31 July 2009

RIP Sir Bobby

Another goddamn sports post...

I think it's fair to say that Sir Bobby Robson, who died today, was quite possibly the greatest English football manager since Alf Ramsey. There are others who might claim that title - Brian Clough or Graham Taylor, for example - and there are non-English managers of English clubs who have achieved even more - for example Alex Ferguson.

But Robson did an amazing job with Ipswich Town, who were a very middling club when he took over - I don't know if anyone else could have won the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, and League runner up twice, with a club like that. Clough and Taylor are the only two real comparators.

As England manager from 1982 to 1990, Robson had the best record of anyone since Ramsey. The semi-final placing for England in 1990 was the best anyone has ever achieved for the team on foreign soil.

He also seemed to be a genuinely nice guy - respected throughout the game, and in hero in both Ipswich and Newcastle. That statue outside Portman Road is there for a reason, to be sure.

You'll be sadly missed from football, Bobby. We salute you.

Environmentalists under attack from the police state

For the last 15 years the Big Green Gathering has been the premier environmental festival on the UK circuit, attracting 20,000 people a year and featuring "Music, Dance, Crafts, Food and Farming, Healing, Earth Energies, Permaculture, Markets, Tipis, Fairground, Campaigns, Sustainable Homes and much more - powered by the Sun, the Wind and the People."

But not this year. Because the BGG has been cancelled on the instructions of the police:

Following threatened injunction proceedings in High Court by Mendip District Council supported by Somerset & Avon Police and having taken extensive advice from a prominent QC and other eminent lawyers, the directors of the Big Green Gathering have been left with no other option than to voluntarily surrender the license for the Big Green Gathering 2009.

The event will now not take place and the directors' advice and request is that no one intending to attend the event should attempt to do so, as the site is now closed and they are likely to be turned away by Somerset Police.

It is our intention to avoid any form of confrontation or public disorder in regard to this and it is our earnest hope that all those involved will follow this advice.

It is with great sadness that we have been forced into this position and we express our profound apologies to all those concerned.
In a scene reminiscent of China or Zimbabwe, the police state has decided that environmentalists should no longer be allowed to gather together like this as it's "unsafe" - despite the fact that it's been happening for many years without incident.

"Safety" in this case was being used by the police as a paper-thin pretext for their real motive - which is that they wanted to prevent a gathering of environmental activists in advance of the Climate Camp next month.

Whether the police are acting on their own initiative and the government has effectively lost control of law enforcement, or whether they are being pressurised to take these kinds of actions against environmentalists by the more reactionary elements of Nu Labor, is as yet unknown. What is clear is that environmental activists are now being singled out for discrimination and victimisation by the state on a regular basis.

I probably won't bother writing to my MP about this as he's a complete waste of space Tory and probably wants to lock up all environmentalists. I will be writing to the Home Secretary Alan Johnson to lobby for controls on the police so that they can't go round doing this sort of thing. Once the Labour leadership changes hands after the 2010 debacle, it's absolutely vital that the new leader takes a much more democratic and anti-authoritarian stance on civil liberties. If not, then the Green Party represents the only way forward in terms of Westminster politics.

And if there is one silver lining to this whole episode, it's that the Big Green Gathering is now much more 'on the map' than it's ever been - whilst disastrous in the short run, this dose of publicity could be vital in the long run for growing the event. I'll certainly be going along in future years. That is, of course, assuming that environmental events of this type are ever allowed in the UK again.

This whole debacle should also boost attendance at Climate Camp - although the police will of course be out in force, intimidating and assaulting people whose only crime is to want the world to still be a liveable place in 50 to 100 years' time rather than an asphyxiated oven.

30 July 2009

National Express East Anglia: incompetent management + militant unions = misery for 100000s

Man, I'm so glad I'm self-employed these days and working at home most of the week. Otherwise I'd have been well and truly kyboshed by the NXEA train strike.

It's a joint RMT and ASLEF effort and it's massive. 48 hours this Thursday and Friday and the same thing for the next four weeks.

This really is putting a lot of people out very badly - people might be able to work around a 24-hour strike by staying in London overnight or taking a day working from home, but a sequence of 48-hour stoppages will test anyone's patience.

