Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011...

How the Daily Mail peddles hatred against the jobless

Distorting news and fuelling prejudice since 1896. And still getting away with it.

You can say what you want about the Daily Mail but "incoherent" they're not. For them, 2010 is drawing to a close exactly the same way it began: talking rubbish.

Look at the way this article misleads in order to fit the tabloid's own toxic agenda.

"The job refuseniks: How 750,000 of the dole queue have turned down or quit work" is the headline.

Of course, with no further details immediately at hand, the implication is that 750,000 of the current unemployed are taking the piss.

But a quick fact-check shows that the Daily Mail is deliberately distorting facts. The "750,000" people the right-wing tabloid is referring to are not at all from "the dole queue", let alone the current one, but they're a combination of:

- people who left jobs (or were fired for misconduct) who then tried to claim benefit but were caught out, fined and therefore denied benefits;

- people who refused job offers, even though the Daily Mail steers well clear of specifying why that was the case. Whether the applicants did not have access to transport, or child care, or any other reason, Britain's naffest tabloid doesn't think it matters. They're all scum, they're unlucky, kick'em while they're down.

Most importantly, the figures refer to the period between 2000 and 2010, that is to say 10 years, and NOT to the current "dole queue".

This is a crucial fact, because 750,000 people over a period of ten years are one thing and 750,000 people all in one go are another, yet the Daily Mail doesn't think it's worth specifying it at all until a brief mention in the second part of the article.

Now. People of a very superficial ilk like to sputter that Britain's tabloids are harmless and that they play no part in affecting (some would say poisoning) the country's cultural and political debate.

And yet, just think of the amount of people who don't have the time, the patience or the attention span to go past the poisonous headline that "750,000 of the dole queue have turned down or quit work".

Many will have interiorised the Mailesque belief that, yes, three quarter of a million dole recipients in this country are basically workshy vermin scum and don't deserve to be in receipt of any benefit.

You know what to do next time you've run out of Andrex.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The most annoying Xmas song ever...

...Plus festive wishes...

In the next few days, the Very British practice of having to endure Christmas "hits" wherever you are (since early November at least) will finally come to an end. Until next year, of course.

And so a very Happy Xmas to all - in particular emergency staff, barmaids and barmen, 24/7 shop assistants, care workers and all those who didn't have a chance to book time off over the time of the year when you're most expected to be jolly, merry, twee and festive.

In the meantime, here's my own very personal Bottom Five:

1- Do They Know It's Christmas?, Band Aid
Imagine twenty or so egomaniacs each recording their own annoying Crimbo tune packaged as "save the starving", and then proceeding to condense the end products all into one and shove it down the nation's throats for generations to come. 'Painful' doesn't even begin to cover it.

2- Fairytale of New York, The Pogues Feat. Kirsty MacColl
As a former barman, receptionist and shop assistant, I feel for the millions of staff who have to endure this non-stop from November 1st onwards.

3- Merry Christmas Everyone, Shakin' Stevens
As a former barman, receptionist and shop assistant, I feel for the millions of staff who have to endure this non-stop from November 1st onwards.

4- Santa Claus is Coming Into Town, Michael Bolton
As a former barman, receptionist and shop assistant, I feel for the millions of staff who have to endure this non-stop from November 1st onwards.

5- Merry Xmas Everybody, Slade
As a former barman, receptionist and shop assistant, I feel for the millions of staff who have to endure this non-stop from November 1st onwards. Especially the bit at the end when Noddy Holder screams IT'S CHRISTMAS!!!! into the microphone. Grating.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cable TV

Rupert Murdoch couldn't have pulled off a better one even if he'd tried.

Much has been said and written about the Daily Telegraph sting job on Vince Cable and his surprising revelations on the coalition's internal conflicts and various issues including his "war on Mr Murdoch".

We also learnt that Cable has been stripped of his responsibilities for overseeing media and broadcasting companies, that he will no longer rule on the controversial Rupert Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB, and that his replacement is going to be Conservative Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a man whose views on Murdoch and his media empire appear to be very favourable to say the least.

Coincidence, the announcement was met with BSkyB's shares leaping like a frog on crack. You can guess who is the only person benefiting from all this.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What is Germany doing that we aren't?

Germany has recovered from the recession faster than any other country. Here is why.

The days when Tony Blair was lecturing various EU countries on the importance of adopting the Anglo-Saxon model of beefed-up finance are now long gone.

When the biggest global recession in decades kicked in, Germany was able to weather the storm and recover much quicker and better than Britain, the US, or any other major Western economy.

Some of the reasons may be too complex for the scope of a blog post. Yet it's interesting that, while successive UK governments spent the last three decades actively pursuing overreliance on bullshit economy, Germany did not fall for short-termist solutions.

For one thing, not giving up on its manufacturing is certainly reaping the harvest now - look at how its booming export sales are proving the country's biggest asset as the Germans are getting out of recession faster than anyone else.

And so a number of legitimate questions arise. Why is it that after registering a slump of -4.7% last year, Germany is now forecast to end 2010 with a GDP growth of 3.6%, its fastest pace since reunification, while Britain is still finding its feet?

And why is it that while unemployment is still rising or stagnating in the US, Britain or other EU countries, the figures are going down fast and steady in Germany?

During the bubble years, Blair and Brown could at least boast that the UK's jobless figures were regularly lower than the rest of Europe. And it was true. Between 2000 and 2007, unemployment in Britain was never any higher than 5.5% (see this) while, in the same period, the German figures were regularly double that rate - between 8 and 10 per cent (see this).

