Friday, June 28, 2013 


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Thursday, June 27, 2013 

The coalition still isn't working.

It's a sign of just how desperate ministers are for any sort of good news that they'll spin figures that still show their pet schemes failing as being a success.  Last week the BBC's Mark Easton was handily shown advance figures on the impact of the work programme, suggesting that there had been a major improvement over the dismal performance from last year, when the scheme was literally doing worse than nothing.

While it is indeed the case that there has been a noted improvement for those referred onto the scheme who are claiming JSA, with 18 out of the 40 contractors either hitting their minimum performance level or exceeding it, it's the other 22 that are bring the average down.  Overall then, the contractors are still not hitting their targets, as this graphic shows:

The figures also indicate that Easton was misled as to just how many who were/are on Employment and Support Allowance have been helped into work.  His report suggested 10% of those referred had found a lasting job, while it was in fact almost half that, a miserable 5.3%, over 10 percentage points off the already low target of 16.5%.

What these figures don't show is the brutal reality: that however hard the contractors work, there simply aren't enough jobs available for those on JSA, let alone those in the work activity group of ESA.  At the same time, George Osborne proposes to make life even more unpleasant for those unemployed, regardless of the facts.  The FT posits that this increased contact with the Jobcentre could be the government subtly admitting that the work programme isn't working, and that the old methods might be better.  This will only be the case if the Jobcentre gets more funding to do this extra work, which seems unlikely to be the case.  More likely is that this increased contact is designed to lead to the sanctioning of even more of those who can't find a job despite trying their hardest.  Coincidentally, we're still waiting for the figures on just how many have been sanctioned since the introduction of the "tougher" regime back in October, the publication having been delayed for over a month now.  Burying bad news?  Judging from today, the coalition will more likely present the numbers being denied even the means to subsist as a triumph.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013 

Failure as success.

Very, very occasionally, the BBC doesn't just report the news, it also provides analysis that is all the more hard-hitting because of its rarity.  Of all the comment on today's spending review, Stephanie Flanders' verdict is the most acute. The coalition was formed to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament; today George Osborne set out the cuts to come in 2015-16, and there will be more right up until 2018. By any measure, the coalition has failed abysmally. Except, as Flanders points out, this is also a great success for the Tory right. No one voted for the scale of cuts that have already been made, and yet there has been almost no real protest at the slashing back of the state. Moreover, Labour under the shadow chancellorship of supposed arch deficit denier Ed Balls has signed up to Osborne's overall spending plans, if not the exact details. What was it that Margaret Thatcher described as her greatest achievement? New Labour, wasn't it?

It isn't really worth dealing with much of Osborne's speech then, as we'd heard almost all of it before. We're all in this together, we're moving from intensive care to recovery, despite Osborne having told us we were out of the danger zone two years ago, the most broad shouldered bearing the greatest burden, which is only true when you include the changes Osborne inherited from Alistair Darling. As ever, those who demand responsibility took none themselves: it's not because of austerity or the prospect of austerity that the economy has barely grew since the coalition was formed, oh no, it's all the fault of the banking crisis, the euro crisis and the oil crisis, which is a new one on me.  It doesn't matter that even the IMF has said it's time to loosen austerity, or that they've admitted they underestimated the effect cutting spending would have, Osborne knows better and just plows on.

The same familiar targets are then those to be squeezed.  Another 140,000 jobs to go in the public sector, an end to automatic "progression pay", although many claim they haven't had any increase in years, and another year of 1% pay increases for everyone else.  Then there's "skivers", half of whom will now be required to sign on every week, they won't be able to claim JSA until 7 days after losing a job instead of the current 3, and they'll also have to have a CV.  It doesn't matter if they've just lost a long-term position and so may need help putting together a new one, until they've done that they're to be left penniless.  The obvious beneficiaries?  Those lovely pay day loan companies, about the only growth industry we have under Osborne's glorious stewardship.

As for the much hyped cap on social security spending, it's not clear what it's going to amount to in practice.  There aren't going to be any consequences if it's breached, merely the chancellor will be required to explain why it has.  Presumably the intention is to put pressure on officials to limit benefits, but how this is going to work when housing benefit and tax credits keep increasing exponentially precisely because millions of people in work aren't paid enough to live on isn't explained.

If you're rather perturbed to say the least about how very different this country is going to look come 2015 as a direct result of these failures, then your options for dissent are now rather limited.  What exactly is the point of an opposition that doesn't oppose but agrees?  For months we heard of how Osborne was setting Labour a trap through the spending review, demanding whether or not they would sign up to the overall spending package.  The answer from the two Eds was to walk straight into it, the equivalent of shooting yourself in the head when someone's threatening you with a machete.  It was meant to show that Labour could again be trusted with the economy, but has it had any impact or will it make any difference when the election is still two years away?  Has it heck as like.

Then again, it seems that the vast majority of the public are more than prepared to accept that there is no alternative.  And why wouldn't they?  When the main three parties say there isn't one, and the new fourth one says the answer is to leave the EU, why should we be surprised there's no equivalent mass movement against austerity here as there has been in countries on the continent?  Instead of offering resistance, or failing that, a vision of a better tomorrow, those who formerly advised politicians now suggest that they stop making promises all together.  Why not go the whole way and replace elected representatives with speak your weight machines?  At least they'll never tell lies or make pledges they won't keep or have any intention of keeping.

Nor has there been major opposition from the young precisely because the groups supposedly aligned against the cuts are so woefully led, or rather, aren't led.  Leaders seem to be regarded as 20th century; when absolutely everyone has a voice, or rather a Twitter account, we don't need anything like that, we just need a wi-fi connection.  UK Uncut might have helped changed the debate on tax avoidance, but it was people themselves that shamed Starbucks into paying corporation tax.  As for the other two groups named by John Harris in his piece that notices not all of the young are angry lefties, I'd never even heard of People and Planet before, while UK Feminista are currently campaigning against, err, lads' mags.  In the era of Snapchat and Redtube can you imagine the blow that will be struck against the establishment and the patriarchy if Tesco stops stocking Zoo magazine?  Harris also mentions Owen Jones and Laurie Penny, but to my knowledge Penny hasn't so much as been invited onto Question Time.  Russell Brand has, though.

Unlike I suspect most people my age, I've voted in every election since turned 18.  I spoilt my ballot in the police commissioner elections last year, but I still turned out.  My argument has always been that it doesn't matter who you vote for, as long as you do.  Not voting when on occasion even a single vote can have an impact is to be voiceless.  Come 2015, I'm not sure there now is a point in bothering to put an x in the box.  Regardless of who you vote for, it will be a vote for further austerity, for a state slashed back, for the continued blaming of the unemployed for being out of work even when there aren't enough jobs to go round and for the continued processing of the sick and disabled.  Incidentally, one of the few areas of the state to get an increase in funding rather than a cut is the intelligence agencies.  Not because the terrorist threat has increased, as it hasn't, with not even Woolwich resulting in an increase in the threat level.  No, clearly the government is anticipating an upsurge in activity elsewhere.  It hasn't happened yet, but a few more years of this, and who knows? Something must break.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013 

Servants, not masters.

