Monday, 29 February 2016

Robin Cook at Seventy

On February 28th Robert (Robin) Finlayson Cook would have been seventy. As I have just reached the age at which he died in 2005 I realise how much life he had in front of him. His death was a great loss to our politics. I worked with him when he was Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary and I felt he would make a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Sadly there where Blairites and Brownites but few Cookites not a one to tolerate fools, essential as Jeremy Corbyn has discovered in managing the Parliamentary Labour Party, he was poor at cultivating his supporters in the party

I suspect that today he is best remembered for departure from high office. Immortalised on You Tube, his 2003 resignation speech contains the most incisive demolition of the case against the War in Iraq that you will find from a man who had been foreign secretary from 1997 until 2001 and therefore knew what he was talking about. This was the very first speech ever to receive a standing ovation from members.

The loss of Cook to the government was indeed a great tragedy but the much greater tragedy was the fact that he was right. Amongst those who heard that speech who can forget the words;

Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.

It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories.

Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?”

That speech and the comment about British approved munitions factories took me back to the 15th February 1993 and Cook’s parliamentary demolition of Ian Lang the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry over the Scott Report.

To be precise it was the Report of the Inquiry into the Export of Defence Equipment and Dual-Use Goods to Iraq and Related Prosecutions, undertaken by Sir Richard Scott Lord Justice of Appeal. They must have thought he was a safe pair of hands.

I played a very small part in Cook’s preparation for that debate. Whilst ministers had eight days to read the report, all 2386 pages, it was only released to the opposition three hours before the debate. About eight of us who had been following the twists and turns of the inquiry took chunks of it and read them drawing anything we thought relevant to Cooks attention.

I remember at one point with a colleague just checking in the dictionary to see if “dissembling” meant what we thought it meant. It did, it is to conceal or disguise, to assume a false appearance of something in everyday language it is lying.

The way the Report was presented by the press you would think it was ambiguous that was not the case it was in fact clear and easy to read. Apart from the occasional double negative, its narrative was compelling and its conclusions plain as a pikestaff Scott was a very literate author. Some of his language like the use of words like dissembling was enough for the largely illiterate press to accuse him of obscurantism. This was of course what the government had wanted - a smoke screen!
When we think what has happened since the whole affair now seems amazing.  In the late 1980s, Coventry based machine tool firm Matrix Chruchill had been bought by the Iraqi government and was exporting machines used in arms manufacture to Iraq.
Such exports are subject to government approval, and Matrix Churchill had all the necessary paperwork, as in 1988 export controls had been relaxed. This relaxation however had never been announced – indeed, even when asked in parliament whether controls had been relaxed, Ministers said they had not.
HM Customs and Excise, unaware of the change in policy, where suspicious that Matrix Churchill where exporting arms components illegally in 1991 the directors were prosecuted for breach of export controls. The trial was a fiasco. The Government sought public interest immunity but this was overturned by the trial judge, forcing key documents to be handed over to the defence.
The trial collapsed when former minister Alan Clarke admitted with typical sangfroid that he had been 'economical with the actualit√©’ in answer to parliamentary questions about what he knew about export licenses to Iraq.
Cook’s demolition of the Government almost bought them down as they only won the vote 320 to 319! It turned out that one of the Directors of Matrix Churchill was working for the security services all along.
Before Scott the Government had been prepared to allow innocent people to go to prison - now the appeal court quashed a string of convictions - of Ali Daghir, managing director of Euromac, of Paul Grecian, managing director of Ordtec, and of Reginald Dunk, of the trading firm, Atlantic Commercial. Some of them won compensation Dunk received over £2m.  James Edmiston, managing director of the Sterling machine gun manufacturer took over 20years but won eventually £5m but no apology. Charged with Dunk but acquitted, the charges had forced him to sell the company and he was later declared bankrupt.
So why where the Government secretly arming Iraq? Well you have to go back to the Iran/Iraq war in 1980 when government policy was not to support either side but when Iraq looked like losing the USA and the British started covertly supporting Iraq
Cook did the nation a great service on that day as he did again in 2003 over the Iraq War. If only he had remained Foreign Secretary and there had been a Prime Minister who shared his ambition for an ethical foreign policy today the whole could would now be a better place.

