Friday, July 30, 2010

Whatever happened to empathy?

There's nothing more grating than televisual drooling where the privileged or the lucky tell the populace that "there's lots of opportunities out there". Especially during a crisis.

These are strange days indeed.

You get University Minister David Willetts coming up with the remark that "if you can't find a job then you should consider setting up your own business".

Channel Four News choosing to discuss youth unemployment and the labour market not with entrepreneurs, or the unions, or directly with the jobless, but with no less than the winner of TV show The Apprentice, as if he was an authority on the matter...

Said winner of The Apprentice coolly remarking that he "totally believe[s]" in David Willett's words and that the millions who are stuck in post-graduate unemployment or call centre work forget that "there's lots of opportunities out there" and there's "no need for doom'n'gloom", because - remember - we all live in a "knowledge economy", of course.

So the question is: if this is how the real world ticks, then why stop at The Apprentice? If national news broadcasters have got to discuss youth/graduate unemployment and the Blairite legacy of bullshit expectations, why not go the whole hog and invite a Big Brother contestant like Chantelle or Chanelle? Or, even better, a Lottery winner?

They could dish up even more rose-tinted patronising advice and inform the wider public that there's no need for "despondency", because "opportunities" are rife.

And then maybe David Cameron should follow suit and pass a law that makes playing the lottery compulsory.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bullfighting ban: a hollow victory

Amidst the fanfare of reports and headlines, international observers forgot to report that yesterday's Catalan "ban" on bullfighting means very little in terms of animal welfare.

Yesterday's decision by the Catalan Parliament to ban bullfighting in the Spanish autonomous region was met with glee and satisfaction around the world.

For people like those behind this blog, the Catalan ban on the corrida can only be saluted. Torture and death inflicted on an innocent animal for no reason other than "tradition" and "entertainment" are nothing but an aberration - especially in the 21st century.

Many hope (and others fear) that the ban in Catalonia may rub off on the whole of Spain, finally bringing bullfighting to an end.

And yet, a point that the excited headlines failed to pick up is the dark shadow that hangs over the ban on the so-called fiesta taurina. A ban that, it turns out, is an astonishingly hollow victory.

This is why.

Opponents of the ban (stemming mainly, but not exclusively, from the Spanish right) regularly point out that, barring a few genuine animal rights activists, the law is backed by the Catalan nationalist parties (Convergencia i Unió and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) purely as a means to stoking anti-Spanish sentiments. In other words, it has little to do with the welfare of animals and all with playing up the difference between Spain and Catalonia.

Until today, I put this approach down to the pig-headedness and spitefulness of Spain's conservative Partido Popular (which - if you're new to Spanish politics - are way to the right of the Conservatives in the UK).

Then I discovered that in certain parts of Catalonia there is indeed another "traditional" fiesta which is even crueller and more monstrous than the old corrida. The Catalans call it correbous and, in many of their towns, it's considered a major celebration.

Look away if you can't stand cruelty to animals.

Because the correbous consist of setting a bull's horns ablaze in front of thousands of onlookers and a merry background of fireworks and firecrackers. The bull is hemmed in within the perimeter of the town's main square as all access passages are fenced off, which is how the torture (or "game", according to the same Catalans who frown upon bullfighting) unravels. The result is an agonising animal running around terrified - sometimes even for hours on end.

Now, courtesy of the Catalan nationalist parties, the law that yesterday put a ban on bullfighting did not include the correbous. Not only that. The same catalanists who backed the anti-bullfighting campaign were very vocal in defending the right to set bulls' horns on fire. Convergencia i Unió even tabled a Parliamentary motion which would officially "safeguard" the correbous in the name of "collective interest"!

Their justification? Staggering though it may sound, they too cling on to "tradition". Which is to say, the same lame argument that supporters of bullfighting bring forward each time the morality of their beloved corrida is questioned. "Without bulls there's no party and without party there's no people": that's how a Catalan nationalist MP publicly defended the correbous a few months ago.

Perhaps, simply, the word "hypocrisy" does not translate amongst the people of Convergencia i Unió and other Catalan separatists.

