Friday, July 08, 2011

A Reply To "The Partisan".

The blog "The Partisan" (their symbol appears above) have placed an item in my comment box in the thread below this one. My reply quotes what they say in five sections, whilst responding to each in turn. Unfortunately, this makes the whole reply too long to go in my comment box. I have, therefore, used this thread for the reply.

(1) "For us, although MPs may well have not literally crossed a picket line, in terms of the spirit of the issue they did."

I accept that numbers of MPs who entered the Commons on 30 June by avenues other than St.Stephen's entrance may have known about the picket and some would be taking diversionary action. But I also see it as being highly likely that others used alternative entries because this was their usual practice and some of these may not have known that a picket was in operation elsewhere. Even if those who entered in ignorance later discovered that a picket existed, by then some of them could have already participated in parliamentary procedures.

(2) "We do also understand both that the list is incomplete, at the moment neither of us has the time or inclination to trawl through hours of BBC Parliament to identify other miscreants, and that some Labour MPs not in Parliament on Thursday may not have had the most noble socialist motives for this."

I hope that you will not abuse this information, but via the following link you will be able to discover (a) who spoke in the Commons that day, (b) who spoke in Westminster Hall and (c) who was present at Commons Committee Meetings. You don't have to trawl through the speeches on the floor of the Commons, as a list can be found as to who spoke - you can then click onto names to check to see if they said anything of importance. It is also possible to check on what was said in Westminster Hall and in Commons Committees, the later providing lists of those in attendance. See - I think that you should search out the contributions of those you have been criticising. Many of your strictures will hold, but you need to judge as to whether they hold for everyone you mention.

(3) "On the more substantive point, whilst we accept that there is a difference between the importance of Cryer's contribution and, for example, Barry "should we rename veal spring beef" Sheerman, there's still a pretty substantial problem here. Whilst it is obviously important that MPs pursue matters in Parliament, it strikes us that an unconditional principle has been violated (if it's unconditional, there should be no question of balancing it with a competing principle)."

Having joined numbers of picket lines in a supportive capacity in the past, I am aware of the importance of the principle involved. The principle is not, however, a categorical imperative. I am sure that the philosopher you later direct my attention to (if Kant had been alive today) would have recognised that it is a principle that is conditional and depends upon the circumstances in which pickets operate. For instance, although the example I now use is not applicable to any current British circumstances, it is theoretically possible for a Trade Union to put in place a picket based on furthering racist, sexist or other interests which are unacceptable to a socialist. This means that an acceptable picket line (as functions in the overwhelming number of cases which we can envisage) is still based on a conditional and not an unconditional principle. I am not, of course, claiming that the picket at St. Stephen's was involved in any such excess. I merely wish to establish the logical standing of the principle we are discussing.

(4) "It's also worth noting that the principle that MPs should work hard for their constituents is widely accepted (at least by the public); principles of unconditional solidarity are being made to appear anachronistic (the GMB, for example, suggested crossing picket lines was an issue of individual conscience, it isn't), this makes fidelity to this principle particularly vital at the moment."

I agree that attempts to uphold picketing rights are especially important in current circumstances. But as this means that bolstering this right is now even more important than it was at some time in the past, this further shows that the weight we give to picketing rights can be given a different stress in different circumstances and is , therefore, a conditional (yet highly important) principle.

(5) "The question on PCS tactics is an interesting one. What we'd suggest is that the Kantian distinction between the public use of reason (one can criticise taxes as much as one wants) and the private use of reason (one still has to pay them) applies here. One can criticise a union's tactics as much as one wants and try to influence them but once they are democratically agreed on one's bound as a socialist not to disrupt them."

Democracy is of great importance, but I do not think that it is the only basis on which the support for picketing should rest. For this would mean that in say, the absence, of a ballot for strike action then picketing would not then be justified. Yet no national ballot took place during the Miners' Strike of 1984-5, but there were still strong reasons for supporting the wide programme of picketing that operated. For the defeat of the Miners by the Thatcher Government would have (and did) lead to a serious collapse in the power and influence of both Trade Unions and the Working Class in general. Nevertheless I agree that it is important that Trade Unions should themselves be democratic organisations. But as democracy is important as part of the life blood of Trade Unionism, so it is important in society in general (although its needs extending). Democracy is important, for instance, in shaping both the activities and openings for MPs - avenues which again need to be extended. Hence (1) the rights of pickets and (2) the rights of MPs to be able to act on behalf of the interests of the electorate are two extremely important principles. When these two principles rubbed up against each other on 30 June, then they needed to be carefully weighed up against each other according to the circumstances of the time. Well intentioned democrats and socialists might come to different conclusions as to which principle was paramount that day and in which circumstances. Furthermore if say,Tom Watson and John Cryer can be excused for coming down on the side of making use of their parliamentary openings that day, it does not follow that everyone else should be excused. It is by a person's intentions that they should be judged. Moral judgements can be complex and often need careful thought, they can't all be devolved to principles we never given any further thought to.


