Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Syriza's Interesting Allies

By their friends shall ye know them? This old adage has got some folks feeling a bit uncomfortable as the new Syriza government apparently cosies up to Mother Russia. This is by no means a new thing. Last year Alexis Tsipras provided Putin's interventions in Ukraine with some political cover. Interesting friends of Syriza are by no means confined to the Kremlin, however. Someone else saying warm words is Peter Spence, economics correspondent for The Telegraph. And today out comes an establishment someone else to give Syriza's message succour: Mark Carney of the Bank of England has attacked Eurozone austerity. Whatever next, eulogies in The Sun and Mail? It's only a matter of time before Rupert Murdoch calls for the top 100 monopolies to be nationalised.

Let's separate the economics from the foreign relations for a moment and reflect on the character of capital across the European Union. At one level of remove, all capital is the same. It has certain interests in common, chief of which always and everywhere is the maintenance and strengthening of the system that makes capital possible. Bound up and utterly inseparable from this is wage labour. For capital to reproduce itself as capital, it cannot escape the living labour power resident in the brains and muscles of human beings. It tries, it's always tried. Mechanisation, automation, computerisation, seeks to put distance between accumulation and the production of goods and services, but it cannot. Machinery requires technicians. Computers require programmers and IT specialists. Services require service givers. Because capital is and always will be hopelessly dependent on human bodies, it is in a constant collective struggle with those it employs to render living labour dependent on the dead. Capital is but the accumulated wealth realised by labour power past. As beings who, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases, lack property to provide a private income we have to sell that labour power in return for a wage or salary in order to survive. Therefore in capitalist societies, the real terms of the dependency are reversed. A society populated by workers without capital can be conceived. A society with capital and no workers cannot.

Yet as we zoom in at a greater level of magnification, there are considerable differences among capital as well. Their common interest is constantly in tension with their individual interests. Bits of capital in certain sectors scrap over markets and resources. Sectors of capital scrap with each other over wider political and cultural influence. Nation-states scrap with each other to further the interests of their capitals in far-flung markets, and so on. An example of this in British politics is how the Tories and Labour are aligned with different fractions of capital. Another is how capital across the continent is divided about the merits of the EU, and/or the relationship it has with the USA, China, Russia, and emerging markets.

Capital is similarly divided about Greece and austerity generally. Some sections, usually the most short-sighted and more likely to either benefit directly from cheap, flexible labour markets, or from finance taking bits of wrecked economies and throwing them into the alchemical fires, are intensely chillaxed about austerity. The more the merrier. Other bits of capital, those whose moments of accumulation play out over the longer term, or profit from state activism in various markets, are less sanguine. This is the section that realises too much austerity sucks demand from economies. Businesses and consumers generally have less cash to splash, thereby threatening a spiral of decline that might threaten the profitability of capital-in-general and lead to unpleasant political consequences.

Mark Carney is of this school. His comments hinge on EU economic integration, of how the dynamic of competition between the different national capitals of Eurozone states has not seen a natural convergence despite the single currency, shared fiscal rules, and the ECB. The next round of quantitative easing, or creating digital money, to buy up public sector debt (repeating again the counter-intuitive act of the government/taxpayer owning government/taxpayer debt) should overcome unevenness and work to float the boats of those economies worst hit by the financial crisis. Piling on the austerity merely deepens problems by wrecking an economy's capacity to grow down deficits and move on to reducing debts naturally. Carney's intervention certainly gives more power to Syriza's elbow when it comes to renegotiating Greece's debt, a welcome coincidence of divergent interests one might say that could expose divisions in the 'official' position and make a worst case scenario for Greece less and less likely.

