Hitch 22 – Not the real threat to the left

I’ve read a good deal of reviews on Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch 22, and also a sizeable number of articles and interviews with him, and a large portion, I’d say without a second thought the lions share, of those reviews have referred to Hitchens as having shifted from the left to the right, and what now worries me is this self fulfilling prophecy might have even consumed Hitchens himself (though there’s surely a conflict in the Hitch’s self professed ‘contrarianism’ with being dictated to by others his outlook).

The better, minority of articles suggest Hitchens as either saving the left from an unprogressive cultural relativism, saving the left from itself (not sticking their neck out for Rushdie and countless other episodes where those who call themselves leftists tolerate theocrats), taking back the term leftwinger when it designated people who fought for justice for all, including gays, trade unionists and progressives in countries where blame might easier be sought from neoimperialist countries like the US – if only things could be so black and white.

Toby Young in his observer review of the book names and shames those who sought to excuse or appease theocratic absolutists (so-called progressives as Germaine Greer, John Berger, Arthur Miller and a few more) and also those who bent over backwards to blame 9/11 on America (so-called progressives as Noam Chomsky, John Updike, Michael Moore, Susan Sontag and another few).

It is indicative that hardly anyone questions their political shifts.

Hitchens and others were wrong about the Iraq war, but certain leftists – on the Hitch’s enemy list – though having reached the right conclusion (invasion of Iraq was an error) have got there methods all wrong.

That Hitchens has shifted from left to right is the wrong argument; the real argument is how far thinkers like those named above have shifted from left to obscure – it is they, and by no means Hitchens, who threaten to obfuscate what it is to be on the left today.

The Child Trust Fund and Vulnerable Children

The Child Trust Fund will be scrapped. From August 1st 2010 £320m will be saved by reducing all contributions. All payments will be stopped entirely by 1 January 2011, excluding payments to disabled children which will be made through to the end of 2011 only.

Stuart White, a key supporter of the fund, said of it recently:

Despite being one of the most effective pro-savings policies ever introduced by a UK government, the policy is inexpensive. It could easily have been preserved with government contributions reduced but with a clear commitment to raise them back to present levels as financial circumstances allowed.

It was a small cost from the government purse that went a long way, and not being means tested, was a universal symbol, promoting savings for all young people. The universalism could’ve reduced the risk of vulnerable people falling short in years to come, and made trustafarians of us all (obviously doing away with those negative connotations of the latter).

The scrapping of the fund can not be blamed on the Tory side of the coalition. It was a Lib Dem doing through and through. Before the election, the Lib Dem plan to cut the CTF was announced alongside the promise to use the money to reduce class sizes – though vague, it is a noble cause, if not only realistic in the suburbs. But, in any case, why the two could not co-exist is obviously beyond my economic comprehension.

As White, above, mentioned in his article, this was a liberal measure, possibly the most important one devised by New Labour in all its 13 years of government. But it has been done away with by the Liberal Democrats, alone; that illiberal guild of compromisers.

A further reason to worry about this unjust and unnecessary cut is the effect it will have on other vulnerable children. Sadly, this has only been spoken about at length in Wales and not, as yet, in England, but the ridding of the CTF will have negative effects on looked after children.

On Wednesday, 26th May, the Welsh Assembly held a short debate entitled: Raising the Educational Attainment of Looked-after Children and Care Leavers. Huw Lewis, Labour Co-operative National Assembly for Wales member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said the following during the debate:

We had looked to introduce extra financial support for looked-after children through the child trust fund, and had put in an extra £100 in Wales for each looked-after child, to add to the £100 that they already receive through a scheme that we administer on behalf of the UK Government. I hope that the Members opposite will begin to fully comprehend the level of concern, and even bitterness, on this side of the Chamber as regards the demise of the child trust fund. It is not just the general run of Wales’s children who will suffer, although of course they will, but the most vulnerable children of all […] That [nest egg] would have cushioned their transition into adult life in an entirely innovative way. It is because of the effect on those two groups of children, if for no other reason, that Members on this side of the Chamber are deeply disappointed at the decision of the UK Government to wind up the child trust fund.

Brian Gibbons, Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Social Justice and Local Government, reminded us, in reply, to:

importance of the child trust fund, particularly for looked-after children, who often cannot go back to their parents to get that extra few hundred pounds to furnish a flat and so on.

