Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Santa & the City (Xmas Special)

[Last December, Sir Reginald Pratt, one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the world, and widely known to his friends in the City as ‘Father Christmas’, kindly agreed to be interviewed by ‘Question the Powerful’ (An Interview with 'Father Christmas'). A year on, he’s here again to share with us his thoughts for Christmas.]

Q: Sir Reginald, how’s ‘Father Christmas’ doing in the City? It’s been a tough year.

R: On the contrary, it’s been a splendid year. I’ve just given my top team their biggest ever bonus. So everyone’s happy with Santa.

Q: But many people in the country have lost their job or had to take a pay cut. How do you feel about that?

R: Well, you hear people moaning about crisis this, crisis that, the world being turned upside down and all that nonsense. But the truth is, the world’s finally being turned right side up again. Life was sound for centuries with those of us at the top lording it over the rest. Then after the Second World War we had all that socialist and liberal welfare claptrap in Britain and America too. The gap between us and the great unwashed started to narrow. They began to have aspirations, about owning their homes, getting proper medical care, going to universities, eating in restaurants, even having holidays.

Q: You think that was a bad thing?

R: Of course! Before long, they were edging towards our standard of living, well, getting close to the level of our servants. So it couldn’t go on. And thank God, from the 1980s on, good old Maggie and Ronnie did us proud and changed the rules in every possible way. With their help we could at last return to our grand old traditions, siphoning off more for ourselves and screwing the rest with complete abandonment.

Q: That would be when the US and the UK started to lead the developed world in widening income inequalities?

R: I like your use of the word, ‘lead’, because that’s what we and our Anglo-Saxon cousins have been doing, leading the world back to sanity. As my grandfather used to say, “Those who have are meant to have; those who have not are meant to rot.”

Q: But when so many people are finding their real incomes cut while a few at the top get even more, that’s going to spell trouble, isn’t it?

R: Trouble indeed, because having had a tiny taste of the good life, the riff-raff wants to keep up with the Pratts and the Diamonds, and since they’re not clever enough to earn as much as we, they have to resort to borrowing. Now since we make even more money out of lending to these dimwits, we don’t mind. But ultimately, since their pay’s been cut to a pittance, the blighters can’t pay us back. That’s how we’ve ended up with this ludicrous debt problem. And given that we in the City can never be out of pocket, someone has to pick up the tab, and that would be the government.

Q: Are you surprised the government hasn’t tried to tax the top 1% more to help out the rest?

R: Not the slightest. The likes of Little Dave and Gideon know who their real friends are. Besides, my accountant can always find tax loopholes. I’d rather pay him the money than give it to the government to help degenerates. It’s a matter of principle. My accountant’s rich, I don’t mind giving him a handout.

Q: What about the 99% who are not wealthy like you?

R: Just blame them for anything you can think of. Call them benefit cheats, lazy public sector workers, Europhiles, or illegal immigrants. The media love it. After all, we own most of the media. Rupert’s been in a spot of trouble this year, but nothing money can’t fix.

Q: Don’t you think but for the grace of God you could be not so well-off yourself?

R: Spot on. It’s absolutely the grace of God that determines who will born into the right family, bet on the right hedge fund, or pick the right Lottery number. It alone decides who amongst the poor will be crucified, whose dreams for their children will be buried, so that bonus levels for the chosen ones can rise again and soar heaven high. We should accept it meekly. I do, and I’ve inherited my share of the earth. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Can Democracy Be Saved?

Should we ever trust anyone with the power to make decisions affecting our lives without ever having to answer to us? ‘No’ is the resounding answer. To allow anyone to capture such power would risk being at best ruined by a misguided fool, or at worst subjugated by a shameless oppressor.

It is this simple recognition that drives people everywhere to clamour for a guarantee that they will have a say over how decisions affecting them are to be made. The dramatic struggles across the Middle East have reaffirmed this vital political fact. But even as the call for democracy is irresistibly made, its fragility in countries with relatively stronger democratic credentials is becoming alarmingly clear for all to see.

In Europe, the importance of placating financial markets trumps democratic engagement. ‘Technocrats’ are hailed as saviours while suggestions of holding any democratic referendum are quashed. In the UK, a party with a parliamentary minority is able to impose the vast burdens of cuts on the poor while protecting the interests of the rich, simply because it is supported by another party which jettisoned its most high profile pledge to the electorate in order to have a share of power. In Spain, the ‘indignados’ (the outraged) draw attention to the fact that in the recent election, there were 11 million spoiled ballots, more than the number voted for the victorious rightwing party. The upshot of course is that the people of Spain now have to suffer even more plutocratic policies that have outraged the majority. And in the US, the Republican Party is showing how democracy can be thoroughly abused by parading candidates who are ignorant of policies they criticise, or cynically distort Obama’s position by editing the President’s words in campaign ads designed solely to deceive.

The underlying cause of democracy being so easily usurped is twofold. First, the wealthy elite can buy more media outlets and pay PR (public relations/pseudo research) to fill the public domain with misleading information, resulting in many people accepting that they have to become poorer to help the rich. Secondly, even amongst those who see through the lies and want to have different policies, there is a lack of awareness as to how they can articulate, let alone achieve, a coherent alternative. Protests, strikes, electoral abstentions help to express disillusionment, but they do not by themselves lead to better outcomes for those in need.

So is democracy doomed? Only if we ignore the many initiatives and experiments which have been carried out all over the world in enabling citizens to come together to formulate and advance shared policy demands. We should learn from these and apply them to any political action we are organising. As a small contribution, in ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’ (written for a special issue of the journal, Forum:, I outlined an experiment I carried out between 1995 and 2010, first at a local government level, then with the national government, to promote both innovative and tried and tested participatory practices so that more citizens could gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to exert their democratic influence over public policies.

The five key lessons I draw from this 15 year endeavour are as follows. Lesson 1: different people want different degrees of involvement, and organisers should give people the appropriate opportunities they seek rather than insist that everyone should participate in the same way. Often the ‘ladder of participation’ analogy is unhelpful when it is taken as downgrading less intense forms of engagement. Play to people’s strengths and personality preferences, and you get more people involved than just a small vanguard.

Lesson 2: the value of democratic participation is considerable in social, political and economic terms, and yet more often than not it is underestimated or overlooked completely. Even in narrow monetary terms, taking on board citizens’ views helped to save hundreds of thousands, even millions, in improving the effectiveness of individual policies and programmes. Consistently, where people are given meaningful opportunities to reflect and contribute their views on the development of public actions, it tends to lead to more satisfactory and cost-efficient outcomes.

Lesson 3: to be effective democratic engagement needs to begin with people being given structured opportunities to talk about the things that most concern them. This should be followed by facilitated discussions to examine the real causes of the problems. Participants should be enabled to share any proposal with others, while options put forward can be challenged, with a transparent process for agreeing the priority actions to be taken. Feedback is to be provided on implementation, and the impact of the agreed plan is to be kept under review. As a result of the communitarian experiment, there is now a wide range of excellent resources on engagement techniques which are available (as free downloads) from the National Empowerment Partnership/Community Development Foundation at

Lesson 4: partnerships between state and citizens are not easy to build. It requires patience, skills and considerable emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, in addition to the risk of those in government shutting people out from their decisions, there is now a growing danger with the Conservative-led coalition government simply passing the buck to communities. Attempts to pass endless social and economic burdens to individuals who cannot cope without collective political support, are nothing more than an abdication of democratic responsibility. To do it under the pretense of building a ‘big society’ insults our civic intelligence, and betrays the citizenry who had assumed the state was there to serve them.

Lesson 5: the key to successful democratic renewal is leadership. For those who stress the importance of having a groundswell of active citizens in sustaining democratic vibrancy, this might sound paradoxical. But whether it is widespread sceptical disengagement from public bodies or mass protest degenerating into mindless violence, the pitfalls of random public action/inaction can only be avoided if there is dedicated energy in organising and sustaining the pursuit of inspiringly articulated goals. Positive results have rarely been achieved without the drive of committed civic-minded leaders. (Materials relating to civic leadership can be accessed at the Take Part website:

And above all, we need such leaders now. From young people, residents association, workers, teachers, the elderly, all diverse backgrounds, we need those who are prepared to show leadership in rallying, organising, and championing what the wider democratic public seeks to come forward and save democracy.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What Next for the WEA?

The name ‘Workers Education Association’ (WEA) was formally adopted in 1905, three centuries on from the publication in 1605 of Francis Bacon’s epochal ‘The Advancement of Learning’. The historical trajectory is a significant one.

Against widespread scholastic dogmas and common superstitions, Bacon championed the idea that human understanding could only truly progress if social institutions and educators systematically supported the development of open and cooperative enquiry in relation to all subject matters. Instead of telling people that they must remain ignorant or blindly accept the words of venerated figures, he outlined the vision for an alternative where learning would steadily advance through collective efforts in experimenting, sharing and critically revising ideas and practices.

