Sunday, 25 January 2015

Why Labour Should Adopt the Citizen's Income

I'm all for nicking good policies, and one Labour and the labour movement should half-inch is the citizen's income from the Green Party. Of course, the Greens don't own it, it has been knocking about for a good many years. But they are the only ones pushing it as a key plank of their commitments. Here is the short section from their policy website, and is likely to have similar wording for the 2015 manifesto:

EC730 A Citizen's Income sufficient to cover an individual's basic needs will be introduced, which will replace tax-free allowances and most social security benefits (see EC711). A Citizen's Income is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship. It will not be subject to means testing and there will be no requirement to be either working or actively seeking work.

EC731 The Citizens' Income will eliminate the unemployment and poverty traps, as well as acting as a safety net to enable people to choose their own types and patterns of work (See EC400). The Citizens' Income scheme will thus enable the welfare state to develop towards a welfare community, engaging people in personally satisfying and socially useful work.

EC732 When the Citizens' Income is introduced it is intended that nobody will be in a position that they will receive less through the scheme than they were entitled to under the previous benefits system. Children will be entitled to a reduced amount which will be payable to a parent or legal guardian. People with disabilities or special needs, and single parents will receive a supplement.

EC733 Initially, the housing benefit system will remain in place alongside the Citizens' Income and will be extended to cover contributions towards mortgage repayments (see HO602). This will subsequently be reviewed to establish how housing benefit could be incorporated into the Citizen's Income, taking into account the differences in housing costs between different parts of the country and different types of housing.
At £3,692/year for everyone over 18, we're hardly in the territory of a weekly lottery win for everyone. But it is not without cost. The Telegraph think it will cost between £240bn-£280bn/year. Where they get this figure from I don't know. Providing an income for everyone over 18 would cost £185bn. That includes people currently in receipt of the basic state pension. Remove the 10.4m currently drawing one knocks off just over £38bn. The Greens favour funding it from a wealth tax and savings from a largely obsolescent welfare state. Extra payments for housing, the disabled, and some form of child benefit would remain.

It's not beyond the realms of possibility. It can be done if the political will and popular support is there. Two possible objections come to mind first, however.

1. It undermines the incentive to work.
2. It would contribute toward inflation.

Let's look at some evidence.

Between January 2008 and December 2009, a coalition of mainly-German aid organisations sponsored a basic income grant pilot in Otjivero-Omitara in Namibia, a small town of about a thousand people located 100km from Windhoek. Everyone under 60 was paid 100 Namibian dollars/month and the results were interesting. While the data was skewed by family members from elsewhere migrating into the town once the pilot was underway (making it look like household income actually fell for the duration), nevertheless poverty was reduced within a year from 76% to 37% of residents. For those not homing migrants, it crashed to 16%. Within six months of its introduction, underweight children fell from 42% to 17%. School drop out rates fell from 40% to 0%, debt declined from N$1,215 to $772/per person, reported crime collapsed by 42%, and the number of adults involved in "income generating activities" increased from 44% to 55%. The pilot notes "the grant enabled recipients to increase their productive income earned, particularly through starting their own small business, including brick-making, baking of bread and dress-making. The BIG contributed to the creation of a local market by increasing households' buying power."

Very good work though five years after the pilot concluded the Namibian government have not implemented the policy. However, that's Namibia, a country dominated by a huge desert, low population, and lop-sided economic development. In effect, one might argue that the period of the BIG pilot helped round out Otjivero-Omitara's local economy. Is this of any use to wealthy, Western nations? A series of US and Canadian government pilots with Negative Income Tax delivered results that were repeated by the Namibian experience. These were slightly different in that a basic income was paid only to those who fell beneath a certain threshold - think of them as a form of today's working tax credits. The Namibian effect on schooling was presaged here: attendance and attainment up, drop out rates down. Low birth weights disappeared and, in the Canadian experience, falls in accidents, and physical and mental health problems pushed hospitalisation rated down by over eight per cent. Nor was there any evidence of recipients giving up work to live off the grant. Some secondary earners - mainly women - scaled back their work hours, and there was some evidence that if a primary earner lost their job they spent a few weeks looking for a suitable replacement (pp 9-10 here).

Still not convinced? Let's take a trip to Alaska, home of the Klondike, Ice Road Truckers, and Sarah Palin. Since 1976 the state has taken a slice of oil revenues and invested the proceeds, building up a sovereign wealth fund worth around $50bn. Since 1982 the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation has paid out a dividend to the 700,000 or so resident Alaskans of varying value.


As you can see, the value has been all over the place. I expect it will be a historic low this year, depending on the performance of its non-oil assets. While it is true prices in Alaskan shops are higher than the US heartland, this is because of import costs rather than any inflationary effects. Furthermore in November 2014 unemployment stood at 6.6% vs the national average of 5.8%. Evidence of bone idleness or the fluctuations in the oil economy? As the Department of Numbers site indicates, unemployment rates have been relatively stable since 1990.

These experiences who a citizen's income can be done, but should it be done? Of course, and as a matter of urgency: it is a simple measure that can dramatically improve the living standards of millions and, as the evidence suggests, have very beneficial knock-ons in terms of education, health, crime, and community cohesion. That's why the Greens and increasing numbers of Labour people endorse it. From a labour movement point of view, there's another compelling reason.

For 35 years business as had the whip hand over the global economy. Capital freeboots its way across the planet subject to few checks, and playing one region off against another. David Harvey made the compelling case in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism that capital in its neoliberal phase is decadent and regressive. Profits have not come from the expansion of the productive forces, as Marxists would put it, but rather by an 'accumulation by dispossession'. The forced enclosures of land, the selling off of publicly-owned assets, the export and deletion of jobs, the introduction of markets into public services, and the erosion of progressive income tax regimes has redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich. It's a global power grab that's only been possible because labour movements have been defeated in far too many countries far too many times.

