Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Nick Solves your Christmas Shopping Dilemmas with Twelve(ish) Gifts for Christmas

1. A tree. A real “guilt free” tree means the Woodland Trust. Dedicate a tree for just £15 in one of the Trusts woods around the country, nice for a Boxing Day visit. Or for the young how about membership of the Wildlife Detectives: go to: www.woodland-trust.org.uk

2. Christmas Fizz: Christmas means a bit of sparkling wine so how about the new Co-operative Fairtrade Cape Sparkling Brut at only £7.99, comes from the Du Toitskloof wine co-operative in South Africa’s Western Cape. Available from selected Co-op shops.

3. A Drop of the Hard Stuff: If you are a near a Waitrose or Sainsbury’s (I would not usually recommend it except) they are selling Havana Club Anejo Especial Rum 70cl at £13.99. Three pounds off the normal price and with the credit crunch we all need to save a few pennies.

4. Christmas Pudding: Fairtrade and Organic Christmas pudding produced by the village bakery are available from Oxfam shops or online at: www.oxfam.org.uk, where you can also get Fairtrade Luxury Chocolates - 225g Box the finest luxury Belgian chocolates in sixteen different flavours - in dark, milk and white chocolate.

5. Music: classical CD of the year has to be: FIESTA, featuring the stars of the Proms- the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. A stunning recording on Deutsch Grammophon of a selection of the best in Latin American music live from Caracas! Or for folkies my favourite is Gaughan Live! At the Trades Club on Greentrax. Dick Gaughans plays that hot-bed of radicalism, the Hebden Bridge Trades and Labour Club at the end of his annual tour of England. Full of great songs my favourite is Tom Paine’s Bones. World music CD of the year has to be the release after a decade of the Buena Vista Social Club live at Carnegie Hall. This superb double album is available from: Cuba Solidarity. Order and enquiries hotline: 0208-800-0155.

6. Coffee Table Book: Peace: 50 years of protest 1958-2008 By Barry Miles. £25.00 The Story of the Nuclear Disarmament symbol, its origins and how it became a global symbol for peace in a large format book with over 150 pictures and illustrations. Available from CND online shop at www.cnd.org

7. Stocking Filler Book: a beautiful produced small book is, Crossing the River of Fire, the Socialism of William Morris, by Mahamdallie, Hassan. Published by Redwords at £7.99 available from Bookmarks see: www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk

8. Some Poetry: for lifting the spirit how about Palestine by David & Helen Constantine. (Modern Poetry in Translation, Series 3 No.9, just £11) A collection of first-class poems – original and in translation, dealing with the idea, the myth and the reality of Palestine. Available from: www.mptmagazine.com/

9. For the Jazz Lover: How about, Forward Groove Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon by Britain’s leading jazz critic Chris Searle. Available from Britain’s leading bookshop: www.foyles.co.uk/ and save £2.25 online from the list price of £14.99.

10. Fine Silver Jewelry: try some fairtade silver jewelry from Mexico and Peru, including moon & stars earrings and a Dragonfly brooch from my own favourite fairtade online shop run by Stella Emblis for Nicaragua Solidarity at: www.nicaraguasc.org.uk A site that also has a terrific DVD movie and music CD selection.

11. Next Years Diary has to be Housmans 2009 at £8.95 it includes the famous International Peace Directory, plus notable anniversaries and quotations. Celebrating 50 years of the establishment of London's Peace House, home to Peace News and Housman’s Bookshop - and the 75years of the Peace Pledge Union. See: www.housmans.com

12. And if you hurry there are a few exclusive Martin Rowson Morning Star Christmas cards left 5 cards for £8 or 10 cards for £15 (plus £1 p&p) Call: 0208-510-0815 (Mon-Fri 9-4pm).

Friday, 28 November 2008


A depressing part of modern life is the selling of culture at Christmas. Celebrity biographies, compilations of the years hits, all at a discount, with a few days shelf life, before they end up, at best, in Oxfam shops.

Chumbawumba’s latest CD cover has a cultural manifesto on it, part of it says, “The boy bands have won, and all the copyists and the tribute bands and the TV talent show producers have won, if we allow our culture to be shaped by mimicry, whether from lack of ideas or from exaggerated respect. You should never try to freeze culture.”

When working class culture has been reduced to voting for the underdog on X-Factor (or celebrity Come Dancing) here is a serious cultural discussion on a CD cover! How can they do this?

Thanks to the label! Every aspect of the music’s production, from the writing, the collaborators, the recording, the cover design, is under the control of the artist because one of the important things about this classic Sgt Peppers of an album is the record label itself. Boy Bands is NMCD 28 on the No Masters Co-operative Limited.

No Masters contradicts the idea that there is nothing more utopian than an artists co-operative. With a dozen members the co-op shows that artistic creation can be a genuinely collective effort.

In 1990 having written a batch of songs, Jim Boyes, showed them to John Tams. Tams says you should record them and I’ll produce the album. Getting a record deal for radical folk songs proved a non starter so they set about building their own label and with the help of the Sheffield Co-operative Development Agency the No Masters label and its publishing arm Voice publishing was born. Since then they have, “sought out writers, performers and musicians who were, in their various ways, seeking to celebrate and extend those bits of the people's tradition invariably described as 'radical' or 'political'.”

NMCD 1 was Out the Blue by Jim Boyes, he was soon joined in the Co-op by Mike Waterson, Jo Freya, Lester Simpson, Barry Coope, Fi Fraser and Ray Hearne.

Ray (NMCD17, Broad Street Ballads) has been chair of the Co-op from the beginning and has a new album out in the spring. Sadly Lal Waterson who was part of the co-op and one of England’s finest song writers died in 1998 but her talent is celebrated on Lal NMCD27, with Jo Freya utilising all the skills of co-op members.

Stalwarts have been Coope, Boyes and Simpson, probably our best vocal harmony group. Their work covers classic folk to original compositions with interesting explorations of the song of the First World War and of Christmas. Their original material is based on sharp social observation NMCD20, Twenty-Four Seven is a particular favourite of mine freshly pertinent in the present global financial meltdown.

They have explored traditional Christmas music as you will find on NMCD25 a selection of Midwinter Songs and Carols or earlier collections NMCD13 A Garland of Carols, and NMCD21, Fire and Sleet and Candlelight a delight. The trio are joined by Fi Fraser, Georgina Boyes and Jo Freya to sing songs that you will not hear in a shopping mall but that are in some parts an organic part of the Christmas season. The Christmas albums are something special - even well-intentioned people find them difficult to understand if they don't know about the tradition of working-class writers of Christmas hymns and carols and popular performance that continue into the present day in the North Midlands, Yorkshire and the South West of England. It's very much a working class tradition - with very local live performances (where else do you get four-part harmony roared out in pubs today?) The men and women who wrote these hymns cum carols were radicals in their own way too - this was and is a do-it-yourself culture in the way that the Punks did it for themselves - they said what they thought.

Today the songs of World War One are an integral part of our culture. NMCD14, Christmas Truce, Kerstbestand, a partnership with Belgian choir, Wak Maar Proper, is a collection of songs that mark the 1914 Christmas Truce another collaboration is on Private Peaceful NMCD24 with Michael Morpurgo. The inspiration is Morpurgo’s fictional anti-hero representing soldiers executed for desertion or cowardice. "Private Peaceful" was originally written and then recorded as part of the campaign to get pardons for FirstWar soldiers shot at dawn and several of the other recordings were commissioned by Peace Concerts Passendale.

Their work with Morpurgo continues with On Angel Wings NMCD30, a re-telling of the Christmas story through the eyes of a young shepherd. Indeed they complete their heavy late autumn touring schedule with a performance at St Pauls Cathedral, no less, on December 21st, with readings by Joanna Lumley and James Naughtie.
Co-op members since 2006, Chumbawumba’s, first offering was NMCD23 ‘A Singsong and a Scrap’ which co-operatively includes vocals by Coope, Boyes and Simpson. Some think it possible to separate song and politics but we know all culture is political. The Chumba’s make great pop songs like On eBay about the trashing of the Baghdad Museum found on NMCD26, Get on With It. They say,”Becoming part of the No Masters collective has been an entirely logical step for us in Britain. It suits what we want and what we think, both about the music industry and about the world. We feel like we're amongst like-minded people.”
No Masters has a stream of new material, Jo Freya who was a member of the Old Swan Band, Blowzabella and Token Women. With the freedom of the label has produced what she calls her first genuinely solo album NMCD29 Female Smuggler which explores her huge musical vocabulary.
No Masters is a real co-operative all major decisions are taken collectively and all profits are recycled back into the business to produce more music. The production and creation of all aspects of the music from engineering the sound to designing the CD sleeves is all done by sharing the skills of the co-op members. No crude division of labour here this is a true combination of art and craft.

So for some truly co-operative culture that will last beyond Boxing Day the NO Masters CD’s are a must you can find them at: http://www.nomasters.co.uk/ where it says, “No Masters celebrates song writing that addresses issues: that is rooted in its time and its communities: that is engaged with the struggles confronting and reshaping those communities: that pays homage to its traditions by reworking them; and that is unafraid to take sides whilst eschewing propaganda. It is a unique force in folk music.”

Just the antidote to Christmas with Ant and Dec.

Friday, 31 October 2008

We Need a Good Lefty President

Like almost every civilised person on the planet I am quietly praying for an Obama victory in the US elections. I am so nervous about his chances that I have been unable to admit even to myself how much I want him to win. So imagine my disappointment when in Raleigh North Carolina he ridiculed McCain’s accusation that he was a socialist.

Partly I can understand him doing this when you consider what has happened to socialists in the United States. But part of me wanted him to say, “so what”?

I suppose my dream is for a Eugene Victor Debbs.

He was the Socialist Party of America candidate for the presidency between 1904 and 1920, the final time from prison. In a speech in Utah in 1910, he said,

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”

In the 1912 election he received almost a million votes, and in 1920 from prison over 400,000. Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act 1917 which led to socialists being arrested for sedition for opposing the First World War. Deb's speeches against Woodrow Wilson’s administration and the war really got under Wilson’s skin and Wilson lead a vendetta against him.

