Thursday, 16 December 2010

Time for Some Last Minute Christmas Shopping

1. A Tree. This Christmas why not plant a tree in the Holy Land? The Olive Co-operative – Trees for Life Campaign plants trees in partnership with the Palestine Fair Trade Association and Zaytoun in places they have been uprooted by illegal Israeli settlers. For just £4 you can sponsor the planting of an olive tree in Palestine. Go to:

2. A Drop to drink. The Co-operative Group has some excellent fair trade wines for the Christmas dinner table. I recommend the organic Reservea Malbec from the La Riojana Co-op in the Famatina Valley in Argentina. This co-op is the world’s largest maker of fair trade organic wines. The red is a full bodied smooth chocolate 100% Malbec and for a white their 2009 fair trade Pinot Grigio is also pretty good. To help find your nearest shop go to:

3. A gift for a person with a sweet tooth? Oxfam shops (or the online shop at are stocking a super range of Divine chocolates, from after dinner mints to beautiful selection boxes. Divine chocolates are made with the best quality fair trade cocoa beans from the Kuapa Kokoo co-operative of Ghanaian smallholder farmers which own Divine chocolate (

4. How about brightening up your loved ones Christmas wardrobe. CND have some super new very brightly coloured T-shirts with classic CND symbols in stunning new colours. There are also new kid’s t-shirts including some huggable hoodies as well as a range of other peaceful presents. See for yourself at:

5. How about some Music. There are some super artists on the co-operative No Masters label, if you want some Christmas music and want to avoid Noddy Holder the Christmas albums by Coope, Boyes and Simpson are for you. See: There has also been some outstanding music on Topic the world’s oldest independent record label formerly the label of the Workers Music Association. I recommend the ‘Gift’ by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson or if you want to splash out and hear the whole Topic catalogue try the seventieth anniversary seven CD collection which shows that during the past 70 years, Topic Records has built a deserved reputation for not compromising the nature of its work or that of the independent spirit of the artists it represents. See:

6. How about a trip to the movies. For the film buff visit the BFI film store. ( Last year the BFI released a restored version of the magnificent Bill Douglas film, ‘Comrades’, about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but this year I am hoping for ( I hope my partner is reading this) the classic ‘Winstanley’ the 1975 film by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, about the Diggers, newly restored by the BFI National Archive. The shop has a terrific selection of classic British and International films together with some stunning documentary films. Of particular interest to Star readers is the ‘Miners Campaign Tapes’ about the great miners strike.

7. Something unusual for the theatre lover. This May saw the members of the New Factory of the Eccentric Actor Theatre Group perform William Morris’s play, ‘The Tables Turned or Nupkins Awakened – a Socialist Interlude’ in the Coach House at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. First performed at the Socialist League Offices in Farringdon Road in 1887, it is Morris’s only play and this is believed to be the first performance by professional actors. Fortunately the William Morris Society has made this early piece of agit prop available on an audio CD for just £10. see:

8. Stuck for a solidarity gift? How about a Cuba Solidarity gift pack! Coffee, cards, music, a Cuban flag brooch, all in a fair-trade bag for just £20! Go to:

9. Looking for something unusual? Then the online shop that Stella Embliss runs for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign is the place for you. A great selection of gifts for children, children’s and adult clothing, jewellery as well as books and cd’s. If you are looking to surprise someone this really is an eclectic collection of fascinating and exciting gifts. Go to:

10. Need a stocking filler? Redwords ( the publishing co-operative have published another beautiful book in their series of Revolutionary Portraits; this one is about the great Soviet composer Shostakovich. Shostakovich, Stalin and Symphonies by Simon Behram can be obtained for just £8.00 from

11. A 2011 Diary has of course to be Housmans Peace Diary incorporating the World Peace Directory. Available either from The Morning Star or from Housmans website together with a selection of thought provoking books. See:

12. And finally why not send a Morning Star Gift subscription to someone you love who needs to keep in touch! For a half price gift subscription send the details of the intended recipient together with a £15 cheque (made out to the PPPS) to ‘Half Price Offer’. The Morning Star, William Rust House, 52, Beachy Road, London, E3 2NS.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

In Praise of the Little Man in the Big Hat

“Comercio Justo” revives Nicaraguan Co-op’s

For us not a great year, 1979, was the year the Nicaraguan Sandinistas overthrew the brutal Somoza gangster capitalist dictatorship. The Somoza family helped themselves to the nations resources – even the manhole covers in the capital Managua were their private property. The Sandinistas where named after the small man in a big hat, whose image has graced thousands of solidarity t-shirts, Augusto Sandino led the small army of peasants and workers that defied US marines who occupied Nicaragua from 1912 until 1933. Following his example the Sandinistas were committed to improving the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.

Next month at Latin America 2010 the grandson of the legendary Sandino, Walter Castillo Sandino will speak about his grandfathers’ legacy. Walter and his wife Marbely have written a biography of Augusto and of his importance in the struggle to build Latin American unity.

