Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dunkirk Spirit - myth & reality.

Inevitably with the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the BEF this week, and of course the imminent World Cup, the idea of the 'Dunkirk Spirit' is being much touted around. And mis-appropriated - from fat red-faced football fans waiving St George's flags, to Cameron's 'we're all in it together vision' of people creating their own DIY schools.

If there is such a thing as national character - and straightaway we're on dodgy ground here - then  perhaps the Dunkirk Spirit is a particularly British form of stoicism, quiet understatement and dry-humour, along with a discovery of collective spirit provoked by adversity. It certainly isn't about waiving the flag and singing ENGER-LAND.

For my Mum and Dad's generation Dunkirk and the events of 1940 holds a special place in their memory. Although they probably wouldn't express it themselves that way - I think that for them it marks the start of the 'People's War'. Only this weekend they were reminiscing how my Granddad in the river police wanted to take his boat over to France but wasn't allowed to  because it might be needed in case of invasion -  whilst a firefighter Uncle  did go over on a fire-boat - presumably these were seen as more expendable.

The involvement of civilians and their boats in the rescue operations was in this respect very symbolic: The troops of the BEF were largely pre-war Regulars and called-up Territorials - the mass armies  of citizen-conscripts were to come later. The talk  of 'phony war' rapidly switched   - after France fell so quickly to the German blitzkrieg - to a genuine fear of an invasion of the British Isles.  Along with  a much-mythologized but undeniable sense of  standing alone  - without European allies, support from the Commonwealth still to be mobilised, and with the USA standing aloof .

For them there was/is a real sense that Dunkirk was a turning point in the national psyche. But even then - as now - there was much mis-information about the evacuation: 

Some parts of the BEF were sacrificed (notably in Calais) for PR purposes to reassure the French  - whilst there were bitter arguments over the evacuation of French troops that were to have recriminations for years. Ironically many French troops who were evacuated to Britain were then pointlessly returned to ports in Western France just in time for the mass surrender. 

Most fundamentally the threat of invasion averted by the 'miracle of Dunkirk' was probably more perceived than real. Historians have speculated endlessly whether the German forces had either the means or desire to stage an amphibious invasion. And conspiracists have pondered the crucial and mysterious order to halt the Panzer forces' pursuit of the BEF to Dunkirk. It's now fairly well established that the Nazis harboured hopes for a negotiated settlement with an isolated Britain that would leave the empire in tact whilst giving them a free hand in Europe. And it's equally well established that there were factions within the British ruling class - Lord Halifax and various other toffs - who felt the same way. Recently discovered evidence suggests that even Churchill didn't discount this at one point.

There are some extraordinary tales to be told about Dunkirk - just not the flag-waiving ones that we are likely to see this week ..

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Parliament peace camp

Over the past few years whenever I ride around Parliament Square, I usually give a toot of the horn in recognition to Brian Haw and his (in the beginning anyway) one-man peace camp. 

Although  I have never had the chance to speak to Brian, I suspect that he is a bit of a loon - but   in the very best possible way. His persistent and eccentric presence in the shadow of the seat of government must be a source of continuing irritation and embarrassment to the powers that be. 

And for that alone he is worthy of the respect of all of us who carry out our activism in rather more comfort.

I fear that the police's raid on the camp yesterday, and mayor Boris's stated intention to have the protesters removed by a court order, is a taste of the new profoundly illiberal regime now in power in this country. I still can't help wondering how all those North London Lib-Dems who knit their own CND jumpers are feeling  about propping it up.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Stupid stunts.

After the fragile unity of TUSC , a salutary reminder of why we can't 'just all sink our differences and work together':

When I half-saw the report on the TV of the SWP's attempted occupation of the BA / Unite talks out of the corner of my eye, my immediate thought was that it was just  the eco-toffs of Plane Stupid again.Then I heard that it was 'Far Left' activists and my heart sank.

A classic cringe-worthy display of ultra-Leftism if ever there was one. Sadly we've seen it many times before from the Swappies -  whose analysis is often no more sophisticated than 'strikes good - settlements bad'. 

Maybe it's wrong to characterize those involved in the action as middle class students but it's difficult to think that anybody who actually works for a living, with bills to pay and families to support, would take so flippant a view of the sacrifices required in going on strike - and the genuine need and hopes for a settlement.

Woodley and Simpson may well be  over-paid bureaucrats who will sell out the workers they represent for a quiet life - but the BA cabin crew don't need a chanting mob to tell them that. Actually -  if  workers in dispute are being kept out of talks and a deal is being cooked up behind their backs, then occupation of the negotiations is a pretty sound tactic - at least it is when it is done by the workers themselves

Activist supporters have a role in helping  this by organising solidarity and publicity outside of the occupations - they even might politely offer some advice based on  previous experiences. What they don't do is unilaterally substitute themselves for the workers like the Swappies.

