Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An interview with Paul Heaton

"The very nature of the Tory Party is neither kind nor honourable".

Hagley Road to Ladywood discusses politics with the man who gave us The Housemartins and The Beautiful South.

Back when 'indie' music epitomised the idea of something specific to say rather than posing about in TopMan clothes sucking your cheeks in, The Housemartins showed that there was hope beyond posters of Simon Le Bon and Tony Hadley.

Their debut album 'London 0 Hull 4' was a rallying call for a generation overshadowed by the suffocating grip of mid-to-late 80s yuppism. With the current political climate so reminiscent of those days, we asked one of Britain's best lyricists ever to give us his take on current events.

Hagley Road to Ladywood: When you first started your music career, Britain was under a Tory government which was very similar to the current one in scope and social ruthlessness. Do you think this one will last as long as Thatcher's and Major's?

Paul Heaton: Well that will depend on Labour leadership. The public aren't stupid and if they don't see the opposition actually opposing the Conservatives on the main issues then they won't feel that voting will change anything. Ed Miliband and the whole party have a chance to show the country true leadership, in not only opposing this pathetic pandering to the banks and the 'Market' but showing us how as socialists we should react to this crisis. On first impressions he is of very similar backbone to the last opposition.

HRTL: What's the score with everyone saying "Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man"? Does it annoy you that cliches are made up and circulate so easily without people questioning their actual content?

PH: The very nature of the Conservative Party is neither kind nor honourable. The very nature of the man is to defend his class by hook or by crook. Cliches circulate with the power of the media right behind it. Nearly every single political editor on the BBC/ITV etc are public school educated. That's why cliches like that spread. Because editors want them to.

HRTL: Some people see a very placid and supine music scene these days. May be it's also that I'm getting on a bit, but I don't spot many outspoken bands out there, nothing like what you were doing with The Housemartins or what The Smiths or The Jam were doing. What's changed?

PH: I believe cynicism won the day and though most bands wouldn't even admit it, any form of satire is beyond them. Also on top of this, there has been a swing to more middle class musicianship.

HRTL: What do you make of the current fuss about Prince William and his wedding? Why do you think the BBC went on about it so much while there was clearly no public demand for such a massive coverage?

PH: I think the wedding should be indefinitely cancelled until they can come in with a wedding price that matches the current climate. The BBC are visibly drooling over the wedding because it represents everything their organisation stands for - ie the upholding of class barriers.

HRTL: The Labour Party lost 4 million votes and more than halved its membership in the years 1997-2007 under Tony Blair. Do you still think there's still hope in Labour? Can the party be brought back from its total state of zombification?

PH: I remember clearly in 1984, through arguments with Militant Tendency, what sort of state the Labour Party was in. It was divided, it was fractious, but most of all it was vibrant and full of good, young ideas.
Nowadays there's a different tendency- the Business Tendency. Militant were accused at the time of entryism, the definition of which is "a political tactic where a group of ideological actors enter another group or state with the aim of taking it over or moving them in line with their own interests." This is exactly what the Business Tendency have done with devastating effect. My advice to anyone wishing to enter politics would be to join the Green Party because the Labour Party has lost it's mavericks to cold hearted friends of 'the Market'

HRTL: Did the students' riots the other week surprise you? People always say the Brits are not a nation of street demonstrators. What's your take on that?

PH: The only people saying we never riot are the same media peddling the cliches discussed above. The Poll Tax riots disproved that theory.

HRTL: What inspired your 'Pedals and Pumps' cycling tour of Britain last spring? Did you ever get knackered to the point of thinking "fuck's sake why didn't I just book a tour bus"?

PH: No, I loved every bit of it. I'm planning to do it again in 2012 but about twice the distance.

HRTL: Your two solo albums ['The Cross Eyed Rambler', 2008 and 'Acid Country', 2010] have been hailed as an excellent return to form. Does it bother you that they haven't charted the way The Beautiful South used to do regularly?

PH: It doesn't bother me that they didn't chart but it bothered me that they didn't get played on radio. I seemed to have adjusted very well to abject failure. And that's how I felt during the success of the Beautiful South and Housemartins- fame and riches don't suit me.

HRTL: When you first started with the Housemartins were you ever given serious stick at gigs for your politics?

PH: It was a different climate then. People who came to our shows at first were Peel fans and Peel listeners were, in general, on the left of most debates. We had brushes with National Front at Peterborough and Dundee. Both situations I felt comfortable doing what I do best- argue my arse out of a corner!
The only real offence I took at was a student representative at a gig in one of the North West Midlands Universities [Keele I think]. He had a 'Hang Mandela' badge on and a 'Kill a Commy for Mommy' one too. I just said 'I'm a Commy what are you going to do about it'? I then made him take the jacket off so he fully understood I wasn't going to be democratic about it.

HRTL: You're a well-known football fan and your love for the Italian Serie A is well documented. But do you think Fabio Capello should be given the elbow?

PH: The FA, the English media and public are just going round in circles over this. I would have kept McLaren and sacked the people who appointed him!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Social Network

The story of the mind(s?) behind the Facebook phenomenon.

It is undisputed that the rise and rise of Facebook has been the business success story so far this century. In fact, it is almost impossible to believe that as recent as 2005 or 2006 people's lives carried on without dull "status updates", wall comments, "friend requests" and all the rest.

Whether a touch of genius or a cunning business plan that expertly rode the gravy train of technology, Facebook became the popcultural phenomenon of the Noughties practically overnight.

That is why The Social Network is the must-see film of 2010.

It may be little to write home about in cinematic terms and it may not be the most dramatic of films, yet it remains the first detailed visual history of the man behind Facebook and the puzzling controversy that followed his first few years in business.

Most ironically, The Social Network highlights the fact that the same massive network whose goal is to bring people together was actually conjured up by a bloke whose social skills were like the lovechild of Morrissey and Greenberg or, if you like, Jeremy Clarkson and David Starkey (apologies for the revolting image).

