26 November 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 November 2009

So here we are, with just six months left. The party conferences and the Queen’s Speech have come and gone, and judgment day is looming. There doesn’t have to be a general election before 3 June next year, but just about everyone agrees that it will be on 6 May, the same date as the local elections.

I don’t demur on that – but when it comes to the consensus among the commentariat that the election is a done deal, with Labour set for a drubbing after 13 years in office, I’m not so sure.

Of course, Labour’s polling figures are dire, with only a handful of surveys in the past year suggesting anything less than a safe Tory majority. (That one of them was published last weekend, in the Observer, is not that significant: it could be a rogue.) Gordon Brown has been the least popular prime minister since Chamberlain, as David Cairns put it so memorably, for the best part of 18 months now.

And yet … believe it or not, I’m less pessimistic about the election than I have been for ages. The polls might not have moved towards Labour yet, but my hunch is that they will before very long. For the first time in more than six months – since the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, in fact – the government is beginning once more to look as if it knows what it is doing; and if the economy really is in recovery there seems to me to be at least a half-chance that Labour will begin to claw its way back into contention. The Tories are, with a couple of exceptions, an unattractive shower, and their slash-and-burn approach to public spending is seriously scary.

There was very little in last week’s Queen’s Speech that was particularly attention-grabbing, with the possible exception of the (apparently hastily improvised) promise of better care for old people. But the overall thrust of the government's legislative programme is clear and, if hardly radical, a sign that Labour has not yet run out of steam.

It’s true, as Daniel Finkelstein argued in a column in the Times last week, that the Queen’s Speech will have passed most voters by. But every little helps. Add decisive action on the MPs’ expenses scandal (which is unfortunately by no means guaranteed) and a pre-budget report that makes it clear why the government is right in its economic policy and the Tories are wrong, and it's by no means inconceivable that Labour will enter the new year trailing the Tories by six or seven percentage points in most of the polls.

That would still be hung-parliament territory, with the Tories as the largest party, but it would not be the prospect of impending disaster with which Labour has been living since spring 2008, and with four months to go before polling day there would be everything to play for. With a little bit of luck and an imaginative and radical manifesto – one promising investment in the railways and in energy, thousands of affordable homes, action to control the City, an elected Lords and proportional representation for the Commons – I really do think that Labour could pull off a spectacular comeback.


In the meantime, some potentially good news. The cause of libel reform has been around a long time. I remember banging on about it in Tribune in the early 1990s when the New Statesman came close to ruin (John Major had thrown the kitchen sink at it after it published an article saying there was no evidence for a rumour that he was having an affair) and Michael Foot was at it as long ago as the 1950s, when Tribune was almost forced out of business by a ludicrous libel action from Lord Kemsley, then proprietor of the Sunday Times and the Daily Sketch, that went all the way to the House of Lords. Long before that, reforming the libel laws was one of the mainstays of 18th and 19th century radicalism.

But the cause has been given new momentum by a spate of recent cases in which rich foreign nationals have used Britain’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly defamation legislation to silence legitimate criticism.

Earlier this month, the pro-free-speech pressure groups Index on Censorship and PEN published a report recommending major reform to curb “libel tourism” and cap libel damages – and last weekend Jack Straw told the Sunday Times that he agreed, and that he was going to draw up proposals to change the law.

That is a long way short of a rock-solid promise of action, but it is welcome none the less. As long as reformers keep up the pressure, there’s a better chance of decisively transforming our draconian and antiquated libel laws than at any time in living memory.

31 October 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 October 2009

I meant to write about Christopher Andrew’s authorised centenary history of the security service, MI5, The Defence of the Realm, in my last column – but my copy of the book turned up late because of the postal strikes. And because I’m a busy man and it’s more than 1,000 pages (and that’s not counting the index), I’ve only now finished reading it.

Whatever, it’s still worth a column, because there’s a lot more to it than the first news stories and reviews suggested.

Which is not to knock David Leigh, who made it clear, in a cutting review in the Guardian, that Andrew’s denial of MI5’s plot against Harold Wilson as prime minister is radically at odds with the evidence Andrew himself supplies in the book that senior figures in the security service, most importantly Peter Wright, really did think Wilson was a Soviet stooge and acted to undermine him.

Nor is it to dismiss the critics of The Defence of the Realm who have said that it shamelessly traduces several people who conveniently cannot answer back – notably the late Jack Jones, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union from 1968 to 1976, whom Andrew claims to have been a Soviet agent, largely on the basis of the dubious testimony of the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky.

Andrew’s is an official history – he even joined MI5 in order to write it – and he never misses an opportunity to portray the security service in the most favourable light. He has an unerring eye for headline-inducing allegations, and he reproduces them even when the evidence for their truth is anecdotal.

Nevertheless, The Defence of the Realm is an important and in many ways impressive piece of work, and it would be a mistake to write it off. Andrew has had unprecedented access to the security service archives, and there is a lot he has turned up that is fascinating.

What struck me most forcefully as I read the book was the sheer scale of MI5’s surveillance of what it called “domestic subversion” – otherwise known as the Communist Party of Great Britain and the various revolutionary groups, mainly Trotskyist, to its left.

For more than 40 years after 1945, keeping tabs on the far left was what the security service spent most of its time and energy upon. Although it was originally set up in 1909 as a small secret agency to identify and root out German spies in Britain – revolutionaries were the preserve of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch – during the 1920s the security service found itself increasingly involved in monitoring the activities of members of the Communist Party. The reason was simple: the CP was from its foundation in 1920 loyal to the Soviet regime in Russia and engaged in espionage (or at least some of its members were), and from the mid-1920s the CP was the organisation that most of Britain’s small band of revolutionaries joined.

By the early 1930s, MI5 had taken over Special Branch’s lead role in revolutionary-watching. It built up a comprehensive card index of all CP members and bugged the CP’s headquarters in Covent Garden. The rise of Hitler and then the second world war diverted the service’s attention from this crucial activity – but with the onset of the cold war in the 1940s “domestic subversion” once again became its primary focus. MI5 kept files on all communists, suspected communists and, increasingly from the late 1960s, members of Trotskyist groups: the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers’ Party), the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers’ Revolutionary Party), the Militant Tendency. It infiltrated agents into the CP and the Trotskyist parties, bugged their offices, tapped their phones and intercepted their mail. Most controversially, it monitored organisations in which it believed “subversives” were active – the trade unions, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party. In the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of people were under MI5 surveillance at any time. It was only with the end of the cold war in 1989-91 that MI5 ceased to plough most of its energies into “domestic subversion” and concentrate instead on its other roles in counter-espionage and counter-terrorism.

