Tuesday, February 27, 2007

This Is Where The Heart Is

Earlier today I posted an item about my local football team, then I came aross these details
about the latest hideous incident in Iraq of the mass killings and injuries to children who were playing football.

This is by no means the first incident of attacks upon Iraqi children playing football. There have, of course, been other murders of children at school and in other places. Adults playing football have also been targetted. I dealt with some of these matters some time ago.

There is a great love of football in Iraq. British involvement in developing the port at Basra and in oil and other industries, helped to develop this passion. If terrorism can be ended, football could still turn out to be our best heritage - arising from the tradition I descibed as having arisen in Sheffield.

I hope that this is a matter which (in particular) football fans in this country will reflect upon.

Eat Your Heart Out

As a back-bench MP I was never jealous of those who were promoted over me to the Front Benches. What really made me green with envy were those who had League Football Teams in their Constituencies. Especially, Bill Etherington who has the team I support in his patch - Sunderland.

Then just prior to my final spell as an MP arising from the 2001 General Election, the oldest team in the world suddenly moved into a ground just 15 Minutes walk from my home - which is in the Constituency I represented.

Admittedly, they are a Non-League team - Sheffield FC. But there are some reasons why they are rather special.

A First XI

1. They are the oldest team in the world .Founded in 1857, they have been in continious existence since then. It is only 8 months until their 150th Anniversary.

2. The oldest contest in the world is between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. They are currently in the same local League. They first played on the ground which Hallam still play at on Boxing Day 1860. I was able to watch the 146h Anniverary of that fixture when the two teams met at Hallam on Boxing Day 2006.

3. Both the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and Sheffield FC celebrate their 150th Anniversaries this year. They have linked for the purpose and recently kicked off the joint celebrations at the Olive Grove Bus Depot in Sheffield. In 1857, the site included a greenhouse where the first ever meeting of Sheffield FC took place. The Sheffield area has been a hothouse for football ever since.

4. Sheffield FC are ten points clear at the top of the Northern Counties League. Retford Town are in second place, but have 4 games in hand. They were to have played each other tonight in a Cup game, but it has been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.

5. Sheffield FC don't just own the ground near me, but they own the neighbouring pub which serves a fine range of specialist beers.

6. They also run a major charity which has so far delivered 2,000 pairs of football boots to Africa. Locally, 27 schools and colleges, 8 sports organisations and 28 businesses are involved - as is Tony Adams (ex-Arsenal and England).

7. Richard Caborn MP, the Sports Minister and a former adult student of mine is also on board in the above campaign and in other Club activities. They have also drawn Chelsea, the FIFA President, the Premier League Chairman, Micheal Vaughan the England Cricket Captain and Rock Star Def Leppard into membership. Another member is the former England Manager, Sven Goran Eriksson. Just before the World Cup I met Sven in a bar in the Commons. He knew everything about developments at Sheffield FC, but nothing at all about Neill Quinn's moves to organise a take-over at Sunderland and send it on its way to recovery !

8. The Club has a full community involvement and runs teams for women, under 19s, junior girls and junior boys. Young team mascots appear at each home game and receive a team strip. They run a team for disabled people, which gave them their link with Chelsea who do the same. It also has a "Football in the Community" Scheme which is fully involved in programmes such as "Kick Racism Out Of Football".

9. The Club has a partnership arrangement with Real Madrid and involves itself fully at a range of International Football Conferences linking up with people such as Eric Cantana and Sir Bobby Robson. The formal opening of its activities on my local ground involved a friendly against a Manchester United team.

10. Whilst it has a fine home ground with ground improvements initially aided by the Football Foundation, some of its bigger events are occasionally moved to larger facilities at Don Valley and Bramall Lane, the nearby home of Sheffield United. The Club being closely involved with the setting up of United in 1889. They also have a good relationship with Sheffield Wednesday. There are inevitable pre-season friendlies with both the big Sheffield Clubs. Sheffield FC also won the Sheffield and Hallamshire Senior Cup on the Wednesday's Hillsborough home ground at the end of last season.

11. None of the above footballing, anniversary, social and community activities would be achieved without a great deal of sensible hard work from those involved in the day to day operations of the Club, headed up by Dave McCarthy as Manager and Richard Tims as Chairman.

No wonder that I have been a proud member of the Club since its local arrival. So Club plaques, badges, scarves and shirts decorate my room - alongside the eqivalents for Sunderland.

On Saturday, Sheffield FC defeated Pickering Town 1-0 at home with the best move of the match. A match report can be found here.

Monday, February 26, 2007

I Don't Belieeeve It !

I have just discovered that (within a fortnight) I am the same age as Victor Meldrew - the actor, Richard Wilson.

He first performed in "One Foot in the Grave" in 1990, when we were both youngsters of 53. The final performance was for Comic Relief when were were both 64.

This means that the whole of the series tucked easily into the period when I was an M.P. Some would say I have been a grumpy old man (well I have been faced with New Labour) - and that the 70th Birthday photo of mine on my profile looks like a Victor Meldrew trying to smile.

Furthermore, at 70 Richard Wilson does press ups each day and still plays squash. He should be careful at our age. I will stick with the unhealthy habit of blogging. At least, it gives adequate scope for complaining.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Five Blogs (plus ten others) That Make Me Think.