Now look at the last two years. UK unemployment has overtaken Germany's at a hair-raising pace. While the jobless rate in Britain is now tickling 8 per cent, in Germany it decreased to 7.3 per cent at the start of 2010 and then further lowered to 6.7% in October (see this) - again, its best figures since reunification.

So what are the Germans doing that we're not, to the extent that many analysts are now openly talking of a "German Miracle"?

The answer lies in a policy that the German government adopted at the start of the crisis. It's called kurzarbeit and it literally means "short work". While other countries spent unprecedented sums on bailing out banks or dubious stimulus programmes, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government (at the time a coalition of centre-right CDU and centre-left SDP) took a unique gamble by spending huge sums bailing out its work force.

And that's because, under kurzarbeit, employers hit by the downturn are encouraged to keep their workers part-time rather than make them redundant. The Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) will cover up to 67% of lost wages and will also take care of national insurance and other contribution. The idea is that:

a) mass redundancies often mean a permanent loss of skilled work and specialised trade, especially in the industrial sector. By keeping workers active through a combination of part-time and training, the economy benefits the moment trade picks up - which is exactly what happened as Germany boomed in 2010;

b) the focus on employment and wages spared the country a vicious circle of mass unemployment leading to a drop in both tax revenue and consumer confidence - in turn leading to vast numbers of people defaulting on their mortgages and loans. In other words, as the money reaches consumers directly, it flows back into the market straightaway.

This may look expensive at first (£5.1bn a year), but it saved Germany a fortune in both welfare costs and bailing out banks.

Compare what Germany spent on their bail-out: 1.4% to 2.2% of gross domestic product (between €34bn and €52bn). In Britain it was a staggering 19.8%, almost a fifth of its GDP - and that's before the official cost was actually discovered to stand at an even higher £850bn.

Of course, the experiment is not without its critics. From the left, it's often said that Germany's recovery has taken place at the expense of the rising numbers of low-wage workers and unprecedented wage restraint. From the right, the objection that kurzabeit would simply lead to "a backlog of job cuts", to quote what the president of the German Bundesbank said last year.

And yet, time is showing that Germany's route to recovery is the correct one. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the kurzabeit scheme saved nearly 500,000 jobs in 2009 alone and two months ago the German Upper House Bundesrat decided to extend it until March 2012.

More recents news report that Germany's industrial sector is currently in need of 34,000 engineers and 23,000 factory workers.

Indeed, a German success story.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Stay placid

Forget the tabloids. Here's the cavalry of "maverick" newspaper columnists coming to the rescue of government and corporate tax avoiders to brand protesters as the real enemy from within.

It is was only two years ago that Britain's newspapers were - almost in unison - kicking and screaming histerically at the super-rich and their corrupt Westminster mates "whose excesses dragged the country to the edge of bankruptcy".

Comments such as "never again are we going to be taken for a ride", "lessons-need-learning", and "why should the little people clean up the mess left by the powerful" were the order of the day in every newspaper.

And so it happens that, within less than 24 months, it's no longer the fault of the casino bankers, the corporate tax dodgers and their lapdog politicians.

In fact, they're not even the real powers that be. They're the defenseless victims, the "grown-ups", those actually in need of constant rescuing from the threat of "self-righteous" and "red-faced" "intoxicated anarchists" with "pumped-up rage" that "will achieve nothing" but inconveniencing "ordinary shoppers".

Seriously. Forget the tabloids. You read Britain's newspapers these days and it's as if the actual culprits behind the world's ills were students, anti-tax avoidance protesters and, of course, evil Julian Assange and his supporters.

Look at the amount of columnists who, for all their maverick posturing, toss-arguing, straw clutching and verbal meandering, always - invariably - end up as guardian dogs of the status quo.

What follows is a quick selection of "quality" newspaper articles from the last ten days.

The morning of the tuition fees vote in the Commons, the Independent's Steve Richards didn't feel the need to analyse, dissect or criticise the government's new tuition fees politicy. He didn't even say if he agreed or not. No. His energies were all spared for the protests which "have a whiff of urgent glamour", and "will have made no practical difference whatsoever". Basically, years of broadsheets lecturing on "generation apathy" and look who's apathetic now.

That still wasn't quite as lame as Howard Jacobson who, a couple of days later, boasted in the same paper: "I am temperamentally averse to demonstrations [...]. Any more than five human beings believing the same thing and congregating to say so are bound to be on a course that will lead to trouble. We are safe only when we act individually".

Or Toby Young in the Telegraph. "The student protesters are morally indistinguishable from the merchant bankers", he spouted. Are they really? Except that you'd be hard pressed if you could spot a single article where the same Mr Young uttered a word against the bankers. He'd rather go for the soft target, would he not, whether it's students on tuition fees or the spontaneous movement whose only request is that the superrich too don't get preferential treatment when it comes to tax in the age of "we're-all-in-this-together".

Because what they're doing is, "they're hurting ordinary shoppers [...], the poorest and most vulnerable", says Young. Who then follows with the predictable dollop of whataboutery: "why don’t [the protesters] patrol the streets of their home towns giving food and blankets to the homeless [instead]?".

Then there's Christina Patterson back at the Independent, as we already discussed on Saturday. Her particular targets, the celebrity supporters of Wikileaks and their "delicious sense of self-righteousness". Says she.

Nothing, however, as the supreme pontificating coming from Mary Ann Sieghart who, after three or four paragraphs of logical swirls, eventually brands all demonstrators as "anarchists". Whether Wikileaks, the students or the anti-tax avoidance protesters, they're all "intoxicated by a spirit of anarchy" - cue "a bunch of students in balaclavas [...] who go round smashing windows" - but no, she's not tarring them all with the same brush.

