Saturday 31 December 2016

A Lesson Learned

People are saying that this has been a bad year.

But today is the day on which Durham County Council would have sacked its 2700 Teaching Assistants, in order to reappoint them on a 23 per cent pay cut.

It is not, however, doing any such thing.

Happy New Year.

A Dame Worthy of The Name

Three cheers for Dame Vera Baird QC, who is the only woman to be an Honorary Member of the Durham Miners' Association.

Dame Vera represented hundreds of Durham and Northumberland miners during the Strike, and her questioning of the Police in the Orgreave trial was crucial to securing the outcome.

Dame Vera is also a trustee of Respect, which advises male victims of domestic abuse.

That last and similar issues cannot be yielded to the likes of Philip Davies, who is an outspoken and abusive opponent of the glaringly necessary inquiry into Orgreave.

Friday 30 December 2016

I Got Down On My Knees

I looked at her, and she at me.

Sir Ken Dodd should take his tickling sticks to the Palace. 

And Sir Ray Davies should go as Lola. 

After all, I hear that at Her Majesty's functions under electric candlelight, they do indeed drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola, C-O-L-A, cola. 

Not "Coca Cola", as on the LP. The Queen is a BBC girl who does not do product placement.

Moral Pressure

Adam Bienkov writes:

The EU is not trusted by the British people and Labour will not seek to block Britain's exit from it, Jeremy Corbyn will say in his New Year’s message. 

"2016 will be defined in history by the referendum on our EU membership," the Labour leader will say in his address to the nation. 

"People didn’t trust politicians and they didn’t trust the European Union. I understand that. 

"I’ve spent over 40 years in politics campaigning for a better way of doing things, standing up for people, taking on the establishment, and opposing decisions that would make us worse off." 

As the UK prepares to trigger Article 50, Corbyn will rule out any attempt by Labour to block or delay Brexit. 

"Labour accepts and respects the result of the referendum. We won’t be blocking our leaving the European Union," he will say. 

Corbyn will echo comments by his shadow chancellor John McDonnell last month in which he welcomed Brexit as an "enormous opportunity" for the UK. 

"We now have the chance to do things differently," he will say. 

"To build an economy that invests and works for everyone across all our nations and regions." 

Some Labour MPs have called on the leadership to push for a softer or delayed Brexit. 

However, Corbyn's comments align him with McDonnell, who believes that any attempt to delay or prevent Britain's exit would put Labour "on the side of certain corporate elites." 

The Labour leader will urge the government not to pursue a Brexit that rewards the banking and financial industries. 

"A Brexit that protects the bankers in the City and continues to give corporate handouts to the biggest companies is not good enough," Corbyn will insist. 

He will not outline how the party plans to prevent such an outcome, however. 

Speaking last month, McDonnell said that while the party would not vote against the government on Brexit, they would use "moral pressure" to persuade the government to get a good deal for workers. 

"I think it's the moral pressure that we'll be able to exert… I don't think it will come down to parliamentary procedures…" he insisted.

"No government can resist [the moral pressure]."

Better Than The Best of Both

For all his faults, Boris Johnson spoke the truth on Yemen. And indeed on Syria, which is a Saudi proxy war, whereas Yemen is not.

He was slapped down by Theresa May.

And his Foreign Office voted in favour of stating the obvious, which is that an Israel intent on annexing the West Bank could not remain both Jewish and democratic.

Simply as a matter of practical reality, that state would always have an Arab majority.

Again, Johnson has been slapped down by Theresa May.

The Posh Boys always get their party back eventually.

But the price of Boris Johnson's relatively promising foreign policy would be the abandonment of Theresa May's relatively promising domestic policy.

In the meantime, the price of Theresa May's relatively promising domestic policy is her atrocious foreign policy.

Labour's internal dissidents manage to be atrocious both at home and abroad.

There is, however, a full strength version of the goods that Johnson abroad and May at home merely promise in diluted form.

That form is, of course, Jeremy Corbyn.

Rebuilding Britain

Fawzi Ibrahim writes: 

Brexit has opened up opportunities for workers to shape their future and the future of the UK. 

Such opportunities are very rare. They come but once in a lifetime. 

The last time such an opportunity presented itself was at the end of World War II. 

On that occasion, the people created the welfare state, the NHS, social housing and the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. 

This time, let’s aim even higher. 

Never before had the British people given such a clear instruction to a government to pursue a specific course of action as they did on June 23 2016. 

The government had no choice but to heed this unequivocal instruction to leave the EU, to leave in a clean break and not some half-way house, a fake Brexit in which we remain subservient to the EU’s core institutions including the single market and its equally neoliberal Customs Union. 

With “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May made it plain that her government will carry out the settled will of the people. 

The fact that she was officially on the Remain side during the campaign and had spoken of the threats to the economy of leaving the EU to a Goldman Sachs meeting of investors before the referendum is irrelevant; if anything, it’s a testament to the depth and maturity of British democracy. 

The 80 per cent vote in favour of triggering Article 50 by the end of March by our parliamentarians who only a few months previously voted Remain by the very same majority is another testament to the strength of our democracy and the power workers can exert. 

MPs and governments are not elected to fulfil their own desires or satisfy their personal foibles, but to carry out the instructions of the people that elected them. 

The referendum vote was also an instruction to the leadership of all trade unions to accept the settled view of workers and move on from the referendum debate. 

Generally this has been the case as more and more trade unions ditch their attachment to the free movement of labour and embrace Brexit. 

Although Labour accepted the decision to leave the EU and whipped its MPs to support invoking Article 50 by the end of March, it nonetheless joined forces with those who are demanding the government state its negotiating priorities. 

Such a demand is both disingenuous and dangerous. It is disingenuous because its real purpose is to derail our exit. 

It is dangerous because it weakens the hand of the government as it goes into negotiations with the EU. 