By the second half of the 17th century, Bacon’s philosophy had inspired the founding of the Royal Society which played a crucial role in embedding the scientific approach in the acquisition of new knowledge. In the 18th century, his ideas, along with those of John Locke, a member of the Royal Society and pioneering educationalist, fuelled the Enlightenment movement, which insisted that since none should be excluded from the process of deciding what was to be believed, how society was run should no longer be left to a powerful elite. Following the democratic revolutions in America and France, momentum grew in the 19th century for all men and women to be given equal respect in learning and deciding matters of interest to them. Social reformists, trade unionists, cooperative activists dedicated themselves to opening opportunities for all citizens to have more control over their lives.

At the dawn of the 20th century the founding of the WEA took up the Enlightenment challenge of empowering all citizens to participate in the quest for knowledge and power to shape their own lives. Indeed according to the Baconian insight, knowledge is power. The more people understand what causes natural and social problems, the more able they are to pick out the most promising solutions. As learning spread in the 20th century, income inequalities declined, public services improved, and exploitation by private interests was curbed. But all these trends were threatened by the rise of market fundamentalism in the 1970s. The Thatcherite gospel preached that the rich and powerful should be free to rig the market as they saw fit.

After decades of upside-down democracy with society increasingly made to serve the rich, the vast majority are now left with lower pay, job insecurity, public service cuts, and fear before the might of corporate juggernauts. What are people learning about this turn of event? What lifelong education is equipping them with the knowledge to find a better future? Where can they get help with unmasking plutocratic propaganda that disguises the hijacking of public policies for private gains?

These questions are of course particularly pertinent for the WEA. Now a century old, with the tide of inequalities sweeping back with a vengeance, threatening to wipe away the social progress made in the post-war years, what is the WEA to do? In this context, I’m greatly heartened to read a paper by Greg Coyne, WEA’s Regional Director (North West), written to stimulate discussions about the role of the WEA.

Greg’s paper, proposing a radical, action learning oriented educational approach for the WEA to deal with old challenges in new times, should be widely read by WEA members and all supporters of lifelong learning. In this age of hierarchical markets, where people are just mass commodities to inflate profits for the few, it reminds us that “contrary to the assertion about a high skills economy, we are actually preparing masses of young people to work in and accept low paid, low skilled, insecure employment in the service sector rather than the knowledge economy.”

In short, citizens are now being deprived of sufficient capacity and opportunity to attain the knowledge to function as equal members of a democratic society, and thus disempowered from recognising what changes are really necessary to pursue to counter injustice and exploitation. Greg’s proposed approach has five elements, each of which merits serious consideration. First, we are urged to shift “from the ‘sage on the stage’ towards the ‘guide at the side’.” Instead of presenting knowledge as a fixed package to be revealed to the uninitiated, people are to be engaged as active participants in exploring their shared concerns, and working with the help of a guide in discovering what should and could be done.

This leads to the second element which is to ensure the engagement of citizens in raising critical questions. Greg illustrates his point with the example of asking in a flower arranging class why flowers were being flown in from Africa with all the implications of pollution, and distortion of farming priorities. I would certainly like to see WEA classes raise questions in relation to economic issues such as why certain politicians are called ‘technocrats’, suggesting that they are somehow better equipped than ‘ordinary’ representatives of the people in solving problems, when in fact a key qualification for such an appellation seems to be their conformity to the market orthodoxy which has brought about financial instability across the world.

Linking classroom discussions to wider socio-economic issues is indeed the third element of Greg’s proposed approach. There are subject matters which lend themselves to being studied as an end in itself – and the Open University and other institutions cater well for such interests, but if learning is to serve the purpose of enhancing our ability to deal with social problems, then the WEA has a vital part to play in helping people connect what they learn to the broader challenges facing them and their communities. Exploitation of the masses depends on keeping citizens ignorant. To counter it, we need more socially aware learning.

Moreover, awareness is only superficial if it is not tested and strengthened through exploratory action. The fourth element of Greg’s proposal rightly maintains that action learning can help participants understand better the issues they are studying and also reinforce their comprehension by applying it to practical activities. There can be no detailed blueprint for how this will roll out, but it is essential for there to be constant review and refinement of course activities in the light of their impact on participant’s lives. This last element completes the proposed reorientation of WEA into a dedicated champion of active citizenship and community involvement.

The difference would be between a WEA that runs a motley collection of courses of interest to individuals without necessarily addressing the knowledge/power gap that is undermining our social cohesion; and a WEA that, to use Greg’s words, “brings the social and political into whatever we teach and develops an emancipatory, involved style of learning that fits with our ethos and mission.”

As corporate forces continue to expand their influence through their political acolytes, mass media outlets, and ‘research’ centres funded by them to undermine beliefs in inconvenient truths, it is more important than ever that the advancement of learning for all resumes its true course with the help of social educators. It is fitting that R H Tawney, one of the most outstanding social educators of the 20th century, eloquent defender of the cause of equality, was for many years President of the WEA. What better way to commemorate next year (2012) the fiftieth anniversary of his passing than to see WEA declare itself as the hub for radical action learning in the UK. It’s time we, workers and citizens, expand our shared learning and reclaim our power.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Corporate Flu

Corporate Flu, a horrific disease originating in vampire bats, is now rapidly spreading through the human population. Anyone catching it develops an insatiable craving to suck the lifeblood out of other people.

Carriers of Corporate Flu can usually be identified by one or more of the following symptoms:
• Frothing of the mouth when holy items such as worker protection, fair pay for all, bonus restraints appear anywhere near them.
• Sudden onset of blindness when they come across the consequences of their destructive behaviour.
• Severe weakening of their spine when they smell the presence of someone who is stronger than them through having consumed more victims.
• Outbreak of an allergic rash whenever they hear that a vulnerable individual has been rescued by the public safety net.

Many of the approaches advocated so far for dealing with Corporate Flu have proven to be completely ineffective. Burying one’s head in the sand while pretending the epidemic would soon be over has only served to make one easier to be picked off. Talking endlessly about the disease without taking any concerted action has not given anyone the slightest extra protection. Insane attempts to sacrifice scapegoats such as asylum seekers and benefit claimants to placate the infected have only made the problem worse.

However, scientists have now confirmed that this grotesque disease is spread through gross inequalities, and swift action to narrow the gap would put an end to it. In the meantime, the government is being urged to target existing Corporate Flu carriers with a taxing treatment to remove the excess resources they have accumulated and transmute these into nutrients which can be injected back into those who really need them.

There have been reports that the mere threat of taxing Corporate Flu carriers has led some of them to flee the country vowing never to return. Unfortunately, stories are also coming in suggesting that the government is unlikely to take any action as many of its members have caught the virus via contaminated donations.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Debt or No Debt

When the UK Prime Minister urges everyone to clear their debts and stop borrowing, AND pleas with the banks to lend more money, you have to wonder if David Cameron is clueless about the economy or he just assumes he can get away with spouting nonsense.

We need sensible borrowing
Borrowing when one has no way of ever paying the money back is never advisable. But borrowing to deal with pressing problems, to invest, to grow is a sensible course for individuals, businesses and governments. Without mortgage borrowing, only a tiny rich elite would own their own homes; without business loans, far fewer enterprises would be able to start up, let alone grow to expand their market share and turnover; and without government borrowing, countries would be stuck in the backwaters of under-development.

What is sensible borrowing?
The UK has for over three centuries borrowed substantially to ensure it has the capacity to grow as a strong country able to look after its citizens. In the last century, the national debt as a % of our GDP was continuously and often significantly over 50% from the First World War to the early 1970s, when it dropped and stayed below 50% through Conservative and Labour governments up until the global financial crisis in 2008. ( When compared internationally, the UK debt (again as a % of GDP) was under the last Labour Government the lowest of all the other G7 leading industrial nations (ie lower than Germany, Japan, France, Canada, USA, Italy -

So what has been pushing borrowing up?
With government investment in health, education and economic growth, the quality of life in the UK improved, while the debt level remained below 50% of GDP up until 2008. Anyone who claims not to know what happened in 2008 is either the perpetrator or victim of a political con trick. Bankers around the world had by then gambled away so much of their savers’ money that there was a real risk they would collapse, and that could have led to businesses being unable to borrow enough funds to keep going, and countless people losing their lifesavings. The Labour Government had to step in to save the country. By July 2009, the UK debt level reached 59%. But £142 billion of this was the cost of rescuing the banks, which meant the debt level without the bankers-generated crisis was 47%. For all the talk of billions of pounds in debt, the government’s underlying borrowing strategy was hardly out of line by any historical and international standard.

