Archive for September, 2013

Ed Miliband’s Labour: Seizing the Moment?

26 Sep

The glint of a radical alternative?

When you hear the enemy squealing, you know you’ve hit the mark.

So it was when Ed Miliband stood up on Tuesday and said the next Labour government would freeze utility bills for a year and a half.

The well-oiled machinery of vested interest swung immediately into action, and in jig-time TV studios were full of soberly suited ‘experts’ shaking their heads ruefully. It won’t work, we’ll have power cuts, it’ll dry up investment, it’s naïve, it’s unfair in a globally competitive market……..about the only objection omitted was ‘Puppies will die and it’ll be Labour’s fault’. (Put the kettle on for that being the Daily Mail’s headline tomorrow)

Predictable. As was not one of the ‘Big 6′ or their apologists admitting what we all know to be true: we’re being ripped off. Not one single concession to that truth; not one single idea of how to improve things for consumers. Just the subliminal message ‘shut up and let us get on with it’.

And after a long period devoid of Labour policies, a spate of them rolled out in Brighton.

Break up the energy monopolies, abolish the Dickensian bedroom tax, improve the minimum wage and introduce a living wage, build 200,000 new homes a year, fund extra childcare by introducing a mansion tax, sack ATOS, give councils compulsory purchase powers to tackle land hoarding and facilitate home building, fund tax cuts for small businesses by halting Osborne’s corporation tax giveaway to Conservative Party funders.

It was radical, but hardly the full-blooded socialism the Tory press and useful idiots like Digby Jones were gibbering about.

We’d avoid a “race to the bottom” because we can’t compete against even more exploitative economic models than our own – a good start – but both Miliband and Balls were still sticking to the line about keeping the current government’s spending and borrowing targets in Year 1.

Nothing was said about rolling back the stealthy privatisation of public sector education, or keeping the Royal Mail, or repealing the most restrictive and regressive employment law framework in the Western world.

But it was another step away from the shadow of New Labour and welcome proof that Miliband – at the very least – has the potential to ignore the ‘tack to the centre*’ (*Translation: tack to the Right) triangulation message constantly pressed upon him and avoid the elephant traps being set from him by the Tory party and their ever willing media sock-puppets.

This speech spoke deliberately over the heads of the media and hopefully recognises that Labour will never, ever, be ‘moderate’ enough for super-rich media oligarchs.

Challenging unaccountable private sector monopolies, redistributing the huge wealth this country has, cracking down on tax cheats, ensuring affordable homes are built, saving our Royal Mail, defending our NHS, delivering dignity at work and economic justice.

It could be done, it would take a genuine radical to do it, and those who know Ed Miliband tell me he’s above all a brave and radical politician.

Let’s see if Labour’s leadership shakes off the Blairite ghost.

Can it offer the British people the sort of alternative which will repair the damage of the austerity straitjacket?

Can Labour offer genuine hope to people lost in the fog of a low-wage, low-aspiration society?

Can we  stop a super-rich elite siphoning off wealth while it watches 95% of us scrap for crumbs, while our public services shrink or are sold off, our unions crippled and our wages bumping relentlessly along the bottom?

You’re right Ed: Britain can do better.

Film Review: ‘Springsteen & I’

17 Sep


Hyde Park 2011 - I'm on the left near the front...

I wasn’t sure how a film composed of five minute interviews with fans of Bruce Springsteen was going to work, but it did. Ridley Scott put together something much more than the sum of it’s parts, not simply an hour and a half of Bruce fans from all over the world telling you how they’ve loved his music since (insert age) and loved X concert and Y record.

 Instead we had cameos from people sharing intimacy and connection: a twenty-something American-Asian truck driver with a Masters degree and a quietly stated belief that Springsteen spoke not only to but for her; the groundkeeper at Copenhagen’s Parken stadium, John, who saw the Tunnel of Love tour aged 9 and been a fan since; the Manchester couple with the woman interviewing her partner, him telling how he couldn’t really be bothered with the music, wanted the concerts to be shorter but went all over Europe because his wife was a fan; the fifty-something American man calmly describing how Springsteen’s music had been a part of his life for four decades and then breaking down as memory and emotion overwhelmed him; the young guy told his relationship was over the day before a gig, who held up a sign asking for ‘I’m Going Down’ and who ended up on stage with Bruce, being hugged…… revealing insights into the human condition as much as a film about Boss fans.

