Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Littlejohn and Michael Jackson

Daily Mail columnist slams Jackson-induced hysteria!

Just like we're all canny football managers during the World Cup and why-the-fuck-did-he-select-Peter-Crouch, with the death of Michael Jackson everybody is passing judgement on music. Soul, Mowtown and dance, they know it all. Even Littlejohn. "Elvis, he wasn't", the unexpected music expert pontificates in today's Daily Mail, "Nor was he Sam Cooke, James Brown or Otis".

Then he informs you that "Mob grief proves Britain is more wacko than Jacko". Just in case you were wondering, the same paper today is lined with one Michael Jackson-related revelation after the other: "Tribute to Michael at emotional awards ceremony", "Who was buying drugs for Jacko?", "So what was the truth about Jackson's sexuality?", "The last pictures", "Michael Jackson's father cut of of will", "Jacko's nanny reveals", "I saw in his eyes he was dying", and a further selection of Jacko-centred pieces.

Could it be that Littlejohn was referring to his own beloved paper? Does he even read it?

Monday, June 29, 2009

New Labour moments (part 2)

Here's another roll of honour of New Labour's finest achievements during twelve years in office:

- The Hinduja scandal. In January 2001, it was revealed Mandelson had phoned a Home Office minister on behalf of an Indian millionaire seeking British citizenship while sponsoring the ailing Millennium Dome. Mandelson was forced to resign from his post as "Secretary of State for Ireland" as he himself had dubbed it. Seven years later, he was rewarded with a life peerage.

- House of Lords. In its 1997 manifesto ('Britain deserves better'), Labour promised to remove the hereditary peerage from the House of Lords, a unique aberration amongst Western democracies. So what did they do? Did they turn it into an elected chamber? A regional one, perhaps? No. Tony Blair thought the perfect idea would be to mix hereditary peers (92 of them), bishops and hundreds of personally handpicked ones (see below).

- Cash for Honours scandal. A number of wealthy businessmen making secret loans to New Labour prior to the 2005 elections magically got nominated for peerages (see above). A criminal investigation led to the arrest of Blair's chief fundraiser Lord Levy, later released on bail. "Trust damaged", said the public administration committee's report.

- "Good day to bury bad news". The tragic attack on September 11, 2001 gave Labour a chance to practice "spin at its worst". A Labour aide's memo said: ""It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?".

- "Ending boom and bust". "Through rigorous discipline we will not return to boom and bust". This succession of epic proclaims accompanied an unsustainable debt-financed growth, followed -in fact- by the worst crisis in 60 years. "I only meant no more Tory boom & bust", was Brown's justification, obviously thinking that Britain's population consists of 60 million cretins.

- The David Kelly affair. A "Best of" of Labour's culture of secrecy, political bullying and lack of transparency, this was obviously going to become Tony Blair's lowest moment in government. Anybody out there still thinking Dr Kelly committed suicide?

- The FBU strike. At the end of 2002, firefighters began the longest industrial dispute since the miners' strike in 1984. As they asked for their first wage revision since 1977, Tony Blair said that their demands could cause "terrible damage to the economy". He never said that about 'non-doms', City bonuses, or an economy built on fake credit.

- Civil liberties. From one Terror Act to the other, detention without trial under Labour rose rapidly from four days under the Tories to fourty-two days under the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008. Continuous lies over rendition flights were another fine moment.

-2/3 of all EU debt. Blair and Brown would routinely boast about Britain's "golden age" and "consumer boom" but, under Labour, personal debt was allowed to spiral out of control. In 2006 it was revealed that 2/3 of all EU credit card debt was British. I guess you know what happened after.

- A party of strong values. From Mandelson's now ultra-famous "intensely relaxed about the filthy rich", to John Hutton's ode to City bonuses "we need more millionaires" to Caroline Flint's "if you want a council house find a job" and James Purnell's "there should be no free-riding", this is how Labour has become a "party of strong values".

- The Lisbon treaty referendum. Whichever your views on Europe, the 2005 Labour manifesto promised a referendum on the new EU constitution. "This is a Government promise", said Tony Blair. Oh yeah.

- Poverty. Despite promises and proclaims, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the poorest fifth of the population has experienced no growth in real earnings. Nearly twice as many people have relatively low incomes as 25 years ago. Income inequality has risen since Labour took power and is now higher than at any time in the last thirty years.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ten New Labour moments

A small selection of Blair and Brown's most repulsive political acts.

Referring to the new wave of City bonuses and Downing Street's reluctance to introduce regulation on hedge funds and private equity, John Harris wrote in the Guardian that this is "Labour's final betrayal".

'Final' though implies the existence of a long list. So we decided to wade through New Labour's monumental list of lies, mistakes, u-turns and nails in the coffin. Shortlisting twelve years of toxic decisions proved exceptionally complex. However, here's a small selection:

- The Iraq war. Blair's infamous 45-minute claim, the dodgy dossier, the farce of seeking a second UN resolution when a decision had long been taken, a country blown to smithereens, a million demonstrators shunned like a shred of arse paper. The Iraq fiasco will forever mark Tony Blair's legacy.

- Tuition fees. Whatever your views on the cost of Higher Education, the brazen about-face performed by Tony Blair and his subordinates was a textbook exercise in how to foster apathy. "We will not introduce top-up fees", said Labour's manifesto in 2001. Three years later, Blair tripled them.

- Private Finance Initiative. The mother of financial black holes whereby a hospital costing £87 million ends up, over time, draining the taxpayer of £400 million in order to line the pockets of private firms. Ten years on, the government is having to nationalise the losses. "Opaque and dishonest", is how Vince Cable branded it.

- Final Salary Pensions. Government leaflets gave a misleading impression of the security of final salary pension schemes, but 400 of them collapsed between 1997 and 2005, leaving 125,000 old people in financial ruin. The High Court found the Government responsible.

- The 10p tax rate fiasco. A massive slap in the face to low earners. A kick in the nuts to the tune of £232 a year for any childless person making under £18,500. Some claim this remarkable act of political ineptitude kickstarted Gordon Brown's downfall.