Have things got better or worse?
When the banks started to cut back lending in 2008, businesses found it more difficult to finance their growth, people with insecure jobs and worries about getting loans cut back consumption. The result was the beginning of a recession with the economy fast stalling. The Labour Government invested public funds to stimulate growth and by the time they left office in 2010, the economy was expanding again at a rate approaching 2%. Politicians from all sides around the world praised the UK strategy for its combination of public investment and sensible debt management. The Tory-led Government, however, for its own ideological reasons insisted that borrowing must be drastically cut regardless of the consequences, and its policies have by 2011 brought us higher unemployment and rising poverty, with the growth rate of the economy plummeting back towards stagnation (see:

Time to back responsible borrowing
In the face of the incessant scaremongering about the UK debt getting out of control, it is essential to remember that during times of crisis the British government has always in the past responded with leadership and responsible borrowing to steer the country out of the storm. After the First World War, the debt level shot up to 100% of GDP and rose up to and remained at 150% through the 1920s. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the debt level went up to 200% of GDP. Furthermore, even at that level, the post-war Labour Government recognised that it was a priority to rebuild the UK and it invested in the creation of the NHS and other public services for the benefit of all. The debt level reached 240% before 1950, and then steadily dropped to below 100% of GDP after 1960 when private sector growth was by then robust enough to drive the economy forward. Past UK governments had the courage to take on a high level of responsible borrowing to save the country from the Kaiser, the Nazis, and post-war squalor. The present government should not be paralysed by cowardice.

Cut out irresponsible borrowing
Alongside a commitment to responsible borrowing, we should of course expect the Government not to increase the national debt by draining public resources irresponsibly. For example, £10 billion can be saved if the Government does not spend £2 billion to reorganise the NHS to make it more vulnerable to profiteering; £4.5 billion a year to keep troops in Afghanistan; £2.5 billion in tax handouts to the richest corporations and individuals; or £1 billion on bombing a country which poses no direct threat to the UK or its neighbours.

What should be done about the real causes of the banking crisis?
Many people are so angry with the last Labour Government for failing to prevent the banking crisis that they are prepared to jump out of the frying pan into the Tory fire of cuts and prolonged recession. What they need to realise is that Labour’s true failing was not rectifying when they had the chance the Tory policies of squeezing society for the benefit of the super rich minority. First, the Tory deregulation of the banks, which made it possible for them to gamble away billions of pounds of savers’ money, should be reversed. Secondly, financial transactions should be taxed to control otherwise disruptive speculation and help reduced public sector borrowing (this would raise £20 billion even if it is levied at just 0.05%). Thirdly, the Tory fantasy of leaving people with below-subsistence pay to get by through unsustainable borrowing must be pushed aside with a fairer distribution of wealth (something welcomed by many rich people with a social conscience). Fourthly, the integrity of the public sector must be protected to serve the interests of the whole country in good times and bad, and not be dismantled to feed ravenous corporate interests which prioritise private gains over public wellbeing. The Tories will never change their spots, let’s hope Labour has learnt their lessons – for all our sake.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Politics of Cultural Inclinations

Can we predict which countries in the world are more likely to embrace open, cooperative political arrangements, and which would more probably stick with rigid, hierarchical systems? It would appear so. I have looked at data compiled and analysed by Geert Hofstede and colleagues over the last forty years (see Hofstede, G., Hofstede, GJ, and Minov, M, Cultures and Organizations, New York: McGaw Hill, 2010), and I have detected an interesting correlation between a set of cultural inclinations and political manifestations.

On what I call the ‘Democratic Continuum’, countries range from those whose residents most ready to deal with problems by engaging others as equals in open, cooperative deliberations, through to countries least prepared to deviate from hierarchical or traditionally established arrangements in determining what should be done in society. These may be referred to as the ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ poles of the continuum.

To map countries’ cultural inclinations, I draw on Hofstede’s data under four sets of comparisons. These are based on contrasting the countries with the highest and lowest proportions of their populations who (assessed by their questionnaire responses) are inclined to favour:
1. Power Distance (those who prefer important decisions affecting them to be left to people higher up than them v those who prefer such decisions to be made by people who will listen to and discuss options with them)
2. Communal Bonds (those who strongly differentiate between members of exclusive communal groups and outsiders v those who view all those in their country as deserving equal respect)
3. Traditional Masculinity (those who believe that the ‘masculine’ approach of being assertive and dominant should prevail in society, while the ‘feminine’ caring approach should be reserved for females at home v those who believe that males and females should alike be caring and mutually supportive wherever they are)
4. Avoidance of Uncertainty (those who want to minimise uncertainty in responding to situations by having rigid arrangements indicating who or what procedures are in place for resolving problems v those who welcome uncertainty in situations as something they will explore on a case by case basis for a response)

Are there countries that cluster at either end of all or most of these four sets of comparisons (the top/bottom 15 countries in the world)? And can we deduce anything about their likely ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ political status?

Five countries are found to be in the least favour end of most of the listed factors, and not in the most favour end of any of them. Sweden and Denmark are in all four, and Canada, Norway and the Netherlands are in three. A higher proportion of people in these countries reject ‘power distance’, ‘communal bonds’, ‘traditional masculinity’ and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’ as outlined above. And few would dispute that they are likely to be included on any list of the most open, democratic countries in the world.

The UK and Ireland curiously are in the least favour end in relation to ‘power distance’, ‘communal bonds’, and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’, but are both found in the most favour end of ‘traditional masculinity’. My hypothesis is that although the UK and Ireland have cultural tendencies that largely support their democratic institutions, they suffer from retaining a ‘macho’ outlook which holds them back from being as open and democratic as they should be. The first-past-the-post voting system, the unelected House of Lords, the infantile debates of Prime Minister Question Time are all oddities which, I believe, will one day vanish when the wider cultural attachment to ‘traditional masculinity’ declines.

What about the US? It only appears under the least favour end of ‘communal bonds’, and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’. A more revealing picture might be found if we had the Hofstede data segregated by states in the US. I suspect the predominantly Republican states would tend to favour three or all four of the listed factors, while the strongly Democrat states would be amongst the least favour in relation to all of them. And the political practices and institutions established in these states would be more ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ depending on their cultural inclinations.

As for countries which feature in the most favour end of the different categories, none appeared in all four and only Guatemala and Venezuela featured on three. Both these countries have struggled for decades with dictatorial regimes, and like the rest of Latin America are only able to function with more democratic arrangements relatively recently. It remains to be seen if their prevailing cultural inclinations would make it more difficult for them to make the transition to a fully open and democratic society than their neighbours.

In conclusion I would stress that the relationship of cause and effect is never simple. We cannot say that cultural changes must precede political changes, or political reforms are necessary for cultural shifts. They affect and in time reinforce each other. But we can say that culture change can help to reshape politics.

To promote the cause of democracy, therefore, I think more should be done to alter people’s attitudes about key features of their daily working experience. For example, what’s it like when we can have more of a say about the decisions that affect us and not have them dictated to us; what’s it like to be excluded, overlooked, penalised at work just because one doesn’t belong to some closed communal group; what’s it like when we have less testosterone-fuelled lone wolves and more collaborative colleagues at work; what’s it like to learn through cooperation and experience how to cope with new situations rather than having everything prescribed, depriving us of the opportunity for initiative or innovation.

As more people become more averse to ‘power distance’, ‘communal bonds’, ‘traditional masculinity’ and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’, they will more likely back the advancement towards a more open and democratic society.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Poor Circulation & Economic Disorder

Imagine as blood circulates through the body, a few parts that have become excessively rich in fat start to prevent sufficient blood from getting to the rest of the body. Not only has the heart got to work harder to keep the blood flowing, but as proper circulation is blocked by the fattened parts, others are deprived of the oxygen they need, and the whole body risks shutting down.

Unfortunately, that’s how the economy – at the national and global level – has been functioning. Those who become fat in wealth siphon off money for themselves and don’t put it back in the economy. And then we get dire warnings about insufficient spending to keep the economy going. Within nations, the corporate elite takes out an ever-larger proportion of the country’s wealth and leaves the rest increasingly starved of resources to make ends meet. Instead of letting workers have a fairer share of the proceeds from their labour, the rich pretends the problem can be solved by sinking people further into debt.

But debt-fuelled bubbles inevitably burst. With the majority left without money to spend – as their income has been shrunk while corporate bosses divert more of the revenue generated by shared enterprise into their own pockets – recession hits us. Plutocratic friends of the rich, through malice or sheer stupidity, proclaim the solution is to transfer even more money from the poor to the rich. Get rid of the minimum wage, they say, cut taxes for the minority who are paying themselves astronomical sums, cut public spending which has helped those with less to afford a decent life without falling into greater debt, and increase job insecurity for workers by undermining what employment rights they have left.

At the international level, deregulated financial institutions are able to move money around to satisfy those with the richest accounts. Fair trade is sacrificed for the interest of predatory trade, where the resources of the poorer countries are stripped to enhance the productive capacity and balance of payment of the rich ones. Countries accumulating wealth from the deficits of others are not placed under any obligation to act in a responsible way to sustain global economic wellbeing. Middle Eastern oil producers ignored the plight of the rest of the world in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the long term they reap the social and economic instability that comes back to haunt them. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Japan pursued a policy of wealth accumulation in relation to the rest of the world, gradually and inexorably weakening the purchasing powers of the latter, until in the 2000s, with demands dropping worldwide, it entered into the flatlining era of no growth. China and the other emerging economic powers will have to address a similar problem.

