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Politics over summer is hell

by Septicisle     August 13, 2013 at 10:45 am

Simon Jenkins is right: August politics is hell. Earlier in the year it was the Tories that were staring into the abyss, riven by Europe, embattled by UKIP, staring a triple dip recession in the face. Little more than 3 months later, and things are looking brighter for the party, although nowhere near as good as their chances of winning the next election are being portrayed in certain areas of the Tory press.

Naturally then, it’s now Labour and their hangers-on that are having an attack of the jitters. Quite why is difficult to ascertain: it’s not as though things have changed dramatically. The party still has a lead in the opinion polls; the economic recovery is hardly secured and for now is likely a mirage outside of the south east; and no one out in the real world gave a toss about the supposed selection scandal involving Unite up in Falkirk.

The odd thing is that on the whole, Ed Miliband has set out the general themes that the party needs to be focusing on. The squeezed middle might be the least well defined social grouping in history, but living standards will undoubtedly dominate come 2015. He set out a critique of predator capitalism, for which he was widely mocked by the media at the time, and yet tax avoidance by multinational corporations has become an issue as never before, while the spread of zero-hour contracts has exposed what a nonsense it is that employment law in this country is in some way holding business back. One Nation Labour has not been explained quite as well, but the potential is still there, especially as the Tories look set to go for a doctrinaire right-wing manifesto come 2015.

Labour’s problem isn’t then just due to indecision within the party itself, it also reflects the sad state of politics more widely in the country. We’re told endlessly that politicians are all the same, yet present the electorate with an alternative and they don’t want that either. Up until very recently they thought cuts were unfair and harming the economy, but they didn’t want to take the risk of loosening up, reflected through the lack of anything approaching street opposition as austerity as has been seen elsewhere in Europe.

The closest they’ve come to approving of an outsider is Nigel Farage for goodness sake, about as alternative as John Bishop is to Michael McIntyre. This is where some of the criticism of Labour’s current position gets silly: John Harris bemoans how Labour has missed the digital revolution, as though “a viral video” or a few more tweets from Balls and Miliband could make the difference.

In effect, the main reason behind the whinges is that Labour isn’t doing quite as well as it was. It’s not anything more deep-seated than that. How could it be? Despite the despair of the likes of Dan Hodges or the equivalent from the opposite side by Owen Jones, the party remains where it is because it doesn’t think the general public wants it any further left or right than where it currently is. What’s more, the opinion polls back them up. Hardly any MPs voice outrage at what the coalition is doing to the welfare state, how Serco and G4S are not that far off from running the country or how the Tories seemed to have settled on creating growth through encouraging another housing bubble, for the precise reason that it’s exactly what they would do if they were suddenly foisted into power. Sure, they might do things ever so slightly differently, but not massively. The most anger we’ve heard from a Labour MP recently has been Stella Creasy, and that was about fucking Twitter again.

More pertinently, why make the effort when the next election will be decided in such a small number of seats again? For the Tories to win a majority they have to increase their share of the vote, something a party in government hasn’t managed in a very long time. They seem to think they can achieve this feat through repeating the same Lynton Crosby-honed themes over and over for the next two years. The result we might have to face is another hung parliament, another five years of conglomeration and drift. And the sad thing is, no one seems particularly upset by the prospect so long as they’ve got some hold on power.

a longer version is here.

Why are MPs so scared to ask questions of our security services?

by Septicisle     July 2, 2013 at 10:50 am

The Intelligence and Security Committee wants to be taken seriously. We know this because in its previous incarnation it was regarded as a bit of a joke, producing reports so ridiculously censored that its existence was a waste of everyone’s time.

It was lied to repeatedly by the intelligence agencies, and when it wasn’t being lied to it was more than happy to change the very meaning of words in order to clear those it was meant to be monitoring of any involvement in little things like extraordinary rendition.

When it then postpones the very first occasion on which it was meant to be questioning the heads of the security services because “it’s too busy”.

This means it almost certainly won’t be rescheduled until October once the summer recess is done and the party conferences are over. Firstly you smell a rat, and secondly it makes a mockery of the new powers it has received.

