Monday, March 31, 2014

News of the Screws - is the traditional Sunday scoop returning?

It was as if a time-shift had occurred yesterday, with several tabloids leading their Sunday morning coverage with a classic kiss-and-tell sex scandal concerning one of the Great and the Good - in this instance, a Tory MP who was, perhaps, not so very great or so very good, but tabloids can't be choosers.

One of the great pressure group successes of recent years has been the Hacked Off campaign's targeting of the tabloid press, which some argue has led to a 'fear factor' amongst the papers that has denuded them of the classic sex scandal story.  Alex Wickham on Breitbart suggests that the climate of fear is gradually disappearing, and that the Sundays in particular may be resorting to type.  He also suggests, more tantalisingly, that there are more sex scandals still to come, although that these should concern primarily gay MPs could be an issue of concern.  Are they scandals because of the sexual orientation of the MP, or because there is a legitimate public interest to be served?  The recent Menzies case hasn't yielded a huge public interest case it has to be said - the story seemed in many respects to be a rather desperate one (a bit like the MP it reported on).

Nevertheless, if Wickham is correct, then the success of Hacked Off - whose activities are extensively reported by their principal mainstream media supporter, the Guardian, here - may indeed prove to have been merely temporary.  It takes more than a well organised, celebrity headed pressure group to stop the tabloids doing what they do best it seems - raking the muck.

UnBanning Books and Labour Party Faultlines - AS update on pressure groups and parties

The Howard League for Prison Reform has once again managed to raise the profile of a key issue in the conduct of our prisons management, and this time it's a reaction to a recent change proposed by the seemingly besieged Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Mr. Grayling signed off on a policy last November to stop prisoners receiving, amongst other restriction, books.  His intention was to provide a more rigorous incentives policy within prisons to encourage good behaviour, and at first the policy passed with little notice.  Then, the Howard League for Prison Reform's director, Frances Crook, wrote a piece for online site criticising the policy, and a storm ensued. raised a petition about it, and a range of prominent authors joined in the chorus of opprobrium towards the policy.  The Guardian's Lindsay Mackie goes through the events and their possible consequences here.  As yet, Mr. Grayling has not offered to make any changes, but with a far higher profile accorded to his hitherto unnoticed ban, he may yet feel forced to bow to public pressure.  After all, stopping prisoners from reading does seem to be a particularly harsh and retrograde step.

Meanwhile, the Observer's seasoned political commentator Andrew Rawnsley has sought to identify the faultlines underlying Ed Miliband's Labour Party.  What is interesting is his assessment that most of these faultlines relate to strategic positions held by senior figures rather than substantive policy differences.  Indeed, the main area of specific policy mentioned in his piece is that of devolution versus centralisation.  So as an explanation of the party's current policy position, it is perhaps of less value than a raw political assessment of how a party looks at winning power.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pressure Groups Update for AS Students

38 Degrees – A very modern pressure group

One of the most active pressure groups in Britain at the moment is 38 Degrees, who are not limited to a single issue, and are thus a multi-cause group.  Their over-riding principle could probably be described as “people power”, and the desire to allow ordinary people the right to influence policy over a range of issues.  They have thus taken up a range of such issues.  Recent campaigns have included lobbying against the so-called Gagging Bill (more officially, the Lobbying Bill, designed to limit groups’ spending in elections by regulating such expenditure); gathering thousands of signatures to support MP Paul Burstow’s Commons amendment on hospital closures (which he then withdrew, to much criticism); action on flooding in the UK and data protection.  Success is varied – on the Lobbying Bill, for instance, they did not in the end gain the demise of the bill that they wanted. 

The 38 Degrees website is a comprehensive one, describing campaigns, blogging on their progress (good or bad) and giving a good overview of the group’s actions.  Nevertheless, they are in danger of being seen more as a centre-left political action group than a genuine pressure group, especially given the multi-faceted nature of their issue coverage which differentiates them from most single-issue pressure groups.  The website carries a podcast which questions the basis on which 38 degrees selects its campaigns.  The podcast acknowledges 38 Degrees’ success in mobilizing public support, but asks whether it is simply focusing on left-wing causes, and thus even acting as a left-wing spamming organization?  One of the reasons for this latter accusation is that 38 Degrees stands as a strong example of internet activism, in that they claim over a million supporters, not least through internet and social media mobilization.  They are, perhaps, the epitome of a very modern pressure group.

