Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gaunty and the ghosts in the Sun

How can the Sun's spitemeisters expect to be taken seriously?

First it was aliens in Germany, now it's a ghost at a hospital in Derby. The Sun are working hard for their stories. Yesterday's paper carried a huge headline HAUNTED HOSPITAL CALLS IN EXORCIST, along with a ghostbuster's opinion and a superimposed photo of a ghost with the Royal Derby Hospital in the background.

No question this gives more weight to the already authoritative opinions of Jon Gaunt and chums. In the same paper yesterday, Gaunty was busy spreading bile left right and centre with tirades against -in order- gays, the jobless, the BBC, 'Lardy' Chris Moyles (watch out, Brad Pitt, Gaunty's the new stud), Noel Gallagher, Dannii Minogue and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

It all makes perfect sense, coming from the paper that has to superimpose pictures of ghosts in order to sell copies.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Israel in the dock?

The Spanish Supreme Court is to probe Israeli officials for "crimes against humanity".

Quelle surprise
. The usually anglo-centric British press is totally glossing over what looks like a whatershed in the history of international justice.

The Spanish Supreme Court, Audiencia Nacional, began an official inquiry into seven former and current Israeli officials alleged to have committed war crimes after a 2002 attack in the Gaza Strip that killed 14 people including a senior Hamas member. The judge described the attack as "clearly disproportionate" in his ruling.

According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, "National Infrastructure Minister and former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and former IAF and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz may face criminal charges in Spain for killing Palestinian civilians seven years ago". Israel dropped a one-ton bomb into a Gaza City neighbourhood housing Hamas leader Salah Shehade on July 22, 2002.

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak lashed out at the Spanish decision: "Those who call the killing of terrorists 'a crime against humanity' are living in an upside-down world," he said, calling the Spanish announcement "delusional".

Adn Kronos News agency explained that it's not the first time Spain make reference to a doctrine that allows prosecution in Madrid "of such an offence or crimes like terrorism or genocide even if they were allegedly committed in another country" (a similar precedent involved former Chilean dictator Pinochet).

The latest decision inquiry by the Audiencia National, however, is of greater resonance, coming in the wake of the huge controversy surrounding the recent killing of over 1,300 people in Gaza which saw the Israeli government at the centre of allegations of crimes against humanity. A European country officially pressing charges against Israel will be something to watch closely.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Guess what...More tabloid lies!

The Express newspapers pay libel damages over Rhys Jones claim

The killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones was already brutal and depressing as it was. It revealed yet another gangland tale centred around one scumbag called Sean Mercer. There really was no need to fabricate stuff.

Yet this is what the Express group did. It's today's news that Kelly Marshall, 18, from Liverpool, won "substantial" damages after the Daily Star (owned by the Express group, at once proud proprietors of a semi-pornographic rag and the right-wing moral gazette Daily Express) published a front page story claiming Miss Marshall was Mercer's girlfriend and she had hailed him a 'hero'.

It was totally false, as it turned out. Miss Marshall's solicitor said that her client "did not make any public statement, did not regard Mercer as a hero and would certainly never have made such a claim or sought publicity for it in the aftermath of his conviction for such an appalling murder". Miss Marshall also decided to "donate the sum to the memorial trust set up in memory of Rhys".

The Express newspapers apologised and agreed to pay the damages. Last December, the story was also reprised by the Daily Mail. The link to the article 'Girlfriend of Rhys's murderer Sean Mercer says: 'He's a hero and a lovely lad' is still available from this Daily Mail page, but the article itself has been obviously removed.

The British tabloids: what an absolute joke.

Money makes you a better person

You've heard it all about the abysmal behaviour of dole scroungers. Why not look at our wealthy football players for examples of righteousness and good conduct?

2008 was the year the Sun, the Express and the Daily Mail all held an unprecedented barrage of criticism against the country's "underclass". Feral beasts, dole scum, welfare addicts. "Welcome to Britain, land of the rising scum...", and that's just Richard Littlejohn in the Mail. If you live in one of Britain's deprived council estates, the tabloids' theory goes, you're going to become a scumbag. A drug addict, a joyrider, maybe a rapist, possibly a child murderer too.

Money changes your behaviour, doesn't it? Presumably then, the more dosh you make, the more flawless a young man you become. For evidence, we decided to take a peek at some of the wealthiest young men in the country, Premier League football players. Their credentials are impeccable, almost a Thatcherite wet dream: these are self-made young gentlemen who, thanks to their skills and abilities, joined the ranks of Britain's millionaires and earned the respect of legions of admirers. They're not sponging, they're not asking the state for help, and they're making such a massive amount of money that nowadays most boys' dream is to become a Premiership footballer and most girls' to be a WAG and long live feminism.

Statistics say that in 2007, the average Premiership footballer earned over £1m a month, the equivalent of £200,000 a week. Most Britons could dream of making that in a whole decade.

What follows is that the sheer load of incidents, "infidelity issues" and anti-social mishaps that are plaguing footballers outside the pitch must be either proper bastard bad luck or a big conspiracy of the envious plebs. Because the ratio of professional players having a brush with the law is truly staggering yet only a loonie leftie would relate it to wealth-induced power trips.

Look at it. Three days ago Man City star Robinho, the man who cost £32.5m in the summer so that he could kick balls into a net, was "arrested over ‘rape in nightclub’ claims". Only weeks before, World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo's rebellious £200,000 Ferrari crashed into a wall. Shit happens, doesn't it?

Except it wasn't the first time. Last year, another one of Ronaldo's cars (he has a fleet of luxury motors said to be worth more than £2million), a precious Audi R8 decided to spin 180 degrees on his way home. Also, few remember when some ungrateful money-hungry bitches grassed him up to the police for "carrying out an assault in the penthouse suite of a luxury West End hotel" in 2005. Cristiano denied it all, claiming he was being "stitched up", showing a fine display of linguistic skills as well.

For the record, Ronaldo's namesake, the Brazilian Luis Ronaldo, formerly of Real Madrid and AC Milan, was also arrested in 2007 after an altercation with transvestites at a Rio de Janeiro motel.

