Archives for category: Politics

The Forest of Dean Constituency Labour Party has nominated Steven Parry-Hearn as its Parliamentary candidate for the next General Election.

What does this mean for the left in labour?

Indeed, what does it mean for the Dean? And what about those dissatisfied with New Labour and have yet to be tempted by Ed Miliband’s brand of ‘One Nation’ Labour?

Mr. Parry-Hearn lives in the constituency with his young family and has been very active behind the scenes in the Party with various projects and posts at Executive Committee level. He’s also a member of the LP South West Regional Board and stood against Liam Fox at the last election. Then he lost (but then again who didn’t in Labour that time around? It was a national swing of historic proportions – nothing less than our greatest defeat, so we can’t blame him for that!), but Steve did gain a significantly higher vote than was expected of a Labour Party candidate there.

He’d also been active in the Aberavon CLP in Wales at the election before that – a heritage his accent reveals. So, clearly, Steve has experience and the organisational skills of a good CLP member. But where does he stand on policy?

He says ‘There are issues here, social injustices, which the current Member of Parliament has completely ignored. He has betrayed his constituents…’ [1]

Whereas Harper is an accountant by trade, Parry-Hearn works for the Shaw Trust, dealing with the fallout of failed Tory policies.

Like many of us, he vehemently opposed Harper on the sell-off of the Forests while at the same time bringing a breath of fresh air to the Forest of Dean CLP. Although not a target seat for Labour, Harper must be on the back foot precisely because of the attempted sell-off of the forests and the success of the HOOF campaign. Now we have chosen Harper’s opposition it is time to get to the nub of his beliefs and so I took advantage of the selection process to quiz him on issues I feel particularly strongly.

For starters, I asked him about the development of new Nuclear Power at Oldbury, a hot topic amongst local people living opposite in the Dean as well as environmental and anti-nuclear campaigners.

Parry-Hearn said he does not support Hitachi-Horizon’s development and that he has ‘been opposed to the development of nuclear powered generation for many years.’ [2] In fact, he goes on to state ‘I believe that there are energy generation solutions which are far more acceptable not only to ourselves, but also to our descendants.  I believe that we are merely custodians of our fragile planet, and we must use all our ingenuity to develop new, cleaner fuels and means of generating energy.  I feel that wind, sea and solar must be the way forward.’ [3]

This puts Steve at odds with the previous candidate, Bruce Hogan whose position had seen him switch over the years to a pro-nuclear power stance.

Moving to a deliberately tricky issue for some in Labour is the question of the renewal of the UK nuclear missile system (Trident). On this topic Parry-Hearn said that ‘I personally stand idealistically and morally opposed.  I feel that we are behaving rather hypocritically here. We rattle sabres at Iran, Libya and North Korea, but what right do we have to dictate terms of disarmament to those states, when we ourselves stealthily and perpetually patrol the world’s oceans with our Trident Submarines?’ [4] And he goes on to qualify this with further reasoning: ‘we should not commit public money, when we are seeing this awful, callous government cutting welfare to the most vulnerable in our society.

On those points we can agree and welcome our PPC, but that’s just two issues. It is not enough to judge him on these alone. We still don’t know whether Parry-Hearn sits as a pre-New Labourist or post’. That is, is he a believer in the One Nation line? Certainly, it seems we can – I think – rest assured Parry-Hearn is no raving Blairite.

The true test, I suppose, will be the moment our national programme is finally launched.

That document, which will at last declare our Party’s policies, will be the strongest challenge for Party-Hearn to date. Will he stay true to his own beliefs upon which he was elected as PPC locally or will he sway to the national line? I strongly suspect on both Trident and nuclear power the national policy will differ from Hearn’s. With the nuclear power development directly affecting his constituency will he have the will to act against his party? For sure, he says he is of ‘high moral courage, honesty and diligence.’ [5] And on the issue of nuclear defence, this could arguably be the most moral question of all.

But as I have said, we shouldn’t shape our support of opposition of him on those two nuclear topics alone. Does he have the red fibre Clarion readers’ lust after? For his part, Graham Morgan (County, District & Town Councillor for Labour) believes Steve is ‘a real man of the people.’ [6]

What else? Parry-Hearn states he is committed ‘to establishing a Business Task Force, promoting growth, sustainable inward investment and apprenticeship opportunities for our young generation’ [7] in the Dean. He targets housing as the way forward both locally and nationally as a tool of economic renewal and his work with the Shaw Trust would mean he also has first-hand experience of the dire need for good social housing. He is pro-European but supports a referendum.

At the 28th July hustings which resulted in his election, Steve cited Andy Burnham as one of those currently influencing his political thinking. This being the same Andy Burnham who is leading the charge against the Tory Health & Social Welfare bill, promising to repeal it at Labour’s first opportunity and re-investing instead in the NHS. That is a good place for Labour and Steve to be and thus a good influence to hold, in my book.