The story begins in 2003. It's the middle of those days when the internet was still finding its feet, with projects floating about and tons of potentially lucrative businesses rising and flopping one after the other (think Napster, geocities or various dot-com failures).

It's around that time Harvard University student and socially inept Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) creates a fairly cruel website called FaceMash, which is based on male students voting which of two girls presented at a time is more attractive.

While Zuckerberg is punished and scorned for his idea, his amazing computer skills catch the attention of other people on campus (the Winklevoss brothers) who were trying to develop a social network.

In the meantime, Zuckerberg himself approaches fellow student Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and tells him of his plan for "Thefacebook", an online social networking website exclusive to Harvard University students.

It is exactly the timing of Zuckerberg's plan that will cause him a headache or two in the future, with the Winklevoss brothers later suing him on the grounds that he may have nicked their idea.

An interesting subplot is also the arrival of Sean Parker (interpreted by Justin Timberlake), the mind behind Napster and, ultimately, the person that will cause a rift within the core group of people behind the Facebook project.

Any more would constitute a spoiler.

Let's just say that director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, Panic Room) manages to keep the energy up throughout and delivers flair and suspense with an incredibly effective use of flashbacks and backstories. Expect an Oscar or two to land his way.

Ultimately, a really good film.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cliches of 2010 #3

"There are jobs out there if you really want one"

You really think so? Go on then. You give it a go.

But at least have the decency to do so and stand on your own two feet instead of relying on mummy and daddy's handouts, free-rent and free grub as you tell them about application form no.35 being rejected.

You find that most people who come up with the blind belief that "if you really *but really* want to work, you can find a job at McDonalds or Tesco" are generally those who've never had the pleasure of trying.

Or if they have - and luck was on their side - they assume that the same fate would automatically await everybody else. "It happened to MEEE? Then it must be a universal law".

Except that these people forget two crucial factors.

1) Simple figures. According to the latest from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), "[t]he number of vacancies for the three months to October 2010 was 453,000, down 27,000 over the quarter". And guess what? There are 1.47m registered "jobseekers", meaning that for every vacancy there are three people applying.

For the record, "the number of employees and self-employed people who were working part-time because they could not find a full-time job increased by 67,000 on the quarter, to reach a record high of 1.15 million". Which is great, but you can only do that if you've got other ways of supplementing your income.

2) As for the "you-can-get-something-at-McDonalds-or-Tesco-then" remark, it is already a fact that there are tons of people in jobs for which they're overqualified.

More than that, in fact. Many are so desperate that they are working for free [see the Rights for interns campaign] hoping to grab hold of a bone if it lands their way.

The only people who think a graduate can simply stroll into a Starbucks and land a job on the spot are obviously those who've never tried. Because if they did, they'd know that rejection is the order of the day. There are hundreds of thousands of graduates who are routinely turned down for low-skilled jobs, the assumption being that they "will not stick with it", that they're "overqualified" or "not humble enough" to put up with "less ambitious" tasks.

#2 "The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue".
#1 "Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".

Friday, November 26, 2010

Is this normal?

Before the election, the LibDems promised cheaper train fares. That must be why you're ticket's going up.

Look at the picture above. A single off-peak ticket connecting two towns in the same area of England. If you thought £32-20 was already taking the piss, then you've got another thing coming.

And that's because train fares are set to rise by an average 6.2 per cent, well above the rate of inflation. And that's the "regulated" ones, because otherwise train companies can charge as much as they like.

If you're priced out of big cities and you've got to commute each day to go to work, season tickets are going to be even more unaffordable.

From January on, for instance, a season ticket from Brighton to London will cost you an extra £276 with the price further escalating in the coming four years.

Of course train operators will tell you that those rises are necessary.

Investment, innovations, resources, efficiency, improvements. They're always improving. You heard the mantra throughout the New Labour years (when fares kept going up almost as fast as Tony Blair's ego) and you're hearing it now. Except that the trains are still overcrowded, inefficient and extortionate.

What you may not know, however, is that "48p in every £1 goes to Network Rail", and that Network Rail has also just announced that its profits more than doubled over the past year - even though a regulatory review said that that the same Network Rail is "30 to 50% less efficient" than its European rivals.

In any case, if this is all feeling too much on top of your current pay freeze, VAT rise, cuts in child benefits and other 'measures', just be positive and look at it as "investment in policies that promote social mobility". Not my words, but those of guru of progressive politics Nick Clegg.

By the way one of his party's pre-election promises was to "cut commuter fares". Seriously!

[Picture courtesy of Christina Marsh]

Also on the subject:
- Campaign for Better Transport, "Join the fight";
- Welsh Ramblings, "Renationalise the rail".

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The last days of Berlusconi

Despite a massive majority, the Italian Prime Minister is days away from bowing out.

His third election victory in April 2008 was saluted as "historic": nobody in Italy's democratic history had ever won such a huge majority.

A series of factors suggested that Italy's messy political system was braced for stability at last.

A mangled opposition for starters. With the hard left wiped out of parliament for the first time since fascism and the remains of the centre-left worn out by more rows than a couple in the throws of divorce papers, an easy ride in parliament appeared well within Berlusconi's grasp.

Not to mention the media tycoon's notorious grip on the country's television. Lest we forget, 69.3 per cent of Italian voters openly admit telly is influential to the way they cast their ballot.

Add to the equation the recent European trend in favour of centre-right parties, and you can see why the pro-Berlusconi camp had never felt so buoyant.

"This is a historic victory, one that hands Silvio Berlusconi a clear majority and no time for hesitation", wrote some of his supporters two and a half years ago. "This time he's got the experience, his group is cohesive and the targets are clear. No more excuses now".

In the spring of 2008, Italy's most right-wing government since 1945 produced an ambitious programme that included lower taxes, reforming the justice system, reducing the public debt, a more dynamic cabinet and everybody in the country feeling generally wealthier and happier.