Debs was convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in prison. He was also disenfranchised for life. (Something that cripples the black vote in America to this day).
From the dock he made his most famous speech which contained the following:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”.

Now that is the sound of a socialist and roll on the day when someone saying that can get elected not just in America but everywhere.
p.s. We had a sparklers and parkin party on Sunday sort of bonfire nite lite. Anyway that was my excuse to mark the fact that Debbs was born on November 5th 1855!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Centenary of the Worlds Wisest and Wittiest Economist

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable,” one of the many wise and witty sayings of John Kenneth Galbraith whose centenary we celebrate this month. I still have my dog eared penguins of his classic texts - for the first time I had found a readable economist! When probably the greatest Canadian died in April 2006 the Chancellor of the Exchequer was quick to pay tribute, he "was a brilliant economist and writer and a great friend of the United Kingdom, and his books will be widely read in generations to come."

Gordon Brown is now discovering as Galbraith put it that, “politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable”. In retrospect it’s a pity Brown did not read Galbraith’s work more assiduously. At least it would have enriched his economic vocabulary with phrases like "the conventional wisdom", “countervailing power”, the "technostructure" and the "affluent society" instead of just stating it’s the right thing to do he would have been able to explain why.

He was born on October 15th 1908 on the north shore of Lake Erie, in Iona Station, Ontario, the only place where to be a ‘scotch’ is not to be a drink. His 1964 book, the Scotch, explains that the southern Ontario farmland was occupied by Scots driven from the Highlands by the clearances and therefore sworn enemies of the Tories. A trait he carried throughout his life as he said, “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

Galbraith is remarkably ‘quotable’ when asked if Galbraith’s work would last. Amartya Sen, economist and Nobel laureate, said read The Affluent Society it showed a “great insight,” which “has become so much a part of our understanding of contemporary capitalism that we forget where it began. It’s like reading Hamlet and deciding it’s full of quotations. You realize where they came from”.

As he wrote in the Affluent Society, "People are the common denominator of progress. So... no improvement is possible with unimproved people, and advance is certain when people are liberated and educated. It would be wrong to dismiss the importance of roads, railroads, power plants, mills, and the other familiar furniture of economic development.... But we are coming to realize... that there is a certain sterility in economic monuments that stand alone in a sea of illiteracy. Conquest of illiteracy comes first".

Of course “conventional wisdom” has kept him out of fashion for twenty years but now as he said “the enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events” and his book the Great Crash 1929 is a best seller again. It is not too late for us to learn from him, “the salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself” or “the process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled”.

His great works like American Capitalism, the Affluent Society and the New Industrial State; show a far from dismal science. He criticised economic theory for ignoring and obscuring the economic power of large corporations. He criticised politicians who aligned themselves with the objectives of the large corporation instead of acting in the public interest. He also censured his fellow economists as ‘idiot savants’ who perform sophisticated mathematical analysis but make no attempt to understand the real world.

"The emancipation of belief," he wrote, "is the most formidable of the tasks of reform, the one on which all else depends." His weapons in leading that struggle did not always please his fellow economists; they included irony, satire, and laughter as he said “the conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking”.

Galbraith stood out from his profession like much of academic thinking economics has spent decades insulating itself behind impenetrable language, building abstraction upon abstraction using equations and models to build worlds of perfect competition and rational actors.

“It is my guiding confession that I believe the greatest error in economics is in seeing the economy as a stable, immutable structure”, he said and “it is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled sea of thought.”

Galbraith made it his life long quest to expose business's capacity for self-deception; “When you see reference to a new paradigm you should always, under all circumstances, take cover. Because ever since the great tulipmania in 1637, speculation has always been covered by a new paradigm. There was never a paradigm so new and so wonderful as the one that covered John Law and the South Sea Bubble — until the day of disaster”. As he said, “faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”.

When interviewed about his last short monograph, the Economics of Innocent Fraud (1999) he said, “It deals with all of the things we do, in an innocent way, to cover up the truth. I begin with the renaming of the system. It used to be capitalism. But that evokes Marx and Rockefeller. So now we speak of the market system. That is a nice bland expression, which forgets those off-color references. Then I write about work. We talk of the enormous virtues of work, but it turns out that that is mostly for the poor. If you're rich enough or if you're a college professor, the virtue lies in leisure and the use you make of your leisure time. Next, I go on to the stock market, where I show, I think without a doubt, that what is called "financial genius" is merely a rising market. That whole effort has given me a good deal of pleasure”.

The vindication of the final uncovering of that fraud would undoubtedly bring Galbraith pleasure just as surely as it brings misery to millions. Although I still remember how he bought me pleasure when he was cavorting with Bette Midler on the Michael Parkinson show.

As he pointed out, "In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong".

Friday, 24 October 2008

Our Mutual Friends in the North

Events have turned the world upside down in the provision of financial services. It is crystal clear that the demutualisation, the conversion of Building Societies into banks has been a total disaster. Building Societies have not been immune to the global banking crisis but their record compared to those that took the route of transition into banks is stark. There are the high profile collapses like Northern Rock, HBOS and Bradford and Bingley. But not one of the converted building societies has survived as a viable independent business.

Many of us argued this was a mistake from the start. Some time ago the All Party Parliamentary Group for Building Societies and Financial Mutual’s under took an enquiry into the true costs of demutualisation. In evidence the Building Societies Association said it would not be surprised if the full costs of all the demutualisation’s amounted to well over £1billion. Well we now know that was just the first billion!

That cost did not include the loss of over a quarter of their branch networks. There are technical arguments about the merits or demerits of mutuals over plcs but current events have more than demonstrated the merits of mutuality.

Greed and privatisation did not just take out those ex-building societies we also lost the Trustee Savings Bank and The National Giro Bank. Almost every City had a Trustee Savings bank; my own personal favourite was the Birmingham Municipal Bank which at its peak had three quarters of a million account holders. Following amalgamation in the 1970’s to form the national TSB it in turn disappeared into the private sector when it merged with Lloyds in 1995. The National Giro bank started out in 1968 as the “people’s bank” an innovative post office bank that was the first to pay interest on current accounts. It too succumbed to privatisation being swallowed by the Alliance and Leicester now part of Spanish banking giant Santander.

Now we have the chance to turn the tide against privatisation. The demand was made loud and clear at the Co-op Party conference that we must start a massive campaign for the remutualisation of Northern Rock.

Northern Rock will be slimmed down in public ownership but will still have all the flaws of a mortgage bank and will be no more sustainable in the private sector than it was before the government bail out. The Government will then look to sell the remnants off to a major bank and it will disappear as an independent institution.

When “greed was good” demutualisation was relatively simple – first bribe the management and then the members and get them to vote for a flotation. Remutualisation is more complex but not impossible.

Last year Britannia Building Society successfully remutualised 850,000 customers of the old Bristol and West Building Society which had been taken over by the Bank of Ireland. In buying the 65 strong Bristol & West branch network and £4.5bn savings book from the Bank of Ireland for £150m the customers became members once again.

Interestingly the Britannia is now in talks with Co-op Financial Services which includes The Co-op Bank, Smile and CIS about a possible merger. The Co-op Bank owned by the Co-op Group is not in itself a Co-op itself and this potential merger depends on changes to the Building Societies (Funding) & Mutual Societies (Transfers) Act, which is currently at the House of Commons committee stage. Legislation is expected to be in place by the end of the year.
So it will be possible for mutual’s to take on and remutualise failed mortgage banks - we have to begin to make this the preferred option for the Government. We have to turn the tide in favour of social ownership.

“Now is the time, in the wake of the collapse of Northern Rock and the wider economic downturn to reinvigorate the debate about social ownership in the 21st century”, says John McDonnell in the new Left Economics Advisory Panel pamphlet, Building the New Common Sense, Social Ownership for the 21st Century. He adds, “We need to be creative, imaginative and bold in our demands and our actions – and that means tackling the fundamental question of ownership.” I could not agree more and let us start by giving Northern Rock back to the people of the North East!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Good as Gould

It was good to hear from Bryan Gould in the Guardian recently. He began his excellent book, ‘A Future for Socialism’, back in 1989 with, “The Thatcherite experiment is now approaching its end”.

Sadly it has taken almost a further twenty years for that statement to be confirmed. And what a tragedy that now millions of people will lose their jobs and thousands more will lose homes, savings and pensions to show Gould’s analysis and prescription to be spot on.

The economic crisis has lead some to look back to see where it all went wrong. Gordon Browns bank nationalisation has reminded people of the 2003 Manifesto. On rereading it is far less suicidal than Peter Mandelson’s 1998 proclamation that new Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’.

It is worth remembering that Michael Foot lost that election not on economic policy but because of the Falklands War. Many will be surprised to hear that his successor Neil Kinnock wrote quite a good book on economics. ‘Making Our Way’ was published in 1986 and it’s not bad. He wrote, “The Labour Party’s economic priority is to expand investment – in industry, in ideas and in people – and to form a partnership for production between, government managers and workers committed to the modernisation of economy and society”.

It was Gould however, the face of the 1987 election, who was the most articulate in presenting the case for modern socialism. He argued in ‘A Future for Socialism’ that;

“The concession that full employment could no longer be the central objective of economic policy was of profound significance. It fundamentally undermined the post- war accommodation of capital and labour. Labour – even- organised labour – was dealt at severe blow. The balance of advantage in the labour market swung decisively to the employer.
The implications are wider still. If the government was now powerless to intervene in the workings of the labour market, and if economic policy as a whole was now to be defined in terms of what is acceptable to the money markets – if in other words markets alone were to determine outcome in these central parts of the economy – why should not markets not also prevail in other spheres of policy? If markets were to be trusted to produce the right results in economic policy, why not in education, or housing, or health care? So it was the Left sold the pass and lost the argument”.

How right he was he was also dead right that Britain had fallen in to habit of, “giving absolute priority to those who held assets and dealt in money, as opposed to those who made and provided goods and services and tried to sell them in international markets”.

Unfortunately when he ran for Labour leader there where few Gouldites and his anti-EU stance was against the grain of the time. So instead of following his prescription we followed a different one from the Cannon and Ball of contemporary economic thinking,

“For a time, it appeared as though Thatcherism’s harsh medicine and ‘enterprise culture’ had produced the great economic leap forward that Britain needed. In the 1990’s Britain can boast of some notable economic strengths – for example the resilience and internationalisation of our top companies; our strong industries like pharmaceuticals, aerospace, retailing and media; the pre-eminence of the City of London”.

