Thursday, 15 December 2011

The EU: Getting Harder to Defend

Defending the EU is unlikely to win you many votes nowadays, if it ever did. It’s a bit like immigration: even the most blinkered could probably force themselves to see its benefits, but it’s just a lot more convenient and safe to rail against both, whilst politically of course being a sure vote winner.
David Cameron’s ‘veto moment’ won instant plaudits from 62% of those polled straight after last week’s Brussels summit. On the ‘In/Out’ question, almost half would support Britain’s withdrawal from the EU if asked today, against only 33% standing firm in the ‘Yes to the EU’, camp.
For all their posturing, a Labour government would have probably done what the Prime Minister did.
If Europhiles, such as myself, have been left aghast at what has happened, we shouldn’t really be that surprised. Standing up for the EU can often feel like a losing and lonely battle.
The British have always spoken of “Europe” as if it were something which existed elsewhere; an alien and remote entity, forgetting that we are also part of it, whether we like it or not. That may not be always the case with the EU.
But, for all its faults, and there are many, a future sliding further and further away from it is not something those on the left should be relishing.
Europhiles have never really been vocal or convincing enough in praising the EU. Just hiding behind words such as ‘jobs,’ ‘growth,’ and ‘prosperity,’ as evidence, doesn’t cut it with the electorate. Concrete examples have been sorely lacking. Here’s a handy list to help.
Commenting after UKIP’s strong showing at the 2004 elections to the European Parliament, The Independent wrote that:
“So used have we become to these [EU] advantages, that we forget to mention them. But they belong in the political debate.”
It could be argued that some of the policies to have come out of the EU have been far more progressive, especially in terms of workers and consumers rights, that those ever passed by successive British governments. At least, there is a gold standard with which all governments must respect.
Yet, if pro-Europeans have been reluctant to wear their ‘Europeanness’ with pride, then maybe it’s because they never really believed it.
John Harris quotes this passage from one of Tony Blair’s biographies, neatly summing up Blair’s reticence to Europe. He was:
“…a pragmatic and competent manager of Britain's membership of the union without ever committing himself fully to it and…without winning, or even entertaining, the argument in favour of membership with his own electorate.”
Certainly, its democratic deficit harms its reputation, and makes it that much harder for its supporters to stick up for.
A week later, things have become to look a little clearer. The debate has already started to shift away from the narrow focus on Britain’s veto, and the implications in using it, to the wider consequences of what was exactly put forward in Brussels.
In essence, we are confronted with two challenges: Britain’s isolation from its EU partners, and where this leaves the left.
And for the left the picture is pretty bleak.
As far as the BBC’s Paul Mason is concerned, what was drawn up would make US Republicans swoon and dance with joy:
“…by enshrining in national and international law the need for balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, the eurozone has outlawed expansionary fiscal policy.”  
The proposed EU treaty has to all intents and purposes “buried Keynesianism.”
Everything many on the left have been arguing against in recent months has found its way onto the ‘Merkozy doctrine’:
What is proposed, amounts to the same old mantra of “fiscal discipline”, based upon the Stability and Growth Pact that was flouted from the start, but this time brutally enforced with painful sanctions and accompanied by dilution of democracy in the weaker nation states.”
With perfect timing, Tuesday brought forth more grim news for Greece. Severe austerity has widened their budget deficit and deepened its recession.
In other words, from a left-wing perspective, ludicrous though it may sound, one could argue that in fact David Cameron may have ended up making the right decision for all the wrong reasons.
Of course Cameron’s reasons for opposing were more to do with protecting the City of London from tighter financial control, whilst he breathtakingly ignores the calamitous lessons of 2008 and the perils of loose regulation.
And yet, he may have badly miscalculated.
One analyst believes that Cameron’s grandstanding could spectacularly backfire. Rather than protect the interests of the City, his stance could have the opposite effect and make the UK more vulnerable to EU law.
Furthermore, Eurozone partners will take great delight in punishing Britain:
“Far from defending the City against ill-conceived initiatives originating in Brussels, the government may actively invite them. The reason is that it has marginalised itself politically, and that it has only increased long-standing suspicions in the rest of Europe that British Euroscepticism and the City of London are natural bedfellows.”
And this form of retribution could materialise in the form of the much resisted financial transactions tax.
This past week has left the EU, and its supporters on the left, with something of a conundrum. Owen Jones rightly argues that it shouldn’t just be the job of the right to challenge it.
If an attachment to the EU borders on the romantic for some, for others it has been a priceless weapon against nationalism.
As one commentator noted, on his last assignment in Brussels, “…many of Europe’s worst follies can be blamed on the selfishness and cynicism of governments, not Brussels bureaucrats.” Last week’s defiant act by the PM being just the latest example.
The EU is about to enter another new phase. Whether we like what happens or not, we’re going to be powerless to do much about it from the outside looking in. As Tory leader, William Hague liked to crow that Britain should be in Europe, not run by Europe.
Cameron’s veto has meant that we’ll be out of Europe, but run by it: virtually excluded from all the key decision-making, without influence, yet still answerable to it.
It also leaves the left vulnerable in terms of safeguarding its own political and economic interests, whether they be at home or abroad.
Defending the EU just got that little bit harder.

