A new Left electoral campaign in Limerick


The Revolutionary Programme web site altered me recently to the latest electoral initiative of the Left – here.  The programme of this initiative is the following:

  • No to the Property, Water & Septic Tank Taxes – No to Deduction at Source.
  • No to all Austerity – ordinary people have paid enough.
  • For a united movement of ordinary people affected by home taxes and austerity – no to divisions based on race or nationality.
  • Tax the Wealthy as the alternative to austerity: For progressive taxation on the wealthy and corporate sector.
  • End the bailouts of banks and bondholders, instead use the money to create real jobs through a programme of necessary public works.
  • Our candidates if elected would:
    Fight against plans for Water Metering, Water Taxes and Water Privatisation.
    Oppose all cuts in council services or erosion of workers conditions.
    Make no deals on the Council with the austerity Parties (FF, FG, LP).
    Oppose the gravy train – no participation in junkets. Demand local planning for the community, not for developers or vested interests.

What attitude should Marxists take to this electoral initiative?

Just like every other party standing in an election it must surely be judged by what it says – by its professed programme or set of policies, providing of course these are also what it truly represents.

Can and should it be supported?

The electoral slate is clearly not a party and was organised by the Campaign Against Property Tax and Austerity but the logic of standing in an election is to act like a party and even more so if elected.  The failure of the Unite Left Alliance to do so has led to its demise.

The policies above are no way different from that of the ULA, except more limited.  The Left has argued over the last number of years that elections and those elected are there to advance ‘real’ struggles outside of parliament and council chambers.  The last few years have demonstrated conclusively however that it is the other way round – struggles in communities and estates have been means to advance electoral ambitions.  Electoralism is a dirty word on the Left but nothing would appear to describe the method of organising so accurately.

This initiative, the promised first of many, must be judged firstly on its own terms.

The short summary of its aims says it is against austerity and the various taxes that have made up a large part of this agenda.  The anti-property tax has failed so it will have to be explained how standing in elections will bring success.  Otherwise voters are being asked to vote for good intentions.  Councils can clearly not change the policy of central government so how will the taxes and austerity more generally be blocked and reversed?  No concrete and practical way forward is put forward.  Maybe it will be, but if it isn’t then it is purely propaganda.

If the reason for standing is to build the campaign this should be the main point of the programme but even here it should be explained how the campaign will achieve its aims.  Is, or rather was, a mass boycott a road forward given deduction at source?  If not what is the alternative – a mass political campaign aimed at persuading tax workers to refuse implementation of the tax?

What role is there for councils?  Are enough candidates standing to win a majority?  If so what would they do with such a majority?  Can they unite with other similarly minded councils to campaign against the tax?  What powers do councils have to frustrate or prevent this tax or austerity?  Will the new council promote workers control or ownership of council services?  What other steps will it take to promote the democratisation of local government?

If there is no possibility of winning a majority then what role would those elected take?  Will they release all information currently withheld on council activities?  How will they frustrate the local implementation of austerity?

If these questions aren’t put to the fore then, as I’ve said, what we are seeing is purely propaganda.  This does not mean that this aspect should be underestimated.  Even in periods of limited struggle, in fact particularly in such periods, the task of socialists is to try to educate as many workers as possible through propaganda.  Given the very small size of the socialist movement in Ireland this is by far and away its biggest task.  If it doesn’t get this right then the majority of what it is capable of doing is wasted if not positively harmful.

The thrust of the programme appears to be anti-austerity with the alternative being taxation of the wealthy – “for progressive taxation on the wealthy and corporate sector.”  It is also proposed to “End the bailouts of banks and bondholders, instead use the money to create real jobs through a programme of necessary public works.”

I have shown what is wrong with the idea you can tax the wealthy here and here so I won’t repeat my arguments again in this post.  The main problem is that it is not the wealth or high incomes of the rich that are the cause of austerity so even if it were possible to tax both effectively the cause of austerity would persist.  This cause is the economic crisis.  Because the economic system is a capitalist one the elementary task of a manifesto would be to state this and explain it.  Explain exactly how the way the capitalist system works has given rise to this crisis and will create more in future. This would be necessary in order to argue that the alternative to austerity from a working class point of view is socialism.  Explaining what this is would involve is an obvious next step – expropriation of capitalist ownership and workers ownership in its place and a workers’ state in place of the existing state.

Complaining that the programme does not mention socialism is not the problem since the programme is not a socialist one.  If this is the way it is then it is better that it does not claim to be socialist.

The programme proposes ending the bailouts of banks but does not explain how this might be done, the consequences or the alternatives.  Some of these issues are touched upon here, here and here.  How is the debt to be repudiated?  What debt is to be repudiated? How would credit be provided if the banks were allowed to fail?

Anyone who begins to think seriously about what “ending the bailouts” means will have these questions in their head and without an answer they will be open to accepting right wing claims that such proposals are not thought through , cannot be implemented or would be even more disastrous than what we already have.  Dealing with such claims is the important task of propaganda and at this point in time elections are useful means of getting across the message.

In the absence of all this the message put across is a radical Keynesian one, that is a capitalist one.  One that is temporarily more beneficial to working people but one, if followed,that would lead to inflation, wage cuts, unemployment, and calls for reducing budget deficits and tax increases later on.  That’s if it worked in the meantime!

From a political point of view therefore the programme does not assert separate working class politics but, in so far as it puts forward an alternative, puts forward the benign actions of the capitalist state as the solution.  It therefore doesn’t even get to first base in terms of a socialist alternative.  It may therefore be reformist but it isn’t working class reformism because it seems to rely solely on pressurising the state.

In terms of the reformist/revolutionary dichotomy it isn’t even the former since it lacks the courage of its convictions and fails to propose a Left Government for the Dail that could tax the rich and the corporations; burn the bondholders and use the money to create jobs in the public (read – capitalist state) sector.