- "Ethical foreign policy". People say that New Labour's first term was their best. But look at how the hypocrites were showering mercenaries and dictators with arms, from Sierra Leone to Indonesia. Meanwhile, taxpayer-funded London's Arms Fair continues to be the largest in the world.

- The Walter Wolfgang moment. A frail 82-year-old WWII survivor was manhandled out of the 2005 Labour conference in Brighton and barred from re-entering courtesy of the Terrorism Act 2000. His crime? Having shouted "nonsense!" during Jack Straw's speech.

- The 2000 London Mayor elections. With Ken Livingstone a clear favourite amongst Londoners and party activists, Blair decided to stop him with some old USSR-style control freakery. First he set up a central commitee to veto candidates and then he shunned the promise of a one-member one-vote selection system. In Blair-land the vote of one MP was to be worth the same as 1,000 rank and file party members. Finally, Livingstone got kicked out of the party. New Labour still lost. One of Blair's biggest humiliations.

- Air traffic privatisation. Another textbook u-turn and further indication of New Labour 's strong beliefs. In 1996, the Labour conference said that "Our air is not for sale". Sure.

- The ID card scheme. £5.6bn to run this useless, gargantuan scheme. And the figure keeps going up. And the government tells you dole handouts are a burden on the economy.

- The Trident nuclear arsenal. Forget hollow talks of non-proliferation. Forget the politics of fear: how is a £20bn-plus (£16.8m per missile) nuclear fleet going to protect the population from suicide bombers on buses?

- The Bernie Ecclestone donation. £1m and Formula One was handed a reprieve from the tobacco ads ban. "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy", Blair famously said about it.


Letts and the issues that matter

(h/t Bob Piper)

That ridiculous Cambridge-educated Harry Potter lookalike, Quentin Richard Stephen Letts, has now written four articles (4) in a week about Bercow's election as Speaker of the Commons.

It just shows his grasp of issues that matter to the common man.

Because no doubt, in every pub in the country, in ever working men's club, mess room, shopfloor and university corridor, people are talking about nothing else. Bercow, Bercow, Bercow.

If he carries on this way, Quentin Once-We-Had-An-Empire Letts is going to bore the shit out of Daily Mail readers. And then no amount of titties selected by editor-in-chief Dacre will be enough to offset Letts' tedious ramblings.

Friday, June 26, 2009

'Chavs' don't mean working class

The continuous equation between 'chavs' and 'working class' is a crass insult to the latter.

This online piece called A Brief History of the Chav opened my eyes to the extent of today's biggest misconception: the equation between 'chavs' and working classes.

The word 'chav' made its first appearance around 2003, unifying a variety of regional expressions such as 'kevs' from the West Midlands, 'scallies' from the North West, Scotland's 'neds' as well as many others. As websites on the subject sprung up and books were being published, it appeared that the initial criteria to define the term 'chav' were more a question of attitude rather than class.

'Chav' was essentially a naff anti-social individual associated with feral yobbery and pack mentality, as well as 'lad culture' and the extreme fetishism of material goods (fast cars, expensive sound systems or jewellery).

Things started to change when right-wing tabloids homed in on the subject. 'Chavs' became synonymous with dysfunctional council estate dwellers and the term was widely deployed when reporting stories about underclass citizens breaking the law or cheating the system. By trying to push a specific political agenda, tabloids routinely sneer at chavs, intended as benefit scroungers and "the feral underclasses". Ironic really, if you consider how extremely popular certain red tops are amongst 'chavs' across the country. The Sun in particular, with its brand of proto-cheeky macho yobbery, epitomises the concept that "chav is always the other, never myself". And so a benefit fraudster is referred to as a 'chav', but a tax dodger isn't.

However, the mistake is perpetrated by left-wing commentators such as John Harris and Johann Hari, as well as the Fabian Society. When articles like "Stop using the word 'chav': it's deeply offensive", or "Who are you to laugh at chavs", condemn "class hatred" and snobbish attitude towards 'chavs', they automatically accept the equation 'chavs'/lower classes.

Well-meaning though it may be, the progressive approach backfires as a mildly patronising one. A lot of working class people have nothing to do with 'chavvy' lifestyles. Many, for instance, wouldn't be able to afford stupidly expensive sports cars and they would certainly not piss their wages on souped up engines. Most of them are hard-working and law-abiding people.

Instead, the term 'Chavs' crosscuts all classes and ethnic groups. The word lends itself better for someone like brawl-loving spoilt aristobrat Prince Harry or a loaded, Porsche-crashing alpha male, than it does with many working class kids.

Like the feral family portrayed in the recent film Eden Lake, their four-bedroom two-storey terrace complete with nicely trimmed backgarden is hardly ''deprived" material. What makes them "chavs" isn't so much their social status, but their inability to use their brain power constructively along with a vicious "not-my-son" mentality of packs and ringleaders.

'Chavs' should remain what it always was: a class-blind term to describe the human products of Britain's cultural decline. The rise of mindless consumerism, the cult of flashy mobile phones and 'wicked' bi-turbo 'motors', the fetishisation of arrogance and aggression, the obsession with in-yer-face celebrity bullies, the fascination with coming across as thicker than you actually are and wha*eva: all of the above may have more to do with the "chav phenomenon" than someone's reliance on a council flat.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson dies

Can you believe it? A world without Jacko.

Reports are piling up. According to several US websites, legend Michael Jackson, 50, was rushed to hospital in Los Angeles earlier today after suffering a cardiac arrest.

were the first ones to break the news: "A source tells us Jackson was dead when paramedics arrived. A cardiologist at UCLA tells TMZ Jackson died of cardiac arrest", they wrote on their website.

According to the LA Times, "Pop icon Michael Jackson is dead". According to a 3:15 pm update, "Pop star Michael Jackson was pronounced dead by doctors this afternoon after arriving at a hospital in a deep coma, city and law enforcement sources told The Times".

