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