Predictably most media commentators will blame Bob Crow and the rail unions, and it has to be said that they're doing themselves no favours in the public eye by staging a long and disruptive series of strikes to secure a minimum 2.5% pay award at a time when a lot of shopfloor workers are facing pay freezes, pay cuts or even redundancies. (Although, of course, the NXEA management, as usual, have awarded themselves huge bonuses - if they were having to go without then their claim that the unions are being "unreasonable" would have more credibility. Update: Also, on the news, the ASLEF representative claimed that the unions were not seeking a minimum 2.5% pay offer - I will try to get to the bottom of this over the next couple of days). Most commuters will be incredulous that the unions and NXEA management can't sit down and hammer this one out.

But seeing this as solely the fault of the RMT and ASLEF would be a huge mistake. It's painfully clear to me from 5 years experiencing what NXEA tries to call a 'train service' that they haven't got a bloody clue how to run a railway most of the time, and to the extent that they do run it, they run it to screw the last penny out of the paying customer as much as possible. Some examples of their viciousness and incompetence:

  • the 1908 service from London Liverpool Street to Colchester is, for no explicable reason, 4 coaches only. It is always full to bursting point, and very frequently people can't get on the service. This was pointed out to NXEA (who were then called 'One', but it was the same people running the company) as early as 2005, but have they done anything about it? No - it's still the sardine express. They claim they've got no spare carriages - so why not buy another f***ing train carriage you morons? Words fail me.
  • a discount scheme for season ticket holders which allowed free travel on the network at weekends for the ticket-holder plus one extra person was scrapped without any explanation or compensation for season ticket holders 18 months after NXEA took over the franchise.
  • Repeated overhead line problems on several evenings in the last few years have resulted in thousands of commuters being stranded at Liverpool St with minimal information on what was going on and few, if any, replacement buses.
  • NXEA deliberately tries to overcharge customers by refusing to advertise the Network Railcard (which gives 1/3 off fares in the southeast and home counties) at their stations. You can get it if you know about it but they won't volunteer it to you even if you could save money by buying a railcard. I asked about this and was told it had been imposed as company policy.
  • Like all the other London area train companies, NXEA have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into installing the Oystercard system, and then only from about 2012 onwards. It's been operational on the tube network and buses since 2005.
  • Plenty of money has been spent on rebranding all the stations, trains and staff uniforms to 'one' (in 2004) and then to NXEA (in 2007) with no benefit to passengers whatsoever. At the same time, NXEA has refused to replace the 40-year-old intercity trains that run the London-Norwich route (and break down all the time) and has refused to put on extra trains to address congestion. But it's been very happy to hike fares by a lot more than inflation and to impose absurd evening restrictions on travelcard users and cheap day return tickets which mean that people can't travel back from London between about 4.15 and 6.45 pm.

NXEA management are, quite simply, a shower of bastards. Their managing director, Andrew Chivers, was on BBC East last night. Chivers has featured in this blog once before, under the heading "everybody do the Chivers chase", referring to a six-month period in 2007 where the local paper the Essex Chronicle were trying to track him down for an interview but the bastard was leading them a merry dance. On the evidence of last night's BBC East performance, the guy was in hiding because he's a charisma bypass zone. It was the most anodyne, drippy performance I have ever seen on TV. Even the lacklustre boss of Corby council, who appeared on the same programme trying to justify not apologising to some families who were exposed to toxic waste from a brownfield housing development on an old steelworks as a result of negligence by council-appointed building contractors, wasn't as crap as poor old Chivers.

Bob Crow and the RMT and ASLEF say that the NXEA management has treated them like shit and, whilst that doesn't in my opinion justify strike action on this level, if the way NXEA treats its employees is anything like the way it treats its customers, I can well believe the unions aren't exaggerating. Only the aggrandisement of the management and the dividend to shareholders seem to matter at NXEA - all else is a mere inconvenience.

The way forward is pretty clear: nationalise NXEA (this might happen anyway due to the nationalisation of National Express's other franchise on the East Coast main line - they are trying to say that the two companies are separate but that is such obvious bollocks that any sensible court will throw it out), and reinstall a management that actually wants to work with the trade unions to improve services. In the longer term, we need a structure put in place that minimises the likelihood of strike action. It's incredibly inefficient to have large parts of the economy grinding to a halt like this, and there's got to be a better way forward. Turning rail franchises into mutual companies - where the workers (and indeed the customers) have equity stakes and management roles in the company - would eliminate the conflict of interest between shareholders and the people who actually have to work in and use the service. If strikes were hitting workers in the pocket - which would be the case in a mutually owned model - we'd be far less likely to see this kind of industrial relations mess happening.

