Sunday, 29 April 2012

Brian Coleman FRSA and the toxic Tories

The disruption to the 2012 Boat Race by Trenton Oldfield is now past history, one of the things that have been.  Let us hope that the same will soon be the case for Brian Coleman, whose behaviour has been one of the most odious examples of any politician at national, local or even saloon-bar level.

I have written in the past about Mr Coleman, who, as with Mr Oldfield, claims to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  Mr Oldfield's intervention to disrupt rowing is, in the final analysis, somewhat less gratuitous and odious than Cllr Coleman's misdeeds, which have been well-chronicled elsewhere - and which will hopefully result in his defenestration from the Greater London Assembly.  I was particularly heartened to see the political debate in Camden and Barnet neatly encapsulated by the campaign slogan "ABC" - Anyone But Coleman.

Coleman, whose undistinguished record (see his Wikipedia entry is not exactly full of evidence of the qualities that are required to celebrate his achievements through using the initials FRSA, as he is very keen to do, doubtless as a consequence of having very little else to promote.  I would love to be in a position to remind Mr Coleman of what he has signed up to, and wonder how he would justify his conduct were anyone to have the cojones to call him to account.

For his information, and the edification of others, I reproduce the Fellowship Charter below:

The Fellowship Charter explains what being part of the RSA means in the contemporary world. It sets out how the RSA and the Fellowship aim to work together to achieve the principles in our founding Charter; and re-affirms the central importance of a Fellow's role in achieving them.

‘Undertakings for the Public Good’

We were founded in 1754 for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Today the RSA operates on a local, national, regional and international scale to turn optimistic thinking into positive action. We form a unique combination of committed people and diverse ways of working in our efforts to find innovative practical solutions to pressing social problems.

‘Members from all Ranks, Professions and Trades’

We are a global network of individuals from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. Recognising that together we are greater than the sum of our parts, we have confidence in our collective ability to effect change. We share a commitment to working in a way that realises both our own untapped potential and that of others, encourages human empathy and a respect for difference, and has ethical consideration for the implications of our actions.

‘Discoveries, Inventions and Improvements’
We inspire innovative thinking by promoting new ideas, and being open-minded and creative in our approach. We enable positive change by leading, contributing or encouraging pioneering initiatives and being generous in sharing resources and skills. We support each other by working collaboratively and creating an enlightened space in which to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

Were I uncharitable, Brian's behaviour - further documented in a number of Internet sites of which is the latest and most comprehensive, appears to be almost the antithesis of this. 

However, if Coleman loses to Andrew Dismore of Labour on Thursday, he will lose around £70k of taxpayers' allowances, plus thousands of expenses, and may not be able to afford the £150 to peddle the delusion that he is in some way attempting to contribute to social progress.

Why advisers and backroom boys will bring down the Tories

Cameron is looking increasingly like an embarrassment.  His determination to cling to Jeremy Hunt as a human shield, at the same time as presiding over the most incompetent macroeconomic policy of any government since the 1930s, is finally convincing even the most fervent deniers that the Tories are like untreatable syphilis, gradually eating away at the patient from within.

The politicisation of government, begun by Thatcher and gleefully accelerated by Blair and Brown, has resulted in a scabrous hybrid of incompetence and propaganda being the currency of Whitehall.  It was Labour who appointed a special adviser whose advice to her Minister was that bad news should be buried at the time of 9/11.  The extent to which politicians are in thrall to their political advisers is such a scandal that it will probably cause political and economic catastrophe before it is unpicked - and the civil service itself is becoming increasingly undermined as a consequence.

I was highly amused that Mr Hunt's former policy wonk rejoiced in the name of Adam Smith, although it would be tempting to find out whether it was acquired by deed poll - as the sage of Kirkcaldy is a much-misunderstood social democrat rather than the slavering apostle of the free market his ignorant pseudo-disciples portray.  However, the entire government machine is riddled with these former student politicians, whose experience is negligible and whose instincts are purely tribalistic.  Their judgement calls, for example in interpreting their master's voice as being a siren call to get into bed with News Corporation against the public interest, are sufficient off-beam as to require their immediate removal from positions of responsibility, and, preferably, solid objects.

Astute politicians should be aware of the limitation of their advisory cadres, especially since many of our current administration have worked their way into politics without a proper job but with the backing of inherited wealth.  Even the former jibes at Labour for being full of polytechnic lectures with no genuine experience now appear to be overplayed, as such a background would imply at least some ability to connect with those beyond the political class.

Special advisers and their twins in self-styled "think-tanks" are a cancer on government and politics, as they are neither trained nor accountable to anyone other than political masters.  Yet we pay for them through tax revenue, and their baleful influence is often used to rubbish and belittle professionals in government and beyond whose message does not attune to the message that Ministers want to hear.  The emasculation of health and education is accelerated by their willingness to acquiesce with the client groups who want to extract money from the taxpayer and destroy the communal in favour of narrow, uncompetitive oligopolies.

As the next few weeks unfold, the Cameron reliance on his cronies and their apparatchiks will be tested to the limit.  Hopefully there will be some bad results for the Tories in local government (the Liberals have already surrendered through guilt by association this time round, but may make the right call in the wake of Tory sleaze) - and the Murdoch debacle will expose more of the murk that has been accepted for so long.  Fresh-faced wonks have no experience and no remit. 

What is more worrying, though, is that I read that the average age of Treasury drones is 32 - and these are the self-appointed masters of the universe who hold government spending in their hands.  The victims of incompetence and inexperience are fed lies by the political cuckoos in the government nest, and are neither of sufficient wisdom or stature to challenge them - so we're stumbling into the mire with no accountability and precious little visibility.  No wonder government and democracy are in such a mess.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Faust had nothing on Cameron and Hunt

The Leveson enquiry is proving to be particularly spectacular this week.  The appearances of the Murdoch family before it are exercises in delusion and canting hypocrisy that should be studied for generations to come, from the dissimulation about the interference in editorial control to the contempt for Gordon Brown, from the suggestion that Rupert has no interest in politics to the incredibly amusing casuistry around the relationship between Jeremy "Rhyming Slang" Hunt and News International in the period immediately before their fall from grace last year.

