Friday, 16 November 2012

Police Alert: Nick Clegg for Wasting Time

And so the Police & Crime Commissioners elections roar into the record books: as the ones with the lowest turnout in modern British history. With less than 15% of the electorate voting - and one polling station in Wales having a remarkable turnout of precisely zero - the validity of the entire process has fallen into question. Record numbers of spolit papers - many deliberately so - have turned up as the citizens of England and Wales give, in effect, a decisive thumbs down to the whole farcical process.

Over £100 million of taxpayers' money has been wasted on holding this exercise in the middle of November - totally out of time with the normal voting cycle in early winter, in the dark. An additional £25 million was wasted on moving it from the original plan of coinciding with the local elections in May.

So who is responsible for this mess? Who has wasted taxpayers money and a lot of people's time? And left us with the policing system in a total mess with Commissioners formally elected but without any mandate or legitimacy at all?

Step forward our old friend, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancer in Chief Nick Clegg.

Yes, that one - whose Lib Dem Party sunk into fifth place behind UKIP and the English Democrats in Nick's own home territory of South Yorkshire, only just keeping their deposit. As brazen as ever, the Lib Dems pushed and pushed for these elections to be held in mid-November rather than the previously agreed time of May when their costs could have been reduced and (whatever your view about the posts themselves) more voters would have participated.


Quite simply, though laughably, they thought this would help them hold seats at the council elections As the BBC trailed a year ago, Lib Dem high command thought that if the police elections were held in May, they would both distract Lib Dem efforts to hold onto council seats contested at the same time and buoy up the Tory vote by creating a focus on law and order.

So, after confronting David Cameron with threats to vote down the Police & Social Responsibility Bill if he did not concede on the timetable, the Lib Dems achieved the change and, in spite of the additional £25 millions in  costs, the vote was moved to yesterday. At the time, they claimed it was an altruistic move to depoliticise the elections, but a BBC investigation found otherwise - and unlike the recent Newsnight farago, no one denied this one's findings. And besides, the refusal to provide a freepost facility as normal with this level of election effectively removed the chance for independents to seriously participate unless they were wealthy - leading in fact to very highly politicised elections.

It is therefore touchingly and wonderfully ironic that the Lib Dems' results have been relentlessly pisspoor - not only did they fail to field candidates in half the country, but where they did they were frequently beaten out of sight. With most results in, their national vote total barely reaches 7% and they have been overtaken by UKIP even although that party was also only standing in half the contests.

Clegg and his party have a lot to answer for - and a big bill to pay.

Umm..err...umm..oh, wasn't me, officer!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Positively Spoiling - Police Commissioner Ballot Today

So the most low key election in British history apparently takes place today as 41 Police & Crime Commissioners are elected for the first time across England and Wales. In an election that has cost £100 millions of taxpayers' money to hold in the dark of early winter, with little or no publicity, a combination of near-total voter lack of awareness combined with disillusion with the whole idea is likely to drive turnout down - one survey suggesting a turnout of just 15% may yet be over-optimistic.

No one asked for these posts, and only the Lib Dem wing of the Coalition wanted them at this time - apparently banking on the idea they could mobilise proportionately more supporters at this time of year than Tory or Labour. This is a strategy that has manifestly backfired as they now lack any significant support - recent polls have them hovering at 8%, often in fourth place and sometimes with the Greens withing spitting distance of driving them into fifth.

So we have elections no one wants for posts no one wants and candidates no one knows anything about. But 41 of them will be the lucky winners of annual salaries of £100,000 - nearly 50% more than MPs get and 9 times what local authority councillors receive for working 30 hours per week. As blogged before, they represent an unwelcome centralisation of scrutiny of the police in the hands of one person rather than the cross section of councillors, experts and community representatives in the current Police Authorities. This could lead at one extreme to an overly cosy relationship with the local Chief Constable through to populist grandstanding on complex issues that could compromise the police and divide communities.

What to do then? One group is advocating that rather than voting for any of the would-be Commissioners, voters opposed to the idea should not stay at home but rather should turn up at polling stations and spoil their ballot papers. They are recommending writing a statement along the lines of "No to Police Commissioners, Yes to Democracy" or something similar that makes clear it is a deliberate spoiling of the paper to make a point rather than a simple mistake. The group was established on Facebook by Greens and others following a debate in Leeds. It has a Facebook Page, Spoil Your Ballot Papers for the Police Elections, and a Twitter hashtag of #spoilpoliceballot. It's not too late to join up or comment.