From a British perspective, this has meant that many millions of people are not covered by trade union protections and are subject to overwork, pitiful pay rises, job insecurity. And that's the full-time workers. As the government talks up the economic recovery and trumpets jobs growth, a simple look at the figures shows that 24 out of every 40 new jobs are full-time, yet in 2008 the F/T rate stood at 64%. And today? 62%. We have a job market increasingly bent toward part-time working in which many people can't make ends meet. With unemployment high and competition fierce for what full-time jobs there are, its bent far too much toward the purveyors of temporary working and zero hour contracts. A citizen's income would change all this. If people entering the job market know they have a regular weekly payment providing a little bit more security, the market incentivises good employers. No longer will workers have to cling to a low paid job with an awful boss. A basic income will keep the wolf from the door, changing entirely the balance between employers and employees, and offering new political opportunities our movement can capitalise on.

This is the other reason why I support the basic citizen's income. It's a bold step toward securing the interests of our people and changing society permanently for the better. We need to take it up, turn it into party policy, and win it.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Saturday Interview: Glyn Matthews

Glyn Matthews is a Socialist Party activist and former blogger from Cardiff. When he's not discharging parental responsibilities he can be found doing party work on the high street of the Welsh capital and relaxing with a few bouts of pro-wrestling. Glyn's old blog is Everyone's Favourite Comrade and he tweets from here.

Why did you decide to give blogging a go?

I used to have a lot of free time on my hands and a lot of opinions. I would get into loads of lengthy Facebook discussions that were simply lost within a few days. I was also returning to full-time education as a mature student so it just seemed like an obvious thing to do. Both to rant and to get back into the swing of writing seriously.

Have you got a best blogging experience?

I was short listed for the best welsh political blog award a few years back. I went to an award ceremony for it but to be honest it wasn't that great.

... and any blogging advice for new starters?

I think the key to any blogger is finding a niche or several niches, knowing what you write about and who to promote it.

I think a key is also to put the time in put have a good layout for the blog as well as this is much more likely to get people to read and come back again.

Do you also find social media useful for activist-y things?

I think this is very difficult to answer. I think it can be useful in many ways such as the very speedy disemination of information to counter the mass media or to organise urgent events such as counter demonstrations against neo-fascists.

However I also think there are alot of dangers for activists in social media as well. The idea that it can play as much of a role as real world activism and the sometimes undemocratic nature of online activism.

I think the real answer is as much as other mediums for activists. Use it how you can but be aware of its limitations.

Why did you give it up?

I didn't - Obviously my blog hasnt been updated for years now but it is more of an issue of time. I have two kids. One who is four is on the autistic spectrum and one who is 18 months. So along with this and working 12.5 hour shifts I just cant find the time so I would say that I am a lapsed blogger with a pending return in the future. I suppose the short answer is simple time constraints though.

Are there any blogs or other politics/comments websites you regularly follow?

A few every know and then. Yours is one of them.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

I am cuttently reading through the Game of Thrones series.

Do you have a favourite novel?

Jennifer Government by Max Barry - I would encourage anyone who has not read it to do so. I would describe it as a cross between 1984 and Brave New World, but set in the modern world

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

I would have to name two.

1. Liverpool - A city that dared to fight by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn
Undoubtedly many reading this will consider this a partisan answer but a lot of people tend to forget what it is about. I read it as a 17 or 18 year old kid angry at how corrupt the whole world was; that oil meant more than blood, that power corrupts everyone. This book shaped me a lot it showed a real example of people prepared to fight back. Regardless of your opinion on the legscy you cannot deny that.

2. Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath snd Andrew Potter a great book which argues well that counter culture is not rebellion.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

Well I guess I would have to answer the general body of works stemming from Marx, Engels, Lenin & Trotsky right down to the ideas of the CWI today with a few notable mentions along the way.

What was the last film you saw?

The Purge - interesting but a bit weird

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

I joined the Socialist Party when I was 17 and I am still a member today. Any other organiaation I have been a memver of along the way stemmed drom being a member of the Socialist Party.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

There are two things that come to my mind instantly and I think I have to mention both of them.

I remember when I was around 13/14 it was around the time of the invasion of Kosovo and I was just beginning to think about the world around me. The only information I took was from the BBC and ITV news coverage but I instantly took the side of the KLA, and as a result I felt close towards Welsh nationalism for a few years but have moved far from that now.

The other change is much more recent. Since I have had children my attitude towards parenting has changed significantly in case anyone is wondering if this is a political issue.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?


I think it makes sense to answer these questions together because it cause and effrct. I think that it is important to show there is an alternative to austerity, that the capitalist sysyem caused the crisis and blaming benefit claimants or immigrants is a distraction from this. Easier said than done.

Who are your political heroes?

I am really not a fan of politicsl heroes at all. I think it an anathema to everything I believe. I think its all about a body of ideas devloped over time. Some people would assume I would say someone like Dave Nellist and of course I respect him and his integrity but he would never have been in that postion without the body of ideas that came before and around him or by the background work by 'unknown comrades'.

If I was pressed to name someone though I guess I would have to say the late Andrew Price. Known well in the trade union field, I first met Andrew when I was 16 as one of his students. He first introduced me to Marxism. I got to know him better when I joined the Socialist Party and was inspired by the clarity of ideas to his friends and comrades and determination to defeat his class enemies all whilst dealing with paralysis of one side of his body. This made him stand out as an inspiring figure.

How about political villains?

Same as the last question really it is not about individuals but if I had to name one it would have to be Tony Blair: he was the villian during my political awakening

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

The crisis of working class political representation

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

A very difficult question for any activist but I guess I would have to say to stop and reverse all privatisation of NHS services. It genuinely scares me as to where that could lead us to in the future and if we would have the same access to healthcare as we do today.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

I could write a whole essay here and still only scratch the surface so I will just say imperialism.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Probably best to ask someone else

What is your favourite song?

