Sunday, 29 January 2012
Workers at Primark in Northern Ireland have voted overwhelmingly for strike action after the company attempted to impose a pay freeze on its shop staff for the second consecutive year. Primark’s staff are paid just £6.84 an hour, yet in the past two years the company has seen its profits soar to an estimated £644 million. Union reps are meeting next week with strike action in February looking increasingly likely.
The fact that a call for industrial action by staff at Primark has made the news at all is testament to how organised workers’ struggle has become something of a rarity in recent times. This is reflected in the trade unions themselves, where there has been a steady decline in members in the last 30 years. Six-and-a-half million people were in a trade union in 2010, down from a peak of around 13 million in the late 1970s. These figures also conceal a large discrepancy between public and private sector membership, with only 14 per cent of private sector employees being members of a union compared with 56 per cent of those in the public sector.
Media superficiality would have it that trade unions are little more than a quaint irrelevancy to 21st century life. The economic downturn has added to the scorn heaped on anyone viewed as rocking the boat by popularising the notion that the burden of the financial crisis is being shared equally. “Get on with it” perhaps best describes the attitude of most of the print media to discontented workers; and in the case of the Primark dispute bosses see nothing wrong with telling staff to meekly accept their lot - despite the fact that there undeniably is a great deal of money swilling around.
This attitude is not confined to the bosses of Primark, either. In Britain’s lightly regulated labour market employers increasingly have the power to do what they want to a degree unthinkable since the First World War. A recent report by the Fair Pay Network (FPN) – a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress – and published by the Independent revealed that Britain’s largest supermarket chains are paying their staff poverty wages while making huge profits and raising executives' salaries.
Not only has years of anti-union rhetoric affected how large companies treat their workers, but it has also had a discernible impact on the Left, which increasingly spurns trade union activity in favour of occupations, protests and flash mobs. The idea of autonomy is at the heart of the tactical switch; and the sacrifice and solidarity of the strike feels grey and outdated compared to the free-for-all of the tent city and the high-octane exertions of the Black Bloc. Little do they realise it, but even today’s protesters have adopted some of the commitmentless individualism of Thatcher-Blairism.
The political assault on trade union activity has been reignited recently, with Boris Johnson, a Mayor elected with the first preferences of just 19 per cent of his electorate, calling for a minimum turnout threshold on industrial action ballots. Others fantasise about going further, openly musing on whether “we” (meaning in reality society’s top 1 per cent) should permit strikes to happen at all.
Scratch an anti-trade union politician, however, and you will find the same contempt for democracy that has in the past lobbied against everything from the right of working people to vote to the right of the poor to receive medical treatment. For many the workplace already remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development(CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third were indifferent.
It is not as if the law as it stands comes down in favour of those democratically withdrawing their labour, either. There is in reality no such thing as the right to strike in law in Britain. Walk-outs are only possible because unions have immunity from any subsequent claims for damages.
Extending democracy beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism will not be done by erecting a tent in one of capitalism’s bustling metropolises, nor by inconveniencing shoppers in Regent Street. It will come through the tireless and unglamorous struggle of those, like the workers at Primark, who realise that by standing together they can claw a little back from those who would make off with everything given half the chance.
Trade unions are by no means perfect, but if the left is to become relevant again it must rediscover the notion that social justice begins at work.
Sunday, 22 January 2012
The propaganda outlet of an ultra-reactionary theocracy that executes homosexuals, represses woman and locks up democrats has had its broadcasting licence revoked by Ofcom.
It’s television channel was removed from Sky on 20 January.
The station had a well-known partiality for crackpot conspiracy theories, open anti-Semitism and the whitewashing of the appalling human rights record of its state backer.
Contrary to the cries of “censorship” coming from those usually so quick to argue for a “no platform” policy for home-grown fascists, the disappearance from the air of Press TV is not a free speech concern in any sense. As Maryam Namazie has pointed out, the station is not press in any way, shape or form, but is rather an arm of the Iranian intelligence service. (If that isn’t clear enough, the Ofcom investigation into the channel found that editorial decisions governing it were taken in Tehran.)