A socialist programme would explain that fighting austerity is required to defend our living conditions but that this will ultimately fail unless the system is replaced.  Austerity can at best be ameliorated but such is the depth of the crisis it cannot be entirely halted and reversed under the present economic system.

Some will deny this and claim that austerity can be ended without changing the system; that the rich can be made to pay for their crisis and that policies of growth will ensure that this can happen.

On the other side will be those who will claim that austerity is an inevitable result of an economic crisis, which is caused by the capitalist system in its attempts to produce and accumulate capital beyond the conditions that allow it reproduce itself harmoniously.  The excessive expansion of credit is always a feature of capitalist crisis and the bigger the boom the bigger the bust, unless even more credit is injected into the economy in which case the bigger the boom  . . . No amount of regulation or honest government can prevent this without seriously gumming up the capitalist system, in which case you simply have a different sort of crisis with very much the same symptoms of unemployment etc.

On the first side of this debate will be the liberal defenders of Keynes, including their economists and leaders of the trade unions.  On the second, socialists, who can only consistently defend their ideas by understanding and presenting the arguments of Karl Marx, which is the reason Marx wrote ‘Capital’.

A recent post on the Michael Roberts blog has a couple of interesting points to make about these arguments.

He points to research showing that inequality of income reduced between 1910 and 1950 across the OECD (most advanced) countries, which calls into question the idea that capitalist crisis is a result of inequality that progressive taxation could cure.  This period, after all, covers the great depression of the 1930s.

He points to other research that:

“Credit booms mostly lead to financial crises, but inequality does not necessarily lead to credit booms. “Our paper looks for empirical evidence for the recent Kumhof/Rancière hypothesis attributing the US subprime mortgage crisis to rising inequality, redistributive government housing policy and a credit boom. Using data from a panel of 14 countries for over 120 years, we find strong evidence linking credit booms to banking crises, but no evidence that rising income concentration was a significant determinant of credit booms. Narrative evidence on the US experience in the 1920s, and that of other countries, casts further doubt on the role of rising inequality.

The problem with left solutions that highlight (sometimes more or less exclusively) inequality of income and wealth is that their solutions do nothing to tackle the origin and cause of this inequality.  The Michael Roberts blog points out that “in 2011, capital income constituted 60% of the top earner’s income compared to just 32% in the 1980s.”

The origin and cause is capitalist ownership of the means of production, including its purchase of labour power, its ownership of capital and the money and power this involves.  It is the relations of production in which workers have to sell their ability to work to a class of owners of the means of production that produces the gross inequalities in society.  Redistributing what is already produced, even were it possible, would not overturn this power relationship or the exploitation and oppression involved because it does not get to the heart of the matter.

In a country where little or nothing of this is understood the elementary task of socialists is to explain this to as wide a number of workers as possible and elections should be taken as an opportunity to do so.

So we are back to our question – should this electoral initiative be supported?

To the extent it has been judged as a more or less adequate immediate guide to action or corresponds to the  educational  needs of the working class the verdict would appear to be no.

Perhaps unity could not be agreed between the participants on any other basis and what we see is a campaign standing in an election not a party.  But was any other basis proposed or offered?  Was any discussed or do the participants see no problem in the platform of a campaign being adequate to a programme for an election?

It might truthfully be said that the low level of the programme reflects the low level of Irish workers’ class consciousness but this is not a way out of objections to it, for there is nothing in it to advance Irish workers’ understanding of the cause of the austerity they face or the great changes that are required to defeat it and establish a new society.

The only conditions upon which it would be possible to support this initiative is if it went further in arguing the socialist case or if it raised the prospect of invigorating a section of workers into activity, in which case through this activity they may learn about the roots of their predicament and themselves go beyond the timidity of the anti-austerity campaign.  To do the latter they may have to go beyond the existing Left groups who save what they think is socialism for potential recruits while the broader class of workers they address in electoral material, the purported agent of revolution, are fed re-heated capitalist reforms.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal? Part 2

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

By Belfast Plebian

Episode two commenced after the Assembly was recalled for a one-day public debate on the developing scandal on July 8th.Once more it was down to Jim Allister to make most of the running, alleging that Red Sky had carried out work on the homes and offices of DUP members and that they even had the gall to charge some of the costs to the Assembly.  He tried to arrange for a motion calling for McCausland’s to be put up for vote but was rebuffed by Sinn Fein who wanted a less severe motion to be voted on.

It was also alleged that Nelson McCausland had an improper relationship with Turkington Holdings, a Portadown based firm that specialises in windows, doors and conservatory installations. The allegation was that he had agreed to delay the ongoing work by other rival firms with a view to favouring Turkington on the grounds of cost.  Before making his suspension order it was alleged that he met with Turkington, the chair of witch is a DUP member. But the heart of the second episode came down to final the motion and vote.

The motion asked that Mr McCausland step aside while the inquiry into the matter by the DSD committee was being carried out.  It also noted that the Minister may have purposely misled both the Assembly and the committee. The motion drawn up by Sinn Fein was supported by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Allaince  plus the Greens and the new Unionist Party NI21. The motion collapsed even though 54 members voted for it and 32 voted against. This outcome was possible due to a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern. It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion or law they feel is discriminatory, the DUP with 38 MLAs is the only party that can do this without votes from others.   

The reaction to the petition of concern in the press was interesting because for the first time there was a feeling of genuine alarm about the Stormont settlement that had been strongly endorsed from day one of the ‘peace process’. The political analysis in ‘The Irish News’ was pessimistic; the headline banner on the day after the DUP move to block the censure motion read ‘It was a bad day for democracy.

The writer feared that the clause that was supposed to prevent sectarian majority rule was now being used to further it: ‘ Power sharing may be the concept the devolved institutions are built on but it seems power ultimately resides with the party that can consistently muster 30 signatures and lodge a petition of concern whenever it is unhappy with a particular assembly motion. The upshot is therefore not democracy but an inverted form of majoritarianism. It’s a system that leaves the majority party in a position where it can overrule the rest of the assembly even when outnumbered two-to-one.’