In the best tradition of contemporary politics Hunt's special adviser, the amusingly-named Adam Smith, has been the first casualty of this unravelling.  Cameron and Hunt stand tall, making it clear that they will not be separated in their embroilment with the Murdoch empire - a foolish and short-termist brand of hubris that can only serve to fuel speculation among the sceptics and cynics who are besetting this greatest of British governments.

Before the last election, the Hamster had been pretending that lobbying was the key issue that needed to be addressed, possibly because Blair and Brown had presided over an increasingly-sophisticated culture of sleaze, building on Major's acolytes and their moral compasses.  So since then we have seen the extent to which the Tories can be bought for whatever blood money is required, leading to the destruction of the NHS through the lobbying of the parasitic out-sourcing community, and the "cash for access" extravaganza, with smaller-scale graft and turpitude (c.f. Addison Lee) coming to light by the week.

Vince Cable made the mistake of articulating his true feelings about Murdoch's influence, and was relieved of his responsibility for determining the fitness and propriety of a further extension of a media monopoly.  Cameron and Hunt appear to have decided that the only way to propitiate the monster was to take the process into a friendly department, rather than washing their hands of any decision.  It is difficult not to speculate that a primary motivation was that an impartial body, such as Ofcom, might have applied a somewhat more stringent definition of the "public interest" than paying back Murdoch for favours rendered.

The unravelling of this has tainted the Government at the place where its heart might have been located if it had not been populated by these specimens - it's difficult sometimes not to feel that the normally-dribbling Nadine Dorries had the right idea to describe them as "out of touch posh boys" albeit without the context - just at the time when economic and political incompetence will come to haunt them.  Cameron's current strategy may well be to hope that Hunt acts as a lightning-conductor to avoid scrutiny about the activities and entanglements of his mates in the Chipping Norton set, but I suspect that Murdoch, feeling attacked and let-down, will not let him lie.

Supping with the Devil is never an attractive prospect if you have any sense of moral drive - the very twaddle that the Tories claimed was lacking in politics.  Most people accept that politicians are human, but what is going on at the moment is beyond the normal tolerance of mortal frailty.  The systemic amorality and collusion with the Murdoch agenda is frankly noxious, and the interests of justice will only be served when both Davey-boy and Jezza wake up and accept that their conduct is well-short of anything remotely acceptable.

The odds on hell freezing over are significantly better, though.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

From the "Daily Mail" to Breivik - not as big a gap as it should be

There are a number of repeating themes in this blog, not least of which is the intolerance of the right-wing, social authoritarians - who parade their irrationality, ignorance and paranoia at frequent intervals in various arenas.  The "Daily Mail" is the archetype, the zenith of the crassness, although there are a number of less-degenerate yet nevertheless nauseating pedlars of similar Poujadist bigotry, egged on by the cheer-leading keyboard warriors who append gnomic, semi-literate fascism in the form of "comments".

The world-view that this promotes is a pernicious fiction that denies any form of society other than that defined by a self-selecting group of people who are basically scared.  They're scared of the unspecified "other", scared of the unknown, scared of people who do not feel threatened by the existence of views tat diverge from their own, while grasping, aspirational and resentful.  This is a skillful manipulation of a group hysteria that feeds a natural constituency for the Tories - particularly since they are quite prepared to deny both rational argument and the real evidence that their idols are specious, unfounded and crumbling from within.

The Tories love this, as it provides them with reflexive cannon-fodder.  A typical response from this under-group is a selfish whine.  Workers have a grievance and go on strike - "ban unions".  The government takes a macroeconomic view and keeps interest rates low to stave off further collapse - "don't hit pensioners", while maintaining the contrary view that constantly-rising house prices and the money illusion are the basis of feelgood prosperity.  The phobia of foreigners feeds anti-Europeanism, the inability to reason for oneself feeds a Pavlovian forelock-tugging where it comes to proposals that might change and improve the wider polity.

Whenever I see a copy of the "Mail" or its imitators, this parallel universe frightens me.  The moral and political certainty, wrapped up in pseudo-patriotic trimmings is combined with a snivelling obsession with trivia and celebrity - and, with a few honourable exceptions, such as the campaign that brought Stephen Lawrence's killers to justice, a focus on the white, suburban middle class, with a narrative that sees everything else around them as a threat.

This is not a mindset particularly removed from that demonstrated in the Breivik trial, where a nationalist extremist has assumed messianic status to justify actions of incalculable evil.  Acting against a perceived "threat" to his society, he slaughtered not the groups of people who he regarded as a threat but those who in his view colluded with them - soft targets, people whose approach to the world differed from his.  It's a chilling reminder that paranoid fantasies and a feeling of self-induced victimhood feed such actions.

And yet there's more than a passing resemblance to the mentality of a "besieged Briton", as one remarkably knuckle-headed comment on the "Evening Standard" website described the state of the world.  This feeds outright racism and fascist sympathy (witness the pathetic English Defence League, the BNP and all its factions - for ideological and personal conflict the far right has now eclipsed the far left, which I suppose counts as a success), but also the mentality that "if I can't have what I want, nobody else should" and that "if it takes more than a sentence to explain and I don't agree with it it can only be wrong, particularly if the person putting forward the viewpoint doesn't look like me". 

As a liberal, freedom of speech is central, but, as Stanley Baldwin observed in the 1930s, and has been demonstrated by Beaverbrook, Murdoch and the Barclay brothers ever since, the concentration of power and restriction of access to the media gives a disproportionate, unaccountable weight of emphasis to a capitalist model - feeding pap and lies, along with aspirationalism and subliminal messaging to respect and not challenge their rich betters, as a means of retaining an oligarchical society while co-opting its own victims to sustain it.

This is not exactly novel, but it remains something to be vigilant for.  The hypocrisy of calling for "British freedom" against Europeans, immigrants, trade unionists, groups whose social values and culture differ and any other canard that can be developed, is so glaring that it should be called out whenever possible - the freedom only exists if it is within narrow limits and where it does not frighten the wimps who inhabit its seedy milieu.  This is the mindset upon which extremists of all types can prey, be they right, left or religious, and probably the biggest single threat to a decent society that we face.

Breivik may or may not be clinically-insane, but he appears to me to have been operating at the extreme end of a spectrum that is accepted as a norm worrying close to home.

