Starving working class kids – a grand old Tory tradition

The pandemic has revealed many of the stress points in British society, it has laid bare the damage that 40 years of neoliberalism have done to the functioning and capacity of the state, and it has shown that the incompetence and arrogance of the British ruling elite is matched only by their complete lack of interest in the wellbeing of ordinary people.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the revelation of the miserable, starvation-level rations being doled out to children instead of the free school meals they would have had if their school was not closed. These ‘poverty picnics‘ as the food campaigner and chef Jack Monroe described them, produced by Chartwell (a subsidiary of transnational Compass) have been roundly condemned as completely inadequate and wildly over-priced.

The resulting public uproar included condemnation from the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who tweeted:

Whoever thinks it is ok to send out bits of vegetables and fruit like this AND scraps of other food in what seems to be money bags is very wrong. Imagine thinking that the saving to be made on half a carrot was worth it or that it might be hygienic enough to send out fish in bags

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Even Keir Starmer was moved to describe these ‘woefully inadequate free school meal parcels’ as ‘a disgrace.’ He went on to ask ‘Where is the money going?’ But it seems pretty clear that the money is going into the profits of Chartwell and its parent company.

A more alert Leader of the Opposition would have used the opportunity to demand of the Tories that meals packs are replaced by cash or if meals packs are used at all, they should be of high quality and standards monitored by committees of local authorities, parents, schools and pupils. He should also have demanded that companies responsible for this are immediately removed from any tender list and blacklisted for all future public sector contracts and that all free school meals provision is urgently moved in-house as the first stage of bringing all school meals provision in-house (both during and post-pandemic) with all children being provided with free school meals.

Naturally, the Tories will claim that this is unaffordable. They are, of course, wrong but after the last nine months of billion pound crony contracting, the Tories are in a completely indefensible position. Even before they showed that the state is easily able to afford huge amounts of public spending when the will is there, it was always affordable as Finland has shown that free, high quality, municipally provided school meals are not only affordable but feasible and effective, and has done so since 1948.

The state has always had to be pushed into taking action to benefit working class communities, especially over issues like children’s school meals – the latest case before this one being the campaign headed by Marcus Rashford, who shamed the government into action last year.

Like many public services, school meals exist partly because of the campaigns of the labour movement and partly because there are advantages to the state in ensuring that a minimum level of support exists for working class families. Few realise that the origin of school meals in the UK goes back to the discovery by the British military that the average working class recruit for their colonial wars were so malnourished and unhealthy that the height requirement had to be reduced for recruitment of troops for the Boer War of 1899-1902. Only one in nine prospective recruits were healthy enough to sign up. In response to this the government of the day set up the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which led directly to the Education (Provision of Meals) Act in 1906.

Healthy children were seen as an investment for tomorrow’s workers and soldiers and school meals were a way of ameliorating malnutrition. The legislation was minimalist in that it did not compel local authorities to do anything; it simply allowed them to provide school meals. But if they did so, there were limits. An expenditure limit was set by central government, the money had to be raised locally from the rates. Free or reduced charge school meals could only be provided for those children identified by medical experts as malnourished, all other children had to pay at least the costs of the meal.

Some elements of the ruling class already knew about the dire impact of poverty and malnutrition on the nation’s children and some reformers – often led by socialists – pushed for change. But a slow realisation of the impact of food poverty and a grudging acceptance that something had to be done, only gained support among the Boris Johnsons of the day when they realised that it was jeopardising British capitalism’s efficient working and recruitment for the imperial army.

Compulsory education was introduced throughout Britain in 1880 with the Elementary Education Act (it was already law in Scotland) and this revealed the extent of malnutrition in children. If compulsory education was part of the need to create the disciplined, literate and numerate workforce required for industrial production, then the fact that (as the 1906 Act explained) many children were ‘unable by reason of lack of food to take advantage of the education provided for them’ demanded action.

In Scotland, the provision of hot meals at school was in part a deliberate inducement for school attendance and compliance with the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872. In his study of poverty in York, the Quaker philanthropist, Rowntree commented in 1902: ‘The relation of food to industrial efficiency is so obvious and so direct as to be a commonplace among students of political economy’.

So there was an instrumentality about the highlighting of food poverty, even among the liberal social reformers of the time. This was a major feature of school meals provision in this first phase. The instrumentality of the ruling class went side by side with the campaigning of the labour movement. Like many public services and reforms, the school meals service was a contested area with different objectives for the representatives of the different classes. The 1906 Bill to introduce school meals was proposed by a Labour MP. It became the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act and was part of a range of social legislation (including reforms relating to occupational health, housing and national insurance) brought in by the Liberal government. Fred Jowett, elected Labour MP for Bradford in 1906, made his maiden speech on school meals saying: ‘Education on an empty stomach is a waste of time’. The Liberals overcame their fear that provision of school meals could undermine family responsibilities (an early example of the ‘nanny state’ argument) because they were more nervous about the developing labour movement. To a certain extent these reforms were a response to trade union pressure from outside Parliament.

The second phase began with the 1944 Education Act and compared with what preceded it, was a revolutionary change, embodying the new welfare state approach which was to define the 1945 Labour government and the political consensus for the next 35 years.

All Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were obliged to provide school meals and milk in primary and secondary schools. The authors of the legislation intended that school meals should be an integral part of the school day. In the spirit of the times, this was a universalist, national system. It was a move away from a system designed to feed the very poorest – a safety net against malnutrition – into a national scheme for all children. Nutritional standards were based on those established in 1941 by a team of nutritionists (incidentally the first ever national minimum nutritional standards in Britain), a standard price was stipulated across the whole country and school meals had to be suitable as the main meal of the day, providing children with one third of their daily requirements of nutrients and energy. LEAs’ new powers were not limited just to the provision of school lunches. They were allowed to provide other meals and to continue the service on weekends and holidays. The act was based on the experience of the inter-war and wartime years.

Even before 1939, it was clear that the school feeding model was inadequate, but during the war, several issues brought the need for change into sharp focus: rationing failed to meet the special needs of children; civic catering facilities were set up in response to bombing and consequent population movement, including children’s evacuations; meals provided at school became a necessity for many families as women filled the gaps in the labour market caused by men’s conscription; and the new family allowance included free school meals and free school milk.

This welfare state approach based on collective and universal provision, rested on a view of citizenship with rights and entitlements. Like much of the rest of the welfare state, at its best it was revolutionary, where it fell down was in an excess of paternalism and an absence of direct democracy. Nevertheless, children were seen as citizens in post war reconstruction – perhaps more accurately future citizens or children of citizens. It was a long way from the reluctant abandonment of laissez faire that characterised the 1906 act, and this welfarist approach survived until 1980.

The Conservative election victory in 1979 was a turning point for school meals provision like every other public service in the UK. But this change did not come without warning. After the 1973 oil crisis and the resulting end of the long post war boom, there was an increasing questioning of the welfare state in Britain. Pressure on public spending increased, especially after the then Labour government called on International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and was obliged to accept IMF economic direction.

The election of the Thatcher government saw an overt rejection by government of the ideas behind the welfare state, of which the school meals service was a small but important component. It was part of the highly unionised local government sector. Not only that, but it was a very clear example of the post war Labour government’s welfarist approach which – at its best – saw a service like school meals as having a multi-functional role against poverty, disease and malnutrition and as a contribution to health, education and social welfare provision. And most irritiating of all for the Tories, it was a non-market area of service provision that potentially could be remodelled, contracted out and the service commodified.

Thatcher saw public ownership or public services and strong unions as the twin props of ‘socialism’. In her 1993 autobiography, she described privatisation as:

… one of the central means of reversing the corrosive effects of socialism… Just as nationalisation was at the heart of the collectivist programme by which Labour governments sought to remodel British society, so privatisation is at the centre of any programme of reclaiming territory for freedom.

The 1980 Education Act was a part of this drive to begin to remove the state from various aspects of life in Britain. It relegated school meals to a non-essential service, removed the obligation on LEAs to provide school meals (except for those pupils entitled to free meals). It obliged schools to provide somewhere for pupils to eat a packed lunch. Before this, heads had the power to prevent pupils bringing packed lunches to school. Nutritional standards were abolished and fixed pricing was ended.

The 1986 Social Security Act introduced restrictions on eligibility for free school meals. Rules were tightened again in 1992. In each case thousands of school children lost the right to a free meal. The 1986 act limited entitlement to free school meals to children whose families received income support and was removed from those receiving family credit. This resulted in 400,000 children losing entitlement to free school meals.

The 1988 Local Government Act saw the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) that forced LEAs to put school meals services out to tender. This drove down prices and quality, regardless of whether the service was contracted out or not, as local authorities were obliged to let the contract to the tender offering the cheapest price. Local authorities were also prohibited from ‘anti-competitive behaviour’ through the use of contract compliance or any reference to ‘non-commercial matters’. In other words, local authorities could not require bidders to meet certain standards seen as not directly related to the service, such as the pay and conditions of the workforce.

At around this period, secondary schools turned to cash cafeterias and away from traditional school canteens serving a standard lunch. Rising prices (following the abolition of national pricing) was combined with a significant drop in the proportions of pupils taking school meals – from 64% in 1979 to 47% in 1988. With no obligatory nutritional standards, schools increasingly used their meals service as a revenue generator. In order to maximise sales, much of the same poor quality food as available in high street fast food outlets appeared in school cafeterias. Under the banner of ‘choice’, schools moved from a system in which the school children had access to a regulated, standard provision to individual consumers selecting from a range of alternatives, although the focus on the consumer was much less important than the focus on reducing public expenditure.

Things did improve with the election of a Labour government in 1997. Eventually more money was made available to local authorities, nutritional standards were brought back, devolved administrations also improved the service in a number of ways. But there was considerable unease about the limitations of the reforms. The Labour government largely retained contracting out of local government services (under the rubric of ‘Best Value’) and with its evangelical attitude to PFI, usually welded into the new schools’ service, the contracting out of services like school cleaning and catering. With the latter, one of the major problems was that many, if not most, PFI schools were built without a ‘prime’ kitchen where food could be cooked from scratch and so relied on ‘regeneration’ kitchens that simply reheated cook-chill dishes made on a different day in a different place.

The damage by the Tories under Thatcher and Major was not reversed under Blair and Brown. Since then school meals have predictably suffered further under the Tories. Contracting out and cuts in funding have seen a combination of unsatisfactory standards and mediocre food for school students and precarious work, low pay, deskilling, and a lack of training for school meals staff.

The current scandal around the laughably described ‘food hampers’ should be used by Labour and the main unions representing what’s left of the unionised workforce (UNISON and GMB) to revitalise the school meals service. It is a small example of how a de-commodified service could and should operate. It is part of the long tradition of collective responses to individual problems. As the late Wales First Minister Rhodri Morgan pointed out in 2002, the school meals movement was not simply a battle against malnutrition:

… the Fabian Society launched its pamphlet And They Shall Have Flowers on the Table in Cardiff at the turn of the last century. The title of that pamphlet made it clear that school dinners were to be a social and educational experience, as well as one which provided food for families where that was badly needed.

Services like school meals should be examples of the sort of combined national and local campaign focus that Labour needs to adopt in the four years between now and the next election. Where necessary, local authorities need to be pressurised to provide the sort of high quality service that is required. Labour in Parliament needs to use the public attention to press for the necessary funding. Local parties and unions should link up with parents groups, environmentalists, public health and child welfare campaigners to push the many sided benefits of taking school meals out of the market and using the service as part of a publicly provided, locally produced and sourced, sustainable, democratic, healthy public service.