A lot has been done for looked after children. I was speaking to a teacher in Barnet last week who reminded me that 20 years ago the education of these children was not properly considered, and now there is extra funding and considerable attention, provided in accordance with the Care Matters white paper.

To most this doesn’t rate very highly, but the last government did a huge amount of good for, not only looked after children, but all vulnerable young people. The CTF was one further move that really ought to have married progressives rooting for universalism with those who perceived investment as a progressive measure. But the most centre-ground government we have had in this country that the Conservatives have had any part in, will take measures to scrap what should have been a non-controversial pot of money, that transcended political colours to give young people a nest egg to use as senisbly or insensibly (it’s all a learning curve) as they wish.

David Laws will probably have to resign later, and though he is one of the most unpleasant orange-bookers in the coalition, I’d say he is one of the luckiest of the cabinet.

David Miliband and the Mel Gibson effect

David Miliband, Blairite, will be targeting ‘immoral’ city excesses.

There’s a few images come to mind when we think of what it means to be a Blairite; that it is a portion of New Labourism that promoted, and was happy to see, the super rich.

That it excused immaturity, ill-thought and unnecessary risk in the city so long as UK boom financed the public sector to an extent that we no longer have the privilege of maintaining.

I mostly agree with Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT and the gentle face of trade unionism, when she says that:

The Chancellor has failed to recognise that quangos are not all bad. Some of the organisations whose funding has today been slashed by the Chancellor are better placed than individual schools on their own to achieve the value for money the Government craves.”

This is true, and ought to be a lesson for those who are keen to see services freed from the state; namely that big society is abandonment not freedom, and that some non departmental bodies can have a fuller view of services and finances, that perhaps devolution of power won’t properly achieve.

But this is not to clear the slate entirely. There has been wasteful spending and it is a product of boom, but reform should come from within the government departments themselves, so as to keep a sensible, non-boom, eye on financial matters.

It ought to be remembered that the Total Place programme was realised under Labour’s watch, and though some in the Labour camp have been sceptical, and some Tories have been favourable, it is not an insult to the Labour party as a whole to say that within that camp there were people who were not sensible with finances, and there were people who were themselves consumed by boom.

That is a Blairite to me.

So why is D. Miliband taking on the city now?

Two options: either he’s playing the game. Like his now very anti-war brother and the other Ed in the leadership race, they have realised the game, they’ve read the rules, it’s no surprise they are spinning the nicities.

The second option asks a lot more: perhaps it is what we should call the Mel Gibson effect. Mel Gibson wrote a terrible film called the Passion of the Christ. There was controversy. The Anti-Defamation League put a statement about the film saying:

It must be emphasized that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death.

Gibson had uttered anti-Semitic words since the film which did not help counter the negative view (of all but the Pope who said of the film, apparently, “It is as it was”). In 2006 he was stopped for drink-driving where it is reported that he called a female officer ‘sugar tits’ and was said to have hurled ‘religious epithets‘ – notably towards Jews.

Some have decided to say that this burst of Gibson’s is something that lurks beneath, located in his unconscious, linked to his Father as a kind of underbelly of a narrative, waiting dormant to be released, and only able to be when the subject is squiffy to the nines.

Gibson’s Father, Hutton Gibson, is a famous anti-Semite who has ‘been quoted as saying the Second Vatican Council was “a Masonic plot backed by the Jews”.’ Is there the chance that Mel was communicating an urge to fill his Father’s nutty place in the world?

Gibson apologised later by saying he was ashamed of what he did.

Is it that David Miliband is experiencing the same urge, to fill his Father’s place in the world by disavowing his Blairism for a stab at city excess? The chances are no, but worth a thought.

How to screw things up SWP style

Joint leader of the union Unite Derek Simpson has been in heated debate with British Airways boss Willie Walsh, the latest meeting taking place while Walsh reports BA annual losses of £531m and Unite accusing the airline company of promoting a culture of ‘intimidation and fear’.

The ash in the atmosphere and the recession have hit the company hard, but the fresh set of contracts drawn up by the company with lowered wages are one reason why strike action continues, and why Simpson and Walsh continue talks on the legitimacy of industrial action.

