31 December 2009

2010: the year we get f***ed good and proper

So, what to expect politically in 2010?

It's a really tough one, this. Most people I talk to about what might happen in the election are pretty pessimistic about Labour's chances (or optimistic about the Tories, depending on your point of view.) I'm inclined to be optimistic, but with limits. Securing any kind of overall majority for Labour is going to be difficult even if they can reach 35% of the vote (probably the absolute upper boundary for how well they can do - i.e. replicating the 2005 results) and more realistically they are looking at something between 30 and 35%, which might just deliver a hung parliament - probably with the Tories as the largest party, on 38-40% of the vote. The Lib Dems look like they are gonna get squeezed compared with 2005.

Boundary changes make it harder to predict how all this will translate into seats and we could well find that the Tories secure a majority by doing well in the marginals while Labour runs up higher majorities in safe seats. I'm actually quite comfortable with this: whatever your political persuasion, it's hard to argue that a political system where a party with less votes can secure more seats is anything other than insane. And if the Tories were (say) 5 percent down but Labour secured an overall majority I think they'd be justified in taking to the streets to overturn the result by force. And although I don't agree with their policies I'd probably join them. It won't happen of course, because they're as committed as anyone to keeping a fundamentally ludicrous electoral system - they just want to rejig it so it's less biased against them. Which kind of misses the point completely.

My election prediction, I think, is for a hung parliament with Tories as the largest party but short of an overall majority - but not by much. We will probably then see either a coalition with one or more of the Northern Ireland unionist parties (if they are only a few seats short) or with the Lib Dems (or at least some of them, because a Lib Dem - Tory coalition might well split the Lib Dem party. For complex reasons that I'll go into in detail in a post in the new year). Events will then proceed much along the lines of a majority Tory govt - mainly because Nick Clegg is a Tory in Lib Dem clothing anyway, and won't want to change that much about what Cameron is doing. Also Clegg appears to care little about the voting system - he spends very little time talking about it compared with his predecessors, and I get the feeling the guy doesn't even really understand what the Liberal party should be about. Useless rubbish (I mean him, not the Lib Dem party).

So the key message here is to prepare for the economic destruction of Britain at the hands of a vicious Tory government in modernist clothing. These guys are gonna destroy public services (except probably for the NHS which is being saved for later); local government services will be decimated, education is effectively going to be privatised, and the BBC will be emasculated, with the end of restrictions on biased TV news reporting leading to the establishment of Fox News in the UK. Meanwhile, huge public spending cuts will plunge us even deeper into recession. All very dangerous and hopefully leading to a landslide defeat for the Tory government in 2014/15.

But that depends so much on what happens in the Labour party. Right now, Labour could go one of three ways after the election. It could stick with the New Labour free-market mantra of the golden era of Blair-Brown - probably with David Miliband as leader - and get completely blown away. It could elect a complete duffer as a 'comfort leader' - Harriet Harman for instance - and get completely blown away. Or it could choose a radical visionary - someone like Jon Cruddas or Ed Miliband - and be in a very strong position to take advantage of the coming Tory meltdown (if the Tories are indeed as bad as I fear). In the end, whether Labour has the balls (not the Ed Balls, emphatically not him) to repair itself after the election to be a force for the future is going to be THE key question of 2010 politics.

I want to say much more - particularly on climate change and the post-Copenhagen problems we face - but this has already been very long so have a good new year and I will be back at the weekend.

30 December 2009

On decade ends

I'm pleased that the end of the "noughties" or "2000s" has been a relatively low-key affair compared with the 1990s, when we seemed to be hit from every side with "roundups of the decade", as well as apocalyptic predictions of millennium meltdown. Partly this is because there are no 'millennium bug' stories to get excited about, and the end of the millennium was always going to be a slightly bigger deal than a simple end-of-decade. But also the "noughties" sounds crap; the "tens" will sound even worse, so prepare yourself for even less fanfare in 2019. The twenties through to the nineties have a definite advantage of not sounding ridiculous and so come 2020 we will probably be right back into this thing. But we still have another ten years of respite from it.

I do believe, in any case, that this decade thing is overrated. Of all the post-war decades, the eighties came the closest to having its own identity - but even then, the prevailing "get-rich-quick and f*** everybody else" ethos wasn't really established until the 2nd Thatcher election victory of 1983 - the early 80s were much more grim. The seventies are often seen as a coherent decade but were nothing of the sort culturally or economically. For example, musically speaking the period 1977-9 (in terms of what was seen as the "happening sound") was COMPLETELY different from the period 1970-5, with 1976 as a strange transition year between prog and punk/new wave.

Even the sixties, often seen as the archetypal "cool decade", did not really get going until about 1964 in terms of musical and cultural shifts. And the fifties really have to be divided into the pre and post-rock'n'roll eras - with the dividing line about 1956 or thereabouts.

There is nothing surprising about any of this of course; why on earth human life should suddenly change every ten years because the calendar says so is not entirely clear. The nineties and 00s have really lacked any defining "vibe" at all IMHO. So, while I will be doing some round-ups of what we might expect politically in 2010 and beyond over the next couple of days, for me it's just another year-end. Don't expect any insightful summaries of how the 2010s will differ from the 2000s.

If I had to give a prediction for the next decade, it would be two small words: WE'RE F***ED. And that's why the name of the opposition head spin doctor in The Thick of It (which I've enjoyed watching very much on iPlayer over the last couple of days) is so wonderfully appropropriate - "The F***er". If you haven't seen the latest series yet, download, beg, steal or borrow - it starts off a little slowly but from episode 3 onwards there's no stopping it. And in the event that the Tories win the (real-life) election, a fine team has been assembled to carry on the series. Just give us more of the F***er, please. "We want the F***er"... good T-shirt slogan, that. The Sound Of 2010?

24 December 2009

Taking a few days off - suggest you do too

Just to say that I will do some posts on 30th or 31st December but don't expect too much before then as I'm recharging the batteries a bit - I'm absolutely whacked out after a long (although very productive) year. Need a few days off with a couple of days to chill.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for some Xmas cheer (particularly if you live in the USA) note that the Senate passed the healthcare bill. Even if Barack Obama achieves nothing else (and I hope he can do one or two more things at least before 2012), this is a major achievement - even though the bill is severely flawed.

Of course Copenhagen was a f***ing disaster, and in the long run it would have been better for the world if Copenhagen had gone well and the health bill had failed. But a small victory is better than no victory at all.

More on all of this stuff next week. In the meantime, my mate Steve was watching the telly - or trying to - and run into Noel Edmonds and a bunch of Deal or No Deal morons dressed as elves. People, please try to avoid this shit. It's not good for you. Just like brandy butter.

21 December 2009

Congratulations to RATM

With great apologies to my cousin's 18-year-old son who was backing Joe from the X Factor... damn good news regarding Rage Against the Machine's Xmas number 1. And one in the eye for the cynical wallet-hoarders who have pretty much destroyed chart pop (which wasn't in that good a condition in the first place, it has to be said, although in general the music scene is probably as good as it's ever been - a lot of good stuff around this year, and indeed every year.)

I'll certainly be going to Rage's free UK concert next year.

15 December 2009

Why the sudden dash for a March poll?

While the closing of the gap between the Tories and Labour to less than 10 points on most polls - including today's ICM for the Guardian - is welcome news, the accompanying chorus of calls for a March election seem pretty daft. There is going to have to be an election by early June in any case. So why not wait at least until May? What possible advantage is there in going two months earlier - with the weather still potentially dodgy?

The Tories must be getting pretty scared at this point though. With the current bias in the electoral system they might well end up short of an overall majority. At which point things start to get interesting. My money would be on a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, although that might actually split the Lib Dem party. But if things tighten to (say) 5 points then Labour might actually end up the largest party - and then who the hell knows.

11 December 2009

Why is the Guardian giving a platform to Sarah Palin?

I will disclose at the very start of this post that I like The Guardian. It's the Jim Callaghan of what used to be called 'Fleet Street' before everyone moved out (and most of the pubs closed); it's a bit wishy washy, but it's heart is in the right place. And I don't buy the paper often enough because all the good content is online, but I would very gladly pay a subscription if they established one (something I can't say about the Murdoch press, which I hardly ever read anyway. I have a dartboard with David f***ing Aaronovitch's head on in my office). Comment is Free is one of the best comment sites anywhere on the web - full of right-wing nutters of course, but hey, it's care in the community, right?

But I certainly don't buy the Guardian - or click on the website - to read crap by Sarah Palin about how Copenhagen should be boycotted. This sort of rubbish should be left to the Times and in particular the Telegraph, who has its own in-house team of loonies such as Christopher Booker and James Delingpole.

There is in fact an increasing proliferation of syndicated or freelance duff right-wing articles in the Guardian. While some would argue that airing the opposing point of view is a useful exercise in open-mindedness, the right-wing press never reciprocate (when was the last time you read a left-wing article in the Telegraph?) and all it really does is piss off the readership. Which probably increases the number of hits on Comment is Free, but doesn't do much for the paper's coherence, or credibility.

The Guardian should focus on what it does best - marshalling progressive forces for a forthcoming election where the left will need as much help as it can get. Leave the climate scaremongering to the right-wing papers who get paid by vested interests to do this sort of thing. And guys, sort out a system for charging for online content and you can stop losing millions of pounds a year. This is getting really urgent now.

