Saturday 31 January 2015

Yes, We Can

Is Bob the Builder shown in Spain? If so, then does the eponymous hero say "Sí, podemos"?

Although about Britain, the next March for Homes should be held in Madrid.

That way, the BBC, ITV and Sky News might notice.

Far From Listless

Jon Lansman writes:

Earlier this week we reported that, following Syriza‘s remarkable victory in Greece on a platform of ending austerity and greater state intervention in the economy, 15 Labour MPs including Michael Meacher had called for a similar change in direction here.

They issued a statement calling for an alternative to austerity, for public ownership of the railways and for a return to collective bargaining and employment rights in the workplace.

Now LabourList have carried out a survey showing that 83% of their readers agree with that statement, with only 13% disagreeing. That is a remarkable result. LabourList themselves say:

This reflects a general trend among the public for renationalisation of the railways and, more recently, support for anti-austerity policies.

The substantial support for such policies, arguably, reflects a desire from grassroots Labour activists to move towards the party’s traditional base – further to the left of the party currently stands.

This result reinforces what YouGov found about attitudes of Labour supporters and swing voters, who would prefer to see a Labour party that is anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-corporatist.

Where There Is Discord

Margaret Thatcher seems to have taken it as read that powerful men would have sex with children.

Her father did not give her away at her wedding, he did not attend her swearing in as an MP, and when he died her mother did not even have an up-to-date telephone number for her. She almost never went back to Grantham.

He was also a notorious toucher up of his shop girls. The mistresses at his daughters' school used to find it terribly difficult, in that more delicate age, to explain to the senior girls why they were not to take Saturday jobs at his establishment.

Further speculation would be the height or depth of bad taste.

Friday 30 January 2015

The Class War On Ched Evans

I doubt that Ched Evans and I would get on. Indeed, I doubt that we should find very much about which to converse. I know almost nothing about football itself. I actively dislike what its attendant culture has become.

But after Vicky Pryce on This Week last night, and Chris Huhne on Newsnight the night before, not to mention Huhne’s several months as a Guardian columnist, followed by a pointed dig on this evening’s EastEnders by writers as middle-class and arts-graduate as I am, I find myself feeling a certain sympathy for a man who does not deny that he had sex with a stranger in front of his own brother.

Evans is a convict. He is free only on license. He has not completed his sentence. Therefore, it might have been better if he had not found work until after that completion. That, however, would be to call for him to be dependent on State benefits.

The acts that he does not dispute are morally reprehensible enough, and the attitude of his girlfriend’s father is a most discombobulating insight into an entirely different world. But of course footballers are not role models. Who, exactly, models his off-pitch behaviour on them?

When the younger male fans of Oldham Athletic had followed those of Sheffield United in not committing anything remotely resembling either the disputed or the undisputed acts of their supposed idol, then football itself would have had to have confronted the fact that its practitioners simply were not national figures, or moral bastions, or “cultural icons”, or even persons of the slightest especial importance.

Feminists used to challenge the cultural priority of football. That priority arose entirely out of the process in the 1990s whereby the game was changed from a working-class pursuit into one in which chavs performed like monkeys for posh boys.

But now, it is scarcely, if at all, an exaggeration to say that British feminism could not survive the upholding of Evans’s appeal. Tens of thousands of people have been enticed into the utterly undemanding act of signing online petitions.

Petitioning is in itself an integral part of the democratic process, rather than any sort of “mob rule”. But these petitions have presupposed the earth-shattering importance of this person and of his doings. Imagine if that amount of energy had been diverted into something that really mattered. As, not very long ago, feminists would once have said.

There is an obvious campaign to say the word “paedophile” as often as possible in relation to this case of sex between a 19-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man. That 19-year-old woman is always called “a young girl”. Ordinarily, feminist opinion would rightly be outraged at the description of an adult woman as a “girl”.

But it is the class thing that is most striking, when one compares the calls for Evans to be denied at least prominent or well-remunerated (indeed, I am the first to say, obscenely overpaid) employment over something that had nothing to with football, with the warm welcome back that is simultaneously being extended by journalism itself to the privately schooled plagiarist and fabricator, Johann Hari.

City types whose incompetence or outright criminality has brought ruin to vast numbers of people, while sending the bill to each and every one of us, are rarely dismissed in the first place, and see their incomes continue to rise exponentially. David Laws is back attending Cabinet.

Does anyone seriously doubt that there is or has been an element of sexual violence to the Bullingdon Club? And not of the kind that the victim does not remember. At the very least, that Club exists to commit criminal damage and assault.

What if a group of young men on a council estate, the same age as Oxford undergraduates, organised themselves into such a club, complete with a uniform? What say the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London?

Tony Blair continues to make what he and his sycophants clearly assume will be received as significant political interventions. It bears its frequent repetition that Blair is, of all things, a Middle East Peace Envoy.

None of the writers and broadcasters who cheered on the Iraq War, all of them safely upper-middle-class or above, has ever suffered the slightest adverse effect of that catastrophic misjudgement. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Until his retirement, Judge John MacMillan, who had used the n-word in order to brand black people lazy in the course of his work as an Employment Tribunal judge, and who had been found to be biased against plaintiffs, was permitted to continue to sit without even having to notify the sides in cases subsequent to his double disgrace.

Plummy commentators airily suggest that Evans become a bricklayer, or a painter and decorator, as if lower moral standards were only to be expected in such walks of life, and as if it were possible to walk straight into those trades, which in reality take years to learn.

