Sunday, August 23, 2015

Was Kinnock always a Tory wet? (1991)

From the June 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Restless is hardly the word to describe members of the Labour Party as they contemplate Neil Kinnock's abandonment of the left-wing ideas which he professed in those far-off days when he was coming up through the ranks of the party. They are unlikely, however, to be consoled by one of our readers who thinks that they— and we—have got it wrong because Kinnock has not changed: he was never a left-winger in the first place. E. H. Evans, of Newport, Gwent, writes:
You keep on repeating that Neil Kinnock used to be a left-wing firebrand. Can you prove that? I knew Neil 30 years ago. In fact, he used to be my tutor in TU weekend schools in Porthcawl, and I never had the impression that he was a "leftwinger". Far from it; apart from the fact that he was a member of CND, he was always on the so-called "right" of the trade union and Labour movement. This so-called "left" myth is nothing but a Tory plot, supported by the media. How can a person be a leftwinger when he supports and admires Clem Attlee? Unless you can supply proof you'd better let this fairy tale rest.
So what are the facts? Was Kinnock a left-winger or is it all got up by the Tories and the media—and the Socialist Standard? To begin with, it is not unusual for left-wingers to admire Attlee for the huge programme of nationalisation and other measures his government pushed through. And, of course, Kinnock is also an admirer of Nye Bevan, who for much of his political life (until he too outraged his supporters on the left) was a left-wing scourge of the Attlee government. Kinnock contributed a foreward to a reprint of Bevan's book In Place of Fear in 1978. After you have hacked away the dense verbiage (not for nothing is Kinnock known as the Welsh windbag) this is revealed as an eulogy that condemns as "lame-brained and prejudiced" anyone unable to accept Bevan's proposition and practice.

Whatever E. H. Evans's experience of Kinnock in the 1960s it is clearly at odds with that of others, who knew Kinnock and worked with him, and with that of those who observed him later in his career. Eric Heffer in his book Labour's Future says that Kinnock "was known in the party as a man of the left who was a close personal friend of Michael Foot and much influenced by Nye Bevan". In his diaries covering 1977-80 (Conflict of Interests) Tony Benn records a Tribune Group meeting in January 1977 when "the whole left was there: Ian Mikardo was in the chair, Neil Kinnock, Dick Clements, Mark Sanders" and a party he threw at his home in 1979 "with about forty people of the left" who included Neil Kinnock.

Of those who observed him, David and Maurice Kogan in The Battle for the Labour Party say that "he has held left-wing views on most matters" and "talked in the language of the radical post-Bevan left". In The Tragedy of Labour Stephen Haseler describes the Labour Party NEC swinging "further to the left with the addition on it of Dennis Skinner, Neil Kinnock and Douglas Hoyle". Kenneth O. Morgan, in Labour People, says that by 1974 Kinnock "was a vocal advocate of the standard left wing position on nuclear weapons, the Common Market, public ownership, incomes policy, arms to South Africa, Chile, El Salvador and much else besides".

Capitalism "a failure"
What had Kinnock done to deserve such assessments, from people who are hardly Tories or media dupes? Although he has never been famous for outpourings of gems of political theory, Kinnock did put enough on record to establish his reputation as a left-winger. In an article on nationalisation in December 1974 in Labour Monthly he wrote, in a bitter criticism of the then Labour government and in particular its Treasury ministers:
The future of Britain is with socialist nationalisation and not with pensioner capitalism . . . British governments have fruitlessly been trying to bribe British capitalism for forty years. There is no need to be apologetic about the extension of public ownership or the establishment of workers' control. They are now prerequisites of the economic survival of Britain . . . there is no alternative in the capitalist system—it is a failure.
At the Labour NEC in October 1978 Kinnock proclaimed, in another attack on the policies being pursued by the Labour government, that "we should reflate, put money into health, go for the job-swap scheme, better housing, end stock relief for businesses". After the defeat of that government, in May 1979, Kinnock condemned it:
"For the third time the Labour Party had saved capitalism, and lost", Benn Diaries
Times Change
As late as October 1984, after he had been elected leader of the Labour Party, he was able to reassure the left with statements like "the short sighted, speculative market system . . . never will produce the plenty necessary to meet human need" (Marxism Today). Well times have changed because at the Labour Party conference in October 1988 Kinnock was telling his members of his intention to run the same market system which fails to satisfy human needs:
The fact is that the kind of economy that we are faced with is going to be a market economy. It will be the one that we have to deal with when we are elected. We have got to make it work better than the Tories make it work . . . Even after that has been the implemented programme of a Labour government for years, there will still be a market economy.
Times have changed, too, about nuclear arms because it is quite clear that if Kinnock ever becomes Prime Minister he will not arrange, in deference to his past membership of CND, for the immediate abandonment of British capitalism's nuclear arsenal.