Of course, we knew quite a lot of this before, thanks to whistle-blowers (Cathy Massiter, David Shayler) and, in recent years, selective releases of once-secret documents to the National Archives. No one who was active in left-wing politics during the cold war will be surprised that MI5 took a keen interest in “subversives”. All the same, the scope of the intelligence-gathering described by Andrew is really quite breathtaking. The surveillance society is nothing new.

4 October 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 October 2009

Every ambitious young journalist has a dream job or five, and in my early 20s, my top target was editor of the New Statesman. I didn’t get there de jure but did de facto, because, after three years as deputy editor of the magazine, I took the chair for six issues in the interregnum between Steve Platt and Ian Hargreaves when the oleaginous Geoffrey Robinson became proprietor in 1996. And before that I edited Tribune, which was dream job number two, after a long stint as Tribune reviews editor, which was third on my list.

So I’ve not got a lot of complaints, really. I’ve reached the age of 50 and have done the jobs that used to be done by George Orwell, Michael Foot, Dick Crossman and – OK, I’m pushing it – Kingsley Martin. I might have been useless in all of those roles, I might be a washed-up has-been. But I’m not, at least in my own mind, a never-was. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, as Marlon Brando put it in On the Waterfront, even if I’m now a bum.
Enough, though, of me, me, me and my birthday-induced sense of angst. This column was supposed to be about the New Statesman, which has a new – or newish – editor, Jason Cowley, and which relaunched last week with a redesign and a raft of new contributors.
The design is clean and smart, a cross between the Berliner Guardian and Time Out in the early 1980s. I don’t much like slab serif fonts myself, but they seem to be all the rage again, and at least they’ve not gone for Rockwell Bold.

The content is a different matter. The Statesman is, like Tribune, primarily a political weekly of the left, whatever it might do with its back end. And the current issue is not short of must-read material for politicos: Steve Richards is as insightful as usual on the Labour Party and there’s a big, though typically unrevealing, interview with Gordon Brown.

But something isn’t quite right. I’m sorry, but no one who publishes Neil Clark, an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic, can be taken seriously; and announcing that Phillip Blond, the “red Tory” policy-wonk, will be a regular columnist is not – how shall I put it? – a turn-on.

Getting 20 worthy pressure-group types to say what they want from the Labour manifesto was not an inspired idea – and nor was making the cover story for the relaunch issue a list of the 50 most important people in the world. Hey, surprise, surprise, Barack Obama is number one. No one at an editorial conference appears to have made the obvious point that not a single reader gives a damn how New Statesman staffers rank the importance of, er, important people.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. I know from experience that it’s very easy not to get relaunch issues quite right. And the Statesman is hardly alone on the British left in appearing confused about what it is there for and hopelessly lacking in self-confidence – as anyone who was at Labour conference in Brighton this week will tell you.

I’m writing this on Tuesday before Gordon Brown’s keynote speech – the downside of Tribune’s glossy full-colour transformation is that the deadlines are earlier – and by the time you read this, his efforts might have transformed everything, but so far this has been the most surreal Labour conference since the 1970s.

In public, nearly everyone apart from the (utterly marginal) hard left has been on message. I never thought I’d witness delegates giving Peter Mandelson a standing ovation, but on Monday I did, after he delivered quite the weirdest speech I’ve heard from a conference platform since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher.

In private, however, there are very few in Brighton who think that Labour’s “fightback” will work. Even a year ago, there was a hard core of Labour optimists who really believed that the party had a decent chance of winning the next general election. Now, although everyone is still talking the talk about the election being up for grabs, most of last year’s optimists admit that it will take a miracle for Labour to win.

All the same, the mood has been a lot less downbeat than I expected, particularly after that Mandelson speech. There’s no sense that we might as well throw in the towel: if Labour goes down next spring it will do so fighting, not quitting. And who knows? Something might just turn up.

15 September 2009


I wouldn't claim that either Peter Mandelson's speech at the LSE on Monday or Gordon Brown's strangely halting oration at the TUC on Tuesday mark the end of Labour's woes, but they are at least an intellectual el-Alamein. There's rather more fight left than I thought in what had appeared over the summer to be the lifeless corpse of New Labour -- and I'm beginning to think I was wrong to be quite so pessimistic in my last post on Labour's prospects.

There is a clear theme in the Brown-Mandelson offensive, which is all about how the government's actions in the past year have staved off -- or at least helped stave off -- an extraordinary economic disaster, and how it is the height of stupidity to advocate, as the Tories have done, axeing public spending at once when only public spending is keeping the economy afloat. What we need to do, according to Mandelson-Brown, is keep the state stimulus to demand going until we're out of the woods.

The Tory press – and the BBC, with notable exceptions – have made the story Labour's acceptance of "cuts", and of course the cretino-left has joined in, claiming that there's no difference except in degree between Tory austerity and Labour austerity.

But there is a very big difference. Both Brown and Mandelson made it clear that, over time, the money borrowed to shore up the banks and to keep demand alive in the world economy will have to be paid back. The thing is that it's over time. They made it equally clear that doing it at once, before vigorous growth has resumed, would be disastrous, and that the crucial task after the pay-back starts is to make sure that what will inevitably be austerity is also egalitarian.

Stafford Cripps 1947 or what? I'm impressed and not a little surprised that they've taken this line and done so with conviction. Now we need to make it the common sense of 2010: it's time for punitive taxes on incomes over £100,000, a new green pre-fab scheme for housing, nationalisation of public transport ... Ah, we can dream.

10 September 2009


I was going to go off on one on Seumas Milne's piece defending the Hitler-Stalin pact in the Guardian today, but Norm has done it already. Someone ought to republish Victor Gollancz's collection Betrayal of the Left ASAP.

7 September 2009


There's an excellent piece by Ian Aitken in Tribune here on the outbreak of the second world war.

6 September 2009


I spent this afternoon in a field in south Norfolk with some friends at the annual Burston school strike rally. It's a commemoration of an heroic struggle for working-class education: two socialist teachers were fired in 1914 by the local school board (dominated by farmers) for objecting to their pupils being taken out of school to work -- so they set up an independent school with the support of the labour movement and kept it going for 25 years.

The rally has been the big leftie East Anglian event for as long as I can remember, and there have been plenty worse than today's: at least it didn't rain. But there was something quite sad about it today. The overwhelming majority of adults there were 50 or over, and the theme, solidarity with the Cuban revolution after 50 years, was entirely uninspiring. Tony Benn didn't turn up because he was ill, so instead (or maybe not) we were treated to an interminably dull speech by Richard Howitt, Labour's East Anglian MEP.

Meanwhile, the paper sellers from the Leninist sects worked the 200-strong crowd: Morning Star, Socialist Worker, Socialist, Socialist Appeal. They all had stalls underneath B&Q gazebos, as did the Socialist Party of Great Britain -- whose grizzled militants had forgotten the box of Socialist Standards they were supposed to bring and so were selling only pamphlets written in 1910 -- and what was once the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), which was flogging the autobiography of the late Reg Birch and old Chinese editions of J V Stalin on the national question.

