Dead Men Left

Friday, April 29, 2005

Holding your nerve

Particularly effective post from Actually Existing, now updated with graphs, on why anti-war/anti-New Labour voting will not deliver a Conservative victory. Too involved to quote effectively here, but go read. And forget about the nosepegs, appeals to tradition, security, or "I'm a pretty straight kind of guy." (He wouldn't dare... would he?)

New Labour smear operation: details

Previous smears and slanders from New Labour regarding Respect have been detailed on this site. The current episode is perhaps more serious than usual, involving what appears to be a direct lie and the shameless exploitation of an injured old man. Lenin has the details, which I'm going to reproduce in slightly edited form below. As he notes, no national newspaper has touched this shoddy story, leaving only the credulous oafs at Harry's Place and to run with it.

The Claims

Let's get the claims right, first of all. The story goes roughly as follows: The 69-year old Les Dobrovolski was approached in Poplar by Respect canvassers last Thursday, 21st April. When he refused to accept a leaflet and said he would never vote for George Galloway, he was followed by the group, who then attacked him near Spitalfields market. They pushed him to the floor, and one man stamped on the pensioner's hand before dropping a leaflet on him as he lay in agony - a trophy gesture. He was then taken by ambulance to the local hospital where he was x-rayed and given stitches. Harry's Place follows up with the sentence: "The police were informed of the attack and are currently investigating." Then a few pieties from Oona King.

The Facts

On Thursday 21st April, Les Dobrovolski told the police that he had been attacked, but there was no mention of him having been assaulted by Respect supporters or of any leaflet. The first time such a claim appeared anywhere was in the Labour Party's press-release. The police have confirmed, categorically, that no such claims were made to the police when Mr Dobrovolski was interviewed, and that they are not investigating the Respect party in connection with this. They issued it as a general statement to the press, which is why most papers did not touch it.

The claim that Mr Dobrovolski encountered Respect canvassers in Poplar is highly improbable, to say the least, since Poplar is not in the constituency being contested by George Galloway. There were no canvassers out there. The leaflet that was allegedly dropped on Mr Dobrovolski following the attack was still in the printers on the day of the attack, and was sent out as a postal drop - ie, sent by the printers directly to Royal Mail, and not to Respect leaders or canvassers. The earliest the leaflet could have been sent out was on Saturday's post.

This is quite staggering. As I said before: whatever your opinions of Respect and George Galloway, New Labour simply do not deserve to win here. Vote Respect; join the campaign, 10.30am Liverpool Street station, this Saturday, or call the office to help out.

Lenin concludes:

The tactics used by Labour in Bethnal Green & Bow are becoming dirtier and dirtier. They bear the signature of despair and are the hallmark of a party without any principle, and a campaign without any appeal.

(Update: Harry's Place are backpeddling. Perhaps they are recalling this trial.)

(Update two: The Times has been foolish enough to run with this, despite being informed of its dubious provenance.)

"Thousands die early as poverty gap widens": another New Labour triumph

Call it decadence, if you like, but I've got nothing more to add to this. It's not just born poor, die poor. It's born poor, die early:

Thousands of people are dying prematurely in deprived inner cities as the gap between rich and poor in Britain widens. The difference in life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent parts of the country has grown to 11 years and is now more pronounced than in Victorian times, researchers say...

Figures out today show the trends so far are moving in the wrong direction. The increase in life expectancy in the most advantaged areas is outrunning that in the poorest areas. Among men, the gap between the local authority with the lowest life expectancy - Glasgow - and the one with the highest - East Dorset - rose from 10 to 11 years over the period from 1995-97 to 2001-03. Among women, the gap increased from 7.8 to 8.4 years. George Davey Smith, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Bristol, who led the study, said in the British Medical Journal: "In a relatively short period, that is a substantial increase."

The health gap remained stable between 1992-94 and 1995-97 but has been widening since. It is now wider than it has been since Victorian times, the authors say, and reflects increases in the gap between rich and poor.

Electoral fraud and a lying war criminal Prime Minister: welcome to the Mother of Democracies

Certainly makes me proud of Britain. Blair's legacy will be the stupendous, rather sickening irony of leading a country that presumed to deliver "democracy" ex nihilo to Iraq, but which could not deliver a few postal votes to its own citizens.

Whilst noting Len's general criticism of international law, there is no reason to go further and pretend that it simply does not exist, or that it has no material effects. The inability of Bliar to abide by what amount to the ill-enforced rules of international conduct is telling in itself - regardless of our general opinion of those rules. That Blair as a result of his criminality had to lie copiously to his Cabinet, Parliament, the British public, and the rest of the world is an extraordinary testimony to the scale of the crisis the anti-war movement provoked.

Goldsmith admits to this "strength of opposition" in paragraph 35:

In short, there are a number of ways in which the opponents of military action might seek to bring a legal case, internationally or domestically, against the UK, members of the Government or UK military personnel. Some of these seem fairly remote possibilities, but given the strength of opposition to military action against Iraq, it would not be surprising if some attempts were made to get a case of some sort off the ground. We cannot be certain that they would not succeed.

I notice the Guardian website is complaining about the lack of coverage in Blogland of the Attorney General's legal advice. Apart from the amusing selection of vituperative pro-war sites presented as evidence for our collective reticence, for those of us opposing the war - what else can now be said? The leaks and the release simply confirm what many of us had suspected: that Goldsmith, as late as March 7, 2003, was not prepared to make an authoritative declaration on the war's legality. (John Kampfner has more.) All that can be added is the advice, next Thursday, to give Blair, this murderous and deceitful man, the "bloody nose" he richly deserves.

But there's an art to electoral pugilism. You can't just whack Blair with whatever is to hand - not if we're thinking beyond the war, to all the other lesser betrayals and disappointments of the last eight years. If there is no anti-war Labour MP in your area, vote wherever possible for genuine anti-war parties or independents. Wherever possible, get out and campaign for genuine anti-war candidates (Liverpool Street, 10.30am, this Saturday to help Respect in London.) The dire New Labour turnout will deliver the rest.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

That censored Guardian article in full

Story recounted here. Seems earlier reports of a D-notice being applied were wrong; in fact, the Guardian claims it recieved a Public Interest Immunity certificate, "a relatively seldom-used legal mechanism for placing restrictions on evidence". Below is the text:

The ricin ring that never was

Yesterday's trial collapse has exposed the deception behind attempts to link al-Qaida to a 'poison attack' on London

Duncan Campbell, The Guardian, April 14, 2005

Colin Powell does not need more humiliation over the manifold errors in his February 2003 presentation to the UN. But yesterday a London jury brought down another section of the case he made for war - that Iraq and Osama bin Laden were supporting and directing terrorist poison cells throughout Europe, including a London ricin ring.

Yesterday's verdicts on five defendants and the dropping of charges against four others make clear there was no ricin ring. Nor did the "ricin ring" make or have ricin. Not that the government shared that news with us. Until today, the public record for the past three fear-inducing years has been that ricin was found in the Wood Green flat occupied by some of yesterday's acquitted defendants. It wasn't.

The third plank of the al-Qaida-Iraq poison theory was the link between what Powell labelled the "UK poison cell" and training camps in Afghanistan. The evidence the government wanted to use to connect the defendants to Afghanistan and al-Qaida was never put to the jury. That was because last autumn a trial within a trial was secretly taking place. This was a private contest between a group of scientists from the Porton Down military research centre and myself. The issue was: where had the information on poisons and chemicals come from?

The information - five pages in Arabic, containing amateur instructions for making ricin, cyanide and botulinum, and a list of chemicals used in explosives - was at the heart of the case. The notes had been made by Kamel Bourgass, the sole convicted defendant. His co-defendants believed that he had copied the information from the internet. The prosecution claimed it had come from Afghanistan.

I was asked to look for the original source on the internet. This meant exploring Islamist websites that publish Bin Laden and his sympathisers, and plumbing the most prolific source of information on how to do harm: the writings of the American survivalist right and the gun lobby.

The experience of being an expert witness on these issues has made me feel a great deal safer on the streets of London. These were the internal documents of the supposed al-Qaida cell planning the "big one" in Britain. But the recipes were untested and unoriginal, borrowed from US sources. Moreover, ricin is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is a poison which has only ever been used for one-on-one killings and attempted killings.

If this was the measure of the destructive wrath that Bin Laden's followers were about to wreak on London, it was impotent. Yet it was the discovery of a copy of Bourgass's notes in Thetford in 2002 that inspired the wave of horror stories and government announcements and preparations for poison gas attacks.