In Europe, France's Le Figaro reports the popstar wasn't breathing when they took him to hospital and Italy's la Repubblica's main headline is "Michael Jackson is dead. A heart attack killed him". According to Germany's Spiegel, "Michael Jackson ist tot", with the added news that "Der King of Pop is gestorben".

British sites are, as always, extremely cautious. The BBC and The Guardian are simply talking of "Michael Jackson taken to hospital", though BBC News adds he "was not breathing when paramedics arrived". The Sun online, however, reports: "Jacko Dead".

Crash And The City

Green shoots explained.

Today's Guardian features two excellent pieces that explain how helpless governments are -and always will be- when placed in front of the City's masters of the universe. Now we know why there are increasing talks of 'green shoots'.

"Return of the gravy train- did the Crash really change the City at all?", a report by Dan Roberts and Philip Inman, explains that ginormous bonuses and soaring profits never really went away. They just kept their head down for five minutes and now are back fatter than ever.

Similarly, Julia Finch writes about "The new City buzzword: BAB (that's Bonuses are Back)", a situation made the more obvious by the recently revealed £15m pay package of Stephen Hester, CEO of part-nationalised RBS, just in case he doesn't feel sufficiently "incentivised".

The Streisand Effect

Mark R on the demise of the NightJack blog.

There's a wonderful little phrase that previously came to the public eye: The Streisand Effect. It comes from the self-defeating attempts of that secretive diva Ms Streisand to try and prevent a cartographer photograph the coast which holds her residence. By trying to silence the miniscule amount of attention, she ended up bringing upon herself far more attention by fighting than she had by accepting it.

In Britain, meanwhile, the NightJack blog, the work of a previously relatively anonymous policeman has been closed. Closed because... The Times insisted on revealing the identity of the writer, who had made considerable efforts and a delibrate decision to retain his anonymity.

So... what have we now got? The public have lost a fascinating, continuous piece of vital and insightful writing. The Times got two pages of drivel that sold not one extra copy but pleased a nosey and disrespectful features editor.

Anonymity is important to me, as it will be to anyone. It would be of interest to anyone who would find themselves the recipient of unwanted and malignant behaviour. If you've got nothing to hide, you may have nothing to fear, but why then, should you be open to everyone? What happened to the right to privacy?

As someone who was personally and professionally crucified for blogging, with a vicious and abusive corporate malpractice and some not inconsiderable personal loss for daring to be honest, I say that the decision for anonymity should belong with only one person: the subject themselves.

Now the blog is gone, and replaced with nothing. What has this reveal benefited? Nobody and nothing.

All it has done – and the ruling of Judge Eady of Tenterden, kent proven – is that your cannot pass comment upon anything. If you wish to reveal what you feel is important information about a situation you may be aware of, but would not wish to identify yourself for fear of reprisal, well... you better shut up and stay quiet. This is the logical extension of the ruling. Compliance. A code of silence. A closed shop.

On one hand, The Times has recently published many pieces claiming that both the MP Expense affair, and the Iraq war investigation, should both be conducted in secret. "It may encourage greater candour by witnesses." The Times also said, of the recent Iran Tweeting broohaha..."people can stay anonymous if they want to".

And yet, if The Times needs to fill a couple of pages, the people cannot stay anonymous. This is not just a violation of the social contract of trust, but also a distinct threat. Anyone who writes about situations and has privileged access that would be compromised by revealing their identity – and thus exposing them to threat and ruin – is now silenced by fear.

The writings of doctors, nurses, ambulancemen, policemen, firemen, anyone, is under threat. No longer will anyone feel free to comment upon anything, or reveal information that may be in the public interest for fear of reprisal by the 'wronged' organisation. An organisation or business that fears revelation of it's working practices often has something it wishes to hide.

These vast, faceless, bland and anonymous UberMegaUltraCorps hide behind their processes and procedures and live in terror of anything that could ever make them accountable for what they actually do. The publication of a frank expose regarding the actual operation of the fabric of our society is by no means a violation worthy of being publically smeared and, in all probability, professionally blacklisted. At no time were any live cases publically identifiable: nothing was at risk.

In these circumstances, there are absolutely no viable arguments for the exposure of the 'real life' identity of the writer, and a compelling reason – the public interest – to maintain the anonymity of the writer.

The court has spoken, and the message is clear: Be quiet. Be obedient. Behave. Shut up. Or be ruined.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Sign of subservience"

In a secular society no-one should be subjected to the humiliation of a walking isolation cell imposed upon them. For once Sarkozy got it right.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has caused a stir with his remark that "we cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity."

Referring to the burka, he added that it is unacceptable to have women in France who are "prisoners behind netting". "It is not a religious issue", he said, "but rather one related to freedom and dignity". A burka commission will be set up to assess the extent to which some women are forced to wear it against their will and possible ways to limit its use.

Some have criticised Sarkozy on the basis that "the idea that the state has a right to tell people what they can and cannot wear is completely unreasonable" ('Don't Ban The Burqa'). Others have denounced the alleged use of feminism to "serve a neo-cons agenda" and that many Muslim women wear it because they want to ('Truth or Propaganda: Muslim women need to be saved').

Similarly though, in the 19th century there were plenty of slaves to be found claiming that being a slave was ok. The fact remains that for a scary number of women the burka is forced upon them and turns them into faceless property without identity in all but name- a walking isolation cell. I guess not miles away from the old catholic 'tradition' of forcing daughters into monastic life.

Tolerance of the burqa based on the post-colonial notion of 'cultural background' assumes that Islam is so backward that it's normal for a woman to live her life subjugated. To go along with it is to appease the bullies.

Bercow: the new Speaker

Hard to believe that the first Tory Speaker of the Commons since 1992 is giving the Tories a fit of rage.

We said it before. To look at it, the expression 'all ring and no doughnut' was created to describe the Speaker of the House of Common. Beneath all the tradition, prestige, pomp and pageantry, it's a post that carries little clout. Most people don't even know what a Speaker does.

