What I’d like to see less of in 2012

December 21, 2011

I had barely nominated David Eastwood for Bright Green Scotland’s Dick of the Year award when, as if I’d summoned a daemon from the west midlands, an article of his appeared in the Guardian education supplement. Don’t underestimate this man; he is the embodiment of all that is wrong with higher education. He bans student protests on campus. He sits on the board of USS pensions, screwing over academics across the nation. He suspends student union officers for protesting against Lib Dems in their free time. He takes a cavalier attitude towards his staff, not only those striking over pensions, but also cleaning staff, paid poverty pay whilst he himself takes £419,000 (page 42 – by my reckoning that’s more than the British Prime Minister and the US President combined) back to his rent-free house which recently had over 200 grand spend on it in a refurb. He sat on the Browne review panel. This really is a man who acts like the CEO of a corporation, who sees higher education as a commodity to be bought and sold, and universities as private businesses, not public instruments for social change.

This article is further evidence of that fact. Bizarrely comparing policy-making to both croquet and sausage-making, Eastwood pines for the days when laws were put together behind closed doors “with university leaders, mandarins and ministers locked in serious, often fierce, but apparently seemly debate”. Notice here he refers to ‘university leaders’. I presume he means people like himself, not students or staff. Clearly he thinks the stakeholders in higher education have no place at the table when discussing policy which directly affects them. We must not only keep policymaking away from the people, but even away from their representatives, according to Eastwood, “legislation would finally pass, on the rare occasion it was necessary, without parliamentary debate boiling over.” Oh heaven forbid we’d have a debate in Parliament!! Obviously etymology isn’t his strong point.

And yet, despite holding a certain disdain for democracy, Eastwood still claims that there is a consensus “that students should contribute more and the taxpayer less to the cost of higher education.” Few could see the mass demonstrations in the streets and honestly call it a consensus. “Make no mistake” he writes, “both political sides committed before the election to legislating Browne”. Laughably, he can’t seem to be able to conceive of anything more progressive than New Labour’s higher education policy, as if the Tories and New Labour represent the two sides of the debate.

“A few, sometimes too few, sought to make workable policy – notably, and laudably, the minister for higher education, David Willetts…” David Willetts will go down in history as the man who destroyed higher education in theUK, and rightly so. Notice that Eastwood implies that the alternative – education provided and funded by the state – is unworkable. Apparently he just can’t understand how to make taxes higher, or to just collect all the tax we’re already owed, and invest the extra revenue in education. How that would work is just beyond his comprehension. Never mind that that’s what happens in most of Europe. Never mind that free education of a sort still remains in Scotland. It’s unworkable, can’t be done.

Apparently fees aren’t even important! It’s ok if they put a price tag on your education, and if you end up repaying your debts for the rest of your life, because none of the fees are up front. “There are no upfront fees,” says Eastwood, “and the repayments are proportionate to income, which is a proxy of sorts for personal benefit.” You know what else is proportionate to income? Income tax. In fact income tax is more progressive than that, because you not only pay a proportion of your income, but you pay a higher proportion of it if you earn more. So the people who benefit most from society end up paying more for society’s higher education. Sounds fair to me.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the fees arrangement is progressive. Student support is incredibly important, as Eastwood argues, and arguably in practical terms substantially increasing student support could have a more positive impact on students’ lives than getting rid of fees. But there is a wider point to be made here. By taking away public funding for higher education in such a dramatic way, Browne and the government are making the ideological point that education is not an instrument for social change, it’s not an institution built and provided by society for its own betterment, universities are not repositories and generators of knowledge and expertise, and they’re not even merely a way to address the needs of the job market and promote growth. By funding education from students’ pockets, the government is setting a precedent for higher education to be provided privately. Education is now not a right but a privilege. It is now not part of the core activity of the state, but instead something that can be done entirely separately from it. We’re even seeing some HE institutions not being subject to public procurement laws because so little of their funding comes from the public purse. The fees aren’t important just because they cost students money and because they put students off attending university. They’re important because they’re replacing public funding, and they represent the commoditisation of education.

According to Eastwood, the people who make these kinds of arguments don’t really care about or understand education. They just want to use policy debates for less noble, transient purposes. “Higher education is truly too important to be left to the ideologues.” Eastwood wants to deregulate fees, he wants to commoditise education, he wants education policy to be formulated behind closed doors without representatives of the stakeholders, he can’t understand how higher taxes would work, and he has the gall to call his opponents ideologues. The man has no shame.