08 December 2009

Cometh the hour, cometh the dodgy dossier from a leading credit rating agency...

All eyes on the Pre-Budget Report tomorrow - basically a daft name, as it's really an autumn Budget statement, with little to differentiate it from the main spring Budget.

We can debate the pros and cons of the PBR - personally I'd prefer to scrap the Budget entirely and just introduce finance bills like any other bill in the Queen's speech - but in the current economic crisis, we'd certainly expect a set-piece like this to provide a platform for lobbyists who want to exercise disproportionate influence on government policy.

Which is presumably why credit rating agency Moody's has just come out with an assessment that the UK (and the US) could "test the boundaries" of the top AAA credit rating due to the high debts being incurred because govt revenues have collapsed in the wake of the economic crisis. A summary is provided here by the unusual (for giroscope) source of the Taipei Times: I couldn't find a decent UK-based reference, having just seen the report on Channel 4 News.

On the face of it, downgrading the UK's status from AAA seems totally absurd. Debt is currently predicted (by OECD) to reach around 90 per cent of GDP in 2010. Many countries have run debt levels a lot higher than 100 per cent with no long-run problems. We've got a hell of a long way to go before we reach that point. So why are Moody's acting nervous?

When viewed rationally, the issue must be political rather than economic. Moody's is run by banking types who do not like the Labour government - particularly if, as is quite possible, it is set to move a bit further for the left - and so they want to engineer a financial crisis by downgrading the UK, ensuring a Tory victory in the 2010 election, at which point they will upgrade it again. It's the dirty tricks brigade - simple as that. And anything Moody's are putting out now is at least as dodgy as the infamous 2003 dossier from the UK "Intelligence" (ha!) services on Saddam Hussein. Alastair Darling should say as much in tomorrow's speech, and should point out that the credit rating agencies - who were shown up to be a complete bunch of clueless morons when 'safe' investments went belly-up in the credit crunch - are deliberately bullshitting investors for political ends. This govt has reaped the biggest dividends from the current crisis when it has faced down the bankers and squared with the electorate. And I do believe the best in this vein is yet to come.

02 December 2009

Let 'em go

Interesting stuff here from the sometimes sensationalist, but usually worthwhile, Robert Peston at the Beeb: RBS directors have threatened to walk out if they aren't allowed to pay £1.5bn in bonuses.

I say sack the lot of them and replace them with some of our 2.5 million strong unemployed reserve army of workers who could probably do the job a damn sight better.

Shit, I could do it better. And I'd do the director job a damn sight cheaper than any of these f***ers... say £100,000 a year? That be OK? I would do it for less but I'm earning good money as it is. They'd probably be able to find someone cheaper - and better - than me.

And as for the bankers who have threatened to walk if they're not paid their bonuses? Guess what - they can piss off as well. Middle-ranking civil servants would do a much better job at lower cost.

I've finally sussed it. The key to a sustained economic recovery... is to get the morons who got us into this out of the way as fast as possible. And that means a cull of private sector financial managers and senior bankers. Let's kick out the jams and start again. I'm no fan of the Chairman but you could almost call it a little Maoist.

26 November 2009

VT day (Victory on the Trains)

Everyone in East Anglia pour themselves a cold one... National Express will be losing their rail franchise for the region in 2011. This is as a result of their default on their East Coast franchise. National Express thought they could give up on loss-making franchises while continuing to milk the profitable routes. Sorry guys, you is dead wrong. Congratulations to Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis for sticking to his guns on this one.

I won't be sorry to see the back of National Express management. They are a bunch of shysters committed to screwing the customer in exchange for ever-deteriorating levels of service. They are the most wretched hive of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley spaceport. If you see one of them... put him/her in the bin.

Would be even better if the franchise were being returned to the public sector in 2011, though.

25 November 2009

Got a bank overdraft, kids? Say hello to corporate power...

OMG... the banks have managed to screw consumers yet again...

The Supreme Court's judgement in favour of the banks on unauthorised overdraft charges is absolute cack. Listen to this:

In explaining his ruling, the Supreme Court's president Lord Phillips said that bank customers agreed to pay overdraft charges as part of the price of having a current account, so they fell outside the scope of the 1999 consumer contract regulations.

Has Lord Phillips ever tried living in the modern world without a bank account? Or finding a bank which doesn't impose extortionate overdraft charges? Good luck to him. The idea that banking is some kind of free choice, in the modern economic system, makes about as much sense as saying that eating or breathing are some kind of free choice. It's patent bollocks.

Yet more licence for an already overstuffed banking sector to wheedle more money out of the consumer. After one botched attempt last autumn, we most definitely need full-scale nationalisation of the UK banking sector so the damn thing can be run properly. As in, NOW.

22 November 2009

Any of you kids remember February 1974?

Latest opinion poll from Ipsos MORI for the Observer raises speculation about a hung parliament - with Labour on 31%, the Tories on 37 and the Lib Dems on 17.

Despite the post title, it's not really that much like 1974; Labour was only about 1% down in the popular vote in the February general election that year, and came out with 4 more seats than the Tories, in a hung parliament. If they'd been six points down, Edward Heath would almost certainly have secured an overall majority. Heck, in 1979 Thatcher was only 7 points in front of Callaghan and still secured a majority of over 40.

But first past the post is a system which has vast potential to produce idiotic results; last time, a majority government with 35% of the vote, and perhaps this time, Labour with more seats than the Tories, despite being five or six points behind them.

This poll could be a blip - it happened just after Labour's win in the Glasgow East by-election, after all. But on pretty much all polls, the Tories are down from 20-point plus leads in the spring and summer to 10 points - or less - now. If I was Dave Cameron I'd be shitting bricks at this point.

I would laugh so much if the Tories failed to secure an overall majority - despite everything they've said about Brown being a complete turkey, etc. And I'm sure Brown would laugh too. (If he can.)

The Tories do have on ace up their sleeve in the event of a hung parliament - Nick Clegg, a carbon copy of Cameron who would, I'm sure, prefer to do a deal with Cameron than Brown. Clegg's problem is that his party would probably disintegrate into left and right factions if he did that - particularly if Cameron offered no deal on electoral reform.

Brown's best option in the event of a hung parliament is to offer a deal on electoral reform - a referendum, at least - and carry on as head of a coalition for a couple of years before resigning and giving way to a new leader. Given everyone's predictions of total electoral annihilation, it would be a very satisfying way for him to bow out.

I'm not really sure how Labour has ended up with the political momentum here - they haven't really done anything spectacularly good since the banking bailout - and even in that case, they have spectacularly failed to offer useful long-term banking reforms rather than short-term subsidies and handwaving. Probably, the main factor is that the Tory front bench - George Osborne in particular - are being increasingly scrutinised, and found to be the biggest collection of duffers possible. These guys are incapable of making a coherent speech on the economy, and in the current economic situation, that worries people. Long may it continue to do so.

17 November 2009

Some thoughts on the TUC's "Beyond Crisis" conference

Spent an enjoyable day at the TUC yesterday for a one-day conference called Beyond Crisis. Very interesting selection of speakers.

Rowan Williams was thoughtful, incisive, and about as radical as his position allows him to be. I think the Pope is doing him a favour by offering to take all the extremist nutters off his hands. Just one thing he said in the Q&A session I didn't understand, so I'll raise it here in case anyone can clarify: there seems to be a problem with the employment rights of Anglican clergy in that their employer is not the Anglican, but God(?) So they can't have normal trade union representation? I don't really understand this - how can your employer be an entity whose existence is disputed? That would mean that if God didn't exist you wouldn't have any employment contract at all. It would seem much simpler to just say that the Anglican Church employs priests. Anyway, it's not a point that's relevant to the rest of this post, but I found it bizarre so I'll mention it anyway.

The morning panel session with Ann Pettifor, Gillian Tett, John Kay and Dave Prentis was also v interesting. John Kay has moved from someone who was a mainstream Conservative in the 1980s to a radical now and that is really quite amazing, given that - as with other former establishment stalwarts such as Meryvn King and Adair Turner - he's not the first person you'd expect to man the barricades. John Kay's main point deserves reiteration here so I'll summarise (vidcast available here). Like Paul Krugman, Kay sees the current crisis as the latest in a series of asset price bubbles, followed by collapses which have been addressed by governments flooding the financial system with liquidity - thus reinflating the bubble a few years later. Phase 1 was the Asian crisis of 1997-8, Phase 2 the dot com bust of 2000-01 and Phase 3 the credit crunch of 2007 and following.

Because policymakers have been either too unimaginative, too in hock to the financial sector, or too stupid to reform the financial system, John feels we are now headed into Phase 4 of the crisis - which could well be the terminal phase. Another collapse could lead to the breakdown not just of the economic system, but a number of national political systems as well, as people will (rightly) be hopping bad with the bankers, but their anger will be directed towards populist solutions. If the left doesn't emerge with a coherent response to the crisis in terms of major institutional reforms (Kay recommends separating utility banking from investment banking), the extreme right could benefit instead. In other words we're looking at 1933 all over again. Apocalyptic stuff perhaps, but it would certainly fit in with what the more intelligent sections of the left have been saying about this crisis for a long time now.