As the Guardian almost incredulously reports, surely Thursday would have been a great opportunity to question those who normally prefer the shadows – both on whether more could have been done to prevent the murder of Lee Rigby (there’s MI5 involvement with Michael Adebolajo) and on the revelations about GCHQ’s spying on the G20 meetings and alleged tapping of the country’s main fibre optic cables via Project Tempora.

Frankly, who knows whether it was the committee or the agencies that decided they simply couldn’t be quizzed on TV when interest would have been high.

No, far better to let everything calm down, the accusations against GCHQ to be pushed to the back of minds, and then allow John Sawers and Andrew Parker to be extremely lightly grilled at some point in the future.

Taking into account that the trial of Adebolajo and Adebowale has been set for the 18th of November, it wouldn’t surprise if the heads either refused to answer questions on the Woolwich murder in light of the trial, or if the session was pushed even further back.

Regardless of the reality, the ISC is hardly convincing that it is up to the job it’s been set, and that’s just the way that the spooks like it.

The Guardian’s “treachery” and silence across the rest of the British media

by Septicisle     June 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

On Monday, the Guardian ran an extraordinary story, detailing how GCHQ had spied on delegates at two G20 summits in London in 2009. It made clear how even those regarded as allies had had their emails intercepted.

Justified on the grounds of defending “economic well-being”, a clause included in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, it was really something far more mundane: an attempt to gain any sort of advantage in the negotiations.

Considering how much the right-wing press love Gordon Brown, you might have thought that the Guardian’s revelations would have had a significant impact. But no. With the exception of a couple of follow-ups, it seems most of the rest of the media wasn’t interested.

Nor were they taken with the Guardian’s live Q&A session with Edward Snowden. With the exception of an attack piece in the Mail by Stephen Glover, nor has there been any real criticism of the paper for what Glover calls “treachery”.

Roy Greenslade wonders why this is the case. The most obvious answer, it seems, is that the D-Notice committee issued a polite note to editors after the first tranche of stories were given wide coverage. If ever there was an example of the warning off of editors from publishing anything else, quite clearly this it.

All the same, as Dominic Ponsford writes, this doesn’t explain why the media didn’t bother to follow up the Guardian’s stories. Once the Guardian had breached the order, which is voluntary, the information was in the public domain and so there was no reason for the rest of the media to continue to abide by the order, as indeed happened once the news of Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan became public.

It also can’t be that the Guardian is now viewed as beyond the pale, else the original reports on the NSA wouldn’t have been covered in the detail that they were.

It’s more, as we’ve seen, that the security services are the one part of the state that tends to get a free pass from both right and left. Where the left tends to have a blind side when it comes to the NHS and the right often seems to think the police can do no wrong, both seem to be overwhelmed by how “keeping us safe” trumps civil liberties and basic accountability every time.

William Hague in the Commons didn’t even attempt to seriously engage with the questions about how GCHQ worked with the NSA on Prism, he just said everything was hunky dory, and that was enough for both politicians and the press.

It is, as Greenslade writes, remarkable that the press that makes so much of its independence from the state and raises hell at the threat of regulation finds so little to worry about when it comes to the darkest reaches of government.

Workfare: why yesterday’s legal victory wasn’t as big as it looks

by Septicisle     February 14, 2013 at 8:40 am

Before everyone celebrates the “blowing of a big hole” in the government’s workfare schemes, it’s worth noting that yesterday’s victory for Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson at the Royal Courts of Justice was on a rather narrow point of law.

It wasn’t that the schemes themselves were unlawful, as that original challenge was thrown out last year. Rather, the three-judge panel found that the rules for sanctioning those who refused to take part in or failed to finish their placements had not been properly defined in law (PDF).

While this is potentially good news for those who have either had their benefit reduced or temporarily stopped as a result of not complying with the rules as they stood, as they could be in line for a rebate, the government is to appeal and so it’s likely to be months before any more is known.