Not In Any Order Of Merit

1. Yourfriendinthenorth.
2. Iraqi Mojo.
3. The Labour Humanist.
4. Gauche.
5. NewerLabour.

These are the blogs I nominate for the "Thinking Blogger Award" - as promised in the last item I posted. If they don't think that it is naff, this entitles them to display the Award Symbol which can be found in my right hand column between my lists of "Links" and "Previous Posts."

Under the rules of this meme, they are now each entitled to name five others.

My Criteria

I have not included anyone whom I have discovered has been nominated by others (so sorry NightHawk and Eric Lee). To the best of my knowledge, the five listed above are individuals who operate blogs which have comment boxes and readily enter into discussions with other sensible bloggers.

I appreciate the nonsense element of this form of chain. From the first names that were posted, it could in theory spread like wildfire from 5, 25, 125, 625 ... so that after ten stages almost 10 million will be reached. I think that we would soon run out of anyone that I would wish to see recommended..

The Five I Have Chosen

Yourfriendinthenorth. This is criticism and common sense about politics and life in Northern Ireland. I have a long term interest in the situation there, having served on the Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland and on the British Irish Parliamentary Body.

Iraqi Mojo. Born in Baghdad and grew up in America. Posts significant items and provides a first class set of links to and on Iraq. I did my National Service in Iraq in 1955-56 and I am fully involved today with "Labour Friends of Iraq".

The Labour Humanist. This is not just an anti-religous set of tracts and it covers positive humanist issues and values. It appeals to my own "A Gentle Atheism".

Gauche. Paul Anderson seeks to follow in the footsteps of my favouite author George Orwell. No one does it better.

NewerLabour. Not to be confused with New Labour. Otherwise, ignore the handle Tom Miller uses. I have not sold out. He is a good read, showing what it is like to be a left-leaning 21 year old in Britain today. As someone who is nearly 50 years older, I need this stimulous - even if he is supporting Cruddas for Deputy Leader.

Five "Thinking" Links Falling Outside My Criteria

For all of these see my Links in the right-hand column.

1. Johann Hari.
2. Open Democracy.
3. Democratiya.
4. Independent Labour Publications.
5. Labour Friends of Iraq.

Then, for listening there is Little Atoms (see "My Links"). With a special mention for great footballing words of wisdom from (and on) Roy Keane via "A Love Supreme".

The special Harry Barnes Award for comradely blogging goes to Bob Piper. Bob, I am sorry that I haven't got the skills to manufacture a comradely gong.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thinking About Thinking

Roger Darlington who posts as NightHawk has nominated me for a Thinking Blogger Award. I am most grateful. It entitles me to display the Award Symbol which I will do as soon I have mastered the minor technical skill that is needed. Well, after all, my practical shortcomings are acceptable in a "thinker".

The award operates as a meme under the title of "Five blogs that make me think". I am pleased to be in the company of the others whom Paul has nominated. These include both Nick Cohen and Eric Lee who I know. I have just drafted a lengthy review (or "think piece" as I can now call it) on Nick Cohen's book "What's Left?" and I know that Eric Lee will also have an interest in what I have to say about the concept of "Anti-Zionism".

Writing is the easy bit. Typing, presenting and posting it on this blog is a bigger task. I also need to select my own five nominees for the "thinking blogger" awards and post a suitably linked item. Don't worry, I am thinking about these things.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Michael : You Have Placed Us In It.

The Poor Man's Clare Short

Michael Meacher's decision to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party and thus for the Prime Minister's Crown is an unmitigated disaster.

He is yesterday's man, having stood for the deputy leadership 23 years ago in the heyday of a long departed Bennism.

He then tucked in as a Labour Minister under New Labour, voting for the invasion of Iraq. He had failed to budge or to follow Robin Cook - who at one time had only been soft left compared to Michael's hard leftism.

When Clare Short resigned over the invasion of Iraq it was too late, but at least she resigned and had been doing some of the work of a socialist at International Development. Unlike Clare, Michael only found his voice to criticise New Labour once he was pushed out of the Government.

He now seems to have flipped over to a "troops out" position over Iraq. So he voted incorrectly in favour of the invasion and compounds this by calling for a premature scuttle.

Heaven knows, I have disagreed enough with Tony Blair over Iraq but on the troops position he made a sensible speech in the Commons yesterday. I don't know if Michael heard it. But he certainly did not stay in the chamber to ask questions afterwards.

Ego Tripping

What we need is a left-leaning candidate who will offer a sensible critique of New Labourism, whilst being serious about troop withdrawals and will adopt a Labourite platform which won't frighten the birds.

Although Gordon Brown will probably win, what of the situation afterwards? We need someone who will be a focus for an alternative approach which democratic socialists can live with. This won't be Michael. He will once more disappear into the wilderness when his present ego trip is over.

Waiting For Peter

The alternative to Gordon and John McDonnell should be Peter Hain. He has at least made noises in Government to show that he isn't in tune with the general thrust of New Labour.