It's difficult at times to work out whether we have the equivalent of a bunch of maiden aunts for MPs or if the shock expressed when the next big scandal rolls around is expertly feigned.  This government alone has apologised for the actions of the army on Bloody Sunday, and the cover-up and smearing of the victims by South Yorkshire police following the Hillsborough disaster.  Those older than me will be able to recall the overturning of the convictions of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, while more recently Barry George was freed after being cleared of the murder of Jill Dando, a crime which notably none of the journalists who covered the case believed he had committed.  We could also point to the Baha Mousa case, or even the alleged cover-up by the Care Quality Commission of the problems at the Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust.

If after all that you're still surprised that the police would sink so low as to set out to smear the family of a murder victim and infiltrate the groups that were campaigning for his killers to be brought to justice, then frankly, there's not much hope for you.  Activists during the 80s tended to assume that there were either police informants or actual undercover police within their groups, such was the reach of Special Branch and MI5, and it doesn't seem to have been much different in the 90s.

Nor have the tactics of the police when criticised or caught acting heavy-handed changed much since then: you only have to remember the leaks to the sadly departed News of the World after the anti-terror raid on the Kalam family, or indeed the stories linking Jean Charles de Menezes to a rape.  The Met even went so far as to have its defence barrister in the health and safety prosecution against the force focus on the other smear against him, the fact he had traces of cocaine in his system, as an explanation as to why "he acted the way he did".  The fact that he acted perfectly normally prior to his being bundled to the ground and shot 7 times in the head apparently didn't enter into it.

More to the point, these organisations wouldn't have been able to avoid being brought to account for so long if they didn't either have enablers or backers in politics and the press. The bitterest thing about the Hillsborough report was that there was relatively little in it that wasn't already known. It had its impact through having collected all that available evidence, and presented it in such a way that the truth couldn't be denied. As Hugh Muir writes, before the Mail was converted to the cause, it was in the vanguard of belittling those who were calling for justice for Stephen Lawrence.  The Met needed little encouragement as it was to attempt to find out what its critics were planning; with newspapers calling them extremists they had just the justification they needed.

It also helps when the undercover officer tactic has on occasion had significant results. Bob Lambert, one of the officers who fathered a child with an activist he then promptly abandoned, infiltrated the Animal Liberation Front and prevented the group from launching a bombing campaign against shops that sold fur. He also though, according to Caroline Lucas using parliamentary privilege, planted a bomb in a Debenhams store that caused £300,000 worth of damage.

The few cases that did provide useful intelligence or stopped attacks seem to have justified the placing of officers in wholly peaceful groups, and with it the relationships they then cultivated and often so cruelly broke off. The use of sex also seems to have been so widespread that it's difficult not to believe it was encouraged: after all, wouldn't that be a great way of allaying suspicion? Would spies go so far as to get into serious relationships with their targets? Justice Tugenhadt claimed MPs had authorised exactly that through their passing of Ripa, denying compensation to women who had relationships with officers, as everyone knows spying is just like James Bond, and Bond often bedded his glamorous fellow agents.

Is there anyone other than Theresa May or David Cameron then that imagines the inquiry by Derbyshire's chief constable Mick Creedon is likely to get to the truth?  While it is at least being overseen by the IPCC, which under new head Anne Owers ought to be given a chance, we've surely moved past the point where the police should be allowed to investigate themselves.  Under Labour it was arguably the case that too many inquiries were ordered, mainly as a way of trying to save ministers accused of impropriety.  Under the coalition, we've had Leveson, and that, strangely, seems to have turned the government off the idea.  You also can't help but note that while the allegations about the National Public Order Intelligence Unit deal with Labour's time in office, the claims about the Special Demonstration Squad mainly cover the period of the last Tory government.

As with the revelations about GCHQ, what we've seen is an example of how power is always likely to be abused.  When it is, we need proper oversight and independent inquiries to ascertain what happened, how it happened, and how best it can be prevented from happening again.  That means we also need politicians that are suspicious of how power is exercised by the other arms of the state, rather than happy to be servants of the rest of the bureaucracy.

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Monday, June 24, 2013 

So it goes.

You don't really need me to tell you that there's a hilarious irony at work in the merry dance Edward Snowden is leading both the US authorities and journalists in. Thanks to his leaks we know that both the NSA and our own GCHQ believe that they have mastered the internet, working close to hand in glove with the world's major internet firms, even able to tap into the fibre optic cables that link the UK with the rest of the world. Can they manage to keep track of just one man though, despite his arriving in Moscow on a plane? The answer is a big fat nope.

What does seem to be the case is that his plan to catch a flight to Cuba today was an elaborate ruse, one that seems to have worked perfectly. While the hacks and no doubt others were all waiting for him to board the Aeroflot plane, it seems likely he was already slipping away. Who knows where he is, but it wouldn't surprise if, despite his apparent request for asylum in Ecuador, he now turned up in Iceland, the original safe haven he had in mind.

Almost needless to say, Snowden's escape, through authoritarian nations no less, has been enraging the right people. The Hong Kong authorities claim the warrant they were sent for Snowden's arrest was bodged, something denied by the Americans, while Russia is now essentially being threatened lest it dares allow him to leave. Considering the act recently passed in Congress that targets Russian officials alleged to have abused human rights, something deemed not necessary when dealing with far more oppressive nations, it wouldn't exactly be a surprise if they also decide to turn a blind eye to Snowden's departure, seven Russian fugitives returned by the US in recent years or not.

And we should be clear about this: while Snowden is not a soldier and so if repatriated couldn't be treated in the same way as Bradley Manning has under the court martial system, you can guarantee he wouldn't have a much better time of it. The United States hasn't been able to point to a single intelligence source who has suffered as a result of Manning's leaks, despite Wikileaks posting the raw files up for anyone to download. The best they could manage is the utterly ludicrous "aiding the enemy" charge, as though Osama bin Laden discovering what US ambassadors really thought about their hosts in some way helped al-Qaida.

Snowden, by contrast, has only passed on files that have exposed how personal information is increasingly being sucked up by the intelligence agencies, with either no oversight whatsoever or the most minimal conceivable.  Even if GCHQ was exaggerating in the documents Snowden leaked to Graun on Project Tempora, and the fact that they've also had a source in MI5 comment suggesting that it's fairly accurate what they can do, then it seems they've already got access to all the metadata they could ever need.  If they can also access the content of messages for three days, then they've already got powers which go beyond what the security services have been asking for in the Data Communications Act.  The idea that foreign intelligences agencies didn't already know about this, and have their own systems either in development or already in use is laughable.  Only if they didn't is it possible that Snowden's leaks have damaged national security either here or in the US.

