Friday, 27 March 2015

Close The Door On The Way Out

Now that Katie Hopkins has helpfully promised to leave the country when Ed Miliband become Prime Minister, to which other country might she be sent, and why?

Please keep in mind that the inhabitants of Africa, the Middle East and many other apparently obvious places, most notably North Korea, have already suffered more than enough than to have to endure her on top of everything else.

Yes, I do think that her promise ought to be on Labour posters and in Labour leaflets. Like Jeremy Clarkson, she exemplifies, encapsulates and embodies the Britain that this General Election provides us with an opportunity to reject once and for all.

The Family Way, The Truth and The Life?


So far, all three have been married to clergymen.

Just saying.

Battle In Vain?

Instead of that absurd non-debate, David Cameron and Ed Miliband should have been made to fight to the death on Bosworth Field.

But after House Stark's big day yesterday, House Lannister can still go one better. For 500 years, or thereabouts, there has been the possibility of beatifying Henry VI.

Ora pro nobis.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Don't Say "Pardon"

The DUP is right to demand that the list of those IRA hands who received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy ought to be placed in the House of Commons Library.

But that demand ought to have come from the SDLP.

The Sinn Féin great and good of today needed Royal Pardons in respect of their yesterdays. Everyone knew that. But it is altogether a different matter to have it on the record.

And they, staunch Irish Republicans, submitted to this, the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.

Double electoral gold for the SDLP.

Extreme and Dangerous Cuts

Grahame Morris writes:

The Chancellor’s final budget was less than twenty hours old before Liberal Democrat Treasury ministers tried to disown it by presenting an alternative ‘yellow’ budget, before abusing parliamentary privilege to deliver it as a ministerial statement.

However, no matter how many budgets the government presents none of them can hide from the fact that the Coalition has failed their own economic test to balance the books within a single parliament and the Tories and Lib Dems will go into the next election having borrowed £200 billion more than planned.

The Chancellor’s broken promise means that instead of delivering a budget announcing the end of austerity, he is now planning cuts to public services which are deeper than any in the last parliament.

In the next three years the Tories have promised to cut public services at almost twice the level of the last three years.

The NHS was one of the key areas that was notably absent from the Chancellor’s budget.

He proposed nothing to end the A&E crisis, address the issues of GP access, tackle understaffed wards, or reverse cuts in elderly care which has meant more people presenting at A&E.

Worse still, the extreme levels of spending cuts proposed by the Chancellor have never been achieved in other countries without cutting health spending.

The government have already broken their promises on the NHS in this parliament, and we cannot risk the future of the NHS to a chancellor wanting to return public spending to their lowest level since 1938.

The NHS cannot afford five more years of Cameron and Osborne taking us down a path of extreme austerity at a time when we need to integrate health and social care, to provide a single joined up service from home to hospital.

We need a Labour government with a plan to invest and improve our NHS.

Through our time to care fund we will recruit 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 5,000 new home care workers and 3,000 more midwives, funded through mansion tax on properties worth over £2 million, cracking down on tax avoidance and a levy on tobacco companies.

The next election will determine the long term future of our National Health Service and there is a very clear choice.

The Conservative’s promising extreme cuts, who broke their promise and implemented a top down reorganisation which opened up the NHS to full scale privatisation, or a Labour alternative promising to protect and invest in our NHS.

Serious Harm


The news will come too late for many of Louise Mensch’s former colleagues in Westminster, but just for the record, if there are any MPs reading this, she wouldn’t have minded if you’d punched her in the face.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the only conclusion I can draw from a set of bizarre tweets sent out by the former Tory MP, successful author and Sun columnist this afternoon in the wake of the BBC’s announcement that Jeremy Clarkson will no longer present Top Gear after he punched a producer in the face.

An angry Mensch tweeted to her 93,000 Twitter followers from her New York home: “Britain has got so pathetically wimpy #Clarkson”.

Apparently the much-publicised Clarkson “fracas” was not in fact down to an over-indulged middle-aged millionaire with anger issues but entirely the fault of “our culture of effeminacy” which, she says, “knows no bounds”.

Mensch went on to justify her point to a follower querying her first tweet, saying: “I definitely do think it [violence] is OK. Between equally matched, and no serious harm done? Yep.”

She then added for good measure: “Assuming equal rank etc as in this case”.

So what exactly is Louise Mensch saying? That it’s okay if you hit a colleague of roughly the same fighting ability or size?

Clarkson is a big man and I imagine on a good day he can throw quite a punch, using that huge belly as ballast, so I assume Mensch is only happy for him to punch colleagues who fit the same bill.

Which is strange because, from the photos I’ve seen of Clarkson’s victim, Oisin Tymon, he doesn’t look like he’d be any match physically for Clarkson, a veritable featherweight to Clarkson’s heavyweight.

Some of us might also quibble over whether Mensch is right to think that a jobbing BBC staffer such as Tymon does indeed enjoy “equal rank” with the multi-millionaire star of the TV show he produces.

And I suppose we all have different definitions of what constitutes “serious harm” in a fight.

Personally, I think I’d be quite cross if someone gave me a cut lip and I had to spend hours in A&E to get it treated, but I guess that just makes me a bit of a wimp.

But then I’m also a woman. So would it be okay for Clarkson to punch women at work as well, Ms Mensch?

After all, some of us are big strapping lasses who can more than hold our own in a bar fight (I know, I’ve done it).

According to her Twitter feed, Mensch later insists that, no, it is not okay for male colleagues to physically attack female colleagues – although, interestingly she doesn’t clarify whether it’s okay for women to hit other women or not, so it’s apparently still a goer for Mensch’s former female MP colleagues to swing a punch or two.

In Mensch’s utopian future, it will mostly be be men who face going into work every day with their fingers crossed that the boss doesn’t smack them in the face because they forgot to put sugar in his coffee.