Monday, 23 April 2012

"Lord" Coe and the Olympic dictators

Compared to the monstrosity of the Iraq War, it feels a little bathetic to have the response of "not in my name" every time someone from the London Olympics pops up to exhort people to sacrifice to support their combination of product placement, disruption and nationalist farrago.

A typical example of this was reported on the BBC this morning:

Organising committee chair Sebastian Coe said: "London and the UK is gearing up to welcome the world this summer when 15,000 athletes, 7,000 technical officials, thousands of media and millions of spectators will be travelling on our transport networks.

"As the success of the Games depends on all of us doing our bit to keep London and the UK moving, I'd like to urge everyone to plan now."

This is a prime example of attempts to restrict freedom of movement in favour of a small minority of people who have a) secured tickets for the events and b) are not able to take advantage of the skewering of Central London's transport network during the two months of disruption (road space cleared for official limousines through the exclusion of emergency service vehicles, closure of bus lanes, roads and pedestrian crossings are all features of this allegedly-popular event).

London's transport system will obviously find it hard to cope, but the logic would be to make the subsidised sports types second-class citizens - they already will be paying less than residents and workers for their travel and should therefore stand back to allow the city to function for those who are not actually self-lobotomising in the name of corporate sport.  However because it involves "sport", rather than collective solidarity, the Tories are happy enough to collude with the fiction that in some way the success of the Olympics is likely to prove a temporary or permanent boost for the British economy.

Disruption to transport isn't the half of it.  Last month this story appeared in the "Guardian" reflecting the incredible powers of repression that exist around this supposed celebration:

This is a scandal.  It demonstrates a huge number of lies and deceptions that have been perpetrated upon the UK as part of this absurd vanity project.  The long-term implications of the blurring of the boundaries between the legitimate actions of the state to protect its citizens and the promotion of commercial, sectarian interests are frightening, quite apart from the lies and evasions around the true costs of such an event to a battered economy.

To provide more powers to the private security industry, to de-legitimise protest to avoid the possibility of offending corporate sponsors, to create the assumption that any dissent within the blighted city is a threat to the Olympics themselves and to entrench a system of security and surveillance that would be the envy of the North Koreans is not part of any "celebration of sport", nor of a genuinely free society.  Allowing the same corporate sponsors to dictate what images can be seen in the public realm, as well as within the venues themselves, is a symbolic two-fingered salute to the idea that citizens have any rights and powers over multi-national companies.

Not that this worries the air-headed denizens of the sporting establishment, for whom the smug and oleaginous Coe is the principal spokesperson, as this is all part of "sport".  I hold no brief against people who actually enjoy watching it - indeed it would be hypocritical given my own fixation with a sport not deemed worthy of the Olympics in the form of cricket - but the way in which it is used to justify what is the most systematic assault yet on the liberties of the citizen is enough to get me into a state of choleric venom.

The implications of the security arrangements for the Olympics are hideous - quite apart from the direct impact in disrupted lives and wasted time they pose fundamental questions both about the nature of society and the honesty of our politicians.  While the rest of the country is enduring the cuts necessary to rebalance government finances, the security budget has over-run by at least four times for the Olympics - and the wider community will have to fund it.  The "legacy" of housing and regeneration that has been promised is largely in the hands of speculative parasites, while the displacement of people and communities, excellently portrayed in Iain Sinclair's recent "Ghost Milk" is on the level of at least idiotic planning if not social cleansing.

We are in the odd situation where, with three months to go, people are not really sighted on the whole panoply of repression that is deemed necessary to avoid disruption to an exclusive, corporatist event.  As many of the measures would be deemed "passive" and non-intrusive to anyone who is going about their prescribed business within the munificent boundaries laid down by the state and the Olympic bureaucrats, they will only kick in if there is protest, or if there is disruption that threatens the image of the Games.  Building more of the Big Brother state is seen as a necessary component of this, which is a tragedy and an example of the rank hypocrisy that we are all supposed to accept and take on the chin.

"Sport" is not the end of all this - it is a regrettable necessity to have some events that justify product placement, state repression and social engineering.  This is a colossal vanity project that has the potential to damage London and the UK immeasurably, both in terms of quality of life and the retardation of economic and environmental development.  However Coe and his idiot cronies labour under the delusion that they are able to instruct, dictate and disrupt - without any electoral or legal mandate - and to spend our money on their illusions.

The Olympics have always had a propaganda value beyond their intrinsic worth - witness Coe's own "triumph" in Moscow in 1980 against a depleted range of competition - and the aim is not to promote sport but to have a contest to see which nation can waste more of its resources in a pissing-up-the-wall contest.  I'm beginning to wonder whether there are more parallels between London 2012 and Berlin 1936, rather than the economic meltdown the Athens games assisted in precipitating, as the main aim appears to be purely propagandist and boastful.

My fervent hope is that the Olympics themselves pass off with minimum criminality on the part of their organisers, and that there are no disruptions beyond those which can be expected from the weather and the transport system.  However, it does not take any significant binary logic to work out that the systems they have put in place may actually encourage more of the "threats" that they have got worked up about.

Coe does not make a convicing dictator, more Charlie Chaplin than Hitler, but there is a sinister, conformist undertone to all their pronouncements.  Passive resistance will be the order of the day, along with, as far as possible, an economic and cultural boycott of a repressive, disruptive farrago.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Tory Democracy, Petrolhead and the Hypocritic Oafs

It's over a century since the Tories tried to use the House of Lords to thwart the introduction of National Insurance and Old Age Pensions, so it's hardly surprising that, despite committing in their manifesto to reforming the revising chamber, they are now back-pedalling.

Amusingly, the Secretary of State for Defence, whose unlamented tenure at Transport seems to have been enlivened only by disingenuous dealings with the criminal inciter John Griffin of Addison Lee - who has been egging his drivers on to break the law, attacking cyclists, and giving large amounts of cash to the Tories, is one of those expressing most concern about any efforts to enact reform of the Lords.

In the "Observer" today, there is an incredible piece by Nadhim Zawahi, the Tory MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, attacking Lords reform as an assault on the supremacy of the House of Commons.  This argument was deployed with some effect by the democratic tendency of Tony Benn in the 1980s, but most parliamentary systems function with a primary legislative chamber and a reviewing / revising supervisory authority.  Besides, in forelock-tugging Britain with its confusion between legislature, judiciary and executive such a move would be tantamount to giving the keys of the asylum over to the lunatics.

