Are you now, or have you ever been…..?

With apologies, I reproduce, with very small substitutions and some irrelevant ommisions, part of a piece written by the late, great, American author and playwright Arthur MIller.  He was writing about the hysteria of the 1950s and the anti-Communist witch-hunting of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph Macarthy. For the purposes only of clarity I highlight those words that I have changed.

“I refer to the anti-Islamic rage that threatened to reach hysterical proportions and sometimes did. I can’t remember anyone calling it an ideological war, but I think now that that is what it amounted to. I suppose we rapidly passed over anything like a discussion or debate, and into something quite different, a hunt not just for subversive people, but for ideas and even a suspect language. The object was to destroy the least credibility of any and all ideas associated with Islam, whose proponents were assumed to be either knowing or unwitting agents of radical Islam.

An ideological war is like guerrilla war, since the enemy is an idea whose proponents are not in uniform but are disguised as ordinary citizens, a situation that can scare a lot of people to death. To call the atmosphere paranoid is not to say that there was nothing real in the American-Islamist stand-off. But if there was one element that lent the conflict a tone of the inauthentic and the invented, it was the swiftness with which all values were forced in months to reverse themselves.

In two years or less, with a picture finished, I was asked by a terrified Columbia to sign an anti-Islamist declaration to ward off picket lines which the rightwing American Legion was threatening to throw across the entrances of theatres showing the film. In the phone calls that followed, the air of panic was heavy. It was the first intimation of what would soon follow. I declined to make any such statement, which I found demeaning; what right had any organisation to demand anyone’s pledge of loyalty? I was sure the whole thing would soon go away; it was just too outrageous.

In 1948-51, I had the sensation of being trapped inside a perverse work of art, one of those Escher constructs in which it is impossible to make out whether a stairway is going up or down. Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Muslims, some were fellow-travellers, and most had had a brush with Islamic ideas or organisations. I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations. The surreality of it all never left me. We were living in an art form, a metaphor that had suddenly, incredibly, gripped the country.”

Miller was, of course talking about the way in which a paranoic cold-war America, terrified of Communism, bore down on anything which could remotely be described as politically ‘left’.  When the people doing the describing were far to the right, it wasn’t hard to find candidates to haul into court.  Hangers on to this twisted ideology used it to ruin the lives of many who were in other “un-American” or aberrant groups, like Gays, Blacks, Jews and so on.  People went to prison. Some died.  Old scores were settled.

In Britain we could easily substitute, wholesale, the word “Immigrant” but I can’t help wondering whether, should Donald Trump be elected President of the United States, we shall see the return of a 21st century version of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the USA?  Will we once again hear a phrase like “Are you now, or have you ever been…?” read out in open court?  Then it was “a Communist”; in 2017 it might be “a Muslim”.  Far fetched? I don’t know.  Chilling?  Certainly.

Postscript.  Now that Donald Trump has actually been elected my final paragraph has even more chilling resonance.

The Labour Leadership and When will the next General Election be?

I have blogged quite a lot about how the new Conservative (Tory) Party leadership would take the earliest opportunity, presented by a disorganised and fractured Labour Party, to call an early election.  I have been much exercised by the thought that Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour Party, would be bounced into an early election they were ill-equipped to fight.  Mea culpa – I had failed to check my information.

Apparently it is still possible, but unlikely.  Here is why.  Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, a General Election could happen any time.  A Prime Minister could call a general election at any time within the five year period and not all Parliaments lasted the full five years.  Before 2011 a general election could be called earlier for a number of reasons. For example, the Prime Minister could decide to call an election at a time when he or she was most confident of winning the election or if a government was defeated on a confidence motion, a general election could follow.  The 2011 Act changed all that.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years.  The date of the last general election was 7 May 2015 so the next one would normally be on the first Thursday of May 2020.

However, there are two provisions that could trigger an election sooner:

  • if a motion of no confidence is passed in Her Majesty’s Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed
  • a motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats (currently 434 out of 650)

In the context of an, as yet, unresolved BREXIT it is possible that Parliament will have to debate, and decide on, the negotiation to disentangle the UK from the EU.  That might easily trigger an election under either of these two provisions.  The Conservatives have quite a slender majority in Parliament.  It is possible that this majority could erode to the point where there is a minority government that consistently fails to get measures endorsed, and this might lead to an election under the second of the two provisions – although HM The Queen would first have to offer an opportunity to another grouping to form a government without an election first.

So, I admit to having to reconsider.  There actually may be time for the Labour Party to get itself together, even behind Jeremy Corbyn, in time to win the next election.  My concern remains that whoever wins the Leadership election in August 2016, a sizeable part of the party (those supporting the loser) will be disappointed and remain fractious, rebellious, .  Internal divisions may continue.  That must not happen.  It is absolutely vital that the party membership, and its Parliamentary representation, comes together to support whoever is leader – or it faces a generational period in the political wilderness.



Alternative Economics…a Random Thought!

I have a totally mad idea for repairing our economy, and threadbare national life, and I’m struggling to find much of a downside.

