Friday, 30 September 2011

Into the Fire

The former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn (62) is back in France - but as far as his predatory sexual behaviour is concerned - DSK has just jumped from the frying pan and into the fire.

A young French woman - Tristane Banon - has acccused DSK of attempted rape in an incident which took place several years ago - and French police are now investigating her claims.

DSK is said to admit making "an advance" on Ms Banon - whatever that means - but denies any violence.

As regular readers will know this old French 'charmer' also admits to a sexual encounter with a hotel chambermaid in New York - but denies that the woman (Nafissatou Diallo) was the victim of a sexual attack.

Tristane Banon (32) said: 

"I want him in front of me so he can look into my eyes and say to my face that I imagined it."

Ms Banon alleges she had to fight off Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62, "with kicks and punches" when he tried to rip off her clothes during an interview at Paris flat in 2003.

Ms Banon first made the allegations in a TV chat show in 2007, when Mr Strauss-Kahn's name was bleeped out.

Censorship in Syria

The British Ambassador to Syria - Simon Collis - is breaking new ground with his very own blog site - which is well worth a read.

I imagine if he keeps this up - he'll get thrown out of the country by President Assad.

But if so it will be a sing of weakness on the part of the Syrian regime - and their allies in Iran - who fear freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas - more than they fear anything else. 

The address of Simon's blog site is at the foot of the page - why not send him an encouraging word or two - if you've got the time?


The truth is what big brother says it is

I’ve been British Ambassador in Syria for the last four years. Last weekend I decided to start this blog after Syria passed a terrible milestone. The Syrians have now endured six months of unrest and violent suppression of mostly peaceful protests. As they now look towards the next six months with a mixture of uncertainty, fear and hope, I wanted to share some personal impressions about what’s happening. Some thoughts about why it’s happening. And maybe to spark some debate about what comes next and what can be done.

In doing so I am privileged. Because I can. The last six months have shown the Syrians can too. But in doing so, they face censorship, threats and arbitrary arrest.

The Syrian regime doesn’t want you to know that its security forces and the gangs that support them are killing, arresting and abusing mostly peaceful protesters: The UN says over 2,700 people have died in the last six months, some of them under torture in prison. It doesn’t want you to know that it is preventing many from meeting peacefully to discuss reform. It wants you to hear only one version of the truth – its own. And to see only one way out – the return to authoritarian rule where fear surpasses a desire for freedom. This is a regime that remains determined to control every significant aspect of political life in Syria. It is used to power. And it will do anything to keep it.

People say that in today’s world it’s no longer possible to hide the truth. A lot’s been said about the power of Twitter and Facebook, the inability for information to be censored in Tunisia and Egypt. The cruel reality in Syria is that they are doing all they can to pull the shutters down.

Foreign journalists are refused entry. Any non-Syrian local correspondents are kicked out – sometimes after a beating. Syrian correspondents, bloggers and citizen journalists are systematically tracked down and imprisoned. It’s a criminal offence to have a satellite phone. Mobile phone and internet networks are heavily monitored, or connection reduced to a crawl especially on Fridays. They are cut entirely anywhere the security forces mount mass arrest campaigns or send heavy armour into cities. Websites and satellite TV channels are blocked, with help from Iran. Before the start of this crisis Reporters Without Borders already ranked Syria as the fifth worst place in the world for media freedom. Over the last six months it’s got worse. A lot worse. The regime wants to create its own truth. We should not let it.

Is it a bird, is it a bullet? It’s Syria’s new media law!

I suppose we all learn early in life that there’s quite a difference between saying something and doing it. Like pretty much all of its reform programme to date, the regime’s answer to its critics was to announce that there would be a new media law; and that a committee had been set up to draft it. But you don’t need a new law to decide to let journalists in. You don’t need a new media law to prevent the big brother mentality that prevails here. You just need to decide to stop restricting media freedoms, and then to act on your decision. And until that happens, why should anyone believe that anything will be different?

Mind the gap

I’ve got a feeling that this gap between reality and promise will sadly continue. President Assad has announced a big reform programme, several times. It’s got a lot of stuff in it that sounds pretty good. Some laws are indeed being passed, and there are more to come. But when you read the fine print, what you tend to find is that every path that’s signposted towards increased freedom and openness actually winds back to a chokepoint. Every avenue leads to a regime official who only lets through what he’s told to let through. Everyone else has to turn back. Or face the consequences.

Shine a light

Even so, brave individuals continue to find ways through to get out video clips that show Syrian security forces firing into crowds of unarmed protesters, or abusing detainees – you can search for them on YouTube. I’m constantly amazed at their skill, daring and ingenuity in finding ways to capture and upload pictures of events on the ground in something close to real time. Regime attempts to dismiss most of this as the fabrications of a foreign conspiracy are absurd.

But without context, it can be hard to make sense of jumpy grainy images. And tragically, repetition dulls the senses. Unless we have some information about what’s happening and why, we risk forgetting that another day, another death is real. It is not just an image of people in a street we don’t recognise, in a town we’ve never been to, chanting slogans in a language that perhaps we don’t understand.

That’s where I hope to come into the picture. As far as I’m concerned this blog will be worth it if it helps to get a discussion going – on this page, with your friends, or even just inside your head – about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and why it matters. Thanks for sticking with me this far. I hope you’ll want to take a look at the next instalment.

http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/collis/

Coulda Beena Contender

Alan Johnson - the former Home Secretary and Shadow Chancellor under Ed Miliband - is a Labour man down to his boots.

But he's also one of the least tribal politicians you're ever likely to meet - engaging and human - thoughtfull and reflective.

And Alan Johnson is a rare thing in the Labour party these days - a former trade union general secretary (Post Office workers union) - but one who isn't impressed by all the propaganda and windy rhetoric.

So he's worth listening to and here's what he had to say to the Independent newspaper - the other day.

The Independent

The man who could have been prime minister seems to have come to terms with the quieter life. He says, "Never say never," when asked if he could return to the Shadow Cabinet. "But I'm doing other things now."

Alan Johnson is writing a book. "It's about my first 18 years – up to the rock'n'roll years," he says. About his mother, who died when he was 12, and his sister, who looked after him. His is a remarkable life – "I didn't do it to get a back story" – from orphan, to mod, to postman, to union leader and then cabinet minister.

He hasn't read Alistair Darling's memoir. "I've read some great stuff – The Moor's Last Sigh. I've read Vanity Fair, which I started when I was 18. I got it out of Ladbroke Grove library, and then we got shifted to Slough, to a council house. I went all the way back to return it, but it was a long, hot summer and I was doing 12-hour days at the Post Office, so I never finished it. Just such a delight. I always used to do some reading when I was a minister, but there were some books where you thought, that requires a couple of weeks' serious reading, and you're not going to do that with ministerial boxes."

