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


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


[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.



BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS.

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.

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

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



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.


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
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



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



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



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



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



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
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, )

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.

John LeCarre’s ‘A Legacy of Spies’: dirty details

LeCarre is always an entertaining and interesting read and A Legacy of Spies is no exception. It focuses on on the present day fallout of an MI6 operation against the Stasi in the early 1960s.

In doing so, two things stand out that as being a little odd (neither of which are particularly important to the story but interesting nonetheless).

The first is the cameo role played by Jim Prideaux one of the Circus (MI6) ‘Scalphunters’. The main character in Legacy, Peter Guilliame tracks Prideaux down to a struggling private school in Somerset where he teaches French and lives in a caravan in the school grounds. This scene in the book is remarkably similar to the scene in the film Tinker, Taylor , Soldier, Spy in which Smiley finds Prideaux in order to interview him about another MI6 operation that went bad – this time in Czechoslovakia.

The second is within the least convincing part of the story which involves an MI6 agent developing a relationship with a young Communist woman who takes him along to political meetings. One such is described as a local Communist Party sponsored ‘Open Day to all shades of left-wing opinion’ at which ‘regular attendees include members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, ‘Militant’, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament…’ The main speaker at one particular meeting is R. Palme Dutt (a real life Stalinist leader), while one of the others is the (presumably fictional) local Trotskyist Bert Arthur Lownes.

This short scene packs in a number of implausible and impossible features. The period is meant to be the early 1960s (one document referred to is dated 1962) and certainly R. Palme Dutt was around then, but the Socialist Workers’ Party was not formed until 1977 and ‘Militant’ didn’t exist in that form or under that name until 1964. Worse than that though, is the idea that the Communist Party would provide any sort of platform for its hated ‘Trot’ enemies like the SWP or Militant. Vicars and Labour MPs were usually welcomed at CP events but not Trotskyists.

How important are these details? Conan Doyle argued: ‘It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little.’ On the other hand, Wilkie Collins, considered to be the author of the first modern detective novel, has his lead character say: ‘In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.’ And there never was a dirtier world than the dirty world of Cold War espionage.

What next for Corbynism?

[first published on the New Socialist website ]

On Saturday 8 July, 200,000 people marched through the narrow streets of Durham city centre to the Racecourse to celebrate the 133rd Gala – the Big Meeting – of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA). The sun shone, the bands played and the banners swayed in a festival of working class culture and confidence.

Crowds gathered outside the County Hotel, while up on the balcony the Big Meeting’s great and good stood to ‘take the salute’ of the bands as they marched past, one of which played a haunting and beautiful, slow version of the Internationale.

We were at a proudly pro-union event. And yet it was run by an organization which was obliged by the Certification Officer to deregister as a union in 2007/08 because it had no working members and therefore could not fulfill the function of a trade union. Not only that, the thousands of marchers followed lodge banners from collieries that no longer exist spread throughout a coalfield that closed down years ago. But this was no heritage fair.

The speeches were fiery and well received from Matt Wrack of the firefighters’ union, Unite’s Len McCluskey, Angela Rayner MP, film director Ken Loach, Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers’ Association and Clare Williams, Northern Regional Secretary of Unison.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so many platform speeches at a labour movement event that explicitly mentioned socialism, class, the working class and directly linked these to the idea of justice. It made for quite a change and was perhaps proof of Corbyn’s point that the campaign over the last few months has changed the political debate in Britain.

Corbyn’s speech was broadly based on that of his election campaign with some additional references to the Gala and the loss of two leaders of the DMA, Davey Hopper and Davey Guy. He also reflected on what the election meant and the Tory behaviour since, including the deal with the DUP and their response to the Grenfell disaster (although there was no mention of Brexit at all), and he called for an early general election.

In line with this, he talked about the campaign continuing throughout the summer, targeting the 73 marginals that Labour aims to win. But the most important section of his speech came next when he said:

We also endorse, work with and enjoy the strength, the solidarity and the support of trade unions, of community organisations and of people altogether. Parliament alone will not change this society. It’s what we all do in our daily lives and in our campaigns that is so important.

And it is this that he should have developed. There needed to be more action content to the speech, there needed to be some indication of how he believes that the gains of the general election can be built upon, how the potential support that exists can be realized above and beyond the achievements of June.