Back to dangerous driving, last year a 25-year-old Plymouth footballer turned into a child killer as two young boys became victims of his reckless driving. In 2005, former wonderkid Jermaine Pennant was jailed for three months. He "crashed his top of the range Mercedes into a lamppost while more than twice the legal limit, then drove off with the post dragging underneath the car". He admitted drink driving, driving while disqualified and driving without insurance. The one who got the worst deal though was former West Brom's Lee Hughes, who served three years for causing death by dangerous driving. He then fled the scene to avoid a breath test.

But it's not just their driving skills under scrutiny. Do you remember the infamous 2007 Christmas party that got the entire Manchester United squad in the papers? The players' WAGS had been banned. But to avoid accusations of sexism, the players invited over one hundred women. "Booze, fights, sleaze and a rape", wrote the Daily Mail, while the Mirror joked that the 'Red Devils' "lived up to their nickname as they knocked back booze and snogged girls at a riotous Christmas party". One of them, Wayne Rooney, was so honest that he'd already admitted visiting "massage parlours and prostitutes". "I was young and stupid", he said. As far as youth and stupidity goes, he's in good company. Allegations of sexual assaults amongst football players are as 'common' as sovereign rings in an Argos catalogue. In 2003, Leeds Utd's Jody Morris was charged with rape, while last year Andy Cole was arrested after an alleged assault on his wife.

And then there's the brawls. The general public just can't leave those young men alone. Last month, Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard spent a whole night in jail following an assault at a nightclub in Southport. In 2000, Leeds Utd's Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were sentenced following a street attack on an Asian student. In 2006, Rio Ferdinand's brother, West Ham Utd's Anton was arrested in a nightclub attack. More recently, Newcastle's Joey Barton was jailed for six months after admitting assault and affray outside a McDonald's. And let's not get started on Gazza Gascoigne.

This is only a tiny fraction of the big conspiracy against our football players. No doubt it's mostly a case of greedy members of the general public trying to sell their stories to tabloids. Because if you google the words "footballer car crash", "footballer arrested", "footballer rape charges", "footballer assault", your computer crashes under the sheer load of results.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scrap the House of Lords

No other democratic country has one. Simply because there is no justification for such a huge, unelected second chamber in the 21st century.

The new scandal surrounding corrupt lords has reignited the debate about reforming the decrepit House of Lords. After Tony Blair's 1999 'reforms', which simply replaced some hereditary peers with trusted ones conveniently handpicked by himself personally, the second house is now even less accountable. Allegations of corruption in the Lords are becoming a regular feature of British political life. Remember that no-one in the House of Lords can resign, even if they wanted to.

And yet, the reluctance to scrap something that is clearly redundant and anachronistic is staggering across the whole political spectrum. Significant chunks of the left, as usual, are terrified of defying the status quo, even in the face of overwhelming public opinion opposing it. Today, a certain paper writes that "a wholly elected chamber would be a mistake", and that's the Independent. They don't explain why, but nevermind. And that's in the face of an enormous unelected mammoth of toffs of a various kind who have as much connection with the real world as Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

The House of Lords isn't working. According to official sources, the yearly costs of the second chamber have been increasing relentlessly. In 2006, the House of Lords was costing the taxpayer £68 million, a massive increase on the comparatively puny £16m in 1991. And that's for a place which, in the words of The Earl of Halsbury "is not three-quarters empty; it is over 90 per cent; empty".

To give you an extent of the dysfunctional fairyland we are talking about, in Britain there are people having a direct say over legislation who are still known as Lords Spiritual, Dukes and Baronesses. Theirs is a detached world of flattery, ancient baronies and chivalry. Like Anthony Sampson once wrote, "[The Lords] still delight in the rituals of addressing each other as 'my noble friend'. At big debates ageing peers still fiddle with the built-in hearing aids or go to sleep though nowadays a flunkey wakes up the sleepers before a minister speaks lest they be seen snoring on television". The typical pro-Lords stance is that they don't really have a say in public life. If that was true then, why keep it? But the reality is that this comical, make-believe world still performs a serious legislative function. They can crucially delay legislation (like they did with the repeal of Section 28) or affect the outcome altogether.

No-one has ever explained why the House of Lords has to be so massive. The current count stops at 743. The German Bundestrat features 69 members, while the US Senate has 100. The Senate of France includes 343, and the Spanish one 264. But nevermind that; what in the name of goodness can justify such a fat feast in the British second house? And why on earth are they unelected? What is the usual crap about "the need to avoid more professional politicians"?

Because you'd have thought that's, for better or for worse, the nature of democracy. Professional politicians. Not a bunch of unelected big wigs preserved in aspic and trapped in spider's webs. At odds like they wouldn't manage to be even if they tried, with a contemporary world having debates about stem cell research, climate change, the role of digital communication, i-Phones and globalisation.

Until the whole legislative function becomes the prerogative of fully-elected, fully-accountable bodies, Britain will not be able to call itself a serious democracy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Labour and the 'Blame Game'

Whatever the next Tory government does, Labour will have no grounds whatsoever to express any credible opposition. "What didn't you do that we are doing now?", the Tories will snarl across the floor.

And so New Labour's end is coming, or at least this seems the analysis across the spectrum. If the financial crash wasn't enough, with yet another scandal ('Cash for influence') marring the party from its very foundations, Labour have come full circle. How many kicks in the nuts can one take? It would require a serious leap of imagination to think of an electorate still able to swallow a display of political ineptitude after the other.

In today's Independent, Steve Richards attempts to piece together where exactly it all went wrong. As they bent over backwards to camouflage amongst their own political enemies, did New Labour go as far as breaking their spines? Were their series of "sweeping political compromises" destined to implode sooner or later? And how about Iraq? Could Tony Blair have said no? Have we forgotten that the Tories and most of the country's press were even more pro-war than the government?

Remember that cheesefest called Love Actually? It feels so dated now, but there was one scene when Hugh Grant, who played the Prime Minister, overcome by pangs of jealousy as he watched the American President perving on Martine McCutcheon, defied all expectations and went against the US decision to go to war. 'If only', I remember thinking. In the real world, the legacy of those years is the footage of Blair receiving a medal from Bush in 2009. How eerie. I imagine it's a bit like watching the captain of the RMS Titanic backslapping his watchman with their ship three quarters under water.