I'll probably refer back to more from this conference in posts to come over the next couple of weeks as it was such a good analysis of where we're at at the moment. Well done for the TUC for putting it all together. I must start regularly reading John Kay's FT column.

15 November 2009

What's happened to posting this month?

Good question. The answer is: about 4 work deadlines at once. Don't worry, I'll be out the other end of it soon (probably around the end of this week) so there should be more posting going on by the end of the month. There goes my target of 200 postings this year... unless December is very busy.

07 November 2009

Review - BSG "The Plan"

I was excited earlier in the week as Battlestar Galactica - The Plan arrived on DVD from the US. Last time a bought a BSG special on US import it was Razor, which was great, but appeared on UK DVD at almost exactly the same time - and I was left feeling a bit of a chump for having assumed it wouldn't make it out here for a while.

This time, UK viewers aren't so lucky: The Plan is not on DVD release here yet, and I don't think Sky have set a date for airing it yet, so it probably won't happen until they do.

But is it any good? An interesting diversion, but not essential, I'd say. NOTE: there are some spoilers below if you haven't seen the rest of the series...

There are two really good things about The Plan. One is some of the best CGI (for the destruction of the colonies) that the series has ever had. The other is Dean Stockwell getting a lot of screen time and being superb, in a his inimitable Dean Stockwell kind of way. The third thing of note is that there is an interesting subplot involving a number 4 Cylon (the "Simon" character - Rick Worthy), which is nothing mega-exciting but nice, in that number 4 was kind of underused in the series in general.

There ain't much else, really - director Eddie Olmos (Adama) did about as good a job as he could cutting between footage from the miniseries and Series 1 and 2, and new footage shot to 'extend' certain scenes, but it's not easy when you're joining together 2009 footage with 2003 footage. How many of us look exactly the same as we did six years ago?

So the whole thing was nice, but a bit 'join-the-dots' - an exercise in weaving in as much backstory and parallel story as possible with the confines of a narrative that had already been pretty thickly sketched. And there are some key personnel absences which make the whole thing less convincing than it could be - for example, given that we know that there was at least one number 3 agent (Lucy Lawless) in the fleet (see series 2 episode "Final Cut"), isn't her absence from the Cavill "briefings" in the chapel a bit strange? I know it was because they couldn't get her back to be in The Plan but it's still a bit inconsistent.

Oh well - given the constraints they were under, it's not a bad effort. But probably for completists only (which of course, is a group I fall into).

31 October 2009

Fired for telling the truth

The Government's decision to sack Professor David Nutt, the chief drugs adviser, is appalling, and shows what can happen to people if they don't toe the line of the police state, even if it happens to be complete garbage.

Nutt was accused by Home Secretary Alan Johnson of 'undermining the scientific independence of the council'. Why? Because he happened to voice an independent scientific opinion - that cannabis was actually less harmful than nicotine or alcohol. Given the relative numbers of people who use all three drugs, I would wager that alcohol is by far the most harmful (although I would need to check the evidence to be sure, something that David Nutt has done, and Alan Johnson and Gordon Brown haven't).

The real reason David Nutt was sacked is because he dared to use his own brain rather than doing what Gordon Brown and Alan Johnson do, which is just to regurgitate whatever the Daily Mail tells them. Drugs policy in this country is dictated by the tabloid press - and it is a shameful failure. Reclassification of cannabis to Class C when David Blunkett was Home Secretary was a step in the right direction; reclassification back to Class B is a ludicrous retrograde step. Full legalisation is the best way to go - and would also allow the product to be subject to quality controls, which would mean less of the extremely strong 'skunk' varieties (which can, in some cases, cause psychotic episodes) would make it out into the market.

More problematically, David Nutt feels that drugs legislation should be decided by an independent committee along the lines of the Monetary Policy Committee which sets interest rates. I can see some logic in that but taken to its logical conclusion it would mean the death of democracy - policies would just be decided by committees of experts. There are big problems with that (particularly if the experts fall into the hands of corporate lobbyists) but given the crap that mainstream politicians talk about some of these big issues, you can understand why intellectuals like Nutt get frustrated by all this.

I hope the government's whole drugs advisory board resigns and leaves them with no experts - presumably they would have to replace them with a list of advisers specified by the Daily Mail. It would serve them right.

30 October 2009

Blair: Sanity prevailing?

Some good news in the news this morning - there's just a chance that Tony Blair's star is on the wane as far as Europe is concerned. A lack of support from European socialist leaders is undermining his chances. Not surprising when you consider that Blair is about as obviously a centre-right politician as you're going to get (and further to the right on many issues, like foreign policy, where he is a Bushite neo-conservative). Is that really going to be attractive to anyone on the left? I don't think so.

Significantly, the few leaders who have spoken out in support of Blair are centre-right leaders like France's Nicholas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel, and the UK's Gordon Brown. Left-wingers like Austria's Werner Fayman and Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero have criticised Blair for being too close to Bush. In any case, the centre-left in Europe is not what it once was; despite a big success in Greece recently, they did not do well in the Euro elections in June and they lost badly in Germany last month. So it may be that the left does a deal with the right whereby the left gets the EU foreign minister position whereas the right gets to pick the president.

The irony is, of course, that Blair could be the ideal centre-right candidate. But I don't think the European right would trust him enough.

It's a pity this whole argument isn't taking place next year - at which point (presumably) Gordon Brown would be eligible for the job. While Brown is not that much better than Blair in terms of political pedigree, he is some slight improvement with regard to most issues - and it would be hilarious for a UK Tory government to have to watch Gordon Brown in that position in Europe. It might even lead to Britain leaving the EU - which in some ways might be a good thing. Tony Blair as EU president might have a similar result, but we can't submit hundreds of millions of EU citizens to leadership by a war criminal just because it makes Dave Cameron's life difficult. That's not fair.

28 October 2009

Catholic Church: Dawkins tells it like it is

I've resisted the temptation to write another critical blog post about the Catholic Church, as Richard Dawkins in the Washington Post has done it much better than I can. This is one of the best articles ever written. Get this:

What major institution most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world? In a field of stiff competition, the Roman Catholic Church is surely up there among the leaders.

They [Anglican clergy converting to Catholicism] just can't stomach the idea of women priests. One wonders how their wives can stomach a husband whose contempt for women is so visceral that he considers them incapable even of the humble and unexacting duties of a priest.

It's a home run out of the park! The guy is a genius.

27 October 2009

The REAL extremists in society go unchecked and unnoticed

Excellent articles by Mark Thomas and Henry Porter on the continued growth of the UK's police state - in particular, the use of a covert surveillance network to monitor "domestic extremists".

"Domestic extremist" is a new category which encompasses such "dangerous" people as anti-war demonstrators, climate change activists, and animal rights protesters.

As the Guardian reports,

Three national police units responsible for combating domestic extremism are run by the "terrorism and allied matters" committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo). In total, it receives £9m in public funding, from police forces and the Home Office, and employs a staff of 100...

Surveillance officers are provided with "spotter cards" used to identify the faces of target individuals who police believe are at risk of becoming involved in domestic extremism. Targets include high-profile activists regularly seen taking part in protests. One spotter card, produced by the Met to monitor campaigners against an arms fair, includes a mugshot of the comedian Mark Thomas.

ACPO seems to be largely unaccountable to the public and is exempt from Freedom of Information requests as it's a private body - as this letter makes clear.

So what we have is a situation where unaccountable covert operations are taking place to monitor people who in most cases have committed no crime and have no criminal record.

Even if you do something as anodyne and uncontroversial as going to an anti-war or climate change demonstration, or attending a public meeting about airport expansion, you could be a candidate for tracking via the automatic number-plate recognition system.

When confronted with the notion that this surveillance of people who have done nothing wrong - and are very unlikely to do anything wrong, except if you call embarrassing the government being wrong - was unacceptable, Anton Setchell, national co-ordinator of domestic extremism operations for ACPO, retorted: "everyone who has a criminal record did not have one once."

Of course, that's an argument for 24/7 surveillance of the whole population. Which is where we're headed - by stealth. This country is becoming surveyed up to the eyeballs (or the camera-eye-balls) and we are making it easier for an authoritarian dictatorship to take over in the next few decades than you can possibly imagine.

Perhaps most annoying about this is that some of the biggest extremists in our society - for example, the kind of homophobes that beat up a police trainee in Liverpool earlier this week - aren't being tracked at all. Despite the fact that they are causing far more violence than any climate change protester. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that ACPO's definition of what constitutes a 'domestic extremist' is determined by its political agenda - which is extreme right wing.

Other dangerous groups who seem to have so far escaped surveillance as domestic extremists are:

  • the UK Conservative Party, which is a European alliance with neo-Nazi homophobes from Latvia and Poland;
  • the current leadership of the Roman Catholic church, which is forging an alliance of reactionaries by poaching the most conservative elements of the Church of England;
  • the war criminal Tony Blair.
It's a crazy world when innocent people are molested for going about their business, while the real nutters are allowed a free rein. But what can you do?

Monbiot on Blair - this is a classic

I love this from George Monbiot in the Guardian:

"Making this ruthless liar EU president is a crazy plan. But I'll be backing Blair".

Monbiot makes the very interesting argument that if Blair were EU president, he would probably have to travel to countries where the crime of aggression - waging an unprovoked international war - is recognised (it isn't in the UK, worryingly). And that would provide an opportunity to arrest the bastard.

