STRANGE MESSAGE IN THE MAIL

Occasionally I find a message has been sent to this website from an unexpected source, and curiosity gets the better of me. A while ago I was invited to a conference in Kazakhstan to a debate on the world economy with John Bolton, the man with the bushy moustache who was chief of something or other for George W Bush. This was so magnificently surreal that if I didn’t have a family or a radio series to attend to I’d have been straight over there, hastily swotting on the effects of the free market on Tanzanian farmers as we chugged over a desert on whatever spluttery contraption was offered as the pride of Kazakhstani Airlines.

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to a group of humanists in the Isle of Man, and there was an offer to debate that men were better than women on Qatari television. So at times my messages appear to be the transcript of a dream. I wouldn’t be surprised to find one saying “Dear Mark, my name is General Custer and I would love you to knit a sweater for my porcupine as it got eaten at the battle of Little Big Horn. You’ll recognise me as I look like your old headmaster.”

This morning I find someone called Richard Waghorne has written to me “I am getting in touch from the Daily Mail and I am hoping to speak to you about your Glastonbury appearance in 2005.”

Anyone with a notion of common sense would have immediately deleted this message, gone to make a pot of tea and forgotten it had been sent by the time the kettle boiled. But that bastard curiosity got to me. What can have emerged about my show from five years ago at Glastonbury festival that has upset the Daily Mail? Are they under the impression my show was a diversion so we could use the tent to smuggle in 150,000 Lithuainian asylum seekers who posed as the audience? Have they been told my show included a series of extended pirouettes and yet at the time I was claiming invalidity benefit?

So I rang Mr. Waghorne, told him I was calling as he’d asked me to ring and he said “Ah, remind me what it was about. I’ve been rather busy today.”

“Glastonbury”, I said, “You asked me about my appearance at Glastonbury in 2005. I’m intrigued as to why this is of any interest.”

“Oh yes”, he said, “You were on a platform with Derek Simpson of the Unite union were you not?”

This changed matters for several reasons.

Firstly I can only vaguely remember being on some sort of panel in the Leftfield tent, which I think was organised by Unite Against Fascism but I’m not sure, and have no idea whether Derek Simpson was there or not. And secondly because huge beeping noises and red flashing lights went off in every corner of my head while a blinding neon sign screamed “DAILY MAIL – UNIONS – DANGER – GET OUT NOW!”

And also because I wanted to scream “Why are you only interested in that event – I did an hour to a packed crowd that year and went down a storm as I remember, you cruel beast?”

“I really don’t recall much about that event”, I said cautiously but honestly, “And I have no idea whether Derek Simpson was there or not. Why do you ask?”

“I’m writing a piece about the UNITE union”, he told me, and I notice they have held events where they’ve tried to appeal to young people.

In my head I see an article that starts “Holiday-wrecking cabin crew union leader once appeared at hippy festival at which drug-taking and sex has taken place and layabouts openly admire long-haired heroin addict Jimi Hendrix who famously killed himself with drugs and is a favourite of people who claim housing benefit.”

I didn’t answer, so he said “Can you tell me what sort of an event this was?”

I said “Are you asking what sort of event Glastonbury was?”

“Well I’ve, I’ve er heard of Glastonbury”, he said, and I wondered whether I could wind him up. I could probably have told him Derek Simpson played guitar that year for Janis Joplin, and the Yorkshire Ripper was his backing singer and their encore was their hit single, that goes “My life will be complete when you’ve booked your airline seat, but you can’t even leave your street ‘cos I’ve fucked your trip to Crete.”

“But I’m especially interested in this event with Derek Simpson”, he persisted. I told him again that I couldn’t recall anything about it and he said “Really?”

“Well it was five years ago”, I said, “And you couldn’t remember what you’d asked me in an e-mail you sent an hour ago.

“Hmm” he said sheepishly. And then he asked again what sort of event it was, and how many people were there and how many of them were young people and I wouldn’t have told him if I could remember but I honestly couldn’t anyway. So I told him I felt certain he was trying to write an unfair piece denigrating the union and he told me I’d been very useful, which was slightly disturbing, and we parted company.

A brief inquiry alerted me to how Richard Waghorne, on his own website, tells us he works for Joint Force Quarterly, a journal of the US defence department, and while he greatly admired President Bush, he became frustrated at his work in Washington on privatising social security as his schemes moved too slowly.