One policy of the modern Sandinistas was land reform. The transfer of land to the campesinos helped create the modern Nicaraguan co-operative movement. Land reform was not well received in Washington however, triggering the dirty “Contra War”. This illegal covert US intervention did enormous damage to the fabric of the country leading to the deaths of over thirty thousand Nicaraguans.

Worn down from the struggle against the Contras, in 1990, the people elected a right wing coalition lead by Violeta Chamorro which put the country’s farmers under enormous strain. A new wave of co-operative formation occurred in defence of the land the campesinos had gained and to improve access to markets and credit.

In the dark days after the end of the International Coffee agreement which caused the collapse of six banks in Nicaragua the fair trade movement came to the rescue. Thanks to alternative trading organisations in the developed world, like Oxfam, Equal Exchange, Twin Trading and even the Body Shop, (Anita Roddick was a great friend of Nicaragua) the small farmers of Nicaragua gradually became owners of the whole production chain of products like sesame seeds and coffee.

The success, of the co-operative fair-trade sector, did not go un-noticed. After ignoring fair trade for a decade the likes of Nestle, Starbucks, McDonalds and even Walmart decided that if they could not beat it they would join it but for most of them this was a marketing ploy rather than a fundamental change in ideology. The farmers found themselves back in the same set of abusive relationships that had driven them to form co-op’s and take up fair trade in the first place. Fortunately in 2007, the Sandinistas where returned to power just in time to take advantage of a new force in Latin American trade – the “Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America” – ALBA.

ALBA was formed in reaction to the US attempt to foist a free-trade agreement on Latin America. Nicaragua joined Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenardines, and Honduras. Unsurprisingly Honduras left after the recent coup.

ALBA is committed to “Comercio Justo” or fair trade as well as food security and empowerment. Support is given to small producers of, rice, beans, maize and to raise cattle for the local markets with any surplus being available for export to other ALBA countries.

In Nicaragua ALBA works in partnership with CARUNA (National Rural Cash) which administers the scheme. It receives 25% of the value of the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA’s sales in Nicaragua. With this loan fund CARUNA has lent over £22million dollars to 10,000 small farmers organised in 57 co-operatives. This has supported fishing projects, housing, public transport, micro-enterprises, as well as the improvement of agricultural inputs.

The result was an increase in both the quantity and quality of products as diverse as milk, chicken, bananas and coffee. As the co-operative sector is 70% of Nicaragua’s agricultural economy the impact has been phenomenal. In 2008 the value of Nicaraguan exports was just $27million, rising to $109m in 2009 and set to reach $239m in 2010.

There can be no doubt that the legendary Sandino would approve of this initiative which is liberating the people of Latin America from the backyard of Uncle Sam!

For more information on Latin America 2010 visit:

Monday, 8 November 2010

Come On You Reds!

Who would have thought that former PM Sir John Major would have served as President of a top 100 UK co-operative and who would have thought that co-op would be Surrey County Cricket Club! Playing at the Oval now a superb stadium hosting top international sport and they are not alone, the red rose county, Lancashire is also a co-op.

Fans may wonder why co-operative ownership is good for one famous Old Trafford team while the other suffers under the debt laden ownership of absentee landlords. It does seem strange that when it comes to football, banks will lend money to any reprobate rather than those who really care and are genuinely in it for the long haul – the fans.

What are football clubs for? For rich owners they can be trophy assets or a tax avoidance opportunity. But a vibrant sports club can offer much more than this to the community it serves. Thousands of fans will still be loyal to Liverpool FC years after the current US owners have been and gone. And there is a clear alternative ownership model as cricket shows - co-operative ownership.

There are many variants on mutual ownership across Europe including in the most popular football league in the world the Bundesliga where 50+1% of each club has to be owned by members. Today the poster boys for mutuality are the great Spanish clubs of Real Madrid and Barcelona. It was the renewal of its mutuality that led to the current run of success at Barca. Currently 173,000 fans pay about £160 for their annual membership. As well as supporting world class sport they aim keep their season tickets at the Nou Camp as low as possible – the cheapest adult season ticket is just £77! That’s for a whole season not just one match!

If members don’t like the way the club is being run 5% can trigger a vote of no confidence in the Board. The most recent President, Sandro Rosell, was elected when he won 60% of the 53,000 votes cast by members giving him a mandate the Glaziers could never have.

The financial framework of English football is clearly mad. The profit seeking private ownership model has given clubs huge unsustainable debt, with not enough sugar daddies to go around; loyal fans are super exploited by greedy owners who see them solely as consumers.

A club without fans is clearly unthinkable they are the greatest asset any club could have and is it really so bad for them to have a real say in how their clubs are run? After all when they met in the European Cup Final it was Barca, the club that pays UNICEF 1.5 million Euro’s a year to carry their logo on their shirts that beat the one carrying the logo of a bankrupt US insurance company on its shirts.

You don’t have to go to Spain to support co-operative football. FC United of Manchester formed by alienated Man U fans have steadily climbed the ranks of non-league football. This Friday (November 5th) they play at Rochdale in the 1st Round of the FA Cup. Now five years after their formation they are launching a ground breaking community share issue to help fund a new 5,000 seater stadium at Newton Heath in Manchester. Their planning application is due a decision this month.