When you consider the hideous double standards, it becomes apparent that bullfighting was banned purely as a hated symbol of "Hispanity".

Because in the warped mindset of Catalan nationalism, animal cruelty is bad if it comes from the other side of the backyard, but not if it's of 'their own' variety.

South of the Border at Birmingham Library Theatre

A film by Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone to be shown at Birmingham Central Library.

[Guest post by Stuart R.]

In January 2009, Oliver Stone traveled to Venezuela to interview President Hugo Chávez, and examine the way Chávez has been portrayed in the U.S. media. Was Chávez really the "anti-American" force the media claimed he was?

Once the journey began, however, Stone and his crew found themselves going beyond Venezuela to several other countries, and interviewing seven Presidents in the region, telling a larger and even more compelling story.

In a series of casual conversations, Stone sits down with Presidents Chávez, Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), as well as her husband and ex- President Néstor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raul Castro (Cuba).

This is the only screening of the film in Birmingham so book early.

South of the Border will be screened at Birmingham Central Library Theatre at 7pm on Friday 6th August. Tickets cost £4.50.

You can book online or by phone calling 0121 303 2323.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The appalling Daily Express

Sean McCormack challenges the latest outburst of xenophobia coming from Britain's tabloids.

[This is a guest post]

It's not often I do any sort of writing anymore, and its a hell of a lot longer since I did anything politically motivated but something in the past few days just hasn't sat right with me.

Look at the picture and take a minute to think of exactly what that frontpage headline says and what they're getting at. Got it? Good.

Now I reckon most if not all of the people who read this post will think the same thing.

The Daily Express is implying that in the near future, one in five people in Britain will be non-caucasian. And just to make sure that their dear readers' anger is pointed in the right "ethnic" direction, take a look at the photo that accompanies the online version of the story.

You see that don't you? It's two women covered head to toe in the dreaded niqabs. And just to hammer home the point that these horrible ethnics are going to be taking over, one of them is pushing a pram. Probably with a terrifying little brown baby inside that will take a school place from a good Christian white child.

Now obviously the Daily Express likes to do this sort of thing. When its not talking about how house prices and single mothers killed Princess Diana and abducted Madeleine McCann, its talking about foreigners. And the way it talks about foreigners is getting worse. Some headline examples we've had in the past few months from the Express and its sister paper the Daily Star:

"The BBC puts Muslims before YOU!"
"Keep Out! Britain is FULL UP!"
"Strangers in OUR OWN COUNTRY!"
"Foreigners take ALL new jobs in Britain!"
"Foreigners take 90 PERCENT OF ALL NEW JOBS!"
"Foreigners take 85 PERCENT OF ALL NEW JOBS!"
"Foreigners take 70 PERCENT OF ALL NEW JOBS!"**

Basically if you're not a white, British, Christian, straight person, the Express and Star have got it in for you.

The reason yesterday's headline got me thinking though was that it sits an awful lot closer to home for me, and many many of my friends on Facebook.

The Daily Express takes its figures from a study commissioned by The University of Leeds. Now I know for a fact that no department in any university would be OK with a newspaper turning a study into out an out racism, but especially so because Leeds is a very open and welcoming environment. The amount of multicultural and multilingual societies at the uni is really impressive, and a very good thing in my opinion. So I delved a little deeper.

It turns out that the report clearly states that the biggest rise in any "ethnic grouping" (horrible term imho), is going to come from white/caucasian immigration from Australia, Ireland and the United States.

Notice something those countries have in common? English speaking. And this something that MIGHT happen by 2051.

It's not a prediction, it's a population forecast, and as I learnt from my geography lessons at school and in uni, population forecasts are horrendously unreliable.

Did you know the British population was widely forecasted to have reached 80 million by 2010? Thought not. Yet funnily enough the Express doesn't mention this until the very end of the article, something which most Express readers will miss thanks to the headline and accompanying photograph screaming at you that those horrible brown people are going to get us.

On a personal note, after reading the article it turns out that I'm also one of the dreaded "ethnics". Yep. Seriously. I'm one of those people who've come over here and stole your jobs, benefits, women, cheese etc. My grandparents are Irish, therefore that makes me an ethnic minority. Funnily enough, the Express seems fine with that.

