Friday, 25 February 2011

Salmond's Leap Into The Dark

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was as ebullient as ever this week as he triumphantly announced a new trade deal with China in Scottish salmon. Eagerly ogling the huge Chinese market, Salmond effused that the Chinese Deputy PM had pointed out to him that if just 1% of Chinese eat a salmon, Scottish output will have to double to meet demand.

Alex Salmond - First Minister of Scotland
This, of course, raises the prospects of massive increases in fish farms, sited in Scottish lochs and rivers, their livestock crammed together, coated in layers of hormones to propagate ever faster growth and "swimming" in chemicals to sterilise their living environment. Needless to say, the frequency of chemical spills and leaks is high, poisoning the local ecology and damaging wild fish stocks. In 2010, a near disaster occurred when over a hundred thousand farmed salmon escaped though broken nets and, like a plague of locusts, devoured the natural fauna for miles around. It put the habitat of genuine wild salmon at risk and was one of many such incidents.

Yet this is just one of tens of thousands of examples of how the international food trade promotes the most ludicrous and damaging artificial farming of what most consumers associate in their minds as healthy food. Like the popular view of chicken and other types of fish as healthy, salmon is portrayed as a lean meat; salmon, wild and free, mysteriously tamed and brought bloodlessly to your table. But of course, unless you seek out increasingly rare and expensive wild fish from sustainable sources, it is essentially a lie. The meat may be lean - of nutrition - but packed with added extras, like the chemicals and growth hormones passed as fit for fish (and ultimately, human) consumption.

Fish farms - not a pretty sight
Britain flies apples to New Zealand and they return the favour by flying apples back to us. We catch prawns off the Scottish coast which are flown to Thailand to be shelled and packaged, before flying them back, and so on. These latter examples at least are either inanimate in origin or in such a state of being by the time their journey begins.

But worse still is the massive trade in live animal transport - we fly day old chicks in sealed containers from the UK to Japan; we transport cattle thousands of miles to slaughter them after they have been traumatised by the most awful conditions. And if you've ever been to Greece and wondered how lamb and mutton features so prominently in the local dishes but you only see goats rather than sheep - just go and wait for the next ferry and the truckload of live sheep driven thousands of miles packed into trucks all the way from Britain.

And even if they are not transported, the animals marketed by the likes of Bernard Matthews via pictures of happy animals roaming lovely green fields are more likely to have spent their short lives in artificial light, in cramped conditions and under permanent stress. Sometimes animals will be heavily drugged to counter diseases rife in such places; other times, they will be blatantly brutalised, as in the infamous "Turkey Baseball" games sadistically enjoyed by some staff in Bernard Matthews factory farms. Immoral? Certainly. Healthy? Absolutely not.

Even milk, pushed from cradle to the grave as a health drink, is frequently of dubious provenance. Dairy herds are biologically manipulated to keep producing milk when they are well past any state of natural lactation. Nearly all non-organic milk comes form herds where their udders have been pumped mechanically to and beyond the point where their body tissue has become infected with mastitis sores, resulting in sterilisation of the milk being as much to neutralise the large quantities of pustule in the bovine liquid as to counter diseases such as salmonella. Legally, in the EU, a litre of milk is allowed to contain as many as 400 million cells of pus - in the USA, the FDA permits a whopping 750 million.

Healthy? Well, one medical study found a direct correlation between human acne and dairy consumption and a glance at rosacea forums will show how many sufferers trace a link between milk consumption and their condition. It stands to reason what goes in must come out again somehow. We are poisoning our environment and our animals in order poison ourselves as much as feed ourselves.

Yet, as global warming and rising population squeeze food supply and drive prices up, rather than call for a food revolution via massive, small scale, organic and local production, Governments and the huge supermarket conglomerates are increasingly pushing genetically modified foods as the Great Answer. Manipulation is moving to frighteningly greate depths at the DNA level, esentially purely for commercial gain. For example, the American FDA has just approved the commercial farming and sale of GM fast-growing super-salmon. These poor creatures will grow to near double their natural size in a much shorter time - allowing rearing costs to be reduced and profit levels to be higher. The stock markets loved the idea, with share prices in American fish farms soaring.

And so Mr Salmond may grin as widely as ever, like a Cheshire cat contemplating a gloss white bowl of sterilised cow-pus. But if his artificial salmon ever leap, then it will not be a leap homewards, but rather into a dark unknown where we can only guess at the consequences, and pray we are wrong.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Johnny's Balls

Johnny Ball, children's entertainer, enjoyed a brief burst of rekindled minor list celebrity last week when he claimed that in the last couple of years, since he attacked global warming as false, his speech making invites have declined by 90%, allegedly because he had been targeted by environmental activists. His evidence of Green abuse? Someone (who MUST have been a green) tried to cancel one of his appearances. And, worse still, if you search his name on Google, apparently some of the results you get back contain pornography - yet more conclusive proof of ecologists up to their underhand tricks.