The UK and the US, instead of protecting the banking elite, and siding with global wealth hoarders, should work with other countries to establish international arrangements to promote fair trade, equitable distribution of surplus, and taxing unearned excesses to invest in the healthy functioning of our inter-connected world.

The problem of economic disorder will not go away. So long as some can persist in blocking a good circulation of wealth in society, causing vital arteries to clog up, depriving many of the share they need to lead a healthy existence, we will lurch from one economic crisis to another.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Lopsided Playing Field

The ‘transfer window’ for the new season of Premiership football has just closed. What a damning metaphor the once beautiful game has become for the wealthy-takes-all world beloved of plutocrats.

How does Premiership football work exactly? Last season’s results are instructive. If we rank the teams by the cost-effectiveness of the points they gained (ie the total number of points divided by their wage bill), Blackpool would have topped the league, followed by West Brom, Wolves and Birmingham. But of course Blackpool and Birmingham actually ended up being relegated under the money-can-buy-anything rules.

By the same token, the bottom three clubs for relegation last season would have been Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. But these clubs stayed, spent millions more than anyone else over the summer, and are all sitting at the apex of the league. Much has been said (amongst us football fans at any rate) about the once formidable Arsenal losing their way – beaten by Liverpool, thrashed by Manchester United. But take a look at the money gap between Arsenal and the ‘top four’ (the net spend on player transfers – as of 22.00, 31 August 2011): Chelsea and Manchester United each spent over £60 million more than Arsenal; Liverpool spent £75 million more; and Manchester City spent almost £90 million more.

Success is not to be nurtured, but bought with money. Will any team other than those four with their substantially larger budgets for transfer fees and wage bills win the Premiership? Absolutely not. In the wider money-dominated society, success is also in the grip of the corporate elite. The top financiers make money for themselves out of devising money-making schemes, while others lose money and sink hopelessly into debt.

What happens to others who try to compete for investment and growth? The manufacturing industry, public healthcare, universal education, affordable housing, these all languish because they cannot make the fast and easy money the financial institutions can secure. Those with the most money write the rules: they scoop off the profit, they pass on the risks, and if things do not go their way, they just get everyone else to hand them more money (public bailout, private savings, contrived deals involving futures and derivatives).

For all the talk about the merits of a free market, with a level playing field where everyone can compete fairly on the basis of their relevant contributions – skills, innovation, organisation, commitment, responsiveness – what we get is a rigged market. The lopsided playing field favours the mega-rich who will take all titles, leaving the poor to survive if they can crawl through the eye of a needle.

But just as the football world is beginning to look at introducing rules to cut down the unfair advantages that money can buy, fiscal policies can help to bring about a fairer society overall. Encouragingly there are rich people in France, Germany, and Italy who have asked their government to tax the wealthy more so they can with their greater resources play a bigger part in meeting the challenges their countries face. Alas, in the UK, the Tories and the super rich are huddled together to talk about cutting the tax rate for those with the most, and relegating the poor to a lower level of existence.

It’s time to show this Blue Government the Red Card.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Eton Redemption

(The following excerpts are taken from the autobiography of Gideon ‘Blue’ Bluetit, a close friend of Dave Conman through all the years they spent together in Eton Penitentiary. The full version can be ordered from

“I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, even though he had been convicted of ruining millions of lives, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from everything. It would be fair to say, I liked Dave from the start.

Like everyone else here Dave told me, he was innocent. He was a man born to soar above culpability. The prosecutor had pinned riots, crumbling public services, rising poverty, deteriorating healthcare, and bucket loads of other things on him, just because he failed to control others he was supposed to be responsible for. Surely it’s everyone’s fault but his. For a long time, I wept thinking about it.

Eventually Dave settled in. He hugged a hoodie and then kicked his head in when the goings got tough. You could argue he'd done it to curry favour with those guarding the right wing of our prison. Or, maybe make a few friends among us Cons. Me, I think he did it just to feel smug again.

One day Dave came up with the idea of giving tax advice to the rich guards watching our every move. He told them to evade paying their tax, so the government would have to concede the tax on them was not worth collecting, and remove the tax altogether. They loved him for that. Well, I always said he was good. Shit, he’s a Rembrandt.

Through it all, he never doubted he would soon be back in the saddle. I told him hope was a dangerous thing; it could drive a man insane. After all, he had been found guilty of fulfilling his own prophecy in breaking the society he inherited. But with a smile he asked me if I knew what the Mexicans said about the Pacific. Apparently, they said it had no memory. And that's what it was like in Dave’s head: a warm place with no memory.

In time his parole with the electorate came up. They asked him if he was sorry for what he did. He looked deep into their eyes and said, ‘there's not a day goes by I don't feel regret, for not being tougher on poor people, disabled people scrounging benefits, young thugs, their parents, the police, and most of all, bloody Boris. I look back on the way I was then: a naïve, caring leader who committed the terrible crime of allowing some public services to survive. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That fool's long gone and this is all that's left. I got to live with that. Remorse? It's just a bullshit word. So you go and cast your vote, and stop wasting my time.’

That’s how Dave got another chance, this remarkable man who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. I have no idea to this day what his politics was about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think it was about something so beautiful, like stripping the poor of their dignity, it makes your heart sing because of it. Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Dave being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”

[Ed: Apologies to those not familiar with the lines from The Shawshank Redemption. Some readers thought the language was not what they would normally expect. But I can't take the credit for the genius that belongs to Darabont and King.]

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Know-Nothing Executives

Who are the KNEs? The Know-Nothing Executives are a special breed who rise to the top of organisations by knowing nothing except the rewards from serving every whim and command of their masters.

They are not uncommon in the private sector. They carry out orders to increase consumption and sales while blanking out what risks those activities might involve, the harm they might cause, or whether alternatives should be considered. Polluting the environment, gambling away others' savings, hacking into the phones of crime victims, fueling addictions, they know and care nothing about them, so long as they can secure what they think is being sought by the top of the pyramid.

Unfortunately since the Thatcherite delusional worship of the private sector took hold, the KNEs have also been on the rise in the public sector. Public servants who have in-depth experience and understanding of particular policy areas, are deemed to know too much and potentially obstructive to what politicians desire. Thus KNEs with no background in healthcare are hired to run our health services; 'leaders' with no experience of working in a police force are sought for parachuting into key policing roles; and the development of public policies is entrusted to KNEs who have not even the most basic grasp of the policies they are in charge of.

This is damaging in at least four ways. First, KNEs don't question their political masters in what they seek to achieve overall. They carry out every requested initiative without pointing out how they might contradict each other or undermine broader objectives, resulting in short-term gratification but long-term incoherence.

Secondly, they shy away from issues of feasibility. Consequently, policies which cannot be delivered without an adequate budget, or won't work without other key components being in place, are left unexposed; and end up consuming precious resources while producing nothing of substance.

Thirdly, KNEs tend to ignore the prospect of negative side-effects. They see their career as solely dependent on the frequency of saying yes. So on their watch, orders are driven forward even if such initiatives risk costing more than any purported savings, being successfully challenged in the courts, damaging private or voluntary sector partners, or worst of all, ruining the lives of the most vulnerable people.

Last but not least, KNEs prefer their masters' approval to evidence-based analysis of policy efficacy. Analyses, surveys, evaluations, which could show up the feebleness of any proposed idea are to be brushed aside, if not scrapped outright. Instead reports are to be produced to validate claims of success. By the time the utter futility of the implemented policies has become obvious for all to see, the KNEs in question would have moved on to a higher rung of the corporate ladder.

Of course the more enlightened politicians are well aware that such obsequiousness would not actually serve them well. I've worked with many different Secretaries of State and Ministers in my time, and what they want is well informed advice, consistently given to them to help them achieve better outcomes for the country. But if politicians want to have this kind of support in the future, they need to make their expectations clear. Shun the KNEs, and place your trust in the public servants with real expertise and integrity to serve the public good.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Nasty Media

First came the confession of the Nasty Party (source: T. May, 2002), then the outcry over the Nasty Bankers, and now the exposure of the Nasty Media.

Connecting all these strands is the political agenda for the Nasty Society. Simply put, an elite wants to make sure it can accumulate wealth and power by whatever means, and remove any effective constraint by a democratic state. So it gives ‘donations’ and demands to politicians (usually those in their own ‘rich people first’ party but also anyone sufficiently craven); it exploits financial systems to make vast sums of money at other people’s expense; and it distorts public perception of what is really going on with the support of media manipulators.

Amidst all the shock and anger over the MEANS used by Murdock’s media operatives, attention should be directed at the ENDS that the Nasty Media seek to serve. They want people to think that the public realm is inherently inferior to unbridled corporate interests because individuals could then be alienated from those who are their true allies, while the injustice in society is routinely overlooked.

Instead of allowing the toxic ethos of the Murdoch press to seep into British broadcasting, the standards for impartiality and public responsibility of British broadcasting should be established for the British press and global media more widely. We cannot attain a fair society when the only effective protection of our dignity as equal citizens is systemically vilified.