‘The Irish News’ editorial was a little less stark but still pessimistic, the final paragraph read ‘Many observers will have concluded that standards at Stormont have declined to a stage where basic democratic values have been largely abandoned in the interests of expediency. There will be little public confidence that the truth over Red Sky will ever be established property but it is the wider reputation of our key intuitions that is increasingly under the spotlight.’    

As for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, their next day front page stated; ‘This was a bad day for democracy’ the three sub headings were ‘debate on Red Sky scandal ends with no action’, ‘parties in the pockets of big business-claim’and ‘Assembly rules misused by DUP to stifle debate.’ The editorial was less pessimistic making the argument that the petition of concern could be fixed: ‘Although the motion gained cross-party and cross-community support in the Assembly it was defeated by a petition of concern, a piece of political trickery which is meant to stop minorities being ridden roughshod over, which is increasingly is used by all parties if they find themselves in trouble. It is clear that thisparticular manoeuvre will have to be rethought as it is now being misused.’

The job of expressing the fears and frustrations of the small group of reformers who had hoped for a gradual transformation out of a sectarian conflict was left to Robin Wilson the one time editor of Fortnight Magazine ; ‘The Red Sky  episode is a flashing red light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland. It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption, which, if notaddressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.’

At least Robin Wilson acknowledged in his article that the outrageous behaviour had a lot more to do with sectarian partisanship than with corruption, the last paragraph of his article stated: ‘the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order. The new one looks dispiritingly similar.’  

We should not pass by the media reaction without mentioning one other perspective on the Red Sky affair; three days after the Stormont travesty the Belfast Telegraph carried an analysis by trade union socialist Eamonn McCann, presumably to get an alternative viewpoint. The banner of his article was ‘Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation.’

Mr McCann stated the proposition he was out to prove in his opening paragraph ‘None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn’t been privatised. No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland,s office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer  phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine week summer holiday

Little thought is required to refute Mr McCann’s proposition, having public control over a central Housing Authority is a good thing provided at least one condition is fulfilled, namely that those in control are socialists.  If those in charge are sectarians, racists or state capitalists then if anything it is a worse arrangement than having it in many private hands.  Unfortunately those taking charge in this case are not socialists and may even be sectarian.

Comment and Explanation

We can certainly say that the Red Sky scandal represents something more than a scandal and something less than a political crisis. It is a mini crisis of the peace process, something that is hard to disguise. The first instinct of all of those in thrall to the peace process was to disguise it as a corruption scandal, a case of one party, the DUP seeking to do financial favours for the owners of a couple of small firms that happen to back the party.  The pro-agreement media was therefore content to run behind Jim Allister for he seemed to have enough inside information to make the corruption charge stick. The sectarian substance was reduced to a secondary quality

What might have come out of this allegation was a routine resignation of a wayward politician in an otherwise stable Executive. One small problem was that another DUP minister would have replaced the sacked one and we would have merely carried on from the point we had left i.e. the programme of dismantling the Housing Executive. Then the realisation dawned on some people that the minister had no intention of resigning because his party had no intention of letting little things like democratic norms get in the way of staying in charge of the big spending departments of government. The DUP standpoint was No Surrender to our critics!

The pro-agreement media began to wonder if the current political arrangements might make it impossible to address wrongdoing not only by the odd maniacal politician but entire maniacal political parties. It was kind of expected that an exposed politico would be cut loose by his own party. One step behind the fear of unaccountable financial corruption lurks of course the longer and deeper fear of sectarian competition over the spoils of government

Pro-agreement nationalist political opinion now realised that the safeguards they had long thought they had secured against bad government were not as sound as they had believed. They now had to face up to the fact that it is an anti-power sharing sectarian party they have to deal with in government and not some reformed unionist party. On the other side, the pro-agreement unionists had to confront the fact that you only need 30 votes to carry on like the DUP does when in government and Sinn Fein have 29 votes and destined to get past the magic number in the near future.

Pro-agreement unionists, who are in fact a minority within unionism, have zero confidence in Sinn Fein not doing the same thing as the DUP. Sinn Fein have been less strident about the scandal over procurement contracts than others expected; the party refused to accept an amendment to their own weak motion of censure as phrased by Jim Allistar calling for the resignation of McCausland.  Knowing what one knows about the building trade in nationalist political constituencies it is easy to conclude that they would not be too keen on a thorough going inspection and clean up themselves. They are up for an inquiry all right so all as it is confined to Red Sky.

We predict the two big political parties will continue on much as before, jockeying for position and biting into sectarian patronage and running down the public purse to no good end. The Orange Order, to give one example, is now subsidised like it wasn’t in the halcyon days of one party Orange rule; it receives money for its decorous band uniforms, to buy musical instruments, to pay for music lessons and there are more bands than ever. The local government even funds the bonfires, which used to be stuck up by nothing-to-do summer youths – now they are professional affairs put together by men using heavy machinery,  The mural painting of walls is also funded.

The Orange Order is renovating itself and building up a heritage with European Peace money to the tune of £7 million.  As for the paymaster of sectarianism in London, the real government has so far kept shtum and if things come to a breakdown they will invite in a prominent American to recommend some institutional changes probably along the line suggestion by the Belfast Telegraph i.e. make it harder for the main political parties to draw on a petition of concern to block a cross community majority vote. 

There is a mini crisis of confidence facing many of those well-educated professionals currently staffing the Public Sector. These people like to think of themselves as untouched by low-down sectarian squabbles. The Spotlight programme threw up a number of side issues that point in this direction.

It was pointed out in the programme that the first people to come under pressure was not the Housing Executive Chairman but the housing inspectors who had refused to give a pass to Red Sky’s shoddy work . The group development manager of Red Sky, one Pauline Gazzard, felt confident enough to write a letter to a senior Housing Executive manager with the expectation that the inspectors’ reports against Red Sky, put together by a conscientious district officer Gary Ballentine, an elder in the Presbyterian church, would be brushed aside: ‘It is also considered necessary to re-iterate our deep concern in relation to certain personalities who remain working in the West Belfast District Office and we trust appropriate actions will be taken to address this in the near future.’