It is true that when the team from Porton Down entered the Wood Green flat in January 2003, their field equipment registered the presence of ricin. But these were high sensitivity field detectors, for use where a false negative result could be fatal. A few days later in the lab, Dr Martin Pearce, head of the Biological Weapons Identification Group, found that there was no ricin. But when this result was passed to London, the message reportedly said the opposite.

The planned government case on links to Afghanistan was based only on papers that a freelance journalist working for the Times had scooped up after the US invasion of Kabul. Some were in Arabic, some in Russian. They were far more detailed than Bourgass's notes. Nevertheless, claimed Porton Down chemistry chief Dr Chris Timperley, they showed a "common origin and progression" in the methods, thus linking the London group of north Africans to Afghanistan and Bin Laden.

The weakness of Timperley's case was that neither he nor the intelligence services had examined any other documents that could have been the source. We were told Porton Down and its intelligence advisers had never previously heard of the "Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, containing recipes for ricin and much more". The document, written by veterans of the 1980s Afghan war, has been on the net since 1998.

All the information roads led west, not to Kabul but to California and the US midwest. The recipes for ricin now seen on the internet were invented 20 years ago by survivalist Kurt Saxon. He advertises videos and books on the internet. Before the ricin ring trial started, I phoned him in Arizona. For $110, he sent me a fistful of CDs and videos on how to make bombs, missiles, booby traps - and ricin. We handed a copy of the ricin video to the police.

When, in October, I showed that the chemical lists found in London were an exact copy of pages on an internet site in Palo Alto, California, the prosecution gave up on the Kabul and al-Qaida link claims. But it seems this information was not shared with the then home secretary, David Blunkett, who was still whipping up fear two weeks later. "Al-Qaida and the international network is seen to be, and will be demonstrated through the courts over months to come, actually on our doorstep and threatening our lives," he said on November 14.

The most ironic twist was an attempt to introduce an "al-Qaida manual" into the case. The manual - called the Manual of the Afghan Jihad - had been found on a raid in Manchester in 2000. It was given to the FBI to produce in the 2001 New York trial for the first attack on the World Trade Centre. But it wasn't an al-Qaida manual. The name was invented by the US department of justice in 2001, and the contents were rushed on to the net to aid a presentation to the Senate by the then attorney general, John Ashcroft, supporting the US Patriot Act.

To show that the Jihad manual was written in the 1980s and the period of the US-supported war against the Soviet occupation was easy. The ricin recipe it contained was a direct translation from a 1988 US book called the Poisoner's Handbook, by Maxwell Hutchkinson.

We have all been victims of this mass deception. I do not doubt that Bourgass would have contemplated causing harm if he was competent to do so. But he was an Islamist yobbo on his own, not an Al Qaida-trained superterrorist. An Asbo might be appropriate.

Duncan Campbell is an investigative writer and a scientific expert witness on computers and telecommunications. He is author of War Plan UK and is not the Guardian journalist of the same name

Vote Blair get Brown; oh, and find Iraq's WMDs

Blood and Treasure, straight to the point:

And of course there’s the vote Blair get Brown argument. We have Tony Blair’s personal word of honour that he will step down before the next election. What’s that worth, precisely?

D-noticed: government block ricin story

Via the wonderful, a site that does one of the jobs Indymedia always promised to (but never did), here's this story:

The British government has ordered a D-notice clampdown on details relating to the ricin terror ring story which was exposed as being fake last week...

"Government pressure" forced the Guardian to pull the article says the source, and that a Ministry of Defence directive was in order that forbade naming of any Porton Down scientists.

(You'll have to ignore the slightly hysterical tone in the link.) D-notices are pretty widely used, dependent - like much else in the peculiar informalities of the British constitution - not on legal authority but on a cosy relationship between central government, the military and various arms of the mass media. I hadn't linked to the story by Duncan Campbell, witness for the defence in the "ricin trials", but most of its details are assembled here; for the time being, Campbell's blocked original report is mirrored over here. Suffice to say, there was no "al-Qaida ricin plot" and anybody who tells you otherwise is a dupe or a liar. Since D-notices lack legal authority, it may well be worth hassling the Guardian's readers editor ( a bit about the story being pulled - the D-notice is clearly unworkable, anyway, with the original mirrored and its details widely circulated.

Bloody hell, though. Those nasty manipulative bastards. Don't even think about voting New Labour.

Decapitation, corpses, nosepegs

If internet comments are anything to go by - they're not, but hey - Toynbee's fatuous nosepegs for Labour votes campaign has backfired quite spectacularly. This thread is worth a run down for the utter paucity of arguments on the pro-(New) Labour side.

I say (New) Labour because any real Labour supporter out there with an ounce of common sense will at the very least want to clip New Labour's wings. I'd argue we need to go one step further, and decapitate the beast; moreoever, we need to start thinking about its replacement. Respect is standing in some 26 constituencies, and in some - East London, and Birmingham - we expect to do extremely well, perhaps even winning a seat. It's a grim prospect, when viewed from the still-substantial remains of Old Labour, but after Iraq and eight years of thinly-veiled neoliberal politics from New Labour, we have to start rebuilding a real left-wing alternative in Britain.

I don't see any other plausible vehicle for doing this than Respect. The Greens seem unable to build significantly out of Labour's unevenly collapsing base. Maybe I am underestimating them, but their perennial habits die hard: in a certain sense, they do not function as a political party, engaged with real political forces, but rest their appeal only on simple moral claims about the world. You don't have to be Machiavelli to think this is an odd way to proceed in the type of politicised societies we have lived in for the last few centuries.

This apolitical politics could, of course, be a cunning and far-sighted strategy from the Greens, apparently devoted followers of Lyotard; but aside from my own resolute opposition to po-mo tomfoolery, it would appear to produce few tangible results, given the thirty years of the Greens' existence here. It gives rise to an almost accidental sectarianism on their part, as seen in their standing against Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow - a decision that provoked huge arguments in the local organisation. As soon as other parties start to make similar moral claims to the Greens, they have a tendency to become extraordinarily defensive. If there is a way forward for the Greens, I suspect it will involve doing what their more successful counterparts across mainland Europe have done, working systematically with other forces on the left, and stamping out the apolitical tendencies that have led them into coalitions with the Conservatives.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Impending election fraud: bogus officials taking polling cards

Out canvassing yesterday evening. The door to a flat near Shadwell station was answered by a middle-aged Muslim woman, who said she would definitely vote Respect - as she had in the June elections - but was having problems with her registration. The polling cards sent to her address had the wrong names on them, as did the electoral register I was using to canvas. She had never heard of the two people supposedly living in her home, and claimed she had been living there herself for over ten years.

It was all very strange. Put me in mind of this story, on Monday:

A council block at the centre of vote-rigging allegations in Bethnal Green and Bow has been identified by the Evening Standard.

Residents of Wheler House in Spitalfields claim they have been visited by bogus election officials attempting to register false names at their addresses.

Fozor Bibi said she had handed over election papers to men who called at her flat claiming to be election officials.

She later discovered four men she had never heard of had been registered to vote at her property.

The Mail on Sunday reported this weekend (not online) of new registrations to vote being discovered at empty addresses in Bethnal Green. There is something insidious going on here. Word reaches me of a private poll being conducted in the constituency by a local government body putting Respect 0.5% ahead of New Labour; well within the margin of error, but also well within in the range at which election fraud starts to matter.

On a happier note, Respect is organising a procession starting from Liverpool Street station, 10.30am this Saturday, followed by canvassing across East London. Oona King claims she can get 400 canvassers over the weekend, and we know TGWU and UNISON full-timers have been out campaigning for New Labour. The stakes are high. Either we rebuild the left in Britain, or we have another four years of New Labour.

Liberal Democrats: yellow Tories

Phil, from Actually Existing, asks in the comments boxes here whether the Lib Dems are "...ahead of New Labour on the opportunistic, unprincipled vote-grabbing scumbag front...". Leaving aside the Lib Dems propensity to form coalitions with the Tories, here's some recent evidence:

Liberal Democrats in Burnley, a town currently afflicted with six BNP councillors, recently brought down a minority Labour administration with support from the local Nazis:

The Lib Dem leader, Gordon Birtwistle, angrily rejected all charges of deals.

"My involvement with the BNP was nil," he said. "I made one phone call to the leader of the BNP before the council meeting out of courtesy to tell him that we were putting a motion to the council.

"The BNP voted for a motion which defeated Labour. They are a totally independent party [whose councillors] vote whichever way they wish. I don't speak to any of them."

Except, of course, when he called the BNP's local Fuhrer - "out of courtesy"! - to inform them of the vote. As far as "opportunism" goes, this is pretty high up on the list - and no, I can't imagine even New Labour doing a similar thing.