Yapolitical by Pink Punk. It is definately not everyones cup of tea but I love it.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Any of the Grand Theft Auto games

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

I guess the correct answer would be human compassion but I am not gonna lie, I'm definitely thinking a good sense of humour.

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Self-righteousness

What, if anything, do you worry about?

The future

And any pet peeves?

Celebrity culture

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Apply yourself you lazy shit. You might regret it if you don't.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I dont have a lot but I enjoying cooking, which I've only really started doing since having kids and when there is spare time I like to read.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I am a big Pro Wrestling fan and I think that defines a guilty pleasure for a Marxist. I cannot think if something less Marxist-like.

What talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be able to play a musical instrument of some kind. Tried it but I am just not musical.

Either that or the ability to fly.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

We are realists we demand the impossible. - A classless society.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly
to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?


Massively. I would buy a house, share cash out to people around me who are strapped for cash. Depending how much money it was I would quit my job and never work again and finally have time to start blogging again. Why, are you thinking of naming me in your will?

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Leon Trotsky, Beethoven, & Paul Hunt

And finally ... what do you think will be the outcome of the election in May?

I think that be it a majority or some kind of coalition it is likely to be a Tory government.

I think its probably time to say farewell to the Lib Dems.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Saudi Arabia and the Economics of Hypocrisy

Paying close attention to politics you become immune to the dollops of lick spittle and cretinous behaviour that comes with it. Today, however, has not only taken the biscuit but dribbled great dollops of gob over it. Remember when the Dear Leader died and great numbers of presidents and prime ministers queued up to praise his rancid regime? Nope, me neither. Then why the hell is the government and the British establishment they represent flying flags at half-mast and gibbering pious praise for the late and very much unlamented Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz Al Saud, the self-styled King of Saudi Arabia?

For my money, on the old autocracy and brutality scale the Stalinist monarchy of North Korea is eclipsed only by the Saudis. Sure, our friends in the North have networks of forced labour camps, a culture of summary execution, and a grotesque personality cult. Every obscene trapping of a disgusting dictatorship is present in spades. Yet North Korea gets by without reducing women to chattel, publicly whipping alcohol drinkers, beheading people for sorcery, and executes a woman in the same manner, albeit after dragging her through the streets of Islam's holiest city.

This might occasionally be covered by the British media, but there's - at best - a unanimity of silence from our politicians. At worst, as per today, the most gut-wrenching hypocrisy. With the honourable exception of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, and a handful of others. Come, let's gaze upon their hypocrisy.

David Cameron: "I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abd Al Aziz Al Saud. He will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths. My thoughts and prayers are with the Saudi Royal Family and the people of the Kingdom at this sad time."

The Queen: "I am saddened to learn of the death of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, HM King Abdullah bin Abd Al Aziz. Your distinguished brother Abdullah had devoted his life to the service of the Kingdom and the service of Islam. He will be long remembered by all who work for peace and understanding between nations and between faiths. I offer Your Majesty my sincere condolences and I offer my sympathy to the Saudi people."

Westminster Abbey: "The Abbey flag is flying at half mast as a mark of respect following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, King of Saudi Arabia"

Barack Obama: "As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions."

There's more. There's so much more, but one can stomach only so much.

"America has permanent friends or enemies, only interests" so said Henry Kissinger in a hard-nosed reflection of his time at the State Department. A truth that applies equally to perfidious Albion and its relations with other states too. The relationship the UK has had historically with Saudi Arabia are intertwined with oil and markets. The al-Yamamah arms deal brokered by the freedom-loving Thatcher government has seen BAE systems rake in £43bn in revenue between 1985 and 2006. There have been a number of subsequent deals that has also seen BAE in receipt of a couple of billion here, several billion there (further details). Governments of all stripes maintain that armaments support skilled, well-paid jobs. Then again, so did a great deal of Britain's manufacturing base, which they were only too happy to see go to the wall. The truth of the matter is Saudi oil money helps lubricate the establishment, contributes to the treasury (theoretically), and flatters the egos of those who care about such things that Britain remains a Middle East player.

There's also an unhealthy investment balance between the two kingdoms. British investment in Saudi Arabia stood this time last year at around $15bn, annual exports at £3.1bn and stand to grow more as their economy rapidly expands. Meanwhile, total Saudi assets invested here are estimated at £62bn. They are gobbling property in and throwing up buildings London, making a not inconsiderable contribution to economic growth figures. Like other Gulf sheikhdoms, money is spreading out from property speculation to the real economy: supermarkets, creative industries, education, sport. There is a very real material interest helping explain why our government is supine when it comes to Saudi brutality and sponsorship of terrorism.

Not that that's a good excuse, of course. As a rule, I am wary of sanctions against rancid regimes. Capitalism and markets, for all their faults (and their faults are legion), have a tendency to promote private freedoms corrosive of public authoritarianism and tyranny. Sanctions against North Korea and Cuba should be scrapped, for instance. Also, that the Saudi Arabian economy like the other Gulf States are diversifying domestically as well is good news. Their monarchies may not be long for this world. The relationship Britain has had with Saudi Arabia these last 60 years is very different from the ongoing process of integrating it into global capitalism. It has been a corrupt one-to-one where we supply Saudi absolutism with weapons - the means to secure it - in return for cash and oil. Our trading relationship has not undermined the monarchy, it has strengthened it. And it's becoming increasingly dysfunctional from our point of view. It's their money helping inflate London/South East property prices and exacerbating our housing crisis, for instance.