It is surprising that he might be surprised that a Google search on "Johnny Ball" might sometimes return something a bit salacious, especially if he has been searching under the "Images" option with "safe search" turned off. Rather than indulging him though, the Media might have just quietly filed his press release and determinedly NOT returned his calls - for his own sake.

His website boasts a recommendation from none other than the Sunday Times: "Johnny Ball's ability to make the obscure understandable has already been well proven"

And yet,  if you read Johnny's pronouncements on climate change, you might see why if he was invited along to speak on the subject, he might not be asked back or recommended to other people, regardless of your views on man-made global warming. If someone did try to cancel one of his engagements, it was probably just a well-intentioned attempt to carry out an act of kindness for audience and presenter alike.

Because here, from The Guardian newspaper, is Johnny's clarification of his claim that every school in the country is indoctrinating schoolchildren to believe in false global warming. In an astounding rebuttal of climate change science, he presents precise, tightly argued and logical facts to back his case that it is all a lie used to brainwash kids:

"As I understand it, the Al Gore film (all schools plus the book) was found in an English court to be in serious error on eight or nine separate counts....Al Gore's statement that climate change might "Cause the Gulf Stream (discovered and named by Ben Franklin, don't you know) to switch off drastically effecting Britain and Europe.

Atmospheric Temperature changes cannot on a volume to volume comparison, effect the temperature of the Oceans by anything other than a minuscule degree. Transference of influence is far more likely the other way. However, although the temperature might change over time under fluctuating conditions, the only possible way to stop the gulf stream happening, is to stop the Earth Spinning - remember your school science? Bath water in the Northern Hemisphere goes clockwise, in the south, anti clock. This is clearly evident by the way the Earth was discovered by the early sailors, who could only go, down the coast of Europe, across and then down the east coast of S America, (on the anti clockwise tack) and so on.

I must confess that I have not seen Planet Stupid [sic]. But as far as I can gather, it is set around 2050, when the very sadly lamented Pete Postlethwaite appears to be the only man alive. That scenario is of dramatic effect, but is ludicrous in terms of the fluctuations in climate and conditions on Earth today.

So, on that basis, and much more evidence for which time and tiredness prevent me from going into here and now, the concept of, as Lord Stern keeps trying to sell us, that "the North Pole will be in fifty years, possibly the only place on earth capable of supporting human life."

The concept, if stated anywhere near close to what I have presented to you here, is absolutely preposterous."

So that's much clearer now. Thanks Johnny.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Denial - a necessary delusion or betraying the future?

I listened to a speech by the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, MP, in nearby Huddersfield this evening. Talking to a public meeting organised by Kirklees Green Party ahead of the local elections in May, she covered a wide agenda, but it was, maybe unsurprisingly, on the environment and the prospect of runaway global warming that she was at her most passionate.
The Greens' Caroline Lucas (left) - no denying
She talked about how many scientists are warning that the "best estimates" used by Government planners and by negotiators in international climate change conferences are exceedingly conservative, several years out of date and fail to take account of "feedback", where the release of greenhouse gasses increases at an exponential rate.

She warned that the next ten years are utterly critical - there is no time to wait. The failure to act keeps her awake at night, she explained, citing the film "The Age of Stupid" and the question posed by the Custodian, played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite. "Why," he asks in the film, where he plays the last man on Earth looking back at current times, "why when we knew what was wrong, did we not do anything to save ourselves?"

Perhaps one of the crassest statements I have ever heard was from the otherwise normally excellent broadcaster Eddie Mair a few years ago on BBC Radio 4. Climate change negotiators at the Cancun conference were, he said, struggling to reach agreement because the USA continued to refuse to take part in a formal agreement: if they could not reach agreement, they might as well give up and go home and forget about it. 

I don't think it was what he intended, but his comment somehow captured the lack of urgency on climate change, the way that, even now, many senior policymakers and politicians continue to see it as optional - a sort of good thing to do when their is money in the kitty and nothing better to do. A charitable option to "help the planet", as if somehow the planet is something apart from us.

Except of course that it isn't. We can't go home and forget about it, because the planet is home and home is the planet. We might try to ignore it, we may not want to think about it. But in the end we can't escape from it. If we poison the planet, we poison ourselves.