Not that our leading politicians have commented.  While the Graun's latest story on Friday gained slightly more media attention than their previous expose of GCHQ's spying on the G20, for the most part the silence has continued.  Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee Malcolm Rifkind said that he expected GCHQ would provide a written report in response "within a day or so", and that it again seems will be that.  We might at some point in the future get a truncated, redacted report from the ISC which reassures that everything was in fact in order and we don't have anything to be worried about.  So it goes.

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Friday, June 21, 2013 


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Thursday, June 20, 2013 

The "treachery" of the Graun and the silence of the rest of the media.

On Monday, the Graun 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, with agents having gone to the extent of setting up internet cafes so as to make the process easier.  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 Graun'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 Graun's live Q&A session with their source for all the stories on the NSA, Prism and GCHQ, Edward Snowden.  With the exception of an attack piece in the Mail by Stephen Glover, where the man who was one of the founders of the Independent now writes up what Paul Dacre tells him to, nor has there been any real criticism of the paper for what Glover calls "treachery".  Roy Greenslade wonders why.

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.  While, as always, there had not yet been any contravention of the committee's guidelines, the "intelligence services are concerned that further developments of this same theme may begin to jeopardize both national security and possibly UK personnel".  How this could be the case when all the revelations have done is alerted the average citizen to just how far surveillance of the internet and phone calls has gone, with little in the way of oversight, and how GCHQ and the NSA work together is unclear.  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 Graun's stories.  Once the Graun 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 Graun 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 (although even that's changed in recent times with the likes of the Mail deciding the police have become just another part of the PC (groan) state), 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.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013 

Important news story.

Mr and Mrs Tyler Wallbanger have "decided not to find out" the gender of their baby, a spokesman for the Scunthorpe couple has said.

The baby will be delivered on the very public maternity ward at the Scunthorpe General Hospital, where Diana Spencer might have had her sons had she been born into a northern working class community and not into the landed gentry, and therefore never met the Prince of Wales.

The baby is due in mid-July, and Tyler Wallbanger hopes to be present if his duties as a spellchecker for the council allow. Officials at the Wallbangers' home on the Rick Astley estate have appealed for an "appropriate degree of sensation" regarding the birth.

The birth was "a very personal matter for Tyler and Ashlee," the same officials said.  "But they also know it's a time to celebrate and many will want to share in their joy.  This is why, should the hospital's permission be forthcoming, the couple hope to broadcast Ashlee's labour live over uStream.  It will also mean that if Tyler isn't able to get away from work that he'll be able to watch the birth from his desk."

"Both Tyler and Ashlee are very excited about how their friends and the general public will learn the gender of their baby at the same time as they do.  In no way is their announcement at this time designed to further public interest in their child, as they believe the BBC has been hyping the pregnancy and birth up more than adequately for them."

Despite the possibility of the live stream, once Mrs Wallbanger goes into labour there will be no further public statement until the baby is born and the Queen, the Wallbanger family and other senior celebrities have been told.

Senior gynaecologist Dr Serena Williams will be delivering the baby.

Asked whether the couple have decided on any names, officials at the semi-detached were giving little away. "Let's just say, if it's a boy, they're thinking of naming him after the place where he was conceived, and if it's a girl, after a British national hero."

The Wallbangers are known to have visited Jamaica last year, while Tyler has long been under the misapprehension that the commanding officer at the battle of Trafalgar was a woman named Fellatio.

Reports suggest that the Wallbangers have asked the foreign secretary William Hague for some of the surplus weapons not fit to be sent to the rebels in Syria to enable them to fire a 21 gun salute to mark the birth.  It is not yet known whether he has responded.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013 

Ignorance, immaturity and idiocy: all part of the debate on the internet and porn.

I'm struggling to think of a recent issue so appallingly approached and debated as the recent blow up over the availability of pornography on the internet has been.  The only really comparable issue that comes to mind was the short lived moral panic over "meow meow", or Mephedrone, where the Sun was in the vanguard, claiming at one point that teachers would have to give the drug back to any students it was confiscated from as it wasn't illegal.  Interestingly, the "legal high" market continues to grow, leaving even more questions for potential users over safety, yet the tabloids seem to have decided the story's done.

Even that outbreak of silliness can't compete though with the idiocy that's descended thanks to the collision of technology and naked human flesh.  While the lead has been taken by the Daily Mail, the Sun having always had a problem commenting on porn thanks to its continuing attachment to publishing a topless woman on its third page almost every day, we've also had stunningly stupid interventions from the former broadsheets.  The Graun comprehensively cocked up by publishing an editorial which seemed to call for the banning of all porn, later corrected to "just" violent porn, while the Sunday Times has been caught out using some exceptionally dodgy statistics to claim we're living in "generation porn", using an image of a topless woman to illustrate its point, natch.

Obviously, there are two separate issues at the heart of the sound and fury which require entirely different responses, although the conflation of the two hasn't helped matters.  First is that any action which makes images of child abuse more difficult to find on the net is a good thing.  We don't know how Stuart Hazell or Mark Bridger got hold of the images they viewed before they went on to kill Tia Sharp and April Jones respectively, or just how much of an influence they had on their crimes, but it can't be denied they played some role. What doesn't help is the scaremongering and apparent lack of knowledge displayed by those pushing at an open door. One Daily Mail headline gave the impression that Google was the internet, and so could deal with child porn at a stroke if it wished, while it also claimed 1.5 million people had "stumbled" on such images. To top all that, it enlisted Amanda Platell to try and find some illegal material, only for the queen of the Glendas to claim a  scene from 2001 featuring a then 19-year-old was proof of the easy availability of filmed child abuse.

The reality is that unless you actively seek it out, it is exceptionally rare to encounter images or video of child abuse by chance. In 15 years or so of using the internet, and having spent a significant period of that time not always on the most salubrious of sites, only twice have I come across images that almost certainly were of abuse. The first was many years ago when exploring a back door posted on a forum into one of the early sites that offered space to host images. By refreshing a specific link, a new image was randomly fetched from seemingly all those that had been uploaded, and one, and just one from the dozens or more looked to be of abuse. The second, far more prosaically, was when I happened to be browsing /b/ on 4chan at the time as someone decided to flood it with images of children, something it's long been notorious for.

The worry is not just journalists that don't know what they're writing about, but politicians also being ignorant of how things work.  When Maria Miller talks of preventing images from even becoming available in the first place, it's difficult not to sigh.  This lack of knowledge does indeed seem to have irked ISPs, with one source complaining to the Graun about today's meeting with the government that "generally speaking the politicians there fundamentally (or wilfully) misunderstand the technical and legal aspects to the subject".  When increasingly those who are doing something dodgy move towards the so-called "darknet", or use TOR to access the deep web, there's relatively little that the ISPs themselves can do.  Giving the Internet Watch Foundation more funding to actively seek out illegal material might help, but considering in the past they've made some extraordinarily stupid decisions about what to block, handing an unaccountable organisation even more leeway isn't necessarily a unmitigated good thing.