So, while Parry-Hearn might not be the Forest’s answer to Tony Benn we can hold some comfort by the fact that he probably wouldn’t be entirely offended by the idea either.

In fact, I would go so far to say that I think that our constituency has the strongest candidate for many elections past. I hope you will canvass his opinion yourself by directly engaging with him while supporting our party and his campaign with all your vigor.

We MUST get rid of the ConDems, keep the Tories and UKIP out. We must save our NHS. We must be united in our support of the only realistic chance for Parliamentary power across the left. And in doing so we will keep our values alive in Labour, locally and nationally. Support Steve and we support that aim.

[1] Personal letter to all FoD CLP members 1st July 2013

[2] Personal correspondence with the author 22nd July 2013.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Steve Parry-Hearn FoD PPC campaign leaflet  July 2013.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

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from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley  Clarion magazine

THE LEFT INSIDE column by C. Spiby

Things are getting a little ugly. Especially in Falkirk where the CLP is in a fizzle thanks to UNITE the union bombarding the local party with its members in an attempt to get the next Parliamentary candidate to be their preferred candidate.

While I see that, theoretically, an infiltration of any kind is dangerous, an infiltration of working class-conscious trade unionist is – SURELY – what Labour needs right now.

In fact, I wholeheartedly support it.

But there is a split of opinion as to Ed Milliband’s plan to re-boot the role Labour has with the Trade Unions. Even Len McCluskey endorsed the idea that the scheme might mean thousands of new official working class members paying their way in the Party ‘officially’ (rather than paying by default). The doom-mongers, however, see the move as an attempt to sever the historic link (which is probably why it got the support of Tony Blair!) and in doing so lose the Party millions in vital funding.

If the doom-mongers are right, then this leaves the door wide-open for the Party funding machine to head out and woo more donations from big business and the rich.

What started as a call for ‘8 hours for work – 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose’ spawned a workers movement. Workers coming together in union to end the tyranny of employers. The call went out in 1868 for the first Trades Union Congress.

The struggle for workers’ rights commenced and gathered pace with the rise of each challenge, each success and every knock-back. As Billy Bragg calls ‘There is power in a union’ and as is the popular noise of each and every protest the world-over: ‘The workers united, will never be defeated.’

But there were defeats, so we must take the latter as a rallying call – a call to metaphorical arms. For it soon became clear that to really change things, representation in Parliament was necessary. And thus the move toward a social democratic socialist party gathered pace. In the wake of the 1906 general election the Parliamentary Labour Party is born.

This history lessons informs us that something on both sides of the link has failed. The Unions has weakened their relevance (mostly through the actions of Tory Parliaments), but also the in the Labour Party has swung rightward for fear of militancy. Strikes – never popular – have ceased being the tool and call of the downtrodden worker as the right and the media present it as one massive, self-indulgent inconvenience for the rest of society. And in doing so breaks society.

Without Labour there’d be no welfare state. Without Trade Unionism there’d be no Labour.

The question is one only of relevance.

Now is the time for those Trade Unionists to re-embrace their Party. And to do it through the front door.

OTHER MATTERS But then there’s murkier water ahead with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. My personal beliefs seem out of kilter with my Party, although I will reserve full judgement until the final General Election manifesto is ready. So it is up to us to make sure they hear our voices on the topics we are moved by and join in at www.yourbritain.org.uk (the Party’s policy development platform).

So it is with relief that our leader e-mailed to remind us that…

“Only One Nation Labour will repeal David Cameron’s Health Act and put NHS values, not Tory values, back at the heart of our NHS. Our NHS is at the heart of what makes Britain great. Labour will always make safeguarding its future a priority. [a]”

Previously he let us know about some of things his leadership had on the agenda…

We all know Labour in 2015 will have less money to spend, because the Tories have failed on the economy. So we are going to take action on the big problems our country faces to control spending:

  • Cut costs by helping the long-term unemployed back to work
  • Make sure jobs are well-paid to reward work, so the state does not face rising subsidies for low pay
  • Get the cost of renting down by ensuring more homes are built – thereby reducing the welfare bill
  • Cap social security spending by focusing on the deep-rooted reasons benefit spending goes up.

This builds on an earlier message from Ed Balls, of the shadow Treasury. He said…

Tory economic policies aren’t working. On living standards, economic growth and on deficit reduction – they’ve got it wrong, and millions of people are suffering the consequences. It doesn’t have to be this way.  [c]

My worry is that these messages are being overtaken by noise from Labour vs the Unions. What the movement needs is a united voice and united message.

[a] E-mail from EM 2/7/13.

[b] E-mail from EM 6/6/13.

