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Archive for January, 2011

Why Conservatives should support Stella Creasy on Thursday

January 31, 2011 12 comments

This Thursday a motion from Stella Creasy MP and Justin Tomlinson MP will be moved in the House of Commons calling for Government to give regulators the power to cap the total cost for credit.

In brief (and as I’ve written before), the consumer credit (regulation and advice) bill seeks to integrate credit services with the post office network, impose a levy on consumer credit agencies to fund debt counselling and advice services, and give councils greater powers to regulate the amount of credit agencies in their local area.

Creasy has received support for her bill from the End Legal Loansharking Campaign, and though the emotive word “end” – as in to ban – has been used, in actual fact what the bill recommends is far more clever in that it seeks to find a mechanism to reduce unrealistic rates attached to many high-street lenders, with the aim of reducing credit dependency altogether.

During her adjournment debate held on 9 November 2010 in the House of Commons, Creasy noted 1 in 10 customers of legal loan sharks earn under £11,000 per year, and that even lenders playing by the book are able to okay loans at 272% APR (compared to 9-10% by mainstream lenders).

The inclusion of a Tory MP (Tomlinson, who is MP for Swindon North, who has recently set up a Personal Finance Education Group) will help give the bill cross-party appeal, but the very notion of “regulation” seemed to be met with resistance from some Conservatives – peculiar, seeing as at the heart of the bill is a commitment towards bringing down personal debt, and providing a gateway towards a more savings-based culture (something the Conservative Party were once geared towards).

Personal Debt

According to Credit Action the total UK personal debt at the end of November 2010 stood at £1,454bn – which amounts to more than the whole country produces in a year. Additionally, total consumer credit lending to individuals was at £214bn.

David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, wrote for Bright Blue Magazine saying: “It is widely understood that what has broken our economy is our dependence on debt and borrowing. This is revealed in extraordinarily low levels of saving over the past decade.” We mustn’t avoid factoring in economic inequality to a broken economy, nor assume there is only one viable plan available to fix it with, but certainly the credit experiment hurt the worst off hardest.

By coincidence, Willetts was present at Creasy’s adjournment debate last November (he stepped in last minute) and noted that the points she raised in her bill would certainly be considered in the government’s ongoing credit review. Clearly Creasy’s recommendations are in step with his concerns about debt dependence and low levels of savings.

Willetts is not the only high-ranking Conservative politician who has spoken out on this issue. Before he was Prime Minister David Cameron addressed an audience on progressive conservatism, rallying against “Too much banking debt, too much personal debt and too much government debt”. Uncontrollable personal debt is clearly at odds with modern conservatism; Creasy’s bill should be seen as a solution.

Credit Unions or P2P

Part of the bill includes the recommendation that a levy be drawn up against lenders to afford financial literacy classes – for much the same reasons that alcoholic drink producers are obliged to promote the drink aware campaign on their advertising material. While P2P (peer-to-peer) lending may undercut illegal loan sharks, there can be no way for it to offer the kind of financial literacy advice that debt-dependents need.

Debt dependency will not disappear overnight. Credit unions are well placed to get people creditworthy, thus disincentivising use of illegal loansharks, or payday loan shops that charge astonishingly high APR rates, while simultaneously offering the kind of advice which will drive down personal debt in the future.

Savings culture

As Respublica researcher Sandra Gruesco noted last year, in 2003, George Osborne said:

“We greatly support the principle that the (Child Trust Fund) Bill is designed to promote (…) We think that having savings gives people a stake in society, gives them independence, encourages self-reliance and bolsters the freedom of the individual against the overbearing state.”

It was the conservative appeal to a savings culture that surprised a lot of Tories when it was decided the Child Trust Fund and the Savings Gateway – which have been noted as progressive conservative ideals (pdf) – should be scrapped.

Unfortunately nothing has yet been put in its place. OECD figures revealed that in each year from 2005 to 2008 British households were running negative savings, but thankfully the consumer credit (regulation and advice) bill seeks to address the very concerns expressed by high-ranking Conservatives themselves. It seems obvious that Conservatives should support Stella Creasy’s motion on Thursday.

Formula grant for dummies

January 31, 2011 2 comments

I apologise right away to those readers whose intelligence I insult with this short post.

There’s been a recent spate of Tories arguing that the local government grant settlement, in which the budgets of poorer areas are slashed harder than those of richer areas, is actually very fair. 

The Tory argument goes like this, as recently modelled for the BBC by Tory Minister Grant Shapps when defending the massive cuts to Manchester’s formula grant:

He [Shapps] said the settlement was fair across different parts of the country and that funding per person was highest in areas with most need.

In 2011/12 Manchester will still receive a central government grant of £713 per head, compared, for example, to £125 per head in Wokingham,” he said.

 Here’s another example from one of our thicker Tory councillor tweeters:

@JohnDMerry I’m glad that the government still provides Salford with a formula grant over 4 times as big as somewhere like Wokingham

Wokingham again? I guess there must have been an email from Tory HQ. 

But of course, said to the right people at the right time, the argument that Manchester will get a central government grant 5.7 times as much per head as Wokingham may sound pretty convincing, so it’s important to have ready access to the facts to show that the Tories are being staggeringly selective in the way they present their argument.

The data you’ll need is here.  Scroll down this page till you come to the ‘Supporting data for 2011-12 calculation (MS Excel 248kb)’ hyperlink, and download the excel file.

In here you’ll find the data for all councils. Look at columns E & G (2010-11 baseline) and AG & AI (2011-12 settlement) which show that the formula grant as a percentage of overall income depends primarily on what money a local council needs from government over and above its locally gathered ‘council tax base’. (Forget for now, in the interests of simplicity) all the other special grants being cut from poorer areas).