Perhaps the Tories would do well to study the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is based upon the principles laid out by British reformers, where the Bundestag and Bundesrat operate an effective partnership - providing scrutiny and an entrenched voice for empowered devolved Lander, and consider whether such a model would work for a federal Great Britain - a much more powerful approach than their current supine and hypocritical support for the Union, while secretly desiring Scottish secession to entrench their undemocratic hegemony south of the Border.

The Tories have never been very good at thinking through the internal logic of their positions, least of all on the constitution.  The fact that all three parties wanted to see change before the 2010 election, ostensibly on the Tories' part to end the cronyism that had been entrenched since the emasculation of hereditary peers and the nominees that My Little Tony sought to pack out the Lords, has been forgotten in the Gadarene rush for Cameron to put such hugely influential and active legislators as Julian Fellowes into the Lords.  The fact that he has nominated over 110 Tory cronies since not winning the 2010 election is indicative that the Lords should be reformed forthwith.

It is impossible to justify the current fudge, where apart from 92 hereditary peers and 27 bishops, the entire House of Lords is stuffed with placepeople to whom the party leadership owe favours - financial, political or something worse - and superannuated, defeated MPs.  Not an election in sight - and therefore no legitimacy.  Just how the reactionary bigots like it, as the Tories have folk memories of the 1980s when the Lords, despite a majority of Conservatives, inflicted humiliation and defeat on some of the most egregious examples of megalomania presented to them.

There is some speculation that this could be the final straw for the Coalition - which would be a welcome rediscovery of spine and principle.  The Tories seem to think that every change to electoral arrangements requires a referendum, which is a hypocritical sham given their managerialist and absolutist tendencies in every other area of our political life, and that Lords reform should go the same way as AV and any other change that threatens their stasis.  Liberals fought two elections in 1910 on the basis of reform which was only staved off by a compromise, and there is no reason now to back-pedal.

With Hammond and others effectively goading Cameron into a spineless retreat, and on something that has both moral and political legitimacy, the Tories have now revealed their continued unreconstructedness and toxicity.  Time to call their bluff.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Bob Crow - and back to the 1970s

The generally-excellent BBC2 documentary, "The 70s", may prompt more than a reassessment of the decade that has been seen as less pivotal in British development than either of the two that sandwich it.  However, it is a salutary reminder of the continued power of the paranoid petty-bourgeois mindset that the closest parallels to contemporary industrial and economic narratives are those of the right-wing fantasists of the Freedom Association and the Adam Smith Institute.

There are two industrial disputes attracting the headlines, at least in London.  The first is a UK-wide one and would arguably have much more disruptive effects than the second.  This is a dispute between tanker drivers and their employers.  A reasonable assumption would be that the people who deliver fuel to petrol stations and other customers would be employed by the companies that supply that fuel.  In the current world, this would imply obligations by the suppliers to the people who ensure that they can earn money from their products, so of course they have outsourced the provision of transport services - thus enabling themselves to save money and to avoid any responsibility for any breakdown in either industrial relations or the supply of fuel.

Not surprisingly, in a competitive environment, conditions for those working in the industry are subject to constant pressure - and it appears that this has gone too far for them.  Despite the media's efforts to portray them as holding the country to ransom, there is a dignity in seeking minimum standards on conditions of service, pay and pensions - all the things that make for a decent quality of life and the very things that those who are fastest to criticise them possess with overbearing smugness.

In the scheme of things, their union, Unite, has been a model of conciliation - seeking not to strike but to force their intermediary employers to recognise that their obligations run to their employees as well as to their paymasters, and that their success depends upon a skilled and motivated workforce.  Hardly a revolution, although you'd be hard-pushed to find this analysis from any of the headbangers whose "opinions" are paraded with the authority of holy writ.

The second dispute is, unsurprisingly, involving the RMT.  I do not hold a personal brief for Bob Crow, as his style is aggressive, confrontational, anti-European and within a tradition of ultra-leftism that denies liberty and the rights of the individual in favour of a conformist solidarity.  However, from all the evidence (growing membership, unopposed re-election), Mr Crow is doing something right in the eyes of his members.  This is the free market at work in trade unionism, comrades, and therefore the message to the rightist dribblers has to be "like it or lump it".

Next week, some of his members working for Tube Lines have called a strike.  Now, it came as a surprise to me that Tube Lines was still in existence.  For inveterate observers of Government cock-ups, the PPP fiasco foisted on the London Underground by Gordon Brown, and resisted by Ken Livingstone, has to rank up there with the best of them.  When hard logic and the credit crunch bit, there was no choice but to derail the gravy train and bring the entire operation of the Tube back under the control of the monolithic, inefficient state in order to cut costs and keep the system running.  So far, so good.

Three years on, and staff working for the other PPP monstrosity, Metronet, have been brought back fully within the fold.  This means that they get common treatment on pensions and other perks as London Underground employees.  Staff at Tube Lines, however, don't.  Not knowing the relativities and terms and conditions, I cannot and should not comment on whether this would be an improvement or dilution to their lives, but they have expressed a desire to return to the fold and have been through the appropriate negotiating and legal hoops to hold a strike ballot, in which 44% of affected staff voted in favour, 11% didn't, and the others were too apathetic or indifferent to bother.

In a contested British election, this would have resulted in an 80-20% split - a huge mandate.  If Thatcher, Blair or Cameron could claim such an endorsement from those who had turned out to vote their pathetic whinings might be worthy of a little more attention and respect.  So naturally, the pseudo-democrats of the right-wing press turn their myopic bile towards a "minority" vote.  As I've said before, if you don't bother to exercise your rights then you have much less claim to feel hard-done-by if you don't like the results.  This is clearly shaky ground, so we go on to the next stage.

In this, the trade unions are accused of "holding the capital to ransom", occasionally with the subclause of "over a local issue".  This is the kind of addle-pated crap that the "Evening Standard" comes out with any time the reality of the world threatens to impinge on its Boris-worshipping, conspicuously-consuming, gravity-defying coverage of London's middle classes.  Of course union members have a right to strike, and they have most leverage where their activities impinge upon the ability of their employer to do business.  This is not a difficult proposition.  It's a basic freedom - labour is one of the factors of production, and if labour does not wish to treat with employers purely on employers' terms it can be withdrawn.