Going back a bit further, we run into "ISLAND HOMES FOR ISLAND PEOPLE". This sorry story is from Millwall in 1993, excerpted from The Scotsman, Saturday 18 September, 1993 (via Lexis-Nexis):

Last night the Liberal Democrats became embroiled in allegations that they had been racist in the way they had conducted their election campaign.

The party leader, Paddy Ashdown, ordered an investigation into the allegations and warned that anyone proved to have acted in a racist way would be expelled.

The claims are a severe embarrassment for Mr Ashdown, coming days before the Liberal Democrat Party conference in Torquay.

The Liberal Democrats were accused by Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, of seeking to inflame racial tension and of playing to local prejudice and fear by issuing racist leaflets during the campaign.

Mr Ashdown accepted that one leaflet he had seen "could lend itself to a racist interpretation."

The leaflet, entitled How Labour Spends Your Money, says: "Bangladesh Shocker ... Millwall Labour councillors tried last month to give £30,000 to Bangladesh for flood relief. Liberals wanted it spent on repairs locally."

Another paragraph states: "Bangladeshi youth movement ... An organisation which employed Labour councillors and their 'friends' and received £175,000 from Labour last year. Has it helped you recently?" Mr Ashdown wrote a hard hitting letter to local Liberal Democrats forbidding them from issuing any further leaflets without the approval of the regional party.

(Now, in fairness, the New Labour have come pretty damn close to this sort of thing; but, in their dog-whistling way, I doubt they'd be quite so specific.) The left-leaning Lib Dem leadership at the time was rightly horrified. Aping the BNP is not Lib Dem policy. It says something for the party, however, that local members did not have the political commonsense to realise what they were doing was wrong. I have seen nothing since to suggest lessons have been learned.

There's more on the Lib Dems in an article this month in the Socialist Review; or you could try here. The underlying problem with the "Lib Dems are left-wing" argument is that it has entirely forgotten what formed and what constitutes the left: we stand for a change in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the majority; talking about the economy and the distribution of resources are essential for us. The Lib Dems, as shown by their squeaky-clean neo-liberal economic policies, including a ban on strikes, have no such concern. They are second Conservative Party; less socially regressive than the real Tories, perhaps, but just as economically unpleasant.

Unfortunately, we all know that the genuine forces of the left will be scattered at this election. In some areas, Respect will be standing; in others, a decent Green candidate can be found; in many more, left-wing anti-war Labour MPs abound. (Those in Scotland or Wales have a little more choice in the matter.) Many people, disgusted by the war on Iraq, will be contemplating voting Liberal Democrat simply to clip Blair's wings. What we need is a genuine organisation of the left that ensures they will never be faced with such a prospect again. What we shouldn't do, however, is delude ourselves that making this grim choice represents a shift to the left.

"Decadence": that Toynbee trade-off once more

Polly Toynbee is getting aggressive:

But for many Labour voters the war appears to take priority; it is a kind of decadence that makes distant things easier to feel passionately about than the messiness of difficult social policy at home.

Akin to being "savaged by a dead sheep", Toynbee's sour bleatings are delivered, as usual, with lashings of good, old-fashioned liberal handwringing about the poor downtrodden urchins wallowing in a mire of degradation. Our virtuous Prime Minister has lifted this residuum, yea, unto the lofty heights of five or more GCSEs.

What cant. Toynbee followed the Dear Leader to Lilian Bayliss school in Lambeth, heralded as a glorious success for New Labour's marvellous education policies. She presents a headline figure for improvement at Lilian Bayliss - from 6% of pupils receiving five or more GCSEs at A*-C, to 24% last year.

What she doesn't bother to mention is that the chronically low 6% figure was achieved in 2002, with the school's head directly blaming New Labour's "naming and shaming" policy for failing schools, introduced within three weeks of the 1997 general election:

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said recently he would "rather beg" than send his children to the school, even though it is the nearest comprehensive to his home. Last year only 6 per cent of its pupils got five top-grade GCSE passes, but this will increase to 17 per cent when the latest figures are published this month. Gary Philips, the school's head, directly attributes last year's poor performance to the naming and shaming. He claims that it discouraged parents from applying for places and lowered the ability of the 1997 intake, who sat their GCSEs in 2002.

What Toynbee also ignores is how "improvements" have been made at many schools:

Competition between schools desperate to improve their league table positions has left thousands of children on the streets, a situation branded "Dickensian" by a senior government adviser yesterday.

The current system of allocating places is "inimical to fairness", said Professor Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools, as many secondaries are left with an unfair share of troubled and under-performing students - the sort of pupils that more successful schools are often reluctant to admit.

Expulsions from schools have increased, year by year, since 1997. It is grotesque to talk up New Labour's achievements in "improving" schools when the deliberate encouragement of relentless league table competition results in 10,000 students simply "disappearing" from the records each year.

However, it's when Toynbee herself voices some vague disquiet that she appears to totally lose touch with reality:

For all its deficits and cowardice, for all its disappointments and missed opportunities, this Labour government remains the most redistributive in my lifetime.

Unless, contrary to all appearances, Polly Toynbee is a child-prodigy columnist to rival even Johann Hari, she is deceiving herself. On the best current evidence (PDF file), this government is presiding over greater levels of income inequality than existed under Mrs Thatcher - even after some evidence of a reduction since 2002. A comparable reduction of inequality, incidentally, was achieved by John Major, though I doubt Toynbee wishes to sing his praises. This is looking merely at inequality of incomes; inequality of wealth, a far more important factor in determining opportunities over a lifetime, has risen unabated. The top 1% of wealthiest individuals, some 600,000 people, increased their share of the national wealth from 20% to 23% from 1996 to 2002. By contrast, the bottom 50%, around 30m people, owned 7% of national wealth in 1996, but only 5% in 2002. All this is without even considering the blunt truth that social mobility in Britain is amongst the worst in the developed world: born poor, die poor is the rule under Blair.

Why am banging on about this? (One example, amongst many.) Because I am tired of the liberal self-delusion that pretends, contrary to all appearances, that in New Labour we have a progressive, reforming government that is true to its roots in the labour movement. The "achievements" are derisory, and always come at a price, as detailed above; the heaviest, however, is that paid by the 100,000 dead Iraqis, concern for whom is now considered "decadence" by whinnying liberal apologists like Toynbee. It is time for the real left to stand up to the usurpers of the labour movement: our tradition is that of solidarity, not philanthropy, and it has delivered vastly greater, more meaningful reforms than any amount of mealy-mouthed cant from liberals.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Spam, wonderful spam, lovely spam

Dear Son of God,
My name is Mr Manzi Singata ,an old time businessman from South Africa...


More on the "meritocracy", and how New Labour's education policies have undermined it

Here's a chunk of something that appeared elsewhere in brutally edited form, concerning class divisions, the meritocracy, and how education affects them:

Inequalities along the traditional route to social mobility, through education, have worsened. While the numbers entering higher education has risen significantly over the last twenty years, from little more than 10% of 18-19 year olds in 1979 to around 30% today, these new students are increasingly likely to come from higher-income families. Over a quarter of 18-19 year olds from the richest 20% of households attended university in 1979; by 1997, this had risen to just under one-half. By contrast, in 1979 only 8% of 18-19 year olds from the poorest 20% of households attended university; this had risen to just 15% by 1997. New university places were disproportionately allocated to the children of the rich relative to the poor. [Stephen Machin, "Higher education, family income, and changes in intergenerational mobility" in Richard Dickens, Paul Gregg, Jonathan Wadsworth (eds.), The Labour Market Under New Labour (Basingstoke: 2003), p.284 (Tables 18.1 and 18.2)]

Taking the bottom 80% of the income distribution, covering the entire working class and a chunk of the middle class, we see that 25% of 18-19 year olds from this group attended university in 1997. This is an increase of 13% on the 1977 figure; however, it is less than the 19% expansion for the top 20% over the same period. Moreover, within the bottom 80%, attendance is again strongly biased towards the richer households: in the top quarter of this chunk, 34% of 18-19 year olds attended university in 1997, whilst only 21% of the bottom half did so. (Figures from here - PDF file)

Under New Labour, this gap has widened somewhat. A recent Higher Education Funding Council for England report found that, between 1997 and 2000, "...most of the new places in higher education have gone to those from already advantaged areas." The introduction of tuition fees had a limited impact on participation, but has significantly increased drop-out rates amongst students from poorer households.

If we compare participation rates across different Parliamentary constituencies, the same divide appears geographically. Seventy-nine percent of 18 year olds in Kensington and Chelsea, and 65% in City and Westminster attended university in 2000, compared to only 8% in David Blunkett’s constituency of Sheffiled Brightside. The same HEFCE report concludes that, "Young people living in the most advantaged 20% of areas are five to six times more likely to enter higher education than those living in the least advantaged 20% of areas." This again exposes the geographical divisions of class in Britain, especially when participation in the richest areas is set against the national average.

