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

Friday, 21 October 2011

No Time to Lose

Well, that didn't take very long. Merely hours after the world was digesting the news that Colonel Gaddafi had been killed, Philip Hammond, the new Defence Secretary, was telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he hopes to see representatives from the British defence industry hopping on the next plane to Tripoli.

Philip Hammond was more than happy to concur, when asked by John Humphrys, whether in helping to liberate Libya it was only right that the UK should now benefit financially.

Humphrys put it to him:

"Should we not have a  'special relationship' with the new government when it comes to oil deals...have we earned something [thanks to our support]?"

To which Hammond responded:

"Of course I would expect British companies to be, even today, British sales directors, practically packing their suitcases and looking to get out to Libya and take part in the reconstruction of that country as soon as they can."

"Libya is a relatively wealthy country with oil reserves, and I expect there will be opportunities for British and other companies to get involved in the reconstruction of Libya."

Which leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth if you ask me. And doesn't really do much to convince those sceptical of the motives behind the military campaign (such as myself), that it was done for the best of intentions.

Last month The Guardian reported that France and Britain were already in competition to secure the best oil contracts, with the former describing it as a "fair and logical" step.

Daniel Kawczynski, a Tory backbencher, has also been on the radio this morning pointing out that Libya should themselves contribute to the costs of the war and reimburse Britain to the tune of £300m.

His rationale? The anger of his constituents at seeing Britain fork out for another foreign adventure, whilst public services, such as library closures, are being cut at home.

The problem for Mr Kawczynski is that he voted for both.

A slightly edited version of this article was published by Liberal Conspiracy on Thursday 27 October 2011.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The 'Do Nothing' Health Strategy

This week we had a great example of what I'd call "you're free to die in a ditch if you so choose" Conservatism. The government launched its own obesity strategy and came out with this groundbreaking policy proposal: eat less.

That's it. The public just need to be more "honest with themselves about what they're eating and drinking," so said Professor Sally Davies, the country's chief medical officer, who's clearly swallowed this bilge hook, line, and sinker.

No more interfering, bossy, 'nanny state,' as Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, and his Conservative colleagues like to decry. Instead he spoke of the limitations of government action alone, preferring partnership over legislation.

A partnership with councils, and of course the food industry, is what's supposed to work in tackling the more than 60% of adults and over a quarter of primary school children who are now classified as either overweight or obese.

This comes off the back of a report by one of the world's leading medical journals, The Lancet, which said that governments weren't doing enough to tackle obesity. It speaks of the increased cost to the UK in terms of rises in diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, if the government continues to sit back and be satisfied with merely having voluntary agreements in place, as opposed to direct action.

Voluntary agreements with the food and drinks lobby that is, and a so-called 'nudge' approach to the public; steering them in the right direction about what they should be eating and drinking. The behaviour of a government paranoid of doing anything which could be misconstrued as nannying.

But, these (in)actions don't work.

And such an approach has been rejected by The Lancet and the House of Lords, whose report this summer argued that the government's strategy was neither successful nor based on scientific evidence. This included failures to implement a system of food labelling and a restriction on junk food advertising during childrens' TV programmes.

Instead we have a "public health responsibility deal" and a government cosying up to the food and drinks giants.

I read, flabbergasted, at a story last year which revealed that fast-food companies such as McDonald's and PepsiCo were helping the government in drawing up its public health policy, involved on issues such as obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease.

Yes, eating and drinking your crap is helping to cause these things!

On what planet could anyone think that these people have any wish to see people to consume less of their stuff? These are the kind of strategies that are going to be lambasted time and again by report after report, as the nation gets fatter and more unhealthy.

The Department for Health already calculates that the direct costs of obesity stand at £4.2bn, predicted to double by 2050. Indirectly, when taking into account social and economic factors (e.g. sick days off work or support in benefits), this figure rises to £16bn, expected to reach £50bn, with no action taken.

Short term: do very little, make friends with big business, avoid accusations of nannying by the right wing press. Long term: pay far, far more in health costs, then complain about budget deficits to the NHS, cut its funding.