This section of capital will always try and make the best of a bad situation pregnant with existential threat. Stalinism was denounced by its Trotskyists critics for, among many other things, doing deals with capitalist powers in return for security. It didn't always work out. Likewise, in the event of Syriza-style radical left governments coming to power elsewhere in Europe there will be sections of business that fulminate, rage, disinvest, and attempt to subvert the new state of affairs. Others will seek some sort of accommodation and talk down the threat posed to capital as a whole. Peter Spence's Telegraph piece is in that mould. Writing of Yanis Varoufakis, the new finance minister, the radical creds are played down and his competence as a British-trained economist talked up. He is a "fan of markets in many contexts", we're told. The sub-text is clear, here's a man with which we can do business. Besides, politically speaking, normalising the abnormal knocks edges off any potential threat coming from labour movement and radical parties here taking Greek lessons, and is a salve to oneself too. If we see Syriza as a blip because of exceptional economic difficulties, and they're acting radically within recognisable parameters of governance then there might not be anything to fear after all.

Returning to foreign affairs, what will concern capital across the EU is the relationship being cultivated with Vladimir Putin. It's cause for disquiet among some otherwise left wing friends of Syriza too. Not surprising really. Yet if by some weird quirk of fate, and as distasteful as I'd find it, were I in the Greek foreign ministry it's a relationship worth pursuing, even if it means treating with the so-called National Bolsheviks. Russia's economy is in the merde thanks to collapsing oil prices, but it's still tussling with the EU over Ukraine and other matters. You don't have to be schooled in centuries of diplomatic game playing to see that a visible, some might say ostentatious, warming of relations between Athens and Moscow sends a message to EU capitals. Are Angela Merkel and the austerity die-hards going to block debt renegotiation if it weakens their hand against Putin? Of course not. A good relationship with Russia is a string to Syriza's bow and strengthens their negotiating position. Realpolitik eh?

When all is said and done, Syriza have an incredibly difficult task before it. If it can make use if allies of convenience with the realms of European finance, if it can exploit the tensions between the EU and Russia to carry through its immediate programme of debt renegotiation, they will find no criticism from me. The stakes are high for Greece and, by extension, for us too. Watch. Learn.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Monday, 26 January 2015

Syriza and Us

'Radical Left Takes Power'. There's a headline not seen in my lifetime. Syriza's victory in yesterday's Greek elections is rightly being greeted with dismay, derision, and near panic by those who presume to know the needs of Greece better than the 2.2m voters who turned out against a completely unnecessary economic depression and austerity-without-end. Sadly, it was just two seats short from acquiring an absolute majority, tingeing the celebrations with a bit of 'oooh, 'ang on a minute' as Syriza came to a governing arrangement with the Independent Greeks, also known as the British Conservatives' Greek sister party.

Alexis Tsipras and his cabinet, due to be appointed tomorrow, face an incredibly difficult situation. They may have the goodwill of most of the left from across Europe with them, but they could find the financial clout of the ECB and bond markets against them. Internally there are problems too. Even if Tsipras is able to renegotiate the bail out on the most favourable terms austerity policies are unlikely to be reversed in short order. The restoration of pensions, the minimum wage, and sacked public sector workers isn't going to happen tomorrow. Easing off these policies and then clearing up the economic damage left behind might not happen at a pace agreeable to a chunk of Syriza's support. Managing the situation politically is very tough and disappointment and disillusion is an ever-present danger. The only way Syriza can mitigate the potential damage is avoid the spin and stupid optimism of their predecessors who, like our beloved government, bemoaned "tough choices", without seriously tackling tax avoidance and evasion and, in Greece's case, ingrained corruption. Syriza has no choice but to be completely honest with their electorate and the Greek people at large about the challenges and problems facing it.

Another problem is with the state apparatus itself. There are two issues here. Firstly, Syriza is very well placed to purge the administrative machinery of the persistent pockets of corrupt officialdom. As it has supplanted PASOK as the main proletarian party in Greece, albeit with significant small business support also, taking on and rooting corruption out is sociologically possible because its core constituency does not benefit from those kinds of relationships. It's hurt by them. The same is true of tax evasion. Just as it's utopian to believe the Tories here would crack down hard on legal and illegal tax dodging schemes because it's their base who benefits, so it was true of New Democracy's relationship to the conservative business interests aboard their coalition. Only a party standing apart separately from those interests can take them on. Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution finds itself confirmed in constitutional politics too. Taking on entrenched corruption will be a tough fight, and Syriza are certainly motivated enough to do it, but it comes back to matters of timing and energy required.

