Recent Articles

Anti-Fracking protestors need to be much better at getting their message across

by Salman Shaheen     August 22, 2013 at 12:14 pm

On my way to work on Monday I was curious to see a small group of anti-fracking protesters superglued to the entrance of Bell Pottinger, the PR firm used by energy company Cuadrilla.

The irony is, better PR is exactly what anti-fracking activists need.

The protesters had brought with them signs bearing the slogan “fracking liars” and various other well-worn puns swapping the word “fuck” for “frack”. But I couldn’t see anything that clearly communicated why they were targeting Bell Pottinger in particular.

Indeed, while the protests gained widespread coverage, there was little in the media that conveyed the activists’ precise beef with Bell Pottinger. Given the natural bias of the mainstream media against direct action, it is vital campaigners do everything they can to get their message across.

According to my friend Helen Robertson, who was reporting from the protests for Petroleum Economist, the activists’ arguments against fracking were largely derived from the film Gasland. Irrespective of the fact the documentary’s assertions have been widely disputed, campaigners would be wise to arm themselves with robust facts and figures as well.

Helen’s main point was that with UK gas production falling, the country is increasingly turning to cheaper and more polluting coal, a problem fracking might address.
When she asked one protester if she knew how much coal Britain uses, the activist replied: “I’m hopeless on facts”.

This is a clear issue for the anti-fracking movement, and protesters in general.

In the age of social media and blogging, when any activist can have a smart phone shoved in their face at any moment and see their words splashed across the internet minutes later, it is even more important for campaigners to turn up to demonstrations equipped with cold hard evidence and the media savvy to communicate it effectively.

I support the anti-fracking movement, primarily because looking to shale gas and oil to plug the energy gap shirks the responsibility to dramatically expand clean renewable energy production. It is here that activists can find their strongest arguments – and no doubt many make them – backed by a wealth of scientific evidence behind the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

Ideology and zeal are vital to any movement, but a heart in the right place is no substitute for a head full of facts to back it up.

If you’re going to superglue yourself to a doorway where you can’t dodge journalists’ questions as easily as greedy corporate bosses hopping into a limousine, make sure you have the answers.

Why the BBC calculator utterly failed to grasp the modern British nature of class

by Salman Shaheen     April 4, 2013 at 8:45 am

The BBC is right to conclude in its Great Class Calculator that simplistic brackets such as upper, middle and working class no longer accurately reflect 21st century occupations and lifestyles.

But the Beeb’s alternative shows a poor understanding of how class actually operates.

Relying heavily on home ownership, salary and savings, the BBC takes a snapshot of people at a particular time.

But conspicuously missing from the BBC poll are questions about education and family wealth and the power they convey.

Let’s take the example of Benedict Whitehall. He went through Eton and Oxford, his family own an estate in Surrey, a villa in Tuscany and a successful business empire which he stands to inherit. He’s just graduated and has landed his first job as a junior researcher at a think tank. Because the BBC’s poll takes a snapshot of his relatively low pay and the fact he doesn’t yet own a home, he is deemed to be of a lower class than a train driver on £40,000 a year with a mortgage.

But Benedict will go on to inherit millions. He will use the contacts he made at Eton and Oxford to propel him through the ranks of the think tank until he is parachuted into a safe Conservative seat and he works his way to the front benches where he will wield considerable economic and political power. By this point he will no longer be deemed an emergent service worker (second from bottom), but an elite.

In this way, the BBC implies a level of social mobility which sadly doesn’t exist in society for all that has happened in the last decades to break down traditional class structures. Benedict was born an elite and he will die an elite.

And what of the media which is meant to hold these elites to account? Most journalists must spend their first couple of years working for free building up credits and contacts to break into the industry. Working for little to no money and renting expensive London accommodation, the BBC’s class calculator would place them at the bottom of the heap in the precariat. But how many of those journalists are eking out their precarious existences without generous parental support? Is the media really as open as the BBC would seem to be suggesting to such poor, disenfranchised people?

This is the real social divide which exists with out-of-touch millionaire politicians and their media pals.

David Miliband’s departure shows Ed is set to be the next Prime Minister

by Salman Shaheen     March 27, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Ed Miliband says that British politics will be a “poorer place” now that his brother David is stepping down as an MP to run the International Rescue Committee.