Two red boxes sit in front of the fireplace of his comfortable corner office over the road from the House of Commons, a reminder of authority, and homework, past.

"I don't rush to read political memoirs. I never really have. I mean, I'm reading Tony's A Journey and I'm up to about page 300. It's there when I don't fancy reading fiction. So, no, I haven't read Alistair's. I've read the extracts. Given that he was so close to Gordon and then was estranged and they tried to get rid of him, you can understand a desire to put the record straight. That didn't happen to me. I didn't have that kind of shenanigans."

He says the party has "largely" got over the division between Blairites and Brownites. Ed Miliband "bent over backwards" to appoint Blairites such as him to top Shadow Cabinet posts – and "you can't blame Ed" for their absence now. He won't talk about his private life, but plainly the collapse of his marriage in January, which forced his resignation as Shadow Chancellor, had nothing to do with Labour's civil war. But when I ask if there is still a tension over policy on the deficit, his answer is telling: "What we needed to do, and what Ed Balls has done – his mea culpa last week about banking reform was absolutely the right thing to do – in order to criticise what has been a disastrous economic policy ... we had to say where we got things wrong. And one aspect was banking regulation." (Balls had told the Commons the previous week: "For the part that I and the last Labour government played in the global regulatory failure, I am deeply sorry.")

I ask whether the British public will ever take to Balls: "That might be an issue about the leader. I don't think it's an issue about the chancellor of the Exchequer. The public expect the chancellor to be a bit of a bastard. He's got to say no to a lot of people, and you've got to be pretty tough to do the job."

It is an issue about the leader, though. A recent poll found that half of Labour voters could not imagine Ed Miliband as prime minister. "Look, we're judging him on his first year, having taken over the most difficult job in politics at the most difficult time in the most difficult circumstances. How's he done at the end of the year? The comparison isn't with Tony Blair and it isn't with David Cameron, whose parties had lost four and three elections respectively when they took over. The comparison is with Thatcher, with Hague, with Foot." Hague and Foot? Hmm.

But he is impressed, he says, by the plan to allow supporters of the party a say in choosing the leader, to dilute trade union votes. "He is going to tackle our dreadful system of electing our leader."

He admits that former long-serving cabinet ministers such as he and David Blunkett are a problem for the leader, because they didn't like it, for example, when Miliband said ID cards were a mistake. But he says that is Miliband's "'civil liberties' issue", as if the Labour leader is allowed a symbol. He says Miliband is "fine" on the DNA database, CCTV and police numbers: "And he was fine on control orders, in the end, when it was all explained to him." Johnson, a former home secretary, says that control orders are "back in another language", but he is surprised that Cameron has allowed them to be "weakened".

Liberated from front-bench responsibility, Johnson is also free to drop any pretence that he agrees with the leader on scrapping tuition fees and replacing them with a graduate tax. He regards their introduction in 2003, which he steered through the Commons, as one of the high points of his career. Indeed, he claims that "everyone says" tuition fees are "right" – the only argument is over their level. If Labour were still in government, he says they would have been capped not at £9,000 a year but at "something like" £4,000 or £5,000.

He says Ed Balls, his successor as Shadow Chancellor, is "doing well", but it does not stop him commenting on the economy. Unlike Jim Murphy, the shadow Defence Secretary, who said last week that the euro cannot survive in its current form, Johnson says it must. "If the whole thing goes belly up, particularly at this time in our economic fortunes, that has huge consequences."

He does not accept that Ed Miliband's instincts are to abandon the centre ground and move the party to the left. "We moved the centre ground to the left," he says, and the economic crisis has moved it further. "If we were still there and TB were still leading us, we wouldn't be saying that we were comfortable with the filthy rich."

And he has one final piece of advice for the young leader. Coalition government. "We had all better get used to it. It shouldn't hold any fears. There's nothing wrong with coalition. I think the Lib Dems actually did the right thing in the way that they talked to the Tories first, talked to us, didn't work out, did the deal – I wouldn't criticise any of that. And I wouldn't criticise them for being in coalition. I criticise the things they have done in coalition, particularly on student fees and the economy. They've made big mistakes there, but the act of being in coalition itself – it's doubtful whether the British public will give a majority to any one party in future. We may well be in coalition territory for a long time. So, yeah, coalition with the Lib Dems. Coalition with the Tories? Never."

'I Am Not Spartacus'

The Times ran an excellent editorial yesterday on a small but significant event at the Labour party conference - the booing of Tony Blair.

The delegates responsible for this foolish and bullying behaviour - could only be what they turned out to be - a) Mainly men and b) Mainly union delegates - 'led' by Unite's general secretary, Len McCluskey.

Now Len McCluskey and his chums would never have dared to be so bold with Tony Blair at the rostrum - because Blair would have responded to their boorish behaviour by telling them all - a few home truths.

Now dealing with hecklers is a godsend for most platform speakers - an opportunity to shoot from the hip - and speak with real passion..

Remember Neil Kinnock's famous put-down of  - 'a Labour council - a Labour council - scuttling around Liverpool serving redundancy notices on its own workers.'

Ah yes - them were the days.

But sadly Ed Miliband missed his chance - and all we got to know is that the new Labour leader - is definitely not Spartacus. 


The Booing of Blair

"To those unaccustomed to the idiosyncracies of political parties, it would be reasonable to assume that they seek to attrarct the largest possible vote in their favour at a general election. Indeed, when a party is hungry for victory, that is precisely what it will do. It will postpone its arrival into New Jerusalem and settle for the prospect of pwoer in the here and now.

Nothing illustarted more clearly that this is not the mood of the Labour party that the applause that accompanied Ed Miliband's unecessary claim that he was not Tony Blair. It is extraordinary that a section of the audience, from the Unite union, should cheer the new leader's difference from the only Labour politician who has manged to secure two let alone three, successive electoral victories. It was a moment in which an influential part of the official Opposition revealed itself to be fundamentally not serious.

It was a bad moment for Mr Miliband too. It is probable that the moment was the result of very poor speech drafting rather than a deliberate attempt to conjure dissent. It was inept to leave such a pause after the name of Mr Blair when he must know that his party conference is home to some malcontents all too willing to make fools of themselves, and of the party they share, live on national television.

But having got himself into a tangle with some third-rate craftsmanship, Mr Miliband failed to seize the opportunity that appeared. A more instinctive politician would have rounded on the applause. Had Mr Miliband addressed the contingent directly and issued them with a withering put-down, to the effect that a party conference that cannot stomach its own greatest winner is a party conference not worth attending, he would have electrified the other delegates, the overwhelming majority of whom take priode in what they see as Labour's achievements in power.