There are no outstanding allegations against Evans. But there are against Jeffrey Epstein, who has always remained a close friend of the Queen’s son.

Rock and pop royalty are treated much as if they were, as they sometimes are, the friends of real royalty. Bill Wyman has never been charged for having repeatedly and flagrantly had sex with a 13-year-old girl, while the matter of the impeccably middle-class Jimmy Page OBE’s sometime 14-year-old girlfriend is ignored completely.

Some lightning rod for all of these and similar concerns has been necessary throughout the present century. But even if his appeal is upheld, the pity, the tragedy, the shame will be that that will have had to have been the disgusting Ched Evans.

Meanwhile, the criminal justice system itself seems to have very little confidence in Evans’s conviction, clearly regarding it as a noisy embarrassment that it wishes would go away. Look at the evidence.

Evans was released on license after having served half his time. That was despite the fact that his supporters maintained a website that did not merely protest his innocence, but offered a £10,000 reward for evidence against his accuser. Immediately upon his release, not only did the Criminal Cases Review Commission fast-track his case, but it publicly announced that it had done so.

Of the fully 10 people who have ever been prosecuted for naming the victim, nine were not even fined, but were merely ordered to pay £624 plus costs, while the tenth’s combination of that, a nominal fine, and a victim surcharge of a whopping £15, came to a grand total of not much more than £1600.

At the time of writing, the action against the website for contempt of court has been due “within weeks” in the way that Iran has been “two years away from a nuclear bomb” for well over 10 times that long.

That football clubs have considered signing Evans can only mean that the Probation Service regards him as posing as near as it is permitted to say to no risk whatever. The powers that be pay more attention than that to some people who have been acquitted, or never charged, or even never arrested.

Or are we seriously expected to believe that a Probation Officer might ever have been deputed to follow Evans and his teammates around the country as a kind of valet, a footballers’ footman, not so much Falstaff’s page as Prince Hal’s, undoubtedly fetching the drinks, quite conceivably cleaning the boots, and not unimaginably arranging the “birds”? There you are, then.

Evans maintains his innocence and is appealing, as is anyone’s right. Whichever way that goes, with any luck his case will almost certainly place others like it, with no forensic evidence but with non-consent presupposed under Harman’s Law, in a category similar to that of foxhunting: rarely brought before the courts, even then mostly privately by a charity that happened to be as rich as Croesus (although what would fulfil the role of the RSPCA here?), hardly ever resulting in a conviction, and subject to sentences all the way down to absolute discharge.

The Parole Board, the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Probation Service manifestly want that to happen. As is the view of the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service where hunting is concerned, they have better things to do than chase after people who, leaving aside whether or not their actions were unpleasant or just plain weird, had had the misfortune to be criminalised as politically distasteful by the weirdo Blair Government that feels far longer ago than it was.

In view of Oldham Athletic’s previous contract with Lee Hughes, Evans is now demonstrably less employable than a convicted killer. How did that happen?

Evans was charged on the basis of what we should all identify as entrapment techniques if they were to be employed in many another country. He was convicted on no evidence except that his accuser could not remember anything, including the sex that she only knew that she had had because Evans and McDonald had said so.

He was thus convicted against the only other testimony, that of a co-defendant who was acquitted and who remembered everything; we now have Sharia Law in reverse, with the testimony of one (drunken) woman overriding that of two (relatively sober) men. He was refused leave to appeal.

He was convicted of a singularly stigmatised offence with which only a male can be charged, and the law of which was drastically altered in the High Harman Era significantly to the detriment of the presumption of innocence.

Further changes have recently been proposed to the effect that those alleging rape would be placed at a very considerable advantage in the cross-examination process, and yesterday that the Crown Prosecution Service should legislate unilaterally in order to make possible the imprisonment of any man for rape on nothing more than the say-so of one anonymous woman.

Even EastEnders is being used to present this as somehow already the law, under which Clayton McDonald would also have been found guilty.

Although the ever-compliant Parliament of Blair’s pomp must bear a great deal of responsibility for characteristically waving through Harman’s Law, locking up half the young male population would not bother those who were behind it, still less those who are behind the latest schemes, which latter are in any case extraparliamentary, a kind of coup.

Especially if it were that half of the young male population which came from such places as Sheffield, Oldham and Rhyl, then that was what they wanted. That is still what they want.

This clash has been coming for years. Now, it is here.

Sanction This

Britain stands on the brink of bioethical rogue statehood.

The rest of the world needs to take notice.

British Commonwealth

These foreign-born voters are precisely that: everyone born outside the United Kingdom, including Cliff Richard, Peter Hitchens and me. Although he does not vote, the Duke of Edinburgh would also fit the bill.

And there are two constituencies, out of 650, with bare majorities of such voters, most of whom would in any case be British passport-holders? What is all the fuss about there, then? It is well within living memory that at least 10 times that number had electorates at least 50 per cent of which held Irish nationality.

Anglosphere enthusiasts might care to consider that American citizens have never been eligible to vote in this country, and that British citizens are not so eligible in the Irish Republic (where, unless I am very much mistaken, they never have been), in Canada, in Australia or in New Zealand. Nor, indeed, in the United States. The former Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark may now be a Knight of the Order of Australia. But he could not vote if he moved there.

