Sunday, 8 September 2013

Ed Milliband is playing a dangerous game with the trade union link

One of the reasons the Tories find it so easy to kick Ed Milliband is that  he wanders around with a "please kick me" sign pinned to the seat of his trousers. The latest revelations that Unite had no case to answer in the 'Falkirkgate' election-rigging debacle, and Labour's refusal to apologise for getting it wrong, and for its ridiculous decision to refer Unite to the police, is a spectacular own-goal. Following an investigation into alleged election-rigging by Unite in Falkirk, according to the Independent, :
The [Labour] report is said to have cleared Unite of claims it tried to rig the selection of a candidate to replace the current MP, Eric Joyce, by signing up new members without their knowledge. The fall-out from an internal party investigation led to Mr Miliband announcing sweeping reforms of Labour's links with the trade unions.
Milliband was pretty much suckered into wrongly attacking Unite and promising to change Labour Party's relationship with the unions, because of Tory howls of outrage when the alleged election-rigging incident came to light in the summer. What Milliband ought to have have done is call for an investigation and reserved judgement until the full facts were know, but he doesn't appear to have that kind of nous. What he also ought to have done is to robustly defend the link that Labour has with the trade unions, and the funding that comes with it. Whilst there may be issues with whether union members should 'opt-in' rather than 'opt-out' of funding Labour, the fact is that trade union money is just about the cleanest money in politics. It comes from what are small donations by millions of members of democratic organisations, and it is fully auditable - just compare that with the filthy lucre political parties receive from corporate donors and wealthy individuals.

Lets look at the funding of the Tory Party for instance. Would it surprise you to know that one family, yes one family, is responsible for a huge amount of Tory Party funding. You should take time to read this excellent post by Aditya Chakrabotty in the Guardian, but here is a telling quote:
"Take the JCB billionaire Sir Anthony Bamford, one of Cameron's favourite businessmen and a regular guest on the PM's trade missions abroad. Between 2001 and summer 2010, Wilks-Heeg and Crone found donations from Anthony Bamford, Mark Bamford, George Bamford, JCB Bamford Excavators, JCB Research, and JCB World Brands. Tot that up and you get a contribution to the Conservative party from the Bamford family of £3,898,900. But you'd need to be an expert sleuth with plenty of time and resources to tot it up.
One family: nearly £4m. Wilks-Heeg and Crone found that 15 of these families or "donor groups" account for almost a third of all Tory funding [my italics]. They enjoy trips to Chequers, dinners in Downing Street and a friendly prime ministerial ear. Lord Irvine Laidlaw stuffed over £6m into Conservative pockets over a decade and, one of his former staffers told the Mail, liked to boast about his influence over party leaders: "William's [Hague] in my pocket"."
There is no doubt that Milliband's plan to change the relations with the unions is a big risk. They have already lost £1 million in funding from the GMB as a result. No doubt Milliband is counting on the fact that union funding now only accounts for one third of Labour's total, but the consequences of the unions abandoning Labour are far more serious than just a loss of funding. Without the bedrock of support from the labour movement what long-term future would Labour have? There is only room in British politics for one party of the right, and the Tories have had position that sown up for a very long time. Since the advent of New Labour, the  Labour Party has become a party of the centre-right, not centre-left as it used to be. Can Labour survive in the long term as such a party only funded by corporations and individuals? I don't think so. I have no doubt would it gradually wither and lose its base of support. That opens up an opportunity for a social democratic party of the left, with trade union support.

The likelihood is that nothing dramatic will happen until after the next election. If Labour win, as I expect them to, and continue on their present course, expect unrest to grow, with more widespread protests against welfare cuts and strike action to defend living standards and pensions. Millband is playing a dangerous game, and one that could change British politics forever.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Cameron's Syria debacle and the growing influence of social media

It was Harold Wilson who said "A week is a long time in politics", and its surely been a very long week indeed for David Cameron. On Thursday he recalled Parliament to vote on, and endorse his plan to support the USA in attacking Syria for the use of chemical weapons in Damascus. He was clearly confident of success and had obviously already promised Barak Obama that Britain would join the USA in a military strike. But as the debate in the House of Commons progressed it became clear that he might not win. I watched some of the debate on TV and also followed it on Twitter. By the time Clegg closed off the debate for the Government, it was obvious that, he, if not the government itself, was in trouble. He twice avoided answering a straight question on whether Britain would allow its bases to be used by the USA even if Britain did not participate in the military strike, to the obvious annoyance of MPs. The promise had clearly already been given. It was a poor performance which can't have helped his already diminished credibility as a politician. I don't think it was crucial in the outcome of the debate but it can't have helped. The Government lost the vote by 272 votes to 285 with 30 Tory MPs and 9 Lib Dem MPs voting against.

Cameron has obviously been severely damaged by this debacle, which is clearly of his own making, but the other party leaders came out of it with little credit. Despite this, Labour supporters tried to spin the whole thing as a victory for Ed Milliband, but Milliband apparently had to be pressed by his colleagues to argue for delay while the UN weapons inspectors delivered their report, and the UN Security Council debated military action. Clegg stuffed up, and failed to keep all his party onside. Furthermore, Cameron's obvious rage, and No. 10s attempt to blame Milliband with ludicrous accusations, have made Cameron look even smaller than he already did.

So what happened? The shadow of Tony Blair and the Iraq War was cast over the debate from the start, but I think the explanation lies in the fact that many Tory MPs had their inboxes full of emails from constituents urging them not to support action. They already have their eyes on the next election. So was this a victory for people power and parliamentary democracy as many have hoped it was? I think it was a combination of that, because some MPs were voting for what they believed rather than following the party line, the anger over Iraq, and the fact that Cameron and co. cocked up the whole affair, arrogantly rushing into war and assuming that they could take their party with them, and that Labour would simply acquiesce. However, we shouldn't assume that this vote is the harbinger of real change. For that to happen we will need democratic reform.

But I do also think politics is beginning to change, and the Westminster bubble is starting to burst. What's bringing about that change is that social media is opening up politics and informed debate. We have seen how it has made a huge difference in countries around the world like Egypt and Turkey, where large movements and demonstrations have been organised through Facebook and Twitter. Is it beginning to make a difference here in the UK, with millions more people being opened up to ideas and that they didn't have access to in the past, and the rapid dissemination of information?

Most importantly, we are no longer dependent on the capitalist media for news, and the influence of the press is waning. Twitter is often one step ahead of the press and 24 hour rolling news. Events are frequently reported there first, with eye witness reports and photos. Even Cameron announced his intentions for Syria on Twitter first, and referred to footage of the chemical attack in Syria on YouTube. Will these changes lead to a more open debate and a stronger democracy? Its too early to tell, but its well worth reading Paul Mason's excellent book 'Why its kicking off everywhere' if you haven't already, because it captures the influence of social media and the web on politics very well. 

Unless social media is suppressed, I believe it, and the wider web, can bring about change by offering a national and global platform for those whose opinions are often ignored by the media consensus, and by facilitating campaigns and organised protest. When Cameron tweets on Twitter, his tweets don't carry any more weight than anyone else's. You may not like Twitter, but its a global conversation that should not be underestimated.