All that intellectual energy and all that newspaper ink to simply say: young people, we liked you more when you just watched Big Brother or the X-Factor. Now keep your head down again and stay supine.

Also on the subject: "Stay stupid".

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The UK's worst politics programme

They say the BBC is looking for programmes to axe. In which case, what better place to start than 'This Week'?

If you thought you knew the real meaning of cringeworthy, then you may want to think again. Last Thurday's episode of Andrew Neil's "political" show on BBC One plumbed depths previously unknown to man.

The combination of dogs from Britain's Got Talent performing tricks in the studio, Quentin Letts and Kevin Macguire doing a stomach-churning impersonation of Downturn Abbey, and Andrew Neil's profoundly unfunny jokes hanging in the studio like a toxic cloud was just too much to take.

Some people may have long wondered what the purpose of This Week is.

Is its lighthearted tone meant to draw in viewers that are not normally interested in politics? Then wouldn't the 11:35 pm slot defeat the object? But suppose it was given prime time, its relentless bombardment of annoying in-jokes and cryptic backslapping would be enough to make most people turn the telly off within minutes.

Because the thing is, someone should tell Andrew Neil that he is not funny. But really not funny, not one bit.

Last Thursday was the first time I had the misfortune to watch This Week in ages and the words "Alan" and "Partridge" sprang to mind - as in, the type of egomaniacal televisual bigwig that Steve Coogan intended to parody. Just think your most cringeworthy family member churning out unfunny jokes at Christmas gatherings catapulted on national television. That's almost as bad as Andrew Neil.

With light entertainment ruled out, it's obvious that This Week is not about in-depth analyses either. Hapless guests (including regulars Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo) are lucky if they manage to open their mouth for five seconds before Andrew Neil chokes the conversation again with one of his "jokes".

It's obvious that the producers' script is "avoid anything remotely engaging at all costs", which is why anything that isn't a soundbite or extremely shallow gets trampled over by the presenter's industrial-size ego.

They say that state-funded TV often appeals to the lowest common denominator in order to compete with commercial television, but it's hard to think of any other channel, even Five, ever commissioning something like This Week without the words "commercial" and "suicide" flashing in big lights as the credits roll.

Cliches of 2010 #6

"Why can't Britain cope with snow while other countries can?"

Because it's not true. Bad weather regularly disrupts travel and normal services in a number of countries, not just Little England.

You hear it time and again, each and every winter, when heavy snowfall is met by headlines like chaos, BIG FREEZE or COLDEST [month] SINCE RECORD BEGAN.

Or, if not "since record began", then maybe the coldest for 20/50/90 years, or since 1962, depending on the article you read. Or, perhaps, even, "AA's busiest night for breakdowns in 25 years" - anything as long as it's a superlative sentence.

And the panicky headlines are invariably accompanied by the usual "Why can't Britain cope with snow?" and "why do we grind to a halt at the first snowflake and other countries don't"? Google those words and you'll find the very same question cropping up dozens of times and not just from this uber-cold 2010 or 2009, but all the time.

And yet it wouldn't take much to clock that weather-related self-flagellation is complete nonsense.

While it's obviously true that the weather is being incredibly disruptive, similar levels of chaos (and casualties, in some cases) are reported across France, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia as well as throughout Spain, Italy and also Eastern Europe.

Last year was a similar picture, with a nasty cold snap forcing airports to shut, not just in the UK, but also in other countries like Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Northern Italy, etc.

Why some people want to believe that whatever happens on their doorstep is only happening to them and them alone remains one of the mysteries of Clicheland.

#5 "Students should engage in the democratic vote...".
#4 "Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top".
#3 "There are jobs out there if you really want one".
#2 "The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue".
#1 "Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man"

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Stay stupid

Nothing seems to irk the country's hacks more than a celebrity expressing a political opinion.

We binge on hundreds of celebrities, some more worthless than others, while we laugh at their imperfections, dimpled thighs and sweaty armpits as sported by Heat, the Sun or the Daily Mail.

We love to remark on how thick, shallow and uneducated they are. We sneered at Jade Goody's "pig ignorance", laughed at Paris Hilton's dumb quotes and we frowned at how detached from the real world the superrich and the superfamous are.

But then the moment a celebrity displays the tiniest existence of grey stuff between their ears, for some reason, we go apeshit and we scoff and pour scorn at them.

Whether it's Eric Cantona making a stand against the banks, Colin Firth criticising the government over tuition fees, or Jemima Khan defending Wikileaks, the media predators just won't let them get away with it. Go back to your pampered world. Stay thick, stay shallow and stay supine, is the warning. [Incidentally, note how the toss-arguers always invariably end up siding with the powers that be].

Jan Moir kicked off the proceedings yesterday with an extremely bitchy swipe at "darling Jemima. She was pictured looking particularly fabulous at an earlier Assange hearing; standing on the court steps with her blonde hair flying and her big liberal heart beating fit to burst", wrote the right-wing columnist.

Today is the turn of the Independent to pull her up on her quote that she shouldn't be called a "socialite". How dare she say she isn't. Oh the scorn, the tutting, the disdain.

Christina Patterson goes even further. In one of the most convoluted opinion columns in living memory, she insinuates that "the very beautiful, and very rich, and very famous for her famous boyfriends, Jemima Khan", may not be genuinely interested in "the cause of freedom of speech".

"It's also possible that [Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger] did the calculations before making the deal", sentenced Patterson. "On the one side: beauty, money, glamour. On the other: 'rock star' looks, a delicious sense of self-righteousness, and the aphrodisiac of massive, world-leader-embarrassing power".