There are countries in the Commonwealth that were never in the British Empire, but their membership suits their regional interests today. The nationality requirement for voting by permanent residents ought to be abolished, provided that you would have to be a British citizen in order to be a parliamentary candidate in Great Britain, or a British or Irish citizen in order to be a parliamentary candidate in Northern Ireland. Why would anyone not in that position even want to be such a candidate?

Likewise, if the voting age is to come down to 16, and that does now look inevitable, then, without prejudice to the position of anyone who was already sitting, the minimum age both for MPs and for jurors ought to go up to 30. There ought also to be a ban on any annual personal or corporate donation to a political party above the level of the trade union political levy, currently around three pounds.

All in the first Queen's Speech, this year.

Ed Miliband, over to you.

Upon Inspection

What if it's true? What if the commercial schools really are not very good, or even any good? They have been academically dreadful for prolonged periods in the past. The present Government is drawn heavily from them, and look at that.

After all, in England, no one has ever bothered to check. They "inspect" themselves. Well, they inspect each other. But that amounts to the same thing.

At the very least, let the condition of a commercial school's continuing charitable status be its having been adjudged satisfactory or better by Ofsted, using the same criteria as for state schools, with the reports published, and with the value-added measure applied, thereby requiring those schools to have demonstrated how they had improved pupils' abilities.

Oh, and forget the drivel in the Daily Mail, great expert on the North East that it is, about the Durham Free School. It was closed for being rubbish. Simple as that. Indeed, the entire free schools programme has been an unmitigated disaster. Primary legislation ought to surcharge David Cameron, Michael Gove and Toby Young personally for the cost of it.

Who Is Stephen Sizer?

This leaves no room for doubt:

Stephen is the vicar or pastor of Christ Church, the international community church of Virginia Water. He and his wife have been in full time Christian ministry together for 35 years.

He became a Christian at university and served as an evangelist with Agape in the UK and Eastern Europe for four years before training for the Anglican ministry at Trinity College, Bristol.

Originally from Lowestoft, he has served as Curate of St Leonard’s on Sea, Sussex, and then was Rector of St John’s, Stoke, Guildford in Surrey for eleven years before being appointed vicar of Virginia Water in 1997.

He is a member of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, formed at the Global Anglican Futures conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in June 2008.

He has endorsed the Jerusalem Declaration and supports the Third Province Movement.

He is a member of Anglican Mainstream, Reform and Church Society and supports the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, New Word Alive, Keswick and UCCF.

He is a member of the Executive of the Guildford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship and a member of Guildford Diocesan Synod.

He is an Advocate (trainer) for the Christianity Explored Course and recently assisted Craig Dyer, the training director with a CE training project in Uganda and Kenya.

Stephen is a Trustee of Biblica (the International Bible Society – Send the Light (IBS-STL) Ministries Trust, who sponsored and publish the New International Version (NIV), the most widely read Bible translation in English.

No liberal he.

His critique of Christian Zionism is that of key Evangelical leaders such as the late Dr John Stott and the former Bishop of Durham, Professor NT Wright, as well as of bodies such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals in the United States.

The long-vacant Suffragan See of Maidstone has been kept that way for six years in order that it might eventually be filled by a Conservative Evangelical, with a roving national role, once women had become bishops.

Here's to Bishop Stephen Sizer, and the Stern Gang can swivel on that. As it can swivel on the presence of George Galloway on the Question Time panel from Golders Green next Thursday.

Get the message: you do not decide the staffing arrangements of the Church of England, and you do not own the BBC, or indeed Mentorn.

Get the message. And get over yourselves.

The Only Potential Counterweight

Owen Jones writes:

One of the greatest temptations of radical opponents of the status quo – myself included – is to indulge the endemic cynicism that exists towards politicians.

“They’re all the same”, “they’re all in it for themselves”, “they’re just lining their own nests”, “they’re just interested in power” – these phrases will be familiar to anyone who gauges popular opinion of our political elite.

So it was with some sympathy that I read comments by Ed Miliband – he who despicably cannot eat a bacon sarnie – to the press pack last night.

Make this election about “issues, choices and beliefs that matter to the country”, he begged. “One of the biggest enemies of politics is cynicism, the belief that we are all in it for base motives.”

And here’s the thing: it is those who believe in radical change who suffer most from this cynicism.

Let me caveat this heavily.

One of the reasons people are so cynical about politicians is that Westminster’s denizens have behaved so appallingly.

They berated poor people receiving tiny amounts in benefit fraud and then shamelessly milked their expenses. The Blair government spun the country into a catastrophic war in Iraq – the effects of which we still suffer – on a pretext that was false.

And then in 2010 the Liberal Democrats inspired young people with the promise of free education; young people marched to polling stations for the first time, full of hope, only to be quite possibly left with a lifetime of bitterness towards politicians.

The worse that politicians behave, the more they undermine people’s whole faith in the democratic system as a potential vehicle of change.

The polling speaks for itself.

One poll by Ipsos Mori in 2013 suggested that more than half of all Britons believed MPs put their own interests first, and only 8% believed MPs put their constituents first; just a fifth trusted them to tell the truth; and 33% believed all or most used their power for their personal gain.

This contempt for politicians is not new – and politicians of course bear much responsibility. But it suits powerful media and corporate interests very well.

Why is it not tempting for the likes of me to indulge such cynicism?

We live in a country where unemployed people, immigrants, public sector workers and other people not exactly abounding with power are scapegoated for our society’s many ills.

The finger of blame needs to be redirected to the powerful, and that certainly includes politicians.

