Monday, January 29, 2007

A Reply To Duncan On Iraq

On 24 January John McDonnell MP ran an article on his blog entitled "The Iraq Debate : the Prime Minister couldn't even be bothered to turn up".

I posted the following comment in response.

Dear John....

When the troops are finally withdrawn, who should the Labour and Trade Union Movement seek to give moral and practical support to inside Iraq? Surely we should not then ignore the well being of the Iraqi people. So will we THEN seek to advance democracy, social justice, equality, freedom of expression and association; plus secular constitutional and legislative provisions? By for instance giving moral and practical support to bodies such as their Trade Union Movement? If so, should we not also be on their side NOW? Including opposition to actions to impede their progress from whatever source, be it Government edicts, American and British pressure, sectarian acts and terrorism?

Duncan's Questions

The above led a blogger named Duncan to raise a number of questions about my stance. He did this in a very civilised way and I then posted a holding reply to say that I would answer in this current fashion via my own blog. Below I reproduce his contribution in full, giving my responses at appropriate junctures.

His First Issue

Harry I agree with a lot of what you're saying and I think your position (against the invasion but for troops there to manage the transition now?) is perfectly legitimate even if I'm not sure about it myself.

My Response

I certainly opposed the invasion and feel that what has happened since vindicates that stance. I also, however, argued for alternative means to remove Saddam's regime involving support for caldestine opposition elements. On the current situation, I would prefer the Iraqi Government to openly seek assistance for replacement forces involving other Arab and Muslim Nations. If we are stuck with America and Britain, then I would like to see some clear and acceptable rules of engaging with terrorists which are then followed to absolutely minimize civilian casualities.

Q 1: What About Trade Union Laws?

Duncan. I've a couple of questions though - bearing in mind I'm no expert on this and I really am asking this based on the little I know. Are the new government in Iraq or the British and American governments actually recognising independent trade unions in Iraq or only the same state controlled ones established by Saddam?

As far as I've read (and I won't have read or heard everything) the Coalition Provisional Authority didn't recognise independent trade unions at all - only the same government controlled unions set up by Saddam and the Ba'athists. The Bush administration and its backers as you've said yourself aren't exactly pro-union. In fact US forces seem to have been suppressing many independent trade unions, arresting their leaders and beating demonstrators.

Harry. I am no expert either, merely having an amateur interest and some fortunate contacts.

In 1987 Saddam Hussein banned Trade Unions from operating in the public sector under Law 150, which covered 80% of the work force. He also finally turned the once independent and progressive General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) into a State controlled body for the remaining private sector. He placed the GFTU under the leadership of Chemical Ali and its facilities were used for Baathist abuse. This body still operates as a rump organisation, but the Baathist control will have gone. It is not a body I have met.

Law 150 banning Trade Unions in the public sector was abolished in Iraqi Kurdistan after the Region gained sufficient autonomy following the establishment of the no-fly zone in 1991. But the law has not been repealed by the Iraqi Government and remains in place for the rest of Iraq.

Although the the continuation of this law has not led to the destruction of the Trade Unions which emerged after the invasion, it does allow enmployers to turn to the law to protect their interests. It also means that officialdom can hamper Trade Union activity. Its continuing existence is also a serious worry for the future.

Things then got worse. In August 2005, a decree 8750 was adopted by the transitional Government to enable the State to take over Trade Union funds whilst it waited to draw up proposals to say how it will allow Trade Unions to organise and function. The threat of such State regulation is a further problem. This decree has never been accepted in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it has a huge impact in the rest of Iraq.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the TUC and numerous Trade Unions throughout the world have pressed for the removal of Law 150 and Decree 8750. Our own Government makes favourable noises about Trade Union rights in answering questions in parliament. What impact the responses from Blair and others then has on moves in Iraq is unclear.

The small GFTU are subject to decree 8750, as well as to Law 150 when they venture out to sign up workers in the public sector. The major newly emerged Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) had its offices in Baghdad raided by American troops in the early days with 8 officials being imprisoned. It was only after widespread international protests that they were released and the property returned to the IFTU.

Eventually Bush went on to include a reference for the need of free Labour Unions in Iraq in a State of the Union address, but I'm not fooled by that. I am told that when the Australian Prime Minster Howard was watching Question Time in the Commons, he was upset by a favourable response Blair gave to me on Trade Union activity in Iraq. I have no doubt that the Howards of this world have more influence than me.

Q 2 : Who Are the Big Trade Unions in Iraq?

Duncan: One of the biggest examples is the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed which - since at least 60% of Iraqis are now unemployed - is probably the largest in Iraq? (you probably know it was formed after the Iraqi army was disbanded and many other Iraqis fired in preparation for the total privatisation of all Iraq's public industries and services.)
(Note: these comments also generate Q3 below on the Union for the Unemployed : Harry)

Harry: In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a wide range of Trade Unions which are recognised by their Regional Government. These are significant to the the rest of Iraq in terms of whom it is they have fraternal relationships with it. There links are between their own Teachers' Union and the
Teachers' Union in the rest of Iraq. The other close link is between their own Workers' Syndicates and the IFTU.

In non-Kurdish Iraq, the biggest Trade Union is the Teachers Union (which covers all avenues of education). The next largest body to emerge covering all other forms of public service was the IFTU made up of 13 new individual Trade Unions. All of these emerged on the heals of the invasion, but not in association with it. It is mistaken to assume that the IFTU emerged as the private sector Trade Union which had been led by Chemical Ali. As mentioned above that was the GFTU.

The rump of the GFTU still exists. So does a body which broke away from the GFTU after the invasion called the GFITU. There are other small unions such as the Southern Oil Workers Union in Basra. As you also mention there is also a body called the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed (see my Q3).

It is difficult to judge the total Trade Union Membership in Iraq, but since the invasion it seems to have topped the million mark. Terrorism and sectarian pressures are likely to have taken some toll. But as Iraq has a population of 27 million and has many young people, only some 15 million fall in the 14 to 65 age group. With high unemployment and women in fundamentalist areas being discouraged from working outside of the home, those with employment (including those moving in and out of jobs) could be no more than 5 million. To have organised so many into Trade Union membership (at least 20% of those feasible) is a massive achievement. The number of UK workers in Trade Unions is under 30% and look at the comparatively favourable conditions.

Q 3 : How Significant Is The Union For the Unemployed?

Harry : I believe that you exaggerate the position of the Iraqi Federation of the Unemployed. Other Unions accept and recruit unemployed workers. For many of the unemployed see themselves as unemployed railway workers, or oil workers, or dockers (etc) and link in with their appropriate Union. Many move in and out of employment, but keep their Trade Union links.

Organising workers who don't identify with jobs, except those in the armed forces, is an extra difficulty in an already problematic situation.

In Iraqi Kurdistan there is underemployment rather than unemployment. In April I visited a cigaratte factory which hasn't produced a fag for 6 years or so. But people turn up in order that the State will pay them and they have a strong set of shop stewards, many being women.

The main Trade Unions in Iraq have close fraternal links and to summerize are (a) the two Teachers Unions, (B) two Kurdish Union Syndicates linked with the IFTU and (c) Professional Bodies (a bit like ASTMS was). Then there is the hotch potch of separate bodies including the Unemployed, Southern Oil Workers and the GFTU and the GFITU.

This pattern altered somewhat in the Arab areas when three Trade Union groups applied for recognition from the Arab Federation of Trade Unions. These were the two small bodies the GFTU and the GFITU, plus the much larger IFTU. They were told to go away and set up a single Federation amongst themselves for affiliation purposes. They eventually set up a body called the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) in December 2005 and gained the required recognition. The IFTU are easily the largest unit and need the recognition from the Arab Federation to try to influence a move to Trade Union recognition rights in their own country. This by no means makes them a tool of the Iraqi State who maintain they are illegal AND still sequest their funds!

Q 4 : Who Are The Southern Oil Union ?