This article was published by Left Foot Forward on Saturday 17 December 2011

An edited version of this article was first published by Left Futures on Thursday 15 December 2011

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Women's Rights Under Attack in Israel

A public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request, or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women.”
So said Israel’s Supreme Court Justice, Elyakim Rubinstein, in a ruling he gave in 2010, in response to an outcry over gender segregation being enforced on Israel’s buses that served mostly ultra-orthodox areas of Jerusalem.
‘Voluntary segregation,’ with passenger consent, however, is still permitted.
On these bus routes, women boarding from the back and staying there, whilst the men fill the front, is not an uncommon sight.
This issue was given extra prominence a couple of weeks ago when, in a closed lecture in Washington, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, voiced her concern over such practices taking place. Images of Rosa Parks and 1955 sprung to mind, an alarm echoed by Rubinstein in his judgement.
In recent years, a highly visible battle has broken out between Israel’s ultra-orthodox or Haredi community, making up around 9% of the population, and their predominantly secular counterparts.
This has extended, in particular, to what some see as women’s rights coming under attack from a reactionary, illiberal, but also highly politicised, and increasingly influential minority.
The bus episodes are just one in a litany of other examples (£).
For the Haredi, the sights and sounds of women singing in public are seen as ‘impure.’ Women’s faces plastered on public billboards and buses are regarded as ‘improper,’ for they may arouse sinful thoughts. Instead, they are defaced or covered up.
During this year’s celebration of the festival of Sukkot, separate footpaths were designated for men and women. And in signs that these tensions have spilled out beyond the capital, there were reports that organisers of a military ceremony in October had forced male and female soldiers to sit apart.
According to Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg of the New Israel Fund, an equalities organisation, the Haredi’s impact is spreading, with them having more and more say over public life.
Her organisation fight against the “erasure” of women from public advertising, and have launched a “Women should be seen and heard” campaign.
At one of its recent events, some of Israel’s most famous female vocalists were on show, in a unified display against the edict of those religious extremists who seek to outlaw women singing in public.
“Silence is not an option. I love my country and my Jewish heritage and I will not allow the equivalent of the local Taliban to humiliate us women,” said a defiant Ahinoam Nini, well-renowned Jazz singer.
Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel, believes it is a mistake to see the Haredi as one homogenous group, and points out that gender segregation has always existed within the ultra-orthodox community:
“What we're seeing is the actions of the most hardline elements. Within the community, legitimacy comes from how strict you are. So it's hard for more moderate elements to openly oppose the extremists."
"But what we're seeing is an insistence on a more stringent interpretation and a stronger expression of that publicly."
Yet, rather than seeing this assertion of orthodoxy wane anytime soon, the opposite is more likely true. Orthodox Jews comprise 40% of the ruling coalition government, over 40% of new army recruits, and a birth rate more than double that of secular Jews.
In short, Israeli society, and those residents of Jerusalem, of which the ultra-orthodox count for more than one-in-five, is going to have to get even more used to such public spats.
Secular and women’s groups have their work cut out.