They have achieved a great deal without a permanent home and this gives them the chance to show there is a better way to run football by putting supporters at the heart of the game. For more information about FC Uniteds Community share issue, including a prospectus see: There are many sports clubs that benefit from more supporter involvement, could yours be one? See:

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ken Coates 1930-2010

I have to say I was deeply saddened to hear that Ken Coates, a key voice on the left in Britain for a generation, had died. I had arranged to interview him for the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review but before I could make the trip to his home in Derbyshire I heard the sad news. He occupied an important political space here in the UK firmly on the left in both the peace and labour movements but occupying a firmly syndicalist position.

Why should a reader of ASR be interested in Ken? I would argue his key contribution was his role in the formation of the Institute for Workers Control in 1968. In June this year in one of his last published pieces he outlined his philosophy,

“I have always believed that true socialism will be made by the people themselves, the real beneficiaries. That was the significant achievement of the Institute for Workers Control, because it encouraged people to work out their own ideas about what might constitute democracy in industry. This put paid to Fabian myths about how our teachers always new best, even if that experience was short lived.”

As he said in the introduction to Workers Control (Another World is Possible, Arguments from the Institute for Workers Control, Spokesman, 2003),

“For a number of years the IWC was able to organise widespread discussions on all aspects of industrial democracy, and published dozens of pamphlets and books which helped popularise the idea the idea. Its ideas found their way into the TUC through bargaining courses and into the machinery of collective bargaining, as they were taken up by workers’ representatives.
Under Thatcher, with mass unemployment, anti-union laws and the development of a defensive style of trade unionism, notions of workers’ control were put on the back burner. But they remain as relevant as ever, even if the circumstances in which they will henceforward find application are markedly different.”

Coates writings also won the support for the idea of building a strong sector of worker’s co-operatives and there where some notable experiments that would challenge the dominant method of industrial production. These ideas had a particular impact on amongst others the shop stewards of what was then the Lucas Aerospace Group. They developed plans for alternative socially useful production instead of arms manufacture.

As well as helping workers formulate these types of plans he also helped to reclaim this strand of labour history. The work he did with Tony Topham in researching the early history of the Transport and General Workers Union which he argued was a significant development in the movement for workers’ control. That book The Making of the Labour Movement ( Spokesman1994) , is a magisterial piece of work.

They dedicated it to,

“The memory of the pioneers, who dreamed of One Big Union, and to the success of their heirs, the members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.”

The fact that the movement for workers’ control goes right back to the beginning of the industrial revolution is well documented in the ‘Readings and Witnesses for Workers’ Control’, Edited by Coates and Topham (Republished by Spokesman 2005).

Once again here and now in 2010, we find, as they say in the introduction to that book “that trade unions have become the bedrock of effective oppositional resistance”. This is certainly the case here in the UK were the Con-Dem coalition government is hell bent on using the current economic crisis to shrink the state and attack the conditions of workers.

This is exactly what Coates predicted in his last editorial for the Spokesman. This will be a tough fight and one that Ken will not be in to share his wisdom and guidance but there will also be new opportunities for workers to take control of their enterprises a demand that continuously rises to the surface.

Ken has the honour and distinction of being expelled from the Labour Party twice!
No wonder when he wrote things like this;

“In Britain, in 1981, three million people will soon be without work. Enterprise is a word which now means inertia and greed. Authority is a widely used synonym for unreasonableness. But private property once meant that “town air is free air”, because the guildsman’s scissors or hammers were the basis of his independent livelihood. Now it means trans-national companies and wholesale displacement of labour. Words change when people change, and we can join our forces to create a vocabulary in which enterprise becomes in truth a shared effort to improvement and mutual care, and authority is understood as un-coerced admiration for example, and nothing more.

Generations of our forebears, in times when windmills were thought to be sophisticated inventions, could imagine a world in which each might grow in the love, care, and effort of others, and all might take uninhibited delight in the achievements of each. Such Utopian thoughts have been unfashionable in an age of lasers, micro-chips and revisionism. But they are stirring again, and however troublesome they may be to media men and entrepreneurs, the sense they make will become apparent to millions of good people”.

(Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy, Ken Coates, Spokesman, 1981).

Twenty years later once again we face the same challenges but thanks to Ken we will know where we are and what we need to do next!

(All the books referred to in this piece are available from:

Co-operatives and the "Big Society"

As a co-operator you would probably expect me to argue that every organisation could benefit from being more co-operative, that people are naturally co-operative, that co-operative enterprises are innovative, flexible business models that operate in every sector of the economy. As there are some 800 million members of co-operatives globally, employing 100 million people – more than all the multinational companies put together – I do not need to be convinced that co-operatives are a better way of doing business.

I have to say that internationally, not just here in the UK, the lack of confidence in the welfare state and the lack of trust in the private sector has lead to a renewed interest in co-operative enterprise. Indeed the United Nations General Assembly have designated 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives.

So should I be flattered when the Prime Minister himself argues for more co-operative’s in the economy and goes on to make the case for the transfer of previously state provided public services to the co-op sector?