Duncan : Then there are the independent unions of Iraqi state employees like the Southern Oil Union which don't seem to be recognised by the US either according to this article by one of their leaders.

Harry : All of the Trade Unions I have mentioned above are independent of the State, not just the Southern Oil Union. When that Union is referred to as "independent", it means that they are not part of the GFIW. This is rather like a small Union in this country deciding not to affiliate to the TUC. One of the main Unions affilated to the IFTU (and hence to the GFIW) is for Oil Workers throughout the whole of non-Kurdish Iraq.

I met Hassan Juma whose name appears on the article you link us to, just 10 days before it appeared in the Guardian and I also heard him address a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Commons. When I was in meeting with Trade Unionists in Erbil last April a Trade Unionist from Basra said that Hassan Juma represented hardly anyone but himself.

You will note that his Guardian article does little to help towards building an effective Trade Union Movement in Iraq. And why does his organisation not seek to affiliate to the equivalent of the Iraqi TUC?

Q5 : What Of Anti-Union Activity?

Duncan : How can British and American troops' presence in Iraq protect the rights (and lives) of those trade unionists if they seem to instead in many cases (for US troops at least) to be trying to replace independent trade union members with foreign contractors and break any protest strike?

Harry : The fact that mass privatisation hasn't yet been added to such problems is due to several factors, which includes the role played by the IFTU and its sister Unions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The holding up of privatisation which America has both a commercial and ideological interest in, probably is a result of (a) its unacceptability to many in the Iraqi Government and Parliament, who will be needed to dot the i's and cross the t's, (b) terrorist disruption, making take-overs seem non-viable (although this would not be the case in Iraqi Kurdistan) and (c) pressure in the industries by workers organised in Trade Unions to stop this development.

The influences of (a) and (c) would become normal processes if Iraq becomes a working democracy. This is what we should work towards. This would, of course, also overcome the other problems you mention.

It should also be noted that Trade Unionism does not always lose out to the blockages we have been discussing. Wages increases, improved conditions, recognition of negotation positions (even if these are illegal under the law) are at times achieved. The potentail is considerable if the legal framework and the practices of officialdom and foreign troops altered.

Q 6 : How Much Faith Should We Place In Sami Ramadani ?

Duncan : Does the TUC and you recognise trade unions in Iraq other than the state approved IFTU which many Iraqis (including the one who wrote the article linked to above - and Iraqi exciles - like Sami Ramadani in this report) say is not independent at all but the same state controlled one that existed under Saddam?

Harry : I recognise the rights of all the Trade Unions I have listed and believe the TUC does the same.

The IFTU is not, however, the State Controlled Union that operated under Saddam Hussein. That was the GFTU. Even then with Saddam's regime now gone, it needs to be recognised that the GFTU had a fine history before the Baathist era. It emerged after the 1958 revolution which had removed a puppet regime and got rid of the 5,000 or so British troops then camped on its territory. It led a May Day demonstation in Baghdad in 1959 involving half a milliion people in a population of less than 7 million. Given the size of the nation and the nature of travel at the time, this was even more impressive than the anti-war demonstration in London before the invasion of Iraq.

Sami Ramadami's letter in the link you provide is answered by comments on the same link from Mick Rix, the TUC, the IFTU, the report of the Grassroots Iraq meeting at a Labour Party Conference which I chaired and by Abdullah Muhsin. Abdullah was also an Iraqi excile. He was active in the Student's movement and when he voted against Saddam Hussein in an election, he was obliged to flee the country. It was people returning after being driven into exile and those operating in a caldestine way in Baathist Iraq, who were the organising force behind setting up the IFTU immediately after invasion.

Although I was on the platform at the formation of Labour Against the War and fully endorsed their role at the time, the catalyst for my resignation from that body was a contribution to one of their meetings in the Commons after the invasion by Sami Ramadami. His contribution found approval from Alan Simpson M.P. its Chairperson.

Ramadani in answer to my contribution from the floor, claimed that there was virtually no trade union movement in existence in Iraq as activists had nearly all been slaughtered by Saddam Hussein. Instead the real struggles were taking place inside the Mosques and it was those forces he said we should be associated with. I was equally unimpressed by Ramadani's speech on Iraq at a meeting of the Socialist Historians Group. As a young child he said that he had attended the May Day 1959 demonstration in Baghdad. It is a pity that it had no lasting impact upon him.


John McDonnell understands Trade Unions as well as anyone. He led a protest to 10 Downing Street on the plight of Iraqi journalists and media staff. I hope that he will respond positively to the points I placed on his blog. He needs to distance himself from those who only see one side of the picture in Iraq - opposing American Imperialism. They refuse to come out at least as strongly against all forms of terrorism in Iraq, the bulk of which is directed against the Iraqi people. Working out a position that is both Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Nihilist/Fascist isn't easy, but there are some guide lines. Support those forces who further democracy, social well-being, peace and mutual respect. The Iraqi Trade Union Movement then comes to the front of the list. People are giving their lives in this struggle.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Purple Patch


The first shock at yesterday's non-league game at Sheffield FC's ground was that they had sold out of programmes. Admittedly, I only arrived at the ground just before the kick off. But what had happened?

The problem was the size and nature of the crowd, which is recorded as 333. This is well over the normal crowd of 200 or so. Yet the away team, Long Eaton United hadn't brought many travelling supporters. There were other reasons for the famine of programmes.

First, after a spell of gales, snow and driving rain we had perfect conditions for football. The sun was shining so brightly that I had to pull down the peak of my cloth cap to keep out the glare.

Then there was the fact that due to two postponed home games, this was the first local appearence of Sheffield FC since before Xmas. So the home supporters were in need of a football feast after a spell of football starvation.

Also Sheffield are becoming an exciting team to watch and lead their league by 13 points, even though the next team (Retford Town) have four games in hand.

The Big Explanation

There is a more telling explanation for the rush of progamme sales. It was FA Cup 4th Round Day and neither Sheffield Wednesday nor Sheffield United had survived to contest games. Some of their regulars opted to cover the gap with a visit to see Sheffield FC play.

There was even a spectator over from Manchester as his beloved Man City did not play until today. A visit to the oldest club in the world has its obvious attractions. Such visitors would also grab programmes as souvernirs.

I will need to turn up earlier next time to ensure that the programmes haven't been bought out. They are on sale in the pub run by the Club, so an early visit will prove to be no hardship.

On Being Philosophical

As the match progressed a little girl sat on a barrier and held by her father, pointed out that Sheffield's Red Shirts and Long Eaton's blue ones made purple.

This purple patch is one explanation for Sheffield going two down in the first quarter of the game. Long Eaton's lead was fully deserved, as they swept forward to obtain their due reward.

Tom standing next to me, was philosophical. Having won 11 and drawn 1 of our last 12 League games, he said of the humiliation "well, it had to happen some time".

But then somehow, without impressing Sheffield struggled and got back into the game. Dolby scambled a couple of goals and the scores were soon level. The second goal, Tom pointed out came after Dolby played a one-two with the post.

Whilst Sheffield were lucky to have drawn level by the interval, it was begining to look as if Long Eaton were best when pushing forward but could not easily handle the reverse swing.

More Swing

It clouded over for the second half - especially for Long Eaton.

Gary Townsend put Sheffield ahead in the 51 Minute from a fine corner by Dolby. Indeed, Dolby was now on fire and sent in a series of shots which narrowly missed or were saved. They were all more skilled than his two scrambled first half goals.

Then David Wilkins drove home a powerful and well placed free kick from the edge of the penalty area in the 57th Minute.

Dolby even managed to contribute to a 5th goal by being substituted on 80 Minutes. His replacement Matt Roney's immediate first touch was down the right wing, when he cut in and drove the ball past the keeper. The locals thought it was a gas.

Misses and narrow squeaks throughout the second half kept the score down to 5-2 and sent the souvenir hunters and the locals home happy. The initial purple patch now blotted out.