Despite what was thought originally, Reilly was neither on mandatory work activity or the work experience scheme when she was forced on pain of losing her JSA to work at Poundland. She was in fact on the “sector-based work academy” programme, which is voluntary, or at least is up until the point you decide to go on it. After that, regardless of whether it turns out not to be what you expected or completely pointless in terms of helping you get a job, if you then don’t complete the placement you’re liable to be sanctioned.

If anything Wilson’s proposed placement is even more troubling. Having been on JSA for two years after losing his job as a HGV driver, he was to be put on the community action programme, where he would have worked 30 hours a week for 6 months purely for his JSA. Indeed, although the placement was for 6 months to start with, it was essentially open-ended; it would only end if he found a job or dropped his claim.

That working 30 hours a week on pain of losing his JSA would drastically limit his chances of finding a job or attending interviews seems to be the point rather than a flaw: after 2 years you are essentially being written off, regardless of the reasons behind your failure to find a job. Either you work for far below the minimum wage indefinitely, or you’re deemed worthy of nothing.

The only difference it seems between mandatory work activity and the community action programme is that CAP becomes all but compulsory after two or three years, while you can be placed on MWA at any time and the placements are shorter. Both are equally objectionable, especially when the definition of “work of benefit to the community” is stretched to the limit.

This is the ultimate objection to the vast majority of the government’s workfare schemes. Some of the firms that were using them to blatantly fill positions which would otherwise have been at least minimum wage jobs have been forced through shame into dropping out.

At best it currently looks as though the government is using JSA claimants as below minimum wage labour to keep the jobless figures down, while at worst it’s writing off the long-term unemployed as fit only to work unpaid. What a thoroughly despicable paradox.

Will getting rid of the Sun’s Page 3 change anything?

by Septicisle     February 12, 2013 at 10:55 am

It really doesn’t take much these days to get a news story running. Rupert Murdoch responds positively to a tweet saying “page 3 is so last century“, and almost instantly there’s about half a dozen reports up on the Guardian website debating exactly what it means.

I’ll believe the end of page 3 when I see it.

Those against it really can’t have it both ways. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, editor of the Vagenda blog, writes that her problem with page 3 is not the nudity but the commodification and objectification of the female body. That’s fine and is also my secondary objection, yet if the issue isn’t the nudity then why are there not such long running campaigns against the Daily Mail’s Femail pages, and the “sidebar of shame“?

Page 3 exists because of the cooperation of women, not all of whom are either brainless or in it purely for the money. By comparison, the tabloids as a whole rely on the paparazzi effectively stalking celebrities and the almost famous to fill their pages where there is no such permission or exchange of money, except between the paper and the photo agency.

If anything these stories are often far more leery than page 3 now is, or indeed, if the celeb is not deemed to be looking their best, far more likely to have an effect on those who worry about their own body image. True, page 3 is unique in that it has such a cachet in the public imagination, and can be used by giggling adolescents to particularly revolting effect, but let’s not go into such ridiculous exaggeration as “lascivious drool”, as though some men go into Pavlovian reveries at the mere sight of a printed boob, at least in public at any rate.

If anything, as Karen Mason’s original tweet can also be read, page 3 is last century in that really the whole debate about objectification and the pornification of culture has moved on.

A few years back we were worrying about the rise of Nuts and Zoo, and the often disgustingly sexist content of lads’ mags, whereas now even that seems old hat when “revenge porn” sites have entered the news.

Where once it was hip-hop videos that had an abundance of flesh on display, now the utterly mainstream likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj perform in costumes which can’t really be described in any real sense as clothing. At the same time, porn might be going through a transition period where it’s unclear what its end business model will be, yet the material itself has never been so easily available, with all that entails, the possible effects unknown.

Cosslett is right in saying it’s fundamentally “about a demeaning and disrespectful attitude to women”, yet the fact is as, she admits, both “men and women … cynically manipulate young women’s bodies for commercial profit”.

If page 3 were to disappear tomorrow then its effect would barely be measurable. The problem modern feminism has to face is that it’s women as much as men who are behind the shift in culture, and at the moment it doesn’t have a proper answer as to what this means and how it can be fought against.