No, it's time the relationship with Saudi Arabia and Gulf State sheikhdoms were reset. Our arms deals are helping prop up some of the 21st century's most disgusting regimes. They have to go.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Atomic Robo-Kid for the MegaDrive/Genesis

In the annals of video games, titles pop into existence that quickly fade into the background and are doomed to an eternity of obscurity. One such title for Sega's black beastie is Atomic Robo-Kid. It hit the arcades in 1988 to absolutely no fanfare, and drifted its way over to the PC Engine, MegaDrive, and a few home computer formats. Contemporary coverage in the mags had it down as a reasonably competent blaster and it got decent marks, but it lacked that certain something - which probably explains why the MegaDrive version came out in Japan and North America only.

Atomic Robo-Kid is not a hidden gem by any means. The reviews of the day got it spot on, but that isn't to say it's not without importance. Of which more shortly. Anyway, hitting the MegaDrive in 1990 it had a dull plot that just about rode the zeitgeist. There are human colonies on this planet innit when it's hit by a blast of radiation from space. The people make it to their protective suspended animation pods in time and ride out the storm. However, as radiation was responsible for a lot of things in the late 80s (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, urm ...) the native fauna mutated into psychotic killing machines. To make matters worse, some jolly bad chaps also move in wresting control of the colony from the computer. Yikes! This is where the titular hero comes in to clean up the mess.

Not the most arresting premise in video game history, but it serves as a pretext for flying through six levels and blasting everything that moves. Presenting as a horizontally scrolling blaster, Atomic Robo-Kid can move in eight directions and double back on himself - the first major departure from other games of this ilk. With four different weapons to collect one can (and must) play the game strategically. There's no way of charging in all cannons blazing a la UN Squadron. Sometimes you have to take cover, shoot, and take cover again. Most of the enemies are stupid dumb but the occasional bad 'un will lob homing weapons at you. Sometimes these can be outpaced if one decides to flee in the opposite direction. Problem is enemies are on automatic respawn and will face you again in areas you've previously battled through. Annoying. And, as you reach the end of the level, you can look forward to the customary face-off with the boss.

Doesn't sound very special does it? Yet the best way to treat Atomic Robo-Kid is not as an alright, but unmemorable shooter but as an evolutionary road not (then) taken. The direction and strategic approach mirrored the contemporaneous 8-bit British classic Cybernoid and the much earlier NOMAD. Unfortunately, this was out of step with the arcade experiences the PC Engine and MegaDrive sought to capture, of being loud, flashy, fast, frenetic. Strike one against that attempt at speciation. The second thing Atomic Robo-Kid did as introduce a duel between the kid and a ne'er do well in between levels. This might have worked in the context of a fighting game where players test their move-pulling proficiency, but here you're firing lasers through a field of destructible but infinitely renewing obstructions. Sound idea, but the execution didn't work. Small wonder duals in shooters stuck with the player vs boss combo.

Most interestingly, however, is the moment it occupied in a niche but slowly emergent sub-genre: the cute 'em up. Keep the blasting action, but replace the usual sci-fi premises with cutesy things. By 1990 the basics had been established by Konami's TwinBee and Sega's Fantasy Zone, and were carried into the future by the likes of Parodius. Atomic Robo-Kid sits awkwardly here because the main character is supposed to be cutesy and loveable, while showing a bit of Californian 'tude. And when you clear the game you are united with the computer programme EVE who's a boring blonde, blue-eyed space babe done in the typical anime style. Yet the rest of the game isn't at all. The mutants you're offing range from non-descript molluscs to spiky robot things to sinister Orco looky-likeys. And the bosses, though they're very big there's not a great deal to write home about. In this respect Atomic Robo-Kid is a missing link, a cute 'em up that wasn't cute enough and a character-driven title that previewed the shape of things to come in 90s gaming, but didn't have enough umph for take off - a fate that befell many a software house mascot. Lastly, the game was too hard and too frustrating to create the fond vibes new directions and new video game characters required.

Some nice ideas here, but the patient game play was not suited to the shooter genre of that time. Such gameplay may have appealed to an older audience looking for something new, but the game aesthetic was unsuited to attract that market, and it was too tricky and, sadly, boring for younger players to get much out of it. As such Atomic Robo-Kid is perhaps left for the completionist collectors, or those looking for evolutionary curios and video game dead ends.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On the Stoke-on-Trent City Independents' 2015 Manifesto

A novelist turned aspiring musician. Two former leading BNP activists. A man who's been in more parties than Paris Hilton. Someone who thinks the NHS should be scrapped. Another likes spending time on Guido Fawkes and ConHome calling for a UKIP vote. And there's the bearer of a conviction for possessing child sex abuse images. A motley crew and no mistaking, but of whom am I speaking? It's the colourful (some might say gaudy) cast of the Stoke-on-Trent City Independents' candidate list for this year's local elections.

As readers know, there is no finer pearl of a city than Stoke-on-Trent. Perched atop Staffordshire a stone's throw from the border with Cheshire, it is a polycentric conurbation that emerged from a federation of six towns - north to south, Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton, and Longton. To muddy matters, it is contiguous with the loyal and ancient borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. In all the urban sprawl is populated by some 360,000 souls, which, by way of comparison, makes it significantly larger than Nottingham. Stoke-on-Trent, however, has its issues. It's on the wrong side of nearly every deprivation index going. On public health indicators, life expectancy and morbidity rates are below and above national averages. It is a place where the glaciers of globalisation have carved deep grooves of empty, brown field valleys into the cityscape. As per elsewhere jobs are being created, but far too many of them are low paid, temporary and otherwise insecure.

Since 2011, Labour have been running the local council. Its priority has been to get the city back on its feet through a, to put it mildly, controversial regeneration strategy. Some of this has been innovative and won national plaudits, such as the £1 house scheme. There's been the slightly bizarre, such as being the UK's only disaster resilient city according to the UN. Some haven't worked, like the the plan to exploit coal bed methane and a hoped-for shopping centre (with the awful, illiterate name of City Sentral) is more or less dead. And another, the Smithfield development, the building of a business district funded by loans taken out by the City Council has proven most controversial of all. It's been the subject of a couple of protests and a march, and has attracted criticism for being unnecessary, for being a wealth and jobs transfer from Stoke Town to Hanley, and for lacking a cast iron business case.