Blair would of course argue that there was provocation - that Saddam Hussein was a 'clear and present danger' to the West. But since the evidence for that is about as good as the infamous 'dodgy dossier', I wouldn't expect that evidence to get him out of the hole.

It's a crazy plan, perhaps. And yet it might just work. Good on ya George (Monbiot, not Bush, obviously).

26 October 2009

Blair had better watch it

Now here's a good headline:

Tony Blair warned: fight or you'll lose EU job (Guardian)

I hope Blair doesn't go round fighting, as that would give a lot of people the excuse they've been waiting for to lay one on the bastard.

Perhaps someone should point out, in any case, that it might be a good idea to, y'know, have a president we actually voted for?

I was in Chelmsford last Saturday and there was a guy on a soapbox in the high street with a UK Independence Party rosette on talking about how bad the EU was. There were up to 2 people listening to him at a time. Both with UKIP rosettes on. I'm now convinced that UKIP is a front funded by the EU to make the anti-EU side seem stupid by making the arguments in the most lame and unconvincing way. We need a proper left-of-centre anti-EU movement. So how about it, kids? Come on, otherwise we're gonna get Tony Blair as President.

24 October 2009

Now 8 million people know that Griffin is a lame-ass punk

Well I watched the episode of Question Time on the iPlayer last night (we were just too knackered to watch it Thursday night) and all I can say is: well done Bonnie Greer. The politicians on the panel (I mean, the non-fascist politicians) were all OK, although they all made the mistake of trying to compete with the BNP by sounding tough on immigration. Whereas in fact, while lack of funds for local authorities to provide services for immigrants in certain local areas is a huge concern, the fact is that without the huge influx of cheap highly skilled labour from the EU accession countries from 2003 onwards, the UK economy would have gone down the toilet a whole lot quicker than it actually did.

But Bonnie Greer showed Nick Griffin up to be the incoherent, preposterous blubbermouth that he really is. Griffin: "we want only the indigenous population that were here 17,000 years ago to be allowed to stay". Bonnie: "what about the Romans, Nick? They had people of every colour in their society and their armies... and when the empire collapsed those people were mostly left here".

Griffin couldn't answer any of the substantive arguments. Worse, he tried to laugh off serious criticism. Worse still, when questioned by a "non-indigenous" member of the audience who asked "I love this country, Nick - where am I supposed to go instead?" he said "you'll be allowed to stay". So he didn't even have the guts to tell someone, face to face, that he wanted them out of the country.

Worst of all, Griffin wasn't even able to give a straight answer to whether he was, or had ever been, a holocaust denier. He claimed that European law wouldn't let him. Bullshit!

I'm really pleased Griffin went on Question Time, and I think David Dimbleby (who I normally think is a pompous right-winger) did quite a good job putting him on the spot. 8 million people saw the show, apparently, and I would be extremely surprised if there was any uptick in support for the BNP as a result of this cringeworthy performance. Griffin has been revealed to be the lamest of opportunistic hack politicians and with any luck, this will be seen in retrospect as the point where the party's decline into irrelevance started.

UPDATE: A poll in the Telegraph conducted immediately after the programme shows that 22 percent of voters 'would consider' voting for the BNP. Meanwhile, support has increased from 2% to 3% over the last month. But that's not even a statistically significant increase. Whilst there's no way we should be complacent about the BNP polling even 1%, these kind of numbers suggest that the Question Time appearance is not going to make the BNP an electoral threat anytime soon.

21 October 2009

A little light weekend reading

In advance of the BNP's appearance on Question Time tomorrow, the excellent Wikileaks site has published the party's membership list as of April 2009. Have a look and check if any of your friends, family or work colleagues has a guilty secret.

Vatican makes the lines clearer: it's time to jump ship, Michael

Only a few days after my previous post about Michael Moore and progressives vs conservatives in the Roman Catholic church, the news emerges that the Vatican has set up a special section of the Catholic Church especially for 'conservative' (i.e. reactionary, sexist, homophobic) Anglicans unhappy with 'dangerous' reforms such as female bishops, to jump ship.

It's an calculated play by the Catholic church to boost its numbers at the expense of the Anglicans. And if I were Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, I'd be very pleased.

Why? Because this is his chance to get rid of all the reactionary idiots who have been standing in the way of the Anglican church actually being something relevant for the modern world rather than the middle ages. This is the break that liberals in the C of E have been waiting for.

The present situation is confused, with the Catholic church containing its fair share of people with a brain in amongst all the reactionary Stalinists and people who are content to let the Vatican do their thinking for them. Conversely, the Anglican church features its fair share of dorks in amongst the enlightened modern Christians.

It'd be much easier if all the sexist homophobe assholes jumped ship for the RC church, in exchange for people who have some hope of integrating into modern society.

Of course, this means that the best place for Michael Moore to be is in the US Episcopalean church, not the Catholic church. So how about it, Michael? When you gonna jump ship?

20 October 2009

We need to give the BNP enough rope to hang themselves

An interesting debate has been raging about whether the British National Party should be on Question Time this week. Several prominent politicians, including Peter Hain and Alan Johnson, have said they shouldn't.

Clearly the BNP is the biggest bunch of fascist assholes operating in the UK. Nick Griffin is a fatboy version of Adolf Hitler. It would be funny if millions of people weren't voting for this shit.

But because millions of people are voting for this shit, the BBC is quite right that it has to invite the BNP on to Question Time - it is, after all, meant to be impartial.

I think that if the BNP was kept off the programme they would be able to present themselves as the victims of a witch-hunt, which in the long run would work to their advantage.

Instead, if Griffin goes on the programme and talks what will undoubtedly be a load of fascist claptrap, he will be exposed as one of the most dangerous people in Britain, with stupid and incoherent arguments, and it is unlikely that BNP support will go anywhere but down the plughole. This process will be made easier if the other participants in the programme - Chris Huhne, Bonnie Greer, Jack Straw and Baroness Warsi - are even halfway competent. And I think they will be at least that.

One problem for the major parties, of course, is that their own rhetoric - particularly on issues like immigration and national security when they try to 'talk tough' - often sounds like the BNP, and one can't blame voters for being confused. But that's the major parties' fault. Griffin could quite reasonably claim that Gordon Brown's phrase "British jobs for British workers" sounds like something out of the BNP manifesto. Because, let's face it, it does. So Jack Straw might have a bit of explaining to do there. But if this process helps other parties become less like the BNP that's surely a good thing.

12 October 2009

Does Michael Moore prove that Catholicism is progressive?

An interesting post from Austen Iverleigh at Comment is Free about Michael Moore.

In a recent Youtube clip, the extreme right-wing Fox News host Sean Hannity invites Moore to classify himself as an "unapologetic socialist."

It's a sad comment on contemporary America (and indeed Britain) that Moore didn't just say "yes I am". Instead he said "I am a Christian" and then got into an argument with Hannity about the true nature of Christianity - or to be more specific, Catholicism.
Moore wins out in this instance, because Hannity is an ignorant bully-boy moron, just like everyone else on Fox News.

And I'd certainly agree that there's a lot that's socialistic about Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. But what about Roman Catholicism in particular? Is it a progressive ideology?

Overall I would have to say that Catholicism as laid down by the leader of the Catholic Church - i.e. the Pope - cannot be progressive, because it is fundamentally characterised by two reactionary assumptions. These are:

  • the completely anti-democratic principle that the Pope is chosen by a conclave of Catholic leaders (cardinals) rather than elected by churchgoers;
  • the stipulation that women cannot be Catholic priests.
There are other things that the Catholic church does that I disagree with but these seem to me to be the two obvious stipulations that make it impossible to see the "official" Catholic church line as anything but reactionary. It's built on authoritarianism and misogyny.

Now it's certainly the case that there are millions of people in the Catholic church - including Michael Moore - who are very left of centre politically. And they may well be left of centre because they're influenced by Christian teachings. But to me, they're left of centre despite being in the Catholic church.

So why stay in the Catholic church if the leadership is diametrically opposed to your views about the way it should be run? Why not leave and join another church? It's not as if there aren't a lot to choose from.

That's the question I'd like Michael Moore (whom I have the greatest respect for, by the way) to answer.

09 October 2009

Why has Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize?


I mean, don't get me wrong, I like the guy, and he deserves the Ted Kennedy memorial prize for not being George W Bush, or something like that.

But after only 9 months in the job can anybody really say that he's done enough to qualify for this prize? Is not starting any more wars enough to qualify?

If he'd pulled troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, created a Palestian state, managed to persuade Robert Mugabe to give up the presidency without bloodshed, and brought proper democracy to China - and indeed to the US and the UK - then maybe, just maybe. But it all feels a bit premature.

The Nobel Prize committee says the reward is for intentions rather than achievements. But that's like saying we should give the 14-year old kid who's the fastest in the world at 100 metres for his or her age the Olympic Gold medal on the basis that they 'intend' to win the title one day soon. I thought it was meant to be an achievement award? By all means let's have a "pre-Noble" for the Person Most Likely To, or something. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

Next up: a Mercury Music prize for my new avant garde glam rock project, "Lawrence Stole My Evolver." Because I haven't recorded it yet, but I've got every intention of it being the best album ever made. Which must be enough, right?