Note: Much of the historical section of the above is based on a pamphlet that I wrote for UNISON – School Meals, markets and quality

Corbyn, the Parliamentary whip and party democracy

13 December 2020

Britain is in a crisis like no other in its history. It’s not alone of course, the whole world is caught up in a multi-faceted and interlinked crisis of health, economy and climate. Arguably Britain is in a worse position even than many other countries because of the failures and priorities of the UK government with its focus on short term profit rather than long term health (of both the population and the economy), its apparent inability to even carry out its own programme with a modicum of efficiency and the looming problems of Brexit. With the relief of the possibility of a vaccine being available soon, some attention is shifting to the economy and the likelihood of 2.5 million people being unemployed in the very near future as a result of the biggest economic downturn in 300 years.

At just such a moment Keir Starmer and his appointed General Secretary David Evans have chosen to plunge the Labour party into renewed internal battles. Meanwhile the Conservative government has a clear run in framing the key debates about the future of the country both during and after the pandemic.

When Corbyn was leader, Labour’s attempts to deal with antisemitism within its ranks were dogged by internal sabotage from the party bureaucracy, insensitivity and failures of leadership, and bad faith, disingenuousness, half-truths and lies from critics of the leadership – both inside and outside the party. As the EHRC report acknowledges, from 2018 when Jennie Formby replaced the anti-Corbyn Iain McNicol as Labour general secretary, disciplinary procedures were improved, the process was speeded up and complaints were being dealt with more efficiently.

For most of the period that Corbyn was leader, both the current leader, Keir Starmer and the current deputy leader, Angela Rayner, were in his Shadow Cabinet. Rayner even supported Corbyn in his second leadership election that he won against Owen Smith. So both of them were happy to remain as Shadow Cabinet members for virtually the entire period covered by the EHRC report on antisemitism within the Labour party. A year ago, they both campaigned for Corbyn to become the Prime Minister. While a Shadow Cabinet member, Rayner defended Corbyn saying:

If I felt that Jeremy Corbyn accepted that abuse in our party, I wouldn’t be in it. I wouldn’t be in his Shadow Cabinet. I don’t believe that’s the case, Jeremy Corbyn has fought antisemitism, he’s fought racism all his life and he’s proud of that record and we will continue as a party to fight against that.

As late as the leadership hustings in 2019, Keir Starmer was defending Corbyn against the attacks made against him during the election. If they believed that Corbyn was responsible for widespread antisemitism within the Labour party, why did they remain in the Shadow Cabinet, why did they defend Corbyn in public, why did they campaign for him to become Prime Minister?

In December 2019, Jeremy Corbyn led the main Opposition party in Britain. Less than a year later, he was suspended by that party, readmitted, then thrown out of the Parliamentary Labour Party despite being a member of the Labour Party and a Member of Parliament. Such is the swing to the right and both the ruthlessness and incoherence of the Starmer leadership.

Now both Starmer and Rayner cite their determination to ‘root out antisemitism’ as justification for their attacks on Corbyn and threats of suspension of anyone within the party who defends Corbyn, or questions the justice of his exclusion from the PLP, or demands the right to discuss these questions at local party meetings or queries the role of the general secretary. Starmer has succeeded in turning a debate on how to eradicate antisemitism within the party into an attack on internal party democracy.

So instead of discussing the fight against antisemitism within the democratic structures of the party, the former leader remains outside the PLP, local parties are instructed not to discuss certain motions which are deemed to be antisemitic and local party voluntary officers are suspended.

As if to emphasise that John McDonnell’s call for ‘common sense and compromise’ has little chance in Starmer’s new model army, on 23 November, Nick Brown, the Labour chief whip, wrote to Corbyn, ostensibly about his response to the EHRC report into antisemitism in the Labour party (the letter was released to the press ‘in the interests of transparency’, see below). At every stage the party leadership has deepened the divisions within the party rather than worked to resolve them.

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8979687/Labours-chief-whip-demands-Jeremy-Corbyn-unequivocally-apologises.html

Starmer says that he doesn’t want a purge and the general secretary says that he has ‘no desire at all to hamper discussion by our local parties’ and yet that is exactly what it looks like. It is worth examining Brown’s letter, the subsequent emails from party officials to local parties and the latest statements from the party leadership to see how things have moved from the supposed objective of dealing with antisemitism to an attack on party democracy and the Left.

In his letter, Chief Whip Brown summarises what he sees as the key points of the EHRC report and then draws attention to Corbyn’s statement in response to it on 29 October, in particular this section:

One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.

He interprets this as Corbyn believing ‘…that the implications of this form of racism are ‘exaggerated’ and that it is media reporting of that racism, rather than the actual impact on its victims, that hurt Jewish people…’ Even on its own terms, this interpretation is flawed. Corbyn clearly does not say that ‘this form of racism’ is ‘exaggerated’. He says that the ‘scale of the problem’ was ‘dramatically overstated’ by political opponents and much of the media. If the media were simply ‘reporting’ racism, that would not represent any kind of overstatement at all. But more than this, Brown does not place the extract from Corbyn’s statement in its context, as you can see from the full statement below.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/330250343871/posts/my-statement-following-the-publication-of-the-ehrc-reportantisemitism-is-absolut/10158939532253872/

The full section reads as follows:

The EHRC’s report shows that when I became Labour leader in 2015, the Party’s processes for handling complaints were not fit for purpose. Reform was then stalled by an obstructive party bureaucracy. But from 2018, Jennie Formby and a new NEC that supported my leadership made substantial improvements, making it much easier and swifter to remove antisemites. My team acted to speed up, not hinder the process.

Anyone claiming that there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left.

Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.

One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.

In context, the paragraph quoted by Brown assumes a different character. The ‘combination’ that Corbyn refers to and recognises as hurting Jewish people is not simply the overstatement of the scale of the problem by political opponents and the media, but rather the party’s own failure to deal with a very real problem of antisemitism within the party (exacerbated by a hostile party bureaucracy in whose hands lay the responsibility for running the complaints procedure); the failure of Corbyn’s leadership to overcome the internal problems and deal with it quickly and thoroughly enough; and the overstatement by opponents of the scale of the problem. That is the ‘combination’ to which Corbyn refers and which he recognises ‘hurt Jewish people’ and for which he expresses regret.

Just to underline these points, Corbyn issued a further statement on 17 November:

Source: https://www.facebook.com/JeremyCorbynMP/posts/last-month-i-was-suspended-from-the-labour-party-after-54-years-membership-and-f/10158985718038872/

In it he said:

We must never tolerate antisemitism or belittle concerns about it. And that was not my intention in anything I said this week. I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”.

This statement was issued shortly before Corbyn was readmitted to the Labour party, the suspension lifted and the disciplinary action dropped by the sub-committee of the NEC (presumably after Labour’s legal advice revealed that the case was based on sand). However, after protests led by Margaret Hodge, Starmer appeared to go back on what looked to be the result of a negotiated settlement of the issue and refused to restore Corbyn’s membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Having failed in a disciplinary approach, he opted for a political one, and the letter from Nick Brown was sent to Corbyn.

So the focus returned to Corbyn’s statement in response to the publication of the EHRC report on 29 October. Brown demanded from Corbyn the following:

Will you unequivocally, unambiguously and without reservation apologise for your comments made on the morning of 29 October 2020, in particular for saying ‘One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’, which caused such distress and pain to Jewish members of the Labour Party and the wider Jewish community?

Can you confirm that you will be complying immediately with the request of the sub-panel of the Labour Party NEC’s Disputes Panel by either removing the Facebook post or editing it to remove the sentence indicated?

Can you give me an assurance that you will cooperate fully with the Labour Party as it seeks to implement the recommendations set out in the EHRC report.

The last demand is just thrown in for ballast as Corbyn stated on the day of the publication of the EHRC report: ‘I trust its recommendations will be swiftly implemented…’ The second demand tries to force Corbyn to remove or edit his statement – despite this evidently not being necessary for his suspension to be lifted.

And finally, the first demand does three things. First, it once again takes a section of the statement out of context in order to make it appear more stark and careless in relation to the Jewish community. Second, it highlights Corbyn’s claim that ‘the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’ as though this is self-evidently offensive nonsense and special pleading from Corbyn. Third, it demands that Corbyn ‘unequivocally, unambiguously and without reservation apologise’. This ignores that in his original statement on 29 October, Corbyn did apologise. He said: ‘I regret that it took longer to deliver that change [dealing with antisemitism within the party] than it should’. In his second statement on 17 November he apologised again: ‘I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”’.

But Brown (obviously acting for Starmer) wants Corbyn to apologise for the statement that ‘the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’. They clearly feel that this is a strong argument, and yet the weakness of it is exposed by the extraordinary lengths they are prepared to go to shut down debate on it within the party.

It also explains why Starmer and others repeatedly misquote Corbyn to make it appear that he (and by implication the Left more widely) does not accept that there is a problem with antisemitism within the party. In response to the publication of the EHRC report on 29 October, Starmer said:

And if – after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party. That it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack. Then, frankly, you are part of the problem too. And you should be nowhere near the Labour Party either.

At the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 29 November, Starmer went even further. From a possible problem a month earlier, he now identified it as widespread within the party:

Denialism is a real problem. We have people who say and do antisemitic things and we obviously have to take action against them but we also have a group of people who deny there’s a problem, say it’s exaggerated or it’s factional. And that is just as bad. Denying there’s a problem is part of the problem and that’s been a big feature of the last five years and it’s always concerned me that you’ve got a group of people who are antisemitic and then you’ve got a bigger group of people who deny there’s a problem, say it’s exaggerated.

Disregarding the fact that both Starmer and Rayner managed to play leadership roles in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, despite ‘denialism’ being ‘a big feature of the last five years’, Angela Rayner, at the same conference, said ‘If I have to suspend thousands and thousands of members, we will do that’. Not only is this a bizarre threat to make on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, but it does exactly what the EHRC report warns Labour against: ‘it is not legitimate for the leadership to influence, make recommendations, or make decisions on complaints outside of the formal complaints process’ (p.49).

It is one thing to take moves to eradicate a problem of antisemitism within the party by responding to a fairly measured report, the recommendations of which have been generally welcomed, but this is now a general offensive against the Left with the focus on Corbyn as the symbol of the politics of the party between 2015 and 2019.

There has been so much dishonesty and bad faith in the antisemitism furore with many on the right of the party wilfully and cynically taking the genuine problem of antisemitism and collapsing that into the Israel/Palestine debate and a general assault on left policies. Sometimes that has taken ludicrous forms, such as the outburst of Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh on the Today programme on 4 March 2019. John Humphrys asked her whether she believed that the Labour party was taking antisemitism ‘properly seriously’.  She replied:

I’m not sure that some people in the Labour Party can. Because it’s very much part of their politics, of hard left politics, to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital. Ergo you are anti-Jewish people.

Humphrys pushed on this and asked ‘In other words, to be anti-capitalist you have to be antisemitic?’, to which she replied ‘Yes’. She tried to row back a little from this by saying ‘not everybody’ but if ever there was a factional use of antisemitism to smear a large section of the membership (and thereby overstate the problem), then here it is.