The great claims made about the expansion of higher education, then, must immediately be tempered by a knowledge of how that expansion has been distributed. Far from breaking down class barriers, the expansion has acted to reinforce them on entry to university. One study concluded that (PDF file)

"the role of parental social class and income in determining educational attainment has increased. In other words the British education system has become less meritocratic… Likewise, the social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously… Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged."

It is on leaving higher education and entering the labour market, however, that perhaps class can be seen most clearly. Much has been made of the significant increase in wages for those with degrees compared to the average. This aggregate picture disguises significant variations. Importantly, returns to education for individuals, despite having risen in general, are not evenly distributed (PDF file - p.15): those at lower incomes receive much lower returns to education in general, whilst those on higher incomes receive greater returns. In other words, education acts to reproduce existing inequalities. Moreover, after a period during which the distribution of returns evened out, they are now becoming more dispersed, particularly at the top end of the income scale.

One cause of this in recent years is the large pool of graduates not employed in jobs requiring a degree. A recent study found that 42% of graduates entered non-graduate jobs on leaving university, whilst 22% of all graduates were employed in non-graduate jobs (PDF file). There is, in other words, at any one time a substantial (and possibly growing) stock of educated workers available to exert downwards pressure on an increasing number of jobs requiring degree-level education.

The net effect of the expansion of higher education has been to both raise the average level of education amongst the British workforce, and simultaneously harden class boundaries within British society. The meritocracy does not function here.

In turn, this has played in important part in freezing up the social structure. The connection between an individual’s income and their parents’ is now much stronger than it was under the previous Labour government. Stephen Machin uses an index of "intergenerational mobility" to show that those born into the lowest income households in 1970 are more likely to remain in the lowest income group than those born in 1958. Conversely, fewer of the very rich now slip down the income scale. The very crudest class divisions in society – those along income – have become more impermeable. [Stephen Machin, "Higher education, family income, and changes in intergenerational mobility" in Richard Dickens, Paul Gregg, Jonathan Wadsworth (eds.), The Labour Market Under New Labour (Basingstoke: 2003), p. 287-288 (Tables 18.4, 18.5a and 18.5b)]

"Give PM a bloody nose" but try to avoid punching yourself in the face

Brian Sedgemore, a left-wing former Labour MP, has pulled off a very neat publicity stunt on his retirement from Parliament.

The 68-year-old said: "The idea and practice of Britain as a liberal country has always been under threat but it has taken a Labour Prime Minister to secure its demise.

"For Tony Blair, his scorn for liberal Britain is surprising for one who has an expensive liberal education and he entered politics as an aspirant liberal lawyer, an ardent member of CND and a standard-bearer for the left."

The former Hackney South and Shoreditch MP, speaking at a Liberal Democrat press conference, said he was joining the party to "work for a nobler vision of Britain".

Heaven help us if anyone takes this as sealing the Lib Dem's credentials as a party of the left. Notice the "liberal", "liberal", "liberal" refrain in Sedgemore's quote. The word is currently used to both excuse imperialism, and disguise socialists. It is largely meaningless, which means it does little more than maintain the status quo - something the Liberal Democrats are very keen on, give or take PR, but something I always thought Sedgemore was dead set against.

If he was simply asking people to hold their own noses, and vote for opportunism to punish Blair for Iraq, his defection would be more understandable. But he appears to believe the Lib Dems hold a "nobler vision of Britain": one with strikes banned, one with the NHS broken up, one with civil liberties undefended - perhaps even one in alliance with the Tories. Far better if Sedgemore had not squandered much of his credibility on this pack of jokers, and made the bolder step towards a genuine, left-wing alternative to the New Labour he evidently despises.

"Swedish dirty bum sex" (part two)

Much clucking and squawking in Blogland following Mark Lawson's comments on our peculiar activities. I can't see what the fuss is about; his assesment is absolutely spot-on:

The tone is more bottom of a liberal broadsheet letters page... Although the word blog suggests attitude and subversion, it's really just a hi-tech kind of diary and carries the identical risk of Pooterism... the majority of British blogging is leftwing. And almost all the bloggers seem to be male, which suggests at least one institutional problem of the old media has not yet been corrected by the newcomer... what we're mainly getting from bloggers is media commentary or, even worse, media commentary on media commentary.

(Or, like this post, media commentary on media commentary on media commentary. It's a terribly subtle Derridean point I'm trying to make. "Il n'y a pas de blog-text," as the man himself might have said, were he not dead. The title, by the way, is a reference to the sordid, sorry truth that a fair proportion of one's all-important hits as a blogger come from one-handed surfers looking for, in my case, "chubby men" and "bum sex". See here for an explanation, of sorts.)

And who, deep down, can honestly disagree with Lawson's conclusion?

Quite unexpectedly for a journalist, I came out of the experience with a fresh respect for editing and mediation. Not all intervention is censorship. At its worst, blogworld most resembles a radio phone-in for leftwing men but without a Victoria Derbyshire or Brian Hayes to interrupt the callers who lose the thread and start to free-associate.

War, lies, yoghurt

Chicken Yoghurt delivers the goods on the liar occupying Number 10. Go read, especially this choice excerpt, transcribed from a Radio 4 interview between Jack Straw and John Humphrys:

Humphrys: Tony Blair said last week, "I don't believe we had any option but to disclose the name of Dr David Kelly". That is what he said last week to Jeremy Paxman. On the 22nd of July 2003 he said, "I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly". Can you reconcile those two statements?

Straw: Yes I can, because in one case he uses the first person singular and in the other case he uses first person...

H: Ah. Oh, right. So when he says "I" he doesn't speak for the Government then, there is no collective Government responsibility is there?

Monday, April 25, 2005

New Labour erases Muslims in white areas

Here's a fine example of the communalist and divisive politics Oona King so despises:

All references to Muslims have been expunged from a leaflet produced by New Labour and given out in areas where there are fewer Muslim voters in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency being contested by Oona King.

The two leaflets contain the same material but in one all references to Muslims have been removed.

In the leaflet for Muslim areas, Oona King claims "Oona voted to protect Muslims from hate crime". But in the other leaflet this same sentence reads "Oona voted to make incitement to religious hatred a crime".

In the leaflet for Muslim areas, Oona King claims, "I had made a promise to Iraqi Muslims". But in the other leaflet the word Muslim is dropped: "I had made a promise to Iraqis".

In the leaflet for Muslims the following appears: "Ken Livingstone added: 'working hard for local people has not stopped Oona getting the Government to increase funding to Bangladesh. And her brave stand against human rights abuses of Palestinians has made her a leading campaigner for Palestinian rights’”. But in the other leaflet this same passage has become: "Ken Livingstone added: 'Oona has been a great supporter of my neighbourhood policing scheme and, thanks to her efforts locally, by July Tower Hamlets will be the first London borough to have local police on the beat in every local community'".

In the leaflet for Muslim areas a whole section is included which claims "Labour delivers for Muslim communities". In the other leaflet this section is dropped completely.

They simply cannot be allowed to win like this.

Electoral fraud allegations in Bethnal Green

Back to East London:

Large numbers of new voters were being added to the electoral roll with no checks on their validity, it was reported.

The borough is the most ethnically mixed in Britain and more than half the electorate is Muslim, mostly people of Bangladeshi origin.

"This is such a tightly fought election with feelings running high, that unless this election is fair and seen to be fair it could cause harm to community relations," Mr Galloway said.

"This is a conspiracy against democracy. This is beginning to look like an election in a banana republic."

New Labour: policy almost designed to worsen social mobility

It's hardly news, but I'm glad this story is being given some space.

Children born to poor families in Britain are less likely to fulfil their potential than in other developed countries, according to a report published today.

Researchers at the London School of Economics found that Britain appeared to have one of the worst records for social mobility in the developed world.

They also concluded that Britons were less likely to break free of their backgrounds than in the past.

What's quite startling about the decline in social mobility in recent years is that it appears to be linked to the expansion of higher education. Expanding access to universities whilst substantially worsening the financial barriers to entry - as has happened in Britain, at an accelerating pace, since the early 1990s - simply allocates more university places to the children of the rich. As a group of researchers from the Centre for Economic Performance (PDF file) concluded, after examining the impact of HE expansion in the nineties:

... The effect of cognitive ability on educational attainment has actually decreased, while the role of parental social class and income in determining educational attainment has increased. In other words the British education system has become less meritocratic. A person’s ability is a poorer predictor of how well they do in educational terms now... than in the past.

Likewise, the social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously. This is all the more surprising given the attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s (and indeed ever since) to expand and broaden access to education... Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged.