Yes that’s Mandelson and Liddel, in ‘The Blair Revolution’, in 1996. Of course we may have had more such companies if we had not had Thatcher’s ‘enterprise culture’!
As recently as 1995 in the introduction to ‘The City in Europe and the World’ he argued that the City was the ‘economic powerhouse of Europe’ and urged Germany to become more like Britain. God forbid. Mandelson once gave the Churchill lecture in Berlin he could have done with Churchill’s comment, “I would rather see finance less proud and industry more content”.

Now the crisis is turning conventional wisdom on its head its time to state some facts firstly a deregulated city has had a license to print money yet now we need it can’t be found, secondly a healthy retail sector is a result of wealth not is cause, and a house is a place to live not a cash point.

Now the money lenders are being thrown out of the temple its time to look again at Gould’s ideas. This crisis is a turning point. The country is crying out for change lets not repeat our mistakes lets follow Gould’s advice;

“A Labour Government that wished to meet the twin objectives of managing the economy efficiently and putting socialist principles into practice would have to be clear that this bias in favour of financial orthodoxy must be reversed. Giving priority to the wealth creators is not in itself socialism, and it would require a radical departure from past practice and attitudes. It would take a Labour chancellor to be clear that it was the real economy, rather than the money economy that mattered, and it was our task to serve the interests of those who created real wealth”.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Once, Twice, Three Times a Mandy

Dear Editor, Oh despair! Is Gordon Brown mad? Peter Mandelson represents all that is wrong with the Labour Party and as a consequence the British economy today. He is the architect of the hubris that lead Labour to swallow the Thatcherite mantra of deregulation and liberalisation regardless of its consequences. Slavish support for the so called "wealth creators" who have turned out to be no more that spivs and hucksters. We are not choosing to shut down financial globalisation as he puts it (Guardian 3/10/08). It is closing down because it was built on sand. When I worked to bring business and Labour together for a better understanding of one another before the 1997 election I said that Labour had gone from being anti-business to pro-business without an intervening period of understanding. How true that has turned out to be. Now Brown is creating new mega banks from the collapse of the unregulated secondary banking system. We are moving from a
position in which we had Banks that we could not afford to let fail to Banks we will not be able to afford to save. This crisis has only just begun and the last thing we need are new Labour cliches about globalisation is good for you when all that has happened is that with the conivance of governments like the one here in Britain international businesses have been allowed to escape any effective regulation.

Letter to the Guardian Published October 4th 2008

Co-operators go back to School

A big issue at the Co-op Party conference was the role the movement should play in education. Co-operators have always had a commitment to education, an original Rochdale principle, was to the education of “their members, officers and employees and of the general public in the principles and techniques of Co-operation, both economic and democratic.”

In April the first co-operative trust school, Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport, opened, and the second Andrew Marvel College in Hull is set to open soon. Schools Minister, Ed Balls, speaking at Co-op conference said the Government will make £500,000 available to pilot up to a 100 Trusts with the co-operative governance model.

One of the architects of the model, Mervyn Wilson, Co-op College CEO, hopes for a national chain of co-op trust schools and believes that “using co-operative values to raise achievement”, will help meet the governments’ aim of increasing diversity in the education system. Co-op Group CEO, Peter Marks, is also enthusiastic about the potential for co-op structures to allow stakeholders greater participation in school management “and a sense of ownership and engagement”.

In the August issue of the Journal of Co-op studies Professor Johston Birchall makes an important contribution to the debate about mutuality in the public services. He argues that ideas about a ‘new mutualism’ in the public services have three potential weaknesses, firstly that genuine mutuality, which implies solidarity and collective provision, is in competition with ideas favouring a more individualistic approach – like the personalisation of services, secondly that it is seen as an attempt to restore some of the benefits of mutual forms of welfare lost when the welfare state was founded without explaining what those benefits are - after all the performance of the old friendly societies was patchy to say the least and thirdly the reforms to public services hailed as mutual are not really all that mutual.

If we define mutuals as membership based organisations then in the public services who are the members and how much power do they have? Foundation hospitals, for example, have three categories of member each with their own representatives, patients, the public and the employees and their control over the nature and provision of services is strictly limited. These are substantial criticisms that require serious answers if mutual solutions are to play any part in the public services.

There was considerable disquiet at Co-op Party conference about aspects of the governments’ education policies including faith schools and the drive for trust schools and academies. Indeed Co-op MP Ken Purchase has tabled a Commons motion attacking the expansion of city academies, expressing disappointment that "Ed Balls should have been taken in by this nonsense spouted about the improvements in academies when there is no real evidence to show they can do anything at all, unless they have huge tranches of money that should be available in the education system generally".

Co-operators will come together to discus and learn more about what the co-op role in education should be at a day conference hosted by the Midlands Co-op Society at the Birmingham and Midland Institute on November 8th.

Personally working in a University before we try to mutualise the state sector there is plenty of work to be done. There is little teaching of the values and operation of non-plc structures in our business schools with widespread ignorance of co-ops and mutuals, and also of trusts and partnerships. This is a gap that the movement needs to fill if mutual business solutions are to become more widespread.

Meanwhile this years Co-op Party conference was a great success, don’t take my word for it, that was the view of Socialist Campaign Group News, its worth quoting ‘Tel’s Tale’ in full.

“The recent Co-op Party annual conference was a refreshing change from the mind-numbing world of new Labour. Delegates debated a wide range of resolutions, adopted a swath of progressive policies, including withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, no war against Iran, an early solution to the illegal armed Israeli occupation of Palestine. UK Co-ops were encouraged to build links with Co-ops in Palestine. Conference called for the strengthening of the UN and advocated that Britain starts a drive for global nuclear disarmament under its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, together with withdrawal from NATO. Delegates agreed that the Co-op Party should celebrate the 50th anniversary and achievements of the Cuban revolution, and intensify the campaign against the US blockade. Local Party councils were encouraged to affiliate to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. The conference called on the party’s parliamentary group to oppose the building of any more nuclear power stations.
Among other good policies, delegates supported Northern Rock being turned into a mutual, instructed the party’s NEC to conduct an enquiry into NHS foundation trusts, to see whether they are sufficiently democratic and cooperative, and calls for the phasing out of faith schools. The coop party has getting on for 10,000 members, and every SCGN reader should join up.”

Sound advice!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Energy and the Question of Ownership

In just one day - the most right wing US administration in living memory calls on Congress for billions of dollars to bail out the US financial system, the Portuguese launch the world’s first wave power plant and British Energy becomes French.

So we no longer have any ownership of our energy infrastructure. There are a lot of clichés we hear everyday from politicians these days. Three of my favourites are, “we will learn the lessons”, “the family have been informed” and “ownership does not matter”.

The last one we is a catchphrase of Business Secretary John Hutton. We never heard it when they were talking about housing of course. Forcing people to buy houses they could not afford is the main source of the current mess.

Mind it’s not a phrase you hear from people who actually own things like Warren Buffet or Lakshi Mittel or from the French for that matter. They will now have a constant stream of profits from their UK energy business. Every time we turn on the lights cash will stream across the channel.

The business secretary says this is good for Britain. I suppose from where we are it is. He has persuaded a foreign firm with some intellectual property to take over and run yet another dead British industry. So now we will get four new French nuclear power stations.

Today the UK economy is a bit like Wimbledon. We never win, but we put on a good show. All the prize money goes overseas but if we are lucky we get to stand on the hill watching it go on the big screen.

In this Alice in Wonderland world we are the winners. The stupid French have cheaper energy than us because they foolishly failed to embrace the market and invested in their energy industry for the long term. Now they have a product they can export across the world and reap the reward. Just how silly is that!

Meanwhile the global energy giants we have put our faith in are refusing to invest in UK renewables because as private firms they see more lucrative investments in existing energy sources elsewhere. To most observers the UK is facing a looming energy gap. But because of our obsession with not bucking the market we stand a good chance of being bucked by it.

Portugal has no indigenous carbon energy sources and yet has managed to obtain over half its energy from renewables. Locked into free-market dogma progress in the UK has been pitiful. We can begin to turn this around in October when the Energy Bill comes back to the commons. MP’s can give renewables the support they need with some preferential feed in tariffs to give them the certainty they need to invest.

But we need to go much further. The current global crisis in the banking sector shows the limits of regulation. When oil was discovered in the North Sea, we soon realised that it was going to be a long term and risky business bringing it to shore, we established a public sector business to undertake this challenge -The British National Oil Corporation. If we are to take on the challenge of developing a serious renewables industry particularly in the capital intensive wave and tide power arena we will need a similar public sector champion.

We need a British National Renewables Corporation.

Unlike the wind you can set your watch by the tides around Britain’s coast and if the Portuguese can harness wave power so can we. With a global shortage of credit we cannot wait for the private sector to come to the rescue.

The banks are being saved by ‘nationalisation’ in the USA and now our nuclear industry is being ‘nationalised’ by the French. If we want a significant renewables sector its early stage of development will require a large scale public sector solution believe me it will be a better long term investment than Northern Rock.

And this time we will have to do it ourselves.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Cuba, Co-op's and Hurricanes

Each day I enjoy a co-operative and fair-trade breakfast of coffee, muesli and banana and raise a glass to Cuba. Not because new Labour has driven me to drink - my toast is not with rum but with Cuban orange juice.

In the 1980’s Cuba was the world’s largest citrus fruit exporter. The end of the USSR took away their main market and put them in direct competition with two of the big citrus fruit exporters the USA and Israel.

Today Cuba is the world’s laboratory for sustainable farming and food sovereignty – the World Bank has described it as “almost the anti-model”- pursuing an approach that links ecology with the decentralisation of the control of farms. Co-operatives are playing a key part in these developments.

The US blockade makes market access crucial. In 2000, Traidcraft, the Christian based fair trade organisation stepped in to help seven co-operatives in and around Ciego de Avila find new markets and help them to win Fair-trade status. Working alongside Gerber foods they are bringing first class Cuban fruit juices to European consumers and in developing the Fruit Passion brand aim to do for fruit juice what Café Direct has done for fair-trade coffee.

