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Science, People & Politics

Science, People and Politics, issue 4, Volume ii,Volume I, published 4.11.07. Final posting including minor modifications made to clarify meaning made 11.39 gmt, 4.11.07.

A VIEW FROM THE SELF DECLARED LEFT OF BRITISH POLITICS

By Helen Gavaghan

A report of an open political meeting addressed by: former Labour MP, Alice Mahon; aspiring Labour party leader, John McDonnell MP; and MP for Halifax, Linda Riordan (Labour). Organised by Labour party activist, Susan Press.

Including an exclusive interview with Alice Mahon, Labour party member for 50 years and long-time peace activist, who has called for a Public Inquiry into the Iraq War.

Interspersed with a review of John McDonnell's analysis of how 21st Century socialism might develop. His pamphlet, "Another World is Possible, a Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism," is available from his website, and published by the Labour Representation Committee.

Price £2.50 including post and packaging.
ISBN: 978-0-9555771-0-9.


In the darkened shabby upstairs room of the Trades Club of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon not too long ago an activist group from northern Labour Party constituencies and interested observers assembled. Alice Mahon, pro choice, hard left, champion of the worker and opponent of the Iraq war sat at one end of the platform. Next to her Linda Riordan (Labour), Mahon's successor as MP for Halifax. What is the old saw: may god preserve us from Hell, Hull and Halifax? The guillotine still stands rusting and depressing in Gibbet Street near the Town's centre of Mahon's old constituency.

Fresh from the Labour Party Conference, meeting organiser, Susan Press, was energetic and enthusiastic. One could not escape the view that she was still in Bournemouth, still treasuring her earned interview by the BBC. She is chair also of the local branch of the National Union Journalists* and - whisper this softly, because it is still a secret - rumoured to be interested in seeking selection to challenge Christine McCafferty (Labour), the current MP for the Calder Valley.

Former local council candidate, Janet Oosthuysen, who is a member (elected) of the Hebden Royd Town Council, is also rumoured to be shaping up for a challenge. She was at the meeting, with loss of her effort to win a Local Council ward in her not too distant past, but about to seek selection as Labour candidate for the Calder Ward of Calderdale Council. She is not prepared to comment on nor deny rumours of her interest in running for Labour for the Calder Valley parliamentary seat. No vacancy, she says.

No vacancy, no comment, no denial was Press's response also when Science, People & Politics asked about the rumour that she might seek selection, and she was less than happy to have been smoked out as a rumoured contender for selection.

All are waiting to see what the sitting MP, Christine McCafferty*, will do. She has said she would not run again but now might have changed her mind. She was invited to the meeting for the launch of a new local branch of the Labour Representation Committee, but, says Press, sent her apologies for absence and good wishes for the meeting.

Here we have an exemplification of politics the world over, encapsulated in a small Valley in the North of England. In this case practiced within the democratic system.

At the other end of the platform sat the man for whom all were assembled - John McDonnell MP. He is chair of the national Labour Representation Committee. This is a Labour Party affiliate, like Co-op, a group to which Riordan belongs. The Labour Representation Committee is a group trying, to paraphrase one of McDonnell's close political associates, to arrest the decline in Party membership and to loosen what many see as the stranglehold that the Party leadership has on policy making. At least that is what I think I was being told, but perhaps there is also the subtext of exploring socialism itself and querying whether many thinking of themselves as socialists are still actually Labour. If there is to be an election they need to know. Are the Labour Party in the UK and socialism still synonyms or did New Labour break that link in its quest to take its turn in power after 17 years in opposition? "I don't know what the Labour Party does stand for anymore," said Mahon, in an exclusive follow-up interview with Science, People & Politics.

Yet if the leadership did not have a stranglehold on policy then the Party ought to be worried. The Labour leadership, currently confined in government, is still - as is its duty - implementing the policies, via the civil service, on which it was elected to government and focussing on responses to World events and others.

But if Mahon, Riordan, Press and McDonnell are correct then there is now a disconnect between the Labour leadership and the membership.

Time has moved on, and government and strategic party political policy making do not make good bedfellows. The leadership is in government, so not best placed for developing new policies that are fundamentally different from those it developed and campaigned fiercely for. But if the leadership cannot hear the grass roots' desire to remake policy for the future, then government itself could, in the form of the Labour Party leadership, be unwittingly and unintentionally interfering in the proper evolution of the democratic process.

