Did Cameron tell Maria Miller she’s a sinner?

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Cameron’s at it again with the biblical references.

Last time it was an attempt to use Jesus’s “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” response to the Pharisees as a justification  for the maintenance of the status quo, when in fact it means quite the opposite.

This time around, he’s laying claim to St Paul’s advice to the Galatians:

The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens.  After the day I’ve had, I’m definitely looking for volunteers.

Indeed it does.  Well Paul does, in his letter to Galatians.

But Galatians 6.1, immediately preceding what Cameron quotes t 6.2, makes it quite clear that Paul is referring not to material burdens, but the burden of sin:

My bothers and sisters, if someone is caught in any kind of wrongdoing, those of you who are spiritual should set him right; but you must do it in a gentle way, so that you will not be tempted too.

So either this was a mighty clever but gentle way of telling Maria Miller that she’s a right old sinner, or else it’s evidence he just googles the bits of the bible he needs and doesn’t bother with the context.


Categories: General Politics, Religion

Adam Smith Institute on selling stuff off

Adam Smith Institute, attacking Gordon Brown for selling off gold and losing money (October 2011)

He [Brown] did so many things wrong that the list is too long to tell. Among the highlights are his sale of 395 tons of Britain’s gold reserves between 1999 and 2002 for £2.3bn, an amount that would now be worth $14.3bn.

Adam Smith Institute,  defending the Coalition  for selling off Royal Mail and losing money (April 2014)

No-one knew what the “correct” price was for Royal Mail, any more than they did for BT, British Gas and the dozens of others.  Since they had not traded in the private sector, or had to attract private investment, no-one knew how they would be valued.





Categories: General Politics

The unintended consequences of the annuity revolution

March 20, 2014 3 comments

Labour and Labour’s supporters are busy looking through the detail of yesterday’s budget announcement around pensions, but as far as I can see the most they’ve come up with so far is some stuff about it being a dastardly bridgehead to removal of other pensioner benefits.  This seems to me to miss the bigger picture

There is little doubt that the key idea – the removal of the need for an annuities for defined benefit pensions – is politically attractive, as it can be sold as greater choice/the government not telling you what you have to do with your money. But the long term consequences of such a change are worth considering:

1) The reasons for annuities in the first place – a secure income for as long as you live, and the onus on insurance companies to work out how long that might be on average, how it might change as life expectancy increases, and price their annuities accordingly – is to be replaced by a free-for-all in which people have to guess how long they might live and plan accordingly.  As life expectancy increases (at least amongst the previously somewhat better off), poverty in very old age may beckon for many.

2) While this  may simply mean that many pensioners will stick with annuities as the safe option, it may also lead the the rapid development of a property-selling industry pitched at new pensioners, on the basis that fast property price increases will outdo annuities as an income source (and perhaps enable larger annuity purchase later on), even given the income tax hit if you don’t buy an annuity.   I forsee lots and lots of mis-selling to vulnerable clients, given asymmetric information.

3) This could lead to a) a house price bubble even greater than the one we have now; b) greater retirement condo building c) a combination of both.

4) Most likely, though, it will lead to an even greater generational divide, with defined benefit pensioners buying up housing at ever-inflated prices and renting out to those increasingly unable to get on the property ladder.

Has the Treasury thought through the potentially massive scale of these unintended (or maybe they are intended) consequences?  I suspect not, what with votes and that.

Categories: General Politics

A night on the headland

March 15, 2014 Leave a comment

On the headland,

Leant unsteady to the smarting gale

Eyes crimped to fresh sweeps of misted rain,

Rivulets of pained relief

Twisted chill

From neck nape to flabbed belly below

Whip stripes to my bloated soul.







Categories: General Politics

Bob Crow’s vision of decentralised solidarity and what it can do for Labour

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Bob Crow has died, and all the people who have no idea what his politics actually were are saying he was a great fighter and leader.

