Monday 22 December 2008

Cock of the Year 2008

Looking back over the year, there have been some absolutely moronic individuals who have raised my hackles in 2008. Preempting the annual reviews that every newspaper likes to indulge in and in preparation for the awards season next year, this is my list of some of the least edifying personalities of the last 12 months, based largely on the rants on this blog.

Ladies and gentlemen, I represent Random Blowe's first annual Cock of the Year awards!

OVERALL WINNER: Ken Livingstone

The 'Cock of the Year' award goes to the former Mayor of London, for his defence of the Metropolitan Police over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Even losing an election in May hasn't helped this former left-winger ro take some time and reflect, as he showed on the day after the verdict of Jean's inquest, when he praised Deputy Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick as the "most talented" officer he worked with, an officer with "Commissioner potential". DAC Dick was the senior officer in charge of the police operation on 22 July 2005, an operation that was the inquest jury believed was a surveillance failure and a communications disaster. Menezes' family lawyer Gareth Peirce has spoken of the "25 serious and catastrophic failures on the part of Cressida Dick alone."

See the Justice4Jean Inquest blog that I have been looking after for the J4J campaign, for a link to Livingstone's interview.

Livingstone's victory in this award category may be a little controversial, as Commander Dick was a early front runner as number-one Cock. I just thought it would mean too many knob gags in one posting...

Muscular Liberal Cock of 2008

WINNER: Nick Cohen

A tough category, with John Rentoul of the Independent an early favourite for coining the phrase 'stoppers' - people who are "named by the pro-war left of Harry's Place and the Euston Manifesto, who want to stop the war, stop globalisation, stop the world, stop Blair... These are the people whose only foreign policy over the past six years has been not to intervene in Iraq and to refuse to accept the possibility that this might have had adverse consequences. They exist all over the world.."

What a complete cock.

Then there was a late challenge from David Aaronovitch, with a truly knobtastic argument in The Times that said Jean Charles de Menezes should be seen as the "53rd victim of 7/7", an argument that insults the families of those who died in 2005's London bombings and that grasped at long-discredited 'eye-witness' testimony.

However, we have a clear winner: the indefatigable Nick Cohen, for his Evening Standard article accusing the Left of using the death of Jean Charles de Menezes as an excuse to beat up the police. Seldom have I enjoyed responding at length to such a complete tool.

Nick, we salute you.

International Cock of the Year

WINNER: Barack Obama

The world is full of murderous, vile dictators, but to win the coverted title of 'International Cock of the Year' requires different qualities - like promising the world and then failing to deliver on every decision made before even taking power.

The clear winner is President-elect Barack Obama. Some may say that the newly crowned leader of the 'free world' has had little time to do anything that justifies this award. But for:

Barack Obama - you are the undisputed International Cock of 2008.

Sunday 21 December 2008

Films in 2008

Another year passes and it's time to reflect on the films I've seen this year.

Since taking up the challenge back in 2003 to see one film every week and post a review online, I've loved sitting in the dark of a cinema and watching something new. With 31 films this year, it has been a more regular pilgrimage than 2007, which was a bad year for film-lovers, but still down on 38 films in 2006, 42 in 2005 and a whopping 60 in 2004.

That means I've been to the cinema 243 times since the start of 2003. At an average of a fiver a time, that's... probably not worth calculating...

In keeping with previous years, I've rated the films I've seen and as you can see, 2008 was a better year too, with six films getting the full 5-stars, compared to only one (The Lives of Others) last year.

You can find ratings for 2007 on this blog and if you want to see the ratings for 2004 to 2006 and the reviews from 2003, visit

5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

In date order - five star films highlighted in bold

The Golden Compass (***)
Paranoid Park (****)
I Am Legend (**)
The Darjeeling Ltd (****)
The Kite Runner (****)
Charlie Wilson's War (**) - see review
No Country For Old Men (*****)
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (**)
Colverfield (***)
In the Valley of Elah (****)
There Will Be Blood (*****)
All White in Barking (*)
Juno (*****)
Vantage Point (***)
The USA vs Al-Arian (****)
Son of Rambow (****)
Iron Man (***)
Persepolis (****)
Indiana Jones 4 (**)
Wanted (***)
Wall-E (*****)
The Dark Knight (*****)
Hellboy 2 (***)
Babylon (****)
Man on Wire (****)
Tropic Thunder (***)
Quantum of Solace (***)
W (***)
Waltz wth Bashir (*****)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (**)
Twilight (****)

Saturday 20 December 2008

Obama's Appointments - Sonal Shah

Sonal Shah, Transition Team Advisor

US Coordinator for Vishwa Hindu Parishad, militant group was held responsible for the genocidal pogroms against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 that killed 2,000 people and rendered 100,000 homeless. The Indian coordinator of the genocide, Narendra Modi, stays at the Shah family home when he visits the US.

Obama's Appointments - Greg Craig

Greg Craig, White House Counsel

Lawyer for Bolivian ex-President Sanchez de Lozada who is charged with extreme corruption and genocide for, among other things, ordering the murder of 60 civilian protestors in 2003. Craig says “we do not accept your characterization of those events as a massacre.”

The dictator’s other lawyer, Howard Gutman, was one an early member of Obama’s Financial Committee.

Obama's Appointments - Eric Holder

Eric Holder, US Attorney General

Serves as a lawyer for Chiquita bananas, defending their funding of right-wing death squads in Colombia that targeted union and peasant leaders.

Obama's Appointments - Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Defence

Leading advocate of using the military to round up immigrants along the Mexican border, supportive of chain gang prisons for undocumented immigrants and people awaiting trial.

Obama's Appointments - Lawrence Summers

Lawrence Summers, Director of White House National Economic Council

Summers believes poor countries are not polluted enough.

Summers oversaw the imposition of “Structural Adjustment” throughout the globe, destroying a majority of the economy of the former USSR, helping to create crises in Asia and Latin America, and reducing the quality of life for hundreds of millions of poor people through requiring cuts to social safety nets, privatising of public industries, and the free reign of financial speculation across the globe.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Obama Asks Bigot to Host Inauguration Ceremony

Because the search for a 'saviour' is an anathamea to radical politics, I have never understood the blind adoration for Barack Obama.

But his choices so far have shown some very worrying signs of just how much 'change' was just a merchandising slogan. Obama's selection of the preacher Rick Warren to host his Presidential inauguration ceremony in January is particularly fascinating - and poses some difficult questions for his liberal fans. I read the following by Michelle Goldberg in today's Guardian:

If nothing else, Rick Warren is a miracle worker in the realm of public relations. He is a man who compares legal abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to incest and paedophilia. He believes that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are going to spend eternity burning in hell. He doesn't believe in evolution. He recently dismissed the social gospel – the late 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant movement that led a religious crusade against poverty and inequality – as "Marxism in Christian clothing". Yet thanks to his amiable attitude and jocular tone, he has managed to create a popular image for himself as a moderate, even progressive force in American life, a reasonable, compassionate alternative to the punitive, sex-obsessed inquisitors of the religious right. And Barack Obama, who should know better, has helped him do it.