When it comes to the easy online availability of perfectly legal pornography, it continues to amaze me how a Conservative government that preaches personal responsibility in every other area seems to think in this instance it's not the duty of parents to ensure they have measures in place to stop their children from viewing it.  There really ought to be no excuse for not doing so; the generation having children now (which, rather scarily, is my own) were brought up with computers and so can't claim to be completely illiterate.  It certainly is true that it's difficult to block access to every video sharing site, and it's all but impossible to stop children from sending each other videos they've acquired from somewhere over their phones, but if they've reached the age at which they're doing that then they're old enough to be sat down and talked with about what it is they've watched.  Yes, there needs to be a change in sex education so that pornography is discussed and addressed, but it's also down to parents to explain that porn is fantasy and has very little connection with real life.  For the vast majority, porn is not going to damage them, or make them lose their innocence.  If anything, parents tend to be shocked by how much their offspring already know by the time they get round to it.

This isn't to regard porn as a whole as being harmless, although I'd say most of it is and its spread may even have had some positive effects, but it's ridiculous to regard it as being a unique danger to children and their development.  I watch porn even though there's many things about much of it that I loathe, whether it be the despicable misogyny that disfigures the "reality" genre that now dominates, or the way that so much of it follows the same tired format of suck, fuck, "facial", the latter which is troubling in itself.  The only way we can deal with its increasing influence is to discuss it maturely: if we don't, then those who've grown up with it accessible at the click of a mouse will.

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Monday, June 17, 2013 

Guns for everyone.

Oscar Wilde supposedly said that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.  Reading Hopi Sen's post on Syria, I feel exactly the same emotion (and yes, it is slightly unfair to pick just on Hopi).  He writes of our "grotesque failure" in the country and how he wishes we "felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria".  Has it really not became blindingly obvious that our politicians care absolutely nothing for the poor bastards caught in the middle of the "Free" Syrian Army, the jihadists, Hezbollah and the Assad regime's forces?  Can even those normally dialled in to the very heart of politics not see that the situation in Syria has developed precisely because of our involvement, rather than because we have failed?  And are we really now going to rehash the exact same arguments we had 10 years ago?

Let's start at the very beginning.  In the spirit of the Arab spring, large numbers started protesting against Assad.  Their demand at the outset was not for the fall of the regime, but for reform.  Assad responded with bullets.  The protests continued, the demand changed to the fall of the regime.  The bullets kept coming.  Slowly but surely the revolution morphed from a peaceful one which was inclusive to one where some protesters began taking up arms.  These arms were mainly obtained from Iraq and neighbouring countries, but they also came from Libya, and then and most crucially, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  While the Assad regime has for the most part rejected sectarianism in its public statements, it's undoubtedly the case that Sunnis were and have become specifically targeted.  In part in response to this, and in part because they saw the fall of Assad as a way of delivering a set back to both Iran and Hezbollah, the funding and supply of weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia increased.

Ourselves, the French and the Americans have been covertly supporting this gun running for some time now.  Increasingly though we've become alarmed that something truly astonishing was happening: the money and weapons from the gas kleptocracy and the oil kleptocracy respectively were going to Sunni Islamists, some of them even directly aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq (aka al-Qaida's franchise in the country) rather than the more secular rebels.  That the Saudi Wahhabis would fund other Wahhabis was clearly something that couldn't have been predicted.  In response, while still helping with the smuggling of weapons into Syria via Turkey, special forces have been training some of these "more secular" rebels in Jordan.

Seeing that the bloodcurdling rhetoric against Alawites and the Shia in Syria was reaching new heights, and also recognising that if the Saudis and Qataris wanted to play at proxy warfare then they could too, Hezbollah went from covertly helping Assad's army to openly intervening on his side, on the pretext that the fall of Assad would have dire consequences for Lebanon.  While the situation already seemed to be turning somewhat in the favour of Assad, as the attack on the capital Damascus by the rebels failed, the help from Hezbollah helped shift the balance on the crucial road to the city of Qusayr, with the rebels retreating.  Morale up, it looks certain that the Syrian army and Hezbollah will next attempt to take back the city of Aleppo.

It's this, rather than any nonsense about chemical weapons which explains why it is the Americans have now decided that they must also overtly intervene.  As Mark Urban explained on Newsnight on Friday, and as Marc Lynch also writes, the potential for a Hezbollah-Iran victory in Syria is just too much to bear.  It doesn't matter if all it does is re-establish the status quo ante of two years ago, before the uprising; ourselves, the Americans and the Saudis had all banked that Assad was as good as gone.  Ever since we screwed up by overthrowing a Sunni dictator in Iraq and installing a Shia elective dictatorship, we've been looking to desperately redress the balance.  It didn't matter exactly what sort of government eventually emerged in Syria, even if it was of a far from moderate Islamist variety, so long as it was no longer an ally of Iran.

The fact is, if we really cared about the horror of the war in Syria and the war crimes being committed either by the regime or the rebels, we would have found a way to intervene by now.  We found a way to get rid of Saddam, we found a way to get rid of Gaddafi, we found a way to get rid of the Islamists in Mali who had taken root there as a direct result of our getting rid of Gaddafi, and so on.  We haven't up till now because the situation, however much our politicians criticised Russia, China or the UN, or Assad himself, suited them.  Bleed the regime dry without putting boots on the ground or getting our expensive missiles dirty; let the autocrats we supply with shiny deadly toys do the work instead.

Who then knows if the regime has been using chemical weapons.  It's more than possible that one or more of the generals in charge of the Syrian army have become so deranged that they've taken matters into their own hands and authorised the use of sarin in limited quantities, which would explain the reports we've seen that otherwise seem difficult to understand militarily.  Whether it's been authorised at the highest ranks of the government is far more difficult to ascertain.  Either way, it was always absurd to place a red line on the use of chemical weapons unless they were being used widely and to horrifying effect.  Even if 150 people have died of exposure to sarin, it's a figure that pales close to inconsideration when the UN says that over 90,000 have now died.

That figure is interesting in itself.  Those who like me recall how the Lancet's excess death studies in Iraq were criticised might be surprised to learn that the UN's estimate is based on some extremely unreliable or otherwise biased sources.  Indeed, if we're to take the figures at face value, then they suggest that 25,000 Syrian government troops have been killed since the uprising began, and another 17,000 militia.  That these figures are being used by politicians to suggest that Assad has killed 90,000 of his own people when that simply isn't the case is a classic example of the softening up process that is now in operation to justify the ratcheting up of our support to the "good" rebels.

