Tag Archives: Politics

2013: a crucial year for the NHS

A few weeks ago I was chatting to a friend of mine on skype when, out of the blue, I was asked to give my opinion of the Coalition’s NHS reforms. For whatever reason, be it the fact that the NHS has been off the front pages for a while, cosmic rays interfering with my brain, the complexity of the issue at hand or simply me having a bad day, something odd happened. I found myself in a panic with once fresh and well-resourced arguments fading before me as I reached out for them, leaving, I’m quite sure, an incoherent and blustering crapsicle of an explanation for my poor comrade to attempt to absorb (that’s assuming she even bothered given the air of incompetence I’m sure it aroused).

This perturbed me a not inconsiderable amount. Like Napoleon, I rely all too heavily on the Vielle Garde of my memory sometimes, and I resolved to rally the fleeing squadrons and re-join the battle in blog form after gathering the necessary stratagems. OK? For simplicity and clarity’s sake, I’m not going to talk about the impact of the £20bn ‘efficiency savings’ (that is, cuts) to the NHS which are already wreaking havoc and instead focus entirely on the structural reforms. OK. Here we go.

An intro by a man with a stunning ‘tash (I think Biology students from my year will recall an all too personal video starring Prof Bob)

Flawed pretext for reform

Keeping things very clear, there are two ways to evaluate the performance of the healthcare system: cost and quality. Muddying the waters slightly, one could combine these factors and come up with the notion of cost-efficiency, or units of comparable-quality healthcare provided per £ spent. Maths students may prefer to think of it as a function of volume of care multiplied by a function of quality of care all divided by £.

The supporters of private commissioning (henceforth called privatisation) argued that the NHS performs poorly in terms of both cost and quality. In an age of austerity and an ageing population, so the argument goes, the NHS must change with the times in order to deliver the service we demand on a tighter budget.1,2,3

But as a study in the Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine concluded, the argument that pro-market reforms will enhance cost-effectiveness does not stack up.4 ‘The government proposals to change the NHS are largely based on the idea that the NHS is less efficient and effective than other countries, especially the US. The results question why we need a big set of health reform proposals … The system works well. Look at the US and you can see where choice and competition gets you. Pretty dismal results.’

But of course, one study proves nothing. In addition The King’s Fund’s analysis5 of NHS performance 1997-2010 found that:

  • Hospital waiting times reduced dramatically from 1997-2010, with more than 90 per cent of patients waiting less than 18 weeks for treatment last year.
  • Infant mortality has fallen and life expectancy is increasing for all social groups.
  • Smoking rates have fallen, and deaths from cancer and cardiovascular diseases have been steadily declining.
  • Infection rates for MRSA and C. difficile have been significantly reduced, and there are now robust systems for collecting and analysing information on adverse events.
  • In mental health services, access to specialist early intervention and crisis resolution teams is considered among the best in Europe.

Still not convinced? How about this chart from The Commonwealth Fund6


Or this from Kaiser Permanente7?


What about the cancer survival rates the Tories were so fond of referencing?

David Cameron and Andrew Lansley’s repeated criticisms of the NHS’s record on cancer have been contradicted by new research that shows the health service to be an international leader in tackling the disease.

The findings challenge the government’s claims that NHS failings on cancer contribute to 5,000-10,000 unnecessary cancer deaths a year, which ministers have used as a key reason for pushing through their radical shakeup of the service.

In fact, the NHS in England and Wales has helped achieve the biggest drop in cancer deaths and displayed the most efficient use of resources among 10 leading countries worldwide, according to the study published in the British Journal of Cancer.

“These results challenge the feeble justification of the government’s changes, which appear to be based upon overhyped media representation, rather than hard comparable evidence. This paper should be a real boost to cancer patients and their families because the NHS’s performance on cancer is much better than the media presents. It challenges the government’s assertion that the NHS is inefficient and ineffective at treating cancer – an argument for reforming the NHS,” said Prof Colin Pritchard, a health academic at Bournemouth University.8

So, putting it bluntly, there’s a bloody good reason why at the end of Labour’s term public satisfaction with the NHS was at a record high. Whilst there are obviously legitimate criticisms to be made and room for improvement, investment in health paid off in a swathe of across the board achievements9.

Ulterior motives

It might be worth noting that the biggest cheerleaders of reform were almost all either personally to gain through work for private health companies, or ultra-conservative extremists. These were the sort of ideological zealots who casually referred to the NHS as ‘a 60-year mistake’, and called for the ‘de-nationalisation’ of a ‘fundamentally broken machine’10,11,12,13,14.

As one eloquent crypto-fascist said ‘NFR has long argued that the NHS is an essentially Stalinist, nationalised abhorrence and that Britain can do musch [sic] better without its so called ‘principals’ [sic].’

Somebody needs spelling lessons!

Behind the scenes of course the CEOs of the circling private vultures were barely holding back their drool. Loosely worded press-releases likewe are entering a new, exciting era, driven by the forthcoming healthcare reform that will ultimately change, to our benefit, the landscape in which we operate’ or Tory advisors telling a room full of healthcare executives that ‘The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years’ belied a key motive for the reforms. Bupa would like their shareholders to know all about ‘Medical insurers overview on the emerging NHS private sector’. The ‘NHS private sector’. Says it all really!  15,16,17

All this in addition to the 200 or so (mostly Coalition, but some New Labour) MPs and Lords with personal financial interests in private healthcare18.

Understanding the reforms

click to enlarge... if you dare

click to enlarge… if you dare

In other words, it’s a bit of mess. In fact, it’s harder to understand than a poorly translated Japanese instruction manual. Luckily for you, I have spent a good few hours researching the ins and outs of the changes and will now serve it up to you, semi-pre-digested-baby-food-style, in easily comprehended chunklets, accurate to the best of my time, knowledge and ability. Having said that I’m only human and there will probably be the odd mistake. Anyway, here goes.

The current system is (relatively) simple. The overall strategy of the NHS is derived by the Department of Health (DH). At a regional level, Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) implement that strategy as well as ensuring the coherent adoption of regional directives. The SHAs do this in partnership with Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) at the local (e.g. county) level. Care is commissioned (aka purchased (aka NHS money spent on patients)) almost entirely by PCTs from NHS hospitals and GPs. NHS hospitals come into 2 categories, Hospital Trusts (HTs) and Foundation Trusts (FTs). HTs are the more ‘traditional’ model of NHS hospital and are run according to the wishes of the SHA. FT status is granted upon request to the most successful HTs and allows them greater independence from the SHA. FTs, by the way, do not exist in Scotland and Wales, and outside of England the system as a whole is independent of Westminster (lucky them!). You may want to read this paragraph again or refer back to it if all the acronyms get too much for you later on!

So little Johnny feels ill. His mum thinks it’s the flu, but takes him to the GP to get him seen to just in case. The GP is paid by the PCT to say hello to little Johnny and, woe is us, Johnny turns out to have Meningitis and is rushed to the local hospital and is treated within the overall acute care budget that the hospital has been given by the PCT. The way he is treated is influenced by DH/SHA policy to a greater or lesser extent depending on if it is an HT or FT. Thankfully, his life is saved but he appears to be paralysed by the Meningitis. He goes through physical therapy at the outpatient clinic of the hospital. He regains some motor function but still needs help with his day to day life. The PCT and SHA co-ordinate with the Local Council to transfer Johnny out of the NHS system to the social care system (currently run by Local Councils/Authorities (LAs) and having its budget hacked away at too). OK? That’s the chain of money and authority.

