27 September 2005

Monday at the fringe.

5.30pm Unite against fascism. Act now- stop the BNP. Chair Dawn Butler MP, speakers Ken Livingstone, Lee Jasper (National Assembly against racism), Margaret Hodge MP, Dr Abdul Jalil Sajid(Muslim Council of Britain), Barry Camfield (T&G), Mohammed Azam (Unite against Fascism), plus several others.

There were so many on the platform here that it looked like it was going to collapse. (Why are trade union leaders always so fat?) I suppose this is an issue most in the labour party want to be associated with and rightly so.

The key speakers for me were Lee Jasper, Ken and Dr Sajid. Lee Jasper was the most animated and interesting speaker. He was very direct about how to tackle the problem of the BNP, where as some of the others were more convoluted. He told us there are 21 BNP councillors and he'd like to see a different union adopt each one to tackle and campaign directly against them 365 days a year rather than just at elections. He also mentioned how this constant campaign is needed to change attitudes and how much damage the negativity of the right about asylum has damaged race relations.

He then went on about the campaign to have a statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar and how Westminster council was desperately trying to block them with objections on grounds of clutter and aesthetics. Every time they rubbish their arguments they come up with new objections. Would there really be so many objections to a statue of an iconic figure who was white?

* Just want to add here (forgot to include in the original post) that Lee Jasper made the crucial point that the BNP only do well in all white areas. The jist being that as white people get Asian and Black friends their prejudice is not surprisingly diminished.

Ken made some very good points in his speech about the diversity of London and how there had been only a couple of minor racist incidents in London after 9/11 (mainly abuse and one incident of a stone being thrown at a Mosque). He put this down to a more united attitude among Londoners, who accept diversity. He praised the '7 million londoners 1 london' campaign in progressing this tolerant attitude.

Ken also went on about how the West were wrong to target the Soviets as a threat during the cold war. There are papers that have now been released by the secret services that stress that the West knew the Soviets had no intention of attacking the West, but they created and used the public fear of the Soviets to justify increasing the military industrial complex. With the collapse of communism, the West have built up the threat from Islam to protect expenditure on the military industrial complex. The USA military budget is larger than the next 10 countries military budgets combined. To justify this massive spend to tax payers, the threat from Islam has been massively exagerated if not invented.

I can't actually remember much from the other speakers (I do only do this from memory-no note taking Im afraid), except that Margaret Hodge seemed to go for an eternity and come across as patronising and simplistic (although well meaning). The venue was St Pauls church which has excellent acoustics (designed for public speaking obviously) and those who chose to use microphones (only Dawn Butler and Margaret Hodge did use the microphone), made it very difficult for us to hear them. Never been in St Pauls church before and like a lot of these big churches,it was very impressive. It gave me an impressive backdrop to look at when I was drifting off a bit. It was a shame to see so many empty seats at this event (considering the importance of the subject) although it was a big venue.

7pm. Catalyst, Can Labour renew itself in government? Chair Roy Hattersley, speakers Angela Eagle MP, Polly Toynbee, Billy Hayes CWU.

Roy Hattersley comes across as a much more charismatic character in real life than he does on the TV. It was also very easy to admire his considered and decent charm. He explained that Catalyst is probably the most influential left leaning pressure group in the Labour party. It is not well known and this he explained is both a advantage and a disadvantage. The media generally do not use Catalyst because it is not so easy to pigeonhole its representatives because it draws from right across the party spectrum, which explains its influnce within the party.

The debate centred on how to take the Labour party to the left ideologically and concentrate more on redistribution.

Angela Eagle explained her frustration as an NEC member at the way the party was going. She felt that although party organisation was important, it would be a change in ideology that would bring back members. She also complained about how the NEC worked. She had heard rumours 2 days before an NEC meeting last week that subs were to be increased by 50%. When presented officially with the proposals at the meeting, it was far too late to garner an effective evaluation of the changes. Those who did threaten to vote against were blackmailed with an ultimatum on redundancies. She said this is not the way for effective decisions to be made. She really wanted to see a debate on how a 50% subs increase would affect membership at this difficult time, so she abstained at the vote.

Polly Toynbee questioned the relevance of party meetings, and suggested that members target local low wage employers (like McDonalds) and leaflet outside for employees to become unionised. She suggested that this would be a more effective way of engaging members and increasing membership than merely meeting in smoke filled rooms above pubs. She said the membership need to do more to engage in the community on issues that the public don't normally get to evaluate. She also (once again) suggested that Labour could only get back to being Labour under a PR system that let debate thrive.

