Archive for April, 2013

Why I Love…….Black Sabbath

30 Apr

Frank Zappa thought ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ but the prospect of the first Black Sabbath album since 1978 featuring Iommi, Butler and Osbourne has got me genuinely excited.

Bill Ward, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi.

Sabbath 2013 - now missing a drummer

There exists a musical Pantheon, a highly select group of musicians who influence all those who come after them. Even if you don’t like them personally, you can acknowledge this, as I do with for example Led Zeppelin and The Smiths, bands I can take or leave.

In the early days of rock and roll, trail-blazers were Little Richard, the Everley Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Elvis; in the 1960’s the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Bob Dylan. But any list of bands from the 70’s which doesn’t include Black Sabbath isn’t worth the energy it took to type it.

I’ve got eclectic musical taste: a random flick through my MP3 player produces: Judas Priest, Sex Pistols, Rolling Stones, Thea Gilmore, X Ray Spex, Kraftwerk, The Jam, Jimmy Cliff and The Hold Steady.

But when I was a teenager I was a metalhead and the tenth band on the MP3 player, Black Sabbath, invented heavy metal. I’ll say again: ‘invented’. Four boys from Brum invented an entire genre of rock music as popular today as it was in the 1970s.

From a deprived, bleak suburban area of Birmingham called Aston, the four members of Black Sabbath started playing blues-based heavy rock as Earth, then turned the volume up and the tuning down.

If it hadn’t been for guitarist Tony Iommi’s industrial accident taking the tips of two fingers off, we might not have the chilly, grinding, bottom-heavy sound now de rigeur amongst rock guitarists. Not wanting to let something as trivial as losing a couple of fingers from his right hand affect his guitar playing, and having problems using plastic prosthetic tips to fret chords, Iommi experimented with his guitar tuning, took it down 3 semi-tones, and the unique guitar sound of Black Sabbath emerged.

Not that Sabbath’s influence is just down to Tony Iommi’s masterful playing.

Having rock’s finest ever bass player next to you kinda helps: Geezer Butler as main songwriter and anchor ensured Black Sabbath was more than just a heavy rock and roll band. More has been written about John Osbourne than almost any other rock musician but Ozzy’s singing, phrasing and above all electric stage presence took this band to the stratosphere. Held together by Bill Ward’s jazz-influenced tub-thumping, Black Sabbath from 1970 to 1978 changed the face of rock music.

Don’t take my word for it: listen again and remember that ‘no-one had gone before’.

Below are ten songs giving a flavour of what makes Black Sabbath so significant.

I’ve loved this band since I first heard them in the mid-70’s. December can’t come quickly enough….

1. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

2. Snowblind

3. NIB

4. Hole in the Sky

5. You Won’t Change Me

6. Symptom of the Universe

7. War Pigs

8. Hand of Doom

9. Children of the Grave

10. Supernaut

So, what should Labour do to bury Thatcherism?

12 Apr

Plus ca change...

Endless articles on ‘Thatcherism’ have addressed aspects of opposition: the campaigning, lives and feelings of those worst affected, strikes and marches, but most have avoided any detailed examination of the political alternatives.

And yes, there are alternatives to selling anything not nailed to the floor, putting a price-tag on everything and letting rich people become even richer at the direct expense of the poor.

As a socialist within the Labour Party I’d like to help redress that imbalance and express a creeping concern we’re going to fall short in 2015 of offering the much-needed viable alternative to neoliberalism.

This was evident this week when Tony Blair waded in, unhelpfully, with ‘advice’ for his successor.

This in a week when Ed Miliband tried to strike the difficult balance between his official duty as leader of the Opposition and as the leader of a progressive political party. I’d be stunned if Miliband didn’t hold a politician epitomising greed and divisiveness in contempt, and he was put in a difficult position by a Prime Minister trying to use an old woman’s death for his own sectarian advantage – so the last thing he would have wanted was Banquo’s Ghost rattling his neo-con chains and telling him to tack to the centre.

The Labour Party is however at (another) critical juncture.

A good showing in County and Municipal elections next month isn’t necessarily a panacea. Yes, it puts more pressure on Cameron but potentially reinforces those within the Party arguing for no change, for centrist policy, for marginal, tinkering timidity. ‘We’ve done OK so keep it where we are’ is a tempting message but highly dangerous. Here’s why.