Eastwood can’t even address the very legitimate arguments made against the Browne review. He implies that the majority disagree with it because they jumped to conclusions before it was released, and then dismissively throws together all the different reasons someone might disagree with the recommendations of the report, as if those who “want a wholly publicly funded system”, those who are convinced Browne wouldn’t work, and those who “want a system where the interests of institutions win out when they come into tension with those of students” are the same and can be dismissed in the same way. An article which addressed all of these concerns might have been worth reading. This one wasn’t, unfortunately.

Is privatisation inherently wrong?

July 28, 2011

Hell yes.

Last night I was at a very well-attended community meeting at Meadowbank Stadium, where local councillors were invited to explain what’s happening around the plans to privatise £1bn worth of public services at Edinburgh City Council. I say well-attended, but I mean well-attended by the public, not by the councillors. All the back-office functions like HR, revenue and benefits, council buildings maintenance, cleaners etc are all involved in these plans, along with environmental services including bin collections and looking after Edinburgh’s award-winning parks. That’s an awful lot.

If you haven’t heard anything about these plans then you’re not the only one. There has been little to no effective consultation of the public, and even Gary Peacock, the Liberal Democrat backbench councillor who attended the meeting, didn’t seem to know anything about the details of the plans. Indeed although the Labour group and the Green group have consistently voted against the privatisation of services, really the only people that have been keeping track of the developments and holding the council leaders accountable for these plans have been the trades unions. It’s not the councillors who are standing up for the interests of the people; that duty has fallen to trades union organisations like Unison and PCS, who I’d urge you to support. The SNP, despite being one of the larger groups on the Council, couldn’t find anyone to attend this meeting, or the last one on the same topic about a month ago.

Anywho over the past week I’ve been asked several times what’s so bad about privatisation, so I thought I’d put a post together on the topic. I took a quick look at it a couple of months ago but it’s worth revisiting. Let’s have a list:

1) The efficient private-sector is a myth. There are only a small number of ways in which private companies can run a public service more efficiently. Let’s have another list:

  • Reduce the quality of the service
  • Sack people
  • Pay their employees less
  • Hire less qualified staff
  • Reduce working terms and conditions

If the private company is being more efficient in other ways (so let’s say they change supplier and buy a necessary product at a lower price), then those options are also open to the government in-house, and the privatisation isn’t necessary. What privatisation essentially does is pass the service onto a company where the trades union representation isn’t as good, so they can treat their staff worse than they could get away with if they did it in-house. I don’t think that’s what the people want.

I’ve said it a million times before, but there are 2 types of efficiency. The one that private companies are concerned with is money earned vs money spent, whereas the one that government should be concerned with is money spent vs quality of the service. There is a real danger when you privatise services that you get a race to the bottom, where companies are willing to compromise on the quality of a service in order to slip through the cracks in procurement processes that aren’t tight enough, and thus get awarded public contracts.

Remember too that a large proportion of the money the government pays will go straight into the pockets of shareholders rather than towards paying for the service. That’s another huge layer of inefficiency which doesn’t seem to get recognised often enough.

2) It takes control of public services away from your representatives. Now if you’re not happy with a public service, you can go to your councillor and tell them, and because it’s carried out by the council, they can try to change the service. Once the service is privatised, you go to your councillor and complain about it, and they’ll send you to go and talk to a private company, and they’ll more than likely tell you to sod off, because they’re carrying out the service as it was defined in their contract, and as long as they’re doing that they’ll get paid, so they don’t give a monkeys if you’re happy with it or not. Privatisation takes the control of resources away from democratic structures. So does capitalism by the way, but there you go. The heads of the IMF and WTO aren’t elected. There’s a very specific part of this which I think deserves its own point.

3) Contracts limit democratic control over a service. Due to European tendering law, once the specification for a contract has been written, whichever company can fulfil that specification for the lowest price has to be chosen. Whilst on paper this is a good idea because it helps to prevent government corruption, in practice it is terribly limiting, and companies can often sneak through the gaps in the specification if they’re not written tightly enough, as they often aren’t. That’s why the University of Edinburgh banks with RBS, because its ethical investment policy didn’t form part of the specification when it went out to tender, and so it was legally obliged to choose RBS, to the dismay of many of its students.