At The End Of the Day

I returned to the pub with Tom who should be established as Sheffield FC's mascot. Since he first turned up at the ground on 9 December, he has seen all of their home and away games. That is seven wins and a draw at Mickleover, where he says we deserved to win. He has seen the team score 22 and concede only 4 - half of the latter in yesterday's purple patch.

Tom's son (with friends) turned up in the pub after the match and he gave me a lift back home. I am also indebted to Tom for pointing out that a card which I dish out with my blog details on it has a "/" missing at the end. No wonder my blog hasn't the sort of high count it so clearly deserves!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Political Blogging Habits

The site "Political Opinions" provides access to a wide variety of political blogs and gives summeries of items shortly after they are posted, placed into different categories according to their source. Some 500 blogs get coverage and those categorised as "Labour", " Conservative" and "Lib Dem" cover similiar numbers of bloggers.

Between midnight to 10.30 a.m. this morning, the count of items posted is as follows -

Commentators 28, Conservatives 21, Labour 13, Lib Dems 11, Journalists 4 and Lords 0.

It is perhaps predictable that a group categorized as "Commentators" should be keen to comment and that the "Lords" at the other end should still be in bed, whilst the lack of "Journalists" items arises from the fact they are not being paid for their submissions.

The interesting thing about the contributions from the political categories is that many of the Labour and Lib Dem posts emerged in the early hours of the morning, whilst the Conservatives lead this list. Does this indicate a class bias towards those with time on their hands, whilst progressives suffer from sleepness nights?


As the morning continues the trend to Conservatives and Commentators continues. Perhaps the Labour lot are all making their way to football matches. As I will be soon.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Being Pat On Trident

"Known thoroughly and ready for any occasion" - a Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of the word "pat".

86 Years Young

Sir Patrick Duffy served 25 years as an MP, had two spells as Labour's Spokesperson on Defence and was Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy from 1976 to 1979. Yet he is still as pat as ever on Defence issues.

Yesterday evening he addressed the Sheffield Fabian Society on Trident. And whilst he indulged in an old man's privilege of telling us about his glory days, he also produced a thoughful analysis of the current arguments about Trident. When it came to the debate he again re-affirmed that he was on top of his brief.

An Analytic Framework

I liked the way he drew from his memory and quickly presented the six traditional questions asked about the United Kingdom holding nuclear weapons. At one time he had to try and answer them on a regular basis.

1. Do they deter?
2. Who is the enemy supposed to be?
3. What is the cost?
4. How free do they make us from American influence?
5. Why don't we disarm and set an example?
6. Isn't it immoral to hold them?

The final moral issue being divided into (a) those who would renounce the holding of such weapons altogether, (2) those who would hold them but renounce their first use and (3) those who would hold them but proscribe that they should only be used in very special sets of circumstances.

This analytic framework set the scene for a focused debate, what Pat readily and relevantly responded to.

Tempus Fugis

In the days of the cold war, the deterent argument between West and East had a logic for some,
which they now find to be missing. No longer is it feasible to argue that we are only keeping the bomb in order to help us negotiate with others towards the removal of all the world's arsenal. Too many nations now hold nuclear weapons for muli-lateral disarmament to be used to counter arguments for unilateralism.

Today's nuclear proliferation and the new complexities of world instability, bring new twists to assessments of the above 6 points. Perhaps we need to focus on the inappropriate nature of such weapons which were constructed for a hot version of the cold war. We need different priorities when it comes to taking military action against today's form of terrorism.

Pat Duffy speculated on why today's opposition to Trident was seemingly being led by the Catholic Church rather than by CND. Perhaps it is because elements of the latter have been caught up in a one sided analysis which see the enemies of American Imperialism as their friends - even when these include nations such as Iran who have their own nuclear weapons ambitions.

At The End Of The Day

As with all good debates it didn't end with the closing of the meeting, but moved to a nerebye pub afterwards. Pat Duffy again proved that age is no object, by arriving at our destination well ahead of youngsters such as myself.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sinbad and Modern Terrorism

Operation Sinbad has been functioning in Basra since 27 September, 2006. It aims to root out corrupt elements in the police, whilst providing assistance to rebuild and repair essentials such as schools, hospitals, water systems and electricity supplies. It is led by the Iraqi Security Service supported by British, Danish and other Multi-National Forces; with the rebuilding aspects of the project being carried out by Iraqi engineers.

In the Commons debate on Wednesday, Margaret Beckett drew from a Basra opinion survey taken last month which showed that 92% feel that their neighbourhoods are now more secure, 50% feel that the police service is now effective in protecting their neighbourhoods (up from 32%) and 75% believe that it will further improve this year. 67% believe that the police are capable and professional.

The indictions are that Kurds in the north who operate under a great deal of autonomy, overwhelmingly trust and support their democratic institutions and their security system. Many of the Shia in the south are favourable towards the new political set up as it gives them a newly found collective influence and they hope to see trustworthy security and other provisions develop. This is a countervailing force to Iranian influences.

The overwhelming problems remain in Baghdad and its surrounding areas, where terrorism has driven people for protection into separate communities of Sunni and Shia. If Iraq is not to fracture, the removal of terrorism by military and political means in this area is an essential in facilitating the re-integration of communities. The lesson from Northern Ireland might be the Belfast Agreement, but we only reached that stage by containing the paramilitary threats of the likes of the Provisional IRA and Unionist Paramilitary equivalents.

The main question in Iraq is how can we assist the Iraqi Government to overcome the terrorist activities in the Baghdad area and what forces are available for this task, American or otherwise. The problem won't go away - even if we do.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In Memory

I opposed the American led invasion of Iraq and have been highly critical of its many excesses. These include the abuse of prisoners, a tendency to zap first and to think later, its ill thought overall tactics which show it to be attuned to fighting the wrong type of war, its rip off commercial interests and its anti-trade union bias. But there is another side of this coin.

Nowhere is this better expressed that on the blog of a young USA officer serving in Iraq. It was posted on the blog last October and I have just picked it up from "Harry's Place".

Mark Daily was 23 and was killed last week. He was dedicated to trying to stop the type of horror which took place around Baghdad today.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Non Compos Mentis

Compass Loses Direction

(A) Compass has announced that it is holding a ballot of its membership to decide who it will support in the Labour Party Deputy Leadership election.

(B) Its Management Committee is recommending that members vote for Jon Cruddas.

There are a number of reasons why this dual tactic is doubley inept.

(1) Deputy Dog

The Leadership position is vastly more important than that of his or her Deputy. Why is the ballot limited to the secondary position only?

(2) Voting In the Dark

We do not know for certain (and can not even make a reasonable guess) as to who the candidates will be in the Labour Party vote for Deputy Leader, especially as nominees need to pass a threshold of support amongst Labour MPs. The Compass contest might turn out to be for a bogus list.

(3) Mixing Chalk With Cheese

Compass members will use the Alternative Vote System (1,2,3,etc). But two choices are to be superimposed upon each other. First, does the member wish us to support any of the candidates at all? Secondly, what is the member's order of choice amongst the candidates?

These should be two separate and distinct ballot choices. Only if it is decided to give support for having a candidate, should a count then be made amongst the alternatives.

The mixing together of the two options, handicaps those of us who wish to stop this beauty contest. For whilst it is reasonable to expect a person to vote, say, (1) Benn (2) Hain (3) Cruddas etc; it isn't reasonable to expect someone to vote (1) Benn (2) not supporting a candidate (3) Hain etc. And those voting first for "not supporting a candidate" are not very likely to use the rest of their choices for the very people they are not supporting. This means that, in practice, the system robs them of 2nd, 3rd and further choices.

Back to your chart, Compass.

(4) Guided Democracy

Why is the Management Committee of Compass pushing a particular candidate? I thought they were keen to encourage a wide range of opinions into their debates and not to bounce their membership into rigid positions.