The rise of UKIP has already shown the voting public may be open to radical ideas, wherever they come from. Assumptions that the 2015 election will be a straight fight between a discredited Coalition and a contrite but more responsible Labour Party are wrong.

It is equally likely that the Right vote will, for the first time ever, be split and with that comes a greater chance Labour will have a Westminster majority without Nick Clegg and his Orange Bookers.

Whilst unlikely that the Lib Dems will die off completely, any scenario where Labour can ignore those who trooped through the Lobby supporting Osborne’s Budgets, the welfare savagery of Iain Duncan-Smith and the lunacy of Michael Gove’s destruction of English public education is a good one. The Liberal Democrats haven’t been a brake on the Tories – they’ve been their enablers.

But to reinvigorate the Labour Party we need to be bold and credible. We can be both.

Labour can, for example, signal the end of NHS Clinical Commisioning Groups before they even start. Unaccountability and backdoor privatisation can’t be acceptable to the Party which founded the NHS: we need to build an open, democratic partnership between patients and professionals. No more ‘internal markets’, no more stand-alone Trusts, no repeats of Stafford and proper accountability to service users. We use the size and power of the NHS to secure the best deals for taxpayer and patient alike.

The same with English schools. Academies must be brought back under local authority control – only this time governance is opened up, the profession is listened to rather than demonised, school governors are given teeth  – and we end the folly of thinking unaccountable head teachers are a cure-all. School Inspections should support and improve rather than punish and destroy and if parents or sponsors want to use schools for religious purposes, they do so in the private sector.

In workplaces, we should rebalance relations between employer and employee, reestablishing justice and dignity at the workplace. No more exploitation, low-wage economy and job insecurity, ending the evidence-free nonsense that reducing employee rights creates employment.

We let local councils build council houses again.

We tackle the scandal of Housing Benefit, taking control of the billions of pounds poured straight into the accounts of wealthy private sector landlords.

Minimum standards, affordable rents and meaningful rights for tenants. And an end to homelessness, utterly avoidable in a modern society and an affront to basic human decency.

We create jobs by infrastructure spending and procurement which encourages good practice. Minimum compliance standards for private sector contractors.

We offer credit to small businesses and reward those who work in partnership with their employees and unions. We ask employers to show how they’re delivering equality at work.

We regulate the City, we tax the super-rich, we make the practical and moral case for a more equal, just society.

We reward those who work hard but still look after the disabled and the elderly. We stop demonising the poor and the vulnerable and open up education and community work opportunities. We make work pay by establishing minimum decency standards and eradiciating the benefit trap.

We invest in our public services, in our public service workers and ensure they support both our society and our economy.

We take the railways and the utilities back into public ownership.

Since 1997, Labout lost nearly 5 million voters and we need to reach out to them again.

We will not do this by offering austerity-lite or being slightly less malignant than the Conservatives. The Labour Party needs to reconnect itself with people in the UK by making a credible case for radical, progressive change.

If Thatcherism showed us anything, it showed that politics has to be about the battle of ideas. Nothing else will do.

Thatcherism: debunking the myths

10 Apr

Trust the Market?

Not many politicians give their name to an ‘–ism’, But the late Margaret Thatcher was one.

Rather than join in pathetic attempts to make one woman some sort of crucible for all the ills of the world, I’ve attempted to evaluate policies pursued by the Conservatives in the 80’s and early 90’s.

For me, they fall broadly into 3 categories:

Economic and Fiscal Policy: control of inflation prioritised over employment or growth; running a trade deficit; regressive tax policies, viz tax cuts aimed at the wealthy, raising VAT and low taxes for business.

Business and Macro-Economic Policy: attacking independent trade unions; abandoning industrial policy for laissez faire; shrinking the state by privatisation and cutting public spending; pursuing a low wage economy.

Social Policy: prioritising defence and law and order; destruction of municipal government; politicisation of civil service; reductions in welfare support. 

Firstly, the choice to control inflation and not sustain employment or boost growth through demand management was deliberate. The shift to supply-side economics was an ideological choice, albeit one subsequently pursued by New Labour and the current Coalition.

This is undoubtedly a triumph for neo-liberalism, as it essentially places the interests of business and finance above everyone and everything else.