It’s also not unheard of at all for private companies to stick to the exact letter of their contractual agreements, even when a higher level of service would clearly be overwhelmingly in the public interest. So as a hypothetical example whereas a school caretaker working for the council would clear the whole playground of snow, a private company might choose to just clear a path from the gate to the front door in order to stay within its contractual obligations whilst saving money. Any subsequent changes to the contract are met with huge charges.

4) There’s no guarantee that the terms of the contract can be met. As we saw with the trams fiasco, a company can claim to be able to complete a project with a certain amount of money, but then realise that they can’t do that. The council is then left with a choice, either they can give more money to this company to finish the job, or they can have a half-finished job that’s no use to the public, but which has cost the public lots of money. The threat of bankruptcy, which according to capitalist theory keeps standards high, is completely useless in this situation because it’s not just the company that loses out, it’s the people. In the case of the privatisation plans in Edinburgh, the City Council estimates it can save £90m, but what is the guarantee that they’ll be able to do so? And if the company runs out of money, where are they going to turn to to get more?

5) Private companies with dodgy records can be given contracts. Even just in these privatisation plans in Edinburgh, companies have slipped through the net and been allowed to continue in the procurement process, even though they’ve been found guilty of negligence causing workplace deaths, even though they’ve taken part in price-fixing. These companies don’t care about the welfare of their staff or the public, they care about money.

6) It’s a reactionary redistribution of wealth towards the rich. Public services primarily benefit working and middle class people because they’re the people that rely on them the most, and they’re the people that benefit from the jobs that are created by the provision of that service. Privatising that service not only risks its quality, but it also means that a big chunk of public money is taken from the pockets of the people and placed straight into the bank accounts of the rich shareholders in that company. On a small scale that’s not especially objectionable, but when privatisation is as hegemonic as it has been in the UK since the dawn of New Labour, it represents a systematic redistribution of wealth to the top.

7) Corruption becomes very real. When representatives are involved in the awarding of contracts for millions of pounds, corruption suddenly becomes a very real prospect. Not so long ago in the US we saw private prison contractors paying judges to send more kids to juvenile detention so that they’d make more money. This is the kind of thing that becomes a possibility when you start putting profit before the provision of service.

8. Privatisation is often a 1-way street. If and when it becomes obvious that a service would be better run in-house by the government, setting it up as a public service again can become impossible, because you’ve got to hire a tonne of staff, set up all the infrastructure all over again, and the cost of doing that is so prohibitive that you have to stay with the privatised arrangements, even if it’s a bad deal for the public, and the whole time you’ve got a private company that’s going to make the process of renationalisation as difficult as possible, because it’s in their financial interest to do so.

There are some situations where using private companies is understandable and possibly even beneficial. Situations where there’s a one-off job that needs doing, that requires special expertise that the council doesn’t have, and where it’s not practical to do it in-house. I’d argue that there are other ways to do those jobs, such as using central government resources and sharing them between councils. But even if you accept that premise, in this case we’re talking about privatisation of services which are already run perfectly well in-house. It’s not an extra burden that the council’s not able to deal with.

And there are plenty of examples of privatised services gone wrong. The trams in Edinburgh, BT in Liverpool, the Southern Cross nursing homes, the Elsie Inglis nursing home in Edinburgh, and the national rail service are just off the top of my head. The NHS is one of the most efficient health systems in the world (pdf)*, and is ranked #2 overall, and yet the government still wants to privatise huge swathes of it. It is ideological, not in the best interests of the public.

* I originally wrote “the most efficient health service in the world”, but that was based on 7 data points which isn’t exactly fair (HT Ian). It’s difficult to know for sure because I can’t find any papers on it, but the NHS comes 9th overall according to the WHO in 2000, and I think we spend less per capita on healthcare than all of the countries ranking higher, except for Japan. That would indicate to me that we’re probably 2nd to Japan in terms of efficiency. But the point remains, as the services near the top like Norway and Sweden, which spend a fairly comparable amount on healthcare, are almost entirely nationalised systems, and others that aren’t nationalised are very heavily regulated. Switzerland is also at the top, but it spends almost double what the UK does on healthcare.

Aaron Porter needs to get his act together

January 28, 2011

Eek – I only intended this to be a few hundred words. I suppose there’s a lot to say.

Edit: It seems a lot of people agree with me. At the march in Manchester, Porter was chased away by a group of about 200 students, and the person who replaced him to give a speech at the rally was egged and booed off the stage.