As any negotiator knows, the one thing you don’t do is give away your priorities and tactics in advance. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to derail Brexit by her contention that “the Scottish people voted for Scotland to remain in the EU” is fatuous. 

The referendum was for Britain as a whole and not whether any individual nation within it wished to stay or leave the EU. 

Equally questionable is her contention that by voting for the UK to remain in the EU and having failed to convince the rest of the country to do the same, Scottish people would want to leave the UK and join the EU. 

If four of five friends on a night out decide to go to a restaurant and a fifth expressed a wish to go clubbing, it does not follow that the person who disagreed would wish to go to a night club had she been on her own, let alone leave her friends and go to the club by herself. 

So it is with the EU referendum. 

If Sturgeon calls a referendum on Scottish independence on the basis of joining the EU, it may very well prove her undoing. 

By the time the issue arises in two or three years time, countries would be queuing to leave a fractured, crisis-ridden EU rather than new ones eager to join, unless, that is, the Scottish people want Edinburgh to be the Athens of the north in more than one sense. 

The Brexit vote was a rejection of neoliberalism as embodied by the single market and its four freedoms of movement. 

This is the spirit of 2016, as powerful and all embracing as the spirit of 1945, which if seized could enable us to transform our economy. 

Any shilly-shallying, any wavering will leave space for anti-working class organisations to divide and divert. 

The trade unions are uniquely placed to define this transformation. 

With their extensive knowledge and expertise, trade unions should debate and formulate the policies necessary to re-orientate the economy towards a post-capitalist future. 

It is not a question of changing governments; it is a question of rebuilding Britain whichever government happens to occupy Downing Street.

Bang To Rights

Neither House of Parliament is ever going to vote to repeal the Human Rights Act.

But bringing the matter to the floor of the Commons would be useful as an indicator.

Fair To Say

We learned today that Margaret Thatcher was nearly fined for failing to register her Poll Tax details. That was during the last great voter suppression, from which many areas have never recovered. And now, Stephen Bush writes:

The government’s plan to pilot the use of photo ID to cut down on electoral fraud has many on the left worried that the proposal is actually a ruse to decrease the number of Labour voters who are eligible to vote.

Are they right?

The first thing to note is that while there is a very small number of electoral malpractice cases – fewer than 100 – some of which count as an electoral fraud, they involve matters unrelated to the wrong people voting at polling stations. 

The most frequent crime is putting false signatures on nomination papers, after that breaking expenses rules, and lastly making false claims about other candidates. 

The most recent high-profile cases of electoral fraud involved false claims about a candidate (Labour’s Phil Woolas against his Liberal Democrat opponent in 2010), postal vote fraud (Birmingham, 2004) and bribery and spiritual influence (Lutfur Rahman, 2014). 

In none of the cases would a stronger ID requirement have detected or prevented the crime. 

Of course, some people will ask, “but what about the criminals we don’t catch?” 

The difficulty there is that it’s hard to see where this fraud is taking place. 

In all those cases, the result itself was a sign something was up. 

If someone is rigging results, they are doing so in a way that produces outcomes entirely in keeping with national swing and demographic behaviour. 

Other than the thrill of the chase, it’s not clear why someone would do this. 

What we do know from the one part of the United Kingdom that requires voters to produce ID before voting ­– Northern Ireland – is that it makes it harder for poorer people to vote as they are less likely to have the required identification. 

That's why after their pilot, their scheme, introduced in 2002, went hand-in-hand with free ID. 

There is, however, a strong argument that elections need to command a high level of public legitimacy, making the case for ID stronger. 

But there is a wide suite of measures the government could bring in alongside this change that would achieve that while lessening the impact of having an ID. 

They could, for instance, make it so you are automatically enrolled when you pay council tax, a water bill, a heating bill or any other charge that comes with a fixed abode. 

They could roll out a free photo ID for elections.

But as they are doing neither, it feels fair to say that at best the government is relaxed about making it harder for supporters of its opponents to vote, and at worst is actively seeking to do so.

The Real Message of The Defeat

Patrick Cockburn writes: 

The new ceasefire in Syria will not mean an end to the shooting, but it marks a crucial development in the five-and-a-half year long civil war. 

It will not stop the killing because the biggest armed opposition groups in the shape of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra are not covered by the agreement and have a strong motive for making sure that it fails. 

But what is most important about the ceasefire, which began on Thursday night and appeared at first to be taking hold, is not so much what is agreed as who is doing the agreeing.

According to a draft copy of the Russian-Turkish agreement, the Turkish Government “guarantees the commitment of the opposition in all the areas that the opposition controls to the ceasefire, including any type of shelling.” 

Russia gives similar guarantees on behalf of the Syrian Government and its allies. 

These are bland words, but what is important here is that Turkey is distancing itself from the armed opposition groups who have depended on its support or tolerance since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad started in 2011. 

Without such backing, anti-Assad forces may be unable to withstand Syrian Government offensives in future. 

In other words, there has been a decisive change in the balance of power inside Syria against the rebels and in favour of Assad. 

This was the real message of the defeat of the rebels in east Aleppo. 

Their former allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, on occasion, the US – did nothing to save them. Turkey is giving priority to fighting the Kurds at home and abroad; getting rid of Assad is well down its political agenda. 

In sharp contrast, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah from Lebanon did everything to ensure that the Syrian Army and its allies were victorious. 

But the present ceasefire is not solely the outcome of Syrian and regional developments. 

The last hope of the non-Isis opposition in Syria and its foreign allies was that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election and switch US policy to one more committed to getting rid of Assad and hostile to Russia. 

Instead, they were horrified by the election of Donald Trump, a candidate even more dismissive of the non-Isis rebels, focused on destroying Isis and more favourable to a Russian alliance than President Obama.  

Will the US acceptance of Russia playing a dominant role in Syria be capsized by new US sanctions against Moscow and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats? 

Probably not, because what Trump is proposing to do openly in Syria is not much different from what Obama was doing without publicity. 