Starting in April 2013, PCTs and SHAs will be done away with altogether. I’m going to try to explain what replaces them, but bear in mind that I’ve had to simplify this a tad, because alongside the big organisations I’m going to mention, there are a crap load of smaller bureaucratic entities which absorb one role or another and support/advice/consult.

The SHAs’ role will be passed over to smaller sub-national and area offices, 54 of them in total (!), of the new National Commissioning Board (NHSCB). These offices will probably end up employing fewer people overall in strategic health than the 10 SHAs they replace. It’s likely that they will be largely ineffective in maintaining some sort of health strategy in the increasingly fragmented NHS they’re meant to guide since their role, according to the DH, is mainly to provide ‘leadership’ to local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs, more on them in a bit), whatever that means. Presumably asking them very nicely not to take our lunch money.

But the mess in removing SHAs pales into insignificance when compared to the havoc that will be caused by the big change of the reforms: the abolition of PCTs. The PCTs are responsible for portioning out the lion’s share of the NHS to budget between hospitals, GPs and specialist care, as well as public health (ie community health, environmental health, epidemic control, safe sex, wash yer hands you dirty so and so, quit smoking campaigns and the like, that sort of jazz). So, where’s all this money going to be spent in the new system?

Well, starting in reverse order, public health budgets with go to local councils. I don’t really have much of an issue with this, providing the knowledge and experience is there in the councils, and the money remains ring-fenced as the Coalition claim it will be. Now I personally think public health is extremely important in the long term and I fear that if the money ever becomes available for cash raids then councils, Labour and Tory, will be falling over themselves to cut public health budgets as a politically easy cut to make. But basically, no complaints here. Moving on…

The commissioning (remember, this means buying or paying for) previously done by PCTs will now be done mostly by ‘consortiums’ of local GPs offices called Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and to a lesser extent by the NHSCB (that’s the SHA replacement). The NHSCB will be in charge of specialist budgets like dentistry and pharmacy and little will change except that certain things are being decommissioned entirely (such as primary care services for the homeless and other people not registered with a CCG), and that I would guess a local body like a PCT would better understand how dentistry works in their area than an office of 4500 people in Leeds.

Instead, the major problems of the changes are to be found in the CCGs and hospitals. The GPs practices which will make up the new CCGs have absolutely no existing infrastructure for doing commissioning. They don’t have the time, the staff, the facilities, the experience or the money. But the DH is, in April 2013, going to hand them the money. Loads of money. The GPs, who are not managers but clinicians, are expected to become accountants as well as doctors. So, as the DH has reluctantly accepted, they will simply outsource their commissioning. This will mean a swathe of new private sector commissioning companies, many of which will be staffed by old PCT and SHA staff (makes sense, given they have the expertise and the experience). The cost of redundancies for these staff who will mostly be immediately re-hired on new, possibly more costly contracts, is projected to be around £1bn19. Because spending £1bn to fire people who you will then pay the private sector to hire again is really smart.

In West London, a ‘pathfinder’ (ie preliminary) consortium has already bought in services from United Healthcare, the 2nd largest healthcare company in the United States, to run a ‘referral management’ service for them20. This means that when a GP writes a referral for a hospital or whatever, it will first have to go to a well-spoken American man with a briefcase and an interest in making shitloads of money to decide whether the referral should go through or not.

The NHS was founded to be a ‘free and comprehensive’ health service, but for the first time the CCGs will define what constitutes a health service, not the DH21, meaning there will be a postcode lottery of what service are available for free on the NHS in the area in which you live. As a result, ‘top up’ payments are being considered to force patients to pay for procedures outside of their definition22.

A commissioning group must arrange for the provision of services ‘as it considers appropriate’ – giving great leeway in how this is interpreted. There is still no duty to provide a comprehensive service on commissioning groups themselves. Similarly, attempts to improve openness and transparency are far too weak: get-out clauses would allow a commissioning group to avoid meeting in public if it ‘considers that it would not be in the public interest’, and a foundation hospital may exclude members of the public from meetings for unspecified ‘special reasons’.21

New commissioning groups, not the Secretary of State, will determine what actually constitutes the health service, potentially opening the door to “top-up” payments being charged for procedures that are outside their own definition of health services.

But top up charges are not the only worry. Rationing based on price (rather than need) will become widespread sooner and in more places than co-payments. The bond of trust vital in a functioning doctor-patient relationship will be put in jeopardy by the financial pressures and potential conflicts of interest whereby doctors may be forced to either deny needed care, or purchase unnecessary care respectively.

This brings me nicely to the hospitals or treatment centres which will be providing the questionably commissioned care. The Coalition’s health reforms are only half of the story here. Under New Labour, there had been a slow but steady increase in the number of non-NHS care providers commissioned by PCTs to do certain work.

These Independent Sector Treatment Centres (ISTCs) have attracted considerable criticism but were, in some cases, very wise choices indeed. ISTCs were originally intended to be sparingly applied in cases where for whatever reason NHS services were inadequate in order to give NHS services time to improve whilst the ISTC took care of some of the caseload to relieve pressure. NHS hospital running out of capacity? Don’t risk a bed-blocking crisis or a spike in waiting times, ship out elective surgeries to a local ISTC whilst the necessary investments are made at the NHS hospital. That sort of thing.

However, after a string of ultra-Blairite Health Secretaries under Blair and Brown (Alan Milburn, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and to a certain extent Alan Johnson) relentlessly pushed the expansion of ISTCs they have become a small but permanent fixture in the NHS.

The Coalition’s plan is for an explosion in the use of private and voluntary sector providers, as well as forcing all NHS hospitals to become Foundation Trusts in April 2013 and then putting corporate rocket-boosters under them, opening up NHS hospitals for private management and the big bad market. NHS and private hospitals are expected to compete in an open market for referrals from CCGs.

As a necessary part of this process the health reforms have raised the cap on the proportion of private patients NHS hospitals are allowed to see to a whopping 49.9%. In 2010 private patient income represented just 0.6% of NHS income23. This will lead to a system whereby those with the cash (or the private insurance) are able to pay to jump the queue. The rich will be fast-tracked to the front of the queue for procedures meaning the poor will have to wait longer and longer for an NHS bed to become free24. Whilst this video is slightly out of date (removing the cap altogether was later amended to a 49.9% cap, which in practice will be exactly the same), it’s still a good illustration of the problem.

(note the truly Oscar-worthy acting from Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Cambridge and hence likely our next MP as ‘man in wheelchair’)

There are also damaging implications for the postgraduate training of NHS staff as private providers will have no obligation to engage in the level of costly hands-on experience for junior doctors that NHS trusts have done under SHA supervision25.

Nominally NHS hospitals will be victims of a range of pro-competition measures that will render their NHS status little more than a kitemark on a privately operated service. Foundation Trusts will be able to raise additional capital through loans, selling off assets and go through a new insolvency procedure if/when it all comes crashing down. Collectively these measures will allow the classic asset stripping tale to unfold, unleashing chaos in its wake: a swanky new management firm swoops in, makes unsustainable layoffs, sells assets, loads the FT up with highly leveraged debt and then scarpers with gargantuan fees and bonuses just before the entire financial house of cards collapses. This is exactly the model on which the Southern Cross care home collapse proceeded, a worrying precedent if ever there was one.