Public funding, public servants, public provisions are the real enemies of the Nasty Media. Stories about the private lives of celebrities and intrusions into grieving families are just sensationalist sideshows to distract the public from what they should be concerned about, namely, the Nasty elite shifting more and more power away from those dedicated to safeguarding the good of all, and handing it to those who only care about making a profit for themselves.

Take a look at the press coverage. We are short of public funds, so let’s cut public services even more. Equality before the law? The rich can always lawyer up and hire private security services. Tough luck on the rest. Why don’t we raise taxes to cover the shortage? No, cut taxes and deplete public funds even more, it would benefit those with millions saved in tax avoided, and only harm the undeserving poor.

But surely those who pay themselves 100 times or more than most hardworking employees could afford to pay more taxes? No, that’s the politics of envy. These top corporate executives are greatly valued (by the Nasty Society) and should get an incomparably better deal than the rest. Who should be squeezed? Go for the public servants, most of them don’t earn much but get a moderately better pension (than those without the fairer terms offered by the public sector), so let’s stir up envy and hatred of their ‘gold-plated’ pensions. Shouldn’t the terms of their employment reflect how much they are valued? Yes, and the Nasty Party does not value them.

So under-funded, overworked public workers would not be able to sustain the vital services for our country. Good, more stories on failing public services. That’d lend support to the need for ‘reform’ (i.e., passing the potentially profitable bits to private businesses which will wash their hands of the rest). What about the many dreadful failings of the private sector, and the risk of letting profiteers take over even more of our public services? Leave that to the likes of the Guardian and the BBC. Who’ll pay attention to them when they haven’t got headlines about philandering celebrities or inside stories about families hit by tragedies? Who indeed.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Big Con

Just as everyday con merchants trick people into handing over their valuables for nothing, the Big Con in politics deceives people into thinking they would be better off without the power they derive from a strong, democratic state.

Centuries of misery have shown that businesses and voluntary organisations are not capable between them of guaranteeing people even the most basic means to cope with the iniquities of life or the fluctuations of arbitrary fortune. But the Big Con maintains that smaller the state, the better society would be. It does this by relentlessly promoting the myth of an ‘all powerful yet wasteful’ state that needs to be drastically cut down.

The reality should be made plain for all to see. The Con Party is cutting the state, not as a short-term measure to cope with the deficit created by the lack of strong government regulation of the banking sector, but as a way to cripple public services permanently. And while the burden of the cuts fall much more heavily on those with less resource, the wealthy few are getting extra help from the not so invisible hand of the Tories. Corporate profits are taxed less. Bankers’ bonuses are no longer taxed at all. The rich who already command many ways to evade taxes are rewarded with staffing cuts in HM Revenue and Customs so there is even less capacity to investigate them.

As public services for all are cut, support for the corporate elite to make profit for the few is increased at every turn. The BBC’s budget is cut by 20% but Murdock’s phone-hacking media empire is given the go-ahead to expand. The Competition Commission, which might stand in the way of such market distortions, is to be abolished, along with many other state bodies which have up to now defended public interests against attempted encroachment by commercial exploitation. Thus, the Food Standards Agency, which has been at the forefront of raising industry standards in tackling unsafe and unhealthy food, is being dismantled in favour of an advisory body dominated by representatives of big corporations with a vested interest in the food business; and the Gambling Commission, which has an independent regulatory role in keeping crime out of gambling, ensuring that it is conducted fairly and openly, and protecting children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited, is to be closed down.

Public provision for everything from education, health to legal aid and care for the vulnerable are cut, undermined and fragmented so that private firms can pick off contracts that make them a handsome profit, while more and more people who cannot afford to pay fall through the widening cracks.

Remember what happened to hygiene in hospitals after they were forced to contract out their cleaning services to private companies. Remember what is unraveling as a consequence of the expansion of for-profit organisations in running care services without public accountability. Remember a small state serving only the wealthy elite is the ultimate pay-off for the Big Con – and the consequences for society would be absolutely dire. To stop the Con from succeeding, we must expose it.

(The full version of my dissection of the ‘Big Con’ is published in the PPR Journal March-May 2011, Volume 18, Issue 1; it can be accessed via:

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Tale of Two Strategies

As Obama plans his bid for a second Presidential term, there are two contrasting strategies he may wish to consider. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Left has been making concessions to corporate elites for decades while becoming increasingly timid in standing up for the poor and vulnerable minorities. Its common strategy is to move right – embracing economic liberalism and social conservatism (i.e., soft on bankers and other billionaires; tough on the jobless and immigrants). South of Mexico, by contrast, the Left across Latin America has been bold in demanding that business powers must serve society, and those with the least should be given priority help as a matter of principle. Its strategic position is to stay true to leftwing political aspirations and engage the majority who are not super-rich to build a better future. What will President Obama make of these different approaches?

In Europe, the Left has not been doing too well. Between 1989 and 2010, looking at the ten most populous countries then in the European Union, social democratic parties took control of the most senior political office in their country 44% of the time while their opponents were in power 56% of the time. If we look at the most recent decade, coinciding with the rise of post-9/11 Islamophobia, the trend is even more disheartening – social democratic parties in power 40% of the time, their opponents 60%. Indeed in the five national elections which were held in these countries in 2010-11, the Left did not manage to win a single one.

By contrast, in Latin America, where plutocratic rule, often allied with the military, had for decades dominated, the Left took advantage of the growing democratisation in their countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and reached out to the general population in developing a vision of what a fairer society might look like – less exploitation by the rich, more investment to help the poor. The Left went on to win the majority of elections they contested, with Leftist parties or coalitions coming to power in Venezuela (1998), Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia (2005), Chile (2006), Ecuador (2007), Peru (2007), and Paraguay (2009).) In the latest electoral battle on that continent, the Left won again (in Peru).

Of course there are many factors we can examine in more detail in comparing the different electoral fortunes of the Latin American and European Left. But it is notable that whereas the Left in Europe have steered to the Right on the assumption that the only viable redistribution has to be from the poor to the rich (because the rich would buy enough influence – via the media, lobbying, campaign donations – to scupper any other political move), the Left in Latin America makes a public virtue of redistribution from the rich to the poor, and they counter the plutocratic influence of the wealthy through widespread direct engagement with their citizens in dissecting the socio-economic problems they needed to solve together.

While the European Left stays behind closed doors plotting how to deal with public opinions manipulated by the corporate elite and their media allies, their Latin American counterpart actively goes out to the country and involves citizens in shaping public opinion and policies. Participatory budgeting, a technique which has subsequently spread across the world as a citizens-led approach to prioritising the spending of public funds, began in Brazil in 1989. Other practices which emphasised the use of dialogue and deliberation took roots in Uruguay, Venezuela, and other countries on the continent.

Obama, with his background in community organising, should be no stranger to the participatory politics of the Latin American Left. Hopefully, he will embrace it and avoid the mistake of the ‘Right mess’ the European Left has got itself into.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Left Disorientated?

After the parliamentary elections in May 2010, with more Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP MPs than Tory ones, it appeared that the UK had leaned left rather than right. But the left was fragmented, and the Lib Dems even decided to form a coalition with the Tories. At that point, the left went from being a political rallying point to becoming a vortex of disorientation – though, admittedly, a most colourful one.

Red Labour was served up as the bogeyman to be avoided. Green Labour was suggested as the hope for the future. Purple Labour was promised as a nicely revamped form of New Labour. And then there’s Blue Labour – now with its own book of essays published with a supportive foreword from Ed Miliband himself.

So maybe ‘Blue Labour’ is going to be the new brand to be stocked in the supermarket of politics. Or, as its proponents would probably prefer to put it, a Labour Party deeply appreciative of people’s conservative feelings would be reconnecting with the British public. A key strand of Blue Labour is to distance itself from the obsessive market-speak of New Labour and cultivate instead a more tradition-based language and relationship with the voters.

In the book, ‘The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox’, edited by
Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears, and Stuart White, the contributors (including David Miliband, Hazel Blears, and Jon Cruddas) discuss what this approach might mean. There is a broad consensus on what to reject: obsequious worship of the market system; unrestrained dominance by capital over everyday lives; policies driven by abstract language and statistics which do not connect with people’s experiences; constant obsession with changing public services without appreciating communities’ yearning for security and stability; and a top-down approach that ignores the importance of relationships built from the bottom-up.

Many on the left – especially those of us who as progressive communitarians or eco-socialists have made similar points for many years – would agree with these suggestions of what Labour should jettison. There will also be broad support for the collaborative leadership approach outlined by Marc Stears so that politicians, community activities and concerned citizens can develop closer relationships in devising campaigns and policies for the common good. The challenge comes with what should form the agenda for the future. Here ‘Blue Labour’ provides less of a vision than a debating platform. There are at least four critical issues to consider.