After all, no harm done, eh?
Except there was harm done. To a BBC producer’s face and self-respect.

But, in Mensch’s world, that’s just yet more proof of how pathetic we in Britain are.

What Mensch really means is that the fault lies not with Clarkson, who is just a man’s man doing what men do, but with his producer, who failed to fight back and, well, give as good as he got.

Like many of the million-plus signatories to the “Bring Back Clarkson” petition delivered to the BBC, Mensch sees Clarkson not as the workplace bully he is but as the poor victim of political correctness gone mad.

Mensch is not alone, of course.

Indeed she is backed up by her employer Rupert Murdoch, who also tweeted: “How stupid can BBC be in firing Jeremy Clarkson? Funny man with great expertise and huge following.”

So if you’re funny, good at your job and lots of people like you, then you can do pretty much anything you like to anyone and get away with it? (Hmmm, now where have we heard that before..?)

The truth is that when people like Louise Mensch imply that Clarkson is a victim, they are basically saying that it’s okay for people to go around punching people who irritate them.

This is not a case of Left versus Right, or about BBC political correctness, or even about whether you’re a fan of Top Gear or not.

I am a big fan of Jeremy Clarkson and I love watching him on TV and reading his various columns. I think he’s funny and irreverent and adds to the gaiety of nations.

But I also think the BBC were quite right to terminate his contract.

And if Louise Mensch genuinely believes that it’s okay to punch your colleagues then she may find a queue of people waiting outside her New York apartment block tomorrow morning keen to test out her theory in practice.
Still, no serious harm done, eh?

A bad employee who abused his employer publicly while he was suspended, Clarkson would be unemployable enough without a conviction, perhaps even a short prison sentence, for racially aggravated assault.

Who, having advertisers to consider, would hire someone like that? He's finished. He is old enough and rich enough not to care. But he is still finished.

Utopian and Unending


Though “Bibi” Netanyahu won re-election last week, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will still look into whether the State Department financed a clandestine effort to defeat him.

Reportedly, State funneled $350,000 to an American NGO called OneVoice, which has an Israeli subsidiary, Victory 15, that collaborated with U.S. operatives to bring Bibi down.

If we are now secretly pumping cash into the free elections of friendly countries, to dump leaders President Obama dislikes, Americans have a right to know why we are using Cold War tactics against democracies.

After World War II, my late colleague on CNN’s “Crossfire,” Tom Braden, delivered CIA cash to democratic parties in Europe imperiled by communist parties financed from Moscow.

But that was done to combat Stalinism when Western survival was at stake in a Cold War that ended in 1991.

Hopefully, after looking into OneVoice and V15, the Senate will expand its investigation into a larger question: Is the U.S. using NGOs to subvert regimes around the world? And, if so, who decides which regimes may be subverted?

What gives these questions urgency is the current crisis that has Moscow moving missiles toward Europe and sending submarines and bombers to probe NATO defenses.

America contends that Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and backing for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine is the cause of the gathering storm in Russian-NATO relations.

Yet Putin’s actions in Ukraine were not taken until the overthrow of a democratically elected pro-Russian regime in Kiev, in a coup d’etat in which, Moscow contends, an American hand was clearly visible.

Not only was John McCain in Kiev’s Maidan Square egging on the crowds that drove the regime from power, so, too, was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.

In an intercepted phone call with our ambassador in Kiev, Nuland identified the man we preferred when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. “Yats,” she called him.

And when Yanukovych fled after the Maidan massacre, sure enough, Arseniy Yatsenyuk was in power.

Nuland also revealed that the U.S. had spent $5 billion since 1991 to bring about the reorientation of Ukraine toward the West.

Now, bringing Ukraine into the EU and NATO may appear to Nuland & Co. a great leap forward for freedom and progress.

But to Russia it looks like the subversion of a Slavic nation with which she has had intimate ties for centuries, to bring Ukraine into an economic union and military alliance directed against Moscow.

And if NATO stumbles into a military clash with Russia, the roots of that conflict will be traceable to the coup in Kiev that Russians believe was the dirty work of the Americans.

If the U.S. had a role in that coup, the American people should know it and the Senate should find out whether Nuland & Co. used NGOs to reignite a Cold War that Ronald Reagan brought to an end.

And if we are now using NGOs as fronts for secret operations to dump over regimes, we are putting all NGOs abroad under suspicion and at risk.

Not in our lifetimes has America been more distrusted and disliked.

And among the reasons is that we are seen as constantly carping at governments that do not measure up to our standards of democracy, and endlessly interfering in the internal affairs of nations that do not threaten us.

In this new era, U.S. foreign policy elites have boasted of the “color-coded” revolutions they helped to foment in Belgrade, Kiev, Tbilisi.

In 2003, we helped to overthrow the Georgian regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in a “Rose Revolution” that brought to power Mikheil Saakashvili.

And Saakashvili nearly dragged us into a confrontation with Russia in 2008, when he invaded South Ossetia and killed Russian peacekeepers.

What vital interest of ours was there in that little nation in the Caucasus, the birthplace of Stalin, to justify so great a risk?

Nor is it Moscow alone that is angered over U.S. interference in its internal affairs and those of its neighbor nations.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt has expelled members of U.S. NGOs. Beijing believes U.S. NGOs were behind the Occupy-Wall-Street-style street blockages in Hong Kong.

If true, these U.S. actions raise a fundamental question: What is the preeminent goal of U.S. foreign policy? Is it to protect the vital interests and national security of the Republic?

Or do we believe with George W. Bush that, “The survival of liberty” in America “depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

If it is the latter, then our mission is utopian—and unending.

For if we believe our liberty is insecure until the whole world is democratic, then we cannot rest until we witness the overthrow of the existing regimes in Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Belarus, most of the Arab and African nations, as well as Venezuela and Cuba.
And if that is our goal, our Republic will die trying to achieve it.