Aaron Porter is the current President of the National Union of Students. He’s a Labour careerist and he just follows the status quo, for which he’s been slated by anti-cuts groups across the UK. We’ll see him in Parliament before too long. Today he wrote this piece in the Guardian in which he defends his actions and says the NUS is ‘leading the movement’ sparked in response to the government’s attack on young people. As usual, I’ll take a look at some of his claims and give a response, as rationally as possible.

At several points in the article, he points out that the groups criticising make up a small minority and “represent few people other than themselves”, and that in contrast, he has a duty to represent all students in the debate. Really? Let’s not forget that the NUS leadership is elected under a very undemocratic system – students themselves don’t vote for the President, NUS delegates from each student union do. So Aaron Porter has the position that he has because of a poll of a small group of people themselves elected by a small minority of members (in my union about 4,000 people out of 28,000 voted in the last presidential election race – significantly less will have voted for the NUS delegate). This group is dominated by Labour careerists, and it decided not to fight for free higher education. His position has no legitimacy, so for him to criticise other groups on the basis that they don’t represent students is ludicrous.

Clearly, since he was elected under a broken system, Porter cannot claim to represent the views of students. But what he can do is try to represent their interests. I argue that he and the rest of the NUS leadership aren’t doing that. It is not in students’ interest to pay tuition fees, whether £3,000 or £9,000. It is not in students’ interest to pay a graduate tax. What is in students’ interest is free, fair and funded higher education, but NUS UK has given up on that. It’s sold out. Neither Aaron Porter nor the anti-cuts movement can claim to represent the views of the majority of students, but at least the anti-cuts movement is representing their interests.

What about Porter’s claim that the NUS has been ‘leading the movement’? I find it laughable. He gives two examples of NUS leadership: the march on 10th November, and the upcoming march in Manchester tomorrow. He also claims that the NUS called a series of campus actions – this is complete bollocks. Where groups did take action in the form of occupations, he failed to support them. He himself admitted that he was spineless in dealing with that action, the action that he is now claiming to have led. What a joke.

He doesn’t mention another ‘action’ that the NUS led: the candle-lit glowstick-lit vigil on the Thames, where a paltry couple of hundred people mourned the death of higher education, whilst around the corner tens of thousands were fighting to save it. Which of these two groups was acting in students’ interests?

I was at NUS Scotland’s candle-lit vigil outside Holyrood Parliament here in Edinburgh (there was no march happening up here, unfortunately). It was pathetic. A few too many speakers addressed a crowd of about 60 people in the dark, some holding candles but most not. A speaker from the St Andrews occupation was tagged on as an afterthought, and then speakers from other occupations were asked to come forwards, only to be denied the microphone. To his credit, Liam Burns tried to get some chants going, but it just felt wrong chanting ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ whilst holding a candle to mourn the death of higher education, and frankly it fell on its arse. The NUS has done some good things. It is good at mobilising students when it wants to be, and making Lib Dem candidates sign pledges gave the movement a focus. But right now it is not leading the movement as it should be, it is lagging far behind.

Stunningly, Porter then gives as an example of NUS leadership the fact that it is collaborating with other trades unions in organising the march tomorrow. This is a perfect example of how the NUS is lagging behind! Anti-cuts coalitions have been springing up all over the place, collaborations between anti-cuts campus groups and various trades union branches, and the NUS is nowhere to be seen! Groups like the Edinburgh Anti-Cuts Alliance, for example, have existed for months! Furthermore, trades union leaders have repeatedly called the student movement ‘an inspiration’. Do you think they’re talking about the glowstick-lit vigil? Somehow I think they’re talking about somewhat more direct action. The NUS has been lacking in its dealings with trades unions.

Porter then tries to manipulate the figures a little. Yes, over 650 unions do go into the NUS, and only a small number of those have passed motions of no confidence, but one of them was ULU, the union of the UK’s biggest university, and there are more in the pipeline. I looked at my local area to see what type of institution makes up the 650 unions figure, and lots of them are tiny 6th form colleges – less than 1% of unions doesn’t mean less than 1% of students. And how many unions haven’t yet had general meetings where motions of no confidence could happen? He is trying to imply that 99% of students approve of what he has done, when that is simply not the case; the vast majority haven’t spoken one way or the other.

Modern politics will not be swayed by street protest alone and that is why I am prepared to engage with Simon Hughes in his new role as the government’s “access advocate”.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know the NUS’s policy of back-room deals hasn’t exactly yielded the best results for students over the past decade. ‘Engaging with the process’ seems to mean arguing for something you think you can get, rather than something you want. It seems to mean dropping your principles to get something, anything, from politics. Aaron Porter can’t look at what’s happened in the past few days in Tunisia and Egypt and tell me that nothing is achieved by street protest.