Damned if they do, damned if they don't. Here's the message to every celebrity: show an interest in something and the papers will pick you to pieces.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jan Moir's playground whataboutery

Has the Daily Mail's star columnist got cognitive problems?

You can always rely on quality analyses from the Daily Mail.

Like today's column by Jan Moir. Remember her? The woman who last year prompted record numbers of complaints for performing homophobic rituals on Stephen Gately's grave and then landed the 2009 Stonewall Bigot of the Year Award.

The thing with Moir is that she is also desperate to win the Mail's Biggest Bully Award. What lets her down, however, is the flimsiness of her writing.

Look at the playground-brand of whataboutery she's deploying in her feeble attempt at character assassination on Jemima Khan.

According to Moir, Khan's crime is that she supports Wikileaks' Julian Assange but not Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders or US Pastor Terry Jones, the religious nut who thinks publicly burning the Qur'an is a good deed.

And that's not all. Apparently Jemima Khan should never have said the following to critical journos:

"Calling me “a socialite” is such a lazy way for journalists to undermine me and the Assange defence".

Moir thinks this makes Jemima a hypocrite. "That's free speech for you babe. Freedom of information", the homophobe writes.

Which makes you wonder if she can actually read and understand texts properly. Because Khan's sentence has got fuckall to do with free speech or lack thereof. Jemima Khan didn't say "silence those critics, ban them or burn them at the stake". She just said that that particular criticism directed at her was "lazy".

The good news is that if this is the current state of Britain's right-wing tabloids, then we really do have plenty of reasons to cheer up. Perhaps having a government that tickles their fancy is actually sapping their critical spirit.

To finish, Jan Moir's icing on the cake: "But the rest of us reserve the right not to take [Jemima Khan] quite as seriously as she takes herself". Yes, you braindead idiot, that must be why you wrote an entire "opinion column" about her.

Feeling their pain

The parallels between the plight of today's LibDem activists and that of many Labour supporters during the Blair years.

Contribution by Councillor Bob Piper

Ed Miliband’s appeal for those Liberal Democrats dismayed by the coalition with the Conservatives may attract some waverers, but I doubt it will lead to the complete demise of the Lib Dems that some people are predicting.

Personally I have a sympathy with those on the radical wing of the Lib Dems who feel betrayed by Clegg, Alexander and co. They will have spent years listening to their leaders in opposition decrying “the two main parties” and promising nirvana if only they were in power. Ok, most will surely have accepted that getting power in their own right was not achievable in the short term, but they hung on to the belief that they could hold the balance of power in a coalition. And so it came to pass. But I doubt many Lib Dem members thought that entering a coalition would result in their MPs accepting a complete u-turn on issues like tuition fees. Accepting a review of Trident is one thing, they may even have accepted that the Tories and Labour, whichever they joined up with, would combine to ensure Trident was renewed. But to see their leaders vociferously arguing for a measure which they had spent over 10 years decrying… that was not what they were expecting.

The reason I have some sympathy is that some of us in the Labour Party have been there and bought the t-shirt. We spent the best part of two decades on platforms condemning the Thatcherite market-led NHS reforms, the privatisation of public services, the anti-trade union laws, the Private Finance Initiative etc. Then we suddenly discovered that these things were not going to be reversed, but worse, they were actually at the heart of Blair’s New Labour party. I remember only a few months in to the Labour Government of 1997, when the euphoria was still pumping through Labour veins, moving a resolution at UNISON’s Affiliated Political Fund conference calling for a halt to PFI schemes. The resolution was passed but was opposed by two leading lights of the union, Dave Anderson and Ann Picking (both destined to become Labour MPs) which made me uneasy at the time. And also opposed by Keith Vaz who, without a hint of shame or irony, told the conference that previously we had quite rightly opposed ‘Tory PFI’ …this was different… it was ‘New Labour PFI’!!!

And this was years before Blair’s wars and infatuation with Bush, or plans for 90-day internment, or ID cards and all of the other authoritarian post-9/11 measures. You know, those things that Ed Miliband confessed were errors or misjudgments during his leadership bid.

So, if there are Lib Dems out there thinking of packing it all up, my message to you is don’t despair. Clegg may be just a blip, a small hiccup in the long history of your party. Stick to your principles and one day you may be secretly stifling a smug grin as speaker after speaker stands up to denounce Clegg and his ilk and all of their crypto-Tory machinations.

In closing though, comrades, I have no wish to form a coalition with you. We should both want to trample the Tories in to the dirt and ensure a permanent democratic socialist/social democrat political future for Britain. A strong Liberal Democrat opposition to what you perceive as the excesses of a Labour Government should be the short term aim, not the shabby little compromise you now find yourselves locked in to.

Of course, for those who really don’t have the stomach to endure five years of the current horror show… I’m told our membership is still open to applications.

*This article was originally posted at Councillor Bob Piper.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy nation

Warning: look away if you can't take any doom'n'gloom

Here's the list of Christmas gift delivered to your doorstep by Santa Cameron. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics yesterday:

- official unemployment up to 2.5 million people (first rise since the spring);

- the number of people who have to switch to part-time work because they could not find a full-time job keeps going up, now standing at 1.16 million, "the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992";

- there were 158,000 redundancies in the three months to October 2010, up 15,000 on the quarter. The figures are set to soar, as around 100,000 redundancy letters are expected to be sent to local authority staff within the next month.

- inflation is up to 3.3% (or 4.7% RPI), particularly due to a record hike on food and non-alcoholic drinks. And with the VAT to rise in January (more about its impact here), that's bound to get worse, especially when coupled with the news that earnings have gone up by 2.2 per cent (though if you personally know anyone who can say they've had a pay rise in the last 12 months, do drop us a line).