But they didn't do too well. Most of the people at the bash were sell-out reformists from the Labour Party in Ipswich and Norwich who just wanted a day out in the sun drinking beer, and paper sales were thin on the ground. The Maoists were first out, taking down their gazebo at 4pm to head for their red base in Stockwell; by 4.30pm the Socialist Workers' stall was reduced to inhaling helium from Unison's balloons to make them talk squeaky.

I drank some beer, ate some lunch, said hello to some good comrades I've not seen for some time, played with some kids. Altogether, an excellent afternoon. But it showed the old left is dead.

3 September 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 September 2009

And so – we’re into the final straight. This autumn’s political conferences mark the beginning of a very long election campaign that looks likely to end with Labour being defeated next spring. All right, it’s not over until it’s over, you never know what might turn up, and all that.

But the Tory lead in the opinion polls is so consistent and so large that it would take a minor miracle for Labour to win even though the Tories need a very big swing to win a Commons majority.

Which is extremely depressing – and not just because the Tories are such third-rate incompetent reactionaries (though of course they are), but also because Labour seems in such poor shape to bounce back after a defeat.

Labour’s problems start at the top. Let’s assume that Gordon Brown remains Labour leader and PM right up to the election – I’m still hoping he doesn’t, but that’s by-the-way – and that not too many of the current cabinet lose their seats. Brown might do a Jim Callaghan and hang on as party leader for a while, but hunch says that he won’t and that the contest to succeed him will be open – the first Labour leadership election since 1983 in which one candidate is not a shoo-in. My guess is that the main contenders will be Ed Balls and David Miliband, but I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few others have a go: Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas (as long as they’re still MPs), maybe Peter Mandelson (if he can find a way of returning as an MP), perhaps two or three others. OK, it’s not quite a barren field – but none of them exactly gets the juices flowing. There isn’t a Blair or even a Kinnock.

And that, if you like, is the end of the not-so-bad news, because everything else looks dire for Labour. Outside its upper echelons, the parliamentary Labour Party has never been shorter of talent – and that is before the departure of 100 or more retiring MPs and goodness knows how many others who will lose their seats at the general election. Labour MPs’ morale is by all accounts still at rock bottom after the expenses scandal. At the grass roots, Labour is in a terrible state, its membership dwindling and disillusioned and its local government representation weaker than for 30 years. The trade unions are worse led and shorter of cash and activists than at any time in living memory. There is little sign of intelligent life among the left-leaning think-tanks (with the partial exception of Compass) or in most of the left press (present company excepted, of course).

It’s true that there is also no evidence of the deep-rooted ideological disagreements and personal back-biting that did Labour so much damage the last time it was turfed out of government, in 1979. It’s difficult to envisage Labour conference in 2011 embracing withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and widespread nationalisation – and I certainly can’t picture four former members of the government defecting from Labour to set up a rival centrist party in January 2012.

But just because it’s not the same as 1979 doesn’t mean that it might not be just as bad. The 1980s were dreadful for Labour, and no one in his or her right mind wants to relive the miners’ strike, Militant, rate-capping and Red Wedge. It was nevertheless when Labour began the long process of rebuilding that culminated in its victory in 1997. The Bennite insurgency of the early 1980s might have been destructive, deluded and transitory, but it brought a whole new generation into Labour politics – and the election defeats of 1979, 1983 and 1987 (along with the defeats of the miners’ and Wapping strikes) forced Labour to rethink and renew its whole programme, for the most part for the better.

In other words, there was sufficient energy and enthusiasm about Labour after 1979 for the party to emerge fitter and stronger from what appeared for several years to be a life-threatening crisis. What’s worrying today is that the never-say-die spirit is so notable by its absence. At every level, Labour seems tired, resigned and confused, and there’s no new generation of activists waiting in the wings.

Maybe that will all change before the election: I hope it does, and that Labour runs a dynamic campaign and wins. Perhaps if Labour loses it will be only by a small margin and it will recover quickly, with a fresh leader and the Tories’ popularity evaporating as they axe public services. But I have a horrible feeling in my bones that we could be in for a long and thankless exile wandering in the wilderness.

9 August 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 August 2009

On the face of it, higher education should count as one of this government’s success stories. Something like 45 per cent of young Brits now go to university – more than double the proportion in the early 1990s – and British universities attract more students from abroad than ever before. Over the past few years there has been serious investment in the infrastructure of higher education. Just about every university has impressive new buildings and revamped lecture theatres and offices.

But all is not rosy in the college quad. The government’s long-standing target of 50 per cent participation in HE among 18-30-year-olds by 2010 is certain to be missed, and, after more than a decade of expanding budgets, universities now face a period of painful belt-tightening. Just as worrying, there are persistent concerns, most recently expressed by Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility and by a House of Commons select committee report published last weekend, that (a) the expansion of higher education has not really opened it up to working-class students; and (b) a lot of students are not getting a good deal.

I have to declare an interest here: for the past nine years I have been a journalism lecturer at City University in London, and for the past five I have been course director and admissions tutor on its biggest journalism undergraduate programme. If City isn’t doing its bit to widen participation and is letting down the young people we recruit, I’m probably at least part of the problem.

Not, I hasten to add, that I think City or I are doing badly on either score. Like any other admissions tutor, I select students on merit – but that’s not just a matter of A-level grades. Anyone predicted to get three As is a shoo-in as long as his or her personal statement is good. But I also jump at the chance of taking on people who have been running football and music fanzines online since they were 14, and I am always open to applications from people who for whatever reason missed out on A-levels in their teens. My students are an extraordinary social and ethnic mix.

And if the students turn up to classes and do the work, they acquire all the skills they need to work as journalists in the real world – the same skills they would get by doing a postgraduate journalism course – along with a solid academic grounding in politics and history (at very least). True, we had a few years when the kit we were using was not quite up to scratch, but that’s all in the past. And OK, I accept that sometimes work is returned a bit late. But on the whole I think we do a decent job.

Of course, this is just me blowing my own trumpet. Where, you might legitimately ask, is the evidence? And that is where the problems start, because there isn’t a great deal beyond the real-life stories of former students with successful careers.

Sure, there has been a lot of research on class and university admissions showing that working-class applicants are less likely to get in than middle-class ones – but none of it is more specific than university by university.

As for the quality of the “student experience”, as we now call it, all anyone has is extraordinarily unreliable. Over the past few years, the annual National Student Survey, an online tick-box-and-comment questionnaire, has become the touchstone of the universities’ “quality assurance” regime. Undergraduates in their final year are encouraged to pass judgment on their years at university – and university managers, my own included, take the results very seriously.