Instead Mr Miliband grinned in gauche fashion and carried on. While he has made it clear in interviews since that he does not agree with the hecklling, it was obvious that the idiotic rudeness did not anger him."

Old Wotsisname

Labour leader - Ed Miliband - has been getting it in the neck for the past twenty-four hours - for forgetting the name of one of his Scottish MSPs - Ken Macintosh.

Now normally this wouldn't matter - a trifling matter in the scheme of things - but then again these aren't ordinary times.

Because the charge against the Scottish Labour party is that its biggest hitters - are all choosing to stay out of the contest.

Alistair Darling, John Reid and Jim Murphy all have better things to do with their time - apparently - than to lead Labour's fightback against the SNP and Alex Salmond - and the SNP government's planned referendum on independence in 2014.

Instead the biggest challenge in Labour's history - north of the border at least - is being left to three relative unknowns - Tom Harris, Johann Lamont and the aforementioned Ken Macintosh.

So the real significance of Ed Miliband fumbling the ball when asked to name all three candidates by an astute BBC Scotland interviewer - is not that the Labour leader forgot someone's name - momentarily.

But that all three Labour candidates are so instantly forgettable.

None of them seems likely to set the heather alight - when it comes to making an impression with Scottish voters.

And it speaks volumes that Ed Miliband can't even remember the Labour front-runner's name - back to our old friend again - Ken Wotsisname. 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Rory Jackanory

Trust the tabloid press to hunt down a story - here's what The Mail newspaper has uncovered about 16-year old Rory Weal - Labour's answer to William Hague.

"At just 16, Rory Weal was being feted yesterday as the ‘hero’ of the Labour conference for an impassioned speech telling how the welfare state saved his family from ruin.

The schoolboy tugged at delegates’ heartstrings with a tale of his home being repossessed and the family having ‘nothing, no money, no savings’, and only the benefits system to fall back on.

But Labour leader Ed Miliband may be surprised to know he was not so hard-up after all.

For it turns out he is the privileged son of a millionaire property developer who sent Rory to a private school until his business went bust.

Even now he goes to a selective grammar school, which Labour policy opposes.

Rory’s father Jonathan Weal, 53, owned homes worth an estimated £2.25million in some of the most sought-after addresses in the land.

He had a luxury penthouse apartment in leafy Blackheath, South London, valued at £1.3million, but it was repossessed and sold for £359,000 – which is still more valuable than the average British home.

Then the banks sold Mr Weal’s £950,000 Grade II listed lodge house in Chislehurst, Kent, for ‘only’ half a million pounds.

In the good times, Mr Weal gave Rory an advantage over ordinary families by sending him to £13,788-a-year Colfe’s School in Blackheath.

But when his business ventures failed, his son was lucky enough to be accepted by Oakwood Park Grammar School in Maidstone, Kent.

On Monday, Rory electrified the conference with his tub-thumping speech, giving Labour a ‘William Hague moment’ – a reference to 1977 when a teenage Hague wowed the Conservative Party conference.

Attacking the ‘vicious and Right-wing’ Government, Rory conjured up an image of his destitute family as he told Labour delegates: ‘Two and a half years ago, the home I had lived in since birth was repossessed. We had nothing, no money, no savings.'

‘I owe my entire well-being and that of my family to the welfare state. That is why I joined the Labour Party, but that very same welfare state is being ruthlessly ripped apart by a vicious and Right-wing Tory-led government.

‘I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that system, that safety net. So I take this opportunity to plead with the Government to reconsider their measures.’ 

The schoolboy making his impassioned address to delegates in Liverpool where he outlined how the welfare state saved his family from ruin.

Rory, who later declared he would ‘not rule out’ becoming Prime Minister one day, added: ‘I ask David Cameron, what does he think I should do when I can’t afford to get to school in the morning?

‘What does he think I should do when I can’t buy the materials I need for school?’

Yesterday Rory’s own grandmother described the budding politician as an accomplished actor.

At her home in Stockbridge, Hampshire, Sandra Weal said: ‘He used to do a lot of acting and I think that’s why he was so confident in front of an audience.

‘We only found out about the speech on Monday and it’s really the first time we’ve heard about his interest in politics.

‘We were surprised because we thought he wanted to go in to something like acting.'

‘But he’ll make a fantastic politician - he’s not pompous, he’s just a very genuine person.’

After the banks repossessed the family’s homes in 2008, Rory’s parents split up.

In a Sunday Times interview about his financial downfall, published earlier this year, Mr Weal said: ‘For my wife, Elaine, the humiliation was unendurable.’

The teenager currently lives in this semi-detached house with his mother in Maidstone, Kent.

He went on: ‘My father and sister are both architects. She went to Cambridge. I came last in everything at school and I’ve spent my life making up for that. It was so important to me that Rory had the best education.’

Colfe’s School is steeped in history as one of the oldest schools in London.

However the grammar school which Rory now attends is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted and last year 99 per cent of pupils gained five A* to C grades at GCSE.

Rory’s mother was a director of a number of her husband’s companies before they went bust, and she, Rory and her eight-year-old daughter now live in a four-bedroom £300,000 semi-detached house in Allington, Maidstone.

Yesterday the Labour Party was keeping a tight rein on its new star. Rory was placed under the protection of two Labour minders who were fending off the media and ensuring he did not stray ‘off message’.

However the teenager was keen to say he was against selective education, which also remains Labour party policy.

He told the Daily Mail: ‘Personally, I’m against grammar schools. I think the eleven-plus is divisive and I think it’s wrong to segregate people at that age. I go to one because that’s the system I live under and my mum sent me there.’

He said the last 48 hours had been ‘surreal’ and added: ‘The most important thing has been to raise the profile of the issues I was talking about, because it’s important for people to be aware how damaging some of the Government’s measures are.’

The Labour Party has traditionally opposed all selective schools, including grammar schools, because it believes they are elitist.

Tony Crosland, Labour Education Secretary in the 1960s, promoted comprehensive education and abolished the eleven-plus exam, which selected bright pupils for grammar schools, in much of the country.

There are only 164 grammar schools left in the country, 32 of them in Kent, where Rory lives."

So it seems there's much more to young Rory's story - than people were originally led to believe.

The newspaper doesn't say whether the four-bedroom £300,000 house - that Rory now lives in with his mum and sister - is owned or rented.

But either way it seems a tad unlikely that the young man is living in penury - as his  speech to the Labour conference made out.