I always enjoy the "Private Eye" parody "From The Message Boards" as it attempts to send up the inanities and illiteracy that infest the comments section of the news websites - but you can't make it up where it comes to the sheer vitriol and ignorant hatred that the RMT garners.  It obeys the laws, introduced by Tories to cut down on strike action, and then secures a majority.  So the half-wits call for the strikers to be sacked, outlawed and for the leadership to go to North Korea.  A tolerant society at its best, no doubt.

The delusion that unions are holding the country to ransom is a conveninent fiction, given the low level of membership and the general economic hardship.  However, it fuels this retro-1970s obsession with the Communist threat (sadly deceased) and stops too much questioning of why there remains obscene payment to bankers and their acolytes despite their activites having plunged the country back into levels of national debt not seen since the 1950s.  It's a convenient fiction drawn from people whose socio-political mindset remains set in the myths of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, and who use the spectre of people using their own power as a threat to rising house prices and the preservation of an illusory bourgeois solidarity.

So, rather than address two disputes whose roots are in the bungling, idiotic out-sourcing of what should be core activities of any business, the unions and their members are vilified.  It takes two to make an argument, but the Tories and their cheerleaders cannot see that their actions, and those of the New Labour project, have created a climate where the forelock-tugging and gratitude expected is no longer a given - as people see their security, rights and futures sacrificed to stop any real attention being given to the iniquities of a system that promotes smugness and failure.

Cameron has been quick to attempt to make political hay with Mister Ed and the Labour Party's links to Unite - sadly he can't with the RMT who were kicked out for supporting left-wing candidates against Labour in Scotland.  Miliband should be fighting back - the disputes are industrial in nature, and, unlike the odious John Griffin of Addison Lee, trade union donations are overt, and do not result in secret meetings with Ministers to press their case for commercial advantage and to, allegedly, avoid charges for breaking the law.  Cameron and Hammond are looking very sleazy - at some point I will blog on whether Cameron is, in fact, a moral and spiritual reincarnation of Harold Wilson.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Lady Warsi's delusion

Milady Warsi has a conveniently short memory. The unelected authority on all matters democratic, wheeled out whenever the Tories want to give the impression that not all front-benches would have been welcomed into the Bullingdon Club, spews out anti-Liberal bile whenever the electorate appear to be on the point of seeing through the convenient myth that the Coalition is a partnership of equals.

Warsi is in many ways the analogue of Johns Prescott and Reid, unreconstructed tribal dinosaurs whose behaviour scuppered any chance of a centre-left consensus, including urging My Little Tony to ignore the Jenkins Commission, and whose self-destructive behaviour over the AV referendum is likely to saddle us with a system where systemic Tory bias is entrenched. They make strange but convincing bedfellows.

Her latest ranting is that the current slump in Tory popularity is all the fault of the nasty Liberals, who have spread dissent and focused discussion on issues such as taxation that are very uncomfortable for the Tories. Had there been proper discipline, runs her argument, all the contentious issues would have been sneaked out in appendices to the Budget that would have resulted in bows of anguish only later when their iniquity is unveiled.

Perversely, she is doing pluralism a favour, as the sheer bravado and arrogance of her argument is based around the presumption that political discussion should be had in private and exclude the little people until their masters have opined. This is a successful approach, as George Galloway will attest, as the popular discontent with the party system has not gone away since the election result.

However, Warsi still needs to remember one critical point: THE TORIES DID NOT WIN THE ELECTION. This is an uncomfortable reality for her, but sadly it remains the case. The electorate did its best to secure a coalition and got one. Now the Tories cannot count on tribalism and arrogant paternalism, people like her will need to evolve. In the meantime, she is doing us all a favour by demonstrating that, however rotten some of the Coalition's policies are, the Liberals are at least tempering a few excesses in the direction of largesse towards Tory client, parasitic drones.

So a partial result!

Monday, 16 April 2012

Addison Lee, dangerous driving and Tory donors

Today's non-story in London has been the determination of John Griffin, proprietor of an exploitative mini-cab firm Addison Lee (and coincidentally a donor to our beloved Conservative Party) to allow his loutish contracted drivers to use bus lanes, alongside buses, licensed taxis, cycles, and, in some cases, motorcycles.

Mr Griffin is a man with a populist mission, allegedly.  He does not tend to employ his drivers directly, to avoid the inconvenience of such minor details as pension, holidays and maintaining quality standards, and he wishes to smash the self-employed cab drivers who are currently the only people in London allowed to pick up passengers on the street.  This is clearly altruism of a high order and something that sceptics such as myself should never be allowed to question.

The clue to one of his many delusions is that the road space is allocated as a "bus lane".  Unless you are one of the extreme Tory zealots who continues to believe in the Thatcherite canard that anyone on a bus over the age of 25 is a failure, or have the Steven Norris pathological hatred of anyone who might use public transport, the bus is generally a good thing.  Particularly in London, where the fetid Underground is best avoided at most times of the day, the bus is important and moves very large numbers of people around.

As an aside, one of the reasons for this has been the lack of deregulation and the spurious competition that the Tories considered appropriate for everywhere outside London in the 1980s - which has not demonstrated consistent growth for buses and which acts as a brake on sensible measures to co-ordinate transport.

Yet Johnny-boy seems to resent the fact that taxis, which are licensed by Transport for London and whose drivers and operators need to have stringent safety standards as well as detailed knowledge of the geography and quirks of the capital, are therefore treated as a form of public transport.  His firm runs a fleet of vehicles where quite often the passenger is required to navigate, and the capriciousness of satellite navigation and imperfect understanding of directions, let alone relative topography, results in many trips turning into a mystery tour at considerable expense.

For those of us whose daily grind takes us into London, the Addison Lee sign on a vehicle acts as a warning.  The mini-cabs are the kind of 4x4 favoured, allegedly, by drug dealers, with blanked-out windows.  The driving is aggressive - frequently breaching the Highway Code - and the treatment of pedestrians, cyclists and other legitimate road users often contemptuous.  I'm sure Mr Griffin, as an upstanding donor to the Self-Interest Party, will be pleased to know that I intend to document breaches of the law by his vehicles and report them to appropriate authorities, and encourage other people to do the same.