Maybe he was, but that’s not the Bob Crow we should be celebrating.  The Bob Crow we should be celebrating is the one who planned to give his power away to his own union members, and then did, when he could have had a much cushier number.

Three months ago Bob reflected on the RMT’s expulsion from Labour in 2004:

By freeing ourselves from the shackles of automatic Labour support, RMT’s political influence is thriving with political groups established in the British, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and assemblies that involve a base of supportive Labour representatives, Greens and SNP. The condition for joining is that elected members must sign up to the core political priorities laid down by the union.

In many ways, RMT’s decisions from ten years ago put the union well ahead of the game when it comes to the relationship with the Labour Party. This year, major unions have said that they will be cutting their affiliation fees to Labour to reflect the number of members who genuinely support the organisation.

It seems fitting on the day of Bob’s death, therefore, to assess what the future might hold for the relationship between Labour and these other major unions, and to advocate something that I think Bob might have supported, though I do some from a Labour party loyalist perspective.

Last weekend, at Labour’s special conference, this is what I would have said if I had been called to speak on the motion that the Collins Review recommendations be approved in full:

Good morning, conference

I have a flexible mandate from my CLP to vote for the proposals if, following debate, it appears to me that there is in them sufficient guarantee of the longevity of the party-union link.

The continuation of a productive party-union link is, in the proposals, predicated on one main assumption – that union members will become affiliates, and then many of those will become members when they realise how great the party is on the basis of receiving party literature and attending party meetings.

This just isn’t a valid assumption.

The ability to vote in local party matters such as council candidate selections just isn’t enough of an incentive, and the real risk with these proposals is that the party loses out on a large part of its funding from the current system and not see it replaced by doubled membership.

I can only fully  support this package of recommendations if there is, today, from the top table, a commitment to a “Collins Review mark II”, in which we work out how we actually incentivise levy payers to make the jump to affiliation, and affiliates to make the jump to full membership.

This will mean taking seriously some of the consultation responses for both Collins I and Refounding Labour – to date conveniently ignored – about how real power and resources might be devolved to CLPs, in such a way that affiliates see an immediate and local reason for getting involved in local decision making.

This might mean, for example, reversing some of the financial flows from membership fees so that CLPs, funded pro-rata to their then growing membership can developed properly resourced community organisation and campaign plans – dovetailed with the current Constituency Development Plan process but free of the command and control knee jerk stuff set out in these recommendations – with regional office and other party expertise bought in as required in much the same way that schools buy in services from a local auithorit if the local authority offer is what they need. (And it often is).

If a commitment to Collins 2 can be give today, and actual rather than rhetorical trust be put in local labour movements, I can support the recommendations as a good starting point.  If not, I’ll see how the rest of the debate goes.

I didn’t get called to speak* and of course the proposals were adopted by a massive majority.  As it stands, therefore, Labour has taken an almighty gamble with its financial future, based on little more than a hope that union members will see the light about what a great party Labour is.  It’s as though the collective action problem had never been thought of.

One alternative to bankruptcy much spoken of is, of course, large one-off political donations from the same unions, secured from the main union leaders in deals done behind closed doors.   That may be better than nothing.

But there is also what I’d like to see become called the Bob Crow alternative, in honour of Bob’s much overlooked, but well evidenced (see above) commitment to decentralisation and dispersal of power – quite, different, in that respect, to the centralizing tendencies of McCluskey and Prentis.

This is for right-minded Labour members to work with local union branches to develop local agreements around funding of the party, such that  collective decisions are taken in local branches that all members of that branch should fund NOT the Labour party centrally, but local parties, on the basis of locally agreed constituency development plans.  As this movement rolls out, the central Labour party will have little option but to a) develop a process whereby such funding arrangements carry with them affiliation status for all members in the branch;  b) effectively reverse the financial planning processes within the party, such that the current head office and regional structure have to submit business plans to local CLPs for discussion and approval. **

Then, of course, the hierarchy may start to regret that it didn’t initiate the Bob Crow alternative on its own terms (it might even have called it something else), but ultimately it may be better this way: the labour movement wresting back control of its party, union branch my union branch – in a way not dissimilar to the process initiated by the RMT  a decade ago (especially in Scotland), but in a way which unifies party and movement without recourse to the Scottish Socialist Party, Green party etc, as bargaining chips.