27 July 2009

Tories want a repeat of 1981

Philip Hammond, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury (i.e. George Osborne's second-in-command) has obviously been watching too many episodes of Ashes to Ashes. (I never actually watched any episodes of it, because after watching the first episode of Life On Mars, I decided that John Simm was excellent but the Gene Hunt character was simply too repellent to be watchable).

Hammond said in the Guardian on Saturday that deep cuts would be wielded to satisfy the Standard & Poor's credit rating agency and prevent them downgrading Britain's debt status, which would result in billions of pounds of additional interest rate payments.

One very reasonable response to this is: is it right that Government policy should be dictated by a privately-owned credit rating agency? Certainly not, and it's just another example of how democracy under capitalism is largely a sham. But that's a wider topic, for another post.

The main point today is that Hammond is willingly repeating the mistakes of the early 1980s, when cutting spending during a recession vastly exacerbated its size and duration. Unemployment didn't start falling until 1986 - 7 years after the recession began. It's the worst case of economic vandalism we've ever had in this country.

And a repeat of the 1981 strategy would be even worse this time because the initial global recession is that much worse than the early 1980s - and with the US economy crippled, we can't necessarily rely on an upturn in global demand to pull us out of this one.

Fortunately, sane voices are now beginning to rise up against the cuts, and the weekend's papers saw thoughtful and reasoned articles on why cutting spending in a recession would be a ludicrous thing to do, by Will Hutton and William Keegan. Progressive bloggers like Richard Murphy and Paul Sagar also delivered excellent critiques of Hammond's approach.

We've already covered what's happening to Ireland in this blog - it's like Thatcherism x10 - and the Tories seem to want to turn us into the same kind of economic basket-case. The economy is not going to come off the list of most important issues anytime before the election, so if Gordon Brown were to focus on the Conservatives being a dangerous, economically incoherent party - the bastard sons of Thatcher - it might reap dividends. But of course to do that he needs to emerge from his present perpetual Brezhnev impression and actually get out there and kick some Tory ass. We'd love to see it, but is he still capable, or has all this "big tent" and "government of all the talents" shit left him permanently incapacitated?

Even if Gordon can't do it and the Labour party gets walloped, perhaps it doesn't matter in the long run. I'm now convinced that the Tories will make such a hash of things in office - and the global depression will run so long - that a united, well-led, progressive Labour party could romp home in 2015. Of course the question is whether we can get a united, well-led, progressive Labour party, and not a shower of shit. I believe we can but it's not going to be easy. But more on this as we get nearer the election and the pathway becomes clearer...

25 July 2009

Reflections on the Norwich North byelection

Obviously a poor result for Labour in Alan Partridge-land - as if any of you were expecting anything else? And it's annoying to have to see TV pictures of Dave Cameron mugging to camera with yet another fresh-faced loonie Tory candidate.

However, I don't think it looks as great for the Tories as some commentators have predicted. There doesn't seem to be a huge wave of people crossing over to the Tories - they might of course be out there somewhere, and they might just not have bothered to vote this time out (turnout was only 45%) - but if this was an indicator of a Tory landslide I'd have expected to see more Tory votes. Of course, UKIP got 10% and they might go back to the Tories at the election - or will they? Telegraph blogger Ed West - a deeply sad presence on the web, with a beard to match - reckons that UKIP could be a real force if they wanted to be. I'm not at all sure that he's right, but in a way I hope he is, because if the right-wing vote were to split at the next election - something that was already happening in 2005 when Michael Howard was Tory leader - that would be a big help to Labour.

With heavy concentration (perhaps too heavy) on the Telegraph this morning, there's quite a good piece by Charles Moore, who is worried that the Tories aren't popular enough to win a general election - they are just relying on Labour being unpopular. I don't think Dave Cameron is quite the genius that Moore thinks he is - a smooth operator in the mould of Tony Blair, for sure, but any fool could be in front in the polls if he or she were leading the Tories at this juncture.

