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{early, un-edited version of my next Forest of Dean Clarion magazine article}

Where Conrad journeyed into a Heart of Darkness, in September a friend and I took an excursion into sadness. Together we embarked on a foray into what might have been and what was betrayed: we went looking for the GDR/DDR in modern Berlin.

The GDR could have been an example of socialism but became instead a state racked by paranoia, a state of 90,000 Stasi agents and 175,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informers).

But I still believed in the possibility. That, at an everyday level there were elements of East German socialism which hinted at socialism as it might have been. After all, it is a fine line between Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) and gawping at the worst of Totalitarianism. Was the GDR a workers paradise or a Stasi Hell?

Like many such binary questions, the answer is probably somewhere in between, a plurality of truths and realities. And that certainly was my experience. Nowhere was this more apparent than standing on the platform of the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.

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This free memorial gives an overview in words and pictures of the construction and division created by the Wall but, most strikingly, it allows you to climb to a platform to overlook a snapshot of the wall, death-strip and watch-tower exactly as it was. Un-touched, graffiti-free this living memorial is a stark symbol of the worst of the GDR’s predicament. A symbol of a state struggling with losing its workforce to the West, paranoid in its inability to keep control of its own citizens’ faith in socialism, all set against the best as in the background towers over all of Berlin the remarkable landmark of the East – the incredible Fernsehturm – or TV Tower as it is known in the West. Nearly all my guides placed the TV Tower as the most important thing to visit when in Berlin, but it is one of the very few symbols of the former East.

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Too bad then, that it is now little more than a London Eye-style novelty. Constructed in the mid-to-late 1960’s it was the beacon of socialist achievement. Its lift doors open at bar and restaurant level to look out along the avenue of in front of the Brandenburg Tor (gate) – the Strasse Des 17 Juni – the symbolic avenue from the West to the centre of Berlin. And there’s nothing in the Western skyline that comes even close to matching the achievement of the TV Tower: socialism reigns supreme. And yet as I drank a Berliner Wasse with the traditional cherry juice I felt this wasn’t the East Germany as the workers knew it. Moreover today, despite its setting in Alexanderplatz the TV Towers feels almost disconnected from the GDR. And what’s more, the tourists around me didn’t seem to care about its history – the old symbol was now just a spectacle.

We stayed in the OSTEL Das DDR Design Hostel just off Paris Commune Strasse in the old East, not far from the East-Side Gallery (a long strip of the wall given over to graffiti art). SS851926

No TV, no mod-cons, just a basic 1970’s-era recreation of the GDR in each room. A portrait of Cabinet Minister Horst Sindermann keeps a watchful eye as you check-in at reception, complete with a TV playing a loop of GDR speeches and news. SS851974 SS851823The furnishings and wall-papering of each room are GDR-era and it lends a space for contemplative reflection, of simplicity and scarcity, of sacrifice and suppression, of hope and ideals. The rooms are cheap and the place unique, friendly, spare but touching if you like your travel with a sense of history and place. On the day we drove out into the country in our hired Trabant, the OSTEL provided a brown paper bag lunch at only €5 adorned with their own ‘Guten Appetit!’ label.

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On the opposite side of our OSTEL’s citrus-fruit coloured building is the Volksammer (Das Design Restaurant), with the familiar GDR emblem emblazoned everywhere. A huge painting of Der Palast der Republik (my favourite building of the GDR – sadly now demolished) nestled alongside the TV tower and red flags adorns the length of one wall, and the menu is authentic GDR era cuisine. Much of which reminded me of school dinners or the food my mum made me as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Except for more fish, more pickled vegetables and, thankfully, more beer. The restaurant was a perfect partner for the OSTEL.

Another ‘Ostalgie Resturant’ is the Käsekönig just off Alexanderplatz (on Panoramastr.1), but the service here wasn’t quite as friendly and sitting outside on the street was a mistake as the weather turned. Neither could it boast the authentic furnishings and ornaments of the Volksammer, but the menu seemed more than appropriate. If you can’t stomach the food of 3 decades ago, don’t worry, one certainly won’t go hungry in Berlin – there’s an abundance of foreign restaurants.

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With so much to do and see, more to write about than we have space here, I offer my essential things to do in Berlin if, like me, you want to sense its history, all within walking distance of each other, especially when based at the OSTEL.

SS851866(FREE) Visit the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe 2 minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, along Eberstrasse. Not only is this a moving experience (especially the poignancy of the Reichstag in view), but also it is an incredible piece of immersive sculpture. On the way you can also pay your respects to the homosexuals and gays murdered and persecuted by the Nazis (pretty much opposite), and nearer the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Sinti & Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nazi regime.SS851869SS851979

(FREE) Visit Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation centre along Bernauer Strasse; the story of Bernauer Strasse deserves an article of its own, and you can easily spend half a day immersed into the tragedy of the Wall here (do this over a visit to the East Side Gallery as that just lacks a sense of the everyday division)

SS851953Visit the Stasi Museum in the former HQ just off Ruschestrasse – highly detailed and a place of history in itself

SS851879(FREE) Visit the excellent Topography of Terror exhibition which documents the Gestapo and SS main offices, along with another intact Wall section

Stay at the OSTEL DDR Design Hostel

Eat at the Volksammer (Stasse der Paris Kommune 18b)

SS851873(FREE) Spit on the ground at the spot where Hitler spent his final hours (about 2mins walk from the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) – his bunker will be under your feet (deservedly just a parking lot, a small green space where dogs fittingly defecate)

(FREE) Marvel at the scale of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, and the two Soviet T34 tanks and consider their victory over Nazism

SS851859If you can afford it, book dinner (at least 2 months reservation necessary) with a window seat at the TV Tower, otherwise settle for the bar and try a Berliner Wasse

Hire a Trabant and drive into the countryside of the former East (good luck!)