The Partisan said...

Thanks for taking the time to consider these arguments and to come up with this reply. I would have thought, especially given that Ed Miliband demanded that Labour MPs come to work as usual on Thursday and that it was pretty widely reported the PCS would picket Parliament, the vast majority of MPs would have been aware of the action. Thanks for the other link, I had a quick check through to check for my MP but he seems absent (although quite possibly not for the highest of reasons).

We think your argument in 3) as to a possible racist or sexist picket line is an important one and demands that the unconditional principle be slightly clarified but not abandoned as something unconditional. The question is why does the principle exist, and it exists because of the recognition by other workers of the universality of the particular struggle- that in some sense it is their struggle too (this is why crossing a picket line is so wrong, particularly from those with relative power). A racist strike would lack this moment of universality so the principle need not apply. Also, I would argue that an unconditional principle always holds but its importance can vary.

On the 5th point, certainly the absence of a proper ballot doesn't, as with the Miners' strike, invalidate duties towards fellow workers, merely the ballot makes the point even clearer with the PCS strike.

Harry Barnes said...

Ed Miliband and Labour MPs in general should have given their support to the strikers. An ideal time to have done this was during Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) the day prior to the strike. They could have argued that the fault for any disruption rested with the Government who had failed in its duty to enter into genuine negotiations with the Trade Unions concerned.

But at PMQ's neither Ed Miliband nor any other Labour MP who got called, raised the issue of the strike. This left the field open to Cameron, who twice raised the issue as follows -

(1) "What the whole country will have noticed is that at a time when people are worried about strikes, the right hon. Gentleman (Ed Milband) cannot ask about strikes because he is in the pocket of the unions." This followed Miliband's sixth and final question which were all on the NHS.
(2) "I note that we are 26 minutes into Question Time yet we have not heard a squeak from Labour Members about strikes, pensions or the need for reform." This was near the end of question time and no strike matter then followed from Labour.

The statement that Labour MPs would be turning up for work the following day was not made during PMQs and in front of fairly full Labour Benches, but was only later put out to the press on behalf of Miliband. Numbers of Labour MPs could have failed to pick up what was expected of them by their leader. Good MPs (in particular), spend a busy day in the Commons pursing constituency and wider issues and have more to do than scan the media and the internet to find out the latest thoughts of Ed.

For the day of the strike I have now seen photos of strikers holding banners outside St. Stephen and near the gates at the Members Entrance. I am not sure whether this indicates the operation of pickets or a demonstations, nor if it was a picket whether it was directed at everyone. I have not seen any similar arrangements that were in existence at two other main entrances (one of which I used persistently and almost exclusively for 18 years) and at another five or so alternatives entrances. The whole set of linked parliamentary buildings are like a small city with several thousand people milling back and forth at key times.

What could have been done if Miliband had supported the strikers was for him to encourage Labour MPs to show their support on the day of the strike within their own constituencies. He could also have made an arrangement for only a handful of Labour MPs to turn up in the Commons that day. That is, front benchers who needed to pursue topics in their areas of responsibility, plus MPs who had to undertake important duties such as those do done by John Cryer and Tom Watson. This could have been achieved in a way which would have squared the circle. (Which to politicians should be an art form.)

I support numbers of principles on matters such as social equality, democratic participation and libetarianism. I am aware, however, that these principles in specific circumstances can come into conflict with each other and trade offs have to be made. So I feel that any specific principles which we use to guide our behaviour, may need careful examination in unusual circumstances. Whilst this makes such principles conditional upon circumstances, this is not to downgrade them nor will there be a need to modify them in the great bulk of circumstances. Nor is a principle that is overridden in special sets of circumstances something that we have, therefore, ditched. It lives to shape our following actions.

Harry Barnes said...

I am now given to understand that the PCS agreed that MPs could enter the Commons on the day of the strike, but asked if those that did this would then attend a strikers" rally in London that day. Some seem to have done this.