There is no simple statute in English law on what constitutes a co-operative, indeed currently; we have at least eleven different legal bases for co-operatives in UK law. I maybe looking a gift horse in the mouth but my first instinct is to wonder if David Cameron and I are talking about the same thing.

Clearly there is plenty of room for growth in the sector currently there are only around five thousand co-operative businesses in the UK, even so they have almost 13 million members, employ a quarter of a million people and turnover of £33.5billion. So I am happy to talk to anyone who is genuinely interested in growing the sector.

But are we talking about the same thing? The co-operative identity statement agreed by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1995 says that a co-operative is: An autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

This is derived from the seven some times called the ‘Rochdale’ principles of co-operation, simply put these are:
1. Voluntary and Open Membership.
2. Democratic Member Control.
3. Member Economic Participation.
4. Autonomy and Independence.
5. Education, Training and Information.
6. Co-operation amongst Co-operatives.
7. Concern for Community.

Clearly some of these are more fundamental than others. Firstly, the enterprise has to be autonomous or independent secondly it has to be under democratic member control. This incorporates the one member one vote principle which ensures the business is people rather than capital controlled, next comes member economic participation which follows since members who have an equal vote are likely to allocate surpluses in a fair way. Voluntary and open membership means that people have the opportunity to join of their own free will. I would argue that these four principles are fundamental in creating the structure and principles for a member owned business.

The other principles are desirable rather than essential but just from these principles it is clear that a co-operative is not something that can be created by decree. The transfer of public undertakings into co-operatives, setting aside if such a change is desirable, will be a long drawn out complex procedure.

There is no doubt that internationally from places that would appear to have little in common like Venezuela and Cuba to the UK the scope for co-operative enterprise has never been greater yet it is something of a cliché that for co-operatives you need co-operators. This requires a huge shift in our business culture and our education system, as well as changes to the legal and financial framework for business in the UK. Currently co-operatives are discriminated against in all these areas. Work will be needed across the piece if we are to see a genuine paradigm shift in the proportion of the economy in the co-operative sector.

Also on a practical level we need more support for co-operative business, with better co-operative business, accountancy, banking and legal advice services across the country. In the tradition of self help both Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative Group are doing sterling work in this area but there needs to be more. There are numerous existing businesses with succession challenges, where the necessary shared commitment, common interest and mutual trust exists and like the recent case of Blackwells Bookshops would benefit from a move to co-operative ownership. That transition could be made that much easier if the right advice and support services were available.

2012 can indeed be the year of the co-operative. The co-operative movement can make a significant contribution to the ‘Big Society’ but it needs more than warm words it needs practical action.

Monday, 6 September 2010

An Auster Man for an Austere Age

Atlee’s Great Contemporaries, Edited by Frank Field, Continuum, 2009.

Review by Nick Matthews

In his review, in the Daily Telegraph, Brian MacArthur suggests that this would be a good summer read for Labour MP’s. Using the character of Clem Atlee as a stick to beat the contemporary Parliamentary Labour Party with would I think be a popular sport. Certainly a greater modesty in character and lifestyle would do them good.

This is a delightful collection of articles published between 1951 and 1966 mainly in the Observer and written in the style of Atlee the statesman, ‘terse, telling and to the point’, as Peter Hennesey puts it in the epilogue. There are three threads running through them Atlee’s relationships with Churchill, the USA and the Labour Party. One should not be fooled by the austere image of Atlee it is just that, an image, no less than the self propagated more flamboyant image of Churchill.

Today we are well aware that a politician’s character and public image can be far apart an increasing gap which has contributed to the public distrust of the whole political class. The editor, Frank Field, suggests that in politics character is all and asks us to compare the character of Atlee and Churchill the books title coming from one of Churchill’s books, ‘Great Contemporaries’ (Implying in Churchill’s case presumably that I am great and these are my contemporaries).

The subtitle is the ‘politics of character’. Field’s thesis, expressed in an introductory essay, is that the key to successful political leadership is character. He quotes Atlee approvingly: “there are many men who find it impossible to believe that men lead men other than by example of moral and physical courage: sympathy, self-discipline, altruism, and superior capacity for hard work”.

Field argues that Atlee drew his sense of “duty, loyalty and responsibility” from his being bought up in the Anglican Church and his belief in Christian ethics. Yet as Kenneth Harris points out in his biography of Atlee one thing he learned at Haileybury was that he did not believe in God: “So far as I was concerned it was mumbo-jumbo.”[1]

So where do Atlee’s ethics come from? Morgan charts Atlee’s intellectual conversion from a young conservative into a socialist, via Carlyle’s study of Chartism, Ruskin’s Unto this Last, and the writings of William Morris. Indeed Atlee’s favourite passage came from A Dream of John Ball,

“Forsooth, brothers. Fellowship is heaven and lack of fellowship is hell, fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds you do upon this earth it is for fellowships sake ye do them.”