But avoid the Western view of the Wall: Checkpoint Charlie. You couldn’t find a less authentic experience in Berlin if you tried.

There is so much history to be seen, and so much to consider. But mostly I left saddened by all the focus on failure. The persecution and loss of life all weighs so heavy. Saddening too was the fact that there was little room for the debate that socialism might offer much, even if we agree the price of totalitarianism is not one worth paying. Only the DDR Museum offered some sense of everyday life, some redemption and only then in part, balanced as it was with Stasi exhibits.

My view is that, in the end, the world lost more than the toll of its victims. It lost the chance of a possibility.

This wasn’t a holiday. It was reflection, a memorial. Just as one might travel to WW1 war graves. Perhaps we ought to make such journeys in order to remember the danger in the states we elect and therefore in our consent we all carry in us the possibility of darkness or failure. In that darkness I hoped to find hope. I think it’s there, but it flickered dimly and fleetingly, supressed by Totalitarianism.

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{this article formed part of a much larger research project, reflecting on the GDR}

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I have been writing for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine under the column ‘Left Inside’ for about 18 months or so. It was intended to be a quiet expose of trying to stay left within a local Constituency Labour Party (Forest of Dean) under One Nation Labour, and being on its Executive Committee. In that time I was nominated the lead in the 2015 General Election FoD Labour Party manifesto drafting group for the District Council (in which we also laid out our Parliamentary Candidate’s priorities) and was Social Media Officer for the CLP on the Executive, and finally the Electoral Agent for our Parliamentary Candidate. That experience – but mostly the experience on the organizing body, and its conduct particularly since the Election – leads me to finally come to terms with my place in local Labour. And this, then is my final Clarion ‘Left Inside’ column…

LEFT INSIDE: welcome home. Time to leave.

After the defeat of Ed Miliband’s One Nation view of socialism under Labour, and despite a very progressive local manifesto (I should know, I lead the Manifesto Drafting Group who authored it, and it included all the things we so desperately need right now: a strong anti-fracking, anti-cuts and pro-public Forest stance), who would have thought that Labour would come back to its natural home?

The success of Jeremy Corbyn shows, to me, just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party was with its own grass-roots membership.

But, while supporting Tom Watson as Deputy, Forest of Dean CLP actually voted to back Andy Burnham for leader.  And now there are rumours afoot within the CLP that Corbyn’s success and the left is tearing the local branch apart. But they’re just rumours. What I’ve seen is a fractured bureaucratic CLP Exec concerned more with rules and in-fighting than changing lives and building socialism, whichever brand you support.

And that’s why this will be my last ‘Left Inside’ column for the Clarion.

The Executive Committee, in my experience, despite its aims and objectives turns out to be an inadvertent vehicle for losing members and quelling activism.

On social media I touted the idea of a Red Labour campaigning group, but there just isn’t the support for that locally. Nationally, however, new members joined in their thousands following Corbyn’s success, but locally they’ll be (rightly) directed to the CLP first. But our CLP is, to me, little more than an extension of the District Council Labour Group, not an independent campaigning and organising committee for the success of the next Labour MP in the Dean, working to win a socialist sitting in Parliament for the Dean among other socialists in a majority Labour government.

Besides, in the meantime, we need to build support for the Dean anti-fracking campaign. Then there’s TTIP. Instead our CLP is bent on a long-running internal investigation on the appropriate use of members’ e-mail lists. A process so painful that even the incumbent acting Secretary won’t be seeking re-election in that role, after only a matter of months in the post.

As Agent for Steve Parry-Hearn (your Labour candidate in the last General Election), I continue to meet with Steve and his Campaign Manager, the hard-working Roger Gilson. All three of us welcomed Corbyn’s success. But I for one don’t feel that our current CLP is the vehicle to locally show that support let alone build on it. I will vote and continue to support Corbyn’s Labour but I no longer feel I am the ‘left inside’ in the local LP. Hopefully there are others, new faces which will re-purpose the CLP Executive.

For me, for now, thanks for the ride.

The above is an un-edited edition and might therefore differ from the printed edition of issue #119 (Oct/Nov. 2015). I expect to continue to write for the Clarion, but not in the Left Inside capacity. I will continue to support Labour. Especially Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Reviewed by C. Spiby for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine.

Maxim Leo’s book ‘Red Love’ is so much more than the story of a family from the GDR; it is the story of WW2 anti-fascist heroes, the relationship between parents and their children, and a state and its people. Clarion subscribers will find it a truly fascinating read.

With the unique perspective of author Maxim turning 19 as the Wall comes dored_love_coverwn, and his father, Wolf being 19 when the Wall went up, this family history traces three generations of German socialism.

But as each generation comes of age, there is a lessening of the cause, a lessening of the hope of socialism.