 Interspersed were precious clips of Springsteen and the E Street Band playing, mined from the Thrill Hill archives and a joy to watch. The film, seemingly, ended with footage of the man and his band across four decades, playing ‘Born to Run’ and as the credits rolled to ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, some Witney cinema goers headed for the exit.

 What they missed twenty seconds later was ‘bonus footage’ of Springsteen & The E Street band playing half a dozen songs from Hyde Park in 2012, the concert where Paul McCartney joined them on stage for ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.

 The cinematic scope and volume was akin to being there and the version of ‘Because the Night’ the best I think I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard dozens. And there was more.

 The Epilogue featured four of the film’s participants brought together for a concert and meeting Springsteen and Jon Landau after. The guy from Manchester’s face was a picture, the overwhelming feeling of the whole film being a sense of connection and shared space: a guy from New Jersey who writes songs that speak to people across the globe and forms part of their lives.

 Yes the guy is a musician and yes, you can just like the music but for millions of others, including this writer, Bruce Springsteen is more than that. This film shows you why.  

Royal Mail: pass the idiot pills, please

14 Sep

Buy it? It's ours already

Well, they’ve done it again.

Just when you think this pantomime horse Coalition has run out of idiot pills, we get the privatisation no-one wants.

The sell-off of the Royal Mail, rejected by Margaret Thatcher because she couldn’t bear the thought of the Queen’s head in foreign hands.

I say ‘no-one wants’: obviously that excludes multinational companies who fund the Conservative Party, smacking their lips at the thought of a quick killing.

They’ll be buying into a 300 year old business, built up by generations of taxpayer investment, which in the year to April 2013 made a £403m profit.

Yes, profit.

As Billy Hayes of the CWU noted ‘ it’s the same old story: privatise the profit, nationalise the debt’.

In case anyone needs convincing, here are the hard facts.

Royal Mail generates £400m a year and a 5% return. Most private sector companies would kill for those figures.

And this happens despite the state owned business paying 12% interest on £473m of debt, when the government can borrow at 3%.

So why sell it off?

Quite simply, it generates a one-off influx for Treasury coffers of £3bn. And 3 years of breathtaking economic mismanagement by Osborne, Danny Alexander and Co. have left a gaping hole in the country’s finances. A £3bn shaped hole.

We don’t have to look far for practical examples of why not to do this: the recently privatised Dutch postal service PostNL is now so toxic it can’t be sold on and is currently lobbying to be allowed to go to a 3 day a week service.

TNT, the scab transport firm that helped Murdoch smash the print unions at News International, is trialling deliveries in West and South West London with staff on zero hours contracts, paid less than £8 an hour. No wonder Royal Mail staff are digging in for a fight.

This sale puts the interdependent relationship between Royal Mail and the Post Office in serious jeopardy, it threatens the six day delivery framework and is opposed by over 96% of Royal Mail staff and more than 3 out of 4 members of the public.

It could be halted by ten simple words uttered by either Ed Miliband or Chuka Umunna: ‘we will renationalise the postal service without compensation or profit’.

So: time for Labour to decide whether it is the government in waiting acting in the national interest, or a political glee club running scared of the Tory press and City parasites.

Chile: the other 9/11

11 Sep

President Salvador Allende in Santiago

I was ten years old when I suddenly noticed some exotic-looking people on our Paisley housing estate.

The West of Scotland in the 70s was pretty mono-cultural so South American faces, skin tones and voices stood out. And pretty soon everyone was talking about ‘the Chileans’ who’d been housed in the properties owned by the Ministry of Defence.

 A tiny boy named Pedro turned up at our door soon after with a single word: ‘Brasso?’

 Turned out he’d been dumped in my brother’s primary school class and had taken a shine to the tall boy with red hair, Russell. Russ was ‘Brasso’ for decades after that…

 I didn’t know it at the time,  but Pedro and his family were refugees, exiled and forced to flee Chile from a brutal military coup d’etat in 1973 which overthrew a democratically elected government, murdered over 3,000 people and put 33,000 Chileans in prison to be tortured.

And it was a coup with its origins in Chicago University’s economics department, Nixon’s White House, the Pentagon, the CIA and the offices of ITT.   The Chilean people fleeing for their lives were the unimportant human casualties of a Cold War move by what President Eisenhower called ‘America’s military industrial complex’.

 This is the other 9/11, the one that won’t make the headlines today but the event which 40 years on still casts a shadow over our economic and political world.  

 With President Allende dead in Santiago, state terror replaced the destroyed Popular Unity government.

Anyone suspected of being on the Left was imprisoned, executed or exiled. Trade unions were obliterated, democracy, free thinking and all forms of protest eradicated.