But if we end up thinking that politics is the preserve of the cynical and the venal then nobody will ever believe it is capable of changing anything.

Promises – however positive and progressive – will always seem cynical and duplicitous, useful for courting votes but never to be implemented.

Take Miliband, a man pilloried in the most personal way by the media for being, basically, a bit odd.

He has made pledges which – in my view – are not radical enough, even if they are facing in the right direction: such as freezing energy bills, increasing the top rate of tax, introducing a mansion tax, repealing the bedroom tax and NHS privatisation, somewhat tackling zero-hour contracts, and so on.

According to the polls, people support these policies: hell, they’d like to go further, with the renationalisation of rail and energy, for example, even winning over many or most Tory and Ukip voters.

But voters simply do not believe such promises will ever be implemented. Arguably the more radical and popular the promise, the more it feeds into a sense of, “Oh, they’ll promise the earth to get elected.”

I spend a lot of time talking to young people: this week, talking to inspiring students in comprehensive schools in Walthamstow and Surrey. They have hopes, fears, insecurities, dreams.

But all too often they do not see politics as a means to address them.

The media pillories politicians and politics, not because they’re “sticking it to the man” but because they know democracy is the only potential counterweight to a rapacious elite that rules Britain.

And before I’m accused of hypocrisy, I too am among those who have risked fuelling a nihilistic cynicism.

Yes I want more politicians who say what they mean and mean what they say.

But the contempt towards politics does little for those who want real change and much for those who defend the status quo.

Agents of a Foreign Principal

Philip Giraldi writes:

In high school civics classes, Americans are brought up to believe that in their nation a rule of law prevails.

Justice is depicted as blind and the rules apply to everyone. All Americans will receive the same fair hearing in court or at the hands of the government.

Of course the reality is that experience tells us that those who trust in impartial justice are somewhat delusional as the criminal justice and regulatory systems do not operate in a reliably mechanical fashion.

Many factors determine whether a suspect actually goes to trial or whether an organization is regulated or investigated and there are a number of roadblocks along the way that influence the outcome.

One of the federal government regulatory bodies that few have heard about is the board at the United States Department of Justice’s Counterespionage Section that administers the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

The original FARA was passed in 1938 just before the outbreak of war in Europe and was intended to monitor the activities of front organizations being directed by the German and Italian governments.

From its inception FARA was politicized and selective. Rome and Berlin were potential enemies while the extremely active British government efforts to draw the United States into what eventually became a European and then a world war were largely ignored.

The original act was loosely worded to include anyone propagandizing for a foreign power but an amended version in 1966 narrowed the definition of whom would be covered to include only actual “agents of a foreign principal” working directly for a foreign government in an attempt to influence U.S. economic or political decision making.

Since 1966 there have been no successful criminal prosecutions under FARA and nearly all compliance has been more-or-less voluntary.

There have, however, been a number of civil cases and administrative resolutions in which the government asserted the viability of the act.

In 2004, for example, Susan Lindauer, a former congressional staffer, was charged with taking payments from an Iraqi government source. Her case was finally dropped in 2009.

There are somewhat less than 2,000 foreign agents registered under the act representing more than 100 countries.

Their names and their periodic financial and activities filings are accessible by the public at the FARA Unit office in Washington. Most are associated with law or lobbying firms that represent foreign governments as part of their business.

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was, for a time, a registered agent for Turkey when he held that account while working for the Dickstein Shapiro law firm, which he joined after leaving congress.

Former Congressman Dick Gephardt also headed a company engaged in lobbying for Turkey.

Both Gephardt and Hastert were involved in lobbying Congress to oppose pending legislation calling the First World War massacre of Turkish Armenians a “genocide.

The disadvantage of registering under FARA is that you have to disclose your sources of income and you also have to detail what you are doing on behalf of the foreign government.

Organizations that do not consider that they are actually directed by a foreign government or who assess their relationship to be borderline are consequently reluctant to comply.

FARA inevitably is selective in its targeting.

Agents of nations hostile to the United States are pursued with some vigor while organizations linked to powerful domestic political lobbies tend to get a pass.

This has been historically true of Irish republican groups as well as of the predecessor of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which was founded in 1949 as the American Zionist Council.

The American Zionist Council was funded directly by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the group to register in 1962 but the death of his brother led to an intense lobbying campaign to influence his strongly pro-Israel successor Lyndon B. Johnson who obligingly instructed the Justice Department to stand down.

Since that time repeated efforts to compel AIPAC to register have failed due to White House and Justice Department unwillingness to confront the issue but a new initiative by the Israeli government might well be construed as having crossed the line in violation of FARA.

In early January the Prime Minister’s Office of the Israeli government funded a joint project to be run by the government’s National Information Directorate and StandWithUS, which has been described as an “American hasbara organization.”

In Hebrew the name, hasbara, means literally “public explanation” but the expression is generally applied to anyone involved in generating pro-Israeli propaganda.

It is also sometimes more politely described as a program of “perception management,” a euphemism made popular by the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon in 2004.

Israel has long been paying students as part-time bloggers or exploiting diaspora Jews as volunteers to get its message out.

In 2009 the Israeli Foreign Ministry wrote to a number of pro-Israel organizations emphasizing the “importance of the internet as the new battleground for Israel’s image.” Haaretz reported in 2013 how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office collaborated with the National Union of Israeli Students to create “semi-military covert units” at the seven national universities organized to work in situation rooms.