Under Walter Ulbricht and the Soviet Union this road to socialism is replaced at first by a paranoiac state and then by the 1980’s, by a generation who have become so remote from the cause and the possibilities of socialism that the freedom they seek seems indistinguishable from the freedom to be just like those in the West. In the end Maxim feels that “Society isn’t the main subject of my life. I am.” A view probably shared by his entire generation.

Their story is the story of their state. Maxim writes “Our family was like a miniature GDR…where ideology collided with life.”

While his father, Wolf, was not a Party member, it was not because of his opposition to socialism, but his opposition to that particular kind of socialism which destroyed the people’s trust in their own state, the son stating at one point “He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy.”

What clearly started as an exercise in family history has become so much more. Its topics range from

  • history (Werner, one of Maxim’s grandfathers shifts from almost ambivalent Nazi supporter to Communist Party member, expressing with real authenticity the experience of life in WW2 and post WW2 Germany)
  • politics (“Others became Communists because they felt drawn to the world of ideas. For Gerhard it’s a matter of experience, of feeling, of friendship.”
  • philosophy (“Man is different from the animals primarily because he deliberately applies laws and thus creates a just coexistence.”)
  • socialism and humanism (the disgrace with himself that Maxim feels when he is interrogated by Stasi and capitulates immediately, giving them the information they seek in a moment while recalling Gerhard, his grandfather who resisted days of torture by the SS for his role in partisan activities is among one of many touching moments – this time of pride and shame).

‘Red Love’ is great journalism: it’s engaging and informative, revealing authentic experiences of real people through hope and trauma. But just as the example of the GDR saddens me, so too does Maxim’s underlying conclusion.

The “GDR was the result of the struggle, the reward. The point of life. He {Gerhard} couldn’t get out of it without losing himself. ‘That was my country,’ he said in that interview. And it sounded sad, but also a bit proud. And I reflected that it couldn’t be my country for precisely that reason. But I said nothing.”

For me the GDR is not something consigned to history. It is a tragedy of what could have been.

From it we can still learn much; of how far it swerved on the road to socialism, how it can warn us, but also that it was not an utter failure. In ‘Red Love’ we are introduced to people who believed in something greater. Totalitarianism and the end of the Cold War never killed that.

‘Red Love’ is published by the Pushkin Press (2014 paperback, English translation).

an early un-edited edition of my latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article…

Never have I have invested so much so emotionally only to have been so heavily defeated.

It is with a heavy heart that I have mulled over Labour’s loss. I have been engulfed in shame and guilt that I didn’t work harder for local people and our local candidate Steve Parry-Hearn. Often I have been driven to anger. At other times I have been simply listless.

We fought the right campaign with the right candidate and – looking now at the new pretenders – the right leader. Our campaign was flawed only in its morally correct view of modern Britain. For me it was like Iraq all over again:  marching against the war, being on the losing side of the debate only to be proven right; to be on the side of the just counts for little in defeat.

And in my anger I know that it wasn’t Mark Harper or even the Tories who beat us, but by Murdoch and the Mail Group.

For sure there were gifts to the opposition of our own making. Our argument on austerity wasn’t strong enough. Scotland is proof of that.

And we failed to win the argument on the issue of the economy and the last Labour government’s rhetoric during the worldwide economic downturn. Damn that idle, stupid joke at the Treasury stating ‘There’s no money left’ which Cameron waved about with relish. If only it said ‘There’s no money left because we spent it all on building schools and hospitals and eliminating NHS waiting times.’

As Mark Serwotka said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ 3 weeks after the election, the narrative the potential Labour leaders have seemed to swallow is a need to move to the Blairist right within the Party. Because Ed Miliband was ‘too left wing’. And yet as Serwotka makes clear under Blair and Brown from 1997 Labour lost millions of votes. With Ed Miliband that trend had been reversed, which suggests a different story. The success of the SNP and their anti-austerity and anti-Trident message also suggests a different direction of traffic.

Or to put it another way, John Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth pointed out that “The average income is £26,000 a year or thereabouts. The tax we were proposing was for those on £150,000 or more. People on £26,000 are not aspiring or expecting ever to get to £150,000. And yet we have leadership candidates arguing that it is an obstacle to winning an election.”

Steve Parry-Hearn and Forest of Dean Labour’s manifesto was a manifesto which Clarion readers would recognise as their kind of Labour candidate and programme. Anti-Trident, anti-new nuclear at Oldbury, anti-fracking, strong on the protection of our Forest, strong on apprenticeships and even stronger on anti-austerity than the national Party line. Di Martin repeatedly lamented the bedroom tax and she carried her local comrades with her. A Labour-controlled local council was set to pause the destruction of our District Council and scrap local car parking charges. Nationally Labour would scrap the bedroom tax, bring in a mansion tax, and protect the NHS from the clutches of TTIP. But we’ve lost all that. That is the sum of our loss, not our lack of electoral success. The danger to our NHS now is truly frightening.

And yet while support for Labour in other constituencies plummeted, Steve Parry-Hearn and his campaign team lead by the inexhaustible Roger Gilson slightly increased our share of the vote in the Dean, snatching thousands of Lib Dem votes only to see our working class support slip through our fingers to UKIP and the Tories.