Yesterday brought the news that Warren would be giving the invocation at Obama's inauguration. For Warren, this is a bit of a coup, since he seems to aspire to be the country's unofficial national pastor, a role once occupied by Billy Graham. He already played an unprecedented role in the 2008 presidential election when he conducted back-to-back interviews with John McCain and Obama, which essentially made him the moderator, and his church the stage, for the first joint event of the campaign season. By participating in that exercise, Obama lent Warren undeserved legitimacy as a kind of national moral arbiter.

Still, his taking part could be defended as an act of canny political outreach. After all, one of the great things about Obama was the way he tried to connect with audiences that hadn't previously been receptive to Democratic messages. It made sense for Obama to try and win the vote of Warren's followers. But honouring Warren by giving him a major role at the inauguration does not make sense. It is a slap in the face to many of Obama's staunchest supporters.


Monday 15 December 2008

Letter in "The Times"

This is the full version of the edited letter I sent The Times, which was published today:

David Aaronovitch's efforts (Comment, 13 December) to portray Jean Charles de Menezes as the "53rd victim of 7/7" may, at first glance, seem superficially persuasive, although perhaps not for reasons that Aaronovitch would welcome. Men trained to take lives killed Jean, after all, and he died travelling across London to work, unaware as he left home that his life was in extraordinary danger, or that at the critical moment, there would be nothing he would be able to do to defend himself.

But Aaronovitch is wrong and worse still, his argument insults the memories of the 52 people that died on 7 July 2005. Their tragic deaths were the product of the obscene actions of vile, murderous fanatics, unaccountable to no-one but themselves. Jean's killing resulted from of the conduct and decision-making of public servants supposedly accountable to us, who from senior officers to firearms specialists carried a duty of care that they spectacularly failed to deliver on the moring of 22 July. There can be no equivalence between the two events and the bombings in London and the deaths of so many innocent people can never be a justification for arguing that Jean's death is unfortunate but acceptable 'collateral damage'.

That is why the Jean's family and the Justice4Jean campaign continue to demand justice and accountability from those responsible for his killing – whilst also supporting calls, made by relatives of those who died on London's transport network in 2005, for an independent public inquiry into the 7th July bombings.

In a democracy, the grieving deserve and expect answers from the powerful about whether more could have been done to prevent their love-ones' deaths. Even Aaronovitch, an apologist for unfettered government secrecy and immunity under the banner of 'the war on terror', must be able to understand that.

Kevin Blowe
Justice4Jean Campaign

Bush Ducks Sandals of Mass Disruption

This gets funnier ever time I watch it...

Throwing shoes at a visiting US President is "an important step on the road towards an Iraq that can sustain itself", apparently.

Friday 5 December 2008

A Very English Fix

This was written in response to a request to the Justice4Jean campaign to guest blog for Dave Hill's London Blog on The Guardian website. But unfortunately, Dave's e-mail not longer works, so I can't send it to him. This is what I wrote:

When the establishment moves to protect their own, it’s often through a very English fix, with the pleasantries maintained and the drama minimised.

So it was when Sir Michael Wright, the Coroner presiding over the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, yesterday explained the absence of the lawyers representing Jean’s family. "The evidence and legal submissions are now all over and we have had their assistance throughout these very important stages,” the Coroner said. “I understand that from this point they will no longer be here. There is absolutely no difficulty about that. No disrespect is meant by it to anyone."

The suggestioin seemed to be that the lawyers were somehow unavoidably busy elsewhere, but the truth was somewhat more serious. After meeting with their solicitors and after a number of telephone calls to relatives in Brazil, including to Jean’s mother Maria Otone de Menezes, the family had decided that the inquest was not longer a transparent or credible investigation into Jean’s death. They had then formally withdrawn as ‘interested persons’ from the court proceedings.

The jury weren’t, of course, supposed to know this and Sir Michael Wright may, too, have got away with brushing it to one side, had it not been for one final act of defiance by Jean’s cousins. In the midst of the Coroner’s summation of the evidence, they stood up, unzipped their jackets to reveal t-shirts with the slogans "Your Legal Right to Decide" and "Unlawful Killing Verdict" and then walked out of the courtroom, in full view of the jury, whilst the Coroner and barristers for the police looked on, open-mouthed. For the first time in many months, Jean’s family no longer felt like bystanders in a legal process that seemed intent on denying them justice.

Their anger is entirely understandable. After warning the inquest jury against “emotional reactions” to the evidence from Jean’s mother, Sir Michael hardly missed a beat before emphasising the need the jury to recall the moment that the highly-trained firearms officer C12 broke down in tears in the courtroom. Remember, the Coroner said, that "this tough, fit, highly-trained, mature man broke down in tears and this fact may assist you in assessing the depth of the emotional experience that he was going through here when he was reliving the terrible events of July 22." So much for putting emotions to one side, or that C12’s “emotional reaction” came a week before his evidence that a warning had been given before shots were fired was flatly contradicted by every single passenger who have been on the tube train at Stockwell station.

But what has appalled the family the most is the Coroner’s decision to deny the jury, after listening to months of evidence from 100 witnesses, the option to make up their own minds and reach verdicts, should they choose to, that Jean's death was negligent or unlawful. It’s anger and disgust shared by the hundreds of members of the public who have e-mailed us over the last few days.

Independent decision-making by juries of the public is the cornerstone of our legal system and juries have consistently demonstrated that they take their responsibilities seriously. Allowing them to do their job without restriction and to reach a verdict based on their own assessment of the evidence is the only way that the public can be confident that the evidence about Jean’s death has been properly and transparently investigated. The jury must be able reach a verdict that best reflects the evidence, without external constraints on what is – and what is not – allegedly ‘justified.

Of course, they may still do so, although it would take a very brave jury to ignore the Coroner’s instructions and remember that they can make whatever decision they wish. It seems rather unlikely but as Jean’s family said in a statement last night, “the jury have the legal right to return any verdict they want to and we hope that these 11 ordinary members of the public will do the right thing.”

Kevin Blowe
Justice4Jean Campaign

Tuesday 2 December 2008

The End of the Bush Doctrine?

Never mind the waffle about Obama's supposed magnanimity in appointing Hillary Clinton as the next Secretary of State, or the fluff about the role of former President Bill Clinton. What does putting a hawk like Hillary in such a prominent foreign-policy position mean for the process of 'change' that we are supposed to be able to believe in?

One of the most accurate critiques of Hillary Clinton's views came in 2007, with the warning that Clinton would continue the "Bush doctrine" of only speaking to leaders of hostile nations if they first meet conditions laid out by the US government. Clinton was also identified as one of a number of members of Congress who were "trapped by a lot of received wisdom" into authorising the war in Iraq "without asking questions." The implication was clear: Hillary Clinton couldn't be trusted to make a clean break with the discredited policies of the Bush Administration, which had so badly damaged the reputation of the US around the world.

And who was it that made these damning accusations? Actually, it was a young senator from Chicago and Democratic primary candidate called Barack Obama.

If he was right then, how can the appointment of Hillary Clinton be right now?

Mumbai Attack - Conspiracies Begin

Expect the imminent creation of a '26/11 Truth Movement', as the conspiracy theories have already begun.

At least the first from Mumbai is more interesting than those that followed the London bombings in 2005. As the photo left shows, it does seem as though the picture of a gunman at Mumbai's CST station shows him wearing an orange cord around his right wrist, which is rather more Hindu than Muslim.