PS: On a positive note, this blog salutes one good thing the LibDems have achieved while in power: the end of detention of children in immigration centres - one of the most appalling policies that Labour implemented while in power. Credit when due.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

LibDems take advice from US Republicans!

Bush's senior policy adviser now cited as the LibDem's new oracle. Seriously.

It really says something when the Liberal Democrats' official organ is proudly sporting the words of a US Republican "urging Barack Obama to be more like Nick Clegg".

For the record, the remains of the LibDems are boastfully quoting Michael Gerson, former senior policy advisor to President George W Bush between 2000 and 2006 - that is, someone sitting right at the core of the lethal (literally) neo-con Chain of Command during both the Iraq mess and the build-up to the biggest financial crash since 1929.

Of course, if pressed, Nick Clegg and his dwindling rank of faithfuls would probably tell you that, no, it's Barack Obama that's turned conservative and that, yes, the Bushite Republicans have magically become "progressive" (one of Clegg's favourite words). Just like the previously-evil Tories have blossomed overnight into Clegg's "progressive" wet dream.

And then the LibDems would probably add that, even though George W Bush's tax cuts for upper-income, capital-owning households were the trigger for America's worst record on income inequality since the 1920s, the Republicans were still good at stimulating social mobility.

And yeah, mobility, George W Bush certainly managed.

In the sense that it was thanks to his atrocious inititatives such as the Ownership Society that millions of low-wage Americans moved to homes that they couldn't afford and from which they were soon kicked out. They moved alright.

Not quite social, but still mobility.

The Amazing Transformation of Ben Mitchell

The worst casting decision ever made?

Thank god for the minds behind Eastenders for bringing light entertainment in the midst of this bleak Autumn of Discontent.

Cue the ridiculous return of Ben Mitchell and the several million laughters that saluted the poorest casting in living memory; so poor that the only feasible explanation can be the casting directors' cravings for the next British Comedy Award.

Look at the picture and tell us if that isn't pure genius. The same kid who walked away looking like a child, chubby, fresh-faced and soft-skinned, is supposed to come back a mere four months later looking eight years older, sideburns and all, and with a voice about four octaves lower than its previous helium-like incarnation.

We've all heard of growth spurts, but this is something else - as if good old Ben Mitchell had been force-fed industrial quantities of the stuff Tour de France riders are too often caught guzzling for breakfast.

After the botched job with Lauren Branning and the laughing stock that is Ben Mitchell's recasting, expect Lady Gaga to stand in for Ian Beale. The producers at EastEnders probably think she's his spitting image.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Berlusconi survives confidence vote

Last month we predicted the end of Silvio Berlusconi.

Consumed by scandals, a stagnant economy, as well as increasing defections within his own right-wing coalition, it really looked like the tycoon's days in office were numbered.

Wrong. Minutes ago the Italian PM survived a vote of confidence in both chambers. Literally, by the scruff of the neck, thanks to a few opposition MPs who stood their party up (literally going AWOL, imagine that in Westminster) and an unxpected extra handful of votes in favour.

Like my good old dad said, "You can never write Berlusconi off. He's like a cat with nine lives". Nine lives, as well as the fattest chequebook in Italy.

Allegations that several MPs, who had publicly announced they would vote against the government, were "cajoled" (or even "threatened") into realigning are gaining weight. This morning, opposition parties submitted to the courts "legal evidence" that a "trading operation" went on between Berlusconi's party and individual deputies.

In any other western democracy, the government would have some major explaining to do. In Italy it will just blow a raspberry.

[Photo : Italian politics in action this morning - from la Repubblica]

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pope in Birmingham cost £280,000

That, the local cuts and the new library: where there's a will there's a way?

The Birmingham Post reports today that Pope Benedict's one-day visit to Birmingham last September will cost the public purse £280,000 - expected to be funded from the local police budget. According to the Post, "[t]he bill has left the force’s contingency budget short of cash for the rest of the year".

Of course you could argue that is nothing in a city where the pain of the Coalition cuts will be felt more than anywhere else, with £330 million (a whopping 28 per cent of all non-schools services from the council) set to be cut between 2011 and 2014.

On the subject, take a peek at this excellent piece by Paul Dale. Compare and contrast. The same council that is having to cut £330m worth of services is also struggling to find £590m (plus £6 million a year in interests) to cover the costs of the currently under construction brand new central library in Centenary Square.

Who knows. Perhaps the logic may be that, if you soon find yourself jobless and with front line services mangled to round it all off, at least you'll be able to cheer yourself up by reading books about the Pope's visit. In the new central library.

A 1p tax on text messages?

Almost 100 billion SMSs were sent last year in Britain alone. If it's true that the deficit matters, then do your maths.

In an interview in today's Guardian, union leader Bob Crowe mentions in passing that he'd "put a 1 pence tax on every text message that's sent in Britain", arguing that "[the measure] would nearly wipe out half the deficit".

Crowe may be a little over optimistic on the figures, but the idea is certainly spot on.

Last year, 96.8 billion text messages were sent across Britain, an increase of 23% on 2008 - and that's without counting 600 million picture messages on top.

The Office for National Statistics said that "[t]he current budget (excluding financial interventions) showed a deficit of £7.1 billion in October 2010".

A significant portion of that money could be recovered in one fell swoop, as it's highly unlikely an extra 1p per text would impact significantly on the billions of SMSs being sent each day. It'd be certainly infinitely less intrusive than many of the austerity measures this government is taking.

