Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Politics And The Dialectics Of Debate

 Derbyshire Miners Industrial Day Release Students 1983.

Especially concerning politics I have always had a commitment to the dialectics of debate.

Approaching my 21st birthday (and for the following four years) I wrote 29 letters to the Sunderland Echo and the Northern Echo in discussion with people such as the Chairman of Dorman Long on the issue of steel nationalisation and to the Secretary of the Durham Area Communist Party with a heading “Russia, with its privilege class, isn't Socialist”. Then some three months after my first letter I joined the Labour Party in order to participate in an essay competition on “Nationalisation” being run by Mannie Shinwell our local MP. I manage the second prize.

In the following year I became my local Labour Party branch Secretary and immediately arranged for them to have a speaker plus a debate at each alternative meeting. Soon afterwards a local Fabian Society was established and I became Secretary drawing in speakers such as Sam Watson the Durham Miner's leader. Our first speaker was the then General Secretary of the Fabian Society, Bill Rodgers. He was later to become part of the Gang of Four who set up the breakaway SDP. Many years later we met up as officers of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Strokes. So you can work with political opponents on specific matters.

I have always been keen to encourage and develop the holding of Labour Movement Discussion meetings.
At the age of 24 I went to study Politics and Economics full-time at the Ruskin College in Oxford, which in those days was for adults without formal qualifications. Lectures were followed by questions from students, seminars involving fuller discussions and weekly tutorials were held to discuss our written essays with tutors. After two years I then gained the qualifications to study Politics and Philosophy full-time at Hull University where similar methods of study took place. I came to appreciate the claim made way back by John Stuart Mill that the person who only knows their own side of the case, knows little of that.

Then for 21 years I mainly taught classes of trade unionists via the Sheffield University Extramural Department – especially coal miners, steel workers, railwaymen and classes of various shop stewards. The only shortcoming of these being that few women ever attended. A typical course would last over three years. A tutor would normally take a year's weekly class over 24 weeks, being with a class from 10am to 4pm each day. Sharing the coffee breaks and the lunch time period with students. The classes worked when the students were encouraged to involve themselves fully in debates and produced regular written work. Tutors got to know their students well and could draw people fully into debate as they came to appreciate their understandings and views on issues. It was fully the dialectics of debate. Any indoctrination by tutors would have been entirely inappropriate.

Depending upon their circumstances and commitments, numbers of such students went on to study at Adult Education Colleges such as Ruskin. Numbers of others became local Councillors, NUM branch officials, social workers or voluntary helpers for worthwhile causes. The very first class of South Yorkshire Miners I ever taught included a future MP, a future MEP and the NUM Branch Secretary at Cortonwood where the 1984 miners' strike emerged. It is a pattern we miss.

In time I also taught Philosophy on evening classes ran by our Department for adult students who had no formal qualifications, but were seeking places to study full-time in higher education especially at Sheffield University itself. Those who progressed via our range of classes were to achieve better degree results via Sheffield than the average normal intake. Our Department was also the only one with school inspectors and I was impressed when one of them took a full part in a discussion in one of the seminars I was running. I went on to become the Director for these courses, which unlike the Trade Union classes drew in a majority percentage of female students.

When I became an MP from 1987 to 2005, my pattern of the dialectics of debate came under something of a challenge. Procedural arrangements, whipping and Government control of the main agenda became the order of the day. This probably shaped my fairly regular rebelling against Tony Blair. But there were other openings for me to pursue. Select Committee work looks into different sided issues . I went for matters such as European Legislation and developments in Northern Ireland which gave plenty of scope for fully-fledged debates and are key areas today. Then parliamentary colleagues (some from other than the Labour Party) could be contacted to be drawn into official or unofficial meetings to discuss concerns about Derbyshire County issues, Civil Rights for Disabled People, Electoral Registration and other matters. Then there were plenty others initiatives by others that could be followed, such as concerns to protect remaining and former coal mining communities.