Kinnock is not the first Leader of the Labour Party to tread the well-worn path from left-wing to right, even if in some cases in the past—such as Harold Wilson—the left-wing policies existed more by virtue of wishful thinking of a power-hungry party membership than in reality. For a Labour politician on the way up a reputation as a staunch left-winger has been almost essential as an apprenticeship. Kinnock, though, has been different in one respect; he has not waited to get into office before moving from left to right, but has carried this through while still in opposition—clearly he decided that if he did not make the move now this would stay that way.

Winning political power to run capitalism, which is the aim of the Labour Party, has to be a process of deceit. How else could they justify their present policies and presentation, which are in opposition to what they have claimed to stand for in the past? Running British capitalism is not a job for anyone who is encumbered by the embarrassments of what they had to do and say in order to get to the top. This is a harsh system which must operate against the interests of the people who vote the leaders into power. If Kinnock ever makes it to Number Ten, and settles down to run his bit of the market economy and the British nuclear forces, he will enrage his followers. But he will always be able to argue that when they voted for him they knew what they were letting themselves in for.

Enlightening realism (1997)

Theatre Review from the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

East Is East by Ayub Khan Din (And Roots by Arnold Wesker)

East Is  East is a delight. It is described in the programme as "the first play to be produced on the British stage that really gets under their skin of what it is to be of mixed race origin with the Asian community, growing up in a culture which is predominantly British". In it, Asian father, George Khan, petty bourgeois owner of a fish and chip shop, faces problems with his English wife, Ella, and his children, as he tried to impose the cultural mores of Pakistan on his reluctant family living in 1970s' Salford. Rebellion is in the air as he insists that his two eldest sons marry women of his choosing whom they have never met.

This is the first play of actor Ayub Khan Din, and the author has managed to fashion a moving play out of an old-fashioned family comedy. High-spirited children intent on deceiving their father at every turn; young son, Sajit, who locks himself in the coal shed whenever he feels threatened; Ella and her sister, Annie, gossiping over endless cups of tea; daughter, Meenah, hiding an unacceptable (to father) bacon sandwich under her father's chair and scattering curry powder about to cover the smell.

There is fun in the air, and the author seems to invite us to smile. But Khan Din clearly wants our sympathy not our condescension. Separately the details seem comic; together they invite our understanding and compassion. Kenneth Tynan attributed the technique to Chehkov. Here it is applied not to members of the failing Russian aristocracy and their associates, but to the urban working class living in near contemporary Britain.

The ending of the play is as funny and as moving as anything I've seen on stage for a year or more. The conventions of the theatre demand that the father should get his come-uppance and indeed he does, But in asserting their rights his family manage to preserve his dignity; to show him the love and the respect which they evidently feel. The young mixed race audience responded in kind, as well they might. The virtues of autonomy, freedom and humanity were almost tangible.

East Is East is arguable part of the tradition of theatrical realism associated with the so-called Manchester School. It is part of a group of plays which began with Hobson's Choice by Harold Brighouse, and continued with Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney. Seeing it at the Duke of York theatre, the temporary home of the Royal Court whilst the latter's headquarters at Sloane Square is being re-furbished. I was reminded of another transfer from the Court to the Duke of York in the late 1950s: Arnold Wesker's Roots

Roots is a definitive play for socialists. It is about ignorance and self-discovery. Like the author of East Is East, Wesker's early plays suggest that the function of drama is to interpret history. Roots is part of a trilogy of plays written about  another Kahn family (the Khans in East Is East; the Kahns in Wesker's trilogy).

Beatie, who is courting Ronnie Kahn, returns home to Norfolk to prepare for Ronnie's visit. She is critical of her family and bursting with ideas about the importance of thinking for oneself, of not surrendering to the diet of pap and irrelevance fed to us by the media; of education being "not only books and learning but asking questions all the time". They are of course Ronnie's words and in the final scene he jilts her, sending her a letter instead of arriving to meet the family. Like George Khan in East Is East Beatie should capitulate. Instead she rounds on her family, blaming them for their conservatism - for their inability to nourish their own, and her, roots. It is a magnificent tirade and at its end Beatie realises that for the first time she is using her own words and not Ronnie's.

I know of no play written in the English language in the 20th century with a better last act than Roots. And that blazing finale with Beatie, triumphant in adversity, standing centre stage aware for the first time that isn't just quoting Ronnie, is inspirational stuff for anyone who believes that people, both individually and collectively, can change their own lives and fashion the world to their own desires.

"Listen to me, I'm talking . . . It does work Ronnie . . . I'm beginning. I'm beginning!"
Michael Gill

The Company Men (2011)

Film Review from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Company Men, directed by John Wells

This was at first a personal matter for writer and director, John Wells. Having seen his brother-in-law, an electrical engineer, struggle after being laid-off, the plot follows the misfortunes of three executives employed at G.T.X. a major shipbuilding company, whose head honcho, Jim, played by Craig T. Nelson, made $22 million bucks in bonus payments the previous year. “We work for the stockholders now,” Jim reminds his underlings as he prepares to fire thousands of workers.