This is because there's another potential battle within the state looming: that between a government of socialists and a thuggish police force sympathetic - in the main - to Golden Dawn. Lest anyone forget the police's appalling record of attacking what were protesters and are now government supporters. The New Democracy coalition undertook a limited offensive against fascist infiltration of and collaboration between them and the police after Golden Dawn supporters murdered an anti-fascist musician in September 2013. Their so-called fuhrer, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, currently awaits trial for that murder and his alleged involvement in the disappearance of up to 100 migrant workers. Yet the fascists, while still small and hopefully an electorally spent force, might yet be a focal point for reaction within the police and security services. Syriza's 2012 programme demands the removal of arms and masks from those policing demonstrations, and calls for a more comprehensive training programme aimed at understanding the social roots of crime. That was then. Now? I don't know, but one assumes that Syriza comrades have been giving this some serious thought. (If any reader can shed a light, please comment below).

Syriza and its Independent Greek bedfellows make for awkward pillow partners. Syriza is uncompromisingly progressive on social issues, the role of religion in public life, immigration, and so on. The ANEL are not. Yet at least on the primary issue before Greece - the renegotiation of austerity - their positions are more or less identical, even if the bases for it are quite different. For leftists here in Britain who are getting a bit twitchy about it and are already looking for signs of a sell out, as Syriza's leadership have proved themselves politically adept enough to steer their party from a ragtag and bobtail outfit of Trots and Maoists to government in less than a decade, I think it's fair to say they no how to treat with and the dangers of doing a deal with these characters better than you and I.

And that, overall, is the sort of stance the British left should take toward Syriza. They're the experts about the politics of their land, not us. There are a great many activists and thinkers in left politics here who do have expertise and experiences Syriza might find useful. They may occasionally avail themselves of an insight that a bit of distance and grounding in a different political history that could help. The British left should comment and above all learn from the experiences of the coming weeks and months. There is no room for lectures, for carping, for the performative piety of lefty identity politics. Above all the role of the left here, regardless of our background, is to offer solidarity with Syriza, defend it from the calumnies sure to be chucked at it by homegrown idiots and enemies, and make the case that another form of politics is not just possible, but can win too.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Why Labour Should Adopt the Citizen's Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's look at some evidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Saturday Interview: Glyn Matthews

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

Why did you decide to give blogging a go?

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

Have you got a best blogging experience?

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

... and any blogging advice for new starters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you give it up?

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

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

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

Are you reading anything at the moment?

I am cuttently reading through the Game of Thrones series.

Do you have a favourite novel?

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

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

I would have to name two.

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

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

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

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

What was the last film you saw?

The Purge - interesting but a bit weird

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your political heroes?

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

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

How about political villains?

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

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

The crisis of working class political representation

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

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

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

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

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

Probably best to ask someone else

What is your favourite song?

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

Do you have a favourite video game?

Any of the Grand Theft Auto games

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

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

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?


What, if anything, do you worry about?

The future

And any pet peeves?

Celebrity culture

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

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

What do you like doing in your spare time?

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

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

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

What talent would you most like to have?

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

Either that or the ability to fly.

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

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

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

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

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

Leon Trotsky, Beethoven, & Paul Hunt

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

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

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

Friday, 23 January 2015

Saudi Arabia and the Economics of Hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Atomic Robo-Kid for the MegaDrive/Genesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Page 3 is Dead

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

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

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

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

Page 3 is dead. Long live page 3!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Mylo vs Miami Sound Machine - Doctor Pressure

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