Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Genetically modified conference
I went to the Labour Party conference rather than the counter-conference this year in Brighton. While the counter-conference was part of the growing anti-capitalist movement, the conference itself looked more 'pro'. The debating hall was permanently ringed with a picket of big business backed stalls and displays. The delegates did reflect some of the feelings of anger and betrayal from the ranks--with notable defeats for the top table over pensions and train safety. However, the overall impression was of a conference of moderately progressively minded people marooned in the middle of a trade fair, leading to bizarre and grotesque contrasts.
Unsurprisingly, Peter Mandelson won the award for the least appropriate business backing. He spoke for the Fabians on 'Who do you trust? Politics, risk and society', sponsored by the Chemical Industries Association. So a discussion about environmental safety was backed by the trade association of the GM firms and pollution-prone chemical manufacturers. Mandelson went on to debate, 'What should be Labour's second term priorities?' for IPPR, with Robin Cook , Billy Bragg and Polly Toynbee, sponsored by ICL and ManPower. ICL is behind the aborted Benefits Card project, a multi-million pound failure. ManPower is a major Dome sponsor--its 'Work Zone' is one of the most corporate and dreariest parts of the Greenwich disaster. ManPower also prepared a strike-breaking operation for BA a few years back. So it seems that the priorities for Labour's next term are more failed computer system privatisations and more Domes.
However, Mandelson wasn't the only business-backed minister. Alongside the drug and transport industries, banking and insurance were the top sponsors. Finance houses want to be close to the government, not least because of the possibilities opened up by the running down of the welfare state. Tessa Jowell spoke in 'Our healthier workforce', financed by insurer Swiss Life (buffet provided). Alistair Darling spoke on pensions for the Fabians, backed by stockbroker Charles Schwab. The Citizens Advice Bureaux ran a fringe meeting on 'Tackling debt and financial exclusion', sponsored by Barclays. Tessa Jowell, Cherie Booth and Anna Coote discussed whether 'New Labour has delivered for women', backed by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Melanie Johnson (economic secretary to the Treasury) was booked to talk on 'Creating a savings culture' (ie best start saving now because there won't be a pension when you get old), sponsored by Pearl Assurance. Treasury minister Helen Liddell and Chris Haskins, simultaneously chair of Northern Foods and Labour's 'Better Regulation Task Force', discussed 'Creating an enterprise culture' for the Social Market Foundation, ('with drinks and canapés'), thanks to Zurich Financial Services. Delegates wanting more of the same could visit the stall of the British Bankers Association between these meetings.
The slogan 'Don't give to beggars' will feature on billboards and in newspaper ads across the country. Local papers are being encouraged to run features supporting the campaign and police forces will be told to crack down on people begging. Homeless people in Brighton are now fearful for their lives after a spate of late night attacks.
In response to local concerns, national 'homelessness tsar' Louise Casey came to Brighton to tell charity workers to support the campaign or risk losing their funding. The majority of people are appalled by the witch-hunt. There is a need for a campaign that will give New Labour a bloody nose over this issue, and confront the causes of homelessness and poverty.
The lecturers' union at the university also passed a resolution condemning the witch-hunt, writing in protest to the editor, and urging its members and the public to continue their occasional generosity as both an expression of their humanity and as a political protest.
New Labour may hope that scapegoating vulnerable people can get them out of a tight corner. We have to make sure they fail.
We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
Karen O'Toole seems to have been dazzled by the even-handed depiction of the miners' strike when reviewing Billy Elliot (October SR) into thinking that it is some sort of radical film. It isn't.
I would argue that its ideological force is classically Blairite, whereby a gifted and talented individual transcends his class with the help of an unpaid mentor.
The Departments of Culture, Media and Sport, and Education and Employment churn out speeches and reports about the role the arts, in the broadest sense, can play in both the general economic regeneration of Britain and the specific challenge of fostering social inclusivity. The arts for Blairism are instrumental, not liberating, opportunities for private business partnership. They are not a basic public entitlement.
The Dome is not alone in its fate. Many other centres around the country have been built with lottery funds and then left stranded, unable to pay staff or underwrite the kinds of exhibitions and productions they would like to put on because they are expected to drum up funds from non-existent private sources.
The most scandalous long term impact of Tory and New Labour thinking in schools has been in this area.
It's not just that musical tuition, theatre-in-education, visiting artists and playing fields have disappeared because of budget shortfalls. The narrowing of the primary curriculum to squeeze in literacy and numeracy hours reduces teachers' time and energy for artistic development.