It is a long time since the US was seriously interested in getting rid of Assad and it has instead been concentrating on defeating Isis. 

This is likely to continue under Trump and might even have done so under Hillary Clinton, if she had become president. 

At this stage, US policy in Syria and Iraq would in any case be difficult to unglue. 

But in a broader sense President Obama’s measures against Russia and Secretary of State John Kerr’s denunciation of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians will have an impact on every aspect of US foreign policy. 

This is less because of specific policy initiatives, which can be dismissed as the empty gestures of an expiring administration, but because Obama’s actions are evidence that political warfare in the US post-election is not going to de-escalate. 

There may be a shaky ceasefire in Syria, but there is none in Washington.   

The Russian-US relationship in Syria will remain a mixture of rivalry and cooperation. 

The most important decisions here have already been taken by Obama when he did not intervene militarily against Assad in August 2013 and accepted Russian intervention in September 2015. 

But the degree of cooperation with Russia will remain in dispute between different power centres in Washington. 

This was already the case why the Syrian ceasefire negotiated by the US and Russia in September this year almost immediately collapsed in rancour. 

Both sides were acutely mistrustful of the other: the US claimed that Russian and Syrian planes had deliberately bombed an aid convoy bound for east Aleppo. 

The Russians and Syrian government suspected that US airstrikes had deliberately targeted and killed 62 Syrian soldiers near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. 

The present Russian-Turkish ceasefire suffers from some of the weaknesses of the two previous Russian-US ones in February and September: several of the major combatants have not signed up and are unlikely to do so because the ceasefire is directed against them. 

But all three of the ceasefires of 2016 have been serious, even when they failed, because they have involved major players in the conflict: Russia, US, Turkey and, at one remove, Iran.  

The interwoven crises in Syria are of nightmare complexity and not all the arrows point towards peace. 

Turkey is backing away from supporting a war to overthrow Assad, but it is also weighing up the prospects for fighting the Syrian Kurds and eliminating their de facto state. 

President Bashar al-Assad has signed up to the latest ceasefire, but he makes no secret of his determination to retake all of Syria. 

He is probably waiting for the ceasefire to collapse because its deficiencies before resuming the offensive. Isis, which has been on the retreat in Syria and in Iraq, is by no means out of business. 

As east Aleppo was falling, its fighters recaptured Palmyra and advance on an important Syrian airbase called T4. 

At the same time the Iraqi armed forces, so confident two months ago that they could take Mosul quickly, are suffering heavy casualties in ferocious street fighting in the east of the city. 

The Syrian and Iraqi wars are still full of nasty surprises for all participants, as the Trump presidency may soon find out for itself. Every crisis in the region is linked to every other. 

One of the biggest potential crises hanging over the Middle East is not Trump’s attitude to Russia, but to Iran. 

The role of Russia in Syria tends to be over-publicised and that of Iran, and its loose Shia coalition, tends to be under-reported. 

Up to the Russian military intervention in September 2015, it was the alliance with Iran that was most important to Assad. 

Iran certainly has not fought a long war in Syria, or in Iraq for that matter, to see the country impotent on the regional stage and divided up into zones of influence.  

Peace talks are to start soon in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, though the pro-Assad powers are not looking for power-sharing or compromise but a virtual surrender by the other side in which the winner takes all.

One does not have to spend long in Washington these days to find that, while there are many important people who detest Assad and Vladimir Putin, this feeling is far exceeded by the hatred they feel for the victors of the US presidential election. 

These divisions are bound to further envenom and shape policy decisions towards the crises and wars exploding in the Middle East.

Theresa May Not

Theresa May's Government did not abstain on United Security Council Resolution 2334.

It voted in favour.

Yet she is apparently having some kind of argument with John Kerry over it. In her own mind, anyway.

She did nothing much in six years at the Home Office. And now this.

She is just not very good, is she?

Thursday 29 December 2016

Never Had It So Good?

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Harold Macmillan.

On the extent of public ownership, and on the proper role of trade unions, he was well to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.

In 1984, his maiden speech in the House of Lords received a standing ovation that was all but unprecedented, if not actually so.

He had bemoaned the polarisation of society, ridiculed the origins of monetarism, and called the striking Durham miners "the best men in the world", not least for the part played by the Durham Light Infantry in the two World Wars.

By very stark contrast, the present Leadership of Durham County Council has closed the DLI Museum, and intends to sell the land for luxury housing.

It is probably too late to do anything about the first part of that.

But the second part might just about be preventable, when Labour is cleared out of Durham County Council this coming May.

And replaced, at least in Leadership positions, with people who support, and who are supported by, Jeremy Corbyn, Champion of the Teaching Assistants.

He has stated today that Tony Blair would never be a Labour parliamentary candidate while he himself was Leader.

One of Corbyn's closest allies was kept out of Parliament by Blair 20 years ago. What goes around, comes around.

I cannot imagine that Constituency Labour Parties were queueing up to select Blair, anyway. But my offer to him still stands.

There will be an open seat right here in his old County Durham stomping ground in 2020. 

I am putting up for it. There is nothing to stop him from giving me a run for my money. 

Or he can stop interfering in British domestic politics.

An Advance Too Far

$250,000 for the thoughts of "Milo", who is apparently so important he does not need a surname?

Do I wish that I, too, had slept with Damian Thompson?


No, I do not.

Shocking Reality

This is the stuff. Steve Sweeney writes:

Parking charges imposed by NHS trusts should be capped, Labour said yesterday after figures showed that they made a record £120 million last year from patients and visitors arriving by car. 

Shadow community health minister Julie Copper made the call after statistics obtained through Freedom of Information requests showed that over half of the 89 NHS trusts that responded charge disabled people to park at their hospitals. 

Private companies are also raking in large sums from the charges. 