More common was the frequent and widespread overstatement of the extent of antisemitism within the party from opponents of Corbyn both inside and outside the party and enthusiastically taken up (and often initiated) by a hostile media. This is irrefutable and therefore should be uncontroversial. Rayner agreed that the extent was overstated (but she argues that it isn’t the point, about which more later):

to suggest that it’s a small number in the Labour party, while that might be true, it’s completely unacceptable to not understand the hurt and the distress

She seems unable to accept that it is perfectly possible to recognise the poisonous nature of antisemitism within the party (particularly in its impact on Jewish members and supporters) and how essential it is to deal with it and also at the same time to have a sense of perspective about the extent of it. Senior party figures often appear as though they haven’t actually read the EHRC report and that reveals quite a lot. Had they done so, they would have seen the very clear statement that

Article 10 [of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) protecting freedom of expression] will protect Labour Party members who, for example… express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law.

And that

Statements made by elected politicians have enhanced protection under Article 10 (p. 27)

Meanwhile the media have shown a complete lack of interest in even raising the question of whether what Corbyn said was correct. It is accepted as self-evident that it is false (presumably because to investigate further would reveal their culpability). In fact it is an easy task to find numerous examples that confirm Corbyn’s claim that the extent of antisemitism was overstated for political purposes.

The Tories are never slow to spot an opportunity to kick a wounded opponent, particularly if the wound is self-inflicted. While Prime Minister, Theresa May accused Corbyn of allowing antisemitism to ‘run rife’ in the party. The then Chancellor Sajid Javid described Labour as ‘riddled’ with antisemitism under Corbyn. Health Secretary, Matt Hancock compared Corbyn to Hitler when he said that if he became Prime Minister he would be the ‘first antisemitic leader of a western nation since the Second World War’. Leading Conservative commentator and Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer claimed on LBC radio that Corbyn ‘wants to reopen Auschwitz’. Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign Secretary, continued with this line of attack:

When I went to Auschwitz I rather complacently said to myself, “thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that kind of thing happening in the UK” and now I find myself faced with the leader of the Labour Party who has opened the door to antisemitism in a way that is truly frightening.

The media coverage of Labour’s antisemitism problem was widespread, prolonged and relentless. Antisemitism in a major political party deserves nothing less, but almost all of the mainstream media ran major articles, often front page headlines repeatedly highlighting bogus claims that the Labour party was over-run with antisemitism (and incidentally almost all ignored the actual racist leading the Conservative party). As a few examples, The Mail on Sunday carried a claim that Corbyn is the ‘biggest global threat to Jews’, The Express that Corbyn was the ‘world’s worst antisemitism enabler’. The Sun urged the electorate not to vote Labour and see ‘Corbyn’s antisemitic thugs taking power’. Three Jewish publications led by the Jewish Chronicle carried a joint editorial warning of ‘the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government’.

Corbyn’s opponents within the party echoed these claims – however far-fetched they knew them to be. Instead of concentrating on helping to deal with the very real instances of antisemitism in the party, they seemed more animated in exaggerating the extent of the problem by pointing to cases of antisemitic behaviour by people outside of the Labour party or by claiming that certain actions were antisemitic when they clearly were not. The Jewish Labour Movement described the Labour Party as ‘institutionally antisemitic’, something the EHRC signally did not do.

Margaret Hodge MP, the parliamentary chair of the JLM called Corbyn a ‘fucking antisemite’ and a ‘racist’ for what she regarded as his wilful failure to deal with antisemitism. As ‘proof’ she presented the party with a dossier of what she said was 200 cases of antisemitism that needed to be dealt with. Jenny Formby the general secretary examined them and reported to the PLP:

… regarding a dossier submitted with 200 examples. The 200 examples do not relate to 200 separate individuals. They relate to 111 individuals reported of whom only 20 were members.

Her dossier was meant to be an example of the huge scale of the problem and the failure of the party but Hodge unwittingly provided a small example of the truth of Corbyn’s observation that the extent of antisemitism within the party was overstated. This should not be a surprise as several pieces of data have suggested that antisemitism in the Labour party is less widespread than in society as a whole – which is what those of us on the Left would expect. As the EHRC report points out, among the many failings of the McNicol regime in tackling antisemitism was its apparent compete inability (or unwillingness) to record data on cases and progress. When Formby was appointed, she sought to change this and made many improvements, as the EHRC report recognises (pp 6, 7, 10, 33, 36, 41, 71, 73, 76, 82, 100, 119). When she was able to publish statistics, she did so, and these also suggested that the numbers of actual members guilty of antisemitism were relatively small – with all the provisos about the lack of data before she took office and the obvious point that any instance of antisemitism is unacceptable.

Contrary to Starmer’s repeated claims, Corbyn did not say that there is no problem of antisemitism within the party. Neither did he say that it is ‘all an exaggeration’ nor that it is ‘just’ about factionalism. It is perfectly possible to agree that here is a serious problem which needs to be dealt with and to also argue that the incidence of it overstated and has been used for factional purposes. This is surely undeniable as the preceding paragraphs set out.

So, given that Corbyn’s statement that the ‘scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’ is irrefutably true (with even Angela Rayner conceding this), why do they wish him to delete it from his Facebook account? And why should the party leadership expect Corbyn to agree to an untruth in order to secure readmittance to the PLP? And for what exactly do they want him to apologise?

Corbyn has repeatedly apologised as John McDonnell has said (although he seems to want him to continue apologising ad infinitum). Just to recap, in his initial response to the EHRC report’s publication he said:

Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.

In his response to his suspension he said:

We must never tolerate antisemitism or belittle concerns about it. And that is not my intention in anything I said this week. I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”.

If the attacks on Corbyn were ever really about antisemitism, they certainly don’t look like it now. Those urging ‘compromise’ and further apologies are ignoring the fact that the party leadership are using the EHRC report and subsequent events to extinguish debate within the party, to deprive party members of the right to express a view on important issues and to strangle democracy within the party.

Various voluntary party officers have been suspended, local parties have been prohibited from discussing anything that the party bureaucracy deems as related to the report or to its handling or to anything subsequent related to it. This is producing the most contorted justifications for shutting down debate.

An inkling of this was given back in August when Evans tried to prevent any discussion of the Panorama payout with ominous warnings to local parties of liability if allegations were repeated, as though it was impossible to discuss the question without breaching legal guidelines. With the publication of the EHRC report, at first the reasons provided were that it carried a legal status and that the party was obliged by law to implement its recommendations and therefore none of it was open for discussion and neither was the EHRC’s competence. This ignored the fact that even an obligation to implement recommendations does not of course mean that it is illegal to discuss the contents of the report, methodology, findings etc.

Then when Corbyn was suspended, again discussion was banned. This time prohibition was on the basis of the necessity to avoid discussion of an ongoing disciplinary case. When local parties then debated simple motions of solidarity with Corbyn (without any mention of the disciplinary case), the bureaucracy attempted to bully them into silence then too under threat of suspension.

It must have been a bad day at the office for Evans when the NEC sub-committee (appointed by him) ruled that there was no disciplinary case for Corbyn to answer and the suspension was lifted and he was readmitted to the Labour party. This was presumably after legal advice that the case against Corbyn was indefensible. Outraged at this, Margaret Hodge and others on the right of the party demanded further action against Corbyn, threatening resignations from the party. In response, Starmer immediately breached the EHRC’s directive to avoid political interference in any form of disciplinary process and withdrew the whip from Corbyn, excluding him again from the PLP.

With the suspension dropped, it was impossible to use the ongoing disciplinary argument to prohibit discussion of Corbyn’s treatment. Consequently, all over the country units of the party debated this very issue, passing motions of support for Corbyn. Evans quickly wrote to CLPs that discussions of the withdrawal of the whip would be ruled ‘out of order’. Evans’ reasoning merits some examination. He wrote:

I am aware that other motions (including expressions of solidarity, and matters relating to the internal processes of the Parliamentary Labour Party) are providing a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members. Therefore, all motions which touch on these issues will also be ruled out of order.

He further explained that the justification he was using for this was the party’s Code of Conduct which states that

the Labour Party will ensure the party is a welcoming home to members of all communities, with no place for any prejudice or discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion.

He emphasised that the party is committed to implementing the EHRC report in full and adopting a ‘genuinely zero-tolerance approach which will ensure all members, and in particular our Jewish members, feel safe and welcome within the Labour Party.’

So, discussion of the withdrawal of the whip from Corbyn, expressions of solidarity, ‘matters relating to the internal processes of the Parliamentary Labour Party’ undermine the party’s ‘ability to provide a safe and welcoming place for all members, in particular our Jewish members.’ By implicitly equating these discussions with antisemitism, we are truly through the Looking Glass.

Next the bureaucracy revealed their real intentions. Young Labour National Committee voted to publish a statement in opposition to the removal of the whip from Corbyn. Labour headquarters responded by telling the chair the statement must be removed ‘immediately’ and that Young Labour had ‘misused’ Labour ‘branding’ to ‘provide commentary on factional disputes’. So the bureaucracy at least is very clear on this – the removal of the whip by Starmer is part of a factional dispute.

Speaking at the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 29 November, Angela Rayner dug herself in even deeper. She said party members needed to ‘get real’ over antisemitism or ‘thousands and thousands’ could be suspended. So in a short contribution she managed to insult the party membership as not taking antisemitism seriously and also to breach the EHRC’s directive to avoid political interference (p. 13) which they define as follows:

In our investigation we use the term ‘political interference’ to mean people influencing decision-making or taking decisions in complaints outside of established processes.

This sort of interference may happen because of political concerns, such as the reaction of the media or the reputational risk to the Labour Party, or for reasons relating to support for internal factions within the Party. It can lead to decisions being made for political reasons, rather than based on the facts of the case (p.42).

Instead Rayner said:

If I have to suspend thousands and thousands of members, we will do that. Because we cannot and we will not accept an injury to one, because an injury to one is an injury to all. That’s what we say in our movement.

Rayner is misusing the idea of an ‘injury to one’ to defend the shutting down of debate on the spurious grounds of ‘safe and welcoming spaces’ for Jewish members. Obviously local party meetings should be safe and welcoming for all party members and debates should be conducted with courtesy, especially on an issue like antisemitism which has been a long running controversy within the party. But this is now being interpreted as prohibiting any debate on anything related to antisemitism or the way that the party has dealt with it or currently is dealing with it, or even about the way the party is preventing debate or the conduct of the general secretary.

It has become an attack on the internal democracy of the party and this defining of a ‘safe and welcoming place’ as one that prevents parties debating issues is extremely dangerous. Rayner defends the party’s position by saying there should be no debate about whether antisemitism exists in the party or about what the EHRC said, but has there even been one CLP that has tried to debate either of these questions? There have been plenty who have tried – and some that have succeeded – in debating the justice of Corbyn’s suspension and later withdrawal of the whip or the conduct of the general secretary.

Starmer and Rayner’s argument is that Jewish members must feel safe and welcomed within the party. No one would disagree with that. Obviously, an antisemitic motion should not be taken and if such is proposed a complaint to Labour HQ should be made about the person proposing it. But with her ‘an injury to one’ formulation, is she really saying that if one person (presumably Jewish in this case) feels uncomfortable about a proposed debate or motion then that motion or debate should be prohibited? What if there are several Jewish party members present and they disagree? Does the one expressing discomfort get a veto over discussion?

And how would that principle work more generally? Would debates about abortion be prevented if a member who was a Catholic said it made them feel unwelcome? What about a critical motion on the role of the police for a member with a partner in the police? How about a motion supporting the Indian general strike which attacked the record of the Modi government? What if an Indian member said that such a motion made them uncomfortable? Suppressing discussion within the party on the spurious grounds of creating a ‘safe and welcoming space’ will not root out antisemitism but will damage both internal democracy and the fight against antisemitism.