**Over a period of about 6 months they kept changing their minds.

Friday, July 09, 2010


Due to personal circumstances this blog is on hiatus. If you fancy taking over temporarily please apply. Required: good punctuation. Must be cynical, sarcastic and in favour of workers' rights. Must have struggled at least a few times in life to pay bills and rent. Please refrain from applying if you are a tabloid reader (unless you read them for pisstaking reasons) or if you run a business and screw your employees. DSS recipients and Smiths lovers welcome.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

In memory of 7/7

Five years ago, already. This same morning in 2005, four suicide bombers committed one of the vilest, most ruthless, most disgusting atrocities in British history. They hit London at its core and took the lives of 52 innocent people sitting on three underground trains and a double-decker bus. May they rest in peace.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Two months after the vote:
The Lib Dems' side of the argument

Part seven of our series. The LibDems have been taking some serious stick over the Coalition deal. Today, Mark Thompson sets the record straight and explains the LibDems' side of the argument.

In the immediate aftermath of May 6, I was expecting the Lib Dems to have performed better. When the exit polls came out I was sure that they would be proved wrong, but in the end they were almost spot on. In fact they had been a bit generous to us.

I spent most of the night in the National Liberal Club amongst other Lib Dems. Generally the feeling seemed fairly flat as the bad results came in. However, as the night wore on and it started to become clear that the Lib Dems would hold the balance of power, I got more excited. I was hoping for it to end up a doubly hung parliament (where the Lib Dems could have formed a majority with either of the other two parties) which would have given us maximum bargaining power however it was not to be.

I knew though as I walked out into the street at around 7:30am with fellow party members that politics was about to change quite fundamentally and I was very excited.

Later on, the news that a deal was being struck between David Cameron and Nick Clegg took a bit of getting used to, but it was the only game in town in the end. I blogged on the Tuesday morning when it was still looking possible that the party could try to strike a deal with Labour that we should take the Tory deal.

I am certain that a wobbly rainbow alliance built on the foundations of a minority Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have been disatrous. In the end I am a political realist. The deal we struck was the only politically viable one and I think we actually got a good deal all things considered.

And here is why. The country and its finances were (and are) in a mess. We have to get them sorted. The way that the public voted has ensured that no single party can command a majority. So the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Conservatives I think primarily to ensure that there was stable government for the country.

However we have got more than that. We have been able to get a significant chunk of our programme into government. We have already seen in the budget an increase in the tax threshold for the lowest paid by £1,000 and I fully expect that to rise further in later budgets helping the lowest earners and increasing incentives for people to work too. We have seen capital gains tax increased from 18% to 28%. Neither of these things would have happened if the Tories were in power on their own.

There are lots more policies as well as these headlines when you drill down and this will continue to be the case for the lifetime of the government.

In addition to this, we have 5 cabinet ministers including the universally respected Vince Cable in charge at Business and Chris Huhne who has impeccably progressive green credentials as Environment Secretary. Huhne has already assured our party at conference that there will be no public subsidy for nuclear, for example. I am far from sure that would have been the case under a government with a solely blue hue.

To those that keep crying "betrayal!" at the LibDems, this is what I have to say.

Firstly, I am not really clear what my party is supposed to be betraying. We are not some adjunct of the Labour Party. We are our own political movement with our own traditions and political identity. We are fighting in government for as many of those to be put into practice as possible.

The other thing I would say is that, if you are in favour of electoral reform, then accusations of this sort are rather baffling. A more proportional system would inevitably lead to coalitions where parties from different traditions have to come together and compromise.

Of course the Lib Dems have to defend what the party is doing in government (and I do not agree personally with the whole programme by the way) and fully expect the opposition to hold us to account. But I think it should be on the policies themselves, not some notion that we have betrayed something or someone. That is singularly unhelpful and I think will eventually backfire on Labour.

As for the leadership race within the Labour Party, I think the major problem that Labour have is similar to that of the Conservatives in 1997. All the main contenders are very closely associated with the previous discredited government. There needs to be some fresh thinking.

