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activism Book reviews Corbyn Labour media Politics

My Christmas Homework, 2016 (or, why we still look back in anger )

Homework, set by members of my CLP 4 years ago: Read Tony Blair’s biography, and write us a piece for the young Corbynites who want to know just who this beast in the shadows is, and how, if he’s good and gone, he’s managed to leave this handful of people in key executive positions all over the party who are so damned good at out-playing the party’s every attempt to change.

I rejected the challenge as not worth the pain – but then happened to find a copy of the book in a junk shop, when we’d jumped on a train for a jolly day out shopping. Oh god! That psycho face gimlet-staring out of the cover pic! It was only 50p, so I caved in and said “oh alright then.”

Even the shop lady thought I was mad. “You won’t learn anything – he’ll only be bigging himself up,” she said, as I handed her the 50p.

First Impressions

It’s called A Journey. What with that, and the gimlet stare on the cover, I decided to discard the dust jacket on the train home. I could cope with the plain blue cover underneath – or so I thought. I nearly chickened out and left the whole book on the train when I realised it had TONY BLAIR embossed on the spine in 2-inch high letters, which fellow passengers were staring at in horror.

If ever the first line in a book was perfectly prescient, this one is. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: “When it was first suggested that I write this book, Bob Barnett, lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire, expertly steered the negotiations that brought me to Random House.” There you have it – Tony Blair in a nutshell. Never mind policies, never mind principles, the one and only quality he notices in everyone and every event, is the potential for effective manipulation – for winning. I had a quick flick through. My eye was caught by the nature of the captions on the photo pages. Here’s an example:

“Clockwise from above right: some of the inner team. Peter Mandelson could tell you what people would be thinking tomorrow; Anji Hunter, possessed of a naturally intuitive political instinct: Jonathan Powell, a key operative in government; Sally Morgan, superbly attuned to the party; Philip Gould, chief pollster, and central to our strategy”

The words of praise are extraordinary – “operative”, “superbly attuned” – remember how the phrase “on message” kept turning up in political columns when Blair was “team building”? Remember how, when the 2015 Labour leadership election was a three-horse race, the three candidates were shunting and shifting, playing chess for the “winning message”, and nobody was unusually stirred… Until a forth contender came along, one who messed up the chess-game by just saying what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular, or part of a pre-agreed “message”. The membership scented truth, and they were in the mood for it. From that moment on, despite the other candidates’ attempts to adapt, taking hasty lessons in appearing unrehearsed, Corbyn was the man: too old and too relaxed to fit the conventional model but, unbelievably, unstoppably popular – because in certain circumstances, people are ferociously loyal to truth, once they’ve spotted some.

Looking at the photos of Blair’s chosen inner circle, I am reminded of a famously machine-oriented councillor I came across at the Labour South East regional party conference. He got on fine with the group he and I were both working in that was about winning council elections – some fine, efficient advice on campaigning… but he was the only one at conference who took to the main stage and advised a (largely Corbynite – as the majority of members are) audience to “stay off social media, it’s just an echo chamber.” The advice was greeted with a stony silence. We knew where and how the membership at large got one up on the Blairite machine, and why he wanted it to stop. If he noticed that manipulative tactics stick out a mile these days, he didn’t show it but then, come to think of it, he didn’t show his own feelings once, all weekend. Educated for politics, groomed, trained and funded for his position, he is a text-book example of Blair’s machine men.

Back cover text: “On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”
The back cover sports an early example of the fashion for the hubristic scorning of experience and expertise that has been a feature of every government since Blair’s: “On 7 May 1997 I walked into Downing Street as prime minster for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”

The Message

Pondering this, my eyes strayed to the page opposite the photos, where Blair is describing the role of Foreign Secretary, and explaining why it’s the job everyone wants. “…you basically spend your time with people who are polite to you…generally dispensing goodwill and opinions to those who seem relatively keen to receive them.” Sounds like the queen’s job to me – aren’t politicians supposed to be doing important, responsible things? Not the Foreign Secretary apparently – “…Not for you the horny handed sons of toil badgering you over fuel prices, or complaining about the government’s clearly ill-motivated refusal to spend money on this service or that, the minutiae of road schemes…” Is that, then, the root of the resentment Blairites hold for the Corbyn/McDonnell movement? Is it that they hold the people and their need for services in such total contempt they resent Corbyn’s expectation that all politicians lower themselves to actually running the country and providing services?