So while the media gets on with eulogizing Bob Crow the fighter, maybe socialists within and around the Labour party should get on with celebrating the very best of Bob Crow – his instinct to trust his own union members, and to let them get on with it.***


* I’m not complaining about not being called. The chair can’t call everyone, though I was pissed of at people like Keith Vaz MP taking up valuable conference time talking utterly irrelevant bollox when other members could have been having their say, and the chair tolerating it.   Christ, what a knob.  Nor did I like the other granstanding from the union leaders and other worthies. Margaret Beckett was a welcome exception.

** Regular readers will of course recognize that this is a remodelling of earlier proposals, in the light of changed circumstances, for the reversal of financial flows in the Labour party.  I think the chances of it working are now greater than before the special conference vote.  I do, however, recognize that there are issues I’ve never properly addressed around how unions would engage with the party in parts of the country where the Labour party structure is too weak to carry this forward.  There would need to be partnering arrangements with stronger CLPs in these cases, as well as practical decisions by union branches to affiliate more directly with regional parties.  I am grateful to Roger McCarthy in particular for reminding me of these issues.

*** That’s not to say I totally agree with Bob’s 2003/04 tactics.  I still think there was more room for a deal with the Labour party around local affiliation, not too far from what I set out here, and that his hatred of Blair took the RMT a little too quickly to the Labour party exit door.


Poetry corner: breakfast epiphanies

Next in my occasional series of occasional poems:


Breakfast epiphanies

The stale glint of dawning hope

Rinced acid clean by morning glare

Like remnant cornflakes

Sluiced clean away

From the breakfast bowl


Table, sink, cluttered mess

Of yesterday’s bright promise

Brought dark by seeping creeping fog

Of my acrid, foul-stricken soul.



Categories: General Politics

In praise of racist jokes

Ava Vidal (a comedian I’ve not seen or heard of) says there should be limits to telling racists jokes, and that these limits are associated with the power of the joke teller and how much offence can be taken by the people who are the butt of the joke.

I’m not so sure, for three reasons:

1) Most obviously, even the suggestion of a limit to speech provides tactical advantage to actual racists (i.e. those people who think people of a different ethnicity are less valuable people by dint of their ethnicity), who get to shout from the rooftops that they are being oppressed.

2) The whole boundary setting process can contribute to the postmodern vortex of inauthenticity, in which one commentator strives to be an authentic member of their community by being more shocked than the last shocked commentator, and in which the boundaries of what might shock are drawn commensurately ever tighter for those who don’t want to shock others, while those who do get ever greater freedom to do so (see 1);

3) Racist jokes can be an important element in the development and maintenance of a cohesive, non-racist society.

Reason 3 might look like it’s just been put in to prove reason 2, but there are a couple of justifications I can provide.

First, take the utani system which flourished in Eastern Africa, especially in Tanganyika and Northern Kenya roughly between the 1870s and the 1950s, but which remains a well understood aspect of Tanzanian culture even today.

The concept of utani, a Kiswahili word of Arabic origin meaning something like ‘joking relationship’, encompasses  the complex social system of mutual inter-dependency between ethnic groups, who may pre-colonially have had warring a warring relationship around land and livestock, or who may have come into first contact via newly established trade route to the coast.  Utani was, in effect, a swiftly developed social structure that enabled different ethnic groups to cope with the massive changes brought upon them by the first wave of exploitative, international capitalism.