As for those concerns about just how moderate, secular and committed to democracy our chosen rebels are, well, we'd rather not talk about how the man we've taken to bosom, Salim Idris, was a general in the Syrian army for decades and only discovered he wanted a free society last year.  Our understandable wish to compartmentalise the rebels simply doesn't work on the ground; they work together regardless of their different allegiances or how they see the future of the country.  Nor are they going to refuse to help those battalions that run out of ammunition or have their weapons captured by the regime, so any weapons we do supply will almost certainly end up in the hands of the extremists, as has already happened with previous shipments.

Our policy on Syria has never made sense precisely because it has been so dishonest.  We backed the Saudis, as we always do, somehow forgetting that wherever Saudi money goes Wahhabism goes along with it.  We claim that our supplying of weapons now is to meant to somehow reorder the balance of power and force Assad to the negotiation table when it will do nothing of the sort.  As the Graun argued, we've just rewarded the rebels for refusing to attend the now apparently indefinitely postponed Geneva peace conference, rather than saying attend and if nothing comes of it then we'll do something about it.  Our ultimate unstated aim is to damage Iran at the exact moment that the people in that country overwhelmingly voted for a moderate as president, in the kind of elections that though neither free or fair have never so much as occurred in either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, nor ever will should the ruling families have their way.  And now, now, we have those who always argue for intervention without having the first idea of what that means in practice, of the cost, of the planning, of the need for an exit plan, or following Iraq any kind of long-term plan whatsoever, saying that something must be done.  Forgive me if I say that I think we've done quite e-fucking-nough already.

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Friday, June 14, 2013 

Alone time.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013 

Oh, Keith.

Seeing as the Dirty Digger won't now be able to leave News Corp in the capable hands of James, it's not exactly the biggest surprise that he's decided Wend won't be getting the rest of his money either.  As all "wise" rich men do when getting a trophy wife, we're told he has not just a pre-nupital agreement but also a couple of post ones, meaning he won't be stung as he (deservedly was) by his second wife Anna.  Question is, just where is his money going to go now when he does bite the dingo's bum?

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013 

The more things change.

Look who's back.

It's fair to say that I am not predisposed to like Tulisa Contostavlos.  If you want a handy summation of the musical apocalypse of the past decade, then listening to N-Dubz, Contostavlos's former group, will soon bring you up to speed. Naturally, once N-Dubz split up, Simon Cowell decided that Tulisa would the perfect addition to the X Factor judging panel, having previously given such duties to those other fountains of perpetual talent, Dannii Minogue and Sharon Osbourne.  Getting critiqued by Gary Barlow is one thing; being told that you need a bucket to carry a tune by Cowell and the others has always struck me as just a trifle rich.

Seeing as the X Factor has always been equal parts humiliating the gullible and hyperbolically praising fairly good karaoke singers only for them to be dropped from Cowell's record label a year later, some will have doubtless come to the conclusion that the entrapment of Contostavlos by the News of the World's, sorry, the Sun on Sunday's (®Roy Greenslade) Mazher Mahmood is something of a comeuppance.  This though would be the conclusion of a pretty heartless bastard, especially as it seems we now have something of an insight into just how far the Sun and Mahmood went to gain Contostavlos's trust before then performing the classic sting of asking if she could get some drugs for her new best friends.

Last Sunday's People (yes, I know) carried a report claiming that as well as being caught out in the drug sting, Contostavlos had also been fooled into believing that she was to play the leading role in a Bollywood film charting the journey of a young woman from England to India.  The hoax was so sophisticated that it had gone on for months, involving Contostavlos being flown by private jet to America, where she also met some of her supposed co-stars.  While the People doesn't explicitly say that the hoax and the sting are connected, it most certainly would explain just why it was that Contostavlos came to be so trusting of those who were secretly filming her, and also why she was so inclined to boast about her contacts.  And if it isn't connected, then either the story's horrendously inaccurate, or someone's got hell of a lot of money to burn on trolling a celebrity.

It would also fit in precisely with Mahmood's recent modus operandi.  Before the News of the Screws was sadly sacrificed so that Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton could stay in their jobs for another couple of weeks, Mahmood and his team had carried out a similarly elaborate sting in an effort to prove the snooker player John Higgins was prepared to fix matches.  As revealed by the Sporting Intelligence website, the Screws set up a professional looking website designed to fool Higgins' manager Pat Mooney, who had already been plied with liberal amounts of alcohol, before flying both Higgins and Mooney to Ukraine, where they were swept through customs apparently thanks to the influence of their hosts.  The only problem was that Higgins felt something was wrong, imagining he could have got mixed up with the Russian mafia, and so despite the Screws' best efforts was non-committal to the proposed arrangement, as the independent tribunal later ruled.

Clearly, to fool Contostavlos required even greater extravagance and promises of riches.  Even then she didn't do what Mahmood obviously wanted her to, which was get the drugs and hand them over herself.  Instead she introduced the Sun to a friend who did the deal instead.  Naturally, for this truly heinous offence Contostavlos was promptly arrested by the Met's finest, who have always had a friendly relationship with the reporter who claims to have helped secure the convictions of hundreds of crims thanks to his good works.  If you're thinking there's a certainly irony to how the Sun predicted and then covered the arrest, both with front pages, while it devotes little in the way of space to the court appearances of its own reporters, then clearly you hate our great tradition of press freedom.

If anyone had been under the illusion that things would change after Leveson, then hopefully this will have fully shattered such notions. Subterfuge was only ever deemed permissible under the old PCC code if the material could not be obtained through other means, while fishing expeditions were expressly prohibited. There is no other way to describe Mahmood's methods than as entrapment.

And for what? To boost circulation ever so slightly? To put the jumped up Tulisa back in her place? To show that this "role model" is as hypocritical as all the rest? Pop star in knowing someone who deals drugs shock! It is truly pathetic gotcha journalism that interests the easily amused and bitter for a day, then it's gone. Contostavlos meanwhile is said to be devastated, as you might expect, and hasn't tweeted since the 31st of May. Last year she was praised for the way she responded to the release of a video which showed her performing a sex act on an ex-boyfriend. Despite it making clear that he has a grotty little nob, it was Contostavlos who was widely mocked, including by other celebrities. Last week the Sun headlined a follow-up piece "TULISA BLOWS IT AGAIN". It won't be much of a comfort to her, but it's undoubtedly the case that Mahmood too will mess up again, and hopefully this time he won't be able to carry on just as before.

(The Sun incidentally has denied most of the People's story and said it was false to say it "had spent as much as £100,000" on the investigation. £99,000 then, probably.)

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013 

Film review: Martyrs.

(Spoilers ahead, although I have tried to limit them on this occasion.)