All of the speakers from the platform at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club were quite clear about their annoyance at being excluded from policy making during the Labour Party Conference. What I could not figure out was whether the closing down from the leadership of resolutions from those characterising themselves as from the left was experienced by others also not from the left and not in the leadership's inner circle, or whether the leadership had deliberately targeted the left and engineered provocation with the intent of kick starting a grass roots'debate with a douse of real politik, or whether the Leaders really had become Committee axmen. If so perhaps all along Brown was aiming to open a pre election space for manifesto development. This latter interpretation would fit with my apprehension of what the Blair-Brown strategic axis is capable of. What else might they have had in mind? When I asked Mahon her view she thought the leadership was simply stamping on debate with which it did not agree.

Hence the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), not a new entity, and its current task -- I loath the words mission statement -- of trying to give fresh voice to socialism. Are the LRC being engineered by the Labour leaders or are they challenging the leaders? Redemocratisation or manipulation? "I'm at the point," says Mahon, "of wondering what the Labour Party does stand for."

McDonnell's pamphlet offers one vision. But he did not make it to the list of challengers for the role of Labour party leader this last time, when Gordon Brown won. 29 MPs backed him. He would have needed 45 to make the challenge and to get his message heard in a national debate about Tony Blair's successor as leader of the Labour Party.

But he is still putting out his message, seeking to reach beyond his constituency of Hayes and Harlington. After Hebden Bridge he was en route to Scotland, carrying with him his still hopeful message of a resurgent left.

Hope springs eternal, wrote Alexander Pope.

It needs to, and the near tears and tight face of Alice Mahon when she spoke of Iraq made the point. Hope is needed both in Iraq and in the UK.

In stentorian tones for the modestly sized room Brian Caton, whose prison officer trade union members had only weeks earlier sought to swell the prisoners' ranks with their law-breaking strike over pay and conditions told of 220 per cent and 240 per cent over crowding in some of the Nations' prisons.

Caton did not speak to the meeting for long. This was not a Trades' Union rally, but an afternoon for Constituency Labour Party chairs and officials and the interested general public from around West Yorkshire, some even from as far afield as Leeds and Manchester. These activists were attentive to Caton, but had their own agendas. The high table was annoyed, so I do not know how closely the organisers listened - either to Caton or the activists. Press and Riordan were still exercised by the Labour Party leadership's exclusion of the resolutions they supported, a leadership, which and who, some on the left of the Labour Party, thinks and feels deeply - if this meeting was typical - is not listening to them.

Mahon was not at the 2007 Labour Party Conference. After 50 years in the Party the Iraq War had pushed her to a place where she chose to abandon her plans to run in the election of 2005. Had she run again she thinks she might even have left the Party. A difficult step for someone brought up on Labour Party politics, but comprehensible in the aftermath of what to her is an incomprehensible War, and to be expected from a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and of the British Legion. The dead are coming home, and Mahon thinks the country has broken its commitment to the Armed Forces and to the wounded in mind and body.

In the end, rather than leave the Party, she threw herself into the intricacies of the selection process for her successor, wanting to see a replacement from the Labour left. Skullduggery against Riordan, says Mahon, and a letter from Mahon's son, a barrister, paved the way to Riordan's selection.

So what does the left think? Is there even a united body that is the left? No, says Ian Gibson MP, Labour MP for Norwich North. There are the Fabians and Co-op and the Campaign group, "in which I would place the Labour Representation Committee. There is something attractive in each of them," he says.

So McDonnell's manifesto is one slice only from the left of the Labour Party and gives current and prospective MPs a chance to decide whether they want him as their spokesperson.

Overwhelmingly he expresses disappointment with the Labour government of Tony Blair. "Everything New Labour does revolves around bringing the ideas and practices of the market economy into everyday life - in health care, education, housing, transport, care for older people and even the fight against climate change." It is an approach that he holds responsible for alienating many of the voters who swept Labour into power in 1997.

After 10 years in government, some attrition in voter support is inevitable and only another general election would show whether the British people are as disenchanted with Labour as McDonnell thinks. In the meantime there were murmurs of annoyance from Mahon, Press and Riordan that Gordon Brown had not called an election. Much of the support offered to the leadership at the conference came, says Mahon, because delegates had thought that he would go to the Country. "I thought he would mention it in his speech," says Gibson, "and I'm sure he thought about it."

But Gordon Brown did not go to the country.

So will McDonnell gear up for another leadership challenge before the next election or will he shoot for a place in a Brown cabinet? If he does his anger with Tony Blair's prime ministership is also with the globalisation of the past thirty years, and with trans national political structures - regional, as in European, or global, as in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The WTO is a body over which he perceives that people have no control. Yet look at what the Fair Trade movement has accomplished, with the goodwill of Gordon Brown.