We shared muted elation at the strong performance of our Greens, beating the Lib Dems and gaining their first District Councillor for the Dean, but we were furious that Harper survived selling off our forest by proxy alone: the Conservatives won here despite their candidate not because of him. Their successes were in the media, not at the dispatch box and nor in the TV debates, their campaign merely exploited the media’s insatiable appetite for nationalism and fear.

But what now? What’s left for Labour? Is there any Left in today’s Labour?

In these vital coming months for our movement my advice is that we swell our numbers: join Labour today and have your say in choosing a left-wing candidate for the leadership.

It could be the last chance we have to save our Party for at least a generation.

SIGN THIS NOW: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/we-want-an-anti-austerity-labour-party-leader

WATCH THIS:

an early un-edited edition of my latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article…

There are many reasons to vote Labour come the General Election. Some might argue there is also reason not to.

I’ve written before in the Clarion about compromise, but some still feel a vote for the Greens is still the best way to deliver a left-wing agenda in Parliament.

The Greens offer much, but what can they actually deliver? The stark answer to this question is: very little without any MP’s – even Caroline Lucas will struggle to retain the Green’s only seat in Parliament. Recently though, the Greens do offer a leader to rival Labour’s own in terms of unpopularity – but that’s shallow thinking. The kind of which the media is so obsessed with.

Locally, James Greenwood – a prominent organiser for S.T.A.N.D. (Severnside Together Against Nuclear Development) – is a passionate and skilled public speaker and a good Green candidate, but his party’s support is, as our own Clarion Comment editorial states in this issue, starting from virtually square one.

So we turn to Labour’s Steve Parry-Hearn. How might he fare?

On core local Green Party issues he pretty much cleans up. Steve’s pledge card lays it down clearly: Parry-Hearn is against new nuclear power at Oldbury, against fracking in the Dean and against Trident renewal. All these policies are cornerstone reasons to vote Green. But you can get them locally and for real by voting Labour.

Furthermore, Steve Parry-Hearn is also a strong supporter of the NHS, apprenticeships and green industry but is equally passionate about scrapping the bedroom tax. The difference is, Labour can win here – the Greens will not.

Voting Green means the Tory will retain the seat (or possibly worse, what with UKIP having made the Forest a target seat). Either way, anything but a Labour win will mean your next MP will support Trident renewal, support back-door privatisation of the NHS and will be pro-nuclear.

Meanwhile Labour’s Parry-Hearn takes a risk with his position on these topics of nuclear power, fracking and nuclear weapons as Steve is running contrary to current party policy on all three issues. That’s good news for Clarion readers as it finally means we’ve got a candidate who is a strong independent voice in Labour. A man of conviction built from a bedrock of core Labour principles. What Clarion readers might recognise as one of their own.

But many will call this tactical voting. I call it pragmatic voting. It is all very well having a strong view on an issue, but to trade that passion for an unwillingness to compromise is a self-defeating way to hand victory to those supporting the exact opposite of one’s own view.

When I started writing for the Clarion many years ago I was politically adrift. Back then in 2003 I was secretary of our local Stop the War movement but I belonged to no Party. I had left the Communist Party of Britain because it could never win an MP in my lifetime. At that time I couldn’t join Labour because New Labour supported Bush’s war. So the Lib Dems temporarily won my vote but like many I was let down.

Now I support Labour which is post-New Labour. I do so firstly because of my desire to retain the NHS as Labour built it; but I am also in the Labour Party because Ed Miliband was the choice of the trades union movement – the voice of the working class; and I am proud to support Forest Labour’s Steve Parry-Hearn precisely because of his position on the topics mentioned above. All this would be for nought if a Labour victory didn’t represent the only realistic opportunity of keeping the right out of power in the Dean and in our Parliament.

Please join me in defeating the Tories.

An early un-edited edition of my next Clarion article

It’s time for One Nation Labour to set out its electoral stall for real now. Scotland has force the point, chased hotly by doubts over Ed Miliband’s ability to lead our party or being a suitable Prime Minister.

Scotland – and in particular the huge turnout of the Independence referendum – has given Westminster-based politics the kick up the arse voters knew it desperately needed.

Now there’s a leadership contest there and it proves to be shaping what Scottish Labour ought to look like and represent. Is it just a branch of Parliamentary Labour or something distinct in the Labour movement in Scotland?

Clarion readers will probably agree that the latter might also prove the kick up the arse our Parliamentary Labour Party needs to become meaningful for the electorate.

Given a meaningful choice on Independence, the voters demonstrated they are hungry to engage in proper change. Indeed, I doubt whether a remote branch in Scotland was what John Robertson and Jim Sillars had in mind when they first set-up the breakaway the Scottish Labour Party back in 1976. Instead they sought to be a voice distinct from Westminster.

I believe there’s appetite for more of that kind of independent thinking within Labour, and furthermore we can have that without having to abandon our Party. In fact, I’d wage it might be a way to electoral success.

I certainly witnessed this desire for local distinction among some of our number in the 2015 District Council Forest of Dean CLP Manifesto Drafting Group which I had the honour to lead. But this doesn’t have to be a binary thing: you can follow Labour Party principles and rules and still have a distinctive voice in local politics. In fact, I rather think it’s what the electorate expect of us.

Difference and choice are vital to voters. I am reminded of what George Monbiot once told me in an interview…

“Its mainstream parliamentary party politics we’re all pissed off with. You can choose between the party of big business and bombing, or the party of big business and bombing.”