Students use different names and IP addresses, which enable them to make multiple posts, and are paid as much as $2,000 monthly to work the online targets.

The hasbara program includes recruitment, training, Foreign Ministry-prepared information sheets, and internet alerts to potential targets.

It is essentially an internet-focused “information war.” It is supported by a desktop tool called Megaphone that provided daily updates on articles appearing on the internet that are singled out for confrontation or attack.

The hasbara commenters flood websites where commentary critical of Israel is observed in the belief that if something is repeated often enough in many different places it will gain credibility and create doubts regarding contrary points of view.

They also can hound critics and even destroy careers in journalism. Veteran CNN reporter Jim Clancy was forced to resign last week after an exchange of tweets with hasbara over the Paris terror attacks.

The joint enterprise between the American foundation and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is more of the same.

It reportedly is intended to strengthen “Israeli hasbara on social media platforms,” with StandWithUs running “interactive media war rooms.”

The National Information Directorate’s role will be to draft the talking points and monitor the progress of the “war.

StandWithUs, which was founded to “educate others about Israel,” originated in Los Angeles. It now has 18 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and also in Israel.

Incorporated as the Israel Emergency Alliance, StandWithUs is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means it has successfully claimed to be a tax exempt educational foundation.

It is reportedly largely funded by Las Vegas multi billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who also has been active in supporting Republican candidates perceived as particularly friendly to Israel.

StandWithUs is aggressive in its defense of Israel, to include a secret program to compile critical dossiers on pro-Palestinian speakers as part of an effort to help “Israel advocates respond to and counter anti-Israel speakers who come to your campus.”

The project is ostensibly being run through the StandWithUs chapter in Israel, but it will include the training of British and American students, and the parent organization is itself American in both funding and its incorporation.

As it has no other function than promoting the Israeli government point of view so as to influence decision making in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

It would be a clear case where registry with FARA would be mandatory as the political direction and half the funding for the project are coming directly from the Israeli government.

If StandWithUS is compelled to register under FARA it will have to reveal all its funding and its tax exempt status will presumably be revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.

And StandWithUs is far from alone. Israel is certainly entitled to make its case to the American and international audience and one might observe that it has done so extremely tenaciously and very effectively.

But a number of organizations in the Israel Lobby are little more than fronts for promoting the Israeli right wing government talking points in an attempt to shape American policy, which indisputably makes them foreign agents as defined by FARA.

As foreign agents, they should be subject to some supervision of and restraints on their activities and there would also be a certain transparency in terms of who they are and what they represent which just might make the media less inclined to go to them for commentary.

One suspects that the Barack Obama/Eric Holder Justice department has little stomach for going after any organization linked to Israel and that reticence is regrettable, particularly as Israel will undoubtedly be using the upcoming Netanyahu visit to ratchet up the intensity of its own campaign to convince the American public that war with Iran should be a compelling U.S. national interest.

If the American public were made aware that much of the war fever is being drummed up by organizations that are actually acting as agents of a foreign government it just might make a difference in how that sales pitch is perceived.

But even if that were not the case, it would not be a bad thing to observe that the United States government does indeed, at least occasionally, play by its own rules.

Making Allowances

Like Katie Price, the immensely wealthy David Cameron claimed Disability Living Allowance for his son.

Quite right, too.

Law and Morality

Julia Hartley-Brewer has it right, even if the real solution would be for both sexes to behave better.

Still, law and morality, though far from unnconnected, are not the same thing.

I appreciate that this is a novel idea, but when is there going to be a division of the House of Commons on this enormous change to the law, and indeed to the very basis of our legal system?

How many women MPs want their brothers or sons to be liable to imprisonment for rape on nothing more than the say-so of one woman, and that purely in order to meet a conviction target that is not even specified?

On nothing more than that woman's anonymous say-so, at that?

How many of those brothers or sons would vote to re-elect any MP, of either sex, who had failed to vote against this?

Away with this, and away with the existence Harman's Law while we are about it. Convictions under the latter, which would not have been possible before it, ought to be set aside by Statute.

If not to make the law, and if not to uphold liberties as fundamental as the presumption of innocence, then what is Parliament for?

Because You've Got To Move With The Times

Illustrated with a glorious photograph of Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi, Mark Steel writes:

It’s marvellous that, just as the election started to seem dull and outdated, New Labour has returned to make everything modern and relevant again.

They want Labour to return to the values of the Tony Blair days, when everything conveyed newness and not stuck in policies that belong to the past, which must be why Blair delivered a glowing tribute to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

“I admired him greatly, he was a sound and stable ally, a great moderniser,” he said because everything about the exalted ruler of the House of Saud and his 30 wives said modern modern modern.

For example, his government sentenced Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes for setting up a liberal website.

Maybe the sentence for setting up a liberal website in the 12th century was 1,001 lashes so he was bringing it down bit by bit.

Obviously the Saudi regime’s values never got as far as 1400 because the 15th century was a bit too dubstep for King Abdullah, but he must have taken other modern measures or Blair wouldn’t call him a moderniser.

Maybe the executioners that carry out public beheadings are now allowed to wear firmer gloves to prevent repetitive strain injury.

Some complain that it’s health and safety gone mad but he was determined to be modern.

He was modernising the attitudes towards women as well, insisting people said “we’re stoning a WOMAN to death for adultery” and never a “bird”, because it always pays to be politically correct.

The New Labour method is being applied in other areas as well.