TfL, who are generally responsible for bus lanes, except in some boroughs where they are the local council's responsibility (Brian Coleman's removal policy is a separate scandal), argue that with 25,000 black cabs and 6,000 buses, these lanes are probably full.  Griffin thinks that this is discriminatory - and the big cry-baby has been inciting his drivers to break the law.  Let us hope that Mr Griffin doesn't end up in nick with other right-wing monopolists.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Tory cant: tax, charity and the definition of death

This week, you would have been forgiven for delusions that the proposals to limit tax avoidance contained in Gormless George's Budget were purely designed to stop philanthropic plutocrats from doing their bit to mend Broken Britain.  The storm of outrage, fanned by Murdoch's minions anxious to propitiate their own demons by peppering the Tories with indiscriminate ordure, and supported by charitable bigwigs whose selflessness is hardly that of latter-day mendicant Friars, is all designed to draw flak away from the incompetence and rapacity of the administration.

Giving tax breaks to charity is a worthy cause, especially for the kind of small donations most working people are able to finance - but to cap the relief at 25% of gross income is hardly likely to diminish targeted philanthropy, unless the philanthropic direction is towards the avoidance of communal obligations through paying a lower proportion of income tax than those less well-endowed with cash.  These people are "wealth-generators" and in a sick parody of the trickledown myth that has been used for boosting inequality by such radical paragons as Reagan, Thatcher, Major and Blair, their entrepreneurship is headed off by having to pay tax - an argument that lesser mortals can't even deploy when they are much closer to the breadline.

Osborne manages to give the impression of hypocrisy and rank stupidity simultaneously; the latest outburst over surprise at the extent of abuse that goes on is a classic of the deception that the Tories keep trying to pass off.  If he is unaware of the superstructure of sleights of hand, creative accounting and the abuse of seemingly-innocuous loopholes that have kept his Etonian mates and Bullingdon morons in financial happiness for so long, then his naivety is dangerous, and if he is attempting to ride popular outrage at the pillagers he has left it a little bit too late for even the "Daily Mail" to extend its usual lapdog credulity.

The other story that has made the news this week is the extent to which the NHS discharges patients at night.  What concerned me even more was the lack of consistency over which it regards a patient as being capable of discharge from its grasping paws - in some cases even death won't encourage the local management to give up on the patient's in-patient status.  This may be for financial reasons, although the average doctor may be more inclined to play God and hope that the hapless corpse spends three days in the tomb before bursting forth.

Personally, I am not particularly fussed to see politicians' tax returns, and, as was discovered at Watergate, alleged transparency is merely a further attempt to create political advantage for the spin-doctoring rottweilers.  All that would be required is for confidence that HMRC is capable of taking action where the system is being abused - something of a big ask these days given the ongoing scandals and rumours that besets our system.  Only when a politician tries to use it to their own advantage (calling on the blond pillock running for London Mayor) should this become an issue.

So hypocrisy, myths and paranoia continue to rule....  No change is all we can expect from this wonderful government.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Is Clegg really a Liberal? Last chance...

Libertarians and realists of all political persuasions will be watching the latest wrigglings of the Government on electronic surveillance and secret trials with a mixture of appalled fascination and great anger.

Liberal Democrats will not have been totally appeased by a circular from the junior Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone, in which she sets out that the amendments to surveillance powers are merely designed to bring legislation up to date.  There is now back-pedalling on the secret trials proposal but no attempt to deny that this is the preferred route of the Coalition.

Citizen's rights are the basis upon which Liberalism is built, and any attempt to reduce them or circumscribe them should be challenged, and, unless a libertarian case can be made, resisted to the maximum extent possible.  These are fundamental principles, not matters of judgement about which trade-offs can be made (for example whether the policy positions of the Coalition are so odious as to require withdrawal), and therefore Clegg and his Ministers need to be judged on this basis.

I have been criticised for not being pragmatic or prepared to compromise on issues that have been central to a Liberal identity for decades - and not always, surprisingly, by people whose gradualism and rootlessness made them ideal fodder for the SDP.  However on the issue of liberty of the citizen, I am increasingly unconvinced by Clegg's position.

Any attempt to dilute the right to a fair, open trial, or to extend the state's right to snoop needs to be seen not just in contemporary but future terms.  The Russian constitution is seemingly liberal, but without a system of checks and balances, the abuses of citizens' rights are on a par with the previous totalitarian regime, and the risks apply here just as well.  Read up on the MI5 behaviour towards Harold Wilson if evidence is needed that the secret state does not give a toss for the niceties of the law - and extrapolate that forward to a world where the "Daily Mail" defines values, and petty-bourgeois paranoia stalks the land.

On this basis, Clegg should have emerged immediately with a ringing denunciation of proposals that emerged without consultation, engagement, and made it clear that the Liberal Democrats would not put up with this.  Instead he has had to be prompted by other Ministers and by the Party President that he leads a party committed to freedom and the minimal rights of the state.  Over the next few weeks provisional conclusions about the true nature of the Deputy Prime Minister may get firmed up.

Tug your forelocks - Bank Holidays are bad for you

This morning's weather reminds me that it is a public holiday - it's tipping down with rain and the forecast is for this to continue for much of the daylight hours remaining.  Much more reliable predictions also exist - my favourite is that each time there is a public holiday some neo-conservative self-publicising "wonk" will use the reduced editorial resources of the media to complain about the negative impact that allowing any worker any time off, ever, has on the economic recovery.

This Easter, step forward the "Centre for Economic and Business Research", a self-styled economic think-tank that has been peddling its snake oil for the best part of two decades.  Its guru is one Douglas McWilliams, who used to describe himself as Professor McWilliams but now that academic economists have been discredited he has clearly decided that this does not add cachet.  The CEBR's speciality is putting forward assertions dressed as fact with a view to attracting headlines.

Today we apparently suffer from having too many Bank Holidays in the UK - costing the economy vast amounts of money - and the way to free up the latent entrepreneurship is to get rid of them, given the reliance of British economic activity on the service sector.  Quite apart from the obvious speciousness of the argument, given that most "services" actually used by the public are open and trading well on public holidays, this is a risible attempt at promoting "research" that will be subject to less editorial scrutiny by news organisations around holiday periods. 