The current actions of the party leadership are intended to humiliate Corbyn because he is a figurehead and symbol of the advances the Left made between 2015 and 2019 and to salt the earth so that nothing like that is allowed to happen again. For those on the right of the party, the call for an apology from Corbyn is irrelevant. If he apologised again it would not be enough. Some of those who initiated the complaints to the EHRC will not be satisfied until he is expelled (they have also submitted a complaint against Rayner among others).

The Left should not make the mistake of imagining that there is a happy compromise to be made if Corbyn apologises and deletes his (factual) reference to the extent of antisemitism being overstated. The Right will use and abuse the rules and constitution of the party to ensure that they crush the Left and remove any possibility of transformative socialist politics in the Labour party if we allow them. Mandelson let the cat out of the bag at the weekend when he called for a key part of the EHRC’s recommendations to be ignored – that of an independent disciplinary process. He said: ‘I’m worried about one thing. That is, this recommended approach by the EHRC of an independent process.’ He went on to urge the NEC to ‘take ownership’ of process and ‘an independent process can’t do that’. Ordinarily the Left is rightly suspicious of outsourcing the party’s internal procedures but Mandelson’s belated conversion to the benefits of in-house provision is everything to do with the fact that the Right now controls the NEC. With an internal process the NEC would be better placed to suspend and expel internal opponents without the tedious task of providing evidence of rule breaches. Mandelson was very candid about this, arguing that the Left cannot be allowed to ‘legalise’ party management as it did in the 1980s. In other words, rules, binding recommendations are there to be adopted or accepted only insofar as they are useful tools against the Left. Similarly, Starmer promised a questioner at the JLM conference to ‘look again’ at the rule which prohibits people from rejoining the party for five years if they stood for another party against Labour.

The job for the Left now is to stand firm against any manifestation of antisemitism within the party and to fight it resolutely in the wider society, but also to defend the internal democracy of the party – part of which means fighting for the restoration of the whip to Corbyn and for the right of local parties to determine their agendas for discussion within the obvious constraints of the law. The Right have control of the party machine but their policy agenda is completely inadequate for the challenges that we now face in terms of health, economy and climate, which is partly why their war against the Left is so desperate. We still have a world to win and the clock is ticking.

Two lessons from Manchester on Opposition

We learned this week that there is more serious opposition to the Tories in Manchester than there is in the House of Commons. Most of us (although not the politically illiterate Robert Peston) also learned that the Tories COVID-inspired enthusiasm for state intervention has very clear limits.

Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer and campaigner for free school meals, bumped up against those limits this week when his call for free school meals to be made available in England[1] during half term was rejected by Johnson because families are supported by the benefits system and the government will ‘continue to use the benefit system and all the systems of income support to support young people and children throughout the holidays as well.’

After Rashford successfully embarrassed the government into providing free school meals during the summer, the Tories have refused point blank to extend the scheme any further. Tory minister Paul Sculley justified this willingness to see children go hungry by commenting that ‘children have been hungry for years’ as though this was a perfectly reasonable explanation.

For the Tories, it obviously is, but Rashford is not so easily dismissed. He urged MPs not to “turn a blind eye” and to support his call for the millions of children in need to receive school meals in the holidays. This prompted Tory MP and right wing loose cannon, Steve Baker, to splutter that ‘not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties’ which only shows that he is as ignorant of economics as he is of basic humanity. He seems to think that the economy and currency will collapse if the government of the 6th richest country in the world feeds its poorest children. The question is, if it can’t even do that, what is the point of it?

Many of the Tories nailed their colours to the mast in the earlier summer debate on the provision of holiday free school meals. The odious Sally Ann-Hart said: ‘We cannot let the state take over a parent’s job – a parent’s most basic responsibility to feed and keep their children safe.’ This was a theme returned to this week with enthusiasm by the not very bright Tory Ben Bradley, pointing the finger at parents because ‘some parents are not good parents and prioritise other things ahead of their kids.’ Free school meals, according to Bradley just ‘increases dependency’. The Tories cling to this idea that poverty is essentially self-inflicted and hard work would solve everything. That was never true and in recent years the big increase in child poverty has been in working families (see graph below). In a pandemic it is a positively idiotic explanation for poverty. And, even if it was true that all child poverty was simply the result of feckless parents neglecting their children because they spent all their benefits on flat screen TVs, booze, fags and online gambling, is that a justification for allowing children to go hungry? Just staggering levels of callousness and inhumanity here.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday 21 October, Tory MPs voted against any extension of free school meals. They think that this will be the end of it, but I doubt it. Rashford has tapped into a popular stream of anti-Toryism and has shown how to push the government, harassing and embarrassing it. As he says, this won’t go away and neither will he.

If Rashford showed a little of what is possible with some principled opposition to the government, Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester showed some more. Burnham is an unlikely standard bearer for the Left. In the past he has taken up decent political positions (such as opposing contracting out of services like cleaning in the NHS while a Health Minister) but always caved or tacked to the right whenever any pressure was placed on him.

However, by taking a stand and demanding that central government cough up the money to support those suffering under the impact of a COVID lockdown, he has forced the government to listen and then make concessions. He didn’t get all that he wanted but even without a serious political campaign, just by behaving as a traditional social democratic politician facing a Tory government, he achieved more in 6 days than Starmer has achieved in 6 months.

The impact of Rashford and Starmer raises questions about what an Opposition is for, what it should be trying to do and how. Starmer’s strategy of low profile, steady as she goes, supportive of government in a crisis, while trying to project an image of quiet competence is, contrary to what his supporters believe, a high-risk strategy.

Abstaining to avoid accusations of being soft on security or defence won’t work (see previous blogs) as the Tories will still shout that ‘Labour doesn’t support our boys’. On the other hand, it doesn’t tell the electorate what Labour stands for, what it believes in, what it would do if in government. The incoherent attempt to show that Labour stands for the interests of the whole country is as hopeless as the fiction that the Tories stand for the ‘national interest’. Sooner or later Labour will have to make a choice and take a stand for the majority of the people in this country. Until they do that their improved position in the polls is very fragile. What will happen when Johnson goes, as is quite possible in the next 6 months? The ‘Starmer as a model of competence’ approach by contrast with Johnson will look a whole lot weaker against a different Tory leader.

Far better for Starmer and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet to take a leaf out of Rashford and Burnham’s book and realise that the first duty of an Opposition is to oppose – not ‘for the sake of opposition’ – but to raise people’s expectations, to set out possibilities beyond the miserable limits of a Tory government based on systematic looting of the public sphere, and to build a platform inside and outside Parliament to win the next election.

If the Labour leadership is unwilling or incapable of doing that, then the Left needs to get back on track after the defeat and demoralisation of December and reorient the party membership into a social movement role as a crucial base in local communities, not just a mass force of envelope stuffers; we need to rebuild and recalibrate relations with the trade unions, open up to the social movements around BLM, renters, climate and LGBTQ and put both far more pressure on, and engagement with, the Labour administrations in Wales and in local government to set an example of what is possible.


[1] The Welsh Labour Government has agreed to provide free school meals to all eligible school children in Wales for all school holidays up to and including Easter 2021.

Keir steers towards the rocks on human rights

061020

Just what is Keir Starmer playing at? For the second time in a couple of weeks, the former human rights lawyer instructed his MPs to abstain on a piece of legislation which protects state agents from prosecution for crimes committed against its own and other citizens.

Last night the vast majority of Labour MPs abstained on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill on its second reading. The Bill will prevent state informants/agents from being prosecuted for serious crimes – up to and including murder, torture and sexual violence. As legal expert Joshua Rozenberg notes: ‘there is nothing on the face of the bill to limit its scope’ and he comments that:

the most striking thing about the bill is the range of public bodies whose senior staff will be able to grant authorisations. It is not just the security and intelligence services, the police, the armed forces, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. It currently includes the Department of Health and Social Care, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission.

Just 19 Labour MPs opposed the Bill last night: Diane Abbott, Paula Barker, Apsana Begum, Olivia Blake, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler, Ian Byrne, Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Lavery, John McDonnell, Grahame Morris, Kate Osamor, Kate Osborne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Zarah Sultana, Mick Whitley, Nadia Whittome and Beth Winter (Hywel Williams and Liz Saville-Roberts of Plaid Cymru and Claire Hanna of the SDLP also voted against)

LabourList reported some unease among other MPs but they fell into line. Labour’s largest trade union funder, Unite, produced a briefing highlighting its concern and pointing out that the bill ‘poses a grave threat to freedom and justice in the UK, and allows infiltration of trade unions and protest organisations to ‘prevent disorder’’. Unite’s call for opposition was ignored. Amnesty International said: “There is a grave danger that this Bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill.’ They were ignored as well.

As Dave Smith, a blacklisted construction worker and trade unionist explained:

If passed into law, the Spy Cops Bill would allow the police and the security services to commit crimes against anyone in the UK without fear of facing prosecution.

He pointed to the work of police and police-paid agents and agents provocateurs in infiltrating campaigns like Anti-Apartheid and CND, unions representing firefighters, miners and construction workers, environmentalist groups and anti-racism organisations (never mind their murderous record in Northern Ireland).

Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, leads Labour’s strategy of allowing the bill to go to committee stage (by abstaining) and then to press the government for ‘robust safeguards’ in the form of ‘very clear limits and oversight’, which he agrees it does not contain at the moment.

He seems to accept the government’s claim that the Human Rights Act provides some protection, but as Tory David Davis pointed out in the Commons debate on the Bill, in reference to a recent legal case brought against the government, their defence was that the state was ‘not the instigator’ of such activity and ‘cannot be treated as somehow responsible for it’. As Davis says: ‘How is that using the Human Rights Act to underpin the rights of our citizens?’

It took new MPs like Zarah Sultana to make the principled case for opposition in a hard hitting speech that touched on the murder of Irish solicitor Pat Finucane by state backed Loyalist terrorists, the spy cops who tricked environmentalists into long term intimate relationships, the surveillance of Stephen Lawrence’s parents and the collaboration of police spies with construction industry blacklisters against trade union members. All of these are examples of state agents’ involvement in illegal activities.

So what exactly is Starmer’s game here? Why is the great human rights advocate meekly going along with a huge increase in the powers of the state at the expense of the human rights of its citizens? What is the objective? What are the advantages? Why not just oppose the bill on principle as a shabby excuse to allow free rein for criminal activity by the state and its hired agents and informers?

Starmer supports the government argument that in order to defeat terrorists, violent criminal gangs and such like, it is necessary to infiltrate them and, in order to avoid exposure, agents may be obliged to commit criminal acts. Put aside for a moment the fact that much undercover police work in the past has not been directed against terrorists or criminal gangs but against non-violent and legal protest campaigns and trade unionists. Even so, the government are asking for a blank cheque for their agents’ activity. Other countries do not do this –Canada for example; even the FBI has rules that state that they ‘may never authorise an informant to “participate in any act of violence except in self-defense’. The argument goes that Labour supports the principle behind the government’s bill but not the detail, so abstained on the second reading vote and will then propose a series of amendments during the committee stages to remove all of the problem areas of the bill.

Owen Jones has pointed out that there is a more cynical explanation which runs like this:

Labour cannot hope to overcome an 80-seat majority by ordering its MPs to vote against the bill, and some senior Labour figures brief that this posture is necessary to win back the former red wall heartlands, where voters, they believe, need to be convinced of the party’s commitment to national security.