If Michael has placed the blocks on Peter's leadership candidature, I will never forgive him. Michael's decision to stand makes John now look like the only refuge for Labour Party socialists - unless Peter will at last grasp the nettle.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Muslims Against Sectarianism

This is an article from this week's "Soma: An Iraqi Kurdish Digest" which is published in English in Sulaymaniyah in the north of Iraq. It reports on a speech before a mass audience by a Shiite Imam in which he opposes sectarian divisions amongst Shiites, Sunnis and the wider non-Muslim community.

I first read a copy of the Digest in Sulaymaniyah last April and now link into it. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Quiet Heroes Of Baghdad

Iraqi Teachers

Yesterday evening I met up with the fine group of teachers from Baghdad whom I referred to in the last item I posted - which is, therefore, just below this one. They are a delegation from Iraq's largest individual Trade Union : their Teachers' Union. This Union caters for all associated with education, including University Lecturers and School Inspectors.

I last met the leader of the delegation, Mahdi Ali Lefta in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan last April when I was part of a visiting group from this country. He was then part of a delegation of Iraqi Trade Unionists who travelled to the Kurdish area to meet us. They included representatives of Trade Unions in Electricity, Oil and Gas, Construction and from the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions; plus the co-ordinator of the UNISON-backed Trade Union Educational Project. Our own delegations having visited one of the latter's training courses.

Moses Supposes

The meeting was held in the Moses Room of the Lords and was chaired by Sue Rodgers, the Chair of the TUC's Iraq Solidarity Committee. She is also the Treasurer of the Teacher's Union NAS/UWT. The Iraqi Teachers had just attended her Unions Training Course in Birmingham.

Amongst those attending yesterday's meeting were the Education Minister Bill Rammell, other MPs and Peers. A suitable letter of solidarity was even read out at the close from Tony Blair, whilst an Early Day Motion on the Teacher's visit has been placed upon the Commons Order Paper. The room was booked by Baroness Royall. Those attending and participating included Baroness (Emma) Nicholson who is also an MEP and has close links with Iraq's Marsh Arabs.

From Belfast To Baghdad

Lord Davies (formerly Garfield Davies an ex-General Secretary of USDAW) pointed out that during the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland between elements of the Protestant and Catholic communities, it was the Northern Ireland Trade Union Movement who had been the main influence at the workplace and in society generally in pointing to the shared interests of workers and in pressing for the need for co-operation and mutual support throughout society. He wished to know if the same was happening to counter those encouraging sectarianism between Sunni and Shia in Iraq.

The Iraqi Teachers were keen to show that Trade Unions in Iraq were playing a similiar role. The Teachers' Union in Baghdad playing a particularly important role in these endeavours, as traditionally the two avenues of Islam had intermarried. Intergration was a recent and powerful tradition, which the Teachers' Union pressed to protect and preserve.

Tackling Saddam's Inheritence

I said that when our group had met the area's Education Minister in Arbil, he had told us of a culture of dominance and violence by certain teachers on children which had arisen from the years of Saddam Hussain. This had been confirmed to me by a former Primary School Teacher who was acting as one of our interpretors.

The Education Minister had pointed to the work of Teacher Training Colleges and other educational reforms as a means of tackling the problem. I wondered what the delegations experiences were on this matter.

The Iraqi Teachers pointed out just how catastrophic education had been under Saddam. For dictatorship rests upon manipulative and superficial forms of what passes for education. Saddam's educational programme has impacted upon generations of school children and when political change came, it did not come from the Iraqi people themselves but via invasion.

The formation of the new Government had, however, impacted upon the entire nation and had given the new Teachers' Union the opportunity to press for many changes in educational practices, including an end to the culture of violence.

Sue Rogers (who had been part of our delegation in Arbil and visited a fine girls' school in the town) reminded me that the Minister of Education had also pointed to changes in the law to establish the dismissal of any teacher still found to be using bullying methods.

Order 8750

From the Chair, Sue raised the issue of Order 8750 under which the Iraqi Government has provisions to sequest Trade Union funds until it sorts out whom it is willing to recognise as Trade Unions and under what form of State controls.

The Iraqi Teachers informed us that they used to have 25 people employed in their Head Office in Baghdad, before the Order came into force. The removal of funds means that they only now have three people operating the office, who can barely cope. They previously had 5 centres with computers and other facilities, but they have been obliged to close these. Local officials can't be paid and are not now able to be in contact with each other.

At one time, the Union had been able to organise visits for members to Iraqi Kurdistan in association with that Region's own Teachers' Union, but the removal of the funds has ended this. It had involved mutual exchanges, training programmes and breaks from terrorist dangers.

How Can We Help ?

We were informed that a delegation from their Teachers' Trade Union has met with Nouri Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister to discuss the problems arising from Order 8750 and he had said that he would look into the matter. We need to add external pressure to see that the response is quick and favourable and allows for the running of free Trade Unions.

Specific avenues for individual support can be found via here, here and here. If we wish to be the friends of Iraq's Teachers, their Trade Union, their school children and students; then we also need to oppose those who seek to destroy and disrupt their daily lives.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Iraq : Whose Side Are We On?

The importance of the role of Trade Unions in Iraq is reflected in the latest edition of the TUC's Iraq Bulletin which was issued on Thursday.