This article was first published by Liberal Conspiracy on Thursday 15 December 2011

Friday, 9 December 2011

Riots Analysis

Yet another detailed report out this week, blaming anger and frustration at the police, as a principal cause for this summer's England riots.

Many of the findings echo previous studies released over the past few months, to which I have commented on in earlier posts.

In collaboration with the LSE, The Guardian published its much awaited Reading the Riots report.

They interviewed 270 people who had rioted in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. Opportunism, surprise surprise, drove much of the looting.

Gang rivalry had been suspended during this unique period, social media had played little role in organising the disturbances, making a mockery of once-proposed, but since discarded government plans, to shut down sites such as Facebook and Twitter to suspected rioters during times of civil unrest.

Their demographic make up findings revealed nothing new: overwhelmingly male, young, many unemployed.

Resentment at perceived harassment by the police, in the form of the much despised stop and search, formed much of their anger at the police, with 73% being stop and searched in the last year, 8 times more likely than the rest of the population in London.

Most worryingly, a large majority thought the riots would happen again, with one in three saying they'd be involved if they did.

No new revelations, but more food for thought for our politicians. Unsurprisingly, they're still unable to look past prison and gang crackdowns. Long term solutions make bad politics but good policy. As always, they're happy to settle with the former.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Police Response and The England Riots

Another week, another report surrounding the England Riots enters the public domain. Common themes begin to materialise, facts and figures converge.
The latest, out this week, saw the publication of 5 Days in August, an interim study commissioned by the government.
This saw the setting up of the “Riots Communities and Victims Panel,” and sought to address such things as: why the riots took place, why some areas remained trouble-free whilst others around them erupted, and what measures could have been taken to prevent and manage the disturbances.
Many of the conclusions will be familiar to those who have read the recent independent study undertaken on behalf of the Cabinet Office and which I have already written about.
Those in attendance in the affected areas were a disparate bunch: some part of organised criminal groups, some who had purposely travelled to riot sites in order to loot, the ‘late night shoppers’ as they’re called, but many were opportunistic, caught up in ‘moments of madness.’
The demographics of the rioters, unsurprisingly, also echo the Home Office and Ministry of Justice’s statistical findings. The panel estimates that between 13,000 and 15,000 people took part, with over 4,000 of them arrested. They were overwhelmingly male, mostly under 24, with previous convictions, but not gang members.
Of the children brought before the courts: two-thirds had Special Educational Needs, they were more likely to come from the most deprived areas, and therefore be in receipt of free school meals.
However, it is in its criticism of the police that this latest study differs.
From the very start, the actions of the police were found wanting. Firstly, in their levels of communication with the family of Mark Duggan, the man shot dead by police in Tottenham, which then sparked off the unrest.
Despite rumours circulating over the circumstances surrounding Mark Duggan’s death, family members came up against an ‘information vacuum’ from the police, who had failed to act upon Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPC) recommendations when faced with such events.
This was set against a historic backdrop of antipathy between some members of the black community and the police; some felt that these underlying tensions in the community had been rising for some time.”
Most damningly, when it came to the riots itself, the report found that:

The vast majority of people we spoke to believed that the sole trigger for disturbances in their areas was the perception that the police could not contain the scale of rioting in Tottenham and then across London.
Lack of confidence in the police response to the initial riots encouraged people to test reactions in other areas... Rioters believed they would be able to loot and damage without being challenged by the police. In the hardest hit areas, they were correct.”
Even before the release of this week’s interim report, we heard from Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, claiming that had the Met Police managed to contain and quickly stamp out the rioting, it would never have spread to Manchester.