Yet, oddly, we don't look at it this way - we talk piously of "saving the planet" alongside efforts to raise money for charity causes and sick puppies. It's a Sunday sort of thing - something to get round to when there is time. And if we do a little bit, our bit, we can stand aside from the disaster when it comes - it won't affect us, will it?

Denial is perhaps one of the most human of things. We deny that which is too difficult, too awful or overwhelming to contemplate.

So it is with the crisis we face. Who wants to think that, in the next few years, in our lifetimes, we may fail to act and as a result condemn not just "the planet" but possibly ourselves and certainly the next generation to degradation and destruction? Isn't carrying on the party, closing our eyes to tomorrow, so much more appealing?

It is nothing new. History is littered with whole societies that denied the obvious, and in some cases perished as a result.

In 1453, with Constantinople surrounded by 80,000 Turkish troops and their allies, many of the Byzantines inside the great walls of the City refused to believe there was a real threat, convincing themselves of Divine Protection which absolved them of any need to act.  When the Turkish Sultan demanded substantial tribute to call off the siege, the destitute Byzantine Emperor pleaded for assistance from his nobles, but they denied their huge wealth, insisting they could afford nothing. Yet when the city finally fell, they were found to be hiding huge hordes of riches they would now no longer have the chance to use.The victorious Sultan was so moved to anger by this selfishness that he had a large number of the captive Byzantine elite executed on the spot.

History is littered with such examples - where the awful reality can be so troubling to normality that somehow the need and opportunities to challenge and change it are set aside. And yet, were we to acknowledge the potential disasters facing us, isn't denial a wholly understandable response?

Perhaps. But it is not to excuse this; it may be very human but it is not acceptable. The threats facing us are too great, too total and long lasting to permit avoidance. Greens need to show an alternative that is positive and progressive, but equally which does not soft-pedal what has to be done - a new, more equal society; massive changes to personal habits; different, less personal forms of transport; different energy sources; a very different attitude towards  consumption; a vision for a very different world to now.

But one where Pete does not need to remember us.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Welcome to Babylon 2011 - the West's Trade in Arab Blood Continues

The British Foreign Secretary made much a couple of days ago of the Government's decision to revoke export licences for some equipment due to be exported to the Bahrain police. Yet not only was the fact that we have been selling such instruments of oppression deftly sidestepped by Mr Hague, he and much of the media and the political establishment have made no mention of the opening, today, in Abu Dhabi of the 10th IDEX arms fayre.

Just a short distance from Bahrain, across the waters of the Persian Gulf, 1,060 exhibitors from mainly western arms manufacturers have gathered to showcase their goods to the Arab rulers whose peoples are rising in protest against years of oppression. No doubt hoping for a cash bonanza as they flog their destructive wares to these anxious rulers, you could be forgiven for hoping that, maybe, just maybe this time, after years of sponsoring the arms export industry, the British Government might have for once given this event a bit of a wide berth.

No chance! Tomorrow, Gerald Howarth, MP, a Security Minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, will be at the Fayre to promote the Ocelot, a UK manufactured "light armoured Force Protection vehicle". It seems basically to be a well armoured jeep, capable of easy manoeuvring in the toughest of environments - like desert states, possibly - and ideal for armies and police forces - in desert states, possibly.

Mr Howarth is gushing about the vehicle: "The Ocelot is a testament to British design and engineering skills... I believe the Ocelot has the qualities which other Armies require to meet today's operational challenges and I'm delighted that it is being considered by Governments around the world."

IDEX - the International Defence Exhibition - boasts its largest ever turnout this year, with buyers and sellers from around the world. informs us that it is particularly prized for the contacts it offers to purchasers across the Middle East and northern Africa - precisely the areas currently in turmoil. A key feature of the show is that every day, new contracts are announced, "which brings cheer to the exhibitors winning contracts and hope to those waiting to win some."

It is nothing new really - and while large, it is only one of many arms shows around the world, events where ethics are completely absent and, behind the public relations attempts to the contrary, very nasty men are able to tool themselves up with some exceptionally nasty weaponry. That the British Government (which subsidises many arms exports) and others, the USA, France and Russia being similarly prominent, think it is acceptable to carry on as before in spite of the events sweeping the Arab world around this sordid sales show, demonstrates just how out of touch with reality they truly are, as well as how complete is the moral vacuum in which they operate.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Payback Time for Our Bastards

"He may be a bastard, but he's our bastard."
So US President FD Roosevelt famously said of the blood soaked dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo had risen through the ranks of the army established by the USA after its invasion of the island republic in 1916 to preserve the interests of American banks in debt repayments. When in 1930 a rebellion by oppressed workers and farmers led to the overthrow of the President, Trujillo, by then army chief, deftly absorbed the demands of the rebel crowds, subverted the subsequent election (in which he polled more votes than registered voters) and instituted a personal rule that was to last for over 30 years until his assassination.