The conspicuous absentee at Cook’s funeral was Tony Blair perhaps that shows us that despite appearances he does have some shame. 

It’s a God Awful Small Affair.

Noel Coward in Private Lives points out that it is, “Strange how potent cheap music is.” I thought about this as I was listening to the discussion about the musical legacy of David Jones from south London better known as international superstar David Bowie.
His potent music has the ability to evoke over decades time and place for millions of people. The charge is that the response to his death was disproportionate to his talent. This may well be true only time will tell. The response could be a function of the fact that his death was unexpected; happening just releasing a new album signalling to most people that he was very much alive. It could be a function of the age and life experiences of many of the news editors and presenters losing someone who had provided a part of the soundtrack to their own lives.
All modern pop music is cannibalistic often eating itself and other less popular musical forms and making them palatable for a wider public. Some say this is like the process of turning wholemeal into white bread in the process refining out all the goodness! It is very rare for a true original to reach a mass audience.  An obvious example from the birth of the modern pop music industry is the way British blues bands took the great blues from the original artists and made their music palatable for white suburban kids to listen to in their bedrooms.
Many of the early blues greats died in abject poverty yet it would have been hard to conceive of the Rolling Stones, Cream or even Led Zeppelin without Robert Johnson.
The Stones have had a long career from this process. Are they as good as Bod Diddley or Chuck Berry, no of course not, still touring they put on a good show even though today they seem to have morphed into their own tribute band.
Other bands of course pillage both folk and classical music with the occasional pillaging of music from the wider world. Where Bowie was interesting with his art school background was his pillaging of music from the avant-garde. He was not the first to do this; Mark Bolan probably beat him to it, but sadly did not live to evolve the way Bowie did.
After almost packing it in for the musical-theatre it is well known that he created his first successful persona from his reading of the Velvet Underground and MC5 adding beat poetry and a degree of sexual ambiguity to the mix later repaying the compliment by producing Lou Reed’s most commercial album Transformer.
There is a debate about where the quote, “good artists copy, great artists steal,” comes from, some say Picasso some T.S. Eliot. The point however is that there is never anyone who is truly original which is something that makes the present copyright laws so irrational.  The point is to take an idea or inspiration one receives from others and add to it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bowie did this on more than one occasion. Bowie would have been the first to admit he was no great musician or singer but he did have a feel for the zeitgeist and there is skill jumping successfully onto a moving musical bandwagon and not looking a mere copyist.
If he had only done this once it would have been remarkable but he did it again and again.  He did it with Nile Rodgers and funk for the Thin White Duke, Young Americans period.
The period I liked best was his so called Berlin phase. He managed to escape from the rock god hedonism of Los Angles which could have been terminal to engage with of all things German expressionism.
What was called Krautrock in a disparaging way by the British the music press involving bands like Amon Duul, Tangerine Dream, and one I followed around University campuses at the time Can  (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of the band had actually studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen), Faust and probably the best known Kraftwerk.
They had been picked upon by people in the States like Frank Zappa who always had an ear for contemporary classical music and there was an overlap with the so called Canterbury Scene in England which included Soft Machine and Caravan.
With the help of Brian Eno and later King Crimsons Robert Fripp and producer Tony Visconti his music did a hand break turn with albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger. Taking this German sound and making it something different. The restless chameleon however soon moved on with the development of the new romantic style and the revival of the character Major Tom who we found out was junky!
A new way of getting to your audience arrived with MTV and the music video which seemed to have been made for Bowie. As well as establishing a compelling visual image by now Bowie could do pretty much anything he wanted and to his credit he always surrounded himself with the very best musicians and producers.
There were other interesting episodes and in many ways the best at least commercially was yet to come.  Through a career when his music had been both potent and strange he had ploughed his own furrow. He even has some credit along with Eric Clapton, even if for the wrong reasons, for the formation of Rock against Racism.
It is unlikely that someone like Bowie could achieve mainstream success today as digitalisation has destroyed the value in many large scale record labels making them risk averse. The kind of just on the edge style of a David Bowie would be unlikely to be promoted. The music he poached from Black Soul music, to German Expressionism to the avante-garde however is still going on under the mainstream radar you just have to go out look for it!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Jeremy Corbyn: History Man.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year I felt such a degree of despair about Labour I felt the party was incapable of renewing itself and was just going to slide into the dustbin of history.