[c] E-mail from EB 3/6/13.

(from my Left Inside column in the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion)

The Bedroom Tax is so diabolically typical of Tory Government. Exactly the type of policy which creates a two-nation state. The ‘them’ and the rest of us state.

But it is the rest of us who fuel the economy with our labour, skills, services, creativity, drive and devotion to both our jobs and our society. It is the rest of us who help those in need; not to leave them behind. We do this through our taxes and many do much more by providing real-term care, by which I mean all those who stay at home to look after our very young, or the elderly in need, or those disabled.

And it was US who bailed out the banks.

But, as Liam Byrne MP (Labour’s shadow Work & Pensions Secretary) points out it is Cameron’s Government which is about to give 13,000 millionaires a tax cut worth an average £100,000, while more than half a million households with a disabled person will lose £700.

And not content with rising inflation and stagnant wages, the Tories go on to offer us (from 1st April) a real terms cut to maternity pay, taking £180 out of the pockets of mums by 2015. In Hull alone 4700 people will be affected by the Bedroom Tax – and there are just 73 properties available for them to move into. Meanwhile youth unemployment is now almost at a million mark and unemployment amongst women is also on the rise.

Labour on the other hand challenged the Tories and Liberal Democrats to support a mansion tax on properties over £2 million stating this would pay for the reinstatement of a 10p tax rate to help millions of people on low and middle incomes.

And it is with enthusiasm that I welcome Gloucestershire Labour Party’s 2013 County Council Election manifesto. It keeps the one nation theme running at a local level, pledging to ‘support and campaign for all health and education provision to stay in the public sector’.

It also says much about trying to restore those services lost through the cuts including library and youth services as well as children’s centres.

As an anti-cuts and pro-NHS campaigner the manifesto is a real boost for those who recognise Labour as it should be.

Join us in our fight against the cuts.

Now I know that readers will write in an warn me that Labour supports the cuts too. But our mantra has always been not so deep and not so fast. True; the theme is to cut the deficit when many Trade Unions, socialists and anti-cuts campaigners argue whether that is even a necessity. But to them I say this: you may compromise your position, but by not supporting Labour you might well be gifting the next election to a stand-alone Tory government.

Now that’s one compromise too far.

And I won’t compromise the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, the very young, the workers for a position in an argument or an ideal. No matter how attractive that ideal is. The pragmatic compromise is to help build a nation against the injustice of Tory policies.

And then, within that victory go for the battle within to build socialism. But don’t jeopardise that victory on a principle alone. Go for the victory which benefits our nation. One nation together for all.

 

So, we have a re-shuffle in the ConDem government.

What does this mean to us locally?

On the face of it not much. In reality numerous mainstream media pundits see the changes as a move further to the right.

That means a consolidation of the awful Tory policies of cuts, cuts and cuts. Oh, and increasing private influence and profit on everything from schools to hospitals.

For his part Mark Harper MP has been promoted to the Ministry of State at the Home Office, taking over from Damian Green as minister for Immigration. Surely what that means for us, in the Dean, is even less representation in the House, as his Parliamentary career portfolio increases in importance and workload.

To start with an aside, it is my personal belief that the when a minister wins a portfolio, then either the second-place local candidate at the last election is assigned as constituency representative, or – even better – each Party also stand a reserve during the General Election: one to act as Parliamentary MP for the constituency in the House of Commons, the other to get on with the business of Government should they be selected. This latter idea might even help the media to focus on Party policy, not personality. But these are whims of fancy of my own.

Back to Harper. Our beloved Minister used to be listed as a member of the right-wing Freedom Association but matching his ascendency in Government is the removal of his name as a cited supporter of the pressure group’s website. Their 7 principles don’t directly target immigration, but they put all the other traditional Tory policies right at their heart. We might perhaps characterise those policies as rampant self-preservation.

But, the Tories yell, net migration is down [1]. Hurrah! Cry Daily Mail readers and the EDL. And I guess at least the Government is consistent on one thing: its attack on the poorest. By removing and reducing benefit to even those previously denied their role in society on medical grounds, the only jobs left in a recession will be exactly those low-paid, temporary jobs that previously could only be filled by workers from Eastern Europe. If those workers are denied access, then, great! The workforce the government feel is ripe to pick up the shortfall in labour will be those very same poor devils they’ve got the media to class universally as ‘benefit scroungers’. They will be forced to work in what pretty much amounts to near-slave-labour rates in the kind of poor working conditions we thought we got rid of in the Edwardian era, thanks to the Trade Union and labour movements.

Of course it will only be ‘benefit cheats’ and the ‘hoodies’ Cameron previously urged us to hug who will be doing that low paid work, not the tax cheats like investment bankers who brokered this worldwide economic downturn.