It’s in looking for new choices that some have been persuaded by the shadowy repulsiveness of UKIP. We need to demonstrate that our Party and our local candidate, and indeed local and country councillors offer the electorate meaningful choice, not just more of the same.

The defence for the leadership of Milliband is mostly characterised by the principle of having to stick with the choice made a couple of years ago at the Leadership Election. But by that logic we would allow Ed Miliband to do virtually anything to destroy our movement before we’d kicked him into touch. Although I’m not saying he has or will destroy Labour, I’m just questioning the principled stand of permissiveness just for the sake of a principled stand. To me that’s not much of a defence.

The argument also goes that ‘we’re only 6 months away from an election!’ Agreed, not a desirable time to switch leadership. But again, says who? Based on what? If there’s evidence that the leader is not polling well when actually he should be at his strongest (into the final term of opposition) then that is an argument for decisive change not capitulation. If total unity isn’t the current, it won’t appear just because we’re running out of time. What you’ll get instead is internal maneuvering for the post-defeat Labour Party. Put another way, sticking with an unelectable leader just because we’re running out of time is not a good reason to stick with an unelectable leader.

The final argument appears to be that there’s no willing or able candidate to replace Miliband. Is the shadow cabinet really so moribund to not one capable shadow minister willing to stand up for our movement? I don’t think it is. So that too is a false defence.

If the NHS is the one binding element of our campaign which universally moves British people of voting age, then clearly the robust, capable and comparatively natural leader is the person leading that part of campaign: Andy Burnham. I’d support that move in a second, and I think the British people would too.

Voters would see a Labour Party willing to listen to the public (in their dislike of Miliband) and make meaningful change. If Burnham is seen as the saviour of the NHS in austerity, then he might just save our movement and the legacy of Labour. It should also guarantee us success at the next election.

True, a Burnham Labour won’t take us back to the manifesto of Michael Foot in 1983, but it wouldn’t be New Labour either.

Those who agree with my general argument might also take heart that when asked during the local Parliamentary candidate hustings as which member of the current shadow cabinet did he/she most admire or ally themselves with, our chosen candidate – Steve Parry-Hearn – cited Andy Burnham.

Andy BurnhamNOTE: The views expressed in this column are the personal views of C. Spiby and not the Forest of Dean Labour Party or Steve Parry-Hearn.

{un-edited edition of my submission to the Clarion magazine and my ‘Left Inside’ column, writing as a communist within the Labour Party}

To all open-minded people of the Left {see footnote}. That is, to all those who have still yet to be convinced to vote Labour in the next General Election but are swaying dangerously close to the Green Party, Left Unity or other minority party to the left of Labour.

I want to appeal to your powers of logic and reason over your rightful anxiety on many issues facing British working people today. And suggest why you must vote Labour in 2015.

Perhaps we might begin by agreeing on a few basic principles. Firstly, that we want rid of the current Government: the ConDem coalition. Secondly, that we do not wish to replace it with a Tory majority government or a Tory/UKIP coalition.

We want a government that is left of centre. In fact, we’d probably settle for a centre-left government in order to keep out an even more right-wing government than the ConDem coalition. Wouldn’t we?

Irrespective of our wont for more: we all must be able to agree on at least that. Surely?

But not all of us see politics as a compromise.

I’d go so far to say that politics without compromise is essentially fundamentalism. You can read my blog on the topic but I believe that eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism. All other forms of fundamentalism are merely rejections of reason and flaws in humanity.

My point is that an unwillingness to vote for Labour as a compromise on one’s ideals only places principles before logic. And that’s a fundamentalist point of view.

Not entirely happy with all Labour’s policies, I am, however, not willing to tolerate a right-wing government just to satisfy those principles alone. These things have value to me, they form part of my integrity, but they are an abstract. And they won’t stop a right wing government taking power. And by their nature and philosophy they will form policies which are even more an affront to socialist principles than those of Labour which might compel some to stand up for their principles alone.

Failure to vote Labour runs the obvious risk that such a tactic results in the kind of right wing government we just agreed we collectively oppose.

But a compromise which recognises the reality of our current system, our current realistic choices does not have to be a sell-out. It’s not capitulation, it’s progressive. By building our movement within Labour both locally and nationally, you build the Party you want. And that’s just what happened at the recent National Executive Committee elections, where Labour MEMBERS voted for a left-wing Executive, defeated the Blairites soundly.

And, in Stephen Parry-Hearn, we have a local candidate who is willing to attend a vigil for Gaza, calling for peace on all sides and to halt the despicable killing of children. In Parry-Hearn we might have a voice in Parliament calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and nuclear power (see earlier Clarion interviews/articles). In Steve we’d have an MP who cares about the Forest of Dean and its heritage, who supported and supports HOOF.

Then, in Labour councillors, we have a team who really do carry Labour principles into each and every difficult debate, seeking to serve local working class people in the way they serves local jobs, welfare and livelihoods best.

Together they form a version of Labour Clarion readers must recognise as anything but Blairite and New Labour. We don’t want Harper or UKIP locally and we certainly don’t want unabated right-wing Tory rule in Britain.

Help us all by working for the Labour choice you want.