Amongst the items they cover are details of the current visit to this country by a delegation from the Iraqi Teachers' Union, who are guests of their equivalent Trade Unions within this country.

Today's Observer runs a telling article about the visit. Teachers have the largest single Union in Iraq and it has close links with their sister organisation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

One of the best ways to help the people of Iraq is to give practical and moral support to bodies such as their Teachers' Union via the TUC's Iraq Appeal and/or by contacting Labour Friends of Iraq (or myself as Vice President of the latter.)

It is far better than pretending that the people who kill and maim teachers, lecturers, schoolchildren and students (and who do this) are to be excused as being "freedom fighters".

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Peter The Great?

My case for Peter Hain standing for the Leadership of the Labour Party rather than for the Deputy Leadership is added to by two passing events.

(1) Sunshine

Today's Sun carries an article supporting Alan Johnson for the Deputy Leadership in order to stop the position going to Peter. This should give Peter a standing on the Left and Centre of the Party which some had not thought of before. If the Sun is so powerfully against him, then might he not be just the right person to be Leader and Prime Minister?

(2) Tribulation

This week's Tribune claims that Hazel Blears is about to enter the Deputy Leadership race. That would make the contest even more crowded with six pressing for nominations from Labour MPs. Life is more simple so far in the contest which really matters. Only Gordon Brown and John McDonnell are currently the intended candidates. Yet for Labour MPs and the wider Labour membership who are looking for an able candidate who is neither New Labour nor Hard Labour, then Peter is the best choice. He has had a long term commitment to libetarian socialist ideals, yet he is also a political realist.

In a full Leadership contest he would probably end John McDonnell's hopes of clearing the nomination threshold. Hopefully, Socialist Campaign Group members would then come behind him to stop Gordon Brown. Yet he would not reflect John McDonnell's over-the-top position.

Who Else?

The only stumbling block to my suggestion is Peter Hain himself. He needs to realise that if he wants to be great, he needs some grit.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Nick Cohen's Myopia

The Death Of Socialism

I would never claim that socialism is in a healthy state in this country nor that it is a serious political force in current circumstances. But how can Nick Cohen begin to reach conclusions about our socialism having died without assessing or even mentioning the role of Labour's parliamentary bodies such as the Tribune and Socialist Campaign Groups? Yet nowhere do these emerge in his book "What's Left?".

He also fails to look at the Tribune Newspaper, numbers of other publications that can be purchased at Compass Conferences or the Morning Star (except in its old guise as the Daily Worker) . Compass itself is ignored for his preferred Euston Manifesto buddies.

At The Fringe

Yet the Revolutionary Communist Party, Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Revolutionary Party are all delved into; not to mention ye olde Communist Party. When it comes to left-wing personalities we get Perry Anderson, Tony Cliff, Ted Grant, Tariq Ali and Gerry Healy. And whilst this is all interesting stuff for officionados, where are the more recognisable lefties such as Tony Benn and his re-incarnation John McDonnell ? The latter is currently trying to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party, which at the moment provides the additional post of Prime Minister.

I don't agree with what John is doing, even though he has given me an open invitation to pop in to a Socialist Campaign Group Meeting in the Commons sometime. Nick does not seem to know that John even exists and is currently, in fact, using up a great deal of kinetic energy.

Thesis Fodder

The strange thing about Nick's omissions are that (from his own perspective) he could have used these as fodder to feed his overall thesis about the left's self inflicted wounds. For instance, the Socialist Campaign Group spawned "Labour Against the War", which has a close relationship with the "Stop the War Coalition". The latter is a clear target for Nick's polemic. Why does he not spread his net to also take on "Labour Against the War?".

I was on the platform at the launch of Labour's version of the "Stop the War Coalition". I later resigned when I felt that they seriously lost their way as a supposed democratic socialist organisation after the invasion.

The Shape Of Things To Come

I will return to what Nick missed in the future. This includes the strange absence of any analysis by him of the bulk of the hard lefts shortcomings over Northern Ireland. For current failures by many on the left to turn against terrorism in Iraq, follows on from much the same people associating themselves with the Provisional IRA's use of Sinn Fein.

In the meantime, the type of lefty who Nick criticizes over Iraq includes the strange case of Sami Ramadani whom is himself a London based Iraqi. To glimpse at what Sami gets up to scrawl down to question 6 here and then here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Women in Local Government 1907 and 2007

On 6 February I posted an item entitled "Votes For Women : 1918, 1870 or Earlier?" based upon the book "Ladies Elect : Women in English Local Government 1865-1914" by Patricia Hollis (Claredon Press, Oxford 1987).

Although I had been obliged to borrow the book via the Public Library loan system, I have now been informed that there is to be a limited reprint centred around the relaunch in Sheffield on 10 March of an organisation entitled the "Women's Local Government Society" (WLGS).


The original WLGS emerged in the late 1880's and existed in various forms until around the time of the First World War. It became a strong campaigning force, lobbying MPs, but also giving practical support to women to enable them to seek election to local government.