If someone other than Jon Cruddas happens not to win the Compass ballot, what then? Will they stand on their heads or resign? And if "not supporting a candidate" get over a 50% vote, will that mean that Jon Cruddas will be given a lower profile on Compass platforms and in their publications?.

(5) An Uneven Playing Field

As most of the assumed candidates (apart from Cruddas) hold Government posts, they are genuinely handicapped in setting out their stalls unless they resign from office.

I am on record as wanting Peter Hain to stand in the Leadership contest. I also call for him to resign his Government position in order to do this effectively. But is Compass willing to call on several candidates to do this in the Deputy Leadership contest?

Is it even reasonable for Compass to ask all likely Deputy Leadership Candidates for policy statements, when they are plumping for Cruddas? As much as I would like to see such statements (especially if they were uninhibited), I would also understand anyone who told Compass to get lost. For they are doing this as part of a pro-Cruddas ploy.

(6) Politics And Its Entrapments

Compass had given the impression of being an open body, keen to develop genuine and serious avenues of debate inside the Labour Party. Now it is moving to become a career avenue. Unfortuneately, the people it endorses will come to define what it is about. Instead of advancing a questioning political philosophy, it will aim to become a sectarian tool facilitating the next takeover bid at the top of the Labour Party.

I was just moving to get more involved with Compass. But unless we can stop this current non-sense, I will just have to move on.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Lemsip Optrex Mystery

Hello My Darlings

Don't ask me what I have been doing reading the current issue of Hello magazine, but I may have solved the great mystery which is raised by its cover story.

Why did the engagement collapse between weather girl Sian Lloyd and high flying (well in aircraft if not politics) Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik? I reject the theory that it was just so he could get together with Cheeky Girl Iriman who is famed for her hit with sister Monica entitled "The Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)" and just happens to be half Sian's age.

The Deep Philosophical Explanation

The deeper reason for the break-up can be culled from Hello's interview with Sian. She reveals that with Lemsip she played Chess and Scrabble. These can be very stressful pastimes, especially if one of the partners regularly whitewashes the other.

My wife, Ann and I play scrabble most mornings now that I am retired and I am no longer available to give my mature advice in the Commons to the Lemsips of that world. Ann defeats me left, right and centre. My trouble is that I never really recovered after getting nil out of ten in a spelling test at my infant school.

Ann and I settled to play tournments over 11 games. We are now into our 27th series. Ann has won 26 of these and one was tied - the last tournament being 5-5, plus a draw.

A Hand-up Instead Of A Hand-out

Things went so badly for me that we decided that the scores should count towards a second trophy and for that I would be given a 20 start each game. This dispensation was like the relief of Mafeking (and no doubt could have saved the Sian-Lembit engagement). I have gone on to win the last 6 handicapped tournaments. As a result my honour has now been half-retrieved and the handicap has been cut to ten.

If the Sian-Lembit scrabble relationship was also basically one-sided, then it could have resulted in a terrible strain in their overall relationship. So how come Ann and I have survived, for the key tournament is the one I trail by 26 and a 1/2 to a 1/2.?

Things Can Only Get Better

I have had the advantage of being a left-wing Labour M.P. Defeat was a natural way of life for me under New Labour.

Then by nature, I might be more philosophical than Lemsip. Whilst he and I both studied Philosophy at University, different lessons can be drawn from an addiction to different Philosophers. As Lemsip was born in Estonia he probably has a taste for Hegel. That would explain a great deal. I come from the North East, which gives me an addiction to the David Hume from nearbye Scotland. Nothing could be better for overcoming stress.

Above all, I support Sunderland AFC. Last season, we crashed out of the Premiership with defeat after defeat, recording the lowest points total in our history. The previous relegation we sufferred from the Premiership involved a second half of the season in which we lost 18 games, won none and only managed a single draw. We went on just to avoid the worst run of League defeats ever, which is a record held by Darwen in the 19th Century.

As Bing Would Have Said, "We Need Hope"

Perhaps I have become acclimatized to defeat. Yet hope remains eternal. Sunderland won 4-2 yesterday, away to Sheffield Wednesday. My scrabble game has moved up from the horrible to the merely bad. And I am the only person I know who supports Peter4Leader of the Labour Party. I haven't even got Peter Hain on my side. Not yet anyway.

After 43 years being happily married to Ann, I am not going to let a scrabble nightmare effect me. But I was wondering about getting Ann to take up Chess. It has the distinct advanage of not requiring a contestant to be good at spelling.

Now do they spell that blokes name Lembit or Lemsip?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Peter4Leader ?

If he can venture this far, then why can't he go this far ?

Falling Standards

The Committee on Standards in Public Life have not updated their web-site on publications since 28 November. What sort of public standard are they setting?

They are expected to publish a key report on serious failures by the Electoral Commission sometime today. I hope that this goes straight onto their web-site.

My interest in the Electoral Commission's failure to tackle the mess electoral registers have got into should be clear from the last item I posted on this blog.

Is it acceptable for the Standards Committee to have its report trawled by Newsnight last night and in today's press, whilst the report is not available for the very public it is supposed to be acting for?

If we have to set up a Standards Committee to investigate the standards of the Standards Committee, where will this ever end?


Thanks to help from Sir Alistair Graham's Office at the Standards Office, I have now (3 p.m.) gained access to the Report. When I last looked, it was only on the news page and not yet listed as a publication. Here is the link to the full Report.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Johann Hari, Tony Blair and Me.

Making A Good Idea, A Better Idea

A fine article from Johann Hari in the Independent points out that Tony Blair's proposals to make it easier for Government Departments to share information about us, is not a major attack on our civil liberties. It will help many in need to receive their proper rights and to provide them with assistance. It will also help to stop many wealthier people from slipping out of paying their share towards the well-being of others.

There is another area where the cross fertilisation of such information is urgently needed. It is something we should press Blair to add to this agenda as it will clearly extend civil liberties.

Some 3.5 million eligable people are missing off electoral registers in England and Wales alone. This has arisen because we have an increasingly rootless and complex society. We need arrangements which ensure that we get as close as possible to 100% electoral registration. So that we then have access to the vote wherever we are settled, temporarily or otherwise. Whether we use that right is another matter, but it should not be denied to so many.

We Have Been Here Before

I once I introduced a Private Members Bill into the Commons which attempted to achieve the objective I have outlined above. Furthermore (as I will show below) I did this with active support from Blair.

At the time he was Shadow Home Secretary and he circulated the following letter of 1 February 1993 to Labour MPs to encourage them to participate in a free vote on my Bill on a Friday.

The context of the letter is that I needed 100 MPs in my lobby to force a closure to the debate.

Dear Colleague,

The second reading of the private members bill from Harry Barnes MP on improvements to the process of electoral registration is scheduled for debate on Friday 12th. It is vital that there is a maximum turnout of Labour MPs for this debate as there is likely to be a sustained boycott by Tory MPs.

The Labour Party has been strongly indentified with the need to improve the extent and accuracy of electoral registers and we have put considerable pressure on the Home Office and individual local authorities to give a greater priority to this work. It would be very unfortunate if the Government could accuse Labour MPs of a lack of commitment and awareness on this issue, particularly when it cost the Party so dearly in the General Election.

I would be grateful if you would do your utmost to be present for this vital debate.

Yours sincerely.
Tony Blair.

Ayes 78 Noes 0 - The Noes Win

Despite winning the vote for the closure of the Bill by 78-0, we did not reach the magic total of 100 and the measure had been talked out. Most of the Labour Front Bench , including our leader John Smith voted. But too few Labour Back Bench MPs bothered to turn up.

When Blair became Prime Minister, legislation was eventually carried in 2000 which incorporated some rather weak versions of my proposals into what is known as Rolling Electoral Registration. Which means that a persons voting rights can follow them when they move. The problem is that they need to be alert and pro-active to cash in on the proposal.

In Politics, It is Never Too Late

But we now clearly have access to information which would allow officialdom to do what I was campaigning for throughout the bulk of my parliamentary career.

