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September 16, 2007

Tuck but no TUCs at the TUC

Party conference season is upon us and this past week saw the warm-up act, the Trades Union Congress, hit Brighton. I was there. For work.

I’d never been to Brighton before. It’s a bit like an English San Francisco: hip, hilly, by the sea, with a lot of gays, hobos and people with American accents.

Work involved going to fringe meetings (lunchtime and teatime events with speakers and a policy theme which take place outside the main conference) and eating the free food. I also had to take copious notes then write up reports on each.

The most interesting fringe I attended was organised by the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign, and featured several union bosses and the man who was so very nearly elected Prime Minister, John McDonnell MP.

It was a hotbed of leftie propaganda, which I found very refreshing. It’s a shame there wasn’t a leadership contest because there’d have been a good debate about the neo-liberal ideology of the Labour Government, given the litany of botched privatisations McDonnell et al reeled off.

Bob Crow, the RMT General Secretary and scourge of London’s commuters, was there, calling for a return to nationalisation and talking fondly of his Staffordshire bull terrier Castro (bought on May 1st no less). I don’t know what they put in the water at the RMT, but his oratory was remarkably Prescottesque.

The chief of the Prison Officers Association Colin Moses gave a particularly rousing speech. He may very well be the first black Geordie I’ve ever come across, which, having spent most of my life in Newcastle, says a lot about the city’s demography.

The worst event I went to was on the NHS. They only put on crisps and three types of sandwiches – including cheese and pickle, which I don’t like, and really dry tuna. Next door was the Morning Star’s event, and I checked out their food offering. Boy, if that’s the kind of spread we’d get under a communist regime, sign me up!

Most surprisingly, not one of the events had TUC biscuits.

I’m off to Brighton again in a couple of hours, this time for the Lib Dems.


September 09, 2007

Holyrood leads the way on asylum policy

Labour’s going to announce that skilled non-EU immigrants will have to speak English if they want to come over here and take our jobs. I wonder if, say, Thailand will retaliate and force British ex-pats to learn their language.

As vaguely hypocritical anti-immigrant policies go, it’s fairly reasonable, even to a liberal like me; it might foster more cultural exchange in our communities and will hopefully shut the Tories up for a bit.

I was rather amazed how different the immigration agenda is north of the border. At work this week I read a debate in the Scottish Parliament on asylum seekers. The motion, made by an Scottish Nationalist MSP, called for them to be given the right to work. They sit on their arse all day, living off the state; why not let them work and thereby contribute to the economy and lift their self-esteem?

It’s a good policy, yet I was surprised that everyone agreed with it – Labour, Lib Dem, the SNP minister, and even the Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Bill Aitken. In the 2005 General Election only the Lib Dems were advocating it.

To be fair, the Scottish Parliament has no power on immigration issues, so nothing will come out of the debate except a promise from Stuart Maxwell, the Communities Minister, to have a chat to the Home Office about it. But it’s nice to see that public discourse on asylum seekers can ignore the scaremongering press and be progressive.


July 14, 2007

Maybe Ed Balls should have been Health Secretary

While compiling bulletins on the Government’s education policy yesterday, I was dawned on by this shock realisation:


Garth Marenghi as Rick Dagless, M.D. in hit TV series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace


Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls MP

Esprit de l’escalier urges Mr Balls to consider using the slogan “Ed Balls – dream-weaver, visionary” in his next election campaign.

In other news, I’m sure “Wee” Dougie Alexander (the International Development Secretary) looks like someone too.


May 22, 2007

MPs approve the breeding of monsters, Casablanca, and other items of note

Science fiction took one step closer to becoming science fact last week when the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee decided that banning human-animal hybrid embryos would be a Bad Idea. Rabbits and cows are the main contenders in the splicing of genes for medical research. With any luck this decision marks the beginning of a slippery slope to a dystopian future where humans battle it out with rabbitmen and minotaurs for the earth’s resources. Still standing in the way of this, however, are regulations that would limit the amount of animal DNA in an embryo to 0.1%, and the destruction of the embryos after 14 days. And the government is planning on ignoring the committee and banning it anyway.

It looks like EMI are going to be taken over any day now. The hot topic of conversation in the pubs of Fleet Street is whether the photo space accompanying every single newspaper article about the music company – currently occupied daily by the fragrant Norah Jones – will be taken over by an artist from the new owner’s stable. EMI’s suitors are Warner Music Group and Terra Firma, a private equity company. Terra Firma are unlikely to produce any contenders; has anyone ever met a photogenic venture capitalist? Warner’s would be a better bet, but just scanning their roster on Wikipedia, I can’t see anyone who’s as hot as Norah. Kylie and Madonna are the big names, but if we learned anything from the Lord Browne affair, it’s that the City has a homophobia problem, so business editors will likely steer clear. This hack predicts we’ll be seeing more of Norah Jones in newspapers’ shameless attempts to glamorise the business pages.