For the rest of the crazier theories, see: Mumbai Attackers were ‘Hindus’ and ‘White Men’

Thursday 13 November 2008

The Matrix Runs on Windows

Yes Men launch fake New York Times

Anti-corporate prankers The Yes Men have launched a fake edition of the New York Times announcing the end of the Iraq war. More than one million free copies of the 14-page "special edition" newspaper - dated 4 July 2009 - were distributed, mainly in New York and Los Angeles. The paper bore a motto on its front page that read, "all the news we hope to print".

The Yes Men have also produced an accompanying website at mimicking the look of The New York Times's real site.

A PDF version can be downloaded from here.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Close Guantánamo

The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign calling on President-elect Barack Obama to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and end the military commissions on Day One of his presidency. The ACLU calls on Obama to sign executive orders banning the use of torture and abuse and ending the practice of extraordinary rendition.

"We welcome the end to a Bush administration that is leaving behind a disastrous legacy of civil liberties violations, abuse of power and executive overreaching, yet there is no room for complacency," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "We are hopeful that President Obama will honor the U.S. Constitution and passionately promote all the rights for which it stands."

The ACLU has also launched a new campaign website at

Monday 10 November 2008

Everyman Goes To Washington

Some first thoughts on an Obama presidency

Finally, America has taken a bold step forward and finally elected… a Hawaiian-American as President...

Only kidding. None but the most hardened cynics will have absorbed the symbolism of Barack Obama’s election or witnessed the extraordinary oratory of the new President-elect during his victory speech in Chicago and not been moved (even if his oft-repeated campaign slogan always makes me smile and think of the children’s cartoon character Bob the Builder. Can we fix it? Yes we can!)

That symbolism represents more than the election of America’s first black President, important though this is within living memory of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, or even that after eight years of the idiocracy of George W Bush we have an articulate, cerebral leader of the United States. The burden of expectation on Obama’s shoulders is also, I think, wrapped up in a deep-seated folk story of American individualism. the template for which are the characters of Frank Capra’s films of the 1930s, like James Stewart in ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington’ or Spencer Tracey in the more cynical post-war ‘State Of The Union’. They represent the abiding myth of the idealist, honest and untainted by the corruption of Washington politics, men who invoke the spirit of Abraham Lincoln (the most mythologised of US Presidents) and who triumph over adversity and temptation without abandoning their principles. Most Capra films, made in a time of crisis in America, in the midst of the Depression and the uncertainty of a impending war, embody the same unfulfilled yearning for change that has driven the huge popular movement behind Obama.

Many Americans (and onlookers around the word) now evidently believe, after disappointment after continued disappointment, that they have found their ‘Mr Smith’, an Everyman politician who can finally turn what was once just a heart-warming fiction into reality. Unfortunately, the final reel of those old black and white films never showed what happened next. They never told us what happens when the heroic idealist finally attains power and has to deal with the Washington venality he once railed against, but that remains untouched and continues to wield enormous influence. This is Obama’s dilemma: he promised ‘change we can believe in’, but said little about how he would make it happen, or even what ‘change’ might eventually look like.

The very early signs have been far from promising. There has been much talk of unity and bi-partisanship, the same pledge made by Clinton – and surprisingly, in the light of events, by George W Bush. This is hardly a break with the past and neither is the inclusion of so many former Clinton strategists and advisors in Obama’s transitional team and amongst the names of those favourite to become members of his cabinet.

For instance, the appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as White House chief-of-staff – the son of a member of the Zionist terror group Irgun, a civilian volunteer in the Israel Defence Forces during the Gulf War in 1991 and a supporter of both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the war in Iraq – hardly points to a change we can believe in of US policy in Palestine. Neither does the inclusion amongst Obama’s advisors of President Carter’s hawkish former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, seem like a new dawn in foreign policy. It has been proposed that three Bush appointees will remain in office under Obama, whilst a frontrunner for the post of Treasury Secretary is Larry Summers, a proponent of the financial deregulation of Wall Street that has helped fuel the economic crisis facing America. This already begins to look like the status quo we can believe in.

Obama supporters will of course argue that the President-elect needs these Washington insiders to make things happen, that even an idealist needs ‘realists’. It’s the first compromise of the ‘change we can believe in’ and it won’t, I suspect, be the last. But some things will change, we know: Guantanamo will finally close, there will be a more liberal approach to environmental issues and Americans may finally achieve universal health care. Will there be more? A transformational change in the way government conducts itself? Action on the poverty that blights the lives of millions of Americans? The diminution of the corrupting influence of big business?

It doesn’t seem likely and rather worryingly, it depends in part upon the Democrats in Congress, the power-brokers that Obama relies upon, those who were so utterly ineffective in opposing Bush and who for the whole of my lifetime have incessantly complained that they’ve never had the chance to make the changes they have always wanted. Well, this time they’ll have no-one but themselves to blame if they screw up on delivering their part of the deal.

But much also depends on the ability of the movement that helped elect Obama to keep up the pressure on their Everyman politician and make sure he doesn’t forget who won him the Presidency. The legions of Obama voters will also have no-one to blame if they forget that the myth of the triumphant idealist who single-handedly sweeps away Washington corruption is just that – a myth.

If the only change we can ever really believe in is the product of collective action, of movements that currently are as energised as they have been for years, then there is a battle at the heart of the new Obama presidency. It's a battle between the Democratic party machine and its own supporters.

For that reason, if no other, it should be an interesting four years.

Postscript 1: On intelligence and the CIA, "the early transition effort is winning praise from moderate Democrats" according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which claims that "President-elect Barack Obama is unlikely to radically overhaul controversial Bush administration intelligence policies."

Eh, no we can't...

Postscript 2: According to the Huffington Post, Obama has informed party officials that he wants Senator Joe Lieberman, who campaigned for McCain and Palin, to continue caucusing with the Democrats, despite opposition from the overwhelming majority of Democrat supporters.

Eh, no we can't...

Wednesday 5 November 2008

US President Able to String Together Sentence

What a change from Dubya. So what's next? More soon...

Wednesday 29 October 2008

UFFC Procession 2008

Photos from Saturday's United Families and Friends Campaign Remembrance Procession in Whitehall.

The Bush Era Closes

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency

And the judgement of history looks likely to be harsh. Meanwhile, thanks to The Onion, we can still laugh...

Sunday 12 October 2008

Good Riddance: Joerg Haider dead in car crash

Thursday 25 September 2008

A Response to Nick Cohen

"De Menezes – the Left’s new excuse to beat up the police" - a response to Nick Cohen

The following is a response to the journalist Nick Cohen's article in yesterday's Evening Standard.

I’m sure there was a time when the journalist Nick Cohen understood that to describe oneself as broadly part of ‘the Left’, or even a liberal, requires at least some understanding of the unequal relationship between the power of the state and its people. The history of the modern state – from the framing of America’s constitution to the development of international human rights law – has been founded on limiting the repressive power of governments over their citizens. But faced with a theocratic rejection of universal human rights by proponents of a radical form of Islam, itself a dismissal of the Enlightenment ideals that first challenged absolute power, Cohen has worked himself into such a fury that he chooses to reject them too.