If it's true that Britain's financial emergency can warrant half a million people being made redundant and cuts to the tune of £330m in councils like Birmingham, then what is an extra 1p per text or picture message if it can rake in (at the very worst) over £1bn in just a year?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tabloids, baying mobs and Charlie Gilmour

Aware that public sympathy is not on their side, the coalition and their media need all the red herrings they can get hold of.

It's that time of the year again when Britain needs its fix of collective hysteria.

Like two years ago when BLOOD OF A SOCIAL WORKER became the backdrop to our lives, and last summer when the phantom PC BAN ON THE ENGLISH FLAG provoked widespread rage, the baying mob is back - whipped up by the country's tabloids - pitchfork and torches, gnashers grinding and white foam building up at the corner of the mouth.

Like foreigners and single mums, social workers and PC councils, 21-year-old Charlie Gilmour is already learning what it means to be the target of tabloid-inspired scapegoating and witch-hunt in this country.

Within hours of the Sun and the Daily Mail revealing his name and personal information, the bloke who was photographed swinging like a fool from the Union Jack at the Cenotaph became the focus of cyber lynchmobs baying for his blood.

Look at the succession of Facebook groups that sprung up like mushrooms.

Jail Charlie Gilmour, Never employ Charlie Gilmour, Charlie Gilmour is a Cnut! (sic), CHARLIE GILMOUR WANTS SHOOTING, Prosecute and imprison Charlie Gilmour!, I hope Charlie Gilmour dies slowly very soon, Charlie Gilmour - Vilest brat in Britain!, Charlie Gilmour is a disgrace to his country JAIL HIM!, Charlie Gilmour needs to be fucking hung.

And that's without counting the hate-filled comments and calls for "revenge" on the tabloids' websites: displays of pure loathing scary enough to make the Wicker Man look like In The Night Garden.

Overnight this Charlie Gilmour turned into the most hated man in Britain, an "evil man" who should die a slow death, be hung, shot and devoured alive by a pack of rottweilers with advanced rabies.

And why? Because he swung from the Cenotaph. An incredibly idiotic thing to do, if you ask me. An ignorant and disrespectful act. One that, if anything, gave ammunitions to those who already hate demonstrators by default.

But, seriously, have we really lost our minds that we can get so worked up to the point of readily dispensing death wishes so publicly and light-heartedly?

What is it with this country that some people get more exercised by symbols than they do when political and corporate abuse vandalises their lives on a regular basis?

Why is it that people can go nuts - literally - over a rich kid swinging from a flag and not even blink when stories pile up of unwarranted police violence against protesters? Where's the outrage when a disabled demonstrator is pulled from his wheelchair and dragged around by the police not once, but twice?

"How dare you insult your country", writes the Sun. Fair enough. But where are the cries of disservice to the reputation of British democracy and where's the bile when the police are caught lying through their teeth in order to cover up some of their most thuggish behaviour?

And why does the baying mob get so incensed by the fact that Charlie's dad (Pink Floyd's David Gilmour) is so rich, but then they don't mind that they themselves will lose jobs, struggle with cuts and much higher living costs courtesy of a government where 18 out of 23 members of the cabinet are millionaires and aristocrats? No outrage there? Where's the scorn poured at "privileged boys who will not be hit by the crisis" when you really need it?

Charlie Gilmour would've done an infinitely better job if he'd stayed at home. But there's no law that makes joining protesters who are less well-off than you a crime. And, come to think of it, no legal cap on protesters' income either.

The Coalition and their mates in the media know public sympathy is not on their side. In their desperate quest for red herrings to shift the focus of the discussion from what really matters, they need all the Charlie Gilmours they can get hold of.

Nothing, at the end of the day, is more threatening to a government than peaceful mass demonstrations.

Cliches of 2010 #5

"Students should engage in the democratic vote instead of protesting".

But that's what they did!

The majority of students voted LibDem at the last general election. According to a YouGov poll published in May (see here), a stunning 45 per cent of the student vote went to the Liberals, making Nick Clegg and Vince Cable's party the firm favourite in campuses up and down the country.

And that's why students and perspective students are fuming. They think all democratic doors have been slammed in their faces. When Tony Blair u-turned on tuition fees in 2003-04, students turned out in droves to support the only mainstream party that still actively campaigned to scrap university fees.

Now that the LibDems too humiliated millions who cast their vote in good faith, it's hardly surprising that many no longer see any point in the democratic process. Cue the repeated protests. Cue the anger.

And they get even angrier when they hear patronising sermons that Thursday's vote in the Commons is true democracy in action. That's the will of the majority and "put up or shut up".

However, what is democratic in passing bills thanks to the same MPs who - only months before - asked for a mandate to do the exact opposite once in office, I'll leave it to you to work out. I can't get my head round it.

#4 "Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top".
#3 "There are jobs out there if you really want one".
#2 "The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue".
#1 "Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reflections on yesterday's riots

All violence is wrong, right?

1) The attack on Prince Charles and Camilla's car.
I understand it's a massive media story and I don't think anyone can remember within living memory an instance of a British royal coming under some form of attack. But excuse me if I spare my outrage for the stories of totally innocent demonstrators being battered by the police (click here for a collection of stories about what the police did yesterday). Why should an egg on Prince Charles' car matter more than an innocent 20 year old bleeding on the brain?

2) The media focus.
Obviously it's daft to expect the same tabloids who for weeks defended the indefensible in the wake of Ian Tomlinson's murder to manage even a sprinkling of objectivity when reporting yesterday's events.
But it's amazing that while the Sun shouts "How dare these thugs insult the country" and the Daily Mail makes it top news that Camilla was prodded in the ribs (though the headline says "HIT", of course), hardly a mention is made that 43 students were taken to hospital (some extremely serious) and that thousands of people were kettled for 6+ hours before any violence started.