Modern consumers are increasingly concerned about the provenance of what they buy from the developing world and thanks to the Fairtrade Foundation there has been a huge increase in quality making the fair trade an easier choice to make. Fair-trade is not socialism but the Fair-trade mark does guarantee farmers a minimum price and an additional 'premium' payment. In Cuba the premium is used for projects that benefit the co-operatives - better machinery, vehicles, irrigation systems etc. or to finance other activities including cultural and recreational facilities.
The Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) representing the interests of co-operatives and individual farmers are also working to increase the involvement of women in the farms and their decision making processes.

Last year I visited the region of Cuba where these co-ops are based and the extra income fair trade brings can make a real difference. One of the dreadful things about capitalism is the way the abstraction of the market separates consumers from producers.

Now Traidcraft are running meet the people tours to Cuba in November, February or March visiting the CPA and CCS Jose Marti Co-operatives in Ciego de Avila that produce the juice that is so welcome on our breakfast tables.

Writing in Granma, Fidel Castro, points out that the recent hurricanes have done between $3 and $4 billion dollars worth of damage to Cuba. Farmers have not escaped unscathed and to help their recovery the least we can do is buy some of their output. So why wait? You can find Fruit Passion in Co-op shops as well as in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, also the Co-op’s own brand fair-trade orange juice includes Cuban product in the blend.

Of course the concept of fair trade is not new. Back in 1906 the first Labour MP’s cited John Ruskin as the author who had most shaped their thinking. Ruskin makes a plea for fair trade in ‘Unto This Last’ published in 1862.

“In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer and in due proportion, lodged in his hands.”

Given the present shenanigans in the PLP it would seem that today the minds of some Labour MP’s seem to be shaped by an older writer than Ruskin – evidenced from their detachment of political expediency from morality – one Niccoli Machiavelli.

For details of Traidcraft trips to Cuba see: Meet the People Tours at www.Traidcraft.co.uk

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

The Search For Utopia - 150 Years of Robert Owen

This year marks a century and half since the death of Robert Owen in 1858. The 2008 Society for Co-op Studies Conference is to be held appropriately at the New Lanark Mill Hotel, part of the New Lanark World Heritage Site, from 11-14th September and is titled, New Views of Society: Robert Owen for the 21st Century.

It is hard to do justice to Owen, in 1880 Frederick Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen. He forced through in 1819, after five years’ fighting, the first law limiting the hours of labour of women and children in factories. He was president of the first Congress at which all the Trade Unions of England united in a single great trade association. He introduced as transition measures to the complete communistic organisation of society on the one hand, co-operative societies for retail trade and production.”

Owens ideas took a radical turn from his experience of managing what was the largest cotton spinning factory in Europe. New Lanark is a world of its own, set deep in the spectacular Clyde valley, almost cut off from the outside world, the Clyde falls providing the power to drive the mills. A lack of enthusiasm for his ideas amongst his business partners was resolved when he formed a partnership with a group of mainly Quaker backers to buy the New Lanark Mills giving him a free hand.

He set about improving the factory workers lives with better housing, healthy food, education and better working conditions. He formed a sick fund and a savings bank as well as a company store that ploughed its profits back into the community. His rigid monitoring and control of the workforce together with the application of new technologies paid off with a substantial increase in productivity and profitability.

His big idea was that a person’s environment had an impact on the formation of their character. Education was the core of Owenite philosophy – the idea that through the education of future generations a better world could be created is essentially the underpinning idea of all modern education. The turning point in Owens thinking seems to have stemmed from his meeting anarchist political philosopher William Godwin. His thinking about how to apply the lessons from New Lanark to wider society developed with meetings with Godwin and radical Francis Place and political economist James Mill. It was Pace and Mill who edited his essay “A New View of Society” giving it a depth and clarity that is absent from his later writings.

To celebrate Owen’s 80th birthday in 1851, a public meeting was held in London. Owen urged his audience to continue their efforts to “well educate, well employ, well place and cordially unite the human race.” The thousand strong crowd included Karl Marx who wrote to Engels that, “in spite of fixed ideas the old man was loveable and ironical.”

Today whilst New Lanark Mill Hotel, in a converted mill, is one of the great places to stay, Owens combination of social control and paternalism seems rather autocratic. He was from a different time - a reformer but no democrat. Many of his ideas however, like labour exchanges, gave us a vision of a possible alternative future. Engels said he gave us the, “practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary.”

Owen was a utopian thinker there are many flaws in his “new view of society” but we will always need those who have the vision to see that another world is possible. Unless we can imagine a different future we can not even begin to make it happen.

As Oscar Wilde pointed out, “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when it lands there, it looks out and seeing a better country, sets sail, Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

The Society for Co-operative Studies can be found at: www.co-opstudies.org

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The End of Neo-Liberalism

How quickly the TUC and party conference season comes around. This year rather than a knee jerk response to the threat of recession we need some deep reflection on economic policy. Be in no doubt the world has changed the neo-liberal boom is over.

Our Olympic performance shows that talent is essential for success but only long term investment can guarantee it. Economically we can only sustain our standard of living with high levels of investment. Now made difficult by the credit crunch and how we used that wave of cheap investment.

Recent economic prosperity was underpinned by historically low global prices for the key economic inputs of capital, energy and labour and deregulation and liberalisation enabled us to easily import them.

Western banks recycled surpluses generated from East Asia’s export of manufactures and from the oil and gas exporting countries. For a while they had more capital than they knew what to do with. The Bank of England reports, mangers invested in such complex financial instruments they still do not know what they have done with it! Sadly here this inflow of cheap capital was not invested in crucial infrastructure and productive capacity but was squandered on private equity and PFI schemes that added little to our capital stock or was used to subsidise current consumption.

UK fiscal policy drove a large proportion of this capital into new retail capacity to take advantage of cheap imports and into housing. Not to produce more houses, despite record prices we have had record low levels of construction, but driving house price inflation. Despite conventional wisdom high house prices do not equal wealth. Houses are not businesses, they do not innovate, generate new products, undertake R&D or train people, whilst they may once have been a store of value they do not create it.

This capital was cheap but not free - now it is payback time - the price is record trade deficits, massive public and private debt levels and a weakening pound. Now we need to generate domestic capital a tough task from a generation with no savings culture.

The energy story is a similar. When it was cheap we privatised our energy infrastructure, now it is more expensive we seem surprised that private firms pursue profits rather than the national interest. Our laiseez faire energy policy puts us at the mercy of global energy markets.

We must increase the output of domestic energy requiring capital but global firms take a global view why should they invest when they are making plenty selling us the imported stuff? We now have an underdeveloped energy infrastructure which needs investment across the piece, from renewables, new nuclear stations, new gas storage systems and replacement generating capacity.

Government intervention is vital, but a one off windfall tax is not enough, given the current structure of the industry it will only be paid by yet lower investment. Now sustained investment can only come from the public sector.

The third factor has been our inability to increase the productivity of the UK workforce. Our GDP has grown not by increasing the output per person, requiring higher investment in technology and skills; but by getting a higher proportion of people into work and by getting them to work longer.

This has been further sustained by the flow of low cost, highly motivated and well educated labour from Eastern Europe and from more women working. Now the pressure for higher labour market participation rates is looking desperate with attacks on lone parents and those on disability benefits.

With recession looming, the Poles are going home and the ones that stay are demanding decent pay and conditions. We will have to re-examine our education and training systems as we are forced to depend on home grown skilled Labour - meaning an end to long hours without training or companies having a free ride on skills.

It must be clear now that we can no longer postpone the development of a high investment, high technology, high skills economy. Currently we are not productive enough to import all our inputs. Now our financial services sector has shown the world that it is no better managed than our domestic car industry was.

The NICE decade is over we need the policies to get us saving, to get us developing our own energy supplies, and for us to have a high skills, high productivity economy.

That is the program we need to hear this conference season otherwise the sacrifices currently being made in living standards by Britain’s, workers will be for nothing. We will be letting David Cameron’s Tories off the hook we know they do not have the answers to these problems but does Labour?

Friday, 22 August 2008

Can David Milliband Save the Labour Party ?

I cannot help but feel that the metropolitan commentariat do not understand how bad it has become for Labour out here in the country. The reason we need a new leader quickly is not so that we can stave off defeat in general election. Labour is in free fall. The Crewe by-election and the local and London result are not just a sign of a resurgent Conservative Party but that we are faced with the terrible fact that the electorate will vote in each place for whoever they think will beat Labour. They do not care what the policies of the Tories or Liberals are but will now vote for anyone but Labour.

This is simply not enough time to turn things around before a general election but the coming defeat can be mitigated by a swift change in leadership. The current leadership is not only politically bankrupt, can anyone remember any of the 18 Bills in the draft Queens speech, the Party as Tribune has consistently reported is also financially bankrupt.

Changing the leader won’t make things miraculously better but it will stop things getting worse. The test for a new leader is not is he or she Prime Ministerial but can they lead the Labour party in Opposition. Can they harry the Tories and set the agenda without the civil service behind them and with a rather small band of brothers.

I understand that David Milliband is the coming man, remember this is not about winning a general election frankly that is beyond any mortal at this stage, it is about rebuilding the Labour Party and stopping its destruction as any kind of force in British politics.

With this in mind I have some speech notes for David as he triggers the leadership campaign.

1) I have decided to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party. There can be no greater honour for me than to lead the Labour Party (note not New Labour). The Party has been my home and my family for all of my adult life, a family that includes, the trades unions and the co-operative movement (note to self they are saving us from bankruptcy) and it would be true to say that like all families we have had our differences some of them profound but I have never wanted to be in any other.
2) We are not conservatives, neo-conservatives or liberals we are democratic socialists and we must never forget it. I have the honour of representing a working class constituency and we have to ensure that we build outwards from the base. (Must stop the rot with working class voters)
3) Many of you will now that I had severe doubts about the war in Iraq . My loyalty to the party and its leader meant that I kept my council at that time. Today I cannot stand by when it is clear we need a fresh start to win back the trust of the people. (Message:Ant-war but loyal).
4) I have youth and experience. I understand how events in far away places can impact on life here in Britain and how we have to be internationalist in our outlook. (Cameron just has youth)
5) The greatest threat we face today is not Islamic terrorism but climate change. We have to have a major push for renewable energy we are not as a nation short of wind or waves, not only saving the planet but also saving imports of oil and gas. (I have a track record on this)
6) Britain can look forward to a bright future but we have to rectify some of the over zealous elements of the market that have damaged our country, like the housing bubble, it will take some time but we can do it. (Subtext: I will regulate where Gordon failed to tread).