"Thanks to deregulation," writes McDonnell, "capital is free to seek the maximum return by moving from one country to another." Yes. I am not sure though what McDonnell thinks ought to be done about that. Money is a product: paper and coins manufactured to reflect what the producing country assesses is the Country's solid wealth. Mix the money from many sources via conversion to a stable reserve currency such as dollars and you have a commodity. From there buy shares, or another mix of currencies, or buy some derivative financial product, such as debts for long term stable recovery of investment, or mathematical constructs for notional hedging against currency fluctuations within error bars, and hope your maths, statistics and analysis are very good indeed. Let the money move to where it can do work that enables the owners of the money to charge for the work it does (interest) and make a profit on the money. That is what McDonnell is talking about.

At some stage in its travels around the world, accumulating wealth through interest for the moneys' owners, it also sometimes pays wages and buy goods and service and even pays for mining, say, or other concrete tasks that create the underpinning wealth of a nation or corporation and enables the money itself to be manufactured. OK, Mr McDonnell, what rules ought to govern this process? How does one stimulate the economy of Burundi or Benin? How much is charged for the use of money, and at what point must government or the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund intervene, and when must one nation stop renting out money and when ought a nation or a commercial grouping to invest rather than rent? The manifesto would have been stronger had it been a little more forthcoming on these points.

Trans National Corporations also worry him. He says they are unaccountable and greedy. He is wrong about the lack of accountability, and surely there is a much much more interesting set of debates to be held about corporate profit than he has yet expounded. Corporations are generally thought to have short term views and goals. They do, but they also must have very, very long term goals. How ought governments and parliaments to write their Company Law to have applicability to different stages in their growth? Malaysia is still working with Company Law similar to Britain's of the 1950s. If Malaysia thinks that is ok, then that is OK. How within his foreign policy would McDonnell think that Britain ought to govern its trade relationships, taking account of Company Laws, and national and regional trading policies? His general view for corporations is to suggest, "co-operative based models aimed at the democratisation of the power and resources of the Trans National Corporations?". Would that discourage private companies going public, or discourage growth, or prevent the formation of Trans National Corporations all together, and was that his intention? In which case his next manifesto needs to say so, and why and how he has reached such conclusions. Would an extra layer of sub Trans National Corporations provide a step up the corporate ladder that is easier for less wealthy nations to ascend? Would the UK 2006 Companies Act need ripping up, or would he need another separate and supplementary Act that would integrate what exists now with where he would like to go. Perhaps no new legislation is needed and Gordon Brown has already given him the practical tool he would need by reconstituting the Department of Trade and Industry as the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

As for the truly global behemoths, well I think he is creating a bogey man more fearsome in his imagination that in reality. And bogey men can frighten people when actually people need to tame them. In the UK or US and in other countries, Companies are heavily regulated, vulnerable to legal challenges and oversight, subject to audit (great care needed here by those charged with oversight), both before and after submitting their accounts and to local health and safety and employment legislation. Be they never so grand, the most powerful of multi-nationals all have a root or tentacle in a litigious political system somewhere on Earth that allows concerned citizens access to the entrails of the body corporate. Citizen power via lobbies and the law. It does not matter whether you have a minimum wage or are unemployed, or an illegal immigrant, are a prisoner or accused of crime, a judge or a Prince. You cannot live on the Earth - at least in the UK - without paying tax of some kind, and thus you have a relationship with the State in which you live and with the Corporations that exist in total or in part in them if they, like the UK or US, have strong civil and company law. Via law you have the power to call a multi-national to account if it does you wrong. You can write to their Company Secretary and raise your concerns. A formidable responsibility and power that empowers every citizen in the UK, and one to be used sparingly and preferably in co-operation with others who share a similar worry. So McDonnell does his readers a disservice when he emphasizes vulnerability, highlights powerlessness and uses the shorthand critique of criticising the pay of executives rather than taking down and reading the Company Law, with all its protections and complexities, and which he probably had a hand in writing.

Is McDonnell missing a trick or two by working within a well worn groove of concatenated rhetoric? Yes. And it is depressing. By exaggerating his views, talking up the disempowerment of the citizen, conflating arguments and falling victim to his own admittedly rather nice sound bites - plundering the planet for profit has, for example, the ring of a powerful campaign - he is in danger of burying some of his own good ideas.

Plundering the Planet for Profit: a sound bite with potential. If that is his conscious intention then it needs more support than the climate change argument alone. What of whaling, sea-bed mining, Antarctic exploration with an aim to mineral extraction, biopiracy? He could write a new chapter with overwhelming substance stretching tentacles into international treaties and conventions and multinationals. What might he have written about commercial sea-bed mining for gold in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, for example. When on 27th November Nautilus Inc., which is afloat, to coin a phrase, on that venture, gets up that morning and places 8 000 shares - all things being equal - on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) and Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) will he be buying or will he be calling for environmental impact studies to be applied internationally in a rigorous manner to all such ventures? And if he does make such a call will he still disparage intergovernmental organisations?