Asked at a dinner what was her greatest achievement. Thatcher replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour”.

Not getting off to a very good start, this book review of mine, is it? Let’s see how Tony’s getting on: INTRODUCTION “Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down. So what you see here is not a conventional description of who I met or what I did…” That, Tony, is pretty much what the lady in the bookshop said. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Well okay, on the subject of Tony Blair’s experience of being Prime Minister, I suppose he has a point but is he going to keep the idea under control, and not write as if he is god of the real world? “I describe, of course, the major events of my time, but I do so through the eyes of the person taking the decisions in relation to them…”The person? Doesn’t this sound a tad like the memoir of a dictator? – “…I hope it is fair.” I doubt it, old son.

The Truth

I will try to be fair. But that’s my problem, not yours. You need not read the whole book with me, I’ll just tell you what was going through my mind while I laboured (sorry!) through the pages. The point is, if “truth” is the agreed, polished, message of the establishment, then it is in trouble. It has been struggling since the early days of newspapers. For most of our history since the invention of printing, the right to print and distribute was strictly controlled. From the 1700s onward, business people agitated increasingly loudly for a right to print news and politics – they scented big profits – but statesmen were initially quite open about their horror of the idea. How could they keep people “on message” if their own doings and sayings in government were passed around freely? You can see some stunning examples of this argument throughout the 1800s if you look for histories of Stamp Duty Law, which is where a lot of the attempts to control newspapers appear and get debated. One of the more recent examples comes at the end of the first world war, where a British politician is on record as congratulating the editor of the Guardian for keeping “on message” during the war. “The British people,” he said, “would never have stood for it if they’d known what was really going on.”

After the shameless drive for profit, technology was the next phenomenon that threatened “the message” of the ruling minority. Popular radio and then television, ease of travel, with roving reporters turning up everywhere, began to be a regular embarrassment to business leaders, politicians and royals. The British Royal family did their very best to keep behind their camouflage but have lost bags of face and loyalty in the last generation or two, largely thanks to the press and the media spreading the shabby reality of their being typically human, only richer.

A feature of technological progress is that new inventions quickly become available to larger numbers of people. That’s what happened to publishing and communications technology. Soon, everyone could do what a few decades back only the professional investigative journalists could. Corporate law would stop ordinary people getting rich by using it, but it could not stop them using it. Even disaffected US soldiers could communicate and publish stuff – and so, via Wikileaks, we received Bradley Manning’s truth, and then even wars started losing the support of a controlled “message”. That was the moment we saw Tony Blair’s tower really starting to crumble.

People’s Truth

People in general have never been particularly insistent on truth. Most of the time, a good story will do but the demand for “truth” arises when people feel conned, or when they’re having a hard time and, with the rise of social media, there are now millions, rather than thousands, out there angrily looking for their truth. George Michael dies, a tabloid paper immediately prints spread after spread of “how we loved George” and an army of social media punters hit back by sharing archive posts of that same newspaper’s “Pits and Perverts” front page at the time of the miners’ strike, and memes with messages such as “Tabloid papers told us Jimmy Saville was a force for good and George Michael was a pervert. They’re still trying to tell me stuff now.”