Building An Underclass

Five thousand remarkable words from Benjamin Schwarz.

Not Around My Way

I am truly stunned at this.

"White gay men often assert that they are "strong black women" or have an "inner black woman" "?

It makes me pine for the old Chad's queens. None of those was known, at least in public, as "Shanequa from around your way".

But which of them ought to be so styled today, and why? Who else, come to that?

Anyway, are not the famous "jazz hands" a form of cultural appropriation, too?

On Left and Right alike (although the Loony Right is almost never ridiculed, despite having vastly more power), these things settle down into upper-middle-class London, thus into the media, and thus into politics, in that order.

By no means always, in either case, along predictable party lines.

We need far more commentators from around our way.

And we need to hear far more of the politicians from around our way, be they local councillors, or be they those 19 out of 20 MPs whose existence is ignored.

Hymn and Her

I do occasionally miss the Church of England.

Make Them Pay By The Rules

Andy Hull writes:

It has been over 15 years since the introduction in the UK of the National Minimum Wage (NMW), brought in to put a floor under pay and curb work poverty.

It is hard to imagine now living in a Britain without it.

However, according to a new report, Pay by the Rules, published yesterday by Newham Council, there are at least 236,000 people in the UK today still missing out on up to £533 million wages annually because they do not receive even the legal minimum pay to which they are entitled.

This latest research shows that in the London Borough of Newham alone, 17 per cent of working residents are paid below the NMW, missing out on £38.2 million of wages owed each year.

The Centre for London, in its 2013 report, Settle for Nothing Less, reached similar conclusions, observing that in over one in five London boroughs more than five per cent of workers were being paid the NMW or less.

Such exploitation in 21st century Britain is nothing short of a scandal.

Since its introduction by the then Labour government, the NMW has provided some security for millions of people for whom it guarantees just enough to get by in return for a hard day’s work.

But loopholes in the system still allow unscrupulous or incompetent employers to exploit workers.

Among them are those doing some of the most important work in our society, like providing home care to our parents as they grow old, but not getting paid for their travel time between appointments.

Hotel cleaners sometimes get paid per room rather than per hour, and don’t get paid for cleaning stairwells or landings. Waiters and waitresses sometimes don’t get paid for their time when business is slow.

Immigrant workers, disproportionately concentrated in the capital, are particularly susceptible to such abuse.

Meanwhile, people starting out in certain industries, including politics and the media, are often expected to work unpaid internships at the outset of their career.

The NMW is supposedly enforced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which spends about £8 million per year bringing in only £4m of arrears owed to workers.

Newham Council’s report suggests that there has been a 60 per cent reduction in the number of businesses inspected by NMW enforcement officers from HMRC in the past five years, and only two prosecutions for criminal employers since the coalition government came to power.

The council argues, rightly, that local authorities, given the necessary powers, resources and responsibility, could do a better job of enforcing the NMW in their patch.

Under such a devolved model, HMRC could still retain a role, especially when it comes to securing NMW compliance among national and international employers.

Localising NMW enforcement needn’t cost the state extra money.

If councils were allowed to keep the fines generated from non-compliant employers, while securing the arrears for short-changed workers, this new system could be self-financing.

If Labour is in government after 7 May, it has said it will give local authorities more powers to enforce the NMW. In Islington, as in Newham, that’s an opportunity we would grab with both hands.

Councils are much closer to the ground than HMRC could ever be. We know the businesses in our area, both good and bad.

Our enforcement teams already deal with those businesses that flout licensing, planning, trading standards, waste disposal and other rules. They are often the same businesses that fail to pay the NMW.

The next government should let councils make them pay by the rules.

Keep It Co-op

John Woodcock writes:
I am proud to be a Labour and Co-operative member of parliament.

Working together – with the support of the co-operative movement – for the best part of the last century our two parties have achieved important social and economic change. This must continue.

The Co-operative party provides a vital political voice for the co-operative movement and for those people who believe in a society and economy where power and wealth are more evenly shared.

The very act of co-operation is political.

For over 150 years, working people have been setting up co-operatives to defend themselves against the excesses of the market and working together to improve their own lives.

While some of the challenges we face today are different, the movement’s cause remains the same.

Co-operative ideas are capable of shaping modern Britain.

We are challenging broken markets in energy, childcare or financial services; demonstrating that there is a better way of doing business which delivers long-term growth and value rather than simply short-term profit for private shareholders; and showing how parents, patients and passengers can have a stronger voice in the running of public services that they rely on.

Since it was founded in 1917, the Co-operative party has been a voice for a fundamental change in the way our country works.

It is the guardian of the co-operative movement’s powerful values and inspiring vision, and a vital tool in achieving its profoundly political objectives.

The Co-operative Group will be balloting millions of its members in the run-up to its May AGM on whether it should continue to support the Co-operative party to do this vital work.

The Keep It Co-op campaign is making the case for a ‘Yes’ vote and I hope you will support it.

We can create a stronger, fairer and more sustainable future together.

If you agree with me please back the Keep It Coop campaign here.

Scrap Benefits Sanctions

Frances Ryan writes:

I am not sure how we reached the point where we need an inquiry to establish that stopping a person’s benefits to the level that they can’t feed themselves or their children may be wrong.

But here we are, it seems.

The recent MPs’ inquiry into the coalition’s benefits sanction system released its findings on Tuesday – a catalogue of cruelty with footnotes to add details of the claimants who have been starved.

The report is damning. As it should be.

We have watched a system develop in which it is normal for ordinary men and women to be thrown by their own government into financial and psychological crisis.

The scale is staggering. More than 1 million jobseekers had their unemployment benefits stopped last year – and, as the report states, the government has failed to prove this is not “purely punitive”.

Who exactly are we punishing?

A disabled, single mother described to the committee the day she was sanctioned for missing an appointment because a flare-up of her hip condition meant she was physically unable to walk or drive.