Of course, once the job is done, then campaign within. Or, hold a Labour Government to account through campaign groups or opposition parties. That is the time to fight for those points of principle you feel are an affront to our heritage and run counter to one’s own view of modern British democratic socialism. But don’t risk inviting the right through the front door, while you stand un-moving on principle out in the cold.

There are lines in the sand. I could never vote for New Labour for many reasons. Their balance sheet of inequities reduced support and made Britain ripe for the right. In doing so they disenfranchised the working people of their vote. Immoral actions such as the war in Iraq made voting New Labour an impossibility for democratic socialists. The problem was there was nowhere else to go, so many of us retreated to campaign groups. I went to Forest Stop the War and Amnesty International to try and make a difference. But politically we are thankfully in a different place today. Ed Milliband was the choice of the Unions as leader of our Party and it is his team which pledge to stop the rot in the NHS, to reverse the Bedroom Tax and so much more which we might recognise as principles they can deliver on which are akin to our own. That is why it is our party. No compromise on that.

FOOTNOTE I say ‘open-minded’ as logic and reason is unlikely to change a closed mind – the position of the fundamentalist. And that is why this article appears to those who are truly willing to challenge their own position.

My April/May article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine (un-edited edition)

A few issues ago, I gave readers an insight into some of the key political issues that make up the position of Labour Party candidate for the Forest of Dean, Steve Parry-Hearn. With just over a year to go to the next General Election, it’s time for an update.

Like others I endorsed the Welsh-accented Parry-Hearn at the hustings in which he was pitted against two great local campaigners Tim Gwillam and Tanya Palmer. Parry-Hearn won that competition, but in the face of a hitherto local media black-out is he up to the job of un-seating the incumbent Tory, Mark Harper?

In theory, Mark Harper MP has written-off his chances of returning to represent the Forest of Dean by supporting the government sell-off. So it will probably be the Forest’s own HOOF campaign which sees off Harper more than Labour’s candidate in Parry-Hearn. Parry-Hearn should walk it. But there are two possible problems with this analysis. 1. The national performance of Labour might mean we fail to even get our vote out (as we’ve seen happen in France only this week), and 2. UKIP – who have targeted the Forest as one of their 6 national seats to win.

On the national question there’s the issue of the so-called end to our economic woes. This presents Labour with a massive headache. First as the Labour leadership mantra goes it’s a lie: working people are still facing a cost-of-living crisis. True employment is up, but how many of those jobs are short-term and part-time? Or worse: zero hours contracts? The problem is that the electorate might just believe the lie because that’s appears to be exactly what the media’s offering: everything is fine and growth is back. And yet most public sector cuts have yet to bite.

Coming back locally and to my surprise, going against the national line of both the Tories and current Labour policy, Parry-Hearn has come out strongly and convincingly against the development of new nuclear power at Oldbury. Instead, Steve gave a sincere speech at S.T.A.N.D.’s Fukushima memorial event in Lydney in March and backed it up with a report to the local Executive and a press release.

He was also out with the Rebecca Riot campaigners on the issue of the Severn crossing tolls, managing along the way to get a by-proxy jab at Harper in a subsequent Westminster Hall debate on the issue via the Labour shadow transport team and our friendly Welsh MP’s. Harper looked satisfyingly sick at the thought of Parry-Hearn chasing him down as he hid in the corridors of power.

But then there’s UKIP. We will see their actual strength in the coming European elections. Certainly the possibility of them becoming the third main party in the UK increases as the anti-European, anti-immigration Tory vote heads over to UKIP. Not even regular outbursts from anti-gay, sexist bigots within UKIP ranks seem to quell those of that persuasion. For their part, the Lib Dems will have an emaciated support. Hopefully many of them will feel One Nation Labour better reflects their views than their leaders’ betrayal of some of their fundamental principles.

Putting aside inconsequential protest votes to minor parties, we return to Labour’s Parry-Hearn who lives with his young family in the Forest and has proven himself part of a new generation of local Labour activists. Personally, when I’ve heard him air his views and principles, he is certainly a man who Clarion readers would find speaks their language.

For sure, Parry-Hearn needs to increase his profile. Mostly by hitting the streets but also by attending other public-facing activities and events and certainly District Councillors need to get out and support their Party and their Parliamentary candidate. Already there’s an evolving team of great people willing to give their time and support, among them former Forest MP Diana Organ who’s just one of a team of Branch-level Labour Party Co-Ordinators.

My call is for Clarion readers to join us and build a future for the forest that they recognise as their own. And not that of Harper or UKIP.

My Jan 2014 article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine

Nationally the message is clear.

When Ed Milliband says that he will “promise that, if we win, I will scrap the Bedroom Tax. No ifs or buts: a One Nation Labour government will repeal it.” [1] There’s no doubt that this is OUR kind of Labour Party.

You can’t say the same for our Constituency Party. We need to be clearer on our message and tighter on our inner party discipline. When Bruce Hogan rightly questioned the failure of local UKIP Councillor Alan Preest to attend meetings it was instead received by some as a call to limit local democracy.

And you would have thought that the fact that UKIP act the way do would be a gift to us. What a local UKIP figure branded as ‘hags’ [2] are the ordinary people concerned about the rightwing myth-building of the right, at least on the topic of immigration. UKIP should be easy-pickings nationally and locally. But, as we saw with the New Year influx of east Europeans – which didn’t happen – the media has bought their narrative rather than report on facts and actuality. Rightwing speculation has become ‘reporting’.