The government should give £5 million to every person of working age in Britain. Working age would be defined as between 23 (say leaving university age) and a new, lower, retiring age of 60.

The government can afford it now, after all it’s less than a couple of week’s UK “contribution” to the EU.  Those who hate their jobs will be able to give up, and do something more satisfying, or more creative, or nothing at all.  Jobs will be filled by people who want to do them.  Migrants will find plenty of space, because large numbers of people will simply go and live somewhere nice and warm, and the people still here will be able to employ them with a decent wage.

The massive increase in personal spending power will also stimulate the economy.  For example people will build or buy better houses, opening up the bottom of the property market as ‘upcyclers’ dump houses.  The banks and investment ‘industries’ would thrive.  There’d be less crime, because most criminals would already have more money than they’d know what to do with, and the police could concentrate on organised crime.  No need for any benefits at all ‘cos we’d all be rolling in it.  Tax take would need to be maintained, of course, to buy nuclear submarines etc., but if we are all multi-millionnaires VAT could be increased to 35% and nobody would really notice.  Those who have always enjoyed a life based on privilege and unearned income would be unhappy, but they can just sod off or start consultancies to advise what to do with our money; the nouveau riche would have more people to play with.

Now then.  I’ve had another lateral thought which, at a stroke (no pun intended), would free up bed blocking in hospitals, solve our underprovision in care home places, revive the steel and shipbuilding industries and cut off the exponential increase in funeral costs.  Well, not literally at a stroke – but relatively.  Instead of care homes, and cottage hospitals (those that still exist) full of recuperating geriatrics, we send them all off on a permanent cruise.  Move the whole lot “offshore” into a low, or no, tax, regime.  As I understand it, places on cruises can work out substantially cheaper than places in care homes.  Cruises have unlimited good food, on-board doctors and entertainment – all more than can be provided in “Halcyon Days” up the road.  Some canny geriatrics (especially in America) have already cottoned on to this and live the proverbial life of Riley swanning all over the world year round.  Permanent  ‘guests’ would be able to have their loved ones visit them “on holiday” and, if worst comes to the worst, a burial at sea is definitely more economical (and ecological) than a cremation or a burial on land.  We’d have to build a few more ships, and staff them, but that’s a bonus for the economy too and the billions saved out of the welfare budget would probably cover the cost anyway.  We could even have fully equipped hospital ships!  I’m putting my name down.

The Fractured State of British Politics

Dangerous times. The British political system is in a state of flux.  There is a power vacuum, and therefore a power struggle, in both major political parties in the UK and therefore at the heart of governance.  There is one notable exception, The Scottish National Party, but I’ll bring them in later in this post.  However, before launching into the ‘meat’ of this post, I need to create a context for it.

Following the shock (not to me – see previous posts) referendum vote to leave the EU (Brexit), the Conservatives (Tories) broke apart.  The Prime Minister, who himself won an unexpected (not to me – see previous posts) outright victory in a general election only the year before, resigned.  The people most likely to succeed him either withdrew from the contest, or were mutually politically “assassinated” by rivals.  We now face the certainty of a female Prime Minister, as Theresa May is now the only contender.  She is an old-school right-wing Tory and we  should be afraid.

Nigel Farage, leader of The UK Independence Party (UKIP), also resigned – although I don’t think he’ll disappear entirely from right-wing politics as pressure from him, and Tories who agreed with him, was the cause of the Brexit referendum in the first place.  Power and influence can be a very addictive thing.

Meanwhile, also on the back of the Brexit vote, the Labour Party is similarly engaged in internecine “assassination” of almost Ceasarean proportions. The right-wing (Blairite / New Labour) of the party has the knives out for their leader, Jeremy Corbyn.  This coup has been brewing for a while: Corbyn, a long-time left-wing backbencher, was unexpectedly elected a year ago, in the face of opposition from the New Labourite wing, because of mass support from the ordinary membership.  Ever since they have tried to unseat him, frequently leaving Corbyn “out to dry” when, inexperienced and honest as he is, he repeatedly fell into political traps left by his rivals and the supporters of the Tory party.  They expected he would lead the party into defeat at interim local and parliamentary by-elections, but this didn’t happen: the party actually performed better.  Membership continued to grow and the knives had to be re-sheathed.  Then Brexit happened.  Corbyn was widely perceived to be, at best, equivocal in support for remaining in the EU and his rivals have sought to blame him for failure to win.  This is risible, as the Tories failed to mobilise their own pro-EU vote, but it is true that Jeremy Corbyn does not believe in the EU and it showed.