The fatal flaw of the NSS is that it treats students as mere consumers when in fact they are much more than that. Yes, they pay a lot of money to go to university, and they have a right not to be fobbed off with poor teaching, inadequate libraries and overcrowded classrooms. But no one has an automatic right to a good 2.1: you have to work for it. The NSS ignores this rather crucial fact, allowing the lazy and disappointed full scope for anonymous whingeing and blame-shifting. One side-effect is that some universities – not my own – have opted for the quiet life, allowing the numbers of students getting top grades to creep up year by year.

So what’s the answer? The Commons select committee calls for an intrusive inspection regime for universities along the lines of Ofsted, but it’s difficult to see how it could work, simply because most university courses are too specialist to be judged by a generalist inspector. A far better option would be to beef up the role of the traditional external examiner. It might be at odds with the notion of the student as consumer, but in the end the best possible judge of the quality of an academic programme is someone who teaches something similar elsewhere.

31 July 2009


I'm too young to remember Ipswich winning the league under Alf Ramsey — but Bobby Robson's teams winning the FA and UEFA cups were defining moments of my youth. We've been useless since. RIP.

19 July 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column 10 July 2009

“Hi,” said the American woman on the other end of the phone. “Are you Mr Anderson?” “Yes,” I said, expecting an offer of car insurance or the threat of a writ.

I was wrong. “Hi,” she went on. “I’m Myleen and I’m calling from Labour Party headquarters. Are you available to assist in the Norwich North campaign?”

At which point I fell off my chair. Well, not really – but I was surprised. It wasn’t just that the voice was American: I’ve been used to Westminster interns from across the pond for more than 25 years, and some of my best friends are from New York. Rather it was that I’ve not heard a squeak from Walworth Road since it actually was Walworth Road rather than a call-centre in Gateshead with a front-office in Victoria Street or whatever it is now. And the last time was to ask for money, not for me.

Don’t get me wrong. My local party in Ipswich is well organised and active, and I’m regularly bombarded with pleas for help by our brilliant and hard-working agent, John Cook. He has an uncanny knack of timing his arrival at your door with a giant pile of leaflets the only evening you’re at home in a week. But I expect my local party to stay in touch. Contact from HQ – and from a real human being (even an American) – is a bit special.

Perhaps, though, I should not have been surprised. Norwich North is not far from home, it is a very important byelection, and Labour needs all hands on deck. On 23 July – less than a fortnight hence – the voters there will decide who replaces Ian Gibson, who represented them as a Labour MP for 12 years before resigning the seat last month.

It is crucial for several reasons. Norwich North is one of the marginal seats that Labour must retain at the next general election if it is to have a chance of avoiding national defeat: Gibson’s 2005 majority was a little over 5,000. It is the party’s first electoral test since the debacle of the European and local elections last month, its first since Gordon Brown survived the cack-handed attempt-to-oust-him-that-wasn’t – and, most important, its first since the MPs’ expenses scandal left the front pages.

Gibson walked because he felt he had been treated unfairly by the Labour National Executive Committee panel charged with disciplining miscreants in the expenses scandal – and it’s hard not to sympathise with him (as his constituency Labour Party did). The records, as revealed by the Daily Telegraph, show that that he sold his daughter his London flat (on which he had claimed mortgage-interest payments from the taxpayer while she lived there rent-free) for less than its market value.

“Off with his head!” screeched the media, and Labour’s “star chamber” duly doled out the summary punishment, prohibiting Gibson from standing as a Labour candidate at the next general election. You don’t have to be a great admirer of Gibson’s hard-left politics to wonder why he was done over for not raking in gains from the property bubble when nearly everyone who did so has got off scot-free.

Whatever, the byelection will give the voters in Norwich North the chance to pass judgment on the quality of Labour justice. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the early money was on them giving Labour the thumbs down – and if they do the government will face a torrid summer. If they don’t, however, it might just act as the fillip Gordon Brown so desperately needs, a sign that all is not yet lost, that the corner has been turned, that the fat lady has yet to sing. And my friends in Norwich say they have a hunch that Labour can win. There’s no sign of popular enthusiasm for the Tories, they say, and people are beginning to get over the rage that motivated or demotivated them at the European and local elections.

Both the major parties know the stakes are high, and both have been campaigning vigorously in the constituency. Although both have been publicly playing down the significance of the contest, both are treating it as a dry run for the next general election. Labour’s message is simple, that the Tories will slash public services if they win power. The Tories counter that the government is lying about the state of the public finances.

As for me, I’m making no predictions, but I am going to catch the train to Norwich this weekend and do a spot of whatever the comrades need done, despite my reservations about the way Gibson was treated. I’ll be keeping quiet, of course, about where I’m from. Americans go down fine in Norwich. Tractor boys do not.

I've not yet made it up to Norwich North for reasons too boring to mention but will do so before it's too late. I hope.

15 June 2009


The former home secretary's interview with Andrew Neil on the BBC News Channel on Saturday night was widely trailed but only selectively quoted in the papers – and watched by almost no one. But it's worth watching in full here: Clarke says plenty of very sensible things about where Labour should go politically (greenery, constitutional reform, rationalising taxation) and also makes it clear, rightly I think, that Gordon Brown is very much on probation right now. He says that Labour could suffer meltdown at the next general election unless it gets its act together ... and at the moment I'm inclined to agree.

11 June 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 June 2009

Where do you start? It’s difficult to think of a more depressing time for Labour supporters since – well, I was going to say the weeks after Labour lost the 1992 general election, but this is much worse. Labour’s failure in 1992 was like your team losing in the cup final. This is like watching the penultimate game of the league season when you’re three points adrift in the relegation zone and three-nil down and your players start brawling with one another on the pitch …

OK, that’s enough blokish football metaphors. But you get the point. In 1992 we were disappointed to lose when we hoped to win. This time, we are simply staring disaster in the face.

No matter how you look at it, the council and European election results are dire for Labour. In the English counties, the party lost nearly two-thirds of the seats it held and all four of the councils it controlled. Its projected share of the national vote was just 23 per cent, 15 points behind the Tories.

The Euro-elections were even worse. Labour’s overall share of the vote was 15 per cent, eight points down on its dismal performance in 2004. Labour was beaten in Wales by the Tories and in Scotland by the SNP. In the North West and Yorkshire regions, it lost sitting MEPs to the far-right British National Party, and in the South West and South East it trailed in fifth behind the Tories, UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Labour was fourth in the East and third in the West Midlands, with UKIP second in both. It came first only in the North East.

European and local elections are not reliable guides to the level of support for parties at the next general election. In general elections, turnout is usually much higher, and parties not already represented at Westminster hardly ever win substantial shares of the vote, let alone seats. In the past, governing parties have been battered in European and local elections and won large Commons majorities a year or two later, as Labour did in 2001 and 2005. But it would be unprecedented for a governing party to win after a performance as poor as Labour’s on 4 June.