Atlee was a great lover of literature and poetry in particular. One of the most telling pieces, and a great insight into Atlee’s ‘character’, is The Pleasure of Books, in which he describes his library and how much his books, like a collection of old friends, mean to him. He was of the generation that not only enjoyed Morris’s prose but also his poetry which most of us today find hard going. He had few rare books or first editions, for him books were for reading not collecting, but he did have three Morris Kelmscotts, “the gift of some kind friends in the socialist movement, who knew where my love abided.”

One of the reasons Atlee wrote these pieces was because he needed the money to house his library. Atlee had given up his home in 1945 in moving into No 10 because of the housing shortage. Yet sensing his political mortality and looking forward only to a modest pension, as Field puts it, he and Vi sought a new home. “Whatever else this house needed, a primary purpose for Atlee was to house his books”.

Atlee was a complex personality who had risen to be Prime Minister yet in his early political life he could not even get elected to Stepney Borough Council he had certainly done the hard yards as a street corner orator. Discovering in the process the people he most admired, “those who did the tedious jobs, collecting our exiguous subscriptions, trying to sell literature, and carrying the impoverished platform from one street corner to another. They got no glamour. They did not expect to see victory, but uncomplainingly, they worked to try and help the cause.”[2] Maybe he sounds so passionate about the foot soldiers in the movement having been one of them.

He called himself a socialist but of what kind? His ‘socialism’ was as he points out in his autobiography when writing about the ILP, “a way of life rather than an economic dogma”. He believed, like Keir Hardie, that a party formed on the simple object of getting Labour representatives into parliament was “bound in time to become socialist”.[3]

The most telling contributions in this collection which include a large range of pieces are those on Churchill, the wartime generals which reveal his views of the United States and those on Labour figures.

The relationship with Churchill is a theme and certainly he has the measure of him, “He was always looking around for ‘finest hours’ and if one was not immediately available, his impulse was to manufacture one.”(p.161)

In his reviews of the memoirs of Generals Allenbroke, Montgomery and Marshall he lets us know of his views of the USA, he feels they were so obsessed with the British Empire they missed out on the growing Russian one, “The Americans were indeed innocents abroad. It is ironical to reflect when one considers their present attitude to the Communist peril, how much they contributed to its extension westward.”

When it comes to labour there are excellent portraits of Hardie, Lansbury and Bevan but the most telling are the ones about Ernest Bevin. They were a formidable team. Bevin was for Atlee the embodiment of a “Labour representative in parliament”.

In, A Man of Power, in this collection he points out that , “The main thing that Bevin did for the Labour movement was to create and harness power for it, and by constantly stating the trades unions point of view keep the Labour Party’s feet on the ground.” It makes one wonder what the point is of the modern Labour Party and on what exactly its feet are placed.

We should not be fooled by Attlee’s apparent modesty he was well aware of his worth and intelligence. As Christopher Hollis observed, “In a world in which so many people pretend to be more important than they are, the British people has, I think, shown its wisdom and generosity in taking to its heart a man who spends his time pretending to be less important than he his.”[4]

[1] Atlee, Kenneth Harris, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982,p10
[2] Atlee, Kenneth Harris, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982, p33.
[3] As It Happened, C.R.Atlee, William Heinemann, 1954 p33&34.
[4] Atlee, Kenneth Harris, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982, p553.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Socialist Register 2010: Morbid Symptoms

Morbid Symptoms, Health Under Capitalism, Socialist Register, 2010. Edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys. Merlin Press, London, Monthly Review Press, New York and Fernwood Publishing Halifax. 2009.

Confuse and Conceal: The NHS and Independent Sector Treatment Centres, Stewart Player and Colin Leys, Merlin Press, 2008.

The Spirit Level, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Allen Lane, 2009.

Nick Matthews

This, the 46th edition of the Socialist Register, is quite an achievement for a left publication of this quality. 2010 also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the New Left Review, both publications were born out of the post war new left. This was a rebellion led predominantly by intellectuals who found their followers in the huge post-war expansion of the universities. It is unsurprising therefore that the format of these journals follow that of the academic journal.

The New Left Review was the result of the coming together of the New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review. The Reasoner was a product of dissident communist voices drawn largely from the distinguished British Communist historians group whilst the ULR drew its support from those growing Universities. The publisher of the Register, the Merlin Press, had been started by Martin Eve in 1956 (a very significant year in the creation of the New left with the Soviet invasion of Hungary) a time when many intellectuals had left or been pushed out of the Communist Party as a vehicle for the new left. The first Socialist Register, published in 1964 was born of a split in the original editorial team of the New Left Review in 1963.

That could be caricatured as an ideological split between experience, the socialist humanism of E.P.Thompson and youth, the continental Marxism of Perry Anderson. Martin Eve wanted to recreate the New Reasoner and asked E.P Thompson to join with Ralph Milliband and John Saville (who became the joint editors) on the editorial board of the Register. He declined however as he said he was exhausted from the editorship of the New`Reasoner. The Register always had an international flavour with a relationship with the Monthly Review its current joint publisher from the beginning.

The title Register was taken from William Cobbett’s (1762-1835) the Weekly Political Register showing the historical continuity the new publication sought to draw upon. Cobbett, was an early radical voice for democracy and he used his Register to make his case.