We also see that narrative on ‘Benefits Street’. How easy it is to stoke the fires of blame just to sell advertising by producing controversial content.

There’s a cost of living crisis in Britain, but it’s now contained to those who don’t matter: the voiceless majority. We know this because we’re getting told by this government that we’re ‘turning the corner’ on the economy and its cuts, cuts, cuts that provided the cure. In reality we’re going through a sustained attack on the welfare state; an ideological crusade the kind of which Thatcher embarked upon in her 70’s attack on the Trade Unions. Her greatest achievement came with the defeat of the Miner’s but – in this anniversary year – it is up to us to ensure that the new breed of Conservativism doesn’t do the same with our social welfare, education and health services. Because that’s the way its heading.

I don’t think that message could be clearer. What bothers me is why we’re not the argument.

NUCLEAR POWER On other matters this government has just approved the ‘generic design’ for the huge nuclear power station that will appear soon opposite Lydney. In response, S.T.A.N.D. are conducting a range of meetings and events in Chepstow and Stroud to raise awareness of the monstrosity while also building for this years’ anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. Catch-up with the campaign on Facebook or www.nuclearsevernside.co.uk

[1] Labour membership e-mail 21/9/2013.

[2] Recent reportage in the local press of UKIP’s Tidenham meeting where their spokesperson attacked women who expressed concern over UKIP position on immigration.

This paper is loosely based on a talk given at the Heritage Open Days in September 2013 for the Dean Heritage Centre.

In all the euphoria that came with the liberation of the suppressed people of the Eastern Bloc, it is easy to overlook that when the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war did not.

Today there remain some 12,000 active nuclear warheads in the arsenals of just 9 countries [a]. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that it is the United States and Russia who harbour over 90% of these [b], shared roughly equally as it was during the Cold War.

The battle of ideology might have come to an end with the dissolution of the USSR, yet the destructive armaments which made the abstract of political and economic doctrines a terrible, threatening reality remains.

But of what importance is this to the people of the Forest of Dean, then or now?

Firstly, our incumbent MP for the Forest, Conservative Mark Harper, is a strong supporter of nuclear weapons [c]. Secondly, it probably less well known that in the early 1980’s, our county – Gloucestershire – was THE most targeted rural county in the UK.

Why? The answer is simple, but chillingly as relevant today as it was in 1980: GCHQ.

2013 saw Cheltenham’s Government Communication HQ feature regularly in newspaper headlines thanks to the revelations of US intelligence whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. He uncovered GCHQ’s pervasive role in an array of scandals over internet privacy. GCHQ was implicated in covert deals with internet service providers and the developers of computer operating systems to guarantee ‘back-doors’ into everyone’s private data. Their success in this work saw them re-sell their services to the US government. GCHQ has of course been at the forefront of intelligence, surveillance and code-breaking for over half a century and it is for this reason it undoubtedly has always been and remains a very high-value target.

Back in the 1980’s British Civil Defence and NATO-wide exercises predicted a range of nuclear attack scenarios to make their war games theoretically more relevant to how war might actually play out. These games were influenced by the strategic thinking of the British Government who at the time believed that a nuclear war was both survivable and ultimately winnable. This philosophy was based on the idea that there existed such a thing as ‘limited nuclear war’. But the Soviets rejected this concept entirely. They believed that once nuclear weapons were used in the theatre of war, there would be an unstoppable cycle of retaliation and escalation. Indeed, their systems were automated based on that very premise as to ensure a retaliatory strike would occur even after receiving a surprise attack.

At this time Brezhnev was ending his term as Soviet leader and nearing the end of his life. He was thus easily influenced by his paranoiac head of KGB, Yuri Andropov. Together they launched a secret international surveillance project called ‘Operation Ryan’ to find out when and under what auspice the West was to launch their surprise attack on the USSR.

The world will never know how close we were to an automatic nuclear war when the West ploughed on with their exercise ‘Able Archer’ in 1983, but the Soviets were certain that the exercise was the very cover they had suspected would be the trigger for that surprise launch by NATO forces. And this was also the year US cruise missiles was went ‘live’ in the UK.

It is with this polarisation of the British strategic view compared to the Soviet stance which lead a team of British academics (Openshaw, Steadman and Greene [d]) to build a body of evidence to counter the British idea that the ‘Protect and Survive’ attitude meant we’d prevail in a nuclear war.

Together the academics built a computer program to collate all the grossly over-optimistic British attack scenarios and compare them to US war games and planning and all available Soviet data on the subject. They’d supplemented this with analysis of strike impacts from peer papers from the likes of the British Medical Association in order to build a more realistic view of what might really happen.

They had no need to exaggerate their claims. The 11 attack scenarios they built from this deeper review of the data spoke for themselves: the picture was far less optimistic than the Thatcher government would have us believe. And it was for those of us living in Gloucestershire, Openshaw et al predicted that in even in the most limited attack our county would endure a predicted casualty rate of 70%.

Even when putting aside their concerns for Russian rejection of the British notion of a limited nuclear war, their scenarios ranged from the lowest probable strike to a massive, total attack. Over half of the 11 attack scenarios posed by Openshaw et al saw Gloucestershire shoulder a 97% or higher casualty rate.