One thing worth remembering at a time when the easy availability of pornography (violent or not) and extremist material is being blamed for the actions of individuals, with the Daily Mail wailing that something must be done, even if it doesn't have the slightest understanding of what it's talking about, is that we have been here before. Every five years or so a moral panic breaks out, whether it be about horror comics, Teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks, video nasties, gatherings of ten or more people listening to repetitive beats, or, lest we forget, emos.  Regardless of the content, only extremely rarely do individuals become so obsessed with such material on its own that it inspires them to act upon it in such a way as to harm others. More usually it requires the meeting of like minds, as seen in the plot to attack the EDL rally in Leeds, for such fantasies and grievances to come close to being acted upon.

When it comes to horror films, as Mark Kermode has always argued, watching them is not about sadism, it's about masochism. I'd go so far as to argue that the same is also true of the vast majority of those who visit "true gore" sites, where the content also seems to become ever more brutal. Where once it was the hell of Chechnya and Iraq during the worst of the conflicts in both countries that provided most of the material, so now it's Syria and Mexico that are the backdrops for the recorded bloodletting.

One thing that has thankfully not yet been recorded and released to the internet, although you can't help but sadly imagine it is now only a matter of time, is the torture of a kidnap victim over a long time period. The most notable recent film to attempt to portray something along those lines is Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier and another of those movies I've only just got around to watching.  Hyped from the beginning, with festival performances supposedly resulting not just in walk outs but carry outs, the director himself admitted that the film would be compared to the slew of films lumped together under the silly moniker of torture porn, a sobriquet which has nonetheless stuck.

While the film most certainly does owe a debt to both Hostel and Saw (more on which in a moment), it also takes just as much influence from the recent wave of French extreme cinema, Baise-Moi, Irreversible, and Haute Tension to name but three, as well as the early work of Michael Haneke.  Shot on 16mm in Montreal, the film opens with a young girl escaping from captivity, quickly followed by Super 8 footage apparently filmed by the doctors at the home where she is sent to recuperate.  Here we learn her name is Lucie, and she forms a friendship or perhaps attachment is a better description with another damaged girl, Anna.

We then move to what seems to be a normal domestic household, a brother and sister playfighting, and then a breakfast scene, all of which reminds of Haneke's Funny Games.  They're interrupted by a knock at the door.  As you might have guessed, from this point on all hell breaks loose.  Lucie, now grown up, has become convinced by a photograph in a local newspaper that the brother and sister's parents were responsible for her suffering.  From the outset though it's difficult to know what's real and what isn't; Lucie is stalked repeatedly by a human looking monster which sometimes she manages to escape from and which sometimes brutally slashes her.  Anna, alerted by Lucie to what's happened finds herself having to deal not just with the aftermath of her friend's actions but also her increasing apparent derangement.

Then everything flips on its axis.  From being a reasonably straightforward if unconventional revenge horror, it becomes, seemingly, something much deeper.  Who really was it that had kept Lucie captive in the first place?  Is it the work of a religious cult, or a ring of people who believe that the key to knowing what comes after death is through the transfiguration of long term suffering?  Is Lauiger making some kind of political point, whether about Guantanamo Bay and the rendition programme, or closer to home, the making of an idol out of Joan of Arc?  Is it a comment on the belief some Catholics have that it's through suffering that you get closest to God?  Is it, more simply, that regardless of the reasoning behind violence and torture, all such acts are essentially meaningless to the victim?

The answer to the last bunch of questions is no.  The ending, without giving it away, makes it abundantly clear that Lauiger is laughing at you for having imagined there was any deeper meaning to the past 100 minutes than this simply being a work inspired in part by Hostel and Saw.  There was, if you searched hard enough, an extremely slight social comment in the Hostel films on rich businessmen paying to kill middle class kids who had sought out their own pleasures of the flesh in eastern Europe, and the conceit in Saw is that Jigsaw is dying of cancer and seeks out those who he believes are wasting their lives to take part in his "games", hopeful that the catharsis they experience if they escape will make them change their ways.  Neither though was taken seriously as it was apparent these were just plot excuses to get the ketchup flying.

With Martyrs the last quarter of the film, which is close to being unwatchable such is the cruelty depicted, genuinely seems to be urging the viewer to think about why this is happening and also why it is that you're continuing to look at the screen.  Only then when you're expecting there to be some answers does Lauiger do the cinematic equivalent of sticking a middle finger right in your face.  Only then does it come apparent that you've been watching one of the most dishonest and pretentious films of the last few years, one that pretends to be saying something profound and then points and snickers at you for being so gullible as to fall for it.  All that's to be found in Martyrs is masochism, nothing more and nothing less.

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Monday, June 10, 2013 

Through the prism.

Whenever the security services are criticised, we always get the same boilerplate response.  They do amazing work keeping us safe; they have to get it right every time while our enemies only have to be lucky once; we can't possibly be told of everything they're doing to protect us so they often prevent attacks we never even hear about it; and so on.  To which the obvious answer is: well, no shit.  The point surely is that with great power comes great responsibility.  As with the police or any other state service, they have to be held to account, even if everything can't be disclosed for very good reasons.

For all the claims from politicians that our intelligence agencies are some of the most open in the world, they simply don't have regulators worthy of the name.  The Intelligence and Security Committee has yet to prove it is up to the task, even with its boosted powers, such were the lies it was told about our involvement in rendition, and indeed the whitewash which the committee itself applied.  Nor are the commissioners any better, while the previous reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, was practically a creature of the security servicesHis replacement David Anderson does at least seem slightly more worthy of the description independent.  It also doesn't inspire confidence that the latest chairman of the ISC, Malcolm Rifkind, also chairs LEK, which provides consultancy to arms manufacturers.

When William Hague then says the law abiding have nothing to fear from GCHQ potentially having access to almost every piece of information an individual has shared with the majority of the internet giants via the US National Security Agency's Prism programme, you ought to know that the opposite is the case.  The old trope about those who have nothing to hide having nothing to be concerned about is so hoary that it shouldn't really need to be answered, but it ought to be even more ridiculous in a sad age of "revenge porn" and when so many share their most intimate secrets online.  Almost every single person has something in their past that they wouldn't want to become common knowledge, or which they would only ever share with their closest friends and family.  I most certainly have.

Whether or not it is the case that GHCQ have been using Prism as a way of getting around our more stringent laws on data interception isn't clear.  Certainly, that there were 197 such requests last year makes apparent that it's useful for something, although whether or not they gained access to information they otherwise hadn't been able to get hold of with the authorisation of a secretary of state or court order we can't know.  The inference from Hague in the Commons today was that these requests are also authorised either by him or another minister, hence why he and Cameron have both said that everything GCHQ does takes place under a legal framework.

He did at least recognise there might well need to be a change in the law, taking the point from David Blunkett of all people that while ministerial approval might still be required, it is not legally required.  This rather misses the point that we shouldn't be using what another intelligence service is accessing without oversight when it goes beyond what our own laws currently stipulate is permissible.  The proposed communications bill, which the joint committee said went too far, only proposes that the information that a message or action has been sent (metadata) be kept by ISPs, not the actual content itself.  Prism, by contrast, sucks in everything, and it seems with a certain amount of connivance from the likes of Facebook and Google, despite their claims to the contrary.