The CEBR specialises in "black box" models that aren't open to scrutiny or general peer review, which would be the mark of academic credibility.  I remember asking questions of the organisation back in the 1990s when the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was examining transport taxation as to how its assertion that shifting the balance of tax from the general taxpayer to the user and polluter would cause a return to the Great Depression if not the Black Death was worked through, and being informed that this was confidential research but that the numbers were right.  They were wheeled out to attack the Congestion Charge in London, again using their patented alchemical formulae, so it's probably reasonable to consider that there is something of a right-wing, disingenuously "pro-business agenda" at work here.

The UK is noted for its long-hours, presenteeist culture - there was a good piece in the paper yesterday about the difference between Britain and Denmark, so it is actually a matter of common sense that workers need holidays.  The CEBR's stunt is not to take into account any of the other factors of humanity, such as sickness and the impact on productivity, that holiday periods alleviate - so its claim is not merely partisan but unsupportable.  Long hours do not equal productivity or creativity - but the myth has been perpetuated around commitment and corporate cultures have supplanted family and community ties as a demonstration of conformity.

A clear corrective is required to this kind of post-feudal spew.  By my most charitable reckoning, virtually every piece of research that the CEBR puts out is sullied by an econometric delusion - if you can "measure" something then it can be modelled.  If what the models show you is not borne out either by reality or by inductive reasoning it's not a flaw in the model but indication that mere humans cannot reach the state of pure rationality that would allow the models to be correct.  "Ceteris paribus" is a scoundrel's refuge but one always pleaded by the spinners when they are cornered.

So the claim that giving public holidays costs the economy money cannot be proved - as it assumes that the additional output gained would:
a) be achieved at the same rate of hourly productivity as the existing levels of output; and
b) not have any impact on productivity or outputs at other times.

The first is a seemingly-reasonable assumption for modelling - the basis for testing a hypothesis.  However, the second is risible.  Sickness, reduced effectiveness through exhaustion and a general reduction in commitment could all impact on people's incentives to work.  If the consequence is a 5% reduction in general productive output per hour, which is an equally-valid assumption to the first, then effectively the loss of output will be one day in every twenty at existing productivity rates.  As there are only eight (or nine, when royal boot-licking takes place) paid bank holidays a year, the impact would be:
-  Eight additional working days per annum
-  Assuming 240 days worked - the loss of 12 days' worth of output through lower productivity, higher sickness

On the basis of this calculation then the assertion is clearly risible - as it assumes constancy where human factors are malleable.  And before the neo-cons suggest that my 5% number is too high, and it might work if there were only a 3.67% drop in productivity, pray consider other factors such as a reduction in the willingness to work unpaid overtime, take work home or connivance in the myriad other ways in which employers dilute people's salaries, as well as the huge number of freelancers who do not observe normal working patterns or whose activities get caught up in the statistics.

The CEBR set themselves up for a fall, but also probably assume that this kind of publicity will result in more work from large companies whose main interest is to grind the faces of the poor.  In a confrontational environment where the trend over the last three decades has been for employers to dilute their obligations (welfare, pensions, working conditions) while ratcheting up the serfdom factor through fear and exploitation, any argument, however apparently specious, that adds grist to the mill is welcome.

neo-con theory which is always dressed up as supporting entrepreneurship.  It nauseates me to see "business" spokespeople popping up to make out that the obligations on firms are all one-way, so that sacking people is not merely a regrettable outcome at the end of s process, but a noble demonstration of commitment to the free market.

Economists have not covered themselves with glory over the last decades, mainly due to the kind of arrogant braggadocio that this latest kite-flying epitomises.   The attack on rights is all of a piece with the assault on citizen's rights.

I do hope, though, that Mr McWilliams will be hard at work on the morning of the additional public holiday that has been granted in honour of sixty years' worth of monarchical tutelage.  But I somehow doubt it, as the media outlets might be distracted with their usual servility...

Saturday, 7 April 2012

What price the freedom of the press?

One of Militant's most bizarre ideas in the 1980s was the nationalisation of printing presses, to be handed over to political parties to print propaganda in proportion to the votes received at General Elections (presumably to be abolished when the disciples of Trotsky moved beyond their Transitional Programme) - a sure-fire teaser to those outside the Tory tent.  This was allied to a programme of radical impracticality that satisfied an adolescent urge to smash the system without a suggestion as to how the world should actually be ordered.

Infantile disorders aside, the ownership and control of the media has been a long-standing area of concern to anyone who believes in the supremacy of the citizen.  In the last twelve months, the unravelling of the Murdoch empire has commenced, with strange echoes of the decline and fall of Robert Maxwell twenty years ago.

Murdoch, when cornered, fights nasty.  Apparently his main remaining organ, "The Paraffin Lamp in a Brothel" (copyright CPGB 1969) has turned against Cameron and Osborne since the budget, feeling more confident that a new-right revival could ride the surf of popular disgust - turning on the Chipping Norton set in a way that would make Rebekah Brooks quake were she not awaiting the outcome of two police investigations.  The diminished "Times" has a go at Francis Maude, while the "Sunday Times" ran the story that broke Dinnergate.

Whether Murdoch really considered that Cameron would be in a position to deflect the spotlight from the murkiness and criminality within News International and now, apparently, Sky News, is a moot point.  Since 1979 the "Scum" has tried to play kingmaker at each election, making its positioning prior to the 1997 and 2010 elections front page news elsewhere, and claiming responsibility for the calamitous result in 1992 which entrenched the cronyism through the bankruptcy of the Major regime and the craven neo-con-trick of the Blair years.  Now it's trying to repeat the same trick, cracking the whip and destroying those it has built up, but on half the circulation it once had.

While the focus has been on the hacking and corruption investigations, satisfyingly dragging the "Daily Mail" into the mire as well, there should be concern about other trends.  It seems likely that there will be significant changes to legislation as a result of the last decade's excess, and there will be politicians wishing to settle the scores over the wounds inflicted by the press in recent years.

Leaving aside the oligarch's playground that the "Independent" and "Evening Standard" have become, the former trying desperately to maintain a position in a declining market with limited resources, and the latter a diminished freesheet for the rich of London and those who suffer its transport system, and the interesting marketing position of the "Financial Times" which is now so expensive to buy that its print circulation is apparently in near free-fall, the real question is for how long the "Telegraph" will escape scrutiny.