How will he see the last two Labour leaders?
On Gordon Brown, he has been a great servant of the party and the country but new times and new challenges need new ideas and new remedies and that is what I can offer.

On Tony Blair, being close to the leadership I can see how it is possible just because of sheer pressure on time to get isolated from the everyday concerns of people when one is deeply involved in global politics and that is what we have to guard against.

And how can he take on the Tories:
On David Cameron, I like him, he has done a good job in reshaping the Conservative party, he accuses us of stealing his clothes but I think he has stolen ours and they look a little too big for him.

A change of leader now will not stave off defeat but it will breathe new life into the Party and give us a base to build from. There is no point waiting, that base will only get smaller, we have already lost half our members and half of our councillors all that delay can do is delay the process of renewal and rebuilding. This is the test of the new generation have they like those in Gordon Browns book the courage to make the change.

Is the Co-op Commonwealth Still Alive?

Is the dream of the Co-operative Commonwealth still alive?

Joining the Co-op Party I had to “assert my belief in the co-operative commonwealth”. I never had a problem with this. In my sitting room there is a framed Walter Crane print of ‘liberty’ one hand holding aloft the light of ‘socialism’ shining as the ‘co-operative commonwealth’ whilst the other hand fought the serpent of ‘capitalist constriction’. This came to mind as next month sees the Co-op Party conference at Methodist Central Hall (Methodism and Co-operation – seems appropriate) begin drafting its general election manifesto.

Like the Trade Unions the Co-op movement came into politics for defensive reasons. The sector was badly treated in World War One price controls and rationing schemes where biased to private traders and the Military gave little consideration to Co-op Societies; one was faced with 102 out of 104 male employees being conscripted.

The last straw was Asquith’s clumsy attempt to tackle profiteering, an excess profits tax, which has been described as the co-operators Taff Vale. The 1917 Co-op Congress passed a resolution to “seek direct representation in parliament”. Later that year a National Emergency Conference set up a Central Co-operative Parliamentary Representation Committee and agreed a platform of ‘industrial, social and economic reform’, expressing the movement’s views on profiteering, agriculture, taxation, banking, housing, education foreign policy, and demobilisation, the ‘democratising of state services’, as well as safeguarding the interests of voluntary co-operation and resistance to any legislation that would hamper Co-op progress.

Those issues of profiteering and demobilisation seem somehow topical again. Ten years after its formation in 1927 the Co-op formed an electoral alliance with Labour that has lasted for eighty years. It maybe a relationship that is a throwback to the Labour Party’s federal past but on today’s membership cards its role to ‘promote co-operative values and principles inside and outside the Labour movement, representing all types of co-operative organisation’ could not be more important.

In the Blair years the Party was not immune to ‘modernisation’ General Secretary Peter Hunt attempted to flesh out the concept of the ‘Third Way’ with ideas of new mutualism which where developed with the aid of a new “think tank” Mutuo. Certainly the Party needed better developed co-operative and mutual public policy prescriptions. Unfortunately the ‘Third Way’ for Tony Blair was nothing more than a rhetorical device to cover his rightward drift. Hunt also worked hard on the youngsters around Brown at the Treasury as the best hope for the legislation the Co-op movement needed to make it fit for the 21st century.

For last years 90th birthday Greg Rosen wrote a new short Co-op Part history published as co-operator Gordon Brown was making his ascent to No 10. The Party was full of optimism, writing in the New Statesman; Martin Bright said that “It could be argued that the Co-operative Party is one of the most influential groups of MP’s within Labour. Its chair the international development minister, Gareth Thomas, is a respected figure. Ten cabinet ministers are members as were four of the deputy leadership candidates. All the most influential younger Brown-era ministers are also members (Ed Balls, the Milliband Brothers, Andy Burnham, James Purnell). Could it be”, he asks, “that those searching for a Brownite politics will find it here”?

Somehow I can’t imagine that lot looking for the Co-operative Commonwealth, nonetheless, new Co-op Party General Secretary, Michael Stevenson, has a record Parliamentary Group of thirty members, who maybe a broad church but with the Government looking increasingly bereft of ideas this years Co-op conference could not be timelier. The Party has the enthusiasm and talent of co-operators, from agriculture to housing, financial services to telecommunications, who now run some of Britain’s most successful businesses to call upon.

Many co-operators feel that there has been too much emphasis on selling Labour to the Co-op or putting a cosmetic co-op gloss on health and education reforms rather than ‘promoting’ genuine co-operative solutions to Labour. The true test will be real Co-op measures finding their way into a real Labour manifesto. That is the way to ensure the Co-op Party reaching its centenary.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Co-operative Dividend Finally Pays Off

A global financial crisis has woken us up to the benefits of mutual and co-operative business ownership. Converted building societies have found their plc status no protection against poor management and the drying up of international credit. Those remaining mutual, partly shielded by their structure, maybe dull and safe but with global banking in meltdown a dull and safe place is the best place to keep your money.

For some the Co-op was as an anachronism. Politicians paid tribute to its past, to Robert Owen, the Rochdale Pioneers or in Scotland the Fenwick Weavers, implying it had no future. Patronising the sector with warm words when asking for support (or an extension to the overdraft) but privately thinking there was no place in the modern world of shareholder capitalism for a business owned by its customers.

For them the news of the Co-operative Group take over of Somerfield, putting it back amongst the big boys in the retail sector, must seem like seeing Lazarus. Observers of the co-op scene know better, they may not be widely known but the Co-op has in the recent past benefited from some excellent leadership and their efforts are now paying off.

The renaissance began when the Co-op Bank was re-branded as the ethical bank. Its success surprised everyone, including many in the co-op movement, giving confidence, that after years of decline, there was nothing intrinsically uncompetitive about the co-op model.

Society mergers, mostly from weakness, looked to outsiders like the co-op was closing down and in some places it was. Quietly however from dozens of small societies the co-op was forming a new leaner and more effective organisation.

Then last year came the merger that turned the tide. The marriage of the Co-op Group and United Co-operatives, a union from strength rather than weakness meant that at last the Co-op had the critical mass to grow.

Despite the huge challenges of this merger the process of improving the customer experience went on, creating better products, with an emphasis on ethical and fair-trade products, and better stores. Behind the scenes too new IT and logistics systems helped increase sales.

Those new IT systems have enabled the Co-op to bring back the “Divi” in a meaningful way – paying out over £38 million to members this year.

Mergers are no panacea – like some trade union mergers - on paper the new organisation should be as big as the two organisations added together but somehow they end up smaller. This merger was different; the new Group has in the words of CEO Peter Marks the “best opportunity for 50 years to move forward”.

The increased buying power the Somerfield merger will bring will make the whole co-op retail sector more competitive and put an end to some of those Co-op deserts. It will not be easy to create a democratic structure for the new organisation as the new merged Group is only just coming together. But managing growth is far better than managing decline.

At this years Co-op Congress, Kitty Usher Economic Secretary to the Treasury, promised, at long last, a new legal framework to help this modernisation continue. The FSA who have responsibility for regulating the Co-op and mutual sector (you may think that currently they have more pressing responsibilities) have said “it will enable the movement to enjoy the legislative framework it deserves; one fit for this century, rather than the nineteenth.”

With immense patience former Labour MEP Pauline Green and her colleagues at Co-operatives UK have done a good job in cajoling and educating the FSA to take, a sector of some 5000 businesses employing a quarter of a million people, seriously. But a healthy co-op sector is important not just to the one in five of us that have a share in a Co-op.

The new General Secretary of the Co-op Party, Michael Stevenson, has a good story to tell - how by rediscovering its ethical values and democratic principles the co-operative sector has been able to rebuild its business. Could this be a lesson for the Labour Party and the Government?

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Rise and Fall of Cheap Oil

“Above the fields of Leicestershire
On arches we were borne
And the thunder of the railway drowned
The thunder of the Quorn:
And silver shone the steeples out
Above the barren boughs;
Colts in a paddock ran from us
But not the solid cows:
And quite where Rugby Central is
Does only Rugby know.”

A journey on the old Great Central Railway described by John Betjeman. Many Rugbians today could not find Rugby Central, all that remains is a bump on a bridleway in a disused railway cutting, a long green finger running through the heart of the town, a pleasant place to walk the dog away from the noise of the traffic.

Poems like this helped create that idea that the great days of rail are behind us, killed off by Dr Beeching. Now we know the real killer was cheap oil. Beeching took the flack for closing one third of the rail network and some 2000 stations but he was appointed to head British Rail by, Conservative Transport Minister, Ernest Marples.

Marples made his fortune from the firm he help found, Marples, Ridgway and Partners, road builders (contractors indeed on the M1) he divested himself of his shares on becoming Transport Minister to avoid any conflict of interests – to his wife.

His success was based upon the same cheap oil that did for the railways. At that time most of us would, given the lower costs, greater flexibility and the new found reliability of road transport, built the M1, all those other ‘M’s and closed miles of railways.

Today we are living with the consequences of almost a century’s worth of location decisions based on cheap oil. From the ‘ribbon development’ in the 30’s, encouraged perhaps by that wonderful Shell advertising to the 60’s when the car became accessible to the masses as a symbol of personal freedom. The newly built motorways and trunk roads enabled those in search of the mock-Tudor idyll to leap frog the green belt and for businesses and shops to escape the confines of the cities.

This great dispersal shrank the cities, new towns grew in once green fields, but the new suburbs and towns completely dependent on road transport generated the flip side of dispersal - congestion.

The problem is low population density makes public transport systems uneconomic. Despite the fact that around one third of the population have no access to a car to bring together sufficient people for a football match, a retail centre or even most workplaces requires them to drive. They have little choice - even to the point that this congestion is killing the economy. This new geography locks us into in a high movement high cost society.