The main thing holding the Tories back is that people feel - rightly - that they haven't got much of a clue on economic policy. For sure they are ahead of Labour now when people are polled on the relative economic competence of the two parties, but then Labour have just presided over the biggest recession since 1929. But so far there has been very little coherence to Conservative economic policy - indeed very little policy, beyond a slightly more aggressive package of public expenditure cuts than Labour. George Osborne looks to me like an empty suit.

The Tories are massively helped by the crapness of Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader - something Charles Moore rightly identifies - and also by the continuing "imitation 70s Soviet leader" stasis of Gordon Brown. Every now and then, flashes of inspiration threaten to emerge from the great man, before he thinks better of it, and offers up meaningless platitudes to the camera. It is highly unlikely that he will be toppled before the election now - if it wasn't going to happen in June, why would it happen now? And that, really, is the Tories' best shot at an overall majority.

I am actually hoping the Tories do get in because that's a prerequisite for the huge political enema that needs to be administered on the Labour party - get the awful crypto-Tories and Stalinists out of the party and start building a genuine alternative political machine. I am waiting for this project to start - and hoping for a crushing defeat, but not SO crushing that all the good candidates for the leadership get voted out. Anything else - including another 5 years of Gordon - would merely prolong the agony.

23 July 2009

Getting it very wrong on debt

On some previous occasions in this blog I have referred positively to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph as a rare journalist with half a clue about what is actually going on in financial markets. This is because his tendency to say that the financial crisis is much worse even than it appears now chimes in with my gut instincts about what is going on at the moment.

However, in his latest article "Fiscal ruin of the Western world beckons", Evans-Pritchard has delivered a real turkey, showing a worrying low understanding of basic macroeconomics.

It's clear that something is very wrong from the start of this article. I quote:

For a glimpse of what awaits Britain, Europe, and America as budget deficits spiral to war-time levels, look at what is happening to the Irish welfare state.

Events have already forced Premier Brian Cowen to carry out the harshest assault yet seen on the public services of a modern Western state. He has passed two emergency budgets to stop the deficit soaring to 15pc of GDP. They have not been enough. The expert An Bord Snip report said last week that Dublin must cut deeper, or risk a disastrous debt compound trap.

This illustrates the fallacy of the conventional IMF approach to macroeconomics. As long as public spending and services are cut enough, the deficit will be eliminated and then everything will be OK.

Whereas in fact, in the current economic situation, the deficit is the key thing keeping the Irish economy from being in an even worse state. The emergency budgets have depressed demand for goods and services, depressing tax receipts and making the deficit wider - leading to calls for another emergency budget. And so on, presumably until the last Irish civil servant has left the building, and the country is in a state of anarchy.

Ireland is of course in more of a bind than the UK for two reasons: (1) it took a larger economic hit from the credit crunch (and hence has a bigger deficit as a proportion of GDP) and (2) it's in the Euro so it can't set its own interest rates and can't use quantitative easing to stimulate the economy (although as previously noted in this blog, it is still far from clear whether QE actually works or not).

Rather than engaging in an endless cycle economic self-harm to satisfy the IMF and footloose international capital, Ireland's best way out of the crisis would have been withdrawal from the Euro (and if necessary from the EU), and a combination of deficit spending to plug the cyclical gap and tax increases to plug the structural deficit. I'm amazed that there hasn't been a revolution in Ireland, given the cuts to public spending and benefits which have taken place. If Ireland was in South America the government would have already fallen. Maybe it's time to arm the workers out there.

Nomura's Richard Koo, who is referenced disparagingly by Pritchard, seems to have the right idea when he calls for a huge deficit spending boost to counter the recession. I have yet to read his book The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics (about Japan's "lost 20 years") but it is one of the next things on my list.

Of course it is essential that once growth resumes, countries run surpluses instead of deficits, to reduce the burden of debt interest - and this is where New Labour went badly wrong, because they had a structural deficit - but to call for huge spending reductions now is insanity. It would just turn the worst recession since 1929 into the worst depression OF ALL TIME and probably lead to the complete collapse of Western democracy and its replacement with fascist states under the control of people like the BNP.

Is that really what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wants to see?

20 July 2009

another cricket post

I know I said no more cricket posts but...