Maybe it was time to think of creating a new party? Labour had lost the ability to think, to develop policies to address now rather than the situation it faced in 1992. It was in 1992 that Labour failed to win what looked like a certain victory against John Major. Blair and even more so Brown had been scared by this defeat and had like old generals had been fighting the same battle ever since.

The old adage that it is the winners who get to write the history seems to be true unless the “wrong” person wins the Labour Leadership. Since Jeremy Corbyn had the temerity not just to be a good chap and prove his unpopularity but to actually win the fight has not been about the future but about the past.

In the History Boys, Alan Bennett puts this into the mouth of Irwin the history teacher, “But this is History. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don't see it, and because we don't see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past.”

The Observer ran a series of essays about Labour over the new year in his contribution, Peter Hyman, former Blair apparatchik, tripped headlong into this dead ground. It was his interpretation of the history of the Blair/Brown years that gave Corbyn his huge majority.

Hyman rightly dates the failure of New Labour from its second term in office.

Firstly what was New Labour - essentially it was a marketing tool. How do you sell someone who has risen without trace, has little life experience, none of high office or indeed any obvious qualifications for the job? Let us call them “New”. A new product has no past. This is the Year Zero Pol Pot School of politics.

The simple fact is that in 1997 Blair inherited a broadly social democratic policy platform from John Smith. Despite the New Labour rhetoric around the manifesto the core policies, the minimum wage, trade union recognition, signing up for the Social Chapter, Regional Economic Development, Devolution for Wales and Scotland, Lords reform, and the Human Rights Act, had come from Smith.

It was the second term that the problems began because once Blair and Brown where making the policy it was in an over centralised un-tested way free they where free ignore conference and members alike. Remember the clapathons after the leader’s speeches? What they said however absurd went.

Policies where shaped by their Atlanticist politics. They imported neo-conservative foreign policy ideas and neo-liberal economic ideas into British politics. Blair floated off into neo-con foreign policy land with his liberal interventionism and Brown began a love affair with Alan Greenspan - even seeing to it that Greenspan would receive an honorary knighthood!

Most of the things we campaign against now - they started, light touch city regulation, privatisation of education and health, their failure to invest in infrastructure particularly, green energy and broad band, the lack of new social housing and crazy PFI schemes.

Remember the way they where in thrall to the rich, their inability to tackle foot and mouth, the way they announced things as if they had actually DONE something and the bloody millennium dome!

This is what people remember it may not yet be in the history books but we know this is what happened because we where there!

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” says George Orwell in 1984. The establishment and the corporate media have always understood this.

From the true history of World War One, in which Britain was as much to blame as Germany, to the false history of the collapse of the Callaghan Government, to the Falklands war, from the Shrewsbury Pickets to Orgreave, from our role in Northern Ireland to the Iraq war.

The left have always understood the importance of understanding what really happened in the past and after a golden period when left historians where helping to put the record straight the right has made a comeback with celebrity TV historians. Now however the ability of the mainstream media to shape our understanding of our own history has been eroded by the internet.

I do not mean the crazies who think 9-11 was done by Mossad but by intelligent alternative voices to the mainstream narrative. Reading the mainstream press about Corbyn he is projected as being a throwback to a previous age but this only works if you can make people believe just how awful that age was.

In reality of course far from being hard left his policies are broadly social democratic ones that John Smith would recognise. Yet without the internet Jeremy Corbyn could not have been elected. Discovering that what you saw and felt was real and others felt the same way was so important in creating the campaigns momentum, in building the crowds for rallies and just letting people hear un mediated what he was actually saying!

We must not let up in this battle they will not stop trying to crush our hopes and real aspirations. Sadly even this great paper does not yet have the reach to get to hundreds of thousands of Labour members and supporters.  Let us make that our New Year resolution to build our reach using all the tools the internet has bought us including our e-edition  It is voices like the Star and its journalists writing that first draft of history that are so important in building that alternative future.