Other rural counties only saw that level of destruction at the total-war end of the spectrum. On the other hand, Cornwall never had more than 17% in all scenarios. Somerset peaked at less than 30%. These figures were based only the initial blast and immediate radioactive fallout casualties. Wider fallout would of course travel with the wind so even Cornwall and Somerset would not have been safe.

At this point the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ was only just being more widely accepted as a probable outcome of a sizeable nuclear exchange. This foresees a prolonged winter lasting years where sunlight would diminish but skin cancer rates rocket through the destruction of the ozone layer. A nuclear winter would devastate the environment with the obvious impact of our food supply and agriculture. Perhaps the blinding flash of the 97% wasn’t so bad after all.

But there’s more to Gloucestershire than GCHQ. There’s also the USAF base at Fairford (you may recall Stealth Bombers left Fairford bound for Iraq in the 2003 war), plus the secondary targets of 2 civil nuclear power stations on the Severn. One of these is still being decommissioned today while at the same time being re-developed to 3-4 times the size. Back in the 80’s though there was also a National Grid Strategic Reserve Depot in Cirencester and our Civil Defence Sub-Regional HQ bunker at Ullenwood which had the extra role of being the national Anti-Aircraft Operations Room.

In 1966/67 the Joint Intelligence Committee drew up a revised list of probable Soviet targets, which included GCHQ [e]. They expected it to receive two 1MT bombs (a direct ground strike) plus two 500KT bombs (air-bursts). Air bursts are used to knock-out electronic, communication and radar devices. So 4 nuclear strikes on GCHQ alone, but for comparsion please remember that the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in WW2 was only 12.5KT. Our county was predicted by the optimistic British to receive almost 3,000 times the destructive power.

Yet incredibly, another exercise conducted in the same late 60’s period, ‘Grass Seeds’, saw Civil Defence and Council planners consider Gloucestershire as the ideal place to receive nuclear war refugees from Birmingham and London. Both the attack scenario papers and what is presumed to be the Chief Executive’s review of the exercise written months later are available for review at the Gloucestershire Archives. This demonstrates that Openshaw et al were right to question the logic of British defence planning. On one hand Gloucestershire was being played as a safe haven for refugees (although there is some pretty grim reading in the document, with the docks used as a makeshift prison camp, and the old market as a rest area) on the other hand central government were writing us off with 4 nuclear warheads.

The possible targets on the Soviet list doesn’t stop there. Our county is literally surrounded by high-level targets. The highest of these has to be the national Seat of Central Government at Corsham (only 30 miles from the Speech House as the crow flies) where the Prime Minister would retreat to at the time of war.

Then there was a Cardiff branch of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and even closer there was the huge US weapons store at Caerwent.

Nevertheless having painted such a depressing picture of our assured destruction, not all levels of British government embraced Conservative optimism and bravado. Our neighbouring council, Gwent County Council were one such example.

Gwent CC refused to do anything more than the absolute minimum when it came to new civil defence and emergency planning laws. There was no money for massive civil bunkers so the Government insisted that Local Authorities educated their citizens in ‘Protect and Survive’ and conduct civil defence exercises and prepare for council continuity. But Gwent CC exploited the ambiguity of the new law and issued a pamphlet to the public in 1983 which ‘declared its opposition to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ [f].

They went further stating that Gwent CC ‘will not hide its view that war planning can be used to persuade other nations of Britain’s readiness for nuclear war.’ [g] And even more candidly sought to answer the difficult question of survivability and limited nuclear war: ‘There could be survivors but the Council fears that any nuclear exchange would escalate to all out nuclear war. In that event, Home Defence measures could not prevent the end of civilisation as we know it.’ [h] Certainly not the normal council circular one might expect to find in your local library. Gwent’s position, you will note, is remarkably similar to both Soviet views on the folly of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, and in keeping with Openshaw et al on the topic of optimism. Gwent predicted a 500KT bomb for Caerwent and also cited concerns over the civil nuclear power stations on the Severn [i].

Like much of history, the facts reveal a massive topic. Even on a local level the documents available and wider literature, as well as the testament of Royal Observer Corps or peace veterans form the body of a time we think is entirely behind us. But returning to my opening words, those warheads remain or have been replaced with more accurate equivalents. And so does the most appealing target in GCHQ. Let us hope this is one of those rare occasions where humanity might learn from history. One might say that this time our lives depend upon it.

SOURCES

[a] ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

[b] ibid.

[c] Mark Harper was previously listed as a supporter of the ‘Freedom Association’, a conservative group which believes in strong defence, including the nuclear deterrent. And, of course, this is also current and former Conservative government policy. But Harper’s own interest goes beyond this, calling and hosting his own public debate on Trident Renewal in Highnam in 2007 in which he invited specialists from RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) to speak in support of nuclear weapons, NATO and the British deterrent. Over 200 of his constituents at his public meeting overwhelmingly voted against Harper’s support, but when the vote came in Parliament, Mr. Harper still voted for Trident.

[d] ‘Doomsday: Britain after Nuclear Attack’ by Openshaw, Steadman & Greene (Basil Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1983)

[e] cited in ‘Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers: the passive defence of the Western World during the Cold War’ by N. McCamley (Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2002 (2009 edition)).

[f] ‘Gwent and Emergency Planning’ (Gwent County Council, 1983)

[g] ibid.

[h] ibid.

[i] ibid.