 The stage was cleared for the Chicago school economic experiment which characterised the next 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship: state assets were sold to private investors, labour rights disappeared, poverty became endemic, Allende’s popular land redistribution was halted, rescinded and reversed.

 This was a plan two decades in gestation and the birth of what we now call neo-liberalism.

 So when your pay is frozen, or you lose your job because of ‘budget cuts’, your privatised utility bill goes up above inflation, or your privatised train carriage resembles a cattle truck, you know where this all started.

 And the lessons for the Left are essentially the same as they were four decades ago.

 A majority can be won for radical and progressive change; power is never ceded willingly by the powerful and wealthy; and rather than being temporary and abberant features, inequality and injustice are hard-wired into capitalism’s very essence. 

A world run for profit can never be just, never be equal and can never operate in humanity’s best interests: another world is not only possible but essential, if humanity is to avoid poisoning the biosphere and exhausting finite resources.

 As Salvador Allende said in his last broadcast: ‘History is ours, and people make history’

 PS Astute observers will have noted that overthrowing democratically elected governments is still going on. Ex-President Morsi of Egypt is languishing in a Cairo jail, having been ousted by the army in a blood-soaked coup with the tacit backing of the USA, UK and allies. Sound familiar?

Miliband shoots himself in the foot, while ‘Money for Nothing’ plays….

05 Sep

Those were the days....

Some chickens came home to roost with a vengeance yesterday, as the GMB’s General Secretary announced that the union would be reducing by the amount it pays to Labour in affiliation fees by over a million pounds.

Cue mock horror and outrage in the Tory press and New Labour dinosaurs, while those of us on Planet Normal shook our heads at an avoidable farce playing out, like a slow-motion car crash on ‘repeat’.

It is one of the iron laws of trade unionism that whenever possible you discuss, debate and agree before deciding.

Ed Miliband, either in ‘rabbit caught in headlight’ panic at being taunted in the Commons by Lord Snooty or in a misjudged ‘this will make me look strong’ manoeuvre, forgot this law: instead, he acted as if the complex organic relationship between Labour Party and affiliated unions was his (and only his) to decide on. Now he’s reaping the whirlwind.

I’m not going back over established territory: I believe the Union/Labour link is not only something to be proud of, but something which should be deliberately brought into public discussion.


It is the cleanest, most transparent funding arrangement in UK politics. It rests upon a very publicly stated assumption that the Labour Party is the electoral vehicle through which policies which benefit working people are most likely to happen. Nurses, shopworkers, Post Office workers, engineers, care workers and what are called ‘ordinary working people’ make up the unions involved.

Let’s hear see other side of that coin: just why do a few multi-millionaire hedge fund managers and tax dodgers back the Conservative Party?

The Union/Labour link is one that the UK’s ruling class fears, because it is a potential threat to their unconstrained power and hegemony. I stress ‘potential’.

Hence recurrent media propganda featuring smears about union militancy and personal attacks on elected socialist leaders like Len McCluskey and Paul Kenny.

And the current pressure on the Link is something the UK’s governing elite welcomes because it weakens Labour, plays to the Tory media’s agenda about ‘union barons bullying Miliband’ and detracts attention from the ongoing catastrophe neoliberal economics has brought to our doorstep.

But let’s not lose sight of what will remain unchanged.

An organisation like the so-called Taxpayers Alliance, for example, will be able to continue outrider work for the Right.

There will be no restriction on their funding, not only because they won’t reveal who funds them, but because they’re exempt for the Lobbying Bill.

The Taxpayers Alliance, a group set up by Tory and free market ideologues, continues to have both its’ origins and politics ignored and glossed over by the BBC – as it did this week when these wing-nuts were saying unemployed people should work 30 unpaid hours a week.

No chance of the TPA being called a ‘right wing pressure group’ on our ever-so-impartial BBC…..

And other ‘soft’ political funding is also untouched.

No awkward questions or funding restrictions on Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, the Barclay Brothers or Viscount Rothermere as their newspapers and TV channels campaign relentlessly for the Conservative Party.

Make no mistake, what we are witnessing here is seismic.

Despite widespread criminality, hacking, data theft and corruption, the Tory press escapes with a ’Get Out of Jail Free’ card after Leveson. The BBC runs scared of the Right and the political counterweight (such as it is) in the shape of union funding for Labour is corroded and possibly destroyed by a mixture of fear, naivity and political stupidity.

It would bring tears to a glass eye.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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