Instead of traducing the WTO McDonnell could have written a briefing paper about how to secure British aims within that organisation; supply chains, raw material sourcing, profits, jobs, tax, national interests, and all compatible with an ethical foreign policy. The "ya boo sucks" political arguments which he came perilously close to, and which I have the occasional bad habit of descending to in personal pub discussions, would ill become a candidate for leadership who needs a deep grasp of how his officials, were he to become prime minister, advance slowly and painstakingly, side by side with other national officials, trying to interpret their masters' voices, exercising diplomacy with every word they say. And my irritation is that I do not think he can be ignorant in that way because he has been a councillor for the Greater London Council, and must know the need for subtlety, negotiation and co-operation among competing political views.

Once one gets past his introductory barrage of disappointment with Blair's government, one then finds McDonnell's specific ideas, some new and others which are familiar planks of the Labour left's traditional platform. These include unilateral nuclear disarmament, cancellation of the Trident replacement, no war without UN Resolutions. These are familiar, policies of old Labour, but also of other groups.

Problem: the call for unilateral nuclear disarmament contributed to keeping Labour out of power for nearly two decades. Have times changed? Might the time now be right for a call for unilateral nuclear disarmament to be argued and voted on as a matter of personal conscience? Possibly, but it would take a lot of cross Party co-operation, says Gibson. Certain issues: the rules on abortion (and shame on the Conservatives if Alice Mahon is correct in telling me that she nearly lost her seat in 1992 because the special interest group - the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child - made common cause with the Conservatives); abolition of the death penalty; and fox hunting can only be fully explored if the passion they invoke is damped down to allow complex interwoven arguments of increasing knowledge and awareness of morality, pain, and science to emerge. Party politics is for the governance of a consenting eligible electorate; matters of conscience extend beyond that remit. If the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which was the legitimating argument for global peacekeeping via nuclear weapons and non proliferation treaties and trade restrictions, has become obsolete in today's world of science then McDonnell might have a point, but he might better represent his party's interests by modifying his manifesto to take unilateral nuclear disarmament out of the party political debate.

Other familiar views include reversing the trend to public-private partnerships, particularly in health care. The profit motive, he argues, needs fully removing from the health service.

He also has some anti-populist views on criminal justice that run contrary to public opinion and trends, but which are views with which I have enormous sympathy. It is outrageous that Britain has laws enabling detention for 28 days and it astonishing to me that someone like Gibson would have viewed detention for 90 days as even remotely acceptable. CCTV coverage wherever you look: I am sure this was not on his mind, but you had better not be having an affair or go 5 mph above the speed limit in sight of someone determined to apply a citizen's zero tolerance to the running of society.

More serious is the criminalisation of the young. I know I stole a Mars bar as a little girl and was sufficiently mortified within my own conscience without the need for the shop keeper applying for an ASBO. And if youths are causing a problem why are they causing a problem? What happened to "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"? That was a sound bite with campaigning potential, that could again become policy in a "joined up government". What is your view, Mr McDonnell, did New Labour accomplish joined up government, and if so, in which areas?

There should indeed be equal access and help in accessing both civil and criminal law. I am here to tell him that this aim is worthy and is going to be hugely difficult. I heard one judge say, "It's not that hard to find a solicitor." Yes, your honour. It is. For twenty years I did not think so, but when the going gets tough; yes, it is difficult.

So I hope that behind the disappointment in his manifesto there is a keen intellect able to tease apart the subtlety of government at local, national, regional and international level and that he is gearing up for another leadership challenge that gets more ideas and specifics on the table for debate.

Probably in this manifesto McDonnell is at least in part knowingly assuming the role of mouthpiece for the left. But a filibuster from the Socialist Workers Party (and the SWP were cross with me for the way I "spoke to John" when asking questions on behalf of Science, People & Politics) during the afternoon said to me as listener that the far left, not only the high table, is feeling disgruntled. Exclusion of any group in society is a very, very bad idea. McDonnell calls his manifesto, "Another World is Possible." Say rather that another World is inevitable. Now in the dog days of parliament - granted by Gordon Brown - is the time when constituencies, candidates and the people jockey for position and seek to have their voices heard. These are the days when democracy calls in the structural engineers and checks the foundations.

*Declaration of interest. Though I have no current plans to seek to run as an Independent candidate for the UK Parliament, and there are circumstances currently precluding such a move, I am known to have spoken privately in the US with friends in publishing and law enforcement of an interest in doing so, and I do not rule out that one day I might turn my interest into reality. I am also a member of the same local branch of the National Union of Journalists that Press chairs.

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