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October 6th, 2015
02:05 pm


Syria peace negotiations - a historical query
Our new Director, Dan Smith, has written an excellent blog piece, arguing for negotiated peace between Assad and his (non-ISIS) opponents - and, maybe even some time in the future, negotiations with elements of ISIS or other groups that are currently to extreme and absolute in their demands to have meaningful negotiations with.

He gives a long list of examples of nations and groups that have been in conflct, and that have ended up negotiating with each other (successfully or otherwise), despite one side or other having said for a long time that they would absolutely never negotiate with the other side. So, basically, get off your high horse about how you could never possibly negotiate with Assad or whoever because they are so evil, and grasp the nettle.

Which I completely agree with. But a rather pessimistic thought strikes me - while it very often is possible eventualy to find peace between apparently irreconcilable sides, can it be done when the fundamental point of contention is the ruler him or herself?

When the 'incompatibility' is, for example, regional or sub-national independence movements, or ethnic grievances, or visions of society (e.g. communist vs. capitalist), it may be possible to find compromises, half-way measures, ways in which different groups can live together, etc. But when it's about "Does this dictator (monarchical or presidential) get to stay in power?", where is the possibility for common ground? Maybe they stay in power with reforms, or power-sharing, or whatever, but the problem is always that the ruler, if they get to stay in power, has every incentive to renege once the rebels have demobilized. (And if they haven't demobilized, then renewed war is probably just round the corner).

So I'm trying to think of examples of conflicts - civil wars, revolutions, armed uprisings - with a goal of overthrowing a dictatorial ruler, where there has been a negotiated settlement that leaves that ruler in power. None of the cases on the list in Dan's essay fit the bill. The only example I could think of is Magna Carta, but that in fact is not an example - the Runnymede agreement broke down almost immediately, leading to the 1st Barons War; John himself died in the middle of it.

In the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, after the victory of the supporters of Richard of York, who claimed the throne against Knig Henry VI, a peace deal was achieved whereby Henry remained king, but Richard was named his heir. That broke down within 5 years.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 is another not-quite example - various reforms enacted in response to the demands of some of the rebels, but alongside the crushing of the more radical rebels. Not a negotiated settlement, and this didn't exactly stick.

Can anyone come up with any examples then? My criteria are as follows:

a) An uprising against a dictatorial ruler (including absolute or powerful monarchs), with a primary goal of unseating that dictator
b) A negotiated peace
c) That does not involve the swift departure of the ruler (which would in essence be a negotiated rebel victory)

Or does such an uprising inevitably end either in the crushing of the rebels or the departure of the ruler?

The western opponents of Assad effectively say that, while there could be negotiations, the result would have to involve Assad leaving, if not immediately then fairly soon. Which of course is not something that Assad or his supporters are willing to contemplate, and are not likely to unless his violent overthrow appears otherwise inevitable.

The only other possibility could be that Russia and Iran can be convinced that their interests can be safeguarded in a post-Assad Syria,and  that this is a better option than continuing war, and are thus persuaded to threaten to withdraw their support for the Syrian government unless Assad agrees to his negotiated departure.

Or, if there is some way round the fundamental problem with a peace deal that leaves a ruler in place, namely the incentive to renege?

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September 18th, 2015
12:26 am


Party time?
Should I join the Labour Party? Or the Green Party, or some other party, or no party. Interested in thoughts and opinions.

I actually tried to join the Green Party before the election. I emailed them to ask if I was eligible to join as an ex-pat voter, but they never replied.

I would not remotely have considered joining the Labour Party pre-Corbyn. Now their is actually a real possibility of them starting to once again promote the sort of values and policies I support.

I'm not sure exactly how to describe myself ideologically these days. I sometimes say Libertarian Socialist, except the term 'libertarian' has possibly been irrevocably damaged. But generally leftist, and I tend to regard political parties rather pragmatically, as imperfect vehicles for advancing positive things in a particular time and place, rather than representing undying loyalties. Though the election of Jeremy Corbyn maybe puts a counter-argument in favour of party loyalty even when your party strays very far from what you see as its true values.