Trujillo: a bastard, but Ours.
Trujillo governed by corruption, nepotism, fear and violence - he banned all but his own political party, imprisoned opponents, bought and sold favours with American companies, and killed over 50,000 of his own people - as well as many as 30,000 Haitians massacred during an incursion into his neighbour's territory.But all through his rule, he was a favourite of America - providing Caribbean hospitality for his sponsors' richest citizens as well as a place for them to place their "offshore" investments beyond the reach and audit of any regular authorities. As revolution swept Central and South America in the 1950s, Trujillo and his family were seen as bulwarks of western interests.

And so Roosevelt's dreadful nostrum was deployed, both long before and ever since it was articulated by the great liberal hero, with nauseating regularity. America has installed and maintained dozens of rightwing regimes with violence and corruption at their rotten hearts - Pinochet's Chile being the most blatant but far from isolated case. There, a democratically elected government was overthrown by a CIA coup simply because of its left wing policies. As with so many cases, such as threatening economic ruin if voters choose the wrong way in Nicaragua in the 2007 election, to the sham elections of Mubarak's Egypt, or the weapons and financial support channelled to Saddam Hussein's Iraq during his war with Iran, democracy has never been a genuine feature of American or British foreign policy.

We have happily subsidised these most violent men to suppress the liberal and social democratic movements whose aims have been to establish precisely the same norms of elected legislatures, civic governance and rule of law we espouse in the West. We have colluded with the dictators in painting their most moderate opponents as dangerous, wild-eyed radicals and patronisingly questioned whether people in so many countries round the world are "ready" to govern themselves. Indeed, when Pakistan was passing through a crisis in 2008, former US UN Ambassador John Bolton told the BBC that "Democracy in Pakistan is not in the USA's interests." Just like in the Palestinian Authority when Hamas won the elections, people might vote the wrong way, you see.

Britain has even subsidised sales of weapons to these brutal regimes with taxpayers' money through the Defence Export Services Organisation - this lent billions of pounds of credit to some pretty odious governments in exchange for them purchasing weapons and security equipment from British companies. Consequently, we saw the tragic irony that large quantities of the weapons used against British troops by the Iraqi army in the wars of 1991 and 2003 were actually paid for by the UK taxpayer after Saddam defaulted on his payments. It is to Gordon Brown's largely unsung credit that he closed it down within weeks of becoming Prime Minister in 2007. However, Britain's arms industry continues to be one of the top five in the world, essentially selling to anyone who will pay - frequently involving itself with some palm greasing, as was allegedly the case in the dropped investigation into BAe and Saudi Arabia.

And nowhere has this been more exposed and self-evident than in the current round of rebellions sweeping the Arab world. As Obama equivocated over the crowds in Cairo calling for the resignation of the corrupt and brutal Mubarak regime, there was UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, heavily qualifying his "welcome" of the people's demands with a hope that they would give time for an "orderly transfer" of power. And again this week, Hague has been busy dissembling - reluctantly withholding export licences for supplies of tear gas to the Bahrain government on the same day that its police shot dead several peaceful protesters - but still silent on the demands for an elected parliament.

Of course, the Bahrain monarchy was put in power by the British several decades ago, and has been sustained ever since by the Americans. Indeed, the last significant riots in Bahrain - way back in 1956 - were crushed by the direct intervention of the British Army. The West has billions invested in the small state - "stability", which translates as a pro-western Sunni Muslim puppet regime suppressing the poor Shia Muslim majority, is at a premium.

For decades, we have sponsored these men to crush the legitimate will of their peoples. We have traded with them on the most favourable terms for the West, and supplied them with military muscle, training and equipment to put down any opposition. Our companies have profited from exporting leg irons made in Britain and even equipping the Saudi government with a fully functional gallows. The UK also sold large quantities of crowd control equipment, including tear gas, to Libya just last year. And most cynically of all, as people die for democracy across the Middle East this weekend, over one thousand British and other western arms manufacturers are happily congregating in Abu Dhabi for the 10th and largest ever Idex Arms Fair. Just a short distance from the butchered bodies in Manama, and fully supported by President Obama and Premier Cameron, a huge marketplace of violence is being fronted by large western companies keener than ever to profit from the paranoia of the Princes and Sheiks of suppression.