High Speed Rail

The government’s High Speed Rail project (HS2) continues to make news.  Today, its new chairman, David  Higgins, is reported as urging speedier action on getting HS2 into the North.  His comments, extensively reported here, (with responses being followed here), are undoubtedly a response to the strong support being given to HS2’s opponents.  The HS2 Action Alliance has been very successful in getting news coverage and opinion formers to articulate opposition to the HS2 plan, with Peter Mandelson leading the current charge against it that it will not benefit the North as its proponents claim.  To date, however, the Conservatives remain committed to the project, although Labour’s Ed Balls has indicated they would thing again if elected.

When Businesses Collide

Chancellor George Osborne is facing the problem of strong influence from two competing sectors of the energy industry over his plan to curb his proposed carbon tax.  This government came to power committed to green taxes, and their coalition partners are equally supportive.  Nevertheless, the non-‘green’ companies have a significant advantage in the battle against taxes – they control consumer bills.  What is currently persuading Osborne to back down on his carbon tax pledge is the prospect of increased consumer bills.  The Renewable Energy Association may hate the fact that this could imperil the development of green energy sources, but the fact is that nothing concentrates the mind of a politician as much as the electorate’s spending costs – and few leaders want to increase those.

Spreading the Message

Pressure Groups and trade associations will use any method they can to spread their message, and one opportunity is to use the burgeoning number of websites to do so.  Internet democracy is also a free noticeboard for organisations, and one example is the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union, who have taken the opportunity of the website’s ‘Opinion Formers’ page to advertise their concerns about cheaper bread.  Their article and video are here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mourning Bob Crow

It is always difficult to know how to treat the death of a controversial public figure, especially when it is someone who provoked strong reactions, and often adverse ones.  This was not a difficulty that particularly afflicted Bob Crow on Margaret Thatcher's death.  He hoped, he mused publicly, that she would rot in hell for what she had done to Britain.  No humbug in death there then.

So although Mr. Crow's death has come rather more unexpectedly, and thus rather shockingly, than the late Prime Minister's, it would be good to think we might apply the same principles to him that he so happily applied to Thatcher.  There is, in fact, rather less to say about Mr. Crow as it happens.  That he is a far less significant figure than Mrs. Thatcher is beyond question, and much of the prominence of his obituaries and tributes stems from the fact that he was a current union leader, very much in the driving seat of tube drivers' militancy in London at the moment.  Had he died, as he might reasonably have expected, some time after his retirement, it is unlikely it would have been such headline news.

Bob Crow was immensely irritating to those who used the tube, and utterly impervious to the needs of thousands of ordinary Londoners if the convenience of their travel got in the way of his own hard bargaining with tube bosses or the mayor.  In this instance he was indeed a classic union leader.  His priorities were the pay and welfare of his members, and he pursued them with a bloody-mindedness that certainly seeemed to work. It didn't, to be honest, take much political skill to do this.  Crow led a group of workers who controlled a monopoly system of transport in London.  They themselves did little to promote the wealth and prosperity of the city they depended on, using its growth as a bargaining chip for better pay and perks, and yet they were instrumental in its smooth running.  It is difficult to begrudge Crow his success in exploiting that simple dynamic.  He identified the fact that his workers controlled a key artery of the city and - good communist that he may have been - used the iron law of the market to bring munificence to his drivers.  It was not his fault that tube drivers were all gathered into one union, and he was entirely justified in using that situation to his and his members' advantage.  There are many who might argue that £44,000 a year for tube drivers remains cheap at the price in a city where so many bankers and attendant capitalist blood-suckers - whose positive impact on their society is dubious at best - can command hundreds of thousands, and even millions of pounds.

Crow may be the last of the successful union militants.  He recognised, as his successors surely will too, that the ongoing automation of the tube will eventually undermine the RMT's ability to hold Londonders to ransom for their own advantage.  That's obviously bad news for tube workers, but good news for Londoners generally, and Bob Crow's brand of union leadership, successful as a last gasp of bull-headed worker militancy, will be consigned to the dustbin.  Not everyone will be cheering that London can be left to the whims of the rich, wealthy and profligate with no recognition of the poor bloody worker. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Persian Fire Reduces Athens in 300, Rise of an Empire

Went to see the new '300' film, this time showing the Athenian fight against the Persians' gay friendly emperor, Xerxes.  Great spectacle - especially on the IMAX screen - but disappointing in terms of story.  The BBC's Mark Kermode commented that despite so much going on on the screen, it remained an uninteresting film (his eviscerating review in the Observer is here).  The history is nonetheless fascinating, and I'd recommend anyone to go and read Tom Holland's superlative book "Persian Fire", which gets your fascination with the ancient world racing through this grippingly told tale. 