Could the privatisation of probation services bring down Chris Grayling?

by Septicisle     January 10, 2013 at 9:36 am

If you thought the government’s Monday’s mid-term review was pointless and self-indulgent, yesterday’s “audit” was effectively a re-hash of the review except with a little more often completely irrelevant detail.

For a start it doesn’t keep a tally of which pledges have broken, as this would apparently have been “too simplistic“; translated that means would have given hacks an easy negative headline. The Telegraph claimed 70 pledges hadn’t been kept, while Andrew Sparrow has calculated it at around 33.

Either way it’s meaningless as there is again no mention of the double-dip recession or the lack of growth, while it brushes over the failure to meet the “supplementary element” of the fiscal mandate, that debt as a proportion of GDP should be falling by 2015-16.

More to the point is that pledges are worthless when they’re pledges to introduce bad policy, something the coalition has done to abundance.

Much the same can be said of the announcement from Chris Grayling on the privatisation of the probation service.

Anyone who isn’t Grayling looking at the problems this is bound to throw up would think a major pilot scheme would be in order, not least because of the failures both of the Pathways to Work scheme under Labour and Grayling’s own Work programme, neither of which bode well for the success of further payment by results schemes.

Not for Grayling though. There are times when you simply have to do something, and this apparently is one of those. It’s certainly true that re-offending rates are far too high, yet there isn’t the slightest indication that private firms will be any better at stopping those out after serving a short sentence from re-offending than the state is currently.

Indeed, that the probation service will continue to look after the most serious and high risk offenders is hardly a vote of confidence in the capabilities of those that will shortly be submitting bids, and you can guarantee it’ll be the same old companies that have cocked it up so marvellously in the past: G4S, Serco and Capita will almost certainly be first in the queue.

As Harry Fletcher argues, it’s difficult not to see this both as purely ideological and to cut costs to the bone. If it wasn’t the former, then Grayling would have expanded the pilot scheme; if it isn’t the latter, then there’s no reason whatsoever why the probation service can’t also take control of the new requirement to monitor those out after serving less than 12 months.

Regardless of the motive, the responsibility will still lie with the secretary of state, and anything with the potential to bring Grayling down can’t be all bad.

Nick Clegg’s speech does not deserve to be taken seriously

by Septicisle     December 18, 2012 at 8:57 am

When a politician says a current item of spending is unsustainable, you can be almost certain that they are lying. Last time round it was public sector pensions, ministers claiming something had to be done, when Lord Hutton’s report was clear that overall costs were due to fall, not rise.

Yesterday Nick Clegg claimed that the welfare system was in danger of becoming unaffordable, with the economy tripling in size since the 1970s while welfare spending has gone up seven-fold. This might well be true, but this ignores two key points: first that spending on unemployment/sickness benefits amount to only 3% of GDP, and second that spending on welfare overall, including pensions, has levelled off in recent years.

Clegg’s entire speech was, as could be expected from someone desperately trying to claim he’s done anything other than prop up a Conservative government for the last two and a half years, filled with arguments along the same lines.

Straw men abounded: there are apparently some on the left who think benefits are an automatic right with no responsibilities, and that it’s oppressive and discriminatory to assume those with health problems or a “difficult background” can “make something of their lives”. To call this rich from a politician who’s gone along with the introduction of a work programme that doesn’t work, and who has done nothing to hold ATOS to account, even when they have offices in buildings with limited disabled access, risks understating the levels of chutzpah of involved.

Even more laughable, which takes some doing, was Clegg’s claim that opposing the 1% rise in benefits for the next three years doesn’t “make rational sense”. As Paul at Though Cowards Flinch points out, it made perfect rational sense last year to George Osborne when he decided benefits should rise at the same rate as inflation; then he wanted to protect those “who are not able to work because of their disabilities and those, who through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and are trying to find work”. What had changed this time?

Simply that Osborne and friends felt they were on safe ground in smearing every benefit claimant as a scrounger, and so could put up a political dividing line between themselves and Labour. Clegg, naturally, went along with it, and much of his speech recycles the exact same language used by the Tories, to the point where he aped Cameron’s “without hope or responsibility/aspiration”.