Mum Knows Best

Daniel Finkelstein wrote an amusing and thoughtful article for The Times yesterday - here's an extract of what he had to say.

"What do you think of Ed Miliband's speech? Do you think the emphasis on the squeezed middle will work? How much of a blow is it that Ed Miliband can't get his conference voting plan through?

I feel almost embarrassed at my own contribution, because it's ridiculously unsophisticated and it is pretty much immune to alteration by any of the things that are happening here. It consists of two points.

First, most people don't think Ed is up to being prime minister. And second, he's too left-wing. And there's not a lot Labour can do about either of those things. That's the signal, the rest is just noise.

In 2001, standing as a candidate in a marginal seat and with days to go until the contest was over, I was ringing up undecided voters to see if I could give them a final push our way.

I'm not going to vote for you", said a woman in Rayners Lane. " I can't stand William Hague's voice."

And the rest is history - as they say.

I know exactly what Daniel Finkelstein means - because I had exactly the same experience with my dear old Mum and Neil Kinnock.

Now my Mum never met Neil Kinnock - though she did listen to him on the telly - but nothing I could do or say would get her to vote Labour - while he was party leader.

Me - I was out campaigning loyally for Neil Kinnock and Labour at the time - but in the end my Mum was proved right - the voters just didn't take to him - his image as a Welsh Windbag stuck like mud.

I heard Neil Kinnock on the telly the other day at the Labour party conference - and I have to report that his appetite for using ten words when two will do - is as great as ever.

The new Labour leader - Ed Miliband - has some qualities as did Neil Kinnock.

But he is in danger of being seen by the voters as some kind of 'goofball' - rather than a potential Prime Minister.

I wish my Mum was still around to ask what she thinks - she would know the answer - I'm sure.

Democracy and Bananas

I heard a delegate to the Labour party conference on TV the other day - trying manfully to explain that there wasn't really a trade union 'block vote' any more. 

The chap insisted that every trade union delegates had an individual vote - and that the bad old days had gone - because union bosses no longer cast one single 'block vote' on behalf of the whole delegation.

Which is true - but misses the essential point.

Which is that before any votes are cast - the union delegation as a whole decides what or whom to support - and all delegates are expected to abide by that collective decision.  

So - in reality - it amounts to the same thing in the end - since 100% of the union votes  always end up being cast  the same way.

Not a big deal when it involves some obscure motion that no one cares about - but it is a big deal when it comes to elections and issue of principle like rule changes.

Here's what I wrote last month before the 2011 Labour conference got underway - as things turned out  Ed Miliband's reform package was vetoed by Britain's union bosses (the Bubs).

For the same reason - that turkeys don't vote for Christmas

Democracy and Bananas (8 August 2011)

John Prescott is backing Ed Miliband in his drive to bring more democracy to the Labour party - so say the Sunday papers.

Apparently the new Labour leader - Ed Miliband - wants to reduce the trade unions' voting power at the annual party conference - where the unions still control 50% of the vote.

So it's time for change - according to Ed and Prezza - because a handful of union bosses wielding so much power makes Labour look ridiculous in the eys of the nation.

So far so good - though you do have to ask why the noble Lord P failed to raise these issues while he was Deputy Leader of the Labour party - for more than 10 years.

Lord Prescott was quoted as saying that ordinary party members felt the current arrangements "loaded" against them - and in favour of the unions.

He told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show:

"There is a feeling in the constituencies that perhaps the power of the trade unions has been loaded a bit against the constituencies. When I stood for treasurer, I got 63% of the actual votes of the constituencies and hardly anything from the unions because three or four general secretaries decided I wasn't going to be the one and therefore didn't ballot their members, so it's time for change."

Prezza went on to compare Mr Miliband's proposed changes to the "one member one vote" system which former leader John Smith forced through in 1993 to remove the power of the union block vote.

But this is where Lord Prescott's analysis breaks down - because there's not really 'one member one vote' at Labour party conference.

Why?

Because while trade union delegates cast an individual vote - trade union delegations in my experience always decide how to vote collectively - at a delegation meeting.

And individual delegates are expected to follow the 'agreed' line - or else they won't remain as union delegates for very long.

In other words the trade union 'block vote' is alive and well - it's just camouflaged to look like 'one delegate one vote' - but in reality nothing has changed.

And if that's democracy - then I'm a banana.

Off With His 'Ed

The Labour party has been making a big hullabaloo over the beefed-up role of its next Scottish leader - an historic step in some ways.

Because it means that for the first time the leader of the UK party - Ed Miliband - will not be the head of Labour in Scotland.

So - the theory goes - the next Labour leader will be on equal terms with the party's biggest rival - the SNP and Alex Salmond.

King of the Midden - to put things another way.

But how true can this be when the real powerbrokers within the party - the trade unions - remain  unreconstructed organisations which are still run and controlled from London.

The trade unions provide over 90% of Labour's funding these days - they also control 50% of the votes at party conference - so without the agreement of Britain's union bosses (the Bubs) -  major changes can take place.

As Ed Miliband has found to his cost this week - when the Bubs vetoed his plans to 'refound' Labour and its bizarre system for electing party leaders.

The unions also dominate when it comes to the selection of Labour candidates - at every level.

Which explains why 'strange' people get parachuted in to fight certain seats - such as Anne Moffat (Picking) - who proved to be such a dud as the MP for East Lothian.

So unless and until the trade unions follow suit - the new powers devolved to the Scottish party leader - will exist more in theory than in practice.

In other words - the problem goes much deeper that just saying - 'off with his 'Ed'.

Gizza Job

Tom Gordon writing in today's Herald highlights the case of a Labour MSP - Hanzala Malik - who insists on holding on to his second job and second pay - as a councillor with Glasgow City Council.

At a time when some Glaswegians can't get one job - never mind two - this does seem more than a bit ridiculous.

No doubt the SNP are keen to exploit the situation for their own advantage - but that's a poor reason for the Labour party to avoid a by-election.

Since a by-election would give the voters in Hillhead - a local councillor who can represent their interests properly - a role which Hanzala Malik can't fulfill if he's also full-time MSP at Holyrood.

Labour MSP under fire for double job

"A double jobbing Labour MSP has been accused of treating voters “with contempt” for not standing down as a councillor despite a by-election taking place in his ward.

Hanzala Malik, who became a Glasgow list MSP in May, is refusing to quit his £16,234-a-year post as a councillor for Hillhead.

The death of SNP councillor George Roberts means there will be a by-election in Hillhead, which has four councillors in November.

