Sunday, 27 March 2011

March for the Alternative, 26th March 2011

I have a confession to make - despite my unerring belief in the cause promoted by yesterday's March for the Alternative in London, I didn't attend the event myself. Today, as I watch coverage of the event on the news and read the stories of those that marched, I realise that I have missed out on something very special and something that I had a great responsibility to be a part of.

As I know I have a few overseas readers, I realise that I may need to explain a little about yesterday's event. Put simply, the coalition government in Britain is utilising a number of questionable fiscal justifications to privatise institutions that are central to Britain's culture and living standards, such as the National Health Service. Rather than examine in detail the root causes of our financial crisis, they have sought to address the deficit issue at a breakneck speed, despite evidence suggesting that this is not the best way to support the fragile economic recovery. Using the deficit as an excuse, they have introduced policies that benefit the largest companies in Britain while penalising and marginalising the poorest and most vulnerable individuals.

Yesterday, finally, the government's plans were publicly opposed as more than half a million trade unionists, public sector workers, pro-peace groups and concerned individuals marched through the streets of London to a rally in the city's Hyde Park.

As anyone familiar with protests in modern Britain might have predicted, today's headlines are about the minority of violent thugs who descended upon Trafalgar Square well after the march had ended, and those members of protest group UKUncut who took direct action by occupying thirteen shops on Oxford Street that members believe are dodging corporation tax responsibilities. I cannot condone any of those actions and Trades Union Congress have publicly condemned those who have been involved in violent acts following the demonstration. Credit should go to Metropolitan Police Commander Bob Broadhurst, who was quick to state his belief that the destructive minority were not associated with the peaceful marchers who did so much yesterday to promote their genuine cause.

The march must be taken in context. Those on the route covered an entire spectrum of respectable society, including retired care workers, representatives of disability rights groups, middle class parents who purposely took their young children, and students burdened with debt as a result of the regressive policies of consecutive governments. More importantly, it represented the first genuine show of opposition to devastating coalition reforms. For me, it is a tremendous irony that opposition leader Ed Miliband did not make the march alongside the very people he will see as his natural supporters come the next general election.

The March for the Alternative was the largest march of its kind since the protest about Blair's war in Iraq. However, it alone will not be enough to derail a government who are gambling massively on economic growth paving the way to a stable future. Margaret Thatcher once famously stated that she was not for turning, and David Cameron will be keen to show that just because he does not have a mandate does not mean that he cannot seize an opportunity when one is presented to him.

It is a fact that strong opposition leads to stronger and more accountable government and this is the first evidence that the labour movement is stirring from its long slumber and preparing to face down the threat to its survival. 26th March 2011 will hopefully be remembered as a watershed for many reasons - it may be a day that prompted government supporters to consider the genuine consequences of their decisions, or a day which began a movement that successfully demonstrated the massively positive role that well-funded public services play in a healthy and vibrant society. Perhaps, most importantly of all, it will be remembered as the day that trade unions in Britain regained their pride.

Monday, 21 March 2011

'Necessary, Legal and Right'

I made the mistake today of getting involved in one of the BBC's fiscal blogs, when I became incensed at a suggestion on the website that the ideal way to tackle the country's financial crisis was to do away with the minimum wage and send those Jonny Foreigners back where they came from. What an idea! Let's add skills shortages and an ever-decreasing wage spiral to our many, many problems. Just don't tell Dave, right?

Fortunately, David Cameron is currently distracted from bothersome domestic difficulties by channelling the spirit of Tony Blair and carving himself a Legacy as a Politician on the World Stage.

Except of course, he's at great pains to point out that he is not Blair and this is not Iraq. In Libya, France led the charge to force the resolution through the UN and has seized the moral high ground by doing so. The US has shown that it has learnt from past indiscretions by indicating its desire to transfer its lead role in Libya within days of becoming involved. The Arab League has skirted around the issues raised by the situation in Libya, but has carefully avoided supporting the idea of further regime changes in the region. In the midst of the maelstrom Britain strode around, an overzealous and wizened schoolteacher with an ever-shortening ruler, looking for a way to assert some authority over proceedings.

It was a familiar feeling for me as I turned on the evening news. Hand-wringing MPs jostled uncomfortably in the House of Commons as justifications for British involvement in the conflict were bandied around. The news cut to eerie green night-vision pictures of tracer fire in the sky over Tripoli and I thought, 'Here we go again.' Just once, it would be nice to get through a five-year political term in Britain without our involvement in another yet another futile, expensive and unnecessary war.

After reading an article in the 'i' newspaper today by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a writer I am really beginning to appreciate, I have taken the time to consider the position I felt initially when the bombs began to drop.