I have a ot of sympathies with Green politics in terms of a) prioritizing the environment, as climate change kind of is the single most important issue facing humanity (though there's every possibility that a Corbyn-led Labour Party will develop positive policies in that regard too. b) I see them as having a less-centralized, more democratic approach to tackling problems than Labour traditionally has, including the Labour left (though again that may be changing). Finally I think they are still likely to emerge as more left wing in a lot of areas than whatever compromise emerges between Corbyn and the Labour establishment. Jeremy Corbyn is great, but so are Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas.

However, Labour is a potential party of government, which the Greens are not, and moreover the Labour Party has much more of a possibility of being a real mass movement. The connection with the Trade Union movement, frayed as it is, is also something I regard as really important. Basically, Labour still has something left of its roots as a working class party, as again the election of Corbyn has shown, while the Greens, love them, are not and likely never will be.

(I am myself decidedly middle class, though I am also a proud Trade Unionist, but the point is that a political party that can, by and large, *only* attract the middle classes and hippy peacenik types, in other words that only attracts people like me and the sort of people I tend to socialize with, is not going to be able to effect change.)

Then there is the thing where the UK constituency in which I am registered to vote - Bristol West - is actually one of the few constituencies in the country where the Greens actually have a shot. They came a not-too-distant second to Labour in the election, with the Tories nowhere in sight. So I could actually be tempted to vote Green, which would rather contradict being a member of Labour. (If I do join Labour, I will be put into the Labour International branch, rather than the Bristol West Constituency LP, however).

I really am not sure what I think about this, so as I say welcome different thoughts and opinions and arguments for one or the other. (And feel free to argue as to why I should join the Lib Dems (of which I was actually a member once before), or even the Tories, though in the latter case there is not a snowball's chance in hell that you are going to convince me. But I would not consider it trolling.)

(If and when I get my Swedish citizenship, I will likewise contemplate joining a Swedish party - most likely the Left Party, but possibly the Green Party or the Feminist Initiative. But that's for later, and there are only a few people likely to read this who would be likely to be able to say much on that!)

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September 13th, 2015
11:27 pm


Can Corbyn win?
I am delighted that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour Party. That the disparate voices advocating for a more just and equal Britain, against austerity, against the war on the poor and disabled, has finally found political expression in a major, UK-wide political party. That the Tory government and their vicious agenda will finally have a clear and consistent opposition. I think the effect of this will be enormously beneficial.

But can a Corbyn-led Labour Party win a general election, or at least deny a Tory victory? I don't know.

There has been a lot written on this, and it is not worth rehashing all of it, though I will attempt to summarize some of the main points. Some very good analysis by Owen Jones. Some interesting advice in terms of style, based on Ken Livingstone's successes and failures. A very positive view from a few weeks ago; and a highly sobering note from Andrew Rawnsley.

Briefly, the positive case: he has created an enormous amount of enthusiasm and got a movement behind him; he can reach out to those disenchanted by mainstream politics, both by presenting a genuine alternative to austerity and by his 'anti-establishment status'; he is perceived as honest, principled and likeable. The negative: Labour lost because they were not trusted on the economy or welfare, and Corbyn's politics are doubling down on those perceived weaknesses; getting non-voters to vote and to vote Labour isn't as easy as it sounds; he will have the media against him; he wil have half his party against him.

Who might he attract? ex-Labour supporters who have turned to the Greens, SNP or Plaid Cymru; young, disollusioned non-voters (if they can truly be reached); some UKIP supporters who vote UKIP out of a general, vague anti-politics sense, rather than ideological riht-wing politics. Who might he repel? Reasonably comfortable, centrist, swing-voters who went for the Tories this time; UKIP voters for whom immigration really is a dominant issue.