Oil and blood: the West profits from the Arab world either way.
Withdrawing a few export licences in the dying days of these kleptocracies is far too little, far too late. We may indeed be astonished by the relatively moderate demands of many of the protesters, but if we think that means we can continue to back two horses - pious calls for democracy in public while privately conniving with the dictators to keep them in power - then we are badly mistaken. It is already too late to wish, like di Lampedusa's Leopard, that by letting something change, everything else may stay the same: it is payback time for the bastards, and sooner or later for us.

The demands sweeping the Arab world today are setting an example to people all over the globe. Where it will take us on a planet of rapidly diminishing resources, no one can know. It is a tragic yet hopeful time, whatever the outcome of the dramatic events now playing out. The established regimes will fall in some places, while clinging on in others and trying to absorb and deflect the power of change.

But nothing will be the same again.


Thursday, 17 February 2011

"Sophie Scholl - the Final Days"

Germany has produced some powerful films in recent years - "Downfall", "Goodbye Lenin" and "The Lives of Others" are perhaps the best known. But this week I watched the less well known "Sophie Scholl - the Final Days".

Sophie Scholl
Born in 1921, Sophie was one of six children of a Christian couple who became dissenters in Nazi Germany. Although Sophie had to join a Hitler youth group as part of her education, she became disenchanted with the hardline Reich and its persecution of minorities and individuals who did not conform - quite the contrary to her own view of the essential worth and dignity of all people. Her older brother Hans was arrested in 1937 for joining an opposition youth group, but it was when she was at university in 1943 that the two of them became associated with the non-violent White Rose Movement, which advocated passive resistance to the Nazis and the ending of the war.

Shortly after the disaster at Stalingrad, where tens of thousands of German troops were left to perish by Hitler, the White Rose began to distribute thousands of illicitly printed leaflets denouncing the Fuhrer and the war, leaving them in phone boxes or posting them at random through doors or through the post at huge risk to themselves. Hans and Sophie were arrested after being caught distributing leaflets at her university in Munich - and the rest, as they say, is history. In case you want to see the film, I won't explain the subsequent events, unsurprising as they may be.

What was so striking was how something as simple as distributing a leaflet questioning the policy of the Nazi Government could have become such a forbidden and forbidding act, a mere ten years after the last free elections in Germany. The Weimar Republic had seen an upsurge of free thought and activity in its brief life - that this could be squashed so totally and so quickly is a lesson to us all: here in our country, where we take for granted the right to issue any number of missives through people's doors, political, religious, commercial and other, to the point that many are heartily sick of them. Contrast this with Sophie and Hans, skulking around the corridors of the university, empty during classes, to distribute their message in sheer terror and utter fear.

The most chilling moments in the film have to be in the court scene, where Hans, Sophie and their friend, Christophe Proebst, are harangued by the rat-like Nazi Gauleiter, who, in a grotesque parody of a judicial process, spits out his charges against them and screams over their brave attempts to challenge him in front of a room filled with army officers. And yet, underlying their apparent isolation, the uncomfortable silence and glances of their audience mark out how in terms of genuine belief in the Nazi cause, the Gauleiter may have in fact been virtually alone. Still, no one spoke up for the accused, and even the state-appointed defence lawyer told his clients that they were a disgrace to the German nation.

Christophe Proebst, Sophie Scholl and Hans Scholl
British people, even supposedly learned historians, like to portray the Germans under Hitler as essentially passive, willing executioners of the Nazi Will. Yet whether Pastor Niemoller, or the White Rose, or the many military conspiracies which culminated in the Valkyrie assassination attempt that came so agonisingly close to success, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Yes, Germans on the whole did comply with their Government - just as most British people would in similar circumstances. But among the crowds, many brave people stood up and out, and most paid the highest price of all - and in many cases, huge suffering was inflicted on their families too.

Monday coming marks the anniversary of Sophie's death: if you have not seen it, try to take some time soon to watch the story of her, and of Hans and Christophe. In a political landscape where even now there is often so much revision of the Nazis and rolling back of the extent of their evil regime and beliefs, remember the dark truth of the warning that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Making Votes Count: The Norwich South Question

In a democracy, supposedly everyone counts equally - my vote is supposed to have the same value as anyone else's. Otherwise, it wouldn't be democratic, would it? If my vote was worth eight times more than someone else's, it would hardly seem fair,equal or democratic. Who could reasonably argue with that?

Yet in Britain in 2010, a Labour supporter's vote was eight times more valuable than a Green Party voter's. And while Labour won a seat for every 33,000 votes polled and the Conservatives for every 35,000, it took 111,000 for the Lib Dems to win each of their seats. Depending on the analysis, somewhere between 15.7 million and 21 million of the 29.5 million people who voted, simply wasted their time going to the polling station because, in the end, their votes counted for nothing.