Anxious for a double win, the SNP are putting pressure on Mr Malik, who also earns £57,521 as an MSP, to stand down. Because of the proportional voting system, there would be no extra cost to taxpayers in filling two vacancies instead of one – the votes would simply be counted in a different way.

But Mr Malik, 54, who in 2007 urged an SNP MSP to give up his “inappropriate” second job as a Glasgow city councillor, says he has a “moral duty” to stay until his term ends in 2012.

SNP whip Councillor Graeme Hendry said: “If the rumours are true that Hanzala Malik is refusing to stand down then he is treating the people of Hillhead with contempt.”

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Hand-Up v Hand-Out

Listening to the proceedings at the 2011 Labour party conference convinces me of one thing - people attending these events hear only what they want to hear - and all too often leave their brains at the door.

Take the 'darling' of the conference so far - young Rory Weal - who made a good, if somewhat deluded, speech about the importance of the welfare state.

Young Rory has now been 'cursed' - by being tagged as Labour's answer to William Hague - another precocious 16-year old conference virgin from the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Rory's back story was that the welfare state is a good thing - which it clearly is - and vital in the case of his own family - who were down on their luck for a while, but are now back on their feet.

Good for Rory - and his mum and sister - but if he doesn't mind me puncturing his balloon too much - that's hardly the point.

The real point is that too many people have been on welfare benefits for far too long - not the majority but very significant numbers - for whom a 'hand-up' has become a 'hand-out'. 

A way of life which they settle into and don't want to change - because they have no hope or aspiration to make anything more of themselves - or their children - and a lifetime on benefit will do fine - thank you very much.

And if you don't believe me - then read this entry from Chris Mullin's diary from 11 June 1999 - which is taken from his book - 'A Walk On Part'.

"Friday 11 June

Sunderland

The surgery lasted three hours. Full of people locked into the benefit culture. Three were threatened with the loss of disability benefit on the grounds they were no longer deemed to be disabled.

Two were men in the mid-fifties and one a woman of only thirty who had never worked in her life. They all huffed and puffed about the wickedness of it all, but increasingly I find it hard to sympathise. They all seemed to have given up on life and could not envisage living without benefit.

The woman claimed a combination of gynaecological problems and stress. So far as the stress was concerned, I couldn't resist suggesting that work was the best antidote. The men, one of whom was middle class and seemed to be recovering from a nervous breakdown, both used the phrase 'I have worked all my life'.

When probed, that turned out to mean in one case until the age of forty-two and , in the other, until the age of about fifty-three. As if that somehow entitled them to take a holiday, funded by the taxpayer, for the remaining one or two decades of their working life.

The forty-two year old, who was the most indignant and laid claim to a vast range of symptoms, also used the phrase 'I am a socialist', which I find often features in conversations of this kind. This definition of socialims never seems toplace any burden on the person laying claim to it.

On the contrary, it usually implies entitlement to live for the rest of his life at the expenseof his fellow citizens. Am I getting too cynical? Have I been in too long in this job?

The more I reflect the more I am certain we are right to challenge the benefit culture, however painful that maybe to some of our natural supporters."

Chris Mullin was of course a Labour MP from 1997 to 2010 - a period of relatively full-employment - during which the Labour government never really got to grips with its declared intention of reforming the welfare state.

While people are free to disagree with the coalition government and its plans - the fact is that the Labour government failed to make any serious reforms - during 13 years of unbroken rule.

Even though MPs like Chris Mullin (not a mad right-winger) were acutely aware of the scale of the problem - and the need to do something about it - from very early on.

Double Standards

A new visitor to the blog site has been in touch - about the lack of support and poor advice from her trade union - over equal pay.

Join the queue - because there's thousands of people out there in exactly the same position.

The reader's complaint is that her own trade union knew fine well that she - and all her work colleagues - had perfectly valid equal pay claims.

Because of the big pay differences between traditional male and female jobs - which were well known to the trade unions - but not ordinary members.

Yet the reader's union allowed people to fend for themselves - instead of taking the initiative and actively lodging a claim on their members' behalf.

The reader goes on to highlight the unfairness of it all - and the inconsistency in her trade  union's behaviour.

For example, when the trade union calls a strike ballot - she gets her own ballot paper and individual advice - and a pre-paid envelope to return her voting slip.

In other words she gets an individual service - albeit one that's required by law - and taking up her right to vote is made relatively easy.

Yet when it came to an equal pay claim - she was expected to go off and research the issue and come back to the union - if she wanted to fight against the widespread pay discrimination in her own council.   

Interesting - isn't it - that this woman was effectively being required to jump through hoops and over hurdles - in order to pursue an equal pay claim.

Or to put it another way - she was being required to 'opt in' to to a process.

Whereas on another issue such as the Political Fund - trade unions members have to actively 'opt out' of paying a political levy to the Labour party.

So one thing - of great importance to Britain's union bosses (the Bubs) - is made easy.

While the other - of much greater importance to ordinary union members - is made much more daunting and difficult.

Understandably the reader is very unhappy - and believes that her trade union has failed to provide proper advice and support.

I can see her point - and agree wholeheartedly.

In fact it would be a good complaint to raise with an Independent Regulator of Trade Unions - if only we had one.

Democracy and Bubs

I've listened to quite a bit of this year's Labour party conference - sad I know - but it's mildly entertaining and a good excuse for putting off all those household chores. 

What's struck me is that just about every trade union delegate - that I've heard anyway - is trying to turn the last general election on its head. 

By saying that no one speaks for the people - except the trade unions of course - and the Labour party sometimes - at least when it does the unions' bidding and agrees not to meddle in 'their' affairs.

But the truth is that Britain's union bosses (the Bubs) the trade unions don't even speak for a majority their members - on many issues - never mind the great British public.

Here's a post I wrote for the blog site back in June 2010 - at which point Labour's 3-way electoral college had not been used since 2007.

Trade Union Democracy

The last time Labour's 'electoral college' was wheeled out was in 2007 - for the ballot over the deputy leadership of the party - which Harriet Harman won.

How many people do you think voted in the trade union section of the ballot - which is worth one third of the total vote?

256,000 - is the answer - or only 8% of those entitled to vote, according to press reports.

But only 215,000 of these votes were valid - due to union members not ticking the box that required people to confirm their support for Labour - so the participation rate falls to an even less impressive 7%.

Well that's hardly surprising - given that trade union members are no different to anyone else in their voting habits.

The majority don't even support the Labour party - and many are blissfully unaware that they are actually paying a political levy - in their weekly or monthly union contributions.

When you first join a trade union - the political affiliation business is glossed over and not explained properly - with most people just signing up in double quick time.

For long standing members, opting out of the political fund is a deliberately difficult and time consuming process - so hardly anyone bothers.

