Friday, 24 January 2014

UKIP - the Tea Party of the 51st State

Forecast of Drivel Ahead - Farage has disowned his own party's manifesto
The United Kingdom Independence Party cites withdrawal from the European Union as its signature policy. Puffed up by a right-wing media, it has ridden on the back of xenophobic myths ranging from invisible hordes of Bulgarians battering down the doors of the Arrivals hall in Heathrow to invented tales of conspiratorial Brussels bureaucrats forcing Britons to eat nothing but straight bananas (though no one seems to ask where these are to be found either).

UKIP preys on worries about the poverty and social problems afflicting millions of Britons using manufactured fears about migrants and the EU while covering up the real causes - an ever greater hording of wealth by a tiny, rich elite; the widespread incidence of tax avoidance and evasion by large corporations; and the now near complete privatisation (or at least private contracting out) of our key public services.

But in fact, UKIP have a wide range of policies and stances that do not bear scrutiny set against the "party of the people" tone its leader Nigel "Blokey" Farage seeks to espouse. He is Everyman, supposedly, with his pint in one hand and fag in the other. He rarely promotes the fact that he made his money as a stockbroker (as did his errant friend and former colleague Godfrey Bloom, MEP), nor that he used to be an active member of what was at the time a fairly pro-European Tory Party.

Yet more than his past, which could be forgiven if he had genuinely changed his tune, Farage is haunted by his party itself, even although the party very much is him.

We have heard enough of late of bizarre but frankly quite trivial outbursts from strange UKIP members. The most prominent was Godfrey Bloom with his references to "bongo-bongo-land", sluts and bashing a journalist on the head with his agenda papers; then there was the town councillor who suggested the recent floods were God's vengeance for legalising gay marriage; and the county councillor who used Facebook to ask "Is tuna a real fish like ones that swim in water?"

"Trivial" not in the sense that these events and the attitudes they display are trivial, but rather in the sense that they pale in the face of much more troubling aspects of UKIP, its official policies and its supposedly sensible leader's own views.

Consider these issues, generally overlooked by the media:

- Godfrey Bloom, when a UKIP MEP, appeared in a video praising the French secret services for planting bombs on board the Greenpeace ship "Rainbow Warrior" which caused an explosion and killed a photographer. You can see him in action by clicking here.

- in 2006, the European Parliament voted by 545 votes to a mere 13 in favour of calling on all member states of the EU to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women, treat rape within marriage as a crime and to ban and prosecute all instances of female genital mutilation. Who would oppose such a sensible, ethical motion? Well, UKIP did. All 7 of its MEPs who voted, including Nigel Farage, voted against supporting such steps to protect women. Doubtless they would claim it was to do with asserting British independence - but what comes first: making a political point or protecting vulnerable women and girls from violence?

- UKIP supposedly stands for the UNITED KINGDOM. But there is little resonance beyond England. Farage complained about being heckled by an admittedly loud and probably counter-productive demonstration when he tried to hold a press conference in an Edinburgh pub (to launch a by-election campaign some miles away in Aberdeen - possibly he didn't have a satnav that covered so far north?). But he might have reflected that the Scottish people who turned out to greet him may have felt slightly aggrieved by the leader of his party's tiny Scottish wing, Lord Monckton, who had described his compatriots as "subsidy junkies", playing on the wildly inaccurate theme that Scotland receives more public expenditure than it pays in tax.

And then just this week, having claimed that he was getting rid of five unnamed "barmy" MEPs (over a third of  his group in the European Parliament), Farage went off the policy rails himself, finally unmasking his inner Tea Party libertarian self.

First, in a speech to his former colleagues in the City of London stockbroking fraternity, he railed against laws curtailing sex discrimination: he insisted that women face no discrimination at all in the City workplace, though he then contradicted himself by saying that women who take maternity leave are by default worth less than men to their employers.

And now, he wants to legalise handguns - pistols - which were banned in 1996 after Thomas Hamilton used them to kill 16 primary school children in Dunblane in Scotland. Nigel feels the ban is "ludicrous" - perhaps he will launch his campaign to change the law in a pub in the town; I will be happy to buy him a map so he can get to the right place to justify his call.

But third and perhaps most telling of all, Nigel Farage has denounced the manifesto he and UKIP fought the 2010 General Election on as "486 pages of drivel" which he had never got round to reading and which he has now disowned.

And no wonder; this was a manifesto that promoted a "flat tax rate" - massive tax cuts for millionaires and substantial increases for everyone else; it opposed any regulation of banks in spite of the wave of bad practice and corruption revealed by the 2008/9 crisis; and it even planned to introduce compulsory dress codes in theatres.