Concerns about predatory financiers aside, in any market system firms must be free to enter and exit the market. The government has claimed that certain oversight measures will prevent the worst excesses of the market and provide protection in the case of commercial failure. Despite this, there is the small matter of EU competition law to consider, with health minister Simon Burns himself stating that ‘as NHS providers develop and begin to compete actively with other NHS providers and private and voluntary providers, UK and EU competition laws will increasingly become applicable’21.

Whilst the full details of the commercial insolvency regime are yet to be known, the existence of EU competition law will more than likely mean an end to the government’s ability to bail out troubled hospitals. In other words, your local hospital may be sold off or shut down if it cannot keep its financials in order in a climate of chaos, cuts and competition. This is, rightly, rather an alien concept to most of us in the UK, but it is a real possibility. District General Hospitals could end up folding left right and centre, leaving the area they serve to the mercy of whatever private options the market deems profitable to run.

And the (very, extremely) limited evidence we have to go on so far seems to suggest that private hospitals and privately operated NHS hospitals may indeed struggle to provide the services the public accustomed to. Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon (where I was born!) has been under the franchise management of Circle Health for about a year now after Andrew Lansley signed off on one hell of a dodgy contract, and is losing money hand over foot as its deficit hits more than twice the projected level26 and was forced to ask for a cash advance27. In addition the patient satisfaction level has taken a decided turn for the worse28 and Circle’s ‘charismatic CEO’ Ali Parsa has walked away from the project altogether (with a £400,000 payoff, naturally) unexpectedly just days before answering questions before a committee of MPs29. If the hospital’s deficit rises from its current £4.1m to £5m then Circle are free under their contract to walk away and leave the hospital to collapse under which circumstances Peterborough and Adenbrooke’s hospitals would be forced to scramble together replacement capacity.

Of deep concern is how Monitor, the economic regulator of the entire flowcharty mess, is now going to function.  Following outrage over its duty to ‘promote competition’, they must now ‘prevent anti-competitive practice’. No doubt the lawyers will have a field day with that one. Monitor and EU law could mean that NHS hospitals will be fined up to 10% of their turnover simply for cooperating with other local hospitals30.

But don’t take my word for it: the BMA, BOS, British Dental Association, British Geriatrics Society, British Psychological Society, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, CSP, GMB, Institute of Healthcare Management, Managers in Partnership, Patients Association, Royal College of GPs, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal College of Radiologists, Royal College of Surgeons, Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, Society of Radiographers, The Allied Health Professions Federation, UK Faculty of Public Health, Unison and Unite are with me on this too.



However, all is not entirely lost. Campaigners with Keep our NHS Public in Gloucestershire managed to successfully reverse a decision to transfer 8 local hospitals out of the NHS, at the eleventh hour, keeping them instead in an NHS Trust through some legal skulduggery involving the complex rewriting of contracts with NHS trusts. Various Labour councils have been exploring similar methods with some success through the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs). Having said that, Monitor and local HWBs will no doubt frequently be at odds and I worry that Monitor may usually come out on top.

As Nye Bevan, the Labour MP who created the Health Service famously said, ‘The NHS will exist as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.’

So, to recap:

  • Dave repeatedly promised the voters that there would be no reorganisations
  • The reasons offered for reform were bogus
  • There are highly dubious relationships between the private healthcare lobby and the Coalition
  • The reforms will herald the dawn of a massive new bureaucratic tangle which will have effects against the best interests of the patient
  • The reforms have the potential for utter chaos if private contractors cannot deliver the savings promised
  • The reforms place the principle of care free at the point of use at further risk
  • A strong local campaign of resistance should (in theory) be able to mitigate the worst of these risks

The slow but irreducible erosion of the NHS’s founding principles of a universal, comprehensive and free health service is taking place in 2013. I call it privatisation, but for the patients who will be affected the words pain, fear and anger may seem to describe the situation just as well. Either way, it will be one of David Cameron’s most shameful legacies if we don’t mobilise to resist the changes locally and, above all, to elect a Labour government in 2015.

And finally, as a treat for those of you who have waded through so much verbiage to get here, and to lighten the mood, I present one of the best Downfall parodies I have ever seen:

I hope this mammoth undertaking makes up for the absence of blogging output recently…

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12203000
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2012/feb/17/health-healthbill-simonburns
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/dec/28/public-nhs-reforms-health-service
  4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/aug/07/nhs-among-most-efficient-health-services
  5. http://www.kingsfund.org.uk/topics/nhs-reform/mythbusters/nhs-performance
  6. http://www.commonwealthfund.org/~/media/Files/Publications/Fund%20Report/2010/Jun/1400_Davis_Mirror_Mirror_on_the_wall_2010.pdf
  7. http://www.kff.org/insurance/snapshot/OECD042111.cfm
  8. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/nov/07/nhs-cancer-figures-cameron-lansley
  9. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/11/cancer-not-the-only-story-of-improving-health-outcomes-under-labour/
  10. http://liberalconspiracy.org/2012/09/06/labour-goes-to-war-over-jeremy-hunts-views-on-nhs/
  11. http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/2009/04/daniel-hannan
  12. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/01/andrew-lansley-private-healthcare-supporters/
  13. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/01/andrew-lansley-private-health-no-surprise/
  14. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/06/andrew-lansley-nhs-reform-backers/
  15. http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/General_Healthcare_Group
  16. http://www.spinwatch.org/blogs-mainmenu-29/310-tamasin-cave/5435-the-nhs-will-be-shown-no-mercyq-says-cameron-health-adviser
  17. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/09/the-two-faces-of-nhs-reform/
  18. http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.com/2012/02/nhs-privatisation-compilation-of.html
  19. http://fullfact.org/factchecks/nhs_reform_reorganisation_costs_redundancies_labour-2778
  20. http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/gp-pathfinders-linking-up-with-private-firms/11050155.article#.UPxNo2fkXkI
  21. http://www.unison.org.uk/file/Five%20reasons%20to%20scrap%20the%20bill.pdf
  22. http://skwalker1964.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/restricted-mckinsey-paper-portrays-grim-future-for-health-service/
  23. http://www.hi-mag.com/health-insurance/product-area/pmi/article378992.ece
  24. http://www.unison.org.uk/file/UNISON%20-%20Private%20Patient%20Income%20Cap%20briefing%20-%20Jan%202012.pdf
  25. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/05/the-effect-of-%E2%80%98liberating-the-nhs%E2%80%99-on-postgraduate-medical-training/
  26. http://www.managementinpractice.com/default.asp?title=Circle%5Fannounces%5F%A34m%5Fdeficit%5Fat%5FHinchingbrooke%5Fhospital&page=article.display&article.id=29488
  27. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:xPvWnzE1LPYJ:www.ft.com/cms/s/0/47eeb65c-1f5e-11e2-b2ad-00144feabdc0.html+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us#axzz2KRaHru3y
  28. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/hinchingbrooke-hospital-first-privately-run-nhs-1363151
  29. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-20672310
  30. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/apr/13/nhs-reforms-miliband-urges-government-scrap-bill



Filed under Politics

A quick word on Leveson

(if you missed this week’s song, just click here, it’s a real cracker)

Dear all,

I’ve had a very enjoyable week, and I’m looking forward to seeing ma famille in just over a week’s time tremendously. But in the mean time I just wanted to excrete this little brain-fart about Lord Justice Leveson’s press regulation recommendations, partially in response to the shocking revelation that my dearest mother agrees with the PM on this one (OUTRAGE!).
Let me be plain: with the exception of the woeful failure to address New Media and ownership issues, I fully support the proposals. If anything they don’t go far enough. I also congratulate Ed Miliband for being so courageous as to back them in the face of intense pressure from the press (though I suspect any hope of endorsements outside of The Mirror, The Guardian and possibly The Indy was lost a long time ago!).