This has the ring of truth to it, Thomas-Symonds began a piece defending Labour’s stance in the Independent online by declaring: ‘Keir Starmer couldn’t have been clearer: security is the top priority for Labour under his leadership.’ This abstention draws a line between the ‘new leadership’ and Corbyn, and also seems to match up with the positioning set out by Starmer, based on the idea that the ex-Labour voters who must be won back to Labour are conservative on crime, defence and security matters (however defined).

So this move allows Starmer to distance himself from the left, appeal to the lost voters, avoid the trap set by the Tories of ‘opposition for the sake of it’ and still move enough amendments to change the bill at committee stage to salve his human rights conscience.

Not just double bubble for Keir, but quadruple bubble. Or is it?

First, if he continues to define himself by what he’s not (ie Corbyn) the electorate will never know anything else. It may play well with the right wing PLP zealots and temporarily with the editorial writers of the Conservative press but not with many others.

Second does he really think that a Tory government with an 80 seat majority is going to allow amendments which fundamentally alter what they believe to be a piece of vote winning legislation? Just who are the utopians here?

And thirdly, if they fail to get the ‘robust safeguards’ and ‘very clear limits and oversight that Thomas-Symonds has called for, presumably they will then vote against the bill. If that’s the case, they will have lost any ‘clever’ positioning they thought they had with the parliamentary manoeuvring and end up vulnerable to the Tory attack lines they thought they had avoided. What makes their position even more vulnerable is that, by abstaining on the second reading, they squandered the opportunity to take a principled position of why this bill is an attack on our civil liberties and freedoms. Of course, they could just vote for it, warts and all, but then there is no hiding place for the human rights lawyer.

Marx was not very patient with those parliamentarians who believed that everything of importance is decided in Parliament. He accused them of suffering from ‘parliamentary cretinism’ which ‘robs them of all sense, all memory, all understanding of the rude external world’. What would he have said about those parliamentarians who not only hold to this view but are not even very good at parliamentary politics?

The starting point for Starmer in this episode is obviously that he wants to avoid appearing soft on crime and defence. The same approach was taken when Labour abstained on the Overseas Operations bill a few weeks ago. Did it help Labour avoid a Tory trap? You be the judge.

Accountability, out of court settlements, finance and democracy

Steve Davies

29 September 2020

What has the decision of the leader of the Labour party to make an out of court settlement and an unreserved apology to the Panorama claimants got to do with the news that Starmer is now sending personalised letters to wealthy former major Labour donors who stopped donating under Corbyn?

The connection is accountability and democracy. The libel settlement was a surprise to many party members. Much of this surprise was centred around the way in which it was done. Members of Cardiff North Labour party were probably not alone in expressing disquiet about the process. After discussing and passing the following motion on 5th August, it was sent to the leader’s office on 8th August.

Cardiff North motion passed on 5th August 2020

Cardiff North CLP notes the recent decision of the party leader to avoid a court judgement and settle a claim of libel brought by the journalist John Ware and seven former party officials that has reportedly cost the party over £600,000.  

We regret that such action  

  • appears to contradict legal advice received by the party that NEC members understood to indicate that the party had a winnable case;  
  • pre-empts the Forde Inquiry’s investigation into the circumstances and contents of the report entitled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019”, which features many of the people represented in the legal action above;  
  • has been taken without any explanation made to the NEC (still less to the wider membership) as to the content of the presumably new and different legal advice received by the leader’s office, detailing where it differed from the original advice that suggested Labour had a winnable case.  

 We call on the leader of the party to  

  • confirm that no further major legal decisions are made without prior discussion with the NEC as the elected representatives of the membership (whose subscriptions go to fund any such actions or settlements);  
  • agree that the NEC is provided with a full outline of the legal reasoning behind any proposed action;  
  • ensure that (within the confines of the legal process) as full an outline as possible of any legal advice and explanation for any proposed action is communicated to the membership.  

Who knows whether this (or any similar initiatives from other CLPs) prompted the general secretary to write to CLPs. But on 12th August, David Evans the new general secretary of the Labour party wrote to all CLP secretaries and chairs setting out some instructions following the party’s out of court settlements with the Panorama claimants. Evans wrote:

…These settlements included an unreserved apology and a withdrawal of the allegations previously made by the party about those individuals. The withdrawal and the apology are binding on the party and any motions which seek to undermine or contradict them will create a risk of further legal proceedings for both the national party and local parties. As such, motions relating to these settlements and the circumstances behind them are not competent business for discussion by local parties.

… We therefore take this opportunity to reiterate to local Labour parties and officers that they should be aware of the potential liabilities to them should the allegations that have now been withdrawn by the national Party be repeated.

Unsurprisingly this was a controversial move and criticised by many in the party as an unwarranted attempt to shut down debate. The point however is that it is possible to discuss the leader’s decision to settle this case without a court judgement, while avoiding making any defamatory statements. Whether or not one agrees with one side or the other in this dispute, the manner of concluding it is a separate issue and a perfectly legitimate area for CLP discussion. It is a question of accountability to the membership and transparency of behaviour of the leadership in spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of members’ money.

We can all agree that there is no place for anti-Semitism in the Labour party and the sooner that any anti-Semites are expelled, the better. But it is also important that there is scrutiny, transparency and accountability in the way that the party deals with its finances. In fact, the greater the level of accountability and transparency, the more likely it is that the party will make good decisions that will have the support of the membership – not just in relation to finance but to everything else as well.

So, the initial surprise that the leader of the party had decided not to contest the claims for libel brought by the journalist John Ware and seven former party employees, was deepened on hearing the reports of the costs incurred by the party in settling these claims. Depending on which news organisation you listened to, the settlement cost the party anything between £600K and £800K.

Given the scale of this, and the fact that both the previous leader, Corbyn and the Unite general secretary and NEC member Len McCluskey are on record as saying that the party had received legal advice that it had a winnable case, we might have expected an explanation from the party. Instead party members got nothing. The party website carried two press releases relating to the two separate cases settled, but

  • there is no explanation as to how the decision to settle in this way was taken, who was involved in the decision and on what legal advice;
  • there is no definitive declaration of how much all this has cost the party;
  • there is no indication of whether the Party asked for these costs to be scrutinised by the court (which raises a further question, if not, why not?);

The statements mention the importance of being open and transparent without being so in relation to these cases. As the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has noted in the past: ‘Defamation has traditionally been labelled a ‘rich man’s tort’ as libel cases are notoriously expensive and public funding, through legal aid, is not available.’ Therefore, it is important to make a sound judgement about whether or not to contest any particular case. If the legal advice obtained suggested that there was a strong risk of losing the case, then there was a good argument for an out of court settlement – regardless of the merits of the case – on the basis of cost. If however, legal advice had been received that suggested that it was winnable, then the assumption would be to contest the case.

If, in this particular case, there was new legal advice or the legal advice changed for whatever reason, then it seems reasonable that this should have been shared with the NEC so that they could examine whether it was likely to be a good use of a significant sum of members’ money. But the NEC was not informed of any new advice and, when questioned specifically on this on Channel 4 News on 14th August, the leader’s responses were very interesting:

Liz Bates, C4 political correspondent: You settled recently the court case on anti-Semitism. You were criticised for that by among others, Jeremy Corbyn, who suggested that you were advised that you didn’t need to settle that case because the Labour party could have won it.

Keir Starmer: Well, Jeremy Corbyn will have his own views. I am utterly focused on what I said which is that I’d root out anti-Semitism in the Labour party and that I will be judged by my actions.

Bates: Were you advised on that court case that the party could have won it, and so it was a political decision?

Starmer: Look, I’m not going to go into the confidential advice that we’ve had on ongoing cases and you wouldn’t expect me to do so but all of the

Bates: I’m just trying to figure out whether it was a political decision rather than a sort of, legal necessity.

Starmer: It was the right decision to make in that case and it was part of my absolute determination to root out anti-Semitism in the Labour party…

What is most noticeable here is that Starmer doesn’t answer the question, and instead twice mentions his determination ‘to root out anti-Semitism in the party’ (laudable but not relevant to whether the legal advice suggested the case was winnable) and then throws in the red herring of not being able ‘to go into the confidential advice that we’ve had on ongoing cases’. Obviously, nobody is going to publish legal advice either before a case is concluded or while it is still taking place (presumably why the party did not publish the legal advice referred to by Corbyn and McCluskey). But first, it isn’t an ‘ongoing case’ – that’s the point, he settled. And second, Bates asked him only whether the party had received legal advice that the party could have won the case. This required a simple yes or no answer but he refused to say, offering only the judgement that it was the ‘right decision’, which wasn’t the question. If the party did receive new advice that contradicted the earlier advice that they could have won it, it is very surprising that he declined to mention this when pressed on this question. The existence of such new advice would be a powerful reason for settling and avoiding possible even greater expense.

Another argument used by both Starmer and Rayner is that this settlement ‘draws a line’ under the controversy. But if they thought that, it seems they were seriously mistaken. Almost as soon as the settlement was agreed, the lawyer involved announced that there were a further 32 former Labour officials, including the former general secretary Iain McNicol, who will be suing the party for data breaches and libel within the leaked report.

Other sources (e.g. the Campaign Against Anti-semitism) suggest that there are 50 other individuals (mostly former officials) who are preparing to sue the Labour party for libel. According to the Daily Express, ex-party staff said they would drop the legal action if Corbyn was expelled from the party. The Times went further with an opinion piece from one of its leader writers, demanding the ‘rooting out of Corbynism and Corbynistas’. And Panorama journalist John Ware announced that he intended to pursue Jeremy Corbyn and others for defamation.

Mark Lewis the solicitor who represented the recent claimants has said in relation to additional possible cases:

“If this bankrupts the Labour party or individuals, so be it. Actions have consequences.”

Does this constitute ‘drawing a line under it’?[1]

The settlement also pre-empts the Forde Inquiry’s investigation into the circumstances and contents of the report entitled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019”, which features many of the people represented in the legal action. The settlement statement says that it

has no impact or in any way binds the independent panel of investigation being conducted under the chair of Martin Forde

But obviously it does, because the settlement statement also offers ‘an unreserved apology’ to the former members of staff’ and says:

We acknowledge the many years of dedicated and committed service… given to the Labour Party as members and as staff. We appreciate their valuable contribution at all levels of the Party.

We unreservedly withdraw all allegations of bad faith, malice and lying.

If that isn’t pre-empting, then the word is meaningless. This presents the Forde Inquiry in particular and Labour more generally with a problem, and it is a problem that can only be resolved by transparency and accountability.

Both individual members and affiliated unions expect to be involved in important party discussions. They expect transparency and accountability. They don’t expect to be balloted on every single decision that has to be made but they do expect that their elected representatives on the NEC will be party to decision-making. If they are ignored it simply stores up problems.

Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite (Labour’s most important union supporter) has already said that there is ‘no doubt’ Unite’s executive committee will now want to review the huge sums it gives to Labour – more than £7m since the start of 2019. McCluskey warned:

 It would be a mistake if anybody took Unite for granted.

This warning, together with reports of membership loss, appears to have been taken to heart by Starmer’s team. Of course, there have always been some on the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party who would like to cut loose from any reliance on the unions. These are usually the same people who think that members have too much influence in decision-making. But their problem is that in the absence of state funding of political parties, their only other option is to go cap in hand to wealthy individuals. Judging by his actions, Starmer seems to think that the revival of passing the begging bowl round to ‘high net worth individuals’ (rich people), rather than relying on membership subs and union donations is the way to go, with an offer of ‘invite-only strategy updates’ to wealthy donors.