08 October 2009

Possibly a blip, or...

Jeez, Dave Cameron does talk a bag of shite.

It's "more big government that got us into this mess"?! Nah mate, as Hyman Minksy pointed out, Big Government is the thing that's actually keeping us afloat...

Very interesting poll in YouGov today... Tories 40 percent, Labour 31. The lead down below points for the first time in about 10 months. That could be just a blip, of course. Or it could be that people have taken a look at Tory policies... and they don't much like what they see.

Not much cuddly Conservatism left anymore... it's all cheap authoritarian punks like Michael Gove or Liam Fox. These guys don't want small government... they want Big Government shoving a jackboot up yer ass. Just like their friends on the Polish and Latvian far right.

As Millwall so rightly say... F*** em all.

06 October 2009

Latvia: towards revolution

I haven't blogged anything about the Tory party conference yet as it's simply too duff to comment on. Maybe in a couple of day's time. In the meantime here's an interesting piece from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph about possible collapse in Latvia, which has become an economic basketcase as a result of the implosion of the debt bubble coupled with bone-headed intervention by the IMF:

Latvia has failed to deliver draconian spending cuts agreed to secure the next tranche of its €7.5bn (£6.85bn) bail-out from the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and Sweden, balking at 20pc cuts in pensions and a further 15pc cut in public wages...

...Latvia's economy contracted by 18.2pc in the twelve months to June, trumped only by Lithuania at 20.4pc. "Latvia's currency peg is back on the agenda, " said Hans Redeker from BNP Paribas. "The government has to relax policy for social reasons. The hardship this winter is going to be unbelievable."

...Washington's Center for Economic and Policy Research said the IMF is enforcing a"pro-cyclical contractionary policy" in Latvia. Foreign banks (mostly Swedish) are being rescued at the cost of local taxpayers. The IMF deal equals 34pc of GDP. Latvia is piling up debt to defend its peg. The policy may backfire in any case. Fiscal contraction is causing tax revenues to implode, feeding a vicious circle.

Welcome to Keynesian economics, kids. If anyone at the IMF had half a clue about macroeconomics they wouldn't be enforcing this idiocy. As it is, it looks like the government could be about to collapse. With youth unemployment over 30%, there's gonna be plenty of kids willing to take to the streets... we could be looking at the EU's newest revolutionary state in a matter of weeks. You thought the far left was only doing its thing in Latin America? Wrong, it's gonna happen in the Baltic. And I fear things could get pretty messy.

03 October 2009

The Blair nightmare may be coming true...

Ireland ratified the goddamn Lisbon treaty so it could be hello President Blair. A sad day for us, Ireland and the EU. America just got rid of the election thief and war criminal George W Bush - so why the hell do we want to install our own version (unelected!) in a position like this?

And also we have been sold out by New Labour - who promised a referendum on the EU constitution only to say we couldn't have a referendum because it was a 'treaty', not a 'constitution' - despite doing pretty much exactly the same thing - and also by the Tories, 80% of whom apparently want a referendum except that Dave Cameron doesn't, and he's not the most democratic guy around so we ain't gonna get one.

I'd rather be out of the EU than serve under President Blair. But how to articulate that without sounding like a member of the goddamn UK Independence Party?

30 September 2009

probably not good enough, but at least The Sun don't like it

I didn't watch Gordon Brown's conference speech yesterday. I'm over that phase really. For about 4 years I had to go to the Labour Party Conference and it was bloody awful. Fringe events with terrible food, terrible booze and no relation to anything happening in the outside world.

Stage-managed conference speeches with no relation to outside-world realities, a bunch of sheep applauding at the end (remember Roger Waters? "Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream"...) and woe betide anyone who stepped out of line... any of you kids remember Walter Wolfgang? An octagenarian bundled out of the conference hall for criticising the Iraq war. This weren't Nuremberg 1936 folks, it was Brighton 2005 (or thereabouts)...

So I am glad to be out of it. The only good things about Labour conferences were the possibility of talking to someone decent like Billy Bragg or Tony Benn on the fringe... and the constant search for low-priced records in charity shops. (I was actually on holiday in Brighton last week - before the security iron curtain descended on the place, and managed to pick up a couple of old LPs by the Barclay James Harvest. Good on 'em.)

The conference speech had the usual impact of politician's announcements these days - they're like the rush from a cup of Nescafe with 6 spoonfuls on it. (Me old mate Benny Voller will remember that feeling from Birmingham '92...) You're carried along on a euphoria and coffeee buzzzz for about 10 minutes and then an hour or so later you've got a headache and want to go to bed but your limbs are twitching so you can't. That's political speeches these days. It's Brown, it's Clegg, it's bloody Osborne.

What was in it? Free personal care - but only if you're almost dead already. No compulsory ID cards - unless you want to apply for a passport or a driving licence. A bit of the old Brown fight came back into it (anyone remember the classic days of 2003 - "we're best when we're Labour etc.?) but too little too late.

However, I am made much more happy by the fact that The Sun has decided to back Cameron at the next election. This is the tail wagging the dog really - its readership switched months, if not years, ago. But I was never comfortable with voting for a party that had the backing of Rupert Murdoch - it was a horrible, stinky affair, and if Labour is to be worth anything in the future it has to be in the teeth of opposition from right-wing corporate fascists, not cosying up to them. So the divorce from Wapping is excellent news.

27 September 2009

Some thoughts on the German election results and relevance for the UK

Interesting set of election results coming out of Germany at the moment. Looks like Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (centre-right) are going to form a coalition with the Free Democrats (right wing free marketeers). The left parties - Die Linke (hard left) and the Greens - both did well, securing a combined 23% of the vote. The Social Democrats (Blairite) collapsed to 23% of the vote. So the momentum is all with the far left and the far right.

The CDU played the John Major option: portraying Merkel as a 'safe pair of hands'. That seemed to work OK but those new coalition partners in the Free Democrats ain't gonna want business as usual. They're gonna want slash'n'burn. Could get ugly.

So once again in Europe, the Blairite electoral prescription for the centre-left has been tested, and found utterly wanting. Looks like Germany is headed for the same thing that Tony Benn identified for the UK in 1979: "a bit more left, and a bit more right, and a lot less of the soggy centre".

For the moment that means a right-wing approach. But given that the Free Democrats' policies will condemn Germany to the same economic disaster that is currently consuming countries like Latvia and Ireland, we can expect a big shift to the hard left next time round.

The lesson for New Labour in the UK? The centre left is dead. In the new political order it's back to the early 80s - you're either left or you're right. So which is it gonna be, guys? Jon Cruddas knows it's time for the left, but do any of the rest of ya know?

26 September 2009

Wot I read on ma hols, like

Just had a nice relaxing week down in Sussex. On Friday - the day before we were leaving to come home - I walked into a bookshop in Bognor Regis (a good contender for Britain's most boring seaside town - makes Clacton-on-Sea look like Brighton. There is a delicatessen selling the best damn coffee I've had all year but that's it. Only go to Bognor if you want a decent coffee, and even then, get out fast) and came away with a copy of David Peace's The Damned United. At 4pm, we got home. By midnight, I'd finished the book.

An absolute classic. I have read one previous effort by Peace - Nineteen seventy-four - which is a great, if wearing and brutal, read. The guy makes Irvine Welsh look like a faker and a wuss. Damned United is light reading by comparison - no-one dies, not literally anyway. A smattering of violence, for sure, but this is the seventies, kids. When the terraces were like something off a Tarantino film but with a soundtrack by Sweet. Or so we are told, anyway.

It's a memoir from a different era. Today's "Premiership" football (i.e. soccer for non-Brits) is a pile of steaming and I mean that without reservation. It's inflated egos with inflated wads and inflatable brains, bouncing off each other, a personal benefit gig for Rupert Murdoch week after week after week. And you fucking idiots out there FEEDING THE BEAST. Paying your Two thousand quid a year for season tickets or Sky in the living room, or a New Dealer to pretend to beat you up to give it some terrace authenticity, or whatever the hell it is You People do.

Only 12 months after Brian Clough departed Leeds United in 1974, Pink Floyd saw it coming: "Welcome To The Machine". Football was, for sure, changing into a piece of shit even then. But it weren't quite there. Because someone like a Clough, or a Bobby Robson, or (a few years later) a Graham Taylor could take on the money men and win something. The small man still had a chance. Now? Ha ha. Iain Duncan Smith's "quiet man" would have more chance of winning the premiership than anyone of yer fair-to-middling clubs out there.

Oddly enough, the length of Brian Clough's "reign" at Leeds - 44 days - is the most modern aspect of seventies Leeds Utd, the one way in which they were looking Forward Not Back. Any of you kids remember Colin Todd? He lasted 90 days at Derby a few seasons ago. That was considered short but not exceptional. Nowadays if you lose two on the trot you might be for the chop. Whereas in fact, anyone managing a premiership club that isn't Man Utd, Chelsea or a couple of others with big pockets (temporarily) is doing very well to be optimistic enough just to turn up on the field with their team.

If I was Prime Minister (unlikely!) my New Years' Honours list for 2010 would be a knighthood for any football manager in a premiership team with less money than the Big Five (or Six or whatever). because it takes guts to do the job without the resources. They also serve, who only stand and wait for the takeover by foreign billionaires.