I have always been keen to arrange for Labour Party Discussion Meetings. Shortly after arriving in Dronfield 50 years ago I became the local Constituency's Political Education Officer. Then under different hats helped to arrange many debates in Dronfield under the umbrella of its Branch, a local Fabian Society and the modern ILP - Independent Labour Publications. I have just finished a 12 year period as the Dronfield Labour Party Political Education Officer covering over 130 discussions in that time – including one on the exact day itself  of the 120th anniversary of Keir Hardie and others meeting to found the ILP. Such meetings are now being continued by others.

I am very much aware that today we have a new technology where discussions take place on web-sites. There seem to me to be two problems we need to tackle. First, those using comment boxes far too often make crude opposing comments, rather than seeking to enter into genuine and meaningful debates. It is rather like people just farting at each other. Monitoring by the operators of web-sites can contain this type of activity, but only a growth of serious initial contributions and similar forms of responses can deliver their potential. And it is a potential that related discussion meetings (under the dialectics of debate) need adding to.

There are also educational needs to incorporate the type of avenues I stressed above into our modern era of a changed technology.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Labour's Problems.

Image result for 7 Labour MPs

Labour's current parliamentary turmoil is reflected in the fact that 16 of its MPs have now either defected or have been suspended since the last General Election. And they may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Amongst these, how can numbers of former Labour MPs (such as the seven above) desert the very Constituency Labour Parties who adopted and nurtured them as successful parliamentary candidates for periods of up to 26 years ?

Constituency Labour Party activists should have been rubbing shoulders with these MPs for ages. Receiving regular reports back from them about their parliamentary and constituency activities, supplying organisers and activists for their parliamentary campaigns and being an avenue for passing on local problems which needed to be pursued via parliamentary avenues.

With such friends, associates and contacts these rebellious MPs could have discussed their concerns about the operations of the Labour leadership, eventually announcing their intentions to stand down at the next General Election whilst then facilitating re-selection procedures for their replacement as future Labour Party Parliamentary Candidates.

They could even have stood down as MPs and created by-elections, deciding whether they would seek to be candidates and under what labels. If any forms of Constituency Party comradeship ever operated during these MPs' years in parliament, surely it should not recently have just counted for nothing.

I served as the Labour MP for North East Derbyshire from 1987 to 2005. In that time I issued 121 written reports for delegates to its Constituency Labour Party meetings. These were supplemented by verbal reports and questions and answers, The mid-term report No 61 was 15 pages long, including copies of relevant press reports and extracts from Hansard. My verbal report at that meeting centred on a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) discussion concerning our overall strategy arising from a debate in the PLP introduced by Tony Blair when he was then leader of the opposition.

Under Blair's eventual Government there were some key moves which I gave my active backing to, such as the peace process in Northern Ireland and the introduction of the minimum wage. But there were also many matters over which I rebelled, including the invasion of Iraq and the ending of public payments of student's university fees. The academic Philip Cowley showed that I rebelled against the Labour Whip 72 times between 1997 and 2003 – there were more to follow in my remaining two years. Yet Jeremy Corbyn outstripped me substantially, with 151 rebellions in Cowley's six year period.

I did, however, keep my Constituency Party fully informed of my voting practises. Did the recently departed MPs do the same ?


 Image result for Labour and Brexit

One of the main reasons given for the formation of the new Independent Group of MPs was their support for a fresh referendum on Brexit. The Labour leadership having since their departure edged closer to the same position.

This is not a stance I favour for the Labour Party, as it is in conflict with the strongly expressed views of the bulk of our traditional working class in the referendum. I feel that it would be a massive error for us to detach ourselves from the very people whose wider interests we should be working to advance.

There have, of course, been dramatic changes over time in the make-up of the working class. At one time they worked and shared interconnected life styles in areas such as those dominated by coal mining, cotton and steel production. Being drawn into related trade union membership and engaging in collective forms of industrial pressure to further their well-being. Voting Labour added to their general interests in delivering the welfare state and other ranges of social provisions – whilst also pushing for such values when in opposition.

Today, working class employment is often only temporary or subject to disruptive zero hours contracts. And often poorly paid. The social networks which formally existed for the working class have been destroyed in an era of a changing individualistic technology. There is, for instance, a desperate need for deprived people to be drawn together in socially progressive avenues such as lifelong learning.