The low turnout in such ballots raises a number of issues about trade union democracy, for example:

1.How can a tiny minority of 7% speak for 100% of the members?

2.Why do the trade unions waste their members money these ridiculous ballots - which must cost at least £2 million a throw?

3.Why not just restrict the ballot to individual members of the Labour party - because the rank and file are clearly voting with their feet?

Yet the 2011 Labour leadership contest to elect Ed Miliband went exactly the same way - with less than 10% of union members casting 100% of the votes.

Now only a fool would pretend that the trade unions' role inside the Labour party is representative or democratic - and that is what Ed Miliband's project to 'refound Labour' was supposed to be all about.

But as another Labour conference draws to a close - the unions are more influential inside Labour than they have been for a very long time - even under Gordon Brown.

And - since you ask - that's the reason why the unions threw their weight and their votes - behind Ed Miliband.

'You're no Jack Kennedy'

While I was writing the previous post about Ed Miliband, Unplugged - a thought jumped into my head towards the end.

Which was of a TV debate between two American politicians - Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle.

Dan Quayle went on to become famous for two things - (1) being unable to spell the word 'potato' - and (2) becoming the just about worst Vice President of the USA ever - under George Bush senior.

Lloyd Bentsen had to be satisfied with his famous - 'Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy' - put down of Dan Quayle during their live TV debate in 1986. 

But I know which I'd prefer - if I had the choice.

Here's the YouTube video link.

http://youtu.be/O-7gpgXNWYI

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ed Miliband, Unplugged

Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour party conference yesterday - was a rather odd affair.

The whole thing started off with Ed trying to show that he's not really a 'goofball' - and that he's very much in touch with his feminine side.

And the Labour leader was happy to share the evidence with his audience - since the last Labour conference he has got married to his significant other - Justine - and attended the birth of his second child.

Whereas the year before Ed was unamarried - and hadn't bothered to put his name on his first child's birth certificate.

So far so good - and it just goes to show that a week is a long time in politics.

Anyway, shortly after that things started to go downhill.

Ed told delegates that he was not Tony Blair - Labour's most successful leader ever - and the winner of three general elections on the trot.

Unsurprisingly this revelation drew boos from some parts of the hall and the Unite union boss - Len McCluskey - could be seen clapping enthusiastically in the background.

But instead of coming up with some intelligent or witty put-down - Ed just ploughed on with his pre-prepared script - and revealed that he wasn't Gordon Brown either.

I listened to the rest of the speech which seemd to me to be an attempt to re-write history - or at least the part in history played by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

Who were both ministers in the last Lbour government - and part of Gordon Brown's inner circle of course.

So when I heard that Labour - aka the two Eds - were now committed to any future Labour government 'living within its means' - I began to lose interest in what was being said.

Because this is exactly the opposite of what was really happening inside the last Labour government - according to the former chancellor - Alistair Darling - in his book 'Back from the Brink: 1,000 Days at Number 11'. 

The rest of the speech was predictable and boring.

For example, I didn't hear a single word about 're-founding Labour' - a much-hyped project which now appears to have been shelved - since Britain's union bosses (the Bubs) won't play ball with their new leader.

At the end of the speech I thought to myself - 'What would I say to Ed Miliband if he walked into the room right now?'

And what I would have said was - 'Ed you're dead right - you're no Tony Blair'. 

Star Trek - The Movie

To round off my little trilogy of posts on the laws of physics and Star Trekkin' - I thought it would be a bit of fun to re-cast the main characters - as members of the Labour party 'family'.

So here goes me:

Captain James T. Kirk - Ed Miliband

"We come in peace - shoot to kill"

Dr Spock - David Miliband

"It's life Jim - but not as we know it"

Lieutenant Ohura - Harriet Harman

"There's Klingons in the starboard bow"

Dr McCoy - Tony Blair

"It's worse than that - he's dead Jim"

Mr Scott - Alistair Darling

"Ye cannae change the laws of physics"

Now if I were the Labour high command I'd re-make the Star Trekkin' video for 'Ed Nose Day - which might give the party a much-needed boost in the polls.

Star Trekkin'

Call me crazy if you like - but this is one of my favourite videos of all time - Star Trekkin'.

Isn't the Internet wonderful?

In an instant you can find information - that was previously unattainable and out of your reach.

No wonder repressive governments and organisations - round the world - hate the Internet, modern communications and freedom of information.

Because together they are the living embodiment of what it really means - to have freedom of speech.  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCARADb9asE

Laws of Physics

As I was writing the 'Eat My Shorts' post the other day - about the laws of physics - a strange memory jumped into my head.

Someone said - 'Ye cannae change the laws of physics!'

Only later did I rememeber that this famous line comes from a wonderful song - 'Star Trekkin' - and that the stressed-out character speaking the words was Mr Scott - the much put-upon engineer from the Star Ship Enterprise.

Mr Scott was the token Scot in the first series from the 1960s - who would rail against his captain (James T Kirk) for taking liberties with his beloved engines - as if they were hand bult on the Clyde.

Anyway - here are the words to the song - enjoy! 

Star Trekkin'

Stra Trekkin' across the universe,
On the Starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
Boldly going forward 'cause we can't find reverse.

Lt. Uhura, report.

There's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow;
there's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, Jim.

Analysis, Mr. Spock.

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it; it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, Captain.

There's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow;
there's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, Jim.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
On the Starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
Boldly going forward, still can't find reverse.

Medical update, Dr. McCoy.

It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim, dead, Jim, dead, Jim;
it's worse than that, he's dead, Jim, dead, Jim, dead.

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it; it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, Captain.

There's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow;
there's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, Jim.

Starship Captain, James T. Kirk:

Ah! We come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill, shoot to kill;
we come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill, men.

It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim, dead, Jim, dead, Jim;
it's worse than that, he's dead, Jim, dead, Jim, dead.

Well, it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it; it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, Captain.

There's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow;
there's Klingons on the starboard bow, scrape 'em off, Jim.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
On the Starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
Boldly going forward, and things are getting worse!

Engine room, Mr. Scott:

Ye cannae change the laws of physics, laws of physics, laws of physics;
ye cannae change the laws of physics, laws of physics, Jim.

Ah! We come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill, shoot to kill;
we come in peace, shoot to kill; Scotty, beam me up!

It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim, dead, Jim, dead, Jim;
it's worse than that, he's dead, Jim, dead, Jim, dead.

Well, it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it; it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, Captain.

There's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow;
there's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow Jim!