Although popular songstrel Norah Jones has nothing to do with her record company’s takeover proceedings, I would.

Tony Blair made one last trip to the States as Prime Minister last week. I enjoyed the Torygraph’s cartoon.

Andrew Marr’s programme this evening on post-war Britain was excellent. I never realised how shit things were until the States decided to do the Marshall Plan. Nor did I realise that someone with a name as good as Sir Stafford Cripps could be a bit of an arse. Nor that the history of the EU could have developed so differently had Herbert Morrison decided to join the European Coal and Steel Community (he declined it on a whim).


May 18, 2007

Brown anointed as PM–'elect'

Follow-up to The Blair Bitch Project from Esprit de l'escalier

Last week in my review of Tony Blair, I wondered why Gordon Brown was getting so much criticism. Channel 4’s Dispatches on Monday kindly summed up the evidence against him for me. According to various political insiders interviewed on the programme, Brown is basically a bit of a control freak, obstinate, and bears a pretty mean grudge.

Former Labour “insider” Derek Draper ultimately defended Brown’s suitability for PM; his behaviour was merely part of his strategy to secure the premiership. Now he was assured of the job, Brown would calm down a bit. Cool, I thought, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t give him a chance. I just assumed that there’d be a leadership contest and a debate about Labour’s future with McDonnell, which would give Brown’s leadership a little more legitimacy than his 1994 lunch with Blair was currently giving.

When McDonnell pulled out of the race on Wednesday my heart sank, of course. Then I read this in the Independent today. Simon Carr suggests that Gordon Brown had been personally lobbying for nominations in order to crowd out a challenge. This was according to “a journalist”. Say it ain’t so, Gordon! Did you really think it was worth shedding what remains of Labour’s integrity in order to remove the smallest risk of not getting to be Prime Minister?

Then again, if these alleged shameful tactics were meant to be publicised, he might have meant it as a big, alienating “fuck you” to his doubters, which I’d kinda respect.


May 13, 2007

The Blair Bitch Project

Title:
Blair's Premiership
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

In news about as shocking as a typical My Family punchline, Tony Blair resigned on Thursday, opening the floodgates for the media to pore over his ten years of office and deliver versions of his legacy in handy souvenir pullouts. One wonders what the newspapers have up their sleeves for when he actually goes on June 27th. For what it’s worth, here’s my purely subjective take on his premiership.

Say what you like about Blair, he’s a fantastic politician. He made Labour electable again, but was it worth it? If I take my awkward question to mean was he good for the Labour Party, then probably not. For all the things he’s done to disillusion me, I have a grudging respect for him – sure he’s a shit, but he’s a charismatic shit.

It’s difficult to doubt his good intentions, but even his successes may not be so unequivocal.
- The minimum wage and low unemployment. The least he could do; I reckon more of the workforce is in the informal sector, employed by agencies, with low job security and no prospects, than when he came to power.
- Northern Ireland. There’s finally a power-sharing executive that might just work, but how big was Tony’s role in it since Good Friday?
- Solid economic growth and low inflation. Thanks to the independent Bank of England.
- Action on climate change. To me, this has only taken off since An Inconvenient Truth came out.
- Debt relief and development. What’s actually happened since Gleneagles?

To be fair, crime rates and NHS waiting lists have fallen, though you wouldn’t know it from press coverage.

Anything positive is outweighed by:
- Privatising anything with a pulse with a more-Thatcherite-than-Thatcher zealotry.
- Privatisation by the back door in the form of PFI, which, last time I checked, is still pretty discredited (The Guardian).
- Contracting out public service management to consultants who fuck things up so they can get paid again to sort their own mess out.
- Tuition fees.
- Top-up fees, though they are more redistributive than the Tories’ HE policies.
- Oh, and Iraq: selling out the country’s foreign policy and diplomatic power, starting an unwinnable war on false pretences, and eroding any moral high ground over Islamic extremists by undermining the rule of law and civil liberties.

Two out of five is generous.

The other day I realised that I agree with very little Labour have legislated on in the past few years. So I’m looking forward to Gordon Brown’s inevitable premiership and the new direction he’ll take the party. Apart from expecting “more of the same” I don’t understand the unremitting flak he’s been coming under for the past year. For God’s sake, Gordon’s hero is Bobby Kennedy – the greatest President America never had! They’re all just ants at a picnic.