If it was Zimbabwe or Iran or Venezuela, there would be an international outcry. Sanctions would be called for, the perpetrators of such grossly undemocratic methods denounced on the international stage. But, in Britain, for once after a few days of negotiations, the Queen simply appointed a new Government and things carried on.

Well, on 5 May, Britain will have a referendum on whether or not to change the voting system that allows this calumny. We can choose to move away from the current "first-past-the-post" system, where whichever candidate in a given area wins more votes than any other individual candidate is elected. Superficially, this may seem alright, until you reflect on the fact that as we live in a multi-party system, this means nearly all of our Members of Parliament have been elected with more people voting against them rather than for them - their victory has come about purely because they have been the largest minority.

Winning Where? 71% of voters opposed this winning MP.
 As a result, at the last election, of 650 MPs elected, 432 had more voters supporting other candidates than supported themselves. Over two thirds of our MPs are not mandated by a majority of the people who voted in their constituencies - 111 MPs were elected with less than 40% of the vote in their area, with the lowest "winner" of all being Lib Dem Simon Wright in Norwich South, who represents his area with just 29% of the vote - 71% of the local voters chose others, but go unrepresented, their votes wasted in the "first-past-the-post" lottery.

The track record nationally is just as abysmal. Labour were elected in 2005 with over 55% of the seats on just 35% of the national vote. In February 1974, the Conservatives won more votes than Labour, but fewer seats and so lost; while back in 1951 it was the other way round - Labour actually won 200,000 votes more but 26 MPs fewer than the Conservatives. In the 1983 election, Margaret Thatcher gained a seat for every 11,000 votes she lost and the Tories were declared victorious by a landslide - with just 42% of the vote.

There are alternatives: different forms of proportional representation (PR) are used in every European country - even in Berlusconi's Italy after a brief flirtation with the British system. PR systems are also used for the London Assembly, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures and Scottish local councils.These ensure that as far as possible, the number of seats won by parties are of a similar proportion to the votes cast in the election. So 40% of the vote gets around the same proportion of seats.

Depending on the system used, the degree of proportionality varies, and some have links to local areas, some have none, some have a mix. The former SDP leader, Roy Jenkins, proposed a mixed system for Britain back in 2001, but after commissioning Jenkins' Report, then PM Blair chose to ignore its findings. Consequently, when the Lib Dems held the balance of power after the last election, the betting was that they would demand such a system to be introduced in return for supporting a new Government.

As it was, they settled for less - much less. The anti-reform Conservatives conceded a referendum on the system known as the Alternative Vote (AV). This is not a proportional voting system and can distort national results almost as much as our current system. So most electoral reformers were sorely disappointed that the Lib Dems backed down so easily and totally. Many have indicated they will not support AV in the referendum and, even if they reluctantly vote for it, they certainly won't be out campaigning.

The disappointment is understandable and justified. But given that AV is all we have on the table, perhaps those supporting genuine reform need to be careful about opposing it, especially as the right wing media will portray a defeat as a decisive vote against any form of PR as well. Although it is decidedly not PR and not what genuine democrats want, AV is an improvement on what we have. This is because AV works by people ranking candidates in a constituency in order of preference, 1.2.,3. etc, instead of the current X. When the 1st preference votes are counted, if the top candidate has less than 50% of all the votes cast, the bottom candidate is eliminated and their votes redistributed according to the 2nd preferences of their voters. This process continues until the top candidate has over 50% of the votes cast and is declared elected.

It is very straightforward, uncomplicated and, in spite of blatant lies from its opponents about it costing £250 million, it would add only marginally to the costs of elections. It retains the constituency link for MPs and it also removes the so called "wasted vote" dilemma where many voters have to vote to stop someone being elected rather than for the candidate of their choice. The advantage of AV is that they could vote for their preferred candidate with their first preference and then put their second preference, and so on, next to someone else, knowing that their vote would not be "wasted". This would undoubteldy lead to much greater freedom for people to vote for different parties and perhaps begin to challenge the established system more effectively. And then we might see moves towards more proportional systems.

There are better systems than AV, but in their absence it is hard to see why anyone would prefer our current process over it other than those with a vested interest: and the fact that tonight members of the unelected House of Lords are doing all they can to sabotage the referendum is a disgrace of Mugabe-esque proportions. How dare these placemen seek to set conditions on democracy!

The logic of opposing AV is that it is acceptable for the MP for Norwich South to be elected with just 29% of the vote. The 71% voting against him do not count.

So the question for the "NO" campaign is this - if it is acceptable for this man to sit as an MP with such a low vote, would you be willing to accept that the "yes to AV" campaign could win the referendum with just 29% of the vote?