Drivel indeed - but let's get this right: although he was not leader at the General Election, Farage was leader until a short time before, stood as UKIP's most prominent candidate and resumed the leadership a short time later. And for all that time up until today, this allegedly Honest Man of British politics, this straight guy who says it how it is, was standing on a platform of drivel, promoting policies he had never even read. Really? This is the man who plans to restore trust in politics?

Unbelievably, he has now said UKIP won't have any new policies this side of the General Election. So we will be being asked to vote for a party with no policies - apart perhaps from whatever Nigel can scribble onto the back of his fag packet while he queues for his next pint. What are we left with? An ability to say whatever UKIP want to say at the time, but watch out for a change next week? Or, more worrying, a licence to play up any and every prejudice without any accountability? It is rank populism - like the US Tea Party.

If we do ever leave the EU, if Farage has his way, the chances are we would be quickly incorporated into the orbit of the libertarian wing of the USA, a sort of offshore 51st State of America, open for international big business and complete with our own huddled masses to fill the sweatshops. Stockbrokers' stock would rise accordingly.

All thanks to Nigel.

What a bloke. And what a joke. But who's laughing?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

On The Big Red Bus to Oblivion

Two stories and images have struck home more this week than any sleazy Lib Dem shenanigans, UKIP weather forecasts or Putin lectures on sexual tolerance.

One was the report of a near riot outside a 99p shop in Wrexham in the Welsh borderlands, where police had to be called when an "everything 50p" sale came to a premature end, to the anger of a number of customers. Some wags have sought to make light of it, but there is nothing funny here - we live in a consumer society and we are measured by our possessions. How tragic and desperate that some people in what is still the fourth richest society in the world are reduced to tears of rage when the cheap items sold by these outlets go up by 49p. But what the would-be jokers miss is that these reductions likely represented to some cash-strapped victims of bankers' austerity a brief chance to be able to buy something and own it, perhaps to feel a little more like some of their more affluent fellow citizens.

Fellow citizens, if that's what they still are, like Steve Smith, founder of Poundland, a chain of similar shops, selling off everything at £1 per item. All these little brass coins gradually added up for Steve, who sold off his empire for £50 millions and at 51 has retired to a 13 bedroom mansion with its own swimming pool and in-house pub. Citing his own poor roots and determined hard-working, Steve epitomises the capitalist dream, the handful of genuine rags-to-riches stories used to sell the system to everyone else. If only everyone had his acumen, energy and luck (the latter random event is bizarrely praised as a virtue in this fairytale narrative), well by this time next year, we would all be millionaires, to coin a phrase. Except, of course, there are neither the pound coins, nor the indoor swimming pools, to go round.

Running on empty - the double-decker of privilege
But Steve Smith is small beer compared to the people represented by the other image that has jarred this week. This was of a bus - a red, double-decker London routemaster with enough seating to hold 85 people. A big bus?  Perhaps, until it was explained that it was being used to represent the findings of research by Oxfam that demonstrate that a mere 85 people own more wealth than the poorest half of the human race combined.

Yes, that's right: 85 people own more than the poorest 3,650,000,000 (or so) humans on the Earth COMBINED. That big number includes the billion or so people who go to bed hungry each night - as well as the 85 children who die from hunger every 15 minutes.

This is in a world where there is enough food, right now, to feed not just the actual global population of 7.3 billion, but rather one of over ten billion people more than adequately. However, a socio-economic system based on mind-bogglingly skewed inequality, unaccountable private ownership and full-on profit-seeking will never be efficient enough nor sufficiently humane to put the needs of ordinary humans first. If there were any doubts about that, they were fully and finally laid to rest when we saw in recent years speculation by international traders in so-called food futures drive the price of basic food staples up and their supply down in several poor countries, leading to real hunger and bloody riots.

This is a world now where everything is a commodity - from Nestle seeking to patent natural plants like fennel to the ongoing war of attrition by the biotech industry to copyright even naturally occurring human DNA. If corporations want to own our genetic blueprint and the natural patterns of our food, how on earth can we ever sanely view their intent through any sort of benevolent prism? Or believe any half-hearted claims of corporate social responsibility for the common good to be anything but expired, self-serving marketing ploys?

It is not tenable - as with the banking crisis, the peak oil squeeze and the mounting tidal wave of personal debt, the current state of affairs is an economic system incrementally spiraling out of control - whether over a few years or a decade or two is perhaps the only real question. Like some great oil tanker stuck on auto-pilot and headed for ever-nearer reefs, the owners and officers are jumping ship. Strikingly akin to the off-worlders in the film Elysium, they are leaping into their sanitised, hermetically sealed bubbles of privilege, whether in countryside mansions or on hubristic artificial world-shaped islands off Dubai, perhaps hoping to it sit out when the crash comes, insulated from the mess they have made.

So let them board their big red bus. It's running on empty and headed to oblivion.

