Friday, July 22, 2011

Three Score Years and Fifteen

I have been running this blog for five years. It was established for me by my son, Stephen. After he set up an initial test item, he added a fresh item on 22 July 2006 and first showed it to me during my birthday party that day. It was my 70th birthday; hence the title of the blog which gets more dated as each year passes. From that date, this is also blog item number 600.

As I am 75 today, I now have plenty to do other than blogging.

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.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Modifying A Picket Line

During last Thursday's strike, the Public and Commercial Service (PCS) Trade Union ran what seems to have been a picket line outside at least one of the main entrances to the Commons. One of their justifications for doing this is that they have fellow members of the PCS who work in the parliament building. They may, however, also have been asking others not to cross their picket line, including Members of Parliament. This raises the question of what Labour MPs should have done when confronted by such a picket - especially those who reject Red Ed's criticisms of the strike.

On the day prior to the strike Ed Miliband failed to raise the issue of the dispute at Prime Ministers Questions, although it was the key matter of the day. This gave Cameron the chance to taunt Miliband by asking whether Labour MPs would cross picket lines outside Parliament and other public buildings, and a spokesman for the Labour leader is then reported as saying that Labour MPs "will be coming to work as normal"; although it is not clear as to how many Labour MPs picked up this response.

Labour MPs who spoke in the Commons
that day have been criticised for crossing a picket line. No vote took place that day, so those who spoke have been the easiest people to target. But is this targeting justified? There are a number of problems to consider.

(1) MPs using their passes have nine or ten entrances into Parliament. Four of these are major and well used entrances. It must have happened on the odd occasion, but in the 18 years I was an MP I can not once remember arriving at the Commons for a day's work via the entrance shown on the above photo. So many MPs could have arrived in the Commons on the day of the strike without observing the pickets.

(2) Many of those who have avoided being targeted were either (a) present in the parliament building, but did not speak in the Commons or (b) never turned up to enter the building as it was likely that there was no three-line whip that day. A few might have joined the strikers in their constituencies. But, unfortunately these would be few and far between. Many would just be AOL for reasons that had nothing to do with the strike.

(3) A handful had important matters to pursue in the Commons on behalf of their constituents and/or in the wider public interest. This is the main reason that we have a Parliament and a democratic franchise fought for by movements such as those of the Chartists and the Suffragettes. This point still stands even though the Commons and the use of the franchise often fails to meet up to the standards they should.

This third category include (a) John Cryer who contributed fully and well to a debate which directly effected the interests of his constituents and whom is, I assume, a solid supporter of the strikers, (b) Louise Ellman who had obtained a debate organised to discuss the dismissal of employees at Liverpool Passport Office and (c) Tom Watson who pursued an urgent question on the acquisition of BSkyB - a matter whose considerable public importance can be seen in today's media coverage.

The problem this matter raises is how should we act when two important principles clash with one another. First, there is the principle that you should not cross a picket line. Then there is the principle that you should not place any form of impediment upon an MP entering the Commons - a principle which seems to me to have been of significance ever since we achieved a (more-or-less) universal franchise.

When two principles clash, we need to look for the best way around them. Most MPs who supported the strike could have been away from the Commons giving backing to the action. But being away from the Commons for the full day was not a reasonable option for John Cryer. We need more John Cryer's not fewer. I would, therefore, hope that MPs such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn who refused to cross the picket line, would now ask PCS (etc) to modify there tactic in future. If the Commons is picketed, the picket line should not be directed at stopping the entry of MPs; but should instead seek to gain support from MPs. A support which can always be delivered (in part) inside the Commons itself.

Here is how one person responded to a similar dilemma, although it is about entering Downing Street which seems to me to have a lessor democratic importance than the Commons should have. On 23rd February 1979 during the Winter of Discontent, the Secretary of State for Energy recorded in his diary "Pickets were standing at the end of Downing Street. One picket looked through my car window and asked if he could speak to me. The driver went on but I stopped him and got out. I assured (the pickets that) I was not going in to do their job or replace their work, and I went in. I sat down at the table outside the Cabinet Room and worked on my papers...." (Tony Benn).