You can not change the strength Jim of the engines.
It's worse than that, it's physics, Jim.
Bridge to engine room, warp factor 9.
Och, if I give it any more she'll blow, Cap'n!

Red Alert Red Alert

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
On the Starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
Boldly going forward 'cause we can't find reverse.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
On the Starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk.

Star Trekkin' across the universe,
Boldly going forward, still can't find reverse.

More Equal Than Others

Here's a post from 26 September 2010 - which explains why Labour's electoral college is so undemocratic - and in such desperate need of reform.

Unfortunately this won't be happening - anytime soon it seems.

Because Ed Miliband's cunning plan for reform has been shot down in flames - by Britain's union bosses (the Bubs).

The Bubs like it just fine that some Labour voters/members are more equal than others - when it comes to deciding the big issues of the day.

But that doesn't make it right - especially in a 'people's party' that keeps banging on about the need for equality - in other walks of life.

6% = 70% = 90%

The Labour party's electoral college makes about as much sense - as one of the Mad Hatter's tea parties.

But to be fair it has done what it was designed to do - which is to give union leaders undue influence over key party decisions - by galvanising a small handful of union activists to vote in a particular way or, as in this case, for a particular candidate.

Democracy it ain't - instead it's all about machine-like, Tammany Hall politics - also known as vested interests and raw power.

Consider for a moment the voting figures which decided who would be the next Labour leader - and potentially, at least, the country's next Prime Minister.

199,671 trade unions votes were cast in the trade union section of the electoral college - 80,266 for David Miliband and 119,405 for Ed Miliband.

Before the ballot took place the unions were boasting that around 3,500,000 trade unions members would be invited to vote - in a veritable orgy of union democracy.

Yet the turnout of around 6% means that ordinary union members voted with their feet - apart from a tiny number of union activists - who have no claim to represent the views of the wider membership.

The voting figures also confirm that Labour's electoral college is to democracy - what Alice in Wonderland is to quantum mechanics.

Because the Miliband of brothers received the votes of 122,806 individual Labour party members - 66,814 for David Miliband and 55,992 votes for Ed Miliband.

Before the ballot - Labour claimed 170,000 members would be entitled to vote - so the turnout of party members is respectable - at just over 70%.

MPs voted in even greater numbers, as you would expect, and cast 262 votes in total - David Miliband receiving 140 and his brother Ed receiving 122 - so the turnout amongst MPs was well over 90%.

Yet all three sections of the electoral college get the same weighted vote - i.e. 1/3rd, 1/3rd and 1/3rd.

So the end result is that some votes are much more equal than others.

In Labour's electoral college reality is turned on its head - much like Alice in Wonderland - with the incredible effect that somehow or other - 6% = 70% = 90%.

Whatever this is it's not democracy - more trade union members voted (199,671) than the entire Labour party membership (122,806) - which just about says it all.

Maybe these people were Tory, Lib Dem or SNP supporters - seeking to influence the outcome - who knows?

But what we do know is that the new Labour leader was not elected by his own party members - which is a sad day and a bad day - for anyone with a passing interest in democracy.

Ed Blinks First

What an anti-climax.

After much anticipation and tough talking about 're-founding' the Labour party - Ed Miliband - has backed down in his power struggle with Britain's union bosses (the Bubs). 

Ed has had previously signalled his determination to dilute the power of the Bubs - by creating a new role for registered party supporters in leadership elections.

The idea - modelled loosely on open primary elections in America - was to have a new, fourth category of Labour voter who could take part in exciting events like electing the party leader - but without having to become a full-blown member.

See post dated 22 September 2011 - The Fourth Dimension.

The aim was to place these new voters in the trade union section of the electoral college - where penny numbers of people vote - i.e. trade union members who pay the political levy - but without any requirement to be a Labour party member.

So far so boring and unremarkable - far from 're-founding the party' I think I'd be asking:

"Why there are all these different categories of Labour members - some of whom are more equal than others - when it comes to voting on the big issues of the day?"

Sadly, Ed didn't get that far.

Because the Bubs faced him down and forced the Labour leader to agree -  that any additional votes from 'registered' supporters (who will have 10% of the vote in future) - will be spread across all three sections of Labour's electoral college.

In other words that the Bubs vote is diluted - but in just the same way as everyone else - which means that nothing - in essence - has changed. 

So why all the fuss in the first place?

Nothing has been achieved with all this fighting talk - except making Ed Miliband look like he's a bit of a pushover.    

South Lanarkshire

Here's another 'reader's letter' which has been sent to me - about the ongoing fight for equal pay in South Lanarkshire.

The person who is speaking up for low-paid women workers is quite right - equal pay and the introduction of a 'living wage' are two completely different things.

A 'living wage' of £7.15 an hour does not bring about equal pay with traditional male jobs - that are earning £10.00 and £11.00 an hour.

Nor does it compensate women workers for all the years - when the big pay gap between male and female jobs has been allowed to continue - with the blessing of the employers and the trade unions - of course.

EQUAL PAY GETS MY SUPPORT

"I'm writing in relation to the ongoing equal pay saga by employees of South Lanarkshire Council.

As an outsider reading about the case , I can appreciate where low-paid female staff are coming from and the struggle they must have had with the council and their trade union.

In last week's letters page Stephen Smellie's response to what had been said in previous editions of the advertiser. He said in difficult times this year UNISON successfully lobbied for the introduction of a living wage in the council which saw thousands of low-paid, mostly women workers gain a pay rise when pay freezes are the norm. Perhaps a little credit where it is due is called for.

Has he missed the point totally?

These women wanted equal pay, not to be discriminated against. They want to be paid the same as male employees who have the same level of responsibilities. Perhaps credit is not due for a half hearted attempt to try to keep low -paid female members happy!

I met a lot of these workers when a family member was receiving home care. My elderly relative suffered a long and painful battle with cancer and was terminally ill for three years.

These ladies provided care for my aunt while she was dying. Im sure anyone who has witnessed a family member or friend going through a long battle with cancer will agree that its a harrowing thing to see- and to care for someone when they are terminally ill is a very difficult thing to do. Often you will have that experience with you for the rest of your life.

 All in all, I can fully understand why these woman want equal pay with the male members of staff.

A grateful member of the public."

'Gibbering Rage'

Dominic Lawson in today's Independent writes powerfully about the 'gibbering rage' - that infects a vocal minority of our fellow citizens - when it comes to former Labour Prime Minister - Tony Blair.

I watched last night's Channel 4 documentary - presented by Peter Oborne - a right-wing libertarian and regular contributor to the Mail and Telegraph newspapers - a 'man of substance'  from an exclusive private-school background of course.