It is obvious that there needs to be a strategic campaign in Parliament to pressure the Tories, to take advantage of their weakened position, to create splits and confusion among their ranks and to push them back on their attempts to carry through their continued commitment to austerity and ‘hard’ Brexit.

But as he acknowledged, Parliament alone will not do it. So what could Corbyn have added to give some direction, to provide an indication of how Labour can move from the strong base established by the election campaign through to building a movement that can win the next election as part of a radical transformation of British society?

Labour now has an enormous mass membership. At over half a million members, in reality it may be the largest it has been since the war (as from 1956 Constituency Labour Parties were forced to record a minimum membership of 800). The mood of the party membership is buoyant as is that of party supporters. This is a huge resource and is likely to get bigger if the impetus can be continued.

An average of a thousand members in every constituency in the country would provide the party with the sort of reach that is unimaginable for other parties. It also starts to make the idea of rooting the party in the local community a realistic goal.  With this kind of presence in the localities, it will be commonplace to know ‘someone’ in the local Labour party. It starts to ‘normalize’ political activity, and allows the possibility, at least, of a real dialogue between the local party and voters.

With an attentive audience of tens of thousands on a day attended by 200,000, the Gala was an opportunity for Corbyn to suggest some practical steps that could assist in transforming a passive crowd into an active movement. He should have appealed for everybody who was not yet a member, to become one. He should have asked every member to become an active member – not in the sense of taking an avid interest in Matters Arising at the next ward meeting, but in taking part in public activities organized by the local party. He could have called on all local party officers to audit the work of their ward or CLP and to develop a strategic turn outwards, identifying key issues in their local areas and targeting potential new members and supporters. Fewer meetings, more action. As membership grows, new talents and expertise become available to the local party and need to be deployed. This is particularly important in reaching young members and BME members with ‘like recruits like’ recruitment approaches.

Most local party activists have a pretty good handle on their local area, but maybe this knowledge could be systematized and used as the basis for targeted action in the same way that some unions have developed strategies to ‘map’ workplaces. By getting an accurate picture of the types of job, types of worker, likely issues in a particular workplace, many unions have run successful campaigns to build membership and improve conditions. A similar approach could be applied to the demography, geography and employment pattern of constituencies. In fact, using the experience, expertise and talents of members of affiliated unions to do this would be an ideal way to strengthen and build the relationship between local parties and unions.

The Labour party does not appear to have a union strategy at the moment and it badly needs one. Although Corbyn referred to the unions in his speech and is always positive and supportive, he could have begun to develop a strategy by calling on all affiliated unions to push for their members to join their local parties. Unions could provide details to their members on how to do this through the branches or using email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter or whatever other medium is available. A strong union presence in local parties anchors the party in the world of work and potentially provides a link to issues around which to campaign. Identifying the big employers in each constituency and the main types of employment and developing a relationship with the relevant unions could also pay dividends. If there is no union in the main workplaces of the constituency, this provides an ideal focus for joint party/union campaigns for unionization.

He also mentioned working with community organisations but took it no further. Many CLPs doubtless work closely with a range of community groups but it could be extended and developed into a coherent practice of identifying relevant community organisations, building links and working together on specific campaigns. This could be a way of integrating the political campaign work in relation to the different levels of government (local, devolved, UK) as well as in relation to non-state organisations and direct action. By digging deep roots in the local communities and being prepared to work with other organisations, local parties increase their reach, build their influence, increase their membership and can achieve results for and with their local community. Labour movement organisations in the past (such as the South Wales Miners Federation[1] ) built the sort of local presence that reflected the fact that they earned the trust and support of local communities to the extent that they were seen as the leaders of their local community.

Corbyn needs to use the opportunities provided by an increased party membership and support to deepen and broaden the party’s base among working people, to integrate the trade unions and individual trade unionists locally into the work of the party and to engage with community organisations around specific campaigns to win gains for local people.

The next step must be to link the rhetoric on social change to action, using the experience of the longstanding members and engaging the new members in activity to begin the process of transforming the Labour party into a movement that is not just able to change the electoral make up of the House of Commons but is able to fundamentally change society itself.


[1] Admittedly in different circumstances to today (before the advent of the welfare state) many working class communities and trade unions set up their own services and activities. Even as late as 1934 there were over one hundred miners’ libraries in the Welsh coalfields, many of which were part of larger miners’ institutes with a wide range of cultural opportunities on offer – from amateur radio to drama, from photography to opera as well as political and trade union education (‘one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world’ (Rose, 2010: 237)).