after that, he brushes aside the argument, made by the anti-war signatories of the Euston Manifesto – remember that! – who said that once the invasion had happened it was stupid to continue wittering about whether it should have taken place in the first place. This isn’t an unprincipled position. In politics you always start from where you are.

The second half of the book is a let-down, all about how marvellous Stuart Hall, the guru of British cultural studies and of Marxism Today from the late 1970s until the 1990s, was and is, and how the left would be OK if only it re-read Hall’s work on Thatcherism and applied it to the present. I am a great admirer of Hall, and I think Bérubé is right to say (a) that there’s no point in fighting the last decade’s battles yet again and (b) that old-style hard leftism is the worst kind of dead-end.

But he could have put it better, and I have a horrible feeling that, in the UK at least, what he warns against is what’s going to be happening on the left for at least five years.