However, even immigration – which has to be the golden chalice of the right – is bungled by this lot. There’s been a 30% drop in student visas [2] to June this year, and even cases of forcing foreign students back from where they came before their courses have finished. In a climate of highest-ever fees for students yet reduced government funding for education, this Government is struggling to handle even its most prized policy. Perhaps Harper’s ability to dress up saving us from the selling-off of our Forests as something he did in the corridors of power has proven the skills necessary to navigate the morally tricky world of immigration control.

And what of Labour? Well, Chris Bryant MP who holds the shadow post of Harper states clearly: “Rather than preventing legitimate students our economy needs, the Government should focus on the worsening illegal immigration situation. We need to reverse the fall in deportation of those who break the rules, and the rise in people absconding through immigration controls.” [3]

But, despite his new role to protect this island from the invading hordes of scroungers, Mark cares a lot about our foreign friends. Well, he does if they come from Israel.

Harper is a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a position he shares with some 80% of fellow Tory MP’s [4]. CFI is one of the most dynamic lobby groups in Parliament. While the Arab world is in revolutionary turmoil, where neighbouring countries take the brunt of conflicts such as that in Syria, housing hundreds of thousands of families fleeing brutal murder, Mark and his friends are primarily concerned with keeping low paid jobs for low-paid British workers. The CFI lobby for their part is primarily concerned about business deals with friends like Israel, especially in the arms trade. For example, Israel and the UK have been working on a joint drone project for a number of years. Some of these were used on the 2008/09 drone attacks on Gaza.

[1] www.conservatives.com/News/News_stories/2012/08/Damian_Green_welcomes_figures_that_demonstrate_a_fall_in_net_migration.aspx

[2] ibid.

[3] http://www.labour.org.uk/worsening-illegal-immigration

[4] Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, Channel 4, Monday 16 November 2009

Why we need to shout ‘Post-New Labour’ is the Labour Party for us all

{a pre-release of my submitted article to the Forest Clarion issue #100, as part of my ‘Left Inside’ column}

Putting aside the debate about Ed Milliband’s populist immigration speech (as that deserves a whole article in its own right), the recent performance of Labour is otherwise a welcome shift to the left. While I might be convinced that I have joined a different party to that of the ‘New Labour’ period, it is with regret that the public are not so sure. And this poses our biggest single problem.

Here’s why I think I am in a ‘post-New Labour’ Labour Party.

For activists, one of the mistakes New Labour made was when it stifled inner party democracy. It created a gulf between those who made policy and those who fought to make it and, indeed, campaigned on it and lived by its principles.

Angela Eagle, the new Chair of the National Policy Forum, however, rightly seeks to redress this. She wrote to me stating that she understood “how frustrating it has been for those…with expertise, experience and ideas to engage in a meaningful way with the Party’s policy making process. That is why I’m so committed to changing it. We need to open it up, and give everyone a voice and a stake.”

Send your demands for a Labour Party policy programme more representative of its members’ wishes to PIP@labour.org.uk.

On the other hand, I read from the minutes from the FoD CLP Executive Committee meetings that its pre-occupation with the ownership of its meeting place in Lydney is still taking up precious time. All the while local people endure the most aggressively sustained attack on their livelihoods I for one have ever known. With backdoor taxes like refuse collection charges and parking charges, the danger of our community health services under threat of removal from the NHS, and our very woodlands returning to insecurity, now is the time for Labour to locally step up its game. In the face of an anti-democratic Council, local branches need to re-engage with the issues facing local people. Ownership of the boxing club site and whether local or national Labour hold the title to the site is, frankly, not on their agenda. We need to get it off ours!

Compare this to Andy Burnham and his team who, meanwhile, has done a great deal to expose the gap between Ministers’ rhetoric and what’s really happening in our NHS (read online at www.YourNHS.com) . The Tories are cutting 6,000 nurses, Labour pledges to protect them. One of the good things about the last Labour government was its investment in the NHS, with the net result that waiting-times were drastically cut. Under the Tories it is rising again.

Now that it is threatening the continuance of services of at least one hospital, Labour could do more to distance itself from the debacle of PFI (just one reason why I could never join New Labour), but in the meantime I am pleased with the 5 pledges: 1. Protect NHS founding values; 2. Prevent postcode lotteries; 3. Guard against longer waits; 4. Promote collaboration over competition; 5. Put patients before profits. The antithesis of these characterise the awful Health & Social Care Bill the Tories passed a few months ago. And that is why Labour has promised to repeal the Bill at the earliest opportunity. Only a Labour victory would enable us to do that.