WELL DONE GUYS. First win against Australia at Lords since 1934 - bloody hell.

It's feeling more and more like 2005 every minute. I keep worrying that Tony Blair is going to return and take over the country...

13 July 2009

For Palin to become President, EVERYTHING has to go wrong

Sarah Palin resigned as Alaska governor last week in what even the Daily Telegraph called "a sometimes incoherent performance". It's not really clear why (I mean, why she resigned. It's clear why the performance was incoherent - because she's a 24-carat loon). Media commentators in the US suggest that if you are looking to clear the decks for a Presidential run, this is not the way you'd normally do it.

But could it be Palin in 2012? It would be so, so easy to take the piss (and I'm not averse to doing that sometimes) but more interesting, probably, to engage seriously with the idea for a couple of minutes.

There are two steps to this: (a) could Palin win the Republican nomination? and (b) could Palin beat Barack Obama?

(a) seems a damn sight more likely than (b). We should bear in mind of course that there are 2 and a half years to go (which doesn't seem that long actually...) before primaries start, and some brilliant new Republican star might emerge as the obvious choice. Such a sudden discovery of a star candidate two years before the election hasn't happened that many times before, though. OK, so Barack Obama was a fairly new face on the political scene in 2008 but he had already been marked out as 'one to watch closely' when he won election to the Illinois Senate in 2004. John McCain was very much an old stager when he got the Republican nomination. You could make a case that Bill Clinton was a relative unknown in 1992, but I think you'd have to go back to Jimmy Carter in 1976 to find a true 'dark horse' candidate.

Ruling out a new face for now, who are the main other contenders? Mitt Romney looks like the frontrunner - although not particularly appealing to the Republican hard-right, that doesn't matter particularly as those people would vote for anyone on the Republican ticket. The Republicans need the moderate centre to win, and Romney probably stands best chance of delivering that. Mike Huckabee is basically Sarah Palin with less lipstick, better jokes and a more fluid guitar style. Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal ruled himself out for the moment by giving one of the worst speeches ever when responding to Obama's inaugural speech, although he has plenty of time to rehabilitate himself.

Assuming that Palin could become the hard-right frontrunner (which is not automatic, but certainly possible), she is likely to become the nominee in one of two circumstances. First, and probably most likely, is the situation where the economy recovers enough for Obama to run for re-election on having saved the US economy. Some success in achieving health care reform and US commitments to greenhouse gas emissions would also help here. In these circumstances Obama would be a total shoo-in for 2012 and it is likely that the moderates in the Republican party would not even try to contest the nomination particularly hard, preferring to put a hard-right winger in as a fall guy/girl in the same way Barry Goldwater was used in the Johnson landslide of 1964. Of course in theory the Republican right could reason the same way and endorse a moderate as the fall guy, but because so many of these right-wingers are foam-at-the-mouth loonies who believe any election can be won as long as you repeat the same hackneyed anti-abortion anti-gun control agenda as loudly as possible, they are more likely to seize the opportunity, poisoned chalice though it be. So Palin could certainly get the nomination in these circumstances, but she'd almost certainly be annihilated in the election.

The second scenario is that Obama makes an almighty hash of things (or at least, the right manage to convince the US public that he has done) - the economy continues to tank, health care reform and climate change targets get voted down by the Senate - and there is a massive backlash against the Democrats in 2012. This could enable Palin to win the nomination and the election in 2012 - in a very similar way to the way Reagan was able to beat Carter in 1980. I think this is an outside possibility but an unlikely one; the political climate does not seem to be pointing towards the hard right as we approach the 2010s in the same way it did at the end of the 1970s. Partly it's a historical thing: by 1980, the post-war social democratic settlement (called "liberalism" in the US) seemed to be exhausted and decrepit whereas now, the neo-liberal era that began in the 1980s looks in much the same state, and there has been a shift to the left (in policy terms across the globe, and in voting intentions in the US although not yet in Europe).

I still think Huckabee looks more electable than Palin even in that situation though. He does a better impression of Stillson from The Dead Zone.