On each of these issues, the City Independents, as the official opposition on the council have been doing their job and opposing. Yet when challenged by Labour members about their alternatives, they have very little to say. At least until now. The City Independents are the first party locally to put out their manifesto. At last, we can see what colour their politics run and whether theirs amounts to a coherent vision for the city.

Before we begin, let's throw some caveats down. I don't think members of the Labour Group walk around with dazzling halos. Nor is everything absolutely hunky dory at the council. After all, I spent two-and-a-half years scrutinising it up close, and there were a number of occasions I didn't like what I saw - often times because senior officers had overstepped the mark and/or were trying to cover their arses for some reason or another. Nevertheless the bulk of our councillors and most of the officers are doing the best they can trying to rebuild the city's economic base under very straightened circumstances. Not an easy job by any means. Likewise, the City Independents in the main are well-intentioned types who want to see the best for their city. It's just their way is a potpourri of micro management, nostalgia, and crackpot schemes.

Crackpot schemes? Hark at him, a Labour supporter whose party has splurged on gas prospecting, HS2 bids, the Chelsea Flower Show, and the city centre business district. What a cheek! In truth, none of these schemes are particularly mad. Perverse perhaps to spend millions at a time of austerity on such things, but "you have to speculate to accumulate" as the old saying goes. The first three may be dead in the water, but they were perfectly legitimate projects to spend taxpayers' cash on to try and attract businesses and raise council income. As for the fourth, the jury remains out on that one. Time will tell. But if these schemes are crackers, what can we say for the City Independents'? In their "New Culture of Genuine Realistic Positivity in Stoke-on-Trent" (p.29) we are promised the reinstatement of the bus station (p.34) after a new one was built two years ago, the outright purchase of the Staffordshire Hoard and the design and marketing of a tea set based on it (pp.31-32), the selling off of the new business district (p.33), and, bizarrely, the construction of a north-south off-road tramway system (p.35). These aren't promises you understand but measures to be investigated, exactly like the gas prospecting and Chelsea Flower Show networking initiatives they pilloried. The difference being that the latter had an investment rationale. How would trams - though nice - bring jobs to Stoke-on-Trent?

They will also "immediately initiate a reality check" (p.20), whatever one of those are, should they win power. There will also be a "Stoke ambassador" (p.30) who will work to attract new business to the city. It's almost as if the three MPs, the chief executive and council leader, and the economic development department aren't doing that already. The Our City magazine is due to go, along with the council's communications department (p.25) - I guess we'd have to rely on group leader Dave Conway's foghorn for news from down the civic. The council will also lead on creating a package tour of Stoke to entice visitors to visit our fair arcades and quaint pottery factories. It will begin with an oatcake and bacon/vegetarian variant breakfast (p.32).

One whinge of the City Independents is how "authoritarian" Labour is (p.21). As the party won a majority on the council in the 2011 local elections, they find it objectionable that it uses it uses that majority to implement policies. What a shocking affront to liberal democratic political practice. Yet whatever Labour's faults are it is not proposing that police charge for call outs. That's right, if your neighbour is being annoying or there are kids standing on the street corner you can phone 999 and the cops will come out and charge the "perpetrators" a call out fee (p.28). So much for habeas corpas. So much for due process. So much for not realising a council can do no such thing. Add to the authoritarianism a dashing of sinister. On page 2, the City Independents declare themselves "accountable solely to the genuine people of Stoke-on-Trent". Genuine people. Just who are these "genuine people"? If I go up 'anley duck of a Saturday afternoon and mill around the crowds, am I to assume that some of the folks I see are not "genuine people". Is this some kind of dog whistle implying that certain Stokies aren't "genuine" in a manner familiar to at least two of the City Independent candidates' past political practice? Or are "genuine people" merely those who agree with this gaggle of silly geese and subscribe to their Genuine Realistic Positivity? A little bit of light creeps in when they single out Council Leader Mohammed Pervez for the capital crime of - gasp - working outside the city (p.14). I guess as a Labour member, someone who works outside the city, and hailing from somewhere else despite living in Stoke for nearly 20 years, I'm thrice-damned and my genuine personhood is open to question.

To top all that off, it is quite possible that even were the City Independents to win a majority on the council in May that not a single policy will be implemented. One of their chief bugbears is the whipping system, or rather the expectation that elected members of a party abide by the policy measures voted through on majority vote by the members of that group. Against this the City Independents want their councillors to support group policy according to their conscience. We might well find ourselves in a situation where they are hopelessly split between designing the tea set first, or setting the package tour's breakfast menu, or implementing policies that might benefit the people of the city. Quite apart from the idiocies too numerous to count, this manifesto isn't worth the Word document it was scrawled on because the City Independents themselves cannot guarantee that they will support it.

I shouldn't mock too much. In 2012 I ran Labour's ill-fated local by-election campaign in the Springfields and Trent Vale ward where we lost to the City Independents' Jackie Barnes. Their then manifesto was authored by Cllr Lee Wanger, and most doormats received 20 pages of plagiarised Facebook memes, the candidate's dismal thoughts on immigration (Labour's candidate was an Asian woman, pure coincidence I'm sure), and lamentations about cervical smear campaigns and schoolchildren not being let out to play alone any more. The lesson I took from that is forest worths of rambling nonsense are no barrier to electoral success in Stoke-on-Trent.