Cohen’s argument are so thread-bare and confused, but so prevalent amongst those who denigrate the search for justice for Jean Charles de Menezes, that it’s worth refuting them point by point.

He says that “when the police kill an innocent man in a dictatorship, no one dares protest”, which may come as a surprise to those who protested against the death of Steve Biko in apartheid South Africa, but in general it’s true: dictatorships have a tendency to “shoot first and ask questions later”, often justifying their actions on the basis of national security and condemning and persecuting citizens who protest as ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Presumably Cohen believes that Brazil is not a dictatorship, for he acknowledges that in cities like Rio, “there are protests aplenty about police violence but they have scant effect on men who are little more than murderers in uniform.” But the subtext of his argument is clear enough: because the Rio police kill three people every day, we shouldn’t make such a fuss about the killing of one man in London.

Exactly how many people need to die at the hands of the police in a liberal democracy before it becomes ‘a national scandal’ is less clear. Perhaps there’s a mathematical formula or some graphs that Cohen knows about and we don’t. Or perhaps (and here Cohen’s logic becomes even more confused) every death is a disgrace, for “we don't always realise it but we are lucky to live in a country that takes breaches of its rules so seriously.”

What Cohen fails to acknowledge is that the level of anger about the killing of an innocent individual by the state has particular national characteristics and a death becomes a scandal precisely because of its impact on others. In the UK, routine arming o the police is generally resisted by the public – even the police themselves oppose it. It’s not true, however, that deaths in police custody are exceptionally rare, for in truth, whilst deceitfully playing the numbers-game in comparing Britain with Brazil may encourage Cohen to feel lucky, we don’t live in a country that takes breaches of its rules as seriously as it should. Since 1993, there have been 674 recorded deaths in police custody. Forty six people have been shot dead by police since 1990. There have been fifteen inquest verdicts of ‘unlawful killing’ by police officers – and no convictions by the courts.

Most bereaved families would argue that these deaths (never mind the many deaths in other countries) have been largely ignored. It's the idea that, suddenly, anyone who has brown skin or looks like a Muslim or happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is at an increased risk of being gunned down by those charged with protecting the public, and that this might actually be acceptable at a time when people already face the terrifying threat of morbidly zealous fanatics with rucksack bombs, that is precisely the reason why Jean Charles de Menezes’ death has particularly horrified so many when other deaths have not.

Cohen prefers to see other motives, but the example he chooses in order to make a sweeping generalisation about the “partisans in the vicious arguments over London's policing” is frankly bizarre. His anecdote about a radio producer, asking for a comment that the Met is as much a threat to the lives of Londoners as radical Islam, says more about the nature of Cohen’s own profession and its eagerness to sensationalise and simplify, traits that Cohen is himself a master of and that are described in forensic detail in fellow Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News. Nevertheless, with all the obsession of a conspiracy theorist, Cohen sees this as evidence, where no evidence exists, that thousands have a “psychological need to deny the horrors of the world” for daring to protest (something no-one in a dictatorship has the courage to do, but clearly no-one anywhere, in Cohen's view, should ever consider).

Finally, Cohen then psychologically projects his own prejudices onto “the very people who are shouting loudest about the death of poor Mr de Menezes” by suggesting that we would be the first to denounce the police if a terrorist detonated a bomb on the London Underground. Somehow, I imagine that no-one would be issuing louder denunciations than Nick Cohen himself in such circumstances. The rest of us would probably recognise that fault for a bombing would lie squarely with the bombers, that sometimes it is impossible to stop those who are really determined to murder, but that questions about the quality of police intelligence, how it is acted upon and what steps were taken to stop a suspect from entering a Tube station are legitimate tests of the accountability of public servants – just as they are in the case of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, a scientist and a giant of the Enlightenment that theocracy stands opposed to, said that “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I wonder what he would have made of someone who says, “I don't want to defend the Met's mistakes but it is blindingly obvious that when the police think they are confronting suicide bombers they will shoot first and ask questions later.”

Franklin also advised that that we should ”use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly." More in hope than expectation, I'd suggest that at some point soon, Nick Cohen would do well to follow this wisest of counsel.

Saturday 30 August 2008

Ten Films That Help Take Sides

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
An in-depth look at the torture practices of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, focusing on an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed in 2002.

Battle for Haditha (2007)
Nick Broomfield's docu-drama investigating the massacre of 24 men, women and children in Haditha in Iraq by U.S. Marines in retaliation for the death of a colleague killed by a roadside bomb.

No End in Sight (2007)
Documentary about the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and why the insurgency and demands for US withdrawal quickly became popular amongst the majority of Iraqis.

Taking Liberties (2007)
Flawed but interesting account of the attacks on civil liberties under New Labour.

USA vs Al-Arian (2007)
Portrait of the trauma facing Arab-American family as draconian terrorism charges are levelled against Abdullah Al-Arian, a professor at the University of South Florida accused of membership of Islamic Jihad.

The Road to Guantanamo (2006)
Part drama, part documentary, The Road to Guantánamo focuses on the Tipton Three, a trio of British Muslims who were held in Guantanamo Bay for two years until they were released without charge.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006)
Spike Lee's damining examination of the U.S. government's role and its response to Hurricane Katrina.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
Brilliant account of the fall of Enron, the seventh largest company in the US, whose top executives walked away with over one billion dollars, leaving investors and employees with nothing. The film explains how Wall Street analysts, financial regulators, the accountancy firm Arthur Andersen and the company's lawyers allowed Enron to post fictitious profits and engage in corrupt business practices. These included deliberately engineering electricity blackouts in California and creating the conditions for the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Death in Gaza (2004)

Harrowing documentary that portrays the horror of living under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the resulting death of its director, James Miller.

Control Room (2004)
Documentary about the Arab television network Al-Jazeera's coverage of the U.S.-led Iraqi war

Friday 29 August 2008

Oh, Bummer...

“We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world.”
Senator Joe Biden, Democrat Vice-Presidential candidate, on removing Saddam and his justification for supporting the war in Iraq in 2002
"The weapons inspectors said he had them. He catalogued—they catalogued them. This was not some, some Cheney, you know, pipe dream. This was, in fact, catalogued."
Senator Joe Biden, in 2007, lying about the pre-war assessment of UN weapons inspectors on non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Biden is infamous for refusing to allow the weapons inspector Scott Riiter to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying it was "beyond his pay grade". As Stephen Zunes in the Asia Times puts it:
Senator Barack Obama's selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate constitutes a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.

The veteran Delaware senator has been one of the leading congressional supporters of US militarization of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, of strict economic sanctions against Cuba, and of Israeli occupation policies.
The BBC's analysis on the choice of Biden as Vice Presidential candidate, incidentally, doesn't even mention the war.

Veterans and active duty military personnel participated in an antiwar protest near the Democratic National Convention site in Denver

Amidst the slavish enthusiasm for Barack Obama in the UK (the BBC has been a particular cheerleader), protests against the war in Iraq, outside the Pepsi Center where the Democrat Convention is taking place in Denver, have been largely unreported.

Iraq Veterans Against the War, including more than 50 Iraq veterans in full uniform, led more than 3,500 protesters filling eight city blocks, in a march called for the immediate withdraw troops from Iraq and reparations to the Iraqi people.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Some New Things We Know About The Olympics

We know that the Beijing Games was probably the most orchestrated attempt since the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to show that a nation is a rising power that should command respect.