As an self-described Arab exile in Britain, Alibhai-Brown admits to a feeling of political anxiety about the UK's involvement in Operation Odyssey Dawn. I'm not of Arabic descent but I can assure her that she is not alone. I am in agreement that allowing the conflict (note that no-one uses the word 'war') to escalate would be to offer a permissive stance towards a potential civilian genocide, but nonetheless I am still very uncomfortable about our role in proceedings.

While I am willing to give David Cameron the benefit of the doubt with regard to the genuine issue of defending human life, it is unfortunate (or very fortunate, depending on your viewpoint) that supporting this cause has so many potential positive aspects for Britain that could be viewed sceptically from a retrospective standpoint. Yes, we are defending civilians by bombing strategic military targets - in the full knowledge that contracts will surely be offered to British firms when rebuilding work needs to begin and new military hardware is purchased. If we go the whole hog and support the removal of Gadaffi from power entirely, we do so knowing that any potential replacement will make their gratitude clear when determining the price of their oil.

The irony is that the Libya conflict could potentially be a watershed for the countries involved in the coalition force. Britain can go a long way towards cleansing our international reputation by making it clear that our loyalties are not determined solely by the money that lines our pockets. The true measure of our role in this saga will be determined by what happens next. So far, what we have done is indeed, to use David Cameron's own words, 'necessary, legal and right'. It is a phrase he will do well to remember and observe in the weeks ahead.

Monday, 14 March 2011

What Women Want

I am left here with the familiar need to apologise to my regular readers, as a week has gone past without me writing entries on International Women's Day, or the devastating events and subsequent death toll in Japan.

I was touched somewhat by the words of Rosemary Unwin in the London Evening Standard last week, as they echoed the words of my own friend when discussing the subject of International Women's Day with her boyfriend. "Why," the unfortunate lad asked, "do we even need International Women's Day?" She fixed him with a steely gaze, before replying, "Because you get the other 364 days a year."

As Unwin herself identified, the reply is somewhat facetious but it is still worth looking at some of the pertinent facts. Women own 1% of the land in the world, are more likely to be illiterate because of reduced access to education, are more likely to be unemployed or involved in informal work, have reduced access to healthcare and absorb the overwhelming burden of the care responsibilities within a family unit. Those who consider that feminism has had a negative impact upon society may wish to reflect upon why Orwell wrote about Big Brother and not Big Sister. Equality, it seems, still has a way to go.

The emancipation of women worldwide has a lot of implications for humanity. It may begin with the social breakdown of traditionally accepted gender roles and progress by promoting women's rights to bodily integrity, autonomy and reproductive rights. In the UK, a progressive agenda has seen greater awareness of and opposition to domestic violence and sexual harassment. There is still more to be done to ensure equal political representation, workplace conditions and pay.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set out a number of key aims agreed by all participating countries to assist with improving the lot of humankind throughout the world. MDG3 is the specific goal that is intended to promote gender equality and empower women through improved access to education and higher-paid work, with particular attention being paid to young girls having equal access to primary education. However, all of the MDGs can be viewed from a feminist perspective and contributions to programs promoting equal rights for women can be run concurrently with those promoting core labour standards, social protection and shared learning.

It is generally accepted that poverty worldwide is caused by inequality, discrimination and lack of power. This shows us that an attack by our current government on lower-paid workers or those in receipt of benefits is by default an attack on women, and therefore discriminatory in nature. Furthermore, by forcing women to work longer hours to make up for the financial shortfalls imposed upon them by government, this reduces the time that they can spend with their families and weakens the traditional family unit that David Cameron claims to be promoting.

The backdoor privatisation that we are experiencing in our public-sector workplaces and in the NHS impacts more severely on the lower-paid and part-time workers, and the continued culture of short-termism with regard to results delivery contributes to a race-to-the-bottom effect where service standards suffer. The family breakdown that we identified earlier leads to increased likelihood of involvement in crime, increased likelihood of social exclusion, lower incomes and so on. The potential implications of female inequality (and indeed, other types of inequality) are truly mind-boggling, and that is why we all have a responsibility to tackle them wherever they are found.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Killer Shrimp Take Cardiff

This spoof entry looks at a theoretical version of events whereby the city of Cardiff is overrun by a large number of 33m-long killer shrimp. The chain of events that led to this improbable tragedy is too long to recount here, but the following is a report taken from a press conference attended by a number of journalists and senior government figures shortly after the story breaks.

This entry is dedicated to Erin Whiley.