So the Scottish Labour Party elected Blair supporter Jim Murphy, the most strident campaigner against independence, to lead Scottish Labour and stop the collapse in Labour’s support.

This made sense, because the reason so many voters switched from Labour to the SNP must be that they felt Labour wasn’t rude enough about the SNP.

As a New Labour man, Jim Murphy knows that to win elections you have to be modern, not stuck in the past with old-fashioned SNP policies such as scrapping Trident and opposing tuition fees.

And so far he’s doing amazingly well.

When he took over, the SNP were on 45 per cent in the polls, 14 ahead of Labour, and many people doubted that Murphy would be able to change that.

But he’s proved them wrong, because after just two months the SNP have gone up to 52 per cent, 28 ahead of Labour.

At that rate, in two more years the SNP will be on 136 per cent, 196 ahead of Labour, achieving results that Stalin and Saddam Hussein would have been delighted with.

The SNP will be winning seats in the North Pole and on clouds. Because if someone’s as determined as Jim, they CAN make a difference.

Similarly, in England it appears that hundreds of thousands of votes that Labour expected to win will go to the Greens.

So Labour set up a special anti-Green unit to prevent this, making statements such as “the Greens are obsessed with middle-class obsessions”.

That should win them over.

I suppose the sort of middle-class obsession they’re obsessed with is the railways, as one of the Green Party’s most popular policies is re-nationalising the network.

And as we know, the only people concerned with railways are the middle class, always going on a train somewhere so they can get to one of their organic apricot conferences.

Look at them all, thousands every morning squashed on to carriages so they can get into the town centre to buy antiques and go skiing.

Labour on the other hand has been led by characters such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, not the sort of people obsessed with middle-class obsessions.

New Labour’s Alan Milburn said the party can only win the election if it protects the “Blair legacy” by daring to be modern.

By this he means repeating the trick of being even friendlier with top businessman than the Conservatives.

The argument seems to be that, for example, instead of appealing to the people who don’t own rail companies, it’s much better to appeal to the people who do.

Maybe this is because there are huge areas of Britain where almost everyone is on the board of a rail company.

I’m told that in the constituency of Gloucester West alone there are 200,000 members of the board of Virgin Trains.

So it’s essential Labour doesn’t upset them by suggesting they change their behaviour in any way.

The problem the modernisers have is the more modern they become the more outdated they look.

But as growing numbers of people become cross with the behaviour of bankers and businessmen, the old-fashioned outdated ideas seem like the modern ones.

It must be very confusing for any New Labour supporters following the election in Greece.

They must think, “the mistake the Greeks have made is they’ve elected a party that’s unelectable”.

Syriza’s policies, such as providing free electricity for the poor, are ridiculously out of date.

Instead they should have been more modern, and told the unemployed that if they want electricity they should start an electricity company.

But New Labour has become even more modern than it was last time round, so this time they’re probably demanding Labour’s policy should be more forward-thinking than before, and that they should promise a monarchy in which women aren’t allowed to drive and anyone objecting is lashed a thousand times in the street.

Because you’ve got to move with the times.

Fearless in Pursuit of the Truth

Mary Dejevsky writes:

When the public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenkoopened at the Royal Courts of Justice in London this week, the very fact that such an inquiry was happening at all constituted an almost unimaginable victory for his widow, Marina, and a vindication of her admirable, if perhaps naïve, faith in the quality of British justice.

In her place, I might have succumbed to cynicism long ago, but she never lost confidence that, in her adopted homeland, justice would be done.

What that victory has cost her is written on her face – just look at the telling picture on The Independent’s front page on Wednesday.

It is more than eight years since her husband, a fugitive from the Russian intelligence services, died a tormented death from radiation poisoning at University College Hospital; in three weeks, he had gone from being a reasonably healthy 43-year-old to a bald wraith, whose body was so contaminated that it had to be buried in a lead coffin.

Thanks to his friends, we have the photographs to prove it. What we don’t know, and what the inquiry is supposed to find out, is how and why.

You do not need the benefit of hindsight, I think, to regard the eight-year delay and the reluctance of two governments to authorise an inquiry rather than an inquest - a reluctance they defended through the courts – as a national scandal.

On the opening day, the presiding judge, Sir Robert Owen, set the tone, saying that the issues to which Litvinenko’s death gave rise were “of the utmost gravity and international concern”.

All the legal counsel subsequently used similar terms to describe what happened as a “miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London”

If such a death did not warrant a public inquiry in the eyes of government, it is hard to imagine what would.

The eight years of delay and legal wrangling, however, have allowed a version of events to coalesce that has been widely accepted around the world (with no discouragement whatsoever from the British authorities).

It was introduced with characteristic verve and bite by Marina Litvinenko’s counsel, Ben Emmerson, on Tuesday, when he spoke of a “political assassination, authorised at the very top of what he called the “mafia state” that was, and is, Putin’s Russia.

According to this, Litvinenko was murdered because he had made an enemy of the service he had once belonged to and its erstwhile head, who became Russia’s president.

There are those - and I am one – who suspect that even if there is truth in this version, it may not be the whole truth, and we have become used to being dismissed as deluded and/or apologists for Vladimir Putin.

Yet some of what has emerged in just the past few days suggests, at very least, that there is more to the Litvinenko saga than has so far seen the light of day.