One of the reasons I could never have considered joining Labour is their woeful record on civil liberties. It was visible again the other day when Ken Clarke made his comments about prisons questioning whether banging up more and more people was the right approach. Straight away Jack Straw wrote a piece for the Daily Mail painting the government as "soft on crime".

This is the sort of approach that people are sick of and the new leader whoever they are needs to get a grip of. Otherwise Labour are risking spending another decade or more in the political wilderness as the world moves on without them and they are still fighting the political battles of the Blair/Brown era.

Mark Thompson is a Lib-Dem member and activist. He blogs at "Mark Reckons".

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Two months after the vote:
towards a General Strike?

Part six. The Tories are pushing full steam ahead with many of New Labour's least popular policies. Now it's time to fight back, explains Dave Semple.

[This is a guest post]

Prior to the election, I wrote a piece asking people to support TUSC - the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. In the immediate aftermath of the election, like so many others, I was buoyed by what seemed a shocking victory by Labour - yes the vote had been slashed and the parliamentary majority had been lost, with Labour dropping to second-party status but it didn't quite feel like a defeat.

Despite my previous resignation of Labour membership, despite the constant barrage of attacks by the tabloids and despite Lib-Dem pre-game triumphalism about a drop to third place, Labour defied expectations and I was euphoric. This was supplemented by the electoral annihilation of the BNP across Barking and Dagenham and other areas, whatever our rational selves were saying about the unsustainability of such a rout.

Yet that initial euphoria has since given way, as it would have had Labour stayed in government. Thousands of us watched David Cameron's journey to Buckingham Palace, dejectedly staring at our screens while the Prime Minister to be went inside, and was saluted by the Palace guards as he came out. We felt bitter and angry, for despite everything, led on by Left Lib-Dems, we'd hoped for a Lib-Lab pact.

However unrealistic, these were the hopes of a million people around the country. However much we knew in our hearts that the Libs and Labour would immediately set to writing their own 'austerity' package, something inside us rebelled at the idea of a Conservative government. And the last two months have proved that our hope was the correct one - as the swingeing cuts and millions of projected job losses testify.

The one positive aspect to the situation is a resolute hardening of attitudes against the Liberal Democrats. People who might once have considered voting or even joining them have been pushed away by the Lib-Dem decision to go into government with the Conservatives. The phrase 'the Left', after so many embarrassing urgings to vote Lib-Dem by various bloggers and pundits, can now refer only to a backbench rump in Labour, and the socialists.

What's the next step? We already know that the Tories are pushing full steam ahead with many of New Labour's least popular policies. Except they're going further. So the part-privatisation of Royal Mail is now wholesale privatisation of Royal Mail. The public sector is going to haemorrhage jobs - against which dubious OBR predictions, of economic growth to pick up the slack, will not count for much. Communities and workers are in for a battering.

So the fightback must begin. This week Bob Crow, leader of the Railway, Maritime and Transport union called for a General Strike. The distance between where we are now and the actualisation of such a demand is incalculable. We have the institutional conservatism and bureaucracies of the unions to overcome, we've got some sort of mass political organisation to forge (or reforge, in deference to the Left still in Labour) and we've got millions to mobilise.

All very pie-in-the-sky you might say, and you'd be absolutely right. But the alternative is ensconcing ourselves in comfy armchairs to watch as Labour's 'leadership' attempt the obscene tactic of outmanoeuvering the Tories from the Right.

We must realise that the only thing which will stop the government and its partners in Europe dragging our countries to the right by further destroying the unions and communities through increased casualisation of labour and decreased redistribution of wealth is the solid kick in the groin that simply standing up and refusing to go along with it delivers. So, all out, all out. Or else the next stop, after another 18 years of Thatcherism, is New Labour Mark II.

Dave Semple blogs at Though Cowards Flinch.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Two months after the vote:
the next five years

Part five of our post-election series. Today, Left Outside analyses the Left's future prospects.