George Monbiot in today's Guardian is absolutely right. What an irony that New Labour's pathetic adventure is folding the same way it started. Recalling the Tory scandals in the run-up to 1997, Monbiot writes that "The difference between these two moments is that now there is nowhere to turn". Because amongst the many broken promises of 12 long years of Labour in power in fact, we shouldn't forget the empty words about 'electoral reform'. "At least when the Tories were in government we could dream of something better".

Neil Robertson today criticises Nick Cohen's recent 'Why I blame the Left for Britain's financial ruin', with an almost weary "is there anything Nick Cohen hasn’t blamed the left for recently?". "New Labour was only taken seriously once it had reassured the city [and] promised to leave them alone", Robertson writes, but he forgets that the Blair & Brown years went miles beyond tactical positioning, or even the sacrosanct need to modernise.

Their massive parliamentary majorities, along with the nation's mood and an opposition shattered for a decade, were all factors that gave them enormous room for manouvre. Yet they ended up moulding themselves as a gooey version of the same crap they had once pledged to fight.

Like this blog wrote last year, whatever the next Conservative government does, Labour will have no grounds whatsoever to express any credible opposition. Literally. Whatever happens next under Tory watch, whether it is a reckless military adventure, tax relief for the rich, shamelessly City-friendly policies, rollback of public services, trampling on the Parliament, higher tuition fees, dodgy behaviour in the Lords, anti-welfare measures, etc... any cry of foul play would be sneered at as the pot calling the kettle black. "What didn't you do that we are doing now?", the Conservatives will snarl across the floor.

And how will you be able to blame them? For twelve long years, it was Labour who worked relentlessly to cut the ground from under their own feet. In that, they certainly succeeded.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Atzinger. R or N?

Pope welcomes back Holocaust denier

The Vatican, the same one who got its knickers in a twist as Obama's overturned Bush's ban on funding for family planning agencies in the Third World, has welcomed back four breakaway bishops excommunicated by John Paul II in 1988 for being too right-wing.

Amongst them, shining for caritas and benevolence, there's the Brit Richard Williamson, who in an interview on Swedish television a few days ago said that the historical evidence was “hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers”, adding that “200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them by gas chambers.”

Now let's see if the Israeli government, normally so prompt when it comes down to expressing disdain for a television broadcast, who'd go apeshit if a BBC or any journo had said anything remotely smiliar, will kick up a stink with the Vatican over someone who -about the Shoa- has the same opinions as Ahmadinejad.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

This time don't blame it on the Unions

Unlike in the Seventies, today's massive downturn has nothing to do with 'striking unionists'. It's taking place in the most business-friendly set up Britain's enjoyed since the 19th century.

The Independent on Sunday today quotes Government sources predicting a return to 70s flavoured three-day working weeks as a last ditch attempt to avoid mass unemployment ("Britain is facing return of three day week"). It makes for good headlines. Say the word 'crisis' and comparisons to the Seventies are immediately drawn.

But if the Winter of Discontent and the rise of Thatcherism are always explained as the inevitable result of decades of strong unionism, nationalised industries, high taxes and overregulation, today's massive downturn is something else altogether. Like Nick Cohen wrote in last week's Observer, "today's crash cannot be blamed on striking trade unionists". If you consider lower income tax at the top, weak trade unions, the explosion of casual work, the availability of cheap foreign labour, City de-regulation, tax avoidance and excessive pay at the top, in 2009 Britain is going bankrupt after two consecutive decades of the most solidly business-friendly and worker-unfriendly economic set-up since the 19th century.

Let's have a look at each factor.

After reaching its top at 83% in 1974, the top rate of income tax was brought down by the Tories to 40 per cent, amongst the lowest in Europe. When Labour got in they made sure they'd leave it untouched. In the meantime, they were extremely generous in setting their capital gains tax rates.

Between 1979 and 1982, City de-regulation saw the abolition of exchange controls and the end of restrictions on lending and hire purchases. Mrs Thatcher revealed in her memoirs that she took "the greatest personal pleasure in their removal".

Mass privatisations remained the order of the day for three consistent decades. Zealous neo-liberal ideology was thinly concealed by calls for 'efficiency' and 'choice', with the prescription that a state burdened with the management of industries, utility companies and railways would always be bad.

And then there's the Trade Unions. The Tory governments of the 1980s proudly introduced several anti-Union pieces of legislation which, in spite of election pledges to the contrary, New Labour never tried to modify. In 1999, official statistics showed that strike activity in the UK was "at its lowest level since records began" in the late 19th century, placing Britain amongst 'low-strike' EU countries.

It may be a coincidence but, more than anywhere else in Europe, the waning of unionisation in Britain coincided with the galloping casualisation of the labour market. From 13 million members in 1979, Union affiliates went down to just over 7 million in 2000. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, only one in six employees in the private sector were union members in 2006. Right when they were most needed, the Unions were pushed to the side by the dominant discourse.

And in fact, the last thirty years saw the notion of permanent employment becoming a privilege. 'Flexibility' became the word every self-respecting politician had to reel off in public. Translated into plain English, that meant the thriving of temping and agency work.

The continuing closure of the manufacturing industry was partly offset by the availability of lower paid employment in the service sector. They may have been on a temporary contract and 40 per cent their original salary, but like a Blairite automata would have told you, they were not on the dole. Skills and training on offer in the days of manufacturing were replaced by the call centre or temping agency. Those who've had the misfortune of working there know that these are places who leave you hating the rest of humanity for the rest of your life without teaching you a trade.

For all the patronising talk of a working class replaced by 'knowledge workers' and organised labour unseated by "self-assured freelancers setting their own terms and running their own lives as they stride from job to job" (to quote Nick Cohen's Pretty Straight Guys), truth is Britain quickly became a nation of low-wage sales assistants, data input clerks, receptionists and call centre workers doing the longest hours in Europe. Yet flicking through the papers in the years of Cool Britannia, negotiating your way past big-brother-o-meters and pop-idol-latests, the general feeling was one of a classless society where we were all freelancers, at worst, and wealth creators, at best.