To get some idea of the costs involved last year the Seven West Midlands Metropolitan Councils and Centro (the passenger transport authority) sent the Government their wish list for transport improvements it had a £4.6 billion price tag.

This bill, coming in at about half the cost of the complete modernisation of the West Coast Mainline, was far from ambitious, the minimum to keep the metropolitan heart of the region moving they said. The fact the whole region gets around £90 million a year for major transport projects makes it clear that this type of development is unaffordable. This is one conurbation. Imagine the price tag for the whole country.

These numbers made me a convert to road pricing. However having thought longer about it I now realise that of itself road pricing is not enough. The fact is we have fanciful ideas based on that cheap oil about the degree of mobility we can sustain.

It seems those oil futures speculators are not fools – they know we are hopelessly addicted to oil.

When the prices shot up what did the PM, Gordon Brown say? Sell your 4x4, stop flying, or walk to the shops? No he blamed OPEC and demanded more oil from the North Sea.

Now it is not just North Sea oil that is running out. It seems the Greens are right we do not take energy conservation seriously.

Despite the recent huge hike in oil prices the cost of transport is still too low - we have to move to a low movement low cost society and we may only have twenty years to do it.

I am not an extreme Green I believe we have to do this for economic not environmental reasons. We have sold off all our once state owned energy assets making us totally dependent on international markets for our energy. We are a small country with low productivity and a weakening economy we will not be able to afford these ever shrinking resources. The US is already complaining to China and India about there subsidising of their domestic fuel prices.

The economic forces that have enabled long distance travel and long supply chains will soon go into reverse. Many current business models are unsustainable as oil prices grow. No wonder food prices are up. The ludicrously expensive, in transport terms, cost of trucking and shipping, clothes and foodstuffs over vast distances is already becoming uneconomic. Some food production and manufacturing will have to be repatriated.

Planning processes that built the motorways and new towns will now have to plan to recentralise the population and relocalise economic activity. People will simply have to live a great deal closer to schools, shops and work places. (And HM Government please note, GP sugeries and post offices).

As costs escalate some will want to give up their cars and some will be forced too - we have to make it easy for them. There is some truth that with the IT revolution we will be travelling less. But IT also generates new traffic and helps sustain complex long distance supply chains. Despite the constantly threatened immanent arrival of the electric or hydrogen powered car don’t hold your breath there is no technological fix on the horizon.

To return out of town shopping centres and housing to farmland will not be easy and there will be considerable expense in creating a transport infrastructure independent of oil. Completing the electrification of our railways and filling in those Beeching gaps with light rail and trams will not come cheap. The win is of a network that is greener and that will do wonders for our balance of payments.

So how are we to pay for this transport revolution?

So called green taxes have so far not noticeably change behaviour and any revenue has not been spent on alternative sustainable solutions. The problem has always been the Treasury. Its need for the ‘fix’ of the revenue they generate means it never sets tax at levels that really change behaviour.

These taxes have to be a lot higher. Today the price mechanism is beginning to change behaviour but current taxes still have only a very marginal impact on consumers after all since 2005 taxes on road transport have actually fallen.

So where is the money to come from?

The fact that the recent improvements to our rail network are to be paid for by passengers is a clear sign. The user is going to have to pay. We must look again at road pricing. We need a hypothecated tax on road usage for infrastructure improvements. This can be done - we have the technology we should just get on with it.

The challenge is to visibly improve and make cheaper public transport, especially trains and trams, whilst choking off the demand for movement.

It would be unfair to many people who cannot afford to live near where they work to further punish them by increasing what they see as their already excessive transport costs without giving them a real choice.

Unplanned oil price increases have done massive damage before. They cause all kinds of social and economic problems. But this is not a short term problem we can get over but a permanent change.

Effective road pricing can generate a revenue stream to help fund the changes we have to make. Those affluent enough to continue to drive can subsidise those who use public transport. And surely we can come up with varying the charges for essential deliveries or essential workers.

There is less time than we think. We must plan out the need for movement by road. Choosing to carry on as if nothing is happening is foolish in the extreme.

Transport costs are an important component of economic development one of Betjemans other great railway images was that of Metroland an entire landscape enabled by the low cost of cheap suburban trains. With the right planning rules we can do it again.

As socialists we should be pleased that the Thatcherite privatised dream of atomised individuals living in private spaces and travelling alone is coming to an end. Both housing and transport will need collective well planned solutions. Personally I look forward to the reopening of the Great Central as an electric railway and the grassing over of the M1!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Real legacies of Blair, Brown and Smith

Back in the Guardian after the terrible local and London elections.

My old workmates from the 1997 election (Letters, May 17) seem to have fallen into the first trap of politics - don't believe your own propaganda. The best stuff we implemented after the 1997 victory was nothing to do with Blair or Brown; it was the legacy of John Smith - minimum wage, trade union recognition, social chapter, national devolution, regional development agencies etc. The Brownite stuff (independence for the Bank of England and lax regulation of the financial sector) and the Blairite stuff (permanent revolution in schools and hospitals, tougher on crime than its causes) all looks far less attractive in retrospect. Then there is the elephant in the room of foreign policy. Seven wars in seven years - and what happened to being at the centre of Europe!

More important than the policy failings of Brown - on pensions, post offices, tax relief for the dead while increasing tax on the poorest workers - and something even I didn't realise until last year's floods is just how hopeless he is as a politician. We live in a democracy; you have to go out and meet people and understand them (even the Chinese leader has understood this).

Wake up - the "nice decade" is over. Labour will lose the general election whenever it comes. We are facing the same squeeze that the Tories faced in 1997. Who would have thought that the Conservatives would be the first post-Thatcherite party? The changes we need to make have to be done quickly. We must have a new leader very soon so that defeat can be mitigated, giving us a small chance of regrouping; the alternative is we go into oblivion with Brown.
Nick Matthews
(Labour's policy officer for trade and industry and employment in 1997), Rugby

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Nick Rocks in the Guardian

Dear Editor,

Labour have at last found the bottle to 'nationalise' something. I hope they get the taste for it. They should come out fighting on Northern Rock. None of the Building Societies that converted to Banks have been seen to be viable long term businesses. With Northern Rock eight out of ten have been eaten up by bigger banks reducing competition in the mortgage sector. Only Bradford and Bingley and the Alliance and Leicester remain - how long do we give them as independent businesses? Demutualisation was a stupid piece of Thatcherite dogma. Financial engineering that stole millions in value from members to enrich managers whilst producing higher mortgages for millions. Labour should not apologise for clearing up this Conservative mess. My only complaint is that they should do more of it clearing up the similar mess the Tories created in other sectors like the railways and the utilities.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Matthews

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Remembering Duncan

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The very moving events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster have shone a light into L.P.Harley’s foreign country that is the past in a very interesting way. The world of 1958 and in particular the footballing world of 1958 could not be more different from the footballing world of today.

Take for example the description in the Daily Mail of Manchester United's 2007 pre-Christmas Party.

“United's 19-year-old defender Jonny Evans was questioned today over the alleged rape of a woman at the club's party before being bailed until February 23 pending further inquiries. The players had reportedly paid £100,000 for Monday's party and invited around 100 girls back to the £395-a-night Manchester hotel. The event is said to have been organised by Ferdinand who is reported to have held a whip round to which 25 players gave £4,000 each. Wives and girlfriends were not invited.
…. A total of 35 players, including many multi-million pound stars, began the day with lunch at the Manchester235 casino complex where they were entertained by drag queens and dancers. After three hours, stars such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Owen Hargreaves, accompanied by junior squad members, headed to Coronation Street star Liz Dawn's pub The Old Grapes for more drinking.

Later a group including Rooney and Ferdinand drove to a lapdancing club but left without going inside after seeing photographers outside. For the night they had booked out the 30-suite Great St John Street Hotel - a converted Victorian school featured in top hotel guides - where they continued partying into the early hours. One female guest described the party as "a horrendous cattle market" She said: "I like the United players but they were out of control. They were treating girls like pieces of meat. "We got special invites but if we ever get asked again there's no way we would go again." Another said: "A lot of the players were really letting their hair down. Waitresses were handing out pink champagne to whoever wanted it.
"The players seemed to be drinking beer, vodka and whisky. Lots of drink was flowing and there were a lot of the girls there simply trying to bag a footballer for the night. It was all very sleazy."

As Rod Liddle said in the Times , “Yes, of course, the whole business is vile and repulsive on a scale we should, by rights, feel difficult to comprehend. But these days we comprehend it all too well. The obscene extravagance of the party, the gallons of pink champagne flowing down the gullets of pampered and witless imbeciles, the coarseness, the sheer utilitarian intent behind that noble tradition, the harvesting of the slappers. But it would surely not surprise anyone any more. Almost everything our Premier League footballers do is an affront to decency, the result of fairly stupid young people being afforded unlimited incomes and unlimited adulation.
These players think that they can do anything, without censure. By and large they are right. But our sympathies should not be with the equally witless young women who, in effect, colluded in this moronic festival. It should instead be with the state of our national game and with the fans who subsidise such behavior.”

It is that type of behavior that I think that is part of the reason we look back to 1958 with such fondness, it is not simply with rose tinted glasses, there is certainly a degree of nostalgia but nostalgia for the values of a lost age. Compare that coverage on the United players of today with the coverage from the Guardian of old fans who congregated at Old Trafford to remember the exact moment 50 years earlier when the Munich tragedy occurred.

People like Derek Taylor, a supporter for more than 50 years, who carried flowers and a remembrance card with the words from The Flowers Of Manchester, a poem and song tribute to the victims. Taylor was a newspaper copy boy at the time of the crash. "I took the copy from the teleprinter announcing that the aeroplane had crashed," he said. "I was totally devastated. It was just unbelievable, like losing one of your family.

"When I first met Duncan Edwards, he used to come to Old Trafford on a bike. When they realised their value had gone up, the club told them they had to come on a bus!
"Sir Matt Busby used to turn up in his car, put his arm around my shoulder and ask, 'How's my team playing for me?' He was like a granddad for the fans."