Afghanistan: let's get the hell out

Just watching the Newsnight special on Afghanistan. Amazingly, 46% of the population appear to think we should hang on in there, if recent polls are anything to go by. The original rationale for the conflict - beating the Taliban and installing a democratic government - mutated several years ago into a desperate holding action to avoid the Taliban taking the country back by force. The recent spike in UK troop deaths - awful to be sure, but a small fraction of the number of Afghan citizens to be killed - has brought home the insanity and futility of the conflict. Of our political leaders, only Nick Clegg has sussed out what is obvious to any rational observer; that the conflict is unwinnable at current levels of troop deployment, and - unless the UK or someone else is willing to commit the hundreds of thousands of extra troops and billions of pounds that would be necessary to turn Afghanistan into some kind of military police state - the best thing for us to do would be to pull out.

We invaded Afghanistan because George W Bush was looking for an easy popularity boost after 9/11 and his puppet, our glorious North Korean fascimile leader Mr Tony Blair, took us in with the Americans. The nature of Afghanistan's terrain - an extremely mountainous environment perfect for guerilla warfare - meant that although displacing the Taliban regime in Kabul took a matter of weeks, that did not, by any means, mean "mission accomplished". The Taliban forces (and, if the videotapes are to be believed, Osama bin Laden) merely retreated into the mountains, holed up for a couple of years, and then, as troops levels were run down after the US and UK became tied up in a second war in Iraq, the Taleban started gradually retaking the country.

And now we are in a situation where, unless we boost troop numbers and equipment stocks significantly - an increase in expenditure which we can't afford and which the MoD isn't equipped to deliver - we're bleeding our armed forces dry, throwing good money - and troops - after bad.

What's the answer? Legalisation of heroin would not be a complete solution but it would cut out a massive source of Taliban revenue. Stopping all the Bushite bullshit about the "war on terror" would also help. The war on terror is now 8 years old and the Taliban are stronger than ever. What we need is not a war on terror, but an ideological stand against extremist religion, both at home and abroad. We need to call sexist homophobic b.s. for what it is whether it's in extremist Islam, wacko evangelical Christians, or the leadership of the Catholic church. But we're not gonna convert anyone to moderate beliefs with guns in our hands. That's for sure.

12 July 2009

The test match format is a stupid anachronism

Right, here's Hal Berstram getting back to what was once his primary assignment - the sports desk - with probably the only post I'll ever make about cricket.

The first test in the 2009 Ashes series - in Cardiff - has just finished. The result was a draw.

An exciting ending, with Monty Panesar and James Anderson hanging on until the end of the day with England on 9 wickets down...

...but also a travesty. Because Australia were much better than England and deserved to win.

So why didn't they win? The bleeding weather.

Any fool can draw a game where a substantial proportion of the playing time is lost to bad weather. It's absolutely ludicrous that test cricket was designed so that the unpredictabilities of the British weather played a key role in the process.

You might as well say that if the rain comes down at Wimbledon, the championship is "drawn" for that year - don't bother to reschedule the lost playing time, just give up on the whole thing. Or if a football match gets postponed due to bad weather in the Premiership - just draw it and give the teams one point each.

Sounds ludicrous - and it is. But this happens every year in test cricket.

I don't particularly like cricket anyway, but at least the one-day game gives a result (even if play has to be abandoned due to rain, they have a nifty thing called the Duckworth-Lewis method - sounds a bit like a dodgy form of contraception, but is in fact an algorithm designed to impute the winners from a partially completed match. Clever stuff.)

It would actually be fairly simple to change the test match format to guarantee a result; either play as many extra days as necessary until both sides have completed 2 innings (or, often more likely in England's case, they've gone down to an innings defeat) or play the bloody game under a stadium where they can close the roof if it rains. Given the crappy British weather you'd have thought someone would have sussed this out.

But of course cricket, like most sports in this country, is run by morons, and so the idiocy persists. Please someone knock me out with the cricket ball until it's all over. ZZZZZZ....

10 July 2009

I can always rely on the US right to cheer me up

Very busy, tough week this week, hence the lack of posting. Just a constant wall of work... pretty much all done for the weekend, though.