Blair was always happy to boast that Britain was enjoying the lowest unemployment rate since the Seventies. What he never said though, is that -unlike thirty years before- a huge percentage of people in employment were not on liveable wages, parked as they were in the thin wedge of flexible work. And if truth is anything to go by, a BBC report brought the revelation that unemployment in 2007 was actually higher, at 5.5%, than it was in 1979.
Not to mention that UK-based companies have enjoyed for a few years the added opportunity of cutting more costs and making even more money by offshoring entire departments to countries were labour is cheaper.

Think of all the utility companies, banks and insurances who answer the phone from India or Bangladesh. That was unheard of twenty years ago.

The Feelgood Britannia years saw the country towering over its European rivals in terms of executive pay and bonuses. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker wrote in their book Unjust Rewards, "pay for top executives has been rising by many multiples more than the average pay". In 2006-7 chief executives' pay in the FTSE 100 companies "soared by 37% over the previous year". "In that year national average pay increased by 4% while the chancellor, Gordon Brown, insisted that public sector pay increases be held at 2%".

The UK financial set-up meant tycoons and zillionaires were invited in with open arms and both eyes turned blindly towards tax avoidance and tax havens.

To give you an idea of the dominant discourse in pre-credit crunch Britain, consider how discreet New Labour remained in the face of the devastating effect the non-dom tax avoiders had on the London housing market, where tens of thousands of ordinary families were being priced out by the new arrivals.

Compare it with how Blair and his government likened the firefighters' wage demands in 2002 to the apocalypse, warning that it would cause "terrible damage to the rest of the economy", while the Tories went as far as brandishing the FBU "a bunch of idiots" and a "disgrace to their country". The double standard in rhetoric was outstanding.

Banks netted year-on-year record profits (Barclays' in 2006 were 35% up on 2005, and a similar trend was met by all major British banks until the crisis kicked in) which coincided with the staggering expansion of credit. During the Feelgood years, total de-regulation meant the UK became the country where more credit cards were dished out than hot meals. In 2006 it was reported that "two-thirds of EU credit card debt [was] British". Anybody, casual workers, students, people on the dole, even dogs were generously offered credit.

De-regulation, the service economy, profiteering, low tax, weak Unions, banks running riot, casualisation and the end of permanent employment. When you look at those factors altogether, it dawns how the prophets of neo-liberalism, 'the end of history' and all that bollocks may need a new set of scapegoats this time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Degrees not worth a New Labour promise

The Blair government sold top-up fees with the illusion that a policy of higher education binge would pay off. The National intern scheme is a little step to right years of wrong.

When you think of the Blair years, the airy-fairy soundbites of 'knowledge economy', '21st century nation', 'wealth creation' and 'things can only get better' all spring to mind. Amongst the worst legacies of the years of delusion (1997-2007) you can safely include £3000-a-year tuition fees and an army of people with degrees worth nothing.

Tony Blair's words that a degree guarantees a better paid job have remained etched in history. Labour's policies of turning universities into degree-factories completely overlooked some obvious facts. Back in 2000, a study by the Centre for Economic Performance was already showing that "a third of workers" were "over-qualified". The government kept banging on that "going to university remains a very worthwhile investment" and top-up fees were brought in.

Nobody in the high ranks of the Labour party told Blair about the meaning of the word 'saturation'. Yet it's a simple fact. Take a law graduate, for instance: Britain has roughly the same amount of courts and court cases as it did thirty years ago, but the number of people holding a BA in law are probably ten times, maybe more, as many as back then. This is how the system clogs up. Thousands of those graduates will have to shelve their plans and look for the nearest call centre for work.
And now we're reaping the harvest. The papers are suddenly full of surveys and headlines about "Labour's graduates" who "aren't getting jobs", "Is there any point going to university", "Graduates struggling to get on the career ladder", and "A third of Brit graduates not employing their degrees". "Are degrees worth the paper they're printed on?" asked the Independent a few months ago, while Alex Betteridge, an Oxford graduate, recently wrote on Liberal Conspiracy:

"I can’t get a job. I haven’t been able to get a job for six months, and was recently rejected for work as a domestic cleaner at a London university, despite meeting the qualifications and having done the same job elsewhere".

At last, the world's cottoned on.

The trend had been obvious for a while, magically concealed by an economy still pretending to function on a binge of fake optimism and credit cards. When I graduated in 2002, and landed an admin job after hundreds of unsuccessful attempts, the most shocking aspect was the educational divide. Each and every one of the newest recruits at my workplace, the same generation as me, was a bunch of graduates in English, law, art, illustration, politics, history etc who could not find a more appropriate job for shit, no matter how hard they tried. Our older colleagues had needed GCSEs to manage exactly the same position as us. They were in disbelief at the sight of graduates stuck in a dead-end job whose requirements had to do with further education the same as tennis has to do with teamplay.

It's about time, therefore, that the government decided something had to be done. It may not be enough, but their National internship scheme is at least a sign that they're trying to right the wrongs of Blair's badly thought-out policies. At the Daily Mail, they can cry it's "a war on the middle classes" for all they like, but if banks can be saved from collapsing with billions of public money, then surely there is no harm in the government offering Britain's future generations a little help.

Obama repeals ban on abortion funds

No one can accuse Barack Obama of failing to live up to expectations (though The Independent's Robert Fisk did here on the subject of Gaza). His first act was to order the closure of that stunning example of atrocious Neo-Conservatism known as Guantanamo.

Then yesterday came his repeal of George W Bush's ban on abortion funds, in the face of vast criticism coming from the powerful US anti-abortion lobby. When Bush brought in the ban, family planning organisations like Planet Parenthood lost millions of dollars in funding overnight. At least 16 developing nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East were affected. "More than 1,000 outreach workers lost their jobs and, it estimates, about 38,000 women lost contraceptive, post-natal and immunisation services" writes the BBC's Jill McGivering.

The cynics will have to wait. So far Obama has delivered. And quick.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Don't win the lottery!