Nevertheless, if the Daily Mail and its attack dog Quentin 'Gorgeous' Letts are frothing with anger at the election of John Bercow MP, then it's a sure indication that the bloke can't be that bad.

The Fear Gazette's beef with Bercow stems from the fact that he is from the so-called 'Tory left', so much that he is fairly respected by many of his opponents. Back in the darkest days of when the Conservative Party was still holding medieval views on sexuality (only at the beginning of this decade), Bercow was one of the few to contravene the party line on the Age of Consent and the abolition of the obnoxious Section 28.

So bring on the insults. "Preening careerist", blasts Edward Heathcoat Amory. "They voted for someone worse than Gorbals Mick!", barks Quentin "Once-We-Had-An-Empire" Letts. "It's a two fingers salute!" write Chapman and Walker. And the self-perpetrating exercise in political futility continues...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

RBS blows £300,000 on lavish party

The scandalous world of corporate hospitality and 'selective austerity'.

How many times do we hear that fag breaks and clocking out 3 minutes too early cost companies god-knows-how-much?

How many times do you hear that "the money is tight", that you can forget about a pay rise and, actually, can you do an extra unpaid hour tonight cos there's work to finish? That companies are always under the threat of a volatile world and 'flexibility' is a must?

And how many times do you hear of stories like this one? It appears that, after axing 15,000 people, bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland is going to spend £300,000 on a corporate hospitality package for executives at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

To be fair, RBS are not alone. The ever-attentive media failed to pick up on the scandal of British Airways sponsoring the Taste of London week with free luxury food and drinks only days after asking their staff do work for free.

Last October, Barclays organised a £500000 corporate weekend on Lake Como at a hotel where rooms cost as much as £1,000 per-night. Less than three months later came the announcement that Barclays were axing 2,100 jobs.

The self-serving world of 'corporate hospitality' remains something you rarely read about and yet the examples are countless. Because if people knew about it, they'd clock their employers' selective approach to austerity and get cross.

Every single time the minimum wage is raised by a penny, the bosses' associations piss and moan about how many people will be forced out of work and how it will be a drag on the economy. At the same time, staggering amounts of money are routinely thrown at bosses' birthday parties, gala dinners or 'motivational weekends' at opulent exotic locations for top management where celebrities are hired for a 20-minute-speech to the tune of thousands of pounds.

Suddenly, that's not a drag on finances.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Signs that recession is over

You're losing your job and the experts tell you that things are going alright.

'Green shoots' are everywhere. Experts appear sure that the recession is over. According to the Independent, "high-street bakers Greggs said like-for-like sales picked up by 2 per cent" and, if you were under the illusions mole holes were getting a tiny bit more affordable, Halifax announced that house prices have risen again.

But if those can be dismissed as mere signs, hard evidence of the economic recovery came from British Airways' announcement that either its 40,000 staff work for free or they can expect a redundancy notice through the letterbox.

That's nothing if you compare it with the green shoots coming from the most recent unemployment figures, pointing to a jobless total of over 2.2 million people, that is 7.2% of the workforce, the highest figure since 1996.

A sure sign of all-round optimism is also the number of 18-24 year-olds without a job: 16.6%, the highest since the Major years.

Recovery is obviously underway. The experts are probably thinking of insurance company AXA axing 560 workers and Hewlett Packard in Scotland laying off 700 people.

Or what better gauge that we're riding high again than the recent case at the Lindsay oil refinery where owners Total are firing 900 of their staff? Green shoots or what?

Then there's the thousands of jobs at the Luton and Ellesmere port Vauxhall plants that are hanging on a thread and the 1400 workers who are being given the boot by one of Britain's biggest banks. All is fine, remember. So listen to the experts, hit the high street and spend whatever money you've got left. Cheers.

Friday, June 19, 2009

BA to provide luxury food and drink for Taste of London week

Press release from Unite the union:

Unite, the UK's biggest union, is angered by the news today (Thursday) that British Airways are to provide free champagne and smoked salmon for 'taste of London week'.

Unite national officer for civil air transport, Brian Boyd, said: "At a time when BA are trying to take the bread from our members' tables, it is ironic that they choose to sponsor an event which promotes good food.

"Whoever is responsible for PR within the company really needs to develop a strategy which is more appropriate for the current state of BA".

Unite national officer for civil air transport, Steve Turner, added: "While BA ask their lowest paid to work for nothing [...] they add to our anger by supplying champagne and salmon to their friends. It beggars belief".

A proposal to rescue British Airways

Working for free: oh the joy.

You may have heard that British Airways, fresh from record operating profits worth £875 million in 2008, is asking 40,000 staff to do unpaid work for up to a month because of their current financial turmoil.

And while the world is rejoicing at the safety prospects of planes serviced and maintained by people motivated by working for no dosh, CEO Willie Walsh, is leading by example.

He announced he'll generously forgo his monthly salary of £61,000 in July, which means he may have to struggle with his bills as the poor soul only netted an additional payment of £1m at the end of 2008.

So, instead of moaning, here's what British Airways should do. Send a dismissal letter to Willie Walsh. His staff will take the month's pay of £61,000 that he's is giving up and then work the rest of the year for free.

That should rescue the company alright and keep everybody happy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Different class

The concept of 'hardship' as seen by a respected UK broadsheet.

"Youth hit hard as jobless total rises to 2.3m", says today's Independent, confirmation that the crisis is far from over for most common mortals. However, the article is a poignant reminder of how far remote the media is from vast chunks of today's Britain.

Scroll down to the bottom. Sean O'Grady, Economics editor, is focusing on a hand-picked selection of poor, deprived and destitute graduates who may have to delay their access to the job market. What will they do instead, those badly off, studious kids?

Well, hear hear. It almost breaks your heart. Two of them will "do a tour of Europe and the Middle East", another "voluntary work with youth clubs", one will "work for nothing on a publication in Zambia" and the fourth one "will be jetting off to Barcelona to learn Spanish after finishing her university course". Oh and don't forget to ask daddy if he can also get you a new laptop before the plane takes off.