Yet in two and a half years, all the Italian government managed to knock together was a number of controversial immunity bills (which critics slammed as "tailor-made" to protect the scandal-ridden PM from prosecution) and a series of anti-immigration measures dictated by Berlusconi's openly xenophobic coalition partners the Northern League.

Otherwise, the Berlusconi ship started treading water pretty much from the off.

First, there was "his brand of bombastic politics", as aptly branded by Sarah Vine in the Times. A style more akin to an Emperor with no boundaries and no sense of decorum produced the first casualty when his wife Veronica Lario announced she wanted a divorce.

"I can no longer stop him from making himself look ridiculous in front of the world, I've reached the end of the line", she said.

Her words ("I cannot remain with a man who consorts with minors") opened a can of worms, with more reports following that the 74-year-old PM was at the core of a network of call girls paid to be sent to his residence (his own lawyer famously described prostitutes as "goods" and Berlusconi as "the end user").

In the meantime, the entire world was left with its mouth agape. Was all this actually taking place in a modern democracy?

But most baffling was Berlusconi's defence. "Better to love women than gays", "I'm loaded, that's why women love me" (school of "so Debbie what first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?") and "I love life and I love women" was all the billionaire could muster without grasping any sense of ridicule.

And while increasing questions were raised over a PM whose behaviour left him exposed to blackmail, Italy found itself grappling with a number of unresolved issues. From cuts to education and street riots, organised crime and uncollected rubbish, as well as rotting heritage in Pompeii and growing poverty, Italy under Berlusconi appears in a total state of chaos.

The final straw came last month in the guise of a
17-year-old aspiring model known as 'Ruby'.

When the girl - who first met the PM at one of his notorious "parties" - was arrested for theft in Milan, it emerged that Berlusconi pressurised police to free her. The PM admitted he helped Ruby, but lamely denied interfering with the justice system.

Last week's news that Berlusconi's loyal long-erm ally and House Speaker Gianfranco Fini took the unprecedented step to leave the government and take with him a number of ministers and MPs signalled the beginning of the end.

"Sometimes I think this is the government of pretending that all is well without taking into account society's problems", said a visibly fed-up Fini in a public speech. "There's a sort of moral decadence, consequence of the progressive loss of decorum from those same public figures who are supposed to set the example", added the right-wing leader, obviously aware that his words would trigger political earthquake.

Fini's supporters declared that they will vote against a crucial vote of confidence on December 14. They may have enough MPs to bring Berlusconi down for good.

The irony is that the end of the empire is not being caused by any particular government policy backfiring or, even less so, by a centre-left opposition still in tatters. Berlusconi's coalition is simply, literally, imploding.

What will happen next nobody knows. But, two weeks from now, the action of a few dozen MPs may end up in history books as the official end of Berlusconismo.

Also on the subject: Help this man (Part 2)

"Why should I pay for their university?..."

An attempt at debunking right-wing logic

You hear a lot of it these days: "why should the bus driver/waiter/street cleaner be compelled to pay for the improvements in someone's life chances that his further education will bring?".

Apply the same logic to any other aspect of life:

- Why should I pay towards the NHS bill of someone who broke their leg on a ski trip while I lead a safe life?
- Why should I contribute to the expenses of a serial fry-up eater who's just had a triple heart bypass surgery?
- Why should I pay for rail subsidies if I never ever use trains?
- Why should I pay for street cleaning so that those lowlife kids can chuck their rubbish down anywhere they like?
- Why should I fund the Citizens Advice Bureau if I'm never going to use it?
- Why should I subsidise someone else's free childcare when I don't have any kids myself?...

"Each for himself and god for us all", right?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New generation

Are the 18-25s of today displaying jaffas like we never did?

I don't know about you but, throughout my teens and then my twenties, it became common to hear references about our generation being one of the most passive and apathetic in history.

We grew up in the shadows of our predecessors from the 1960s and 1970s: student protests, growing social conscience, "counter-culture" and "rebellious" music --- whether a myth or not, young people making a stand were all generally perceived as something in retro pastel colour schemes.

Even in the 1980s, when I was a child, the telly kept showing footage of large CND marches, the miners' strike, rallies against Section 28 or the poll tax.

And, yes, popular culture in the 80s may have turned into a big fat mainstream bloater, but it was at least offset by a dedicated number of 'indie' bands proudly wearing their politics and opinions on their sleeves (think The Housemartins, The Smiths, Paul Weller etc).

And then there was us. We came of age [I hate the expression] in the 1990s and the early noughties and, except for loud but marginalised movements like anti-globalisation groups and a few others, we really developed a reputation as a spectacularly placid, apathetic and generally uninterested generation.

I lost count of articles and opinion columns relating the general consensus to "unprecedented political stability", the "death of ideology" and "we-re-all-middle-class-now".

It was the peak of Blairite/Clintonite optimism, "everything-is-postmodern", "we're-all-freelancers-now", and "don't-be-a-pedantic-leftie-this-bubble-will-never-burst".

Even in popular culture, the term 'indie' ended up amounting to all but a succession of wishy washy bands characterised by vintage clothes, vaguely "retro" hairdos and lots of articles about nothing in particular on the NME and Melody Maker. Very little, however, to piss people off, go against the grain or leave a factual cultural mark.

With the exception of the politicised few, my generation just couldn't be bothered. Just think about it. When grants were abolished and university tuition fees first introduced in 1997, there was hardly a whimper of protest to greet them.

And while you obviously can't judge an entire generation on the sole basis of the amount of protests generated by the cost of higher education, hands up if you didn't have to rub your eyes when you saw today's headlines and footage of students staging occupations at several universities along with dozens of mass walkouts taking place at schools and colleges up and down the country.

It is further proof that the 10 November demo wasn't a one-off. And for all the snotty claptrap of "middle class tantrums" (read the excellent Mark Steel today on the subject) or trivials analyses of "anarchists hijacking protest", widespread discontent now appears to be here to stay.

Perhaps it's just that the new Tory government is behaving in more antagonistic fashion. Perhaps the chicken came home to roost and years of growing insecurity and widening social gap are finally starting to unravel.