Funny I said yesterday that I'd like to start playing the lottery (disregarding a brief unsuccessful spell round the time Lost came out - I pathetically tried Hurley's 'cursed' numbers). Nick Cohen once branded it a "tax on the daft and the desperate" and he certainly had a point. If you need more to put you off, this piece Lotteries and Irrationality on the excellent Stumbling and Mumbling blog points towards a University of Pittsburgh paper showing that lottery winners are statistically much more likely to end up bankrupt.

After the axe

Real people are losing their jobs. The Independent noticed.

The two issues are related. And yesterday Simon Jenkins in the Guardian hit it it right on the head: "For every word written and spoken about the real economy, a thousand are written about banks". The articles and reports from the City world are there in tons. But you rarely hear about the stories of the tens of thousands (approaching 2m now) of people who've lost their job. Depressing stories don't sell, this is one of the fundamentals in the news factory.

Today's Independent is a welcome exception. A piece titled 'After the axe: What it's really like to lose your job' is a poignant look into the lives of the victims of this crisis. At all levels, from shop assistants and lorry drivers, to architects and financial consultants.
In the meantime, the £37bn the taxpayer gave the banks three months ago turned out to be not enough. So let's chuck another £50bn at them, shall we?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why the Council tax is so unfair

If local rates can be so low in other EU countries, why not in Britain? And why is the UK the only country with fortnightly rubbish collections?

New year, new rise in the awful Council tax. The government is trying to sell its 3.5% increase in 2009 with the notion that, until two years ago, Council tax surges would consistently be three or four times the inflation rate - up to a staggering 15% a dollop. For next year, the Local Government Association promised that "councils were doing their best to hold down tax increases at a time of economic hardship".

Yet sticking up for Britain's appalling local taxation system is nigh-on impossible. For a while, in the wake of the 2005 elections, it even looked like the Scrap The Council Tax movement was going to succeed. Arguments like the Council tax rising "by 121% since 1993 against inflation of 36% over the same period" seemed unassailable. The Labour government offered a review, but then, when no-one looked, it decided it wouldn't happen until the next elections.

The Council tax remains one of the greatest scandals of today's Britain. One of the most obvious question is: if it can be so low in other European countries (we'll come back to that), why does it have to be so massive in Britain? This year, average 'Band D' residents in Dudley, in the West Midlands, are forking out £88 a month. When you tell non-Brits about the UK Council tax rates, the general reaction is them thinking that you're being melodramatic or are telling a porkypie. Or perhaps they wonder if British cities get streets paved with gold in return.

However, as we all know, most local authorities don't even do weekly rubbish collections anymore. For most, now it is once a fortnight. The government said it's the best way to encourage recycling. Most would be of the opinion that pests would be encouraged too. The people in charge of Britain denied it, but never explained why.

Since the days of Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats have been consistently the only party calling for an overhaul of the Council tax system. Rightly, they point at:

a) its regressive nature. The Council tax does not reflect a person's ability to pay. You may have a retired steelworker who bought a former council flat in a certain part of town. His rate is likely to be an extortionate one, certainly not in line with his pension. Such a crap system ensures that people on a low/middle income pay a disproportionate amount to their local authorities. The old Axe the Tax campaign pointed out that most people pay more Council tax than the Prime Minister.

b) unlike in most other EU countries (Germany's Nebenkosten an exception), in the UK it is tenants who are burdened with the Council tax. Now, you'd have thought that generally, landowners are wealthier than someone who can't afford to buy a house. Yet if your landlord's loaded and you're simply renting, you are the one who's got to pay for the Council tax on his property. In France, Spain and Italy, the general trend is that landlords are liable for tax on their own property.

One issue, however, is often overlooked. The fact that, on average, local authority tax is significantly lower in most EU countries. I studied the system in Spain (IBI), France (taxe d'habitation and taxe fonciere) and Italy (ICI). Of course rates vary considerably, but overall there is no contest. In each of those countries the local tax is seriously a fraction of the grand and more most people have to fork out in the UK.

This is the most puzzling point. In each of those countries, the local tax goes to finance local police and fire services, public transport subsidies, social housing, street cleaning, various council activities as well as rubbish collection.

But in Spain, for instance, they collect your waste twice a day, and the recycling system is miles ahead of its UK counterpart, with daily collections of recyclable material from wheely bins at, literally, each street corner. In Italy, according to the area, collections vary from daily to twice a week, and that's without including the pick-up of reusable waste.

The questions most expats routinely ask is: along with sky-rocketing utility bills, why is the UK Council tax so high and why do residents get so little in return? Is it to do with greedy councils? Or does inefficiency play a part? Or is there some other magical justification the government or its supporters may be able to come up with?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Obama bandwagon

By the looks of it, George W Bush was an alien catapulted in from outer space. The millions of voters and hangers-on that made his two terms possible have magically disappeared. Are we really such a spineless species?

The day has arrived. Billions of people worldwide will be watching as Barack Obama is today sworn in as America's 44th President. The epic comparisons are chucked around like confetti. Is this Abraham Lincoln-style history in the making? Is Obama carrying Martin Luther King's torch? Or will today look more like JFK's inauguration, signalling the arrival of "a new, bright, young, fresh America?"

None of this is Obama's fault. Nor is the fact that he's being burdened with colossal amounts of expectation, courtesy of the havoc wreaked by eight years of galloping Neo Conservatism in the White House.

For sure, Obama's inauguration is providing some interesting insight into human nature's deepest sheepishness. We really are a disgustingly spineless species. We don't like to be seen siding with losers. We love licking the winner's arse. We cherish a gushing crowd, we just love the collective hysteria.

Which is why it's easier to find a piece of dandruff in a carpet than spotting a Bush voter or hanger-on. Like post-1945 Germany or post-1989 Romania, it really feels like the Texan guy was catapulted in from outer space and ransacked the place for two terms. Where are the multitudes that made his eight years possible? Where are the defenders of the Iraq war (David Miliband, anyone?), the advocates of Guantanamo Bay, the hordes that went along with the lethal Project for a New American Century?