First, it’s all very well invoking the value of traditions, but much depends on what self-image we want to link to the past being reconstructed. Contributors to the book are themselves divided between those who, like Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford, keep glancing back to what appears to be a predominantly white, patriarchal Englishness, and those who insist that cosmopolitan, multicultural, feminist, values are important elements of the Labour tradition. Of course there are good traditions associated with “flag, faith and family”, but they should not be embraced without a clear stand also taken against jingoism, fundamentalism, and chauvinism.

Secondly, while there is agreement that we must defend ourselves against the “destructive impact of financial power and unaccountable corporate power”, some contributors stress that this should be done with less emphasis on redistribution by the state. Yet however much community organising can achieve in curtailing the excesses of irresponsible business executives, all the evidence points to the power gap between the corporate elite and the rest of society widening without adequate state intervention. It is worth noting that a number of contributors believe inequalities have to be actively tackled by the state. For David Miliband, “relationships of reciprocity and equality are helped or hindered by the equality, or lack of, between the participants (legal rights, income, wealth, social and cultural capital).” And Stuart White made it clear he could not subscribe to downgrading the redistributive role of the state. After all, it’s a role any Labour government should be proud and not ashamed of fulfilling.

Thirdly, it is said that Labour handled a number of major policies badly. In backing the US attack on Iraq and sustaining Tory deregulation of the financial sector, it certainly made two terrible mistakes. But two other key ‘failures’ cited by ‘Blue Labour’ proponents are over crime and immigration. What exactly were Labour’s errors? It brought crime down and it had a tight regime to control immigration. But for the conservative-minded, criminals are never punished enough, and there are always too many immigrants. Labour should certainly do more to engage with the public in cultivating a shared understanding of how best to deal with criminals and manage immigration, but if ‘Blue Labour’ is code for getting tougher in dehumanizing convicts and demonizing immigrants, then it must not go unchallenged.

Fourthly, apart from helping to grab a few headlines, how helpful – or not – is it to hoist the banner of ‘Blue Labour’, trumpeting the pursuit of conservatism? If what is being promoted is more extensive and effective community development to help build up citizen involvement in tackling the excesses of corporate powers, then as Andrea Westall observed, it would be better to talk about bottom-up socialism. And as Hazel Blears pointed out, Labour’s historical mission has often been to stop the oppressive arrangements in society being conserved, and to press for changes to improve life for ordinary people. Positioning itself as conservative in protecting the status quo would either be misguided if true or misleading otherwise.

Worryingly, Glasman regards Labour’s 1945 victory as “the trigger for its long term decline” as though it was regrettable that a political party had been so successful in using the state to help people who would on their own have suffered severe squalor and neglect. This did not escape the critical notice of other contributors such as Ben Jackson. The NHS and the welfare state did not emerge out of conserving any prevailing social arrangements or long established traditions, but were founded to enable people – old and young, men and women – to live in communities not afflicted by disease and poverty.

It is curious that Blue Labour advocates should accuse the last Labour government of forgetting about the values of community and mutuality, when they themselves are gripped with amnesia about what that government actually achieved: investment in community organisations, promotion of community development, New Deal for Communities, Participatory Budgeting, Community Shares, Guide Neighbourhoods (run by local people), Community Ownership of Assets, Neighbourhood Policing, and many other community empowerment initiatives which were greatly valued by local residents and community activists across the country. Apart from a few tokenistic gestures, the Conservatives have largely shut down such support. To intimate that Labour has to reclaim the community agenda from the Tories is to seriously confuse rhetoric with reality.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Joker to the Right

To commemorate the victims in the first year of the Coalition Government’s cuts, there should be wall-to-wall screening of the scene in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ when Mr. Blonde was about to display his own fondness for cuts. Cue the music:

“Well I don't know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain't right,
I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I'm wondering how I'll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.”

Much has been already said about those Lib Dem clowns who volunteered themselves as human shields for the Tories. They are not so much left of centre as left behind, on every major policy issue, on every cut inflicted on the vulnerable, their antics merely deflecting attention from the real villains.

And it is the villains we need to focus on – those jokers to the right. Chief amongst them is of course THE JOKER himself: Cameron with his deceptive grin, his superficial charm, and his cold determination to make a mockery of everything a decent society should stand for.

Whereas Thatcher assumed, and the American Right still believes, that the best way for the wealthy elite to trample on the rest is to trumpet their attack on social justice with aggressive verbal onslaught at every turn, Cameron’s more devious and potent strategy is to pour nice words onto everything with a social value as a prelude to his minions slashing it with their sugarcoated butcher knife.

Cameron talks of fairness for everyone – so he lessens the burden for the rich and piles on the pressures for the poor. He pledges his support for the NHS – while he plans to tear it apart and replace it with a profit-orientated service. He says he cares about vulnerable people – but he decimates benefit support for people with disabilities. He claims to value family – yet for families on low income, he hacks away their housing benefit so they cannot even afford to stay at their home and have a stable family life. He praises the work of voluntary organisations – and he cuts their funding so they end up with less capacity to help those in need. He speaks warmly of education for all – in reality he cuts billions of pounds off state schools’ budgets while spending billions more on optional extras for aircraft carriers which may not even have aircrafts to carry.

In many ways, Cameron has perfected the very opposite of the ‘dog whistle’ approach. The Right was accustomed to saying things to stir up the emotions of their supporters even if in practice they did not intend to do anything quite so extreme. But the Joker has shown how by saying things to soothe potential opponents, he could get away with doing even more extreme things than Thatcher ever thought of.

Concerted opposition is what we need to stop the Joker getting away with hurting so many innocent people. His real agenda is to help the rich and powerful – defence contractors, media moguls, private healthcare providers, the wealthy who are not the least bothered about tuition fees, bankers who can keep their bonuses, etc. Until he’s seen for what he really is, the last laugh would be on us.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Royal Family Values: a historical fact sheet

In response to those who are worried that children are not taught enough about family values, monarchical traditions, and, above all, key dates from our history, I have compiled the following fact sheet to be distributed to all schools to help with the education of future generations:

Birth of the English Royal Family’s progenitor, William the Bastard, as he was known in his native France for being the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy.

William learnt that the Anglo-Saxon chiefs of England had by their custom discussed and agreed that Harold Godwinson should become their next king. So he invaded England, had Harold killed, proclaimed himself king, and seized land across the country to build up his family’s fortunes.

William’s grandchildren, Stephen and Matilda, contested the family will, and ruined the country as they fought for the crown. The throne would eventually go to Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, who would continue the family tradition of speaking in French to the English natives.

Having inherited the crown from Henry II, Richard decided to spend his time fighting relatives on the continent and terrorising infidels in the Middle East, rather than stay with his family in England. For that, he would be revered as ‘Richard the Lionheart’.

John’s grip on the family business slipped when he was forced to sign the Magna Carta as a promise that he would consult the local barons before he took any key decision. He did not keep his promise.

Henry III and the three Edwards who came after him dedicated themselves to crushing the insolent barons, exploiting and then expelling the Jews, defeating the Welsh, challenging the King of France, and invading the Scots.

Family arguments got out of hand. Richard II was ‘removed’ by one of the Lancastrians who proclaimed himself Henry IV, but the usurper’s grandson, Henry VI was in turn eliminated by a Yorkist – Edward IV, who passed on the throne to his beloved son (Edward V) not knowing that his beloved brother would soon ‘take care of’ the 13 year old king and crowned himself Richard III. But Richard III reigned for just over two years before another Lancastrian killed him and became Henry VII.

Henry VIII wanted to divorce and marry as he pleased without interference from the Catholic Church. The Pope would not agree, so Henry set up his own Protestant Church, and transferred Catholic lands and buildings to his family property portfolio.

The family was torn between Catholics and Protestants, and supporters for either side were frequently imprisoned or burnt to death. The Protestant Elizabeth had her Catholic cousin Mary (Queen of Scots) held in custody for 19 years before finally ordering her execution. But she was content to pass the family throne to Mary’s son, James, because he was a Protestant.

James I’s son, Charles I provoked a civil war with Parliament and lost not only his throne, but his head. Yet after Cromwell failed to establish a stable republic, it was family business as usual and Charles II triumphantly returned from exile.

Forgetting that illegitimacy did not stop the first William from taking the throne, Charles II agreed not to pass the crown to any of the children he had with his many mistresses, but to hand it to his brother, James, a devout Catholic. This led Parliament to ask another foreigner called William – a Dutchman who was not only a nephew of James II but married to his daughter, Mary – to bring his troops to England to claim the throne. The invasion was a success and James II fled.

More infusion of foreign blood was added to the ruling family in Britain with the Hanoverian intake from Germany. The four Georges and William IV stopped family rows from escalating to murders and wars, and apart from George III losing the family’s entire American inheritance, they did not do too badly overall.

Under Victoria, the United Kingdom became an empire eclipsing that of the Romans, and British gunboats, opium, colonists moved freely around the world.

Victoria’s great grandson, Edward VIII, put his family under great strain. He befriended the Nazis, for which he was forgiven. But when he dared to suggest that he wanted to marry a divorced woman, he was asked to abdicate the throne in favour of his younger brother, Albert, who became George VI.