Tommy Lee Jones is Gene, Jim’s old college room mate who helped him build the company up from scratch. Gene thinks of G.T.X.’s employees as if they were family and it hurts him deeply when he’s required to inform “relatives” their services are no longer required. In an early scene, Jim’s wife requests the use of the company jet, a luxury she won’t enjoy for much longer, to go from Boston to Palm Springs to get in some shopping.

Most of the movie deals with the struggle of 37-year-old hot shot salesman, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck). At first Bobby cannot come to terms with being unemployed, whereas his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie De Witt) suggests selling the Porsche and the house. Bobby is convinced he’ll soon find employment at his old salary of $120 grand a year, not realising there are few such jobs available and the competition for them is ferocious.

We watch Bobby’s gradual disillusionment; being expelled from the country club because he can’t afford the fees, watching the new owner drive off his Porsche and being forced to live with his parents. In desperation, he accepts a job in construction, working for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), who delights in Bobby’s downfall and lets him know it.

There is a surreal scene when Bobby attends a placement workshop, which Wells himself did. The manager has a roomful of unemployed constantly reciting, “I will win because I have faith, courage and enthusiasm.” When Wells asked the manager if she was embarrassed, she replied, “I’m dealing with people who feel like they’ve been in a car accident.”

The finest acting is by Chris Cooper as Phil, a sixty year-old who worked his way up from a welder to the number three man at G.T.X. Cooper takes the viewer right into the heart of a man tortured by insecurity, fear and anxiety. Phil is bewildered by the new and real world he finds himself in. One job placement officer advises him to quit smoking, on the premise that, “The employers don’t want a guy with health problems, it will push up the insurance.” When applying for an international sales position he finds how age goes against one; “It’s a demanding job, I wouldn’t offer it to anyone older than thirty,” the boss tells him.

Though the acting, direction and dialogue are good and the movie absorbing, it doesn’t tell the viewer anything new. By now most unemployed labourers, truck drivers and factory workers, are aware that getting the axe isn’t any easier for the middle-of-the-road managers than it is for them. Whatever bitterness the ex-execs feel is directed primarily at G.T.X. and a little at America itself. Nowhere is there any suggestion there is something fundamentally wrong with capitalism.

A reviewer should not give the ending away, so suffice it to say, it’s capitalist propaganda at its most desperate. Company Men is just another movie that tells its audience, “There’s nothing terrible about the economic system we live under. So what if times are sometimes hard, with faith courage and enthusiasm, things will get better.” In that respect, perhaps the most significant comment is when Bobby glares at the personnel manager, who has delivered the bad news and uses the well-known and delightful, “P.O.” expression. What would be more delightful is when a Socialist majority says that proverbially to capitalism.
Steve Shannon

"I Took off My Tie" (1936)

Book Review from the December 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I Took off My Tie" by Hugh Massingham (W. Heinemann, LTD.). 10s. 6d.

Mr. Massingham is an author of some reputation. Impelled by "curiosity and struck by the extraordinary fact that two communities were living side by side, each with its own peculiar customs, superstitions, culture . . . . and that each was ignorant of the other," he visited, and decided to live, in the East End of London, to see for himself how workers fare.

In dealing with a subject that has been dealt with before he succeeds in maintaining a sense of proportion. He does not dramatise, neither is he sentimental. He writes in simple language, and stimulates the imagination. Anyone living in the East End will recognise an accurate picture of life and work there. But what a drab picture. Dirt, noise, ignorance and sordid poverty . . .

Mr. Massingham seems to have met prejudice, suspicion and animosity wherever he went, even though he "took off his tie" and tried to be "one of us like." The people he met seem to possess a vocabulary which extended very little beyond a few fruity idioms, which, on paper, might excite literary-minded persons, but gives the impression that the worker is just a mental bumpkin. The trouble with Mr. Massingham's book is that it is superficial, and does not get below the surface. It leaves the impression that the horrible drabness of slum life is unalterable, something the worker is ordained to live. To be precise, it is literary, a picture in words; a picture which paints only what is seen, and nothing potential.

Mr. Massingham might be recommended to extend his investigations further into "the extraordinary fact" that "two communities: live side by side. He might enquire why there are two classes in society, why one of them is poverty-stricken, ill-educated, dispossessed, and has to sell its labour-power in order to live whilst the other possesses the means of living, does not need to work, and has leisure and the refinements of life. To do this he would not have to "take off his tie," nor live in the East End. He need only remove the literary wool from over his eyes and apply himself to a study of capitalism. He might then produce a more useful book, useful from a worker's or a Socialist's point of view.
A. G. A.