3) Kettling.
Which begs the question. What possible good can come from kettling for more than 6 hours thousands of peaceful demonstrators in freezing temperatures - and that's before any violence had kicked off? How can anyone in their right mind think that this is not going to pour petrol on the flames?
Remember that kettling means being penned within a confined square, literally squeezed against hundreds of other people without any access to food, water or toilets and not knowing when the police is going to grant mercy.

4) Violence is wrong.
And that's all violence, both policemen battering students already lying on the pavement and excitable demonstrators vandalising public property and damaging the students' cause. Thanks to them, yesterday's vote in the Commons is now totally overshadowed.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

"We didn't win the election outright"...

Clegg's party are heading for electoral annihilation. So next time they may as well promise heaven on earth: there'll be no danger of a u-turn.

"We didn't win the election outright and there are compromises in a coalition", is the message the LibDems are spamming radio and television with in defence of their tuition fees volteface.

The remains of the LibDems may think voters are stupid but, come the next election, they can expect another thing coming. People don't like to be treated like idiots, less so by smug jumped-up politicians.

Quite simply, Mr Clegg didn't sign those infamous "we-will-scrap-tuition-fees" pledges a few months ago under the caveat that it could only happen if his party won an outright majority.

And that's because - had he done so - people would have laughed at him. Even my neighbour's dog knew that his party was never going to win the May 6 vote, let alone an outright majority.

However, not to worry, Clegg.

Next time go the whole hog. Feel free to promise £10K gifts to all voters, twice as many holidays for all, free Tesco Finest meals, and Leo Messi to play for the local team whichever constituency you happen to be making a speech that moment.

Sign pledges that your government will pay rent or mortgage in every single home in the country and, since you're at it, free nightclub vouchers for all students forever.

Then, the day after the election, you won't have to justify a thing.

No danger of coalition compromises: your party will have been absolutely wiped out of parliament. And it'll be a joy to behold.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Britain's sexual apartheid

Why marriage discrimination is both pointless and illegal.

Imagine a return to a world where people of different ethnic background or religion were only allowed to travel on separate buses or were treated in different hospital wards.

Imagine a government justifying itself by saying that, well, those people are still offered travelling facilities and can still be treated if they're sick, overlooking the simple fact that different means and separate channels can only suggest inferior status before the law.

The thing is, that world is with us in today's Britain.

Except that the victims of discrimination are not ethnic or religious minorities, but sexual ones.

If you are gay or lesbian and you wish to get married, the law actively prevents you from doing so. You are offered something different called "civil partnerships" - but the law keeps it as the exclusive preserve of same-sex couples.

The Equal Love campaign, launched last month by the human rights organisation Outrage!, is trying to put an end to this pointless and unjustified discrimination.

When last month a number of same sex-couples applied for civil marriages in London, Northampton, Hampshire and Greenwich, they were all turned away by Register Office staff.

But if more evidence was needed about the absurdity of Britain's sexual apartheid, a number of heterosexual couples were also rejected when they too applied for "civil partnerships". The current law doesn't let them. One bus if you're straight, another if you're not.

Civil Partnerships were brought in by the Labour government in 2004. Although an admirable step in the right direction, especially if compared to the previous regime of total prohibition, the current law is still discriminating on the ground of sexual orientation - a blatant breach of the Human Rights Act.

Yet a number of countries around the world have ended sexual apartheid. Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Argentina, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands are only some of the places where the law doesn't meddle with marriage and sexual preferences.

In an opinion poll published last year by the Times, 61% of the British public agree that gay people should have an equal right to get married, not just civil partnerships, further demonstration that the current two-tier regime is absolutely pointless.

Two out of three party leaders have also come out in favour of an end to the discrimination. Both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have openly said they would vote in favour of a change in legislation.

As for the other one, still nowt. Could it be David Cameron's mark of respect for his Party's history of endless anti-gay discrimination?

Click here to find out more about the Equal Love campaign.

Squalid little irony

While Sarah "Issues" Palin calls for Assange to be "hunted down like an Al-Quaeda terrorist", take a look at those two excellent analyses of the growing Wikileaks controversy.

This is Johann Hari in today's Independent:

"There is a squalid little irony when you see people who are literally bombing innocent civilians every day feverishly accuse a man who has never touched a weapon in his life of being “covered in blood.” Wikileaks have hurt nobody. They redacted sensitive names. They held back any cables that could expose anyone to risk. They asked the Pentagon to help them by privately explaining where they believed there could be a danger – only to be rebuffed".

And this is one of Hagley Road's favourite bloggers, Justin McKeating:

"Let’s be blunt. The face of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, is a massive honking idiot. He’s made a series of classic errors. The first was not in getting himself diplomatic immunity…[...]Another mistake was failing to get himself accused of war crimes. Then he could have come and gone from the UK as he pleased. If only he led a racist organisation like the Ku Klux Klan, his website would still be able to accept credit card donations."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

On Julian Assange

If the tons of information that are being put online are "little more than a mish-mash of gossip and rumours" (Littlejohn, Daily Mail), "a storm in a teacup" (The Corner Pub), "ridiculous" (the Russian government), "a collection of little substance" (Benedict Brogan, the Telegraph), or even "WikiYawn" (Michael Peck), why then is Julian Assange suddenly the most wanted man in the world, international arrest warrant and all?

UPDATE (12:02pm)- "Wikileaks founder Julian Assange arrested in London" (BBC News).

Monday, December 06, 2010

Research says tuition fees scheme unfeasible

If the Coalition were so convinced their new tuition fees package was so fair, why are they rushing to introduce last minute sweeteners?