Overall, I suspect that the odds are against Labour, andI suspect would have been whoever won; Labour, in opposition, were not going to be able to convince centrist voters that they were more trustworthy on the economy simply by moving even closer to Tory positions, and they certainly weren't going to win over dissolusioned voters that way.

I think the main thing that will determine how people view the relative economic credibility of the parties is totaly out of the hands of any Labour leader, namely, what happens to the actual economy, which depends on both government policies and the world economy. If it crashes and burns, which may well happen given the way things are going in China, then that could totally destroy Tory credibility, however much they protest it is not their fault. Austerity policies will undoubtedly exacerbate any downturn, and the pain that is being inflicted through Tory welfare policies will suddenly start hitting a lot more people.

Jeremy Corbyn's message might start looking appealing to a lot more current 'centrist' voters then. On the other hand, there's a risk that, if the Tories and the media are successful in portraying Corbyn as a dangerous loony lefty, then such voters might be inclined to 'stick to nurse for fear of worse'. But it will certainly give Labour a much stronger chance, and it would create an environment in which the sort of anti-establishment mass-movement enthusiasm that Corbyn has generated through the leadership campaign might have the chance to spread further into a potential winning coalition. On the other hand, I suspect that if things do not go too terribly economically, then this movement may find it hard to break out of the circles of the already convinced, the ones who go to Corbyn rallies and share lefty articles and memes on social media - which is not enough to win an election.

The Tories could destroy their credibility in other ways too - they may tear themselves apart over the EU referendum - which is something that Corbyn and Labour can influence, depending on how they play their cards - or the new Tory leader - if Cameron keeps to what he said about not running for a third term - may not prove convincing to the electorate. Cameron, much as I loathe his policies, is a highly skillful politician, and has an air about him (however unjustified) of confidence and competence. With someone else, the Tories may fare less well.

But before all this, the biggest hurdle Corbyn faces, I think, is party management; he has the support of much of the rank-and-file members (he got just a shade under 50% of 1st preference votes amongst full party members, and now something like 15,000 new members have joined, presumably most of whom approve of the latest developments) but he is opposed by the great majority of Labour MPs.

From everything I've seen he is going to try to be inclusive in bringing all sections of the party (that are prepared to work with him) into the Shadow Cabinet, and proclaims a commitment to being open and democratic about policy-making - which presumably means being willing to accept policy positions he is not too keen on where that is the clear will of the party - and all of this will be very necessary. But it's going to be a very tough balancing act of picking which battles to fight, and where to make painful compromises. Only time will tell if he is actually able to do this.

For the record, my inclination is that he should probably stand his ground on most matters of economic policy - both because it is right, and because the anti-austerity, anti-welfare cuts message is where he has most chance of capturing public imagination. I doubt, actually, that many Labour MPs are really all that convinced of the arguments for austerity, maybe some of the Blairites, but they have been convinced that Labour only has a chance if it accepts it. So many of them might be willing to say "Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound", or something like that.

But where I think he really does need to compromise is foreign/defence policy, if he is not to totally break the Labour Party. Most especially, Labour needs to be supporting staying in the EU in the referendum. Flawed as the EU is, I really don't think there's much appetite on the left and center-left for leaving, and it is something that most Labour MPs would fight tooth and nail for. (For what it's worth, I also believe Britain needs to be in the EU, disgusted as I am by Fortress Europe and Eurozone-imposed austerity.) Likewise NATO - I am no fan, but there would be no better way to both break the party and leave an open goal for the Tories than advocating for leaving.

In opposing Trident replacement, I think there's a much better political case for him holding firm (not to say moral), and where I suspect a lot of ordinary party members would be with him (and perhaps, in their heart of hearts, any MPs). Apart from anything else, British nukes are militarily useless, as a lot of military figures recognize, and Trident replacement will take up a huge proportion of the defence equipment budget. But here the compromise might be to argue for, say, putting half or even more of the savings from cancelling Trident replacement into the conventional defence budget, with the rest for (say) green energy; even if Corbyn would ideally like to see a lot lower military spending (as would I). But it is probably a good area to open up to wider party debate to see what ordinary members actually think.