Ed Balls too got it right on petrol duty. This saw the Tories cancel the expected hike the very same day Ed’s article appeared in the national press. “But the price of crude is down.” Argued John Humphreys on BBC Radio’s Today programme. Ed quickly reassured him that it may be down in the last month, but the price isn’t trickling down to the forecourts quick enough. To ordinary people, the price is still way too high, increasing the duty will make matters worse both for households and struggling industry. It might seem a long time ago we paid less than a £1 per litre but recently it got to nearly half that again.

My point is that Labour is at its best when it represents the ordinary lives of working people. The Shadow Cabinet is delivering on this. As long as Ed himself steers clear of pasties, we’re doing alright.

Our task, to all on the left, is to build confidence in this “post-New Labour” Labour so we can halt a Tory stronghold nationally and locally.

There is much to be done. It is up to us to move the national story away from the legacy of Blair and Brown and onto the party that truly reflects ordinary working people. This is the Party with the only viable chance of reversing the health bill, halting the attack on ordinary livelihoods, stopping the sell-off of our Forests and building against the kind of unfettered profiteering  Conservatism is ideologically grounded upon.

We started by looking at architecture, noting that postmodernism is two fingers to the rigid, utilitarian elegance of modernist forms and structures.

Philosophically, it is a fashionable utopia of no utopias. It labels a stylistic zeitgeist of a certain time, now past. The V&A call the era that “defies definition; an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, postmodernism was a visually thrilling multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.” [1]

It is an amorphous, wry dare to accept so many viewpoints and meanings as to be elusive and virtually meaningless. In its plurality of truths it resists a consensual truth upon which we can build knowledge, even if it requires a consensus to achieve its own existence.

Despite this ambiguous fluidity, it is remarkably linear in its succession of its predecessor. But this presents its first downfall. Where, for example, does one place the architecture of Gaudi? Was he a modernist, or a pre-Postmodernist? I don’t think we can just drop him into art nouveau on its own. Then compare to Hundtwerwasser’s building – is that postmodernism, or eco-modernism? Or new-wave nouveau?

And, at last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle, it struck me that its rise and fall is shadowed by the rise and fall of Western affluence.

Professor John Clarke, used the catalogue for the recent V&A exhibition on the art and style of Postmodernism as his starting point. Accordingly, postmodernism starts on 15th March 1972 with the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

This recalled Dominic Sandbrooks’ recent BBC2 series ‘The 1970s’ which touted a similar line and to some degree therefore corroborates the received wisdom that the decade of my childhood saw off the drab, utilitarian age of Modernism.

But this denies the purpose of many of those then-dream homes in the sky estates. Post-war Britain needed mass housing and the working class slums of the pre-war years failed to provide a model a modern Britain needed. As Le Corbusier says ‘The house is a machine for living…’ [2] In the same way you could say the NHS is a modernist idea: a modern state response to a problem facing society at large. And it was the right solution. It represented a modern yet utilitarian approach to healthcare, free at the point of need, invested in by the state – through National Insurance – to deliver a modern service for the modern age.

But postmodernism is a purely middle-class pre-occupation of the well-off and, as Prof. Clarke put it – it is often humorous and ‘superficial’. It cannot see the value in modernist expressions of utility, grace in form.

I can’t remember who it was (Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps) but a famous modern-era architect once suggested that they’ll never better the symmetry of the perfect utilitarian home: the snail’s shell.

For their part, a postmodernist would paint a ‘for rent’ sign on the snail. A witty aside. Perhaps even some well-placed cynicism of the commodity age. An expression. All these are well and good. But it pales compared to the natural symmetry of the snail ‘s home, which modernist strived to provide for fellow man.

So, what sounds like a permissive, liberal tendency comes across as a petulant, noisy show-off screaming for attention while the rest of us just get on with some work, try to make ends meet.

Even 9/11 – touted as the end of Postmodernism – is a uniquely Western perspective. Something dreadful has happened to us in the West so we arrogantly reassess our own preoccupation with the ‘designer decade’. And yet what was also missed by the postmodern story we heard last night, was that the year postmodernism begins (in  1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project), the two towers of the World Trade Centre are also completed. Here was see a very modernist structure.

Politically the anti-globalisation movement that came to maturity in Seattle 1999 tried the same amorphous approach favoured by the postmodernists, as has Occupy. Only to realise that without a programme, a shared vision of what is necessary then the demands of its movement will be lost in the noise of its complexity and variety. That is why the movement relented and finally published exactly that last week.

To be able to reflect oneself, one needs form. One needs a boundary that differentiates itself from the multiplicity of background.

Postmodernism is supposed to be liberal and a form of anti-authoritarian expression. It rejects the grand narratives. But look for a moment at cornerstone postmodern artworks like Mendini ‘s ‘Destruction of Lassu chair’ (photograph 1974) and you see a shouty rejection of the past, which seems to me remarkably authoritarian. Burning chairs OK? What about burning books? And if it’s not destroying stuff, it’s taking the piss. Does that make Monty Python pre-Postmodernists? The Goons? When does Dada end and postmodernism begin, then?