All of this means that the thousands of Mrs Wilkinsons--Billy Elliot's dance teacher--around Britain become the saps of this process. For example, culture minister Chris Smith is regularly found praising the drama work of Vic Ecclestone on Bristol's Hartcliffe estate.
Fortunately Vic is not flattered by New Labour's praise. The Observer (8 October) quoted his plea for schools to stop downgrading the arts. With reference to Billy Elliot he says, 'All children should be given the experience and the vocabulary to equip them to understand the arts... It is not about creating great dancers, it is about letting all children have a choice.' No wonder the Daily Mail gave it 10/10. Shame that Karen was so easily impressed.
Chanie Rosenberg, reviewing my book on the Palestine Mandate, The Unrelenting Conflict, condemns it for 'huge sins of omission, which badly distort the description of the politics of the situation' and then assumes the task of making good the alleged omissions.
These are mainly associated with the period following the invasion of Israel in May 1948 by armies from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and are characterised by the hype which followed the defeat of those armies.
That brouhaha finds no place in my book or any serious history of the period. The Unrelenting Conflict is a product of historical research and has no place for mythical propaganda. The authenticity of its reports is established by the careful listing of all the documentary evidence of their origins.
One can only guess why Rosenberg chooses to write that the book was 'written by a Zionist', but readers will find that for every quotation from Zionist sources there are a hundred from other, including anti-Zionist, sources.
I am writing on behalf of the North West Labour History Group,which publishes an annual journal. I would like to appeal to your readers for contributions to two forthcoming issues: one on the 1960s, to be published in 2001, and one on the 1970s, to be published in 2002.
We believe the time has come to examine the radical social, political and labour movements of those decades in the north west. We are interested in contributions on a wide range of topics including CND, Rock Against Racism, Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974, arts lab, women's liberation, the 'alternative society', anti-fascism, black power, factory occupations, Gay Liberation Front, the New Left, and much else. We are interested in contributions from both academic researchers and, equally importantly, those who were politically active themselves during those years.
We invite anybody interested to contact us in the first instance at the address below.
c/o Working Class Movement Library, 51 Crescent, Salford, M5 4WX
Weyman Bennett (October SR) does a brilliant job of showing how working class radicals and socialists supported the slave revolt against Governor Eyre of Jamaica in the mid-1860s.
This still comparatively obscure historical episode--the 1860s not being a fashionable decade amongst historians--is a powerful blow against those who argue that the British working class was consumed by imperialist and racist attitudes from the start.
In fact, as Weyman shows, the reverse was true. One wonders if Simon Schama will get around to mentioning this reality in his much trumpeted history of Britain now being broadcast.
I'm referring to the unblemished racism and classism of Judy Cox's article on Greenham Common (October SR). Here's what Lynne Segal never told her: the politics of 'all' women as nurturers and all men as collaborators is simply a faulty generalisation elaborated from Judy's own white, middle class culture.
The Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) purported to be for all women, and feminists such as Judy Cox used these politics to distance women who disagreed and to marginalise, silence or exclude black, Asian and working class women.
From her previous feminism Judy has moved with great ease to today's anti-capitalist movement. The WLM, when it retreated into 'self limited, increasingly moralistic' campaigns was in fact dissolving itself. The WLM refused to negotiate with the black, Asian, and working class women who refused to be silent about a eurocentric and middle class movement, and who held a politics hostile to racism, patriarchy and capitalism.
I daresay Socialist Review (and the SWP) printed this blast from the past because you are yourselves primarily 'white' and middle class. You did not even recognise this so called feminism, and clearly know little of the former WLM.
In response to my review of Julian Stallabrass' book High Art Lite, John Molyneux raised some points that necessitate a reply.
Firstly, John's contention that I make 'a broad condemnation of 'Young British Art' without any discussion of, or attempt to relate to, specific works' seems to confuse my role as reviewer with that of the book's author, flattered as I am by the mix up. Mistakenly, perhaps, John has chosen to shoot the messenger.
The book's introduction makes clear that the approach locates contemporary British art within its wider social and economic framework, in particular its relationship with the art market, the mass media and popular culture, as well as referring to specific works and artists. I'm sure that John's own particular brand of connoisseurship would be greatly appreciated by Brian Sewell and the tweed-laden commodity fetishists that frequent such establishments as Sotheby's.
John's final point comments upon the inherent contradiction in my review's introduction, in which I drew a parallel between the lack of critical texts on contemporary British art and the absence of certain images in High Art Lite due to permission to reproduce them being denied. The fact that some of the omissions are of works that the book actually commends is admittedly true, but as with John's opening gambit in which he compares my book review with Ed Hall's exhibition review, it is a sense of rhetoric that I was seeking, not academic proficiency.