More Conservative ideology governing public policy.

An edited version of this article was published by Liberal Conspiracy on Friday 21 October 2011

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Making Sense of Belgium's Political Impasse

It’s only taken 485 days, and seen world records tumble, but at long last Belgium has moved a decisive step closer to forming a government.
This week agreement was finally reached to overcome a series of seemingly intractable problems which have dogged its politicians since 13th June 2010, the date of last year’s General Election.
Belgium has been without a permanent government since then, and whilst it may be several weeks yet before a new government is actually sworn in, much of the hard work has been done.
Many of the stumbling blocks preventing its formation existed well before last June, indeed some have plagued Belgium for decades, but the results of the election caused them to resurface.
An impressive showing by the Flemish separatists (although they often refer to themselves as nationalists as a way of softening up their image), the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), led by the portly figure of Bart De Wever, ensured that the divide that has never been far from Belgian politics came to a head once again.
De Wever, a man who once said:
“…I’m not working toward the immediate end of Belgium. And I don't have to do that, either, because Belgium will eventually evaporate of its own accord…the nation of Belgium has no future in the long run.
So, what exactly is this divide? And how has it come about?
Belgium, a country of some 10.7 million inhabitants, is predominantly split between two main communities: the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north, Flanders, and the French-speaking Walloons in the south, Wallonia. There are also a nominal 70,000 German-speakers tucked away in the corner of Wallonia.
The present crisis can be traced back to the 1960s when the country moved from having just a single central government to having several. A series of constitutional reforms saw power devolved to the three different communities, which were drawn up along linguistic and cultural lines to represent the French, Dutch and German-speakers of Belgium.
Towards the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s, regions were formed: Wallonia in the south, Flanders in the north, and the capital, Brussels.
The latter is significant since it finds itself in Flanders, but is not actually part of Flanders. Officially bilingual, the overwhelming majority of the population of Brussels are now French-speakers.
The result was a country without national political parties but a series of community-based ones with their own separate parliaments, on top of a now emasculated central government.
Disputes over how much power each one should have have rarely been far away, and have only been accentuated with the rise of the Flemish nationalists, resulting in last June’s stunning election victory for the N-VA; a victory achieved by cynically playing communal politics, clinging to a reality which holds that:
“…Belgium is made up of two societies, in which a thrifty, centre-right, Dutch-speaking north should no longer have to subsidise a poorer, welfare addicted French-speaking, socialist south.”
Figures confirm that unemployment in Wallonia, currently at 13%, although steadily falling, is more than double the rate of Flanders, at just over 6%. But it should be noted that:
“…unemployment in Wallonia is mainly structural, while in Flanders it is cyclical.”
Yet, this wasn’t always the case with Wallonia being the economic powerhouse until the 1960s. And Walloons will argue that today they are helping to fund a pension system which accommodates a rapidly ageing Flemish population.
However, Wallonia is now seen as one of the poorest regions in Europe and has suffered significant job losses over the years in much the same way that the north of England has with a loss of much of its heavy industry.
The political impasse of the last 16 months also concerns a wider political (together with the country’s linguistic one) divide , and this has been played out at the ballot box, with Flemings tending to vote for right of centre or right wing parties, and the Walloons favouring left of centre or left wing parties. 
Whilst the nationalists and De Wever were the biggest winners in the north last year, the socialists, led by the bow-tie wearing Elio Di Rupo, came out on top in the south. The two were initially charged with working together to form a government.
Over the last year, this has seen De Wever call for a complete reform of the state, including steps to tackle its structural deficit, and crucially, a demand for even more autonomy to Flanders.  
When no compromise was reached, N-VA dropped out of the negotiations, leaving Di Rupo to continue to find a solution with the remaining eight (yes, that’s right, eight!) other political parties.
And this week a deal has finally been reached, with a new government expected to follow shortly. Key to the reforms sees even more powers transferred to the regions away from the federal government, although not nearly as much as the N-VA had wanted.