No this kind of anarchism exists without co-operation. It is self-indulgent relativism where every view of the world is valid but without consensus and coherence, useless and often meaningless.

Drawing on the NHS parallel I made earlier – where do we find ourselves now? In the boom-years of the 1980s, I imagine that private healthcare rocketed. People could afford to reject the state for something ‘better’. Conservative capitalism now reigns supreme. It even wants a slice of the state pie (and the Tories are giving it to them starting with the hideous Health & Social Welfare Reform Bill passed a couple of months ago).

To survive the post Postmodern age, conservative capitalism create an age of austerity. It must re-embrace the grand narratives of ‘isms. Conservatism.  Be it liberal conservatism or Christian conservatism. Professor Salvoj Zizek, meanwhile heralds the return of proper socialism – communism. But all these must seek out their place in the return of fundamentalisms.

THE TINTERN PHILOSOPHY CIRCLE MEETS EACH MONTH ON THE 3RD TUESDAY. WE ARE A PUB PHILOSOPHY GROUP, MEETING AT 7.30PM AT THE ROSE AND CROWN. WE ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHY PROFESSORS IN OUR GROUP, AS WELL AS A LIVELY AUDIENCE OF ACADEMICS, PROFESSIONALS AND LAY PEOPLE SUCH AS MYSELF.

NEXT MONTH’S MEET IS ON 18TH JUNE AND WILL BE LEAD BY PROFESSOR X OF CARDIFF UNIVERSITY (WHO LEADS THE PHILOSOPHY PHD PROGRAMME THERE, AND WHO IS A RESEARCH PROFESSOR ON DECONSTRUCTIONALISM AND A BIT OF A SPECIALIST ON JACQUES DERRIDA) BUT ON THIS OCCAISION WILL BE DISCUSSING THE TOPIC OF ‘PHILOSOPHY OF POETRY’.

IN JULY THE TOPIC CURRENTLY BEING CONSIDERED IS ‘MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES’.

 [1] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/postmodernism as at 16/5/12

[2] Vers une architecture, 1923

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

{a sample of my new Clarion column}

Welcome to my new column ‘Left Inside’. Here I seek to comment on the Labour Party issues nationally and locally that I, being of the left (in old money), am interested in and motivated by.

Please feel free to comment on-line or through our letters page. Remember, the Clarion is a debating paper!

WHY AN INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE WILL LOSE

Coalescing around the Save the Wilderness, anti-cuts and Save Our NHS/Local Hospital groups is the noise in the webosphere of standing an independent anti-cuts left candidate against our incumbent Tory MP, Mark Harper, in the next General Election.

To analyse this, we need to contextualise just who elects our MP. While activists and Party members also vote and push the debate, their numbers pale against the sheer size of the wider voting public. It is the voting people who we are to convince, whoever our candidate is.

And so, it is in my experience that there are two things that inform the vote of the wider, non-activist population. First, the national question: what does the Party stand for? By extension this will be a judgement of their performance if they are in Government, or, in opposition, their proposed programme and policies.

Then, secondly, there is the reputation of the Party locally. This will be communicated by policies adopted by the local Council (car parking charges, refuse collection etc.) and the strength and validity of the opposition.

On both of these, the Tories have a poor standing that any opposition would do well to exploit.

Nationally, there have been the cuts as well as a range of Bills to reform the public sector, the NHS, student fees and even welfare. These are a gift to any opposition candidate to the left of the ConDems.

An independent candidate will say they oppose and stand to reverse all of these things. But will they have the power to do so? No. Currently there are 23 members of Parliament who do not belong to one of the big 3 parties. They hold no majority and cannot even form a coalition strong enough to yield control. They are virtually mute.

But a Labour Candidate – that’s different. As the only other potential Parliamentary power, Labour has already said that it would repeal the Health & Social Care Bill at the first opportunity. An independent may have the same desire but there’s no way they’ll ever have the support and therefore the power to take the opportunity.

By the time the election comes around, the bite of the NHS reforms will begin to filter through. On that alone the public should rightly support the most realistic way of repealing this terrible Bill. And so should SOS and NHS campaigners, if they really want to change things.

LABOUR AND THE CUTS

But on the other issues, the ground is a bit murkier.

For sure, I for one am not at all comfortable with the Parliamentary Party acknowledging the need for the cuts. But at least their mantra is both more logical and liberal, with the ‘not so deep and not so fast’, and backed up with a plan for public works.

Of course a Labour candidate has to balance the national policy of his Party with his own conscience.  But let’s face it, the Labour approach HAS to better than the alternative: another 4 years of Toryism. To deny this is to gift the win to the enemy.