So my guess is that soon an article will appear in the Daily Mail that informs its readers of the history of the UNITE union, which will amount to an incoherent series of concocted tales, one of which will be that, in an effort to seduce young people into their wicked trade union plot, they sent Mr. Simpson to peddle his extremism amongst the dope-addled gullible youth of Glastonbury.

Then in five years’ time I’ll receive a message from Mr. Waghorne, asking “Mr. Steel, I’d like you to contact me with regard to an invitation you once received from a bunch of humanists in the Isle of Man.”

I SEEM TO REMEMBER TORY RULE ONCE BEFORE

This was written (and amended as the day unfolded) on the day David Cameron became Prime Minister, for the Independent, but didn’t go in the paper.

The mayhem of the last few days seemed as if it would go on and splendidly on. I’m still half-expecting that by tomorrow morning the Lib-Dems will be holding talks with the Portuguese Social Democratic Party on an offer of a three way coalition with the Hell’s Angels.

The best solution might have been to keep the chaos going for four years, when it would be time for another election. So every day the news would say something like “This morning William Haig offered the Lib-Dems two places on the British Council of Buddhists, and the job of England football manager to Simon Hughes, but in a dramatic twist at 3.00 pm, following pressure from Paddy Ashdown, Peter Mandelson appeared at the treasury office and hung himself, thus removing a crucial obstacle to a pact with Labour. But further talks were stalled at midnight when David Blunkett threatened Chris Huhne with an axe, so negotiators have now offered the SNP independence for Stenhousemuir.”

Even when there appears to be an agreement they don’t mean it. So when the Tories say they’re willing to consider electoral reform, you know for some that means we should get one vote each for every field we own.

And it still seems as if the most important clause in the Tory offer to Clegg is “We pledge to do exactly what we were going to do anyway, but if you can find a spare chair we’ll let you watch.”

One consequence of these games is the Tories don’t know each day whether they’re supposed to flatter the Lib-Dems or denounce them as Euro-loving lefty scum. For example, the headline on yesterday’s Daily Mail said “Brown quits but cynically bids to keep Labour in power by guaranteeing two-faced Clegg voting reform,” which seems slightly tetchy. If the next talks had broken down the headline would have been “OOOO Clegg you make me MAD you bloody double-crossing ARSE that’s what you are an ARSE.”

At one point today a deal appeared equally likely between the Lib-Dems and either Labour or the Tories, and it seemed probable the winner would be announced by Davina McCall, saying “The government for 2010 will be (ten thumps of bass drum) – THE CONSERVATIVES.” Then glitter would pour over George Osbourne’s head while Cameron covered his mouth and shrieked “Oh my Gooood.”

But despite all the entertainment, one lesson of the week is how all wings of the establishment unite to prevent any real change, no matter who wins an election. Senior civil servants insisted a change in the electoral process would take “At least the length of a full parliament.” So bringing in an Alternative Vote system would take roughly as long as it took to defeat the Third Reich. I’m sure the civil service would say “Indeed, but the relatively minor difficulties entailed by our engagements with the Axis powers should not and must not be compared to the more rigorous complications posed by alterations to the standard ballot paper.”

And throughout the process has been the cry that we have to find a solution to satisfy the markets. Because to solve the economic crisis caused by the people who run the markets, we must pick a government that doesn’t upset the people who run the markets.

So a consensus is created that the deficit must must MUST be cut, as if to oppose the cuts in welfare and public spending this entails is as futile as trying to stop the laws of physics, and if we don’t do it we’ll all catch leprosy or evaporate. And throughout the negotiations not one voice was raised to suggest the bulk of the population should maybe not be entirely made to pay for the unprecedented growth in wealth of the richest one per cent in recent times.

In the end, the final moments for Labour came when they were presented with a chance to cling on, but many of their own side preferred to give up. This seems fitting, as the history of New Labour is one of giving up. It was born because their members, bruised by defeat, gave up on radical change. They spent their years in office handing power to the bankers and invading Iraq because they’d given up on the more equal peaceful world that attracted most of them into Labour. Exhausted, and with no sense of purpose, they’ve ended up saying “What’s the point? Can’t we just go home?”

Which is why the best hope was that in the middle of the confusion Caroline Lucas of the Green Party might nip to the palace to say to the Queen “Tell you what, I’ll take over shall I?” and run the place while the other parties didn’t even notice.

Now – who can think of the best way of making “Conservatives and Liberal Democrats out out out” scan properly?

SOME RANDOM INCOHERENT THOUGHTS ON ELECTION MORNING

Aaagh, what am I supposed to do?