At the North West London Healthcare NHS Trust, private company APCOA made a staggering £1.25 million from parking charges in 2015-16 and received a bumper pay-out of £167,357 in parking fines over the same period under the terms of a private finance initiative deal. 

Ms Cooper said:

“Hospitals cannot justify increasing car parking charges, nor can half of all NHS trusts justify charging disabled people for parking. 

“The government urgently needs to address this situation and take steps to cap the amount hospitals can charge for car parking fees.” 

Patients Association head Katherine Murphy said: 

“The shocking reality about car parking charges is that they are taking money from the sick and vulnerable to top up NHS coffers. 

“This is not what car parking charges should be used for. 

“The NHS is clearly underfunded, but the onus on meeting the funding crisis should most certainly not be shouldered by the sick, injured and vulnerable.”

But never mind "capped". Make it "scrapped".

David Cameron To NATO?

Probably not, now that the story has been leaked.

But they really do want him out of the country. They'll come up with something else.

The Panama Papers have not gone away.

And you can now walk from Land's End to the Scottish Border without ever leaving the area of a Police Force that was investigating the Conservative Party's overspending at the 2015 General Election.

Had the BBC run Channel 4 News's meticulous report on that, then there would have been a hung Parliament at the 2016 General Election.

Watch what will happen on 2017, when it is all going to come to the boil.

NATO? Can't they find a job for Cameron further away than that? I ask that for their own sakes.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

A Country That Works For Everyone

Characterised by the abolition of hospital car parking charges.

Jeremy Corbyn and my old mate Jonathan Ashworth need to call for that immediately.

Before Theresa May just goes ahead and does it, anyway.

Before Our Very Eyes

Jeremy Corbyn has paid exactly as much attention as they deserved to Barack Obama and David Axelrod.

Their voter suppression measures led to the nomination of Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders.

And thus to the election of Donald Trump, as the Rust Belt finally bit back.

Disintegration, indeed.

Axelrod does have ties to the Labour Right. But honestly, who cares?

Cards Marked

Well, that was a one day wonder, if it was even that.

Everyone saw straight through the attempt to introduce identity cards under the pretext of tackling nonexistent electoral fraud.

Meanwhile, the net continues to tighten around the real electoral fraud, namely the enormous overspending by the Conservative Party in marginal seats last year.

Had the BBC ever reported that, as Channel 4 News has done in great detail, then the Government would have resigned months ago.

Not a mere change of Prime Minister. The whole lot out, and several of them into the clink.

That latter part will happen yet. In fact, it looks as if that, together with the Panama Papers, was why David Cameron resigned.

Margaret Thatcher, as she herself never tired of pointing out, was removed because of the Poll Tax. She had no time for any fig leaf about the EU.

As she bitterly said, she was brought down by a campaign organised openly, not even by the Labour Party, but by the Militant Tendency, with which for all practical purposes Conservative MPs colluded in order to get rid of her and thus save their own seats.

John Major lost in 1997 because everyone thought that there had been a recession for four and a half years by then.

His defeat had nothing to do with the Maastricht rebels, who were figures of fun and who disproportionately lost their own seats.

And it is increasingly obvious that Cameron's resignation, especially from Parliament as well, had nothing to do with the EU referendum result.

Rather, he was being found out as corrupt on at least two counts.

In 10 years' time, he will be remembered for nothing else.

The Hopes and Fears of All The Years

The one-state solution again, after all these years? Good heavens.

And where would be in it? The Hashemites would be told to pack their bags and take their Bedouin entourage back to the Peninsula.

Thereby augmenting even further the permanent Palestinian majority in the One State, with most of the rest made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews who either liked the idea of Zionism but certainly not the practical reality of it, or else dismissed the whole concept as blasphemy and idolatry of the vilest kind.

The more or less, and in many cases fiercely, secular Zionists have only themselves to blame.

The insisted on maintaining the birthrates of white Western Europe or the American blue states, even though they knew perfectly well that no one else involved would ever have dreamed of doing any such thing.

The consequence was inevitable, and here it now is.

Budget Responsibility

A Labour government could boost the NHS by committing a specified proportion of national wealth to fund it and setting up a new independent body to ensure ministers give it the money it needs, the shadow health secretary has said.

Jonathan Ashworth said a watchdog modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) would help ensure the NHS received proper funding and avoid rows like the one over Theresa May’s claim that her administration is giving the NHS more money than it asked for. 

Labour is looking into the practicality of having a new fiscal rule that would guarantee the health service a minimum proportion of government spending, modelled on the existing processes that allocate specified percentages for defence and overseas aid. 

If that existed, a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration might decide to try to get British health spending back up to the European average as a share of gross domestic product, as Tony Blair’s Labour government did in the 2000s. 

“I’m attracted to the idea of having an OBR-type body which assesses NHS finances, maybe at the start and middle of the parliament, [and] assesses the state of the NHS,” Ashworth said in an interview. 

“I’m attracted to the idea of an independent body, because we’ve seen in recent weeks the political arguments over the £10bn [that May claims her government is giving to the NHS in England]. 

“An independent body would give certainty and an extra level of scrutiny.” 

An authoritative independent body would both help ministers decide how much money the NHS needed to cope with rising demand caused by an ageing population and check on the government’s progress towards delivering those amounts, Ashworth said. 

This month he told a House of Lords inquiry into the sustainability of the NHS that he favoured the creation of a watchdog that “gives periodic reports on the financial pressures on the NHS, what is needed and what are the workforce pressures, and offers a degree of objectivity in the planning which is sightly separate from the political knockabout that inevitably happens in the House of Commons.” 

Other opposition parties also support the creation of a body to monitor government spending on the NHS. 

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesman, has said he favours “an independent periodic assessment of how much you need to raise to spend on achieving an effective and efficient health and care system”. 

Lamb told the Lords inquiry: 

“In an age when trust in politics and politicians is at an all-time low, creating an independent process that gives people some sense of reassurance about the amount that we need to spend makes it much easier to make the care for increasing the amount people have to pay, if necessary, to fund the system.” 