People saw rioters in London ‘getting away with it,’ and that ‘the authorities weren’t in control,’ and so wanted to have their turn.
At the time, the government and the Metropolitan Police found themselves in a war of words over the handling of the trouble.
David Cameron used an emergency Commons debate to attack the police’s “insufficient” tactics and numbers during this week, whilst the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that the public had lost confidence in them to take ‘clear and robust action in the face of open criminality.’
Predictably, the police defended themselves, rejecting criticism by people ‘who weren’t there.’
However, they have now recanted and admitted to mistakes being made, for which the PM can feel somewhat vindicated.
The insistence on persevering with the unpopular and discredited ‘stop and search’ tactic was highlighted by young black and Asian men in their motivations for being involved in the rioting; forming part of a much wider, general anger with the police. 
Whilst probably already known, it is worth repeating what the latest studies have shown: that black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their white counterparts, a figure which has risen in recent years.  They are also more than three times more likely to then be arrested.
And both black and Asian people are also more likely to be sent to prison for committing similar offences to white people.
Is it any wonder that so much resentment exists?
It is no surprise that the report recommends that ‘stop and search’ receive “immediate attention to ensure that community support and confidence is not undermined.”
Its author, Darra Singh, paints a depressing picture and warns of future riots unless urgent steps are taken: ‘…not only with the symptoms…but with the deep-seated causes of dissatisfaction beneath.’
We so often hear about the importance of community policing, built on consensus and fairness. This report illustrates just how important.

This article was published by Left Foot Forward on Sunday 4 December 2011

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Case for Elected Mayors

Isn’t it about time people knew who was running their towns and cities?
If directly elected mayors achieve anything, it will surely be to make local government, and the people who run it, more visible, and therefore more answerable. It will catapult regional politics from something that takes place, away from the public gaze, in grand town hall buildings, with its elections, won on slim majorities in tiny constituencies with small turnouts, to something more tangible, recognisable, and acceptable.
It will help inject some much needed razzmatazz into local democracy. Mayors will no longer be ceremonial posts complete with gold chains and giant scissors, but ones with bite; someone who can project their city onto the world stage, and away from the parochial confines of their local area.
In its desire to continue what Labour set in motion, the coalition government has outlined its plans for elected mayors in 11 cities in England, if approved in referendums over the course of the next couple of years.
There are several reasons for hoping that each and every city responds with a resounding yes.
According to the Institute for Government (IFG), an independent think tank leading the way in championing the yes vote, the economic benefits are too obvious to ignore:
Time and again, history shows that it is cities with strong and effective civic leadership that are well placed to make the most of local economic assets and compete better in a global economy. And mayors create an opportunity to have exactly this type of strong and effective leadership.”

The IFG points to previous studies which have shown that economic growth in England’s cities has been ‘highly uneven,’ partly due to central government’s insistence in implementing ‘catch-all policies.’
A mayoral model would offer cities the chance to ‘deliver more tailored policies that take account of their specific needs.’
Improving private sector performance would be one area to address. Creating a business friendly environment where cities focus on developing transport, planning and skills policies, is one of the key recommendations made in the IFG’s Big Shot or Long Shot, a report released earlier this year, evaluating the government’s Localism Bill.
Its director, Lord Adonis, argued, in a visit to Bristol, one of the cities due to vote next year, that an elected mayor would help sort out Bristol’s chronic transport problems. Loathing the city’s bus network is an issue guaranteed to unite Bristolians. Having spent several years living there, I can vouch (and concur) for their anger.
A visible mayor, with strong name-recognition, and a personality to match, is enticing. A poll conducted by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) found that after 12-18 months in areas that have already plumped for elected mayors, 57% of people could identify them, compared to only 25% who could identify their council leaders.
Those who value local democracy should be even more concerned by a survey carried out ahead of this year’s local elections which found that most people couldn’t name a single one of their councillors, and were deeply dissatisfied with the work he/she was doing, whoever he/she might be.
Contrary to what was alluded to on the political blog Left Futures last week, independent-minded mayors, free from the shackles and constraints of party politics, are something which should be embraced. And even being affiliated doesn’t necessarily result in blind party loyalty: Ken Livingstone being the obvious example, but also Michael Bloomberg in New York.
If elected mayors are able to re-energise local government, pique people’s interest, and most importantly, generate a greater (domestic and international) attraction to our cities, then they have to be a good thing.
My only concern, and a large one at that, is that the government’s plans are too timid, and shy away from granting powers that the London mayors have been afforded.
The Economist optimistically predicts that: “mayors will surely acquire more powers as people get used to them.” But, notes that: “ will not be easy to persuade people to vote for a vague promise of civic reorganisation, without the powers to match.”