He may wish to look back at the last time this was the way Labour raised money. It didn’t end well. It was the favoured approach of Blair and Mandelson and they increased the numbers of rich donors contributing and then got around the rules on publicly declaring donations by agreeing secret ‘loans’ of £14million from wealthy supporters.

By sheer coincidence, several of these individuals were nominated for seats in the House of Lords. The idea was that these loans would be quietly written off at a later date but this blew up into the ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal in 2006.

The party then had to repay millions and was plunged into debt for almost a decade. In 2014 Labour still had a net debt of £5.7m and the debts were only paid off with the huge increase in membership from 2015 and the election of Corbyn as leader. At last year’s annual conference, the party treasurer, Diana Holland, was able to announce that for the 3rd year in a row Labour was debt-free.

The reason that this is important in the context of the libel claim settlement is that decisions on finance which are taken secretly and keep both the NEC and the membership in the dark are likely to backfire. In terms of party funding, Labour was the cleanest party in Britain. Almost all of Labour’s funding came from the half a million members’ subscriptions and from the affiliation fees and donations from trade unions’ political funds that are themselves regularly subject to democratic mandate.

We had some early signals of a change when Starmer relied heavily on large donations from wealthy donors in his leadership campaign so this is perhaps no surprise. Unlike the other leadership candidates, Starmer did not name his financial backers during the campaign. After he was elected, he revealed that among the large donations he received were two of £100K, one of £95K, one of £50K, four of £25K, and one of £20K from wealthy individuals or companies.

There are obvious reasons why this matters. We all know the old saying: ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’, and rich individuals rarely part with large sums of their money without an expectation. We could say the same for small donors and that would be true too. But the difference is that a party that overwhelmingly relies on small donations, membership fees or contributions to union political funds has to be able to inspire millions of people to support it financially. That means it has to be seen to be far closer to its electoral support, is not beholden to a small group of rich individuals and must reflect – to an extent at least – the needs and ambitions of its supporters. In short, small donations from the many lean towards democracy, large donations from the few lean towards oligarchy.

To keep Labour’s handling of its finances clean, we need accountability and transparency, and this case is no exception. After the libel settlement, the least we should demand from the leader of the party is that he make commitments that

  • no further major legal decisions are made without prior discussion with the NEC as the elected representatives of the membership (whose subscriptions go to fund any such actions or settlements);
  • the NEC is provided with a full outline of the legal reasoning behind any proposed action;
  • and that (within the confines of the legal process) as full an outline as possible of any legal advice and explanation for any proposed action is communicated to the membership.

But this nowhere near enough. With the news of the return to reliance on wealthy donors, the emphasis on accountability and democracy is all the more urgent. So the launch of a new Labour Campaign for Clean Money is very welcome. It’s call for a rule change so that the party sets a maximum of £1000 per annum in donations from any individual or organisation (except for trade unions and cooperative societies; for which the allowed amount is unlimited) should be supported by every local Labour party and affiliated trade union. Money talks and Labour needs to talk on behalf of the many not the few.

Steve Davies

@unioneyes


[1] Of course, whether or not they pursue the case, we shall have to wait and see. It may be relevant to whether Corbyn is individually sued or not that a fighting fund set up for his legal defence produced donations of over £300,000 in double quick time.

Trouble coming down the track – and not just for rail unions

17 January 2020

 

The unions were not very visible in the recent general election. Individual union leaders, notably Len McCluskey of Unite and Dave Ward of CWU were regarded as particularly influential in Corbyn’s inner circle and were occasionally given some media coverage but most of the other unions were either unable to attract much media or weren’t interested in doing so. However, just as they do in every general election, unions provided funding, resources and activists for the campaign, but their profile was nothing like years gone by.

This may simply be a reflection of the fact that neither the media nor the Tories see them as the ‘threat’ that they seemed in the 1970s and 1980s. This, in turn, reflects the decline in membership, density and influence at the workplace and beyond that unions have experienced over the last 40 years. Globalisation and heightened product competition, economic restructuring, privatisation, decades of hostility from government, including law after law designed to make unions less effective (none of which were repealed in 13 years of New Labour government) have all had a damaging impact. Union membership has halved from 13 million in 1979 to 6.35 million in 2018 (and in a larger workforce today). The 2018 figures show a slight increase for the second year running (in 2018 of 103,000 more members or a 1.6% increase over 2017) but the long term data show a serious decline.

Trade union membership levels in the UK, 1892 to 2018

TU stats

Source: BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS (p. 4). Historic data is administrative data on union membership from Department for Employment (1892-1973); and the Certification Office (1974-2017). Data on UK employees that are trade union members is based on the Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics

 

Despite the drop in numbers, unions remain the largest social movement in the UK, with millions of members in all parts of the country, among all sections of the population and in all industries (although membership is not evenly spread in any of these categories). In some areas, unions have proved more resilient than others. Wales (30.5%), Scotland (28.2%) and Northern Ireland (35.2%) all have a higher union density than England (22.1%) and this has consistently been the case for many years. Within England, the regions with the highest union density are the North East (28.9%), the North West (28.2%) and Yorkshire and the Humber (27.2%).

There are real possibilities for Labour to rebuild its political fortunes on these bases of unionism but there are also real challenges as the general election results in parts of the North of England and North Wales showed. In addition, the Tories are aware that, weakened though they are, the unions represent one of the few possible powerful poles of opposition to them over the next five years.

Consequently, although they haven’t focused on the unions recently as much as in the past, neither have they either forgotten or forgiven the unions for their past or for their potential future. As a result, although there was not much in the Tory manifesto that directly related to unions, we can expect swift action on this one line pledge:

 

‘We will require that a minimum service operates during transport strikes.’

 

This is a back-door attempt to remove the right to strike for transport workers and is aimed at the RMT following successful campaigns on the Tube and (particularly) trains in the South East. Johnson has some history with the RMT from when he was Mayor of London and the union ran a series of very successful campaigns on London Underground and the rail links into London.

Individual postal balloting was brought in by the Conservatives in earlier legislation because they thought that this would be a way to reduce the number of strikes. The RMT (and other unions) showed that as the Gershwins said, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’. Between 2002 and 2015 the RMT ran over 250 strike ballots on rail and London Underground and in almost every one of them (Darlington, 2015), won overwhelming votes for action. So successful was their balloting strategy that in many cases management conceded without a strike taking place.

After receiving a bloody nose at the hands of the RMT, Johnson as Mayor of London was instrumental in getting the Conservative party to adopt the proposal of imposing a threshold on strike ballots. Now that this has failed to eliminate strikes, and he is PM, he will no doubt attempt to push through this latest malevolent effort to prevent workers having a meaningful right to strike[1]. If the Conservatives are successful in imposing this restriction on transport, there will be pressure from the Tory back benches to extend this to other areas of the economy – first ‘essential’ services (however defined) and then more and more widely. Needless to say, there is no sign that there will be any sanction of consequence for transport companies to ensure that they adequately fund and staff their services, so we will no doubt continue to experience overcrowded, under-funded and over-priced train and tube services.

Strike action is at an historically low level (see table below), so any suggestion that this is a ‘necessary’ response to ‘strike happy’ unions is nonsensical. Even in rail, far more journeys are disrupted and cancelled because of reasons that are ultimately linked to under-investment and under-staffing. And in any event, only in autocracies are workers legally prevented from withdrawing their labour.

Working days lost, UK, 1891-2018

Working days lost

Source: ONS (2019) Labour disputes in the UK: 2018, Newport: ONS. p. 5

Notes: 1898 – Welsh coal strike; 1912 – National coal strike; 1919 – Battle of George Square. Dispute over hours in a working week involving the shipbuilding and engineering trades; 1921 – Black Friday; 1926 – General Strike. Lasted nine days. Over 1.5 million coal miners, dockworkers, iron workers, printers, railwaymen, steelworkers and other transport workers joined the strike; 1972 – UK miners’ strike; 1979 – so-called ‘Winter of discontent’; 1984 to 1985 – UK miners’ strike.

 

With a convincing majority in Parliament and with the party’s hard right in the ascendancy, it would be surprising if the Tories did not revive their interest in making it as difficult as possible for unions to represent their members and for members to take strike action  in defence of their interests.

Several elements that were intended to be in the last piece of anti-trade union legislation were dropped before the 2016 Trade Union Act became law and we should not be surprised if the Tories return to these in the next period:

  • Stop employers processing union dues, which could have cost some unions millions in lost subs (at least in the short to medium term) as they contact every member and set up alternative ways of collecting their dues.
  • Making members opt in rather than out of the political levy. It was amended in the passage of the 2016 Act to apply only to new recruits, but could come back in for all members. At the moment, once the political fund ballots are won, everyone pays in unless they opt out. Making people vote first for the political fund and then secondly to opt in would be seen as a way of decreasing the numbers contributing.
  • Both of the above would obviously have a big impact on funding for Labour from affiliated unions.

Some of the most draconian proposals on picketing were withdrawn. These may also resurface:

  • A requirement for trade unions to provide picket plans to the police and employers two weeks in advance of strike action
  • Restrictions on unions’ use of social media
  • The creation of a new criminal offence of intimidation at picket lines
  • Requirement on picket supervisors to wear an armband to identify themselves

The Tories also pulled back from plans to restrict the use of union funds for political purposes, so we could expect some movement on this too.

The Conservatives will probably continue their efforts to make it difficult for Labour to win a future majority through boundary changes, voter suppression (photo ID etc), and their trade union strategy sits with that. The revived measures (above) on the political fund will have a knock-on impact on the amount of cash unions could donate to Labour, but it is easy to see how that could be tightened even further. If the Tories legislated that every donation from the political fund above a certain level has to be agreed in a ballot of the membership, that would cause a lot of problems. It would tie up union effort and time, cost a lot of money and provide ample opportunity for those hostile to Labour and the union link to lobby for a ‘no’ vote.

All of these (and much more to come) are powerful reasons for the unions and party to think far more co-operatively and strategically, increase political education among the activist layer as a way of getting the message out to the general membership and to reappraise how unions can work both within and outside the workplace with Labour to re-root the labour movement in the communities.

Both unions and Labour have a mutual interest in working together to fight off any further restriction on unions and in recruiting workers into unions and the party. Every affiliated union should be encouraging members to join their local Labour parties to play their part in providing Labour with a solid base in the workplace. With a mass membership of half a million, Labour can help unions to recruit and grow – where unions already have a presence, on greenfield sites and among the growing areas of the economy with increasingly precarious work. Every CLP should have a union liaison officer (some already do) to focus this work. An influx in union members into the party will ground the party in the locality, reflecting the concerns and aspirations of working people. Constituency Labour parties can show in practice their support for workers fighting for jobs, improvements in pay and conditions. Standing side by side with workers in their battles for a better deal will earn the party profile and respect. A real dialogue can build support for both trade unionism and socialist policies at the same time, and prepare the ground for a general election victory in 2024. Before then, even without a majority in Parliament it is still possible to make gains both within and perhaps more importantly outside Parliament – at the workplace, at council and mayoral level and in Scotland and Wales at devolved administration level. Mass movements can move even the most obdurate governments and we will need such a movement in the years ahead.

 

References

BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805268/trade-union-membership-2018-statistical-bulletin.pdf

Darlington, R and Dobson, J (2015) The Conservative Government’s Proposed Strike Ballot Thresholds: The Challenge to the Trade Unions. Salford Business School Research Working Paper, August 2015. http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/36220/

ONS (2019) Labour disputes in the UK: 2018, Newport: ONS

 

[1] Obviously in UK law there is no legal right to strike, but increased legal restrictions on striking has made it increasingly difficult to take part in legal strike action.

