John McDonnell at Ruskin House

Speaking to a packed meeting at Ruskin House on Tuesday, John McDonnell defended Labour’s decision to campaign on a remain/second referendum ticket at the general election. It was necessitated, he argued, both by the Labour Party Conference decision in 2019 and evidence the leadership had gathered on voters’ intentions. A firm leave line would, he argued, have resulted in an even worse outcome. The important thing now, John McDonnell said, was for the Labour Party to rally behind the new leader, whoever he or she was, and campaign vigorously outside parliament for the next four years. His assumption was that, regardless of the Fixed Term Parliament Act,  the Tories would call the next general election at a time of their choosing, not at the end of the fixed five year term.

While taking full responsibility of the electoral defeat, there was, understandably, a measure of denial and excuse in McDonnell’s speech and in his answers to the questions that followed. As Tariq Ali argues in the current edition of the London Review of Books (1), one of the few progressive voices left in the UK’s printed media (the other shining example being, of course, the Morning Star), if Labour had stated clearly that the referendum and the chaos that ensued were the result of a Tory split and if Labour had then let them get on with it, Theresa May’s deal with the EU might have gone through and the general election scheduled for April 2020 could have been fought on the NHS, education and other public services.

On one point made by McDonnell there can be no dispute: his warning that any Labour leader who threatened the capitalist status quo would be subject to the same level of vitriolic abuse as that directed at Jeremy Corbyn. One of numerous examples of this was the absurd question relating to nuclear buttons put to Jeremy Corbyn and are now directed at his potential successors (2).

As Tariq Ali observed, the question would be more meaningful if expressed as “Are there any circumstances in which you would refuse US orders to fire the missiles?” However, as we have pointed out previously on this website, our nuclear missile technology is supplied by the USA. Does anyone seriously doubt that the Americans would not have installed a disabling switch in the Pentagon? A more worrying question is whether they have installed another switch enabling the US President to launch “our” missiles regardless of the wishes of a future UK Prime Minister.


(1) Short Cuts, Tariq Ali, London Review of Books, Volume 42 Number 2, 23 January 2020
(2) With depressingly successful results. Unlike Corbyn, they all appear willing to declare themselves potential war criminals.

Looking for a Good Day to Publish Bad News

While attention has been focused on British bombers on runways in Cyprus waiting to take off and bomb Syria and on the premature attempt to launch Bomber Benn’s campaign to become Labour Leader – unlike the actual bombers, it stalled on the runway following the Oldham West and Royton by election – another runway event has gone extraordinarily quiet. This is the announcement of the government’s decision on the third London runway. Presumably the government has concluded that announcing such an environmental catastrophe while the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is still meeting would be hard sell even with the capitalist press and the BBC in their pocket. We must presumably await another headline grabbing distraction before the government will announce its decision.

Another environmental catastrophe continues, however, to simmer away without attracting any attention at all – except, that is, in the small circulation literary magazine, Granta. In the current edition, Number 133, entitled What Have We Done, there is a splendid article by Fred Pearce on Sellafield. Splendid? Perhaps I mean ‘terrifying’. Fred Pearce is an environment consultant and former editor of New Scientist. In the article he recounts the history of Sellafield, formerly Windscale, and describes what Sellafield’s managers call its ‘legacy’ problem – the lamentable history of management failures that created and continues to create a backlog of radioactive waste and allows it to accumulate in unsafe conditions. This waste will be around on a geological timescale, i.e. for longer than human social and organisational structures have so far existed. Its accumulation under a care and maintenance regime is inconsistent with the fragility of the capitalist system that created it.

Sellafield currently has 240 radioactive buildings awaiting decommissioning, including the pile that caught fire almost 60 years ago – an event that was largely hushed up at the time. This pile comprising the core and an estimated fifteen tons of buckled uranium fuel has been left alone lest it catches fire again or even explodes. Yet, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, there are four other silos at Sellafield considered to be in even more urgent need of being ’made safe’. This should have been done decades ago but these radioactive dumps were abandoned and now represent, in Fred Pearce’s words, “the dark hearts of Sellafield, the radioactive reminders of past follies”. The tragedy is that we were not forced into these follies by the need to reduce consumption of fossil fuel – something we may, arguably, have to face up to in future. The primary motive was the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. And so the folly continues.