Perhaps there's only as long until enough people can tolerate the size of too few binging and too many surviving on hot air. Or perhaps, like Ed Miliband said recently, "for some people the gap between the dreams that seem to be on offer and their ability to realise them is wider than it's ever been before".

Whatever the reason, and no matter where you stand, this new generation is showing some jaffas like most of us never did.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Blinkered by ideology

Tory attacks on the Euro in the wake of the Irish bail-out display a scary concoction of goldfish memory and totemic dogma.

The recent bail-out for the Irish Republic, in which the EU and the IMF will lend 90bn euros (£77bn) and the UK about £7bn, has triggered a textbook case of rampant ideological poison.

Instead of focusing on the blatant Tory faux-pas of hailing last year's savage cuts in the Republic (look at this gem here, absolutely priceless), the rampant ideologues are now clinging on to a convenient red herring: the Euro -- that is to say, one of their top ideological pet hates.

Enter uber-Tories like eurosceptic fundamentalist Dan Hannan MEP, whose blog on the Telegraph website oozes more totemic certainty than a North Korean ideological textbook. Apparently, Ireland is in a rut simply because of the Euro (here) and supporters of the Euro should apologise (here).

Now, this blog here is not particularly keen on the Euro either.

But it's ridiculous, nothing less, that some people can cling on to such levels of ideological blindness without even remotely pretending to be looking at the facts.

Suddenly it's as though the crash that sent shockwaves across the planet had never started in the US (currency: the Dollar) and never required a bailout that cost well into the trillions.

It's as if the UK (currency: Pound Sterling) did not need a mammoth £850bn to hold off the most devastating domino effect in history in the wake of a fat bubble that lasted until 2008.

It's as if Dubai (currency: the UAE dirham) did not see its property bubble burst last year, and Iceland (currency: Icelandic Krona) did not experience patterns familiar to the Irish -- unprecendented expansion followed by near bankruptcy.

Robert Peston made the point on the BBC website that what happened across the Irish sea wasn't miles away from Britain's problem. Literally.

It's a fact that some of the biggest casualties of the crisis were not part of the Eurozone, while others where (Greece, Ireland). Similarly, some of the countries that best weathered the storm were in the Eurozone (look at Germany and France) and some weren't (Denmark, Sweden).

No pattern was related to either currency or scale of the economy. Like Philippe Legraine wrote in the Financial Times, the only thing all the major victims have in common is a background of predatory lending which fuelled unsustainable levels of financial and property speculation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cliches of 2010 #2

"The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue"

With the recent news that Prince William is to wed Kate Middleton, the supremely annoying cliche that "the-monarchy-generates-tourism" has made a swift comeback, particularly in reply to allegations that a Royal wedding in the middle of an age of austerity will strain the public purse.

For instance, former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie proclaimed on last Thursday's BBC Question Time that "we need the tourist dollar [...] we need the Royal Family to help pay the bills". Needless to say, the Mail on Sunday reiterated the same argument today.

A few obvious questions, however, spring to mind.

Do these people seriously think tourists are booking flights and hotels to Britain only after they've double checked on Wikipedia that the country's still a monarchy?

Do they picture those gondoliers in Venice tearing their hair out in regret crying that: "oh, if only Italy had not become a Republic in 1946! The amount of extra revenue we missed out on!".

Would it be such a massive mental strain to work out that France has been a republic for 221 years and it's still the world's number one tourist destination?

Do people flock to Spain because their Head of State is called King Juan Carlos or because of the tourist attractions, history, scenery and weather?

Wouldn't tourists want to visit Buckingham Palace and other monuments anyway? How do you think it works?

"Oh, but it's not that, it's the mugs, the tea towels and the commemorative plates", the Sun, the Mail and the Express would probably tell you.

Except that you can work out for yourself that there will always be a specific type of tourist spending money on mugs, pens and commemorative plates, t-shirts and trinkets, key rings and the lot.

They sell them all around the world, and it matters not one jot if they have a royal family or not at the helm. Some tourists spend that money anyway, whether it's the Big Ben that is printed on that mug, Prince Charles' ears, the London Underground sign, the Eiffel Tower, Gaudi's lizard, or the Parthenon.

Get real. Open your eyes. You've got a brain. If you want to stick up for the Royal family, ditch the kool aid and use some better arguments.

Last week's cliche: "Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Catalan elections: trouble for Spain's left?

With Catalonia going to the polls, the outcome is widely expected to cause Spain's socialist government yet another headache.

Spain has been one of the biggest casualties of the economic crisis. With unemployment at a staggering 20 per cent and no tangible signs of a steady recovery, not many are ready to bet on Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government - the last bastion of leftist administration amongst Europe's "big five" - to last until the end of its mandate in 2012.

And given the increasingly tense relationship between Madrid's central government and Catalonia, the situation is likely to be further complicated by the region's elections taking place next week.

For the past seven years, Spain's most influential autonomous region has been governed by a left-wing coalition known as Tripartit, an alliance between the Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Greens and radical separatist party Esquerra Republicana.

Their two consecutive election victories in 2003 and 2006, ensured that a progressive answer to the never-ending debate surrounding Catalan identity could finally be found. Or, if anything, that the issue could be at least temporarily held off.

Similar to Scotland, politics in Catalonia is centred around national identity. No matter the subject, the issue of the region's relationship with the rest of Spain will pop up within seconds.

And while Catalans are broadly split into Espanyolistas and Catalanistas, the latter camp is also divided into those advocating more autonomy and federalism (though still within "the Spanish State") and those calling for outright independence.

Amongst Catalan politicians, however, few would be ready to openly advocate separatism.

Artur Mas, leader of centre-right and pro-business Catalanist party Convergència i Unió (expected to storm to victory after today's vote), has turned ambiguity on the subject into an art, never spelling out exactly whether he supports independence or not.

Nor has he specified what level of autonomy and devolution of power would be enough to satisfy his party's particular brand of nationalism. He said he would vote 'yes' in a vote over independence, but he's also stated that - if in power - his party would not call for a referendum.