Assembled journalists and senior government figures were clearly shocked to be told of the events that had seen the city of Cardiff fall to the Killer Shrimp, but David Cameron looked stoic and statesmanlike as he stepped forward to the podium.

It was Sun reporter Tom Wells who asked the first question. 'Mr Cameron, why did the government not anticipate the attack which has seen Cardiff fall to the Killer Shrimp?'

Cameron replied, 'I think it can be said that there were not very many people who saw this attack coming. None of us came into politics to face accusations about being unprepared. Rather, I came into politics because I love this country. I think its best days still lie ahead and I believe deeply in public service.

'And I think the service our country needs right now is to face up to our really big challenges, to confront our problems, to take difficult decisions, to lead people through those difficult decisions, so that together we can reach better times ahead.'

There were appreciative murmurs and nodding from the crowd and the Prime Minister posed for photographs before stepping aside for his Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Guardian journalist Ben Dowell asked, 'Mr Hague, why are you, as Foreign Secretary, involved in this briefing?'

The former Conservative leader adjusted his suit and said, 'Well, Ben, I think we can all agree that being engaged in the world is an indispensable part of the British character.'

'But Mr Hague, Wales is part of these British Isles.'

Hague nodded approvingly. 'Indeed it is, and the fact that no-one there votes Conservative has barely registered in our strategy. Talks are currently ongoing about the establishment of an American-sponsored no-fly zone over south Wales that will prevent the shrimps from parachuting in reinforcements.'

There was a brief hiatus as tabloid journalists in the front row argued over the subject of whether shrimp can fly. When calm was restored, Mr Hague intimated that he had information that the leader of the Killer Shrimp had abandoned Cardiff and was now on route to Venezuela. When challenged on the assertion, Hague admitted that he really had no idea if shrimp even had leaders, but that everyone was in agreement that if they did, it was only just and fair that they should be selected via internationally-observed democratic elections.

It was the Times who put the next question to the government. 'Do you feel that the government's recent decision to make the entire armed forces of Britain redundant in order to save money has proved to be a good one in the light of these events?'

Hague pulled himself up to his full height (5'6") and calmly insisted that despite the decision, the UK would remain a military power 'of the first rank, made up of flexible, highly deployable forces.' Upon hearing expressed doubts about this, the Foreign Secretary reminded the assembled crowd that the UK defence responsibilities had been privatised and the contract sold to the highest bidder, which had turned out to be Libya.

Mr Hague said that despite the problems the Middle East was currently experiencing, international contract law meant that he was confident he could force Libya to meet their military responsibilities to the UK. 'If not,' Hague boomed, 'they can expect to receive a big fine.' The crowd agreed that this would certainly make Colonel Gadaffi think twice before breaking the contract.

A keen-eyed journalist in the back row noted an election manifesto pledge by the Liberal Democrats to buy and thaw out Mega Shark (who had been previously frozen by Icelandic counter-terrorist forces to prevent it from swallowing Reykjavik) as a means of dealing with a potential Killer Shrimp problem. A clearly-reluctant Nick Clegg stepped forward and made the following statement:

'The Mega Shark proposal has proven to be something of an impediment to social justice.' When he was greeted with silence, Mr Clegg continued, 'It was determined that the mere existence of such a beast was due to inequalities that had occurred in the social system at a much earlier stage.'

When the journalist who had asked the original question stated that he did not understand the response, Mr Clegg stammered, 'The current government policy is a much better way of making Britain a fairer place!'

The journalist then asked Mr Clegg if he actually understood the original question. Clegg glumly replied that he didn't actually know what he was doing at the press conference, but said that he was told by David Cameron that if he publicly agreed with all of the government's policies, he would be allowed to run the country on his own for a few minutes. Clegg then began to cry and had to be led away by Theresa May.

The Daily Mirror then voiced rumours which had begun to surface on the internet that a passing contingent of Welsh choristers, who were involved in a medieval battle reproduction outside the city, had managed to capture one of the Killer Shrimp and hand it over to local council officials. 'It's all utter bollocks,' Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles said, before belching loudly and suffusing the room with the unmistakeable smell of prawn bhuna.

Cameron stepped forward again and fielded a question about the possibility of a nuclear response. 'As you will all know, it was part of our coalition agreement to consider the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent system with something suitably fit-for-purpose that would not cost an arm and a leg. Ladies and gentleman, I would now like to reveal that replacement. I give you...Trident Mk II.'

Mr Cameron stepped back as the cameras began to flash and held aloft a three-tined fork made of dull metal roughly four feet long. As soon as it began, the applause abruptly died away and the crowd stood open-mouthed.