This article was first published by Left Futures on Monday 28 November 2011

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Young People and The England Riots

Back in August, little more than 24 hours after calm had finally descended on our chaotic and debris-filled streets, I wrote that it was perfectly reasonable to believe that opportunism and copycat criminal activity could be blamed for fuelling the rioters, looters and other troublemakers.

I also remarked that whilst this may have helped provide us with an initial explanation, this would never satisfy in terms of seeking out long term and lasting solutions. A complete picture as to who the rioters were, and why they behaved as they did was needed.
The last few weeks have begun to shed some light, with the release of three separate reports, all offering an insight (and very often, an unsurprising one) behind what has become known as The England Riots. The focus on young people is most compelling.
The first and second reports came out towards the end of October: Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Home Office studies, released concurrently, which gave a statistical analysis of who the rioters were and exactly what crimes were committed.
Crucially, it delves into their socio-economic backgrounds, with a glance at educational attainment and past criminal activity. I will return to both of these reports later.
The third, published last week, was a government-funded one, carried out by a group of independent researchers and commissioned on behalf of the Cabinet Office. It is this one that I’ll deal with first.
The study sought, as its main premise, to understand why some young people got involved in the trouble, whilst at the same time investigating why others chose not to.
Statistics have already revealed that half of those caught up in the riots were under-20, with just over a quarter of those between the ages of 10 and 17.
Taken from an admittedly small sample of just 206 young people from the affected areas, of which only 50 were actively involved in the disturbances, it found that a cocktail of excitement and opportunism, together with a desire to get back at the police, drove the disorder.
The researchers speak of ‘moments of madness,’ and ‘a day like no other, when normal rules did not seem to apply.’ Some of the young people described the thrill and the buzz of what took place as being akin to a rave.
This was a chance to get their hands on “free stuff;” the materially inaccessible and out of reach kind of stuff. Witnessing the events on TV, online, egged on by friends/associates via social media, brought many in from being mere ‘watchers, bystanders,’ to active ‘looters.’
Opportunism, thus, played its part, no doubt with the view that many felt they could get away with it, thanks in no small part to the images circulating of the police in certain areas, in cordons, standing and observing, rather than intervening.
A series of ‘nudge’ and ‘tug’ factors were found to determine young peoples’ level of involvement.
Those quizzed referred to being bored, with ‘nothing else to do,’ as a ‘nudge’ factor, with previous negative experiences of the police a significant one. In fact, hostility towards authority figures in general was regularly cited.
 ‘Tug’ factors such as peer and family pressure played their part:
The strength of parents as inhibitors depended to some extend on whether they were around or not...and on the degree of their control.”
A young person’s criminal past acted both as a motivator and a deterrent. Current education, future job prospects and aspirations also came into play. With youth unemployment at 21.3%, the highest since records began, and well over double the overall national rate, many were right to wonder what kind of future lay ahead.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, that the findings showed that:
“...some young people felt that their prospects were so bleak that they had little to lose by their involvement.”
As opposed to this young person from Peckham who chose to stay away:
“I was inside planning my future. I couldn’t see myself out there. It was stupid.”
A wake up call for our politicians if ever there was one.
The Ministry of Justice report was concerned with providing data and information regarding all the perpetrators brought before the courts, whereas the Home Office one relied on police data of all those arrested, as well as detailed accounts of crimes committed. Both were released a couple of weeks before, and serve to compliment one another.
In short, their scope was more interested in the who, rather than the why. They are, however, no less revealing.
Correct up until 12th October, the Ministry of Justice found that of the 1,984 people who had appeared in court, 90% were male, with 26% being juveniles (aged 10-17), up from 16% for similar offences in 2010. Only 5% were over 40.
In terms of criminal pasts, 76% of those who appeared before the courts for the disorder had either a previous caution or conviction; 62% for juveniles. Yet, almost a quarter of all offenders in court had no previous caution or conviction, thus lending credence to the view that a lot of the rioting and looting came from opportunists, rather than experienced, prolific criminals.
It is only by wading through the socio-economic and educational data that one sees a picture of poverty and deprivation, combined with academic failure. Almost two-thirds of 10-17 year olds up in court lived in one of the 20% of the country’s most deprived areas.
The MoJ was unequivocal in its findings that:
“...compared to population averages, those brought before the courts were more likely to be in receipt of Free School meals or benefits, were more likely to have had special educational needs and be absent from school, and more likely to have some form of criminal history. This pattern held across all areas looked at.”
Overall, a pretty gloomy picture.
Whilst the Home Office produced a ‘sub-set’ of those arrested, reproducing similar figures to the MoJ, it found something additionally noteworthy. Only 13% were found to be affiliated to a gang, thus punctuating the gang myth propagated by Iain Duncan Smith at September’s Tory party conference, where he told delegates that gangs ‘played a significant part’ in the riots.
Not the first time (and it certainly won’t be the last) a government minister has jumped the gun, reaching for conclusions before all the facts are known.
The conclusion of all three reports should surprise few. The responses from young people as to why they rioted don’t reveal anything particularly new or groundbreaking.
Instead, they build upon much that has already been known about from earlier studies. The high-profile nature of August’s events meant that they carried even greater weight.
Yes, we know that opportunism, thuggery, mindless violence, took place on our streets, but past studies show that these things don’t just operate in a vacuum. The Cabinet Office report gives yet a further example of the simmering tension, anger, and frustrations at the lack of opportunities felt by the young.
For some, the riots were a release, no matter how opportunistic.
Many of those convicted of looting and handling stolen goods have received far stiffer punishments than normal, both in terms of going to prison and length of service being handed down. This was particularly the case for juveniles.
Short-termism and populist headlines still dominate government thinking.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, an independent charity which believes that prison should be reserved for only the most serious offenders, argued that while the reports’ figures were to be expected, they also showed that now was the time to tackle social deprivation.
Indiscriminate prison sentences were only going to be counter-productive:
“The worst possible outcome would be just to sling all these young people in prison and risk their joining gangs out of terror and becoming hardened criminals."
Unfortunately, nobody in the government was listening.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Thursday 10 November 2011