He finishes his article by lamenting that the group is infighting, implying that these anti-cuts groups should comply with his agenda. But which group is really breaking away from the other? The 200 people on the banks of the Thames, clutching glowsticks in the dark, making a lame argument for a graduate tax, or the tens of thousands of people fighting against the biggest assault on the welfare state that this country has ever seen? If he wants unity in the student movement, he can come to us.

encourage anyone who believes the government is cutting too hard and too fast to join us in Manchester on Saturday or to safely and peacefully show our campaign has moved beyond London

“Cutting too hard and too fast”… isn’t that an Ed Miliband talking point? Fuck you, Porter.

Call to action – David Kato killed

January 27, 2011

I’m due in class in less than half an hour so this will be very quick. The news broke today that David Kato, the Ugandan gay rights activist, has been beaten to death with a hammer in his own home. This follows mass hysterical homophobia which was whipped up at least partly by gay-hating Christian evangelicals from the US, and an article in Uganda’s Rolling Stone (nothing to do with the American magazine with the same name) where pictures of gay people were published next to an encouragement to hang them. The preachers then backed away as if they had nothing to do with it. I’ve been trying to follow Kato’s activities for some time, he was certainly one of the bravest amongst civil rights campaigners. Some time ago,  Rachel Maddow interviewed the Ugandan MP behind new anti-gay laws, which would sentence gay people to death in some cases. Daylight is the best disinfectant, and people like this need disinfecting, so I’ll put the first part here.

It doesn’t end there though. There’s something you can do. Brenda Namigadde, a Ugandan lesbian in the UK, has been told she will be deported back to Uganda this week, where she will almost certainly be in danger from similar attacks, especially since that same Ugandan MP has taken an interest in her case. You can sign a letter to Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who can reverse the decision. This is a problematic area, Theresa May was against the repeal of Section 28, saying that it was necessary to ‘protect children’. Apparently she thinks you can catch the gay. However, she did say last year that people who were at risk in their own countries because of their sexuality would not be deported, so there is hope. Please, sign the letter.

Anti-Cuts demonstration

November 27, 2010

I’ve spent the last couple of days in an occupation at Edinburgh University, fighting against the cuts to education proposed by the coalition government in the UK. On Wednesday a group of students took over a lecture theatre in Appleton Tower, and the group has been there since then. What do we want? We have a pledge which we want the university to sign, and that’s it. I don’t think there’s anything controversial about it, and indeed I think the university largely agrees with it. The anarchists and socialists at the uni tend to take a leading role in these kinds of things at our university, and one of the benefits of that is that decisions are made using the consensus decisionmaking process of which I’m quite fond, and which was also used in the occupation for Gaza. I’ll expand on what that is towards the end of that post but first an update on what’s happening now and what will be happening in the near future.

Security were at first very reasonable. Matriculated students could access the building at night, and even non-students could access it during the day. The University Secretary did not come to speak to us until today because they’ve been tangled in graduations. Today she came down and said they’ll give a response to the demand on Monday. Then the head of security told us that we wouldn’t have access to the building over the weekend, except for informatics students who normally have access anyway. Unfortunately I had to leave this evening for a screening of the Blair/Hitchens debate (on now) and so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get back in until Monday morning. Until then, we have meetings in Teviot at 1pm tomorrow and Sunday for the outsiders to help plan for 2 more events happening this week.

Firstly there’s a Scotland-wide rally starting at Bristo Square, Edinburgh, on Tuesday 30th at 11.30am. We’re hoping to get a walkout from several of the local schools, and a good turnout from universities across Scotland. Tuesday night is also the EUSA AGM where there are 2 relevant motions. On Sunday, we’ll have another rally for the benefit of those who work and who are stuck in school.

I’m running out of battery so I’ll describe the consensus decisionmaking process later.