Despite explaining this to The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), she was told she’d receive no money for four weeks. The sanction remained in place for almost three months.

None of this occurred by magic. The examples the report lists are not anomalies or accidents of a flawed system with good intentions.

They are the human consequences of this government’s active decision to bring in “tougher” measures. Measures such as significantly increasing the amount of money they were able to take from sanctioned disabled and chronically ill people.

And quadrupling how long they could stop the benefits of a jobseeker making a mild error (in 2012, the minimum sanction was increased to four weeks, rather than one).

The DWP did not even bother to “first [test] their likely impacts on claimants”, the report notes.

Still, ministers do not have to look far. Food bank queues are hard to miss. Forcing the unemployed to beg charities for handouts is “motivational”, apparently.

Even for the 23-year-old pregnant woman who, MPs heard, walked two miles to a food bank after her benefits were stopped.

She was receiving employment and support allowance for mental health problems following the stillborn birth of her first baby eight months earlier.

She had missed one work-focused interview because on that day she had found it too difficult to leave her flat. That is enough, apparently, to leave a mentally ill, pregnant woman without food.

Emergency hardship payments are meant to pick up some of the pieces of sanctions – a sort of sub-net when the safety net has been cut.

Except the rub is that claimants of jobseeker’s allowance are not allowed one until the 15th day of being sanctioned. So they are left to feed themselves with nothing for two weeks.

This is not being done to the middle classes with savings in the bank. Or those with power who are used to navigating a complex system.

It is being done to the people who are already struggling – where a hardship fund exists but the application process is designed to be too difficult for vulnerable people to understand.

Or, as the report states, making it so “the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it”.

One clinically depressed man had his benefits sanctioned when he didn’t attend an assessment for work capability because he didn’t have the bus fare to get there.

His older sister told the committee that her brother found it “impossible to cope with normal life” and “couldn’t open the mail”. He was given no benefits for 16 months.

That the DWP is investigating 49 deaths of people in this system – including those “where suicide is associated with DWP activity” – seems almost predictable against that backdrop.

The government was not able to provide details to the committee of anything it had done to alter how the DWP responds to claimants dying – or even to confirm how many of the dead had been subject to a benefit sanction.

The MPs’ call that an “independent review of benefit sanctions is urgently needed” seems almost polite for what is going on here. People are literally starving and their crime is that they dare to be poor and unemployed.

It is no surprise that the report concludes there is limited evidence that benefit sanctions actually help people find work.

A jobseeker system that has sanctions at its centre is founded on the lie that the unemployed are too lazy to look for work unless they are threatened. The DWP acts as if it is training disobedient dogs.

Stopping the money people need in order to eat is not the purpose of government.

The benefit sanctions regime should be scrapped – but let’s not stop there. The culture that created them needs shredding to pieces.

This Is Intolerable

Peter Hain writes:

Following media revelations about old MI5 files held on Labour government ministers, the head of MI5,  Sir Stephen Lander, came to see me at the Foreign Office in 2001 when I was Europe minister.

Low key and courteous, he confirmed there had indeed been such an MI5 file on me and that I had been under regular surveillance.

However, he was at pains to say, I had nothing to worry about because the file had long been “destroyed” when I had ceased “to be of interest”.

Furthermore, he was anxious to impress, I had “never been regarded by the service as a communist agent”.

He made no mention of what appears to have been an entirely separate tranche of files compiled by special branch on me and a group of similarly democratically elected, serving MPs.

That special branch had a file on me dating back 40 years ago to Anti-Apartheid Movement and Anti-Nazi League activist days is hardly revelatory.

That these files were still active for at least 10 years while I was an MP certainly is and raises fundamental questions about parliamentary sovereignty

The same is true of my Labour MP colleagues Jack Straw, Harriet Harman, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Ken Livingstone, Dennis Skinner and Joan Ruddock, as well as former colleagues Tony Benn and Bernie Grant – all of us named by Peter Francis, a former Special Demonstration Squad undercover police spy turned whistleblower.

Formed in 1968, the SDS, an undercover unit within special branch, infiltrated “radical” political movements which it deemed a threat to the UK state.

It is documented that Britain’s security services penetrated progressive campaigns, leftwing groups and trade unions during the 1960s-1980s when even noble fights against the evil of apartheid, protests against the Vietnam war, or strikes against worker exploitation, were seen through a cold war prism as “subversive”.

Although activists like me vigorously opposed Stalinism, that didn’t stop us being lumped together with Moscow sympathisers, providing a spurious pretext to be targeted.

But Peter Francis states that he inspected our files during the period from 1990 when he joined Special Branch to when he left the police in 2001 – exactly when we were all MPs.

Jack Straw was a serving home secretary from 1997, and I was a foreign office minister from 1999, both of us ironically seeing MI5 or MI6 and GCHQ intelligence almost daily to carry out our duties.

Because the principle of parliament’s sovereignty and independence from the state is vital to our democracy, having an active file on sitting MPs deriving from their radical activism decades before is a fundamental threat to our democracy – even more so if special branch considered our contemporary political views or activities as MPs merited such a file.

Though on 6 March 2014, the home secretary, Theresa May, announced a public inquiry into the SDS’s operations, she has so far refused a request from me to include within its remit surveillance of the MPs identified by Peter Francis.

This is intolerable.

The inquiry is now being established and should investigate on what basis, and for what purported reasons, MPs were targeted by the SDS, who specifically was monitored, how that took place, what information was collected about them, with whom was this information shared and on what basis.

The House of Commons also needs to know whether this monitoring affected our ability as MPs to speak confidentially with constituents, and what, if any, impact that had on our ability to represent them properly.

Did this surveillance by the SDS cause any miscarriages of justice, for example, if a constituent confided in an MP regarding a complaint or claim they intended to pursue against the police or any other state body with which the SDS shared information.