The letter is address to a senior Housing Executive manager but was never seen by the Board or the Chairman when they were investigating the matter; the three West Belfast inspectors were in fact removed and sent elsewhere. What is abundantly clear is that senior managers at the Housing Executive were depriving the Board and the chairman of very relevant information.

The report that the chairman commissioned and delivered in 2011 discovered that 80% of the charging made by Red Sky was questionable. The upshot was that 8 managers were disciplined and some others retired early for allowing the overcharging to go on. The question to be pondered – were they in receipt of bribes or were they making a calculation that it would not be wise to rock the sectarian boat

If we next move on to the police, they have been asked three times to investigate matters pertaining to Red Sky.  Once in 2006 when several lesser Housing Executive workers were found to be taking gifts from Red Sky, no charges were preferred then.  The second time when Chairman Rowntree provided them with the evidence of criminal wrong doing in 2011, the evidence that was used to terminate the £7 million annual contract, and again the police sat on their hands.  Finally the Spotlight team asked the police were they thinking of opening up a new investigation; they replied not without evidence.

But if there was no evidence how come the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly says that ‘ a sample of 20 kitchen replacement schemes (out of a total of 242 schemes undertaken to date) found overpayments of £1.3 million out of a total cost for all schemes examined of £6.2 million. The potential total contractor overpayment since 2008 is estimated at around £18 million’

And there was other evidence; it came from Pauline Gazzard who no longer works for Red Sky/Totalis. When the administrator took over the running of Red Sky she wrote a 13-page letter to BDO explaining that she knew for a fact that the company she formerly worked for had bribed at least three procurement officers from the Housing Executive. The Spotlight reporter said ‘We asked the police ifthey had the letter now would they act on it now-they refused to comment.’

The Spotlight reporter then asked the Housing Executive Chairman, who had been keen to have the police involved, about the seeming lethargy of the police investigation and his reply was ‘I am absolutely gobsmacked’.   Then we have the administrators at BDO; Pauline Gazzard told Spotlight that she was surprised BDO showed no interest in her letter or her allegations. Not only that, BDO did not pass the information she gave them on to the Board of the Housing Executive or the police. When asked about the matter BDO claimed client confidentially meant they could not comment.

Here’s the rub. Did one small building firm have so much sway, over senior Housing Executive managers, over the police, over accountants and insolvency professionals, over politicians and then over the Head of the Government because of its economic weight, after all it was hardly BP or Shell Oil or is there another explanation?

The other explanation is a bit crude and may even sound offensive to some ears. The firm’s managers knew how to play the sectarian playbook to make other people quake a little.  The firm was quick to blame the Catholic residents for making false complaints, and then they said the inspectors were bigots even though this was patently untrue.  They then attacked the chairman of the Housing Executive indicating he was a dodgy nationalist, then they encouraged their work force to picket the offices of the Housing Executive, carrying banners with slogans like the Housing Executive is anti-Protestant, and finally they told the DUP that the firm had done no wrong and was being starved of work contracts because it was believed to be Protestant.

All those who stepped aside for Red Sky did so because they were conscious of the sectarian clouds that sit low and heavy over society. The politics is sectarian because the society is sectarian. What is more the sectarian cloud cover is thickening rather than dispersing due to the fact that sectarian politicians are taking over the basic departments of government. As for those working under the new dispensation, things are about to get a bit more complicated and choking.

In the more recent past, if you were a public sector professional you only had to contend with a subdued sectarianism, the police and the Northern Office of course was something different, now it is back and it is naked and outspoken.  What is even more disconcerting, the really green nationalists want you to bend in their direction too, overlook this misdemeanour, override a professional service protocol when instructed to do so by somebody with political connections.  How the hell do you bend in two sectarian directions at once?  Do you decide to bend with the Orange 60 per cent of the time and then bend with the Green the other 40 per cent?

The relationship between the relatively privileged professional classes who number a fair number and the sectarian society is about to get a bit more fraught. We can see clear evidence of this emerging from this case.  McCausland decided to wage a vendetta against the Chairman of the Housing Executive, so he asked for some evidence to get at his target.  Two senior DSD civil servants accompanied him to the infamous meeting with the Red Sky management at Stormont; the minutes of that meeting read like a party political conspiracy.  Is this what civil servants should be doing?

The DSD permanent secretary is busy trying to get Brian Rowntree removed from his other public service job with the civil service commissioners’ according to Spotlight he got his staff to trawl through thousands of e-mails hoping to find incriminating evidence against Rowntree.  What a truly poisonous atmosphere.

If a government department supervised by a political Orangeman hounds a career civil servant out of his post, will a department run by a Nationalist respond in kind, if you take out one of ours we will take out one of yours?  Legal threats are flying about left, right and centre.  No wonder the Spotlight programme began by saying that many people ‘we spoke to were scared to speak on the record.’ Most of these people were of the professional class. Welcome to the future sectarian society!  Mandy McAuley the girl that kicked the hornet’s nest.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal?

Housing Executive 2.jpg

BY Bellfast Plebian 

A little while ago (Jan 2013) this blog singled out Nelson MaCausland, a Minister in the stored Northern Ireland Executive, as a target for criticism.  This was no random selection of a minister in an improbable regional government that we happen to have little respect for. Nelson was a bit of a special case because he was the minister most likely to cause a commotion.

It was asserted that this neo-conservative Orangeman is about the least preferable person you could hope for in charge of managing the socially damaging CON-DEM policy of comprehensive welfare reform. We were sure his approach would be to offer minimum resistance to the drastic changes being proposed.  We were especially worried that he had been given overarching control over the Northern Ireland Housing Executive: the publicly funded organisation specifically mandated to allocate social housing on the basis of objective need rather than community and religious patronage.  The Minister we said was so ardent an evangelic Protestant and a strident Orangeman that he would be inclined to put the interest of promoting his own religious community above the important non-sectarian consideration that pertains to the neutral role required of a housing minister. Well it didn’t take very long for our worries about Nelson to be confirmed – the bomb exploded earlier than we anticipated – and a few days after we posted our account he began his political assault on the very existence of the Housing Executive.