Last weekend, for instance, it was reported that US intelligence, in the shape of the NSA (think Edward Snowden), had intercepted communications of the two Russian suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun (who both deny any involvement), and that it was these findings that had clinched the case against Russia.

It is not clear whether any of this information will be heard at the inquiry, either in public, or at all.

But the claim raises interesting further questions about when the eavesdropping took place, what country the two suspects were in at the time (remember the all too brief discussion, post-Snowden, about the legality of US and UK intercepts) , and what exactly was recorded – the fact of the Russians’ communications or their actual contents.

It has also emerged that British intelligence was “on the case” quite early.

We knew that Litvinenko was interviewed by the police as he lay gravely ill in hospital – an unusual, possibly unique, instance, the inquiry was told, of a victim giving evidence about his own murder.

But it was also reported, a couple of days before, and almost in passing, that Litvinenko was also visited in hospital by a UK intelligence officer.

Is this true, and why?

Mystery still surrounds the actual poisoning.

Counsel for the inquiry, Robin Tam, suggested that two attempts were made to kill Litvinenko with Polonium-210; a newspaper report on the eve of the inquiry suggested there had been three.

At the heart of the multiple poisoning theories, however, is the need to explain why Litvinenko appeared to be leaving traces of radioactivity several hours, and possibly days, before he drank the notorious tea at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar.

The sequence of events has to be cleared up.
The inquiry has also presented the outline of a strange and seductive story about Dmitry Kovtun on a trip to Hamburg in the month before the poisoning.

According to Robin Tam, he asked a long-time friend and restaurant worker whether he knew a cook in London who might be able to administer some “very expensive poison”. (Answer: yes.)

This is a completely new claim. But is it correct, or might it have been confected?

One of the central arguments for the original assumption of Russian state complicity, however, has been quietly scotched.

Do you remember how it was said early on that the polonium had to come from Russia and from a particular laboratory?

This, it appears, was so much nonsense. On the opening day, the inquiry was told that this could neither be proved, nor assumed.

Russia did manufacture most of the world’s polonium -210, but much of it was exported and there is apparently no global register of who has polonium and where it comes from. (So much for the International Atomic Energy Agency.)

The origins of the polonium in this case could not be traced, and this was not an avenue the inquiry would pursue.

All that can be divined from this is that the Litvinenko saga is nowhere near as straightforward as it might once have appeared.

In his opening remarks, Owen repeated his promise to be “fearless” in pursuit of the truth.

The test of this inquiry will be not whether it proves that “Russia did it”, but whether it can convince sceptics such as myself that the evidence points incontrovertibly in that direction.

Or, in the event that the conclusion is different – and Sir Robert has insisted that even the most cherished theories will be challenged – that this different conclusion is accepted by those long convinced of Russia’s guilt.

Eight years is a long time. The political assassination theory is deeply ingrained and supported by layers of Cold War suspicion.

The one consolation, perhaps, which is hardly a consolation at all, is that relations between Russia and almost everyone else in the Western world are now so bad, because of Ukraine, that even the most damning conclusion is unlikely to make them much worse. 

Thursday 29 January 2015

The Usual Channels

Obviously a cock-up, for which someone in Russia will be getting it in the neck as we speak.

But isn't it lucky that we have kept Trident, so that these things cannot ever happen?

Closing The Gulf

All credit to Westminster City Council, which has cited its housing shortage as the grounds on which to reject the Qatari royal family’s plans for £200m palace.

Turning The Tables

Oh, what larks! The public schools turn out to be rubbish. Yes, I know. But it's still funny.

More seriously, since the English state education system has never been more centralised, why has the Secretary of State not resigned today?

And how is getting someone through a resit any less of an educational achievement than getting a high-flyer an A* at the first attempt?

Feared By The Bad, Loved By The Good

An earlier comment suggested that if you Googled "Churchill" in Britain, then you would be directed to the insurance company with the dog before you were directed to anything relating to the long-dead Prime Minister. I have checked this, and it is correct.

To anyone who is any younger than 30, with that age rising all the time, anyone of Churchill's background and political affiliation can only ever be King John, with his bourgeois enablers as the Sheriff of Nottingham. "The Tories" are the bad guys of history and politics. These days, that is just how it is.

Blue Labour Is Happening

Take it from the Telegraph. For, as Mary Riddell writes (even if she does go a bit awry when she takes seriously certain whimpering old dinosaurs of whom most people had never heard even in their day):

From the first, bitter election skirmishes, a curious example of cross-party harmony has emerged. Today Jon Cruddas, Ed Miliband’s, policy reviewer, will give a speech on what politics should be for.

As co-author of his lecture, he has chosen not a Labour colleague but David Cameron’s former speech writer.

This marriage of minds, reflected in a speech to the counselling service Relate, might be read as a lament for lost chances in what Mr Cruddas will call “a dirty and depressing” election.

His themes – love, work and time – explore the duty of politicians to provide the conditions in which human relationships can flourish.

That message underpins the vast policy review which Mr Cruddas undertook at Mr Miliband’s behest.

It recommended the devolution of power and money to city, region and citizen, and its aim was to end the long tradition of top-down government.

By now, Mr Cruddas should be focused on translating his review into the forthcoming manifesto.

Instead he has been collaborating with a former key aide to the Tory Prime Minister on a speech lamenting that “the challenges we face are big but our politics are small.”

Although Mr Cruddas’s text contains no whiff of criticism of the Labour leadership, his choice of co-writer is telling.