We know, for example, that the campaign to get justice for Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered by racists, was infiltrated by the SDS and that the police blocked a proper prosecution.

Did police infiltrators in the Lawrence campaign exploit private information shared by constituents or lawyers with any of us as MPs? Parliament should be told.

At the very least, the home secretary should order the police to disclose all relevant information and, to each of the MPs affected, our complete individual Personal Registry Files.

In September 2001 MI5 was forced to open many of its secret files for the first time after an independent tribunal accepted that a blanket ban on releasing information was unlawful under the Data Protection Act.

It is one thing to have a file on an MP suspected of crime, child abuse or even cooperating with terrorism; quite another to maintain one deriving from radical political activism promoting values of social justice, human rights and equal opportunities shared by many British people from bishops to businessmen.

This whole affair also raises a question as to whether the 1966 “Wilson doctrine”now needs expanding to cover surveillance as well as telephone tapping of MPs.

That year, after a series of scandals over tapping MPs’ phones, prime minister Harold Wilson told parliament that MPs’ phones should not be tapped and that any change to that position would be a matter for the Commons.

The Wilson doctrine has never been contradicted by any of his successors. Indeed, when I was a cabinet minister, Tony Blair reaffirmed it.

The question raised by this evidence from Peter Francis is whether the police and the security services really have their eye on the ball.

Their absolute priority should be to defeat serious crime and terrorist threats – and that may obviously involve going undercover in a manner that can be completely justified.

When I was secretary of state for Northern Ireland, from 2005 to 2007, I was aware of such undercover operations and of the vital role they often played.

But conflating serious crime with political dissent unpopular with the state at the time is different.

It means travelling down a road that endangers the liberty of us all.

The End of The Road

Later today, Jeremy Clarkson is expected to be sacked by the BBC.

Assault, racial abuse, and then having publicly insulted his employer while suspended, are unlikely to ease the 54-year-old's path to alternative employment.

Go to America? Would he even be granted a visa?

Nancy Cameron may go on hunger strike down the pub where she has been left. But her father needs to apologise for having defended Clarkson. Ed Miliband needs to demand that he do so.

Not because Clarkson himself is especially important, although he has had a deleterious effect on transport policy. But because racial abuse is very important indeed, and so is violence in the workplace.

The TTIP-ing Point Reached

Larry Elliott, who is a deeply sound Keynesian Eurosceptic, writes:

A future government must be allowed to expand the NHS without facing legal challenge under a proposed new EU-US trade deal, according to a sharply critical report from an all-party committee of MPs.

The Business, Innovation and Skills committee said the government needed stronger evidence to back up its claim that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would bring a boost of £100bn a year to the UK.

It also said the case had not been made for the highly controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), the provision that would allow private investors to sue governments for the loss of future profits caused by decisions made by national parliaments.

Adrian Bailey, the BIS committee chair, said TTIP had the potential to help the UK economy and criticised the “dog whistle” politics used by both supporters and opponents of the deal.

“More detail needs to be made available to allow greater public scrutiny of this extensive trade agreement,” Bailey said.

“Campaigners, lobbyists, business groups, government and the European commission also need to do more to engage with the evidence rather than make unsupported claims about the benefits or risks of TTIP.”

The committee reserved its strongest criticism for the government, which has been firm in its support for TTIP and wants the European commission to conclude negotiations as swiftly as possible.

“Whilst TTIP has the potential to deliver economic benefits to the United Kingdom, it is impossible at this stage to quantify those benefits in any meaningful way. Rather than continue to use the £100bn figure, the government must come up with a comprehensive assessment which includes the estimated economic yield of a variety of levels of agreement.”

The report added that MPs were “deeply concerned” about the government’s intention not to submit a formal response to the EC’s consultation on ISDS provisions.

“Concerns have been raised about ISDS provisions in TTIP. We are not convinced the case has been made for the inclusion of ISDS clauses and we urge the government to set out a clear statement guaranteeing the protection of public services at present – and the right to expand them in the future – is set out in any ISDS provisions,” the report said.

BIS said the government wanted to put to bed the myths that surrounded TTIP. “National governments set the rules about which companies can run NHS clinical services. These rules have never been, and will never be, set by trade deals such as TTIP. The European commission has repeatedly confirmed that this is the case.”

Polly Jones, head of campaigns and policy at Global Justice Now, said:

“The BIS report shares the concerns of the general public on TTIP – the secrecy, ISDS, the lack of evidence to substantiate the benefits, and the threat to public services. It demonstrates once more that the government is out of step in aggressively pushing this controversial trade deal.”

The EU and the "Atlantic Alliance", like anything else, were always doomed in Britain the moment that they became a threat to the National Health Service, which to almost the entire electorate pretty much is Britain, and which differentiates her both from the Continent (or, indeed, the Irish Republic) and from the United States.

See also here.

A Different Age

When Tony Blair was slow hand clapped by the Women's Institute, the media banged on about it for a week, and they returned to it periodically for quite some time thereafter.

But the far more vigorous heckling of David Cameron by Age UK has already been killed as a story.

As has his failure to present himself to the BBC Three Free Speech programme on which, so far, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett have all appeared.

We have a Prime Minister who has been shouted down by a band of charity fundraising pensioners, and who is running scared of a BBC-controlled audience of middle-class teenagers.

But no one is allowed to mention this sorry state of affairs.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Task? Force?

A number of my relatives, and other longstanding associates of my family, live on the Falkland Islands.

Could we recapture those Islands now? Probably not.

The blame for that attaches to the same people who are to blame for the fact that we might ever need to, rather than having defended the Falklands properly in the first place.

But then, their great heroine never defended the Falklands properly in the first place, either.

No Money Back, No Guarantee

No taxation without representation.

If you like, no representation without taxation.

Since everyone pays the Right's beloved VAT, so everyone gets a vote.