“When all newspapers were viewed with suspicion, it was not surprising that working-class newspapers were considered especially dangerous. In particular radical papers like Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register and Wooler’s Black Dwarf (1817-24) were condemned for trying to turn simple people into dupes ‘of the basest and most profligate of men’. Before the ‘gagging acts’ were passed Cobbett fled to America in 1817 – he returned carrying the bones of Tom Paine two years later – and there were such incidents as a Shropshire magistrate ordering two men to be ‘well flogged at the whipping post’, (under the Vagrancy Act) for distributing copies of Cobbett’s Register”. Asa Briggs, England in the Age of Improvement 1783-1867, Longmans, 1959.

So almost 50 years on does the Register still carry the genes of its inheritance? In the preface the new editors, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, quote John Saville on why he joined the Communist Party in 1934, “For young intellectuals with any generosity of sprit there were additional factors beyond the poverty of so many of their own people, and the brutalities of fascism. Bourgeois society was under increasing criticism for its callousness, greed and cultural emptiness.”

Having lived through a UK general election during which these characteristics have been on show in abundance there is no doubt that under whatever party contemporary capitalism continues to be deeply ingrained with “callousness, greed and cultural emptiness”.

For the contemporary editors the predominant theme of the Register for the last 15 years has been a critique of neo-liberal globalisation.

This volume explores that process on “the most important area of human life: health. All the elements of public health, from a balanced diet to decent housing, job security and job satisfaction are crucial in determining how well and how long people live. This is partly a matter of giving the human body what it needs to reach its full potential, but is also a matter of preventing disease and to a lesser extent of curing illnesses. The turn that capitalism has taken in recent decades has, in both these respects been replete with Morbid Symptoms”.

This is a very impressive collection of essays (seventeen in total) which collectively give a comprehensive picture of the global healthcare “industry” including contributions about, China, Cuba, India, and Africa as well as the developed world. They set out to articulate the struggle between commodification and solidarity in health care provision.

The opening essay by Colin Leys (Health, Health Care and Capitalism) is a particularly good opening shot encompassing many of the issues explored in greater depth in the other essays. If you find you are pressed for time this essay alone is worth reading.

His key point is that contrary to conventional wisdom “that capitalism is responsible for the huge improvements in health that have occurred over the last century and quarter” there is considerable evidence that poorer countries often have better health than rich ones.

The fact is that the rich countries have reached the limits of what capitalist economic growth can do for us. The cartoons of Cobbett’s day or indeed the early Wobblies always showed the rich as fat and the poor as thin yet in today’s rich societies it is the poor that are fat and the rich that are thin!

We have always known that in capitalist societies the poor had worse health than the rich but it is now apparent that in deeply unequal societies life expectancy is reduced for both the poor and the rich! There is a wonderful resource for this argument in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book (The Sprit Level, Allen Lane, 2009), they have demonstrated from a huge study of all the available data “how almost everything – from life expectancy to mental illness, violence to illiteracy – is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is”.

This is borne out by the way the food industry works in contemporary capitalism when everyone could get a healthy diet and yet the industry generates both obesity and hunger as Robert Albritton points out in his contribution to the Register (Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry). The private health industry unsurprisingly works in much the same way. Large parts of the developed world’s health industry simply exploit our fears and insecurities like any other part of consumer capitalism contributing little or nothing to improved levels of health.

The health industry also has “a history of struggles for control of the work involved. These struggles have been highly gendered and racialised as well as class-based”, this can be seen on any visit to a major hospital as Pat and Hugh Armstrong show in their contribution to the Register (Contradictions at Work: Struggles for Control in Canadian Health Care).

One essay in the Register I found disappointing was the one on the way the health care industry is presented in TV medical dramas. (Lesley Henderson, Medical TV dramas: health care as soap opera). Doctors and nurses have been a mainstay of TV light entertainment since its inception and yet the impact of the way medicine and health care is presented to the viewers is little understood. It would seem to me that they have greatly contributed to the ‘medicalisation’ of problems that are essentially social and economic in nature. The author admits that, “On the whole, therefore, contemporary audiences are neither educated about the health care system nor invited to become engaged in health policy debates”. Is this a surprise as these programs are soap operas, maybe above average quality soaps, like ER, but soaps nonetheless ie designed to sell soap or today unnecessary medical products and procedures!

This essay feels lightweight compared to Kalman Applbaum’s contribution to the Register on the marketing of healthcare (Marketing of Global Healthcare: The Practices of Big Pharma). Applbaum shows that marketing drives the overconsumption of pharmaceuticals in affluent countries by what is known in the industry as strategic medicalisation or “what some writers call disease mongering”. This is coupled with a secondary but none the less important phenomenon that of ‘strategic pharmceuticalisation’ – the use of drugs to treat most ailments.

In countries where drugs have to go through rigorous cost benefit analysis before public health authorities make them available to patients the drug industry are expert at whipping up public fears to fast track drugs so that Doctors can prescribe them at what ever cost to the public purse.

This also distorts the type of research and product development that the pharmaceutical companies undertake. Whilst they develop expensive placebos for western consumers, “most of the rest of the world suffer from diseases whose incidence would be dramatically reduced if they had access to the medicines already in use in the West fifty years ago.”