There are some, out of sheer naivety perhaps, who foolishly believe Press TV to be in some sense radical due to the fact that it hosts a number of high profile “left-wing” commentators. Others have again taken the by now predictable stance that anything and anyone that opposes the United States must be, in some small part at least, progressive.
If anything, the reaction of the latter illustrates how easily communism can become support for outright fascism when one’s primary motivation is hatred of the west, rather than solidarity with the oppressed. Since moving to London I have seen this type of “socialism” quite often, usually in drafty halls where a prolix speaker harangues an audience with a geographic make-up not dissimilar to a Leonid Brezhnev politburo.
Not only is it almost entirely an abstraction, it is an unreal movement with unreal demands that sits atop a platform looking down with contempt on genuine people’s struggles throughout the world. Its main thrust, and the main ideological thrust of those lionising Press TV, is an “anti-imperialism” espoused from the comfort of a warm bed with a full stomach in a liberal democracy.
The question as to which side one is on in Iran should be a straightforward one for any socialist – it should be, without question, with the workers, the gays, the women, the democrats: with any person oppressed under the jackboot of this thuggish regime.
It can be said by no serious person today that they are unaware of the Iranian regime's human rights abuses and its brutal persecution of homosexuals. This is a regime that likes to boast of causing as much suffering as possible to those found guilty of “sodomy”.
I certainly won’t be shedding any tears at the disappearance of Press TV, the mouthpiece of this vile dictatorship, and nor should you.
Saturday, 14 January 2012
The benefits of being rich are numerous, and probably don’t need a great deal of explanation from me. The ability to travel the world at the drop of a hat is, I imagine, one of the many advantages great wealth brings. As is the possibility of doing away with a number of the banal inconveniences that plague everyday life. Not having to get out of bed at the crack of dawn for work has its appeal, as does eating the best food and never having to cook any of the damn stuff.
Just as important as jet-setting and attending “exclusive” parties these days, however, is the obligatory portfolio of charity work. Today one is just as likely to turn on the television today and hear a member of the global elite talking about a project for clean water in Africa than about their mock-Tudor mansion in Hertfordshire. Rarely does a week go by without a member of the super-rich appearing in a distressed part of the world with their shirt sleeves rolled up - if not actually trying to save the world then usually throwing a great deal of money at a small proportion of it.
Of course, there is no doubt that some of those fortunate enough to be wealthy are genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor. Just as there are conservatives with nothing to be conservative about, so there are aristocrats, “entrepreneurs” and those simply swimming in cash who do have a well-developed and genuine social conscience. Another type among the super-rich, however - some might say the dominant type - is the wealthy individual who very publically gives generously while in private ruthlessly seeking to minimise what they pay in tax. You might call this lot the moralising hypocrites.
Perhaps the most well-known figure in this mould is Bono, the lead singer of U2. As well as being the frontman of one of the world’s biggest rock bands, Bono fancies himself as something of an anti-poverty activist, and can often be heard urging people to give generously to a number of causes. Bono has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times for his charity work.
In 2006, however, on the back of the massive Live 8 concert the year before – which U2 played a large part in organising and which was supposed to “make poverty history” – Bono’s band moved their tax liability from Ireland to the Netherlands. The move came after Ireland scrapped tax breaks that allowed musicians and artists to avoid paying taxes on royalties. When asked about the decision, U2’s lead guitarist David Evans, aka "The Edge", said that of course the band were trying to be tax-efficient, because “who doesn't want to be tax-efficient?”
The answer, at a guess, would be those who spend a great deal of time moralising about the world’s poor. Away from the self-congratulatory press conferences where Bono smugly demanded we send our money to the dispossessed, U2 were simultaneously cutting the feet from under their own government’s ability to help the world’s most desperate people–the same people Bono was feigning such grave concern for.
The hypocrisy of the super-rich is nothing new of course. What is astonishing is that they are so consistently let off the hook for it. Nobody bats an eyelid today at a campaign against homelessness featuring a politician who would sooner sell his own mother than interfere in the exploitative buy-to-let market; or a coffee chain publicising its fair trade credentials while preventing its own workers from joining a union. Both will stand on a soap box and espouse their unflinching dedication to the downtrodden – and both will be given an extraordinarily easy-ride by the media when doing so.