Paul Krugman really cheered me up with this post though. There is apparently a chorus of voices on the US Right comparing Obama to Hitler... for example Republican senator Jim DeMint says:

we're about where Germany was before World War II when they became a social democracy. You still had votes but the votes were just power grabs like you see in Iran, and other places in South America, like Chavez is running down in Venezuala. People become more dependent on the government so they're easier to manipulate. And they keep voting for more government because that's where their security is.
And DeMint is of course absolutely right about the danger, in some respects. The US has, very recently, been in a situation where the 'votes were just power grabs' - in both 2000 and 2004 the election was stolen by vote fraud by the two-bit thief and criminal George W Bush.

There was also two guys who was pushing the national security agenda so hard after 9/11 that large swathes of the US public - almost enough to win the 2004 election without voter fraud - kept voting for more government because "that was where their security was" (so they were told). The guys' names? George Bush and Dick Cheney.

So congratulations Senator DeMint, you've done a good job of nailing down what was so awful about the previous administration that your party perpetrated on the American people. Replace all your present tense sentences with past tense and the paragraph is a classic of political history.

Looking back at the Bush/Cheney era from the (relative) safety of the Obama years is a real trip. It would be easy to forget how bad they were: what a ham-fisted, reactionary, moronic shower of crap the American people had to endure for eight fucking years because they didn't have safeguards in place to prevent systematic vote fraud and the corruption of the media by Fox News. Even if Obama turns out to be a halfway incompetent failure as a president (which I sincerely hope and believe he won't be), he'll still be a bloody hero by comparison. Same with Jimmy Carter: a laughing stock at the time, but despite the fact that the guy got a lot of things wrong, he looks like a goddamn genius compared to the people that came after him. Who was the first major world leader to take environmental policy and renewable energy seriously, for example? (Clue: it wasn't Ronald Reagan.)

But it's of course not enough to be right in US politics: to avoid calamity, you have to be successful, and it is still far, far too early to say whether Obama is making the grade. It is a subject which this blog will be returning to time and again over the next few years. But for the weekend, I leave you with a Maryland Republican women's group and their thesis that "Obama is systematically destroying the American economy and with it AMERICA [capitalisation in original]." Maybe Michael O'Leary writes these people's web posts for them? Could be.

06 July 2009

Ryanair - I literally can't make it up.

From my blog post on 25 June exposing a corporate wanker train manager:

"why not have [the commuters] standing up on short-haul flights as well? I'm surprised Ryanair hasn't thought of that one."

From today's Telegraph:

Ryanair is considering proposals to make some of its passengers stand during flights.

Why not just strap the poor bastards to the underside of the wings and get on with it?
When the EU becomes a fascist dictatorship somewhere down the line it won't be run by Tony Blair or Berlusconi - it'll be run by Michael f***ing O'Leary. There's no goddamn way I'm standing up on a plane. Even getting up to go to the loo is a major ordeal. He can stick his planes - I'll take the nationalised trains instead.

More homophobes hiding behind the Cross

You've seen the Tories shacking up with the anti-gay movement in Poland; now it's time to say hello to the UK version. The "Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans" (crap name by the way) is anti-same sex unions, anti-gay priests; in short, religion for the 19th century, at the latest.

If I was running the Church of England (unlikely!) I'd have no truck with these guys (and all the leaders are of course guys, as they're the same people who don't like women priests, being sexist as well as homophobic. At least they're not racist; the leader is Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams is too nice to these people. I guess he wants to keep church attendances up come what may, but surely the toleration of a huge number of reactionary bigots is too high a price to pay? The same thing happened at Millwall FC in the 70s when they turned a blind eye to football hooliganism because the attendances were high.

What makes me laugh about people like the FCA is that they act like the victims when in fact they are the oppressors. They're waging a war against gay people - not the other way round. I suspect for many regular churchgoers the schism in the Anglican church can't come soon enough. Would you be comfortable going to services knowing that you were in the same building as some of these reactionaries? Probably not.

Unity of religious belief is wildly overrated - most obviously by big religious organisations like the Roman Catholic Church, but the Church of England is another example. There needs to be freedom to dissent and to disagree, rather than some ridiculous show of unity for the cameras. I would be most comfortable attending a church with one member - myself. (And even then, I couldn't rule out a schism).

04 July 2009

Ecclestone does a Bowie

Formula One rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, always an idiot, has surpassed himself with recent comments on British politics: that democracy has failed in Britain, that Adolf Hitler was "a man who was able to get things done", and that he prefers strong leaders - like Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, or indeed his friend Max Mosley, who presumably got the idea from his grandad Oswald.