There is no question that Simpson and TonyWoodley – also joint leader of Unite – are holding their own against a man who, if rumours are correct, seeks to vilify the striking workers at Bassa union agitated by Walsh’s tactics and other staff who have, in Simpson’s words, been suspended for the “most trivial” of matters.

Simpson yesterday made note that: “The cabin crew are not industrial hotheads or head-bangers – they are decent, intelligent people and it is a measure of just how desperate the situation has become”.

Most people would hope that the talks go on fine and that some good conclusions can emerge at the other side. But there is a large spanner in the works. According to a report by the BBC, as talks between Woodley and Walsh were picking up, a sizeable number of the 200 ultra-left Socialist Workers Party disrupted talks, many of whom were visibly laughing at what they were doing.

Woodley, speaking of the storming which took place on the 23rd floor of the Acas building, has said:

“I am very angry about this. Those people are idiots. We were making progress and they have ruined it. We have wasted an afternoon and an evening.

“The talks have not broken down they have been broken up by a bunch of idiots.”

The stunt has been perceived by many to be for publicity and not to try and influence the ongoing talks between Unite and BA. It has also been described as an “own goal” and a “cynical stunt“.

One member of the SWP interviewed by the BBC showed notable naivity of the subject:

BBC reporter: Do I rightly understand that the talks have now broken down, or they’ve stopped, because you guys have interrupted the meeting?

SWP activist: I should hope so.

see also: Dave Osler; John’s Labour blog; Shiraz Socialist; Andy Newman

What if the Coalition succeeds?

In June 2009 Nick Cohen scared us into thinking that:

the shattered Brown administration, whose manifest failings could destroy Labour’s chances of winning another election – maybe forever, if the Liberal Democrats and Greens take over what remains of the centre-left.

Luckily enough the Liberal Democrats and the Greens did not take over what remains on the centre-left, instead the Liberal Democrats stepped into the home of the centre-right.

Some people have pointed out that this coalition might be good for the left; that the social democrat vote will no longer be split between MPs of two parties who claim to sometimes wear that badge and that the left therefore can reposition itself and expose a coalition of its cracks while being ready to pounce in time for the next election, which will inevitably be in a year a two.

Although the worst, and least considered, outcome that could happen is probably the most likely; that the coalition is durable and goes on to remain the set up until 2015.

John McDonnell, on the Radio 4 programme Any Questions? has said that overall the coalition will do both parties involved some good; for the Tories, he argues, it should keep at bay the right wing, for the Liberal Democrats, it should keep at bay the left wing. A sensible case that rings quite true.

Coalition compromises are being made to appease left, right and centre. And look at the agreed negotiations on civil liberties for example. Though it’s part of an oppositions’ political duty to exploit the cracks in the incumbent (something the Labour party has the privilege of engaging in again after 13 years), the most pressing issue to address is what to do if, when a so-called “orange booker” meets a compassionate conservative, they actually meet head on.

Of course there will be cracks, and this has no more been shown in the last week by the tense relationship between George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. On the same day as the Clegg/Cameron press release Vince Cable was awaiting confirmation of the equal patch he will have with George Osborne as chair of the committee in charge of banks, only to find that those were not the plans at all.

Osborne’s sources were quick to brush the incident aside by saying there had been some confusion on the matter, but it is clear why Osborne would want to keep Cable at arms length from controlling reform of banking. Our new Chancellor finds some of Cable’s tough plans for banks dubious, such as his measures to encourage banks to lend more.

In spite of crucial differences in the week Cable has not kicked up a fuss, in fact, as Will Hutton points out in, he has gracefully accepted now his role as deputy of the key cabinet sub-committee and has agreed to jointly chair the commission in charge of decisions on how banks should be broken up as well as overseeing bank competition, consumer protection and the lending targets.

Addressing the class similarities Nick Cohen last week in the Observer has stated of the coalition that:

Far from adding grit to an administration dominated by the children of the rich, [the Liberal Democrats have] toffed it up and raised the average cabinet member’s net worth by tens of thousands of pounds.

It is what Cohen identifies here which will be the real challenge for the left; countering the unrepresentative make-up of the government as it is today, and the similarities of the coalition, not the differences. For this reason the left should hold back basing their attack on the coalition as one which is destined to fail, one where the differences are too drastic, just in case this is totally, and worryingly, misjudged.

