Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Between the wars

Another from Billy Bragg in Germany in 1985 - as relevant, and I think good, today as it was then.

Take the A13 trunk road against the BNP

There are various versions of Billy Bragg's 'A13' around but I don't think you can beat this one from a youngish Billy on tour in Germany in 1985. I've long since lost count of the number of times I took the A13 in the 1980s and 1990s. My girlfriend's family lived in Barking and (no offence Barking, I'm sure you understand) we sometimes longed to do as the song suggests and:

It starts down in Wapping
There ain't no stopping
By-pass Barking and straight through Dagenham
Down to Grays Thurrock
And rather near Basildon
Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-On-Sea,
Chalkwell, Prittlewell
Southend's the end

Like my home town of Stoke, Barking has become better known than it should have because of the success of the far-right British National Party in gaining seats on the local council. As in Stoke, the BNP is pouring resources into its general election campaign there, as well as trying to build on its local council base. So I dare say I'll be driving down the A13 to support old friends and family in the borough who'll be doing their best to stop them.

The people at Philosophy Football have produced another of their fine shirts (above), inspired in part by Billy Bragg's 'A13', to support the anti-BNP campaign. You can buy it here.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Rome: one run is not enough

To Rome to run the marathon, mark the equinox and see some of those sights that I already know so well from the history, art and politics books. The city stinks of dog shit, there’s more graffiti than you can shake a can at and the Aventine, where the urban poor have congregated since antiquity, has a third world-like population of rough sleepers. The posters for the end-of-month regional elections here declare that ‘real communists don’t vote for the Partito Democratico’, the main, centre-left opposition to Berlusconi.

But Rome is everything you could ever want of the eternal city. It’s like walking around the stage set of European history, from the platform on which Julius Caesar’s body was cremated 2,064 years and one week ago today to Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum, where the marathon began and finished.

The whole 26.2-mile (or 46.165-kilometre) route is as much like a massive tourist trail as a competitive road race. We even take in the narrow cobbled streets past the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, as well as St Peter’s Square on the day that the Pope stands accused of turning a blind eye to child abuse. At one point a man running in front of me stops, looks around and starts taking photos. Another runner asks someone in the crowd to take a picture of her posing in front of a statue. It’s worth the entry fee just to experience the streets of Rome reclaimed by human feet from usually ever present motor car

This year’s Rome marathon was dedicated to Abebe Bikila, the two-time Olympic marathon gold medallist from Ethiopia who ran – and won – the 1960 race here barefoot. It was a deliberately strong anti-racist statement from the marathon organisers in a city where many of those rough sleepers on the Aventine are African refugees and asylum seekers who have been on the receiving end of a resurgence in far-right political sympathies over the past few years.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Realistic ambitions

It’s probably unwise to make predictions about the coming election, especially when you have form in this area. In 1992 I chose for the front cover splash of the election-week New Statesman, which I then edited, a story by Sarah Baxter headlined ‘Yesterday’s man’. ‘So long John, it was nice knowing you. With these words, the public is preparing to bid John Major farewell,’ her piece began. As we now know, it was five more years before we could finally say goodbye to him; the Tories won their fourth consecutive election victory with what is still the highest-ever election tally of 14.09 million votes.

I think I’m on safe ground, however, in saying that Labour will attract nothing like that level of support this time around, even if it does somehow contrive to pluck a fourth election win from the jaws of what has seemed for most of Gordon Brown’s premiership to be certain defeat. The party had already shed four million votes from its 1997 high water mark of 13.5 million by 2005, leaving it only 770,000 votes ahead of the Tories. Its 1992 losing tally of 11.56 million would be regarded as a stunning achievement in 2010.

All the talk, as I write this, is of a hung parliament. This is not just being wished for as a less-bad alternative to an outright Tory victory. It is seen as desirable in its own right by constitutional reformers who dream of a Lib-Lab pact ushering in a more proportional voting system, an elected second chamber and enhanced civil liberties.

Desirable though these reforms may be, we should beware the perils of such an outcome. The majority of the electorate, whatever its mistrust of the Tories, is none too keen on the continuance of this government. Nor does the Labour Party, on recent behaviour, deserve to remain in office. Divided and embittered, at war within its own ranks, its principal parliamentary actors have long since lost all sense of unity of purpose – or indeed much sense of any kind of purpose save that of power. To hold onto it with a minority of seats and in all probability the support of barely one in three voters and fewer than one in four of the electorate at large would be to invite disdain. It would diminish democracy, further undermine public faith in parliament and stoke up future support for a new populist politics of the far right – which is a much more frightening risk facing us over the coming decade than the Cameronite brand of Conservatism.