George VI’s daughter ascended to the throne as Elizabeth II. She would pass on to her children and grandchildren the important family name, not of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (from her father’s side) or Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (from her husband’s side), but of Windsor.

The Windsor family business diversified into tourism, with a global PR campaign launched through the broadcast of the wedding between Elizabeth II’s grandson, William, and Kate Middleton, to billions of people around the world.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Memento Tory

I was watching Christopher Nolan’s ingenious film, ‘Memento’, again but with the sequences edited so I could see them in the actual chronological order. As those of you who know the film (for those who don’t but hope to watch it one day, beware of spoilers), we thought Leonard had managed to shoot the person who murdered his wife, until it was finally revealed that the person he shot had nothing to do with the death of his wife at all. Leonard’s inability to retain new memory meant that however much he tried to make notes to remind himself of potential friends and foes, he would often be confused, manipulated by others, and even deceived by himself when he was in a vindictive mood.

The most significant discovery in re-watching ‘Memento’ was that Leonard was ultimately his own worst enemy. Unable to form any coherent view of what had happened to him and others, he devised a self-deluding process to give himself a meaningful mission – to kill the man who took his wife away. But since it was Leonard whose memory lapses led to his wife’s death from insulin overdose, this mission was in fact a pointless endeavour in self-destruction. Seen in the correct order, all the characters who on first viewing appeared to be nasty in one way or another, turned out to be imperfect souls who nonetheless tried in their different ways to help Leonard find closure to his tragic predicament, and move on to something which had real meaning. But Leonard, repeatedly forgetting what he had learnt from painful experiences not so long ago, would embark over and over again on a futile quest.

Sadly, for our country, the Tory Party under Cameron is not unlike Leonard. It fixates on some hated enemy to be blamed for seriously harming the economy and damaging people’s lives, but it forgets that it was its own Thatcherite obsession with deregulation that brought about the financial crisis; and there was no other cause other than its unshakable addiction to cutting down the state that led to the rise in poverty which wrecked so many families. With no memory or any sense of culpability, it launches into making more of the same mistakes.

Perhaps deep down, the Tory Party could not face up to what it had done in the past. So it projects its unforgivable guilt onto others to whom it could direct its indignant scorn. But all the while, it’s out there hurting more and more victims totally innocent of the dreadful misdeed that it alone has perpetrated.

Don’t forget that the Tories, having allowed their banker friends to destroy the economy, are letting them off the hook again. They widened income inequalities in the 1980s and 1990s, and are embarking on exactly the same pernicious course once more. Where Rousseau had long ago warned of the danger of the wealth gap, their motto seems to be the exact reverse, namely: “the rich should get so powerful that they can buy the servility of other people, and the poor should have so little until they have to sell themselves into perpetual exploitation.”

Saturday, 2 April 2011

68 Places to Change the Government's Mind

After our 26/3/11 March in London to rally resistance against the decimation of public services, it’s time to turn our attention to targeting key constituencies so that enough MPs rethink their support for the Conservative-led coalition.

We need to persuade voters in those constituencies (where the incumbent Conservative or Liberal Democrat MPs could not take for granted the retention of their seats at the next election) that Cameron is savagely cutting down the capacity of a supportive state, and its net effect would be more leeway for the rich and powerful to do as they please, while the rest of us bear the burden of their callous irresponsibilities.

So how would it work?

Discounting the effectively neutral Speaker and Deputy Speakers in the House of Commons, Cameron and Clegg currently rely on 362 of their MPs to give them a majority of 83 against the other 279 MPs who might vote against them. Thus we need at least 42 of the Con/Lib MPs to help stop the Government over their massive programme to incapacitate public services or hand them over to the profit-led sector as they are planning with the NHS.

These MPs would probably put their Party loyalty first, but if they fear the loss of their seat, they would think twice.

I have drawn up a list of 68 constituencies below where the Conservative or Lib Dem MPs would be particularly receptive to citizens’ reminder that their refusal to vote down damaging policies would cost them their seat. Others may have a slightly shorter or longer list with a number of different names, but the purpose of putting forward my list is to encourage protest coordinators to target their efforts where they are most likely to put real pressure on MPs and get them to engage with the deep suffering caused by the Government they have hitherto been backing. This could then begin to turn the tide against Cameron’s phoney majority.

Here’s my suggested list of 68 places where peaceful protest and persuasion could change enough MPs’ minds to help prevent the destruction of the backbone of our decent society:

Aberconwy (Con)
Amber Valley (Con)

Bedford (Con)
Bermondsey & Old Southwark (Lib)
Birmingham Yardley (Lib)
Bradford East (Lib)
Brent Central (Lib)
Brentford & Isleworth (Con)
Brighton Kemptown (Con)
Bristol West (Lib)
Broxtowe (Con)
Burnley (Lib)
Bury North (Con)

Cambridge (Lib)
Cannock Chase (Con)
Cardiff Central (Lib)
Cardiff North (Con)
Carlisle (Con)
Chester, City of (Con)
Corby (Con)
Croydon Central (Con)

Dewsbury (Con)
Dunbartonshire East (Lib)

Ealing Central & Acton (Con)
Edinburgh West (Lib)
Enfield North (Con)
Erewash (Con)

Gloucester (Con)

Halesowen & Rowley Regis (Con)
Harrow East (Con)
Hastings & Rye (Con)
Hendon (Con)
High Peak (Con)
Hornsey & Wood Green (Lib)
Hove (Con)

Ipswich (Con)

Keighley (Con)
Kingswood (Con)

Lancaster & Fleetwood (Con)
Leeds North West (Lib)
Lincoln (Con)
Loughborough (Con)

Manchester Withington (Lib)
Morecambe & Lunesdale (Con)

Northampton North (Con)
Norwich North (Con)
Norwich South (Lib)
Nuneaton (Con)

Pendle (Con)
Plymouth Sutton & Devonport (Con)
Pudsey (Con)

Redcar (Lib)
Rossendale & Darwen (Con)

Sherwood (Con)
Stevenage (Con)
Stockton South (Con)
Stroud (Con)
Swindon South (Con)

Thurrock (Con)

Warrington South (Con)
Warwick & Leamington (Con)
Warwickshire North (Con)
Watford (Con)
Waveney (Con)
Weaver Vale (Con)
Wirral West (Con)
Wolverhampton South West (Con)
Worcester (Con)

Long live the spirit of '68.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

From Wisconsin, With Love

007, this is for your eyes only.

We have been reliably informed that SPECTRE (Supreme Plutocratic Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) is planting a union-busting bomb in Wisconsin. If detonated, it would eliminate all collective bargaining powers of that state’s workers, and leave its victims with no hope of ever having their plunging wages resuscitated. The fallout from that explosion would then spread to other states where a similar level of devastation could follow.

Your mission is to unmask the SPECTRE operatives who have infiltrated the highest political offices in Wisconsin and ensure their hold on power is terminated through Project Recall (

This is not an isolated incident. SPECTRE has been planning for some time to secure world domination by an elite of the rich and powerful, with resistance at all levels systematically eliminated. Having successfully removed regulatory protection in the finance sector, it helped its banking partners extort trillions from the British and American governments to fund their casino racket. Through its vast media network, it is daily spreading misinformation about Mexicans, Muslims, and moderate politicians, making out that they are the enemies when in reality it continued to amass more power for the wealthy few to dictate terms to the rest of the population.

While in Wisconsin, you should also investigate the related SPECTRE conspiracy to undermine environmental protection efforts in the US which would substantially increase the risk of damages to the rest of the world. Wisconsin has been targeted for green measures to be removed, in line with moves in other states to blow up the barriers holding back corporate polluters. This is part of SPECTRE’s plan to degrade the living conditions of all those who cannot afford to retreat to privileged locations, and put a premium on the ‘clean’ air and water it would then sell through its exclusive outlets.

Once you have completed your mission in Wisconsin, you should report to our Washington office for your next assignment – concerning one of SPECTRE’s American subsidiaries plotting to replace our National Health Service with a market system designed to serve only those who could help it make a handsome profit.

Good luck, 007.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Murdoch Empire Strikes Back

Long, long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Murdoch extended his media empire to cover the Sun, the Sky, and much else besides.

He had a simple vision: rich and powerful people like him would be praised, poor and vulnerable people like the jobless and refugees would be condemned, and any politician who doesn’t support him would be vilified. One part of his empire was even known for hacking into the phones of public figures, including politicians, to dig up information which could be used against them.

But many were beginning to get fed up with the imperious arrogance of the emperor, and when he plotted to take even greater control of the few media outlets outside his clutches, an opposition was formed to stop him. It could be a new dawn – people might once again find truth in the media and not be battered by the insidious propaganda onslaught launched by Murdoch and his henchmen.

Alas, Cameron has come to the emperor’s rescue. A great admirer of Murdoch’s vision of the world, he learnt from the master by hiring one of his most trusted lieutenants, the one who presided over the phone-hacking division of the empire, and then met with the emperor’s son to talk about what would be in their mutual interest to discuss (we cannot tell you what exactly they discussed because in case evidence should come forth about any gross impropriety, Cameron has refused to disclose the contents of their conversation ahead of the Government’s decision to refer or not Murdoch’s latest takeover bid to the Competition Commission).