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Human Rights Abuses in the New Libya

I'll begin by saying that I was never a supporter of the West's military intervention in Libya.

All I could think of were ulterior motives: oil, defence contracts, geo-political influence in such a vital and unstable part of the world.

Also, why help Libya but not other countries rising up against tyranny? Why not intervene in Syria or Yemen or Bahrain, where there were some equally appalling abuses taking place? Why do we pick and choose which countries to help and which to not?

At the time, The Economist wrote that not intervening everywhere was no reason not to intervene somewhere. I accepted this as a plausible argument, but still found myself against intervention.

Another reason I gave was that whilst we were defending and arming Libyan rebels one day in their fight for freedom, these could be the very same people in power, many months or years down the line, ruling just as brutally and fiercely as Gaddafi before them. We've been here many times before haven't we?

A Human Rights Watch report out this week backs up some of these reservations. It builds on similar reports that have gone before it, detailing instances of dreadful human rights abuses committed by the rebels against supposed Gaddafi loyalists:

"Militias from the city of Misrata are terrorizing the displaced residents of the nearby town of Tawergha, accusing them of having committed atrocities with Gaddafi forces in Misrata. The entire town of 30,000 people is abandoned – some of it ransacked and burned – and Misrata brigade commanders say the residents of Tawergha should never return."

"Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Tawerghans across the country, including 26 people in detention in and around Misrata and 35 displaced people staying in Tripoli, Heisha, and Hun. They gave credible accounts of some Misrata militias shooting unarmed Tawerghans, and of arbitrary arrests and beatings of Tawerghan detainees, in a few cases leading to death."

As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, rightfully pointed out:

"Revenge against the people from Tawergha, whatever the accusations against them, undermines the goal of the Libyan revolution."

This report came off the back of one released a few weeks ago by Amnesty International telling of torture meted out against anyone suspected of being tied to the Gaddafi regime.