Philippa Whitford, the SNP health spokeswoman, also backs creating a new watchdog but believes the OBR’s remit is too limited, given that the National Audit Office issue regular updates on NHS finances. 

“What you require is an arm’s length body that is part of the decision making so that it does not become nailed down into the five-year [parliamentary] cycles,” she said. 

Leading health thinktanks have thrown their weight behind the calls for an OBR-style body, which the Lords select committee is considering recommending in its final report due in March. 

But critics say the NHS already has too many bodies with overlapping responsibilities. 

Prof Anita Charlesworth, chief economist at the Health Foundation, said: 

“New bodies such as the infrastructure commission have been put in place to improve decision making, transparency and accountability. 

“There is a strong case for a similar independent body in health – an OBR for the NHS. 

“A new independent body to ensure the the NHS is not just delivering high-quality care today but has the resources (money and people) it needs to meet the challenges of the future.”

Prof Chris Ham, chief executive of the King’s Fund, said: 

“The NHS has gone through cycles of boom and bust and we would welcome plans to create greater certainty on future funding. 

“We would also welcome regular independent assessments of funding needs, [but] these assessments should include social care as well as the NHS.”  

But Prof John Appleby, chief economist at the Nuffield Trust, said a new fiscal rule could mean the NHS ends up getting less money than it needs. 

“Fixing a minimum target spend for the NHS may have its political attractions but makes less sense in economic terms,” he said. 

“In practical terms, too, it is not clear what such a minimum should be or on what basis it would be chosen.” 

Charlesworth agreed, saying: 

“Fixing health spending as a share of GDP would be an improvement on the funding outlook for this decade, but it is unlikely to be enough to match demand pressures on the health system in the long term.”

New Year's Resolution

Hannah Fearn writes: 

Be grateful for what you’ve got, because things are only going to get worse. 

That is the warning from the influential Westminster think tank that spends its time head-scratching over the fate of low- and middle-income families.  

In the run-up to Christmas, the Resolution Foundation published two short but interesting pieces which, taken together, should send a certain chill down the spine as families gather to ring in the new year. 

First, a blog by director Torsten Bell reminded readers that, however poorly off we felt in 2016, we may end up looking back with rose-hued spectacles at the year of Brexit and Donald Trump

The small growth in disposable income we had this year might be, in Bell’s words, “as good as it gets”. 

Household income grew at the fastest rate in the year to April 2016 than it has since 2001, and that included working households as well as pensioners

Growth was also shared across income levels; most people probably felt they had a little more money in their pocket towards the middle of the year, even though it was only taking them back to pre-crisis levels. 

Now Bell says earnings growth is set to fall yet again – particularly around the turn of the year. 

This is down to both inflation and the delayed Brexit effect. 

Secondly, it produced a study on housing which concluded that Government figures projecting the number of families that own their own home were wrong. 

Because these figures are counted per household, rather than per person living in a property, any lodger renting a room in an otherwise owner-occupied home would not be accounted for. 

Similarly, house shares – popular among people aged under 40, many priced out of buying their own home – are classed as a single renting household, even it if includes five unrelated individuals sharing the rent on one large property. 

Just few years ago, those same people may have been living in five, owner-occupied one-bedroom flats; they would have been counted as five distinct households.

So though official figures tell us that 61 per cent of people still own, the Resolution Foundation believes this is a gross underestimate of a figure that is still yet to rise, given house price growth and the end of wage inflation as predicted for 2017. 

So what we can expect to see next year, and for a number of years to follow it, are living standards falling for all – but most sharply for those in the bottom income brackets. 

They are not just falling in real terms, but – and this is important – falling against where one’s realistic aspirations might have been set. 

Tell the 35-year-old married couple stuck sharing a room in a house that their small rise in income this year was something to get excited about and they will laugh. 

This is not what they had imagined married life would be like when they first embarked on their adult lives before the 2008 financial crash. 

What will mark out 2017 as different, though, is that next year work will not release lower-income families from the risk of falling into poverty. 

Inflation, poor wage growth, zero hours contracts and rising house prices are combining to create an income trap that is increasingly hard to escape. 

The small fillip given to wages by the Government’s introduction of a higher minimum wage is negated by changes it is making to the benefit system.

Four years ago, the Department for Work and Pensions published data that revealed that the majority of new housing benefit claimants were now in work. 

The figure of overall housing benefit claims from in-work families had doubled by 2014

Due to the introduction of Iain Duncan Smith’s crisis-prone benefit reform programme, Universal Credit, the same figures for 2016 are not available. 

However, the DWP does reveal that 41 per cent of all those claiming Universal Credit – which includes housing benefit – are also in work. 

But these benefits – no longer just paid to the unemployed but used to support low-income working families to meet their very basic needs for shelter, food and warmth – are being pared back. 

We have already had years of trimming of housing benefit, the introduction of the bedroom tax, changes to disability pages, the rising of the state pension age, the freezing of working age benefits and introduction of a benefit cap, and cuts to tax credits. 

In 2017 follows (if executed as planned): reductions in tax credits for child support; the removal family tax credit criteria; the removal of automatic housing benefit eligibility for those aged under 21; and cutbacks to hardship payments for mentally ill and homeless people.

With the Brexit due to send its ripples across the economy next year, employment is not expected to rebound. 

What choice will the lowest income families have but to work more hours for ever less, with so little to show for it? 

This is the year we’ll see a resurgence of in-work poverty in modern Britain. 

If we thought 2016 was tough, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Kith and Kin?

As Israel accuses the rest of the world of being isolated, imagine if there really were to be a war between Israel and New Zealand.

In Britain, the ramifications within and around both main political parties would be earth-shattering and epoch-making.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Identifying The Problem

Again, an anonymous comment on a previous post gets to the point:

The ID scheme for voting could only work with compulsory ID cards. That's what this is really about.