The shrill chorus of high-minded opposition to any statutory regulation led by the (clearly principled and in no way commercially interested) newspaper editors is so transparently self-regarding that the only reason I can see  that it is being taken seriously at all is the sheer volume of it floating around. The basic problem in the anti-regulation argument is the idea that ‘the state is here, civil society is there, and never the twain shall meet, except on election day or on those unfortunate occasions when an officer of the law might visit’. And should anyone ever overstep the bounds of what is considered reasonable interference then the inevitable conclusion is North Korea, or Ingsoc.

But the state and civil society already have met. They’ve met, got married, bought a Volvo and had the most gruesome of phone-hack-tastic offspring imaginable. They’re now considering getting an ISA for their old age. Leveson may have been triggered by phone-hacking, but it was not solely about that one aspect of the press’ behaviour. The scope of ‘press standards, practices and ethics’ is rightfully considered by Leveson to be much broader. One only has to watch a couple of episodes of The Thick of It to understand how politicians (and hence the state) are already hopelessly and sinfully entwined.

The scandalous corruption of the Murdochs, the bribery of the police and their subsequent timidity, the press’ patronage of certain Tories and leading Blairites and the influence of various other powerful businessmen and women were, to draw a parallel with phone-hacking itself, not down to ‘a few bad apples’, but institutional. Not only are there limits to what may be published, or broadcast set by the state, but there is also active involvement in the production of media. Thus opposition to regulation on principle is a sophisticated slight of rhetorical hand, and nothing more. We must, as per usual, consider the circumstances.

And in the circumstances I see no reason to oppose Leveson. A regulatory body, independent of both the press and politicians can, especially when underpinned by law, enforce aggressively the rules already on the books, dispense meaningful fines and penalties should they be broken, and provide a low cost route for tabloid victims to seek justice. There is no avenue in the apparatus being discussed for editorial control or interference by ministers, and therefore no possibility in my mind of the kind of Stalinist censorship predicted in the nation’s newsrooms. Regardless, whilst we must remain vigilant for any signs of mission-creep which may open the door to editorial control, there is much to be welcomed in Leveson’s proposals.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics

A few basic facts about the latest Israeli aggression [SOTW#10]

Misinformation is, as ever, rife.

So let me just set the record straight as briefly as possible.

For sources click on the numbers.
1) The total number of Israelis killed by Hamas’ low-tech Qassam rockets ever is 26 (including soldiers!). If, as the Israelis claim, this is ‘genocide’ then it is rather a slow one.
2) Just today 39 Palestinians died.
3) The number of Palestinian civilians killed in the last major Israeli assault, Operation Cast Lead, is 926, including 313 children.
4) Israel’s right to ‘self defence’ is irrelevant as it is clearly the aggressor. As usual, Israel broke the truce, and Israel escalated the violence.
5) Ahmed al-Jaabari had just received a draft peace agreement at the time of his extra-judicial killing. The wonderful Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin who was involved in the negotiations believes al-Jaabari wanted a ceasefire.

Don’t believe the propaganda pushed by the Israeli government’s increasingly sophisticated apparatus. As the typically excellent Richard Seymour writes on his blog:

“At this point, the excuses for yet another sadistic gorefest in Gaza are looking care-worn.  The same old tired, robotic half-sense: Hamas.  Rockets.  Sderot.  Terrorism.  Something something something, dark side.  Something something something, complete.  There will be some barbarous, nonsensical, infuriating things said in news broadcasts over the next few days.  All uttered in that exaggerated American accent that high Israeli officials seem to learn.”

Plus ça change…

This week’s song is Bone Bomb by noted Palestinian rights activist Brian Eno. It deftly handles the normally misunderstood issue of ‘terrorism’, and what motivates those who blow themselves up seeking a ‘beautiful death’ with great emotional intelligence.


Filed under Key West, Politics, Song of the week

Mitt Romney is elected the president of white people, and why Amsterdam is no longer the best place to get legal weed.

Here’s how important the demographic trends are in America right now. Below is the electoral map if only white people voted. (Anyone else surprised to see Iowa there?)

And regarding the fastest growing demographic group in America, G.W. Bush got 41% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, McCain got 31% in 2008, and Romney got 27% (or thereabouts, the numbers aren’t final). Do, as Americans are fond of saying, the math.

Other quick thoughts about the election:

Huzzah for Elizabeth Warren! Warren succeeded in reclaiming Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat in Massachusetts and, well, she’s great.

Warren 2016!

Huzzah for Colorado and Washington State for the total legalisation of Marijuana! This policy will be a huge success if implemented correctly, and could well prove a model to the nation, and therefore the world, in ending the catastrophic failure that is the global War on Drugs.

Huzzah for Tammy Baldwin, the first openly Lesbian senator ever!

Huzzah for Gay Marriage, which won 4/4 of the ballot measures it was contesting!

And a delicious does of schadenfreude served up for Fox News, Allen West, Todd ‘rape can’t get you pregnant’ Akin, Fox News, Bibi Netanyahu, Roger Ailes, Fox News, Karl Rove, Donald Trump, Fox News and, finally, Meatloaf. Because of this:

… really brings a tear to one’s eyes.


Filed under Politics

New Media vs the Fourth Estate: where next, and why you should care [incorporating Song of the Week #7]

In medieval society, three ‘estates’ were formally recognised: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. Each estate had its social role and a certain level of power and – through the enduringly familiar nexus of violence, influence, persuasion and money – exercised it over the rest of society. In the world of universal literacy, the ‘knowledge economy’ and the 24-hour news channel, mass media as we’ve come to know it has no less fundamental a role in our social system.

It is obvious that the newspaper editor, executive producer and reporter in the field can have what confusing sociologist types would call a ‘hegemonic’ effect on politics because of what it chooses to report and, more importantly, how it reports it. Through the all too subtle spider’s web of editorial control (a pandora’s box to explore another time!), a particular worldview can be imposed hegmonically to the point that it becomes a social norm which is offensive or at the very least unseemly to contradict. This can take the form of grandiose dominant ideologies like the ‘Juche’ in North Korea or, alternatively, as pernicious manipulations which cast entire issues in misleading contexts.

Take for example, the neat little lie that Ahmadinejad called for ‘Israel’ to be ‘wiped off the map’. Never mind that the correctly translated Farsi says ‘this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time’ (something different entirely!), the almost universally accepted distortion casts the entire sphere of Israel-Iran relations in the light of a crazed lunatic threatening an entire populace with extermination. In reality there are two equally repugnant, implacably opposed, undemocratic but ultimately rational states in this shameful chapter of what some call international relations. But to contradict the accepted narrative is at best unfashionable and at worst unpatriotic or even anti-semitic.

Understandably then, given the influence it has over our discourse, the idea of a so called ‘Fourth Estate’ of the print and (later) broadcast journalist has been around for over 200 years. However, the tectonic plates that form the foundation of this pillar of the modern world appear to be shifting, which could have tremendously important consequences.