Of course, Labour’s drubbing took place in exceptional circumstances. The resignations from the government of two cabinet members and two other ministers before polling day did it serious harm – Hazel Blears’s departure was particularly damaging, not least because it was so obviously intended to be.

What really made the difference, however, was the MPs’ expenses scandal. The message on the doorstep was the same everywhere: I normally vote Labour but I’m so disgusted with what those MPs have done that I’m not this time. The scandal undoubtedly hit Labour much harder than the other major parties. Labour is in government and has more MPs than the rest combined – and, more importantly, many hitherto solid Labour voters are furious at its MPs spending from the public purse the equivalent of a year’s skilled manual worker’s wages on property speculation and lavish lifestyles, all the while claiming to stand for fairness and the interests of “hard-working families”.

But the expenses scandal won’t just fade in voters’ memory as time goes by. The only possible way back for Labour is to get to grips with it this summer by chucking out every MP who has abused the system.

For now, everything else except economic management is a luxury – even coming up with brilliant new policy ideas. And this means that getting rid of Gordon Brown immediately (as advocated by several departing ministers, “rebel” backbench Labour MPs and the Guardian) would be the height of folly.

A leadership election over the summer would not just divert attention from cleaning up the Parliamentary Labour Party: it would make it nigh-on impossible. MPs called to account over expenses would protest vehemently that they were being victimised for supporting one or other leadership contender. The necessary purge would grind to a halt. Whoever won the leadership election, Labour would go into the general election, whether in autumn or next spring, with the expenses scandal still festering – and the result would be a wipeout.

In this light, it’s just as well that Brown was forced by the resignations of Blears and James Purnell to reshuffle the cabinet earlier than planned, so that all the credible would-be replacements for him had sworn undying loyalty in public before the European votes were counted. By the time the sheer scale of Labour’s European defeat had sunk in, pressure for the PM’s resignation had already dissipated .

Which isn’t to say that Gordon shouldn’t go – just that it shouldn’t be yet. There’s a good three months’ work still to be done. And after that? Let’s see ...

5 June 2009


A small point, but an important one, about the government resignations that have rocked Gordon Brown into meltdown.

So far (as of 11.30am Friday 5 June), apart from Patricia Hewitt and John Hutton, all of them appear to have been severely compromised by the Daily Telegraph's expenses revelations.

And now they have resigned, with most of them making it known that they left because Gordon had been horrid/hates women/is useless, it becomes much more difficult for Labour's NEC panel to haul them in for questioning. "It's not fair!" they will declare. "He's just trying to take revenge!"

Convenient, huh?

4 June 2009


The current “febrile atmosphere in Westminster”, as everyone is calling it, is not something I have had the pleasure to witness directly: I’ve been nowhere near parliament for months. But anyone who reads the papers and watches the television news can tell that the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the grip of the most serious of its periodic fits of hysteria for more than 25 years.

The expenses scandal has hit Labour harder than the other parties – partly because it is in government, partly because there is a feeling among traditional Labour supporters that what many MPs have done in claiming expenses to fund property speculation and lavish lifestyles is radically at odds with what Labour should stand for. Gordon Brown has not covered himself in glory in dealing with the problem – though it’s difficult to see what exactly he could have done much better in the circumstances – and as the party faces what looks set to be a drubbing in today’s European and county council elections, two cabinet ministers and two other ministers have resigned from the government in advance of a widely flagged reshuffle. Meanwhile, backbench Labour MPs are trying to put together a petition demanding that Brown stands down now.

I have no more idea than anyone else how this will pan out over the next few days. My hunch is that Brown will neither resign over Labour’s disastrous election performance nor provoke a revolt that forces him out with his reshuffle. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t have to go, and there is no alternative Labour leader that opinion polls suggest would rescue Labour from ignominious defeat at a general election.

I hope my hunch is right – not because I think Brown is the right person to lead Labour into the next general election but because it would be utterly stupid for him to stand down now. Labour’s priority for this summer must be to weed out all the MPs who have abused the expenses system and replace them as parliamentary candidates, and a leadership election would prevent that from happening. Can you imagine Labour’s NEC sub-committee calling in alleged expenses fiddlers who are on the campaign teams of would-be leaders? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

What’s more, a new Labour leader elected this summer would be under massive pressure as prime minister from the media and the public to call a general election in autumn – which would be entirely against Labour’s electoral interests. On one hand, the brand would still be toxic because the leadership change had prevented the necessary cleansing of Labour’s parliamentary ranks. On the other, the chances of the economy having picked up sufficiently to provide voters with a reason to return to Labour would be extremely slim.

Gordon should go, but now is not the time. He should oversee a purge this summer, starting with a really brutal cabinet reshuffle to ensure that no one at the top table has dirty hands. Then he should announce his retirement gracefully in his party conference speech in the autumn, offering to stay on as PM until the Labour leadership election is complete to ensure a smooth handover to his successor by Xmas. Whoever took over could then announce a spring general election – and who knows, Labour might not even lose that badly …

Will it happen? I doubt it. But I live in hope.

Right, now off to vote (Labour of course).

21 May 2009


The Labour National Executive Committee on Monday threw out the proposal to reopen selections for all sitting MPs who have been reselected to stand again at the next general election – which would have been by far the quickest and most sensible way for the party to lance the boil of the parliamentary expenses scandal, as it would be for the other parties.

Instead, there’s going to be an NEC panel to investigate Labour MPs expenses, which will then make recommendations to the NEC, which will then decide on various MPs' fates. (This is not the same thing as the independent investigation of the whole scandal,agreed between the party leaders earlier.)

The details and timescale for this NEC panel are currently vague, but it is imperative that it completes its work very quickly. MPs might complain of summary justice, but it is essential that any necessary disciplinary action takes place in time for constituency Labour parties to choose new candidates over the summer.

This would at least means that Labour could go into its conference - or even an autumn election - with sleaze no longer hanging over it quite so obviously. I don’t think there will be an autumn election, though the current situation is so extraordinary now I wouldn’t rule it out, say if Labour is almost wiped out in the Euroelections or a very big fish is caught in the expenses-fiddling net. But even if Labour manages to carry on until spring next year, it needs to neutralise the expenses story (in so far as it can) as soon as possible if it is not going to suffer utter humiliation at the polls.

16 May 2009


The more that has emerged from the Telegraph about MPs' expenses, the clearer it has become that the only way any of the main political parties can hope to recover credibility is to hold new candidate selections in every single seat they hold where the sitting MP has been confirmed as the candidate for the next general election.

If Labour's National Executive Committee goes for anything less when it meets next week it will destroy any chance the party has of avoiding a catastrophic defeat at the next general election.

The parliamentary expense-fiddlers and property speculators need to be cleared out, and the best people to do that in the Labour Party are the members. They know their MPs and they can read.

This isn't ultra-left posturing, it's plain common sense.