If Tony Blair will add this item to his current proposals, then he will be taking a lead on a clear civil rights issue which he has been associated with in the past - as his above letter shows.

What could be more fundamental than the right to vote? It would put him in the tradition of the Levellers, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes! What more is needed for a place in history ? It is never too late to deliver in politics.

And if he doesn't find it too embarrasing, he can give me a footnote.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Knowledge Is Power : Thanks to Ann Black

Once Upon A Time

At one time the Labour Party operated under a comforting myth about its internal democratic processes. The great work of scholarship on this period is "The Labour Party Conference" by Lewis Minkin (Manchester University Press, 1978).

It was then believed (but not by Lewis) that it was possible for the smallest he or she to go to their Local Labour Party Branch Meeting and set a process in motion that could end up shaping the policy not just of the Labour Party, but of its parliamentary wing.

By presenting a motion to a meeting, it might eventually end up being endorsed by the Annual Conference of the Labour Party and be pressed upon the leadship of Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

Of course, the myth tended to ignore the difficulties. Would the motion virtually disappear when it was cobbled together with other motions on the same topic at a pre-Conference compositing meeting? If not would you then pursuade the powerful Conference Arrangements Committee to recommend it to Conference for debate ? Next, would the National Executive Committee (NEC) seek to kick it into touch by recommending that it should be remitted to them for further thought ? And even if it eventually carried the day (perhaps against platform opposition), there was a high likelihood that the NEC or the PLP (or both) would just ignore it.

The Value Of The Myth

Yet the myth had important positive aspects. Occasionally activists could stir the conscience of the Party. In 1977 my local Constituency Party in North East Derbyshire did exactly this in a move to seek to protect its Councillors in Clay Cross who had rebelled against the operation of Tory Rent legislation 5 years earlier. It was only after it was carried overwhelmingly at Conference that it was ignored by those who should be Conference's servants.

The big thing about the myth which underlayed the above process is that it was based on clear, precise and understandable democratic principles. When you found that a proposal was subverted by undemocratic procedures, then the party members effected by this knew where to press for changes.

Today's Smoke and Mirrors

In place of yesterday's dreams, we now have a complex mix of Rolling Policy Programmes which are in theory developed through a variety of Policy Commissions which are fed and feed into various Policy Forums. A Joint Policy Committee made up of representatives from the Government, the NEC and the National Policy Forum are then brought into the act, before complex Policy Documents are then rubber-stamped by Annual Conference.

To Labour's dwindling rank and file, all of this is smoke and mirrors and they feel no ownership of the final outcome. In the absence of a clear and understandable decision making process , few in the Party are even aware of the (often theoretical) existence of networks of co-ordinators who can be tapped for a feed-in to this byzantine sytem.

Enter The Woman In Black

If we wish to transform the current structure we need to struggle to understand what it is . This is best done through involving ourselves in its peculiarities. We can then help change it into something that is meaningful.

There is no better way to gain the knowledge we need than by following what Ann Black is doing. She burrows away on a Policy Commission and is an active member of both the NEC and the National Policy Forum. But to bring the rest of us in to the act, she runs an invaluable web-site on which she presents her own reports of the various meetings she attends and provides clear information on their structures. What the Party hides from us, Ann supplies.

No wonder she finishes top of the poll in the Constituency Section of the NEC elections.

What Can We Do ?

It is only with knowledge that we can advance democracy, even if it is mainly a knowledge of what we need to change. I have, therefore, emailed Party HQ to see what I have to do to become a Local Co-ordinator in this process. I can't lose. If they don't answer, I just have to ask Ann.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dare We Speak Its Name ?

John Wins : 45 out of 700

The imbalance in the contest for the leadership of the Labour Party was fully displayed at yesterday's Fabian New Year Conference.

Gordon Brown was gently interviewed by Oona King in a packed hall of over 700 people at London's Imperial College. To build Gordon a cuddley image, Oona encouraged him to relate stories from his past. The questions were chatty in the form of "You went to University when you were ten or something, didn't you?" Of course, he was all of 16.

As an image-making media exercise, it was a complete success.

On the other hand, his would-be opponent John McDonnell was sidelined as a participant in a panel discussion appropriately entitled "Left Outside ?" Further, this particular seminar only attracted an audience of 45. Yet it was a good and lively meeting.

John talked well and with a great deal of sense about real problems, such as the serious shortage of homes in the south and the impact of imbalanced wages and conditions in the public sector. It is a pity that so many had rushed off to see alternatives in the four other groups which contained such fatal Fabian atttractions as Anthony Giddens, Ed Balls, David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips.

We Are All Progressives Now

The only thing that I disagreed with in John's contribution was, however, central to my criticisms of him for seeking to stand for the leadership. He said, " we are all socialists and should try saying so." The first bit of this proposition is, of course, entirely incorrect across the general sweep of today's Labour Party. I am a socialist, but often feel isolated.

John Denham M.P., Martin Bright of the New Statesman and Stella Creasy of a think-tank called Involve, were the other panel members. They persistently avoided using the term socialism and substituted for it an alternative aspiration which came to the fore with New Labour. This is the idea that we need to be "progresssive". Indeed Blair uses the term "progressive" not just in opposition to the conservativism of the Conservative Party, but against what he sees as old-fashioned socialist ideas.

Educating Oona

After Oona had done her best to advance both the career prospects of Gordon and herself, she opened up questions from the floor. Gordon had made a big thing earlier of his commitment to education, stressing the importance of "life long learning" which enables adults to move in and out its provisions.

A questioner upset the celebrations for a while by pointing out that adult education was currently being moved in the opposite direction to Gordon's vision under a whole series of cuts. I was also wondering whether any "progressive" measures of life-long learning would essentially be restricted to re-training for re-employment purposes. After all education should mainly be about the broadening of horizons, the development of the intellect and meaningful questioning.
Something which challenges a pure training agenda.

Blown Off Course

With such thoughts in mind, I decided to go to the Education Seminar in the afternoon. The topic being "What will narrow the gap?"

120 now packed in the same room that had been more than half empty for John. The attractions were mainly Estelle Morris and Alan Johnson. Alan, however, left shortly after questioning hotted up from the floor. But not before he told us the reason he dropped his proposal for a 25% independent intake to faith schools. It was massive lobbying of Labour MPs by Catholic constituents, leading to a fear they would lose their seats.

A similar fear factor came into play over our not finally abolishing academic selection for school places in England. It is seemingly OK to do this in Northern Ireland as we don't run candidates there.

Progressive politics is obviously still in a quandary when it comes to tackling real forces of conservatism.

Where Have All The Fabians Gone ?

Back in the main hall, there had been an earlier lunch time forum on "How can Parties reconnect ?". The question itself was illustrated by the fact that although there was now no competition from other meetings, only 200 turned up. Perhaps even Fabians baulk when the big named expert is Harriet Harmen, seemingly trying to remember what is in Jon Cruddas' pamphlet about renewing the Labour Party.

The day closed with a question and answer session. The audience was double that at lunch time, but 200 to 300 seem to have shot off home - which is understandable for those living some distance away. Perhaps I only stuck it out so that I could complete this.

Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty, talks sense well. Whilst Yvette Cooper always seems to me to be in a different league from her husband Ed Balls who as Chair of the Fabians had set the whole day rolling. Yvette made an interesting analysis on equality under Labour, distinquishing between income inequalities and wealth inequalities. She claimed that on income we had made progress due to the minimum wage and tax credits, but not on wealth equality given the rise in property values. I know that the two forms of inequalities have strong connections, and there is much more to wealth than property. But at least it was an analysis.

The other panel member who always interests me (as with his writings) is Nick Cohen. He can be a heady mix of insights and over-the-top claims. When he discussed Iraq, I was grateful for the chuck-on for Labour Friends of Iraq with whom I now act as Vice-President. But his contributions weren't easy to follow as they seemed to be full of sub-clauses on this occasion. Fabianism obviously takes its toll.