The potential change in the media landscape depends on two trends; the rise of new and independent media, but also the linked decline in the traditional fourth estate, and its response. Firstly then, let’s talk about the rise of what I’m going to call popular media (popular in the sense that it is media of the people).

The key trend, obviously, is the increasing primacy of digital content. You don’t need me to tell you that print circulations are falling significantly, as they have been for some time, with no end in sight. Equally evident is the struggle of the Fourth Estate to lay claim to an equivalent market share online as they have enjoyed offline facing competition from a slew of high quality blogs and news sites. And that’s not even mentioning the doubts of digital advertising revenue (or to put it more specifically, Google being a monopolist revenue hog). But what might not be so clear are the consequences of further advances in technology.

For now, the white van man still needs to be able to fold up his copy of the Sun and throw it on the dashboard, and the tweed-wearing classes still want to pore over a copy of the Sunday Telegraph over a spot of tea. However, the continued advance of small, low-power hardware and the associated proliferation of mobile devices could lead to a ubiquity of digital content that can be hard to imagine. Think a screen on the oven, on your fridge, in the dashboard of your car, inside the frame of your glasses, the notice board at your place of work, or the air-conditioning unit and so on. Clearly there is the potential for this to lead to a change in the way we consume media that challenges the necessity of standalone items like a newspaper.

In addition companies are investing heavily in reaching technological ‘convergence’. For example, Microsoft’s convergence slogan is ‘three screens and a cloud’, which suggests that there should be a unified, high quality user experience across all three screens (mobile, PC and TV) and on the internet (the ‘cloud’). Look at the progress made in just a few years. Compare Windows 7, Windows Mobile 6.5 and the earlier versions of the Xbox. They could easily have been made by completely different companies, and each have their own ecosystem and learning curve to be mastered before proper use. However, the user experience across Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the newer Xbox versions is beginning to converge, and the three devices are beginning to speak a common language to all their users.

Into this space being created by the advance of technology new, independent news sources have sprung up, often as the organic result of their writers’ desire for an open platform after being excluded from the ranks of the Fourth Estate. And my God are some of these platforms high quality! Yes, there are useless idiots out there who sit in front of their screens drafting incoherent rant after rant. But the platform some sites provide for experts, professors, independent reporters on the ground and above all the intelligent citizen is invaluable. Let me be clear, with the exception of a rapidly shrinking number of low circulation print publications, including the London Review of Books and Le Monde Diplomatique, independent websites have been the only place I’ve really felt enthusiastic about what I’m reading, and what I’m learning.

So that’s the first trend; the rise of new and independent media online. But what about the press? How will they respond? Well, I think there are 4 ways it could go. Firstly, there could be a revival of the Fourth Estate. At the moment most of the press contents itself with predictable partisan gimmickry (ok so that’s a bit harsh but whaddayagunnado?). But, with substantial investment, the Fourth Estate could once again be a force for progress in the world. Investigative journalism can still sell papers and expose corruption (just ask Alan Rusbridger how he feels about the Guardian’s phone-hacking coverage). The problem is, however, it’s simply not going to happen. Where’s the money for that kind of risk? There’s nobody willing to spend so much money trying to revive what is commonly believed to be a dying format, and where there is not even a clear market to be had for it.

Possibility the second: the destruction of the Fourth Estate. The press gets knocked out with barely a whimper by the crowds of info-warriors. New media reigns supreme. Now I can’t quite see this happening either, because there is a tendency for media, online and offline, to concentrate around a smaller number of key players. At the moment, people get their news from around 1-3 sources. Even politicos like myself can only keep track of so many threads. This simplicity is as necessary on the internet as it is in the newsagent. Put it this way; there are simply not enough spaces at the top of the Google search rankings to have that many news outlets, nor could there ever be. In my opinion, the future will lie somewhere in between the 2 extremes.

The traditional press will have to migrate to the web and adapt to it. The clustering of voices can even work to their advantage if they play their cards right. This is very much the Guardian model; a continuation of professional journalism forming the core of the product, but also a degree of synergy with reader-led content production with its ‘Comment is Free’ section, and reaction through a discussion ‘below the line’ as they say (though I really think the Guardian could work on this area!). Big companies can harness new media and bring some of it in-house; for example the New York Times absorbing the blog of pollster Nate Silver to form the backbone of their polling coverage.

Some, of course, will either be too unorthodox to be included, too academic, or will resist inclusion on principle, and rightly so. These bloggers will remain independent, but will find themselves clustered in communities of like-minded people, like Daily Kos and FireDogLake. Both independent and corporate media may also develop fully blown news aggregators which use site data, as well as personal data such as a user’s ratings, interests and views to select the best of what the web has to offer for that particular reader. Indeed, these services already exist, but there is a vast room for improvement in their personalisation algorithms and, I think, room for those algorithms to be applied more effectively if they are used within a certain ideological or editorial framework.

If that is how development of new media occurs, it is my hope that there will be a subsequent democratising effect on content production and access to consumption. Could it lead to a breaking of the mould, increased transparency and accountability and better journalism and whistle-blowing, or will the promising aspects of genuinely enlightened writing be lost in a new cloud of misinformation written by people wearing underwear in their mother’s basement? Whatever the outcome, what is inescapable is that it will be harder for spin doctors to control ‘the message’.

And that leads me on to my final point. The fourth possibility about how this transformation plays out is that the dark forces of Murdochian newspaper barons, telecoms companies and the Alistair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker/Andy Coulsons of this world form an unholy alliance to kill this digital media revolution whilst it’s still in its infancy. Their weapon of choice? ‘Bandwidth prioritisation’. Otherwise known as the ending of Net Neutrality.

At the moment informal Net Neutrality keeps the web free, dynamic and open, but it is not enshrined in law. Attempts to set up a code of conduct broke down earlier this year mainly due to the reservations of Virgin Media, and so the door is still open for bandwidth prioritisation. Most people don’t immediately see the huge importance of the principle that ‘all bytes are created equal’, and therefore don’t care about this issue. But if ISPs are allowed to boost speeds to certain sites, and throttle speed to others or even block access entirely, then there could be dire consequences.

If your broadband provider started throttling back the speed at which you could use some services, say a Skype video call, or a BBC iPlayer stream , would you care then? What if it blocked access altogether if you did not pay a higher tariff? The notion of a cartel of publishers and ISPs getting together to control and restrict access to parts of the internet which challenge their oligopoly, and charging the consumer higher tariffs for the pleasure is a disturbing one. The unparalleled free speech, dynamism and openness of the internet will be curtailed, and the potential for the flourishing of a transformative popular media will be crushed. The Government must not let that happen.

And just to round off, here’s some (relevant) Zappa live in New York. One of the very few FZ tracks where he’s put some of his colossal brain power into the lyrics. The usual eccentrically brilliant musicianship, and some delightful joking around ad libbing from Frank’s friend, television and radio announcer Don Pardo. I’m pasting the lyrics to the studio version below, in case there are any inconsistencies. Do listen along.

High Quality Grooveshark version from Live in New York 1979.


Lower Quality Youtube version from Overnite Sensation (studio)

I am gross and perverted
I’m obsessed and deranged
I have existed for years
But very little had changed
I am the tool of the government
And industry too
For I am destined to rule
And regulate you

I may be vile and pernicious
But you can’t look away
I make you think I’m delicious
With the stuff that I say
I am the best you can get
Have you guessed me yet?
I’m the slime oozin’ out
From your TV set

You will obey me while I lead you
And eat the garbage that I feed you
Until the day that we don’t need you
Don’t go for help, no one will heed you
Your mind is totally controlled
It has been stuffed into my mould
And you will do as you are told
Until the rights to you are sold

That’s right, folks..
Don’t touch that dial

Well, I am the slime from the video
Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor

I am the slime from your video
Can’t stop the slime, people, look at me go


Filed under Politics, Song of the week

Whither Liberalism?