But that does not mean our Labour candidate or their supporters have to accept the cuts as a premise. Indeed, publicly you can support the national line and use that public platform to qualify your own scepticism of the policy – as people like John McDonell do well – while privately joining in anti-cuts activism within or out of the LP. I reject the idea that to oppose the cuts you have to be out of the LP. It makes no sense.

As for the independent? They’ll have the moral high ground for sure, but still no power to form bills and create legislation, let alone implement their policies. A Labour government would at least slow the cuts and not make them as deep, as a minimum. Then it is up to the Trade Unions and LP members to push harder to compel the Parliamentary Party to go further still with their reversals and repeals, whilst taking stock of where the international economy lies there and then.

Let’s not forget, it was Milliband who observed that the 2012 budget gave to millionaires while it took from millions of pensioners. The Labour Party is the party that truly represents a realistic chance of halting the progress of the Tory agenda. The voice of the independent is lost even locally. All that they achieve is a split in the vote for the left, endangering the very policies that could reverse what they fight to oppose.

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

Most if not all the campaigns and struggles that I have been involved with have failed. But as any seasoned fellow traveller will tell you, that alone is not a reason enough to give up the fight. It only begs that we fight harder.

One way to do this is to learn from our campaigns. Forest of Dean Against the Cuts spearheaded the local SOS Again campaign, seeking to keep local community health services within the NHS. It opposed the formation of Gloucestershire Care Services (GCS) as a non-NHS, non-public sector provider of local health services.

But it was the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Morning Star group which kicked off local opposition against the savage cuts in public spending with UNISON’s Peter Short taking some of the lead. After a couple ofmonths we connected with a fledgling Forest of Dean group. Both sent coaches to the March 2011 march for Public Services in London, which was still seeing activists arrive at Hyde Park as the speeches came to a close at about 4pm that afternoon.

The Forest side of the Morning Star group joined what had now become Forest of Dean Against the Cuts. But the national movement faltered. For sure, UK-Uncut was doing good work with their bail-in’s against legal tax loop-holers like Vodafone, but it was Pete Stanway of the Forest group who brought to the local agenda the issue of community hospitals and health services that were under direct threat through the creation of GCS.

GCS had all the right acronyms: it was to be a CIC(Community Interest Company) created in the guidelines of the SET (Social Enterprise Trust). But, as we warned, GCS was not a charity, and it was not part of the NHS. And it was not in the public sector even, irrespective of how it classified its surplus, not for profit or otherwise.

FoD Against the Cuts bailed-in into Lydney Tesco to highlight the price of public sector cuts, which would, of course, affect the health budget. Meanwhile Tesco was named amongst the biggest legal tax avoiders. There was an almost weekly rant by the group’s activists in the letters pages of the local press, and gradually the profile of our opposition was steadily raised. We were aware, however, that we couldn’t fight a battle on two fronts. The national NHS reform bill and public sector cuts were an entirely different issue to the formation of GCS. What was happening locally was, instead, a warning of what would happen nationally under the reform bill. Either way, the GCS takeover would happen irrespective of whichever way Parliament would vote on the national issue.

So, the takeover of formerly NHS-run local community health services by GCS became the sole preoccupation of the group, which was guided by the 1st October 2011 go-live of the new company.

We believed that few people knew of this out-sourcing, and ever fewer had had the opportunity to voice their opposition to the most fundamental change to our local community NHS health services.

Out of this anxiety and tight deadline arose our first strategic error. In a rush to oppose the formation of GCS we were sloppy with our wording of the petition. It referred to the ‘privatisation of community services’ with specific reference to Lydney and the Dilke hospitals. In my opinion the word ‘privatised’ is publicly loaded with ‘profit’, and this is exactly as Harper read it, and rejected it. Thus when we presented the 2,000 or so signatures to Mark Harper MP, he discounted the claim out of hand and would not countenance any public debate precisely because of the petitions’ wording.

Granted, a Tory MP is unlikely to rebel against his own government on the national issue (of the NHS reform bill), but on the local issue of GCS we at least had Harper on the fact that he had come out in favour of the SOS campaign first time around, when he was in opposition. What should have been awkward and embarrassing for him was brushed aside because of his rejection of our petitions’ claim. No wonder he was happy to write and explain this personally to all 2,000 who had opposed the take-over.

We argued that the spirit of the petition revealed that there was a real fear among the public, that the overwhelming majority of those asked to sign did so gladly and had heard nothing of GCS and the changes –highlighting the lack of proper consultation. But while this enabled us to dissect his position, it still didn’t change the fact of the petition’s wording which is how he was obliged to accept it. Incidentally, when pushed on why he wouldn’t hold a public meeting and/or debate on the topic he simply declined saying ‘He didn’t have to,’ and ‘Didn’t want to.