At the heart of this new relationship between ethnic groups (which it is suggested was an extension of pre-existing utani within clans and family groups) lay the permissibility, even the duty, of taking the piss out of people who were different.  As the colonial chronicler of the practices, RE Moreau, set out on 1944:

The joking itself is usually referred to by the Africans under two heads: tukana (curse, abuse, revile, insult, call bad names) and danganya (elude, delude, deceive, defraud, cheat, beguile, impose upon, belie). In addition there are horseplay, and a remarkable system of forfeits…. So far as I can gather, all the joking may be done in public, with no restriction of place or time.

Gibes offered by my informants as typical of the tukana exchange are the sort of crudities we uttered ourselves when we were very young: ‘ Yours is a rotten tribe ‘; ‘Baboon yourself’; and so on. A richer insult is: ‘ You’re better dead: I want your wife.’ The horseplay takes the form of shoving each other about, or a man can come to the house of his mtani and seize his wife, declaring that he is going off with her (Ngoni). All the informants stress the fact that if anyone who was not an mtani [sing] said and did such things there would be a row. (‘ You might get angry inside at the insults of your mtani, but you must say “it is my mtani “‘: Nyakyusa.) Almost without exception the view is expressed, however, that between watani [plural off mtani] rudeness is not merely permitted but is the right and the expected thing.

But the corollary to the piss-take is the extraordinary level of generosity to strangers:

The essence of utani is that every person admitted to it has a right to hospitality from an mtani. As enunciated by all my informants, any man can enter the hut of an mtani, and can eat and drink his fill with or without invitation. It seems certainly by virtue of utani that the Bena and the Ngoni  can enter each others’ houses and demand food, and be as rude to each other as they like. If a hut is shut and the owner is away an mtani can break in-even smash a padlock-prepare food, kill and eat a hen, help himself to any beer he finds…… Even making allowance for a difference between theory and practice, it is still at once apparent what an enormous help utani may be to men undertaking those month-long journeys to and from work which have been such a feature of Tanganyika life.

Notably, utani was fostered under Julius Nyerere’s African Socialism, and perhaps just as notably, Tanzania remains the country in East Africa which has never fallen foul of ethnic strife in the post-colonial period.  Could it be that such peaceful co-existence* might actually have its roots in a sense of humour which celebrated lack of diversity, while at the same time smoothing the path towards a  mutually beneficial** moral economy in the face of the countervailing pressures of capitalism?

Tadasa Tsurata of Kinki Universoty seems to think so, and he knows a thing or two.

Second in defence of racist jokes, there is America’s greatest social commentator of 21st century life.

Seth McFarlane’s stock-in-trade is a cartoon utani, in which rampant racist stereotyping is counterbalanced by the fact that the least politically correct characters (Peter and Quagmire) are, when it comes to action, far more welcoming of other ethnicities than the liberally upright and uptight Brian (the talking dog).  Maybe, Seth seems to suggest, if we got a little less hooked on celebrating the diversity of our neighbours, and a little more focused on helping the weirdie bastards out when they need a hand, the world might be a better place: a little less left-liberalism, a little more solidarity.***


*  Ethnic peace in Tanzania might not all be down to utani.  The Nyerere policy of random selection for secondary schooling, in which young people from different ethnic groups ended up in dorms, sometimes thousands of miles from home, with people from a whole range of different groups, produced a lot of inter-marriage.

** It doesn’t always work out as planned.  The only time I felt unsafe in Tanzania is when I ‘joked’ harmlessly, I thought,  to an Asian East African Sikh bar-owner  (born and bred in Tanzania and therefore within the utani frame) about his turban.  Utani brings with it, I was later told, a sensitivity to being joked about by people who are not mtani, and I certainly wasn’t his.  A dagger was mentioned, in no uncertain terms.  As Moreau (see above) suggests when he talks of ‘weak’ ethnic groups with no watani, maybe even utani needs the concept of ‘the other’ to make it work.

*** There is, though, the issue of using jokes to further power imbalances.  This is one of those blogs raising questions about current orthodoxies, not giving complete answers.  But you probably knew that.  Otherwise it’d be 5,000 words long.

Categories: General Politics

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