The one point he made that did have something resembling a kernel of truth was the observation that “[W]hen two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work then it has to be changed or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all”.

This though is based on the misconception that out of work benefits are generous; I don’t think I’ve seen a single columnist or newspaper editorial point out that as Jobseeker’s Allowance for the over 25s is currently £71 a week, if Osborne’s uprating takes place those out of work can look forward to an extra 71 pence a week from next April.

It’s true that when other benefits are taken into consideration alongside JSA or ESA that the picture isn’t quite as bleak; housing benefit, council tax benefit and child benefit for those who have a family alter the picture somewhat, but they don’t change the fact that the system is often very far from generous, and will be even less so once the £26,000 cap comes in, ignoring exceptional individual circumstances.

Much of the rest of the speech was given over to claims of how everything the Lib Dems have done in coalition has been rooted in the centre ground, a sure sign of desperation from a party which gained support at the last election because, err, they were rightly seen as being to the left of centre.

Whatever happened to David Cameron’s “Broken Society”?

by Septicisle     October 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Remember the good old days of a few years ago when the arrival of the latest crime statistics invariably led to both the Conservatives and the tabloids arguing that the end was nigh?

I do, mainly because I then went and looked at the actual figures.

Even a quick browse showed that both were being either highly selective, relying on the police figures over the results of the British Crime Survey on violence against the person for example, or highlighting only one aspect of recorded crime, such as the use of a specific weapon when the numbers being attacked and killed were in fact in decline.

It’s interesting to note then that the release of figures yesterday, showing that despite the recession crime continues to fall, with only theft from the person increasing, has been met with an almost universal shrug.

There’s no report as yet on the Sun’s website, while the Mail has been left with having to put a story alongside its article on a “teenage yob” being given just a final warning after beating a boy with his own crutches.

Unlike how the Conservatives couldn’t wait to pile in on any sign that Labour was being “soft on crime”, on occasion concocting figures to such an extent that they were warned by the UK Statistics Authority they were likely to “mislead the public”, the opposition’s response has been just as low key, focusing mainly on the drop in the numbers of police officers.

Welcome as this is when the British Crime Survey suggests the chance of being a victim of crime is its lowest since it began, it’s also indicative of how the right-wing press tends to play dirtier with Labour governments than they do with the Tories. The Sun for instance claimed that a mistake in recording GBH was an indication Labour had been cooking the figures altogether, something it had no evidence whatsoever to back-up.

But we barely hear a peep from David Cameron about the broken society now he’s in power, even as hundreds of thousands have to rely on food banks, so the paper that did the most to promote the notion has “moved on”.

As for any even grudging recognition that crime fell massively while Labour was in power, even if the two things are not necessarily connected, we’ll be waiting a long time.

A sensible policy on drugs could be Nick Clegg’s legacy

by Septicisle     October 16, 2012 at 9:43 am

Whenever there’s a new, in-depth, excellently researched and extremely carefully worded report released which calls for a reform of our increasingly antiquated drug laws, it’s always worth going and seeing what the Daily Mail has written about it.

The UK Drug Policy Commission’s final report has then, as you might have expected, been giving the Mail treatment. Their article, which doesn’t feature on the voluminous front page of their website, does the classic trick of misrepresenting the report by picking on one comparison it uses.

Hence the Mail’s report claims the report says “smoking cannabis is just like eating junk food”, when it naturally says nothing of the sort. What it does say is (on page 108, PDF):

A small but significant segment of the population will use drugs. We do not believe that pursuing the goal of encouraging responsible behaviour means seeking to prevent all drug use in every circumstance. This is not to say that we consider drug use to be desirable. Just like with gambling or eating junk food, there are some moderately selfish or risky behaviours that free societies accept will occur and seek to limit to the least damaging manifestations, rather than to prevent entirely.

The Mail quotes the second half of the paragraph, but not the first part which makes clear why they’re making the comparison. Much of the rest of the Mail’s report is a fair summing up of the UKDPC’s conclusions, but it’s the headline and opening sentence that as always set the tone.

It’s a great shame, and shows exactly the hurdles that still need to be leapt through to get anything approaching sensible coverage of calls for drug law reform, especially as the report’s conclusions are thoroughly conservative and incremental rather than revolutionary.