At first Nelson’s spat with the Housing Executive was carefully phrased in the all too familiar neo-liberal one of saving the taxpayer money. The Housing Executive is managed and funded on the model of a department of the British Civil Service and because it is not classified as belonging to the private sector economy it is therefore almost by definition deemed to be inefficient and wasteful of taxpayer money by the major accountancy firms that aspire to set the standards for every social service. The new Housing Executive will work all the better if it is broken up and placed in the hands of Housing Associations that know the realities of private sector finance, so claimed Nelson.

Hardly anyone of influence objected to Nelson’s declared programme of privatisation barring a few union leaders that voiced worries over potential redundancies. To most tender minded folk (folk is the favoured term used by Nelson) the reasoning if not impeccable was at least normative for our current economic condition. More tough-minded types wondered if Nelson’s impeccable reasoning was merely a convenient cover to pursue an old style Orange vendetta against the Housing Executive. In certain quarters the Housing Executive is still thought of as an anti-Orange institution, something that was imposed on Orange society against its interest, a concession made in the past by a nervous Labour government running scared of the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign.

There is a certain type of Orangeman who resents the very existence of the Housing Executive, who would like to see it done too death.  I am certainly one of those dwindling number of suspicious types who still believe that there are plenty of unreformed Orangeman around, dreaming of taking back the little victories of the civil rights movement.  I suspected that Nelson was one of those unreformed Orangeman who was bent on returning to a long standing sectarian battle over the political control of social housing and I was aroused by the fact that Nelson was only into the job a few weeks when he began asking for the religious make up of the workforce, right down to the numbers in individual offices. Was he of the viewpoint that the Housing Executive had a pinko-management and a Catholic majority work force representing an earlier victory for the sectarian enemy?  Was he out to knock it of its previously set course?  I felt that he was one government minister that needed watching.

Last week the BBC Spotlight programme (3/7/2013) provided us with an insight into what Nelson’s real agenda had been since he became the social development minister.  Before the Spotlight programme was broadcast you could see the aura of hubris already taking shape around Nelson’s head.  On June 10 he had given the management of the Housing Executive a real roasting on the floor of the Assembly; all sorts of charges were flung against the former chairman Brian Rowntree.  He accused the Housing Executive of overspending on repair contracts to the tune of £18 MILLION on four contracts. He also said that one contractor Red Sky had been singled out by the Chairman for retribution for overcharging solely because it was perceived to be a Protestant firm. The unionist benches erupted with shouts of shame on the sectarian Housing Executive. What was also striking about Nelson’s performance was the pleasure he took in laying into the management of the Housing Executive and the satisfaction he got from seeing that the non-unionist parties offering only palliative opposition to his new plan to break up and privatise the public housing body.

Just four weeks later Nelson’s confidence took a punishing blow at the hands of a BBC television expose on what he had been doing out of plain sight.  It turns out that almost everything he said in the Assembly that day was so false that it might rightly called the opposite of the truth. He and his political adviser backed by his party leader had it seems been running a hate campaign against the ousted Chairman of the Housing Executive that smacked of venomous sectarianism. The BBC reporters provided more than enough evidence to allow for other Assembly members to demand his immediate resignation.

The story begins in April 2011 and a building maintenance company situated in the constituency of Peter Robinson goes into administration after a Housing Executive investigation into allegations of low standard work and overpayments. The Board of the Housing Executive felt it had no other option but to cancel the contract with Red Sky due to the facts put before them by inspectors pertaining to the poor quality of the work undertaken by the firm and also by the firms fraudulent charging of tasks not undertaken at all, estimated to be about £1.5 million. The decision of the cross community board was unanimous.

The management of Red Sky decided not to go quietly. In the middle of the April 2011 Assembly Election campaign they approached the leader of the DUP and First Minister Peter Robinson and informed him that the Housing Executive held a sectarian i.e. anti-Protestant bias against the company. Peter was furious about what he had been told about the Housing Executive decision and nine days later led a delegation to meet with its chairman Brian Rowntree to lobby on behalf of the firm. The minutes of that meeting record the First Minister stating that the decision to terminate the contract ‘reflected a sectarian bias on behalf of the Housing Executive.’ He also warned the Chairman that he could expect an enquiry into the Housing Executive after the election of May 2011.

After the Assembly election he appointed his own sectarian attack dog Nelson MaCausland to the post of minister in charge of Social Development, which covers supervision over social housing. A strategy meeting was held in Stormont building on 27 June to find out what could be done to get Red Sky back in the contract game. In attendance where the First Minister Peter Robinson, the Minister of DSD Nelson MaCausland, his political adviser Stephen Brimstone and the DUP MLA Robert Newton.  Crucially, neither the Housing Executive nor the Administrator for Red Sky was invited to the meeting. Three days later Nelson McCausland met with the Chairman of the Housing Executive to insist that the termination of the Red Sky contract be suspended for at least six months.

A letter from Housing Executive chairman Mr Rowntree to DSD Permanent Secretary Will Haire dated July 1, expressed ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the way Mr McCausland and his department were attempting to overturn the Board’s decision. Expressing the thought that both Mr Robinson and Mr McCausland may have broken the ministerial code of office by lobbying in support of Red Sky, Mr Rowntree added ‘We understand that meetings have taken place with the senior management of Red Sky in administration and the minister, first minister and other DUP representatives…. This raises the question of did these meetings constitute canvassing and lobbying for government contracts and in breach, not only of public procurement principles but basic codes of conduct in public life.’