2015 The Co-op Year in Review

After a traumatic 2014 many of us in the Co-operative Movement where looking for the quiet life in 2015. Despite a year of steady progress we are still suffering the effects of the forced asset sales and the reputational damage the collapse of the Co-operative Bank precipitated.

Despite that set back, and whilst the Co-op Group is still of significant importance to the movement, there is new life and growth across the co-operative sector generating some considerable success.

There is a new confidence amongst the worker co-op’s who have established a solidarity fund to help support and develop new worker co-ops. Growth in individual co-op stores has been encouraging and it was great to see Beanies the Wholefoods the worker co-op from Sheffield receive the Observer award for independent retailer of the year.

In the agriculture sector it has been especially tough for milk producers and yet OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-op) won the prestigious Food Chain Marketing Award at the food and farming awards. OMSCo is a terrific co-op it manages over 250 million litres of organic milk, which accounts for 65% of the total organic milk
supply in the UK.

In consumer co-ops the incomparable Wine Society won the Decanter Retailer of the year award for the fifth year running. Meanwhile in the autumn the Co-operative Group was able to celebrate a return to profit and its first real increase in market share with a glass of its own prize winning champagne. Les Pioneers named after the Men of Rochdale and it is pretty good. I know call me a champagne socialist!

The Co-op Group was named ethical drinks retailer of the year whilst having only having ten per cent for the nation’s drinks market it sells over half of all the fair-trade wine consumed in the UK.

One of the Groups most successful partnerships is with the Argentinean Riojana Wine Co-operative. They had a special celebration because thanks Co-op customers and the fairtrade premium a village that before 2008 didn’t have clean drinking water now has a secondary school. Their wine is pretty good too. If you like a robust red their award winning Malbec is just the thing.
Talking of ethical products the phone co-op has been selling one you can talk on. They became the UK's only mobile provider to stock Fairphone the ethical smartphones, challenging the mobile industry over supply chain transparency. There is some nasty stuff in your mobile phone and at last here is a way to do the right thing.
This helped them to win an award at the social enterprise awards along side two other co-ops. Leading Lives, a worker co-op providing high quality social care support for adults with complex needs, who picked up the Health and Social Care Social Enterprise award and Zaytoun which supports Palestinian olive farming families by helping them to grow sales of their produce work that was recognised with the International Impact award.
Credit Unions have been having a good year too with adult membership reaching 1.1million in November and assets growing to £1.32billion with almost 400 people joining a credit union every working day it seems the message about loan sharks is finally getting through.
In Manchester just ten years after their formation fan owned FC United where being cheered on at their very own ground against of all teams Benfica it may sound like a fairy tale but it has been achieved with a great deal of passion and a lot of hard work.
For the first time this year we opened up the Co-op of the Year to a public vote. The winners where Midcounties Co-op they have had a roller coaster year. They had some real problems with their Co-op Energy business caused by a challenge all co-ops would love – it has been growing too fast!
Of course it would be foolish to pretend everything in the garden was rosy. It is not despite the Co-op bank putting £1 million into co-op development they have managed to alienate many long standing and supportive customers by closing their accounts over the heavy handed imposition of money laundering regulations.  
In recent times one of the fastest growing sectors has been community energy co-ops now that is threatened by the Governments lack of commitment to renewable energy and damage done has been done to the sector by tax changes.
There is a similar picture amongst housing co-ops the Government attacks on social housing and restrictions on housing benefit are causing considerable concern across the country.
It also took a real struggle at the Co-op Group AGM to secure the future of the Co-operative Party. Although we have faced some serious issues even the Peoples Press Printing Society is finishing the year in a better place than it started with real optimism for progress in the New Year.
Looking forward the 2016 Co-op Congress will be in Yorkshire at the magnificent Unity Works in Wakefield, formerly the home of Wakefield Co-op now in community co-operative ownership and leading the cultural renaissance of Wakefield
This last year has been tough commercially for all co-ops with very poor margins across all sectors. Despite talk of recovery and growth most co-op businesses focussed on the domestic market are just not seeing it. This has not stopped them making a real difference for their members, customers and the communities they serve in 2015. Let’s hope for another year of steady progress in the New Year.