For just look how industrious those kids are. Why can't your average graduate, not to mention your standard council estate lad, do the same and jet off somewhere instead of relying on state handouts?

Welcome to the world of deprived, jobless kids according to the Independent.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Belfast: what excuse now for racism?

The thugs who hounded immigrants in N.I. confirm the futility of trying to appease racism.

Disenfranchised working class? An unsympathetic government? Cheap shots at 'chavs' on TV? Threats to their jobs?

What can possibly be said now to excuse, or even better 'understand', the cowardly attack against Romanian immigrants carried out over the course of a week by a racist mob in Belfast?

The comments section of this article on the Daily Mail website is an indication of the up and coming culture of 'blaming the victim' (see pic above). And comments like this one left by an Independent reader show the depth we are plunging across Europe.

Those 115 people fled their homes after being repeatedly targeted by violent mobs singing Combat 18 slogans. Most amazing, some of the reaction has been on the lines of: "what were all those immigrants doing there anyway?", which is no different from the braindead logic of "what the hell was she doing wearing a miniskirt at 3am, no wonder she got raped - except applied to an even bigger and more sinister scale.

Click here for a better analysis of the recent wave of xenophobia.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taking Over The Asylum

A journey into one of the tabloids' biggest obsessions.

Until about 10 years ago, the words asylum-seeker or refugee generally evoked feelings of sympathy.

People escaping from brutal dictatorships, wars or famine were seen as victims, as people to be taken in and sheltered. But over the last decade, the British media, with the mainstream political parties, have turned the words asylum-seeker and refugee into terms of abuse.

Up until the early 1990s, Britain recent a few thousand asylum applications each year, then, with the wars in former Yugoslavia and Somalia, figures started to climb.

Other European states were the obvious refuges for those fleeing the Yugoslav wars, and problems in states on Europe's borders, like Iraq, increased numbers into Europe.

Once these trafficking routes were set up, more followed from other states. By the late 1990s, applications had climbed close to 100,000 a year. Applications were taking years to process, and appeals added more years. Hundreds of thousands of people were left in a legal limbo, and as the government decided to lighten the load on London (were the majority of refugees lived), these became visible throughout towns and cities over the UK.

Now this caused some low level problems, mutterings from the usual suspects about preferential treatment and immigrants. But what really set things off was the Government's response. Faced with a backlog of cases and rising applications, the logical action would be to increase the numbers of staff dealing with applications.

Instead, New Labour decided to launch a campaign against asylum-seekers, vilifying them a 'bogus asylum-seekers', really 'economic migrants', who were coming to the UK to, implausibly, take advantage of the generosity of the British benefit system, and 'steal' British jobs.

The tabloid and right-wing papers lapped this up, given that it both touched upon their favourite political panics- welfare dependency and benefits cheats, and allowed them to talk about a subject which they had to approach with uncharacteristic sensitivity- race.

The right-wing papers had generally walked a tight-rope for previous decade, denouncing racism, whilst pushing a xenophobic and often borderline racist line on the EU, immigration and foreign policy. Asylum-seekers gave them the green light to pander to the prejudices of their readers, the large minority of people who did not think of themselves as racist, but, nevertheless, had reservations about ethnic minorities, and saw immigration, along with the EU, as something thrust upon them by the political elite.

Asylum-seekers, although ethnically different, were not an ethnic minority, therefore fair game for opinions and comments that would have been beyond the pale, or illegal, if said about a specific ethnic group. This debate spilled over, as it could not help doing in the hands of the tabloids, into a debate on immigration and race, and specifically ethnic identities.

The main point of this is to bemoan the creation of a debate on race and immigration, that ultimately led to the emergence of the far-right into British politics, to the point were BNP council seats, once unthinkable, are utterly overshadowed by bigger victories. New Labour attempted to win a few easy headlines, an easy way of showing their populist credentials.

However, they could never win this debate this way, since they could never go far enough to placate the right. On this issue, as on crime and benefits, the right-wing could always demand more, always portray New Labour's response as insufficient.

New Labour could have argued otherwise, it could have pointed to Britain's tradition of granting asylum, or countered perceptions of any unfairness or preferential treatment, but it chose otherwise. This approach legitimised the right, and eventually the far-right, as the media, Labour and the Tories all effectively parroted the far-rights complaints of foreigners stealing jobs, resources and benefits. The results of this are now clear.

Moreover, there was no other reason for this. Whatever New Labour's failings, at least most of its policies were part of a principled, if misguided, approach. Even the Iraq war stemmed from a view of Britain's strategic interests and tactical options (or Blair's messianic delusions, take your pick), there was some moral thought behind their policies. But on asylum-seekers, there was simply an easy target and cheap tabloid brownie points.

Because of this, I don't think there is any one issue that better sums up my utter despair with New Labour, and the damage that New Labour has done to progressive politics.

Into the mind of a 4x4 driver

Many people think SUVs are a bad idea. See if you change your mind after reading this conversation with Mike Rotch, proud owner of a massive fuckoff SUV.

Mr Rotch, why are so many people hostile to 4x4s?

Because they're envious. All those miserable gets working all their life to drive a rickety four wheeler. I laugh when I see a grown-up bloke at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta. What sort of man are you? They see my big car and they seethe with envy. And I actually quite like it.

OK. But surely you will agree that there's a pro-environment argument against SUVs...?

Get a life! All the stuff going on in the world, new airports being built, and those tree-huggers keep picking on us. First off, global warming hasn't been proved - and that's not me saying it but former US President George W Bush. It was fucking freezing all winter! Secondly, you're not seriously suggesting a handful of bigger cars is going to bring about the apocalypse, are you? Anyway, even if the climate warms, that means our planet is more lush and rich with vegetation.

Another issue is safety. Many 4x4s don so-called 'bullbars'. Consultation papers published by the UK Government confirm that bullbars mean higher chances of casualties.