These are very much along the same lines as interview comments made by David Bowie in the mid-1970s that Britain needed a fascist dictatorship. Bowie at least has the excuse that he was coked out of his box at the time. I'm not sure if the same is true of Ecclestone, but in essence, who gives a shit?

Ecclestone also defended low tax rates for high earners like Lewis Hamilton (who is nowadays a Swiss tax exile), as if "offers an incentive". I'd like to impose a 105% tax rate (say) on Bernie Ecclestone, as it would "offer an incentive" for him to f*** off to Switzerland and set up a fascist dictatorship there, if he so chooses.

02 July 2009

Hello darling, I'm on the *nationalised* train

Writing this on the, for want of a better word, British Rail - formerly National Express East Coast - train on the way from London to Newcastle, and I must say it's great to be back on the nationalised trains after all this time. Look, even the wi-fi's working.

You'll probably have seen this already if you're based in the UK as it's been all over the news, but yesterday talks between NXEC and the Department of Transport over a possible renegotiation of the East Coast rail franchise broke down. NXEC were meant to be paying the DfT £1.4bn over the 10 years' duration of the franchise but this was based on passenger forecasts that were optimistic to begin with, and as the recession bit, it became clear that NXEC was going to run a massive loss. Hence, the government had to step in to keep those goddamn trains running.

Whose fault is this? Well, really a combination of National Express (for making a reckless franchise bid) and the Government (for accepting that reckless bid in the first place). As a monopoly operator of the East Coast rail route, NXEC could expect to make substantial profits under normal economic conditions, but even so, £1.4bn is a hell of a lot for the govt to cream off from the railway. And environmentally it makes no sense whatsover - we should be subsidising the railways to get more people out of their cars and reduce overall CO2 emissions. (Network Rail, the infrastructure operator, does receive a subsidy but this is not enough to offset the East Coast franchise premium payments.

Of course, National Express have tried to weasel out of their liabilities for defaulting on the contract by claiming that NXEC is a separate company to the rest of the National Express group and so their liability should not extend into the rest of the company. For example, they argue that the Government shouldn't be able to take over the other 2 franchises that National Express runs (National Express East Anglia and C2C, which runs the Southend to London Fenchurch St line) as compensation for NXEC's failure. This is blatant financial engineering by National Express to try to swindle money out of the taxpayer by any means possible, and if necessary the Government should make retrospective changes to corporate law to make parent companies liable for losses incurred by fully owned subsidiaries so that National Express can't get away with this.

I'd be very happy to see the back of National Express on the East Anglia rail service as well. They deliberately run trains with fewer carriages despite overcrowding to save money on fuel costs. They have imposed progressively more ludicrous evening ticket restrictions to stop people travelling on cheap tickets in the evening rush hour - again to save money instead of running longer trains, which is what people really want. And they deliberately fail to advertise the Network Railcard, which provides 1/3 off off-peak fares, in case people find out about it and save money. F*** them.

And full marks to Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis - not my favourite politician at all most days - for standing firm in the face of National Express's attempts to renegotiate their franchise just because of the recession. Adonis reasoned - correctly - that if he gave way on this franchise it would open the floodgates and every other two-bit rail operator would be hammering on the door for the soft treatment. He did The Right Thing.

But he plans to re-franchise to a private operator as soon as possible, which is a pain. There have been some improvements to the rail rolling stock under private ownership, it's true (although that was partly the result of a dreadful lack of investment under British Rail, which was starved of cash from its inception in the 1940s). The crappy old slam-door trains are long gone, which we can all be grateful for. But in most other respects, privatisation has been a disastrous failure. Lack of maintenance caused a sequence of dreadful crashes and disasters - Hatfield, Potters Bar, Ealing, etc. - and forced the nationalisation of Railtrack (Steve Byers's finest hour!) Fares have rocketed sky-high, especially for people who want to buy their ticket on the day of travel. And investment in new lines and tracks - Eurostar excluded - has been piecemeal. The recession presents an ideal opportunity to bring public enterprise back to the railways and Labour would be best advised to grab it with both hands. At the very least, a pledge to renationalise would provide a clear dividing line with the Tories at the next election (unless Cameron copies it, which is very possible.)