This is likely to be a contentious point for many on the Labour left who will be keen to see the party cleansed of Blairite clones like David Miliband. But Ed himself also has reason to celebrate in private – his brother’s departure is the surest sign yet that he is on course to become the next Prime Minister.

When David refused a place in Ed’s cabinet, many saw him as the leader in waiting, silently biding his time until his brother inevitably slipped up and he could slip into his shoes before the next election.

And Miliband certainly made slips in his early days. But David’s departure shows just how much has changed. He surely recognises that Ed will be leading Labour into the next election and he is quietly confident, as many in the party now must be, that Ed will be the next Prime Minister.

Ed’s widely praised One Nation Labour speech was certainly a turning point. Sure, he was never going to be the next Martin Luther King, but he displayed his ability to lead his party and communicate an alternative. Though he was met with boos when he told the anti-cuts rally on October 20th that a Labour government would still have to make cuts, he showed his willingness to engage with a vital movement instead of ignoring its existence.

Ed’s success, of course, has much to do with declining Conservative fortunes as the government’s failure to return the economy to growth leaves voters unwilling to stomach punishing cuts for the greater good. But with the largest poll lead in a decade, the election is Labour’s to lose.

Nevertheless, there will be plenty of arguments and divisions ahead.

His decision to have Labour MPs abstain on the workfare bill has infuriated the left. There will be many who will say this proves Labour has learned little from the Blair years. A significant number of traditional Labour voters still believe that Labour is not the right vehicle to defend the welfare state which was its greatest achievement.

“The shadow cabinet should re-read [Labour’s 1945] manifesto to capture a whiff of the sheer nerve and daring of 1945,” writes Polly Toynbee. “Instead, they behave as Roy Jenkins said of Tony Blair before 1997, as if they were carrying a Ming vase across a polished floor, afraid of dropping it before election day. But they have no Ming vase, the election is not won and their caution holds them back, as too many disaffected voters reject the old parties.”

Ed Miliband must listen to these voices. The departure of his Blairite brother should mark the dawning of a new era for a Labour party that has learned from its mistakes.

Hugo Chavez: The revolution is bigger than one man

by Salman Shaheen     March 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Hugo Chavez took on imperialism, he stood up to George W. Bush and he fought poverty, but one battle he could not win was against cancer.

As Venezuela enters a period of mourning for their President, Chavez leaves behind a nation divided.

Reviled by the rich, revered by the poor, at times praised and scorned by the Western media, he polarised global opinion as much as he polarised his own country.

Chavez was a hero to the left, but he was a flawed one. He built a cult of personality around himself and he built questionable international alliances with the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships, too willing to buy into the idea that his enemy’s enemy was his friend.

But Chavez himself was not a dictator, despite what his conservative critics say. He won the vote of the poor majority because he spoke for them and he backed his words with actions.

Unlike many of Latin America’s loudest populists, Chavez stood fast to his programme of social reform, even when economic conditions were against him.

He redistributed the country’s wealth and he ploughed its vast oil revenues into healthcare, housing, education and food for its most destitute people. In doing so, he raised millions out of absolute poverty.

Extreme poverty fell by 72% under Chavez, while infant mortality fell by 18.2% between 1998 and 2006.

For all his faults, and for all the valid criticisms that should be raised of him, the world must never forget how one man helped make the lives of some of its poorest citizens better.

But the revolution is far bigger than one man. Chavez’s death leaves a vacuum in personality, but not in politics. The people he inspired, the people he taught to learn their constitution, the people he raised onto his shoulders so that they could see what could be achieved with their collective endeavours will not forget the progress they have made in the last 14 years. Nor will they be willing to go quietly back to
America’s yard and offer themselves up to the ravages of the failed neoliberal policies that brought them so much misery.

“Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms,” another flawed left-wing icon once said.

And Chavez’s battle cry to the poor has reached millions of receptive ears, not just in Venezuela, but across Latin America as a pink tide sweeps a continent finally willing to stand up for itself.

Venezuela now stands at a crossroads, but Chavez’s death is not the end of the revolution. It was always far bigger than him.