'It might not look like much,' Mr Cameron enthused smoothly, 'but this trident was available very cheaply as part of a larger package of economic assistance from Greece. It is the actual trident once owned by the Greek god Poseidon, and it will ensure that once again, Britain will rule the waves!'

At that point, the press conference broke down as pro-European MPs stormed the building, citing that Britain's attempts to rule the waves were in direct contravention of EU Common Fisheries Policy. As police waded into the scene and set about the crowd with metal truncheons, the Spanish foreign minister, who was on a visit to Britain, was heard to say, 'We can sue for that.'

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A Rant About Ignorance (and the EU)

I'm starting to think I should have a snappy start for my postings. It could be a phrase that I use that captures that feeling I get when I see something, read something or do something, and the entry for the day begins to take form from the disorganised blurriness within my mind.

It could be something along the lines of 'An annoying thing occurred to me today as I read a British daily newspaper'. I'm starting to think that I could describe my country to someone who knew nothing about Britain by collecting up a copy of the Star, the Sun, the Mail and the Express, forcing them to read the whole mess cover to cover and then telling the poor soul that not only do people voluntarily pay money for these travesties against truth and taste, they actually form opinions based on the content.

I knew and indeed had warned some of my friends who are more susceptible to influence that in the weeks before the discussion about the Alternative Vote (AV) system, we could expect mainstream Tory and Labourite newspapers to attack the concept as being 'bad for democracy' (i.e. bad for those parties, as it reduces the likelihood of tactical voting, which both parties have been reliant upon in the past to secure their majorities.)

The Daily Express first posted a Tory MP's opinion of the Alternative Vote system in October 2010. Edward Leigh, MP for Gainsborough, wrote in the Parliamentary House magazine that the proposals were 'unsatisfactory, un-British, and causing frustration and anger'. At first I agreed with him, but then I re-read his comments and realised that he was describing the AV system rather than the coalition government.

Mr Leigh also objected to the plan to hold the referendum on the same day as the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh elections, which is a manoeuvre that he felt would concern voters in England. He finished by saying, "a referendum should be held when conditions are consistent across the nation. I understand that a coincidence of dates will save us nearly £8 million, but let's not sell our political principles for the price of a nice house in Chelsea." He's certainly correct that political principles should not have a price, but £8 million would train a lot of nurses, and I left the comment in because his knowledge of Chelsea house prices neatly juxtaposes how he is obviously in touch with the average British voter.

Conveniently ignoring the fact that we currently have a government with no electoral mandate to govern, the Daily Express implied today that the average voter cannot be expected to know much about AV or the democratic process, and on that basis a referendum about electoral reform is entirely unnecessary. However, on the matter of the European Union, The People Have Spoken, and a referendum should be organised on the subject of Britain leaving the EU immediately.

In January, the paper submitted a petition containing 373,000 signatures with the aim of forcing the government to hold a referendum on the issue. Today it had this to say on the subject of the EU:

"The EU has already made a number of ludicrous decisions since the Daily Express delivered its historic 373,000-strong petition to Downing Street in January. Its judges were accused of “utter madness” this week after imposing new gender equality rules on pensions and insurance, leaving millions of Britons out of pocket. Women’s car insurance will rocket by up to 25 per cent after they ruled against discrimination in their favour. Men, too, will suffer with lower pension payments because providers will no longer be able to take into account that they die earlier than women."

You'll notice that the paper doesn't actually note who made the accusation, and I'd be a little more sympathetic to the dewy-eyed bleating about how the decisions made in European Court leave my gender disadvantaged on the matter of pensions if the British government weren't making me wait three extra years to claim my pension in the first place (68 as opposed to the current 65.) Likewise, if Cameron and Co. are that concerned about drivers, they could always look at reducing the cost of road tax and the frankly obscene amount of tax levied on petrol. But here we come to the central tenet of this entry - this is not a call for a referendum on the basis of knowledge, but instead, one of ignorance.

What is the EU? The smart and well informed members of this blog will know that it is an economic and political union of 27 member states that operates through a hybrid system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmentally-made decisions negotiated by its members. But if you put those 373,000 petition signatories to the test, could they honestly name a single function that the EU performs?

I don't have a position on the EU. Fundamentally, I am willing to accept that as an intelligent and apparently well-informed member of society, I still don't understand enough about how it operates to determine if it offers us (as UK citizens and voters in MEP elections) value for money. I do know, however, that if any such referendum occurs, I will endeavour to educate myself on the subject and learn more so that at least my vote is cast from a position of relative understanding. I rather fear that my measly single vote will be drowned out by countless others that have the neither the wherewithal or the inclination to do their own fact-finding.