Some things I’m clear about. It’s obviously a farce. Cameron staying up all night so he can run around saying ‘Hello, and what are you making?’ to shift workers is a splendid way for the upper class to waste their time. If there was any justice he’d have been investigated by the Drugs Squad to see whether he was out of his head on Es and whizz. There’s probably footage being hidden by Sky News of Cameron saying to a security guard “Hi I’m Dave I’m a great leader my dad’s got an orchard have you seen my wife great arse I could do security I’ve got terrific muscles Woah I’m coming up ba-ba-ba baaa dida dida dida don’t forget to vo-o-o-te for me me me.”

Instead the others tried to copy him, with Brown insisting he was only having two hours sleep, and I expected Clegg to announce he was proving his energy by doing 36 hours non-stop campaigning on a trampoline.

So much of an election campaign involves the ridiculous being presented as serious debate. The ‘highlight’ has been declared the incident in Rochdale with Mrs. Duffy, who, amidst her complaint to Gordon Brown asked him the challenging question “These Eastern Europeans, where are they flocking from?” It’s true he’d have done better to respond by saying “Barnsley, love. Eastern Europeans all flock from Barnsley. One bit of Barnsley’s called Poland where they breed cheap plumbers, they’re like ants, you can put powder down but they walk straight over it, where do you THINK they flock from?” Then if he’d put his arm round her and gone “I’m only teasing love”, it would all have been laughed off.

Even so, grumbling she was a “Bigoted woman” isn’t the worst thing anyone’s said in private after an argument. But from the media reaction you’d think he’d said “Right – get onto Big Tony, I want her FUCKING house burned down.”

I’m also clear that the Tories are still Tories. This means more than Cameron is a toff, it means they represent the rich and powerful and stand for their values. They’re the party that opposed the minimum wage and whose goddess called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. They’re the preferred party of almost all of big business, even after New Labour’s efforts. For all the wisdom that class no longer dominates our choice of party, it’s still true that the richer an area is, the more likely it is to vote Conservative.

And now it’s supported by Murdoch again. While waiting at an airport I watched an hour of Sky News, that repeated on a loop a short clip of a man heckling Gordon Brown, with a big flashing caption saying “BREAKING NEWS” while commentators appeared as experts to say “Brown’s campaign just keeps descending into more and more chaos, this is another calamity” etc. They might as well have shown him drinking tea and put up “BREAKING NEWS – BROWN, AND A MUG, CATASTROPHE.”

It was all an obviously crude attempt to make Labour appear useless and attached to disaster, because Sky is run by Murdoch whose interests will be served by Cameron. Therefore any reasonable person must feel a shaking chilling hollow sickness bordering on self-combustion at the thought of Cameron winning.

So it should be easy – vote Labour to stop them. Brown is the only person who can realistically be Prime Minister apart from Cameron, so even after Iraq, Mandelson’s delight at the ‘Filthy rich’, after the achievement of extending the gap between rich and poor at a faster rate than any time in modern history, even then you have to vote Labour. They may be the lesser of two evils, but 5 units of evil is surely better than 12 units of evil. (Those are accurate figures though I’m not sure how to convert them into metric).

But it isn’t so simple. Until 1997 I was always desperate for Labour to win elections, regardless of their specific policies. Wilson supported the Vietnam War, Callaghan went to war with the unions, Kinnock wouldn’t back the miners, and Blair had proudly removed socialism from Labour’s agenda before his election as PM. But despite this a vote for Labour was always a vote for the idea of a more equal society, for a notion that we should organise our lives collectively, as opposed to the Tory values of looking after yourself and sneering at the worse off.

And Labour was tied to those aspirations to some extent by their roots. They were founded by the trade unions, and became a mass party after the First World War by promising the working class their own representatives in parliament.

After the last thirteen years does that still apply? The first problem with applying the same formula now comes when you compare Labour’s outlook to that of the Liberal Democrats. To argue with someone who’d campaigned for a fairer society that you should vote Labour rather than Lib-Dem in this election, is to ask them to back a man who was crucial to sending us to war with Iraq, against a party that opposed that war. It’s to back the party adamant we should spend billions on Trident, against those who say we should scrap it. It’s to back the man who enthusiastically boomed “Your policy will open the gates to a flood of immigration” in a TV debate, against the party supporting a more humane attitude to asylum seekers.