The entire direction of New Labour's higher education policy - the "50%" target, plus fees - seems almost calculated to worsen these trends.

"Academic boycott": David Aaronovitch gets a good seeing to

Pointing you in the direction of Mark Elf's dissection of Aaronovitch's considered musings on the AUT's support for the "academic boycott" of two Israeli universities. Mark has some other good postings on this, and his comments boxes are generally well worth a quick peek.

Keynes and Brown: has our Gordon secretly resurrected the post-war consensus?

Larry Elliott, writing today in the Grauniad, makes one good point about cuts in stamp duty, and one slightly questionable point about Gordon Brown's alleged Keynesianism. Since cutting taxes to boost demand in a market that suffers from chronic and repeated bubbles is indisputably quite mad, making sense only in a world where sacred cows like the private housing require perennial sacrifices, I'll concentrate on the second.

In the first two years after 1997, Brown stuck to Kenneth Clarke's exceedingly tough spending plans and at the same time saw tax receipts roll in during the boom of the late 1990s. The public finances, already improving, became very strong. As a result, he was subsequently able to increase spending more rapidly than the economy's trend rate of growth for a number of years.

From a macroeconomic point of view, this was a perfect Keynesian response. Fiscal policy was tightened in the upswing of the economic cycle and that left room for the government to loosen fiscal policy when things turned nasty after the collapse of the dotcom bubble and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. As the private sector retrenched, Brown expanded the public sector - precisely the right response and the reason that, unlike most other industrialised nations, the UK made it through the downturn without a single quarter of recession and with unemployment falling.

There's no need to get too deeply into exigetical arguments about what Keynes really said back in the 1930s, but I find it very hard to square Brown's macroeconomic policy over the last eight years with faithfulness to "Keynes' original doctrine." The fiscal rule was imposed, and rigidly adhered to, in order to pacify the financial markets; Keynes, himself an industrious speculator, compared these same markets to casinos, and the critical sections of his major work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money positively sing with contempt for the whole sordid business. Where, in Brown's fiscal subservience, is the "euthanasia of the rentier" the General Theory demands in its closing paragraphs? Where is its replacement, the "socialisation of investment"? Brown has taken quite the opposite course, tailoring policy to the diktat of the financial markets - rather than using policy to (at the least) restrain those markets.

Of course, what Elliott is really arguing - following a recent paper presented by Jim Tomlinson to the Economic History Association - is not that Brown and friends have paid much attention to the actual Keynes, but that he stands four-square in a "Keynesian" tradition of demand management: curtailing government spending during a boom, letting it increase during the bust, just as governments were supposed to do in the good old days. In Tomlinson's view, the 1970s are then no longer a "great watershed" in British political history; rather, after a brief, unsuccessful deviation from an established path, the traditional methods of economic management were re-established under Major, and successfully extended by Brown.

Though a timely reminder of how much New Labour owes to Old, this gives too much credence to Brown's own myth, peddled for Old Labour audiences, as the Iron Chancellor, successfully grappling with financial markets and so avoiding the sterling crisises every other Labour government has faced. Far from it: Brown has been the recipient of an extraordinarily favourable set of circumstances for the British economy. On the decisive policy decision of the last decade, entry into the ERM, he was dead wrong, but this has not prevented him benefitting enormously from its consequences; his approach to the markets and the major economic institutions was made on his knees; and, for his most recent Budget, so important to delivering a third New Labour victory, he has relied on the same black gloop that held Thatcher aloft: a convenient (but wholly unanticipated) windfall from North Sea Oil.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Oona King's rank hypocrisy

New Labour are kicking and squealing over in Bethnal Green, and it isn't pleasant. Each day seems to find Oona King debasing herself and her party still further:

Speaking to the Evening Standard after a week of violence in the contest for Bethnal Green and Bow, she made clear she blamed Mr Galloway, the Respect party candidate, for "stirring things up".

"If community politics are polarised along racial and religious lines, you could be creating catastrophe," she said.

True, of course. By making its opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq absolutely clear, Respect has found the major point of unity between different communities in Bethnal Green and elsewhere. The majority of Bengalis there opposed the war; so, too, did the majority of black and white residents.

In contrast, New Labour have played upon divisions. In the more white areas of the constituency, around Bow, they have distributed leaflets reading

"The Scottish MP George Galloway is stirring things up, especially in the Bengali community. He is a threat to us all."

Which contrasts nicely with the leaflets delivered in the more Bengali areas around Whitechapel, reading:

Labour delivers for Muslim communities

Since 1997, together with the British Muslim community, Labour has:

* Established state-funded Muslim faith-schools for the first time.

* Abolished the hated 'primary purpose' rule which stopped many British Muslims bringing their husband or wife to the UK.

* Safeguarded Halal food production.

* Outlawed religious discrimination in the workplace.

* Doubled bi-lateral aid to Bangladesh.

* Appointed British Muslims as Ambassadors, including t Bangladesh.

* Sent the only state-funded Hajj delegation from a Western Government.

"If community politics are polarised along racial and religious lines, you could be creating catastrophe."

King's absolute bare-faced hypocrisy here is sickening; truly, truly revolting, especially when used to cover up such sordid political tricks. I became involved with the Respect campaign at Bethnal Green because I think we need to create some sort of left alternative to an evidently failing Labour Party. Working people here, like anywhere else, deserve better than another four years of Blairism. Yet New Labour's opposing campaign has been so rank, so foul that a basic sense of justice and decency is being offended: it's not just the mindless slurs and the vilification of Galloway - gross, but par for the course and largely expected - it's the constant presentation of those struggling for a marginally better world as malign forces ranged against New Labour's standard bearers of probity and integrity: and all the while, these same virtuous crusaders indulge in the most squalid politics.

In any sort of just world, New Labour would have long ago forfeited their chance of victory. They simply cannot be allowed to win here; we need to move heaven and earth to ensure they do not. Respect's constituency office can be found just off Brick Lane; it is open until 9pm every evening. If you are in East London, you need to get there.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Campaigning and all that

There appears to be some unwritten rule that every feature-length article in the national press on Respect vs. New Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow has to start with a brief and breathless view of the cultural melange that is Whitechapel and its environs. It's all so terribly emblematic of Modern Britain and Its Many Contradictions. Terry Kirby, in the Independent this morning, sticks to the formula in a fair assesment of Galloway's chances down there; his piece should be read against the shameful "report" the Guardian offer. Sample:

At the nearby Redchurch café and bar, the owner Will Beckett, 27, a typical "incomer", says the lack of trust engendered by the Iraq conflict will influence his vote: "I'll vote for either the Lib Dems or Galloway. I'm a traditional Labour voter, but I can't bring myself to vote for Blair because of the war. I'd rather vote for someone with genuine left-wing credentials than for King." Behind the bar, Nancy Waters, 23, adds: "I'm not voting Labour. I feel ill at the thought of what has happened in Iraq, particularly the way we went in without United Nations backing."

Out and about last night, past a certain pub on Commercial Road, and into a confrontation with a stocky white skinhead who saw my Respect sticker and demanded to know where Galloway was. After a moment's confusion, it turned out he was very keen on the man, as was the landlady inside, who he insisted I should talk to. I left my sticker, a window poster, and an offer to arrange a pub visit. It's a small thing, but it helps show just how wrong the slanders about "communalism" are.

"Communalism" and "playing the race card" in Bethnal Green

Like a dog returning to its vomit, New Labour are sniffing around the sort of tactics they played so well in the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election. Remember "SMASH TEEN GANGS" and "...the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers..."? Here's the East London equivalent:

"The Scottish MP George Galloway is stirring things up, especially in the Bengali community. He is a threat to us all."

Emphasis added. This text is on leaflets that New Labour, as far as can be told, has distributed solely to the largely white areas around Bow, at the north end of the Bethnal Green constituency. Their racist message is clear.

Disgraceful report in the Guardian

You don't expect to be treated fairly by the mainstream press, but this front-page report is quite staggering:

In the latest round of a campaign in which she has been the victim of egg-throwing, tyre-slashing, reported death threats and faced writs, riot police were last night called in to monitor a hustings meeting in Bethnal Green and Bow between Labour's Oona King and her rival, the anti-war candidate George Galloway.

What you would have never guessed from this, or anything following, is that it is George Galloway who has faced actual death-threats, and a persistent campaign of slanders from New Labour. At least some of these seem calculated to intimidate and invite violence: hysterical comparisons with the BNP or Oswald Mosley, for example.

Stuart Millar's masquerade of news report continues the attempt to prove Galloway guilty by smear. The mind boggles as to how this paragraph, in particular, could have been written in good faith:

Earlier in the campaign Ms King was pelted with eggs at a memorial for Jewish war victims. Mr Galloway's Respect party has also threatened to sue Ms King after she claimed that its canvassers had told Muslim voters not to vote for her because she is Jewish.