Other agreements centre on changes to the finance law, with regions getting greater tax autonomy and, most crucially, the splitting up of Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde (BHV), a district in the Brussels suburbs, and a thorn in the side of politicians since its formation in 1963.
So, what does this all mean for the future of Belgium?
The reforms reached this week, hailed as “historic” by all sides, have been described as the biggest changes to the country in a generation. The hope is that it will go some way to satisfying the nationalist appetite of the north, whilst preserving Belgium as a single entity.
It should also put an end, for now, to the endless debates about whether Belgium is about to split.
What appears more likely is that Belgium has moved ever closer towards the Swiss system of self-governing cantons.

NB. This YouTube clip might help explain things a little more with its light-hearted look at Belgium’s baffling political structure.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Friday 14 October 2011

Friday, 14 October 2011

Foot in Mouth Letwin at it again.

Although we're more used to hearing his rather eccentric and gaffe prone pronouncements in years gone by (some of his greatest hits have been helpfully compiled by LabourList), today's story in The Daily Mirror shows Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minsiter and a key policy adviser to the PM, revert to type, only this time seen throwing away parliamentary and constituency letters and documents in public bins in a park.

The Mirror reports that some of them contained "sensitive correspondence on terrorism, national security and constituents' private details."

The paper claims that they saw him doing this over 100 times on five separate occasions. Of course a spokesman for Letwin denied any of the things he binned were of "a sensitive nature."

Brilliant. Just priceless. Story of the week.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Cameron's Patronising Optimism

I'm getting pretty fed up with hearing David Cameron droning on about the need for optimism, even in such troubling economic times.

He seems to delight in peppering his party conference speeches with endless empty rhetoric about the importance of staying upbeat and not letting the pessimists get you down. He also can't resist telling us much he loves this country, and just wants to make it even better.

It's the usual platitudes that we've come to expect from Britain's number one salesman. He's obviously been paying attention to all the focus groups that tell us that we don't like our politicians dour or miserable, but want to be filled with messages of hope for a better future.

The Prime Minister has always been very keen to divide society into optimists and pessimists. Indeed, he’s made a political career out of it. The latter, in his view, are those that hold everyone back, resist change, oppose for the sake of it. The former embrace a challenge, invite change, and want to work together in order to achieve it.

The nonsense he spouted yesterday is so divorced from reality, it just furthers the views of those who believe that politicians don't have the faintest idea what life is like for so many; people struggling to pay their bills, some having to hold down several jobs at once, some without work, competing with hundreds of others for any low paid job they can get their hands on.

It's what John Harris in The Guardian calls: "breezy optimism in the political bubble," versus "fear and loathing on Britain's streets," arguing that "...the disconnect between politicians and the public has never been greater."

When David Cameron tells us that we should "reject the pessimism...[in favour of the] can-do optimism," Harris says this amounts to "the grim spectacle of a silver-spooned millionaire telling the rest of us to awaken an optimism completely contradicted by events."

Indeed, it might be easier to be optimistic and perky if the government wasn't cutting (our already stretched) public services into oblivion and people weren't losing their jobs. David Cameron wasn't being optimistic on Wednesday, he was delivering the very type of 'false optimism' that he himself said people didn't want.

The positive guff sounds like phoney, vacuous, management-speak, designed to deflect attention away from what life is like outside the confines of the claustrophobic Westminster village.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A sign of things to come?

Today's Guardian reports that at a health centre in York, GPs have written to patients telling them that certain minor operations (e.g. ingrowing toenails, mole removal) will now cost them a fee, as opposed to being carried out for free under the NHS.

John Appleby, chief economist at the King's fund, believes that this exposes a huge conflict of interest because:

"...the GP is earning money potentially from referring the NHS patient to his own private practice."

Are we going to have to get used to this?

For the sake of the NHS I sincerely hope not. Labour really need to start making an extremely big deal of this. Let's hear the same Ed Miliband we heard during the News International hacking affair.