But we don't need to go along too. Because we really, really don't need them. We can do better. Let's wave them off, and start again. Like we meant to all along.
Move along please - nothing to laugh at here.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Lib Dems and Sexism: Rennard Isn't the Real Issue

It would be easy to dismiss the Lib Dems' tribulations over Chris Rennard's alleged misdemeanours as simply another example of a rootless party in terminal decline with Nick Clegg's vacillation over how to react as little more than another example of middle-ground muddle. Yet to do so would be to miss an important point - and this is precisely what much of the media is indeed doing, focusing its concerns on either printing semi-salacious articles about what the former party Chief Executive is accused of doing or alternatively broadcasting a blow by blow account of arguments between Clegg and time-servers in the Lords, many of whom most of the public have never heard of.

But there is a deeper issue here, and that is what some of the Lib Dems apparently feel is acceptable behaviour and how seriously, or not, the party has set out to challenge and change it. Read former MP and Rennard ally Alex Carlile in today's Daily Mail (what else!) and you find him caustically diminishing the complaints of four women against his friend. Meanwhile on BBC Radio 4, Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies suggested that the allegations were equivalent to "an Italian man pinching a woman's bottom" a few years ago - with one swift step adding a dash of racial stereotyping to the stew of alleged sexism.

The Lib Dems' problem though is not simply that their byzantine disciplinary rules use bizarre levels of proof - beyond reasonable doubt is normally reserved for criminal cases investigated and tested by the police and CPS. Non-court cases such as workplace conduct hearings normally use the more realistic test of determining what occurred on the balance of probabilities. To insist on a criminal-level of proof for in-house cases of alleged harassment, which will very often involve one person's word against another, is in effect to make it impossible for victims to pursue a complaint with any real prospect of success. It potentially protects the culprits to the detriment of the victims and is completely out of place in any modern organisation. This is the culture of 1950's offices like the male-dominated one in Madmen rather than a supposedly progressive 21st century political party.

It might not greatly matter beyond the confines of the Lib Dems were it not for the fact that this party and the people involved in this argument, including Clegg, Rennard and Carlile, have been responsible for passing legislation which now makes it much harder for women (and men) to pursue claims of sexual harassment in the workplace via employment tribunals. For the first time, it now costs to go to an employment tribunal hearing - £1,200 for a sex discrimination case (compared to £390 for unfair dismissal claims). Driven forward by Lib Dem Vince Cable's department, significant new obstacles have been erected against anyone challenging workplace sexism.

The Lib Dems have got themselves into a dreadful mess over this. Yet the real tragedy is that the vagaries of the electoral system that delivered us the Coalition Government have already allowed their muddled and ignorant thinking to drive a coach and horses through years of progress towards ending sexism in the workplace. Watching all this unfold though, it isn't in the least surprising.

Monday, 13 January 2014

No Fracking Please, We're British, say Greens

Press Release from Cllr Andrew Cooper, Green Party national Energy & Environment Speaker and lead Eurocandidate for Yorkshire & The Humber.

“No Fracking Way” say Greens
Or - Maybe the Bulgarians, Romanians and Leo Sayer know something we don’t!
Around the world, Greens are supporting local communities in their campaigns against fracking in their neighbourhoods. Across Europe, fracking is banned in Northern Ireland, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. There are further bans in areas of Spain and Switzerland. (1)
In Australia, veteran popstar Leo Sayer has even done a song about it called No Fracking Way! (2)
Andrew Cooper, Kirklees councillor and Green Party Energy spokesperson, said, 
“Maybe the Bulgarians and the Romanians know something we don’t! Maybe it’s not a coincidence that both their countries ban fracking – along with many EU states. And they’ve stayed at home in their droves, in their green and pleasant lands!
“Fracking wouldn’t get anywhere without serious Government support, tax breaks and other subsidies, hence today’s transparent ‘sweetener’ to councils.
“As the Green Party has always said, the greatest potential for energy savings is in insulation and energy efficiency. Doing the oil industry’s marketing for them shows Government has no interest in helping householders control their energy demand. They simply want to smooth the way for massive environmental exploitation by oil giants.
“Government supposedly believes in ‘localism’ and allowing Councils to make their own decisions. But when Council funding is drastically cut by central government and they are then offered money to accept fracking on their land, it is clearly nothing less than ‘bribery’.
“Government has today backed environmentally damaging shale gas extraction just as it has scaled back support for people to insulate their homes.
"“They’ve dropped the pretence that fracked gas will reduce fuel bills for householders and they are doing nothing for households in fuel poverty.
It is also significant that this policy is not being applied to renewable energy installations demonstrating the governments growing lack of commitment to the green economic sector.