It is quite possible that we have the late Princess of Wales to thank for at least a portion of this fetishisation of charity above all other virtues. Her death at a young age saw perhaps the closest thing Britain has ever seen to mass hysteria; and with it the passing into folklore of the belief that her goodness was tied up to a large extent with the notion that she “did a lot for charity” - despite the fact that she left her entire estate to her own super-rich family.
It feels like all of this has been preparing the ground in some way for David Cameron; for if there is one thing which seamlessly gels Cameron’s conservatism together, it is the belief that poverty is best left to wealthy individuals to remedy, rather than government. His “Big Society” approach to social provision can perhaps best be summed up with the phrase: do it yourself, because we don’t care.
It would be an extremely brave or stupid person who said there was not a long way to go in terms of democratising the way public funds are spent by governments and treasuries. Government spending does, however, at least give us, the public, a degree of a control over where money is spent. Certainly a great deal more than when we rely for the solving of our social problems on the mood swings of a global financial elite – the same elite who threaten to pull down the roof whenever the prospect of paying a few extra pence in the pound in income tax is proposed.
As Clement Atlee pointed out some half a century ago, "charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim."
Monday, 9 January 2012
Predictably, the biopic of Margaret Thatcher released in cinemas last week overwhelmingly focused on the personal, rather than the political side of her tenure in office. This was no doubt to be expected, for Hollywood blockbusters rarely “do politics” in the conventional sense. Big budget films instead rely upon a well-rehearsed cinematic formula, churning out identikit plots that look, sound and feel as if they’ve come straight from the factory production line.
The result in the case of The Iron Lady is a film about the longest serving post-war Prime Minister that is astonishingly devoid of any political content whatsoever.
It is not only film, however, where there exists an unwillingness to do politics today. A commonly heard rebuttal any active citizen will be confronted with at some point is that they are “too political” - the implication being that they are too switched on, too engaged, and as a result, too burdened with a cumbersome and unnecessary chip on the shoulder. Most confusing in all of this is the notion that it would be career suicide even for a politician to be too ideological – and again, by definition, too political.
Since the invention of Margaret Thatcher almost 40 years ago, politics itself has become increasingly defined by a convergence of political thought around a narrow understanding of “what works” - with alternative ideas consigned approvingly to the historic record. It would be unfair to attribute this to Mrs Thatcher alone; developments right across the West have seen democracy similarly hollowed out. However the perm, the handbag and the affected tones represent our own, albeit eccentric, embodiment of the phenomenon.
In the run-up to The Iron Lady, it was reiterated almost constantly by the great and the good that Mrs Thatcher was a politician of “strong convictions”. It is unsurprising perhaps that the rich and the powerful should admire her for this, for the obvious reason that her convictions were, and remain, their own. For many years, however, the wider political class acted as if these convictions were of huge benefit to the population at large; and whenever the need to explain why large numbers of people regularly failed to turn out to vote arose, it was said simply that we were disinclined to exercise our democratic right because it was no longer all that important to us who was in office. We were so happy, fulfilled and content that we could afford to be apathetic.
Like the world of Thatcherite celluloid today, this picture was undoubtedly a comforting one for some. Even now many self-proclaimed liberals, usually cocooned in their own bubbles of wealth, remain persuaded by the notion that we live in something akin to the world of The Iron Lady; a world in which the decisive political arguments were done, dusted and put away a long time ago.
Away from the exultation of the cinema screen, however, the health of the 30-year experiment is looking about as frail right now as its most famous exponent. People today are turning away from the ballot box not out of smugness, but out of an understanding that it no longer matters all that much who one casts a vote for; whatever happens the result will invariably mean adherence to the unquestionable prescriptions set out in the stone tablets handed down by Lady Thatcher, regardless of the increasingly disastrous consequences.
How appropriate then, at a time when the disciples of Thatcher look increasingly powerless to control the economic forces unleashed by her, that a film about her life should be as devoid of political content as those enthusiastically following in her path. For the rest of us, left with the failing legacy of her ideas, the notion of nostalgia for the woman seems more peculiar by the day.