But if Labour loses the support of people from such damaged backgrounds, then these people's desperate needs are in danger of slipping off our agenda.

It is unfortunate that we ever had a referendum about leaving the EU, but as the decision to leave had solid working class support Labour should now honour it. Yet without going for the extreme dangers of a fully fledged hard Brexit, we need a genuine departure from its operations. If we could overcome the backstop problem which is contained in Teresa May's current deal, then this would give us a genuine EU departure and not a sham one. It is also just about as far as the EU is likely to go to accommodate our interests. We need a proper departure and not a sham one, such as still having EU controls over the operations of our links with them via its own form of Customs Union.

Whatever a Brexit departure eventually involves, Labour needs to develop a full and positive relationship with the Party of European Socialists to which it will still maintain full membership.


 Image result for Labour anti-semitism

The second reason given by former Labour MPs for joining the Independent Group of MPs is that we are riven with areas of anti-semitism. But even if a mass organisation like ours attracts unacceptable people now and again with extremist views, I don't see anti-semitism as being a widespread problem.

I initially joined the Labour Party back in 1957 due to an initiative made by the local Labour MP – Manny Shinwell. He had a Jewish background. I worked very closely with him and with many local Labour activists until I moved to Hull in 1963. In the Labour Party, I never once came across any references critical or hurtful about him or his background.

I am now approaching 50 years of activity within the Labour Party in North East Derbyshire, including serving 18 years as their MP. In parliament I shared an office with Ken Livingstone for a number of years and regularly came across Ken and Jeremy Corbyn together, especially at meetings of the Socialist Campaign Group. Middle East topics sometimes being on the agendas . But I have never personally came across anti-Semitic comments anywhere in Labour Party avenues throughout this full period – nor earlier or since..

I was, however, concerned that Jeremy seemed liable to link in too closely with Hamas and Hezbollah in criticising actions taken by the Israeli Government against Palestinians. I often, however, shared his criticism of various Israeli official moves. But I felt that some of those he associated himself with on such matters often went over the top. He has, however, moved to detach himself from such approaches under recent criticisms. His reformed stance on such matters (as on other items) is something I welcome. I would certainly have done the same with Blair had he altered his own stance on numbers of issues.

A leading claimant about anti-Semitic activity in the Labour Party has been the now departed MP Luciana Berger, the great niece of Manny Shinwell. She has recently claimed that six people have been convicted of threats against her (seemingly involving anti-Semitism) including two from the left, one of whom was a former member of the Labour Party. We could do with her providing greater details on such matters.

In fact, it is not easy to track down clear cut examples of anti-Semitic utterances being made by Labour Party members. Even from such a detailed source as a 42 page item by Wikipedia entitled “Antisemitism in the UK Labour Party” with it links to 288 references. The more one delves into claims about anti-semitism in the Labour Party, the less clear the overall pattern becomes.

I will only look at one claim of anti-Semitism that has been levelled against a former Labour member whom I once knew well – Ken Livingstone.

The statement which led to Ken's suspension from Labour Party membership (and later his resignation) was his claim that Hitler had "supported Zionism" when first coming to power in Germany "before he went mad and killed six million Jews". This is a very clumsy reference to a deal which the Third Reich struck with leaders of the German Zionist Movement on 7th August, 1933. Hitler engaged in the deal in order to remove many Jews from Germany. It was a prelude to events such as resorting to prison camps, Kristallnacht (and the like) and then to his fully fledged mass extermination programme. The words used by Ken to described the early start of such developments clearly needed to be have been adjusted.

For Hitler was "mad" in terms of the depth and nature of his anti-semitism (and on many other matters) well before the above deal was ever agreed to. For instance, Mein Kampf was published in two volumes back in 1925 and 1926 and contained clear anti-Semitic claims and attacks upon Judaism. It claimed that Aryans were the master race.

The 1933 development which Ken expressed briefly and badly is, however, contained in great detail in Edwin Black's book "The Transfer Agreement'. The introduction to the 1984 edition of his book stating that - "On August 7, 1933, leaders of the Zionist movement concluded a controversial pact with the Third Reich which, in various forms, transferred some 60,000 Jews and $100 Jewish Palestine".