Billy Hayes left me feeling very confused. He came up with some very good points about the inclusiveness of unions in Sweden (80%) and how union membership was for all classes there. Billy stressed that 52% of union members were now women and that the landscape of unionism was changing. Where he confused me was when I asked him about his views on PR. He seemed to say he agreed with it but his union did not, unless I've misunderstood him somehow.

When opened up to questions from the floor, there was a genuine discontent expressed at where the party was going and agreement that the party needs to be more radical and efficient at engaging with the community. One party member from Liverpool expressed her disgust with the Lib Dem council there, with a string of derogatory labels and said that no way could Labour have a coalition with them. Polly said that every party has extremists and incompetents and asked what the specific problems were in Liverpool. No specifics were forthcoming though I'm sure the member had her reasons to say what she did.

To finish to my surprise, Roy said that he had changed his mind on PR and although will always remain in the Labour Party, he thought a left of Labour socialist party would emerge under PR(like in Scotland) as a coalition partner that would drag the Labour party back to its roots in a coalition government. For this reason he now would like to see PR.

8.30pm New Politics Network/ERS/Charter 88. Our last chance for Lords reform? Chair Lord Richard, Speakers Baroness Amos, Fiona McTaggert MP, Peter Facey (Director of new Politics Network)

Sparsely populated meeting but fantastic food and wine which was much needed by this hungry labourite.

Ah lords reform, much consensus here that this is not a subject that animates the populace, exemplified here by the low turnout. Neverless I found what was said fascinating. All of the speakers supported a 100% elected lords, although some would settle for less than this in the name of progress.

Baroness Amos explained how (although still backward) there has been progressive change in the Lords. She told of the flabberghasted looks on some of the faces there to see a black person as leader of the Lords. She said 'you can almost see them thinking, how did this happen?'. She claimed getting rid of the hereditary peers was more of an achievement than it seemed. She also stated how ridiculous it was that it had taken Labour 8 years to get 4 more members than the Tories and still nowhere near a majority because of the number of Lib Dems and crossbenchers.

Fiona McTaggert explained her theory of having 'constituencies of the mind'. She agreed there could be a conflict between the lords and the commons over legitimacy if both elected. (She preferred PR for both). She explained that the trick would be to elect each differently and suggested some sort of professional categories decided by the public and research, or failing that different geographical regions to the commons.

Lord Richard complained of the current power of the Lib Dems and reminded us that not only is the Lords a revising chamber with many powers of procedure and delay that the commons have to obey but also can start legislation. Only Tax and Foreign Affairs are off limits. Peter Facey stated (and all the panel agreed) their opposition to unelected people having power over people's lives. This change is a matter of principle.

10pm. IPPR/Channel 4. David Aaronovitch in conversation with Peter Mandelson.

Highly entertaining and light hearted debate. Much said about Peter's hair stylist (who lives below him). Intelligent questions from both David and a very young audience. Questions ranged from Fair Trade (complicated answers) to how tall are the Chinese representatives.

I will write more on this later but for now Im off to another meeting and then Billy Bragg at the Corn Exchange, so see you later.

* Heres the rest I promised on Mandelson. Drank rather a lot last night so some of my memory cells have gone but here goes.

Mandelson started off with a few jokey comments about how in the early days, a sign writer for the Labour party had a better office than him and how he was agrieved about this. After much whinging he got a better office, and he suggested that this taught him that everything in politics has to be fought for.

There was much lighthearted banter about his home in Brussels being above his hair stylist. He asked the audience whether he should take his stylist's advice and die his hair. Overwhlemingly they said yes and we were asked to promise not to tell anyone.

The question on fair trade elicited a very coded answer that basically defended protectionism in some cases (as in West Indies bananas) but slagged it off in others.

Aaronovitch let the conversation flow very naturally with intelligent asides and few interventions. He tried to catch out Mandelson by getting him to name the Estonian and Slovenian representatives and surprised Aaronovitch when he could not only name but talk about their negotiation technique at length.

Can't really remember much more apart from there were plenty of laughs, oh and by the way the Chinese rep is very tall.


  1. Great summary, by the way.

    One thing Ken overlooked was the fact that 200 million or so people (plus the population of the USSR) spent up to 50 years living under the threat of a totalitarian regime, even if that regime wasn't directly a threat to the West. Perhaps that choice didn't look too bad to us when we had mass unemployment, but it should be pretty clear to us now. It's the same point as Iraq: as long as we're OK, those on the sharp end can be ignored...

  2. Not sure that I totally agreed with Ken on this point but I got the comparison he was making of the fear of Islam being used by the military industrial complex. Thanks for liking the summary, I know I missed loads out. I didn't see you in the audience. Were you wearing a suit? You would have blended in. I was the one with the denim jacket on. Its almost a matter of principle for me not to wear a suit on these occasions, I know its a bit reactionary. (not in the Tory sense of course).