No, I didn't think so.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Mayday for May Day!

As if to add insult to injury for everything else it is doing - wrecking public services, persecuting the disabled and turfing hundreds of thousands of people out of work - the Coalition Government now proposes to abolish the May Day Bank Holiday. Instituted in 1978 to mark International Workers Day, the holiday, the first Monday in May, is one of eight public/bank holidays which British employers must by law give their staff as paid leave. It often comes not long after Easter with its 2 public holidays and is also matched on the last Monday of May with another bank holiday for the Queen's Birthday (she has two, her biological one and this one to mark her Coronation in 1953).

May Day - international solidarity
Tight as ever, the Tories and Lib Dems are apparently worried about the cost to the country of having so many holidays close to each other - who knows, apparently some people use their discretionary annual leave at the same time so they might be off work for as much as a couple of weeks! There is obviously also an ideological angle in that the Tories do not like the idea of celebrating workers' solidarity, especially when foreigners might be involved.

So, although these cost concerns have not stopped us having an extra bank holiday on 29 April to celebrate the nuptials of the lovely royal couple William Windsor and Kate Middleton, the Government is now consulting on ending the May Day holiday and replacing it sometime in October with a "UK Day". This nationalist inspired idea is a sort of sop to people who grumble that the English can't celebrate St George's Day apparently because it has been banned on grounds of political correctness. This is an utter load of baloney, as evidenced by the extreme number of St George's flags that are flown on the day along with various celebrations, but lets not let the facts get in the way of some good old right wing mythology.

Dangerously subversive - Maypole dancers
Premier Cameron of course will insist the new holiday is to celebrate "Britishness" as opposed to Englishness alone, but why should this national day be at the expense of an international day? Moreover, May Day has also been an important British celebration of Spring for centuries - as the tradition of Maypole dancing shows. Steeped in ancient pagan traditions, it has marked an important change in the seasons and welcomed the rebirth of Nature after its winter sojourn. Why scrap a day with such doubly important significance and positive connotations? Especially as one of the days touted for a new bank holiday - 21 October - is to commemorate the slaughter of the Battle of Trafalgar, about as negatively  xenophobic and jingoistic as you could get.

May Day is in fact also the anniversary of the union of England and Scotland in 1707 and the creation of the United Kingdom - so Cameron displays his appalling historical ignorance (or, more likely, deliberate ideological dissimulation) by suggesting a UK day for later in the year. But if we really need a specific national day of some sort, haven't we already got one in the shape of the Queen's Birthday Holiday at the end of May? She is the Head of State, so the time given over to marking the start of her reign would be the logical time to use to mark some other form of national day. If any day is to be scrapped and moved to the autumn, why not this one?

Cromwell - Time for a Republican Day?
Levellers' Day is in May while the Peasant's Revolt was in June so, worthy as they are of commemoration, if we want a new autumn holiday, they don't qualify. Therefore, rather than marking the blood-soaked Trafalgar Day, why not more positively choose 3 September?

This would, like May Day, have a double meaning - it could mark the first full day of peace after the end of the Second World war in 1945. Additionally, for those of us who might like to, it could also celebrate the death of Oliver Cromwell, who passed away that day in 1658. This could commemorate not Cromwell himself, but rather the short-lived British Republic and the spirit of freedom and radical thought that flowered albeit briefly in the war against the tyranny of the Divine Right of Kings.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Sacking with CONfidence (Part 2) - The Employers' Charter

Just an update following on from last week's post about the Government's plans to double the period of time people will have to work without employment protection from 1 to 2 years.

The Government apparently also feels employers should be reminded of just how far they can push their workers under existing legislation - no need to wait for legal changes. Cable has issued an Employer's Charter pinpointing all the stuff employers can already do with relative impunity - so why he also feels the need to reduce coverage of employment protection, God and David Cameron alone know. Presumably it is either a throwback to his days running corporations like Shell or simply an ideological move intended to maximise "employment flexibility" (this from a man whose careless gossip a few weeks ago would have put him out of a job had he committed his misconduct in any normal workplace).

So, just in case you are an employer who has forgotten what you can do, here is Vicious Vince's timely reminder:

"As an employer - as long as you act fairly and reasonably - you are entitled to:
- ask an employee to take their annual leave at a time that suits your business
- contact a woman on maternity leave and ask when she plans to return
- make an employee redundant if your business takes a downward turn
- ask an employee to take a pay cut
- withhold pay from an employee when they are on strike
- ask an employee whether they would be willing to opt-out from the 48 hour limit in the Working Time Regulations
- reject an employee's request to work flexibly if you have a legitimate business reason
- talk to your employees about their performance and about how they can improve
- dismiss an employee for poor performance
- stop providing work to an agency worker (as long as they are not employed by you)
- ask an employee about their future career plans, including retirement." 