And after that nice little gesture, the grand redistribution of resources in favour of the small clubs - football's Cultural Revolution, if you like - could begin. Starting with the compulsory purchase of all teams by the relevant local authorities, who would then sell controlling stakes in the club off to supporters. Or something like that, anyway... I'm sure Brian Clough would have approved. He was, as The Damned United tells us, a socialist.

I will be ordering the DVD of the same name very soon and I'll let you know how that one goes.

24 September 2009

So what if Obama won't talk to Brown? The history of the 'special relationship' is diabolical

[Note: very difficult to put links in with the phone I'm blogging from on holiday - they'll have to wait until I get back.

The Guardian leads today on a supposed snub for Gordon Brown from the White House - not being allocated a one-on-one meeting with Barack Obama.

I'm actually rather pleased about this. To paraphrase Adam Smith, when the US President and the UK Prime Minister get together it is seldom good news for the rest of the world. In recent years, any meeting between the war criminal and election thief George W Bush and his low-rent UK counterpart Tony Blair inevitably concluded with a new foreign policy monstrosity designed to inflict yet more pain & suffering on the long-suffering peoples of the middle east.

So why prioritise gordon brown - Blair's understudy and a politician with an 8-month time limit at best - rather than spending time with political leaders with more of a future? It makes a lot of sense for Obama to ignore Brown in this situation.

The less of the 'special relationship' we see these days, the better, frankly.

17 September 2009

Barack Obama vs the US hard right: race is only a small part of the issue

The fight that Barack Obama is facing to get extremely moderate (indeed, too moderate) healthcare legislation passed in the face of vocal right-wing opposition took on a new turn yesterday when Jimmy Carter said that much of the opposition to Obama was based on racism. (Note: Carter did not say, as one commentator on my last post suggested, that "anyone who disagrees with Obama is a racist". That's total b.s.)

I don't think Carter was wrong to say race was a factor in the opposition to Obama - particularly in the South - but I don't think any Democratic president trying to pursue an alternative to the Bush administration's policies (even if it is a somewhat wishy-washy alternative) would face a much easier ride. Fundamentally this is about big corporate America using any means necessary to fight against any encroachment of democracy on its ability to run a fascist dictatorship in the interest of big business. Obama's race is a tool they will use against him to get the result they want, which is his defeat in 2012. If Hilary Clinton had won the presidency they would have used her gender against her instead of her race. When it was Bill Clinton, it was his inability to keep his hands off the White House interns which was used against him. That's how these people operate.

Whereas George W Bush - an ex cocaine abuser who pulled strings to avoid the Vietnam draft, rigged elections, and killed millions of Iraqis and thousands of US troops in an illegal and fraudulently justified war - got a considerably easier ride from the hard right. Why? Because it's OK to be fucking useless, as long as you're Republican and a tool of big business.

So Jimmy Carter is really aiming at too small a target. He's made a big splash by pointing out the race dimension of the opposition to Obama, and I'm not saying what he said was wrong. But if he'd taken the opportunity instead to explain how US corporate power is pulling the strings and trying to undermine Obama every step of the way - and how Obama's misguided attempts at a "bipartisan" approach are undermining his own position - how much more of a splash would that have been? Given that Carter was brought down in no small part by those same forces 30 years ago, you'd hope he'd show a bit more nous.

09 September 2009

JC is da man

Jesus Christ.
Jimmy Carter.
Jon Cruddas.

One set of initials.
Three of the greatest political brains of all time.

Jon Cruddas's speech at the Compass Summer Lecture at the LSE yesterday evening launches him onto the national stage as a contender for the Labour leadership in the same way that Jimmy Carter's 'Law Day Address' at the University of Georgia in 1974 marked him out as an offbeat presidential contender (as covered by Hunter S Thompson in The Great Shark Hunt).

Jon started quietly, muffled, almost as if he was lacking confidence, but got into his stride as he went along. The speech combined three essential ingredients:

  1. an incisive analysis of the disastrous short-term fate that has befallen the Labour party on the two previous periods of economic crisis that have occurred since its inception - the 1930s and the late 1970s and early 1980s - and a worrying assessment of the parallels which the current economic collapse has produced.
  2. a fistful of radical, sensible, innovative proposals for government - the kind of thing Gordon Brown would have been doing for the last 2 years anyway if he'd had half a clue;
  3. a withering critique of the extremism hiding under the cuddly surface of the Cameronite Tory party.
No-one in any position of authority in the Labour Party is telling it like Jon is, and he's definitely the best option for leader following an election defeat. Can he do it? Quite possibly, yes. He has two big advantages: (a) the likelihood of a strong vote from the trade unions in the electoral college (and most likely from the party membership as well), and (b) not being tarred with the brush of failure, having not been a minister at any point during the Nu Labour period.

There is after that, of course, the small matter of how to beat the Tory Government at the 2015 election. But I think we can leave it to the Tories to f*** things up royally enough to give Labour a fighting chance.

So bring on Jon and let's get on with it.

04 September 2009

National Express East Anglia: towards competence? Tell 'em what you think

Previous mentions of the National Express East Anglia train company on this blog have ranged between pissed off and incendiary - but they may be about to turn over a new leaf in some ways. Their new consultation on train service capacity enhancements is a good read.

The big proposed improvements are:

  • additional train service capacity into London Liverpool St of 11,000 seats between 7am and 10am (unfortunately they don't say what percentage increase that is but the overall percentage increase in the size of the train fleet would be 17%)
  • additional peak hours stops at Stratford
  • half-hourly off-peak stops at Kelvedon in Essex. This would get the service back to the levels that the old British Rail were able to provide prior to 1995 - which doesn't sound that spectacular in itself, but in the context of privatisation, is something of a miracle.
  • a Harwich-Manningtree shuttle service to connect with intercity trains at Manningtree (not everyone will like this)
A lot of this would be facilitated by the replacement of the (in my view fairly daft) direct Peterborough-London and Lowestoft-London trains with services that connect with Intercity services at Ipswich.

It's the way the whole timetable should have been organised in the first place - it's taken these guys 5 years and a lot of pain inflicted on commuters to get there, but better late than never. (As British Rail might have said).

I will certainly be writing to NXEA to endorse these proposals - the first positive feedback I have ever given them (apart from when they introduced the 0815 morning service into Liverpool Street) and I recommend that you do the same if you live on this line or even if you don't live there but still occasionally use it. The more support there is for the proposals, the more likelihood there is that this thing will actually happen. The timetable changes are scheduled for the end of 2010 if they decide to go ahead, so you wouldn't have long to wait to experience the benefits.

The consultation ends 11 September so get your views in while you can.

And a final thought - this may just be a desperate move by NXEA to try to stop Andrew Adonis clawing back their franchise as collateral damage after the collapse of their East Coast franchise. Which would expose them as cynical bastards, but would also prove that, given the right regulatory framework, maybe even cynical bastards can be made to toe the line. Carry on Andrew...

01 September 2009

Good morning America: your enemy today (and every day) is corporate power

Great, great post by Paul Krugman in yesterday's New York Times: "I find myself missing Richard Nixon".

Paul's main point - and Hunter S Thompson said it first, back in about 2002 - is that compared with the current bunch of Republican nutters, Nixon was a left-wing radical. Nixon's plan for compulsory employer-funded health insurance - rejected by the Democrat-controlled senate at the time - was to the left of anything Obama is planning.

hat doesn't mean it's time to hoist the rose-coloured specs of course. Nixon was a deeply unpleasant guy and a crook - although strictly minor league compared with the professional war criminal and election thief George W Bush.

But as Krugman points out, it does show the extent to which the American political system has deteriorated under the influence of corporate power. This quote from his article sums it up:

"We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s."

There's a very interesting research programme to undertake here. What caused the massive expansion of corporate lobbying from the late 1970s onwards? And how can it be reversed? Joel Bakan's The Corporation covers some of this ground but it would be great to see it done in a more systematic way. Really you would need a collaboration between radical economists and political scientists to make headway on this. We need an institute or research centre for the study of corporate power in both the US and the UK.

In Britain the corporate sector is somewhat weaker than in the US but they are growing in strength, particularly in broadcasting: witness, for instance, News Corporation chairman James Murdoch (Rupert's son - I love the smell of nepotism in the morning) calling for the break-up of the BBC, so we can all be left at the mercy of Sky. It's this kind of thing that reminds us every day that the #1 enemy is not government (crap though it may often be), but is in fact corporate power. When are we going to do something about it?

26 August 2009

RIP Senator Ted Kennedy

I've just read the news.

Note that if Ted had lived in the UK like Stephen Hawking there'd be queues of Republicans (and Daniel Hannan) round the block at Fox News just to say "there you go, Ted Kennedy is dead because of the NHS".

My main knowledge of Ted Kennedy is somewhat out of date, really: in a lot of Hunter S Thompson's 1970s work (particularly the superb Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72) he's portrayed as a president-in-waiting, just waiting for the right year to make his move.

Of course, that year never came. 1980 was the closest he got, but he was trying to take on a Democratic incumbent - Jimmy Carter - and trying to unseat an incumbent 'from within' is extremely hard. Perhaps if Carter had lost to Ford in 1976, things would have been very different in '80 and Kennedy would have made it to the White House, and we'd never have had 'Reaganomics' and therefore avoided the collapse of the economy in 2008; it's a fascinating thought.