We know that a country can secure an enormous return by spending $41 billion, including more gold medals than any other nation and the attendance of world leaders at the Olympics despite their apparent misgivings about China’s human rights record.

We know that the worldwide Olympic torch protests seem like a very long time ago now…

We know that during the 2008 Games, there were 53 detained pro-Tibet activists, 77 rejected protest applications from 149 individuals, at least 15 Chinese citizens arrested for seeking to protest, about 10 dissidents jailed and at least 30 websites blocked. At least 50 human-rights activists were expelled from Beijing, harassed or placed under house arrest during the Olympics, according to Reporters Without Borders. There were 30 cases of government interference in the reporting work of foreign media, included 10 cases of journalists being beaten or roughed up by police who sometimes smashed their cameras, according to the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China. While bidding in April 2001 for to host the 2008 Olympics, the Executive Vice President of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee Liu Jingmin said that "by allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help the development of human rights. China and the outside world need to integrate. China’s opening up is irreversible. The Olympic Games is a good opportunity to promote understanding."

We know that Liu Jingmin is not someone that we'd want to buy a used car from...

We know that the International Olympic Committee sells sponsorships in four-year increments to cover both Winter and Summer Games and twelve companies paid $866 million, or an average of $72 million apiece, to sponsor the Turin and Beijing Games. That's almost one-third more than the $663 million total paid to back the Salt Lake City and Athens Games in 2002. Hilariously, we also know that a survey of 1,500 Beijing residents in early 2008 by Fournaise Marketing Group found that only 15% could name two of the 12 sponsors and just 40% could name one sponsor: Coca-Cola.

We know that there were 313 British athletes in Beijing but more than 600 publicly-funded employees, including government ministers, press officers, local councillors, police officers and 437 BBC staff.

We know that the number of medals won in Beijing by “Team GB” has led to a call for pushing Britain into third place in the medal tables in 2012, meaning that the chances of funding elite athletes by cutting community sport is now even greater.

We know that the organisers of London’s contribution to the closing ceremony in Beijing had even less of a clue about how to symbolise cosmopolitan Britain than the government had when struggling to work out what the hell to put in the Millennium Dome.

We know that the government’s fixation with defining national identity will have become even worse with the tabloid stories about ‘British heroes’ and the slapping down of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond

We know that winning a gold medal isn’t always enough. Swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s desire to follow Olympic success with appearances on Strictly Come Dancing and Top Gear says as much about Britain’s obsession with celebrity as David Beckham’s appearance at the closing ceremony next to a London bus.

And we know that a 2012 Olympics involving Boris Johnston adds insult to injury...

PS: we know that 'The Great Escape' plans for getting out of London in four years time have already begun: visit Escape2012 for more information.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Please, not Another Party Invite!

Seldom do I engage in debate about the state of the Left with members of small left-wing groups, for the simple reason that on past experience they tend to take disagreement rather badly and starting throwing insults.

Check out the level of some of the debate on the Socialist Unity blog if you want examples

But because an old friend and comrade edits the journal of The United Socialist Party (TUSP), because this (very) small group was set up by those involved in the Liverpool Dockers strike and because there needs to be more debate about why the anti-war movement failed to live up to its potential, I've written the following response to a TUSP statement from December 2007 on the need for a 'mass workers' party'.

Please, not Another Party Invite!

Gather together a group of old comrades and soon they’ll be talking with sadness and longing about the triumphs and defeats of the past. Anyone who has been a political activist since their teens and has now turned forty knows this is true; we’ve all done it. The defeats, unfortunately, have been so many that the temptation to mythologize even the smallest of rare victories is hard to resist. But basing an entire political perspective on harking back to a fabled golden age and discounting anything new if it fails to fit in with those fallible memories is a particular talent of large sections of the Left in Britain.

So, having read for the first time a copy of ‘Socialist Studies’ magazine given to me by an old friend and comrade, it was therefore very disappointed to read The United Socialist Party statement setting out its case for the need to create a ‘mass workers party’. Notwithstanding some sound analysis on capitalism’s international crisis, the statement draws some alarmingly simplistic conclusions about the anti-war movement and new movements such as those that embraced horizontalidad in Argentina. And it rather fails to make a convincing case for its central argument – that the setting up of another ‘mass workers party’ is, in the words used in the statement’s title, “the main issue of the day”.

The main issue? I know of no independent socialists and campaigners, the very people who in the past have dropped out in disgust from either the Labour Party or one of the many factional left groups, who would make such a bold assertion. A new party may be the main issue for the increasingly dwindling numbers that make up the Trotskyist Left: indeed party-building has arguably always been their main preoccupation, if not the overriding doctrine of the faithful. Little wonder, then, in the face of yet another lost opportunity, there were five competing events on 17 November 2007, all purporting to launch THE new party of the working class. But why does the Left continually fall back onto setting up a new party as the apparently unavoidable first step to renewing itself?

A cynic might argue that it’s because the Left has frankly had so much practice, given its track record. But at least one possibility is that this is the way things have always been done. Falling back on the old and familiar is tempting even if it has consistently failed in the past: what might be characterised as the ‘reaching for the Bolshevik template’. Each of the five events last year offered their participants the comforting possibility of a new beginning, a clean slate and in most cases, the absence of former comrades who have ‘lost their way’. In most cases this also meant a smaller gathering of activists. Nevertheless, I’m sure all those who gathered last year at one of November’s Left conferences believed it was a purer gathering: one that, against all the evidence of the Left’s continuous mitosis and factionalism over the last forty years, would this time be different.

Starting afresh almost always means avoiding too any recognition or analysis that it is not just the allies we make, or the “downplaying in practice… of the importance of the working class”, or even the soul-destroying sectarianism, that alone have caused a collapse of former attempts at party-building. There is at least a possibility that the top-down, hierarchical and authoritarian models of political organisation that are so prevalent within the Left, that indeed are in my view central to the concept of ‘the party’, have played an equally important role, particularly in alienating those who have walked away. It’s a possibility that is almost always ignored and it’s certainly one that TUSP’s statement, which talks about a ‘mass workers’ party’ without giving any hint of its character or organisation, fails to address.

So let’s look at whether putting the business of party building is itself an obstacle to encouraging ordinary people to embrace socialist ideas, by looking at the anti-war movement. TUSP’s statement is correct in acknowledging the broad popular support for anti-war movements across the world in 2003, culminating in the massive marches worldwide that brought over a million people on the streets on London. It is quite wrong, however, to argue that “the methods of middle class protest were tested in the movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq and were found to be inadequate.” Whilst it is certainly true that ‘the state loves a parade’, one that does nothing to change anything tangible in terms of the functioning of power, attempting to characterise the huge march on 15 February 2003 as “middle class protest” is to enormously downplay its significance.

The prelude to the invasion of Iraq was an exhilarating time. For a brief moment, those who participated in the anti-war movement in Britain genuinely believed that they could do more than simply bear witness. People felt they could actually stop British involvement in the war in Iraq, despite Tony Blair’s messianic belief that he alone knew what was right and wrong. There was ample evidence around the country of optimism, spontaneity and fizzing energy from working class people who had never been involved in campaigning before. As a result, there was also genuine panic in government ranks as it prepared for the vote in Parliament in March 2003; one that led to the biggest Labour rebellion against Blair and that was carried with the support of the Tories.