"Mr Galloway's Respect party has also threatened...": as even Oona King herself made clear, and as Jonathan Freedland's eyewitness account confirmed, Respect were in no way involved with the horrid attack at the memorial service. Millar's phrasing here is - I assume quite deliberately - designed to imply the opposite.

There are other presumably calculated distortions. The incident on Tuesday evening when Galloway was briefly taken hostage and threatened with execution becomes, in Millar's deft hands, "Mr Galloway, who was mobbed by a group of Islamists two days ago, was given a standing ovation by the majority of the crowd as he appealed for their votes." "Mobbed"? The ambiguity of the word, followed immediately by the "standing ovation", contrives to turn a tremendously serious attack on Galloway into jolly gathering in his support.

I assume Millar does not like Respect or George Galloway. But I also assume he has an obligation to maintain at least minimum standards of honest reporting. He has failed that duty quite atrociously.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ha ha ha Howard

So off goes Mr Howard to Oldham, land of great disquiet, there to seek out rivers of blood and Tory votes, only to find the Northern folk not in the least bit impressed by his Enoch-lite performance:

When asked if he was warning of a repeat of the civil unrest, Mr Howard said: "We have to be vigilant if we are to make sure we continue to have good community relations."

But he said: "I wouldn't put it in terms of a warning."

One member of the ITV1 programme's audience, who described himself as a disillusioned Conservative voter, attacked the party's rhetoric on immigration, saying it appealed to a "primeval fear" in the electorate.

"You talk about immigration, asylum seekers and terrorism. You mix those up, are you playing on the fear of people?" asked Roger Chandra. "I can't vote for a party that plays on those basic instincts."

Worse yet, his own crazy gang of merry pranksters are getting jittery:

A group of Conservative frontbenchers, including members of the shadow cabinet, have pleaded with Michael Howard to tone down his harsh rhetoric on asylum and immigration.

In the first signs of a Tory wobble - following a series of poor opinion polls - Mr Howard was warned over the weekend that he risked looking like the leader of a single-issue party.

On the plus side, the Tories' single-minded focus on race has squashed the possibility, for now, of a populist party of the right emerging from their quiet disintegration. Kilroy-Silk saw the possibility of such a formation, in the dog-days of the Tories' pre-election campaign, even when his party leadership - UKIP's merry Brussels freeloaders - did not. Veritas had some potential; I think it has now been squeezed.

On the downside, the Tories' gradual realisation that they must appeal to a vaguely lefty consensus on matters like public spending and social matters sits very uneasily with the immigration bigotry. It's not so much a dog whistle, as a big hollow drum: very appealing to those too far gone to know better, that 1/3 still voting Tory, but essentially empty and worthless for the rest of us.

Hence disquiet. Howard's real question is: will he be able to cling on as leader after this election?

"Prelude to illegality": New Labour postal voting issues continue

Upcoming in Socialist Worker, alongside a report from Hackney (where applications for postal votes have increased 3,297% since 2001):

Respect candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, George Galloway, has announced the party will taking action under the Human Rights Act to ensure "free and fair elections."

This follows the distribution of post cards by the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison organisation asking voters to fill in a postal vote application form to "make life easier." This form contains a box where applicants can fill in an address other than the one they are registered at.

This postcard - open to anyone to read - is to be returned to the official sounding Postal Votes Centre, Freepost NAT 14962, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE3 3BP. This is a Labour Party office.

Galloway says, "This is a roundabout way to register, better to send it to the returning officer."

After the Birmingham case, where Labour councillors caught at midnight sitting round a table in a warehouse with piles of postal votes waiting to be filled in, Galloway has accused New Labour of flouting Electoral Commission guidelines, adding, "Ballot papers have a habit of sticking to New Labour¹s fingers."

At the very least Respect is demanding postal votes be counted separately as
the only way to investigate the impact of such votes on the election results.

I saw one of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Committee application forms on Sunday. They're quite subtle, relative to - say - mugging a postman; after asking for your name and address, the card innocently enquires as to whether you would like, perchance, your vote to be sent elsewhere. Most people, wanting their votes to be sent to their house, will leave this blank. It would not be tremendously difficult, if someone wished, to fill in an alternative address. Without going that far, it would be very easy to record someone's address, and perhaps check up on them later. This was a key part of the Birmingham technique.

None of the above means the postal vote is being rigged, yet; but it would make it very easy to do so. I saw Oona King, marginally more coherent than usual, on the BBC news last night, holding forth about supporting "democracy". Let's hope she keeps her word.

On not voting Lib Dem (again)

Just as I was resigned to suffering the ridiculous media consensus, between now and May 5th, that the Lib Dems are in some way a "left-wing" party, George Monbiot offers some hope:

Like the choice between Labour and the Tories, a negative choice for the Lib Dems is also a positive one. As well as voting for their superior policies on class sizes, taxation and the environment, you would be voting for the further deregulation of business and continued support for the private finance initiative. And, if past performance is anything to go by, you would be choosing a good deal of slipperiness as well. They opposed the Iraq war in theory, but supported it in practice. They have done the same with road-building, airport expansion and the incineration of waste.

He's spot-on, too, when he indicates the future direction of the Lib Dem's travel: off to the right, ending up less socially unpleasant than the Tories, but equally committed to neoliberalism. I said much the same thing here, with more aggression, and a couple of mindboggling examples of the Lib Dem's "slipperiness". (See also the article in this month's Socialist Review.)

But Monbiot also throws in a key, for many perhaps the decisive, reason for voting for a minor party:

If, on the other hand, you were to vote Green, Plaid Cymru, Respect or Scottish Socialist, you would send an unequivocal signal about the kind of politics you are rejecting and the kind of politics you are embracing. The reason is that these parties, as far as Westminster is concerned, inhabit the political margins. It is precisely because none has the slightest chance of running the country that a vote for them is interpreted as a clear expression of intent: your choice must be ideological, rather than tactical. Paradoxically, a vote for a minor party can thus be far more powerful than a vote for a party with an eye on government. All four of them are solidly to the left of Labour. They have been consistently anti-war, anti-privatisation, pro-distribution and pro-environment. No one who has read their manifestos can doubt that a vote for one of them is a vote against the current deference to wealth and rank.

There's no doubt at all that a decent for the non-Labour left will kick politics hard in a progressive direction. The current fawning by the Labour leadership towards their deeply (and rightly) cynical one-time core voters is a good indication of that. Best of all, of course, would be the election of a non-Labour left-wing MP. With the Tories becalmed in the polls, ranting into the night, the major battle in this election is over the direction of the left vote.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Brown miracle revisited

Having had the occasional (if - ahem - slightly cautious) sideswipe at Gordon Brown's "economic miracle" on these pages, it's pleasing to see the myth given a good, honest smack in the mouth from Respect. John Rees and Graham Turner, in the Guardian:

...we should not lose sight of the fundamental flaw at the heart of New Labour economics. The squeeze on take home pay has been accompanied by a surge in borrowing, and Britain is more in debt than ever before. Private-sector liabilities have soared from 135.7% to 202.3% of GDP since the second quarter of 1997.

Actually, this is a point that needs developing a bit. Though both public and private sector pay have, on average, risen, the dispersion of pay has widened (PDF file). In other words, those already rich in 1997 have, on the whole, seen their pay rise faster than those further down the scale. In the case of the public sector, this is an entirely deliberate government policy: the most senior managers have their mouths "stuffed with gold" to compete with accelerating private sector pay, whilst those further down the hierarchy see their earnings deliberately restricted. For the private sector, the dispersion of pay is the side-effect of so-called liberalisation and the promotion of flexible working. The number of truly "flexible" workers on temporary and non-standard contracts remains minimal, but elements of flexible working have crept into a huge range of jobs, shifting the balance of power in workplaces in management's favour. The continued weakness of trade unions under Labour has exacerbated this trend.

The decision to grant dependence to the Bank of England, often touted as New Labour's most important policy success, has fuelled a boom in house prices, dividing Britain into haves and have-nots. "No more boom-bust" was the Brown mantra. But it is a Labour government that has stood back and watched this country being consumed by a grotesque speculative bubble. Japan's experience of the past 15 years shows the payback can be long and painful.

The consensus view on central bank independence is that it is always and everywhere a Good Thing. By taking key monetary policy decisions out of the hands of beastly elected politicians, it is thought that democracy's "inflation bias" will be reduced. The theory is simple, and depends on politicians' propensities to break election promises. Regardless of what they said before taking office about restricting inflation, there is a great incentive for politicians in office to pursue inflationary policies to win votes - boosting public expenditure, for example, or pursuing "easy money" policies to promote investment. The financial markets will therefore not believe government commitments, and expect higher inflation regardless of what politicians say; these expectations will then, through the operation of the money markets, turn into actual higher inflation.