The Kennedy dynasty is looking somewhat depleted in the US these days; I'd suggest drafting in violinist Nigel Kennedy to make up the numbers a bit. But God forbid, not Radio 2's Sarah Kennedy - that's all the Americans need. Stick with Rush Limbaugh - he has a tiny brain, but at least it's somewhere in there.

Dunno what happens in the US Senate now: do they have a by-election in Massachusets? I have no clue.

25 August 2009

Thinking about what Labour's line on the Tories should be

Avid readers will notice that this blog has drifted away from politics over the last few weeks, to more serious fare like zombies and cricket. Partly because the Labour party is on such a colossal downer at the moment that it is hard to think about the political situation for an extended period of time, and partly because a battery recharge in the summer is always a good idea.

It's been several months since I met anyone who thought that Labour could actually win the next election, and the latest ICM poll from the Guardian reinforces this view. 16 points down with only about 9 months to go until the election campaign must start - it ain't looking great. The Tories ahead as the party most trusted on the economy, the NHS, education. The NHS result suggests - at least for the moment - that Dave Cameron has managed to neutralise the extreme right anti-NHS rhetoric from some of his own MPs and MEPs, particularly the ludicrous Fox News rentamouth Daniel Hannan.

Labour will probably be able to claw back some of that 16-point deficit by making effective, substantiated attacks on whether the Tories can be trusted with key national institutions like health and the NHS. Daniel Hannan should be on Labour campaigning posters at the earliest opportunity - the guy is a national treasure; thank you Dan, for being so willing to talk bollocks at every opportunity. On education, Labour has made a lot of mistakes - the academies programme, obsessing with testing and support for faith schools among them. And it hasn't managed to get much credit for huge increases in spending. But shadow education secretary Michael Gove is an absolute open goal; an extreme right wing neo-con who would like nothing more than to dismantle the state system and have all the working class kids on council estates herded into boot camps. Again, he should be on Labour campaigning posters next year. And towering over all of these, on the economy George Osborne is the least convincing shadow chancellor of all time. Hopelessly addicted to soundbites, incapable of a coherent critique of government policy, and hiding an stunningly right-wing cuts agenda behind a 'progressive' facade.

In other words, the Tories are vulnerable on all three of the areas that the electorate is most interested in: the economy, health and education. However, so far the Labour critique of the Tories has been an unfocused assault on Tory 'cuts'. This is ineffective for two reasons: (a) the public finances deficit is so large that most people think cuts are necessary (and without big increases in taxation in the long run they are necessary), and (b) Labour is planning to cut almost as much as the Tories if re-elected (have a look at the public spending projections in the last budget!) Likewise, there has been rather unfocused attacks on the Tories' personal circumstances - for example the disastrous 'Tory toffs' accusation at the Crewe by-election last year. All pretty irrelevant to the main issues.

The best Labour strategy has to start with drawing 'clear red water' between themselves and the Tories - pledging to maintain spending on the majority of essential services while pushing up tax on the rich and closing tax haven loopholes (as the Obama adminstration is planning to do) to pay for it. The spending plans in Budget 09 should be ripped up and redrawn. There needs to be a clear articulation of the fact that spending cuts have a massive negative impact on poor households - as work by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out. Where cuts are made, they should be in useless expenditure that we can well do without (replacing Trident, ID cards, etc.)

The attacks on the Conservatives should largely bypass Cameron - he's fairly popular and is the least weak link in the Tory chain. Instead, the idea that Danniel Hannan represents the 'real' or 'underlying' Conservative stance on the NHS should be ruthlessly propagated, along with critiques of Michael Gove's neo-conservatism (the idea being that the Americans managed to get rid of these f***ers, so why the hell should we have them here?) and the incompetence of George Osborne. The idea should be that Cameron isn't a bad guy, and quite moderate but that he is the prisoner of an extremist and unreformed party. This isn't a particularly hard idea to sell, as it's basically true - the number of 'progressives' in the Tory top brass can be counted on the fingers of one (slightly deformed) hand.

Granted, all this is still a tough wicket to bat on - particularly on the economy, where the electorate would be very justified in saying, "hold on - you guys are saying the Tories are incompetent, but you've just presided over the worst recession in 70 years just after proclaiming that 'boom and bust' had been abolished!" That's a very difficult point to answer, particularly as - as I see it anyhow - a lot of the (rather tepid) enthusiasm for the Tories reflects a desire to punish Labour as much as anything else. And I can understand that. Between them, Blair and Brown have been responsible for more b.s., distortion and obfuscation than any previous PM/Chancellor team. Even the hardcore garbage peddled by Thatcher and Howe at the height of monetarism didn't compare with the sheer professionalism of the Nu Labor spin machine... and if the next election draws the line under a very sorry and shameful period for the Labour Party, then perhaps so much the better.

My prediction then, is that a concerted and effective campaign against the Tories could close the gap between the two parties to maybe 8 to 10 points, but this is still enough for a working Conservative majority. They will probably end up with a majority of between 50 and 100 once the impact of boundary changes is taken into account. And then the real work begins... which is to rebuild the Labour party as a radical modern party with effective leadership, ready to sweep into power (given the right circumstances) in 2015. It will be an interesting 5 years - and I am looking forward to that more than to the dying cinders of this Labour govt. More on the prospects for Labour post-election in a bit.

23 August 2009


Jeez Mick, I'd never have predicted this.

It just shows you what the guys can do when the weather holds long enough for them to do their thing.

Makes you wonder why we bother fielding a national football team when we have a sport we can (sometimes) win at?

Right, back to serious posts next week.

21 August 2009

Another digression: proof that Dan Brown is shite

I love the 'silly season' in the news. Today Oxfam have said that Dan Brown novels are being brought in to their bookshops in greater quantities than any other author.

My title is slightly misleading: this isn't really any proof that Dan Brown is crap at all, partly because he is one of the biggest selling authors of the last decade - so one would expect his books to be hitting the charity shops in huge quantities even if people were only averagely likely to get rid of them.

Brown is also the second most purchased author at Oxfam, so he seems to be quite popular for charity shop browsers. Maybe there is a whole subculture of people that spend their time buying Dan Brown books at Oxfam, reading them and then giving them back to Oxfam again.

None of the statistics alter the fact that Dan Brown is total cack, though. Here is a potted summary of all his plots (they are completely interchangeable):

A brilliant scientist/theologian/singing bus conductor is tortured by the 'bad guy' and reveals a terrible secret just before dying horribly.

Main book
The hero (a thinly disguised rip-off of Indiana Jones) visits the scene of the murder and uncovers the first in a series of clues that will lead him to foil the bad guy's plan to destroy the US Defence Department/ Catholic Church/ Sainsbury plc/Supertramp (delete as applicable). He is aided in this mission by a beautiful female scientist of some exotic (i.e. non-American) heritage.

The denouement where the bad guy gets his comeuppance takes place at some suitably grandstanding location (Sydney Opera House/Stonehenge/Corley Services on the M6).

The hero finally gets to have some sex with said beautiful female scientist (I guess this idea was nicked from James Bond).

And that's it. I read The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and started reading Digital Fortress (couldn't finish it because it was too crap). It's hard to understand why Brown is a best-seller given that his books have essentially no redeeming features beyond the fact you can read one in about 2 hours.

Even the so-called interesting idea from The Da Vinci Code - that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had kids - is stolen from a load of esoteric religious research from the 1970s and 80s.

My wife tells me that The Last Testament by Sam Bourne (a pseudonym for the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland) is a much better effort than anything Brown ever wrote, made all the more amusing by the fact that Freedland isn't really taking this stuff seriously: he's just using it to cross-subsidise much more interesting work, in the same way that George Clooney plays the occasional lame Hollywood blockbuster work to subsidise projects like Good Night & Good Luck. Of course it may be that Dan Brown is a brilliant physicist, comedian or stamp collector who needs the revenue from writing high-selling trash to fund his other activities.

But I doubt it.

19 August 2009

A digression: Zombies

Apologies for low frequency of posting at the moment - I've been taking a few days off to recharge the batteries after a hectic month.

One thing I've been doing is reading the first three volumes of 'The Walking Dead', a series of graphic novels which a friend lent me a month or so back. If you liked any of the George A Romero movies, you'll like this. A classic!

By a strange coincidence, the papers and news websites this week reported on a simulation of a zombie outbreak by scientists at the University of Ottawa. The paper is available here and is a good read. Best line: "This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first mathematical analysis of an outbreak of zombie infection."

12 August 2009

Quakers: a force for good in the world

My thoughts on religion continue to evolve at a steady rate. About 4 years ago I was converted from a wishy-washy sit-on-the-fence agnosticism to hardcore atheism by Richard Dawkins's Channel 4 documentary Root of All Evil? (His book The God Delusion makes similar arguments). I enjoyed the documentary and the book and for several years my stance was basically similar to Dawkins - religion was a piece of shit as far as I was concerned, a brainwashing exercise.