Julian Tudor Hart’s contribution to the Register, (Mental Health in a Sick Society: What are people for?) shows how capitalism drives us mad. I cannot say I am surprised it has been driving me mad for years. I was reminded of John Ruskin’s comment, “We have much studied and much perfected of late the great civilised invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men - Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in man is not enough to make a pin.” (John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic 1853)

There is no doubt in Europe that in search of profits the private sector is desperately trying to get a share of state healthcare budgets and in the United States the Obama administration is seems to be trying to spread the cost of healthcare away from businesses and across the population more generally. The collapse of the US car industry for example seems to owe much to the legacy heath care costs of tens of thousands of former employees. The US system must be benefiting someone other than its patients as it is the least efficient anywhere in the world costing twice as much per capita yet leaving 50 million people uninsured placing the US near the bottom of the league table for many of the key heath indicators.

As Christoph Herman points out in his contribution to the Register (The Marketisation of Health Care in Europe) European healthcare systems fall into two types, whilst both are based on public planning and to a large extent based on services delivered by public organisations, they are funded in different ways. One model the German or Bismark model based on social insurance deducted from salaries was begun by the German Chanceller in the nineteenth century and the other is the Beveridge model or the British model is funded by tax revenue. William Beveridge was the mastermind behind the reorganisation of the British welfare system in 1945.

Most countries in Europe have adopted one model of the other and they have proved to be remarkably resilient and very popular. Despite this the growing costs of healthcare have driven all governments to try and involve the private sector in the provision of healthcare. The process has varied but in most cases it has been by the commoditisation of basic healthcare activities and the outsourcing of them to the private sector.

Herman points out that “the effect of the reforms has been not so much a reduction in costs as a shift from public to private healthcare spending. Increasing healthcare costs – in most countries the proportion of GDP spent on health care has continued to increase – are not considered a problem as long as they do not weigh on public budgets”.

The politicians then are keen to introduce private providers into the state system without frightening the public. Collusion between politicians and the private health industry to get a share of the public spending on health in the UK is highlighted in a short report, Confuse and Conceal: The NHS and Independent Sector Treatment Centres, Stewart Player and Colin Leys, Merlin 2008.

The ISTC program was presented to the public in Britain as a way of using the private sector to shorten waiting times for elective surgery and diagnostic tests and increasing patient ‘choice’.

Choice is the great nonsense in the British health debate leading to increasing marketisation and privatisation. The choice that is being offered is not that of treating the patient as an equal participant in the design of their healthcare but that of having the choice between a commodified procedure undertaken in a public or a private space.

Restrictions on the capacity of the public healthcare system are being used to drive patients into the private sector. Further a patient has to be in the position to be able to exercise any choice. In complex cases patients have to rely on expert opinion and in an emergency having a ‘choice’ is not the first thing that comes to mind. In many private sector hospitals in the UK if the patients’ condition gets too difficult they are handed back to the public hospitals.
Many of the criticisms of state healthcare provision about, bureaucracy and industrialisation of healthcare which originally came from the left are now being used by the right to drive marketisation or patient ‘choice’. We all know however who has the real choice in a market situation. Any perceived choice in public health care provision has always been exploited by the articulate middle classes and the so-called ‘worried-well’ as Leys points out, Julian Tudor Harts famous ‘inverse care law’ tends to hold – the amount of health care given is inversely related to the need for it.

Re-reading some of the pre-war arguments which lead to the formation of European state run health care systems today they do sound rather authoritarian with the feel of eugenicist about them. Something that has been forgotten in the Left’s defence of state healthcare provision is that prior to nationalisation there was a small but significant socially owned and worker managed health care sector. For example before World War Two the South Wales Miners Federation had a strong concern for the medical care of its members. The Miners Welfare Commission was founded in 1920, funded by miners and mine owners by 1923 it had established the Talygarn Convalescent home. It became a Miners Rehabilitation Centre in 1943 earning a world-wide reputation for its treatment of injured miners before being taken over by the Ministry of Health in 1951. (See: The Fed, a History of the South Wales Miners Federation in the twentieth Century, Hywel Francis and David Smith, Lawrence and Wishart, 1980).

Reading this Socialist Register it seems that the mainstream left has become locked into defending the welfare state from marketisation and can no longer see the possibility of welfare without the state.

As the late Colin Ward has pointed out (Anarchy in Action, Colin Ward, Freedom Press, 1988) we may, “conclude that there is an essential paradox in the fact that the state whose symbols are the policeman, the jailor and the solider should have become the administrator and organiser of social welfare. The connection between warfare and welfare is in fact very close. Until late in the nineteenth century the state conducted its wars with professional soldiers and mercenaries, but the increasing scope of wars forced states to pay more and more attention to the physical quality of recruits.”

Ward argues that the biggest challenge for modern health care provision is that of institutionalisation. Ward argued that,” When we compare the Victorian antecedents of our public institutions with the organs of working-class mutual aid in the same period the very names speak volumes. On the one side is the Workhouse, the Poor-Law Infirmary, The National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-operative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition pf fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed form above.”