In an interview published yesterday by the Independent on Sunday, Deputy PM Nick Clegg reiterated the fable that the government's plan to hike tuition fees up to £9000 are "brave and bold and [a] socially progressive thing to do".

But if it was so socially progressive - which the LibDems claimed from the off - why is the Coalition feeling the urge to announce a last minute £150m scholarship fund to cover first year's tuition fees for less well-off students?

Either way Clegg didn't explain how poorer students will manage to make it to their A-levels, let alone university, given that the Coalition is proudly scrapping the EMA (Education Maintenace Allowance) for all students aged 16 to 19.

It's also interesting how the Tories' latest recruit keeps drawing specific examples of how much better off certain students will be with the new higher education scheme, while also steering well clear of explaining that in 60-65% of the cases students will be worse off - as recently highlighted by a number of studies.

The strongest indictment of the Coalition's ineptitude, however, comes from the fiscal side of things.

After both the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Institute for Fiscal Studies raised objections to the feasibility of the Coalition's proposals, a new study by consultancy firm London Economics adds that on top of impacting "adversely on social mobility and participation", the government's plans "will have to be covered by huge increases in borrowing to fund much larger student loans".

The report reiterates the point we made last Saturday: the Coalition's plans will not save the taxpayer a single penny. Quite the opposite. The Government will have "to borrow £10.7 billion to fund student loans in 2015/16 compared to the £4.1 billion it borrowed in 2010/11. If the Government’s plans are voted through, they will add a whopping £13 billion to public sector net debt by 2015/16".

"The plans are really a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul", was the comment of Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of university think tank Million+.

The risks of a system replicating a miniature-style financial crash within a few years' time are obvious. Researchers explain how huge chunks of future graduates will never repay the full whack, many entering the 30-year write-off period with tens of thousands of pounds still outstanding.

In the summer of 2009, it had already been noted that "out of 1.4million graduates who started university in 1998 or later, 49 per cent were earning too little to pay back their student loans".

As regards tuition fees, 43 per cent of the most recent crop of graduates had not reached the current repayment threshold of £15,000, leading to the "doubling in five years" of outstanding student debt.

With the Coalition's new regime of trebled tuition fees and a higher threshold, the implosion of the whole further education system doesn't look unlikely.

Smiths, I still love you

Twenty-three years after their demise, Morrissey and Johnny Marr join forces to lash out at the Tory government.

The news that both Johnny Marr and Morrissey expressed their dislike of the Coalition government has added some extra warmth to my day.

It may make little difference, but it's good to know that some "rockstars" or famous people are not 100% cocooned in their own comfortable bubble, haven't totally given up on using their brain cells and are still aware of the crap that goes on in the real world.

Johnny Marr kicked off the proceedings the other day when he rebuked David Cameron's professed admiration for The Smiths. In a twitter message, the guitarist quipped: "David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it."

And as the wider media picked up on his remark, another one came this morning :"Nick Clegg, hand over your iPod".

Most unexpected, Marr's former bandmate Morrissey called a truce on their long-standing feud in order to publicly back his words.

"I would like to, if I may, offer support to Johnny Marr who has spoken out to the media this week against David Cameron", said the singer in a written statement at, articulating his concerns at David Cameron's love for hunting and his pledge to stage a Parliamentary vote on repealing the foxhunting ban next year.

"I must report that David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure", added Morrissey. "It was not for such people that either Meat is Murder or The Queen is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence".

I guess The Smiths were always my favourite band for a reason.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Cliches of 2010 #4

"Society as a whole benefits from extreme wealth at the top".

You've heard it time and again. Believers in the Ideology of Number One tend to cling onto the moral justification that obscene levels of wealth will inevitably "trickle down" to the rest of society - as famously spelt out by Ronald Reagan in 1981.

"Cut tax on the rich and turn a blind eye on tax avoidance and even you, overworked, casual and on low pay will feel better off".

According to the Believers, the super wealthy generate employment and investments and make people like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson feel tremendously excited.

However, if the Believers were right, the last 30 years (which have been extremely generous to the "wealth creators") wouldn't have resulted in such a steady decline of real wages and salaries for the poorer half of the population (see this).

The binge in corporate profits has been inversely proportional to salaries paid to ordinary mortals. Wages as a proportion of national GDP went from a peak of 64.5 per cent in the mid-1970s to 53.2 per cent in 2008 (link- see figures 1, 2 and 4).

In Britain, the bottom 50% now own a staggeringly low 1 per cent of the country's "marketable wealth". The only thing ordinary workers have seen increase is personal debt which tripled in the last ten years (see this - page 2).

Quite simply, there is no correlation whatsoever between the fortunes of the most loaded and the rest of the country. In fact, maybe there is, but in reverse.

If still in doubt, just look at this simple fact: in 2009, at the height of the biggest economic crisis in decades, "the 1,000 richest people in the country increased their wealth by £77 billion". It was, according to the Sunday Times, "easily the biggest annual rise in [...] 22 years".

No wonder the usual suspects froth at the mouth when the prospect of higher tax rates for the rich and a clampdown on tax avoiders is even mentioned. It would be tantamount to disaster, vandalism and "plundering from career politicians", they say - quoting psalm after psalm from The Free Market Bible.

So-called "wealth creators" in Britain have never had it so good. The most devastating economic crash happened under a system with low corporation tax, a reputation for low tax on the wealthy, tax havens in Crown dependencies (see this), the most flexible labour market in Western Europe and a property system inviting speculation with open arms.

For some, it's never enough.

#3 "There are jobs out there if you really want one".
#2 "The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue".
#1 "Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".