15 May 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column 15 May 2009

It’s that time of year again. I’ve got to sort out my accounts and file a tax return. I spent hours last weekend sifting through invoices, receipts, bank statements and wage slips, working out what to declare to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about my freelance income and related expenditure for tax year 2008-09.

I used to hire an accountant to do it, but I realised that he was charging me £500 to fill in a form, so for years I’ve done it myself. It’s a lot easier now than it used to be, partly because I’m not doing as much freelance work as I used to and partly because HMRC has made it easier with self-assessment. Whereas ten years ago the process took three days, this week I did in one.

Believe it or not, I’m meticulously honest about what I declare to the Revenue. That’s not down to asceticism or stupidity: I had a nasty scare 20 years ago after I failed to file a tax return and was threatened with court action for not paying the £12,000 the Revenue told me I owed. It took a lot of grovelling to get out of that, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve sent the taxman a return soon after the end of the financial year that scrupulously details my economic activity.

Except … well, I do what everyone does. The income is always right, but the tax-deductible expenses are less precise.

I know I can’t claim travel to and from salaried work against tax but can claim travel for freelance jobs. Quite often, I have to go to London to do research as a freelance – but I also travel to London to get to my place of employment or just to go out. Of course, I keep all the ticket receipts, but by the time I do my accounts I can’t remember which was for what journey. Had I gone to the LSE library, or was I off to the Guardian for a shift? Or was that the day I spent canoodling in the park with the nubile Letitia? What the hell, the Revenue isn’t going to know, just put down 25 trips to London that are claimable against tax: it’s about right and I’ve got the paperwork to cover it. And so it goes with the share of the heating bill related to working at home and a whole lot more besides.

In other words, I do a certain amount of estimating, then put the ball into the Revenue’s court. And so far the Revenue has believed me. OK, we’re talking piffling sums – I earned £50,000-odd last year and only £5,000 was from freelancing. It might be that I’m such small fry I’m not worth bothering to catch. I like to think, however, that there is a bond of trust between me and the taxman. He hasn’t a clue what I earn or what I spend, but he accepts what I tell him because I’m not taking the piss.

You can see where this is going. If only our parliamentary representatives had taken a small fraction of the minimal care that most taxpayers take when filling in their tax returns, we wouldn’t now be facing a frighteningly complete collapse of public confidence in the entire political class.

They didn’t, however, and we are. The leaked expenses claims published by the Telegraph show that MPs of all parties have been taking the piss big-time for years.

True, the Telegraph paid for the info. True, the sums are not huge in terms of GDP or Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension – and, given the cost of accommodation in central London, £24,000 a year is not a ridiculously generous sum to allow non-London MPs for nights they have to stay in the capital. True, MPs are not particularly well-paid by comparison with bankers or lawyers. And of course the system for paying MPs’ expenses is absurd – although we only know how absurd thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

But there really are no acceptable excuses for what so many MPs have done. Four nights a week in a modest hotel, rent on a two-bedroom flat in Pimlico, mortgage interest on a small town house in Kennington – any of that is fine. So too are a cleaner and a bit of gardening and home maintenance. Beyond these basics, however, it’s impossible to see any justification for claiming. Many if not most MPs have used expenses allowances to fund blatant speculation in the housing market, home improvements they could have afforded from their salaries and luxuries that are in no sense related to their work.

On the evidence so far, at least 50 MPs should resign in shame. But I’ll put a tenner on no one doing so (as long as I can claim it on exes).

10 May 2009


I discover that my entry on David Miller's disgraceful left-McCarthyite website Neocon Europe, listing supposed "neocons", has been changed after I objected to it.

I am now listed as being "not a neoconservative, though he is involved in a number of organisations linked to neoconservatives such as Democratiya and the Euston Manifesto".

But there is a further page in which I am said to be "involved in pro-war left organisations" – Democratiya and Euston again, though neither is "pro-war" in fact – and am quoted (more-or-less accurately) on various subjects. Then comes an editorial comment:
Anderson's defence of the neoconservative trope of 'Islamic fascism' ignores the reality that this has not been limited to a caricature of authoritarian movements like Al Qaeda, but in the hands of Douglas Murray and others, it has been used to smear Muslim communities as a whole. Nor has its use been limited to an analysis of ideology and practises. Rather, it has been employed in neoconservative propaganda campaigns that sought to portray Iraq as a military threat analogous to Nazi Germany.
I don't mind vigorous criticism, but this is bollocks. So – I'm not a neocon but a fellow-traveller who deserves a listing because my arguments objectively play into the hands of the neocons? Get lost, you cretino-leftist, and stop your blacklisting.

"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"


My good friend Padraig Reidy from Index on Censorship and I were talking in the pub about columnists last week, and we concurred after 30 seconds that the best in any UK newspaper is DJ Taylor in the Independent on Sunday.

His latest is a gem.He is doing Orwell's "As I Please" better than anyone since Orwell. And I'm not saying that just because I know him very slightly, like him and share many of his enthusiasms (but not Norwich City). This is how to do it!

9 May 2009


OK, I know how bad the MPs' expenses claims look. But £24,000 a year as an allowance for accommodation in central London on the money most of them are on seems to me to be about right.

London is bloody expensive. You're not going to get a decent cheap hotel room midweek near Westminster for much less than £120 a night unless you spend hours on the budget hotels' websites -- and it takes only 200 nights in town to make the total allowance.

I'm not defending the disgraceful expenses scams, but why not just give all MPs outside the M25 a £24,000 non-London-weighting supplement and let them spend it as they will?

4 May 2009


I have just been informed of a tragic incident last year in which 65 canaries died of asphyxiation while being transported cruelly from their native habitat in Norfolk. There can be few sights more moving than this:

30 April 2009


I find that I am on a blacklist here of supposed "neo-conservatives". The perpetrator, David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde, is an utter disgrace.

16 April 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 April 2009

And there I was thinking the worst was over… As Neil Kinnock would have put it in his pomp, it is difficult to exaggerate how completely, totally and utterly Derek Draper and Damian McBride have let down the Labour Party.

OK, there are questions about how the creepy Tory blogger Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, got hold of the emails the idiots exchanged. OK, the grand plans for a website publishing rumours about the sexual peccadilloes, drug use and mental health of leading Tories and their spouses never came to fruition. OK, it’s hardly Watergate.

All the same, the scandal takes the breath away. To put it bluntly, what the fuck did they think they were doing?

I am absolutely in favour of a full-on anti-Tory attack blog – as it happens, provoked by the oleaginous Dan Hannan’s dissing of the National Health Service on Fox TV the week before last, I was in the process of planning one myself when the scandal broke, though I now think it can wait a bit.