In the end, I am not higely optimistic in terms of the odds of Jeremy Corbyn walking though the doors of Number 10 in 2020 - I think it is probably no more than 50/50 that he can hold the party together long enough to make it to the election as leader. But I am hopeful, in that this is the first time in a very long time that there has actually been a real major left-leaning party in England. And he could just pull it off; the normal rules of politics says it is very unlikely, but those same rules said he was a 100-1 shot for leader in the first place; the world is changing fast, and the rules of politics with them, so just maybe Jeremy Corbyn, together with a newly-invigorated Labour Party and movement, can create a new set of rules. I hope.

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August 30th, 2015
10:47 pm


Visitations part II
So after sabotabby left, my dad arrived and stayed for two weeks. (He left yesterday). This did not lead to so much photography, except when we took a 3-day trip to Visby, the capital of Gotland, a large island in the Baltic Sea which forms one of Sweden's 21 counties.

Visby is an extraordinarily well-preserved walled medieval city, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was a major Hanseatic League trading post, founded in the 12th century, which makes it older than Stockholm. The walls are pretty much intact and have basically been in their current form since the 14th Century.

As Gotland also has much extraordinary natural beauty to offer, the island is unsurprisingly an extremely popular holiday destination for Swedes and overseas visitors, especially from Germany I think. Not many Brits seem to have discovered it though. We went in late August, by which time Swedish kids have gone back to school, which made everything much cheaper - SEK95 per person each way on the ferry, a 3 and a quarter hours (82 nautical miles) journey from Nynäshamn, a port at the southern end of the Stockholm commuter train line, which means you can get there on your Stockholm region travelcard.

Visby is also notable for the annual Almedalsveckan in late June/early July, a huge politics festival where all the major parties, along with NGOs, lobbyists, business, unions, think tanks, and a fuckload of media of course, rub shoulders and hold all manner of events. Almedalen park lies just outside the city walls to the west, near the waterside.

But enough of my waffling - here are some photos!

Photos!Collapse )

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July 17th, 2015
11:34 pm


A conversation with my gay friend - a response
A Catholic friend of mine posted this article on Facebook a while ago, by Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic, recounting a conversation with a gay friend in which she tries to explain to him the official Catholic position on gay marriage, and on homosexual relationships and sexual morality in general.

I wanted to write a response to this article, because it seems to me to come not from a place of bigotry, fear or hatred, but from a place of genuine love, though I disagree with the conclusions.

Also because, so much of the pro-gay marriage discourse one sees on social media and elsewhere, where not simply true but trite slogans, is responding to or satirizing the Evangelical opposition to same-sex relationships; “I hope you’re not wearing any polyester-cotton mixes” and so forth. Which, fair enough, a lot of the most vocal opposition to gay marriage, and a lot of the most virulent hatred against gay people, comes from the Evangelical branch of Christianity; but very little speaks to the Catholic position, which does not depend on a strict interpretation of Levitical commandments or the single, passing line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that is the sole clear New Testament reference to the subject.

Finally, because I was a Roman Catholic until fairly recently, and this was one of the issues which led me to feel that I was increasingly diverging from the Church. (I know many Catholics share my views on this but remain. For the whole story, see here.)
Read on. Long.Collapse )


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July 4th, 2015
03:30 am


TV show meme
The meme:

1. Comment to this post with "I surrender!" and I'll assign you the basis of some tv show idea. (Science fiction show, medical drama, criminal procedure, etc...)
2. Create a cast of characters, including the actors who'd play them
3. Add in any actor photos, character bios and show synopsis that you want.
4. Post to your own journal.

sabotabby gave me "fantasy".

I am (with sabotabby 's permission) cheating somewhat by doing an adaptation, a) because it's something I've long thought totally needs to be on television, and b) the concept I was coming up with was a bit lame. (But it is rather hard to follow Sabs' Party People.)