As for the Socialists, seven years of juggling between their radical Catalanist allies and their natural vocation as a Spanish party has clearly taken its toll.

They thought they'd cut it when their carefully drafted Estatut (Catalan Statute of Autonomy) was approved by popular vote in a 2006 referendum, but last summer's decision by Madrid's Constitutional Court to annul a number of articles relating to language, justice and fiscal policy pushed anti-Spanish suspicion to new heights. This, in a region where posters circulate that caricature "the Spanish State" into an incompetent array of sinister-looking generals, judges, taxmen, bullfighters and priests.

Many interpreted the Estatut fiasco as evidence that the Socialists' policy of promoting an España Plural can only lead to a blind alley.

Which is why opinion polls indicate a total collapse for the PSC. From their peak of 31 per cent in 2003, the Catalan Socialists are now expected to just about hit 20%, leaving a reinvigorated Convergència i Unió running for power on a Cameronite programme of severe cuts in local government, inheritance tax cuts for the rich and financial incentives to private healthcare.

As for the radical catalanists of Esquerra Republicana, with their "uncompromising" image shattered by seven years in power and a new party to their left set up by former FC Barcelona chairman Joan Laporta, they're expected to net 7 per cent only - half of all the votes they managed in 2006.

This may all sound like a nightmare for the Spanish left, but there are at least three reason not to feel too pessimistic.

For starters, analysts believe that the right are not benefitting from drop in consensus for left-wing parties. At just over 50 per cent, turnout is expected to be lower than in the past, suggesting that progressive voters are simply staying at home.

Secondly, it's a fact that many people who vote for catalanist parties at local or regional elections tend to support PSOE at national level. It happened in 2004 and again in 2008 - such is the dislike for the rabidly anti-catalan Partido Popular, that many Catalans are happy to still cast their ballot for the only party that will prevent the Spanish right from winning at national level.

Which bring us to the final point. In spite of a crisis of epic proportions and a government crumbling before their eyes, support for the Partido Popular in Catalonia remains low. The most recent polls give the PP at 10,3%, even lower than the measly 10,8% they managed four years ago.

True, Catalonia has never been their stronghold. But if they really want to return to power in Madrid, they'll have to do better than that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The effects of 40 years of Page Three

Some people say the Sun's most popular feature is 'harmless fun' at best and 'unimportant' at worst. But is it really that simple?

It's forty years since the Sun began sporting tits on Page Three on a daily basis.

When then-Sun editor Larry Lamb first made his gamble in November 1970, few expected the idea to deliver such a massive boost in sales and popularity.

The Sun is today the most popular paper in the country. By far. If newspaper circulation is the yardstick by which a country's obsession is defined and, for instance, Italy's most popular La Gazzetta dello Sport typifies a nation of football fanatics, one would conclude that Britain is literally obsessed with tits, gossip and sex scandals.

Rupert Murdoch's title sells well in excess of three million copies a day, completely dwarfing the circulation of any other broadsheet or tabloid.

Which is why the red top's celebration of their "watershed moment" has triggered a minor debate over whether this type of tabloid behaviour represented a turning point in British popular culture.

Did it help an insanely prudish country shed its sexual inhibitions and hang ups or did it just kickstart a race to the bottom with a more crass and cheaper society?

In other words, is it ok to stick pictures of topless ladies so unrepresentative of womanhood at large for the sole benefit of arousing the base instincts of certain geezers? Is it ok for that to become absolutely normal? Is it prudish, pedantic, middle-class or feminist to wonder - even if just for a second- whether most women would find that debasing or offensive?

Of course, like gossip and scandals, naked pictures had obviously existed before but, with Page Three pummelling bare-chested ladies down the country's throat on a daily basis, this became run-of-the-mill stuff.

Defenders of Page Three see it as a simply cheeky, naughty and fun idea. It's just harmless fun, a billion-making machine that illustrates the country's sense of humour and love for a bit of tacky. In the words of a blog called Mediasnoops, for instance, it's just "a bit silly, a bit immature but largely of great unimportance", stuff that "only middle class feminists with too much time on their hands" care about.

Others, instead, contend that it's "about as funny as the Black and White Minstrel show" and that the normalisation of naked female bodies (of the type idealised by a male-dominated society only), is the epitome of "[S]exual objectification as a part of neoliberal social conditioning" and the symbol of "[women's] unequal status" (Laurie Penny, New Statesman).

So who's right? Are the "harmless fun brigade" correct that Page Three has nothing to do with the normalisation of vulgarity, or is it true, to quote Francis Gilbert's book Yob Nation, that "[the Sun] set the template for modern media culture [by making] topless girls, sex scandal and celebrity gossip a staple of the breakfast table"?

Perhaps we should consider how "harmless" it is when Page Three girls get routinely used as mouthpieces for the Sun's editorial (and political) line -- think of those speechbubbles where topless Giselle, 20, from Essex, expresses her admiration for David Cameron's war on scroungers, or whichever political crusade the Sun is involved in on the day.

What would they say if tucked between a dance off, a panel's opinion and a Bruce Forsythe catchphrase, Strictly Come Dancing also contained a regular feature were leggy dancers made cheeky swipes at the immigrants?

What if popular Premier League matches were also perused to play dog whistle politics, perhaps by having Wayne Rooney, Steve Gerrard or other stars lifting a banner that says "sack public sector workers" , "bomb the crap out of Iraq" or "single mum scum" each time they scored a goal?

Would they still believe the effect would be "totally unimportant"?

Isn't whipping up baying-mob hysteria under the cloak of tits and various lairy stuff actually more disturbing and more poisonous than it if was plain and simple politics?

And, finally, while I cannot judge how women would feel on the subject, I find it so unnecessarily shallow and geezery when concerns regarding the effect of Page Three on sexist attitudes are laughed off as stuff for "middle class feminists with too much time on their hands".

Just look at what happened when a female politician tried to do something about it.