Edit: Ok, managed to get myself smuggled back inside now, I’ll be here til I go to work tomorrow afternoon. The consensus decisionmaking process is a way in which a group can make decisions and get things done without having any kind of a leader (which is why it’s so popular with the anarchists). Basically in any meeting, someone takes the role of a facilitator. Typically the group will sit in a circle but that’s not necessary. At the start of the meeting, people raise their hands to put things on the agenda, and someone taking the minutes writes it down. Then going through the agenda, people raise one hand to make a point, both hands to make a direct response to something that’s just been said, they make a P shape to suggest a proposal, and a T shape to make a technical point (something outside the discussion such as “we’re running out of time” or “the building’s on fire”). On top of that, if you agree with something someone’s said, you wave your hands, palms facing forwards. If you disagree, you move them side to side, palms facing down. That way noone gets shouted down and there’s no applause so everyone can be heard. The role of the facilitator is to make sure people aren’t ignored, and that points get prioritised properly (technical points obviously come first, direct responses come before normal points, and proposals are prioritised over general points, particularly when we seem to be exhausting a discussion).

So typically a discussion will involve various points being made on various aspects of the discussion topic, then after a while someone makes a proposal (an action to be taken, a decision to be made, or – particularly in something like an occupation where there are lots of meetings over a few days – a decision to postpone discussion until another time). The facilitator then takes what’s called a ‘temperature check’, where everyone that agrees with the proposal waves their hands, then the facilitator asks if anyone disagrees. This is the important part – the discussion does not move forwards until the disagreement is resolved in some way. So if there is disagreement, some make points for, others against, and there’s another temperature check. This can come to one of three outcomes. Either everyone ends up agreeing on one of the two options or a compromise, or the group decides not to make a decision either way given that there’s no agreement, or if only a small number of people disagree, the facilitator asks if their disagreement is a ‘block’ or a ‘stand aside’. As the name suggests, a block is used only if the group’s passing a proposal would mean they want to leave the group, whereas a stand aside is if it’s not a massive issue. If some people decide to block, the rest of the group votes on whether it’s acceptable to overrule or not. Obviously people don’t like doing this, so I’ve only seen a block overruled when there was just one person disagreeing.

I think the advantages of this system are pretty obvious. The group isn’t led by any kind of clique or leader, and it is not just a majority rule, the whole group comes to an agreement about what to do and everyone is relatively happy about what is decided. The disadvantages are that it breaks down when there is serious disagreement with a significant number of people, that it can take a long time, and that the individuals in the group will not necessarily be the same the next time, so a decision made by one group can be binding on another group of individuals. But so far it’s worked.

Muslims and immigration

November 20, 2010

Long-term readers will not be surprised to hear that I unashamedly despise Islam. Just like Christianity, I find its moral system immoral, it’s intolerant, and it’s based on shaky factual foundations. Indeed one of the few differences between Christianity and Islam is that there seem to be a great many more fundamentalist Muslims, and they seem to be more influential. That doesn’t affect me so much though.

What does affect me more, and what I see more on a day to day basis is the response to Muslims, the attitudes displayed towards them. It’s disgusting, and it makes me ashamed to be associated with people who are supposedly ‘on my side’, if such a thing existed. You see whilst I’m happy to say I hate Islam, I do not hate Muslims. Most of the Muslims I know are perfectly good and nice people, who thankfully do not follow the teachings of their religion like fundamentalists, just like most Christians don’t follow their religion to the letter.

Let’s start basic. Whenever the tabloids talk about Muslims, it’s always ‘them’ vs ‘us’. This is a very simple tool but I think it really gets to the root of it. It’s a signature mark of populism to refer to the majority as ‘us’ and then denigrate a minority by making them ‘the other’. Then they dehumanise the ‘other’. A week or so ago there was an old guy in the pub and he was talking about how the most common name for babies born in the UK last year was Muhammed. This was a Daily Mail lie, and I was happy to point that out, and when I mentioned that actually Oliver was the most popular name, the guy said “I don’t believe that.” Take it up with the Office for National Statistics then!

He then went on to say how Leicester was the first town in the UK where the indigenous population has been overrun, and this illustrates another problem; dog-whistle terminology. You see although newspapers like the Sun, Express, Mail, even the Telegraph and the Times sometimes, want to appeal to the populist bigoted masses, they have to hide behind terminology. Everyone knows what the press (and the EDL and the BNP by the way) mean when they say ‘indigenous population’. They mean white people. But they can’t say that because they’d get ripped apart, it’s too obvious. So what they do is hide behind words and myths, and the racists come flying in from all over the place, have their little rants and then take away a skewed version of reality and a chip on their shoulders. Terms like ‘ethnics’ and myths like ‘Winterval’. It helps perpetuate an untrue narrative which feeds the likes of the BNP.