So, the show is called Rivers of London, and adapts Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant novels, starting with the book of the same name. (Apparently it was optioned fr a TV series back in 2013, but nothing has been heard of that since. It is becoming a comic.)

Peter Grant is a rookie cop, who discovers that Magic Is Real when he takes a witness statement from a ghost. He then starts training in magic with the Met Police's resident wizard. In his supernatural patrols, he encounters the eponymous rivers, who are the genius locii, the local gods and godesses, of the rivers.

I imagine the show will start following the books, but, Game of Thrones-like, will gradually diverge, and will have plenty of episodic stuff not in the books along with the ain arcs from the books, and with plenty of screen time for the rivers.

So, my dream cast:

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown (rapper, Law and Order UK) as Peter Grant. I had other ideas, but he so totally nails it in the Rivers of London rap, in the video above, that he has to have it.

Peter Grant is a mixed-race rookie cop, finishing his probationary year at the start of the books. Father a white London jazzman, mother a Sierre Leonian immigrant. He has a wry sense of humour, a strong sense of curiosity, quite geeky in his way; not a brilliantly promising cop but turns out to be very resourceful, especially in working out how to combine magic with modern tech (which don't get on very well).

Billie Piper (Doctor Who, lots of other things) as Lesley May, Peter's friend and partner in crime-fighting, going through probationary year with him. Excellent cop, notices stuff a lot. Peter describes her as "Impossibly perky, even in a stab vest". More laid back than Peter I'd say, like him from a working-class background, bit cynical.

(Both these two are now rather old for their characters, who should be early-mid 20s, but then actors often play younger I guess. Thinking Billie Piper circa Rose Tyler).

Michael Kitchen (Foyle's War) as Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a wizard working for the Metropolitan Police, who becomes Peter (and later Lesley)'s mentor in magic (or 'guv'nor' as Peter calls him). The last of the 'Isaacs', the society of British wizards devoted to the magical teachings of Sir Isaac Newton. A couple of hundred years old and change, lost almost all his contemporaries in a huge magical battle during WW2. Very British public-school/Oxbridge, but of the non-asshole variety.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) as Mama Thames. The genius locii of the Thames in London and below. Originally a Nigerian immigrant in the 1950s who tried to drown herself in the Thames, but who was instead offered the goddess position left vacant by Father Thames' abandonment (see below).

Anthony Stewart Head (Giles in Buffy of course) as Father Thames, the original god of the Thames, but hasn't been downstream of Teddington Lock since the Big Stink of 1856. Now hangs around with his 'sons' (tributary rivers) upstream in rural Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. In the first book, Peter has to try to mediate a turf war between the sparring Thames's and their bands of tributaries and worshippers.

Art Malik (Jewel in the Crown, Passage to India, True Lies, The Living Daylights) as Dr. Abdul Walid, a Cryptopathologist with the Met Police. Fairly strong Glaswegian accent, which I trust the versatile Mr. Malik can pull off. Tagline "This is your brain on magic".

Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who, Sense8) as Cecilia "Lady Ty" Tyburn, goddess of the River Tyburn, and one of Mama Thames' daughters. Imperious, ambitious, double-first from Oxford, has powers of command with her voice. Peter manages to get on the wrong side of her early on, which is not a good career move.

Leonora Crichlow (Being Human) as Beverley Brook, goddess of the same, daughter of Mama Thames, personified as a teenage girl, but don't be fooled, girl's got power and ancient heritage. Potential love interest for Peter Grant.

(Remarkably hard to find well-known young black British actresses. They say the opportunities for black actors in Britain are poor, I'm thinking even worse for actresses).

There are lots more characters of course, but that'll do for starters I think.


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May 9th, 2015
12:52 am


This is England
Well, that was bloody depressing.

Not all of it, not in Scotland. My family were pretty much all actively campaigning for the SNP (though generally from a position to the left of the SNP), so for them, and huge numbers of others in Scotland who hope for a real alternative to Neoliberali austerity, it was a night of celebration - though certainly not untouched by what was going on south of the border.