1907 Qualification of Women Act

This year marks the centenary of a major success by the WLGS in helping to achieve one of their major objectives via the above Act of Parliament. This Act clarified that women ratepayers were able to be elected to Borough and County Councils. This followed years of uncertainty and confusion, which included challenges in the courts when women first tried to stand for the London County Council, plus women losing their influence on education boards when the free-standing boards I described in my earlier blog were absorbed into newly established councils. Women also lost places when towns grew and obtained Borough status.

As I described previously, women had been elected to separate boards dealing with the Poor Law and the 1870 Education Act and were entitled to serve on the new urban and district councils from 1894. The 1907 Act gave them the right to stand anywhere in Local Government.

2007 WLGS Re-launch

The revived WLGS is setting out with a discussion day, an AGM and a campaign launch at the Sheffield Town Hall on 10 March from 10.45 am to 3.15 pm (registration and coffee from 10 am). It aims to faciliate the role of women in local government and community activities. It will also celebrate the land mark success of the earlier WLGS a century ago.

Further Details

Further details can be obtained from Anne Baldwin at wlgs2007@googlemail.com . Whilst membership is open for women and organisations they belong to, men can join as non-voting associates. So I had better put my money where my blogging has led me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Democracy As Farce

From today, Compass are holding their ballot as to whom they wish the organisation to support in the election for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. The ballot closes at 6pm on 6 March.

When they announced their intention to engage in this nonsense, I argued against it in their comment box. So far there have been 111 contributions. 4 of which are mine. I summarize my case below.

1. What About A Leadership Vote ?

If there are reasons for having such a vote, then why is it restricted to the secondary position of Deputy Leader whilst excluding the much more significant question of whom members would like to see as Leader and thus Prime Minister ?

2. Why Vote In The Dark ?

The candidates on the Ballot Paper are Hilary Benn, Jon Cruddas, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson. But nominations for the proper contest have not yet even been called. We can not know who will finally seek nomination. And we have no idea which of this unknown list will obtain sufficient support from Labour MPs to enable them to stand.

3. Why Confuse The Voters ?

To accommodate critics like me, a sixth option appears on the ballot paper after the names of the above five candidates. We can opt for "Not Supporting a Candidate". But under the Alternative Vote System they employ, is it sensible to mix up votes for chalk and cheese - or for chalk and no chalk? A "Not Supporting a Candidate" Vote is a negative against all the other positives. Those voting for a candidate are much more likely to vote 1,2,3,4, and 5, than are the opponents of a vote. Many of the latter will only use a first "no" choice. That is not the democratic requirement of balanced voting rights.

4. Why Tell Members Who To Vote For ?

Along with the material sent to voters is a statement of over 200 words recommending that members should vote for Jon Cruddas. What sort of free vote is that ? It is a form of guided democracy, which comes under the authority of people who are also the Returning Officers. For example - "All votes will be verified by the General Secretary".

5. What About Other Equal Rights For Candidates ?

Candidates who are currently members of the Cabinet are not yet free to argue their corner due to the restraints of collective responsibility. They could, of course, resign their Ministerial positions to do this. But is it reasonable to expect Hilary Benn, Peter Hain and Alan Johnson all to do this, just for the benefit of a flawed poll amongst Compass members?

6. What Is Compass All About ?

It is a huge mistake for Compass to involve itself with individuals rather then ideas, and personalities rather then policies. It has been developing fruitful sets of proposals and has attracted wide links and a valuable membership within the Labour Party - which does not mean that I agree with everything.

The early Fabian Society was successful in permeating ideas within the movement which came to have a considerable impact upon influencing the early development of the Labour Party. If Compass ties itself in with the career interests of Jon Cruddas and others, these will shape its future more than theirs. This is not a question of being for or against Jon et al. It is a matter of whom we wish to shape what.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Doing Your Stuff For The Planet

This is from the web site of "A Love Supreme" which is the independent and prize winning fanzine of the Sunderland Football Team. It refers to Roy Keane who is Sunderland's Manager.

Eco Warrior - Keano Keen On Planet

The gaffer has spoken out about the planet. Yes honest. He's not only a mint manager, he's politically correct too and he loves Bob Dylan. I think I'll invite him round for tea. The boss man said "I like to cycle round and walk as much as I can. I'm all for saving the planet. You have to do all of that stuff. I'm constantly walking round the house turning lights off, although sometimes the kids are still doing their homework and they complain about that. But I am into all that. We recycle our papers, whatever we can do. Maybe a few years ago I wasn't but as you get older and more mature, maybe you think you've got to do your bit for the planet, because if everyone does their bit, it makes a hell of a difference

Philosophical Backing

As the philosopher Sidney Hook said in "Moral Freedom in a Determined World" (Commentary 1958) -

"what we can make different, we are responsible for".

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Socialist Republic

Sheffield again showed that it is still at the cutting edge (no longer of cutlery) but of political issues, when it hosted a Conference yesterday at which Al Gore gave a presentation similiar to his film "An Inconvenient Truth". This time it was entitled "Cooling the Planet".

He is doing a great job in alerting us to the crisis around global warming. It is, of course, possible to build upon his own vision for cooling the planet. The socialist implications in terms of alternative transport patterns, rebuilding local communiuties and democratic planning have a strong tradition in the former Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire and in neighbouring North Derbyshire, which some are currently trying to build upon. More on this theme later.