Including a vote on whether or not to rule out any increase in VAT.

This is what impending victory looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like, tastes like.

Gadzooks

Any party that could seriously consider being led by Boris Johnson is itself profoundly unserious.

We are famous the world over for our humour. That is because we are fundamentally a serious country. There are joke countries, and they are not remotely funny to live in.

But Britain is not a joke country, and it does not want a joke Prime Minister. Not Neil Hamilton. Not Nigel Farage. Not Jacob Rees-Mogg. And not Boris Johnson.

Who votes for Jacob Rees-Mogg? Who wants their Member of Parliament to be an object of ridicule?

There is no qualitative difference between voting for him and voting for the Monster Raving Loony Party. Indeed, at least that party is an intentional joke. It does not see itself as serious.

The same will be true of voting for Neil Hamilton, or of voting for Nigel Farage, or of voting for Boris Johnson.

But that is what the Right in Britain now is. A public school lark. A parade of contrived eccentrics.

Adding to the gaiety of the nation, at least in small doses.

But never, under any circumstances, to be allowed anywhere near the running of anything.

Facts Are Sacred

I received a letter today, advising me that my Guardian subscription was going up.

I then took a look at the Guardian's website, and found that it had this very day published Kelvin MacKenzie.

Thanks to the Scott Trust, The Guardian can never go bust.

But it would be perfectly simple to replace as a paper with any readership.

Throwing Away

Mark Duggan was the nephew by marriage of Dessie Noonan of Manchester, who until his murder in 2005 was the single most powerful gangster in these Islands.

The Labour Movement is not supposed to be some middle-aged version of the SWP.

As the black, Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, has explained, that area has seen only four deaths in Police custody over the last four decades.

Chuka Umunna is also half-black and half-Irish. He made his choice. Mark Duggan made a different choice.

Fairness and Proportionality

Ruby Stockham writes:

The Work and Pensions Committee have recommended that a full review be undertaken into the use of benefit sanctions.

The recommendation was originally made in January 2014 but has been reiterated in areport out today, due to concerns about the approach being adopted across the Jobcentre Plus (JCP) network.

Dame Anne Begg MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said that the system as currently applied ‘does not always achieve’ acceptable standards of fairness and proportionality, and is not always capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems or disabilities.

She commented:

“Recent research suggests that benefit sanctions are contributing to food poverty.

“No claimant should have their benefit payment reduced to zero where they are at risk of severe financial hardship, to the extent of not being able to feed themselves or their families, or pay their rent.”

The Committee recommends that the discretionary hardship payments currently in place to mitigate these circumstances should be available from the first day of the sanction, rather than the fifteenth, as is currently the case, because it ‘is not not reasonable to expect people to live without any source of income for two weeks’.

The report notes that although the DWP does investigate all deaths ‘where suicide is associated with DWP activity’, it has been unable to confirm how many of the 49 cases it investigated were subject to a benefit sanction.

In addition it could not give details of how policy had been altered in response to these deaths.

The Committee recommends the establishment of a new independent body to fully investigate these deaths. Crucially, the Committee also notes that:

“There is currently no evidence on whether the application, or deterrent threat, of a four-week sanction makes it more, or less, likely that a claimant will engage with employment support or gain work.”

The use of benefit sanctions must be based on robust evidence that it helps to get people into work, otherwise it is a system which is purely punitive.

The report recommends establishing a small-scale pilot ‘to test the efficacy of a more targeted approach to sanctions based on segmentation of claimants by their attitudes and motivations’.

It also calls for a more effective system of monitoring the destinations of claimants who are leaving benefit and in particular those leaving benefit following a sanction, as part of a drive to produce evidence that the sanction system actually works.

Responding to the report, Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said:

“This report has shone a spotlight on the government’s failure to deliver a fair, proportionate and effective social security system.

“It shows how Iain Duncan Smith’s chaotic mismanagement of benefit sanctions has forced families to rely on food banks to feed their children.

“The government should accept the recommendations of the report to improve this failing system.”

Everything In Its Power

Vince Mills comes from a position that is not entirely mine. But those whose position it is, ought to attend to him:

In 1900 James Connolly wrote in The Workers’ Republic:

“In the present state of economic development there can be no political party representing all classes in Ireland. The landlord and the tenant, the employer and the employee cannot be served by the same party.

“A political party is a party of class, is the weapon with which a particular class in the community seeks to create and maintain the conditions most favourable to its own class rule.”

So what are we to make of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which claims to advance the interests of everyone in Scotland?

It now has 100,000 members, compared to (generous) estimates of 20,000 for Scottish Labour and, if the polls are right, it is set to have the largest number of public representatives at every level of institutional politics in Scotland, including Westminster, after May.

The SNP already has the largest number of representatives in the Scottish Parliament and local government.

I suspect that there may be a body of opinion on the left in England that believes that in the event of a hung parliament, the self-styled “left-leaning” SNP could be useful allies in pushing Labour to the left.

This is to mistake the nature and purpose of the SNP and to ignore the fundamental question Connolly is posing — in the interest of which class is the SNP acting?

The history of political parties is not everything — parties do change.

However it is instructive to note that from its inception in 1934 by a merger of the left-wing National Party of Scotland and the right-wing Scottish Party, the SNP has always sought the objective of national independence at the expense of the class interest.

Until its recent post-referendum surge, as the 2014 Red Paper explored, the SNP membership was dominated by representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises and the salaried classes. It is not difficult to see this influence reflected in SNP policies.

The party website tells you that it “has already shown our commitment to small businesses which truly are the backbone to a strong and stable economy. Our small business bonus scheme has benefited almost 80,000 small and medium sized businesses across the country.”

The cost to the Scottish budget was £450 million.

By way of contrast, local government, the provider of services critical for a decent life for many out-of-work and in-work poor people, has been consciously starved of funds by the SNP.