Elvis Costello and the Guilt Society

Elvis Costello will receive a great deal of praise from boycotting Israel during his tour by pro-Palestinian groups and peace activists, while others will accuse the singer of harbouring a form of anti-Semitism that has now become acceptable by the political establishment under the guise of anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Both perceptions of Costello, which are inevitable, are wrong.

Costello wrote this on his site:

It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts.

But Costello is neither an anti-Semite nor someone who truly understands the proper coordinates of championing peace – this episode ought to reveal.

It is a strange phenomenon that those who are branded vulnerable can only do wrong where the cause is metropolitanism, consumer capitalism and the west itself. When a bourgeois liberal utters this they have achieved what Pascal Bruckner has recently identified as ‘guilt’ for which he further elaborates is a ‘tyranny’. What Bruckner means by this is in an age after empire, power relations have gone from rich west dominating an other, to a west stricken with guilt and the other perceived by them as justifiably agitated. The worst expression of this is when one who this bourgeois liberal considers vulnerable commits something unthinkable, lets say a terrorist act or genital mutilation, and is justified on the grounds that the west deserved what it was getting.

It is a guilt that does two things; firstly it excuses the worst acts in a way that is nothing short of masochism and then justifies them with a logic that doesn’t fit today (it doesn’t recognise that some crimes are committed with the world’s injustices as a false cover); secondly it continues that kind of patronising conception of the other that would have been commonplace in the age of Empire (the idea that some foreigners cannot cause destruction without their being a cause emanating from the west – this position, of course, is as self-righteous as it is ridiculous and naive).

Disliking the government in Israel for its criminal behaviour is fine, but many countries in the Middle East have terrible track records. The difference with Israel is that, for some people, it is European enough to show your disliking of it guilt-free, it’s crimes are crimes of choice, as opposed to the crimes of countries on its border, who commit crimes not out of choice, but mere causality.

Of course not all anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism; anyone who thinks that is foolish. But Israel, like countries in West Europe, are considered rich and decadent enough to have choices in the crimes it commits, and therefore it is ok to dislike them, whereas it is out of guilt that some justify the crimes of other countries, a perception so warped that it fails to realise the hurt it causes trying to right wrongs.

Support Cruddas for leader; hold him to account

My enthusiasm for supporting Cruddas has been stepped since I saw how much a meek and mild audience of fabian society members/supporters thanked and heaped praise on Ed Miliband when he gave his instigative speech there on Saturday 15th May.

Though when I was speaking to people in the pub afterwards the attitude was the same; Ed Miliband because he was the better realistic candidate. Now what happened to the leftist intellectual rigour once felt to be found within the fabian movement, the natural home of socialism in punctuated steps (definitely not eugenics).

Do we leftists have to step over to Compass for a view of the Labour party as anything other than beaten, downtrodden numpties who will take whatever “change” candidate appears first (and often enough, Ed will get good coverage!).

When I was called a “commie” for supporting Cruddas in a popular restaurant after the conference I realised that the fabian rigour of old had perhaps left with Sidney and Beatrice.

Nonetheless, hopeful as ever, I’ve spoken to a few people with Cruddas in mind, and fell across a facebook group with more supporters for him as leader than Ed Balls’ fan page (that is at least something, if a minor something). To campaign for a Cruddas leadership is not a write-off – and I will pursue.

Reminding myself of his work today I watched again the Compass speech, and made particular note of his 10 pointers (bearing in mind they were for an audience that was pre-election).

The important part of that is embedded below, but I’ll point out the main elements he puts forward:

  • electoral reform ( a hot potato)
  • economic democracy (social banking, miles from the speculative sort to which it is linked at the hip)
  • social housing crusade (for those who depend on it so)
  • a cancellation of Trident (old hat, hark-back to the cold war)
  • scrappage of ID cards
  • closure of tax havens
  • cancellation of third Heathrow airport
  • devolution of power to local authorities (sticking it to those who didn’t think that a Labour party could be capable of something like this)
  • fair employment contracts for all (even for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks)
  • the protection of those in poverty who would be affected by a future of Tory cuts (little did he know then a Libservative tirade of cuts in the first year of their governance)

He goes into a little more detail than I’m able to in this post, but our representatives are held to account by us, and if he sticks to a programme of the above, then lets see a healthy battle between the choice for hype (Ed Miliband) and the choice for socialism (Jon Cruddas).