When Clare Short launched a campaign "to remove the degrading images of women as available sex objects [...] circulated in the mainstream of society through the tabloid press", the former MP for Birmingham Ladywood was literally torn to shreds and bullied into submission (of course, in a "fun and cheeky way") until the subject was dropped.

Like Clare Short wrote in her autobiography in 2004:
"A woman journalist asked me at a lunch whether I was still opposed to Page 3. I said I was and this led to busloads of Page 3 girls parked outside my house all day in the hope of setting up embarrassing photos, and mock-up pictures of me as a very fat Page 3 girl. They even sent half-dressed people to the house I share with my 84-year-old mother in Birmingham and had people hiding in cars and chasing me down in the street in an effort to get embarrassing photographs. I dealt with such attacks by not looking at the paper, but it's oppressive to have a double-decker bus plastered with Sun posters outside the front door from seven in the morning".
"Unimportant or not", for that reason alone, I wish Page Three a very unhappy birthday.

Comfort to homophobes, green light to homophobic murder

Peter Tatchell: UN vote against sexual orientation protection "shameful"‏

The United Nations voted this week to remove sexual orientation from a resolution calling on countries to protect the life of all people and to investigate extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions that are motivated by prejudice and discrimination.

This is a shameful day in United Nations history. It gives a de facto green light to the on-going murder of LGBT people by homophobic regimes, death squads and vigilantes. They will take comfort from the fact that the UN does not endorse the protection of LGBT people against hate-motivated murder.

The UN vote is in direct defiance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees equal treatment, non-discrimination and the right to life. What is the point of the UN if it refuses to uphold its own humanitarian values and declarations?

This vote is partly the result of a disturbing homophobic alliance between mostly African and Arab states, often inspired by religious fundamentalism. LGBT people in these countries frequently suffer severe persecution.

Many of the nations that voted for this amendment want to ensure that their anti-gay policies are not scrutinised or condemned by the UN. Even if they don't directly sanction the killing of LGBT people, they have lined up alongside nations that do.

South Africa and Cuba claim to support LGBT human rights, yet they voted to remove sexual orientation. They can no longer be considered gay-friendly states. Both countries have allied themselves with tyrannical, violent, homophobic regimes, like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Presidents Raul Castro and Jacob Zuma should hang their heads in shame. They've betrayed the liberation ideals that they profess to uphold.

This is a guest post by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Click here to find out more about his work.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Daily Mail race obsession gets worse

Are you British but not white? The issue is really bothering the Daily Mail.

The right-wing rag is widely known for its routine pieces on "Britain to become mega overcrowded by 2030/2040/2050 [select year at random]", "migrants rob jobs and steal packed lunches" and "'too many immigrants' warns objective anti-immigration think tank", generally based on a selection of myths and half truths.

But in an article appearing in today's edition (complete with trite picture of a crowded city street, yawn), the poisonous tabloid goes one step too far in emulating BNP literature.

"White Britons 'will be outnumbered' if immigration continues at current rate", is the appalling headline, a classic piece of scaremongering based on a number of quotations from one Professor David Coleman of Oxford University.

The academic, as quoted by the Mail, seems to be especially worried about skin colour, drawing a clear dividing line between white and non-white Britons.

Which is what makes the article particularly obnoxious: the "concern" no longer being just about non-British people outnumbering British people, but about people of a certain skin hue, which is exactly the kind of game the BNP has been playing for years.

Do we really - in 2010, while you'd have thought this kind of shit died out decades ago - do we really have to remind the Daily Mail and Professor Coleman that many people are as British as the Queen even though their skin colour may be another?

Are they aware of how appalling it is to place under a "different" category millions of people who may have been British for generations and are still made to feel alien (as if their Britshness was not quite the same or, worse, something to resent altogether)?

For the record - and needless to say the Daily Mail makes no mention of this - Prof Coleman is not an objective source, but the co-founder of right-wing lobby group Migration Watch, an organisation known for its cavalier use of statistics when issuing those press releases that make up half the content of the Daily Express and other UK tabloids.

In the past, Coleman also became the focus of some controversy for its connections with the Galton Institute, formerly known as Eugenics Society (see here and here for details).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why party politics is a pathetic joke

The three main parties have switched policy on tuition fees more often than tennis players swapping ends at the end of every game.

Wherever you stand on tuition fees, the recent debate said an awful lot about the world of party politics. And if you think this sounds like a bit of a swiping statement, just take a look at a few simple facts.

No matter which major party you look at, what you have staring at you in the face is politicking and opportunism of the worst kind.

It's a joy to behold when LibDem MPs and activists alike turn overnight into staunch defenders of the brand new Super-Expensive Higher Education system. The very same people who for years (and until the other day) were ranting against fee-paying universities as if it would mean the Apocalypse.

Read this BBC report from 2003. Look at the bit where the LibDems education spokesman slams the Labour government for the "nonsensical notion that all graduates suddenly become high earners". And then this: "Saddling students with a mortgage-style 20-year debt creates a huge disincentive for higher education". It's going to be "mortgage-style debts", is what the Lib-Dems shouted til the other day.

Not only that. The LibDems were also warning of the dangers of "[the] market [being] introduced into higher education". "Top-ups wil deter students", they protested.

Today Clegg & co would tell you it's not ideal, but it's ok. "You don't have to pay up front" must be one of their most quoted statements in defense of the new system.

Except that's exactly how the Labour government sold a very similar policy to parliament a few years back.

"[The students] will make a fair contribution to the cost but only after graduation, through the tax system, on the basis of ability to pay", said Tony Blair in a speech in January 2004, adding that "[tuition fees] do not penalise the ordinary taxpayer".

Now you hear Harriet Harman attacking Coalition plans to "dump the cost on to students". Which is amazing, because while she was in government and Labour was doing exactly the same, her colleague and then-Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson defended trebling tuition fees. "I just reject the notion that working-class kids are more debt averse than youngsters from other backgrounds", he told the Independent.