That said, unlike the jubilant but naive 13-year-old on the morning of May 2 1997, I’m bracing myself for disappointment.


April 04, 2007

A victory for diplomacy

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6525905.stm

The sailors have been released, and we didn’t have to bomb anyone!

I’d gloat about scooping Warwick Blogs, but like the April Fools thing, it isn’t the same any more.


December 07, 2006

South Island

Finally, a good three weeks after I left the country, Fiji went and had its long-threatened coup. That’s Fiji Time for you. Commodore Frank “The Tank” Bainimarana took over and the international community have collectively condemned the action even though the deposed government, while democratically-elected, were a bit corrupt and weren’t too nice to the Indo-Fijian community. In case the British news hasn’t been reporting something the other side of the world, the main reason for the coup seems to be that the PM was wanting to reprieve the folks behind the 2000 coup; Frank didn’t like this because said folks tried to kill him. And now I’m going to miss the massive earthquake that’s been due in New Zealand for the past month.

So I got a ferry across the sea from Wellington (pronounced Wallungton by Kiwis) to Picton (Pucton). Bods (the driver) took us wine tasting. Yes, New Zealand produces wine. Its latitude is similar to that of France, not Britain, as I’d assumed given the amount of rain we had. It was quaffable but not transcendent. The wine, that is – not the rain.

Then we basically zipped through Nelson and down the west coast, which had some nice scenery. Everyone had told me that the South Island is way better than the North. I thought it was overhyped. Whereas the North is basically a massive Lake District, the South has a more varied and stunning landscape – fiords, alps and that. I’ve been to Norway and Switzerland before so maybe that’s why I was underwhelmed. One thing that was pretty unique was Franz Josef glacier, which we hiked up. It’s a mini mountain range made of ice. And the ice has rocks on top of it, so it’s like a reverse mountain. It rained all day (it’s one of the wettest places on Earth, though you couldn’t tell if you saw the sunny promotional photographs) and I froze but it was worth it.

After Wellington, many of the people on the bus got off for a few more days, so there were a bunch of people who I had yet to meet. It had got to the stage of my trip where I was getting New Person Fatigue – same old conversations and all that. This is probably why the Kiwi Experience took us to Lake Mahanipua, forced us to dress up and get drunk and talk to people. It worked. The theme was bad taste so I went as Borat with a $2.50 costume from the Salvation Army. It was nice! Hopefully folk will email me with photos of it. Also while we were there I got electrocuted. We were playing football on a field and I went to retrieve the ball which had gone to the fence. It hurt. These Kiwis don’t mess around with their fence-electrification. I’d like to say that it gave me superhuman football skills, but it didn’t.

So apart from that the west coast was a bit of a blur, then we got to Queenstown – party capital of New Zealand and adrenaline capital of the world. The party capital bit was a bit of a lie – we only went to the World and Altitude bars, good though they were. I decided I would indeed do the bungy jump. Since Taupo, I was wanting to do it, as daunting as it was. The scary thing about it is that it’s your choice whether to jump or not when you’re on that ledge. A bungy jump’s a bungy jump, especially when you haven’t done one before, so I wasn’t going to pay the extra $80 for the 134m Nevis, and went for the 43m Kawarau Bridge (the original). I decided to book it for my last day in Queenstown (I had four nights there) which was probably stupid cos I was bricking it the whole time I was there. Luckily I had luging, Milford Sound and beer to help me through it, but that last hour – I’d just finished a laundry so I’d have clean boxers – was a nightmare. The worst bit was probably putting the harness on several feet away from the precipice. The jump itself was up there with the best things I’ve ever done. I looked like a fool doing it – went and bent my knees, didn’t I – but it’s such a rush, and they had the bungy long enough so my head and shoulders were dunked in the river. Awesome.

That would’ve made a fitting end to my time in New Zealand but the next day was a long bus ride to Christchurch, we lost the second test and I had to go to bed early for a 4am start and a flight to Sydney, where I write this now. There’s more to say about New Zealand and Kiwis, so stay tuned…


July 29, 2006

Why the far left are idiots

I love lefties – they're so quaint. A few months ago, as I was passing Grey's Monument in Newcastle, I stopped at a stall to sign a petition calling for better treatment of asylum seekers in Britain. The stall was being run by a group calling themselves Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (That sentence has finished, by the way; the second exclamation mark is part of the name, so don't think I'm excited by it. Can an exclamation mark which is part of a proper noun legitimately be used to end a sentence?) I thought, "how nice: it's not every day you find a progressive organisation campaigning on the street and not spouting discredited Marxist dogma".