The BBC's failure to pick up Channel 4's meticulously researched Tory election fraud story should have killed the BBC's credibility already. When it all comes to court, that will finally happen.

Perhaps it will. But the Orgreave Broadcasting Corporation has form as long as its arm.

As does the Conservative Party. Some areas have still never recovered from the mass deregistration that arose out of the Poll Tax.

The only forms of official ID are driving licenses, which are not held by at least nine million adults, and ludicrously expensive passports, which are not held by 9.5 million.

Those figures amount to one in five adults, overwhelmingly the poor.

At the 2015 General Election, 31 million votes were cast.

There were only 26 cases of personation at a polling station, 27 cases of postal voting fraud, and 11 cases of proxy voting fraud.

Fully six cases resulted in so much as a Police caution.

Channel 4 News has, however, established a very strong case that the Conservative Party massively overspent in so many marginal constituencies that it is possible to travel from Land's End to the Scottish Border without ever leaving the area of a Police Force that was now investigating this matter.

Those investigations are very much ongoing.

But they are never, ever mentioned by this country's near-monopoly purveyor of news, the BBC.

As for identity cards, they have been the solution in search of a problem for at least 25 years.

Although quite that level of wildly over-budget computerised chaos was too much even for the King of Wildly Over-Budget Computerised Chaos, Tony Blair.

How would we identify ourselves when we first went along to collect our identity cards? Or when we first applied for them?

Year's End

Fill in the blank: "2016 could still redeem itself, if ... died."

Land's End

A comment on a previous post puts it very well: 

You can now travel from Land's End to the Scottish border and never leave the area of a police force that was investigating Tory election fraud, yet there has still not been a word about it on the BBC. 

I used to think the Queen backed Brexit. But now I know she couldn't have done, because Laura Kuenssberg says she did. Anything Kuenssberg says must be a lie. Has to be a lie.

When the charges are laid arising out of this enormous investigation, then will the BBC feign surprise? Or will it simply refuse to carry the story at all?

In The Grand Scheme of Things

Owen Jones writes:

Let me raise a glass to your festive generosity. 

You, the taxpayer, have showered your charity on the needy and deserving: otherwise known as Atos and Capita, two private companies that have been given more than £500m of your money since 2013. 

Your munificence is boundless: you don’t expect returns from your donations, given to these companies to provide effective personal independence payment assessments (PIP) for disabled people. 

No: despite years of being solemnly told that there simply isn’t enough money to properly fund services and the welfare state, you have made it your mission to look after the hard-done-by shareholders of state-dependent companies. 

I realise it’s Christmas and anger should be reserved for burning the sprouts or arguing over the TV remote, but seriously, you should be teed off. 

Companies such as Atos and Capita are paid to carry out what are, frankly, pretty degrading government tests on sick and disabled people to see if they really do deserve benefits. 

Many claimants fail these tests, forcing them to endure a long period of anxiety and worry, and then go through a stressful appeal process. 

According to figures obtained by the Daily Mirror, six out of 10 of the 90,000 claimants who appealed over PIP decisions won at tribunal. 

So the companies get a fat cheque, courtesy of HM Taxpayer, disabled people get treated appallingly, and all for what? 

This is, in the grand scheme of things, a rich country. 

One of the richest countries that have ever existed, in fact. 

The problem is how we decide to allocate the nation’s huge wealth, much of it concentrated in all too few hands. 

Hundreds of millions are doled out to companies like Atos and Capita, while our government does all it can to prise paltry sums of money from the hands of disabled people. 

Just look at the society in which we live. 

Banks plunge the country into economic calamity, get bailed out with huge sums of money and yet so little is asked in return. 

Train companies that offer an embarrassing, uncomfortable service in exchange for rip-off ticket prices get subsidised to the tune of billions. 

Accountancy firms get lucrative state contracts to help draw up tax laws, then tell their wealthy clients how to get around them. 

The state has to step in to top up wages that millions cannot afford to live on, while landlords charging extortionate rents get billions in housing benefit. I could go on. 

And yet – while those at the top enjoy the generosity of the state – our country strips social security away from disabled people, fails to build housing, provide jobs with a decent living wage, and hacks away at essential services.

Atos and Capita are just two striking examples, but there are countless others. 

It is unjust, unfair, but above all, it defies basic common sense. 

This is, to repeat, a wealthy country. 

Let’s start spending that wealth on people who need it, not the failed vested interests which certainly do not.

On The Cards

Since when were major constitutional announcements made on Bank Holidays during parliamentary recesses?

As with the boundary changes, the Conservatives had assumed that they were going to lose the 2015 General Election. But their own rogue activists' electoral fraud, dutifully unreported by the "Gold Standard" Orgreave Broadcasting Corporation, led to a different result.

Therefore, as Mikey Smith writes:

Voters will be forced to show ID at polling stations under a new Tory crackdown on 'voting fraud' - despite there being little evidence of it happening. 

A pilot scheme cooked up by Sir Eric Pickles will see voters required to produce ID before voting. 

He also suggested stricter rules on postal votes and called for English and Welsh to be the only languages allowed at polling booths. 

The government is expected to accept almost all of the measures proposed by Sir Eric, the anti-corruption tsar. 

Of 51.5 million votes cast in elections in 2015, there were 481 cases of alleged electoral fraud. Of these, the vast majority were not voting offences. 

More than half were campaigning offences - such as complaints about candidates making false statements about opponents, expenses offences or issues to do with campaign posters or flyers. 

Just 123 alleged cases related to voter fraud, with 26 cases of impersonating another voter, 27 cases of improper postal voting and 25 cases of 'undue influence' over a voter. 

Of these 123, all but 22 were dismissed - mostly because it was clear no offence had been committed or due to lack of evidence. 

Of the remaining 22 cases, six resulted in police cautions.