What the City Independents are is our very own stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off brigade. UKIP do not do well here because Stoke already has an anti-politics tribe of voters, weaned on the BNP and political fragmentation. Like the purple party, the City Independents appeal to this constituency, which they mistake for being "the people" at large. Yet whereas Labour, far from being out of touch, is constantly informed by its hundreds of local members, input from working people in the trade unions, and the discipline of selling politics face-to-face on the doorstep (when was the last time a City Independent went canvassing?), the indies speak for themselves and a smattering of residents association regulars in those that they control. Where a way forward is proposed in the manifesto, it points backwards. Fines without due process, tea sets and tours, even their favoured tramway mega-project drips in nostalgia for a Stoke-on-Trent where everyone knew their place, there were no outsiders - however you define them - and you could get on without paying any mind to life outside the city. Even their emphasis on the six towns, forgetting completely that about half of all Stokies live in districts not associated with those historic towns, speaks volumes.

They're angry, they're frightened, they don't like the modern world, and they don't know what to do about it. This manifesto, this rambling screed of the dud, the mad, and the smugly, is a 9,500 word celebration of cluelessness and confusion. If you vote for this lot, don't say you haven't been warned.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Page 3 is Dead

At long last Page 3, The Sun's long-running big-breasted totem is to be shelved ... and replaced with scantily clad young women covering up that little bit more. A victory? I suppose it is one, of sorts. It's clearly a pay off for the No More Page 3 campaign. I wonder if the rest of the left will emulate its example and realise that taking a hectoring, berating tone is not always the best way of going about things? However, when Uncle Rupert said Page 3 was old-fashioned, the writing was on the wall.

There are a couple of things about this that need noting. First of all, the dirty digger was right. The number of people who still buy The Sun to ogle some boobs must surely by now be a vanishingly tiny minority. The ubiquity of porn and its ready availability absolutely everywhere, provided you have the appropriate technology, rendered that selling point obsolete well over 10 years ago. What purpose did it serve between then and now from a commercial point of view, apart from content filler? Nothing, though it hasn't stopped some idiots from trying to get a Je suis Page 3 meme going.

Second, one should always be careful of what one wishes for. Whatever one thinks of Page 3, it is a consensual, commercial transaction between the paper and model/modelling agency. Some of the women who have posed, such as Jodi Marsh, have said they felt empowered by the experience and, indeed, for some it has been a passport to better things and a privileged lifestyle they may never have known otherwise. That the problematic messages Page 3 conveys does not negate this. As Stavvers rightly points out, its replacement so far has been more pernicious and far more problematic. It has made way for candid shots, of (female) celebrities snapped by paparazzo in swimwear and perhaps less without their knowledge or consent.

I'm not going to repeat what Stavvers said. Except to say from The Sun's point of view, this makes more commercial sense than persisting with baps out unknown wannabes. The Daily Mail is the peeping Tom's paper of choice and has built the most successful media website in the world on creepy voyeurism. No woman is safe, even underage teenagers. And, unfortunately, this has been the way celebrity media has been going for some time. In this regard the Murdoch stable have somewhat dropped the ball. A big exclusive page 3 splash of some starlet caught in the altogether on the other hand ... that might do something to arrest the collapsing circulation figures.

Page 3 is dead. Long live page 3!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Mylo vs Miami Sound Machine - Doctor Pressure

Many apologies, more music filler tonight I'm afraid to say. There's no way I'm going to get the post I'm working on done before bed time. For your jollification and mine then, here's one of the best mash ups ever to have taken wing.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Ed Miliband and Cynicism

Just a very quick note about the headline on this morning's Mail on Sunday. We're told that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls knew the economy was speeding into a brick wall and therefore privately urged Gordon Brown to go for an election in Autumn 2007. This, from a book by former Doncaster mayor and self-styled fixer for Labour in Yorkshire, Martin Winter.

An aside. Apparently EdM confided all this to Winter, who has kept his counsel for seven-and-a-bit years until the pre-election period came round. According to the piece Winter has grown disillusioned with Miliband and says of him "He is ignorant of the real values of ordinary working class voters and holds his nose at their lifestyle." By giving the vilest shit sheet in the land a front page and providing succour to the Tories, some might say Winter is equally as ignorant. He might want to look 'scabbing' up, for instance.

Did Ed Miliband say what he's alleged to have said? Who knows. Off the record usually means off the cuff. Nor is there anything particularly cynical about the observation. If you want to win in politics it's best that you choose the ground you're going to fight on, and undeniably had Brown not bottled the election that never was Labour would have walked it. Also, do recall that no one in Westminsterland and the media cocoon spun around it was talking about an economic catastrophe in the offing. There's no evidence either of the two Eds possessed an insight lacking among professional economists, city slickers, and those who track such things.

What Labour needs to pick up on quickly is this heralds a new wave of personal attacks heading the leader's way. For years we've had the weird/weak Ed meme and still Labour are in electoral contention. As Dave would rather be branded a coward than face Ed in a debate, the "weak" lines are going to be rested for the time being. Instead, the Tories are going after what are perceived by the electorate as his strengths. Poll after poll shows that, as a whole, people think Ed is a nice, genuine bloke who empathises and cares about those less fortunate than he. Lynton Crosby's job is to turn this around. Instead of cuddly Wallace, the Tories are trying to colour him Skeletor. They want to portray him as an inept, scheming manipulator whose veins run cold with the ice blood of cynicism. Another classic case of Tory projection.

Think about it. Osborne provided The Mail some words: "This first-hand account shows Balls and Miliband were more interested in saving their own skins than saving the British economy." And this line bears some resemblance to the "weaponising the NHS" teacup storm Dave spent time trying to whip up last week, again designed to show Labour up as a cynical exploiter of the NHS than a party ideologically and genuinely wedded to it. And, to a lesser extent - though a bridge too far for even the stretched credulity on which so much official politics hangs - Dave attempted to claim Ed's calls for the PM's participation in the leaders' debates was a cynical way of avoiding facing the Greens' Natalie Bennett. Yeah, I had to scratch my head a few times too.