They found that:

"Captured Gaddafi soldiers, suspected loyalists and alleged mercenaries [were] being tortured into ‘confessing’ to pro-Gaddafi crimes."

A pattern was found of '...arbitrary detention and widespread abuse of detainees.'

The report, Detention Abuses Staining the New Libya, worryingly found that:

"...sub-Saharan Africans suspected of being mercenaries make up between a third and a half of those detained.

Many were released, with little evidence found to back up these accusations.

Back in September, the BBC drew attention to reprisals being waged against black African migrants living in Libya's capital, Tripoli. Many had been accused by the rebels of working for Colonel Gaddafi as 'mercenaries,' rather than doing the casual manual labour that they claim they had been doing.

Hundreds of migrant workers were rounded up and imprisoned, with claims that their homes had been looted, and women and girls subjected to beatings and rape.

The lessons of all these reports is surely that we know very little about the people we've supported. I know we've helped in removing another tyrant (although the manner of Gaddafi's death is also profoundly disturbing), and of course Libya and the world is much the better for it, but what's going to come next?

Whatever it is, surely we've already given it our tacit approval.

A slightly edited version of this article was published by Liberal Conspiracy on Monday 7 November 2011

Monday, 31 October 2011

He Said It Again!

He just can't help himself can he?

David Cameron's been at it again. In an interview with The Financial Times (£) he pleads with his colleagues to stop talking down the economy, and instead present a united and happy front over the state of Britain's finances, in the face of all the reams of evidence which suggest that this is probably quite hard right now.

He advises that:

" home and abroad, we must counsel against the pessimism and fear that can become self-fulfilling prophecies in global markets."

"Whatever the obstacles to growth today, we still boast some of the best universities in the world, the most favourable timezone in the world, and the world’s first language. I passionately believe that the global economy is presenting us with opportunities, not threats – and we must seize them.”

Apparently, he wasn't too enamoured with Cabinet Ministers, such as Business Secretary Vince Cable, speaking in such dramatic and negative tones, when he told the Lib Dem party conference in September that the economic challenges facing Britain were 'the equivalent of war,' with few 'sunny uplands' poking their heads through the fog of uncertainty and worry; people were just thinking about how to survive and make ends meet.

In fact, if you read his full speech you'll find the words of someone far more in tune with the hardships of the general population, as opposed to someone constantly looking to put a shiny gloss on everything.

Unfortunately, Cable is a signed up member of this coalition and fully supports its austerity and deficit reduction plans that are causing untold damage to peoples' everyday lives.