This supportive role is what I can remember  myself and other Militant comrades doing 20+ years ago when the Addenbrookes strikers in Cambridge occupied the offices of the Community Health Council - and it's exactly the same approach  the  Socialist Party recently took at the Visteon, Linemar and Vestas occupations.

Hence the SP's statement  here on the tactics of the BA dispute .

And just for the record the SWP didn't prevent a sell out by ending the talks - union-busting cunt Willie Walsh is quite capable of doing that himself without any outside assistance.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Democracy is so confusing

Democracy is a funny old business - and very much in the eye of the beholder.

 A little snippet in the  news today: Cameron has just changed the rules so that government ministers can sit on the Tory back-benchers' 1922 committee  - and so  keep all those troublesome and off-message old farts in check. It's a stroke of genius - a bit like sticking some representatives of the gamekeepers' federation on the national executive of the poachers' union. If a leftwing group pulled a stunt like that  it would be called entryism or meeting-packing.

Much like the Tories' similar genius in changing the no-confidence vote rules to virtually ensure a five year fixed term - and so lock the Lib-Dems into coalition. You could almost murmur the ominous words 'Enabling Act'  with all its connotations of parliamentary Bonapartism.

Of course to raise this is quibbling about triffles compared to the fiasco of the general election itself - with disputed electoral rolls, ill-equipped polling stations running out of ballot papers, and voters turned away from the polls because they couldn't be processed quickly enough. Not to worry though  - next time Rawanda is going  to send some observers to ensure fair play.

On the other hand, if you are  a trade union trying to conduct a ballot across a large membership scattered across, and frequently moving between,  numerous workplaces, the details of which the employer is under no obligation to update the union about, - then woe betide you. You might send a few ballot forms to the wrong place (the RMT) or you might not  inform your members correctly of the details of  spoilt ballot papers (Unite BA workers). 

Even if the results give you  a significant 'mandate'* (there's a word that's been touted around a lot recently) - you're still vulnerable to your opponents crying foul and getting a court injunction against you.

* Speaking of mandates here's something to ponder
Unite 80% majority for strike action
RMT 54% majority for strike action 
Conservative  36% of popular vote
Lib Dems 23% of popular vote

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Nerdy or Geeky ?

Like father likes son(s):

Back in the dark ages when I was a student Ralph Miliband's State In Capitalist Society was a required text. It made little impression  on me but if I remember correctly the gist of it - and this really is a case of no shit sherlock - was that the various agencies that made up the state, whilst appearing to be 'neutral', were actually all connected by common background or interest. 

For this hardly original insight he was given the status of a Marxist intellectual and darling  of the New Left.  And back in those days that was actually quite a handy label for anyone pursuing an academic career. 

At the time I struggled to see what was particularly Marxist about what he was saying - the book was full of sociological description but very thin on politics - and above all there was an absence of any idea of class struggle. The State was simply something that 'happened' to a passive working class to keep them in their place.

Just as I was then  bemused that their old man  counted himself in the ranks of 'Marxists' so I am now equally baffled as to what the Miliband brothers are doing in the Labour Party, let alone contending for the leadership:

Ed the Brown-ite versus Dave the Blair-ite - or is it the other way round ?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Fuck the Con-Dems - Let's Ride.

Enough politics for the moment - they don't make them like this any more - here's Peter Fonda's  manifesto: " We don't want nobody telling us what to do. We don't want nobody pushing us around. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man. We want to get loaded"...

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Blood thicker than water.

The blood that is of shared social background and common class interest, as opposed to the watery cocktail of 'centre-left progressivism':

Dave, from a long line of financiers going back to the 18th century, married to a minor aristo, Eton and Brasenose Oxford. Nick, from Russian emigre nobility, married into a Spanish patrician family, Westminster School and Robinson Cambridge. Both with no real work experience outside of being politicos - a Tory party apparatchik and a Euro-crat respectively. Both amongst some of the wealthiest MP's in parliament. If you ever doubted that there was such a thing as a ruling class - this is what it looks like in the flesh.

At local level I have never really doubted that the Lib-Dems are a kind of Tory-lite. People who by right should really be Tories but are just a little squeamish about  the consequences. A kind of NIMBY-ism writ large -  they'll campaign locally to save their local school or hospital but won't or can't join up the dots to come up with a coherent radical programme that could save everyone's school or hospital. When they get control of councils their record is invariably little better than  the Tories.

I can concede that there is/was a progressive strain of sorts in some Lib-Dems - and they must be wondering what the fuck they have done in facilitating a Tory government committed to £6billion of cuts in public spending this year, a cap on immigration and the keeping of Trident. On the other hand they may just  think that electoral reform and five cabinet seats was worth the price. And of course I don't suppose they are going to feel the coming cuts in quite the same way in Muswell Hill.

Monday, 10 May 2010

What's left for the Left ?

Whilst the public school boys are cooking up a deal behind closed to determine what our next government will  be - I am  pondering the results for socialists  candidates in the election.