On almost every issue the Lib-Dems appear more social, humane and collective than Labour. But, the reluctant Labour voter could argue, Labour is still tied to its working class roots and is therefore open to influence from socialists in a way the Liberal Democrats never could be. But how true is that now? Under Blair the flawed democracy of the party was extinguished, and now an ordinary member has virtually no influence on that party. So the membership is at its lowest for 100 years, and the branches barely exist.

Even after the disastrous 1983 election there was a vibrant Labour Party in most towns, attracting the young and enthusiastic. They were the core of the miners’ support groups, backed local campaigns and mobilised in their hundreds during elections.

During this election, where I live in Crystal Palace, for the first time I can remember there have been no Labour supporters visible during an election. In the area where they have always run a stall, there has instead been a Liberal Democrat stall. One woman there told me “I was in Lewisham Labour Party for years, but Labour abandoned social housing, reneged on their promise to reform the House of Lords, supported the Iraq war and handed the country to the bankers, so now I’m with these.” The following week another of their activists told me an almost identical story of how, she feels, she’s had to change parties to stick by her ideals.

I suspect the Liberal Democrats will betray fairly quickly the hopes of those who flock to them for egalitarian reasons, not because of the personality of Nick Clegg but because their base is spread amongst people who desire opposite values. In some areas they attract those like my Crystal Palace friends, but in Conservative areas they promise an agenda to appeal to disaffected Tories. This may explain why Clegg became so defensive when he suddenly found, for the first time, the whole country listening attentively to him at once. The radicalism was downplayed, and became unsure even of his most long-standing policies, such as backing a referendum on the Euro, if they could be considered vote-losers in the Tory suburbs.

So then what? The easy way out for a socialist is to declare the election is not an important issue, as all parties are promising to make the mass of the population pay for the crisis caused by the greedy few.

And it is true that, while commentators insist the election debate has been ‘thrilling’, the boundaries have been pathetically thin. There’s been hardly a mention of troops in Afghanistan, no one would dare suggest renationalising transport, and they all agree we have to accept massive cuts, as if to oppose this is to dispute the laws of physics.

But the world in which those cuts, and the resistance to those cuts takes place, will be shaped by the outcome of the election. For example, a thumping Cameron win will give his friends absolute confidence in cutting whatever they fancy. And Cameron, despite the repulsive Obama-esque front page in the Sun, represents the nastiness of fear far more than the others. But something else makes me feel melancholy on this morning, which is that after 13 years of a Labour government that has exceeded almost all predictions of how conservative it would be, most notably in Iraq, no force has been built that can challenge it from a socialist direction. Attempts have been made, with some fleeting success. The Scottish Socialist Party won seven per cent of the vote across Scotland, but then disintegrated in spectacularly hilarious fashion. Respect won a seat with Galloway, looked ready to become a force and decided to celebrate either by going on Big Brother or tearing itself apart in a row about fuck-all.

So this morning I arrive at the polling station to find as well as the major parties, the Greens, Respect and the Communist Party are all standing in my area, to make sure the meagre left vote is split three useless inconsequential pointless ways.

It’s not just a trick of the memory. That day in May 1997 was gloriously sunny. Despite the smarmy Blair it represented a rejection of greed as a virtue. So much seemed possible. The sadness for me is not just that Labour betrayed that hope, as it seemed likely they would, but that it’s not been possible to construct a credible force that can take that hope forward. But the hope’s still there. None of the leaders have dared to be honest about the scale of the cuts they’re planning, as they know there would be widespread revulsion when it’s obvious whose avarice has caused this mess.

And in the odd place where a sustained attempt has been made to build an opposition to the idea that big business should rule every aspect of our lives, it’s been rewarded. Caroline Lucas in Brighton and Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham could well win in their areas for the Greens and Respect, and this is an extraordinary achievement.

So the task, I feel, is not just to stop Cameron but to build a process whereby eventually a genuine alternative can be offered to his view of the world. I voted Green for that reason, but I’ll admit to cowardice because if I lived in an area where the Tory might scrape in I’d have voted for whoever could have stopped them.

Now – even if that smug Tory fucker wins, the agenda should be a) Ten minutes spitting and swearing b) Pledge to get a million on the streets when the bastard tries to cane us.

And if Brown wants to be remembered fondly, if the moment comes when he has to concede defeat, he’ll put his head in his hands and say “Oh well, thank fuck that’s over. At least I don’t have to pretend to like that arsehole Clegg any more, mind you that Spanish wife of his is a different matter, ay? Oh shit this bloody microphone, I’ve done it again haven’t I?”