Fuck'em. That's what I say. It's the nanny state, isn't it? The government is obsessed with lawsuits and negligence. They wanna crush our natural spirit of adventure. I say, if you can afford a big bullbar, then go ahead. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing that look of fear in other drivers' eyes when you overtake them. I tell you one thing, they steer well clear. They just know that crushing into my big SUV is like a kick in the nuts for them. It's survival of the fittest, isn't it?

You're saying you wouldn't care if somebody ended up crippled after crashing into your big car?

Mate, nothing's black and white here. The fact is, I'm far less likely to get in an accident driving my Jeep, since I have 4WD and I know how to use it. Modern SUVs like the Explorer come with optional electronic brake assist, with standard ABS, and with optional traction control.

That may be so. But if you do have a car crash, because a bullbar tends to be stiff and unyielding, the other vehicle will have to absorb more crash energy and the risk of injury to its occupants will be higher. And in head on collisions, a 4x4 is more likely to ride over the lower car...

Then they should get themselves a bullbar too. Or a stronger, bigger car. I wouldn't stop them. Whereas the leftist green tree-hugging lobby would. Now who's putting people at risk?

But bullbars are also more hazardous to pedestrians...

Then they should get out of the bleedin' way? Don't you ever see those pricks crossing the road where they shouldn't? Sorry, mate, you cross the road when it's red then don't run crying to mummy that it was my bullbar.

So why do you drive a 2.5 ton SUV? You live in Central London, don't you?

It's got a lot of space. And I worked hard for it, didn't I? You don't have a go at people in Kensington who can afford it and buy nice expensive clothes, do you? So why can't I do that with my SUV?

But Mr Rotch, this has nothing to do with money...

Yeah, pull the other one. Class envy is what this is about. But I'll tell you one thing: I'll continue to take my children to school in a safe vehicle.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Italian government to legalise vigilantes...

...And guess who's already volunteering?

With the controversy surrounding Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi's love for young female company and his ill-conceived invitation of new best pal Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, the international press have plenty to talk about.

However, perhaps due to all of the above, something more sinister is taking place away from the limelight. The Italian government has just issued a White paper on law and order that gives the go-ahead to private vigilante groups. While the paper states that such groups will have to sign up to a licensing scheme, it's interesting to take a peek at those who are enthusiastically jumping at the opportunity.

Enter the Guardia Nazionale Italiana, whose website is currently recruiting "true Italian Nationalists and Patriots, people who are able to wear their uniform with pride and dignity, and for everything that it represents, are able to serve our land and the Italian people".

You may be excused if it rings familiar: black trousers with yellow band, black hat donning the Imperial Eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, khaki shirt carrying both Italian flag and a certain symbol (a black sun that is popular amongst German neo-nazis), black armband, black tie and black boots.

Yet any allegation that it may echo a certain period in history are dismissed as 'nonsense'."It's a legitimate way of combating crime", says Home Secretary Roberto Maroni. So why the garish outfits?

The answer comes the moment you take a peek at the people behind the vigilantes. Amidst retired carabinieri and assorted military, there he is, the founding member of the far-right Social Movement (MSI-DN, the group that rose from the ashes of the Fascist Party following Mussolini's death in 1945) and leader of the Italian Nationalist Party, both groups possibly to the right of the BNP.

So next time you hop to Venice, Florence or Milan for your long weekend break, don't be surprised if you spot vigilante squadrons marching along la piazza. You may have to get used to it. And quick.

Click here to find out more about why Italy is currently the most right-wing country in Europe.

The return of Blur

Like 1995 all over again, Blur are creeping back into the limelight. The reconciliation between Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon and their first set of gigs since 2000 are now all over the papers.

To find out more, click here to read John Harris' interview with all four band members in the Guardian and here for Blur's first reunion gig as reviewed by the BBC.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

On the Tube strike

"I'm not getting a pay rise, so WHY SHOULD you?": the charming reactions to the RMT strike in London and the legacy of New Labour's Public-Private Partnership.

The degree of superficiality that met the RMT strike action in the last few days has been a true sight to behold.

Fed by the hysteria in the mainstream media, many in the general public have adopted a toxic stance, epitomised by these two comments to an article by RMT leader Bob Crow in the Guardian:

"How can anyone seriously be demanding a pay rise and 100% job security at the moment?" (link);

"I'm struggling to understand why you SHOULD get a pay rise. I didn't get a pay rise last year, I've been told I'm not getting one this year. These are hard times". (link)

One may guess this is what happens after twenty-five years of surgical hacking away at the concepts of workers' solidarity and unionism. Just look after number one and if things turn sour then you sink or swim. On your own.

My generation don't think that a successful industrial action may set a positive precedent and pave the way for everybody. After being brought up on a diet of agency jobs and perma-temping, all we can come up with is: "I'm not getting a pay rise so why should you get one" and "I've got an unsecure job -or none at all- so why should you be spared the risk of redundancy".

Particularly frustrating though, is the all-out ignorance of the background to the strike.

The papers may have deployed tons of ink on Gordon Brown's bitten fingernails, but god forbid if they ever explain something factual about his policy failures.

At the root of the strike, there's the dismal fiasco of the Blair and Brown-sponsored Public-Private Partnership for the London Underground, one of New Labour's flagship projects for privatising essential public services.

Does anyone remember when Ken Livingstone was being dubbed "too left-wing" for fighting against it? Do you remember when the warnings that it would cost the public billions were met by glazed-eyed Blairite psalms of "modernise modernise modernise"?

Well. If there was one thing the opponents of PPP got wrong, it was how quickly the whole scheme went pear-shaped. By 2007 Metronet, one of the two corporations operating in the scheme, was placed into administration and the UK taxpayer was left to foot the rest of the bill, estimated at £2bn.

Today up to 4,000 jobs are at risk as a desperate attempt to make up for the collapse of Metronet, meaning £2.4 billion worth of spending cuts. For Boris Johnson though, the Unions are just being "capricious".

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Friday at 4 o'clock

From party to career ladder.