In 2009, the Torygraph had a good year with its investigations into MPs expenses.  This created the climate of sleaze required to boot out the Labour Party - but did not exactly create the momentum to elect the party containing the buyers of duck-houses and procurers of moat-cleaning services.  For a paper with a dyspeptic and dying readership (down around 40% in a decade), it has been difficult to come to terms with the decline in the Tory hegemony and the realities of a post-feudal society.  Hardly any surprise that the mores of "Downton Abbey" have been applauded by the rag, as "Lord" Fellowes is exactly the sort of caricature Tory (c.f. Boris the Clown) the paper has been trying to assimilate.

However, Cameron and his mates recognise that they owe the paper a debt of gratitude, which is now being played out in the deafening silence about the propriety of the proprietorship.  "Private Eye", to its credit, has been running a considerable number of stories about tax arrangements (offshore) and there has recently been a furore about the acquisition of various luxury London hotels.  It does seem odd at first glance that the paper that has been hardest on MPs is run by a company controlled by two people domiciled in the Channel Islands, registered in the British Virgin Islands, with residence in Monaco (allegedly), as none of those areas are noted for their corporate responsibility or attention to the detail for cleaning contracts and mortgage payments.

Last week, the BBC ran an interesting feature on the machinations on Sark, where the Torygraph's owners own an island and a large amount of property - to which they did not see fit to contribute or to respond.  Instead their representatives have been assiduous to discredit the BBC rather than respond to criticism.  We shall see what transpires, but they can probably rest assured that the new legislation won't include a "fit and proper" test for media ownership.

As an aside, the same proprietors acquired "The Scotsman" for a few years around the turn of the century.  The Edinburgh paper was turned, under the tutelage of Andrew Neil, into a vituperative mouthpiece of Unionism, and it must be said that the effect on circulation was unsurprising.

Reforming the media to protect both pluralism and journalism is something that any Liberal should be espousing.  The decline in traditional newspaper sales, and the rise of electronic distribution and citizen journalism (which the "Guardian" is using as a seeming justification for further cost-cutting), is not down to ownership, but is not assisted by the air of distrust and opacity that exists around newspaper groups and control structure.

A start could be made to ensure that ownership is in the hands of appropriate organisations - the recent revelations that Thatcher met Murdoch during the fire sale of Times Newspapers in 1982 add fuel to the need for proper scrutiny in this area - and that they might need to be UK- or EU-based.  There also needs to be strong power for the Competition Commission to ensure that predatory tactics aren't adopted: the price war in the quality press nearly killed the "Independent" and damaged the "Guardian" without the transparency to see how much real damage it was doing to the News Corp balance sheet.

There is never any justification for the state to promote editorial intervention - the laws of defamation see to that.  However, this will tempt politicians who feel that they have been poorly-treated in recent years.  The poor darlings need to recognise that proper behaviour runs in both directions, but should not be so craven as to resist criticising the hypocritical activities of owners who do exactly the opposite of what they want the politicians to do.  The elimination of proprietorial gangsterism would be a good first step to a freer press.

The really taxing questions for Boris Johnson

It is very difficult to feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone, so I don't.  He only has himself to blame for getting himself up the proverbial creek regarding the kind of perfectly-acceptable Tory tax avoidance technique he adopted, with a lifetime's experience of the spittle-drenched phobia of the "Evening Standard" and the right-wing media.  The fact that it was all entirely legal if of somewhat ethically dubious does not make him any less idiotic.

However, there are a number of salient points that you won't read in the idolising of the Bouffant Buffoon's sanctity and rectitude:
  • Ken was not actually in power as an elected Mayor of Greater London when he adopted the technique of paying himself through a company.  He was not therefore paying 50p tax on his basic income, as the Mayor would be.
  • Boris, on the other hand, earned MORE from extra-curricular activities as Mayor than he did from the public purse for carrying out duties that the more trusting amongst us might have regarded as a full-time job.  
  • If re-elected, Boris only pledged that all his future earnings from the Mayorality would be taxed through the normal pay-as-you-earn system (most employees' normal option).  He was clear that his "journalism" and his other activities would continue to be channelled through the most tax-efficient means.
Boris is, as with every example of the parasitic hypocrites of the Mockney Bullingdon Tories, trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (I'm sure he'd appreciate the beagling analogy).   When Gideon gets out his big mouth to suggest that all Ministers would be happy to have their personal tax returns published he meant just that - not the front companies, the trusts and the hamperings of avoidance that a good accountant could come up with.  So he will connive with Boris's sophistry and rank hypocrisy.

Livingstone stands accused of avoidance - but not avoiding paying tax on income provided by the public sector (after all, Boris is an employee of the state).

Boris should stand accused of dereliction of duty; or, if taking home £300,000 per annum on top of an already-bloated Mayoral salary does not indicate a lack of attention to his responsibilities, should announce he will do the job for nothing if re-elected.  But the Tories attitude is that snouts in the trough are acceptable if they're attached to Bullingdon pigs. 

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Into the abyss with Mister Ed Miliband

What is the Labour Party actually trying to achieve in 2012?  The disaster in Bradford may presage the deeply depressing prospect of Boris being propelled back into office not out of antipathy for Ken but out of the despair that Labour has actually learned its lessons from Blair's hi-jacking of the party into a spurious centrism that is as rootless as the mendacious populism emanating from the Tories - and there is no clear strategy to get out of the whole.

Labour's mountain to climb is huge: the effect of being humiliated by the SNP and the decline in the Liberal vote being likely to let more Tories in through the impact of the electoral system in marginal seats in England.  Miliband is not striking home where he should be hurting, for example over the cash-for-access scandal and the inability of Osborne to develop anything approaching an expansionary economic policy, and the extent to which we now have two societies and economies.

We have a government that is unpopular, but increasingly Labour are seen as part of the problem - the victim of 1990s spin and the desire not to be seen as having principles but triangulating towards the centre-right, courting the self-styled doyens of Middle England while ignoring core support and those who might be prepared to recognise that there is a priority for social justice and the narrowing of economic inequalities to promote cohesion and wider growth.

Misted Ed has been silent on Europe, silent on the economy and mute on the stump.  It won't surprise me if they do very badly in local elections this May on the back of very low turn-outs.  Last year, I thought Miliband would lead Labour into an honourable defeat in 2015, but I'm no longer quite so sanguine.  Whether there's appetite for a Duncan-Smith-style regicide could be interesting...