Its website of course presents this as a benefit to hard-pressed tax payers:

“We have frozen council tax for every year we have been in government and have committed to doing so for the rest of this parliament.”

The cost to the Scottish budget was £2.5 billion.

According to Prof David Bell of Stirling University, those who benefited most are those living in larger properties — the rich to you and me.

But it is the SNP’s attitude to big business, enshrined in both its domestic policies and slavish support for the EU, that raises questions as to what the SNP really represents is a comprador middle class that has abandoned serious independent economic development in return for what scraps the large corporate companies will allow them.

This may seem to be contrary to the news in early March that the SNP has ditched its plans to reduce corporate taxation.

That is not what SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon announced. Instead she said that she wanted power over corporate taxation that would then be used in “a targeted way to boost research and development.”

Of course, the capacity of big businesses to access public funding for supposed public benefit without delivering their end of the bargain is legendary.

The SNP is entirely at home with tax breaks and concessions for corporate capital. Consider the oil price “crisis.”

The only difference between the Tories and the SNP on yet another massive state handout without any return for the taxpayer, was that SNP argued that the Tories should have done it years ago.

Even Gordon Brown acknowledged that there should be a role (admittedly a limited one) for the state beyond simply giving the oil giants tax breaks after years of large profits and tax dodging.

And then there is the EU and its relentless privatisation programme.

Two weeks ago Labour’s Katy Clark, MP for Ayshire and Arran and a committed socialist, voiced her opposition to the Scottish government’s decision to commence the selection process for a new eight-year Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract.

Clark is afraid that the Cumbrae-Largs ferry service could be privatised next year.

And no wonder, as from April Dutch firm Abellio, an offshoot of the Dutch state rail firm, begins its decade-long £2.5bn ScotRail franchise, having been awarded it by the Scottish government.

And the SNP response to the MP’s concerns?

As with Abellio the Scottish government tells us it is legally required to re-tender the contract under EU legislation.

The party is hardly any better on the EU-sponsored Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

While expressing opposition to what TTIP could mean for the NHS, the SNP has nothing to say about, for example, the potential attack on workers’ rights or, ironically enough, national sovereignty.

SNP MSP Angela Constance tells us:

“The Scottish government recognises that there could be many positives to TTIP — particularly for economic growth and jobs that may arise from it.”

And finally a word on austerity.

If Scotland were independent, the hole in the finances that the collapse in the oil price has meant would see turbo-charged austerity enacted there.

This is because the only way that Scotland could begin to address such a deficit would be the nationalisation of assets like oil and sharply increased taxation.

Neither are on the SNP’s agenda, as we have seen.

We would face exactly the same problems under “devo max”, the SNP’s interim objective, because under it transfer of resources from other British nations to Scotland would stop.

What would be raised in Scotland would stay in Scotland and that would not be enough to sustain current levels of spending.

Connolly was right. No party so clearly attached to the big and small business agenda can possibly act in the interests of working people.

Left-wing MPs in Scotland like Katy Clark could lose their seats to the SNP in May.

It is essential that the left across Britain does everything in its power to prevent that.

Putin’s Corrupted Orthodoxy

Philip Jenkins writes:

If you remember nothing else about Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan”, the whale will remain with you.

In a squalid coastal town in Russia’s frigid north, a man gazes over the skeleton of a beached whale, the bones stark in their white purity.

Although clearly suggesting death, the skeleton’s beauty and majesty stands in sharp contrast to the ugly trivialities of the town’s human population, lost in their obsessions with power and greed, in their corruption and hypocrisy.

In the context of the film, it is hard not to see that “leviathan” as a symbol of the gigantic aspirations of the old Soviet Union, that other dead monster.

Although the film-maker does not for a moment suggest that the former Soviet Union represented any kind of lost glory, “Leviathan” does portray a modern Russian society stumbling through a contemporary world utterly devoid of standards, morality, or hope.

Most startling for a Western audience, that society now camouflages its vulgar graspings not in the language of Marxism-Leninism, but of Christianity.

Although “Leviathan” has been widely reviewed in both Europe and the U.S., few commentators have picked up that central religious message. “Leviathan” stands among the greatest films ever made about the corruption of religion. (Warning: the film concludes with a major twist, which will be revealed here).

“Leviathan” is set in the small fishing port of Pribrezhny, which is recreated in horrifyingly convincing detail. The story focuses on Kolya, an auto mechanic who spends most of his life in a drunken haze.

Tragically for him, he owns a property that is coveted by the local mayor, Vadim, who gets everything he wants, and who readily deploys thugs to enforce his will. Ultimately, Kolya is railroaded on false charges and loses his home.

Most viewers take Vadim as a transparent stand-in for Vladimir Putin, who similarly rules through violence and extra-legal trickery. For both men, law is merely a tool for the powerful.

Beyond that obvious satire, the film places these everyday Russian evils in a cosmic context.

Leviathan” is immersed in Biblical symbolism, drawing both on the Book of Job and the story of Naboth’s Vineyard, in which an evil king trumps up false charges to seize the belongings of a poor neighbor.

To a Westerner, the name Leviathan recalls Thomas Hobbes’s vision of the all-powerful state, but in this case we should rather turn directly to the Old Testament.

The Biblical leviathan is mentioned on several occasions, sometimes as a seagoing animal, but of occasion as a fearsome monster of evil, slain by God himself in cosmic warfare.

In this apocalyptic vision, the image becomes “the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent.” Modern Russians live in the shadow of the slain leviathan.

Putin’s Russia is a deeply inhospitable environment for political satire, and the country’s media have largely ignored the international sensation that the film has created, including its prestigious awards in Europe and the U.S.

Most controversial of all, though, has been the film’s treatment of the church, which is far more innovative and daring than the critique of Putin. So he’s corrupt and thuggish? Yes, we knew that.