Careless talk costs jobs - except in Cable's case
The inclusion of the opt-out from the 48 hour working time directive is notable in that Britain's exemption from European law on maximum working hours has long been a cri de coeur of the Lib Dems: their European MPs have repeatedly voted against any attempt to reform it to reduce Britain's long hours culture and bring us in to line with the rest of Europe. This emphasis is definitely not one they can blame on the Tories - Mr Cable is simply showing his party's true colours.

It is deeply questionable as to why anyone thinks this guidance is even remotely required. There is even a printer-friendly version, designed like a little poster - perhaps for laminating and then posting on noticeboards to remind staff of their position or scare them into compliance - a bit like these old Victorian factory notices setting out fines for talking or working too slowly.

The Good Old Days?
Issued at a time when more and more jobs are being lost and workers feel increasingly vulnerable, employers seem on the whole already more than fully aware of their powers.Yet pandering to right wing mythology, Cable's missive has been sent out along with a letter from David Cameron stressing how important it is to butter up big business by sacrificing employees' rights - notwithstanding the fact that Mr Cable's Charter somewhat undermines the Prime Ministerial picture of workplaces where employers' are tangled up in intractably thick forests of workers' rights.

"Speak to businesses and they’ll say something else: that the balance of rights is tilted far too much in favour of employees over employers. They say it’s become far too difficult to hire and fire workers, and far too easy for those workers to make unscrupulous claims against them. This not only costs our businesses a lot of money – on average around £4,000 for defending a tribunal case - but takes up a huge amount of time and effort too. Vitally, it makes businesses think twice before taking people on.
I’m determined we shift some of that balance back." - David Cameron

Good to see some 1980s "balance" in the workplace again. Isn't it? (Though, it has to be noted, all these powers were already in place under the Nu-Labour Government).

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Who Guards the Guardians?

A dreadful story appeared in today's "Daily Mirror" - a British Immigration officer was so disenchanted with his wife that, while she was on a holiday in Pakistan, he placed her on a Terrorist Watch list so she could not get back to the UK. As with many of our pernicious anti-terrorist laws, when she was refused permission to board a plane back to Britain, she was not allowed to know why.

And so it continued for THREE whole years until he was found out purely by chance. Proving the old adage that crooks are not half as clever as they think, the officer applied for a higher level job requiring a review of his security clearance and at that stage it was noticed that his wife was on a list of suspected terrorists. Cornered, he had to confess what he had done and was duly sacked.

In spite of his appalling acts, he was described by a former colleague as "a bit of a legend" in Immigration Officer circles - yes, they do have such a droll sense of humour, don't they?

There is no mention of him facing criminal charges for excluding someone from the UK even although his wife had every right to be here. No suggestion he might be jailed or fined for abusing her rights or misuse of his position. He has lost his job, but after the most dreadful abuse of State power against a helpless individual - all the more tragic in that at first she trusted him to sort out what she understood to be some sort of mistake.

The case raises a number of troubling questions about the Immigration service and the supposedly robust state surveillance system which increasingly intrudes on more and more citizens' activities with less and less need for any justification for doing so. How often we are assured that this frontline defence of our homeland is designed in such a way that no innocent will suffer, no arbitrary action will go unreviewed and no unnecessary breach of anyone's freedom will occur.

Yet here we have a system which did not notice that one of its' staff's spouses was now on a terror watch list. Here we have a system clearly with no checks being made of decisions with momentous impact on individuals - this man was able to exclude his wife purely by his own actions, no second opinion or senior approval required, no periodic review of her case, no need even for anyone to meet her and question her. All he had to do was label her presence in the UK as "not conducive to the public good", type her name into a database and she was conveniently out of sight and out of mind.

Pakistani Police: no laughing matter
Doesn't it beggar belief? And is it not even more disturbing that although his employers had no real choice but to dismiss him, his wicked actions are seen as, well, rather amusing?

Never mind that his wife was stuck in Pakistan, not exactly well-known for its kindly treatment and liberal questioning of people designated as terrorist suspects. Has anyone bothered to check on her well-being or whereabouts? Or was it just a quick disciplinary hearing chaired by some embarrassed civil service manager and case closed?

The Coalition claims to take civil liberties and human rights seriously. This poor woman's case demonstrates how shallow their commitment is, and how wicked the last Labour Government was in foisting such draconian laws on us allegedly in order to protect freedom and democracy. Quis custodiet custodies?