Nelson McCausland later said that he took the letter to be like a declaration of war. Having failed to pressure the Chairman of the Housing Executive into overturning the Red Sky decision once, the DUP turned to one of its own councillors who sat on the board of the Housing Executive for a second go. The minister’s special political adviser, one Stephen Brimstone, made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer and more or less commanded her to change her vote at the next Board meeting called in July 2011 to re-examine the Red Sky decision.

Just ahead of the board meeting Jenny Palmer told the Chairman of the Housing Board about the DUP attempt to make her change her vote and he advised her to declare an interest and absent herself from the vote, which she did. When he failed to get the vote overturned Nelson McCausland carried out Peter Robinson’s original threat and ordered a comprehensive review into how the Housing Executive awards contracts to be carried out by chartered accountants ASM Howarth.  Four days before the ASM report is due to be delivered the Chairman of the Housing Executive resigned citing personal stress and a challenging relationship with the DSD and the minister.  At this point Nelson sensed a retreat, and then went on the offensive accusing the Housing Executive of failing its tenants across many fronts. In January 2013 he announced he intended breaking up the Housing Executive and passing on the ownership of the housing stock to privately run Housing Associations.

Public Reaction:

We will cover this in two episodes. In the first episode we got a party political reaction and a media assessment of a similar temper. Sinn Fein was in the best position to drive the questioning of the credibility of Nelson McCausland and his party boss. Their leader at Stormont is Martin McGuiness the joint first minister with Peter Robinson and their senior policy maker Alex Maskey just happens to be the chairman of the Social Development committee that is supposed to make the Minister accountable.  The first thing to note about Sinn Fein is the party did not call for any immediate resignations from the DUP led government. Some starry-eyed pundits in the media praised this restraint as showing their newfound political maturity.

Martin McGuiness made just two points; that the ‘statutory inquiry led by the DSD under Alex Maskey needs to begiven full support in its work’ and that it was necessary for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner ‘to investigate the relevant matters raised in the programme as a matter of urgency, these allegationshave the potential to undermine public confidence in the public institutions.’ Two days after the Spotlight programme was broadcast Alex Maskey convened his investigative committee and Nelson duly appeared to face the music. It was the failure of the DSD committee to pursue Nelson that provoked the first episode of widespread negative media reaction.

‘The Irish News’, the main morning newspaper read by nationalists, headlined the report on the committee meeting as; Minister shrugged off Teletubbie Mauling. The chief reporter wrote ‘Chairman Alex Maskey seemed at pains to highlight the good relationship the Minister enjoyed with his scrutiny committee and beyond asserting that the public would be demanding answers said little to cause the DUP rep any concern.’ He concluded the report by stating that ‘all round it was an opportunity missed not so much a grilling as a friendly invitation to the minister to come and warm his toes by the fire.’ 

The Belfast Telegraph, a newspaper traditionally supportive of Unionism, was equally dismissive of the DSD questioning of the DUP minister.  The headline it ran on the 5/7/2013 was ‘Watchdog lets McCausland off the hook.’  The Telegraph reporter was struck by the deference shown to McCausland – ‘He spoke for 54 minutes without one interruption’, something that rarely happens in the equivalent British committees.  He suggested the members were discouraged by Nelson’s verbal dexterity in comparison to their own lack of education. Nelson walked away from the committee asserting that the BBC Spotlight broadcast was just a ‘hotchpotch of speculation, insinuation andinnuendo.’ He threatened the BBC with legal action, as did his boss Peter Robinson, and it should be said that we referred to Nelson’s animus against the local BBC news reporting in our previous blog – Nelson reckons it is moved by a strong anti-British bias.

Because of the general negative media reaction, Sinn Fein decided to take another step and asked for a summer recall of the Stormont Assembly for a one day debate.  It looked as if they felt they needed to perform a bit better than they did at the DSD committee meeting.  However there was still no demand for resignations, only for an investigation about standards of conduct.

It is important to note at this stage what the press and assorted pundits were saying was potentially wrong with what the DUP had been doing. One view was that there was a potential ‘corruption charge’ being levelled at the minister.  What this actually amounted to was difficult to pin down, there was no suggestion that Nelson had sought to make any personal financial gain from the Red Sky advocacy.  Then there was the Sinn Fein procedural charge of breaching the ministerial code of office by lobbying on behalf of a private firm for business contracts.  Peter Robinson felt able to dodge the ministerial code charge by a nimble use of procedural semantics.

On the 5th July he gave an interview to the Irish News claiming that he had attended the strategy meeting with Red Sky in his capacity as elected MP for East Belfast and not in his capacity as the First Minister ; ‘Could anybody expect that the elected representative of east Belfast would do anything other than get exercised about the loss of jobs andseek to do something about it’.  He also declared his annoyance at the BBC saying ‘ I’m no longer going to tolerate this kind of accusations that Spotlight throw out in the hope that nobody takes any action against them for it.’

So within two days of the programme the BBC Spotlight team were facing four legal threats, one from the First Minister, one from Social Development minister Nelson McCausland, one from the management of Red Sky and one from special adviser Stephen Brimstone. A couple of media pundits pointed out that the Executive had recently rejected British Government proposals to change the libel and defamation laws to lessen restrictions and now we know why.

The third area for media concern was about bullying – the attempted bullying of Jenny Palmer by male thugs.  Jenny Palmer was talked about in terms of being a whistleblower, a heroine in the making and she became the must have interviewee.  This was the theme of  ‘The Irish News’ political column by Fionnuala O’Connor – ‘DUP’s whistleblower gives cause for cheer’. The opposition Unionist party in particular made the bullying charge the big issue and their Ross Hussey appeared on the original Spotlight programme to decry the bullying.  Then in the DSD committee meeting Michael Copeland, another Unionist Party member, made the terrible treatment of Jenny Palmer the core of the issue.    

What was remarkable at this point was the fact that the elephant in the room of the evidently sectarian inspired onslaught on the Housing Executive went largely unspoken. This was so much the case that the critics of the media elevated the ultra right wing TUV leader Jim Allister to the role of champion of public morals.  Every time the media wanted a quote about the ‘scandal’ they looked first for one from Jim Allister.