So you’ll find that Wokingham (conveniently located at the very bottom of the table because it has the lowest overall reduction in ‘spending power’ in the country) takes in around 4 times as much in council tax as it gets in formula grant.

This is because it is a rich area, with big houses and a relatively small number of people exempt from council tax.

Manchester, on the other hand, is the other way round.  Its formula grant is 2.5 times the council tax intake.

This is because it is a relatively poor area.

Yes, I know it’s simple enough, but I hope ready access to the data is handy when arguing with Tories who may increasingly spout this stuff.

Two other quick points:

It may be worth asking Tories whether, in using this formual grant argument, they are arguing for a 21st century poll tax.  That’s the logical conclusion to their argument.

And just for a laugh, ask which area they think gets the ‘iunfairest’ formula grant in their terms.   No, it’s not Manchester, or Liverpool, or any of those poor places. 

It’s the City of London, which gets a whopping 20 times as much in formula grant as it brings in from council tax, because few people live there. 

How unfair is that, Tories!  Make the bankers take their own rubbish to the tip.

Egypt, the far left, and the far right

January 29, 2011 17 comments

On Wednesday, 26 January 2011, Alan Woods, one of the leading members of the International Marxist Tendency, described the situation in Egypt. He set out the major problems for those demonstrating, namely that the Mubarak family will try all they possibly can to resist any oppositional strength, and that in any case, who will replace them? Inevitably Woods broaches the main opposition in Egypt: “The Islamic parties,” he notes “led by the Muslim Brotherhood, did not play any role in the organisation of this action [on the 25th of January] and originally they even opposed it. Only at a later stage were they forced to allow their members to attend.” Woods continues: “That is a devastating comment on those sorry “Marxists” in Europe who have been tail-ending the Islamists and given uncritical support to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It is not made clear, in the proceeding paragraphs, which European Marxists Woods is referring to here, but there is no doubt that the Socialist Workers’ Party have been tail-ending the Muslim Association of Britain – a right wing fundamentalist tendency which is associated to the Muslim Brotherhood – for the past few years, both over opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the creation of the Respect party. Chris Marsden, in his review of SWP central committee member Alex Callinicos’ book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto for the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) website, writes of this curious bedfellowship that for the SWP, the MAB – which supports the introduction of Sharia Law – “is a vehicle through which it hopes to make an opportunist appeal to the many young muslims who were opposed to the war”.

A very brief history of the British far left’s attitudes towards Islamism

Some clues as to why the SWP were quite happy to coordinate protest groups, and protest parties, with organisations that can broadly be described as Islamist, can be found in an interview which Alex Callinicos himself gave in October 2006 to Ardeshir Mehrdad – an editor of the Middle East Left Forum, formerly Iran bulletin. During the interview Callinicos identifies the main ideological element at work in Middle Eastern “popular mentalities” as “anti-imperialist nationalism” for reasons which include Western domination of the region, Israel and the “pathetic subordination of most Arab regimes to Washington”. What can be seen is through subordination of the “workers and other exploited classes to those of the bourgeois leadership” the Islamists are taking over the mantle of leadership “from the secular nationalists and the left”. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah in cultivating a popular base among the urban poor, and supposedly fronting an anti-imperialist backlash, can, in Callinicos’ opinion, no longer be described as ‘ultra-conservative’ on this issue. Presumably on this basis, it’s OK to work in step with their UK representatives, or actively support them abroad. It was, in fact, in that same year that Lindsey German, then of Respect, said: “whatever disagreements I have with Hamas and Hezbollah, I would rather be in their camp…they want democracy. Democracy in the Middle East is Hamas, is Hezbollah.” Lest it said that were the same sentiments uttered about the BNP, there would no small uproar inside the far left.

The late Chris Harman, once member of the SWP central committee and former editor of International Socialism and Socialist Worker, noted some key issues on Islamism and the far left’s attitude towards it in his 1994 book “The Prophet and the Proletariat”. He emphasised that it was frequently students, “recent Arab speaking graduates” and “unemployed ex-students” who formed the backbone of Islamist movements. It was through their influence, Harman attests, that Islamism was “able to spread out to dominate the propagation of ideas in the slums and shanty towns as a “conservative” movement (Harman, 1994, pp16-17)”. The left, he maintains can work alongside Islamism, but it cannot take a neutral stance towards it, it must take a third position:

“They grow on the soil of very large social groups that suffer under existing society, and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes . . . many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists— provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms alongside them (Harman, 1994, pp18).”

Two initial thoughts: firstly this opinion of the Egyptian-born Harman shows what little seriousness he takes Islamism as an idea, instead seeing it as either false class consciousness (present in his preceding thoughts) or as a transitional phase, fit for progressive purposes – an almost patronising view. Secondly, according to Chris Marsden again, the SWP:

“insisted that a refusal to raise political differences was essential in order to maintain the heterogeneous movement against war; to keep things purely at the level of general opposition to war so as not to alienate anyone.”

Though it is evidently true that the SWP/MAB ventures (Stop the War Coalition and Respect party) were not created with the intention of achieving distant, programmatic cooperation, but to integrate over a single issue  – and so are consequently at odds with the cautious, yet condescending, sentiments of Chris Harman.