Welsh Labour MPs’ nominations for Leader and Deputy Leader

17 January

As the leadership and deputy leadership campaign hots up with Rebecca Long-Bailey launching her campaign today, it’s interesting to see who Welsh Labour MPs nominated.

It will be even more interesting to compare CLP nominations with those of their Labour MPs

Leader nominations

Leadership candidate Number of nominations from Welsh Labour MPs Names
     
Long-Bailey 1 Winter
Nandy 3 Brennan, Ruth Jones and Kinnock
Phillips 2 Antoniazzi and Bryant
Starmer 13 David, Davies, Doughty, Elmore, Evans, Harris, McMorrin, Moirden, Rees, Smith, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds
Thornberry 3 Davies-Jones, Griffith, Gerald Jones
     
  22  

One nomination for Long-Bailey (Winter), two nominations for Jess Phillips (Antoniazzi and Bryant), three for Nandy (Brennan, Ruth Jones and Kinnock), three for Thornberry (Davies-Jones, Griffith, Gerald Jones), 13 for Starmer (David, Davies, Doughty, Elmore, Evans, Harris, McMorrin, Morden, Rees, Smith, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds).

Deputy Leader Nominations

Deputy Leadership candidate Number of nominations from Welsh Labour MPs Names
     
Allin Khan 5 Brennan, Davies, Kinnock, McMorrin, Smith
Burgon 1 Winter (loaned – Rayner)
Butler 0  
Murray 7 Anoniazzi, Bryant, David, Davies-Jones, Elmore, Evans, Griffith
Rayner 8 Doughty, Gerald Jones, Ruth Jones, Morden, Rees, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds
     
  21 (Harris appears not to have nominated anyone)  

No nominations at all for Butler, one nomination for Burgon (Winter, although she made it clear that this was a loan in order to ensure he was on the ballot and that she would actually vote for Rayner), Five for Allin Khan (Brennan, Davies, Kinnock, McMorrin, Smith), seven for Murray (Anoniazzi, Bryant, David, Davies-Jones, Elmore, Evans, Griffith) and eight for Rayner (Doughty, Gerald Jones, Ruth Jones, Morden, Rees, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds).

Pro-remain pact in Wales – what happened?

15 December 2019

 

Introduction

Just before the election I wrote a piece for New Socialist on the Pro-remain Pact in Wales between Plaid, the Lib Dems and the Greens. I said that in Wales, the pact was:

a pretty shabby deal largely aimed at shoring up support for the Lib Dems and Plaid in seats that they already hold but are concerned they may lose, and at damaging Labour’s chances of forming a government.

So how did it play out?

Plaid Cymru

Plaid were given seven clear runs – in Arfon, Caerphilly, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Dwyfor Meirionydd, Llanelli, Pontypridd and Ynys Mon.

They held on to the four seats they were defending (Arfon, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionydd and Ceredigion).

But they failed to break through in any of the other seats. Labour held Caerphilly, and Pontypridd and, although Ynys Mon had been held by both Labour and Plaid in recent times, the Tories pushed through the middle to take the seat.

Arfon

In Arfon, which was a 2 way fight between Plaid and Labour (with a 92 vote lead for Plaid in 2017), the result saw an increase in Plaid’s share by 4.3%, a decline in Labour’s of 4.9% and a Plaid majority of 2781.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 11,519 40.8 13,134 45.2
Labour 11,427 40.5 10,353 35.6
Conservative 4,614 16.4 4,428 15.2
Brexit Party 1,159 4.0
UKIP
Liberal Democrat 648 2.3
Green Party

 

Carmarthen East & Dinefwr

Plaid held the seat with a slight decline in vote share and Labour were pushed into third place, having been second in 2017. The Conservatives’ vote share was up by 8.2% and Labour’s down by 8.8%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 16,127 39.3 15,939 38.9
Conservative 10,778 26.3 14,130 34.5
Labour 12,219 29.8 8,622 21.0
Brexit Party 2,311 5.6
UKIP 985 2.4
Liberal Democrat 920 2.2
Green Party

 

Ceredigion

Under the deal, the only seat that Plaid was defending that was excluded from the pact and that the Liberal Democrats contended was Ceredigion. This was because in 2017 the result was very close with the Lib Dems trailing Plaid by just 104 votes. The result was that Plaid held on with an increase in its vote share of 8.7% and a majority of 6,329. The Lib Dems share of the vote declined by 11.6%. The Tories were up 3.8%, pushing the Lib Dems into third and Labour into fourth position with its vote share down by 4.4%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 11,623 29.2 15,208 37.9
Conservative 7,307 18.4 8,879 22.1
Liberal Democrat 11,519 29.0 6,975 17.4
Labour 8,017 20.2 6,317 15.8
Brexit Party 2,063 5.1
UKIP 602 1.5
Green Party 542 1.4 663 1.7
Monster Raving Loony Party 157 0.4

 

Dwyfor Meirionydd

Plaid held the seat with a 3.2% increase in vote share. The Tories increased their share of the vote by 3.3% and Labour’s declined by 7.3%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 13,687 45.1 14,447 48.3
Conservative 8,837 29.1 9,707 32.4
Labour 6,273 20.7 3,998 13.4
Brexit Party 1,776 5.9
Liberal Democrat 937 3.1
UKIP 614 2.0
Green Party

 

Caerphilly

In Caerphilly, although the Labour share declined by 9.5%, Plaid’s increased by just 1.6% and the Tories came second. At one time, Caerphilly was seen by Plaid as a target seat.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 22,491 54.5 18,018 44.9
Conservative 10,413 25.2 11,185 27.9
Plaid Cymru 5,962 14.4 6,424 16.0
Brexit Party 4,490 11.2
UKIP 1,259 3.0
Liberal Democrat 725 1.8
Green Party 447 1.1

 

Llanelli

Labour retained the seat with a majority reduced from 12,024 to 4,670 and a decline in vote share of 11.3%. The Tory vote share went up by 6.3%. Plaid’s vote share was static.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 21,568 53.5 16,125 42.2
Conservative 9,544 23.7 11,455 30.0
Plaid Cymru 7,351 18.2 7,048 18.4
Brexit Party 3,605 9.4
UKIP 1,331 3.3
Liberal Democrat 548 1.4
Green Party

 

Pontypridd

Labour retained the seat but received a lower share of the vote (down 10.9%). The Tories were up 2.7% and Plaid up by 2.5%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 22,103 55.4 17,381 44.5
Conservative 10,655 26.7 11,494 29.4
Plaid Cymru 4,102 10.3 4,990 12.8
Brexit Party 2,917 7.5
UKIP 1,071 2.7
Independent 1,792 4.6
Independent 337 0.9
Independent 149 0.4
Liberal Democrat 1,963 4.9
Green Party

 

Ynys Mon

This was a gain for the Conservatives with a 7.7% increase in their share of the vote compared with an 11.8% loss for Labour. Plaid’s vote increased by just 1.1%. Ynys Mon was a key Plaid target to take back from Labour but they failed and the seat went to the Tories.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 10,384 27.8 12,959 35.5
Labour 15,643 41.9 10,991 30.1
Plaid Cymru 10,237 27.4 10,418 28.5
Brexit Party 2,184 6.0
UKIP 624 1.7
Liberal Democrat 479 1.3
Green Party

 

Liberal Democrats

Brecon & Radnorshire

Despite having beaten the Conservatives in a by election earlier in 2019 (following the removal of the Tory MP after being convicted of fraud), the Lib Dems were unable to hold the seat with the Tories increasing their 2017 vote share by 4.6%

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 by election votes 2019 by election vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 20,081 48.6 12,401 39.0 21,958 53.1
Liberal Democrat 12,043 29.1 13,826 43.5 14,827 35.9
Labour 7,335 17.7 1,680 5.3 3,944 9.5
Brexit Party 3,331 10.5
UKIP 576 1.4 242 0.8
Monster Raving Loony Party 334 1.0 345 0.8
Christian Party 245 0.6
Plaid Cymru 1,229 3.1
Green Party

 

Cardiff Central

This was another Lib Dem target, having held the seat in the recent past and seeing the large numbers of students living in the constituency as fertile ground for their Remain agenda. The result was another convincing victory for Labour with a majority of 17,179 and a small decline in the vote share of 1.2%. The Lib Dems came in third with a small increase in their vote share (1.6%), despite Plaid and the Greens standing aside in their favour.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 25,193 62.4 25,605 61.2
Conservative 7,997 19.8 8,426 20.1
Liberal Democrat 5,415 13.4 6,298 15.1
Brexit Party 1,006 2.4
UKIP 343 0.9
Plaid Cymru 999 2.5
Green Party 420 1.0
Gwlad Gwlad 280 0.7
Independent 119 0.3
Socialist Party of Great Britain 88 0.2

 

Montgomeryshire

The Conservatives held Montgomeryshire with the former Cardiff North MP, Craig Williams receiving 58.5% of the vote (up 6.7% on 2017). The Lib Dems came in second with a drop in their vote share of 2.2%. Labour’s vote share was static.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 18,075 51.8 20,020 58.5
Liberal Democrat 8,790 25.2 7,882 23.0
Labour 5,542 15.9 5,585 16.3
Plaid Cymru 1,960 5.6
Brexit Party
UKIP
Green Party 524 1.5
Gwlad Gwlad 727 2.1

 

The Green Party

 

Vale of Glamorgan

The pact allocated just one constituency to the Greens – the Vale of Glamorgan. They had no chance of winning the seat having received just 419 votes in 2017. In fact, the total votes for all of the pact parties in 2017 was just 3,734 while the Tories and Labour were very close with 25,501 and 23,311 respectively.

At the start of the campaign the Tory candidate Alun Cairns resigned from the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary because of the scandal over a former aide wrecking a rape trial. Despite this, he held the seat with an increase in vote share of 2.3% and a majority of 3,562. The Greens received almost exactly this figure (3,251) in votes. Labour’s vote share was static, while receiving a small increase in the number of votes.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 25,501 47.5 27,305 49.8
Labour 23,311 43.4 23,743 43.3
Plaid Cymru 2,295 4.3
Brexit Party
UKIP 868 1.6
Liberal Democrat 1,020 1.9
Green Party 419 0.8 3,251 5.9
Gwlad Gwlad 508 0.9
Women’s Equality Party 177 0.3
Pirate Party 127 0.2

 

Results of the pact

If the pact was intended to provide a springboard for electoral gains for the three participants, then it was a complete failure.

For Plaid, it almost certainly assisted in enabling them to hold on to Arfon, although their majority there was larger than the total 2017 vote for the Lib Dems. But they failed to increase their number of seats, missing out on their key target of Ynys Mon.

For the Liberal democrats, the pact produced no gains at all and they failed to hold on to their only Welsh seat (Brecon and Radnorshire).

For the Greens, the pact was an unmitigated disaster. Not only were they allocated a seat that they had no chance of winning (Vale of Glamorgan), but they stood in a Tory/Labour marginal and gained almost exactly the same number of votes as the Tory majority over Labour, arguably handing the seat to the Conservatives. They sacrificed any credibility they had in Wales for a futile pact with Plaid and the austerity Lib Dems. A sorry chapter in their history.

 

 

Pro-remain electoral pact in Wales – the not very progressive alliance

November 20, 2019

(first published in New Socialist, https://newsocialist.org.uk/pro-remain-electoral-pact-wales-not-very-progressive-alliance/ )

The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have announced their ‘pro-remain pact’ (the ‘Unite to Remain’ group) in which each other’s candidates will step aside to allow one of the three parties to have a better chance of election in 60 nominated constituencies (49 in England and 11 in Wales).