An essay on the contemporary meaning of British Liberalism*

*note to any US readers: ‘liberal’ in political science, and in the UK, means something quite different to what it means in America. Hence there are 2 Wikipedia articles; ‘Liberalism and American Liberalism’ (which is basically shorthand for Social Democracy). Sorry about that but frankly it’s your own silly country’s fault for being so scared of anything which sounds like it might be connected to Socialism.
*to any UK readers: please be aware that Liberalism (a centrist position) is not the same as Neo-liberalism (a rightist position)

Occasionally I come across a lengthy, deep article which fundamentally enhances my understanding of the political environment. And it’s an exciting and fulfilling feeling when I do read something like that; when an entire sphere of thought suddenly just clicks, and all the pieces fall into place, and all the wider connections start to reveal themselves, and I wonder how I ever missed it in the first place. Sadly I have to wade through a large amount of painfully obvious crud to find such nuggets of understanding. This is what led me to write my previous post about a balanced consumption of media.

Recently I came across one such piece in the New Statesman by Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy.  Whilst I don’t agree with hardly any of it, it does allow a rare insight into exactly what makes Liberals tick. What is Liberalism? Who are its intellectual outriders? What is its place in history? Who does it serve? And why do its proponents support it? The answer is not as immediately obvious as it would be for other doctrines like Socialism, Communism or Conservatism because Liberalism has always been somewhat conceptually vague and hard to pin down. But first, a little bit of history…

The Liberal Democrats came about in the 1980s as an alliance between the remnants of ye olde great Victorian Liberal Party and a breakaway grouping of (relatively speaking) right-wing Labour MPs called the Social Democratic Party (Hence the Liberal [/social] Democrats). The Lib Dems have never quite resolved the schizoid identity crisis that this merger caused. Now in this essay, when I refer to ‘Liberals’ I am referring to the ideological and intellectual descendants of the old Liberal party. So all Liberals are Lib Dems but not all Lib Dems are Liberals, geddit?

On the other hand, the ‘dem’ half of the Lib Dems, those following in the footsteps of the Social Democratic Labour defectors has been decimated by coalition with the Tories. These Lib Dems have always been more inclined towards Labour than the Conservatives and represent a large number of the switchers from LD to Lab in the polls since the election. The social democratic wing of the Lib Dems is, to put it bluntly, in complete disarray.

The classical Liberal wing on the other hand comprises almost all Lib Dem ministers (notably excluding Vince Cable) and all of Nick Clegg’s so called ‘inner circle’. In contrast to the Dems, the Libs seem to still have faith in the Cleggster and his realignment project. This is now the dominant trend in the Lib Dems. By 2015 it could be the only trend.

Getting back to the article in the New Statesman that set this train of thought into motion, Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy sets out a vision for where the newly emboldened Lib Dem right intends to take the party in the future, which, for me, is quite an exciting thing to think about (partially because Labour needs to a) hoover up the mess when this bunch of monkeys stick electoral fireworks up their bums at the next election and b) make sure the fuse is well lit!).

The author of the article, Mr Richard Reeves claims that unlike social democrats real Liberals shy away from Labour for its ‘statism, paternalism, insularity and narrow egalitarianism’ just as much as they dislike the ‘Little Englander com­placency of the Conservatives’. This seemingly innocuous assertion is actually one of the first clues to how Reeves thinks. Is it just me or does the attack on Labour seem a little more heartfelt than the one on the Tories? Is Reeves’ real beef that the Tories are a bit OTT on the patriotism and that they are ‘complacent’? Complacency is a quirk of character, not a policy or ideological objection. On the other hand the ‘statism, paternalism, insularity and narrow egalitarianism’ line is as biting and coherent (albeit wrong) a dismissal of Left-wing politics as one could reasonably manage in 6 words!

He goes on to make a similarly brief but effective argument for his particular Cleggist strand of Liberalism:

‘Clegg is a radical liberal, fiercely committed to opening up British society, attacking the hoards of power that disfigure our politics and economy, and to keeping the state out of private lives. Opportunity, not equality. Liberty, not fraternity. Citizens, not subjects.’

The equality remark is clearly aimed directly at Labour, and it has obvious and concrete policy implications too. The fraternity part is the same (boo unions and social solidarity boo). The citizens/subjects distinction is admittedly more ambiguous, conceivably a dig at Tory Royalism but also potentially a sly jab at Labour’s alleged paternalism. So all he’s seemingly got against the Tories is some sort of fundamental ennui. The word that springs to mind for me is ‘distasteful’; that Reeves just finds the Conservatives leave a bad taste in his mouth. Curious, no?

He goes on to suggest the need to find out if there is ‘room, philosophically and psephologically*, for a proper liberal party in British politics?’ *psephology (seff-ology) means pertaining to elections and voting. Before we get on to the philosophy, let’s just not bother with the psephology: the Lib Dems are royally fucked at the next election come what may. Reeves gives the left of his party the middle finger, literally telling them to go and join Labour, and then indulges in pure fantasy when he says pathetically that ‘there is a new political market for the Liberal Democrats. The party just needs to seek it out’. Because that’s not easier said than done or anything! Anyway, back to the political philosophy…

Firstly he claims Liberalism is a victim of its own success, that ‘The historic liberal battles – equal rights, universal suffrage, freedom of expression, civil liberties, free trade – have largely been won’. Indeed they have. But won by whom? I think Richard Reeves is being bold to the point of foolishness here in claiming all these victories for his own party (tell the Socialist Feminists that it was the Liberals that got them equal rights), but never mind. I basically don’t have too much of a problem with this analysis, it’s the reason open minded people like me are happy in Labour; they get all that equal rights and personal freedom jazz better than many actual Liberals!

If this seems to suggest to you, as it did to me, that a distinct Liberal party is redundant in an age of social liberalism, fear not! Reeves comes to the rescue with a rambling and, of course, vague prescription for what a ‘hard-driving, radical liberal party of the political centre’ should look like.

Part of the prescription is thing like support for gay marriage, which Labour have been leading the fight on for years. The rest of it is a bit of tinkering to our institutions and tax code, but essentially not a huge amount different to George Osborne’s prayer and leeches approach. There are a few sensible things in there; a boost in infrastructure spending and green growth strategy for example. But there’s also fairly dull run of the mill stuff like reform of Parliament and the tax system, looking at media ownership and party funding, the promotion of mutuals (though how they think they’re going to manage that without the dreaded ‘statism’ is beyond me) etc etc.

It is important to recognise at this juncture that this presents no grand vision or overall strategy. Whilst that is not a bad thing inherently, but does seem to suggest an acceptance of the basic Thatcherite economic doctrine.

So Reeves answers the philosophical (ideological would have been a more accurate word to use but accuracy never was Lib Dems’ strong point) question with 2 strangely incongruous arguments. Firstly, that the great Liberal battles have been won, and secondly that the new territory for modern Liberal ideology apparently being carved out by Clegg is pretty much soft Toryism with a dash of extra social Liberalism and perhaps a greater willingness to reform a few of our institutions. Think the description of soft Toryism is too harsh? Consider the full-throated endorsement of free schools and the NHS break-up/privatisation fiasco. Consider the flat out dismissal of state mechanisms to solve economic problems. Consider the idiotic equivocation of trade unions and investment banks as ‘vested interests’.