They've all quietly sneaked out of the way and jumped on the bandwagon. A few months ago Melanie Phillips was having convulsions as she wrote piece after piece about "Obama's Muslim connections", his "multiple links to anti-Americans and subversives" and his embracing of Christianity "as a tactical manoeuvre to get himself elected". She's been quiet on the Obama subject ever since.

Also, look at what the Daily Mail wrote two years ago about Obama. "A drunk and a bigot - what the US Presidental hopeful HASN'T said about his father...". Only last summer, in the same paper, our chum Richard Littlejohn was writing "Obama for President? Don't count your chickens", adding that "while the Messiah clings to a slim lead overall, he trails McCain on a range of policies from energy to national security".

The day after his victory, Littlejohn's tack changed. "Only a dyed-in-the-wool racist could fail to be enthralled and inspired by Obama's ascent to the most powerful office in the world.", he wrote. Not to mention this morning's Daily Mail epic "We will walk together as one, Obama tells U.S. as he honours Martin Luther King Jr hours before becoming President". For a while, anti-Obama pieces in the Mail have been notable by their absence.

The Sun as well, of course. Last July, Trevor Kavanagh called Barack Obama a "snake-oil salesman". Amongst a colour-related pun or two, Kelvin MacKenzie was sneering that "I will only believe there’s no racism any more when they put a white man in charge of Rwanda". Today, in the same paper, you won't find any of that. It's all about "a new day dawns" and "the end of the Bush “misadministration”". Shame the Sun are wonderfully quiet on the the most memorable piece of Bush "misadministration" they staunchly supported: the Iraq war. This morning, the Sun's own editorial oozes industrial amounts of cheese. "Special One" goes the headline, spurting words like "hope and goodwill", "gifted and glamorous", "grace and dignity", "cool dude", "natural commander". You read it and you feel like you've had eight pints.

An old Housemartins song was called Sheep and it went like this:

"When I was young they used to get me counting sheep
But the counting I did was all in vain
Now when I'm tired and I'm trying to get to sleep
I count humans jumping onto trains".

Monday, January 19, 2009

The return of Ken Clarke

Back from the dead, a new Conservative politician enters the shadow cabinet. To the left of half the Labour party.

Here's to the renewal of the British political scene. Kenneth Clarke, 68, was the Health Minister as far back as 1982 and went on to work his way up the Conservative ladder. During the John Major years he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and later contested the Tory leadership on three occasions (1997, 2001, 2005). And now he's back, with David Cameron appointing him shadow business secretary in order to "take on Lord Mandelson".

To be fair, Kenneth Clarke has always been my favourite Conservative, if there is such a thing. He may have puffed a cigar or two with Maggie Thatcher. And he's most certainly pro-big business (having sat at the top of several international corporations), but at the height of the anti-Europe Tory hysteria, he was amongst the very few who argued against 'Little Britainism' at the cost of being publicly slain by his own party. Most say that his successive leadership bids went tits up precisely because of his pro-Europe ideas.

And I can't have been alone in thinking that Ken Clarke was also consistently to the left of Blair and his acolytes. He was amongst the 15 Tory MPs who in 2003 defied their own Party as they voted against the Iraq war and he was also strongly opposed to increasing tuition fees. He once said: "I never liked tuition fees as an idea. They are too severe on people who come from families with modest means or those who do not expect high-flying jobs when they leave university". Right on.

And so, if you think of all the old Tory relics that could have done a Lazarus, good old Ken is a million times better than Ann 'Peter Beardsley' Widdecombe or super right-w(h)inger John Redwood. Or in fact, any of the people in the photo above, straight back from the pre-technicolour days, showing Ken Clarke along with friends Michael Howard (second left) and Norman Lamont (far right, excuse the pun).

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Israel's military assault on Gaza has come to an end. With nothing to claim but the lives of 1,200 people.

So ceasefire it is. At last. After pounding Gaza for three weeks, inlcuding UN buildings and schools, Israel announced it had "fully attained its goals" and "beyond" and Hamas had been defeated. Except that "hours later, five rockets fell near the Israeli border town of Sderot, and there was a brief exchange of fire".

This crisis has confirmed that the best gift to Israel's propaganda machine are the continuous references to WWII and the world 'Nazi'. Because instead of answering the merits of its action, the Israeli government can simply reiterate their calls against anti-Semitism. Robert Fisk's piece in yesterday's Independent is the perfect counterargument.

Today's Observer brands it a "pointless war [that] has led to a moral defeat for Israel". "Israeli authorities will insist that they have limited the ability of Hamas to launch rocket attacks. But the ostensible war aim was destroying that capability completely". And in fact, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, tipped for an election victory next month, is now calling for "the complete removal of Hamas from power".

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Today's top links

If George Orwell could see today's crisis; £250,000 a week; the decline of gobbiness, and other stories...

Interesting piece by Michael Deacon in the Telegraph: what George Orwell would make of today's economic crisis and The Road to Wigan Pier set next to the current situation. Good remark, in particular, when Deacon mentions "tens of thousands of men who are about to pay £30 or more a head to spend 90 minutes watching men on £60,000 a week play football". Seventy-two years ago there would have been a popular revolt. Now Manchester City are about to offer AC Milan £100m for Kaka. Wages are rumoured to be in the region of £250,000 a week.

Not for the first time The Times snipes at the Trade Unions. For some reason when they write about Unite they see outrageous privileges and petty squabbles. If only they devoted half their energies towards City wages and tax avoiders, they'd show a better grasp of priorities. And common sense.

Lo and behold, Geoff Hoon has opinions. Quite bland, mind you, before you say anything. The Guardian reports him picking on Oscar winner Emma Thompson, a well-known opponent of the Heathrow expansion plan. "I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don't see the logic of their position" he said. He's never going to be a political heavyweight, is he?

The excellent Stumbling and Mumbling blog by Chris Dillow has a piece on "The Decline of Gobbiness". Based on the current Celebrity Big Brother, it makes the not entirely unreasonable point that the only people standing up to Coolio's bullying tactics are the two fortysomethings in the house: Ulrika and Tommy. "Today’s young adults, I get the impression, are much more passive", writes Chris. Passive as in apathetic, probably yes. Gobby, probably not. Gobbier in fact.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A runway for the Tories?