[This is a guest post]

Throughout the election I did my (small) bit for democracy by delivering leaflets for my local Lib Dems. I've always found leaflets a little annoying, but then, as I'm not a Lib Dem I didn't feel comfortable canvassing for them yet I wanted to help defeat the incumbent Tory.

I cast my ballot for David Rendel and waited up until 4 in the morning to hear that he'd been defeated. Here I suppose I could rant that a Tory was always going to win in the end anyway, but I don't want to.

I would still vote the same way as before and I would still get out there and try to support the Lib Dems. I'm under no illusions, they are not a party of the left, but I am as much a Liberal as I am a Socialist and even if the Liberals sacrifice their pretensions of leftism at least we can hope they will somewhat neuter the social reactionaries in the Tories.

Although this position puts me in the mind of this Beau Bo D'Or picture, with hindsight it seems the best I could hope to achieve on May 6th, and grim pragmatism has always been the way I have approached elections.

To begin however there is still a lot with which to be disappointed. The Tories are going to reduce the deficit too quickly and this is going to damage the economy; the Lib Dems are sadly acquiescing in this. The anti-deficit vanguard have taken control, despite the deficit of evidence to support their position.

Of course, this being the Tories there is also some hypocrisy to worry about. The Tories claim to be worried about debt, yet they have pledged to reduce immigration, something which will make the debt burden worse and trend GDP growth lower. Two of my main concerns, a chance for a decent living for me, and a chance to give a leg up to those unlucky enough to be born within different borders have been dealt a severe blow.

The positive side of this election is less clear. But I do think it offers a chance to regroup, although I appreciate this may be me taking refuge in a cliché.

There will likely be 5 years to get the left's electoral platform in order, and that means the Labour electoral position. The Labour Leadership contest is leaving me somewhat nonplussed - especially since the exit of John McDonnell, but it is not the distance of the election that leaves me uninterested. For me the next 5 years are not about getting elected, they're about fighting for services.This is for pragmatic and strategic reasons.

We will enter the next election in an odd position; normally a government has to lose an election, an opposition rarely "wins" it. Nobody won the last election and this puts the left in a strong position. Rather than wait for the Government to fail the left can spend 5 years presenting an alternative.

This is how I want to see the next 5 years spent; the Labour party spending some time becoming a party of the people rather than one claiming to be for the people despite evidence to the contrary; bloggers fact checking the government; unions defending their members; the public protesting for their services and the Tory's cuts delayed.

Click here to visit Left Outside's blog

Friday, July 02, 2010

Two months after the vote:
from LibDems to Greens

Part four of our post-election series. Let down by the ConDem deal, Jane Watkinson explains why she defected from the LibDems to the Green Party.

[This is a guest post]

When I decided to defect from the LibDems to The Greens, part of me was worried that I had made a mistake. All sorts of questions went through my head: have I gone too early? would it have been better to fight my case within?

I am pleased to say, after around a month of being in The Greens, I am 100% confident my decision was the right one. I have never been so comfortable in arguing my politics – my lefty views were constrained within a party, which has a central outlook/ideology that includes the desirability of a rapidly shrinking state. This is illustrated quite well when considering how much support the LibDems have thrown behind the ‘Big Society’.

If the election was repeated, I would obviously now vote for The Greens. Locally in Leeds, The Greens have formed a minority with the Labour to run the council, and in doing so, reached a very comprehensive agreement with a £30 million housing insulation programme included. Nationally, The Greens picked up their first MP, and arguably would have gained at least one more if the LibDems had not run such a misleading campaign.

Many aspects of the election outcome were hugely disappointing. One of the most central concerns I had/have with the ConDem deal is the LibDems apparent abandonment of their left progressive ideas/policies. Furthermore, they have become very submissive to Tory pressure when it comes to key lefty issues/policies such as capital gains tax and the now very regressive nature of the income threshold rise – as the progressive LibDem policies that were going to be used to pay for it have since been dropped and thus, it will be funded largely out of regressive public spending cuts.