Then we can see how it filters through into the general population. Comments on BBC’s Have Your Say or on the Daily Mail comments, as well as various groups set up on Facebook, say things like ‘Deport the Muslims who burnt the poppies‘ or ‘If you don’t like the England/Australian/Canadian/American flag, then I’ll happily help you pack’. Sorry but where did this assumption come from that all Muslims are immigrants? Here’s a prime example illustrating how the right-wing tabloids are deliberately deceiving, and succeeding in that deception, and yet the Press Complaints Commission wrings its hands and does nothing. It’s sickening. And since the word ‘immigrant’ has become a dirty word along with ‘asylum seeker’, they become vilified. They’re the other. They’re not us, so it’s ok to treat them like one homogenous group and then publically shit on them all in the press. And the Press Complaints Commission is so fricking toothless that they can get away with it.

Here’s another insane example of how deranged some people have become. During the whole (Not) Ground Zero (Not) Mosque fiasco, people were saying things like “When I can do what I want in Saudi Arabia I’ll let them do what they want here” or “When churches can be built in Saudi Arabia we’ll let them build Mosques here”. Let me just reiterate that. People were actually saying this. As if Saudi Arabia is a standard to live up to. And on top of that, since when is Saudi Arabia representative of Muslims? Especially the ones that have moved away from the Middle East!?

It gets worse, this is becoming the mainstream. In the last election, Labour’s manifesto had a section entitled ‘Crime and Immigration’, as if the two were intrinsically linked in some way, as if being an immigrant is a crime. That manifesto was put together by current Labour leader Ed Miliband, by the way. You’d think a guy of Jewish descent would be particularly aware of the dangers of populism, but apparently not. Was there a big outcry about this? Was there fuck. During the election campaign, Gordon Brown called a woman bigoted because she was apparently confused about where all these Eastern Europeans were flooding from (the clue’s in the question), and then apologised sincerely for his misjudgement. When Labour eventually lost, they blamed it on their weak stance on immigration. And now, as if their record is spotless, they’re kicking out Phil Woolas and pretending he’s not like them.

Why is it that in politics these days, the only acceptable answer to the question ‘where do you stand on immigration?’ is to say which one is your preferred method of curbing it? Gordon Brown was absolutely right to call her a bigot. Yes, it is the role of politicians to listen to public discourse, but they can also help shape it. Someone has to make the argument that immigration is not necessarily a bad thing, that Muslims are not necessarily bad people. I used to put my faith in the Lib Dems, but since they’ve become Tory lapdogs, there’s noone left.

Why protest against the Pope’s visit?

September 9, 2010

When I got back to Scotland, I was very keen on doing some kind of protest or demonstration against the Pope’s visit. Unfortunately most of the groups I’m involved in were either busy with other events or were reluctant to do anything because they didn’t want to be associated with the Orange Order. So I found a protest in Glasgow on Facebook, but it’s horrendously organised and it wasn’t an ideal place to stage a protest. There will be a Popemobile parade going through Edinburgh so I thought that’d be a better location. Anyway I’m in the process of sorting that out with the police, but I thought it’d be good to explain a few of the reasons why some of us will be protesting. Let’s do this as a rather boring numbered list, starting with the fairly mundane:

1. The disruption. Look at all the bus services that are being affected by the Pope’s visit to Edinburgh. Look at the roads that are being closed in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  There will be still more disruption in Coventry and London. Bin collections are being cancelled, businesses are having to close, schools are being closed, hospitals are on high alert, all so the leader of a tiny proportion of the UK’s population (1.6% if we go by mass attendance) can have his parades and his masses and be ‘adored’ from behind his 6 inches of bulletproof glass. Faith in action, as Bill Hicks would say.

2. The cost. All the current estimates for the costs have failed to include the security costs. To my recollection, the UK government was originally supposed to cover £8million of the costs of the visit, whilst the Church would cover £7million, which supposedly reflected the proportion of the visit which would be a state visit as opposed to a pastoral one. The government’s contribution went up to £12m, and soon after that up to £20m, which is where I believe it currently stands. In the grand scheme of things that’s not so much, except that looking back at past events, the security is usually by far the biggest factor, and they’re not included. Bringing George Bush to Gleneagles for the G8 cost £72 million, and although there were much bigger protests happening then and IIRC that visit was a bit longer, the trip didn’t involve any parades or open-air masses, or any of that malarkey, and he was kept in one place, so we’re looking at a comparable sum of money. The News of the World claim to have uncovered a paper which showed the Scottish portion of the security will cost a minimum of £10 million, and the starting estimate for the costs of the London element is £1.8 million. I suppose we won’t know how much the visit will cost until it happens, but it’ll certainly be more than the £1m – £1.5m that the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police has quoted today.