As David Osler pointed out on his blog on Thursday “[b]ack in 1946, Socialist Workers’ Party founder Tony Cliff famously characterised [the Muslim Brotherhood] as clerical-fascists.” This sets an interesting precedent, particularly when we consider the close coordination of the far left and far right in the anti-war movement. But what we can see from further comments by Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, existing and former members of the SWP central committee, is that justification for the far left working with Islamist movements, in the Middle East or in East London, is based upon the assumption that it is a half-baked set of conservative, anti-imperialist ideas which can be pounced upon by socialists providing they refuse to raise political differences. Judging by Alan Woods’ statement, quoted at the start of this article, and in consideration of the Egyptian situation, where the major opposition in that country is the Muslim Brotherhood – who have had a part to play in reducing secular opposition to the government – a rift could re-emerge on the question of far left and Islamist cooperation.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – a brief overview

The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. It was banned as an organisation in 1954 but “is somewhat tolerated by the state”. A blind eye is turned to the Brotherhood’s significant political influence, and its forged alliances with legal political groups in the last twenty years, such as with New Wafd, Liberal, and Socialist Labor parties. Though over this time it has attempted to present itself as a reformist, moderate and non-violent grouping. This is notable in their rejection of “offensive jihad” – later symbolically swapping Sayyid Qutb’s text Signposts (or Milestones) for Hassan al-Hudaybi’s Preachers, Not Judges (the former being a despairing description of jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic ignorance, largely seen as a very radical call to arms for the recreation of Islamist tactics on Muslim lands; the latter regarded as being a relatively peaceful rebuttal of Qutb’s radical ideas, focusing on the Muslim duty not to declare individuals as Muslim apostates).

(For information on the Preachers, Not Judges controversy, which questions the attributed authorship of the book, see Patrick Poole’s 2008 article The US and the Muslim Brotherhood at American Thinker. Also, the debate spills over to the comments thread of Poole’s blog, where the grandson of Hudaybi argues that his Grandfather was the original article, against the view of, among others, Brigadier General Fu’ed Allam, the security apparatus in the fifties when many of the Brotherhood leadership were being arrested, who professes that the book was written by select Brotherhood members at al-Azhar, a university in Cairo).

On the dawn of pressure to legalise the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in 2004 the organisation embraced a “reform initiative” in which they began to sing to the tune of parliamentary, and not presidential, democracy – a “landmark” in their political evolution. During a bout of pressure on the Mubarak regime from the Bush administration in the US, the Brotherhood entered into an internal dialogue about how to respond. This divided the traditionalists (taqlidiyun) who wanted to pursue increased religious education from reformists. Not long after this happened the Brotherhood elected Mohamed Badie, once close associate to Qutb, over the more moderate Mahmed Habib – though, it ought to be pointed out, Badie made an initial point of reaffirming the Brotherhood’s “commitment to democracy, pluralism, and minority and women’s rights” (according to Shadi Hamid’s policy brieifing (pdf) on Islamist groups for the Brookings Doha Center).

Many, of course, are still dubious of the Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called moderation. The Brotherhood for example declared Nasr Abu Zaid, the Muslim academic, an apostate – in direct parallel to the supposed teachings of  Hassan al-Hudaybi. His crime was to put forward the theory that the Qur’an has been interpreted differently in different historical contexts. In this respect, leaders from Yasser Arafat to Hassan Nasrallah to Osama bin Laden should all be dealt apostasies on the grounds that they have erroneously interpreted the Qur’an as having negated the historical connection of the Jewish people to the city of Jerusalem – but yet I cannot foresee this.

It’s not the first time the Brotherhood’s actions have been in conflict with Hudaybi’s; an article by the Hudson Institute notes that:

When Alexandria’s Administrative Court issued a ruling on April 4, 2006 instructing the Interior Ministry to allow a citizen’s identity card to state that the holder was a Baha’i, the Brotherhood reacted with outrage. In the May 3, 2006 parliamentary debate on the ruling, MB deputies said that the Baha’is were apostates who should be killed. Quoting a hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to support their position, they declared that they would draft a law making Baha’ism a crime and branding the Baha’is apostates.

Memories of this, and the Brotherhood’s opinions of minorities in Egypt, have left people concerned that if the fall of Mubarak occurs, and the largest of the opposition forces take office, non-Muslim group will be preyed upon.

In very recent times, Badie, who once was on the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1960s, but confessed rejection of violence in later years, called for jihad against the US, professing Allah’s support for Gazan mujahideen. On the subject, Professor Barry Rubin argues that:

When the extreme and arguably marginal British Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary says that Islam will conquer the West and raise its flag over the White House, that can be treated as wild rhetoric. His remark is getting lots of attention because he said it in English in an interview with CNN. Who cares what he says?

But when the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood says the same thing in Arabic, that’s a program for action, a call to arms for hundreds of thousands of people, and a national security threat to every Western country.

One could see this as a point of hysteria, but it is most certainly a question of influence; the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, addressing his audience in Arabic, yields more influence than most, and frankly any decent person would have no truck with him – and yet his “moderate” credentials surpass requirement to scrutinise.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not come out in support of the resistance to start with, true. And for this reason Alan Woods was right to wag his finger; but now they have, they could play a large role if the government collapses, which after hearing Hillary Clinton’s words yesterday, it would seem the US is cautiously in anticipation of. Perhaps they will back Mohammed ElBaradei – it is not known at the time of writing – but as for how the left deals with this issue, a look at the sobering words of Maha Abdelrahman, on the subject of previous attempts at leftist/Islamist cooperation, should put things into perspective:

On the one hand, the rising coalition does hold the potential to become a precursor of a vibrant, broadly-based and democratic grouping that can offer effective opposition to government repression. But on the other, efforts at cooperation between the Left and the Islamists have been slow-moving, reluctant and beset with major obstacles.

[…]

Moreover, initiatives taken for organizing collaborative action have mostly, if not exclusively, come from the Left, which is objectively the weaker partner in the coalition, rather than from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why should the left, of all countries, sell themselves short; under the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt would be a disaster state.

Categories: News from Abroad

CCHQ brag about removing employment rights.

I arrived at my desk this morning with a very much-needed cup of tea as I proceeded to go through the daily ritual of checking my email inbox. This is usually a pretty uneventful process, but today I felt the need to use the mug to smash my screen into small pieces.

It seems I’ve ended up on an internal Conservative HQ email list for some reason, apparently I share a name, and thus a similar email address, with one of my Tory counterparts.

The offending email is titled ‘Business groups welcome Employers Charter’, and is urging the reader to spread the good word about all the government is doing for employers.

This angered me greatly. The fight for employers rights inevitably involves removing them from, you know, the real people that they employ. But when fighting the corner of corporate entities it’s obviously clear who the enemy is.

The email is referring to the governments decision to remove rights to claim unfair dismissal for the first 2 years of employment.

Apparently denying workers the right to challenge unfair treatment is a ‘barrier to growth’ as the Prime Minister is quoted saying;

Today’s announcements on reforms to employment law are among the first conclusions of our Government-wide growth review, and highlight our determination to ensure that employment law is no longer seen as a barrier to growth

So basically, as the economy sinks back into decline, a priority for the Conservatives is to make sure you’re employer of 23 months can get up in the morning, sack you just for the hell of it, and face no legal consequences for doing so.

I don’t think anyone reading this will be surprised at the thought of Conservatives putting private profits before individuals rights, but I also feel this is a very important issue that is getting drowned out by the deluge of horrific news stories at the moment.

A persons right to seek legal redress against an employer for unfair treatment is central to good employment right’s, and one that should be protected at all costs. It’s removal is an open goal for those eager to show the people of Britain whose side this government is on.

Categories: General Politics

Councillors: communities, casework, and the crap about cuts (part 1)

January 26, 2011 8 comments

There’s an interesting article in Guardian Professional by Tim Cheetham, a senior Labour councillor in Barnsley (and possible candidate in the coming byelection).  Tim explores, with a view to developing the understanding of officers, what councillors actually do and why they do it, so that officers in turn might be able to respond to councillor demands more appropriately.

Like Tim, I’m often struck by how little people understand about what their elected representatives are there for, and what they do.  It’s not a surprise generally, but it does become mildly irritating when people who call themselves political activists don’t seem to understand.

Hence this little two-parter.  Last week the Labour Representation Committee AGM voted through a resolution calling on all Labour councillors to vote against all cuts (I voted against the resolution), and this weekend the National Shop Stewards Network voted to put up/[support] candidates against Labour councillors in Labour-controlled adminstrations who vote through cuts [Ed note: this is said to be incorrect by Sirrontail in comments below.  Not sure how, and have asked for clarification, though I'll pick it up more fully in part 2].

In part 2, I’ll come back to why this is wrong both from the point of view of both feasibility and political integrity.  (I’ve already done so once but I’ll reprise and add to that argument.)

In this piece I simply want to show that councillors, and most especially Labour councillors, actually have a role much wider, and much more important, than sitting in a Chamber and deciding whether to vote for Labour budgets or vote against them and let officers pass their (worse) budget instead.

I’ll do this by means of copying (below) a letter I wrote tonight to a group of my constituents, who live on the A577 between Skelmersdale and Ormskirk.  It’s a perfectly ordinary casework letter, the like of which I batter out the whole time, but I publish it here because:

a) it’s not got any confidential information in;

b) it shows the kind of thing a councillor deals with, and the institutional pressures s/he has to face as part of the daily routine;

c) it shows how Council politics isn’t just about the big speeches and the big votes, but about getting stuff done through a process of attrition and attention to detail.

But perhaps the most important point is that it the kind of letter which will generally only ever be written by a Labour councillor (and perhaps the odd good Green or Independent) because it is infused with the willingness to challenge institutions and the status quo.

It’s a local letter, and it’s unlikely you’ll bother to read it to the end – even I was bored by it and I wrote it – but I hope it’s enough to get a few lefties rethinking their preconceptions about the role of Labour councillors; most of what we do is nowhere near the formal political setting, and nothing to do with budget cuts, but to do with representing the interests of the people we serve as best we can.

Here it is……

Dear resident

A577 Road Safety Scheme

I am writing with a further and fairly full update on the long delayed A577 scheme as it relates to the multiple junction covering Lyelake Lane, Wigan Road, Dickets Lane and Plough Lane.

As you will know, this saga dates back to early 2007, when the (now disbanded) Lancashire Local meeting took on board our local campaign for safety measures at these junctions in the light of repeated accidents and damage to property, especially on the sharp Wigan Road/ Dickets Lane bend. The scheme was later expanded by the County Council to th whole length of the A577 between the Ormskirk and the Skelmersdale borders.

Initial suggestions from County officers were that the Wigan Road/Dickets Lane junction merited physical traffic-slowing measures, including the possibility of a roundabout or min-roundabout. There then followed a long period of inactivity as the scheme ‘queued’ in the resource list, despite repeated reminders to officers and councillors of the importance of th4e scheme given the continuing accidents.

Unfortunately, when plans were finally produced in early 2010 no such measures were identified, and investigations with officers indicated that this work had been disregarded on cost rather than safety grounds. In general, the plans that I then circulated to residents in the area (having been denied access to them myself initially) did not find favour. I submitted a paper covering both my own and residents’ concerns about the proposals to the County Council, and some residents provided their own views separately.

Subsequently, after a delay prior to the new government’s ‘emergency budget, when all capital expenditure (and apparently all decisions relating to it), the Cabinet member for Highways decided that our concerns expressed by myself and residents had no validity, and ordered that the works proceed as set out in the plans you saw in January 2010. There is no evidence that a site visit was made.

In response, I initiated a Councillor Call for Action process using a new power open to me under the Local Government Act 2007, under which I am able to call for appropriate action through formal committee process in cases where all other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. This needs to be agreed in advance by the Committee chairman. This was achieved and at a Corporate Overview & Scrutiny meeting on 25th November I set out my case for a formal review by the County Council of the Cabinet Member’s decision, which I was argued was made unreasonably. I noted that there was no need to hold up works on the rest of the A577, which were then reported to be ‘on order’ but that there was a need to review your section of the road in light of legitimate safety concerns and the fear that these had been overlooked in the interests solely of cost reduction.

My resolution, that Borough Council officers write to the Executive Director for the Enivronment at the County seeking a review of the decision was unanimously agreed, in a rare moment of cross-party agreement, and the requirement for a review thereby became that of the whole Council committee, rather than mine alone.

Having chased the matter, the appropriate letter was dispatched in early December. Having chased the matter again in early January, a letter from the Executive Director was finally received by the Council, and copied to me, on 7th January 2011. Disappointingly, this letter simply reiterated the decision of the Cabinet Member and that the works were on order, although there was a promise to monitor the effectiveness of the works planned (a promise that will need to be kept on file for future use). Her letter took no notice of the fact that the concerns expressed were now, under the provisions of the Local Government Act 2007 (see above), now those of a formal Council committee and therefore required a different response than the one already provided.

I wrote back immediately to the Executive Director pointing out the problems with her reply. To date I have had an acknowledgment but nothing more, and as it stands.

This is, in my opinion, a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is my intention to make another Councillor Call for Action at the next Corporate Overview & Scrutiny, focusing this time on the fact that the legal powers accorded to the committee have apparently simply been ignored by the County Council. However, it is possible that party politics may play a part in whether I gain acceptance on this resolution.

Clearly, I am disappointed that I have not been able to achieve more in respect of your legitimate concerns about the road safety in your area, and I will keep trying to get a resolution. In this letter I simply wanted to spell out in a little detail the efforts made, and the fact that institutional inertia and obduracy have been against me, as well as giving an idea of what I think the next campaign steps should be.

Please do not hesitate to contact me to discuss this matter (via any of the methods set out above beneath my address), or to see copies of the recent documentation.

The cruellest cut of all

January 25, 2011 2 comments

The government has gone too far with its cuts programme.

There is a well-established case for slashing welfare benefits, making life impossible for disabled people, closing libraries, slashing jobs in the public sector, and generally removing excessive expenditure on social need. 

After all, we do need to get down the massive deficit that Labour is solely responsible for, and such cuts are merely those of strong government, ready and able to get our country back on its feet.

Such cuts will, in any event, mostly affect poor people, who by their very nature are of little worth in terms of the overall UK balance sheet.

But this proposed cut to public expenditure, as reported in the Financial Times, is just too much:

The Ministry of Justice has said that it has not been allowed to spend a penny explaining the Bribery Act, a key new piece of corporate legislation, to businesses in the UK……

The new offence of “failure to prevent bribery” will make small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) responsible for ensuring the compliance of any agent or contractor connected with their businesses – irrespective of where they are in the world.

Quite rightly, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) is outraged that such vital expenditure is being cut at this essential time:

Adam Marshall, the BCC’s policy director, said: “The Bribery Act will have massive implications for businesses, particularly small businesses, which do not have the capacity to put together complicated compliance measures.”

He noted that the government’s decision not to spend money explaining the act was in contrast with the £800,000 spent last year outlining changes to the national minimum wage.

It is simply unacceptable that we shouldn’t spend just a few million pounds providing high-quality information to businesses on how they can become involved in very dubious practices indeed, but still stay just inside the law on technicalities and loopholes carefully constructed by their legal advisors.  It is the due role of government to provide such a vital service to our entrepeneurial class.

Exploitative business practice, often carried out through overseas intermediaries,  is what made this country great.  We restrict it at our peril.

What Davis said

January 23, 2011 9 comments

Tonight, ex-senior Tory David Davis spoke on Radio 5 about Cameron’s inner circle as totally out of touch with the concerns of the vast majority of people in Britain.  

There is as yet no transcript of what David Davis said on Radio 5, but Conservative Home puts the “bombshell” like this:

  • A common criticism of the Cameron leadership is that they don’t have a sense of what poorer people…….
  • It’s a problem of antennae rather than intellect…
  • David and George care about the issues but they are who they are, they don’t come from backgrounds where people have to scrape together money at the end of the week…..
  • We are the most stratified society in the western world. Cameron and Clegg say they want to change this but it’s tough for them to do so when they can only do so intellectually.

Back in August I argued at the end of a long and carefully evidenced post that the defining feature of the new government was not its policies, but its class background, which infuses all their actions:

[W]hen the background of these key leadership actors is taken into account…..alongside some of the early, more reactive social policy decisions, I think there is enough to suggest that the new Conservatism is not simply a return to Thatcherism, but also to a more ‘primeval’ Tory tradition, in which the concerns of the working classes (in the plural, EP Thompson sense) are not there to be understood, but to be delegated.  

Perhaps, indeed, the Left’s quite visceral hatred of Cameronism is in part a realization that Cameron is the worst of both Tory worlds.

What, finally, does all this mean for the Left?  Does it change the way we need to deal with the new Conservatism?

Yes, I think it does.

The key attack line to date has been that Cameronism is a return to hard-headed, and economically illiterate, Thatcherism.  While there is certainly mileage in that approach, I think there may be more oppositional mileage in the development of a narrative of the Tories top tier as precisely what they are, totally out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, and increasingly dismissive of the need to be……….

What we need to do, I suggest, is to get serious in our attack on the backgrounds of the top Tories, not on the basis of personal criticisms, but on the basis that it doesn’t allow the government to govern responsibly. 

Responsibility in modern government, and the fact that the Tories cannot offer it as a result of their core beliefs and traditions, is a theme we should be keen to develop (and in fact at a local level I have been developing it quite effectively already), and this theme needs to be backed by a constant flow of stories about irresponsibility, as well as an ongoing flow of evidence (of the type Laurie Penny has been working on) about the core attitudes and behaviour behind closed doors of the Tory establishment as a whole.  In the next two years, as the rich stay rich and the poor get poorer, these stories and revelations will gain ever more traction.

Exposing the Tories for where the come from, what they are, and what they’re doing to us, is perfectly decent politics because of who they are and where they come from, and a decent opposition should be working all three of these factors, not just one.

Davis effectively backs this position with his words tonight, and makes all the stronger the case for going for the jugular of the Tories over their unearned positions of privilege. 

They started the class war, perhaps because they don’t know any better. 

We should finish it, because we do.

Categories: Terrible Tories

Will Algeria be next?

January 23, 2011 7 comments

A few brave Algerians, some draped in Tunisian flags, have stood up to their autocratic, police state government.

This pre-planned demonstration, held yesterday, attracted only a few hundred people, but it does at least suggest that the riots that broke out on January 7th may just be the start of something bigger in Algeria after all, after a lull of a couple of weeks.

Equally the brutality with which the state has reacted suggests that if popular unrest does develop, it will become much bloodier than the Tunisian uprising, much more quickly.

The Algerian government, after years of civil war and the institutional embedding of  the repression of its own people, and having seen what happened in Tunisia, is unlikely to do anything other than continue with its highly repressive tactics.

The question is whether sections of the Algerian people are organized and/or desperate enough to fight back enough till the state wavers (in the face of both internal challenge and changing international opinion, for whom perceived security of the huge oil and natural gas supplies will play an important role).

Regional expert George Joffe thinks a Tunisia-style uprising is unlikely in Algeria:

Next door [to Tunisia] in Algeria, very few of the [7th January] rioters articulated any political demands; they were just angry about sharp rises in the price of sugar and cooking oil.

The government, with deep pockets from the export of oil and gas, quickly said it would curb price rises, and since then the rioting has tapered off. Algeria has already had its “people power revolution” – the year after Ben Ali took office [1987].

Then, days of intense rioting in the capital led the authorities to loosen controls on society and the economy, allowing private newspapers and multi-party elections for the first time. That flowering of freedom quickly degenerated into a conflict between security forces and Islamist rebels which killed 200,000 people, according to some estimates, from which Algeria is still emerging.

After that experience, few Algerians have any appetite for any more political transformations.

For myself, I’m not quite so sure.

First, his analysis seems to overlook the fact that the first events in Tunisia were ones of desperation (there can be nothing much more desperate than sefl-immolation), but that initial inchoate anger became highly politicised and targeted incredibly quickly.

Further, the fact that the concessions on price rises that George mentions have been granted may give an inkling of hope that more can be achieved.

The very obvious disparities of wealth in the country – a country in which there was a $15bn trade surplus from its natural wealth in 2010 but in which people still can’t afford bread – may still be the key lever for further popular dissent.

Amongst a population where 70% of people are under 30, and for many of whom therefore direct memories of the worst of the civil war (1990-1998) are either absent or those now of earlier childhood, there may now be a tendency to hark back to better legitimized  expressions of independence and solidarity against French colonialism.

Certainly, I’ve not got George’s experience and knowledge, but I lived in the mountains of Eastern Algeria in the mid 1980s, when the place was under heavy Soviet influence, and while at this range it becomes all a bit impressionistic, I have followed the sad events in Algeria closely over the years.

And even after years of repression, there does seem to remain a tradition of fierce independence, often associated with a distinctive, though ethnographically confusing, Berber identity, especially in the Eastern Kabyle area of the country where back in the 1980s the government’s Arabicisation programme (and allied repression of the Berber languages) fostered long term resentment against a government viewed as a puppet of outside forces.  (Back then, such criticisms were only whispered, as I was followed by a completely inept but pleasant enough seeming government agent for much of my time there).

A key question is whether such different (from Tunisia) starting conditions will lead, if anything gets off the ground, towards a secular uprising, given the ravages of the civil war between a Western client-facing autocracy and violent (and often horribly brutal) Islamicist rebellion.

My hunch, looking on from afar, is that while many observers are looking towards Egypt for the next Arab-world uprising, it might be advisable to keep an eye on Tunisia’s Western borders for a not-quite-so-Arabic uprising.

The left in Europe in the UK has missed the boat with Tunisia, and the Tunisians don’t seem to need too much external support.  In Algeria, where conditions of social and economic repression of various kinds have now lasted far longer than all Algerians have been alive, the process of overt politicization may take longer, and be much ‘messier’.

In such a case there may be something in Jennifer O’Mahoney’s call for a renewed spirit of international socialism through support for leftwing, secular groupings like this one (see also this useful translation), and perhaps also through domestic efforts aimed at the oil and gas giants that dominate the Algerian economy to the benefit of themselves, a few Algerian plutocrats, but to the exclusion of ordinary Algerians.

I’m far too old for Jennifer’s call to European socialists to support Vietnam/Afghanistan style armed insurrection against imperial powers, and I’m not too sure whether she’s being ironic when she makes it, but if it’s any help I’m one of only about 10 non-natives who understands any of the Chaouïa language  at all (ok, I’m a bit rusty.).

You never know, it might come in handy.

Clegg, Heseltine and the wasting of £1.4bn

January 23, 2011 9 comments

A prediction

I don’t really go in for political predictions, but here’s one I’m happy to make.

Sometime in the second or third week of March, just as the local election leaflets are being prepared, Nick Clegg will make the happy announcement that the government’s innovative new investment package, the Regional Growth Fund, is creating in the region of 100,000 new private sector jobs, with these jobs focused on areas where public sector employment percentages have been highest.

This, Clegg will claim, is a vindication of the government policies, and shows why you should vote for the Coalition on May 5th.

The background

This may seem a strangely detailed prediction from someone who doesn’t do predictions, so some background may be helpful. 

Regional Development Agencies are being abolished, as of 31st March 2011.  They, and their £1.9 bn annual budget (around £1.4 bn in the regions and £0.5bn in London) are being ‘replaced’ by Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) with no funding allocated directly to them, and a 1.4bn Regional Growth Fund (RGF) to be spent over two years. 

That is, development and regeneration funding is being cut by around 1.2bn per year.  It’s been one of the quieter cuts, but ridiculously savage.

Clegg is chairing the Ministerial Panel, which will take the final decisions on which applicants get the money.  Applications for round 1 of 3 of the RGF closed on Friday, and decisions are due by the end of February.  It will almost certainly be Clegg who makes the announcements; Cable is also on the panel and it should be his call, but he is still sitting on the naughty step.

The bullshit

So far so good, but please don’t be fooled by the announcement when it comes.   The whole scheme is so full of bullshit to be worthy of the title ‘RGF heap of bullshit’.

First, from my review of the application form, the government is creating room for a deliberate elision, in its announcement, of full-time and part-time jobs.   A huge percentage of the jobs announced will be part-time, for reasons I’ll set out below, but I predict that the total number of jobs rather the more generally accepted Full-Time Equivalents will be announced; great care is being taken to gather this information in the application forms, even though this is not really necessary.

Second, what will be announced will not just be the direct jobs created by the money, but also the more nebulous ‘indirect’ jobs that the applicant claims will come along because of their project.

Third, and more seriously than the spinning of the data provided in the successful application data, is the whole stupidity in the whole funding process. 

I understand from a reliable source that as many as 6,000 bids have been submitted.    This is for a total fund of what I estimate will be around £600m of the total £1.4bn (the rest to be spent in rounds 2 &3).  While this may seem an extraordinary number, you just have to look here at the details of just the first five from Birmingham, and here for at least nine from Coventry.  Do the sums for all 358 local authorities in England and then add in all the bids that come in from businesses chancing their arm and other public and voluntary bodies just desperate for survival cash, and 6,000 seems about right.

The minimum eligible bid is £1m, but my hunch is that the average size of bid will be in the region of £10m.  Simple maths mean, then, that 0nly 1 in 100 bids will be successful, but even if it’s only 1 in 50, that still leave thousands of bidders out in the cold, having wasted thousands of pounds in staff time and consultancy costs putting in bids to a fund they never had a realistic chance of getting anything out of.  

5,000 failures, having invested an average of £10,000 each?  That £50m that might have been spent better elsewhere.  Government waste, anyone?

But what of the bids that do succeed? 

After a filtering process to weed out the majority of the bids, those with the best chance will be scored on a number of factors, including whether they come from areas where there are high percentages of public sector employment. 

The guidance coming from the briefing sessions, however, suggests that by far the most important factor in whether a bid succeeds is how many jobs will be created through the project.

This means almost inevitably that bidders who understand the process will be part of a ‘race to the bottom’, competing with each other to squeeze out as many possible jobs in their projections, to the point that they may become utterly unrealistic. 

Yet there will be a huge political incentive to maximise the number of jobs to be announced in Clegg’s announcement.  For one thing, Clegg will be desperate to say that the new streamlined LEPs are creating jobs at a much lower unit cost than the ‘bureaucratic’ RDAs.   While the RDAs have created jobs at a cost of anything between £14,000 and £27,000 (depending on how you calculate), Clegg will want to show them coming in at around £10,000, I would estimate (hence my calculations for about 60,000 FTE jobs, expanded to the magical six figure number by counting PT and FT jobs separately).

Further, the ridiculously short time available to sift and score the bids before Clegg needs to get on the telly, and due diligence processes put back to after that announcement is made, make it likely that projects with unrealistic targets will end up getting funded.

This isn’t just me second guessing. This is what a well respected  regeneration expert says:

RGF is simply intended to be a jobs creator and the rush to spend suggests that quantity will outweigh quality.

(See also here.)

The deadweight

It might be argued that projects that simply deliver jobs are to be commended, of course, but here we come to the biggest problem of the lot.

A key consideration in regeneration policy for the last 20 years or so has been the avoidance of ‘deadweight’.  That it, it has been recognised that we shouldn’t be funding development projects which would or should have happened anyway.

Yet massive deadweight is precisely what this RGF process will create. 

Most of the money will be fed directly through private sector firms and property developers to allow for the expansion of premises and therefore jobs in the quickest possible time to allow the Coalition’s political priorities to be met.  Yet at the same time as these firms use government as their cash cow, these same firms will be holding on to the massive corporate surpluses which, as Chris Dillow has set out, are the reverse of the public deficit. 

Lessons  unlearned

This is likely to lead, just as it did in the 1980s regeneration policy under the guiding hand of the aforementioned Heseltine, to the reverse of what the government claims it wants.  The private sector will leach off government, rather than engage in what it’s supposed to be doing – investing at reasonable risk to create profitable enterprise and, with it, jobs.

In Heseltine’s 1980s Liverpool experiment, for example, landowners who simply hung on to derelict land in Liverpool 1 and 8, safe in the knowledge that the price was steadily rising and the public purse would eventually pay up.  Following this same basic principle, bids for the RGF will have been prepared by property developers which show what funding is so desperately ‘needed’ by these cash rich corporates, on the basis of calculations about current post-recession land values and the gap between that land value and the investment costs. 

That’s not private sector risk taking. That’s money-grabbing.

During the 1990s, and especially with the advent of overly bureaucratic but actually strategically sensible European funding, the regeneration picture changed.  Money began to be moved away from costly competitive bidding rounds (though these continued to exist) towards a more strategic and consensual approach. 

As importantly, it was used to develop both social (community level training and education etc.) and physical infrastructure (e.g. roads/rail) of the type that simply would not have happened otherwise, and which created the broad environment for future growth of a private sector willing now to invest its own resources. 

The reasons that Liverpool and Manchester did pretty well in the 1990s and 2000s (though they still have deeply embedded problems) is that regeneration was, on the whole, done properly by people who understood the dynamics of it all, understood what was wrong with Tory policy from Heseltine 1981 through to the deeply flawed/partially successful City Challenge schemes of the early 1990s, and then made it better under the generous range of funds that came from Europe and the new Labour government.

Here though , with the Coalition’s RGF, we have a return of an ideologically boneheaded regeneration style which, while adopting ‘the private sector knows best’ mantra of post-Toxteth Heseltine, actually creates the conditions for restricting investment overall. 

Under a Coalition which sees the wasting of £1.4bn pounds of public money as a small price to pay for Clegg doing pre-election good news on telly, we’re seeing 25 years of regeneration thinking and learning set aside. 

The prediction reprised

They should be ashamed, but sometime in mid-March Clegg will stand up, tell us he’s created 100,000 jobs by abolishing Labour’s public sector waste. 

Sadly, many will be convinced.

On some of the more serious appeals to boycott Israeli academic institutions

January 21, 2011 1 comment

Last Thursday the LSE was host to an event jointly put on by the LSESU Palestine Society and LSESU Israel Society debating the motion that the house believes in an academic boycott of Israel. The motion failed, which has pleased those who think a boycott is harmful (though such a result ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, since the audience sample would not be scientific, and rather than simply asking audience participants to raise their hands on whether they support the motion, should be asked whether they had their minds changed after the debate had taken place – to gauge the usefulness of the speakers’ presentations. Moreover, this would save time vetting an audience as well).

 

On the side for a boycott was Dr John Chalcraft who is currently a reader in the History and Politics of Empire/Imperialism in the Department of Government at the LSE. He argued that an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions is the appropriate tactic to take in response to Israel’s disregard for the rights of Palestinians, (which includes disregard for UN resolutions) and its unceasing apartheid society.

 

Furthermore, the boycott would be taken in opposition to Israeli academic institutions’ close proximity to military operations. To give Chalcraft’s example, the Zefat Academic College in Israel holds a General Security Service (GSS) programme, which is notorious for its use of torture on occupied territory. According to Chalcraft there were plans to move this programme to the prestigious Hebrew University, but owing to the concerted efforts by the pro-boycott lobby the programme stayed put. This at once shows the close relationship government has with its academic institutions in Israel, as well as how effective the boycott has been on achieving results.

 

Opposing the boycott was Daniel Hochhauser, the Kathleen Ferrier Professor of Medical Oncology at UCL who specialises in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancer at the University College London Hospital (UCLH). He began on a personal note stating he personally benefits from institutional relations with top Israeli universities and individual academics with whom he enjoys what he called medical diplomacy. As for Israeli institutions themselves, some 20% of students there are Palestinian Arabs, and so he confronts the notion that those institutions are segregationist. He admits that more could be done for the social mobility of that group of people, but denies that a boycott should be conducted on this very basis.


As for the motion, Hochhauser asks whether the boycott is universally applicable by its proponents, by which he means whether they would call for the boycott of US institutions on the grounds of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Chinese institutions for Tibet, Turkish institutions for the Kurds, and whether we could feasibly boycott our own institutions?


The debate turned to the notion of academic freedom, which is the dilemma of the motion. By advancing a boycott universities would be advocating a position on political grounds, something which the opponent of the motion argues universities are not placed to do. Part of the decision to target Israeli academic institutions is what has been called their institutional complicity in the supposed crimes of the government. It was argued that supporters of the motion cannot have it both ways; either they are consistent with their attitude to universities having political motives or they admit their hypocrisy. A position, in principle, I would agree with on the grounds that I support academic freedom from government influence, even if that university is nationalised. It is here that the argument for a boycott becomes compelling, but if this is to be the case then academic boycotts must be levelled to any institution that is complicit with the national government. On which case Israel is only one case in point, and whether we agree with the politics of the government or think the country should exist in the first place is wholly irrelevant to the debate – something Dr John Chalcraft was not willing to cooperate with, since his appeal to boycott appears to be predicated on his opposition to “occupied land”.


I myself am interested in hearing the case for why UK academic institutions should support the boycott of certain Israeli institutions in the case where they are perceived to enjoy too close a proximity to the government – not as an opposition to the government, but as a first principle on the freedom of academic institutions. A principle I level against any institution in any country. But I was not compelled by the motion of the house as explained by Dr John Chalcraft, for whom a boycott of other institutions in other countries would be inappropriate, but whose notion of a boycott of Israeli academies seems rather too close to his obvious dislike of the Israeli government.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , ,
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