Directly related to this was the balance of power in industrial relations shifted decisively in favour of employers. It has never swung back, even remotely.

Unions like the ISTC, NGA and SOGAT were isolated before being picked off in disputes where employers, State, police, media and judiciary worked in harmony to defeat them.

The premeditated provocation and subsequent defeat of the miners in 1985 was the most violent and crude ‘know your place’ message ever delivered to working people and their organisations – a message which still reverberates in the fear and power imbalance disfiguring many British workplaces.

The anti-union war meant that working days lost through strikes tumbled – but also translated directly into low wages and deteriorating working conditions. The current insecure, low-wage economy is a direct result of the mid-80′s environment created as a consequence of this ideological war.

To protect and serve...

To protect and serve...

In summary, economic growth was depressed because weakened trade unions couldn’t defend jobs, couldn’t effectively oppose belligerent employers, and didn’t ensure wage increases in private or public sector kept pace with inflation.

Council house sales – and advertising campaigns that encouraged buying shares in privatised companies – were meant to broaden the political appeal of capitalism and undermine collectivism. Even now, neo-liberals juxtapose union membership and share ownership as if they’re incompatible.

From 1979 onwards, industrial policy was just abandoned. The state was deliberately shrunk by selling BT, British Airways, British Steel, British Gas and the British Airports Authority. ‘Market forces’ was supposed to ensure the survival of the fittest, yet all they succeeded in doing was creating large, unaccountable private monopolies.

Neo-liberals wax lyrical about the Thatcher model of privatisation but are a lot less vocal about the overwhelming tendency for public monopoly to become private monopoly or cartel – evidenced only recently by the big six energy companies bleeding UK consumers dry, or the astonishing ongoing incompetence of Railtrack.

Low business taxes were intended to make the UK a destination for foreign investment, but the decisive shift in the economy was away from manufacturing to creating a bloated financial services sector, via the 1986 ‘Big Bang’. This gross structural imbalance was a major contributory factor in the crash and burn of the economy in 2008.

Innovation and investment have also been consistently poor since the 80’s,  as the deliberate hollowing out of manufacturing left the economy dependent on the City.

And although North Sea oil revenue helped paper over the cracks, Britain’s perennial problem –paying its way in the world – remains.

The last time the UK ran a trade surplus was the year of the Falklands war, over three decades ago.

That Britain’s relative economic decline came to an end was due more due to slowdowns in France and Germany in the 80s than an acceleration in either UK productivity or growth.

The government’s welfare bill was also swollen by the cost of increased unemployment, growing housing benefit and a mushrooming of Incapacity Benefit, all driven directly either by labour market ‘reforms’, council house sales or de-industrialisation.

Tax cuts for the rich, driven by neo-liberal ‘trickle down’ theory, have been a disastrous failure.

Both absolute and relative inequality has grown every year since 1980 and comparative international studies invariably show that societies which are cohesive, healthy and safe are those where the gap between rich and poor is least.

The 1988 budget, for example, cut the top rate of tax from 60% to 40% and the standard rate by only 2% to 25%. Nor have lower business taxes resulted in more investment or research and development, but translated instead into increased profits and shareholder dividends.

So, in conclusion, I’m arguing that the over-dependence on the City, the low-wage economy, insecure employment, widening gap between rich and poor, huge welfare bill, schism between North and South and comparative economic under-achievement have their roots in the Thatcher brand of neo-liberal economics.

I also believe the New Labour government accepted far too much of this as a post-80’s ‘settlement’ and was at best timid in redressing economic inequality and tackling vested interests – but they played the hand of cards they were given by a Thatcherite Government given 17 years to shape the United Kingdom in their image.

Discussing an alternative, which puts people ahead of profit and society ahead of self interest, is for another day……

Margaret Thatcher: hate the game, not the player.

08 Apr

Trickle down theory?The death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shows that the United Kingdom is united only in reacting viscerally, whether it be tear-stained deification or passionate, vengeful gloating.

 I see no point ‘celebrating’ the death of an 87 year old woman with dementia and long ago took Tony Benn’s advice about focusing on the politics and not the personalities. It pains me to watch sensible comrades reduced to snarling children, as if a grocer’s daughter from Grantham was responsible for all the pain and anguish visited upon the people we represent and our class.

‘Hate the game, not the player’ is my advice.