Spoilt papers are separated and counted - often, they are shared with the election candidates and their agents and typically include mistakes like people voting for all the candidates or signing their names on the paper. Some put comments like "None of the above" or often more, shall we say, colourful statements of their views on the process. Spoiled ballots are not counted towards turnout however, so taking part will not increase the figures for the elections' turnout.

Some countries, like Australia, allow this option as a right, while other countries, such as Russia, require minimum turnouts of 50% before a candidate can be elected. Sadly Britain does neither, but it is perfectly legal to go and spoil your ballot paper and make a point. It shows you care enough to turnout and show your opposition - and its better than daytime TV.

Go on, take a walk, and spoil your ballot paper - you know it makes sense!

Friday, 9 November 2012

America's Choice

We know now, after a couple of weeks of uncertainty, that President Obama has been re-elected by what passes for a comfortable margin (about 2% of the vote) in deeply divided America. Although in many respects the lesser of two evils and still unlikely in the extreme to herald any genuine change, it is worth reflecting a little on the people who might have been elected in his place.

Mitt Romney, whose election victory website went live yesterday by accident, is clearly a consummate chameleon, twisting and changing his position on everything from healthcare and abortion to fiscal policy. To this end, he was content to embrace some pretty unpleasant people with unpleasant views in his pursuit of power. There were the pro-war agitators, keen to assault Iran and Syria at the earliest opportunity; the people who wanted to strip away even the minimal health protection provided to tens of millions of poor Americans by "Obamacare", and worst of all the men (and they all were) who made repeated and ever more extreme comments about female rape victims as alternately asking for it or being the subject of Divinely-ordained sexual assault. They were not even medieval in their outlook, but positively Old Testament. Even Romney's running mate for Vice President, Paul Ryan, had been involved in sponsoring unsuccessful legislation which distinguished between "forcible" and apparently "non-forcible" rape.

It is to the credit of American voters that all of these men went down in flames at the polls - and Obama led Romney by a huge margin among women voters. This led to chilling comments from a number of rightwing commentators that Obama is not the choice of white Americans, or that alternatives to voting need to be found to force through their Christian fundamentalist agenda.

Outside the mainstream, the Green candidate for President Jill Stein polled over 397,000 votes in spite of the two-party squeeze, more than doubling the Green vote since 2008, and some local gains were made with Greens elected in Maine, including one representative to the state assembly.

But among the non-major party candidates, it was former Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who polled best, taking 1.1 million votes as the Libertarian Party candidate running on a platform characterised by one commentator as being "founded on the concern that Americans are not yet greedy enough."

Sunday, 4 November 2012

All of Us

Today, 5th November, is Bonfire Night in Britain. This is our form of what, in many countries, is a fire festival – like Norwuz, the pre-Islamic new year festival marked in Iran by a remarkably similar combination of bonfires and fireworks. But in Britain, as we burn the “Guy”, whilst most know that the man it symbolises, Guido Fawkes, attempted to blow up both the King and Parliament in 1605, less is known about the circumstances that led him to do this – and some of the similarities to today.

Britain did not exist at the time, although by the Union ofthe Crowns of 1603, England and Scotland shared a monarch. James Stewart, the sixth of Scotland and first of England, had travelled to London from Edinburgh after inheriting the English throne from Elizabeth Tudor – his second cousin and the executioner of his mother, the Catholic Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots. James shared with Elizabeth a deep distrust of Catholicism, viewed as a threat to the sovereignty of both their kingdoms as it was the faith professed by their major Continental enemies - the Hapsburg Empire (Austria, Spain and the Spanish Netherlands) and France.

Consequently, Catholics in Elizabethan and early Stewart England had a far from happy time – Elizabeth's father Henry VIII had seized Catholic assets and declared himself the head of the established church, a position held to this day by the monarch. Opposition to the Anglican Church therefore was soon viewed on a par with opposition to the King and, as such, treason. Catholicism was outlawed; the Catholic church’s assets were seized and disbursed between the King and his followers; and priests were hunted down and killed. Their followers, real and simply suspected (or even maliciously accused) were subject to detention, torture, trial and execution.