And once people start doing that, the first response is the “post-truth era” idea – they have just discovered they’ve been conned, so they think “truth” died quite recently and shout about its tragic death. But once you start looking, you can’t find the start of it. Tony Blair may have been a pinnacle of message-over-truth but he didn’t invent it. Take the “Pits and Perverts” incident. People who aren’t currently on a truth mission, still believe the media version of the government-versus unions battles of the 1970s but people who are currently “off message” can quite easily find the archives, look at the history and discover, for example, that the vast majority of those nasty, aggressive miners who ended up in hospital had wounds to the backs of their heads – clobbered by police swinging long truncheons from horseback as they ran away.

Next, the amateur researcher will find that the famous BBC footage of the “battle” at Orgreave was doctored by the BBC (whether with or without government instruction is still being investigated). The police drove miners into a dead end, corralled and beat them, and then furious, cornered miners started throwing stones. The BBC chose to crop the film and show the stone-throwing first, then the police charge, with the obvious effect. Once your amateur researcher knows this, they know they need to adjust most of what they’ve ever been told.

The Post Post Era

Of course, there is a kick-back. The establishment minority know that one game is up, and serious moves are now in evidence to curb social media and the technology that has allowed so many to start down the path of re-adjusting what they thought they knew – but communications technology is a hydra now. It’s going to be a hard job getting every filming, recording and dissemination device back into the hands of the minority. The only alternative is to oppress the majority into silence by starving them of services, homes, health care etc

But – when do people go after truth? When they’re desperate, when they’re cornered and when the stories aren’t working any more. When people are hungry, they’re hungry for truth. Once they start feeling that, you get movements like Occupy, People’s Assemblies, the Anti-Austerity  Movement, the Corbyn-McDonnell movement: fresh, new, up-to-date forces demanding truth and its partner, fair play. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last but, win or lose, they are proof that truth isn’t over, any more than history turned out to be over when Fukuyama wrote its obituary. It’s still there, it just goes in and out of fashion according to how people are faring, and how well the stories are working.

The era of using the word “post” to dismiss inconvenient things is over. It’s time we started giving our history a serious place in our thinking.

Categories
Book reviews book shops Circaidy Gregory Press

Books in times of lockdown

Well, here we are in lockdown again and among the trials and tribulations, our beloved bookshops are closed once more. If you’re in Hastings, please remember Bookbuster and Printed Matter still have ordering systems in place, and other shops around the town – and everywhere! – are offering their titles through online stores.

Here’s a selection of Circaidy Gregory Press non-fiction books currently available to buy online at bookshop.org

This Damn Puppeteer 

This Damn Puppeteer by Brian Charles Harding - cover pic
Brian Charles Harding’s
story of life on the street

“I know everything about alcohol – except how to stop” – Brian’s book is a work of art and philosophy a story of the after-effects of child abuse and the realities of life on the street. It touches all of us.

You can read all about the book, the play and Brian’s doings in Hastings on the blog here You can buy Brian’s exraordinary biography online at bookshop.org here

Fish-heads, Fire-raising and Force-Feeding

Ann Kramer’s extraordinary tales of
suffragettes in Hastings and St Leonards

Women’s fight for the vote in Hastings and St Leonards

You can buy Turbulent Spinsters online at bookshop.org

What’s the Story?

Printmakers: Artists talking about original printmaking

Superbly illustrated accounts of their lives and works by local original print makers – you can by What’s the Story? online at bookshop.org

It’s not just about the planets

Composer Michael Short tells the story of Holst’s life, his socialism and his music.

A treasure-house of information, an absolutely indispensable guide – Tony Palmer

Mr Short’s book is a landmark among tributes. – Anthony Burgess, The Observer

More info on the blog here

Buy Gustav Holst: the Man and his Music online at bookshop.org

If you are looking for other Circaidy Gregory titles while the shops are closed, please drop us a message on the blog contact page here

Good luck, look after yourself, and don’t forget there’s still a world of books to explore!

Categories
Book reviews book shops Circaidy Gregory Press young fiction

Have *you* ever heard of the Froggicorn?

Giants, unicorns, mermaids, dragons… They’re very famous, everyone knows what they are, even though (shh!) they may not quite… exactly… er… exist.