It doesn’t advocate the decriminalisation of all drugs, let alone their legalisation; what it does suggest is that the possession of a small amount of a controlled drug could be made a civil rather than a criminal offence, leading to fines and referrals to drug awareness or treatment sessions rather than sanctions through the criminal courts.

Similarly, it suggests that either decriminalising or altering the sanctions for the growing of cannabis for personal use could strike a blow against the current situation where empty houses or warehouses are rented or broken into and used by criminal gangs to grow the high-strength strains of the drug that have caused such concern over recent years.

More optimistically, it calls for a cross-party political forum to be set up to examine where drug policy to go from here. Sadly, even if one were to be created, should it come up with the “wrong” conclusions and proposals then it’s highly unlikely it would get us any further.

With both the main parties clearly wedded to prohibition, regardless of how this report has apparently been welcomed even by the likes of Jack Straw, ideally there should be someone from the third party with a high profile who could make a break with the failed policies of the past by being clear about where we’ve been going wrong for so long.

Want a legacy that could eventually underline your role in the coalition, Nick?

The police want a word about the names you call me

by Septicisle     October 12, 2012 at 9:30 am

Here’s something that really hasn’t been stressed enough: as deserved as the worldwide outcry was against the 2-year jail sentences for three members of Pussy Riot, that’s nothing compared to the 4-year stretches handed down to two young men in another authoritarian nation – namely our own.

These two men didn’t supposedly offend Orthodox sensibilities by performing their anti-Putin song in a church; all they did was set up pages on Facebook for events that didn’t take place. This was enough for the judge to describe what they did as an “evil act”.

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan will now be over a quarter of the way through their sentences, and will hopefully be released before too much longer. As acts of stupidity go, theirs was fairly spectacular: setting up pages on Facebook advertising meeting places for riots during the hysteria of last year clearly was asking for trouble.

Nonetheless, no one turned up at either, and in Sutcliffe-Keenan’s case he always maintained it had been a joke that had badly backfired. For the two to be sentenced to terms far in excess of what others who actually took part in the riots received was an overreaction of quite staggering proportions. That their appeal against the length of their sentences was also rejected is a stain on the justice system.

Yet this week has seen two more such cases prosecuted, neither of which should have ever reached a court. Azhar Ahmed was more fortunate than Matthew Woods, although not by much. Earlier in the year Ahmed was moved in the aftermath of the deaths of four servicemen in Afghanistan to post an angry Facebook status update in which he said that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”.

Ahmed did not say that soldiers should be killed; and as the court presumably accepted, Ahmed afterwards apologised to those who responded to his update, saying that he hadn’t meant for anyone to be upset by it.

Despite all of this, Ahmed was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message, and was told by district judge Jane Goodwin that he had gone beyond the bounds of freedom of speech. He was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service over two years; by comparison, the TV presenter Justin Lee Collins was ordered this week to perform 140 hours of community service after he was found guilty of a prolonged campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend.

Undoubtedly worthy of less sympathy is Matthew Woods. Woods pleaded guilty earlier this week to sending a grossly offensive message after he was arrested “for his own safety”. Woods’ crime was to post jokes on his Facebook page about both April Jones and Madeleine McCann, one of which was described by magistrate Bill Hudson as “abhorrent”. This seems to be a reference to Woods’ show-stopping gag:

What’s the difference between Mark Bridger and Santa Claus? Mark Bridger comes in April.

If delivered on a stage, it would have been worthy of boos. Posted online during a search for a child, with all the emotions surrounding such a disappearance, Hudson decided it was worthy of three months in prison.

Only Woods’ early guilty plea prevented it from being for the full six months available under the law. Earlier the same day the court fined a man £100 and ordered him to pay £100 in compensation after he called a woman who had pulled up alongside him in her car a “fucking black cunt”.

No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited. It’s also ridiculous that the onus should be placed on the social networks themselves to police what is and isn’t “grossly offensive” or “menacing” when it should be down to users to not outrage themselves.

Judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become.

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