Spot-on Mark Steel in today's Independent on New Labour's legacy:

"For example, at four o'clock last Friday Caroline Flint was adamant she supported Brown, but two hours later she couldn't stand him. So either this was because she'd been snubbed for promotion, or she's genuine, and she honestly thinks he did a wonderful job for Labour for 15 years but then did one dreadful thing that negated all that, at around half past four.

This is New Labour's legacy. They sacrificed principles, debates, humanity, purpose and personality for the prize of getting elected. But now they can't get elected to anything so there is absolutely nothing left".

Stop talking up the **P

We said it before. Stop talking about them! It's actually a miracle that with levels of press coverage that put Cheryl Cole to shame, the nasty party only managed 6% of the popular vote.

Do not underestimate our contrarian nature. You tell people that something is nasty, evil, unacceptable and anti-mainstream and some will grow fond of it by default. Add "anti-politics" to the mix and, in 2009 in particular, you're sending the message out that this something is actually "cool".

Simplistic? Well, welcome to the point of the far-right. Superficial slogans dressed up as solutions for the slow-witted. "Yeah fuck'em all, I'm voting B*P, we need a bit of a cleanup, don't we" is the consequence of industrial levels of free publicity handed over to Griffin's party in the last few months, a marketing campaign that would put Saatchi & Saatchi to shame without having spent a single penny for it.

Just imagine. If every single edition of the Guardian & co and if every single political debate had been centred around how nasty, dangerous, toxic and evil Bob Crowe's NO2EU was, the far-left group would have netted three times its actual share of the vote. Imagine Dispatches and Undercover building up an aura of intrigue and naughtiness around the shady underworld of "commie unionists". Imagine Lord Whatsit live on Question Time making a public call to boycott them and the papers writing about it the following day. No such thing as bad publicity, right?

Today, that acronym, beginning with B and ending with P is possibly one of the few known to the entire British population. For the past month no paper, tabloid or news broadcast was to be found without any reference to it. The Guardian is even running a feature to show you where the B*P is in your area and an endless succession of columns and articles that explain how evil they are from each angle. Rockstars have "rallied" against them. Archbishops have called for their "boycott".

Even Alistair Campbell, universally identified as the most rotten and devious side of politics since Tony Blair, penned a piece for the Independent about the importance of stopping the B*P.

Smeared politicians from all 'mainstream' parties are lecturing people that they'd better not put the cross on you know who and the right-wing tabloids, in the meantime, while routinely calling the B*P "vile", keep doing the groundwork for them with their daily "Illegal asylum seeker lesbian gets dog to maul blonde baby" headlines.

Griffin egged at a press conference grabs the front page news. The 'blogosphere', whatever that means, is having a collective seizure as they remind people to vote whoever but.

So, really, the fact that the B*P only managed 2 MEPs is actually a miracle.

Still, look at the post-electoral miles of ink wasted on the subject. 2 MEPs and 6% of the popular vote and look at the disproportionate publicity. What's this patronising crap that each and every politician and professional columnist are saying: that the B*P is successfully intercepting votes of disaffected white working class voters (see here, here, here, here, here, and here just to get an idea). What, 2 out of 72 MEPs? Is that it? What about the overwhelming majority i.e. the millions of working class votes that did not go to the B*P?

So let's drop the hysterics and put things into perspective. 94 per cent of those who bothered to vote did not vote for the 'nasty' party. Millions more did not vote at all. If they wanted to channel their protests via Griffin & co they'd have done so. They didn't.

Like historian Joanna Burke said: "Don't censor or oppress the BNP. Marginalise and ridicule them. Ridicule is an underestimated weapon". Now let's pull the plug on them.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Slicing the Leftist pie.

The consensus is that the Right triumphed at the Euro elections. We say it's courtesy of a leftist vote split into a myriad of tiny fractions.

"Voters steer Europe to the Right", says the BBC as results keep coming in from the European elections. It's the same analysis wherever you look.

BBC correspondent Mark Mardell talks of "March of the right", with particular reference to the advance of far-right parties across the continent, while the Independent talks of "Right advances in Europe" and, in case the message hadn't been rammed home yet: "Right wing parties sweep to power in the European Parliament", is the Daily Mail's headline .

The Mail adds that the electoral wipeout was a "vote against stimulus spending and corporate bailouts", more or less in line with the theory that European Social Democracy is in serious trouble.

That may well be the case but, as of today, few have picked up on the crucial factor that turned the right's victory into plain sailing: the spectacular divisions within the left.

Let's look at five of what the BBC calls "Europe's big six".

France. There's reports all round that, with 27,8% of the vote, Sarkozy mastered an "amazing victory". But how's that the case when every opinion poll in the run-up to the vote suggested Le Président was in trouble? A quick glance at the left's line-up for the elections should shed some light.

The Socialist Party's dismal performance cannot be read without taking into account the historic 16.2% pocketed by the Greens. More though, if you put together the Front de Gauche's 6% and the 5% of the brand new Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) led by rising star Olivier Besancenot (without forgetting Bayrou), the progressive anti-Sarkozy vote is in excess of 50 per cent, hardly a popular endorsement for the President.

Italy. In Berlusconiland, the centre-left's internal divisions are now legendary. Counting the myriad of parties mushrooming up to the left of Partito Democratico has become humanly impossible. Elbowing their way through the crowd, meet the fiercely anti-Berlusconi Italia dei Valori (8%) and not one but two, I mean two, post-Communist Parties, each of them netting a rough 3,5% - plus plenty of other tiny groups.

Add them altogether and they could bring off a comfortable 5% lead ahead of the Berlusconi coalition. Alas, such parties tend to disagree on stuff like whether Fidel Castro should have shaven his beard in the summer of 1964 - which is why Berlusconi's grip on power remains secure until he pops his clogs.

Germany. Similar story. No doubt the SPD is looking battered, reaping perhaps the harvest of coalition governments with the centre-right. But did its haemorrhaging votes shift to the right? By the look of it, the answer is no. With the Greens and Die Linke pulling off a total of 20%, the assumption that free-market conservatism came out on top ends up looking a bit flimsy. Yet, courtesy of the atomised left, it's Angela Merkel who's popping the champagne.