A few days later an email arrives from these fine, if bearded, do–gooders, thanking me for signing their petition. I almost bashed out a reply straight away to the effect: "Why, you're quite welcome, my friends. Godspeed your message of peace and understanding. One day our politicians will realise what an asset these brave, hard–working refugees are to this country. These people who dared to speak up about the wonders of liberal democracy in their dictator–led countries and were forced to flee when faced with brutal persecution…" before I read on:

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! is the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Group and supporters of the paper are involved in various campaigns.

Go figure. As far as I know, Communism still has something of a bad rep, so I thought that if one were to set up a pressure group with an anti–racism, anti–imperialism platform – a platform with very broad appeal in this country, surely – one would drop any association with Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot that might have a negative effect on public support for one's cause. Anyway, should they somehow gain sufficient support to topple the capitalists and establish socialism, the RCG would run into an ideological paradox when the inevitable purges cause Britons to seek asylum elsewhere.

So I didn't send my planned reply (because I only thought of it for the purposes of this blog); nor, however, did I bother unsubscribing (because I was too lazy; the same reason I'm still getting Razorlight emails). Which means (fast–forwarding to now) I've been getting emails about this Lebanon thing. The RCG/FRFI people have been badgering me to attend the picketing of the Israel–supporting Marks & Spencer. I was going to email them back suggesting that, as the current conflict is equally Hezbollah's fault, to conduct a survey of Lebanese takeaway owners in the area and boycott those who have sympathy for the Shi'ite militia. However, I read on and noticed that the demostrations had been called by a group calling themselves Victory to the Intifada! (The exclamation mark is not part of the name this time, by the way.)

Now, supporting the oppressed Palestinians and the creation of their own state is laudable. However, the only way this will be achieved without resorting to completely destroying Israel is by peaceful means. That means an end – not victory – to the Intifada. The Intifada involves the suicide bombing of Israeli civilians. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the deliberate slaughter of innocent people of a certain nationality/ethnicity a bit racist? If it is, then what is an anti–racist organisation doing consorting with a group that supports such activities?

There you go: a Communist anti–racist organisation supports victims of dictatorship and promotes racist tactics. The far left are idiots.

For a sense of balance, I also think Israel are bang out of order in Gaza and Lebanon – while they have a right to defend their country, a >100:1 civilian:militant collateral damage ratio is shocking.


April 13, 2006

Tyrannie de la minorité

It took France five republics to sort out their political system. After the revolution, they had a problem with tyranny of the majority – rich types being guillotined by the power-mad masses for being rich and suchlike. They've managed to overcome that difficulty but it seems like they went too far and we now have a case where a bunch of rioting students have forced the PM to back down from a perfectly sensible law, which would otherwise have been passed in a nice, democratic fashion.

The law (the CPE) that Villepin wanted was to make it easier for firms to sack young workers. Okay, at first glance, it looks a bit harsh, but here's why it would be good:

  • Firms can't normally predict how business is going to be a couple of years down the line.
  • If firms aren't allowed to take on workers on a short-term basis, people they employ are with them for the long term, so if business took a turn for the worse they'd be stuck with extra people on the pay roll and would lose money.
  • To avoid this risk, they don't make an investment and don't employ as many people. This contributes to high levels of unemployment.
  • If firms were able to fire people more easily, they'd be more likely to take them on thereby reducing unemployment.
  • What's more, this investment in people would mean more people in jobs and more demand in the economy, so it's more likely that the investment will pay off, and the firms wouldn't have to fire their young workers anyway.

In Britain firms have had this flexibility for years. I've grown up with this lack of job security – my current job contract is practically the same as the proposed CPE and I'm not bothered (true, I'll be quitting anyway in the summer to go travelling, but I wouldn't be if no employer wanted to risk taking me on in the first place). I can't believe how so many unemployed French people don't get it. They've been given the choice of either: a greater chance of a job but the likelihood of the dole; or a low chance of getting a job and the greater likelihood of the dole. And they chose the latter. My only explanation is that they were collectively sitting at home, jobless and bored, most probably listening to the Clash's White Riot, and decided they needed an excuse to get out of the house.

Now, having scrapped the CPE, the French government are trying to solve the problem by throwing taxpayers' money at subsidies for getting the young into work. Maybe the majority of the French who have jobs don't mind supporting the unruly rest of society, in which case the democratic integrity of the French government remains intact. And I hear that the French economy isn't doing too badly at the moment anyway. But still…

Any resemblance of characters, events and opinions herein to the policies of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party is purely coincidental.


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