With the Heathrow expansion inflicted upon Parliament, residents and the whole country, has the government made its final case for a Tory win at the next elections?

Yesterday, George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that this government is "almost enough to make you vote Conservative". Let's just say that Labour are doing a fantastic job at trying. Because if there's any chance of a Labour victory at the next elections, then it'll be based purely and entirely on the electorate's goldfish-like memory.

The government's go-ahead for the third runway at Heathrow is possibly their 126th slap in the face to millions of Labour voters. As it stands, you'd have to be a gold medal winner at the Gullible Olympics to still pay heed to what New Labour routinely puts on pieces of paper. In fact, if they write it down in some document or manifesto, it means they'll do the exact opposite.

Their list of lies and broken promises is just comical. A quick roll of honour would have to include the infamous "no Iraq war without a second UN resolution" as well, of course, the dodgy dossier; the privatisation of air traffic control; "we won't increase tuition fees"; the Ecclestone scandal; the 'ethical' foreing policy and New Labour's record on arms sales; trade union laws and rail nationalisation; the 2000 London mayoral vote and the EU Treaty referendum pledge; the new proposals on bailiffs and the Trident scheme. And the list goes on. With the recent addition of the Heathrow plan and its total mockery of Labour's own carbon emission targets.

Put simply, a Labour voter today is the equivalent of a submissive wife putting up with her loverat of a husband. "Promise me you won't do it again", she begs him. "Sure", nods the serial cheater, and off he sneaks to another marriage-shattering orgy. You trust his words at your peril.

Two days ago in The Guardian, Simon Jenkins explained that the concept of the third runway at Heathrow "essential to the British economy" is just a myth. "It would create thousands of jobs", is the government's argument. But "so would rebuilding Britain's mental health infrastructure, which would thus also be "good for business", argues Jenkins. Not to mention that, in the words of the former BA boss Bob Ayling, an expanded Heathrow would be actually "against Britain's economic interests" and "would only boost airline profits". "A flight of fallacy", as he wrote in The Times back in May last year.

But yesterday's most pathetic spectacle was the speech made by Geoff Hoon the automata, the man who'd sooner die than disagree with his masters. "We will establish a new target to limit aviation emissions in the UK to below 2005 levels by 2050", he said, on-message. He'd done his homework alright. But as Shadow Transport Secretary Teresa Villiers quite rightly put it, at this stage any government environmental promises are "not worth the paper they are written on". She may be a Tory but she was spot on.

The third runway decision was the epitome of New Labour's sheer arrogance, with the contemptuous way the government denied a parliamentary vote in the face of massive opposition from the public. Like John McDonnell MP explained to the BBC, the government violated "the right of MPs to decide the policies of this country". "I was hoping the government would allow us a democratic debate and a vote and do deny it undermines our parliamentary democracy", he said.

With the expansion going ahead, seven hundred homes (the entire village of Sipson) will be raised to the ground, with residents and local businesses "expected to be the subject of compulsory purchase orders as plans proceed to demolish the entire village to make way for the construction". Several constituencies will be affected by noise and pollution, with acres of greenbelt land set to be swallowed up. As you can imagine, the opposition is, simply, massive.

Yet Big Business needs not worry. In the words of George Monbiot, "[it] already knows that when it says "Jump!", Labour will reply "Off which high building?". Ministers need do nothing more to prove what a spineless bunch of snivelling sycophants they are".

And so, back to Monbiot's argument that this government makes you want to vote Tory. Today David Cameron repeated that "his party will scrap the plan if it wins the power", going as far as "warning firms not to invest in building a third runway at Heathrow". Ironically, like with James Purnell's punitive proposals against single mothers, the Conservatives appear as our best hope of stopping New Labour's blunders.

What a sorry ending to the Labour Party.

You can sign the Stop Heathrow Expansion petition on the campaign website.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Miliband renounces what?

Eight years too late, Miliband "implicitly" criticises the War on Terror. And James Hooper fawns.

We all know a person or two suffering from 'Panglossian disorder', the tendency towards extreme optimism and extreme denial in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. Everything's fine and everything's amazing. Flowers and chocolate. Roses and lilies. My good old friend Gaz once said that "I don't know anything about Iraq, but if our government is taking us to war over there, then it means they must have their good reasons". He also said that his minimum-wage casual job at a call centre was an excellent career opportunity and, after he lost that same job, he was still mumbling "oh it's alrite".

Today, via the excellent Liberal Conspiracy website, I found another recruit to the Panglossian cause as I stumbled upon a piece by James Hooper, author of the wonderfully written Scribo Ergo Sum blog. "Miliband hits the spot", he writes.

Some of the ideas and concepts on Hooper's blog are entirely agreeable. His blog contains a slew of excellent opinions and thought-provoking articles about politics and the wider world. But, my heartfelt apologies, his stuff about David Miliband is just a massive clanger. If anything because it's seriously based on a delusion. James Hooper sees things entirely based on implicitness, getting carried away with one Panglossian leap after the other.

According to Hooper, David Miliband would have allegedly "renounced" the War on Terror, something especially brave as it was done "five days before the Texas thugs departs the Oval Office". So in Hooper's rose-tinted world, that is hugely significant. That makes Miliband a "mouth-watering" political prospect.

Aside from the fact that it's probably easier to spot a dodo than anyone still uttering the phrase "War on Terror" (the phrase hasn't been openly used by anybody, not even the 'Texan thugs' since at least 2006), Hooper magically forgets that Miliband has been a fervent supporter of the 'Texan thugs' and their foreign policy adventures throughout. Hooper may slate the "Neo Conservative myth", but the fact is Milband has always been pro-Iraq war and if he harboured any doubt then they must have been "implicit" because, as recently as 2008, he "hailed the Iraq war as a remarkable victory which had brought democracy and security to the conflict-ridden country". Hooper may want to ask a million Iraqi corpses what they make of "implicit" repositioning.