And when you read what Charles Clarke mumbled about "growing pressure on public budgets", you could be excused for thinking it was one of the current ConDem ministers talking. "There is no alternative", sentenced Charles Clarke. Just like what David Cameron said the other day.

Which leads us to the Tories. Back when Labour trebled tuition fees, they were frothing at the mouth. "Have the Tories become Old Labour?" wondered a BBC report in 2004, with reference to the Conservatives' proposal "to abolish tuition fees"!

Back in 2003, then-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith pledged that all university tuition fees would be abolished under a future Conservative government, condemning them as "a tax on learning". Seriously.

A year later, then-Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green called for tuition fees to be scrapped altogether. "This would help students avoid the burden of long-term debt which deters increasing numbers of poorer students from applying to university", he said.

In opposition, current Coalition Minister Kenneth Clarke said "It is the ordinary student from the ordinary family [...]who will carry the burden of tens of thousands of pounds-worth of debt [...] Does [the Labour government] seriously expect that that will have no effect at all on the willingness of such people to go in for the more expensive courses in higher education?".

Well, apparently not. According to his current government colleague and fellow Tory Michael Gove, "[higher fees] won't put off students". Fancy that.

It really must take some stomach to still put up with it. How do you do tribalism? How can anyone keep up with all the somersaulting without getting a headache or feeling at least an inkling of nausea?

How can anyone still happily believe and justify either of the three parties while they engage in their pathetic exercise of swapping ends in the style of tennis players at the end of every game?

Because the truth is theirs is a world were both principles and respect for voters mean absolutely nothing. And tuition fees are just an example. The hopes of ordinary people can be trampled over and their good faith abused whenever and wherever convenient.

Which is why the non-voting contingent has just recruited a new follower.

Where's the bucket?

Brace yourself. This isn't going to go away for a while.

Stop thinking everyone.

Time has come to switch off those cogs and no longer ask questions about those petty old things: employment prospects, cuts, tax and education. What do all those quibbles matter when placed in front of such a Royal display of austerity?

BBC News yesterday already paved the way: 45 minutes of non-news about Prince William tying the knot and not a word on the recent debates on cuts, tuition fees and the rest.

The tabloids have gone into spasm. The Sun and the Daily Mail are talking about nothing else, with bits about the royals currently taking over all top news items on each website.

Again, in fairness, talking about scroungers is what they do best.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tory Libertarians, where are ye?

A blog giving advice to demonstrators from student fees protest is shut down by the police without a court order.

We happen to think that, if only the violent minority had stayed in and sipped a nice mug of camomile instead of seeking attention and chucking fire extinguishers at last Wednesday's London student protest, the debate over the Coalition's trebling of tuition fees would actually still be focused on exactly it: the trebling of tuition fees.

But whatever your thoughts on the demo, it emerged today that the police shut down a blog called FitWatch for the simple reason that they offered a number of tips on students fearing arrest in the wake of the demonstration.

The police reckoned that advice ranging from "don't panic" and "do get rid of your clothes" to "don't hand yourself in" and "do get the name of a good lawyer" was tantamount to "attempt to pervert the course of justice", telling the host (JustHost) to suspend the site. The worrying bit is that they did so without a court order.

I wonder where the Tory Libertarians and assorted "defenders of free speech" are. Let us know if and when you hear a knock.

More on the subject here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cliches of 2010 #1

"Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man"

Our new weekly feature on cliches starts with the phrase most associated with the Coalition's Grand Welfare Shake-Up.

Not just from Tory and Libservative opinionators (see Matthew D'Ancona's "Iain Duncan Smith is the man to give the poor back their work ethic"); a large swathe of centre-left commentators too decided that whenever they mention IDS, the person in charge of kicking the unemployed while they're down, they will describe him as "the man who seeks to liberate the poor and the needy" (Mary Riddell, the Telegraph) and "a fundamentally kind man who has spent years thinking about reform" (Jackie Ashley, the Guardian).

Yet how this man can suddenly be portrayed as Florence Nightingale reincarnate is one of the mysteries of the year.

Not long ago, this "kind and honourable man" dubbed homosexuality a "malign influence" and voted with the homophobes on any gay-bashing issue debated in Westminster.

Last month, the kind man callously invited the unemployed in Merthyr Tydfil to "take a one-hour bus journey" and look for work in Cardiff. Of course no-one had told the Coalition's Mother Teresa that 15,000 people in Cardiff are currently chasing just 1,700 jobs, while in Merthyr the situation is 1,670 unemployed against 39 job vacancies (all temporary and part-time, see here). But, hey, IDS means well, so that's alright.

Oh...and since we're at it. IDS says that his planned sanctions to force people who haven't found work for 12 months (even through no fault of their own) to sweep streets for £1-30 an hour 30 hours a week (or else hang'em and flog'em) is "making work pay". Can someone explain?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jewish doctor walks out on Nazi patient

A brave surgeon in the German town of Paderborn refused to operate on a patient as he spotted a swastika tattooed on his arm.

The strict German privacy laws have prevented reporters from Bild (where the story first appeared) to give out details regarding the people involved or the type of surgery in question.

What is known, however, is that the doctor was set to start a routine operation (perhaps a hernia or appendicitis) when he discovered a Nazi tattoo on the patient's forearm: the appalling Reich's eagle perched on a swastika.

At that point the surgeon asked a colleague to continue and walked out on the operation. Bild reported that the doctor spoke to the patient's wife saying - and credit to him -"I will not operate on your husband, I can't, I'm Jewish and my conscience doesn't allow me".

The other doctor successfully completed the operation, but it's not known whether the patient was planning to sue.

He may want to think twice, however. The doctor (can you blame him?) may have turned his back on the Hippocratic Oath, but in Germany any public display of Nazi symbols is punishable under criminal law.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The response of a bully

A Tory councillor called for the stoning to death of a Muslim journalist. Oh but he was only having a laugh...*

"I was only joking and I didn't do no harm. It was wholly unintentional".