Tax avoidance is beginning to hit multinationals’ bottom lines

by Salman Shaheen     March 4, 2013 at 8:45 am

It used to be that tax avoidance saved businesses money. For decades, the world’s biggest multinational companies have been quietly shifting profits into tax havens to legally lower their tax bills and few but the most hardened activists batted an eyelid.

The financial crisis has changed everything. With the public feeling the pinch of punishing austerity, people have begun to wake up to how the global tax system operates and they don’t like it one bit. Tax avoidance may be legal, but its morality sits squarely in the dock.

New evidence has emerged suggesting that the reputational damage companies are taking from being exposed for tax avoidance scandals is costing them money.

A ComRes survey about public perceptions around tax avoidance, commissioned by Christian Aid, found that 34% of British people are currently boycotting the products or services of a company because it does not pay its fair share of tax in the UK.  A further 10% say they are considering a boycott. 

“What this survey shows is that one in three people are actually prepared to change their buying habits and boycott some of the firms seen as not paying their fair share in the UK. This surely must be a wake-up call to all businesses,” said Joseph Stead, Christian Aid’s senior economic justice adviser. 

There is a caveat, of course. Google is one of the most prominent companies to be exposed for tax avoidance in recent months and it’s unlikely many people have boycotted a search engine which has embedded itself as a verb in the dictionary and the public consciousness. No doubt many people learned of the scandal through Google news.

But for highly brand-orientated public facing companies like Starbucks, there is a serious problem.

Within a week of being exposed for tax avoidance, Starbucks’ YouGov BrandIndex reputation score fell from 4.6 to -3.9 and research by Manchester Business School predicted the scandal could contribute to a fall in UK sales of 24% in the next year.

It’s a sign of things to come. Starbucks has gone to great pains in recent years to boost its CSR credentials by trumpeting fair trade products and environmentally sustainable practices, but all that good work was undone overnight with one negative tax story.

It’s unfair to criticise Oxbridge for ‘bias’ against ethnic minorities

by Salman Shaheen     February 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

Every few months, newspapers decide to have a pop at Oxford and Cambridge for institutionally discriminating against a particular section of society that isn’t white, male and public school educated.

This time it’s the turn of the Guardian to criticise Oxford University, presenting statistics obtained under a freedom on information request that reveal that white applicants are up to twice as likely to get a place as applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Having been to Cambridge, I can say anecdotally that ethnic minority students certainly were under-represented there too. My brown face was duly splashed on the front cover of the college prospectus presumably to present a façade of a diversity that didn’t really exist.

But the statistics presented by the Guardian are misleading in that while they suggest correlation, they fall far short of proving the kind of causation asserted by the article.

Oxbridge is being unfairly criticised for discriminating against minority students in the same way it is often unfairly criticised for discriminating against working class students.

The real problem lies much further down the line, with the schooling system and with wider society.

Every now and again stories will emerge about a straight-A student complaining that Oxford or Cambridge didn’t offer them a place. The trouble is, almost everyone applying to Oxbridge is a straight-A student, so much of the final selection comes down to performance at an often gruelling interview.

Public school students tend to be prepped far in advance for these interviews. They know what to expect, what to read around, how to act and most importantly how to project a confidence that will come across well in an educational environment based on supervisions and tutorials which favour the bold.

Students at many state schools, particularly ones in deprived areas that are less likely to attract teachers who were educated at Oxbridge themselves and know the system, cannot provide the same level of silver spoon-fed service.

I was lucky in that the head of Sixth Form at my state comprehensive had been to Cambridge and could give me a punishingly realistic mock interview, as could my Oxford educated father. I suspect that’s not the norm.

It’s a sad fact that public schools are predominantly the preserve of the middle classes. It’s also a sad fact that ethnic minority students are more likely to be from poorer backgrounds with parents less able to pay for them to attend public schools.

State school attendance at Oxbridge remains poor. Last year, state school attendance at Cambridge hit a 30-year high at 63.3%. But considering only 12% of all students attend public schools, it shows that those who have been privately educated remain disproportionately represented there.

The statistics are a negative reflection not on Oxbridge, but on wider society. Oxford and Cambridge can do all they like to encourage more students from ethnic minority, working class and state school backgrounds to apply, but unless inequalities much lower down the chain in the education system and in society are tackled, the problem is not going to go away.

¦ ¦