The deal in Wales shows that far from representing a principled alliance of progressive parties (or even an attempt to maximise the chances of the election of pro-remain candidates as MPs), it is a pretty shabby deal largely aimed at shoring up support for the Lib Dems and Plaid in seats that they already hold but are concerned they may lose, and at damaging Labour’s chances of forming a government.

Under the deal, Plaid get the lion’s share with seven clear runs – in Arfon, Caerphilly, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Dwyfor Meirionydd, Llanelli, Pontypridd and Ynys Mon. The Lib Dems have been allocated three – Brecon & Radnorshire, Cardiff Central and Montgomeryshire. The Greens get just one – the Vale of Glamorgan.

Plaid has managed to persuade the other parties to stand aside in three of the four seats they are defending (Arfon, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionydd). Given that the Lib Dems received 2.3% in Arfon, 2.2% in Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and 3.1% in Dwyfor Meirionydd this is not such an heroic act of sacrifice and principle as they make it sound. Significantly, the Lib Dems declined to stand aside in Plaid’s other seat (Ceredigion) where they were just 104 votes behind Plaid. Principled solidarity only goes so far obviously. However, in Arfon, Plaid will hope the endorsement of the Lib Dems and the Greens will boost their wafer thin majority of just 92 over Labour.

They have also been given a free run in Caerphilly, Llanelli, Pontypridd and Ynys Mon. All four are Labour seats and in the last Parliament were held by remain supporters. Some of Labour’s MPs have been staid, uninspiring figures unwilling or unable to support the degree of radical change needed in Wales – illustrated by the reluctance of many of them to get behind the policies adopted by the party in recent years and their unconcealed hostility to the leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell (despite the ‘Corbyn bounce’ that several benefited from in the last election). In addition, the Welsh government’s record – with some notable exceptions, such as on prescription charges – has been disappointing and marked by a poverty of ambition. So Plaid will wear its left face in some areas. But there is nothing radical about facilitating a Conservative government of free market zealots.

In the last election Plaid received just 14.4% of the vote against Labour’s 54.5% in Caerphilly; 18.2% compared with Labour’s 53.5% in Llanelli; and 10.3% in contrast with Labour’s 55.4% in Pontypridd. The Lib Dem and Green votes (where they stood) in these constituencies were derisory so, based on 2017, to believe that Plaid has a realistic chance of taking these seats from Labour requires rose tinted lenses of Hubble Space Telescope proportions. In all four seats allocated to Plaid by the alliance, the Conservatives came second so it’s possible that, while unable to take the seats themselves, the ‘Unite to Remain’ group make it easier for the Tories to oust Labour. This is particularly dangerous in Ynys Mon, where in 2017 the Tories were neck and neck with Plaid. If a remain alliance takes votes from Labour, there is a real threat that the Tories could come through the middle to take the seat.

Plaid and the Greens step aside for the Lib Dems in the only constituency they held in the last Parliament (Brecon & Radnorshire) which they won in a by election with a similar pact. They also get a free run in the seats of Cardiff Central and Montgomeryshire. The Lib Dems have previously held Cardiff Central and no doubt hope that the large student vote in the constituency will shift to them because of their remain stance. Unfortunately for them, the Labour candidate Jo Stevens, had a huge majority over the Lib Dems in the 2017 election (where they came third with a mere 5415 votes compared to Jo Stevens’ 25193) and she has a solid record of supporting and voting for remain. The other constituency lined up for the Lib Dems is Montgomeryshire where they came a long way behind the Tories – 8790 to 18075. The leave-supporting Tory, Glyn Davies, is not standing this time, having been replaced as Conservative candidate by the former Cardiff North MP, Craig Williams. He supported remain before the referendum but is a loyal leave foot soldier now.

Lead parties, last elected MP and election results

Alliance seats where Plaid Cymru is the lead party

 

Alliance seats where the Liberal Democrats or Greens are the lead party

Finally, the Greens share of the pie is the Vale of Glamorgan constituency. In 2017, Labour lost to the Tories by just 2190 votes. Then the Tories were on 47.5% and Labour on 43.4. The Greens came sixth with 419 votes With impeccable timing, the deeply unpleasant Tory candidate, Alun Cairns, having denied any knowledge of the role of his former aide in deliberately wrecking a rape trial, has been outed as having received an email about this months ago. If Labour builds on its 2017 vote, this seat is winnable. No doubt Plaid (with their princely 4.3% of the vote) and the Lib Dems (with the even worse 1.9%) felt relaxed about standing aside for the Greens here. The Greens have no chance of winning this seat, but if they are able to gather in all the non-Labour pro-remain voters (and possibly even peel a few away from Labour), they will succeed in helping return the odious Tory Cairns to Parliament. They are sacrificing any radical credibility they have for the opportunity to lose badly but possibly prevent Labour from winning. Some deal.

Nobody is surprised that the combination of Orange Book austerity evangelists, ex-Blairite cheerleaders and former Tories that run the Liberal Democrats today would be happy to see Labour stopped from gaining a key target seat. This is entirely in line with Jo Swinson’s refusal to contemplate supporting a Corbyn government, and by default conceding a preference for a Brexit-supporting Tory government. The lies and misrepresentation of the Lib Dems’ dodgy bar charts gave us an early indication of the way their campaign was going to go and the pact fits the pattern.

The joker in the pack is the Brexit Party. It is impossible to know how their presence will affect the results – particularly in those areas that voted leave. They polled well in the European elections in Wales but they are an unknown quantity in a general election.

Jo Swinson’s fantasies aside, the only likely options after the election are some form of Tory or Labour-led government. For those who see Brexit as the over-riding issue of the election (from either a leave or remain perspective), anybody serious must know that there is no chance of remain without a Labour government and no chance of a soft Brexit either. Obviously, there are huge debates within that, but a prospective Labour government is pledged to negotiate a Brexit package that does not endanger workers’, environmental or consumer rights and then to allow the people to decide on this or remain.

Many members and supporters of Plaid and the Greens see their parties as being on the left. They will be astonished that in an election in which both Plaid and the Greens identify remain as the defining issue, they are prepared to take part in a pact which, if it works at all, will make it more likely that a hard-Brexit supporting Tory government takes office on 13 December.

The Greens, in particular, are likely to suffer serious damage for participating in a pact dominated by the pro-austerity Lib Dems and whose clear aim is to harm Labour’s chances of forming the next government. The sheer anti-Labour cynicism and opportunism of the remain pact is revealed in all its glory in the deal over the Vale of Glamorgan.

Hopefully the creators of this unprincipled piece of horse trading have underestimated two things: the intelligence of the electorate who will smell a rat when they see the implications of the pact for their constituency and the country at large; and the fact that only Labour has the potential to mobilise thousands of canvassers to counter the misrepresentations with a positive message of radical change.

11 November 2018

One hundred years ago today, the ‘war to end all wars’ ended. Of course, wars didn’t end on 11 November 1918, but the myth making had already begun – and continues to this day.

In the UK, the industrial slaughter of World War One is folded into the war against the Nazis in World War Two and all the other wars since then in a portrayal of British military action as always being about the defence of ‘our’ liberty and democracy.

Not much is said about the fact that the fight against ‘German militarism and expansionism’ in 1914-18 was fought by an army of working class men, many of whom were denied the right to vote by the British ruling class. A higher proportion of workers in Hohenzollern Germany had the vote than in Britain. And far from it being fought ‘in defence of small nations’ (plucky little Belgium, which had pluckily looted and murdered its way through the Belgian Congo), it was primarily about preventing Germany becoming a challenge to the British Empire. The fact that the British government was all too happy to ally itself with the ruthless autocracy of Russian Tsarism should have been evidence enough of that. In fact the clash of empires with the British, French and Russian on one side and the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman on the other would eventually result in the ending of the German, Russian and Habsburg monarchies, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British and French Empires (although they didn’t think this at the time) and the advent of the American Century.

Millions flocked to the colours in all countries, it is true, but many were driven by poverty as much as patriotism, and with the collapse of most Labour and socialist parties into recruiting sergeants for their respective national elites, it is hardly surprising that working class youth queued up to wear the khaki. And none of them could have foreseen the Dantean inferno they were rushing towards, many genuinely believing that ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. When it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the case, protests and strikes took place in many countries about the war – both in general opposition and on specific issues such as conscription, wages, conditions at work, and wartime restrictions.

The prevailing account is that after the early stages, especially on the western front, it became a deadly war of attrition which eventually exhausted the German army, stretched their supply lines too far and with the extra resources and troops provided by the USA after their entry into the war in 1917, forced them into seeking an armistice.

It’s rarely conceded that the two Russian revolutions of 1917 sent shock waves around the world and inspired the growth of greater opposition to the continuation of the war. The collapse of the Kaiser’s war machine and the German determination to end the war was not the result of planned decision by the German High Command – still less of the Kaiser. It was forced on them by the increasing radicalisation and anti-war mood of the German armed forces and the workers at home. The mutiny of the German fleet at Kiel, the formation of councils of sailors, soldiers and workers, and the spread of revolt to the cities and army units in the German revolution are what forced the hand of the German government to sue for peace. They feared a social revolution.

Little of this is reflected in the discussions around Remembrance Day in the UK, which still broadly follows the narrative established just after the end of the war, although at least then the horrors of the mass slaughter in which 16 million people died were so clear in the public mind that even the most gung-ho politicians were obliged to talk about the ‘war to end all wars’.

With such colossal losses, there is a human need to feel that these deaths were somehow of value, they were not pointless, there was purpose and achievement as a result. Glorious yes, but not just glorious.

There is the language of sacrifice as well as glory, as if most of these men willingly sacrificed their lives for the war aims of the British Empire.

Immediately after the war, the emphasis in remembrance was on ‘Never again’. Millions of veterans with first hand knowledge of the horror ensured that. While I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s there were still plenty of survivors to offer an alternative view of the ‘glory’ of war.

Today all are gone and there is an increased glorification of the military rather than a remembrance of those who died and a reflection on why. Like many of the worst things in present day Britain, Thatcher and Blair bear a heavy responsibility. It was while Thatcher was PM that Michael Foot’s appearance at the Cenotaph was criticised for ‘scruffiness’ and ‘disrespect’ (in a weird precursor to the attacks on Corbyn). Thatcher relentlessly used the military to shore up her own political position. Blair took Britain into an illegal war, engaged in various military acts of ‘liberal interventionism’ and attempted to wrap himself in the prestige of the armed forces. Like much of his politics, this cult of the military was borrowed from the United States and Blair and his acolytes ostentatiously grabbed the poppy as a symbol of their ‘mainstream’ legitimacy. In his desperation to prove that they were the friends of the military establishment (not the forces rank and file by the way), Gordon Brown created Veterans’ Day in 2006 (it became Armed Forces Day in 2009).

The increased military activity of the last two decades, the (until recently) unquestioning bipartisan worship of the military establishment by the political parties, the hysteria about the wearing of the red poppy has all contributed to changing the nature of remembrance itself.

It is right to remember all those – soldiers and civilians, in the UK and abroad – who have lost their lives or suffered mental or physical injury as a result of war and conflict. But it is not enough just to ‘remember’. We need a reflective remembrance about those who died, why they died, the lessons we can learn from their deaths so that they really were not in vain. That surely should be the purpose of Remembrance: never again.