So why did that energy and enthusiasm dissipate? The invasion itself undoubtedly slowed the momentum of the anti-war movement. The naively optimistic, those who believed the war in Iraq could itself be completely prevented, were bitterly disappointed despite the ample evidence that the drive to war had little to do with events in Baghdad but was driven by neo-conservative ideology in Washington, which had long planned to remake the Middle East for the benefit of international capitalism and the security of Israel.

But the most prominent players in the anti-war movement, the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and the Socialist Workers Party that dominated it, must also bear a large measure of responsibility. Not unlike the Bush administration’s post-invasion occupation, it had no Plan B. There was no apparent recognition that a movement facing a long haul needs roots, that local groups that might be better placed to underpin the spontaneity and energy that brought so many out onto the streets needed support. Instead, time and resources were devoted to organising the same central London protest, over and over again, which quickly amounted to little more than bearing witness and was essentially a parade that the state could comfortably tolerate.

Why did this happen? Largely because the senior figures in the Socialist Workers Party who controlled decision-making in the StWC had come to see themselves as the movement’s ‘leaders’, or perhaps a better word might be ‘vanguard’. They were the generals who believed they could mobilise and direct an army of hundreds of thousands, even when the decline in numbers on each subsequent march made it evident that anti-war movement didn’t want to be led in this way. And to prevent any challenge to their ‘leadership’, spontaneity and energy were actively discouraged: the leaders alone knew what was right and wrong, as is so often the case. Local Stop the War groups contracted and local campaigns that were not SWP dominated were ignored (such as the protests near where I live, against the international arms fair in Canning Town – surely an obvious target for anti-war campaigners). StWC at a local level became little more than an irregular e-mail from a loyal local SWP member, advertising yet another march.

Then, when it was clear that StWC was going nowhere, its ‘leadership’ fell back on the old and familiar and set up the RESPECT party, an uneasy electoral alliance that at best can hardly be described as emerging naturally from debate within the anti-war movement. With the benefit of hindsight, RESPECT was never thought through properly either and its ignominious collapse revealed the same hierarchical and authoritarian approach to leadership and control that so often discredits the Left.

None of this is considered in TUSP’s statement, which instead identifies the failure of the anti-war movement to embrace “the action of the working class and its allies using the weapons of working class struggle, mass strikes and refusal to transport munitions and military stores” as “the best way to fight militarism and war.” This is the kind of demand that sounds good but is meaningless idealism in the context of the current position of the Left and the trade union movement. It also seems to be based on the classic Marxist assumption that working class identities are determined solely by our jobs and occupations, which leads me to the TUSP’s statement’s fundamentally misunderstand the significance of the economic and political crisis in Argentina in 2001-2003.

Criticising writers like Naomi Klein, the “fashionable theoreticians of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement”, for attempting to draw conclusions from the popular working-class movements that emerged in Argentina, is easy when the only conclusion you are willing to draw is that these movements failed for want of a ‘mass workers’ party’. If success or failure were the only measure of working class resistance to an enemy as powerful as capitalism, we’d all have given up in despair years ago. However, the most important impact of the movements that occupied factories, organised protests and set up neighbourhood assemblies is not what they achieved, but how they responded to the economic collapse created by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The spontaneous demonstrations that began in Argentina in December 2001 were more than simply calling for the “removal of all the corrupt politicians” of the day, although that was the undoubted starting point. This is a misrepresentation of Klein’s analysis. The movements that emerged from these protests were instead both in opposition to the period of neo-liberalism that had begun with the military coup in 1976 and reflected the disillusionment in the 1990s with forms of democracy within all political parties as institutions.

Horizontalidad (horizontalism), the idea that these movements are most closely associated with, is a specific rejection of the idea of political parties, of leaders and representatives, of those who command and those who obey. It is not some form of new ideology but a non-idealised way of people relating to one another in a directly democratic manner and working towards decisions collectively. It was undoubtedly a more difficult and time-consuming means of organisation than having a small group of leaders making all the decisions but the result was the creation of linked movements, some that later folded but many that continue to this day, which responded to the 2001 crisis in practical ways. These ranged from occupied but functioning factories to neighbourhood assemblies, piquetero (picket) groups that blocked roads, popular education centres, the Movement of Unemployed Workers and neighbourhood kitchens. Crucially though, horizontalism helped to define working class identities not simply through people’s jobs and occupations but also through the relationships between each other and through solidarity beyond the workplace. It had a particular impact on the participation of women, who had been largely sidelined from political activism but who made up the majority of the new movements that were created in 2001. I’d recommend reading the oral histories in Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, edited by Marina Sitrin, for a better understanding of the first-hand experiences of this new method of organising.

Whilst the circumstances that led to the growth of horizontalism may be peculiar to Argentina’s history, the methods of organising that developed point to some important lessons for the Left in this country, lessons that the TUSP statement should perhaps not so easily dismiss. Are hierarchical and authoritarian forms of organisation really the only option, especially as they have failed so badly and so often in the past? Why do we need ‘leadership’ and another rigid programme as the starting point, when both have proven so divisive and such an obstacle to collaboration? Do we have to always fall back on the old and familiar, always ‘reaching for the Bolshevik template’ and dismissing anything new that fails to fit within it, simply because it’s easier and less time-consuming? Is solidarity more than just an issue for organised labour in confrontation with capitalism, or also an antidote to individualism and competition for dominance and control, a way of conducting ourselves that should be an integral part of how working class movements operate on a day-to-day basis? And if so, why do we need one ‘mass workers’ party’ when a ‘movement of movements’ is an equally realistic possibility?

Whilst much of the organised Left has continued to repeat its mistakes, stuck rigidly to its favoured means of organisation and, in doing so, too often undermined and demoralised movements such as those against war, it has failed to progress and arguably has shrunk further. Few would deny that increasingly it has become distrusted by many potential allies, which is why so many activists have looked elsewhere for people to work with and ways to organise. Indeed, whilst there are comrades I respect enough to spend time writing a 2000+ word discussion article, there are plenty more that I would probably think twice about ever working with again. Multiply that by the number of independent socialists and campaigners who have quit or drifted away from the mainstream Left and there’s some measure of the problem that Left organisations currently face.

If anything is “the main issue of the day”, that must be pretty near the top.

Friday 1 August 2008

Teaser for Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic "W"

Monday 14 July 2008

One Hundred and Eighty Nine Days

Today there are 189 days left before George W Bush leaves office.

A reminder of why it won't be a day too soon, although is it now time to start worrying about the next President?

Thursday 3 July 2008

Forgetting The North West Frontier

There is a grim irony in the fact that the poppy, the symbol of remembrance for those who die on the battlefield, should also be Afghanistan’s major cash crop, one that fuels the continuing war. In May and June, there were 16 deaths of British service personnel in Helmand during fighting with ‘terrorists’, who are in reality a mix of the resurgent Taliban and fighters from the Ishakzai and Alikozai clans that are heavily involved in the province's opium trade.