In Victorian times the Liberal Party was the party of business, trade and industry whilst the Tories were the party of the nobility, the landed gentry, farmers and Empire. But now that the Conservatives have absorbed the business lobby, what’s left on the table for a 21st Century Liberal Party? Soft Toryism and social liberalism?

And then it hit me. The Lib Dem right (the group I have been discussing) and the Lib Dem left joined the party for the same reasons, and it’s not because of ideology. Liberalism as an ideology is, in the 21st century, a convenient illusion. They have no real ideology of their own. Whilst Labour and Tory members and voters often have an ideological conviction, and a passion for their side, Lib Dems are motivated more by their own self-perception, vanity, naivety or some combination of the above.

Allow me to explain myself. Liberalism was not always a null ideology. The problem is that the economics of classical Liberalism has been absorbed by the right, and the morals absorbed by the left. Reeves and his ilk have a basically Conservative (aka neo-liberal) world view, but cannot bring themselves to be an actual Tory because of their own pretention and self-importance.

Self-perception? Maybe they grew up in an atmosphere of great anti-tory sentiment and cannot bring themselves to identify with a party many they grew up with despise. Vanity? Maybe they did not want to be seen as a Conservative because the stereotype of a backward, ignorant, Daily Mail reading old man offended their sensibilities too much. Most of all though, I think naivety was the catalyst. Maybe they simply found it impossible to accept all the negative baggage that parties accumulate. By joining the Lib Dems, a party who had been without power for most of living memory, they joined a baggage free operation. This brings me back to my earlier suggestion; that rather than having a deep-seated objection to Conservative ideology, the Lib Dem right simply finds Tories rather distasteful.

The same cocktail is in play when it comes to the Lib Dem left. They used to find Labour a distasteful prospect. The only problem is that by being in Coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dem left is getting saddled with baggage that it does not like, and is deserting to join Labour in droves, having finally had a rude awakening from the naïve dream of a baggage free party.

A common caricature of Lib Dems is to say they are woolly, disorganised, slightly muddled and a little bit weird. Now obviously that’s not always the case but it does point to a support base that isn’t quite sure what it’s doing; not quite sure what it’s fighting for. I call modern Liberalism a convenient illusion because it serves as an excuse for political involvement outside of the main parties. However, it is clear that its philosophical habitat is on the verge of annihilation.

For its decisive role in ending hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings in the 19th century, Liberalism must be applauded. But the political axis no longer revolves around Monarchism and Capitalism. Capitalism won, and rightly so. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rise of a new axis; Neo-liberalism (modern Conservatism, the heir to capitalism) vs Socialism. If ‘liberalism’ is to be the label we place on those in the middle of the political spectrum, and nothing more, then a label is all it is. One could complain at this point that all political ‘isms’ are labels, and you would be correct. But in the 21st century there is a great deal of meaning and substance behind the labels, behind the poles of Neo-liberalism and Socialism. The same cannot be said for Liberalism.

Reeves ends by quoting Jo Grimond, a former leader of the Liberals. ‘There is no point keeping a liberal party alive unless it promotes liberalism’. But Liberalism as a historical project is dying, killed by an ideological pincer between Socialism and Neo-liberalism which have undermined and subverted it. Liberals must realise that they lie upon a new axis where traditional Liberalism will struggle to be relevant. The question is: if Liberalism is dying, how long will it be before Liberals realise it?


Filed under Politics

Dieting advice for Politicians

‘The challenge of modernity’, as the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put it, ‘is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned’. If you want to stay healthy, you should keep to eating a balanced diet. The same is true in politics.

There’s plenty out there you can read which is the political equivalent of junk food. It’s tempting to spend all day clicking on articles like ‘Catholic church bans yoga as “not compatible” with Christianity’ or ‘UKIP stand by candidate over ‘Koran is worse than Mein Kampf’ comment’. The content of these (real) articles is like rich, processed red meat products for politicos like me; easy to consume, satisfying, comforting and abundant. Indeed, without the occasional burger, or shot of ideological crack, it’s possible to become anaemic, weak, unable to concentrate and vulnerable to disease. If you don’t occasionally allow yourself to be a naked partisan, cheering on your side and jeering at other parties it’s easy to end up a stale, stuffy academic, resignedly decrying all the problems of the world from your ivory tower with no drive, no passion, no loyalty and no excitement.

On the other hand it is equally, if not more important to eat your greens. It’s depressing and a little bit repellent to observe those who survive entirely on a political diet of chips and chicken nuggets. Without an intellectual anchor to guide their politics, they become shameless hacks, mob-like cheerleaders for their tribe whether they are right or wrong, with no apparent awareness of nuance or complexity; sheep doing whatever the wolves tell them to do.

This anchor can only come from study, thought, reading, debate and honest discussion. Without a bit of mental junk food, politics becomes boring, elitist and, Gramsci would rightly claim, disillusioning. Without enough thought and consideration, politics becomes crude, violent, flimsy and shallow and we start to live by illusions. One motivates us but fails to educate, the other educates but fails to motivate. We need both.

Now, in the words of Monty Python I shall…

…and finish writing a post on Liberalism that I planned to write just now, but got sidetracked.

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Filed under Politics

The joy of food stamps

Training continues to be a somewhat uneven and slipshod process, but in the mean time I have been able to do a tiny little bit of what I came out here to do: work, help people less fortunate than myself. As I gain more interaction with the residents, and reading up on a few case histories, I have a few observations to make about life in paradise, whilst of course keeping to my confidentiality obligations.

Gratuitous cruelty

The penal system in the United States embodies everything wrong about the ‘punishment first’ school of justice. I could prattle on for days about this and that; inflexibilities, cost, dehumanisation, the obscenely high incarceration rate (more people are in prison here than in China. Not just per capita, but in absolute terms too) and much more, but let me just use a new perspective I’ve learned whilst being in Key West to illustrate such gratuitous and counter-productive cruelty. Quite apart from the obviously daft decision to incarcerate those with mild to moderate mental illness, whose ‘crimes’ were clearly only committed due to their condition, upon release, people are regularly denied essential items that were provided when inside. People released with a single day’s supply of their medication (or none at all), despite the fact that such a drug takes weeks to apply for; people released without lotion which causes their skin condition to worsen and begin to scar; fragile and insecure people kept locked up for a day after the time they were scheduled to be released because the court notes were not properly kept. All of which doesn’t just show contempt for the supposedly free citizen being released, it also clearly poses an enhanced risk of homelessness, poverty and recidivism, which starts the whole evil business all over again.

Economic insecurity

In addition it’s notable just how precipitous a decline many of our residents have had. And such volatility and insecurity clearly echoes very strongly the experience of many Americans in the Great Recession of 2008. Comments are casually made about life 2, 5, 10 years ago; ‘I used to have a house with a pool and a Jacuzzi’, ‘I’ve worked in every restaurant in Key West’ and such like. That’s the reality in a society of sink-or-swim Capitalism. There are a lot of people sinking, and with a sadly atrophied social(ist) safety net and only a thin layer or charities to rescue people, there’s not a lot stopping people from drowning.