‘The Irish News’ ran the next big story on the Red Sky affair on the 9th July under the front-page banner ‘Allister rounds on the DUP’ accompanied with a picture of him.  On the same day the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran their lead with ‘Corruption claims rock Assembly.’  Jim Allister had framed the criticism solely in terms of financial corruption and party political favouritism, and for now most of the political class and media were happy to let it all rest at that.  Jim Allister was afforded a guest column in the Telegraph on July 11th to present us with the heart of the matter: ‘while the party ‘s treatment of Jenny Palmer  is shocking, the most  damning portion of the programme was that which dealt with the glazing contracts after representations from a DUP-friendly contractor, Mr McCausland put on hold the glazing contracts.’

He also argued for a judge led inquiry under the 2005 Inquires Act because 10 of the 11 members of the DSD committee belonged to parties of the Executive.  Another media pundit Alec Kane actually found some comfort in the scandal writing in the Telegraph; ‘This is also the first major political story which hasn’t centred on a spat between unionism and republicanism or between the DUP/Sinn Fein and the smaller Executive parties. And again that is what makes it interesting, because it’s as close as we have come to a normal so called scandal.’ (5/7/2013)

to be continued.

Workers’ control of production Part 2

0425.1974_Portugal-newspapeIn my last post on workers’ control I noted that it inevitably arose as a result of crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by society-wide political upheavals or by threatened closure of a particular workplace that is perhaps producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

In Britain in the 1970s there were more than 260 occupations of workplaces by their work forces including, perhaps most famously, at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, usually sparked off by closures, layoffs, redundancies, dismissals or threats of closure.  Such occupations were spontaneous, often acts of desperation and with no real planning.  If successful, the numbers occupying would be offered jobs by a new employer although this number would usually be less than when the occupation would have begun.  When no new owners would appear the occupations might attempt to become workers’ cooperatives but the motivation was normally a pragmatic search for a solution rather than something drawn from political commitment and ideology.

The occupations were often built by shop stewards and sometimes at odds with the official trade union movement, a situation we see again and again and a result of factors far from accidental.

The theme of ‘industrial democracy’ was very much alive and in 1974 the Conservative Government called a general election on the issue of “who governs Britain”, in direct reference to the miners who had engaged in successful strike action.  The Tories lost and the new Labour Party Government included Tony Benn, who wanted greater involvement of workers in their workplaces.  He also came into conflict with trade union leaders who opposed his dealings with rank and file groups of workers.  “The whole machine is against you” Benn told one supporter of an occupation at Imperial Typewriters.

Workers’ cooperatives received the support of Benn, who was in a position to do something as Minister at the Department of Industry, but his financial help was relatively small and most industrial aid continued to go towards private industry.  That which did go to the cooperatives was mainly for compensation to previous owners who were paid for obsolete plant.  This left the new cooperatives under-capitalised and without the necessary resources to carry out research and development.  They generally lasted only a short space of time but still sometimes produced radical, innovative and still exemplary struggles.  One such was as at Lucas Aerospace, where workers pioneered conversion plans to socially useful production, again opposed by the union leadership.

By the end of the decade however these types of struggles had declined dramatically.  Few of the experiments in workers’ ownership survived and as history is usually written by the winner the victory of Thatcher, built on the attacks on workers commenced by Labour, left a legacy of disappointment and nostalgia in some old enough to remember.  This has affected the Left up to today in so far as it is suspicious, if not actually hostile, to workers’ cooperatives.  This is a profound mistake as the willingness of workers to fight for ownership and control of their own workplaces is an instinctive impulse to go beyond capitalism.

The history of American workers organisation in the 1930s is perhaps more celebrated than this experience but in some ways was more limited.  Workers and trade union power grew during the decade not just because of the struggle of workers to organise, most famously in Minneapolis, but because of the strong growth of US manufacturing industry.  Between 1936 and 1939 workers occupied 583plants in sit-down strikes in defence of their terms and conditions, protection of wages, achievement of union recognition, or prevention of sell-outs where recognition already existed. These were often successful.

Unfortunately there followed 70 years of union-management collaboration – no strike agreements during the second world war; the witch hunt and expulsion of socialist activists in the McCarthy period; mob penetration of the union movement and the turning of the union bureaucracy into a world-wide vehicle of the US state in its cold war with the Soviet Union.  The US union movement has now declined so much that in most of the private sector it is irrelevant, with unionisation accounting for only 7.5 per cent in the private sector in 2008.  In some workplaces where unions do ‘organise’ workers are not even aware there is a union!

The history of American workers’ militancy drives home a lesson to be  learnt from the British experience of the 1970s and 1980s – that politics are not only determined by workers militancy and their experiments with workers control but that politics can influence decisively the short and long-term success of these experiments.

In the end the question of politics is crucial, which is why Marxists believe that working class conquest of state power – revolution – is decisive.  It is important however not to telescope the path to this destination.  Revolution is decisive only if the material basis for working class rule is present.  This is not simply a question of the level of economic development but of the social and political development of the working class.  Without both of these the question of revolution is not posed practically i.e. in reality, no matter what more general ‘crisis of capitalism’ is evident.

The analysis of workers’ control in these posts is based on the belief that working class conquest of state power is necessary but that the immediate question is how to make that a widely shared goal given the low level of class consciousness and struggle than now pertains.

It is therefore important to attempt to draw lessons from the impact of political developments on workers attempts at independent organisation in the workplace.  In turn we can then look at the role of workers’ organisation in the workplace for its impact on wider political struggle.  This will reveal the limits as well as the strengths of a workplace-based strategy and what political demands should be raised as a result.  Such lessons informs the opposition to calls for nationalisation that have been argued in many earlier posts.