By no stretch of the imagination can they be called good - I haven't seen anyone push the 'XXX thousand votes for socialism' line - but doubtless some head-bangers will. On the other hand inevitably the nay-sayers will be jumping at the chance to write the obituaries for the Left. I prefer a more sober and honest analysis of where we are:

It is stating the obvious to say this was a weird election in every respect. On Thursday night I couldn't keep my eyes open beyond 3am but what was clear even by then was how localised the patterns of voting swings were - strong swings to the Tories in safe Labour seats set against poor Tory performances in some of their targeted marginals.

And for socialists the best results came unsurprisingly where there is a strong local base grounded in the real world: Dave Nellist in Coventry with a consistent record and profile for thirty years, the councillors in Lewisham who got their highest ever vote but still lost their seats, and in my own constituency Jenny Sutton, with a strong campaign around cuts at the local college. Even here we saw the incumbent David Lammy actually increasing the majority for Labour at the expense of the Lib Dems.

Realistically  socialists elsewhere  were stuck with campaigning for a fairly abstract protest vote against Labour. Not the easiest task at the best of times but possibly made even harder in the future now that people who voted Lib-Dem in protest realise that they may have unwittingly helped elect a Tory government. In that respect - roll on electoral reform and PR. None of that though adds up to a case for socialists calling time on elections - on the contrary this is a time to  stick to our guns. 

The TUSC project came a long way from a standing start in a short time - if not actually Left unity then at least practical co-operation on a fairly unprecedented level, was achieved by disparate groups. And more importantly, even in its name, TUSC has raised the idea of linking trade union representation and socialism.

I would argue that it is a very modest beginning but a necessary one in light of the battles around the corner when the next government turns on public spending. Sadly patience and consistency are not the strong suites of some of the groups that make up TUSC but  one thing we don't need at the next election is to campaign under a different name or acronym ...or even worse a myriad of them.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Vote early. Vote often.

I imagine I was one of the first through the doors at my polling station this morning. And I anticipate a late night watching the results and analysis because I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. In reality though in  terms of election build-up never has so much been hyped about so little. 

Regardless of the outcome, whether it is a precarious minority government or a cobbled-together coalition, for most ordinary people it will be a case of gritting the teeth and tightening the belts in anticipation of an austerity programme that will unpick further whatever fabric of the welfare state is left in this post-Thatcher/Blair era.

Which is not to say that the result doesn't matter - the signal sent by a Tory victory would only boost the confidence of those sections of the ruling class who unashamedly want to put the boot into the most vulnerable in society and make them pay for the recession.

Which is why I would make a plea for anyone who is even slightly sympathetic to the views expressed in this blog to get out and vote for TUSC if you're lucky enough to live in one of the 40-odd constituencies with a TUSC candidate. If you're not, then for fuck's sake at least use your vote  to stop a Tory or a Fascist getting in.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Education. Education. Edu...what the fuck ?

Remember Blair's smug sound-bite? FE colleges up and down the country are shut today because of a strike by the the lecturers' union - the UCU - in protest at a massive cuts programme aimed at that sector.  My local college is one of them - CONEL (The College of North East London) is making £2.5m of cuts that will dramatically cut teaching jobs and courses.

What's happening there is a microcosm of what Labour have done to the their inner city heartlands - like Tottenham - and a taste of worse to come, whatever the result of tomorrow's election. The college is at the heart of the community here  - and not just because it is one of the biggest employers in the constituency. The cuts are going to tear at that heart. We have one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the UK so both  vocational courses and second-chance-after-school courses give young people some hope. We are also officially the most ethnically diverse part of the UK so courses teaching English and basic literacy are essential to people who come here to make a new life and try to integrate themselves in the local community.

Ironically our local MP, David Lammy is a man who owes pretty much everything to the power of education. Yet as a minister for education he has done precisley fuck all to assist the campaign to stop the cuts at his local college. He actually grew up about a block away from where I now live - but a scholarship to a boarding school led to a law degree from Harvard. And good luck to him for that -  I've also benefited in my own life (not quite as much as Lammy though)  from access to an elite education. But he is happy now to kick the ladder away from the next generation behind him who want to make the same journey.

It's no accident that our local TUSC candidate is a UCU  activist  from the college - and one of those now likely to lose her job.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Wasting time is the best of times.

Sat at working contemplating the shit I have to shovel to make a living, and the depressing and increasingly likely prospect of a new Tory government -  I happened upon this clip on the excellent Quad Cam Bastards blog.

There's something beautiful about this clip - a group of friends, some cool bikes, bare essentials, just pratting about and enjoying life. Never did the boarding thing myself, but there's plenty of other equally stupid shit I could substitute - like playing chi-sau in the blazing sun in Ibiza.

In my little martial arts world we interpret Wing Chun as 'Forever Young' - simplicity, innocence, back to basics -  take it where you will. The older I get the more wisdom I see in this kind of goofiness.

MOB! from Bolts Action on Vimeo.