It is a pity that apart from visitors from the Socialist Campaign Group and the odd lapsed Labour Party member speaking from the floor, that socialism no longer speaks its name in the Fabian Society. Even Roy Jenkins once felt obliged to start a Fabian essay with the words - "The desire for greater equality has been part of the inspiration of all socialist thinkers and all socialist movements......Where there is no egalitarianism there is no socialism." And he did go on to offer his own vision. On the other hand, that was back in 1952.

It isn't just a word that has gone, it is the analysis which often went with it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Beyond Fabian Flannel

Do We Start from Here?

In 1972 Michael Barratt Brown wrote what for its time was a penetrating analysis called "From Labourism to Socialism" (Spokesman Books). Unfortunately the journey eventually went in the opposite direction.

If we want to advance the cause of socialism in this country, how can we now do it? I fully reject the idea that in current British circumstances it is possible for the Labour Party (or any alternative) to suddenly bounce us into socialism. The alternative is the longest of long hauls.

We now have a degenerated form of Blairism in operation. Compass as I argued yesterday, challenge this by advocating a left-wing form of Blairism. They seek to regulate the power of capital, but not to start undermining its operations.

Yet this limited Compass programme isn't even yet on the agenda and is unlikely to be advanced if and when Gordon Brown becomes leader.

The Long Slog

Even with a new compass, it is still some distance to anything that can be recognised as labourism in modern dress. We last approached even a right-wing form of labourism in the heady days of John Smith. And it is only when we travel that far into the future, that an updated form of "From Labourism to Socialism" can seriously be back on the agenda.

So what can democratic socialists do within the Labour Party to hasten this long journey?

First, avoid the entrapments of attempting to storm the citadel, John McDonnell style. It is counter-productive. Secondly, keep checking that the many compromises that are needed just to carry on working within a Labour ethos are principled ones and not sell-outs. Finally, keep socialist ideas alive by bringing them into what passes for dialogue in the Labour Party.

Because I see no alternative to nibbling away, my next stop is to visit tomorrow's Fabian Conference. Well you can't expect it all to be fun. The trick in to try to turn what used to be Fabian gradualism into what Michael's old friend Raymond William's used to see as the need for a long revolution.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

North By North West

Blown Around The Compass

I was going to travel by bus and train to Nottingham this evening to meet up with fellow navigators in Compass. But massive winds and torential rain meant that I had to drop anchor and settle for blogging.

It gives me a chance to explain what an old lefty like me is doing in Compass. I have to answer those who see them as rather naff.

I have three explanations. First, they are a welcome sign of life amongst the depleted ranks of the Labour rank and file. Secondly, they have welcome links with a wide variety of bodies who have Labour interests. Finally, if they ever are to achieve anything worth while, they need people who will regularly whisper in their left ear without unearthing them as traitors to the cause.

Where The Compass Is Pointing

Their programme is set out in a booklet entitled "The Good Society" in which they call for a much more equal, democratic and compassionate society. So far so good.

To achieve their aim, they initially propose the use of progressive forms of taxation, including taxes on pollution. Such additional revenue being directed towards eliminating poverty (from the cradle to retirement) and aided by existing public expenditure which would be skewed towards new priorities.

Programmes would need to be introduced to overcome the conditions which lead to crime and anti-social behaviour, rather than the current concentration upon the expansion of the regime of punishment. They remember that Blair was supposed to be tackling not just crime, but the causes of crime.

The same approach emerges in other key areas with proposals directed towards the removal of the social conditions which breed racism and the intollerence of immigrants and asylum seekers.
Whilst in tackling environmental problems, they even seek the means to overcome our addiction to car ownership, its use, sale and production.

What is called "progressive internationalism" is also propounded, so that efforts are recommended not merely to improve aid to the third world, but to restructure international agencies so that they direct their attention to tackling the vast inequalities and injustices which operate throughout wide areas of the globe.

How To Use A Compass

Much of the analysis in "The Good Society" is well expressed - although it lacks a proper conclusion to draw its threads together. And what it seeks is huge and significant.

Yet there is also a big problem with its analysis. It seeks to deliver its high aspirations within the context of our current free-enterprise economy. The free market would, of course, be subject to democractic and regulatory restraints. But Compass insists that what it propounds must not be structured in ways which are "anti-capitalist".

The result of their defence of capitalism is that powerful concentrations of power and wealth in Britain and throughout the world would subvert their proposals whenever these offended capital's interests.

I am not suggesting that there is an easy set of buttons to press (John McDonnell style) to eliminate such dominant capitalist influences. But I do feel that Compass should recognise the nature and size of this problem. So they will then see that strategies need to be developed to neutralise each effort by capitalists to undermine each of the proposals in "The Good Society".

My main reason for being in Compass is that it is a body which needs some of us to keep whispering about the above problem in its left ear. Yelling through a loud speaker at them is only likely to burst their eardrum and to be counter-productive.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bog Blogging?

Quote, Unquote

"There are plenty of reasons to dismiss political blogs as trivial or ephemeral, with a depressingly low standard of debate." says this near-blog. "Take a randomn visit to Harry's Place, which supports the Euston Manifesto and is regarded as one of the more significant and respectable examples of political blogging. You may be lucky to find a thoughtful piece about world events. Or you may find a bit of puerile sniping at Ken Livingstone, Polly Toynbee or George Galloway (all right. some people do deserve puerile sniping)".

"Even if you found a thoughtful piece, click on the 'comments' link (especially if it shows there are more than about thirty comments), and you'll find that only a couple of the early responses involve to-the-point criticism. Indeed, you'll be lucky if you don't find the comments descending into point-scoring, ad hominem attacks, apparently irrelevant asides (usually referring to separate arguments elsewhere on the site) and a good deal of personal abuse. It is unlikely to make you want to get involved."

The Best Is Yet To Come

The above is a quote from an article in the current issue of "Democratic Socialism" by Bernard Hughes. It also, of course, appears on the site to which I supplied my initial link. The article is entitled "Return to Euston", but it is a fun read on blogging on top of its analysis of the Euston Manifesto.

It supplies a great set of 44 mainly lefty links, so it has been placed straight into my "favorites" box. Whilst its "with-it" nature is shown in its definitions box on the "Decent Left", "Fisking", "Stoppers", "Muscular Liberals" and "Moonbat".

As a consequence of Bernard's strictures I will escue puerile sniping and stop calling the Crud the Crud. And I will no longer enter boxes crowded with more than 30 responses. (I must say that I soon noticed the point he makes.)

Why do I get involved in these things Bernard? Well it is easy after 18 years of bobbing up at down on the green benches in the Commons. At least I can now say what I want without having to catch someone's eye, even if I do receive less hits than past observations from those deserted green benches or from the even emptier press gallery.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Clicking for Democratic Socialism

Me and the ILP

Before I was ensnared by parliament, I spent a decade or so involved locally and nationally in the work of Independent Labour Publications (ILP). They published at least 60 articles of mine.

Although my links with them never entirely disappeared, I was invariably swamped by the usual M.P.s' passing trade. I soon, however, re-established closer contact with the ILP on retiring from parliament.

I am, therefore, pleased that my article "Iraq: The Third Big Issue" appears in the current issue of their journal "Democratic Socialism". I am equally pleased that it appears alongside such worthy contributions. The ILP prefers to present challenging material.

Peter and the Crud

The first person it challenges is me. I tend to have been using people's comment boxes to blow raspberry's at Jon Cruddas and his campaign for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party . Even christening him "The Crud". But now my old friend Barry Winter has set me thinking with both a serious interview with Jon and a thoughtful review of the pamphlet Jon wrote with John Harris, entitled "Fit for Purpose: a programme for Labour Renewal". Jon is using his campaign to centre upon a need to democratise and revitalise the internal life of the Labour Party. A point he hammers home by insisting that he is standing exclusively for Deputy Leader and not for Deputy Prime Minister.