And already, the public has become inured to these deaths, to the repetition of the solemn but brief announcements on the news: another tragic death, another name, “and now over to Penny for the weather”. It’s as though we have stepped back in time, back to fleeting reports from the 1980s of casualties in the north of Ireland, but with Afghanistan now Britain’s new forgotten war. Like the Irish ‘Troubles’, it seems to much of the public like another conflict that is apparently infused with incomprehensible religious dogma, one where those killing British soldiers are reduced to sweeping single-word stereotypes (for ‘Republican’ we now have ‘Taliban’) that say nothing about the political circumstances that put soldiers in danger in the first place. It certainly seems like there is no end in sight.

But just as arguing that Iraq is America’s new Vietnam is just a rhetorical flourish (Iraq is in many ways far worse), so the similarities between Ireland and Afghanistan end. To begin with there were 1855 civilian deaths in the north of Ireland over nearly 30 years but according to the United Nations, in 2007 alone over 1,500 of the 8,000 conflict-related fatalities in Afghanistan, were of civilians. This week, it was reported that the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan has risen by almost two-thirds in the first half of the year compared with 2007. But if soldiers’ deaths get scant attention, the deaths of ordinary Afghans gets none at all.

Meanwhile, the government that British soldiers are dying for is so corrupt that western governments, still donating billions of dollars to President Harmid Karzai, are apparently “losing patience” with his regime’s dismal record tackling corruption and drug-trafficking. The hypocrisy of this is, it should be said, quite breath-taking, for the same nations were responsible for creating an Afghan government made up of the warlords that are directly responsible for much of the violence, corruption and human rights abuses. But if Afghanistan, like Ireland, seems likely to result in another ‘Long War’, then it is because, like Ireland, the British government seems willing to continue with policies that have already failed. It is evident that Nato’s presence continues to destabilise not only Afghanistan but Pakistan too. Opium production is at a record level, despite the claims from Gordon Brown that more Afghan provinces are now poppy-free, leading his own diplomats to warn that “the drugs trade is fuelling the insurgency” and will extend the war for years. Yet all the British government has to offer is an even larger deployment of British troops.

The war in Afghanistan began as an action of terrible vengeance for the 11 September attack on the US. But it has become Britain’s terrible war. Until British soldiers are withdrawn, they will continue to die unnecessarily, their names all too quickly forgotten by all but their grieving relatives, along with thousands of innocent Afghan citizens whose names we will never know. Western powers may counter by saying that we cannot abandon the country's people, although they have largely done so themselves by handlng over the population to the corrupt administration in Kabul that British forces help to maintain. But those of us who opposed the war mustn't forget about Afghanistan, no matter how bad the situation in Iraq continues to be or however possible it may seem that the US intends to turn next on Iran. Rather, the importance of not forgetting for us means saying that seven years of failure is long enough.

It's really is time for an end to all the needless deaths. It's time to the immediate return of British troops.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

BNP votes in London

130,000 BNP votes in London requires a change of tactics

Whilst Facebook abounds with apocalyptic warnings about London’s future following Boris Johnson’s elevation to the post of Mayor, it is the election of the BNP's Richard Barnbrook to the Greater London Assembly that means we need to sit up and think. How did the Left fail to stem the tide of BNP support?

We now know that the anti-BNP campaign leading up to polling day and run by South East Region TUC and Searchlight, with the tacit support of the Labour Party, has failed. The tactic of maximising voter turnout is based on a idea that the BNP have a low base of support but that if the voting turnout is low, their share of the vote might carry disproportionate weight, presenting the risk that they might creep in and take local council seats. It’s a simple formula – BNP voters / high turnout = BNP defeat – and it’s one that I remember Newham Monitoring Project once pushed when we were out every night in the early 1990s, leafleting in Canning Town against the BNP. The problem is, what worked 18 years ago no longer has any basis in reality.

Why? Because we've seen a major jump in the number of people voting in the London-wide elections, up over 8% on 2004, and yet the BNP have still managed to take a GLA seat. The real tragedy is not that the BNP were elected, but that they no longer have a low base of support - 130,000 mainly working-class Londoners went to the polling stations on a wet Thursday and made a positive decision to give their first preference votes in the party lists to a racist political party. This was despite a considerable publicity campaign in favour of other candidates, which included thousands of pounds spend by own union, Unite, so that its regional secretary Steve Hart could write to every member in London warning of the threat of “nazi racists in London’s government” - and then urging a vote for Labour.

However, as the election of a BNP Assembly member has started to sink in, the response from groups like Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) has been worryingly simplistic. LMHR have stated that “Barnbrook has managed to con a small minority of Londoners into voting for him”, whilst UAF have claimed that “a slightly higher turnout of 49% would have stopped the BNP from getting elected.”

A 'small' minority of 130,000? A ‘slightly’ higher turnout of 49%? This isn’t thinking through a change in the political climate, but attempting to ignore it. All we have to do, UAF and LMHR are arguing, is try harder in future to mask growing support for the BNP by trying for an even bigger turnout. Perhaps, then, it will simply go away. At least Searchlight are been a little more thoughtful, although astonishingly they have claimed their campaign as a 'success', with editor Nick Lowles saying, “obviously, the BNP getting anyone elected is bad but we can all be proud that we helped keep them to just that. Indeed, for much of the day we actually thought there was a chance that we were going to stop them altogether.”

The trouble is that all the mainstream anti-fascist groups are still obsessively focused on voter turnout and on campaigning based on two rather naive assumptions: that racism is all the fault of the fascists and that as long as the BNP are kept from office, then we can go on pretending that London is, as Livingstone's campaign tried to argue, a "united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong". However, as I have argued before, London is in reality a city painfully divided by economic inequality that is closely tied to race. The recent election has only helped to prove this even more.

Pretending that the 130,000 votes really mean nothing as long as we can keep a few racist bigots from claiming GLA expenses might make the Left feel better, may even help it to ignore its own shortcomings, but there's one thing it isn't - it's not effective anti-fascism.

So what should we do instead? There's not an easy answer to this, but engaging in a battle of ideas with the BNP assumes their platform has some credible basis in reason, so that's a non-starter. However, what this election have shown, more than ever, is that overt racism has found a guilt-free, 'respectable' way of expressing itself. There is no opposing pole offering an alternative political vision, just the politicians from the mainstream parties, backed by the unions in the case of the Labour Party, bartering for votes and offering their support for free trade and the market.

If we simply wait for the next election, thinking that an even bigger push to turn out the vote will be enough, then we risk the BNP’s support hardening and growing. Searchlight pledges to “expose the incompetence of their councillors… highlight the extremism of their politics and … work to bring hope instead of hate to communities.” Focusing on the conduct of the BNP's elected representatives has its place, but ignoring the increasingly 'proud' racism of its electoral support, which doesn’t appear to care about the extremism of the BNP's politics (how many BNP voters failed to notice that the part they voted for is racist!), is a recipe for disaster. And with the greatest respect to Searchlight, whom I have known for many years, what does “bringing hope not hate” even mean if the principal ‘hope’ on offer in London is just the chance to cast a vote for the discredited Labour Party?

A new way forward for anti-fascist campaigning must instead be based on principles that many on the Left should be able to support - a rejection of top-down, hierarchical and authoritarian politics and a belief that change can only be achieved through collective, grassroots organisation. I'd be happier going down to wave a placard outside of City Hall if the demonstrations that have been called were the start of campaign along those lines.