Danny Kruger, a former adviser to Mr Cameron, was a prime architect of the Big Society and thus a founding father of compassionate conservatism.

For a while it looked as if his ideas would reshape the Conservative Party.

But Mr Kruger, who helps disadvantaged young people through his Only Connect charity, was to see his hopes dashed.

By early last year, he was pronouncing Mr Cameron’s attempt to resurrect big society ideas “a disappointment.”

The Prime Minister, he wrote “sounded like he sees Britain as a nation of litter pickers and that progress in 2014 would mean a few more church hall tombolas.”

His work, however, did not lack admirers, one of whom was Mr Cruddas.

“I share Danny’s belief that what is missing in our politics is the idea of fraternity,” he tells his audience today. Some might think that the two men have more than a credo in common.

Like Mr Kruger, Mr Cruddas may not see his best ideas realised.

Promoted to be the key figure in reshaping the Labour party, he produced a prospectus for grassroots revival that initially found great favour with Mr Miliband.

But others within the party warned that Labour’s offer should be more modest than the shake-up of the state proposed by Mr Cruddas.

Proponents of a 35 per cent strategy, under which Labour hoped narrowly to make it over the line, appeared to win the day.

Meanwhile Mr Cruddas’s devolution plan for cities was seized on eagerly by the chancellor, George Osborne, as Labour dithered.

There has been little talk of late of the Cruddas vision, and he is not thought to be at the heart of the election team.

Yet Mr Cruddas’s ideas remain hugely popular within powerful elements of his party.

They have bridged a gap between the traditional, Blue Labour wing and New Labour stars, such as the shadow care minister Liz Kendall – mentioned in the Cruddas speech and a possible future leader.

Mr Kruger also has his admirers, but for now the Tory direction is established. Not so the Labour machine, which appears in turmoil after a grim week.

The latest internal rows, on the plan for the NHS, yesterday prompted Lord Kinnock to warn his party that it must stop sniping and start uniting.

But behind what banner should the party rally?

Mr Cruddas’s policy review, which many fear is gathering dust, may still be the best foundation for a Labour victory.

His collaboration with Mr Kruger begs the question of why neither a Tory nor a Labour leader has dared to harness the ideas of their most transformative thinkers.

With the odds of a Labour victory lengthening, it is not too late for Mr Miliband to revive a plan for a politics that appeals to hearts and minds.

If he does not seize on his best chance to reconnect policy and the people, then it may fall to some future Labour leader to rectify that omission.

It’s Time To Get A Grip

Kate Green writes:

The DWP has published statistics on the coalition’s new Personal Independence Payments (PIPs).

The stats show the government has failed – again – to get a grip of its new benefit, leaving thousands of disabled people without support.

PIPs were introduced from April 2013 to replace Disability Living Allowance for working age claimants. But Iain Duncan Smith soon performed his ‘reverse-Midas’.

Delays, backlogs and criticism forced the department to revise rollout plans significantly. The majority of DLA claimants were to be assessed after October 2015.

The NAO still warned that DWP was not on track, disabled people were hit by the impact of delays and the OBR revised DLA/PIP forecasts six times as a result of repeated ministerial failures to get a grip.

Ministers also shifted the timetable for how long disabled people seeking PIPs can expect to wait for support. Initial plans proposed 12-15 weeks from claims to decisions by DWP.

This became an expected 26 weeks just for people to get an assessment as part of the new, multi-million pound process; additional weeks of delays are experienced waiting for DWP to process applications and make decisions.
Despite the much lower number of people requiring PIP assessments and the extended waiting times, DWP still failed to clear the backlog.

Last month the process was subject to significant criticism by the independent reviewer in a report published by DWP.

It concluded that not enough was being done to tackle delays for disabled people.

IDS and the minister for Disabled People published ad hoc stats today in response to a debate secured by Labour last week.

The stats were an attempt to demonstrate DWP is meeting the promise ministers made to deliver all assessments within 16 weeks by the end of 2014.

This promise was secured during an Opposition Day Debate called by shadow secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves MP in June 2014.

But the stats show that thousands of disabled people are still waiting over 16 weeks just to get an assessment.

This week the Guardian reported on one man with cancer who has waited ten months for an assessment. 

The fudged stats also pose more questions than ministers have been willing to answer:

Why are one in ten people still waiting more than 16 weeks for an assessment?

Why are over 180,000 people still stuck in a backlog waiting to have their claims assessed?

How many of the 64,000 claims that have been ‘disallowed’ by the department were due to disabled people being unable to supply medical  information from GPs and hospital consultants within the timeframe stipulated by DWP; and how many of them will simply reapply?

How many of the 143,000 disallowed claims were due to disabled people being unable to attend assessments; and how many of them will  reapply?

And how long is the average wait from claim to DWP decision for disabled people and their families across the country?

DWP has admitted it had to employ 76 additional temporary staff to try and reduce the backlog.

But DWP hasn’t said how many staff in total it’s had to redeploy to cope with the delays in the benefit.

Nor do we know when DWP expects rollout of PIP to be complete; how many disabled people will not qualify for support; and how much more will it cost overall than initially projected.

Disabled people are right to feel aggrieved by the way the government has mishandled this issue, leaving thousands without help for months.

Labour are committed to tackling the delays and the backlog that’s built up.

We’ll also ensure no one with cancer waits longer than 11 weeks for PIP assessments.

After months of Tory welfare waste, and hardship for thousands of claimants, it’s time to get a grip.