The whole of the central bank independence argument hinges on a perceived trade-off between democracy, in the form of elected and vaguely accountable politicians responsive to public opinion, and inflation. It is fundamentally flawed for the reasons John and Graham hint at, namely that the central banks' major policy instrument, the interest rate, has to perform other tasks than combatting inflation. Critically, it is the closest capitalism generally gets to central planning mechanism for investment: through the operations of the financial markets, decisions about investment are made, hinged around the signal that the interest rate is presumed to be sending about future returns. Investors aim to maximise their returns with the minimum of risk, with the Bank of England's interest rate acting as a benchmark for other forms of investment.

Britain, for a developed, Western country, has an extraordinarily uneven economy. A train journey from, say, London to Liverpool will provide a graphic demonstration of how this unevenness has impacted on the environment, low-rise commercial services turning into evidence of substantial manufacturing investment. There are elements that cannot be seen: the heavily unequal distribution of wealth, the wide regional variations in unemployment, and the extraordinary dispersion of productivity across British firms.

The critical divide for us is between a manufacturing sector that has, after a post-Black Wednesday recovery, been squeezed by the high value of the pound; and a consumer sector that has, after successive liberalisations of the financial markets, an extraordinarily easy access to credit. Manufacturing requires a lower interest rate to promote investment and reduce the value of the pound; the consumer market, fuelled by easy credit, exerts a constant inflationary pressure requiring higher interest rates. The net results of this impossible balancing act are exceptionally high levels of private debt promoting a consumer boom at the same time as manufacturing remains in the doldrums. The expression of this tension is a growing trade deficit, with consumers effectively borrowing to spend cash on imports. There is a significant and growing weakness at the heart of the so-called "Brown boom":

The failure to control the financial system has also pushed the trade deficit up sharply. Britain's trade gap has now reached 5.2% of GDP, nearly matching the worst point of the Lawson boom. Capital inflows into debt instruments rocketed to £92.2bn in 2004 to finance this deficit.

But the debt-financed consumer boom has failed to boost manufacturing output, which has barely shown any increase over the past eight years. Virtually the entire rise in spending on consumer goods since June 1997 has been filled by imports. When the bubble bursts, sterling will fall like a stone. Policy flexibility will be compromised and we shall have a re-run of the early 1990s for many years.

Can Tony Blair lose?

Oh, it's a fantasy, but Reg Keys' campaign against the PM is picking up momentum:

Ramsay MacDonald was defeated whilst Prime Minister in a North Eastern constituency we are reminded by Derek Cattell, a member of Sedgefield Labour Party’s executive committee for ten years, who is quitting in protest at the Iraq war which he says raises questions about the "honesty and integrity" of Mr Blair’s leadership.

Derek Cattell, who is also a regional organiser with the GMB union, is putting his weight behind Reg Key's campaign, saying he can't vote through gritted teeth for Blair.

As he promised, David Shayler has stood down from his Sedgefield candidacy to allow Reg Keys, father of a military policeman killed in Iraq, a clear shot at Blair.

You can but hope.

Nick Cohen: telling lies about Bethnal Green

Nick Cohen, seemingly lying through his teeth in yesterday's Observer:

To add to the foul atmosphere, there's a whiff of old hatreds in the air. Oona King, the Labour candidate, is getting fed up with Respect supporters bringing up her Jewish mother, although she says it makes a change from the British National Party bringing up her black father. Last week, King and a group of mainly Jewish pensioners gathered for a 60th anniversary memorial service for the 132 people who died in the last V2 rocket attack on London in 1945. Muslim youths spat and threw eggs at the mourners and shouted: 'You fucking Jews.'

The first untruth is Oona King's: Respect campaigners have categorically not been "bringing up her Jewish mother" when canvassing. There is no truth to this claim and King is playing very dirty politics to pretend there is. Cohen, a deeply credulous individual (the British army is "the armed wing of Amnesty International"?), is not wholly responsible for this smear - though minor details, like the fact Respect had not started canvassing when King made her claim, perhaps ought to have troubled whatever journalistic sense he has left.

The only party vile enough to make an appeal to antisemitism in Bethnal Green in recent years are the Tories, who ran a particularly filthy campaign in 2001. It did them no good: on a reduced turnout, King recorded a 4.2% swing towards Labour. For King to be now claiming that Respect is pandering to antisemitism in her constituency is a gross slander against not just Respect, but against her own constituents. She is unfit to be an MP.

The second untruth is all Cohen's own work. Jonanthan Freedland was at the memorial service Cohen refers to. He witnessed the horrid egging incident, and recorded his account in the Observer's sister paper, the Guardian. He is quite clear that no slogans or chants were heard. Cohen, not present at the event, and providing no source, claims that racist abuse was hurled. This gives every appearance of being pure invention.

There is, however, a moment of truth in Cohen's farrago of insinuations and smears, and it appears in his conclusion:

I went to speak at a King rally on the strange histories of the far left and far right. I expected it to be like most meetings I address: all but empty.

(See also Lenin.)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Gaargh Polly Toynbee

(via Chicken Yoghurt)

I didn't think she'd make the equation so explicit. Vote Labour and...

Don't turn the poor in the UK into yet more innocent collateral damage of the Iraq war.

100,000 dead Iraqis really is a "price worth paying", then. This moral blackmail is quite sickening; fortunately, Michael Howard will not become Prime Minister, so feel free to call Toynbee's bluff and punish your nearest local Blairite warmonger as much as you see fit. (Even better, come and help Respect.)

Beaten Black and Brown ha ha

Larry Elliot, making amends:

...the old blue-collar workforce has suffered under New Labour over the past eight years. Never mentioned in the litany of success trotted out by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is that the number of jobs in manufacturing has fallen by a million since 1997, and that industrial output is lower going into this election than it was on polling day in 2001. Nor can the problems of UK manufacturing be explained away by globalisation or the rise of China, since both were factors in the mid-90s, when manufacturing employment rose for five years in a row.

Jobs in industry have fluctuated with the level of the pound. After Black Wednesday in 1992, sterling's value fell by 15%, and with exports cheaper and imports dearer manufacturing employment rose by 200,000 in the final four years of John Major's premiership. Sterling started to rise in late 1996. It continued going up for the next five years, by which time it had appreciated by 20%. A stronger pound made chardonnay and shiraz for the chattering classes a lot cheaper, but also meant that as many jobs in manufacturing have been lost under Blair as in the boom-bust recession of the early 90s. The 6,000 jobs at risk at MG Rover have attracted much attention, but are merely the tip of an iceberg.

It's a good article. What it doesn't mention is that Black Wednesday, though disastrous for the Tories, crippling them for the next decade or more, provided the shot in the arm needed to carry the British economy into a boom under a new Chancellor, Gordon Brown. British manufacturing became more competitive overnight, even as consumers felt the pinch, and later Britain was effectively insulated from a prolonged recession in Europe.

Brown had the good fortune to preside over a period of extended relative prosperity, but this had fundamentally little to do with his economic wizadry. Quite the opposite: Brown strongly supported the pound's over-valued entry into the ERM as, amongst other things, a necessary anchor for economic policy. With Brown in government, critical economic weaknesses, like the "productivity gap"and sluggardly investment, have remained unscathed, covered up to a great extent by the benign and unanticipated effects of a catastrophic policy failure. The question, however, is for how long can Brown coast?

Robin Cook: swapping dead Iraqis for slightly less poor British children

Robin Cook today makes much the same case as Roy Hattersley at the weekend for Labour's malaise, claiming that "the risk of New Labour's strategy is that in order to gain breadth of support, it sacrificed depth of support". Cook means that by chasing floating voters and the centre-right, New Labour has sacrificed its core vote. Over half of manual workers who voted in 2001 left their cross next to the Labour candidate. If opinion polls are any guide, only 37% will vote the same way this time round (PDF file). Though New Labour dares not admit it, the collapse of its vote is a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq.

As the sole Cabinet resignation prior to the war, Cook has a certain moral authority on just this issue. He could - possibly - make a convincing case for a Labour left that would never allow such a gross debacle to occur again, focusing on the foreign policy issues he knows very well. He chooses, instead, to talk up New Labour's domestic achievements and the apparently "Old Labour" content of its manifesto. For starters, writes Cook,

The manifesto commits us to full employment, on its second page and in bold.

This is a marked improvement on previous Labour programmes. I was at the Clause 5 meeting to draft the manifesto for the 1987 election, back in the days when there were real policy arguments at such meetings, sometimes even ending in votes. We had a heated debate on whether we dare commit ourself to full employment in the next parliament, but in the end we left it out on the grounds that it would not be credible.