But no-one has heard of the Froggicorn. Why is that, when the Ancient Teller of Stories thought the Froggicorn was The Loveliest Mythical Beast of them All?

I read this every day for a week in my class. It was super fun. The frog is best.

– Girl, aged 6

I liked all the monsters. The dragon is the best.

– Boy, aged 6

36 full colour pages, beautiful, intricate illustrations throughout – from fantasy artist Katy Jones

“A finalist and highly recommended
– Wishing Shelf Awards, 2016

Buy The Froggicorn online from bookshop.org

Categories
activism Corbyn Election Labour Politics

Keith and Angela: the true story in all its horrible detail

There’s no shortage of passionate criticism of Starmer and Rayner’s phone bank rewards system out there – but let’s try and stop swearing and explain our frustration properly, because there is an important lesson here for these politicians and their followers to learn.

When this image of the Labour Party’s idiot scheme did the rounds, many of us thought – or maybe hoped – that Team Starmer’s offering was a spoof. As our country plummets into disaster, with the latest failing public school brat at the helm trying to look as though he can handle the gargantuan problems of COVID-19 and Brexit, with no credible opposition in sight, what is the incentive to campaign for the Labour Party…?

…but it wasn’t a spoof. They thought – really thought? – or desperately wanted to believe – not sure but anyway… They thought Corbyn was a celebrity, who’d filled the party with his fans, or cult followers. As a result, having scuppered him, they thought all they needed to do to mobilise that vast army on their behalf was get the PR right, and they could have the same success. It would appear that the majority of the MPs and staffers think the same.

The True Story

It really matters now that they, and the beleaguered people of this country, know the true story so please keep telling it. You often hear people brush off political stories with the stinging comment ‘they’re all the same’ and it’s easy to believe. Certainly, the media tend to paint them all alike. Most politicians and party staffers are careerists, PR people, seeking to be whatever will make them popular. But not all of them. This is the vital  bit.

Probably, the majority are incurable but there are a fair few who went into politics out of a genuine desire to improve things. Some of them only wanted to improve things for their kind of people, or for their constituencies but among the frowned-upon back benchers, there are some who seriously strive to improve things for everyone – or, as Corbyn put it, ‘for the many’.

They aren’t necessarily very good at it, but having their hearts in the right place is enough to keep them on the back benches. A few years ago, the manipulators had a bit of an accident and one of those genuine people, Jeremy Corbyn, won a leadership contest. The confirmed careerists immediately set about a fierce sabotage campaign that eventually forced him out. Maybe it was inevitable, or maybe Corbyn didn’t have enough front-bench experience to tackle them. Some say he was too soft on those attacking him.

On behaving badly

I have criticisms of Corbyn too, but being too soft is not one of them. He was working on the assumption that where a culture is well and truly corrupt, people who could potentially be okay will be in there ‘being normal’ – ie, behaving badly.

Humans are social animals, and are happiest when conforming to the group. Think about it – how many of the things you do, say and believe are just ‘common sense’ – ie, in tune with the people around you? Just how uncomfortable is it, when you’re sitting in a group with one idea and quietly thinking ‘actually, it’s possibly more like this…’

Corbyn believed that the only way to get people to grow up and be honest is to treat them as though they are grown-ups, and give them a chance to step up. It might have worked, but it was a long shot. The point is, he didn’t have much choice. There were precious few genuine, politically adept socialist MPs to call on, so he had to build his cabinet with people who he could only hope would improve. They were not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer. So we are left with the Keiths and Angelas (sorry, but I’m trying not to be *too* rude – now Corbyn’s civilising influence is gone, we’re back to being rude and cynical. ‘Keith and Angela’ is one of the more polite terms for the current party leadership.)

Keith and Angela

No-one likes a story where they are the bad guys, so those pushing Corbyn out preferred to believe he was a heart-throb, a cult-leader, wrecking the party with the help of his hordes of simple-minded fans. And that is why our new leadership team, having successfully replaced him, are trying to be the celebrities they thought Corbyn and Co were.