But the way you get at the Tories is not by spreading puerile defamatory personal tittle-tattle. David Cameron’s fitness for office has nothing to do with whether or not or why he visited the clap clinic at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford as a student many years ago: what counts is what a Cameron government would do for the funding of clap clinics. As for the supposed mental instability of a senior Tory politician’s wife – you what? There’s nothing to suggest there’s anything to the story. But even if it were true and you had evidence, you wouldn’t touch it in public, and in private, if asked, you’d express sympathy, warmth, tenderness, understanding, even solidarity. Only a complete shit would even think of doing anything else. And unless you have solid evidence for coke-and-hookers stories, just leave them alone because of the libel laws – and I say that as a confirmed coke-and-hookers man myself.

Seriously – I’m not into coke and hookers really, darling! It was a joke, honest! Why have you put the phone down? – this is the end of New Labour’s spin regime. And it’s time to state the obvious. Derek Draper, Damian McBride et al: what a bunch of tossers you are.

For all your cocksure swagger, you couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. Your antics – not just in the past couple of months – have done incalculable harm to people’s faith in the democratic system in Britain and to the cause of social democracy. I thought you were rubbish many years ago, but now it’s clear to everyone. Charlatans. Liars. Incompetents. Now get lost, and don’t ever come back.


The Draper-McBride affair has prompted a lot of speculation about why the political blogosphere in Britain is dominated by the right – but no one has mentioned the main reason, which is money.

This might seem a little counterintuitive, because blogging – unlike self-publishing in print – doesn’t cost a penny. You write your piece, upload it to your personal website and that’s it. There’s no need to buy expensive desktop publishing software, there’s no printers’ bill and there are no postage or promotional costs. What could possibly be less elitist?

But that’s not quite the whole story. To generate traffic to your blog, you need to get a reputation both for the quality of your posts and their frequency – and that takes time most people don’t have.

I’ve had a blog for more than six years, and when I started I was full of enthusiasm for the possibilities of the medium, posting nearly every day and eagerly following dozens of stories.

Slowly but surely, however, I started to flag. Spending a couple of hours a day researching and writing for a blog read by a few hundred people simply wasn’t compatible with working full-time and all the other commitments of everyday life – and that was with a flexible work routine, a generally indulgent employer and no kids. Increasingly, I found I was posting my monthly Tribune columns, the odd review, lots of You Tube videos – and nothing else.

Would it have been different if I’d been a man of independent means? I’ve no idea, but I do know that being rich and not having to work is rather an advantage in the new media age. The most obvious case in point is Arianna Huffington in the United States, who has used her fortune to bankroll the Huffington Post website – but Britain’s Tory bloggers have got the upper hand at least in part because they don’t need to do anything else. Yes, it’s easier to be oppositional on the web than it is to support a ruling party. Yes, the blogosphere is inherently individualistic. But cash counts too. Give me loads of it and I’ll show you.

20 March 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 March 2009

Most political memoirs and diaries are deeply disappointing. I know, because I’ve ploughed through hundreds of them in the past 25 years in the course of everyday political journalism and historical research.

The best – the diaries of Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Tony Benn on the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, for example – are not only essential historical sources but also enthralling. The worst are utterly worthless. I have on the bookshelf by my desk half-a-dozen bland, plodding accounts of the Thatcher years by retired ministers that have remained unopened since the week before publication when I desperately searched through their pages for something – anything – that might make a diary story.

No one has produced anything quite as bad on the Blair era – though The Blunkett Tapes ran them close. But even the most intelligent and revealing New Labour memoirs and diaries up to now have been seriously flawed. Robin Cook’s The Point of Departure was telling on many things (and included a chapter on how Labour should renew itself that bears rereading today) but Cook was restrained by his intention to make his departure only temporary, an ambition sadly thwarted by his early death. And the extracts from Alastair Campbell’s diaries published as The Blair Years, although extraordinarily revealing on quite a lot, were edited to omit anything that might be embarrassing to Gordon Brown, making them rather like Hamlet without the ghost.

All of which makes the publication of Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills a real landmark. The diaries of the former Tribune editor and soon-to-retire MP for Sunderland South are the first no-holds-barred account of life inside the Blair administration – and hunch tells me that they will become as important for future historians as the Crossman, Castle and Benn diaries.

This is not because Mullin held high office: as the book’s title makes clear, he did not. He was a junior minister in the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions from 1999 to 2001, then a slightly less junior one first in the Department for International Development and then in the Foreign Office, from which he was dropped in 2005, returning to the back benches.

But if Mullin was not a senior player, he has other things to offer. He is a great observer of people and a connoisseur of the absurdities of ministerial life: the speeches written for ministers by civil servants in impenetrable jargon, the endless futile meetings, the inability of senior ministers to delegate. He captures perfectly the tedium of the constituency MP’s existence. He is spectacularly rude – with reason – about John Prescott and Gordon Brown (but not about Tony Blair, whom he dubs “The Man”) and a perceptive analyst of what’s happening in cabinet even though he’s not there. And all of it is done in the clearest of prose with dry self-deprecating humour. I read it in a weekend and couldn’t put it down …


On a different matter entirely, I’ve been amazed by the hoo-hah in the past fortnight over the revelation in the Guardian that the historian Eric Hobsbawm had been refused access to his MI5 file.

My first thought was that it was rather mean of MI5 – the old boy is 91, and anything in his file could only relate to his activity as a member, from the mid-1930s, of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which breathed its last as long ago as 1991 – but hardly a big deal.

Others had different ideas, however. The Daily Mail went into full hate mode, denouncing Hobsbawm as an unreconstructed apologist for Stalin’s terror – and the Guardian responded with pieces arguing that the Mail was out-of-order because (a) Hobsbawm is a great historian and (b) it’s outrageous that MI5 kept files on members of the Communist Party.

There are several things that strike me as weird about this. First, I can’t see why Hobsbawm’s enduring sympathy for the Soviet Union – which is not quite the same thing as unreconstructed Stalinism, though he was certainly a Stalinist when Stalin was around – is news: he’s never made any secret of it. Secondly, I don’t understand why the fact that he is a brilliant historian should preclude criticism of his politics (or indeed of the influence his political allegiance has had on his historical work). And thirdly, I can’t grasp why it’s so outrageous that MI5 kept files on prominent members of the CP. For most of its life, after all, the party was a dedicated servant of a foreign power that had hostile intentions towards Britain (and between 1939 and 1941 was effectively allied with another foreign power that was waging war against Britain).

None of which is to defend the decision not to release the file. The cold war has been over 20 years now, and there is no excuse whatsoever for not opening the books on it – however embarrassing the results might be.

9 February 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 February 2009

After more than 30 years of hoarding books, magazines, academic journals and newspaper clippings, I’ve decided to have a clear-out. I’m not going to get rid of any books – well, maybe a few duplicates – but everything else that can go will go. I can fit only two more bookcases into my house unless I let them take over the kitchen and the bathroom, and my cellar is so full of boxes that the electricity man had difficulty getting to the meter the other week. I really don’t need to hang on to 20 years’ worth of the Economist, because I can access it online or in the library; and I’m never going to look again at those mid-1980s issues of New Left Review that have now been stored in boxes for more than two decades.