You don't have to be Alex Jones to be worried that while this data collection might currently be used to (in the main) protect us, it wouldn't take much for it to be used for mass surveillance, and indeed probably already is in any number of authoritarian states.  It should also concern us that contrary to the assurances from politicians, the tide is in fact towards ensuring the security services are further beyond proper scrutiny.  The justice and security bill that ensures there won't be a repeat of the "seven paragraphs" case has become law, the Gibson inquiry's report (what there is of it) is still yet to be published, while the Chilcot inquiry also seems to be stuck in limbo.  The communications data bill will eventually get passed in some form or another, precisely because the securocrats have too much influence and power for it not to be.  Just as we have an independent commission to monitor the police, so we should have a genuinely independent one for the intelligence agencies.  What we'll continue to have instead is the stonewalling and obfuscation that Hague in the main delivered to parliament today, along with the usual toadying from the majority on all sides.

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Friday, June 07, 2013 


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Thursday, June 06, 2013 

Just as expected.

I can't help but have mixed feelings about Ed Miliband's big welfare speech, as it's been trailed all week.  The pragmatist in me thinks it was about as good as it was ever likely to be.  It makes some concessions to the way the Tories have attempted to depict everyone on benefits, regardless of what they're claiming, as a scrounger, but for the most part it takes the argument back to them.  This is what we would do to bring the social security (as Miliband repeatedly referred to) bill down, even if it takes time: by reducing unemployment through a job guarantee, building houses, allowing councils to negotiate with landlords on the behalf of tenants, encouraging employers to increase wages through giving them tax breaks via the money saved on tax credits.  What would the Tories do, other than keep eulogising about work while condemning those who are desperate for it?

Obviously designed as an attempt to win back the support of those who think they are the only ones deserving of benefits while everyone else is gaming the system while also fighting back against the myths the Tories and the right-wing press have propagated, it does seem to have been mostly successful.  If we were to judge by the Tory response, which has been to say the entire thing was vacuous or the same old nonsense from a party that has opposed every welfare cut the coalition has imposed (which isn't true, but never mind), then it seems to have hit the target.  Rather than engage, all they've responded with is ad hominems.  It also seems to have in the main gone down well with both right and left within the party itself, which considering the worry there was that Miliband was going to essentially adopt the coalition's policies is a reasonable achievement.

My idealist side, however, feels this was exactly what we'd feared.  It's one thing to suggest that it appears that some people get something for nothing out of the system while others get nothing for something, it's then quite another to accept that there are a "minority who should be working and don't want to", and then repeat that sentiment again and again.  It would be to deny reality to say there isn't anyone out there on benefits who is able to work but doesn't, but the numbers we're talking about are incredibly slight, so tightened has the system become.

You also have to worry that the party has walked straight into George Osborne's trap by accepting a cap on overall spending.  Miliband said that it would be structural, rather than cyclical, yet this is hardly set in stone.  When Osborne outlines what his cap will be and the benefits it will cover, the demand will be for Labour to accept that as well.  After all, the party has effectively said they'll abide by the overall amount of spending come 2015/16, just not the specific items.  Why should it be any different on this?

Nor was he convincing when it came to ensuring that the most vulnerable are properly protected.  There was no apology or recognition of the damage caused by the work capability assessment, rather Miliband said he'd wished the last government had reformed incapacity benefit sooner.  Yes, there was recognition that the system still isn't working despite changes under the coalition, and that there needs to further changes so that the test recognises what you can do rather than just what you can't, but we've heard all this before.  The sad reality is likely to be that this "tailored help", should it even arrive, will be the same as those on the work programme are receiving, where the stick comes first and the carrot second.  Much the same can be expected for those called into the Jobcentre once their child reaches the age of 3.

There's also little to recommend the section on low wages.  Rather than action, all Miliband promises is more persuasion.  While it's understandable that Labour doesn't want to promise a large increase in the minimum wage towards a living one when the effect could potentially be devastating on some small businesses, that doesn't excuse the failure to act to stop large employers from paying wages that still leave workers in poverty.  Condemning zero hour contracts and brutish work places is meaningless if Labour is unwilling to do something about them.  As welcome as the message is that work isn't always an end in itself, Miliband said nothing that so much as suggests the party knows how to stop business from reling on the state to top up poor pay.

Then again, why should we have expected anything else?  Rather than challenging public perceptions or media narratives, the modern politician accepts them as gospel and adapts their message accordingly.  It was Labour that began this race to the bottom, and now it's desperately trying to catch up.  In those terms, the speech worked.  If it does convince a few that Labour are worth trusting again, great.  Clearly, we should worry about what it means for the welfare state as we know it another day.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013 

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Oh, the fun there clearly is to be had on Twitter if you're a member of the squabbling classes.  Somehow, I'd managed to avoid knowing about this whole "check your privilege" thing, which has apparently become err, quite the thing.  On the surface, it's a perfectly reasonable concept and is closely related to thinking before you speak, only for those who spout on about politics. Do you have personal experience of the subject you're talking about? If you don't, do you think that if you had it might change your perspective?

Only, as is the way of the internet, it's gone beyond this and turned instead into a way to shut down debate and maintain the walls between self-identifying groups, some of whom are incredibly quick to take offence at the slightest perceived insult. Think the row that blew up after Suzanne Moore's throwaway remark that women were meant to aspire to the body image of a Brazilian transsexual, which quite incredibly led to someone trying to claim that she might have further incited hatred against the already under threat transsexual community there.

Enter both Louise Mensch and Dan Hodges, neither of whom are impressed with how this phrase seems to have become popularised. Not that Hodges actually argues against it, he just mocks it, which is pretty much how he approaches everything he disagrees with.  As for Mensch commenting on privilege, wouldn't it be lovely if all of us could abandon those we'd pledged to represent for 5 years to move to the US? Her wider point, that feminists in the US organise while those over here argue on the internet, is also easily disproved.

There are though obvious problems with approaching subjects from this perspective, and these haven't been adequately answered by those defending the practice. First, that it is utterly ridiculous to expect a work of fiction to address how you specifically identify yourself. As a twenty-something white British male, I literally couldn't give a shit about a bunch of twenty-something white American upper middle class females, which is why I haven't watched Girls. When Caitlin Moran tweeted she literally couldn't give a shit about how Girls doesn't include people of colour, despite being set in Brooklyn, she wasn't being racist, just pointing out that it's incredibly difficult to write about something you have very little knowledge of.  Lena Dunham might have plenty of black friends and acquaintances, or she may not, but clearly what she knows best and can both portray and satirise in equal measure is the world that she has lived in and experienced.  Write about what you know.  It's one thing to expect a soap opera to reasonably represent the wider world we live in, since it's at least somewhat attempting to be realistic, it's another to demand it of a comedy set in a contained world, however much it purports to be commenting on how we live now.