Don’t forget that this money is coming from the normal police budgets, budgets that are already facing massive cuts in the coalition government’s spending review. People’s jobs and people’s safety are literally on the line because of this visit. Ok, not literally because I don’t know what line that would be, but they are literally at risk.

3. The Pope’s criticism of the UK’s equality laws and its opposition to equal rights for LGBT people. Despite the fact that there is already an exemption in place for ministers and priests, the Pope claimed that the UK Equalities Act which came into force this year imposed unjust restrictions on freedom of religion, basically because it wouldn’t allow the Church to discriminate against gay people when employing people. Let’s be clear here, the Church would not be forced to employ women or gay priests, but they would be banned from discriminating against gay people for example when employing people to be a secretary, or a window cleaner, or anything else that didn’t involve religious teaching. He wanted the Church to be above the law, basically. So not only are we paying through the nose for him to come over here, but while he’s here he’s going to rub salt into the wound by criticising our hard-won freedoms which we’ve had to prise out of the claws of religious groups like his.

4. The continued subjugation of women in the Catholic Church. I’m not just talking about not letting women be priests, but every time the Church releases a statement on the family, it’s always hearkening back to tradition and the old times, which is basically saying women should stay at home and be obedient to their fathers or their husbands. Granted, this isn’t just the fault of the Catholic Church, it’s a widespread phenomenon, particularly amongst religions, since the idea of the sacred is an inherently conservative force, and especially amongst Abrahamic religions. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church’s teachings on the family, abortion and contraception limit women’s reproductive rights and help to propagate the image of women as baby-making machines, which has all sorts of consequences.

5. The promotion of segregated education. We only need to look across the water at Northern Ireland to see the damage that segregated education does. Richard Dawkins made an excellent documentary on this issue which can still be viewed on 4OD.

6. The Vatican’s appalling handling of the abuse cases within the Church. As I’ve covered on this blog before, and as I’m sure new readers will be aware, a huge number of children have been sexually abused in the Catholic Church, and rather than handing over the perpetrators to secular authorities to be punished, Bishops, Archbishops and even Cardinals have chosen instead to deal with it privately within the Church, moving paedophile priests from parish to parish, free to offend again, whilst swearing victims into perpetual silence to protect the reputation of the Church. Whilst I don’t necessarily suggest that the present Pope has been personally involved in such cases, he has certainly not done enough to punish those who have covered up abuse cases. He has not called for the resignation of bishops who definitely did cover up abuse cases, and it is evident that as a Cardinal he put the reputation of the Church well ahead of the safety of children in its charge. He issued a self-serving apology to the Irish Catholics which offered no material solution to the problem. He appointed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor as head of the Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, himself a bishop who moved a known paedophile priest from parish to parish to reoffend. The Church has repeatedly blamed the paedophile crisis on homosexuals.

7. The Pope’s irresponsible comments about condoms and HIV. The Pope and others in the Church have repeatedly stated, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that condoms do not help prevent the spread of HIV and that in fact they help to spread it. Abstinence-only education programmes have been shown to increase the spread of STD’s and whilst abstinence and fidelity are good ways to protect yourself from infection, it is not a choice that many women have in Africa, and condoms have been shown to be a good way to help prevent the spread of HIV and other STI’s. The Pope’s comments have undermined the work of many AIDS charities working in Africa, and have undoubtedly put lives at risk.

8. The Church’s continued silence about its role in the Rwandan Genocide. There’s not much else that can be said.

Those are some of the reasons. Notice that I have not attacked the Pope’s position as a head of state. Whether or not the Holy See is a legitimate head of state or not (and I’d say the Vatican is not much more than a palace full of old men in frocks) is irrelevant. In the sense that it’s necessary but not sufficient to justify a state visit. Kim Jong Il hasn’t had any state visit invitations recently, and if the heads of state of various other tiny countries like Macedonia or Andorra receive a state visit invitation, they won’t be parading in the streets of various cities. Seeing as the Holy See and its religion is pretty much one and the same thing, it’s only a minute distinction anyway. The Pope’s state visit should be opposed not because he is not a head of state, but because he is the leader of a Church which is completely out of touch with the majority of Britain’s Catholics, never mind the rest of the population, and which is morally corrupt. The visit will come at a great cost to the UK with relatively little benefit.