 Understanding the enemy is the first necessary step to successfully opposing them, an idea as valid today as it was when Sun Tzu first articulated it.

 Margaret Thatcher combined Victorian social conservatism with neo-liberal economics and a ferocious ideological hatred of the Left, whether traditional social Liberal, trade unionist, Labour Party moderate, socialist, Marxist, peace campaigner, communist, Trotsykist…….it was all the same to her.

 I recall her quite deliberately using the phrase ‘national socialist’ rather than ‘nazi’ to describe Hitler. She simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to vent her ideological spleen, which dated back to the 18 year old Margaret Roberts.

Miss Roberts fell hook, line and sinker for, as the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website has it, ’Hayek’s idea that you cannot compromise with socialism, even in mild social democratic forms, because by degrees socialism tends always to totalitarian outcomes’. No compromise. A moral absolute.

 I have often said history is not made by kings and queens, the ‘great men’ theory propounded relentlessly by conservative historians like David Starkey and Niall Ferguson. The Second World War wasn’t caused by a disturbed Austrian corporal who couldn’t paint and had Mother issues: it came about due to the economic, political and social circumstances prevalent at the time.

 Similarly, what we call Thatcherism was a product of it’s time. Of OPEC oil crises, Middle East instability, the Cold War, 13 million people in UK trade unions, the development of theEuropean Economic Community, and above all the intellectual shift away from patrician aristocratic Conservatism towards the Chicago-school economics professed by Milton Friedman and before him by Friedrich Hayek.

 If we understand that Thatcher’s neo-liberal economics and politics is rooted in a visceral desire to crush anything collective, communal or social and replace it with a new order based on competition, markets and inequality, we begin to unpick what makes the new Tories tick. 

Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Duncan-Smith and Hague are her intellectual offspring, keepers of the flame and unquestioning believers in ruthlessly cutting the State, throwing the poor to the wolves and suppressing charities, trade unions, churches and anyone opposed to their slash and burn approach to ‘reforming’ the United Kingdom’s economy and social frameworks.

 The figurehead may be dead but the Left make a fatal mistake if it ignores neo-liberalism’s agenda and fails to offer an alternative which puts people rather than inequality at the core of 21st century society.  

This is a perfect opportunity to challenge the historical revisionism (which will now follow her demise) and expose the real divide which disfigures our society:  between those who own and control,  and those who do neither.


‘A fascist, not a racist’? That’s an egg-free omelette…

03 Apr

Di Canio waving to his Mum?

I’m a fascist, not a racist.’

Aye right, Paolo, that’s like saying you’re an egg-free omelette.

The appointment of Paolo Di Canio as new manager of Sunderland AFC caused uplifting, heartening rows to break out all over the place.

All the major UK tabloids (!) had pictures of this disgusting specimen giving the Hitler salute to Lazio fans in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.

A Sunderland Director resigned, the BBC covered the issue commendably, Di Canio himself held a press conference on Wearside and in a not-very-fascist-at-all move threatened to ban journalists who asked him about his politics.

Still, I suppose it’s better than killing them or herding them into concentration camps.

I wrote a very long blog on this yesterday which my computer ate so I’m not going to rehash it.

Suffice to say the English Premiership has shown that incidences of sexual assault and rape regularly committed by players, paying over £100k a week to irretrievably mediocre journeymen and having once proud football clubs reduced to being the toys of super-rich kleptocrats, oligarchs and parasites is not a nadir.

Once a fascist……..

Instead, we’ve now seen a major Club appoint a man who is a publicly-avowed supporter of Benito Mussolini, has ‘Dux’ tattooed on his arm and the fascist flag tattooed on his back – where it hides the yellow streak he showed when confronted by Ranger Ian Ferguson in the Celtic Park tunnel after he made a ‘broken leg’ gesture to Fergie from the safety of the Parkhead pitch.

A cynic shouldn’t be surprised that adherence to the ideals which resulted in millions of needless deaths and the industrial killing of over 6 million Jews isn’t enough to have you shunned. I suspect sadly, that most ordinary Sunderland fans will care more about whether this diseased maggot manages to keep their Club in the English Premiership and avoids relegation.

But in a world which cares about the price of everything and the value of nothing, it is a comfort to see so many people are genuinely appalled and disgusted that this could happen.

Perhaps there’s hope for us yet?

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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