They really, truly do not know that hundreds of thousands of people who really don’t like politics or politicians much put down what we were doing, and got behind Corbyn because we were desperate – because we were at the end of our tethers with the lying, the cheating, the fobbing off of our workers with ever-worsening wages, conditions and housing, the selling off of our services and all that playing out to the sound of the climate clock ticking, whilst our politicians prinked and preened and played at being celebrities.

Tony’s targets

There is another aspect of the true story that really needs clearing up. Keith and Angela’s phone bank reward scheme comes straight out of the Tony Blair ‘targets for success’ playbook. A way of going on that demonstrably failed as his initial results dwindled and dwindled, and ambulance drivers complained bitterly that the target set for them left them in a position where they could (in theory – I’m sure they did not) charge around, do everything wrong, arrive at the hospital with a dead patient and, as long they arrived within their twenty-minute target, be logged as a success.

But it wasn’t just the inefficiency of Tony’s targets that led to his downfall, it was the extraordinary insult to public service workers of all kinds, the demonstration that our glorious leader thought they’d be better motivated by approval and silly prizes than they would be by the satisfaction of doing their jobs properly, and helping to make our country work.

Translate that to the phone bank scheme. It’s no fun at all being a part of a local party phone banking session. You sit there phoning people you don’t know from Adam, and try to get them to listen while you explain the Labour Party’s plans for your constituency, and where and how to vote, and why it matters. You might get some good conversations, if you’re really patient. You might win a few more votes. You also get quite a lot of earfuls from people who’d rather be watching telly – but you do it because you believe a transformative Corbyn government is what we desperately need, and you give each call as long as it takes.

But if your target was to get in 4000 calls so you can get a celebrity prize, just how much patience are you going to have for each call? What kind of air-head would  even  be  there making the calls? As we all already knew. Tony’s targets do not work. They just demonstrate that the politicians hold us in contempt. That’s why the Blair-style politics stopped winning elections.

What they need to know

We will not easily forgive the Keiths and Angelas in this story. Their phone-bank reward system, a blatant illustration of their utter contempt for us and what we tried to do, feels like the final nail in the coffin. People are saying this will be the end of the Labour Party. The thing is, they aren’t saying it in triumph, they are saying it in despair – I repeat, for those at the back – they were in the game because we were desperate – because we were at the end of our tethers with the lying, the cheating, the fobbing off of our workers with ever-worsening wages, conditions and housing, the selling off of our services and the climate clock ticking.

Well, here we are, comrades. We are still the many, and we can, and we need to, force the Labour Party to up its game, and take us seriously. Don’t worry about the unfair suspensions and the garbage they’re spouting now. Just keep doing socialism, in, out or in spite of the party. Once they realise how unpopular, how unelectable they really are, even the careerists will have to become more serious about actual issues. After all, they are there to be successful.

We need to make it absolutely clear that only good, honest socialists are going to be taken seriously. We will not be happy with better PR, or an improved ‘rewards scheme’. We can and will do our politics for the many, with or without the approval of the Labour Party. Maybe, when they lose a few seats, maybe even another election, the Keiths and Angelas of this world will begin to learn the truth, and do some growing up.

PS (yes, I got a request for a PS from some distressed activists!)…

If you’ve got some decent councillors, or a real socialist MP to defend, I suggest you do the phonebanking, but stop at 2999 calls (a scribbled note is easier to ignore than a visit from the Keiths and Angelas).

If you don’t have anyone you want to campaign for in your LP, join the Corbyn Project, or Counterfire, or one of the activist trade unions, (if you don’t have the right kind of job for an industrial membership, there’s always Unite Community ) and get on with your socialism there.

PPS Written New Year’s Day – oh look, the government had an attack of ‘Tony’s Targets’ and messed up the vaccinations plan. Link to Independent article.