That's what bullies say. From the school playground all the way to Chris Moyles, the worst kind of cowards will always reply that it was all just supposed to be in good fun, and get-a-sense-of-humour, right?

And that's exactly the gist of what Tory boy and Councillor Gareth Compton said after being questioned by West Midlands Police over his public remarks on Twitter.

"Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really", wrote the 38-year-old Erdington ward representative.

Needless to say the country is laughing from Land's End to Wick.

Except what they're laughing at is Cllr Compton and his ridiculous lack of judgement. Because the bloke is not your average loudmouth ejit down the pub, a blogger with Tourette's, or an overpaid Radio DJ unable to tell shit from clay. Nor has this anything to do with the Paul Chambers case.

Compton is a councillor, an elected representative, a politician, a person holding public responsibilities at the largest local authority in the UK.

And he should have known better, the Tory, than to call for the stoning of a Muslim lady, Alibhai-Brown, who's already been the subject of many a death threat for her views on racism, Islamic fundamentalism, Iraq and other political matters.

And while I don't think Cllr Compton should be prosecuted (if anything it would be a waste of time and resources), the idea of a society not batting an eyelid in front of such vile "jokes" (especially when made by elected politicians) makes me feel uncomfortable.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The cost of University: a comparative look

Sending a kid to university abroad has never been cheaper.

With tuition fees in the UK set to reach £9000 a year, the cost of Higher Education (already high by EU standards) is going to be the most prohibitive in Western Europe. Let's take a look.

Although in France admission to universities is extremely selective, most universities are almost free (€174 a year), the exception being some private Business Schools or the ultra-prestigious Grandes Ecoles which can exceed 12,900 a year. However, 26% of all HE students (generally from low income families) receive generous bursaries (see this and this).

Students in Germany have to fork out €100-200 per semester. There are penalties (as in tuition fees as such) for students who don't complete their courses on time (see this)

In the Netherlands, undergraduates under the age of 30 are required to pay €1620 a year.

In Sweden, all universities are completely free for all EU students. There is only a registration fee of around €30 Euros per semester (see here).

The same system is in place in Norway, although the registration fee is slightly higher (€50 per semester).

In Denmark, university courses are completely free for all EU students, while in Spain the system at state universities is more complex.

Aside from an annual registration fee of up to €20 a year and a number of ancillary costs (i.e. various paperwork and certificates that will not exceed a total of €200 anyway), students are charged "per credit", that is to say, more or less, for every module they study. A single credit will not exceed €16. However, students will be charged an extra 25% if they're re-sitting and an extra 70% on their third attempt. On average the total annual cost of university fees will range between €800 and €1,000.

source: http://www.studyineurope.eu

Related articles: Student protests: are you surprised?; and Top-up fees. Forking out £3,000

Student protests: are you surprised?

The history of Tory governments is packed with social unrest. They just can't help it: antagonising entire categories of people is part of their philosophy.

Fifty thousand people took to the streets yesterday to protest against the Coalition's plans to treble university tuition fees to £9,000, by far the most expensive Higher Education system in Europe.

The rally was the biggest student demo in over a decade, double the size of even the most optimistic predictions, no wonder the police was caught unprepared.

Now, a lot can be said about how a violent minority stole the limelight as some demonstrators stormed into the Conservative Party's HQs. But that would be a convenient distraction, a textbook case of political red herrings conveniently thrown in. We'd be wasting time handing centre stage to a bunch of impulsive ejits with anger management issues (a tiny fraction of the protesters) while dodging a discussion over what really is at stake here.

Because the facts are clear. In line with history, whenever you get a government whose favourite pastime is to constantly antagonise entire categories of people (public sector workers, benefit recipients, the unemployed, students...and that's just the first five months of the ConDems in power), tension is bound to skyrocket.

We feared this was going to happen. The history of Conservative governments is packed with social unrest. From race riots to lenghty and bitter strikes, from the poll tax through sexual discrimination and prison protests: if a government is driven by rampant ideology and a sense of self-righteousness no matter the consequences, some people will inevitably lose their patience.

Which is why, like Sunny Hundal wrote on Liberal Conspiracy, many suspect yesterday's "student protests were only the beginning of a tidal wave". There's only as far as the Tories and their Libservative lapdogs can stretch it before tempers begin to flare.

In the case of the tuition fees protest, frustration is going through the roof as one of the Coalition partners actively campaigned to abolish tuition fees. Not to keep them the same. Not to raise them as little as possible. Certainly not to treble them and certainly not within a few months from the election. This is the crux of the matter.

The Tories may be to blame but at least they never promised to do otherwise. Unless you're a total wally, you should know where the Tories stand on social ruthlessness.

What grates the most is how Nick Clegg and what remains of his party managed to mangle every single bit of trust the electorate had placed upon them. The LibDems had signed public pledges. Their MPs were happily being photographed holding idiotic smiles and a scrap-tuition-fees placard while standing side by side with ordinary voters.

Already betrayed by Blair's New Labour, the LibDems were the only hope students had left. Yet they discarded their pledge quicker than a tissue at the height of hayfever season.

You could have asked anybody throughtout the last decade "Can you name at least two things the LibDems stand for?" and 99% would have pointed to scrapping tuition fees as one of their flagship policies.

You can only take people for a ride to a certain extent without triggering a pissed off response.

When people like Vince Cable go on TV mouthing off that "[with the new fees] 30 per cent of graduates would pay less from their lifetime earnings than they do now", how thick does he think people are? Surely he can do the basic maths and work out that -even if he was telling the truth- if 30 per cent pay less, 70 per cent would pay more, right?

When Ministers say that a new repayment threshold set at £21,000 is more progressive than the current one at £15,000, can they not see that that is scant consolation? The chunk that people will have to pay off now will be three times as much and millions of people will have their income automatically reduced for 30 years. And that's on top of paying tax. For the next generation, in many cases university will be more expensive than their parents' mortgages.

How's that for "capping aspiration", one of the right-wingers favourite set phrases?

Related posts: The cost of university: a comparative look.