Second is the dead end of intersectionality.  I would say this as something of an old socialist, but there is nothing that divides and also unites us as much as class.  This isn't to deny that gender, race and sexual orientation don't also have a major impact on prejudice, or that at times they don't all interrelate, it's that this compartmentalising of everything is getting us nowhere.  The emphasis on identity politics has achieved many things, but it hasn't succeeded in having an impact on overall inequality.  Nor does it help when Laurie Penny comes across as condescending of anyone who doesn't understand the theory, saying that schoolchildren have been using the term on the internet for years.  Have they? Are all schoolchildren now studying sociology at an advanced level?

Third, and most importantly, asking someone you disagree with to check their privilege doesn't work when those they're actually talking about act in ways that don't fit their own prejudices.  Consider the extremely sad case of Emma West, the woman whose rant on a tram in Croydon went viral after someone filmed it and put it on YouTube.  To say that she was demonised wouldn't be putting it too strongly; here was the reality of casual racism in modern Britain, in all its uneducated, drunken glory, or so went the majority of the responses.  Only today did we learn of West's background when she pleaded guilty to the charge of a racially aggravated public order offence: she's suffered from depression since she was 18, and had only been released from a psychiatric ward two months previously.  On the day itself she had taken a double dose of her medication, explaining why she seemed inebriated.  Since the video was posted online the hearing itself has been repeatedly postponed due to her mental health, something not helped by the fascists and racists of both the National Front and BNP wanting to befriend her.  Thankfully, the judge has indicated he will be imposing a community rather than a custodial sentence.

Whatever the original worthy intention was, the "check your privilege" meme has turned into just another example of social networks reinforcing our original views rather than challenging them.  Despite Penny writing of bloggers changing their perspective when challenged with better information, my experience is overwhelmingly of the opposite, and as Twitter is a supercharged version of a personal blog, it only exacerbates this further.  Nothing gets solved, and unnecessary antagonism and mockery are the end result. Some of which, quite frankly, is downright deserved.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013 

Breaking out of the Tory trap.

Trying to get your head around where Labour stands less than two years away from the election isn't easy. In theory, the party looks to be in decent shape: ahead in the polls, Ed Miliband the most secure main party leader, however strange that seems, and proven right about austerity choking off growth, as even the EU has now acknowledged.

And yet, things could clearly be better. The poll lead is shallow to say the least, Ed Miliband's ratings are as bad as Cameron's, and the party isn't trusted on the economy, despite the coalition's abject failings. Labour Uncut at times reads like a journal of despair. The pessimists know how difficult it is to defeat a government after a single term, even one as unconventional as our unholy coalition, while the optimists cling to the fact that the governing party hasn't succeeded in increasing their share of the vote at the next election since 1974.

If there is one message coming through loud and clear from the electorate at the moment, it's contempt for politicians in general. Nor is this surprising when the economy's lousy, wages are falling in real terms and when there isn't any real alternative on offer from the opposition, let alone the promise of something better to come. It doesn't exactly inspire then when Ed Balls comes out and all but commits to keeping to the level of spending set out by the coalition for 2015/16 should Labour win the election.

For that was the real story to come out of the speech Balls made yesterday morning.  This wasn't the first time that Balls had all but suggested the party would do so, only the last time he did there was such a (justified) outcry from the unions that the subject wasn't broached again.  Yesterday, apart from a few noises from the GMB union, there was no such protest.  Partially, that's down to how things have changed since and how catastrophic the coalition's helming of the economy has been.  An economy that was beginning to recover in 2010 has since stagnated, making the next government's inheritance potentially even worse than the one the coalition had in 2010 and which they have made so much of ever since.  It's also a recognition though that regardless of widespread discontent, there hasn't been anything approaching a unified protest against austerity, unlike on the continent.

It's exceptionally close to being a paradox.  The often heard complaint is that politicians are all the same, and it's certainly true that on most domestic measures there's little real difference between the main three.  At the same time though voters tell pollsters they don't trust a party that's offering a subtle but significant difference to the government's economic policy, leading that party to move to reassure voters they can be trusted by signing up to their overall spending plan.  That doesn't mean they'll spend on the same things, just that the same overall amount will be splashed out.  This, Labour's thinking goes, will be the message that gets through.

Except as we saw, through also looking for specific spending to cut in an attempt to respond to Tory jibes about opposing everything, the media focused on means testing winter fuel payments.  Balls also suggested stopping free schools from opening in areas where there's plenty of secondary capacity already, abolishing police commissioners and cancelling "titan" prisons as other areas where savings could be made, but these strangely didn't have the same impact as stopping payments to well-off pensioners.  Much nonsense was spoken about how this could be the beginning of the end of universal benefits, or how the Tories might exploit Labour's change of position, when it's clear this was designed to be a gesture and little more.

Deserving of far more concern is that Balls floated the idea of having an overall welfare cap that differs according to the cost of housing around the country, meaning effectively it should be higher in London where prices are silliest, very one nation, and that on Thursday Ed Miliband is due to give a speech that is being briefed as Labour agreeing with the Tories on the need for a "structural" cap on welfare spending.  There's no point whatsoever in saving £100m by stopping payments to comfortable pensioners if there are then further cuts to working age benefits that have already been so squeezed by the coalition, as the IFS today made clear.

All this feeds into Labour's biggest problem: the party hasn't worked out where it intends to stand and fight come the election.  Despite the sloganising, Miliband still has failed to set out exactly how he intends to tame predator capitalism, nor has he attempted to define what he means by One Nation Labour.  He and Balls have said they want to bring back the 10p tax rate, but not explained how that would fit in with changes made under the coalition.  The party rightly opposed the 1% freeze on benefits, yet now seems to have decided to give in and ape the Tories.  With the rise of UKIP politics is undoubtedly being pulled further towards the right, and there are plenty within Labour who are perfectly happen to continue with the old policy of triangulation, epitomised by the murmurings over allying with the Tories to get the communications bill through in the face of Lib Dem opposition.

Needed most of all is a vision that contradicts the Tory myth of being in a global race where the only way to compete is by slashing hard won rights and protections.  We already know how the Tories intend to fight in 2015: attack Miliband as a creature of the unions, say all Labour want to do is borrow more, and claim they are incapable of taking tough decisions.  The best possible answer to that is for Miliband to set out how he intends to govern, as the knowledge that he couldn't possibly be as terrible at it as the coalition isn't going to cut it.  Nor is Ed Balls' message that the answer to too much is austerity is more austerity going to suffice.  Labour can win in 2015, but will fail miserably if the best the two Eds can offer is that they'll be the Tories with a kinder face.

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