But for the UK as a whole? Really hard to see any positives - isolated bright spots maybe, but not that affect the overall picture.

5 years of majority Tory government mean that people will die. People will go hungry, they will be forced onto the street, they will die. The NHS will be mutilated. Policies on immigration and human rights will become even more draconian, and And Britain may well be on its way out of the EU.

I do not see any point in blaming the elelectoral system. Yes, the Tories got a majority on 37% of the vote. But the fact is that the Tories plus UKIP, to the right of them, together got 49.5% of the <i>UK-wide</i> vote, including Northern Ireland (where these parties do stand, but are marginal). By contrast, in the 1983 election when Thatcher won her landslide, the Tories got 42.4% of the vote. Meanwhile, the 'progressive' parties (a stretch for Labour) got 39.8% this time (including SDLP as Labour allies). There is no way of painting this as other than a clear vote for the right.

I support PR, but if we had had it at this election, then what we would have got, instead of a Tory only government, is a Tory-UKIP coalition.

Blame the right-wing media by all means, feeding people lies and thus persuading millions to vote against their own economic interests. But you know, I kind of think that if people buy these lies, it's parftly because it's the sort of lies they're all too ready to believe. It seems to me (and this is anger rather than anything that claims to be rigorous social analysis) that this is neither simply selfishness nor ignorance, but a sort of wilfully ignorant mean-spiritedness; I don't think people are unaware that the rich are screwing them, but this just makes them all the more determined to make sure that no immigrants or workshy benefit scroungers are taking advantage of them too. No NHS? Well at least it won't be there for asylum seeers to feed off either! No social safety net if you fall ill or lose your job? Well at least it won't be there for the workshy and the fakers! No human rights? Who cares, so long as criminals and immigrants don't have them! It is the mentality of the playground bully who, knowing he can't touch the top-dog popular kids who beat on him, looks for someone lower down the hierarchy to take it out on.

I would like to believe what some people on the left are saying, that if only Labour had been bolder, offered a real vision and alternative to austerity, then they could have done better, but I don't buy it. I would certainly have welcomed such a thing for all sorts of reasons, but I think the reality is they'd have been hammered even more by the media, and perhaps scared even more people off. Such a message might play well in Scotland, but not in southern and Middle England. Ranting aside, I think the reality is that England is, in the main, a fundamentally right.wing country, where values of social solidarity are battered and frayed, something no longer of interest to the majority.

I don't think that means that Labour could have won by moving even further to the right either, or that they can have a better chance next time by doing so; I mean what reason exactly would they have given to people to vote for them? It would hardly have bought off Murdoch, who - unlike with the Major government of 1992-97  - seems very happy with what Cameron has to offer. I think there's a lot of truth to the maxim that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. What Labour needs to have a serious chance in the next election is neither a move to the left or the right but, first and foremost, for the Tories to either royally screw up or to have the next major crisis happen on their watch.

This could happen; Another major economic crisis is nothing to welcome, but whatever does go wrong with the economy (and Tory policies are likely to wreak plenty of damage in any case) will be increasingly hard to blame on 'cleaning up Labout's mess'.

Perhaps even more significantly, and especially with a narrow majority, the Tories still have an enormous potential to tear themselves to shreds over the in-out referendum on EU membership they're promising. Cameron will try to negotiate 'reforms' with the rest of the EU, but I suspect that the most likely outcome is that he will get some token concessions that he will try to sell as a win and justification to campaign to stay in, but which large swathes of his party will condemn as a sell-out.

That doesn't change the underlying reality of the right-wing value system of the plurality of the English majority. They may occasionally be willing to a vote for a watered-down centerist alternative when the Tories really screw up, but, well, we need a lot better than that. How you go about changing that basic equation - not really got any bright ideas, I'm afraid. I am fairly convinced that building, or rebuilding, a sense of social solidarity depends on people being actually involved in struggles that affect them - through unions, local campaigns and self-help, and so forth, and of course there are many, many people trying to make this happen. Keeping up that good work is the only thing I can really advise, cheering on here from a distance in my Scandinavian refuge. Getting it to a point where it makes a serious difference at a macro political level is not something that will happen overnight though, or in the space of a 5-year parliament.