Our meeting with Harper wasn’t helped by a number of us seeking to oppose both the local issue and the national NHS reform bill at the same time. This presented a mish-mash of opposition based on ideology alone, not solid argument. He clearly thought we opposed what was happening by default and took none of our claims seriously. These two separate issues was used by Harper to belittle our concerns for attempting to mix them. Despite assurances that we knew they were separate we failed to present a coherent opposition at that meeting and had no solid demands of our MP. He was good enough to entertain our views for 45 minutes or so, but that was the extent of it. Otherwise we had handed him a useless petition which he would rebuff in his own letters to signatories, and without a voice for our argument.

Bruised but undeterred we sought to organise our own public meeting. We arranged good speakers from both the Royal College of Nursing and UNISON NHS.

But here again, we failed to present an entirely coherent front sending mixed messages over whether or not people should challenge GCS execs at a forthcoming presentation to the Dean Health Forum, for example.

We did, at least, have a letter prepared on the national issue and Diana Gash personally delivered the letters to Harper’s Westminster office on the day of the Bill’s next reading in Parliament. But Harper was undeterred and supported the Bill’s onward progress.

Someone in the audience that night raised what seemed like an odd question at the time, asking why hadn’t we done something before? October by that point was barely weeks away. This seemed obtuse – we are all voluntary activists trying to do what we can with what we have – but, on hindsight, it was a point well made, even if the questioner didn’t realise how pertinent their enquiry actually was.

In fact, the issue only came to light after we had repeatedly been fed by GCS and its allies that the decision to outsource the services was not made by GCS, but by the board of the Gloucestershire Primary Care Trust (PCT) and that we had to direct our questions and opposition to them.

In what I see as the last days of the local campaign, we finally got to the nub of the problem and it all began with New Labour. In reality we had missed the policy created by the former government which gave rise to GCS, and the legislation which sought to split commissioning of services with provision. The stark reality is that we had missed the point at which our opposition should have started.

The original SOS campaign had halted closures of our community hospitals, but in its wake the New Labour government had created the NHS Operating Framework (in2010). This sought to split PCT commissioning so that they couldn’t be providers and commissioners of their services at the same (you will recall the new NHS reform bill seeks to achieve this with GP commissioning and ‘any willing provider’). This has left the door wide open for what many see as creeping privatisation in the NHS.

All of this should have been uncovered at the start of our campaign. We had passion and anger in spades, but I feel we failed to take responsibility for our claims and for the detail. Of course, as a member of the group I too hold that responsibility and had failed.

We missed the boat and should have opposed the original policy and legislation first came into being. Perhaps it was – but I am unaware of any such local attempt to oppose it, and therefore any such attempt failed.

It was all too little too late. We had some victories, though. Ironically, the local Labour Party executive issued a statement against the formation of GCS, pushed by our lobbying of it.

As the countdown to the 1st October transfer finally came a last minute legal challenge seems to have postponed GCS at the last breath. This seeks to oppose the transfer based on irregularities of the tendering process. But in a letter issued to GCS staff on the back of the challenge, the PCT said: “If taken to its logical conclusion the challenge would mean that community services would be competitively tendered with the result that bodies both within and outside the NHS sector could respond.

Well, YES, that was kind of OUR point, which is why we were worried. We don’t want private companies wading in. But you can be sure the PCT will hide behind the policy instruments. Even if we won that contest, we’d actually be bringing forward our worst fears. It is a risky strategy.

Perhaps a groundswell will enable us to oppose the national policy now – now that we can see the consequences of it. But I rather doubt we will get the Tories to reverse it when their national NHS reform bill seeks to put the GCS project example into legislation at best, ‘any willing provider’ at worst.

The lesson learned is that we came to the argument too late. For sure, we asked GCS some embarrassing questions in public meetings and got about 100 people to our own meeting at the Miner’s Welfare Hall. But the question really was spot on when it was asked ‘Why haven’t we done anything before?’

This is more philosophical than it first appears.

How is it possible for activists let alone concerned citizens to be aware of all policies, legislation and boardroom decisions and their ramifications all of the time? Whose duty is it to impart this information? How accessible is this information, both physically and intellectually? How can we hold governments and local public bodies to account, particularly when policies go across the floor from Parliament to Parliament even with a change of government?

Perhaps it is this powerlessness which is truly the best example of what it really means to be living in a ‘Broken Britain’.

Perhaps it is from this powerlessness that the ‘occupy’ movement is drawn. The anti-war march of 2003 proved that marching alone probably isn’t enough anymore.

This is a personal view and does NOT represent the views of Forest of Dean Against the Cuts, The Clarion or the SOS Again campaign. On the national NHS reform Bill, please ensure you write to as many Lords as you can to ensure they don’t allow the Bill to proceed.