But I fear that unless we start to change our tactics, psephology will continue to remain more important than tackling the racism of the BNP’s voters head-on.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Not just Boris, but the BNP too!

Apologies, this is a rather long post, but I guess what follows was inevitable. First, an increasingly desperate Labour Left, apparently unable to comprehend why Ken Livingstone isn’t more popular, has unconvincingly tried to rally support from those who plan to boycott May’s mayoral elections in London by claiming that a defeat for their man would ”represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond". Forget about Livingstone, they say, and be frightened by Johnstone. Now they are arguing that a failure to vote risks handing seats to the British National Party.

Former New Statesman editor Steve Platt has taken the Livingstone campaign’s declaration that the BNP threaten “London's future as a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong” and argued on his blog that there is no excuse for his “anarchist friends” not to vote because their abstention will be “considered a vote for the BNP”.

It is of course deeply insulting to put those who actively decide not to vote alongside BNP supporters and call them a threat to London’s diversity, but I suppose is to be expected. Nevertheless, it is an argument that needs thinking through. After all, unlike Zimbabwe, popping down to the local school on 1st May and voting, just to increase the turnout, is hardly a difficult thing to do. On the face of it, it’s not even a very political act.

But there are two parts of the Platt / Livingstone position that need closer examination. The first is the claim that “there’s only one way to stop the BNP, which is by actually going out to vote against them” because “a low voter turnout will help the BNP get elected.” This is an argument that I, along with other activists in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), used to forcefully present back in the early 1990s, when we spent endless hours trying to mobilise black voters in Canning Town and the Isle of Dogs, back when the BNP was much stronger in these areas. In one election in 1994, the BNP came within 66 votes of taking a Newham council seat – whilst we had encouraged hundreds to vote, even transporting dozens to polling stations. We patted ourselves on the back and said that “we” had defeated the BNP.

But only for one Thursday. Support for the BNP was still there on the Friday and at the next council by-election, we were back using the same campaigning tactic. But in between elections, east London’s Labour councils continued to disregard the causes of working class disenfranchisement from the political process. Turnout at elections remained low but the faceless bureaucracy, the meaningless consultations on policies that had been decided in advance, the racist attacks that were ignored by council staff, the unpopular decisions taken in the teeth of opposition from local people - all continued unabated. It soon became clear that local anti-racist campaigners had become little more than a useful substitute for moribund Labour branches who had no-one to canvass. Many of us had the unpleasant realisation that we were no longer sure whose side we were on.

And it wasn’t as if they were even grateful for our efforts. Mobilising the vote didn’t once open up local councils to new ideas or progressive politics and in 1997, the now thoroughly Blairite Newham council cut its funding for Newham Monitoring Project, for doing what we had always done and providing support to the family of a local Gambian, Ibrahima Sey, who died under brutal restraint by officers from Forest Gate police station. In clumsily attempting to silence a critic, the council was helped in part by a former NMP activist turned councillor who was unable to carry the support of other anti-racists in continuing to act as little more than Labour’s election foot soldiers.

In all honesty, the BNP eventually ceased to be a threat in Newham and Tower Hamlets not as a result of our efforts but because of its incessant internal rivalries and because of changing demographics. The substandard housing in Canning Town, the ‘great white south’ of Newham, became a place to dump refugees, transforming the ethnic mix. One section of the disenchanted working class, those who blamed the new arrivals for how little their vote seemed to count, moved out to ‘whiter’ areas like Barking and Dagenham and it simply became too difficult – and often too dangerous – for the BNP to campaign. The same was true in the Isle of Dogs as the Bengali community in particular became stronger and more confident. In Newham’s southern wards, the most unified organisations amongst new communities were the black churches, with little of the tribal loyalty to Labour of earlier arrivals, which may explain why Canning Town has become the national base for the Christian People’s Alliance.

What years of focusing on elections had achieved, however, was to squander the opportunity to build coalitions in support of a more radical perspective than that offered by religious-based parties, leaving Labour to continue to monopolise local politics on a low voter turnout. What we are left with instead are opposition political parties who are wedded to the idea that democracy begins and ends on election day.

Even before it split, the Respect party as an alternative to Labour in east London was locally ineffectual between elections, which became the eventual trigger for the battles within its ranks. Its councillors in Newham are nice enough people but it has been unclear what all the effort was for. Now the two halves of the party are little more than a populist vanity project for George Galloway and an attempt by the Socialist Workers Party to try and salvage some much-needed dignity. London’s Greens, for all their apparently progressive rhetoric, have so little esteem for their prospective voters that, to try and attain some post-election influence, they have cut a sordid second-preference deal with Livingstone, a man who at the recent Reuters Mayoral hustings posed as a champion of globalisation and free trade. If that wasn’t bad enough, their GLA member Jenny Jones, in an e-mail exchange on the eve of the hugely contentious vote by the Metropolitan Police Authority on Sir Ian Blair’s conduct following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, seemed offended that I might dare to question whether her decision to support the Met Commissioner was hers alone to make. So much for 'new politics'.

But enough of the minor parties. Let’s turn to the main event. The campaign between the three main rivals has been presented as little more than a personality contest between the individual candidates. In this clash of personalities and rhetoric, all three are competing mainly for sympathetic media attention. Voting in the Mayoral election has become no more empowering than choosing between performers on Pop Idol, with whoever puts on the best show winning.

Yet after years of economic growth, we still have a chronic housing shortage, underfunded transport and a widening gap between the rich and poor. Shouldn’t there be a real choice between the candidates?

This brings me to the second problem with the Livingstone / Platt position. London simply isn’t “a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong” but one painfully divided by economic inequality that is closely tied to race. Yet Livingstone’s brand of anti-racism, as I have argued before, offers nothing to address the economic inequality that disproportionately affects working class black people. Instead the ‘candidate of the Left’ is at pains to present himself as business-friendly, backed by a political party that done so much to hand power to major corporations. Is it any wonder, then, that an entirely logical conclusion to reach would be that no matter who we vote for, we will have no greater say in any of the major decisions that affect our lives? Isn’t the reality that, no matter whether Livingstone wins or loses, we will have no say in how our workplaces are run or any control over the distribution of our society's wealth?

Elections are supposed to be how we influence the running of society and yet it seems that somebody else has already made all of the important decisions - without asking us. However, there are ways that people are able to exercise real power. If I had to pick an example, it would naturally be a local one. My compatriots in the campaign to stop the local council from handing over Queens Market in Upton Park to private developers have organised hundreds of local people, prevented the council from steamrollering through their plans and frightened off the mighty Asda supermarket chain – all without ever standing a candidate in an election. And they have brought together white working class market traders from Essex with shoppers from communities that have arrived in Newham from all over the world.

There has always been a political alternative to the lack of choice of the mainstream political parties, the opportunism of the minority parties and the racism of tiny fascist outfits like the BNP. It involves organising in such a way that everybody has a say over the decisions that affect them. It means refusing to accept what politicians tell you to do and taking the power into your own hands, not waiting for somebody else to do it for you.

And that is why I’m not voting in May’s elections - no matter how lurid the claims that the Labour Left might try and make.

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