We're going to see more of this. Cynical Ed. Calculating Ed. Even perhaps Sinister Ed. Oh what a joy British politics is.

Notes on the Green Surge

1. In many ways, the surge in Green Party membership is more significant and remarkable than the rise of UKIP. Consider the purple people bleaters for a moment. Since about 2011 this has been the anti-establishment party the establishment can't get enough of. Every advantage has been afforded them. The backing of certain papers, wall-to-wall rolling news coverage, loads of slots on Question Time. Fair or foul, the media lit a rocket under UKIP's arse and hundreds of thousands of people have taken notice. The Greens have had none of this. Their media profile is lower, they have no army of pub bores exclaiming their merits down the old spit 'n' sawdust, and yet this week the Green Party's membership across the UK has overtaken UKIP's and the Liberal Democrats'. Who knows where the Greens would be if they had the kind of exposure UKIP now take for granted?

2. Is this purely because of the extra coverage received by the Greens after Dave's chicken refusal to participate in the leaders' debates unless Natalie Bennett is given a slot? No. As Adam Ramsey points out in a handy graph, there has effectively been a two-step increase in Green membership during 2014. A modest surge - as you might expect - around the time of the European elections, and then a second beginning around the time of the Scottish independence referendum and Labour conference and snowballing from there.

3. Part of this is reactive. For many people who've signed up, UKIP is the very worst of British politics. Everything that is stupid and racist, Farage and co have that market cornered. One way to hit back is to not fall behind Stand Up to UKIP, the SWP's latest exercise in guilty liberalism and bandwagon jumping, but to sign up for a party that is the antithesis of the purples' dumb bigotry. Whatever one thinks of the Green Party's programme, they make a virtue of being evidence-led. Be it climate change, anti-austerity, renationalisation, and so on they have a stronger case than any of the other parties - and that includes Labour - that they have adopted policies not just because they're popular, but because they fit the needs of the moment. That to tell the truth is somehow a radical thing speaks volumes of the state official politics is in.

4. The Green surge can be seen as an aftershock of the Scottish referendum rumble. As we know, the pro-independence parties did very well out of their "defeat". The SSP put on a thousand members, the Scottish Greens a few thousand, and the SNP surged to 90,000 plus. In the main, the joiners were people politicised and, in some cases, radicalised by the campaign. These are left folks fed up with austerity, fed up with having policies imposed on them they didn't vote for, and appalled by the way official politics in the rest of the UK is always happy to wallow in the gutter. In England and Wales, it's people with very similar attitudes who are swelling the Greens' ranks. They've looked beyond the border and have seen that a viable alternative to austerity and austerity-lite is politically possible and electorally viable, and they want to see some of that here.

5. The Greens are successively filling the political space that exists for a small left alternative on the political spectrum. The far left, unlike elsewhere, have completely failed to live up to the opportunities that exist. They're either hopeless, as per the case of Left Unity and their fixation on getting procedure right and passing resolutions no one cares about, or useless as per the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, who approach class politics as if it's the 1970s and persist seeing workers as economistic robots solely concerned with wages and cuts to public services. Their ingrained dismalism is a boon to the Greens.

6. While at the same time there are people - usually on the right of Labour - saying that we must "understand" the "genuine concerns" UKIP voters have, no such leeway is afforded the Greens. Many are the times I've been told that they're "not socialists"; are "misanthropic", caring more about badgers than people; as well as swear words like "Brighton City Council" and "sandals". I think we need to get a grip. Horror stories are good pub fodder but seldom the basis for sensible political strategy. Are there some deep Green types still in the party? Undoubtedly. Are they the majority? No, and they haven't been significant as a factional attractor for a long time. Nor are they appealing to misfits, oddballs and, for want of a better phrase, the 'socially dislocated'. They articulate the interests of a growing, rising strata whose emergence is deeply embedded in the development and contradictions of all advanced capitalist countries. To win elections Labour has to speak to, respond, and win over this increasingly important constituency.

7. It doesn't have to be like this. The Greens represent a threat to Labour's electoral prospects, yet the party can see them off, but only if it seriously wants to. Whereas UKIP offers backward-looking nostalgia for a Britain that never existed, the Greens offer the hope of something better. Labour, unfortunately, does not. Ed Miliband talks frequently of under-promising and over-delivering yet this is still managerial politics, of running things slightly more efficiently and fairly than the Tories. Such is electoral politics, that's where most of the voters are at. And this is Labour's biggest strength when facing any of the minor parties. In seats where a Green vote pulls many potential voters away from Labour it is the Tories who will benefit, and that can boldly be stated between now and election day. Green voters aren't stupid, either. As the most politically engaged and literate of all the various parties' voters, they know this too. Large numbers of them, perhaps just enough, are amenable to this lesser evil argument and come May will vote Labour in the tight marginals. This trick, however, can only be done once. Supposing Labour does win and implements the policies so far unveiled, but nothing else, that will not be a sufficiently high bar to neutralise the Greens come 2020 or whenever the next election comes round. To permanently eliminate them as a contender, Labour must redouble its efforts on climate change and education, and crucially - most crucially of all in fact - pursue policies that tackle insecurity and eliminate the blight of social anxiety. Hardly the stuff of which Winter Palace storming is made of, but by acting in the general interest, the interest of the overwhelming majority of people (or the 'Common Good' as the Greens put it) Labour can ensure the Greens, as well as UKIP and the SNP, are put in a box. The prize may be even as great as a permanent majority. But again, only if Labour wants it.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Saturday Interview: Mark Wright

Mark Wright is 26 year-old activist from East Hertfordshire. He's also been registered blind for 10 years. Nevertheless, Mark is an avid commentator on social media where you can find him discussing politics, anarchism/libertarian socialism, and the thin gruel that is Everton's footballing success. He blogs at the way i see things and tweets here.