Edwin Black is himself Jewish. His grandmother was murdered in Treblinka, having pushed her young daughter (who was later to become Edwin's mother) out of the train that was taking them to the camp. The young man who was to become Edwin's father escaping from a group of Jews who were being led to their execution by Nazis in Poland. Edwin's book is solidly researched and he is certainly in no way anti-Semitic. If Ken had stuck with its approach, he should not have upset the apple cart. Yet the fact that he badly expressed the nature of this significant historical arrangement does not by itself make him anti-Semitic. Nor can I find other evidence to substantiate this claim. But he should have conceded my point.

As the philosopher Wittgenstein pointed out, many of the words we use tend to share a family resemblance rather than just having exact, precise and rigid meanings. The broad meaning of a word is then discovered by examining the range of ways in which it is used. This does not, however, mean that usages of words don't also have rough and ready boundaries. Dictionaries are into the business of attempting to define words for us and, therefore, offer a precision which attempts to get to the heart of their use. My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines an anti-Semite as being "a person hostile to or prejudiced against Jews". Whilst Wittgenstein encourages us to go beyond such exact definitions for its interconnected usages, this does not mean that there is a need to substitute dictionary style and brief definitions for over-elaborate ones which then seek to capture the use of a word. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance stressing its concerns about anti-semitism in its own elaborate statement containing no less than eleven categories, this does not make their statement THE definition of anti-semitism which anyone discussing the issue is obliged to adopt. Someone might wish to add extra items and rewrite others. As long as our approach has a wide ranging anti-racist stance which firmly condemns anti-semitism we are on the right track. People who stress different aspects of anti-semitism can still hold meaningful conversations on the issue, even if they are given to stressing diverse points. And we should always encourage the dialectics of debate – whilst avoiding extreme arguments.

But I do feel that if anti-semitism was a serious issue in today's Labour Party that I would have come across its depth by now. I am, of course, more than happy to seek to explore any specific charges and details about its current operations, having just discovered these claims made in the Spectator almost a year ago -


 Image result for Labour the Road Ahead

Labour needs to tackle the above issues whilst getting on with pressing to overcome massive major problems such as climate change, wide scale impoverishment, social disruption and helping to deal with a mass of international disasters such as the situation in the Yemen. Yet we must also face up to what we can deliver as a hoped for future Government.  The power of international capitalism is massive. It holds powers to block and undermine social reforms. Many issues need to be dealt with on an international stage. A tactic of persistent gradualism is needed. So that as soon as any specific reform is undermined, action is taken to tackle such a development. 

Added 10 March : This past item indicates my general approach to the leadership of Corbyn. Click here.

Added 15 March : Further turmoil in the Parliamentary Labour Party over the Commons' vote as to whether there should be a second referendum on Brexit. The official line was to abstain. 202 did this or otherwise did not vote. 41 MPs broke the whip. 24 voting in favour of a fresh referendum and 17 against the proposal. As a consequence, five of those who voted against have resigned from their front bench roles in the whips office and elsewhere. If I had still been an MP, I would have been with them. Click here.   

Added 23 March : "Labour won't win power if we abandon working class LEAVE voters". Click here.
But so we don't go over the top in doing this and then smash the economy via an extreme Brexit, the best option is probably Teresa's deal. Especially if the Irish Government would help us to bring about the removal of the backstop. 

Added 2 April : I hope to return to this matter. On the issue of Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, Prof Alan Johnson has recently published a document giving 134 examples of claimed acts of anti-semitism arising from within the Labour Party. Although some of these refer to people who are also mentioned in earlier examples. Yet one example refers to some 50 cases. These need to be carefully examined to determine their nature, relevance, standing and significance. Click here. 
There is also this item which I have just discovered about Ken Livingstone to whom I referred to above on the anti-semitism issue . See.  
Then there is this from almost 3 years ago.

Added 12 April : I have just come across this detailed criticism of Ken Livingstone's stance on the relationship which he claimed existed at one time between Hitler and Zionism. It covers wider ground than that which I was aware of.   Click here