In the meantime could not Waterstones and Blackwell's in Sheffield catch up with some of our political and philosophical interests? By yesterday neither Nick Cohen's "Whats Left?" nor Alister McGrath's "The Dawkins Delusion" had arrived to be placed in stock. It is a good job Al Gore did more than enough to fill our minds and efforts.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Votes For Women : 1918, 1870 or Earlier ?

The claim that women first obtained the vote in 1918 is only a half truth. It is true about Parliamentary Elections, but false about Local Government Elections.

Please note that the statistics and cases I refer to below relate to England only - although the principles discussed have relevance to Scotland, Wales (and for the times covered) the whole of Ireland.

Parliamentary Votes

Women first qualified for franchise rights for parliamentary elections under the 1918 Representation of the People's Act. This entitled them to vote if they had six month's occupation of land or premises in an area or were married to a man who so qualified.

Women were required to be 30 years of age. Men under similar occupancy requirements only needed to be 21. The anomaly wasn't corrected until the 1928 Representation of the People's Act, when men and women qualified under the same requirements.

Board Of Guardian Votes

The 1918 and 1928 Acts also extended franchise rights for women and men in all forms of local government, including for Boards of Guardians.

The Boards of Guardians had first come into operation as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This provided for Parishes which then littered much of the country as the sole form of local government in many areas, to be united into groups for the operation of the outdoor relief system and for the harsh new system of workhouses.

There was a restricted property qualification for elections to the Boards, based on ownership and ratepaying. The assumption was that the Act applied to men only, for at the time property was overwhemingly in men's hands.

A more hopeful development for women's electoral rights emerged with the adoption of the 1870 Married Women's Property Act. In that year, Mrs M'Ilquham of Tewkesbury successfully claimed a qualification to vote in her Board of Guardian's election because she owned property separately from her husband in the form of a 75 acre farm. The door was now open for certain women of property to vote in such elections.

A Miss Merrington was the first woman to be elected to a Board in 1875, but she was disqualified in 1879 when she moved her house.

The number of women qualifying to vote for Boards expanded by 1914-15 and in England a total of 1,546 women then held seats as Poor Law Guardians.

School Board Votes

The breakthrough achieved with Mrs M'Ilquham in 1870 was quickly followed up in the London School Board elections in November that year.

The 1870 Elementary Education Act provided for the election of school boards for the running of schools outside of the voluntary system. County, District and Rural Councils had not by then been established. So as with Poor Law Boards, there was a need to draw Parish areas together to operate School Boards. This was even the case in London, where the first School Board elections were held.

Whilst women had obtained the right to vote (and to stand for office) in School Board elections, ratepayer and property qualifications still told against them. All the same an astonishing election took place in the Marylebone School Board Division, which covered the area of nine Parliamentary Constituencies.

22 people stood for 7 places. Elizabeth Garrett a local medical practitioner finished at the top of the poll with 47,858 votes. She obtained nearly three times the votes of the runner-up, T.E. Huxley (the scientist and humanist) who obtained 13,494 votes.

Emily Davies who was involved with the Women's College at Hitchen, also came top of the poll in the Greenwich Division. Whilst Maria Grey a founder of the Girls' Public Day School Trust was also elected for the Chelsea Division.

The reason these women did so well is that they had a high reputation for philanthropic work. They were popular amongst women voters who turned out in strength and amongst working class men, who appreciated the help they provided for their families. Elizabeth Garrett was pressed to stand by a deputation of Marylebone working men whose wives she had treat medically. She also had support in the London press. Although voters had as many votes as there were candidates, her committed supporters were organised into plumping only for Elizabeth Garrett.

By the 1914-15 period and in the run up to parliamentary advance of women's rights for the 1918 General Election, the number of women in England on school boards amounted to 680.

Local Government Votes

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act introduced a male ratepayer franchise for those occupying a wide range of properties. This replaced a previously more restricted set of fancy and historical franchises, which had often included votes for the "freemen" of the municipality. A few of these beneficiaries had been women, who were then disfranchised by the 1835 legislation.

In 1869 an amendment to what became the Municipal Franchise Act gave women ratepayers in Boroughs the vote. Unfortunately, this was narrowed by a 1872 Court decision to cover unmarried women only.

Nevertheless, the 1870 Elementary Education Act with the breakthrough led by Elizabeth Garrett was followed by legislation in the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s which began to bring women's voting rights in line with men's under new Local Government structures effecting County, Rural and District Councils.

It was not, however, all a matter of slow but steady advance for women's rights. In 1889 for instance, Margaret Sandhurst had her election to the new London County Council overturned by the Courts. Yet Jane Cobden survived as her case wasn't taken to Court by the man whom she defeated. He supported votes for women.

Nevertheless, progress was being made. In England in 1914-15, 267 women were elected onto Councils, whilst they took over 2,700 places on School and Poor Law Boards.

Votes for women within a compex pattern of Local Authorities and Boards has a history which at times mingles with that of the struggle for the Parliamentary vote, yet also has a life of its own. See below for its key source.

Patricia Hollis

The infomation I have culled the above article from is all taken from "Ladies Elect : Women in English Local Government 1865-1914" by Patricia Hollis (Claredon Press, Oxford 1987.)