I have reviewed the film here

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Republicans' Hate For Obama Turns To Love For Putin

If he was running for the Republican nomination for president Vladimir Putin would probably win with room to spare.  They love him, those warmongering old neo-cons, especially when compared with weak, vacillating Barack Obama.  Sarah Palin's in a swoon because Putin "wrestles bears and drills for oil", while former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani admires his decisiveness.  The Republican onslaught on President Obama seems to have admiration for the man they want to war against at its heart.  We have to go to war with Putin, they seem to be saying, but (sigh) what a man to admire nonetheless.

This nonsense tell us everything we need to know about the fatuousness of the Republican foreign policy outlook.  Two Republican presidents failed to come to terms with a post-Soviet world (or in the case of a third, Reagan, a transformational Soviet world) and certainly weren't willing to risk confrontations with Russian leaders if it meant direct action.  The most any of them managed to conjure was when Ronald Reagan - usually happy to speak loudly and carry a pantomime stick - agreed to send aid to the Afghan mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviet invaders.  That went well. The Soviets were duly defeated (like their own economic weakness wouldn't have accomplished that anyway?) and the friendly mujahadeen turned out not to be so friendly, using their American provided know how and weapons against, ahem, the United States.

At least Barack Obama tried to develop a new, 21st century world-view (rather unfortunately termed a 're-set').  That he has so far run into serious difficulties is not exactly his fault, but then the man in the White House is expected to resolve unresolvable problems that comfortable pundits the western world over all have clear, unworkable solutions to.  It comes with the territory of winning those four-yearly November elections.

Republicans - and a good few fellow-travelling hawks in Britain - urge tough, if largely undefined, action on Obama, and claim his weakness in ceding to the Russian plan for Syria has given Putin a further impetus in the current Crimean crisis.  Which is of course nonsense, but sounds good when you haven't got the foggiest idea about what is actually happening (which few of us have, to be fair).  Obama could not have done anything else with regards to Syria, even if he had wanted to, as the US Congress (Republicans heavily in charge in the House don't forget) was not going to authorise the use of force.  In this, they were following the example already set by the British House of Commons (although what on earth David Cameron thought he had to spare on the military hardware front if the vote had gone his way is a mystery to all).  Obama in fact achieved a pretty impressive diplomatic success by then joining with Russia and putting them in the lead in recovering the Syrian chemical stockpile.  A far better result than any Iraq-style solution.

And it is Iraq that still casts its shadow over US foreign policy making - or more precisely, George W Bush's own foreign policy is casting the shadow.  Bush may have fallen in love with Putin (he was the one who could apparently see into his eyes and identify truth, honesty and integrity there) but his gung-ho policy in other lands is what has lead to the catastrophic American retreat now.  Not only has the Bush policy left Iraq in an abysmal, murderous state, but it has infected the polity across the Middle East and finally exposed America as a superpower no longer able to act with any level of conviction.  Bush ruined Iraq, damaged America's international standing probably beyond repair, and exhausted Americans' own desire for any further foreign involvement.  Obama is having to deal with that legacy.  That he would have few strategic options available with regards to Crimea even if he didn't have the toxic Bush legacy hovering over everything is a further reason to acknowledge that tough action - whatever that should be - may be beyond America's ability.  As it was when Putin's predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, invaded Prague in 1968.

Obama's virtue as a statesman is his understanding of the limits of American power,  but in the supercharged atmosphere of modern American politics he'll get no credit for that, especially not from the Republicans who so admire Vladimir Putin, a man described by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as living in 'another world'.  Come to think of it, that's another thing he holds in common with the Republicans.


Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast on "Why Neocons Love Obama"
Andrew Sullivan on his Daily Dish considers different opinions on Obama's foreign policy.
Simon Tisdall of the Guardian sees Crimea as an example of western hypocrisy, in a piece for CNN.
Jan Techau of Carnegie Europe lists the major mistakes made by the EU in its Ukraine dealings.