In their recommendations on how to combat this apparent epidemic, the Electoral Commission admitted certain groups of the population were less likely to have acceptable forms of ID. 

They include young people, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, women and the elderly. 

They suggested this problem could be solved by introducing a free 'voter card', which citizens would have to apply for before casting their ballot. 

This plan would cost between £1.8m and £10.8m, they say. 

Sir Eric says a range of forms of ID could be trialled, some of which would not require photographic evidence. 

He said: "A driving licence, passport or utility bills would not seem unreasonable to establish identity." 

Sir Eric insists there is little evidence that introducing the checks would reduce the number of people seeking to vote. 

New strict voter ID laws introduced in some US states ahead of the 2016 election resulted in a stark drop in minority turnout. 

Research by the LA Times showed that the racial turnout gap doubled or tripled in states with strict voter ID laws.

People from Latino communities were 7.1% less likely to vote if they had to show ID.

The draconian measures were pushed through by Republicans in the United States despite research showing voter fraud was essentially nonexistent.

Between 2000 and 2014 there were 31 credible instances of voter fraud in the United States out of more than a billion votes cast.

Sir Eric’s own report, published earlier this year, listed just three significant electoral court cases involving voter fraud since 2004 and only 11 significant convictions for voter fraud offences since 2005.

These included the notorious Tower Hamlets mayoral election, in which Lutfur Rahman was found guilty of illegal and corrupt practices after he and his agents were responsible for bribery, impersonation and postal vote fraud, among other offences. [That is one way of putting it. The egregious law of "undue spiritual influence" calls for mass defiance.]

But while Sir Eric’s report identified some ‘risks’ in the voting system, it provided scant evidence there was widespread exploitation of those risks.

Lo and behold, this is being "tried out" in areas with large Muslim populations. It will hit the poorest in those areas, but it would hit the poorest in any area. However, since in this case those will be Muslims, all "points" will be said to have been "proved".

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats engaged in electoral fraud in Hackney in the 1990s. It ended when the politicians behind it were sent to prison. That is how to deal with these things, such as they are.

A return is also long overdue to the requirement of a very good reason if you wanted a postal vote.

Monday 26 December 2016

Festive Fare

1,414 people read this blog yesterday.

On Christmas Day.

The Real Aung San Suu Kyi

Jon Emont writes:

In early November, Zaw Lay and his family were hiding in the basement of a friend’s house in Yekhatchchaung GwaSone village, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Two Burmese military helicopters circled overhead, firing indiscriminately at the terrified villagers huddled below.

“The helicopters [didn’t] see us but they are firing continuously,” he recently told me over the phone, from a forest enclave inBangladesh where he now lives.

“We don’t [dare] go outside the home, if the helicopter men see us they will kill us.”

Once the helicopters stopped their strafing, Burmese soldiers on the ground began burning the village to the ground.

There was chaos when Zaw Lay fled, and he learned only later that his elderly mother had been trapped inside a burning building.

“My mom’s dead,” he told me.

Rohingya Muslims like Zaw Lay are a small minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

They are becoming smaller still, thanks to a brutal campaign initiated in mid-October by the Burmese military.

The spark for the violence came on October 9, when a Rohingya militia attacked a police outpost in northern Rakhine province, killing nine officers and seizing weapons and equipment.

The military’s harsh reprisal campaign, designed to retrieve every gun stolen during the initial raid, is believed to have killed hundreds of Rohingya, and sent around 25,000 more fleeing into Bangladesh in what Amnesty International has termed “collective punishment.”

It is the type of appalling human rights situation that demands a strong voice for tolerance and equality.

And Myanmar would appear to have such a figure in its paramount civilian leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his historic visit to Myanmar in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Suu Kyi for showing “unbreakable courage and determination” in her decades-long fight against the country’s military dictatorship, and in September of this year, during Suu Kyi’s first visit to the White House, Obama called for a lifting of U.S. sanctions to reward Myanmar for making democratic progress.

But to the puzzlement of the world, and to the dismay of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has been silent on the military’s recent actions.

Worse than that, her party has dismissed reports of mass slaughter as mere “fabrications.”

The world has waited a long time for Suu Kyi to address the Rohingya problem.

She has been given the benefit of the doubt, out of deference to both her sterling human rights record and to the complex political landscape she must navigate for civilian rule to truly triumph over a military that still wields considerable power in Myanmar.

But as the body count continues to mount, there is a dawning suspicion that there may be no objection forthcoming—that indifference is Suu Kyi’s final response to a human rights catastrophe unfolding in her country’s borderlands.

The latest reprisals against the Rohingya fit into a long pattern of persecution.

For decades Burmese generals, hardline religious leaders, and politicians have argued that the Muslim Rohingya, who number around one million people and make up around 2 percent of Myanmar’s population, are Bengali interlopers intent on stealing the country and making it Muslim.

Communal violence in 2012 led to hundreds of deaths, and forced 150,000 Rohingya to live in squalid internal displacement camps.

Nonetheless, the situation for many Rohingya has gotten dramatically worse since the violence began two months ago.

And there is disturbing evidence that the military’s campaign is more sweeping than previous pogroms.

Matthew Smith, chief executive at Fortify Rights, an NGO focused on human rights in Southeast Asia, is gathering testimony from Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since October.

“The situation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse for the Rohingya in the north,” he said.

“We were talking with a group of people today, conducting interviews.

“In a group of 9 or 10, every single one had witnessed family members being killed, every single one coming from different villages.

“Seeing the same tactics employed in disparate locations indicates the systematic nature of what’s happening.”

The precise nature of the campaign is hard to verify, though Smith confirmed that many other Rohingya had also mentioned the military’s use of helicopter gunships against civilians in Yekhatchchaung GwaSone.

The military has blocked rights groups and independent journalists from getting to the remote border-region where the violence is taking place.

But witnesses who have fled to Bangladesh, as well as satellite imagery of burned-out Rohingya villages, tell a chilling story of widespread destruction of civilian areas.