It is a serious work of scholarship and a delight to read. I first came across a reference to this book last November, when I attended a Conference run by the Society for the Study of Labour History. She was one of the speakers and the documentation for the Conference referred me to this book. I had to borrow it via the public library loan system. Unfortunately, I will have to return it in the morning.

I am sending a copy of this article to the author at the Lords. She is now Baroness Hollis and was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Works and Pensions from 1997 to 2005 . She is also author of "Jennie Lee: A Life" (Oxford University Press. 1997). Hopefully, she will correct any blunders I have made in interpreting her work on "Ladies Elect."

Next Task

In the area I live, the first woman ever to be elected to Parliament is the current M.P., Natascha Engel. She succeeded me at the 2005 General Election. What I don't know (but intend to research) is which local women were first elected onto the following categories, and when - (1) Poor Law Board, (2) School Board, (3) Parish Council, (4) County Council, (5) Rural District Council and (6) Urban District Council. That covers the area up to 1974 and I was then living here and know who was whom.

Others might like to undertake similar investigations in their locality.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thin Edge Of The Democratic Wedge

Reluctant Democrats

What is the Labour Party's hang up about allowing our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland(NI) to have full rights of Labour Party membership?

It took a serious threat of winnable legal action in 2003 to get the Labour Party to allow people in NI (for the first time) to purchase Labour Party Membership Cards.

As Labour has no structure in NI and does not wish to run candidates for Local, Assembly or Parliamentary elections it is not surprising that only around 100 people have since joined us in the Province. That works out at 5 or 6 per Constituency, compared to the mainland average of around 330.

Far from Labour engaging in the recruitment of members in NI, it places blocks in the way of people joining as you will see from this.

Next Small Step

Further legal action has now obliged the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party to take the next grudging step towards making such Labour Party membership meaningful. It has decided to allow members in NI to send a delegate to the Labour Party Conference, to vote someone on to the National Policy Forum and to establish its own Regional Policy Forum. But only when its membership passes the 200 mark.

Too Far For Some

According to the current issue of Socialist Campaign Group News, Dianna Holland and Peter Willsman voted against this small advance arguing that it was "the thin edge of the wedge" and that our card carrying comrades in NI would next be demanding the right to stand candidates. Shudder such thoughts: next our comrades will be like the Chartists and the Suffragettes in wanting to have political representation for people such as themselves !

What Is The Problem, Dianna and Peter ?

If the Labour Party in NI could see opportunities to participate in the electoral game, then why should they alone throughout the United Kingdom be refused this right? This certainly could not have been the view of Keir Hardie and company in the days when the Labour Party was made up of affilated Trade Unions, Trade Councils and Socialist Societies such as the Independent Labour Party. For Labour's 1907 Annual Conference was held in Belfast.

Surely, NI people can aspire to vote for or against a Party which forms its Government in Westminster. Watching Labour Party Conferences, might be a minority pastime. But as the people of NI are just as entitled as the rest of us to be spectators, surely they should not be barred from being full participants as well.

Equal Rights

Are the people of NI ever to be entitled to vote Labour, or are they to be permanently restricted to deciding between the extremes of the likes of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams ? In fact, the more Sinn Fein grows at the expense of the SDLP, the more redundent becomes the failed old argument that Labour people in NI (Protestants included) should really vote for our Sister Party - instead of for ourselves.

For Labour, the issue of whether we are for a United Ireland, for permanent intregration of Northern Ireland into the UK or for the logic of the Belfast Agreement is a matter for our own internal democratic structures.

Of course, our internal Labour Party democracy is itself in need of considerable improvement. But in tackling this problem, those 100 members from NI are also entitled to their full say.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Disservice To Atheism

I have finally read Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion ". It was a big disappointment. It falls way short of his key works on evolution, such as "The Blind Watchmaker"

Bible Bashing

Whilst Dawkins' argues that all religious beliefs share similar defects, much of his criticism in "The God Delusion" is directed against Christianity. The Bible comes in for a bashing. It is, therefore, paradoxical that I requested and received my copy of his book as a Christmas present.

A clear sign that I found the book to be highly problematic was that it took me so long to read it - the whole of January. Picking it up became a task I kept avoiding. It was rather as if I had set myself a chore such as reading the Bible itself.

Knock, Knock

The book is full of knock-out and knock-about arguments. Such an approach is neither intellectually not emotionally stimulating.

To maintain sets of knock-out arguments, a writer is obliged to set up a series of Aunt Sallys which can be bowled over. Dawkins' criticisms are also directed more at the easy target of the Old Testament than at the Gospels (although he disputes that this is what he is up to).

For knock-about, he deals with American style Christian fundamentalism, rather than the type of socially conscious Methodism I absorbed in a pit village over 50 years ago.

The knock-about comes in when Dawkins' delights in digging up the best bits of Christian stupidity he can find. Some from experiences in his past, the others from a great deal of Googleing.

Dialect instead of Dialectics

Dawkins uses the same tone (or harsh dialect) all of the time. Religion is always mad and bad. There is no delving into the inspirational aspects of religion, which in Christianity alone have grabbed such people as Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie and Desmond Tutu.