But I've recently been moving away from that view for two main reasons. One is that there is a viciousness and nastiness about the attacks on religious people by some of the hardcore atheists which strikes me as OTT and unnecessary. Dawkins isn't the worst offender here, although sometimes he does go on a bit of a rant: I'm thinking more of Christopher Hitchens, who seems to be on a mission to insult anyone with any religious sensibility whatsoever. When I see that kind of shit going down, it makes me think: do I really want to be in the tent with these guys? Can't we have a bit of tolerance and humility for a change?

The other thing is that there is a left-wing radical side to religion which has been under-reported and under-explored in the media in recent years. They have been preoccupied with Islamic extremists and the reactionary drift of the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict, and I can understand that to some extent - although in both cases the people under discussion are wildly unrepresentative of their respective religions.

But we have heard almost nothing about the Quakers in recent times - and so the revelation that they had decided to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples was a welcome surprise. (The Guardian covered it in a very nice editorial last week.) At a time when all we seem to hear from Christian representatives is condemnation of gay people (from the Catholics and evangelicals) or hand-wringing equivocation (from the Anglicans), it is really great to see a religious denomination which does not spend all its time picking on the minority, but instead is trying to do some good in the world.

I experienced something of Quaker hospitality first hand in Leicester last month when I went to a meeting for a work project I'm involved with at the Friends Meeting House there. It was a very warm and welcoming atmosphere - a bit like a convalescent home (and I mean that as a compliment rather than an insult). I think I may investigate the Religious Society of Friends further.

BTW, in terms of the issue which religious belief is supposed to centre on - the existence or non-existence of God - my view at the moment is that I really couldn't give a stuff about it. By which I mean that I'm not so much an agnostic as someone who just isn't interested in the question at all. It makes no difference to me either way in my current state of mind. For me, the social significance of religion or non-religion is all-important - and I'm attracted to the Quakers because they seem to be about a positive and caring attitude toward people rather than constantly looking to berate other people for doing 'wrong' things or having the 'wrong' beliefs, which is where hardcore religion and hardcore atheism alike seem to fall down. I've simply got better things to do than play that game anymore.

Health care reform: an object lesson in why 'bipartisanship' is balls

Great amusement has come to the Berstram household these last couple of days from the right-wing Investors' Business Daily, whose comment on Barack Obama's attempted health care reform was as follows:

The controlling of medical costs in countries such as Britain through rationing, and the health consequences thereof, are legendary. The stories of people dying on a waiting list or being denied altogether read like a horror script … People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
Moving rhetoric, were it not of course for the fact that Stephen Hawking has lived in the UK all his life. Never let it be said that the US right doesn't get its facts straight before it posted.

In any case it's laughable that US conservatives criticise the NHS as a health care system based on "rationing" when any health care system - in fact any delivery system for any commodity which costs more than zero to produce - is rationed. In the US rationing is by the insurance premia that people are willing or able to pay, combined with the decisions of healthcare company executives as to which treatments get provided and which don't. The NHS - and most other publicly financed healthcare systems - just happen to be a lot more efficient at providing a certain quantity of care for a given amount of funding than does the US system. The US system is very good at inflating costs and giving out large payments to health executives.

It's also very good at spending customers' health insurance premiums on lobbying efforts to stave off reforms. If anyone doubted that Obama and the Democrats have a serious fight on their hands, one look at the healthcare debate will dispel those doubts. Democrats are being called Nazis (laughable coming from people who supported the Bush administration); gangs of thugs are being rounded up to shout down pro-reform politicians at town hall meetings; and complete falsehoods (like the 'Hawking would be a dead man in the UK' claim) are being trotted out by hacks like Rush Limbaugh and the complete staff of Fox News every day of the week.

This should convince Obama, if he needed any convincing following a bruising first 6 months in office, that he needs to come out fighting after the August holiday and tell the cheap Nazi punks who make up the Republican party (bar the one or two Senate moderates that he needs to push his legislation through) to go fuck themselves. If he doesn't manage to do that, he runs the risk of ending up like the two previous Democrat presidents - Clinton and Carter - both of whom were condemned to ineffectuality after a dreadful first two years in office.

The main thing to realise is that the President is in a situation where his opponents are fighting like hell with every weapon at their disposal to maintain America as the corporate fascist state that Bush, Cheney, Palin and their friends and backers have slogged long and hard over the last 30 years creating - and they don't want to give an inch of it back to the working people of America. These fuckers are prepared to lie, cheat and kill to get what they want - and they are extremely powerful. The problem, when faced with a backlash like that, is that America may get worse before it gets better.

10 August 2009


Some interesting research published today by scientists at Oxford University who have surveyed seven research studies on the effectiveness of Tamiflu and/or Relenza (the main antiviral flu drugs) and found that Tamiflu reduced the length of time children displayed symptoms by one day on average, but increased the likelihood of vomiting.

Obviously there's no miracle cure for swine flu (otherwise we wouldn't need to develop a vaccine so quickly) but the results from this drug that the government is relying on so much do seem to be pretty crap. Could it be that the whole Tamiflu schtick is a result of lobbying by pharmaceuticals giant Roche, who are making a tidy packet from sales of the drug? More investigation is warranted.

(Disclaimer: I haven't read the Oxford study itself - I've only seen the coverage on C4 News and some of the broadsheets - so I've no idea whether the story was accurately reported. Since reading Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" I've become extremely suspicious of even the so-called 'quality' media's reports on science stories - and I was already fairly suspicious to start off with. I hope Ben covers this story on his blog so we can get deeper investigation.)

09 August 2009

05 August 2009

Another loss that will make many of us very happy

Last month it was Ryanair losing money; this month it's News Corp (formerly News International). A £2bn loss.

Yay! Every crunch has a silver lining. To paraphrase what the late, great Steven Wells said in the NME (about Rush, I think) in 1989: don't subscribe to Sky, don't buy the Murdoch press, and make the bastard poor. He deserves it.

Hal's myspace page has the right idea. I'm on myspace, but only to subvert the f***ers.

(p.s. do not take the 'interests' and 'details' sections too seriously...)

No way are the Barclays and HSBC results good news

More on this next week when I've got a bit more time, but just to say: Richard Murphy is absolutely right on the Barclays and HSBC results. Their results for bank lending to the personal and company sector were absymal (due to huge debt write-offs) - they made all their money on investment banking. Effectively they were making money by participating in the kind of financial gambling which brought about the current economic collapse in the first place.

And they're able to do it with impunity because they know governments will bail them out if they crash again. We should've nationalised the bastards when we had the chance. Never mind... a job for the next Labour government (hopefully 2015-ish).

A nice summary in the Guardian of how investment banking operations make money. Note that very little of it relates to activities which actually increase output in the real economy of goods and services - it's really about redistributing resources from one economic agent to another rather than creating new resources.

02 August 2009

The Gary McKinnon tragedy exposes the lunacy of the US's war on terror

I haven't blogged about the Gary McKinnon case before, and I almost certainly should have done. Most of you will probably be familiar with the essential facts of the case; if not, I recommend the excellent article by Jon Ronson on the Guardian website.

Basically McKinnon is due to be extradited to the US to face a possible 60 years in prison for hacking into the US defence department computers - including the Pentagon network. As far as the US government is concerned, McKinnon is a terrorist who needs to be locked up as a threat to national security.

And if McKinnon really had intended to bring down the US government - planning something similar to 9/11, for example - I'd be inclined to say 'fair enough'.

But there's a small problem. Gary McKinnon is a UFO obsessive with Asperger's syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder) who was hacking into the US network to search for information which he thought the US government was hiding about UFO propulsion systems. He had no intention of causing any harm to the US at all - he would have argued that his actions were in the public interest. (And if the information had really existed, he'd surely have been right).

He didn't find the information - presumably because it didn't exist. But what he did do was to expose a supposedly secure US military computer network as wide open to hackers. Ronson says, 'He wrote a script that searched for network administrators who'd been too lazy to change their user names from "user name" and their passwords from "password"'.

In a sane world, the US Defense Department would have said "it's a fair cop, guv", thanked McKinnon for exposing huge holes in their security arrangements, and maybe offered him a job as a cyber-security expert.

But unfortunately we - and Gary McKinnon - don't live in a sane world. We live in a world where governments go after easy targets in the name of "national security" to con the public into believing they are safe. And McKinnon is a sacrifice to that end.

As things stand, the US government is totally within its rights to demand the extradition of Gary McKinnon, and the UK government has to comply under the terms of the UK-to-US extradition agreement. It seems unlikely that the UK government will provoke a major diplomatic incident by refusing to extradite McKinnon. But there are alternative courses of action.

One option would be for McKinnon to flee the UK to another country which doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US. All the EU countries seem to have one, but Ukraine, for example, doesn't. It would be worth finding some sympathetic Ukrainians who would be prepared to take the poor guy in. Life as a Ukrainian might take some adjustment for Gary, but given that the alternative is rotting in an American jail for half a century, Eastern Europe begins to look quite attractive.

Another option would be for a part of the UK to make a unilateral declaration of independence. The Isle of Wight has had a movement for UDI for some time, usually with the rationale of making it into a tax haven like Jersey or the Isle of Man. Becoming a protectorate for people like McKinnon seems a more worthwhile reason to secede from the UK somehow.

But something radical needs to be done, otherwise a guy whose only real crime was to take The X Files a bit too seriously will be spending up to 60 years in prison. And if you think that's fair, then there really is something wrong with you.