Last but not least, Britain. There's absolutely no doubt the government was handed a drubbing of epic proportions, perhaps the natural consequence of 12 years of New Labour meticulously eating away at what was left of Britain's progressive politics. And yet, here too, the Green Party managed a historic 8.6%, suggesting many disillusioned Labour ballots found a temporary shelter.

But then witness the the depressing sight of leftists grupuscules fighting for the crumbs- if that. Can anyone explain, for instance, the tactical differences between Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (1,1% of the vote), Bob Crowe's NO2EU (1%) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (0,3%)? What did they hope to achieve exactly, aside from splitting the leftist vote into a myriad of tiny fractions?

And while arguments about socialist purity thrive, today the Europeans wake up more right-wing than at any time since WWII.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

José Saramago: The Berlusconi Thing

The Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist and journalist on why Silvio Berlusconi's Italy is looking more and more like a "lower empire".

I don't see what else I could call it. A thing perilously similar to a human being, a thing that throws parties, sets up orgies and rules a country called Italy. This thing, this illness, this virus threatens to be at the root of the moral death of Verdi's country, unless a spew manages to double kick it from the Italians' conscience before the poison eats the veins away and rots the heart of one of the richest European cultures.

Every day the slimy paws of the Berlusconi Thing trample on the basic values of human cohabitation. Amongst its talents lies a bamboozling ability to abuse words, twisting meaning and sense, as it's the case with the name of the party he used for his onslaught to power, the People of Freedom Party (Popolo delle Liberta').

'Delinquent' I called this Thing and I harbour no regrets. For reasons of semantic and social nature that others may explain better, in Italy the term 'delinquent' has more negative connotations than in any other language spoken in Europe. To translate clearly and effectively my opinion of the Berlusconi Thing, I will use the term in the sense given by Dante's language, though I doubt if Dante ever used it at all.

'Delincuencia', in my Portuguese, means, according to dictionaries and current communication practices, "the act of committing crimes, disobeying laws or moral principles". The definition fits the Berlusconi Thing without a single crease or wrinkle, to the point that it looks more like a second skin rather than a layer of clothes. It's been years since the Berlusconi Thing started committing offences that may vary in nature yet are always demonstrably serious.

The irony is that it's not as if it's breaking any law; worse, it's making them in order to safeguard its public and private interests, whether in the guise of politician, entrepreneur or minors' playmate. As for moral principles, they're not even worth talking about, for there there is nobody, in Italy or worldwide, who isn't aware of how low the Berlusconi thing sank them a long time ago.

This is the Italian Prime Minister, this is the Thing the Italian people twice elected to act as their guide, this is the path to ruin along which are being dragged the values of dignity and liberty that characterised Verdi's music or Garibaldi's political work, and those who, during the fight to unify the country, turned 19th century Italy into one of Europe's spiritual guides.

This is what the Berlusconi Thing wants to chuck into the binbag of history. Will the Italians end up letting him?

Read 'La cosa Berlusconi' in its original Spanish version on El Pais.

Click here to read 'Anatomy of Berluscoland'.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Party of Working People

From "Iraqi mothers should thank us for cluster bombs" to "council tenants should get a job". A journey through New Labour's values - featuring fridge magnets, dodgy claims and parliamentary expenses.

At bamboozling speed, Hazel Blears, James Purnell, John Hutton, Geoff Hoon and Caroline Flint all joined the game of Jenga that is being played around Gordon Brown's moribund government.

One after the other, and in spite of a decade-long blind devotion, they suddenly found a reason to disagree with the Master and resigned. Look at Flint and her mind-boggling levels of political conviction. On Thursday she publicly backed Brown. On Friday she accused him of using women as "window dressing" and handed in her notice.

So, perhaps, after 12 years in power, it's time for a quick appraisal of what those professionals of New Labour added to the 'glorious history' of a "party of strong values" that still claims to represent the "low-paid working class".

Geoff Hoon. A Cabinet member since Tony Blair's first government, he was the extraordinarily obedient Defence Secretary presiding over the Iraq war. In March 2002 he said on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby show that "the government reserved the right to use nuclear weapons" while, in 2004, he argued that "mothers of Iraqi children killed by cluster bombs would 'one day' thank Britain for their use". He certainly should -thank Britain- as he claimed thousands of pounds to redecorate his second home.

John Hutton. In March 2008, just as the economic crisis was beginning to nibble and the nation's patience with mental City bonuses was running thin, the faithful perma-minister declared that Britain needs more millionaires and that high salaries should be "celebrated". It was probably in that spirit that he "used his office expenses to pay for a degree studied by a member of his staff" and "claimed £1,340 a month in interest on the mortgage of his house in west London".

Caroline Flint. In February 2008, while Minister for Housing and Planning, she finally garnered Britain's attention as she warned the nation that "if you want a council house [you should] find a job" and told the Guardian "that unemployed tenants should also undertake skills audits".
While she was lecturing scroungers on rights and responsibility, she "used her parliamentary expenses to pay for solicitors' fees and stamp duty when she bought a new flat".

James Purnell. Known to the public for his sideburns, this champion of the working class has so far been busy with his Welfare Reform Bill, aimed at "getting tough with benefit cheats". Toying with the idea of lying detectors for benefit claimants, he warned that "there should be no free-riding". Until he was caught, of course, using taxpayers' money to purchase fridge magnets, digital cameras and, according to some papers, he "submitted rent claims of up to £2,020 each month – yet bank records prove that he paid only £910 every month".

Hazel Blears. Famous for her spectacular 12-year-old record of obedience to her political masters, her public claims that "immigration fuels tension", raised an eyebrow or two. Elsewhere, she reiterated in an interview that she'd "never come to a point when she disagreed" with her government, not even when it supported brutal dictatorships like in Uzbekistan. While all that happened, she dodged capital gains on the sale of her second home and had to repay £13,000.

These are the Labour MPs and Cabinet members who, between 1997 and now, have been toiling away for you working people.