Then there is Scotland, and that I think is the one bright spot. Although there influence will be limited in a Parliament with a Tory majority (though a small one), the fact that there is now a block of 60 MPS (including Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas for the Greens) who will be putting forward a genuinely progressive, anti-austerity message is something. And the likelihood is that a Tory government, especially if Britain heads for the EU exit, will hasten the departure of Scotland from the UK, and being free from Tory rule once and for all. While this would mean a stronger right-wing majority in the rest of the UK, I think losing the Union could be a massive shock to the Tory system, while allowing Scotland to act as, what I hope would turn out to be, a successful progressive English-speaking alternative on England's border. (And, very possibly for some, a place of refuge, A statue of Nicola Sturgeon saying "Bring us your poor, your huddled masses".)

That, however, is as maybe. What we have now is 5 years of awfulness. My heart goes out to those of you who hoped for something better, and who are going to be on the sharp end of it.

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April 26th, 2015
05:59 pm


Pariah kingmakers
The election results are in. Party A has won. Well, sort of. They have more seats than their main rival, Party B. But they don't have a majority, and can't reallly get a coalition that gives them a majority.

Moreover, Party C, the 3rd biggest party, is adamantly opposed to more or less everything Party A stands for. Actually, in many respects their policies are rather close to Party B. Party C made a big breakthrough this election, and now hold the balance of power. Many people in Parties B and C think that they could cooperate and lock Party A out of power.

So Party B has maybe won after all? Not so fast. Thing is, there is one particular issue, which is at the core of Party C's raison d'être, but where Party C's position is seen as complete anaethama by both Parties A and B. Indeed, such is the distaste with which this policy is viewed by the main parties (strongly backed by the mainstream media), that Party C has come to be regarded as a pariah that no other party can possibly have dealings with. Party B could maybe do a deal with Party C to gain power, but the price would be too high; they'd be hammered by the media, it would probably split the party (many of whose activists heartily loathe Party C), and it would be a highly unstable government that probably would not last the distance.

So Party A try to form a government. They are, after all, the largest single party. But then when they present their budget, Parties B and C vote it down. (They don't need to talk to each other to do this.)

Could Party B then form a government without taklking to Party C, just informally relying on their support, at least most of the time? Maybe, but the problem is it would be widely seen as illegitimate, it would be (again) highly unstable, and anyway Party C might not be willing to put up with supporting a government that treats them as a pariah.

So only Party A can form a government, but they can't actually govern. What to do?

Read more...Collapse )

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April 7th, 2015
12:06 am


Who benefits
One of the stupidest things I've heard recently in British politics was from Labour's Shadow Employment Secretary, Rachel Reeves, who said "We are not the party of people on benefits... Labour are a party of working people, formed by and for working people".

The context was an interview in which she actually said quite a few positive things, including reducing the severity and arbitrary nature of benefits sanctions, but this line - in many ways rightly - grabbed the headlines.

The list of cuts and tightened controls associated with various social security benefits in Britain - except for pensioners - under this government is long. Some listed here. A summary below the cut, many of you will already be familiar with a lot of them, in some cases through personal experience.
Cuts below the cutCollapse )
The consequences are dire. Food banks. Increased homelessness. Benefits sanctions leading to suicides. Children coming to school hungry.

Back to Rachel Reeves. What she said is of course denigrating and dehumanizing. Does Labour not want the votes of benefits claimants if they are not a party for them? Just who should they vote for? Or does Rachel Reeves rely on them just staying home because no party is for them? Do they not deserve representation, not deserve to exercise their vote even, as people who do not contribute to society? No, perhaps she didn't mean it quite like that, but her words drip with contempt for people on benefits.

But as I say, her words display, IMO, not just a lack of empathy, but a fundamental lack of understanding.