It was against this background that Guido Fawkes and a number of co-conspirators vainly plotted to place barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament and explode it with the King and his Parliamentarians during the State Opening of 1605. Unfortunately for them, they were discovered, seized, tortured and executed - not, as one might assume, by burning, but by the equally grotesque spectacle of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes can therefore be viewed as either a terrorist or a freedom fighter depending on your point of view. Given that he and his fellow Catholics could be seized and executed by the State purely for holding their beliefs, the logic that says people can fight against tyranny - whether in the Arab Spring or the Warsaw Uprising or on the beaches of Normandy - would seem to apply to the conspirators as they dragged their barrels of powder into Westminster's cellars.

Certainly, in the last few years, the caricature of Fawkes has assumed symbolism as the "face" of opposition to the new tyranny that has swept so many western countries in recent years. Never as free or democratic as we have liked to claim, Britain and the USA in particular have introduced sweeping new laws following the 9/11 atrocities, supposedly to protect freedom, but in truth placing it increasingly at risk. Centuries of legal norms, such as habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury, have been removed or jeopardised as never before - with electronic surveillance massively increasing the power of the authorities to track and trace their opponents.

Of course, Bush and Blair, the main authors of these new measures, claimed that they were necessary to counter the grossly exaggerated claims of international terror networks supposedly threatening our way of life  apparently more seriously than the Nazis or the Soviet Union ever did. And so we have the twisted irony of having our freedoms removed supposedly to protect them!

Consider just a handful of the disgraceful actions that the new laws have allowed so far:
- the imprisonment, without trial, for years of hundreds of men, including several children like Mohammed al Gorani, in Guantanamo bay, many seized on the basis of allegations from extremely dubious single sources.

- the detention without trial of a number of people in Britain who were never allowed to know what they were even suspected of let alone see the evidence against them: none have been brought to trial and several are being held/restricted at the request of semi-dictatorial Arab regimes such as Algeria.

- the use of evidence obtained under torture: the USA especially, including under Obama, has "outsourced" torture to allied regimes, including Assad's Syria and Gaddafi's Libya so that they can claim not to carry it out themselves - this more than anything else has been the main factor behind the wave of anti-US protests across the Arab world.

- domestically, in the UK, supposedly anti-terror laws have been in the main used to detain environmentalist activists and prevent them from taking part in demonstrations. The same laws led to the prosecution of a peace campaigner, Maya Evans, for reading out aloud the names of British servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of the national cenotaph in Whitehall, while in an earlier case a Labour Party member - a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp - was arrested and held for several hours for booing the then Home Secretary.

- in both the USA and UK, and recently in Greece, anti-government protests have been faced with increasingly brutal responses: from the kettling of a heavily pregnant woman in freezing weather in a London disability protest, to the pepper spraying of an elderly woman by US police or the use of a chained young woman as a human shield by Athenian riot cops, the level of violence deployed by the state against its opponents in supposedly free societies is growing and growing fast.

- the bizarre detention of the Green Party Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala, by the police during the second Obama/Romney debate, when they were taken to a large facility, strapped to chairs and held incommunicado for eight hours.

"Dangerous" 84 year old woman protestor sprayed by US police.
More routine law was used last week to prosecute successfully a Glasgow man who shouted "no public spending cuts" at poor sensitive Prime Minister David Cameron. Meanwhile, the supposed civil rights champion, Liberal leader Nick Clegg, is pushing ahead with plans to create an electronic database that will store the records of every phone call, text message, email and internet visit by every citizen of the UK. Both the potential and likely actual abuse are massive - quite aside from the risk of hacking of such a goldmine of personal information by third parties.

Nothing puts our rights at risk more than our surrendering them to an ever more powerful state. From Magna Carta onwards, we have fought for our rights and freedoms: millions sacrificed their lives the struggles for them over centuries. To quietly acquiesce to the corrupt, overweening would-be tyrants of the modern governments that claim to foster and defend democracy by destroying it would be a betrayal of them and of ourselves. It recalls the cynical words of Lenin - that "Liberty is precious; so precious that it must be rationed." As soon as any Government is permitted to use even a smidgen of such logic, then the very nostrums that supposedly set us apart from the dictators, tyrants and ideologues who would oppress us are shredded and gone. 