These latter developments only confirmed my earlier concerns I had with the initial proposals that saw them drop key central policies and adopt what to me was all but for the smallest of details a Tory manifesto. Whilst the Tories still complain of how hard done by they are, they forget that the LibDems had to accept key policies watered down (e.g. income threshold and AV), key policies abandoned (e.g. immigration and Europe), key policies being sent to often pointless commissions (e.g. breaking up the banks, House of Lords reform) and also having to give up any chance of opposing controversial decisions (e.g. marriage tax and tuition fee raises).

It is hard to find positives from the ConDem deal. Regardless, they have scrapped ID cards and the building of a third runway at Heathrow, whilst proceeding with a more open government and genuinely reversing the assault of civil liberties from the previous Labour government. However, this would have happened without the LibDems, as they were all key Tory proposals. Furthermore, other policies, such as the marriage tax, are undermining progressive moves in extending civil rights, as we see the state becoming more influential in people’s personal life.

For the progressive left to make successful inroads in this centre-right neo-liberal government, we need to see an advancement of pluralism. The left really need to work together in this, tribalism should be reduced as much as possible so the fight for a fairer and sustainable economy and society is advanced and achieved.

Jane Watkinson blogs at My Political Ramblings.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Two months after the vote: the Labour view

Part three of our post-election series. Today, Don Paskini explains why there is still plenty of hope for Labour.

[This is a guest post]

If you want a glimpse of the future of politics, it’s worth looking at Oxford. Oxford had been the only seat in the south east to reject Thatcherism in 1987, and by 2004, people had had enough of New Labour.

In both cases, this was three years before growing unpopularity forced these leaders out of office. Labour was hammered by the Liberal Democrats in the 2004 local elections, and in the 2005 General Election, a majority of more than 10,000 was slashed to just 963.

What Labour did in Oxford after 2005 provides a template for what could happen over the next five years across the country.

Firstly, they learned the campaigning lessons from those councillors who had managed to get re-elected in 2004, and made sure that in every part of the city there were hard-working Labour activists keeping in touch all year round and helping people, and that locally Labour was in touch with the views of local people on every issue from opposition to the war in Iraq to the need for action to solve the city’s appalling housing crisis. As part of this, they managed to persuade some of the most effective and hard-working Lib Dem councillors to join Labour.

Secondly, they used this experience and connection to the grassroots to develop popular policies which helped improve people’s lives.

Labour in Oxford were one of the first authorities to introduce free swimming for young people in 2006, and to pay the Living Wage to low paid workers in 2009. They massively expanded holiday activities for young people in deprived areas, which gave young people something fun to do and which cut crime and anti-social behaviour by half, and expanded recycling services.

When the Lib Dems tried to close playgrounds in order to keep council tax down in 2008, Labour fought the council elections on slightly higher council tax rises to refurbish every play area in the city – and won. The local MP worked with local residents to campaign for new regulations on bad landlords, and managed to get the law changed. And Labour councillors managed to do all of this while making efficiency savings equivalent to 25% of the council’s entire net budget.

There was a virtuous circle here. The more time that Labour activists and councillors spent calling round to listen to people and help them, the better they got at developing popular and effective new policies. And the more people that they helped, and the better they got at developing new policies, the more people got involved in their community campaigning.

In contrast, after 2005 the Lib Dems moved steadily to the Right. Their main local campaign message in the 2010 election was that Tories needed to vote tactically to beat “Gordon Brown’s man”, a strategy which led to them securing the coveted endorsement of the Oxford University Conservative Association.

In the wealthiest areas of Oxford and amongst people who don’t rely on public services, the LibDems did extremely well. But across the rest of the city, Nick Clegg’s plans for savage cuts and replacing the NHS with competing insurance providers went down very badly, and people rallied to support Labour. Labour got 36% of the vote in Oxford East in 2005, the same share as it received nationally. In 2010, Labour got 29% across the country and 42% in Oxford East.

What was heart-breaking about the 2010 election was seeing how many decent people across the country were conned by Lib Dem spin and Labour's many failings into supporting a party which talked a good game, but which relished the chance to abandon any kind of principle in the rush to form a Right-wing alliance with the Tories. But what was exhilarating was seeing that grassroots community campaigning, based on the principles of unity, hard work and Labour values, really does work.

Don Paskini blogs here.