It is easy to despatch the nonsense which emerges from creationists and the pro-life lobby, but answering religion at its most inspirational requires both empathy and deepth of thought. The best arguments as to whether God exists should touch on morality and metaphysics as well as science. All these forms of analysis require a critic to be involved in 'give' as well as 'take'. Such an approach is called dialectical reasoning. You will not find it in this book.

Dawkins lack of questioning also leads him to condemn religion as being a catalyst to social conflict and political excess. Yet when similiar patterns of trouble emerge in atheist regimes such as the Soviet Union, they are said to have risen from factors other than the prevailing godlessness. What goes for the goose does not go for the gander.

Using his same logic on the Soviet Union, it is possible to argue that the recent troubles in Northern Ireland were of a tribal form relating to the question of whether the region should be part of the Ireland or the United Kingdom and that religious affiliations only slotted people into the two different camps.

The Problem With The Interesting Bit

Dawkins is at his best when he draws from his own expertise.

He explains the significance of Darwinism in ways that will turn many readers to those fine Dawkins' books which litter the Popular Science section at Waterstones.

In one of these ("The Selfish Gene") he developed the notion that there is a similarity between genetic development in nature and the development of mental/cultural understandings in what he named as the equivalent of the gene - the "meme".

When he concentrates on genetic mutuations and on survival resting with those whom nature has best adapted to the conditions around them, then I am fully with him.

When, however, Dawkins claims that concepts such as that of God develop in our understandings in similar ways, then I am not convinced with his explanation. He may be making what Wittgenstein used to call a category mistake.

I am not, of course, arguing that God put the idea of himself in our minds. To explain what has happened I would seek to resort to historical and sociological explanations. Turning Darwin's biological explanations into explanations about thought processes seem to be unlikely, even for someone like me who rejects Decartes distinction between body and mind.

The Weakness Of His Strength

Unfortunately for Dawkins, his very strength is also his weakness. He is a leading scientist, but he turns science into a creed. The Scientific method needs to draw from other methodologies and needs to be aware of Karl Popper's argument that any understandings it comes up with must at least in theory be falsifiable if they are to be meaningful. So just as Einstein's theories subsumed Newton's theories, then the same is always possible for Einstein - and even for Darwin and Dawkins.

Dawkins gives the appearence of someone who believes that it is science alone (and isolated) which can move towards solving the problems of the universe.

I am no critic of the achievements of science and of the significance of the scientific method. But I don't think that we should ignore what other forms of intellectual investigation have to offer.

The Philosophical Vacuum

I had expected a book about the question of God's existence to contain a reasonable amount of philosophical analysis. Dawkins, however, knocks down classical theoretical arguments for the existence of God at breakneck speed. This results in him skimming over both the pros and cons of these arguments.

Yet amongst the critics of such arguments is the highly readable David Hume the 18th Century Scottish Philosopher in works such as "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion". Although Hume is given a nod and a wink by Dawkins, he isn't given any serious coverage.

In dealing with the problem of whether we could be good without having God to guide us, again there is only a passing reference to the philosopher Immuel Kant. Yet Kant is recognised as one of the world's greatest thinkers. Whilst his "Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals" is his most (or his only) readable book.

A serious canter around the Philosophical problems is "Difficulties in Christian Belief" by Alasdair C. MacIntyre (SCM Press 1959). Dawkins missed this one as it came from a serious Christian publisher. Anyone reading it, however, can see why MacIntyre became an atheist soon after its publication.

Tunnel Vision

It is the form of Dawkins' scientific certainty which leads him to his absolutist claims and to his unwllingness to look for a good thing to say about religion. Aided by the fact that he is writing also for an American market, he regularly turns his face and fire towards Christian fundamentalism. They present. of course, a serious problem. But they should not have been allowed to distort the issues Dawkins was investigating.

His approach leads him to take up a counter fundamentalist position of his own. So the non-fundamentalist religious person is dismissed as he or she are held to be guilty of opening the door for extremists (including terrorists). Whilst the agnostic (and even the closet atheist) are damned for failing to root out religious viewpoints.

As Dawkins seeks to win each contest hands down (and each sub-point), his book loses its way. It even lacks a conclusion in which the threads of a writer's arguments can be drawn together. This is because his many separate issues only really have one thread to them.

As a result he ends up talking a great deal about himself and his own experiences. He does not need to do this, of course, as his knowledge is encylopedic. So he knows how to keep saying things. The problem is that what he adds in relation to his subject matter is always exactly where he started out from in his very first chapter. To repeat ones case in numerious different contexts gives an unfortunate impression of padding.

What Next?

What worries me about Dawkins'approach is that he (and anyone taking on board his stance) are in a vunerable position.

They are unlikely ever to adjust to the above types of criticism. To do so requires a different form of mind set. But there is something which just could get him to shift his ground. The very form of religious fundamentalism which he currently abhors.

In intellectual terms his position is hard. Yet hard atheism and hard religious belief have more thinking processes in common than they would care to admit. It is soft and closet atheism that is less likely to be subject to a death bed conversion.

If Dawkins ever gets around to giving in to Christianity and then writes "The Atheist Delusion", I will give it a miss as I have already struggled through its equivalent.