Hooper took the Foreign Secretary's article in today's Guardian and decided to turn it into a 'Road to Damascus' kind of moment. Because, really, the most adventurous thing Miliband could come up with was a quote from General Petraeus saying that the western coalition in Iraq "could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife". Hooper also wrote that "[Miliband]'s stance on the latest Israeli atrocities have been about as good as could be expected from a mainstream politician". What, calls for a ceasefire? "Halt all violence"? Calling it "a dark moment"? Was he going to call it a "bright one" instead? Does Hooper know of any European politician, from Sarkozy to Zapatero, to Gordon Brown himself, who didn't spurt hot air over "the loss of human life"?

Hooper doesn't forget to stick a strawman in. In order to flesh out Miliband's words he places them right against blogs like Monkeysmashes and the Communist Party of Great Britain (well-known big beasts of the British political scene, you know) and their support for "murderous Islamists".

No, my friend. Please find yourself another political idol. Because after ten years of Blairite piss'n'wind, lies and constant political posturing, the last think Britain needs is a Miliband to idolise.


No-one doubted The Sun wouldn't give a toss about the Gaza slaughter.

True to their glorious history, The Sun have been remarkably thrifty with their 'coverage' of the Gaza 'war'. Over a thousand people died in two weeks. The risk of the conflict escalating throughout the Middle East looks closer each day. Allegations that Israel used white phosphorous are growing more consistent. Hamas are dangerously looking stronger than ever. Etcetera.

Yet the Sun have been consistent in focusing their efforts towards tits, UFOs in Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo and Celebrity Big Brother, obviously assuming that the wider British public are thick or simply couldn't give an absolute monkeys about alien 'Ay-rabs' dying in a faraway land.

So The Sun's biggest Gaza-related stories so far have been:
a) the fabrication about an alleged 'terrifying Islamic hit-list' that wanted to target Sir Alan Sugar ('TERROR TARGET SUGAR');

This is the biggest selling paper in the UK. No wonder most Europeans believe "the Brits are shallow"...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The discovery of social mobility

It may just be words. But from the 'right to get filthy rich' to the duty to promote 'fairness' and 'social mobility', Labour is making a step forward.

After eleven years in denial, the Government has finally at least acknowledged that Britain is in the throes of a serious problem of inequality. Like Polly Toynbee wrote yesterday, there are still significant pockets of sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism. But inequality "trumps them all". Britain has the biggest gap between rich and poor in the EU, and the divide has been growing non-stop regardless of the government in charge.

You can tell Labour are onto something good because Melanie Phillips and the Daily Mail are having fits of rage that would give The Exorcist's Regan a run for her money. Look at their Taleban-style attack. "Labour's war on the middle-classes", according to Michael Lea. Or Max Hastings' "Laws against the middle classes". Or Melanie Phillips' sheer fury with talks of "Soviet Communism", "Orwellian agenda", and the traps of "welfare dependency".

Why the Mail's convulsion? Because Harriet Harman is simply suggesting a White Paper that, in the wake of the current super-decline in social mobility, spells out a duty for the public sector "to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor". How that may be done is unclear, and excuse my pessimism, but I don't think it'll amount to much. There's a clear limit to what policymakers can do. But it's refreshing, dare I say radical, to see a British government openly pushing forward issues of "fairness" and "equality".

Let's not forget that until very recently the priorities Labour had spelt out were the right to get "filthy rich" and "the need to encourage more multi millionaires into this country", thinly offset by the hot air about "education, education, education".

And so Melanie Phillips can bark all she likes and write 'unhinged' stuff, to quote herself, about nuclear family and the horrific immigrants. But when you have a country with such obscene income gaps and shortage of opportunities for the masses, you're bound to reap the harvest one way or another. And that harvest comes in the guise of family breakdown, deprivation, crime, ghetto estates, and an-all pervasive social tension that you ignore at your peril.

And, at the end of the day, they may not like Harman's White Paper, but are they suggesting any alternative at the Daily Mail? That would be too much to ask.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Today's press on Harry

Trying to fit in with the boys? Victim of today's "verbal break-out"? Or simply lack of intellectual acuity? The papers dissect Prince Harry's hideous behaviour.

The Sun
, sister paper of the News of the World which kicked off Prince Harry's latest scandal, are remarkably thorough on the affair. Whereas you'd have expected a busty Page Three girl to simply deliver a "Naughty Harry" while looking seductively at the camera, today's Sun instead contains a background article ('Never again Harry') along with six separate comments. Most are sympathetic to the Prince, including a linguistic professor arguing that such banter is "perfectly normal [...] amongst good friends or colleagues"! Maybe in his world. They won't print it, but the Prince most certainly provided the Sun with the perfect tabloid fodder.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in the Independent ('Harry you can't just say what you like'), makes the valid point that Harry is simply toeing the line with this "age of verbal break-out" punctuated by the glorification of the various Jonathan Rosses, Russell Brands, Big Brothers and other types of bullying. "The more we see and hear stuff that should be avoided in public discourse", Alibhai-Brown writes, "the more de-sensitised society becomes to what is unacceptable speech or behaviour". You're not kidding, Yasmin.

In the Guardian, Peter Preston doesn't mince his words, "The trouble with a hereditary monarchy is that you get what you're given: in this case, a third-in-line to the throne of no great intellectual acuity", adding the simple truth: "What does a Harry figure – almost devoid of exam pass marks – do with the rest of his life?"

The Express opt for playing down the scandal. As each Harry-related malarkey becomes more difficult to justify, the pro-Royals' best bet is silence. Hence yet another headline about immigrants nicking British jobs (the Express' own obsession) is enough to dwarf a secondary piece titled 'Prince Harry 'paki' slur sickening says Muslim leader'.

We couldn't finish without an opinion from Britain's moral keepers, the Daily Mail. They most certainly didn't find the Prince's latest antics funny. Geoffrey Levy and Richard Kay write that "The really dangerous aspect of this latest Prince Harry affair is that, in all probability, he doesn't really understand just what he has done wrong". They remind the reader that Harry "wasn't an immature 15-year-old" when he was filmed saying what he said. The Mail's own comment is no less slating. "Last chance for the apologetic Prince Harry", is the headline.