For example in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s it was the Republican state that strangled the workers’ and peasants’ collectives rather than the fascist counterrevolution.  Clearly in this case a call for this government to nationalise such collectives would not have made much sense.  Anarchists believed these collectives were a means of controlling the Republican authorities but clearly what was needed was an alternative Government and state – perhaps built on these bodies.

In Yugoslavia self-management was a means of mobilising the population against economic blockade and potential invasion, boosting production, minimising the power of the trade unions during a labour shortage and hoping that the workers would discipline themselves.  Unfortunately self-management as then practised led to accusations of workers’ neo-capitalism in which the enterprises were seen as the workers property, narrowly conceived, so that they competed with each other in a capitalist-like manner.  Self-management became not a means of workers self-realisation but a trade union-like bargaining system of clientelism and patronage.  Increased enterprise autonomy acted to dissolve wider working class solidarity leaving enterprise loyalty and territorial state loyalty as the alternative, one which ultimately descended into bitter and bloody nationalist war.  On the way to this dénouement it has been argued that enterprise autonomy became a mechanism to insert the Yugoslav economy directly into the capitalist world market.  Increased autonomy became the means of strengthening management power not workers’ autonomy.

Both Spain and Yugoslavia are testament to the fact that without real working class political and state power workers’ control can be subverted and/or crushed.  I have argued that it is the lack of workers’ economic power and experience before revolutionary crises that has weakened the struggle for their class rule thus making revolutionary success less likely in such crises.  But it is also true that such episodic economic power is doomed without a political project.  In Poland workers councils existed in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1980-81 but revolution there became a restoration of capitalism.

In nationalist revolutions, such as in Indonesia, the most radical actions of workers are betrayed by a backward political consciousness; as when workers control is achieved and defended not as an extension of workers’ power as a class but as the property and achievement of the new independent (still capitalist) state.  This state can indulge in the wildest revolutionary rhetoric but as long as its power is not an extension of that of the workers it is just rhetoric, to be retracted when the new state feels itself more in control.  It succeeds in this as long as workers power is mistakenly seen by its holders as the gift of the newly independent state.  The examples of nationalism trumping the radical actions of workers are legion and proof again that revolutionary action does not automatically generate revolutionary socialist politics and consciousness.

What is clearly decisive is workers’ own consciousness and workers control, self-management or councils are not in themselves decisive in determining it.  This however is not the question and not the argument being put.  There is no ‘magic’ strategy guaranteeing a workers’ victory but there are more or less adequate roads and strategic conceptions.

The argument here is that workers’ control, and in the longer term, workers’ ownership can provide a more solid, permanent and robust material basis for the development of the necessary socialist consciousness than simple trade unionism, no matter how militant.  More realistic than reliance on spontaneous political revolutions to do all the work of consciousness raising in the necessarily short space of time in which they take place and certainly more than demands for nationalisation, which for example were obviously meaningless in both Yugoslavia and Poland.

What workers ownership should do is provide a basis and foundation for a political programme that seeks to extend and deepen this form of ownership and give it a political dimension, to make easier removal of the division between the political and the economic that characterises capitalism.  Workers’ collective control and ownership of the state can be more easily argued for on the basis of their wider ownership in the economy.

The argument is more easily advanced if there exists a successful worker owned and controlled sector of the economy that can be presented as an alternative to the capitalist owned sector or the illusion that a benevolent state can take ownership of the latter in order to benefit workers.  On this basis the socialist project can become a political one for which the ideal form to advance it is a mass workers’ party.  Such a project can begin to win the battle for hegemony within societies which are currently dominated by capitalist ideas despite the objective failures of that system.  A real material basis for an alternative is provided that can focus generalised discontent that now expresses itself in free-floating ethical concerns for justice and can find no more specific or concrete alternative than vague calls that ‘another world is possible.’  Instead through development of workers’ cooperatives and the wider labour movement another world is built in front of our eyes.

The absence of such hegemony of ideas, and its corollary – that no alternative to the capitalist system seems possible – results in the upheavals that returned societies to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  This wider and deeper lack of legitimacy of the socialist project weighs heavily on the spontaneous activity of workers even when they have engaged in the most radical activity.

In the Portuguese revolution in 1974 a movement within the army overthrew the dictatorship and between May and October of that year 4,000 workers’ commissions were established following mass meetings.  Not only factories but empty houses and apartments were occupied.

Within these commissions political competition developed between the Portuguese Communist Party and smaller revolutionary currents.  A failed right wing coup shifted events further to the Left.  Workers councils became not just organs of control in the workplace but organisations of struggle that could potentially threaten the power of the capitalist state.

In the end however they proved too weak and were unable to pose a political alternative to the quickly developing normal organisations of capitalist democracy – trade unions, political parties, parliament and the state.  In the end the Portuguese Socialist Party became the mechanism for a stabilisation of capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy.

Short-lived experiments in workers control and ownership were not in themselves capable of establishing hegemony for the project of workers’ state power.  A deeper and wider radicalisation was required.

The point is that this can take time and can only come about through the development of socialist consciousness in the working class over a more or less extended period and this must rest on a material base.  This can only be the development of the power of the workers in existing capitalist society, expressed in democratic trade unions, political parties, cultural organisations and workers cooperatives.

The opposite of this road is reliance on the state, expressed in the demand for nationalisation.  In Spain, Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Portugal it was the State which became the guarantor of capitalist ownership and power.

Today we are in circumstances where workers must not only defend themselves against the depredations of capitalism – battling against austerity – but socialists must also look to ways in which to advance a workers consciousness that seeks permanent expression of their needs and powers.  Not just defending immediate interests but looking and taking care of the future of the movement and workers’ position in society.

But it is not simply about the needs of the present as against the needs of the future because Marxism is the belief, confirmed by nearly two centuries of industrial capitalism, that it is not possible to satisfy the needs of workers today by only fighting today’s battles.  A socialist society is the future only because it is the answer to the challe-nges and problems of the present.  The demands for workers control and ownership express this view and are rejection of the clam that the existing capitalist state, by nationalisation etc, can provide the answer.