In Germany, hundreds of fans attended a memorial service at the site of the tragedy outside Munich. But if the day was marked by solemnity, it was also leavened by moments of humour, not least at a tribute hosted by the television presenter and United fan Eamonn Holmes. The Babes' goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, who risked his own life to pull three others from the plane wreckage, recalled how he returned to the football field just two weeks after the crash.
"We didn't have counsellors or psychologists - trick cyclists, I call them - in those days, we just got on with it. There was no point in sitting at home moping," he said.

Nobby Stiles, a 15-year-old apprentice with United in 1958, and later a 1966 World Cup winner, assessed the talents of those who died, including Duncan Edwards ("The greatest player I've ever seen") and Eddie Coleman ("My idol").

As ever, though, Sir Bobby Charlton, who went on to fulfil the lost legacy of fallen colleagues by winning the European Cup in 1968, fashioned the perfect epitaph for a glorious team.
"I'll never forget what Sir Matt said to us one day when he pointed across to Trafford Park, which at the time was the largest industrial estate in Europe," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "He told us: 'The people over there work hard all week long and it is your job to go out on the field and provide them with some entertainment'.
"And that is what we tried to do; we played for the team, for the club and for the country."

Be in no doubt football in the 1930’s, 40’s and into the 1950’s was the theatre of the working class.

J.B.Priestley in the opening chapter of The Good Companions (1929) said :

"To say that these men paid their shillings to watch 22 hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink... for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its art."

Priestly was far from being naive about the role of commercialism in football even before the war in An English Journey, his account of a tour of the country in 1933, he describes a game between Notts County and Notts Forest:

“Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game; the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds (with their idiotic cries of 'play the game Ref' when any decision against their side is given); but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out to conquer the world.”

I would contend that in 1958, the game was still, “not yet spoilt”, thanks to post-war austerity football was still cheap and attracted huge crowds desperate for some entertainment. Enter into this era the "Busby babes"!

Matt Busby had arrived at Manchester United in 1946 after a pre-war career as a player with Manchester City and Liverpool. Born in a miner's cottage in North Lanarkshire his father and all his uncles had been killed in the First World War. He was an immediate success with United , FA Cup winners in 1948, football league runners up in 1947, 48, 49 and 51 before winning the title in 1952. It was however his commitment to young players that set him apart. United won the FA Youth Cup, in 1954, 55, 56 and 57. The club bought no players at all for three seasons between the 1953/54 and 1956/57. The youngsters he bought through gained United the league championship in 1956 and 1957.

Of these youngsters the best of the bunch signing for United when he was 16 in 1952 was a lad from Dudley. A lad who had played for Wolverhampton Street School, Dudley Schools, Worcestershire County and Birmingham and District and had made his debut for England School Boys at just 14.

Wolves who the Daily Mail had christened the Champions of the World after they had beaten Honved in December 1954 had missed out on Duncan and on what might have been.

As Robert Philip wrote in the Daily Telegraph,

"As early as 1948, a handwritten letter from United's chief scout in the Midlands, Jack O'Brien, landed on Busby's desk. "Have today seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley. Instructions please." O'Brien's recommendation was promptly passed on to coach Bert Whalley with the added instructions: "Please arrange special watch immediately - MB."

With the young man in question turning out for Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, Dudley Schools XI, Worcester County XI and Birmingham & District XI, arranging a 'special watch' represented something of a full-time occupation. At the age of 13, he walked out at Wembley on April 1, 1950, to win his first 'cap' for England Schoolboys against Wales Schoolboys in front of a crowd of 100,000; at 14 he was appointed England Schools captain - a position he would hold for two seasons.

With Wolverhampton Wanderers hovering, on June 2, 1952, United pounced, Whalley banging on the Edwards front door at 31 Elm Road on the threadbare Priory council estate at 2am, brandishing amateur forms. Having put pen to paper, young Duncan, still in his pyjamas, left Whalley and his father, Gladstone, to sort out the details while he climbed the stairs to bed, muttering: "I don't know what all this fuss was about. I've said all along that Manchester United were the only club I wanted to join."

Ten months later Edwards made his first-team debut at left-half aged 16 years and 183 days against Cardiff City at Old Trafford; not that the date April 4, 1953, is writ large in the history of Manchester United, a 4-1 defeat leaving the reigning champions in the no-man's land of mid-table. Busby was fully aware that despite his side's league title success the previous season, the majority of the United players belonged to the over-the-hill gang and Edwards' fellow 'Babes', David Pegg, Dennis Viollet, Bill Foulkes, Mark Jones and Jackie Blanchflower, were also introduced during the closing weeks of the season."

His personality shines through in the comments people make of him, "A permanent fixture in the England Under-23 side from the age of 17, United's teenage sorcerer may have grown in fame with every passing game but he remained engagingly modest throughout his all-too-brief career. "He might have been the Koh-i-Noor diamond among our crown jewels," Murphy explained, "but he was an unspoiled boy to the end, his head the same size it had been from the start. Even when he had won his first England cap but was still eligible for our youth team, he used to love turning out with the rest of the youngsters. He just loved to play anywhere and with anyone." (He had one known vice as a child - as well as representing his school at football, he was also a member of the Morris dancing team.)"

What Morris Dancing in Dudley! He continues,

"According to Busby, ". . . the bigger the occasion the better he liked it", and there were few bigger occasions than England's 1956 international against World Cup holders West Germany in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, where Edwards scored a goal. With 25 minutes gone and the score 0-0, he gained possession on the edge of his own penalty area and set off on a run that left a trail of West Germans in his wake before smashing the ball into the net from 25 yards."

"By the mid-fifties Manchester United had caught the imagination of the country. Duncan Edwards played his first game for the club in 1953, at the age of fifteen years and eight months. Two years later he won his first England cap and Walter Winterbottom, then England manager, referred to him as ‘the spirit of British football’. On £15 a week and living at Mrs Watson’s boarding house at 5 Birch Avenue in Manchester, Edwards was the most prized of the ‘Busby Babes’."

Writes Gordon Burn in his book Best and Edwards. Duncan was no saint after all he did two years national service in the army as 23145376 Lance Corporal Edwards D. He did most of his 2 years at the Ammunition Depot at Nescliff on the Welsh border, serving in the same regiment as Bobby Charlton.

In the Daily Telegraph John Russell, who was 23-year-old civil servant in 1957 and acquaintance of Edwards said, "I knew him faintly. I'd see him riding around on his bike near my home in Sale. I'd meet him in the Ashton on Mersey cricket club. We used to bump into the United lads going to the match, walking down the Warwick Road to the ground, or on a Saturday night in the Plaza or Ritz ballroom in Manchester or the Sale Locarno. We'd chat to them, say 'Good match, Dunc'." Munich was such a tragedy."

James Lawton in the Independent asked the question, was Duncan, "The greatest Footballer that ever lived?"

The tragedy of 1958 meant that, "there will be one regret above all others. It was that we never got to see if it really was true that Duncan Edwards was the greatest player who, despite his epic fight, never got to live. Not in the fullness of his talent. Not in the haunting reach of all his possibilities."

On his debut Duncan was the youngest player to play in the First Division he played, 177 games for United scoring 21 goals, and received 18 England Caps scoring five times. He once scored 6 goals in an England under 23 match playing as a centre forward.

He is one of those lost boys whose story gets stronger in the telling as the values of now and then collide. We cannot believe that modern players with all their money and their boorish behaviour are a patch on the players of old. For all their wealth they do not have the common touch and how can they? Making more in one week than the players then made in a lifetime. Television corrupts everything it comes into contact with and part of the joy of celebrating Duncan's life is that there are so few pictures or so little film of his playing days.

When I visited his Grave twenty five years ago it was subject to vandalism even then and was not easy to find in the Stourbridge Road Cemetery today there is a statue in the Market Place and an exhibition at the Museum to join the glass windows in the St Francis Church in Laurel Road. His family and in particular his mum worked all their lives to tend his memory. His father, Gladstone, actually ended up working at the cemetary and his mum turned their home, on Elm Road , into a shrine to Duncans playing career. Much of the contents can now be seen in Dudley Museum. Sarah Anne Edwards passed away on 15th April 2003, aged 93.

Still it's good to know that a lad born on Woodside and raised on the Priory is still considered by Bobby Charlton as the best he ever played with.

"He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was, his death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football. I always felt I could compare well with any player - except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn't have a fault with his game".

For more about Duncan in Dudley see: www.duncan-edwards.co.uk

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Wednesbury Diaspora Discus Prize Winning Novel

The scene, Alf Day has joined the RAF:

"Pluckrose who was also a sergeant, although it didn't suit him - not that a commission would have suited any better - his face was simply incompatible with Air Council Instructions: it had the wrong atmosphere and superiors took it amiss. Added to which he could never shut up.

'Well I didn't ask to come.' Peering over Alfred's head on the first day, beaming about at the hangar full of blue: men standing as if they could think to do nothing else: others searching as if they were late, as if they had lost something, or had been forgotten: others not alone, begining to be not alone.

'Matter of fact King asked me. I got a written invitation - through intermediaries, tht's just what you'd expect, but it should make a difference, you would think. Of course, I volunteered for this part. And not a soul's been civil to me since - except you.'

He beamed down and Alfred could see no doubt in him no unease, only this sense that he was being entertained. 'Wouldn't have turned up if I'd known. I mean it's hardly been efficiently organised, thus far. More like a total fucking shambles.' And amiability in his voice had made his searing not a personal thing, or angry, more of a musical addition. Truly. I mean, a man could catch his fucking death of cold here, for a start. And i suspect worse.'

Alfred, his words in alump under his tongue, ashamed of themselves, but getting out a decent- sounding, 'Yes.' He was keeping things short, sticking to the phrases he was safe with,the ones hh'd cut away from Staffordshire, that could sound fully RAF.

He still practised in his head.

Yo bin and yo bay. Yo doe and yo day.
You are, or you have been and you aren't, or you haven't been. You do and you don't, or you didn't.

Everything getting longer and longer when you started to say it that way - and harsh too, the h's everywhere to trip you, having to hack out each one.

I bin.
I am. I was.
The way I was. The soft way I was.