We can see that this institutionalisation is a cradle to the grave affair. Childbirth itself has become institutionalised to an almost industrial scale with women struggling against huge bureaucracy to avoid the birthing factories and give birth in their own homes. The needs of the ‘institution’ come ahead of the mother. The situation is no better at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to looking after the elderly and end of life care.

Ward argues that an anarchist approach would be clear - the breakdown of institutions into small units in the wider society, based on self-help and mutual support, like Synanon or Alcoholics Anonymous, or the many other supportive groups of this kind which have sprung up outside the official machinery of social welfare.

This is of course the exact opposite of the way modern health care is moving as the needs of increasingly large and complex technology and pharmacy are creating larger and ever more centralised hospitals. As they become more dependent on private providers for equipment and drugs is it surprising that European Hospitals become ever more ripe for privatisation?

As modern consumer capitalism makes more of us sick this is itself a market opportunity. Rodney Loeppky points out in his contribution to the Register (Certain Wealth: Accumulation in the Health Industry) worldwide health spending reached $4.5 trillion in 2006. $2trillion was accounted for by the US and US spending is set to reach $3.5 trillion by 2014. This is not an industry responding to the demands of patients. Rising costs are regularly blamed on an aging population but the steady growth of the elderly cannot explain the vast explosion in health spending.

Health care has become a ‘growth sector’ in most OECD economies and its growth is universally treated as a good thing. Loeppky asks how much health is enough? This is a crucial question given that all the indicators tell us that life expectancy in the advanced societies has reached a plateau.

There are glimmers of hope like the work the IWW is doing to keep the market out of the UK Blood Transfusion Service. This is a service based on pure social solidarity people freely give blood not knowing whom it will benefit.

After all as Colin Ward reminds us, a multiplicity of mutual aid organisations amongst, claimants, patients, victims, represents the most potent lever for change in transforming the welfare state into a genuine welfare society, in turning community care into a caring community.
You will not be flogged for reading and distributing this Register but it does contribute to the debate about how we care for the sick or injured members of society. Is care to be based on solidarity or the market?

Monday, 8 March 2010

We Sell Our Time No More

Book Review: We Sell Our Time No More: Workers’ Struggles Against Lean production in the British Car Industry. Paul Stewart, Mike Richardson, Andy Danford, Ken Murphy. Tony Richardson and Vicki Wass. Pluto Press 2009. (£14.99 Direct from Pluto)

I had a call recently from the fund raisers at Keele University, where I studied Industrial Relations, some years ago. When they asked for some loot I replied, “Why should I support an institution that has turned a world class centre for the study of industrial relations into a mediocre business school? As far as I am concerned human resource management is one step away from the return of slavery.” The caller didn’t stay long.

So you can see where I am coming from. “We Sell Our Time No More”, is a quote from a T&G convener at Vauxhall-GMs Elsmere Port Plant, PeterTitherington; “Under the piece work rate system we directly sold the fruits of our labour. Under Measured Day Work we sold our time. Under lean we sell our time no more. Under lean, management determine our labour input and our time with a vengeance. Or at least that’s their aim.”

Given the state of academic IR this book is a bit a rarity a few years before Keeles destruction without any sense of irony the LSE (founded of course by the Webbs' amongst the earliest students of modern IR) had put their IR into management! Against this tide of destruction this work is a welcome demonstration of the importance of the discipline.

The research for the book was coordinated through the Auto Workers Research Network, established to study the impact of ‘lean production’ on the health and working conditions of car workers by Paul Stuart (co-author of the Nissan Enigma- flexibility at work in a local economy- with Philip Garrahan in 1992). The book contains details of the introduction of these new management techniques into the industry and the trade unions response to them at Vauxhall-GM and Rover/BMW. The most substantial part of the book are the round table discussions with shop stewards and the challenges they have faced in struggling against some of the idiocies of this management methodology.

There is one area I tend to disagree with in that it plays down the importance of the deskilling effect of the introduction of new technologies and the better management information it provides. This is a minor criticism in what is a valuable book. The book reminded me of the 1960’s study by Goldthorpe and Lockwood of affluent workers in Luton (The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure) that contributed to the ‘embourgeoisement thesis’. The idea that we are all middle class now!

There is no doubt that as part of the neo-liberal roll back of the gains workers have made HRM and lean employment methodology are now not just an issue for manual workers they have penetrated into all areas of work including into the public sector. Indeed in education the parceling up of work and the introduction of short term contracts is leading to the proletarianisation of previously ‘middle class’ models of employment leading to de-skilling and de-professionalization with the collapse of any worker autonomy.

When I studied IR one of the most useful concepts was that coined by American Carter L.Goodrich back in 1920. In his study of British Coalmining – A Study in British Workshop Politics he coined the idea of the frontier of control. There is no doubt that with lean methods and HRM management that frontier has been driven in managements favour. In the name of 'flexibility' (for whom?) there has been a transferring of costs on to workers much to the detriment of their health, wealth and general well-being. This book helps us understand how that has come about and contributes to the battle to drive the frontier back.