Now all the promise of halting Murdoch’s latest bid to expand his media empire even further, of giving it scrutiny and tight controls, has vanished. There will be no referral to the Competition Commission. Murdoch, with Cameron’s connivance, can do whatever he wants. In return, Murdoch’s media will no doubt praise Cameron to the sky.

The only ‘concession’ is that while Murdoch will continue to fund Sky News, he would not be ‘personally’ directing its editorial policy. Sky News will tell its audience whatever it wants to regardless of its paymaster. Cameron is very satisfied with this. It is a very good step forward for everyone. If you don’t believe it, you can tune into Sky News, or read the Sun, or the News of the World, or if you want to follow the story about why pigs can fly thanks to the latest Republican Party policies, there’s always Fox News.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

SOS: Save Our NHS

Are you aware of the Government’s plan to turn our NHS into a marketplace for profit, where your health needs and those of your family will increasingly be buried deep under contracts and deals involving private businesses whose prime concern is to make money? If more money is to be made from someone else, you might just find yourself slipping further towards the back of the queue.

The Conservatives said they would protect the NHS and claimed explicitly that under their watch, to avoid any unnecessary chaos, there would be “no more top down reorganisations”. But the Health & Social Care Bill, now being pushed through Parliament by the Conservative Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, would pile on a vast amount of extra management and financial responsibilities on groups of hard pressed GPs, deflecting them from giving the best care possible to their patients.

What’s more, in addition to bringing about unnecessary chaos, creating another centralised Quango, and wasting public money on management consultants, this Bill would ‘open up’ the NHS as a giant market for profit-driven businesses to exploit for their own gains. It’s no secret that Lansley was “bankrolled by the head of one of the biggest private health providers to the NHS” (as reported by the Daily Telegraph, 14 Jan 2010). Now these private companies could be given unprecedented opportunities to make money out of the NHS.

Lansley’s Bill would establish that the first and foremost duty of the health service regulator is to “promote competition”. It could provide extra incentives to bring new private operators into a market by insisting that GPs pay them a preferential price. Private companies would in turn be allowed to offer “loss leaders” to gain a foothold in the market before squeezing out not-for-profit NHS providers.

If Lansley gets his way, the current cap on the amount of private healthcare work an NHS trust can take on would be removed. Forced to compete with private businesses in making money to survive, more and more NHS trusts, staffed by doctors and nurses trained through the public purse, would have to look to increasing their income by prioritising private patients. They would also have to get business consultants in to help them make more money in the market system.

The Government has already given the go-ahead for NHS money to be spent on “commissioning support” from organisations such as United Healthcare (an American multinational) and management consultants KPMG. It also wants any surplus generated by NHS trusts to be available to pay out to GPs as bonuses instead of it being all ploughed back into patient care. This is at a time when the NHS budget already cannot even keep pace with inflation, and without any plan for reinvestment in the near future to build up the NHS, the new market system will determine which patient will lose out.

What Lansley has in store for us is nothing short of the profitisation of the NHS. If you’re not happy with this development, you should ask your local MP what their position is in relation to the Health and Social Care Bill. Their response should inform how you vote come the next election, which may happen sooner rather than later if the Government refuses to change the course of this stealth bomber against the NHS.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Beyond the Matrix

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. It’s a make belief world in which everything works perfectly without any need for regulation or publicly funded services. In this world, there is not a budget deficit because a previous government had to spend billions to protect savers, the economy and jobs when irresponsible bankers gambled away so much of other people’s money that they were at risk of going under and taking everyone else with them.

No, in the Matrix, it is not the deregulated bankers but the old wicked government which caused all the problems – squandering money on helping the sick, supporting the poor, nurturing the young, comforting the old, investing in jobs and preventing economic meltdown.

To protect the reign of the profit-makers, renegade champions of the common good (teachers, nurses, community development workers, or anyone with a name like Neo) are hunted down, privatised, and made to serve commercial masters. Public services will wither away, and every aspect of life will just get better and better in this big fat fabricated society.

But the Matrix can only be sustained by the false consciousness created by those who want us to remain subservient to the corporate machine. If you look carefully at this so-called reality where public value must be relentlessly sacrificed for private gains, you will begin to see the cracks appearing in their lies.

Of course it is in their interest to stop you scrutinising their dodgy projections. They want you to believe that there is no alternative, that everything will fall apart if they do not slash the life out of the public sector. They want you to accept without reservation that the only way forward is to count on the mercies of rich executives and beg for private charities.

And do you believe them?

As an old friend once said, the choice is simple. You take the blue option – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red option – you join us in seeing the Matrix for what it truly is, a monstrous deception that must be exposed and eradicated.

This is your last chance. Pledge your vote to those who will end this charade. And get others to do the same. Time is running out. There is no turning back.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Our Bacon Needs Saving

For anyone keen to debate what key historical dates and figures we should all learn about, one great thinker deserves the most serious consideration – Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, pioneer of experimentalist philosophy, author of ‘The Advancement of Learning’ which inspired the founding of the Royal Society (for science) and the progressive outlook of the Enlightenment movement, and the earliest political figure to champion state-funded research and education.

Born 450 years ago today (22 January 1561), Bacon was a pivotal figure in challenging the dominant attitude of his times which insisted that a few authoritative figures in the establishment (the church, universities, or the royal court) could be left to determine what everyone else must believe. Instead, he put forward the revolutionary idea that knowledge could only be pursued through the continuous questioning, experimenting and reviewing of evidence, involving all who could contribute their testimony and critical reflections to test the robustness of any claim made.

Through his extensive writings, Bacon made the case that dogmatic assertions of ‘facts and figures’ were flawed because they were inherently unreliable. If society would not embrace systematic investigation and experimental testing to build up a body of knowledge which could always be further revised and improved in the light of future evidence, he argued, we would be stuck with dubious beliefs which were at best useless, or at worst dangerously misleading.

Although King James I, whom he loyally served as Chancellor, dismissed his ideas, reformists of subsequent generations followed Bacon’s lead and moved British, European, and ultimately global culture away from the grip of arbitrary dogmas towards a far greater reliance on experimentally grounded learning, supported by a sustained investment of collective resources to raise the quality of research and the accessibility of education.

However, after nearly four centuries of progress, resistance is increasingly being mounted by many who could see their interests served by shielding particular dogmas from empirical criticisms. Plutocrats, who want their profit-making to trump all else, are backing the cut back of public investment in the advancement of objective knowledge. It would leave them to propagate their own claims in defence of how their socially irresponsible actions would have no detrimental impact at all on the environment, people’s health, economic stability, or the vitality of family and community life. As educators are faced with reduced resources to carry out impartial research, while the public have to bear increased burdens to acquire the skills to learn and question, the Baconian maxim of ‘Knowledge is Power’ is being turned on its head – disempower citizens by depriving them of real knowledge.

Political and business leaders who value the cultivation of unbiased knowledge for the wellbeing of society should unite to reverse this trend. More, not less, private funding should be channeled through the state to public research and educational institutions with no strings attached, save the fulfilment by the latter of the commitment to expand our shared knowledge through the most vigorous and objective examination, and learning opportunities open to all regardless of their socio-economic status.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Deep Freeze Alert

In the last few years, a pair of frogs had chosen the pond behind our house as their annual breeding ground. But there’s not going to be any happy new year for them in 2011. Last December, the pair went into the pond, assuming perhaps they would once again secure their favourite location ahead of spring’s arrival. Unfortunately, with their insensitivity to gradual changes in temperature, the two frogs stayed put in the water as it cooled degree by degree, until they were literally frozen to death.

Are we going to be any better at spotting and dealing with imminent danger? As the civic temperature continues to fall around us, why do the majority of people still look on passively, seemingly unaware that the collective infrastructure, which has taken decades to build up to protect us, is now at risk of disintegration?

Every gauge of the conditions for public wellbeing is showing an alarming drop. Job security is plummeting; the safety net for the vulnerable is lowered and made less effective in cushioning those in freefall; privatized utilities (from energy to railways) deliver less value for much higher charges; all public funding for university teaching (except for a small minority of science subjects) has vanished; the provision of not-for-profit health service is not keeping pace with growing demands; and people seeking to redress unjust treatment are increasingly left to their own impoverished devices.

Perhaps some people don’t yet connect the signs of deterioration with a sense of personal peril. They see and hear about radical changes in the abstract, but think that they would somehow escape unscathed. Others may recognise the threat against them and their communities, but are numbed by the assumption that there is nothing they could do about any of it. What is certain, however, is that if we remain adrift in a state of inaction, life for those of us outside the privileged realm of the corporate elite is going to get very bad indeed.

So while we still have the chance, let’s make this our collective resolution for 2011. We are not to let fear or apathy overwhelm us. Spread the word, sound the alarm, and unite in defence of our common good. It’s time we raise the temperature.