And so, Guido Fawkes, by some accounts the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions, symbolises now the face of resistance to oppression and tyranny of the state over individual belief. His mask has been adopted by many in last year's Occupy movements around the world, as well as by the Anonymous  meme inspired by the movie V for Vendetta, which took the trends of post-9/11 to their possible conclusion of a deeply oppressive police state. Like the oppression of Bush, Blair and their successors (Obama has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than Bush), the state in V for Vendetta justifies its restrictive policies in the name of defending the safety of the people. And yet, as with post-9/11, where the awful deaths of 4,000 have led to wars that have killed over 2,500,000 more, any real ongoing threat is small set against the disproportionate reaction. And bad people with bad intent use the moment to assume ever greater power to force through their real agendas - against environmentalists, liberals and socialists, ultimately in the name of the Big Money corporates who reap so much from perpetual war.

No one can stop them, apart from us. However difficult it may seem, how overweening their authority - no Government, no system has any more power then we let it have over us, than we surrender to it. From Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1989, to Tahrir Square last year, or Times Square last week, ordinary people can make the difference - but only by acting together.

And so, as the fires burn tonight and rockets soar into the sky, the finale of V for Vendetta comes so appropriately to mind, and the words of Natalie Portman's character, Evey, when she is asked who V was: 
"He was my father and my mother, my brother and my friend. He was you, and me....He was all of us."

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Green Choice: Jill Stein for President

USA - is one of the world's biggest polluters; the average US citizen's activities release nine times the sustainable level of carbon into the atmosphere - almost 18 tonnes per annum against the safe level of 2 tonnes. By contrast, the average European emits 7.5 tonnes; the average Chinese person 7.2 tonnes and the average Indian just 1.5 tonne.

The US is also the biggest user of the Earth's dwindling resources. With less than 5% of the global population, the USA consumes over one quarter of all the resources used in the world each year.

The USA is the biggest spender on weapons on the planet - the US military budget is larger than the military expenditure of almost other country on the planet combined. The USA spends more than $2,000 per person per year (4.7% of national wealth) - compared to just $428 (3.9%) by Russia, $74 (2.1%) by China and $89 (1.8%) by Iran. Only Israel and the UAE spend higher proportions of their GDP than the USA on the military.

There is another way: for a more sustainable economy putting people back to work through a Green New Deal;  using clean, renewable energy; freed from dependence on foreign energy and removed from the conflicts that have isolated America from many potential allies.

Tuesday 6th - for America, for the Planet : go and vote Jill Stein for President of the USA.

Website -

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Free & Equal: the Other Presidential Candidates' Debate

Corporate America would like the world to think that US politics is just about Romney and Obama, Republican and Democrat, two sides of the same coin, two variations on a theme. When it comes to the Big Money, that's certainly true as, hurricane aside, the current elections becomes the most expensive in US history (and by default world history). With the major parties expected to spend over $6 billion dollars on the elections for President and Congress, US "democracy" looks like a rich man's game.

The rules make it difficult for anyone outside the two main parties to participate - minor parties face countless obstacles, financial and legal, to gain ballot access, making American complaints about foul play in other countries' elections (like Russia and Iran) smack of more than a little hypocrisy. Yet, in spite of this, four minor party candidates are on ballots across the USA as rivals to Romney and Obama. They represent a diverse range of views but when they debate, they offer perhaps more real politics and real argument than the two main candidates could dare to offer.

The Free & Equal Foundation, which campaigns for greater democratic access to US elections at all levels, recently hosted a debate with the four minor party candidates, chaired by veteran TV commentator Larry King and broadcast on the net. See it here and find out more about the real choices American voters do indeed have if they decide to make them...(click names for link to campaign websites)

Rocky Anderson - Justice Party candidate
Virgil Goode - Constitution Party candidate
Gary Johnson - Libertarian candidate
Dr Jill Stein - Green Party candidate

After an online vote, the Greens' Jill Stein will face the Libertarians' Gary Johnson in a final online debate on the eve-of-poll, Monday 5th November.