Unfortunately, it still isn't. Looking carefully at the "commitment" to "full employment" reveals that

Our goal is full employment opportunity for all - the modern definition of full employment.

There is precisely no commitment here to "full employment" in any meaningful way. Though the definition is absurdly open-ended, this looks, frankly, like a commitment to promoting labour market "flexibility", just as New Labour has done for eight years: in strict neo-classical fashion, New Labour has an unerring tendency to see, for example, workers' rights as fundamentally restricting opportunities, rather than promoting them. The recent moves to undermine the Health and Safety Executive are a good example of this tendency: "full employment opportunity for all" means, in Blair's mealy-mouth, removing "barriers" in the labour market and promoting a race to the bottom.

Cook then claims that:

...this government has taken a million children out of poverty and the manifesto firmly nails us to halving it by the end of the decade.

The drop in child poverty is to be welcomed. One of irritations of the "New Labour=Old Tory" line is that it opens the left up to precisely the sort of criticism Cook makes: a Tory government would probably not have established deliberate poverty-reduction targets in the way New Labour has. Certainly, a Tory government under Michael Howard would not. There is no use in trying to draw an equation here between New Labour and the Tories.

But that decline comes at a price. First, New Labour has already started missing its annual child poverty targets, which the IFS (in their recent, much- and badly-publicised report) attribute to the failings of the complex tax-credit system. The manifesto merely promises to continue the same inefficient and desperately conservative policies; there is little hope, in doing so, of achieving this target.

Second, and more unpleasantly, to talk up child poverty reduction is to play the nasty little game New Labour specialise in. Whether placing primary school children against university students, or civil servants against nurses, New Labour has made a positive virtue out of playing off the "deserving" against the "less deserving", developing its own species of moral cant to do so.

If we accept the attempts to meet child poverty targets have improved the situation for many, we must also accept that those untargetted - most especially those without children - have been made worse off. Relative poverty amongst childless adults has reached record levels; meanwhile, the poorest 10% of the population saw a probable decline in their incomes over the last year. Income inequality is no better now than it was under Thatcher, and the distribution of wealth is markedly more unequal.

The biggest trade-off of all is in Cook's biggest silence: Iraq. We may accept that raising children out of poverty is a good end, but this should not mean that we accept 100,000 Iraqi deaths and the colonial occupation of another country alongside it. A comprehensive programme for the left has to start from a rejection of this old-style imperial adventure and abjure the lies and deceit that led to it. It has also, however, to refuse to play the smaller games: we cannot shuffle a child out of poverty at the expense of others, also desperately poor. The problem of poverty is inseperable from that of inequality more generally, and, as the Rowntree Foundation recently showed, it is only a more thorough-going programme of redistribution that will deal with either. There is no mention of this eminently Old Labour virtue in Cook's tract, but the left must confront the question head-on, just as it confronts Iraq. Until then, it is not tenable to advocate a left-wing vote for New Labour.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Ricin is a crap poison, anyway

Where to start with this one?

1. Some of the details on Kamel Bourgass' alleged connection with al-Qaida were supplied by Mohammad Meguerba, who helpfully told his Algerian captors an inventive story involving Afghan training camps and Nivea cream. Of course, information supplied by the Algerian security services is always reliable and accurate and never, ever obtained under torture.

2. The ricin recipe, in Bourgass' handwriting, was discovered in his Wood Green flat during a raid. Bourgass was not, and turned up only later, by accident, in Manchester, where he murdered a policeman. (The Manchester flat was described by Newsnight as an "al-Qaida safe-house", but there is precisely no evidence for this.) The claim was made by the prosecution that Bourgass' ricin recipe matches that found in what they allege was an al-Qaida handbook, the "Manual of the Afghan Jihad". In fact, it differed substantially, matching instead the recipe given in Maxwell Hutchkinson's The Poisoner's Handbook, widely available on the internet. (via Chicken Yoghurt)

3. On January 5, Martin Pearce, leader of the Biological Weapons Inspection Group at the UK government's weapons research lab, Porton Down, concluded the lab's research on substances found at the Wood Green flat. He wrote that, "Subsequent confirmatory tests on the material from the pestle and mortar did not detect the presence of ricin. It is my opinion therefore that toxins are not detectable in the pestle and mortar." He rejected an earlier, cruder test's claim that ricin could be deteced, citing this as a "false positive". Incredibly, this finding was subsequently reported to the outside world as confirming the presence of ricin in the Bourgass' flat. This claim then made its way into Colin Powell's absurd presentation to the UN regarding Iraq's WMDs to highlight the seriousness of the terrorist threat.

4. Bourgass' four alleged co-conspirators were released without charge. The case against another four suspects has also been dropped.

Q: Where is this "missing ricin"?

A: the same place as those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

There was no "ricin ring". There was no "terrorist conspiracy". There was one murderous loner with a nerd's guide to making poison. Vote Labour.

"Returning officer suspended over 1,000 unopened votes"

Meanwhile, in Birmingham:

Two council officials have been suspended after an estimated 1,000 unopened postal votes for last year's local elections in Birmingham were found stuffed in a box at the council's election office.

The envelopes are thought to have been hidden away after someone realised soon after last June's election that they had not been entered. One of those suspended is John Owen, the elections officer and one of the country's leading election experts.

Maybe we should just toss a coin on May 5 and have done.

(In other news, Kilroy-Silk might be getting quietly shuffled out of the party he formed in his own image.)

"Send them back"

Bob Spink, Tory MP for Caste Point, Essex, is defending a 985 majority against Labour. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Spink has been taking no chances, placing an advert in the local press:

It said: "Bob leads the fight in parliament to stop asylum cheats. If we don't act, nasty fringe parties will. Labour has tripled illegal immigration and only one in five failed asylum seekers is removed. What bit of 'send them back' don't you understand Mr Blair?"

Mr Spink last night defended the advert. He said: "That is the way people see the issue. When people are in this country illegally or are abusing our benefits system or abusing our hospitality or acting improperly in this country, then they should be sent back to their own country. Mr Blair should know that is what the people want."

He ends with a rare moment of insight:

"If the [main] political parties don't act on this issue then right wing parties will rise in popularity. That would be bad for everyone."

Fortunately, it's not happening so far.

Fears about Kilroy-Silk abating somewhat

Permatanned bigot Robert Kilroy-Silk attracted hoots of derision, left, right and centre, at the establishment of Veritas. The Arab-baiting former daytime TV presenter gave every impression of drifting off into the political wilderness with only his ego for company.

I wasn't so sure, writing at the time that:

Some caution seems necessary. To see why, we need to remember how the UK Independence Party made its breakthrough in the European elections last year, coming third in the national result. Three things matter: first, that a UKIP suddenly found itself in possession of a large amount of cash, enough to run a credible, fully-funded national election campaign. Second, that Robert Kilroy-Silk agreed to stand as a candidate for the party, instantly symbolising everything UKIP stood for: anti-Europe, anti-migrant, anti-foreigner. Third, and most importantly, that the two-party system in Britain is entering a period of (perhaps terminal) decline, exacerbated by the PR voting system the Euro-elections use.

On this basis, and leaving aside the ego and the obnoxiousness, Kilroy-Silk presents quite a coherent critique of UKIP: that they don’t understand the splits and fractures in the wider political system, that they are identified with too narrow a set of politics, and that the leadership has absolutely no strategy for taking the party forward and were essentially a bunch of freeloading cranks...

...the directionless desire to piss Brussels subventions up the wall presumably infuriates a man of [Kilroy-Silk's] peculiar ambition. On this reading, UKIP was and is in no position to seriously exploit the gap between an ailing Conservative Party and ill-concealed populist sentiments on race, crime and Europe.

But Veritas might have been. With the launch of Veritas' manifesto, I feel more secure about joining the hooters and snorters:

Euro MP Robert Kilroy-Silk has launched his Veritas Party's manifesto with an attack on multi-culturalism imposed by "liberal fascists in London".

The idea that everybody should respect each others' cultures was "nonsense", he said, adding that not all cultures were equal - some were "reprehensible".

Whilst I'm sure Kilroy-Silk generally has a better insight into the racist mindset than I have, that "liberal fascist" comment doesn't ring true. "Liberal elite" would be swallowed without a murmur. William Hague used the phrase, repeatedly, in 2001. But "fascist" is a little too swivel-eyed, a little too out of kilter with common-or-garden Little Englandism. Between this evidence of Kilroy losing his touch and the Tories' headlong gallop into his preferred territory, I'm inclined to consign this obnoxious creature to the saloon-bar of history. Fingers crossed.