Friday, 28 October 2011

After the Occupy Movement

We’re starting to get used to the sight of people camping out in tents throughout a number of cities in the world. We have a pretty good idea of what the ‘Occupy movement’ wants; Occupy London has issued its own mini-manifesto.
The movement has even won support from some unlikely circles. In the US, a poll for Time magazine found 54% of Americans supportive of Occupy Wall Street.
However, and most significantly, an even greater number sympathise with many of its principal grievances, namely:
 “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington,” (86% agree) “executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted,” (71%) and “the rich should pay more taxes” (68%).
Disappointingly (or maybe that should be realistically), only 30% of those questioned believe the protest movement will have “a positive impact on American politics today,” with 56% saying it will have little impact at all.
And this is the trouble with the Occupy protests. Most of us are now aware of them; we’ve seen the images of make-shift kitchens, the library, the witty banners, and of course the inevitable sounds of someone in the distance strumming an acoustic guitar.
But, now what? How long do they stick around for? Surely the last thing they want to be is just a tourist attraction?
“The iron law of insurrection holds that it must grow in menace or lose momentum. Once it subsides into encampment, it becomes mere scenery,” so said Simon Jenkins last week.
And in this sense surely he is right. Of course we are only a couple of weeks into Occupy London.
In Spain, for example, the “indignados,” or “15-M” movement, as they are more commonly known, have been protesting for several months. Yet despite widespread support, their political impact has been negligible.
According to the political analyst Miguel Murado:
"Political movements have to be measured against their demands, and I can't think of a single measure the government has taken or the opposition proposed that meets their [indignados] demands. So you have to say it's a failure.”
Indeed, Spain’s socialist government is widely expected to lose next month’s general election. And if a socialist government refuses to engage with the protesters, what hope a new right wing government?
But, this is to miss the point in the view of another Spanish commentator. Diego Beas believes that the protesters are redefining Spanish politics with:
“a hybrid and novel experiment of online and offline activism that has steered clear of the traditional and weary avenues of political engagement…[and] experimented with bottom-up networked approaches to challenge the rigid, top-down, party driven system.”
For him, it is all about not being drawn in to ‘ideological agendas…and [the world of] professional politicians.’
I can’t help but disagree.
The movement and the protests in the UK have naturally started out as something grassroots, but surely to have a lasting and very real sway over how things are done, they need to be able to have political influence. Without it, they will simply wither away, leaving in their wake an array of discarded tents and catchy slogans.
And this is where everyone’s favourite radicals, the Tea Party, come in. Over the last couple of years or so, they have successfully hijacked the Republican Party and steered it even more to the right (if that was ever possible), towards their own puritanical and evangelical agenda.
At last year’s mid-term elections, Tea Party endorsed candidates succeeded in winning seats for five senators and 40 congressmen and women. This represented victory for 32% of all their backed election candidates.
Some argue that this number was fairly small and illustrates that the Tea Party brand isn’t as strong as it likes to believe, yet this is still an impressive showing for an organisation in its infancy. Of course being funded by billionaires helps.
Its impact is felt when one glances at the current Republican candidates for next year’s general election. Proving yourself pure enough to satisfy Tea Party criteria still holds sway. Especially when current GOP favourite, Mitt Romney, is viewed with such suspicion by those in the Tea Party who see him as a tainted, corrupted, Republican.
It is about time that those on the Left came up with the UK’s answer to the Tea Party: a ‘New Left Coalition’ built on shared values and beliefs; a movement which comes together and embraces the key tenets of social justice, fairness and equality; in fact, many of the things that the Occupy movements are calling for, few of which could be described as outlandish or outrageous.
Most importantly, this coalition should avoid aligning itself to any political party, but instead seek to inspire a new set of, as well as existing, parliamentary candidates, willing to sign up to its goals, in return for support on the ground.
In practice, this would mean providing backing both before and during election campaigns. Thousands of volunteers ready to do the tireless, dogsbody work of door knocking, leafleting and phoning, in exchange for representatives in parliament who stand first and foremost for their supporters on the ground and not the party whips.
The supporters would come from all walks of life, all those who feel marginalised, ignored and excluded from society; unfair victims of the government’s cuts agenda, and most crucially, all those disaffected with mainstream political parties. 
Yet in reality, this could mean endorsing a Labour, Lib Dem or Green candidate, so long as they agree to the New Left Coalition’s terms. Even a Tory one, though highly unlikely.
Now, admittedly, this means we urgently need to see more in the way of the open primaries that David Cameron spoke about in opposition. A system, imitating what commonly takes place in America, whereby the general public, and not just party members, are able to select their own local parliamentary candidates.
This would give members of local New Left branches the chance to scrutinise and ultimately plump for the person they feel best echoes their own objectives.  
It would also be a long overdue wake up call to today’s complacent and detached politicians.
Ed Miliband has been making the right noises about the squeezed middle,’ but he needs to recognise that it isn’t just the middle being squeezed, but the majority.
The Lib Dems, despite everything, still have politicians in their midst who could easily satisfy the demands of this New Left.
And in order for this to have any chance of success, this new coalition needs to find itself a stream of wealthy backers, sympathetic to its cause: a British George Soros or Warren Buffet.
This is just an idea, a work in progress. But, none of this is beyond the realms of possibility. The camps and the protests are a start, but they need to grow and develop into something more tangible, more vocal, more permanent.
In short, it’s time for the British Left to be as organised, as focused, and as determined as the American Right. They have the goals, the slogans, and desire for change. Now this needs to be translated into real political victories.
This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Thursday 27 October 2011