His dad had always said, 'Doe talk soft.' But he'd meant don't talk as if you're stupid, he'd meant Alfred was stupid. Now Alfred was talking hard."

What Black Country person on leaving God's country has not felt something similar?

It was a joy to read the Guardian’s G2 section on January 24th. There was a double page spread of an interview by Stuart Jeffries of Alison Louise Kennedy.

Better known as author Al Kennedy she had just won £30,000 from Costa for her novel Day. Well so what I here you say, well the hero of said novel, a former wartime Lancaster rear gunner – the bravest of the brave – returns to Germany to appear as an actor in a film about an escape from a prisoner of war camp like the one he had been held in having been forced to bale out over Germany.

Like a lot of that generation war had given his life a sense of purpose that civvy street failed to provide and in a way it was a journey back to where everything began to go wrong.

Jolly interesting full of all sorts of moral dilemmas about the British character and all that stuff except that the “hero” Alfie Day hail’s from Wednesbury.

Stuart Jefferies takes up the story,

“I tell Kenedy that my parents hailed from Wednesbury, the Black Country town from which Day escapes into the thrill of war, a place whose heavy industries the Luftwaffe tried but couldn’t quite finish off ( the Tories where more thorough) while the RAF was bent on reducing German cities to simulacra of the fires of hell.”

Good start methinks at least the interviewer knows where this wonderful place is!

“Why did she choose the Black Country boy as a hero?” Asks Jeffries.

(Not realising the heroic capacity of all Black Country folk).

“I knew about it because my grandparents were from there”, she says.

So another exiled Wednesbury family two in the same Guardian interview is this a first I wonder?

“Its an industrial area where people did very dangerous jobs and could be killed at any time, and extreme levels of poverty.”

So war may have come as a perverse sort of escape – on the can’t be any worse and you get fed and see the world – She sounds alrighyt this AL Kenedy.

Then she commits the coup de grace!

“She was drawn, too to the strange dialect.”

“There’s an enormous sense of humour in the way Black Country people speak. It’s very playful and very old language.”

What are you waiting for get down the bookshop!!!

A Further review from the OBSERVER :


In a rare interview, the elusive AL Kennedy unburdens herself on men, the joy of stand-up comedy and the worth of long walks

Geraldine Bedell
Sunday March 25, 2007
The Observer

Alison Louise Kennedy is contemptuous of this whole undertaking. 'Never mind the work, let's review the author,' she has written scathingly about interviewers on her website. 'Someone who sits alone for a hours at a time, typing, must be really fascinating and it beats having to think about anything, doesn't it?'

Her short stories and novels, the latest of which is Day, are often mordantly funny and teeming with startling images. Like her approach to interviews, though, they make no concessions: her writing is linguistically and emotionally demanding. 'It's like anal sex,' she explains when I ask her about her fiercely literary attitude to her work and her correspondingly confrontational presentation of it. 'If that's what I want to do to you and you're not into it, then go away, because that's what will keep happening.'

Before we can get on to anal sex, however, I go to see her at a Glasgow comedy club, where she has a regular gig as a stand-up. I catch my first glimpse of her as she's waiting to go on stage, bopping away with another performer in a corner. Having reread her books and studied her website's acidic reviews of her reviews, I have become so alarmed by her that I'm actually shocked to see her doing something so frivolous.

Her stand-up is startlingly good. She works the audience and makes the most of her cleverness with words, her knack for seeing things freshly. She has a great riff about people scraping moss off each other every morning in Scotland, but the audience seems most to enjoy the material about pubic hair. I learn that her father was from Birmingham and her mother from North Wales, that they went to Australia but then came back to Dundee before she was born and that they split up when she was quite small, which is more information than she ever appears to have divulged in an interview.

'It's a cartoon version of my childhood,' she says when we meet the next day in a tea shop near her home in the West End of Glasgow. She is particularly dismissive of physical descriptions of herself, but she has a strikingly high forehead, which seems to be permanently creased in a frown, and wears jeans, flat shoes and no make-up. One way and another, she appears to suffer very little from the usual female handicap of anxiety to please.

She says she doesn't give away more to interviewers 'because they don't ask interesting questions. Plus I don't particularly want ...' She tails off, but it's enough to make you wonder whether what she does give is another cartoon version. She has said in the past that she wouldn't be doing stand-up 'if my life wasn't completely shagged', and she continues to protest that she performs mainly because 'it's an analgesic'. She sighs, as though this is all too wearisome: 'I lost a friend who made me laugh a lot. He knew a lot about comedy and we used to share comedy and afterwards I had less access to it. I found I wasn't sleeping and I was passing the time by making things up.'

She doesn't want to talk about this friend, she claims, although she does mention him subsequently. She will say that he wasn't a lover. She once wrote obliquely about a male friend who, tormentingly, had sex with someone else in a hotel where she was also staying; whatever the exact nature of the betrayal, it was enough to end the relationship. For a while, she couldn't write fiction, producing instead the brilliant On Bullfighting.

It's tempting to think that AL Kennedy might be playing up her misery, cultivating the bleakness that is often said to characterise her fiction. There is an unflinching, exposed quality to her work: Day is about RAF bombing raids and requires the reader to enter the head of a man who is mentally disintegrating. She is sensitive to absurdity, to the imminence of what she calls 'the pantomime surprise of death'.

She vigorously denies courting unhappiness, claiming to think it's wholly unnecessary to successful fiction. She'd rather have joy, but it's simply not available. 'I have sex about once every five years. I've lived alone since I was 17. I am slightly tired. My life is not comfortable to me. But I am philosophical. It's just the way things have worked out.'

What would make her comfortable? 'Occasional company,' she says. I am starting to find this self-pity slightly comical, so I say: 'I bet you've got a secret husband at home.' Perhaps she has too, because she answers: 'Yeah, I killed him and ate him.' She would like, she says, 'just to have people to talk to who you can actually talk to, which is quite rare'. Despite this, her whole life is an attempt to communicate. She acknowledges that this looks a bit paradoxical. 'Yeah, you spend your time shouting into a well. You don't often get the echo back. I spend a lot of time making stuff for other people. It's a huge relief if someone talks back to you in a way that gets your head running.'

I don't quite know how seriously to take this vision of lonely rooms, bereft of company, especially as, when the interview ends, we discover we have mutual friends and she enthuses about them and jolly party games they've played. But if at some level, AL Kennedy has decided to put her writing first, it has not been (at least from a reader's point of view) a pointless sacrifice. She has been on the Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists twice, but is still, in my opinion, underrated. She does things no one else can do, including write about sex better than anyone. 'Oh,' she says, 'but that's because I'm not really writing about sex at all.'

Day is the story of a Second World War tail gunner and prisoner of war who, in 1949, becomes an extra in a war film and tunnels back through his memories to discover what has become of him. It's not as blackly funny as her last novel, Paradise, about an alcoholic woman, but Kennedy insists this isn't because of the stand-up. 'It's not a very funny thing, the Second World War.' She then complains I've missed the two Max Miller jokes.

The big question is whether the images in AL Kennedy's books spring into her mind fully formed or whether they are the result of months with a thesaurus and endless revision. 'A lot of it's because my books are character-based,' she says evasively. 'If you want to make something appear fresh, you rely on the fact that no person has a voice quite like any other. With Day, I got a new vocabulary, because of the period and the military stuff and the mental state he's in, but, yeah, if you look at the rewrites, there are up to 150 or 175. Some of that will be commas, some of it will be major.'

I wonder if she shows the work to anyone or relies on her own sense of whether 150 revisions are enough. 'My friend who went away is the only person whose opinion I was ever interested in. He had a very interesting mind. There aren't that many people with good ears. My editor has a good ear, but you can only read something for the first time once. You commit yourself to doing something until it's right and then you learn what right feels like, tastes like, sounds like. It helps if you're obsessive-compulsive and you don't have any distractions.'

You can't help wondering if some of her moroseness derives from the ever-present fact of physical pain. (This will go up on her website in the glib psychobabble section.) She suffered an undiagnosed herniated disc between her shoulder blades for six months, by which time she had muscle wastage. She also fell off a horse and has a 'squint shoulder' and once broke her sacrum, which sometimes gives her sciatica. She has a special chair to write in, hard to envisage, in which her knees are above her heart.

The most common criticism of AL Kennedy's writing is that its craftedness can become oppressive. 'I don't think it's that,' she says. 'I think it's being in someone else's mind. That's fair enough: that's what I want to do to you. If you define plot by what's happening externally to the character, it's true there's no plot in my fiction, but I'm interested in the things people carry around that you don't necessarily see. I just want to get to the bits that interest me.'

For all the craft, the revisions, the foraging for the ideal phrase, AL Kennedy manages to be pretty prolific: she is 41, and Day is her fifth novel. There have been four volumes of short stories (she's working on a fifth right now) plus eight or nine drama scripts, a couple of works of non-fiction, regular journalism and, now, the stand-up. 'If you're quite a fast cook, you don't have children, you don't have pets and you've got no one to talk to, what else are you going to do?' she asks. 'I've got vast amounts of time to occupy.'

On the way home, I wish I'd told Alison Louise Kennedy to stop giving that bloke the satisfaction of knowing he's ruined her life. I don't suppose she'd have listened. She told me she wasn't good company and when I objected that this simply wasn't true, she conceded, 'for a limited period, OK. But I get bored very easily. If you were around all week, I'd want to kill you. I wouldn't tell you, even: I'd just go for increasingly long walks. Having achieved the joy of your friendship, I'd find it disappointing, as I find everything I attain.'

AL Kennedy: initial impressions

1965 Born in Dundee.

1986 Graduates in theatre studies and drama from Warwick University.

1991 Publishes first short-story collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains

1993 Completes debut novel, Looking for the Possible Dance. Listed among Granta's 20 Best of Young British Novelists.

1996 Booker Prize judge.

1998 Scripts C4 film Stella Does Tricks

2005 Performs stand-up in Glasgow and at the Edinburgh Fringe.

On her use of initials: 'The authors I first loved all had initials - JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, E Nesbit, ee cummings - and I actively didn't want to know who they were or have them get in the way of my enjoying their story and their voice.'
Tancred Newbury

· Day is published by Jonathan Cape on 5 April, £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885