Labour was indeed set up as a party of working people. And who do you think fought for the existence of a welfare state, including benefits for the old, children, the unemployed, sick and disabled if not working people and the Labour movement? Not simply out of charity for the less fortunate, but because the people who formed the labour movement mostly were themselves the less fortunate, or knew that they could easily become so.

Any of us could lose our jobs, that have them now. Any of us, temporarily able-bodied, could fall sick over a long period of time, or become disabled. Once upon a time, most people knew this. The Labour Party, certainly the leadership, seem to have forgotten it.

If one is rich, or has a rich family, then one may well be able to ride things out, financially at least. The privileged and well-connected are unlikely to remain unemployed for long. But most of us are but one major misfortune away from needing the welfare state for our survival.

By "most of us", I mean those who do not have sufficient capital to sustain ourselves. That is, who are dependent on our labour, or that of those with whom we share a household. Or, to use another phrase whose meaning the Labour Party has mostly forgotten, the Working Class.

(For myself, I am by the common usage very definitely middle class, and I am better off than the majority in my income, my position in the labour market, and my degree of autonomy in my work. But by the above definition, I do include myself in the Working Class, albeit a relatively privileged member of that class. So yes, I do mean "we" and "us".)

So, while I do welcome some of the welfare changes Labour are promising: abolishing the bedroom tax, easing up on the sanctions, reforming the work capability assessment; not only do they not go far enough (Labour have made clear that they are not going to reverse all Tory cuts), but they do not remotely challenge the mindset behind the past 35+ years of welfare policy: that benefits are an act of charity from the better off to the poor; that those receiving it must therefore be made to jump through all sorts of hoops to prove both that they need it and, increasingly, that they deserve it; that, if you are claiming benefits, especially for unemployment, then in return for this generosity the state owns your ass and has the right to control your life in whatever ways it deems fit.

Rather than, what I think it should be, the welfare state as a material expression of solidarity amongst members of society, of a system that benefits the majority of us in society as a system which, when and insofar as we can, we all pay into, and which is there for all of us when we may need it. So the main questions should not be "How can we spend as little as possible?" "How can we make sure no-one is cheating?" "How can we really make sure recipients are doing enough to deserve it?" - but "What sort of system do we want to be there for us as and when we may need it"?

Solidarity. Another largely abandoned word. As I see it, "solidarity" has an aspect of compassion to it, of empathy, of putting oneself in others' shoes; but also an aspect of englightened, collective self-interest.

That second aspect is crucial, politically. Compassion is the most important human virtue. But, in the world we are in, appeals to compassion alone are not sufficient to make a successful progressive political programme. For that, you need Solidarity.

I am not talking revolution here, or fundamental changes to the Capitalist system. I am talking about the preconditions for a functioning social democracy.

Which is why, I think, that liberal appeals to conscience regarding the benefits system are never going to be enough. The horrible thing is, most of the Tory changes (with a few exceptions like the Bedroom Tax) are popular. Because most people do not currently see the welfare state as being about collective self-interest.

Why is this? Media propaganda. Labour abandoning the cause.( But is that itself just following public opinion? Maybe also the professionalization of Labour politics.) The fragmentation, individualization and consumerization of society. Because people are idiots. Take your pick.

How can this be changed? Wish I knew. But, unless and until this sense of collective self-interest is regained amongst substantial sections of the population, the argument for a generous and humane welfare state will continue to fail.

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April 3rd, 2015
09:25 pm


Just a quick drive-by to point folks to nwhyte 's rather fascinating series of posts, now complete, on the most famous books set in each European country (including miscellaneous micro-states, autonomous provinces and island dependencies and so on), based on taggings on Goodreads and Librarything. Some perhaps surprising, some less so, a fair number most folks have probably never heard of, and plenty of scope for debate about what should or should not count!

(I have read but eleven of them, and seen film or TV adaptations, or stage performances, of a further four.)

Anyway, an interesting literary journey through Europe!

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