In the absence of an overall majority, the continuation of Labour in government – even, perhaps especially, a coalition government – would quite likely be merely the prelude to a more crushing defeat a little way down the line. For the left, it is hard to see how this election can be about anything but damage limitation. Backing the campaigns of good sitting MPs and individual candidates (most, though not all, of them Labour); working for the isolated breakthrough of left, Green or independent candidates in that handful of seats where they have a chance of better than derisory votes; preventing the far right from getting its first foothold at Westminster; trying to minimise the scale of the inevitable Tory advances; and above all preparing for the long, hard political slog ahead, both within and beyond the electoral arena – these should be the realistic limits of our ambitions, and the essential, rudimentary platform for any future recovery.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A council named sue

‘CRACKPOT councils are wasting thousands of pounds . . . by suing THEMSELVES over parking tickets,’ was how the Sun saw it. And it really is as barmy as it sounds. At least half a dozen councils are known to have issued tickets against their own vehicles – and then refused to pay them. My own local council, Islington, took one case to the parking appeals tribunal, won and then asked for costs to be awarded against itself. The adjudicator Gerald Styles refused on the ground that the council could not ‘act wholly unreasonably or vexatiously against itself’.

The Sun sees all this Alice in Wonderlandish absurdity (great film, by the way, but Tim Burton’s scriptwriters can’t match Carroll) as straightforward evidence of what it used to call ‘loony’ local authorities. Actually I think it has more to do with the madness of running public services as you would profit-maximising private enterprises. If you contract out parking ticketing to companies with more interest in making money than keeping the traffic moving, they will employ traffic wardens on pay structures that depend on them issuing as many tickets as possible. And if you insist on ‘internal market’ accounting procedures that force one council department to pay another if it so much as uses a paper clip that isn’t part of its inventory, the reductio ad absurdum of this neoliberal accounting arcadia is that they will end up suing each other to sort out any differences.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot: Labour's saviour

Two posts on the same day about people dying. And with spring definitely poking its nose up outside, it doesn't seem right.

He's not often given credit for it, but for better or for worse, Michael Foot saved the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Any other leader would have steered so far to the left or right as to have fractured that already fragile coalition for good. Foot held it together at a time when one false move could have lost it for good.

Whether or not that was a good thing in the long run depends on your view of the labour movement, all that it was and all it has become. Apart from that, I've nothing to add to what Neil Kinnock put so eloquently here.

‘Why ever have you come back here?’

My mum and dad’s neighbour died at the weekend. They’ve lived next door to Gerda and her husband, Fred, for 30 years, long enough for Gerda to remember my mother’s mum, who died in 1983, and for her to have known my daughter as a toddler. At 88, she was a crucial half-generation older than my parents. A young woman at the outbreak of the second world war, she became a part of that vast movement of people who were refugees by its conclusion.

In our last conversation, she told me again (we had spoken of it several times before) about the long trek through occupied Germany that took her back to her home village in Silesia when the war ended. Her mother’s reaction when, exhausted after a journey of more than 100 miles into the Soviet-occupied zone, Gerda finally knocked on her door was to say to her: ‘Why ever have you come back here?’

Gerda was one of the very few Germans I ever met who was an adult during the war and willing to talk freely about it. She told me once that Hitler had been ‘all right in the beginning’, saying that he had provided jobs and stability. We were never going to agree about that, but like many Germans she had paid a heavy price for her youthful acquiescence to the Nazis – including, though she never spoke about it directly, at the hands of the Soviet victors.

The transfer of most of Silesia to Polish sovereignty after the war meant that her family joined the eight million Germans who were uprooted in the east. That she was able to find a home and acceptance and to raise a family in England with an English husband always struck me as a fine example of reconciliation and tolerance.

She died of lung cancer, after an illness of just a few weeks, which adds poignancy to the fact that so many of our chats took place when she was having a fag outside at the back. I’ll miss her and the personal connection she provided to an important part of my own and our continent’s past.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Spring in the air

Thirty miles in two days, all of them run in cold, sleety, driving rain. I ran 17 yesterday in full fell running gear and still felt uncomfortably cold on the ridge above Berhamsted, where I was participating in one of the Gede Valley Harriers' London Marathon training runs (five quid to enter, tea and cake at the finish and some of the coldest, wettest, most seriously appreciated marshals in the country). I've rarely experienced lowland weather quite like that, and the stretch of the canal towpath where the puddles merged seemlessly with the canal itself was something else.

Today's a bright, sunny, blue-skied morning in London, though. The birds know that spring is about to burst upon us, and you get the feeling that as soon as the temperature rises a little it's going to arrive like a sprinter, not an old-boned, feeling-the-cold crock of a distance runner like me.