Though the Burmese military has described its actions as limited counter-insurgency operations to defeat Rohingya terrorists, Abu Siddiq, a Rohingya teacher, said there was nothing limited about the attack on his village a little over a month ago.

“They always try to destroy us,” he told me, in a telephone interview from Bangladesh.

Like other Rohingya refugees quoted in this piece, he asked to be identified by an unofficial name to avoid military reprisals.

Even before the attack, Siddiq said, life in Myanmar was impossible.

In order to travel outside of his village, he had to receive special government papers.

But papers issued by the police were considered invalid by the military, and vice-versa, meaning that he was in constant danger of being shot by someone in uniform who could accuse him of violating the law.

He is worried about his relatives still caught up in the violence back home.

“How can we live here?” he asked.

The Burmese military isn’t supposed to be launching assaults on civilian areas anymore.

Last November, Myanmar held its first relatively free and fair democratic elections in generations.

The National League of Democracy, the party led by Suu Kyi, triumphed in spectacular fashion over the party of the military, ending five decades of effective military rule.

Suu Kyi’s party inherited many challenges: the world’s longest running civil war between the central government and a constellation of ethnic armed groups; an underdeveloped economy and education system; a meddling neighbor in China.

But the biggest challenge of all was the continued power of the military.

According to the Burmese Constitution, the military gets 25 percent of seats in parliament, controls key government ministries including the national police and border affairs, and can declare a national emergency and take back power from the civilian government.

Still, given how much progress had been made in the space of a few years, there was reason to hope that Suu Kyi would, slowly but surely, triumph over these obstacles and cement civilian control over government institutions.

She is revered among the Burmese public for serving 15 years of house arrest in her struggle against military rule, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her unceasing advocacy for democracy.

Though Suu Kyi herself was barred by the constitution from becoming president, she selected Htin Kyaw, a relatively undistinguished loyalist, to be president, and declared herself “above” the presidency.

Her official title is state counsellor, and she is treated like a head of state when she travels abroad.

She has had more success than anyone at facing down Burmese generals and is now Myanmar’s undisputed civilian leader.

But “The Lady,” as she is known in Myanmar, has been anything but steadfast when it comes to the Rohingya.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi refused numerous opportunities to condemn a group of hardline monks who were spreading hatred against the country’s Muslims.

Suu Kyi did not object when, before the 2015 election, election authorities decided that Rohingya Muslims would be summarily denied the right to vote.

Her party even purged its party list of Muslim candidates, in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to defuse criticism from the country’s Buddhist hardliners.

And still, there was hope that this was mere election posturing, and that Suu Kyi would act on behalf of the Rohingya if her party won the election.

That hope was quickly dashed; shortly after her party took power, the foreign affairs ministry advised foreign embassies to cease using the term “Rohingya,” which is unpopular among Burmese nationalists because it implies that the Rohingya are a legimitate ethnic group as opposed to Bengali infiltrators.

“Unfortunately the argument that she’s staying silent or neutral in regards to Rakhine state based on political reasons has fallen flat,” said Smith of Fortify Rights.

Rights advocates say that her response to the most recent violence has been even more dispiriting.

The president’s office called foreign media reports on the military’s brutality towards Rohingya “fabrications.”

One of the ways Suu Kyi overturned military rule was to consistently challenge the military’s account of events, but when it comes to violence against Rohingya, she appears willing to accept them.

“She knows everything,” said U Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, about the military campaign.

“The military has been briefing her on every important issue.”

“Her true colors are being shown based on how she thinks of Rakhine state, and those colors are very concerning,” said Smith.

“She’s not only failing to prevent atrocities but she’s also denying atrocities are occurring.”

U Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer and activist who has been in and out of prison for decades thanks to the country’s military, said that he was deeply disappointed by Suu Kyi’s failures to stick up for Rohingya civilians.

“She cannot do anything for us, she’s lying around the world,” he said, referring to a trip to Singapore in which Suu Kyi herself appeared to dismiss claims of abuse towards Rohingya as “fabrications.”

He said Suu Kyi’s response also demonstrated how little power the civilian government has compared to the military:

“Even though she’s head of state, head of country, she cannot visit Rakhine state,” where the violence is taking place.

State abuse towards Rohingya seems to be continuing.

My Rohingya sources in Bangladesh keep sending me updates (including graphic photos) of Rohingya men they say have recently been killed in Myanmar, and Smith said he was also receiving similar reports.

Although the response from Western governments remains muted, other countries in the region are paying notice.

Myanmar’s Muslim-majority neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have raised the issue repeatedly with Suu Kyi. Nazib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, said the attacks against the Rohingya amounted to “genocide.”

Andrea Gittleman, a program manager for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that, after a proper investigation, the crimes against Rohingya could amount to genocide.

Gittleman returned from a trip to Rakhine days before the most recent outbreak of violence.

“Given the history and context and given reports [on the recent violence], we would be very concerned about the threat of genocide against the Rohingya,” she said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said his organization hadn’t yet decided how to classify the Burmese government’s reprisal violence.

But in an email he emphasized the way the military had thrust Suu Kyi into a difficult political situation.

“The intense dislike directed towards the Rohingya by the general population of Burma makes this kind of crackdown quite popular domestically,” Robertson wrote.

“[Suu Kyi is] stuck between a rock and a hard place, with a military that she can’t control scoring political points by abusing rights of the Rohingya, and Suu Kyi being asked hard questions about why she can’t do something about it and stand up for human rights principles.

“So far, she has not handled the situation terribly well.”

In a Whatsapp message, Abu Siddiq, one of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, was more cutting about Suu Kyi’s handling of the situation.

“If… Aung San Suu Kyi tries to solve the problem of Rakhine State, the problem will be easily solved.

“But she has not tried [to solve] the problem,” he wrote.

“Without trying to solve the problem, the problem will be solved? Impossible.”