We then have articles on the role of faith in public life, why anti-Americianism must not be a pillar of left-wing thinking, whether the Euston Manifesto is as new a political development as it initially appeared to be, plus how far the analysis by Compass in "The Good Society" was reflected on the fringes of Labour's Conference.

If that does not grab you, then what of its breathless tour of Labour Blogs?. That should get everyone clicking.

It is appropriate that my "Democratic Socialist" came through the letter box this morning, for I have arranged for Will Brown one of its regular writers to address our Local Labour Party Discussion Group this week-end on "Labour, the Left and the Leadership." I wonder what he will make of my "Will The Real Peter Hain Please Stand Up?".

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Who Will Be Taylor's Dummy?

The Other Matthew Taylor.

It isn't the Lib-Dem M.P. nor the Portsmouth footballer, bit this Matthew Taylor was Tony Blair's Chief Adviser on political strategy until recently. In an article in today's Observer he points out that in September he "was charged with developing a plan for a fundamental policy review to be overseen jointly by Downing Street and the Treasury." He only makes two points about the review, but they are enough to spread gloom and dispondency.

1. Its Grasp.

"It will grasp some tough nettles, envisaging a radically reformed central state - smaller, more strategic, less controlling, focused more on the causes of poverty, ignorance and sickness than the Sisyphean struggle to ameliorate their consequences"

That looks like kicking away more safety nets and passing the new plans over to the free market.

2. On the way to the Forum.

It will also make use of "a high profile citizens' forum."

Which sounds like more old-hat focus groups. The problem with New Labour is their trying to think of something that is still new.

Ye Passing Trade.

Taylor soon rushes on in his article to deal with the problems of the passing trade - Northern Ireland, Iraq, Palestine, Africa, Climate Change, NHS waiting lists and the in-your-face problem of ethics in public life. But he tells us that we can forget about academies and trust schools as these have all been sorted. I don't think so somehow.

Waiting for Gordon

It seems that when (or if?) Gordon takes over, he will have his pathway pre-determined. It is just going to be the heritage of old New Labour.

The problem with constructing a political straightjacket for Gordon, is that he knows that once he is in the job he can immediately burst free from it. The only fear I have is that it will be the type of straightjacket he always wanted and has helped shape himself. With Gordon it has always been a question of the ownership of the straightjacket and not thoughts of a Houdini act.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

How Do We Tackle That Delusion?

My Old Style Religion

In criticising those who draw their main argument for the existence of God from the scriptures, Richard Dawkins in his "The God Delusion" takes on those who claim that the Bible is the literal truth. He is so frustrated with the views expressed by such people, that he even doubts whether many of them can actually have studied the scriptures.

"Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth?", he asks on page 94. He then goes on to spell out numbers of serious inconsistencies in its texts.

As I pointed out in "A Gentle Atheism" , I was an active Methodist in my youth. From at least 14 to 18, I went to Chapel 3 times each Sunday and during the week, especially to what was termed the Christian Endeavour. I became Secretary of the latter and once recognised that the preacher had picked a particular line of argument from the preface of a play by George Bernard Shaw!

The Methodism I was used to seldom took on the form of the evangelical brand which Dawkins is criticising within the above section of his book. Except that an occasional meeting would arise where efforts were made to get people to come forward to express their faith. These worried me and I would hold onto my seat to ensure that I would not be carried away by an emotioinal spasm against my better inclinations.

If someome had ever asked me what arguments I had for the existence of God, I don't know what I would have said. I listened to scripture readings, sang hymns (which I still enjoy doing) and heard sermons in which the scriptures were referred to. I even achieved a low level certificate in the scriptures.

But what struck me about the Dawkins quote is that it was correct about me as an individual, even if I was not really the sort of character that he was criticising. I did not read the Bible.

A God Read or A Good Read?

I happen to hold a list of the books I read over the first nine months of 1952 when I was 15 and partly 16. The list ended when I started work for the first time as a railway clerk. Neither the Bible, nor any works propounding the supposed truths of the scriptures make the list. My mother was as active in the Chapel as I was, initially going at my request and in a return to her own youth. She read three novels a week from the local library, but not the Bible or the like.

I read 50 books over the above period (outside of my school work and Sexton Blake booklets). 19 were by John Buchan. 8 were by George Bernard Shaw and were mainly single plays or collections of plays with prefaces. 3 by Conan Doyle. 2 by Henry Williamson. There were 18 others all by different authors. Some of the latter were plays or collections of plays by writers such as J.B Priestly and Oscar Wilde, whilst most others were novels and included George Orwell's "Animal Farm". The main non-fiction work was H.G. Well's "Short History of the World".

I remember starting to read the latter seated on the terraces at the Roker End of Sunderland's football ground waiting for the kick off. Many of the books I read were paperbacks often bought in Sunderland on the way to watch Shackleton play his magical soccer. Although the bulk of the John Buchan's were hardbacks in the Nelson series and were purchased at equivalent of almost 23p , two to three times the cost of most of the paperbacks.

So what room was there for God, apart from all that Chapel attending? Not much really.

Thinking of these things afterwards, I have felt that all that Chapel attending (for most of us) was more of a social activity than a religious one. This seemed to me to be the case in the 1992 General Election Campaign when I was one of the candidates who went to a hustings at the Evangelical Church in Clay Cross to answer questions on "moral" issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Each line I took upset the Church Elders, but most of the congregation that listened to me nodded kindly and I did not appear to be losing their votes. I suspect that as with my Methodism, their evangalism had more to do with sharing a social bond than from religious conviction.

If what I say is widespead, then perhaps involvement by atheists in social work would have more impact upon the behaviour of active Christians, Muslims and others than Dawkins barnstorming rationalism will. Perhaps socialisation and socialism are the cure for religious extremism.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

All My Yesterdays

This gives access to a telling twenty minute film about Iraq made in 1953. Whilst it is a romanticised, sanitized British Pathe News "propoganda" film; it does show something of the great potential of Iraq then and now.

I undertook my National Service at the RAF Movements Unit in Basra in 1955 and 1956. The film shows the docks in Basra which I visited at least once a week. There is coverage of one of the railway staions in Baghdad. I visited the equivalent in Basra on almost a daily basis. The buses are of a style that is recognisable, whilst the plane shown at the start and the close is not unlike the RAF Hastings in which I flew into and out of Habbaniya. At the time Habbaniya was a huge RAF base close to Fallugah, containing some 3,000 troops.

When I arrived the British bases were British Crown Territory and were on land we held sovereignty over. Many Iraqis fear that there will be attempts by Britain and America to extend such practices into the future. It is important for us to show that when we go we do so fully.

Above all it is the people of Iraq who appear throughout the film, but not in the context in which I saw exploited labourers and people living in poverty. I attempted to explain some of this in the first half of the item I posted under the title "Then and Now".

I thank Iraqi Mojo for presenting this historical material. In April I flew the length of Iraq from Arbil in the north, past Baghdad and Basra. Whilst in 1956 as I flew to be demobbed, we went out over Iraqi Kurdistan then via Ankara. The closing and opening sequences of the film bring back these memories. In between, there is much more which transports me to my yesterdays.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hope Amidst Despair


I am not religious, but I am struck by the feeling and despair expressed in this song from Iraq. Here is a second presentation together with the words.


A high water mark of hope for Iraq occurred on May Day 1959 when over half a million marched in peace in Baghdad. The Iraqi population was less than 7 million at the time, spread from the mountains of Kurdistan in the north to the port of Basra in the south.

The celebrating of May Day reflected a strong secular, pro-democratic and human rights tradition. This was seen in some of the political parties of that time and in newspapers, women's organisations, youth and student bodies and the Trade Union Movement who had organised the event.

The tradition re-emerged immediately in the open following the 2003 invasion. The people involved had opposed invasion, but moved into the openings it had provided. Those who sulk in their tents get nowhere.