Reminder: the NHS is a wonderful thing, don’t let Cameron dismantle it any further

Whilst many are sinking, there are far more people barely treading water. Half of all bankruptcies in America are related to healthcare costs. If you find yourself in need of an operation and can’t pay for it, can’t get time off work to have it, you’re screwed. Medical emergencies are financial emergencies. And one of the nicest people I’ve met here may be approaching a cliff in this regard. Having to pay for healthcare utterly changes your frame of mind towards it; the odd ache is ignored, and put off, and rationalised to avoid paying for a medical examination until the situation deteriorates so much that the pain is unbearable and the patient is rushed to A&E. The aggregate effect of millions of people making the same decisions represents one of the many huge economic inefficiencies which makes the US healthcare system so expensive and so crappy: it costs more in the long run to let problems become severe before seeking medical help. Prevention is better than a cure.

And all this in contrast to the remarkably efficient NHS, part of Labour’s post-war socialist heritage, that Cameron’s new health secretary has called ‘a sixty year mistake’.

But I already knew this

I knew this. I knew almost all of it before from my personal research and reading. So what’s changed? Exactly what I hoped would change when I decided to come out here and work. I am beginning to move from an intellectual and academic opinion that Socialism should be my thing to an emotional link to what it means, practically, on the ground to be politically aware. I’m very happy to feel moved enough to start to build a profound belief from the foundation of my opinion. This is the political aspect to my aims which I referred to in my first post. Huzzah!

Gratefulness and stoicism

Two things characterise the response I’ve had from residents when helping them and talking to them. Firstly, stoicism and secondly gratefulness. The stoicism of the residents towards their situation is remarkable. They just try to get on with their life. Maybe it’s because of my privileged upbringing, but if the things which have happened to them, happened to me, I would be fucking angry at the world, angry at life! But mostly they just accept it and shrug their shoulders. Secondly, the wave of gratefulness from residents who have gone a great deal of their life with nobody caring for them, helping them, being nice to them, supporting them, and have been screwed over by a profoundly unfair economic system, the wave of gratefulness that comes from them when I do something as simple as setting up their food stamps makes me incredibly happy, and stands tribute to the real genuine goodness of the human spirit I’m dealing with.

Phew, that felt good.

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Filed under Key West, Politics

Hugo Chavez: dictator or democrat?

Chavez’ natural constituency: the poor and the youth

(All pictures are from a rally in Petare, Caracas, as Chavez campaigned for the October 2012 presidential elections and celebrated his 58th birthday on 28 July 2012. All photos by YVKE Mundial.)

I have a strong interest in the politics of Venezuela because I am fascinated by the ongoing political transformation that has been occurring since 1999, the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. It is the country which I know the most about other than the UK and the USA. As a result of my curiosity about the country I am increasingly able to spot the shocking lies which are routinely thrown around by western officials, the right wing press and, shamefully, even the BBC. The process of becoming aware of these widespread misconceptions has opened my eyes to how little we understand about non-western countries, the reality of post-colonial relations, how easily lies about non-western countries propagate, and has led me to be increasingly self-critical about my own assumptions about the world.

So, to answer the question posed in the title: Democrat. Democrat is emphatically the answer to this question. It really annoys me that it’s even necessary to write a post explaining why because the accusation that he’s a dictator is simply not credible.

Chavez (on the right, in blue with the red beret) is mobbed by a crowd in Petare, Caracas

The upcoming elections in October at which Chavez is expected to win another 6 year term, will be Venezuela’s 15th election since Chavez became President in 1999, including Presidential elections, referendums, local elections and parliamentary ones. All have been declared free and fair including by international bodies such as the EU and Organisation of American States. Just last month, Jennifer McCoy, director at the Carter Center (that’s an American NGO, of all things!), described Venezuela’s electronic voting system as one of the most reliable in the world. At the coming elections, the Union of South American Nations will amongst the 200 international observers.

Jubilant supporters climb on railings to get a better view of a rally

So he is elected president on three separate occasions in free and fair elections, his people still support him in overwhelming numbers and yet he’s an evil autocratic dictator? Unbelievable. If anyone still doubts his commitment to the democratic process, I would point out that when he lost the 2007 constitutional referendum, he accepted the results. There have been other accusations leveled at him, including the revocation of opposition media licenses, intimidation, and political interference in the judiciary, but each of these are as baseless as the first accusation. Let’s not quibble about this: calling him a dictator is a lie. The public is being routinely lied to. But then again, if you follow politics closely enough you will realise that it’s not all that uncommon that outrageous distortions of the truth go unchallenged by our lacklustre media which seems to think that separating truth from deceit is not their job. Indeed, it is far easier to lie about foreign countries because we have very little depth of knowledge and no frame of reference with which to discern what would otherwise be obvious falsehood.

The slander of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is most casually and viciously used in the right wing press. This should not come as a huge surprise since Chavez is a leftist socialist (not, I should add, a Marxist) whose coalition of supporting parties led by The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) contains a minority of Communists, Marxists and revolutionary leftists. And if the reactionaries at the Telegraph are allergic to socialists/feminists/greens, they go into full frothing at the mouth anaphylaxis whenever Communists are mentioned. Using the Telegraph as an example then, Chavez has been described in its venerable pages as; ‘President-for-Life Chavez’; ‘calorifically challenged Venezuelan Marxist bully boy’; ‘loonie-left demagogue’;  ‘tin-pot tyrant Hugo Chavez’; ‘Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tedious Mini-Me in Latin America’; ‘the Butcher of Caracas’ and so on and so forth until the words begin to lose meaning (as if calling him a ‘butcher’ bore any relation to reality in the first place…).

Chavez is often seen campaigning in the Barrios on the back of a flatbed truck

However it’s not just recognised right wing organisations like the Telegraph that make this kind of assertion. Our dearly beloved BBC is a very rare beast indeed: a genuinely trusted news source. It trades almost entirely on their reputation for ‘journalistic standards’ and you’re meant to respect and revere the words of their reporters because, unlike nakedly ideological sources like the Daily Mail, the BBC’s reporters have the weight of their organisation’s ‘ethics’ behind them. However, as this graph shows, the BBC’s reporting has also taken unjustifiable liberties with the facts.

The graph above compares the number of articles describing Chavez as either ‘totalitarian’, ‘authoritarian’, a ‘dictator’, ‘tyrant’, or ‘autocrat’, with the number of articles that refer to ‘election wins’ or ‘elected’ (the words ‘landslide’ and ‘victory’ were also included). Given that one is verifiable fact and the other is extremely dubious speculation, the references are clearly utterly disproportionate. They also once compared him to Hitler. Just sayin’.

You might rightly ask, then, what the fuck is going on? How come these distortions are being made by the BBC? There is an argument that the inaccuracy of the BBC’s reporting results from the fact that BBC journalists, themselves being from a particular middle class background, end up living in well-to-do parts of Caracas. From this point of view, they simply don’t see the reality of the situation. If so, it would confirm Charles Hardy’s claim that we tend to be given ‘the perspective of an international correspondent… who works in a downtown office building of an opposition newspaper and lives in an apartment in a wealthy neighborhood’.

The reality of media manipulation in this country is a very complicated thing indeed which I am working on explaining in a future post. For now, however, let me say this: Viva Chavez!

(more on the BBC and the upcoming elections can be found here http://www.newsunspun.org/article/choosing-sides-the-bbcs-coverage-of-the-venezuelan-election-race )

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