He has, so far, resisted a clamour for his head on a spike, orchestrated by adherents to the New Labour project and a right-wing media.  They choreographed a sequential resignation of his shadow cabinet and then a vote of ‘no confidence’ from the parliamentary party (PLP) which Corbyn massively lost.  In response Corbyn promoted others in place of those that had resigned, but leaving the inevitable impression that this was the “second team” – otherwise why weren’t they already in post?  It doesn’t look anything like a government in waiting.  Now a former member of his shadow cabinet, Angela Eagle, has declared she is formally challenging him (without any constitutional basis) and others are trying to stop Corbyn from even defending himself in a ballot because of the ‘no confidence’ vote of the PLP.  I don’t believe, if it comes to a ballot, that Angela Eagle will eventually stand in a final one-to-one contest: I think she is a ‘stalking horse’ and someone else (perhaps Ben Bradshaw?) will emerge from preliminary voting as a compromise anti-Corbyn ‘unity’ candidate.  If Corbyn is ousted we will see something close to civil war in the Labour Party, when his hundreds of thousands of supporting members react.

And so, to the substance of this post.  I am a (more-or-less) life-long Labour voter.  My family before me were the same, and actively so.  I’ve done my share of voting, stuffing envelopes, protesting, lying down in the road, writing letters to the media and attending meetings.  I say “more-or-less” because, when living in Scotland, and disillousioned by the rightward drift of the New Labour movement, I joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) which seemed to offer a more radical, left-leaning, vision at the ballot box.  Since returning to live in England that is no longer relevant and I re-joined the Labour Party, specifically to support Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for leader of the party.  Over the past few months I have become increasingly concerned by Corbyn’s apparent ineptitude, or perhaps more correctly inability, presenting a credible and authoratitive figure in public.  I say “apparent” because I have never heard him speak in public.  Those that have say he is engaging and inspirational, and I am all too aware of how a media image can be deliberately distorted.  Nevertheless I find myself, uncomfortably, aligned with his assassins, but for completely different reasons.  Unlike them I want him to succeed.  I see what he is trying to do and think his diifferent way of conducting politics, and viewing economics, is not only worthwhile but necessary.  However, from my long experience of British politics, I fear that he cannot re-shape the Labour Party in time to lead it to victory in a looming General election.  In the context of Brexit, with a new Tory leadership emerging and disarray in the Labour ranks, a General Election is almost certain before 2020 (when the next one must beheld) and one which I predict Labour will lose heavily.  If this happens it will consign the people it seeks to represent to an irreversible demolition of all that has been won by the Labour movement since 1948: the welfare state, the NHS, univeral free education, civil and workers rights etc., etc.  And this is why I feel this way:

Last week I attended a Labour party meeting, a Branch meeting of my Constituency party (in Devon).  It was well attended too, with over 20 people crammed into the living room of a former (and perhaps future) Labour candidate.  There were only 2 agenda items.  The one most had come to discuss was the “Corbyn Situation”.  The vast majority were supporters of Corbyn and spoke of the coup, and the need to support (and express support for) him.  There was a lot of talk about what he had achieved, and dismissive criticism of those who query Corbyn’s “lack of charisma”  and his ability to lead.  There was a lot of “I think that…” and “I believe most people…” without any balancing recognition that a) we move in a restricted circle and b) we are all committed Labour (or left-politics) voters.  We (or rather they) had blinkers on.  The issue, for me, is not about “charisma” but about his lack of ability to do basic things like read from notes without falling over the words.  Corbyn is not comfortable with media, with the attention of the camera, with hostile interviewers: all things that are prerequisite in 21st Century political life.  In his efforts to be “fair and decent”, he repeatedly leaves himself exposed to the political man traps of his enemies.  His performance at the dispatch box, especially in the televised weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), comes across as weak.  Because he is steady in pursuing his own agenda, and calm style, he appears incapable of exploiting opportunities to score points that arise in the cut and thrust of debate.  The sound-bite delivery of news by the media feeds off that.  We may wish it were not true, may want life to be more “reasoned”, but it isn’t.  We may want our leaders to put forward detailed policies, but most voters can’t (or aren’t interested enough to) read past the headlines or the bullet points of a summary.  There was no recognition that the electorate had just voted us out of the EU largely on the basis of political ignorance, and had previously voted in a Tory government.  It is those people that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party must convince: the people who get their information from the tabloid press and a skewed media, not the already convinced.

At the meeting there seemed no understanding that “splitting” is what the Labour movement does, has always done.  There was talk about forming ‘left’ electoral alliances, especially with the Green Party.  The Green Party has one MP.  Nobody mentioned the SNP, with 56 MPs, without whose support some of the reverses claimed to have been inflicted by the Labour oppostion would never have been achieved.  Does  anyone remember the “gang of four” forming the SDLP?   On the back of the election of Margaret Thatcher, four very senior, but centrist, Labour politicians left when the party committed itself to leaving the EEC (which became the EU) and unilateral nuclear disarmament.  One of them, Roy Jenkins, had been president of the European Commission!   They formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which eventually became the Liberal Democrats.  The Labour party was out of government for 20 years.  Maybe the Labour Party will split again, maybe needs to do it, but the consequence will be a generation of unfettered Tory rule. The branch meeting never quite got to howling down dissent, although it got uncomfortably close with the chair allowing multiple interjections when contrary views were being expressed.  I left with a sinking feeling of deja vu, and the image of the “Monty Python – Life of Brian” meeting of the Popular Judean People’s Front.  Splitters!