No Illusions

We are all aware of the desperately destructive and difficult circumstances which terror and turmoil have created in Iraq since the invasion. If we look back at what has happened for almost half a century after that great May day event, then it will make us shudder further.

Soon after the demonstration, the Government closed down Trade Union newpapers and arrested thousand of trade unionists. Back and forth, oppression kept re-emerging in a series of coups and counter-coups from 1963 to 1968. Finally the Baathists were in complete control and trade union oppression, imprisonment, brutuality and murder were more fully on the agenda, except (in degree) for a short period when Saddam Hussein courted the Soviet Union for its military assistance. But Saddam also picked up information from Stalinism on how to run State controlled Trade Unions.

The economic improvement which Iraq had seen from its growing oil wealth was sent sharply into reverse under the impact of the massive Iraq-Iran War from 1980 to 1988. In 1987 Saddam banned Trade Unions in the public sector which accounted for 80% of the economy. What remained was absorbed into a State run movement under the absolutist control of Chemical Ali.

In 1988, Saddam also started his campaign of genocide against the Kurds. Then with his invasion of Kuwait, UN economic sanctions further hit the condition of the Iraqi people.

The well being of Iraqis was further smashed by the destructions of the Gulf War and Saddam's subsequent massacres against the Shia and Kurds for rebelling against his rule. The Marsh Arabs were also made destitute by his actions in diverting the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

When the deaths from invasion, military excess and (above all) the terrorism directed at the Iraqi people are added to this picture, we have a situation that too many will turn away from in despair.

Who Do We Support?

We can start by indictating those forces we don't wish to associate with. These include criminal gangs, Al Qaeda in Iraq, religious extremists and Sunni and Shia terrorist groups. These are all brutalised by their experiences under Saddam. Neither can we associate with any Western interests looking for financial rip-offs in the oil industry or for military bases and footholds for the future. Nor can we be on the side of those who would Balkanise Iraq, falsely arguing that it would fit into neat Shia, Sunni and Kurdish packages.

What remains? Well there are those who work within the framework of the 1959 May Day tradition; even if it means little to them. These include those who organise for women's rights, student interests, facilities for young people, for jobs, for decent wages and conditions, for improved hospital and electricity supplies, for communal self-help and the like. You know what I am on about. It happens the whole world over in different forms.

It isn't easy to focus our attention where it is needed. Nor are the two types of world I have mentioned always separated from each other. Terrorist groups also try to muscle in on social welfare provisions and self help for their chosen peoples. But even (and especially) in Iraq there are many with alternative understandings. Lets work with those who work with each other often irrespective of religous sect, ethnic or national background, family or tribal links, sex or sexual orientation, race or creed.

We can start out with cries of despair, but we need to move on to what is Iraq's best hope.

Monday, January 01, 2007

That Was The Year That Was

These are my personal highlights of the previous year. As my main careers were as a Lecturer in Politics and Industrial Relations then as an M.P., I now enjoy what is something of a synthesis between education and politics. It can be called "political education". I also have a continuing interest in the two subjects I studied at University - philosophy and (again ) politics. So Political Theory is that particular synthesis. Retirement also gives me the scope to follow some of my other intests more fully, including watching football. Above all, it has helped me to rediscover that I have a family.

1. Conference Visits. I went to a good number of Conferences over the year. They were mainly held in London, starting with the Fabians and ending with the Society for the Study of Labour History.

2. Attending and Organising Meetings. I seem to have been doing these things for most of my life. Early in the year I was made Political Education Officer for my local Labour Party. I organise monthly Sunday evening discussion meetings, which are held at the Dronfield Contact Club. Speakers have included past and present LabourM.P.s. I have also attended local Fabian, Constituency Labour Party, local Branch and Student Labour meetings and have addressed numbers of these. I also had the privilege of attending and addressing the Ruskin College Fellowship. As an ex-Ruskin Student, I am also a member of the Fellowship.

3. Trips South to meet the Family. Ann and I made numbers of visits to London, staying in hotels or with our son Stephen, daughter-in-law Rebecca and grandson Joseph. We also visited our daughter Joanne who works in Crawley. She also joined us in London for key get togethers such as Joseph's first birthday and my 70th.

4. Visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. With a group from both Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ) and the TUC's Iraq Solildarity Committee, I visited the Kurdish north of Iraq. Our hosts were the Kurdish Workers' Federation. Trade Unionists from the rest of Iraq came to meet us and presented me with a (much treasured) certificate of honourary membership of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. With LFIQ, I also attended meetings in the Commons which are the only times I now revisit my former workplace.

5. Holiday in Turkey. Ann and I went on a memorable holiday to Turkey. When we arrived we joined a coach tour which included Anzacs, North Americans, an Indonesian and only one other British couple. Most of us keep in touch via circulated e-mails. We visited ancient and modern Turkey. It was quite an experience, especially as I previously had just been to Iraqi Kurdistan on Turkey's southern border.

6. Stage Productions and the Cinema. With Ann, these ranged from musicals such as "The Producers", plays such as "Embers" with Jeremy Irons, an opera Turandot and a concert with Joan Baez. The ones I have mentioned were first rate. We only made one visit to the cinema to see a memorable Iranian film "Offside".

7. Spectator and Fantasy Sport. The above film is about women in Iran who wish to attend football matches, but are banned by the authorities. I have a team in the Daily Telegraph Fantasy Football League whom I named after the main character in the film, called "Akrams Dream". Our son also runs a Fantasy League for his work mates and myself. I have also attended Rugby League games with him. The highlight was the Rugby League Cup Final at Twickenham. I also saw a range of football matches, mainly local. The greatest of all being my 60th Anniversary visit to see a Sunderland home game, and a 146th Anniverary match between the two oldest teams in the world - Hallam FC 1. Sheffield FC 3.

8. Home Pastimes. I list the best I have come across in each category in the year -

a. Book : Paul Foot's "The Vote - How it was won and how it was undermined."
b. Magazine : New Scientist's 50th Anniversary Special.
c. Double DVD : The Ramallah Concert by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
d. CD Set : Barenboim - Beethoven's Nine Symphonies (Warner).
e. TV Programme : Bruce Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome/The Seeger Sessions".
f. Radio : Radio 3 morning programmes listened to when in the bathroom.
g. Via PC : Little Atoms interviews on Resonance FM 104.4.
h. Scrabble : Ann and I play regularly. She wins at least 2 to 1. I managed a tie last time.

9. Blogging and Surfing. This blog was a brilliant present from our son for my 70th Birthday. When he showed the blog to me it contained the initial two posts taken from earlier material of mine which had been published, plus my photo which he had just taken. Until very recently, I did not know how to post items and they were all placed for me by Stephen from attachments I had sent him. I have now acquired further limited skills and this (and the last three posts) have been submitted directly. I hope now to provide material both an a more regular basis and in shorter forms. The importance to me of surfing the net is explained in the postscipt. My blog "From Beano to Keono" has been republished in a four page spread in the Sunderland independent and prize winning football fanzine "A Love Supreme".

10. Happy Xmas. The whole family were home for Xmas. Nothing was better.

POSTSCIPT. The question arises as to whether I miss being an M.P. From the above, it should be clear that I don't. I meet most of the people I was close to through my work with LFIQ and at meetings and Conferences. Although being an M.P. was an important part of my life, I can only think of two things I regret in departing . First, I no longer have access to the telling provisions of the House of Commons Library and its expert Reseachers. Secondly, I enjoyed the discipline of writing a fortnightly syndicated column for three local free newspapers. On the other hand, surfing the net and blogging are great substitutes for these bits I missed. It helps that Dave Anderson the M.P. for Blaydon (a newly elected M.P.) spontaneously decided that he would work in the two areas that were my main final parliamentary commitments - progress in Northern Ireland and LFIQ's interests. Otherwise, I might have felt quilty about leaving and deserting the causes I pursued. But I now know that Dave will automatically cover these matters and will probably do so more effectively.