 2. Leo Sayer's anti-fracking song for the Australian campaign - Pretty good!!
 3.  Green Leader Natalie Bennett’s youtube interview on today's govt fracking 'bribe', where she does brilliantly!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

In Remembrance of Lions

Harry Patch - A coin for our times?
The Government has come under substantial criticism for deciding to put Lord Kitchener on the new £2 coins to mark the beginning of what could easily see-saw uncomfortably between commemoration and celebration of the slaughter of the First World War as we approach the centenary of its beginning in August. Education Secretary Michael Gove, who worryingly is responsible for the current review of the history curriculum to make it more supposedly patriotic, has added to the furore by claiming the war to have been a noble one, seen as noble by those fighting it, and a "just" conflict. He has accused supposedly left-wing historians as well as programmes such as Blackadder Goes Forth and the Monocled Mutineer of tarnishing it out of some sort of seditious lack of Britishness and an apparently perverse support of Prussian militarism.

There is not the space here to consider his claims, but both Labour's Tristram Hunt and Cambridge University historian Sir Richard Evans have given powerful responses to Gove, castigating his simplistic and narrow-minded view of events and, in Sir Richard's case, his cunning plans for history teaching in schools.

Gove, who has never served in the military or been in harm's way in the service of our country, is just like so many politicians who talk tough with other people's lives - but as for Kitchener himself, he is an odd choice  for a coin.

Conqueror of the still-troubled Sudan in 1898 in as bloody a campaign as might be imagined, Lord Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum ceased being a serving general to become a member of the Liberal Party Cabinet as Secretary of State for War at the commencement of hostilities. He was key to the drive to raise a volunteer force for what some have described as "the war that had to be fought". After a record-breaking period of over 40 years of general (though not total) peace, the European imperial powers - Russia, Germany, France, and Austro-Hungary (and arms merchants far and wide) - were itching for a conflagration to settle their primacy as industrial, social and political changes swept their peoples, challenging the long, tense equilibrium of The Powers. Britain, with its naval supremacy and huge overseas Empire, was to an extent on the sidelines, but tied to Russia and France through the Tripartite Alliance. So, when the Czar declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, we were drawn in within a matter of days.

Kitchener himself played no part in the fighting as regiment after regiment were slaughtered on the fields of Flanders, whose red poppies today commemorate the blood spilled on its soil. Perhaps contrary to popular imagination, he did argue for a cautious approach and opposed what he termed "too vigorous offensives". But while other generals still genuinely believed the war would last months, Kitchener was planning for at least a three year conflict which he believed would last "until the final million", whether as a warning or as a strategy, or both, it is not clear, but chilling under any circumstance.

After initial success in organising the new armies for the front, Kitchener came under increasing criticism for failing to organise weapons and munitions supplies and was gradually sidelined by Prime Minister Asquith. He became an envoy to the Czar and died in June 1916 en route to Russia when his ship was sunk by a German mine off the Orkneys.

For a century now, the Great War, once seen as "the war to end all wars", has been judged as far from just in either its cause or execution. It was grounded in squabbles between unelected Royal families in eastern Europe and led directly to the deaths of fifteen million people, with many more injured and disabled or displaced. It traumatised a generation and led rapidly to the conditions that would claim over sixty million lives in the 1939 to 1945 war.

We should commemorate those who died - no one can doubt their bravery and sacrifice, but unlike the Second World War and the struggle against the Nazis, their deaths were at the hands of their political leaders as much as at the ends of their opponents guns. That the conflict unleashed consequences on a scale they could perhaps not have imagined (although Kitchener apparently did) is no mitigation.

Commemoration should therefore be about the people who were at risk, who lived and died in the trenches, rather than the men who sent them there from the safety of their Whitehall office desks. So rather than Kitchener on our coins, why not Harry Patch, the very last veteran of the 1918 army, who died in July 2009? His perspective on the conflict was rather different to Mr Gove's gung-ho take on it. Rather than a noble cause, Harry Patch, a veteran of Passchendale, warned that the war was "organised murder, and nothing else."

Harry Patch would be an appropriate face on our coinage, but it is doubtful if his views would chime with our Government's intentions for the remembrance of the war, coming as they do ahead of the difficulties they face in the European elections in May and the General Election next year. When he was 106 years old, Harry met a former Austrian solider, who was 107, and, declaring his former opponent to be a "nice gentleman", he said, "He is all for a united Europe and peace - and so am I."

Lions led by donkeys is a long used phrase to describe the British Army of the Great War, men who lived and died in the most appalling conditions. Many of those suffering shell-shock were punished in on way or another, and over three hundred, including at least one 16 year old child, were executed by firing squads sanctioned by the British Government and Lord Kitchener. It is an insult to them to lead their remembrance with a coin that has no space for anyone who served in the actual conflict and all the more galling to have Michael Gove try to put such an appalling spin on the slaughter. He might do well to think on this extract from Harry Patch's book, The Last Fighting Tommy, and ask himself if this really is what he believes to have been noble:

"We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: 'Shoot me'. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was 'Mother.' I remember that lad in particular. It's an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind."