Saturday, 31 December 2011

Farewell, 2011

Another year end blog post! One of the things you get from writing a (semi) regularly updated blog is that you get to reflect on the things you were thinking about, talking about and worried about at this time last year. You are really given a sense of perspective because the events that you were writing about remain fresher on the page than they do in your memory, and the things that you were doing yourself are inextricably linked to those memories.

I'm really quite pleased with the way that 2011 has gone. I have a new job, a new girlfriend, have met lots of new and interesting people. I have become closer to and learned new things about the people I already knew, while other people have moved away from me as they pursue the next chapter in their own stories elsewhere. I have been to Egypt. I have written the first 50,000 words of a novel and met some wonderful people whose own books will knock mine out of the park.

Memorably, 2011 has seen a desire for equality and democracy grip the world. We have seen uprisings, upheaval, political instability and a clarion call for fairness and justice. A lot of lives have been lost in the pursuit of the simple human rights that we in the UK take for granted, and these are rights that we, with our freedoms, must continue to campaign for others to have.

A new year should bring the promise of a clean slate and accompanying optimism with it. However, in the context of the world in which we live, we face a year ahead under a cloud. Austerity bites, and the pound in your pocket will buy less in the coming year in real terms than it did in the last. Our nation is politically stagnant and we are in dire need of good ideas and brave actions.

The wonderful thing about Britain is that it remains big on heart and character. We can still be proud of our culture and our resourcefulness. Hard times call for courage and inventiveness, and as I look around at the people I know and work alongside, I know that the challenges we face can be overcome.

I achieved last year's goals of travelling outside Europe and finding a new love, but I never did buy a camera and take up photography. It remains on the list of things I want to do. As with last year, I have set myself three goals for next year to try and help me on my way.

1) Lose some weight. Yes, I know, it's a New Year's resolution staple, but it's a cliche for a reason. If I get any bigger, I'll be visible from space and I'm not having that. So my goal is to be at or under 13 stone 10lbs in weight on 1 Jan 2013.

2) Finish my book. Note that that says finish, not get published or write a bestseller (I might do those things in 2013.) This should be the easiest of all goals. I already have 55,000 words of a firsr draft that I wrote in 28 days, so actually getting the words onto paper is the easy bit. Generating characters that don't feel contrived and having a storyline that gets and keeps your interest is a little harder...but that's something for a second draft.

3) Pay off my personal debt. God, these are aiming a bit low this year...but it needs to be done so I can start enjoying myself again. I'm glad David Cameron took the bit out of his speech about getting people to pay off their credit cards. Otherwise I'd feel like I was being told off by a Tory.

What are your plans for 2012?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Labour's Fatal Assumption

For only the second time since he rose to the leadership of his party, I have found myself admiring Ed Miliband. When he spoke today, he was keen to emphasise the values of the modern Labour party and he even came up with the very quotable, 'When those in power say, "You're going to face five bad years and there is nothing to be done about it," that is a statement of their values and priorities.' There are no surprises about the values and priorities of the coalition government, who are pressing ahead with plans to reform the benefits system, despite widespread condemnation and a wealth of evidence that suggests those in genuine need will suffer tremendous hardship as a result of the changes.

The year ahead will prove to be a defining one for Miliband and for the Labour Party. The last Labour government sold the soul of their party in an attempt to frantically garner floating votes, and polls suggest that despite massive cuts that have savaged entire communities and crippling inflation that will see real incomes stagnate for at least five more years, the Labour Party's support doesn't appear to be growing.

With poll support for the Liberal Democrats having already evaporated, voters are instead looking to fringe parties such as the Greens or UKIP, or even switching to the Conservatives themselves. This phenomenon comes from a shared public perception that the longer austerity goes on, the more necessary it must be in order to tackle the economic crisis. And while cuts may help to balance the books, what will the price be in social upheaval, inequality and shattered lives in the decade to come?

What then, can Miliband do? Gregg McClymont, the shadow pensions minister, has written that the Tories are attempting to tag Labour as the party of 'tax and spend', and that the party will only avoid what he calls 'the Tory trap' by resisting the temptation to appeal to its core supporters in the public services.

I disagree. I am an educated professional, a public sector worker born into a low-income family with naturally socialist leanings. I should be a dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter, but I am not. Modern Labour thinking offers no alternative to the Conservative slash-and-burn policy, and I simply do not agree that cutting public services is an unavoidable necessity to promote an economic recovery.

So to you, Labour Party, I have this to say. I should be your core support. My vote is here, and I want you to claim it. But it would be a fatal assumption for you to assume that you'll get it without radically changing your thinking.

Today, there were signs that that change may be just around the corner. Ed finished his statement by saying that the Labour Party would promote the 'fairer sharing of rewards so that we discourage irresponsibility at the top and the bottom of society.' It is a statement of intent that shows that Ed at least is facing in the right direction.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

When Time Called Time on Heroes

The significant details in life are often the small ones. The appointments forgotten, the words said or left unsaid, the people we meet and engage with - these are the details that determine the bigger picture in our lives.

When a Tunisian military policewoman insulted and slapped a fruit vendor in the market square of a tiny, unremarkable town just south of Tunis a year ago, she could not have expected that her small act of disrespect and violence would be seen as the trigger that has started a worldwide democratic protest that has inspired and involved the actions of millions worldwide.

That fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, enraged when his subsequent complaint was ignored, took himself to the local provincial capital building and set himself on fire. Those around him who were similarly upset with years of corrupt dealings with police and local officials, began to protest at the way in which they were treated. So began the Arab Spring, a movement that toppled governments, ended dictatorships and prompted similar explosions of discontent as far afield as Russia and the US.

2011 will be remembered as as a watershed in world history. The most singly defining year since the major financial crisis that has impacted all our lives, this was the year that people worldwide stood up as one and demanded a new form of social contract from the people that governed them. No longer would they accept corrupt systems that saw the richest siphon off the main share of the wealth as long as some reached the rest of us via the trickledown.

The decision of Time magazine to award the title of 'Person of the Year' to 'The Protester' is an interesting one in the context of the small details I mentioned earlier. To those of us in the UK who have defended our rights and the rights of those around us in the last year, it is a moment in which to reflect and be proud of the way in which we have conducted ourselves and been a part of something far more significant than the simple goals we hope to achieve. However, we should also remember that there is a world of difference between our struggles and those of protesters in Russia and the Middle East, who stand up against totalitarian regimes in the full knowledge that some of their number may never return to their homes.

For me, the most telling aspect of Time magazine's decision not to select a person of the year is instead that in a world which is desperately crying out for leadership, not one leader or prominent person of influence has conducted themselves in such a way as to deserve the title. In Russia, Putin is pictured as the pointlessly macho leader of a discontented people. In the US, the UK and Europe, the likes of Barrack Obama, David Cameron and Andrea Merkel stand at broken tillers as their countries swirl in a whirlpool of conflicting financial interests. Worst of all, in Egypt and Syria, strong militaries and politicians like Bashar al-Assad continue to oppress the populations they are supposed to protect and represent.

So arise to defend your rights, protesters, and bear your title with pride. 2011 was the year that you became heroes when your leaders could not.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Will there be a Soviet Spring?

Tensions are high in Russia as former soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has added his voice to the growing list of individuals calling for Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin to scrap the results of Russia's recent parliamentary elections and start the ballot process from scratch.

Despite widespread allegations of vote rigging and ballot-box stuffing, Putin's United Russia party saw their share of the vote in the Duma (the Russian representative assembly) drop below 50% of the total vote for the first time since Putin came to power twelve years ago. Gorbachev, the Nobel laureate who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, called the elections 'dishonest' and urged the Kremlin to change its authoritarian stance towards pro-democracy protestors.

The new Russian constitution allows a candidate to stand for two six-year terms, meaning that if Putin is re-elected in next year's presidential election, he could retain the power in Russia until 2024. However, those who are pressing for political and economic reform in Russia will realise that the single biggest obstacle to achieving those goals is Putin himself. Questions are rightly beginning to be asked about increasing corruption, politically-motivated arrests and the murders of Putin's opponents.

Following Boris Yeltsin's disastrous free-market reforms in the early nineties, many Russians adopted a stoically fatalist attitude towards politics. Up to now, most Russians had accepted an informal social contract whereby they allowed the state to restrict their personal freedoms to a degree in return for political stability and rising living standards. Now that those living standards are stagnating in the aftermath of the global political crisis and Russia's younger generation are able to compare their lives to those in the rest of Europe because of easy access to travel and Wi-fi (ironically, a consequence of one of the regime's genuine successes), discontent is spilling out onto the streets of Russia's largest cities.

Quality of life is not the only thing waning in the former superpower. Russia's indomitable figurehead is no longer the immensely powerful man that he once was. A million people have seen YouTube videos of Putin being booed at a judo competition in his constituency heartlands. Imprisoned anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny has poked fun at Putin's hardman image and his posts have made him one of the most popular political commentators in Russia.

The state has transported 5,000 police and interior ministry troops into Moscow in response to a Facebook campaign that has attracted a pledge from over 40,000 people to attend demonstrations this weekend in Triumfalnaya Square and Revolution Square in the shadow of the Kremlin. Amnesty International are monitoring the situation and warning that a bloodbath could result if security services are determined to put down the demonstrations at any cost.

As whispers persist about the potential of a Soviet Spring political uprising, both Putin and the pro-democracy campaigners will be holding their breath in the days to come.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Why Capitalism Has To Step Up

Ring the bell, call off the dogs...the time has come to admit it. Our green and pleasant land (though not perhaps as Green as it could be, if campaigning groups are to be believed) in is more than just a bit of a pickle.

George Osborne's Autumn Statement reflected a government that knew full well that it has no answers for the current economic crisis. But then, we live in unprecedented times, so who does? When your opposition are offering nothing more creative than the same slash-and-burn policy that you are offering yourself - albeit with a caveat that it should be somehow slower and more touchy-feely - where is the impetus to deliver an alternative option? What is certain without a shadow of a doubt is that if we follow the current economic plan, we stand to see a decade of misery that will have a social impact on the lowest paid that goes beyond the understanding of the middle earners, who will be too distracted by their own financial concerns to realise how this is all interconnected.

So misery there is, and misery there will be. And what of solutions? I am minded of the young Occupy campaigner, who when asked for a solution to the current economic crisis, replied, 'a kind of system that works both like capitalism and like communism.' I scoffed. And I remind you, I am pro-Occupy and left-wing by birthright. But then, I got thinking. We have all worked for capitalism. And as it failed us so badly when it was circumvented to allow a safety net for banks who could have been allowed to fail (an ultimate lesson that may have proved more painful than the bailout that was agreed), it is time to make capitalism into a tool that works for us, rather than a giant rolling ball that crushes us all on route.

So as the public sector realises it can no longer cling onto the terms and conditions that insulate them from the real world, so the private sector must realise that they can no longer claim vast wages and put the needs of the shareholders above the needs of the societies in which they operate. I realise that in both instances, this represents a paradigm shift to how each sector operates, but greater clarity of understanding is required if social unrest and bitter rivalry are not to bring the country to its knees.

In times of crisis, a government faced with falling living standards has a responsibility to arrest this decline by operating in a role that redistributes wealth. Much has been made of George Osbourne's pledge to reduce tax rates for the highest paid to encourage entrepreneurism. Well, rather than waiting for this to happen of its own accord, why not legislate for it? For example, you could try increasing the tax rate for individuals above a certain level, and investing the monies received in a growth and job creation fund. And yes, I realise that this takes money away from servicing the UK's vast debts, but as we have discussed in previous posts, we have to think about growth rather than just debt. To use an analogy employed by a friend of mine, when you buy a house, you don't starve your family so you can pay off the debt in a year.

The scariest of notions, and the one that all of our political parties have yet to face because the public itself remains in denial, is that we are now playing a different game to any that we have played before. Our ideologies of individual responsibility and free-market determination will not save us, and as things become increasingly fraught in the decade to come, we will need fresh ideas and a different model for how to run a society. And to prove how innovative we can be, we will need to completely remodel capitalism and make it work for us.

Our new capitalism must lead by promoting social interest. It must espouse the virtues of investment and innovation above all else. It must encourage us to ask ourselves what has happened to our manufacturing industries and to ask ourselves why our high streets have become clones of one another, supporting only the interests of giant chains who do so little to meet their social obligations to the rest of us. We must ask what our high earners do that makes them worth their high salaries. And when we think we have answers to these questions, we must have the courage to act on the answers that we have, rather than allowing political inclination or fear to temper our response.

Friday, 2 December 2011

N30: Putting the Strikes in Perspective

It's been a good week for the left-wing, and a bad week for Jeremy Clarkson. On Wednesday, two million public sector workers around Great Britain withdrew their labour and took to the streets of the nation to protest against proposed changes to their pension scheme.

I've been reading an excellent new blog by RepresentingtheMambo that talked about his experiences of attending a strike rally at the NIA.

It seems that the experience of being in opposition is a trying one for the left. Anyone who attended a pensions rally will be familiar with pro-Labour and anti-Conservative rhetoric, but how many trade unionists are really Labour supporters any more? The Labour Party has clearly forgotten about the hand that feeds it in a race to pander to the pampered interests of Middle Britain.

One of my previous posts concerned the ways in which the Labour Party needs to reinvent itself, and in turn how it needs to bring some hope back to the world by resisting the prevailing neoliberal way that is causing so much misery as it now struggles for survival. However, if we really want to start making positive changes to the country, we need to dare to make some really difficult decisions about how to prompt growth, rather than replicating the Tory cuts.

Now, however, is a the time for optimism and not fresh cynicism. For the first time in so long, people are standing up and opposing all of this government's cruel plans. The government may just have underestimated the strength of public support for its own sector. There may yet be scope for an alternative. And whatever the alternative might be, it has to be better than this coalition of continued abject failure.

Friday, 25 November 2011


Current read: 'No More Rejections' by Alice Orr. A tidy little guide from a contemporary editor in the fiction about the common mistakes made by prospective authors. It's handy for reference purposes and entirely dispiriting for the Nano author, who doesn't really have the time for quality when quantity is the initial goal.

Current music: The new cover of 'Please, Please, Please Let me Get What I Want' by Slow Moving Millie from the John Lewis Xmas advert. Though the small child is a bit on the creepy side. Also, 'My Body is a Cage', another cover from Peter Gabriel that's better than the original.

Current TV Shows: Liking the new episodes of 'The Simpsons' on Sky - how much longer can that show go on for?! Also enjoying 'Bones' - though surely it has to end now that Booth and Brennan are about to spawn.

Current food: Morrisons have a neat little range of tapas style dishes that are always in the cheap aisle as no-one else ever seems to eat them, which is a bonus. Plus I like cheese...

Current drink: Red Stag Black Cherry Bourbon. Took a bottle of this to a friend's house for a chat a week ago and came back empty-handed and wiser. And a bit drunk, no less.

Current favourite blogs: Diary of a Benefit Scrounger by Sue Marsh - a member of the Leftie twitterati who campaigns religiously on health and disability issues. Sue is an inspiration and I challenge anyone to read her posts and not feel affected by the things that she says.

Current lust: My first ever poker love, Vicky Coren, just finished as the runner-up in a major international poker tournament. This follows on from her major win a few years back in the EPT London event that remains a highlight in her glittering career. Oh, and yes, she's on TV, and writes books too.

What is it about smart women that is such a turn-on for men? It has to be that feeling of knowing that you always have to be the best that you can be to keep her interest.

I'm very fortunate that my girlfriend Melissa is a very smart and successful lady in her own right, so I'm a lucky man indeed.

Current bane of my existence: The unexplained stomach pains that are, according to the doctor, probably nothing serious. That's alright then. I'm looking forward to confirmation of exactly that in the test results I get back in due course.

Current excitement: Ten thousand words is all that's left before I complete my first ever successful Nanowrimo! It'll still be a lot of work before I have something of a publishable standard, but I've really enjoyed the process and I look forward to redrafting it afterwards.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

How the Beckett Reform could save the Labour Party (and maybe even the UK...)

Political manifestos are dangerous things. In the run up to an election, a party can promise not to privatise the NHS (Conservatives), to oppose the introduction of student fees (LibDems) or pledge to oppose Free Schools (Labour). Then when attention is no longer focused on what you said, you do a nifty little u-turn, and no-one remembers what you said (or in Nick Clegg's case, what you look like, or do.)

But then, should we really be worrying about a few political white lies at this time? After all, the UK is in something of a crisis at the moment. Even David Cameron admitted this week that his plans for cutting the deficit have turned out to be ineffective - not that he seems to have any alternative ideas about how to improve matters, or any intention to use someone else's.

One major white lie that could yet resonate around British politics is the rapid rethink by all three major political parties, who were all supposedly keen on party funding reform pre-election, but have since changed their stance.

The reason why the ConDem coalition has had so much opportunity to force through their madly regressive policies is the failure of the Labour Party to offer a viable alternative to Conservative policies. This is partly due to the control that the media exercises over public opinion, but here at Four Thousand Words, I dare to be different. So here it is. The UK's deficit is no longer the major issue that should be on people's minds - instead, our major problem now is the lack of growth. And we need to tackle this, sooner rather than later.

Labour face a challenge to become relevant again, and they can't rely on disenfranchised Liberal Democrats to bring the ball back around to them. A strong opposition makes for a stronger challenge to government, which makes for a government that is more inclined to listen to the people. Hence, it is in everyone's interests that Labour gets its act together.

I should point out that I don't intend to go into detail here about state funding of politics or the capping of donation limits, though the fact remains that the latter suggestion, if implemented, really would put a cat amongst pigeons. Instead, I want to focus on Labour's relationship with the major trade unions, which is showing increasing signs of strain in the run-up to the planned public sector strike on November 30th.

Unlike the Conservatives, who receive a high proportion of their party funding from wealthy financiers in London, Labour funding comes mostly from trade unions, which means those same unions have to accept some of the blame for Labour's lily-livered showing in opposition. By not applying the necessary pressure in the media, Labour have shown themselves to be tremulous rather than terriers, and hence this is why you will often hear people say, 'but there's no-one worth voting for!'

Step forward, Margaret Beckett, a Labour Party member and former MP who has come forward with the idea that trade union members, rather than being offered the chance to opt-out of paying a share of their subscriptions directly to the Labour Party, should instead be asked if they wish to opt-in. It is a small change that could decimate the funding that the Labour Party receives.

Why would this be a good thing?, I hear you shout. Will it not cause the Labour Party to sink even further into irrelevance and stagnation, giving the rheumatic billionaires who run our banks yet more opportunity to decimate our once Green and Pleasant Land? Well, it could...or there's a chance that it could act as a catalyst for reform of the way the Labour Party is run.

Rather than simply running to the trade unions every time an election campaign appears on the horizon, the Labour Party would once again have to create policies that appeal to grassroots people. It would have to engage with those graduates who are forced to work as slave labour in order to get their unemployment benefit. It would have to engage those who stand to see their sickness and disability benefits reduced. And they would have to engage with both our lowly-paid private sector and our ravaged public sector, protect their jobs, their conditions, their pensions. In this Broken Britain, I don't believe they would have to look far in order to reconnect with their traditional supporters.

For their part, the trade unions have to do more to tackle the notion that seems to be ingrained in private sector workers - namely, that the public sector trade unions are somehow promoting superiority and privilege. Instead, by creating stronger ties with the private sector and engaging those same people we have already discussed, the link between the trade union workers of tomorrow and the Labour Party could once again be restored. They could yet collect us altogether in one place to boot out these millionaires without morals.

The noted Conservative writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said that 'a reform is a correction of abuses; a revolution is a transfer of power.' Bulwer-Lytton may have been making a distinction, but in the case of the modern Labour Party, he has unwittingly identified how one could be the catalyst for the other.

Nanowrimo...are go!

Apologies to my regular readers who haven't seen me post for a few weeks - I'm afraid my writing muscles have been well and truly stretched with this November's National Novel Writing Month project, but I'm happy to confirm that there are now 37,000 of the required 50,000 words in place, and I expect to finish with a day or two to spare.

Of course, being a rushed first draft, the book will need a lengthy rewrite, but much of the material will be of a decent standard so I'm hopeful that once I have a confirmed structure for the finished work in my mind and have tidied up the core areas, it should just be a case of spit and polish in the slightly more woolly parts. I expect that I'll have something of a publishable standard by Summer 2012.

I'm considering several different options for what to do next - purely for vanity reasons, I really want a proof copy of my work, and then I can send other copies to suitable publishers (it's a sci-fi one again). In the knowledge that new, high-quality novelists are a rare and distinguished breed, I'll also be looking into publishing as a Kindle e-Book, or failing all else, just posting the whole damn thing online for free for anyone who wants to read it :)

One way or another, this story is going to be told!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

You are the NHS

Some aspects of Wednesday's post about the NHS have surprised me by the reaction they have generated amongst readers. Some were sceptical that the NHS bill is actually going to make much difference from the patient perspective. After all, care is care, right? And anyway, others said, news stories like the recent one about the CQC inspection of hospitals show us that maybe the NHS could do with some assistance from the private sector to help raise standards.

I have a lot of friends who work directly and indirectly for the NHS. They include nurses, commissioners, analysts, care staff and more. On the basis that these people from their various disciplines will have a greater understanding of the trials and challenges facing the service than I do, I have decided to thoughtfully reflect on some of the comments they have made to me since my previous entry. I will also try to look at a few of the central tenets of the pro-bill argument, and do my best to analyse them in greater detail.

The NHS is already costing the UK more, year-on-year, as the general population increases and the baby-boomer generation approaches retirement.

Put simply, it will cost more to provide healthcare to a bigger population with a high elderly contingent. As the population grows, greater taxation will offset the effect somewhat, provided there are jobs available for the population to do. This process will self-regulate to some degree in a well-managed economy, as businesses are more likely to hire staff when labour costs are low, and pressure of increasing unemployment lowers labour costs for unskilled workers.

General government expenditure on the NHS as a % of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen year-on-year from 3% to nearly 9% since the early eighties. However, the figures shown here suggest that the bulk of that increase has ocurred since 2000 and thus part of the increase shown could be a reflection of the recent economic crisis on the UK's GDP.

The graphs also show that real-term % increases on NHS spending vary wildly and tend to be lower in years when growth is stagnant in the economy. This suggests that previous governments have reflected economic pressures in their spending decisions on healthcare.

Also, there are figures available that suggest that the US healthcare system we seem eager to emulate spends more per person on healthcare than practically anywhere else in the world, but continually ranks among the lowest in terms of quality care. The conclusion we can take from this is that how money is spent is as important as how much.

If a private provider can carry out NHS work for a lower price, doesn't it make sense to let them do so?

The question to ask is WHY a private provider can do this. If the reason is a genuine one - economies of scale, access to skills or equipment that the NHS does not have as standard, then all very well and I agree that this makes sense.

However, let us not forget that private companies also have to factor in profit margins, and therefore this is not a zero-sum equation. Private sector workers work longer hours for lower rewards, have worse working conditions, reduced access to pensions, collective bargaining and so on.

These conditions create low-skilled, low-motivation workforces where mistakes are commonplace, and we should not compromise on quality of service or workers' rights to deliver lower-cost procedures.

The choice agenda means that if people prefer to use in-house NHS services, they can stil do so.

I have to confess that I've never quite understood the choice agenda. In theory, care is free to all at the point of delivery, and assuming that every area shuld have equal access to the same healthcare, why would you even need a choice? We would all simply go to our nearest health centre and get treatment later the same day.

In practise, of course I realise that things are not this simple. If you needed heart surgery and had a choice of two hospitals, one of which had a 90% survival rate and one of which had a 10% survival rate, you wouldn't need to be Einstein to make the choice between the two.

The problem I have with this is that this decision requires us to apply rationalisations without ever exploring the underlying causes for the figures. To use the above (rather fatuous) example, rather than spending money on putting an infrastructure in place to allow me to make a decision informed by nothing more than a malleable statistic, why is the money not spent making the necessary improvements to the hospital with the 10% survival rate to increase it?

To sum up - I think it's a safe assumption that people will opt for quality of care as being more important than distance to travel and that while the patient isn't paying the cost, cost will therefore be an irrelevant factor. As long as the necessary standard of care can be provided, people will not care whether their provider is a private or a public sector organisation.

The NHS shouldn't be seen as sacred - it is a means by which the government dispenses healthcare responsibilities to UK residents, and nothing more.

Oh, danger. The NHS is a national institution and internationally renowned. There are some who see it as part of a greater national identity and that is why politicians talk of it as special.

There are an awful lot of people whose limited understanding of the proposals means that they will see any suggestion of changes to the NHS as a bad thing regardless of the rationale for doing so. Additionally, people will have seen on the television and in the media that the British Medical Association (BMA) is concerned about aspects of the changes. They will see stories about practises asking for money for procedures and start to fear that they will be asked to pay to see a doctor. They will worry, justifiably, about the over-reaching powers of the competition regulator, Monitor, and the unclarified role of the Secretary of State.

As a socialist, I am concerned by this government's frantic desire to push through NHS reform without clarifying or consulting with the electorate about what they want. They use terms like 'choice' and 'consultation' wihout giving anyone a choice about what happens or paying heed to consultation outcomes.

If there is scope for improving the NHS, this is something that can be debated on a national level and agreed changes can be phased in as appropriate. We are all aware of the supposed need for austerity. This could be used as a means to make people think about the economic realities of our situation and engage them in ways to make improvements. 'So Mrs Smith, do you want us to build more hospitals or to spend billions of pounds of public funds to bail out failing private banks?'

Finally, we are quick to criticise our healthcare staff but the thankless job they do in difficult circumstances is generally an excellent one. Politicians claim the headlines and put forward consultations, initiatives and more but it is dedicated NHS workers who make sense of the chaos imposed upon them on a daily basis. We should all be thankful that they do.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Bad Day In Britain

It's a bad day to be living in modern Britain. As the unemployment figures reach their highest level for seventeen years, the House of Lords has rubber-stamped the Government's plan to tender the NHS to any willing provider. Let's hope you weren't planning to get ill any time soon, because frankly, none of us can afford it.

I'm not going to go into a right wing vs. left wing debate about the merits of publicly vs. privately provided services, especially when there is plenty of scope to do that underneath the comments on the Guardian website. I especially love the trolls who comment that anyone with a public-sector ethos doesn't live in the real world and thinks that money grows on trees. All I can say by way of slightly smug response is that you can get a lot of money in the short-term by selling a goose that lays golden eggs, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea.

For the benefit of the lobotomised, here's a quick summary. All else being equal, if a private sector company can deliver the services that the public sector would deliver to the same standard while funding the profit margin that the shareholders demand at the same or lower cost, then you should use the private company. Otherwise, public will out.

Simple, right? A calculation that any of us could do, surely. I have spent my career watching the private sector cherry pick public services and I know that as with most things, sometimes the private sector contracts work well and sometimes they fail. I also know that the failures tend to be expensive and spectacular, and for your convenience, I have enclosed links to news items on the Connaught and Southern Cross debacles which have both directly impacted on people living in Norwich.

What is often forgotten or ignored in the midst of howling rhetoric and hysterical political point-scoring is that the true cost of such failures goes well beyond the balance sheet. How can any accountant, however skilled, put a price on the anxiety of a private sector worker with no employment protection, or an elderly person who fears they may lose their home?

As George Osborne presides over a second risky round of quantitative easing in a desperate and forlorn attempt to kick-start the economy and inflation begins to spiral upwards, the ministers in charge of the government of these isles are spending their days debating cats rather than putting their noses to the grindstone and coming up with some new ideas for creating growth and social prospects.

At the head of the table, David Cameron dons his top hat, pours tea and spouts nonsense as his unelected minions ride roughshod over public opinion with all the social grace of Panzers in wartime Europe.

An amusing image it may be, but it could soon spell the end for a free health service envied worldwide but nonetheless soon to be sold off for private profit.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Protests in the US: Occupy Wall Street

America! Greatest of nations, shining democratic example, policeman to the world's oppressed.

What is not to love about the other green and pleasant land? Bono once said that America is more than just a country, it is a idea, and a contagious one. They are a nation that has freed slaves and torn down barbaric regimes. They gave us Hollywood, rock and roll and the great road stories of Jack Kerouac. You can have just about every kind of experience you could imagine somewhere across 50 huge states, most of which are bigger than the entire whole of the UK. It is famously described as a land of opportunity where anybody can grow up to be President, and the calm, collected black boy from Hawaii proved it to be so.

Perhaps most of all, I like Herbert Hoover's description of America as a "great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." It is easy as a non-American to deride the country for the things that it does badly, such as assisting the low-paid with welfare and protecting their interests politically. However, it is also easy to forget that the American principle of self-reliance makes for a resourceful and resilient people, and they are fiercely proud of their country. There is much to admire about America.

While British politics has come to be dominated by a narrow band of socialite nitwits with silly hair and no idea about the real world, American politics is about polished media excess, and despite the supposed opportunities, political office is generally reserved for those with big money, or those who can influence the same. The self-assurance of those who have influence in the world's most capitalist country is buoyed by the knowledge that there is little chance of social unrest among the populace.

However, signs are that this may not be the case for much longer. After proposed legislation in Wisconsin that would have limited collective bargaining rights, 100,000 people came out in support of state workers and the the Wisconsin Capitol building was temporarily occupied. Supportive actions were seen in every other state.

Erosion of incomes and living standards for the majority need not be a cause of great social unrest if the austerity measures employed by governments are perceived to have a fair impact upon all members of a society. But while media moguls continue to twist the truth in a harmful fashion and CEOs and top-level bankers continue to make millions, normal working people will show their anger and discontent at the skewed excesses. Is there a danger that sustained protests could strike the US this Autumn?

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg certainly thinks so. He suggested recently on a local radio show that students graduating college could not find jobs and that protests of the type seen earlier this year at Tahrir Square in Cairo could be replicated in American cities. There are certainly others too that believe that youth disenfranchisement could lead to despair and unrest. But at the moment, there is still a lack of will and organisation by those who are suffering and who might wish to take collective action.

That could be about to change. A trending Twitter update - #occupywallstreet - called for people to occupy Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhatten in an effort to raise the profile of the group's aims, which it claims are to defend the rights of 99% of Americans against the greed of the other 1%. Initial gatherings were broken up by police and there were arrests, but subsequent gatherings are now taking place and at least some of the protesters are there in response to the arrests made earlier. There are currently an estimated 2000 protesters in the area, with numbers reported to be rising.

If you support the goals of the Zucotti Park protesters, you can log onto Twitter, send them your support using the hashtag #occupywallstreet and spread the word about their actions. As in our own country, there are many people in the US who could benefit from hearing their voices heard, and well-supported peaceful protests to achieve specific goals for the disadvantaged majority may just inspire the noble, far-reaching outcomes that Hoover once described.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Four Thousand Words (Reprise)

So how many of you enjoy Four Thousand Words? I get a massive kick from writing regardless of whether the things I write ever get read, but it's best of all when someone I don't know emails me or comes up to me at work to say, 'Hey, I read your blog about the EU (or Amy Winehouse, or cheese, or whatever) and found it really interesting.' I'm all set for my best ever month of blog ownership (500+ hits) and I've decided to have a little look back at things I've talked about previously and see how they have progressed.

I Hate Tony Blair: Tony Blair, to the regret of all concerned, still feels that he is a key figure in British politics. His decision to tie Britain to the US following the attack on the USA on 9/11 was a noble one and much appreciated by American citizens, but for him to try and claim that his subsequent actions made the world a safer place is simply ridiculous. Leaked documents have shown that the illegal war in Iraq was fought under false pretences and was against the wishes of the international community. Blair recently described the subsequent and irrelevant death of Osama Bin Laden as "important", suggesting to this day that he is still playing war games in his head, fighting dark forces that his foreign policy helped to create, while citizens from his own nation have tried to arrest him for war crimes.

Each To Their Own: The Arab Spring democratic movement has stalled somewhat, thanks in no small part to the UK, who were selling weapons in the region even as revolution ensued. There have of course been some high profile regime changes, with Hosni Mubarak having been replaced by a military government in Egypt and Muammar Gadaffi having purportedly fled from Libya as his last strongholds begin to fall. It remains to be seen what the future will hold in the area, as Amnesty International have called upon Egyptian authorities to amend legislation to better protect women in Egypt, and ensure that both genders play an active role in the reforms that will follow.

March for the Alternative, 26th March 2011: The coalition government may be rolling with the punches somewhat, but the Liberal Democrats' concerted refusal to stand up for their own principles coupled with the general apathy of the British people towards politics means that Conservative policy is still tending to rule the day. A number of the UK's major unions are calling for a day of action on 30 November 2011, and a high participation rate is expected from members. Meanwhile, with conference season in the air, Clegg and Cable have attempted to rally the troops by warning that they dispute the Conservative position on the 50p tax rate and that urgent economic stimulus is required to kick-start the economy. I wish I didn't feel that this was too little, too late.

Justice for Ian Tomlinson!: In April this year I called for Simon Harwood, policeman and vicious attacker of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, to be charged with actual bodily harm for his actions in the events leading up to Tomlinson's subsequent death. The Crown Prosecution Service acted decisively, and decided instead that there was enough evidence to charge Harwood with manslaughter. His trial has been subsequently delayed until October 2011, but it is to be hoped that Tomlinson's family will finally see the justice that they deserve.

It's Not the End of the World: Of course, the news that the Rapture didn't come as predicted did not stop evangelical preacher Harold Campling from immediately naming a new date. Campling identified the supposed mathematical error in his predictions and definitely didn't put a wet finger into the air when predicting that the Rapture should actually have been on 21 October 2011. Honestly, I feel that numerologists are starting to give genuine accountants a bad name - especially as any accountant can tell you that it's Microsoft Excel, rather than cleanliness, which is actually next to godliness.

Keep Britain Rolling!: In July, UNISON steward Karen Michael was kind enough to allow me to reproduce the excellent article that she penned for the Norfolk Country Branch about the possible closure of Bombardier, the only UK-based manufacturer of rolling stock. The UK Government, having seen the wisdom in Karen's words a little bit after the event, invited Bombardier to bid for a government contract to construct steel carriages for Crosslink trains. It has subsequently transpired that the Derby plant is not suitably fitted for steelwork, and now the debate centres on how much of a proposed contract could be fulfilled in the UK, while conveniently ignoring the fact that under EU procurement rules, the government cannot award a contract on the basis that work would be guaranteed to be carried out in the UK. (This did make me think briefly that it was worth reconsidering my largely pro-European stance.) Regardless of the sense in that position, 3000 workers in the Derby area are still waiting for decisions to be made as to what will happen next.

The Cheese of the Day is... Red Leicester. If the Labour Party were cheese...

So it's been a busy few months at Four Thousand Words! I've read about, written about and learned about a whole host of major events in the world around us, and I look forward to many more in future.

Thanks to all of my readers that have read my blog, commented on it, criticised it furiously and on occasion, sent me amusingly rude emails. You really do make the process of committing my thoughts and insanities onto the internet into an enjoyable process. Feel free to comment here or to follow me and chat to me on Twitter, I would really love to know where you'd like Four Thousand Words to go in future.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Why 50% isn't half the story

There was some predictable left-wing anger this week about the hints by Chancellor George Osborne that he plans to abolish the 50% top rate tax band for high earners. Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, described the plans as "monstrously unfair" and Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has come out firmly against the idea.

In addition to those notable figures, senior Liberal Democrat figures including Danny Alexander and Vince Cable have received the idea with a certain degree of sulky reluctance, though prominent LibDem bloggers are firmly behind the idea and see it as an opportunity to exhibit the party's pro-entrepreneurial stance.

This may surprise a few people, but I'm not against the idea on principle. The top-band tax rate only ever brought in amounts in the region of £2bn a year - not the kind of money to be sneezed at in a crisis, admittedly, but still a drop in the ocean in the context of total tax revenues annually of £550bn in the UK.

However, there is still a reason why the planned change is a bad one - and it is not an ideological reason.

Critics of the 50% tax rate say that it quashes self-advancement and makes the UK uncompetitive internationally. There are figures that suggest that the UK is certainly becoming less attractive for international investors, though there could be a host of reasons why this is the case, such as skills shortages or an overpriced currency. The argument in favour of cancelling the 50% rate is that the extra money earned by the richest will be spent, reinvigorating the economy and promoting growth.

The flaw in this particular theory is that poor people have a greater propensity to spend their disposable income than rich ones. The old adage is that rich people plan for three generations, where poor ones plan for Saturday night - and even in these times of ridiculously low interest rates, it still holds true. Figures bear out that low-earners are less likely to save or invest in pension plans.

In short, this suggests that if you really wanted to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes, you would get more bang for your buck by doing so at the low-income end of the equation. Also, tax cuts for low earners could be particularly good news for local traders in key geographical areas. In the short-term, the UK has to do something to stimulate domestic demand, or soon there will be no high streets left to shop on.

Every economic action comes with an attached opportunity cost - that is, the cost of not doing something else. You might be making a healthy 3% return on your savings, but you incur an opportunity cost by not taking advantage of a 4% offer elsewhere. Government continually incurs those opportunity costs on our behalf, in this instance doing so by cutting jobs at the low end and reducing taxes at the high end when there is evidence to suggest that spending on subsidies and infrastructure would do more to boost growth in the long run.

Ultimately, it is UK citizens that stand to suffer economic hardship and more pertinently, the poorest that experience the worst affects of social breakdown. Unemployment is at its highest level for three years and continuing to climb as the private sector fails to fill the gap left by grossly unnecessary public sector cuts that threaten to destabilise the economy further and wreak havoc on the health and social fabric of our nation.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Can the Lords save the Health Service?

Lansley, greedy Andrew Lansley, tosser...sorry, where was I? Ah, after several weeks of novel writing and irreverence, I find myself back in my bread-and-butter world of political outrage. Like many unionistas, my current cause for concern is the NHS. Sure, the economy is still in freefall, but it's been like that for years now and it's only the poor and the vulnerable that are suffering. Meanwhile, our Health Minister dons the oven gloves of political shame and juggles his hot potato without even pausing to think about how his reforms will affect those that need the service the most. He may seem to have no grace, but then how many Conservative ministers have ever had a rap written about them? That's street, dog!

I's shoutin' out for ma possee in da Bullingdon, innit!

Once again while their paymasters discuss their plans in secret, the Lapdog Democrats shamelessly fawn for attention and fall on any scraps thrown to them by government. Norfolk's own Norman Lamb had threatened to quit his post as Nick Clegg's chief adviser in April over the NHS restructuring in England but is now backtracking furiously and advising others that the reforms will give the NHS 'certainty'. What would appear to be certain is that privatisation is top of the agenda, despite Nick Clegg having told the country that this would not happen under any circumstances. But then, these days Liberal Democrat U-turns happen about as often as cold days in Britain in June.

Public sector workers showed yesterday in Kings Lynn that Norman Lamb's sentiments are not shared by all of those that work in the service.

While the party members bristle uncomfortably and the MPs about-face every time they breathe, it falls to the Liberal Democrat peers to set up an effective opposition to Tory privatisation plans. Baroness Shirley Williams is a peer with a number of concerns about the revised reforms and chief among them is a legal doubt as to whether the secretary of state will any longer be bound to deliver a comprehensive health service for the people of the UK, free at the point of need. Removing this clause would effectively torpedo the central tenet at the heart of the NHS.

Williams makes the very good point that she is not against the notion that private elements in the NHS could improve core standards and bring new ideas. And of course, there is a temptation to simply provide a direct foil to the government's 'private good, public bad' mantra. Trade unionists are not against positive change, but we know full well that squeezing a profit margin into a financial transaction immediately introduces pressures elsewhere. Standards of care cannot and should not be made to suffer so that rich people grow richer.

Williams writes in the Observer, "Why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed?" The international companies that are being mooted as potential recipients for health service contracts by consultancy firm McKinsey have no interest in the well-being of UK residents, just of seeing a return on their investments.

It is to be hoped that the NHS, a cultural icon in the UK as significant as the Royal Family and more important than any other, a service set-up to provide free health care at the point of need to rich and poor alike, will be preserved by the close attention of dissenters in the House of Lords.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011


So I have a confession to make. The novel stalled fairly early on in the project, and never made it past the 10,000 word milestone. This disappoints me, but if you care at all I hope you'll forgive me in the context of the month I've had. I've been to a wonderful wedding on the Thames, a great birthday night out in Windsor and I have a beautiful new lady in my life, not to mention some other exciting news still to come - but that can wait for another day.

The whirlwind nature of the last few weeks really has left me a little adrift so you'll have to forgive me for not posting in the last couple of weeks, but there has been something that has caught my eye recently and is well worth a mention.

I live in the city of Norwich (official tag line - "A Fine City", my suggested alternative - "Rhymes with Porridge") and one of my favourite parts is the area known as Tombland. Despite rumours to the contrary, in this context, 'tomb' does not refer to ancient graves but is derived from a Scandinavian word for an open space, and thousands of years ago, the area was once a market square.

Just to the left of the picture above is a second-hand bookshop and I walk past it twice every day on my way to and from work. There are always a number of interesting books in the window, and roughly each week the stock seems to be switched around (or possibly purchased?) so there's something new to see. I am always keen to see what the window has in store.

The first cover that caught my eye was this one for a Pirelli Calendar book from years ago. The subject is German fashion model Nadja Auermann and this photograph attempts to capture her 'ice maiden' image.

I would love to say that it was frosty outside and the ice in this photograph juxtaposed neatly with the frosty city air and pearled dew on the leaves, but it would be a lie. Nonetheless, it's an incredibly memorable image.

Shortly after Nadja disappeared from her regular appearances on my morning walk, I was greeted instead with the gem below.

Bless John de Lombardo. Another image with German origins, this effort achieved the not-inconsiderable task of making me look forward to getting up and leaving the house early in the mornings.

Every day I wondered about this book. Should I buy it? I took advice on the subject from Facebook and Twitter. It would certainly make an interesting conversation piece on my non-existent coffee table. But would inquiring about the price just make me look like a cheap pervert? Suddenly I was twelve years old again and sneaking rudimentary glances at the Page 3 models in the Sun (though even then, I knew enough about the quality of the content to know that it wasn't worth paying 20p for.)

Sadly, before I could make a decision either way, Naked Gymnastics was swept away and replaced with one called:

Paleopathology of Danish skeletons - a comparative study of demography, disease and injury.

It's a far cry from the books that had been there before, but no less worthy of its place in the window. Since I first saw the title, I'm interested in knowing exactly how Danish people have died through the ages.

It's become another entry on the list of things that I will think about before I get to sleep tonight, and when I walk past tomorrow, I will wonder again about the specifics of Scandinavian diseases and how they could possibly be of interest to anyone else in Norwich.

I might buy it.

I'll also keep an eye out for the next thing that appears in that window. If it's half as interesting as the past ones I've seen, it might even get a future entry all of its own.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Novel Idea (3) - Dialogue

Apologies to those of you who read my regular updates but aren't really interested in my pet project - there has been plenty to talk about in the last few days and I should be getting back on track after this weekend. In the meantime, you might enjoy the following scene from the still-untitled novel...

@TajinderZahman is about to lose it all.

Taj whipped an arm round the post on the landing and flew down the stairs, taking them in two well-judged leaps. This would normally have taken him straight through the front door but unfortunately, Naani had been moving furniture in one of her regular shifts designed to keep the house layout fresh and deter her frequent visitors from getting too comfortable in any one position.

Instead of the door, Taj careened into an end table and vase which had been left improbably between the stairwell and doorway, most likely with the specific aim of preventing him from performing the exact manoeuvre that he had planned. The table fell straight across the doorway, preventing a speedy getaway. The vase, conical-shaped and made to resist rough treatment, rolled around, spilling chrysanthemums across the hallway and water towards the gap under the door. Taj watched it as it trickled away, his mind and muscles slowed by the impact. He thought of the wave that Josie had told him about earlier, saw the fear and inevitability that must have washed over the people in the countryside as they saw the wave approach...

“Tajinder Zahman! You are a crazy, clumsy son of a fool!” Naani stepped into the passage from the kitchen, a heavy marble rolling pin in her hands. Her apron was dusted with flour and she seemed briefly big enough to feel the corridor, rather than the skinny five-foot-nothing that she actually was.

When he hadn’t moved a few seconds later, she stepped over towards him, righted the table with a single movement and produced a cloth, which swiped away most of the surface water with a single, angry sweep.

“Well? Have you nothing to say, baalak boy? Your poor mother would have enjoyed your silence while you were growing up!”

The enormity of the situation was slowly filtering through Taj's mind, and as it touched each receptor on the way through, it left an ice-cold burn behind. He hardly even realised that the dangerously-soft voice he could hear was his own.
“Naani, we have to go.”

“Go? What are you talking about? This is nonsense, boy!” When his expression did not change, she then said, “I’ve just put some samosas into oil.”

Taj willed his muscles to force him forward but as usual, they were frozen solid in Naani’s presence. He couldn’t speak for shame, but his anguished expression told the old woman more than words ever could. She immediately dispensed with her mock-angry demeanour and instead looked him directly in the eyes.

“Taj,” she whispered, “what have you done?”

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A Novel Idea (2) - The Setting

The setting for the aforementioned novel...

@TajinderZahman is free in Nuevo London!

Nuevo London! Oh, sweet, sweet city of spice and sugar! Lead me through your scented alleyways, that I might find gold, or love, or adventure here tonight.

Nuevo London, cultural centre of a very new European jewel. Watch umbrella'd businessmen weave between raindrops on the steaming pathways through Nine Elms. Count the cobblestones between the olde English theatres in Earl's Court. Drink sweet mint tea and listen to the white boys jam in the Brompton Underworld.

Nuevo London, cheerful home of waving squat minarets and ceremonial juniper smoke that drifts over the churning River Thames. Stroll amongst the densely-layered cherry trees as the scores of oil-haired delivery workers lounge in the evening sunshine and drink their Indian mulberry wine. Stir pots of boiling crabs on rugged concrete street corners as the old Islamic men across the way chant at sun-up and sunset. Hear the assembled brethren as they kneel as one before the wall. Takbir! Takbir! Allhu Akbar!

Nuevo London, phoenix from the sodden ashes, home to half-a-million twinkling lights in homes, offices and boudoirs. See the cathedrals, the clubs, the spires that reach to the cloud line. Bathe in the architecture, then grab shatkora bhajis and guanaco steaks fresh from the pan and eat them with burned, greasy fingers as you ride the tram to the hashish bars in Lavender Hill.

Nuevo London, with its rows of climbing apple and pear souks where you can sample raisin couscous from the tagine. Grab handfuls of vivid pink peppercorns from wicker baskets below wires of blood-red chillis and fist-sized knots of indigo garlic. Watch the wary-eyed, knarled women kneading bread and threading beads on catgut string. Buy handmade silk scarves and saris of every colour of the rainbow.

Nuevo London, with girls from every corner of the globe and some yet unexplored, tall like string beans, squat and large-breasted. Study the chequered maps of their hued and pampered skins. Breathe them in as they sashay past you, bearing intoxicating perfumes, their laughter as precious as saffron and as untameable as the wildest of wild orchids.

Nuevo London, they sing in the starry sky above the glittering floating docks of Brotherhood Wharf. In the darkness between the sacred streams, the Eagles stamp their feet and watch you with unblinking eyes while the Squid give you cursory glances as they march to their jobs at the heads of the gambling tables. The air is scorching hot and any debauchery and depravity you wish to enjoy can be found here, the one place in The City where the humans do not rule and the Message does not go.

Smile, Tajinder Zahman. For this great, terrible, beautiful city is yours and yours alone.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A Novel Idea

As some of you may know or have figured from reading this, I seem to spend half my life behind a computer. I read a lot, I write a lot. Most importantly of all, I like to feel that I learn a lot. I'd even go as far as to say that those little lessons (lessons like 'Don't get blind drunk on a first date') have been invaluable to me over the years.

In addition to blogging with the impotent fury of a castrated mongoose, I also have a lost love: that of creative writing. So I'm very pleased that a new friend of mine has reawakened this love through National Write-a-Novel month.

The premise is simple. 50,000 words, 31 days. Do the maths, figure out how much time you already waste at work or with your partner, or asleep. Then reject all of those things for a crazy month-long attempt at writing a bestseller.

You should appreciate that with such time constraints, quality is bound to be low. With the excuses now out of the way, I hope you'll appreciate reading this snippet from the beginning of the book. The Message is a murderous social-network that's inside your head every minute of every day. When it's not hawking you crap, it's tracing your every thought and movement. Just be glad that it hasn't become sentient and killed you. Yet.

The snippet begins after the image of London at night below. (Photocredit to photographer Jason Hawkes).

Incidentally, I haven't got a title yet. Ideas would be appreciated.

The Message – Social Media for You in the Twenty-Third Century!

Save time on manual updates! The Message is the only twentyfourseven social media solution that updates itself constantly from the things you see, think and feel.

No need for unreliable, tedious net-terminals. Through the wonder of the world's most advanced bio-mechanical engineering, you'll see the important things you need to see in front of your very eyes when you need them the most.

Stock prices, news items, sports updates. See everything as it happens in real-time. View timetables, book tickets to films or the hippest restaurants. Control everything that happens to you from the space behind your eyes.

If you've been a victim of crime, The Message knows about it. Trust us to track down that bag-snatcher before he's left the scene and be there for your safety before that mugger has even raised his knife. We patrol every street corner so you never, ever have to fear.

Medical emergency? The Message knows that you're sick before you do, monitoring the tiniest changes to body chemistry on a molecular level and making sure that you are taken straight to a synthward for the very best care that we can offer.

Questionable sexual desires? Hell, we all have 'em! The Message doesn't judge you. Instead, it can direct you to a thousand others who share your desire to get funky with farmyard animals. Now get out there and socialise, you pervert!

With The Message on your side, you'll never be lied to again. Say sayonara to toadying lackeys, rip-off salesmen and errant spouses! The Message takes you straight to your local community so you never, ever need to be alone. Experience everything and put it out there so that you can share it with your net-family.

Whatever you want, whatever you're interested in, The Message is for you. What you feel is what you see – and what you see is what you feel.

The Message. By your side every minute of every day.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Model for a New Start

I've come to the conclusion that natural left-wingers, like myself, have reached their limit with the Labour Party. You may have read my previous treatise on a certain Mr Anthony Blair but the fact is that these suit-wearing sons of clergy and big business are no longer any more representative of the working man than I'm representative of Dutch clog-makers.

I also know people who would clearly fall within the remit of the traditional Tory voter who nonetheless baulk at the notion of supporting the good ship Camerlegg. We are all middle-class these days, and we know that it is no longer socially acceptable to sneer at people who we regard as being a step or two down the evolutionary scale. Furthermore, even if you're a worth a million pounds, you won't be buying a yacht or a house in Chelsea any time soon. It's no good having millions when the billionaires can soon price you out of any neighbourhood that they don't want your penny-pinching, hat-doffing type in.

What we have is a government of confusion and dissatisfaction, and we are not alone. In nations all across the world, the global debt crisis is seeing people move towards small-government, Conservative and nationalist agendas. In short, we are moving at speed towards the interests of those very people whose self-interested machinations started the crisis in the first place.

It seems that when it starts to get cold, sheep will choose to desert their lazy, careless shepherds and instead make their way to the warmth of the slaughterhouse. You only have to look across the pond to where US President Barack Obama has had to make a deal with the Tea Party Republicans that effectively sees the American economy driven over a cliff while Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich laugh maniacally from behind the wheel. So do you vote for the lunatics, or the people who have no choice but to pander to them?

Can it really be so hard to appeal to voters with a bit of common sense and some simple statistics to explain what you are doing in government and why? I wonder sometimes if our own civil service is not so used to spinning inconvenient truths that it has lost sight of what the purpose of government really is. People in the UK feel that there is no-one in government that supports the way they feel and even that government itself cannot be trusted. Private sector and public sector workers wrestle frantically with each other for crumbs while the faceless representatives of multinational corporations drink Cristal champagne and ignore them.

So what can we do?

I feel the time has come for a clean slate. We need to do away completely with the restrictive tags of Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat. All of us hold views on separate issues that fit across the political spectrum, and we are now faced with nightmarish concepts like Blue Labour, or Green Socialism, etc. It's time to pick some new names and write a manifesto for the laymen.

Modern politicians primarily come through a small select number of education establishments and this gives rise to a feeling among the rest of us that politicians do not understand their own constituents.

The particular kind of political 'inbreeding' that I alluded to earlier means that we tend to be led by a people from a narrow range of backgrounds and with an extremely limited exposure to a range of human experiences. It is time that our Lords were abolished and our Commons became truly representative. A representative government should include all minority groups, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual persuasion, and so on. Critically, it should contain a representative number of MPs from comprehensive school backgrounds and there should be also be a representative number of disabled MPs too.

Next, any MPs who were involved in the MPs expenses scandal should be debarred from Government. For example, our friend from yesterday, Oliver Letwin, claimed £2000 in Parliamentary expenses to repair a leaky pipe under his tennis court. The argument that this was allowable under the rules at the time completely misses the point. In order to be respected by those who elect it, a government has to strictly regulate its own behaviour. Only then will people believe that they can trust government to act in the best interests of the nation at large, and the public perception of a self-perpetuating 'old boys network' can then be quashed.

Donations to political parties should be strictly limited to small amounts (say £20,000 per year) and should all be declared publicly and published in the mainstream media. All parties with a seat in the House of Commons would be guaranteed a set number of hours of TV time for their election campaigns, and no more than this could be purchased. Transparency of political activity should become the accepted norm.

Taxation needs to be reviewed from the top down by government and corporation tax is ripe for an overhaul. It is disgusting that companies such as Barclays have been able to get away with paying the equivalent of 1% corporation tax on their vast profits. A pound earned in Britain should mean tax paid to Britain. The stated aim of reviewing taxation should be the reduction of inequality, with the need for redistribution of wealth above a certain limit, to be decided by the new Parliament.

Economic policy would look towards the creation of real economic growth through productivity and wage increases at the low end, and we should be looking to once again develop a production industry. We cannot cut interest rates any further as a means to stimulate borrowing, and this is inadvisable strategy anyway as it has led to the asset price bubbles that are partly responsible for the economic mess we are in. Neither can the ridiculous plans for austerity measures at this time be continued. Cutting spending and reducing taxes in the UK have done nothing to promote growth, and demand for products and services is lessening as a result. In the long-term, economic market sustainability with planned growth rather than the boom-bust effect is of course our goal.

Foreign policy would link to social policy with regard to the creation of sustainable energy as a massive priority, so the need to involve ourselves in foreign conflicts and our reliance on the likes of the US and Russia could be reduced. We would utilise our existing budgets and the money saved by reducing troop numbers stationed abroad to explore ways in which we could make genuine contributions to improving life in other parts of the world. We should aim to be involved in building and social development projects rather than simply lending out or giving vast sums to other countries.

Immigration policy also needs to be reviewed, with the aim of creation of a policy that reflects the value that immigrants bring to society rather than Daily Mail-induced hysteria. This is not a suggestion that the doors of the UK should be flung open to anyone who wishes to be here, but there should be honest, open debate where those who have genuine concerns about the integration of communities are allowed to have their say as well as representatives of ethnic minority groups themselves. This reduces the risk of the issue being hijacked by the 'us vs them' politics of the odious far-right movement.

Most importantly of all, government needs to be accountable to people and I suggest a reduction in the period between general elections to three years, with compulsory referendums on major national policy issues. There would be no more under-the-radar changes to the NHS.

Okay, there we go. I've had my say; now it's your turn.