The film’s other central character is the local Orthodox bishop.

The most chilling scene is an intimate dialogue between Vadim and the bishop, a spiritual adviser who not only justifies the boss’s excesses but actually drives him to worse deeds.

Is Vadim a good Christian, asks the cleric? Well, says Vadim, he tries. As a Christian ruler then, says the bishop, he must know that all power comes from God.

Vadim has the absolute duty to exercise the power given to him, to solve all his issues and problems himself, and with all his might, lest the Enemy think he is weak.

All is in God’s hands, it is all His will. We almost hear the voice of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

If the priest is not actually the driving force behind Vadim’s evils, he is at least an accomplice, and an enabler. In a devastating climax, we see exactly why Vadim was so desperate to steal Kolya’s property: he (and more specifically, the bishop) needed it to build a gaudy new Orthodox cathedral, as a shrine to Power.

The film concludes with a splendid and utterly hypocritical sermon by the bishop, who thoroughly unites Russian nationalism with the interests of the Orthodox Church.

His sermon calls for values of truth and justice, in a venue that exists solely because such values do not exist within Russia.

If Vadim is meant to be Putin, then Russian audiences waste little time before linking the priest to another prominent national figure, namely Kirill [Cyril], Metropolitan of the country’s Orthodox Church.

He has also led his church into an intimate and, most would say, a profoundly unhealthy alliance with the post-Soviet regime.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist government savagely persecuted the Orthodox Church, killings many thousands of clergy and monastics, and closing the vast majority of churches and monasteries.

When Communism fell, the church returned to visibility, and the last quarter-century has witnessed a startling and many-sided revival.

Places of worship have been rebuilt, monasteries flourish again, and pilgrimage shrines have begun a new era of mass popularity.

The post-Soviet religious restoration was supervised by the then-Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008) and by his successor, Kirill.

In exchange for so many blessings, the church has of course given fervent support to the Putin government, lavishly praising it and providing ideological justifications for a strong government at home, and expansion beyond its borders.

But such enthusiasm goes far beyond mere payback. Support for authoritarian regimes is deeply embedded in Orthodox political thought, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular has always been tinged with mystical and millenarian nationalism.

When Kirill presents Orthodox Russia as a bastion of true faith, besieged by the false values and immorality of a secularized West, his words are deeply appreciated by both the state and the church.

The apocalyptic character of that conflict is made evident by the West’s embrace of homosexual rights, especially same-sex marriage.

As so often in past centuries, Holy Russia confronts a Godless and decadent West.

It is Putin, not Kirill, who has warned that “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values.

Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”

We should not see Kirill as a rogue cleric abandoning the interests of his church to seek political favors: he really believes every word. Whether Putin and his circle literally believe the religious rhetoric is not relevant: they act as if they do.

The solidly Orthodox framing of Russian nationalism also ensures that powerful Rightist groups happily rally around Putin and his not-so-ex-KGB clique.

Over the past few years, the nature of Russia’s military-ecclesiastical complex has repeatedly become evident.

Kirill extended the church’s blessings to the pro-Moscow regime in Belarus after a highly troubling election.

In Ukraine, Kirill completely echoed Putin’s line that the Russian-sponsored separatist guerrillas were well-intentioned local citizens who justifiably feared oppression by the Kiev regime.

Kirill even granted church honors to Cuba’s Castro brothers. All is in God’s hands, it is all His will.

So egregious is the portrayal of the priest in Leviathan, and so blatantly based on real life circumstances, that Orthodox activists have been the leading advocates for suppressing the film altogether.

The United States spends a great deal of time worrying about the state of Iran, which is dominated by theocratic cliques who relish apocalyptic dreams, and who hope someday to obtain a handful of nuclear weapons.

We don’t have to travel too far from Iran to find another state where ambitious theocrats shape the national ideology of a government that presently disposes of some 1,500 active nuclear weapons, not to mention another 8,000 or so in storage.

In Russia’s case, like Iran’s, we will not understand the state’s ideological motivations without appreciating that religious dimension.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Bully For Him?

Tony Blair lost all authority when he said that he would not seek a full third term, and he had ever even won a General Election.

Moreover, he had only one credible successor. That would not have been the case if Gordon Brown had not been there. But he was.

Cameron pointedly failed to include Michael Gove among his potential successors, but did mention a man who was not currently a Member of Parliament at all, and who did not last long or make much headway at his previous attempt at a parliamentary career.

Two of the three names in the frame belong to members of the Bullingdon Club. Including the one whose owner is not an MP.

The Conservative Party ought to hold an open primary. Possibly this year. If not, then certainly next year. Let the winner do a bit of shadowing.

Oh, what fun. Thank goodness that they are not going to be the Government.

What a complete and utter shambles.

The Party of Law and Order

Of course Labour is tougher on crime than the Conservatives are. That is not "triangulation". It is just fact. I am trying to think when last it was not the case. I can't, to be honest. Perhaps it has always been so?

Public perception may be different. But, as on defence, that is no more than one electoral cycle away from catching up with simple, factually indisputable reality. If it is the case at all.

As Home Secretary, Michael Howard arranged Royal Pardons for associates of his drug-dealing cousin so that they could go back to terrorising Liverpool. Those associates are now back in prison, for having set up the weapons finds that earned them their release.

Almost the entire media refused to report that story even once Howard had become Leader of the Conservative Party and was therefore presenting himself as a potential Prime Minister. Even now, hardly anyone knows it. But it is true.

Imagine what they would have done if a Labour politician had done that. But then, it is impossible to imagine a Labour politician's ever doing that, or anything remotely like it.

Where the last Labour Government did err was in failing to recognise that there was no law and order without civil liberties. But even there, this lot is even worse.

Banning Orders? The very term used? To forbid pubic speaking by the British Citizens who were subject to them? Theresa May wants to turn some Walter Mitty into Steve Biko.