Why did you decide to give blogging a go?

At the time it seemed just to be taking off. A good way of sharing my ideas and thoughts and feelings on various current affairs and my own personal opinions. A way of connecting with likeminded others too.

Have you got a best blogging experience?

My blog is a small, independent one now not affiliated to any party so receiving several retweets on twitter or a few nice comments on facebook is always nice especially when I go into more personal thoughts.

... and any blogging advice for new starters?

Patience and to find something you know and can talk about. Find an area where you can really develop your thoughts and ideas and not look to take it too seriously.

Do you also find social media useful for activist-y things?

Very much so. Being blind, transport to and from meetings, demos and the like is not easy so being able to spread a message and campaign at the touch of your finger tips has opened the world of activism up to disabled people. The speed and delivery of breaking news is also something which social media is excellent on.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

Not a big reader, Sadly a lot of political material is still not all that accessible to the blind who use a screen reader or Braille. Its getting better with more and more content coming online in a electronic format thankfully. Currently I’m reading Solidarity Federations Fighting for Ourselves pamphlet available online.

Do you have a favourite novel?

I’m a big sci-fi fan read a few audio books a month with Doctor Who and Star Wars being particular favourites.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Karl Marx's Capital. His best writing full of political content on working class exploitation and he brilliantly describes how capitalism works or doesn’t work for us as working people.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

Karl Marx, Murray Bookchin, Peter Kropotkin

What was the last film you saw?

12 Years a Slave

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

A few, I started off in the Labour Party and have moved ever leftwards since:

Labour party
Socialist party of England and Wales
Unite Union
IWW

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Oh too many for this blog I think we should always be open to reassessing our ideas. Nothing is constant and as our world changes our ideas will change as a result. I think we should always try and keep our thoughts independent and not to blindly accept a party line, for example. To question everything should be our starting point I feel.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

Genuine equality for all. Fighting for a world which meets peoples needs free of exploitation

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Discrimination of any sort. Being disabled I’ve faced direct and indirect discrimination in and outside of the workplace but there is so much division and hate in the world today from sexism, racism, to nationalism. There more ways the ruling class use to divide us.

Who are your political heroes?

I don’t really have any current political heroes. There are little in the way of big famous socialist names any longer so I’ll have to go with the fantastic women down at the Focus E15. Standing up against the Labour-run council in Newham, they bravely occupied The Carpenters Estate and showed that real politics comes from the ground up organised by real people facing a real struggle to get by in the face of a huge housing crisis. Ultimately, because our leaders don’t believe in the principle of social housing, the selling of council estates, the imposition of the bedroom tax and introduction of right to buy serve to put our housing needs in the hands of private landlords. As a result housing has become unaffordable, precarious and downright terrifying.

How about political villains?

Oh where do I start? Having being born in 1988 I never saw Thatcherism but seeing this current Tory government I can well understand how it must have been like. Those at the Murdoch press who try and pass themselves off as journalists and drip poison into our communities with vile characterisations of benefit cheats and demonising the poor are beyond contempt.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Ending austerity, exposing its real causes and its consequences on those who are most vulnerable. Let's not forget we are still only less than half way into the cuts proposed by parties of all sorts who are all signed up to constant austerity regardless of who wins power this May.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Scrapping the attacks on disabled people. These are some of the most vicious cuts that have been made and there has been a few to be honest. The capping of benefits is cruel while the work capability assessment which until recently was delivered by the private vultures over at ATOS cause great heartache and misery for many.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Global capitalism. Its constant drive for greater and greater profit to the detriment of our environment and the survival of the human race knows no boundaries. A sytem which cares not for its people or its planet is a system that needs replacing for good.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Always be honest and its ordinary people from the bottom up that can and will change society - not a self-appointed leader representing us.

What is your favourite song?

Changes. Often I don’t have one favourite song.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Used to be a big gamer before I lost my sight. I used to love the Championship Manager football management series. I loved the tactical side of the game and watching my decisions on the team come off ... or fail more often than not!

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

Honesty and trust, Two should go hand in hand. A big one always thrown at various politicos but I think staying true to what you believe in is an admirable quality even if we wont ever agree.

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Dishonesty and betrayal

What, if anything, do you worry about?

A lot I’m a big worrier. The future worries me a lot - will I have a pension when I’m older? What will life be like for our next generation? And so on.

And any pet peeves?

Lateness and swearing for the sake of it.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Make the most of life, don’t worry what others think, and try new things whenever you can.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I listen to a lot of radio, talk-based radio in particular. I follow sports too. My football team is Everton who are also my Dad's team, and Stevenage more locally. I go to their matches occasionally.

What is your most treasured possession?

My personalised signed Kylie Minogue photograph.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I’m a huge Kylie Minogue fan. I've seen her in concert five times now.

What talent would you most like to have?

I’ve always wanted to try and learn a musical instrument really admire those who can play one.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

Sounds clich├ęd but for the people around me to find happiness and fulfillment

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I’d make sure none of my family and friends had to worry about money ever again after that I’d donate the rest to whichever non workfare using charity I felt needed it the most.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Kylie Minogue obvs - she's a big inspiration for me as she was fighting cancer at the same time I was losing my sight.

Tim Vickery, BBC South American football correspondent - his footballing knowledge of South America and the social side of the game fascinates me no end. Plus I think he’sa secret socialist .

And Karl Marx, what would he make of the world today and the state of the left ?

And finally ... what do you think will be the outcome of the election in May?

I really cant tell I’ve seen cases’s stating all things are possible. For me it will be either Labour or the Tories in coalition with one or two other smaller parties, or a minority government all carrying on with austerity.

How smaller parties do may be the most interesting part with the likes of the ever-detestable UKIP looking to strike while their iron is hot and the rise of the SNP north of the border eating into Labour's base.