I wondered why an intelligent person would go out of his way to portray Tony Blair as the person somehow to blame - for the plight of a poor Palestinian woman whose olive grove had been burned down by Jewish settlers.

A 'gibbering rage' is the best explanation I've heard - so far.

What's wrong with a former PM trying to make money?

"It isn't necessary for people to believe that Blair is a mass-murderer in order for them to suffer from what's been called 'Blair Derangement Syndrome'

A former Prime Minister has for some years played a significant paid advisory role for a secretive Washington DC-based private equity firm with annual revenues of over $4bn. The Carlyle Group has also signed up an impressive list of former US politicians including President George HW Bush; and until 2005 its chairman emeritus was a former CIA deputy director, Frank Carlucci. Carlyle, perhaps not coincidentally, has made highly successful forays into the armaments business, such as its purchase of a controlling interest (since sold) in United Defense, supplier of vertical missile launch systems.

The ex-Prime Minister in question is John Major – which perhaps explains why no one has been jumping up and down to complain about the former Tory leader's joining commercial forces with his old friend from the White House, and giving Carlyle the benefit of the many useful contacts he had made while at 10 Downing Street. That's not the only reason, I hasten to add – there's also nothing improper about this arrangement; but the main reason for this being a non-issue is that John Major is not a man about whom the British public has very strong feelings.

The same cannot be said about Tony Blair. To say that he is hated – by a vocal minority – would be a gross understatement. The word "hate" does not do justice to the violence of this minority's gibbering rage at even the fact of his continued existence. Thus it was a shrewd move of Channel 4's Dispatches to commission the indefatigable Peter Oborne to make a documentary about Mr Blair's globe-trotting business dealings – and to question if there were conflicts of interests with his other role as representative of the Quartet of the US, Russia, Europe and the UN in their efforts to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Oborne's programme, broadcast last night, investigated Blair's success in persuading the Israeli government to open up radio frequencies so that the Qatari-owned phone company Wataniya Mobile could operate in the West Bank. According to the programme, this boon to the inhabitants of the West Bank is tainted because the US investment bank JP Morgan had made a $2bn loan to Wataniya Mobile's parent company, and therefore stands to gain from Mr Blair's twisting of the Israeli government's arm – and Mr Blair has a paid advisory role with JP Morgan.

The response of Mr Blair's office was that the former PM had no idea about JP Morgan's link with Wataniya Mobile, and that "Tony Blair has advocated for the Wataniya project at the direct request of the Palestinians... [it] represented the largest single direct foreign investment into the Palestinian Authority". His office added that claims of a conflict of interest were "defamatory".

Of course, that won't make the slightest impression on Mr Blair's critics. If he were to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians (a remote prospect, admittedly) they would regard such an outcome as blighted simply by virtue of his involvement. This was evident in the reaction to Mr Blair's giving the £4.6m proceeds of his memoirs to the Royal British Legion. This newspaper's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown described it as "cynical and provocative... chequebook expiation, kill and pay", while the Daily Mirror's Tony Parsons much less elegantly declared that "Blair should amputate a limb and give that to the British Legion".

There is no doubt that Mr Blair has, since his ousting from Downing Street following a putsch organised by Gordon Brown, made a lot of money, enabling him and his wife to accumulate a number of properties, worth – according to the perpetually-outraged Daily Mail – around £15m. It is one of the peculiarities of the well-remunerated Blairs' predicament that their new-found wealth is a cause of apoplexy on both the Right and the Left. Those on the Right tend to think that there is something inherently hypocritical if an ex-Labour Party leader makes a lot of money in retirement; they have no problem with John Major planning to buy a £3.5m Westminster apartment with the help of fees from the Carlyle group, or Lady Thatcher having accumulated a comfortable pile through making speeches in the US (before she became incapable). Yet if Mr Blair – or indeed Mr Brown – charges a large fee for speechifying in foreign parts, this is regarded as an outrage.

On the Left, the fury is for a different reason – although they also find the whole idea of people becoming rich as inherently unjust. They cannot forgive Blair for aligning the Labour Party with the forces of capitalism; and they regard his joining the Americans in the invasion of Iraq as nothing less than a war crime, for which he should be prosecuted at The Hague. The idea that Blair genuinely felt (however misguidedly) that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction, is regarded as preposterous – although even Dr David Kelly, the unwitting source of the BBC's explosive assertion that Blair knew it was nonsense at the time, had agreed that Saddam retained biological weapons.

Yet it isn't necessary for people to believe that Blair is a mass-murderer in order to suffer from what Alex Massie in Foreign Policy magazine described as "Blair Derangement Syndrome". It is also an extension of the current mood of revulsion against politics in general – and Blair, having been the most popular politician of the era, must therefore become the most irrationally hated, once the infatuation wore off.

On a more human level, I can understand the ex-PM's frenetic combination of money-making and peace-mongering. His father suffered a catastrophic stroke at the age of 40 and Tony Blair himself has a dicky heart. It seems psychologically obvious that he feels he has not much time left to do everything he still wants to achieve – and he has always been ferociously ambitious.

In earlier years, when Prime Ministers left Downing Street at a more advanced age, such issues tended not to arise. By the time Jim Callaghan or Harold Wilson left office, they were ready for the gentle slopes of retirement, all passion (and ambition) spent. Yet Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown are still relatively young men with much to prove, not least to themselves. It is unreasonable to expect them to slink into obscurity; and if they strive to make their families financially secure, how does that harm us?"

Monday, 26 September 2011

Eat My Shorts

Reports at the weekend suggested that scientists in Switzerland may have overturned the laws of physics - or Einstein's theory of special relativity - as I am fond of saying over the breakfast table occasionally.

But in a very unboffin-like response - Jim Al-Khalili - professor of physics at the University of Surrey - has said he will 'eat his shorts' - or 'eat my shorts' to be strictly accurate - if this turns out to be true.

Now apparently the boffins in Switzerland are shooting neutrinos down to Italy - in some kind of wacky scientific pea-shooter - only to find that these pesky neutrinos are arriving there earlier than they should.

Which - if true - means that they are travelling at faster than the speed of light.

Which is impossible according to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity - which says that nothing can travel faster than light - which speeds along at 186,282 miles per second. 

Which is even faster than Labour's famous policy U-turns - in the run up to the Scottish Parliament's elections - it has to be said.

So we are now in the position where the brainiest folks in the world - are quoting Bart Simpson - in their quest to solve the mysteries of the universe.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili - by the way - has also said that if he has to eat his shorts - they will be accompanied by lashings ot tomato ketchup. 

I can only advise the potentially absent-minded professor - that in his understandable excitement - he should remember to wash them thoroughly first.