Or at least that’s the theory. The problem with having a clear-out when you’ve let your hoarding get as out-of-control as I have is that it takes a vast amount of time and effort. First, you have to decide what goes – which is easy enough with the Economist and most of my clippings from the national press over the past ten years because all that stuff is available instantly online (at least as long as I have an academic job). But it gets more difficult the more obscure the publication becomes. Although I probably know a couple of people with, say, a complete run of Socialist Action, I’m wary of chucking out my collection just in case neither they nor the British Library or the Bodleian can locate a particular issue.

So clearing out also involves spending a lot of time reading and thinking. Is it worth keeping those tattered copies of Xtra!, the anarchist paper of the late 1970s, or the issue of Class War that was edited by Tribune’s current theatre critic, Aleks Sierz, 25 or so years ago? Yes, because the chances are high that Xtra! and Class War didn’t make it to the copyright libraries – and because they’re part of my own history. But what about the issue of the pro-Albanian Maoist Weekly Worker commemorating the death of Enver Hoxha? A worthless artefact with which I have no personal connection – but again yes, because it’s so weird. I have however decided not to keep Labour Weekly, the party’s official paper, or Sanity, the CND magazine, or most of my Fabian pamphlets.

Which brings me to the second problem: disposal. I currently have a vast pile of paper I have decided I don’t want any more, and I’m not sure what to do with it. The newspaper clippings have already gone into the recycling bin, but the rest is a headache. Some of it I can flog to a specialist secondhand dealer, and some I’ll give to local charity shops. But what about the 1,000 or so copies of the Economist? It seems a waste to put them in the bin – and I can’t put them all in it at once – but who the hell would want them and be prepared to collect? I really can’t be arsed with ebay…

The great thing about having a clear-out, of course, is what you turn up unexpectedly. I’d completely forgotten that I had such a large collection of articles and pamphlets on the split in the Communist Party in the mid-1980s over the miners’ strike and the Soviet Union – and I was surprised to find a box full of embarrassingly craven British and American left praise for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua from the same era.

What has really stopped me short, however, is the Labour material from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The sense of desperation and panic in the party between the IMF crisis of 1976 and the end of the miners’ strike in 1985 – through the Winter of Discontent, the Tory election victory of 1979, the slump that followed it, the defection of the SDP, the Falklands War, the debacle of the 1983 election, the miners’ strike itself – is palpable in every article I clipped and every pamphlet I saved. Labour hung on under Michael Foot and rebuilt itself under Neil Kinnock, but it was touch-and-go for at least five years.

I know it’s not done to wonder what happens if we lose in 2010 – and I still think Labour can win because I’m less pessimistic about the economic downturn than everyone else and believe the Tories can be exposed for the hopeless reactionaries that they are. But Labour’s bleak midwinter this past month is horribly reminiscent of 1979, and I’ve got a feeling in my bones that the party will be in opposition within 18 months. And awful as it was after 1979, there was a lot more energy and enthusiasm around Labour then than there is now. Be afraid, deliver those leaflets – and pray.

6 January 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 January 2009

Sometimes it seems that everything in Britain these days is doom and gloom. The banking crisis has dragged on and on and the credit famine is now having a devastating effect on consumer confidence, the housing market and employment.

Every day there are announcements of new redundancies and business failures. Forecasts of collapsing house prices, negative growth and exploding unemployment range from the deeply depressing to the terrifying. Slump is upon us.

For anyone on the left, the political outlook is at first sight dire, too. The brief recovery in the opinion polls enjoyed by Labour in the autumn of 2008 appears to be over - and the Tories are back to being overwhelming favourites to win the next general election. Oh dear.

But is it all as bad as it seems? Well, at least it's not as bad as it might have been. Granted, some of the economic projections of the past couple of months have been a lot worse than most experts expected at the beginning of 2008 - and there's little doubt that a lot of people are now suffering, with more pain to come. But so far it hasn't been a matter of economic meltdown. The overwhelming majority of Brits are still doing OK. And although the Government has made mistakes it has given a pretty good impression of knowing what has to be done to get out of the mess we're in.

To be sure, the failure of the October bank bail-out, which necessitated this week's even-bigger emergency package, is an embarrassment; and it might well be that even this week's efforts will not be enough to prevent wholesale bank nationalisation, which the government wants to avoid (for a mixture of good and bad reasons).

Nevertheless, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have not done at all badly in the past few months, dealing with a crisis unlike any other in living memory with confidence and some panache. More might well need to be done to restore credit to the economy, but they appear to have the will and daring to do whatever is necessary, at least in the short term.

Certainly they have been running rings around the Tories, although whether they continue to do so now Ken Clarke is back in the Shadow Cabinet is another matter. Clarke, unlike David Cameron and George Osborne, understands crisis management and is a formidable opponent for Labour. On the other hand, as became apparent within minutes of his being appointed, his differences with his Eurosceptic colleagues have the potential to reignite the internal Tory battle that more than anything else destroyed the party's credibility in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It is less easy to be sanguine about the Government's medium-term plans. Sorting out the banks is the top priority, but once that's done the state needs to intervene with a major programme of public works to boost the overall level of demand in the economy.

So far, the proposals that have emerged from government look back-of-the-envelope and unimaginative. Speeding up planned projects is fine as long as the projects are worth pursuing in the first place - say school and hospital investment - but the case is difficult to argue when it comes to the third runway at Heathrow Airport or the Trident replacement or hard-shoulder carriageways on the M1 and M25. What's missing is the vision thing: plans for a high-speed rail network, a massive expansion in green energy generation and a large-scale revival of social housing construction. Yes, all that would take time to prepare and longer to put into practice, but Labour needs to have a bold programme it can introduce immediately after the next election: the work on it must be done now.

The good news is that the party appears to be in better shape to do that than anyone could have imagined six months ago. Last summer, Brown seemed to be on his last legs - and Labour looked ready to dissolve into poisonous factionalism.

However, the Prime Minister survived the conference, acted decisively on the economic crisis and performed a healing reshuffle (I never thought I'd welcome the return of Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet, but it appears to have worked wonders for everyone but postal workers). The bounce Brown got might have been short-lived, but Labour now comes across as more united than for at least five years.

I'm still not optimistic about the next general election. Between now and then (and it must be 18 months away, mustn't it?), there are all sorts of things that can go wrong - the economy most obviously, but there are also small problems such as the proposed Royal Mail sell-off, Afghanistan, Heathrow and June's European elections.

There is, however, more than a glimmer of hope. Hunch tells me that 2010 could be Labour's 1992.