Saturday, 31 December 2011

Farewell, 2011

Another year end blog post! One of the things you get from writing a (semi) regularly updated blog is that you get to reflect on the things you were thinking about, talking about and worried about at this time last year. You are really given a sense of perspective because the events that you were writing about remain fresher on the page than they do in your memory, and the things that you were doing yourself are inextricably linked to those memories.

I'm really quite pleased with the way that 2011 has gone. I have a new job, a new girlfriend, have met lots of new and interesting people. I have become closer to and learned new things about the people I already knew, while other people have moved away from me as they pursue the next chapter in their own stories elsewhere. I have been to Egypt. I have written the first 50,000 words of a novel and met some wonderful people whose own books will knock mine out of the park.

Memorably, 2011 has seen a desire for equality and democracy grip the world. We have seen uprisings, upheaval, political instability and a clarion call for fairness and justice. A lot of lives have been lost in the pursuit of the simple human rights that we in the UK take for granted, and these are rights that we, with our freedoms, must continue to campaign for others to have.

A new year should bring the promise of a clean slate and accompanying optimism with it. However, in the context of the world in which we live, we face a year ahead under a cloud. Austerity bites, and the pound in your pocket will buy less in the coming year in real terms than it did in the last. Our nation is politically stagnant and we are in dire need of good ideas and brave actions.

The wonderful thing about Britain is that it remains big on heart and character. We can still be proud of our culture and our resourcefulness. Hard times call for courage and inventiveness, and as I look around at the people I know and work alongside, I know that the challenges we face can be overcome.

I achieved last year's goals of travelling outside Europe and finding a new love, but I never did buy a camera and take up photography. It remains on the list of things I want to do. As with last year, I have set myself three goals for next year to try and help me on my way.

1) Lose some weight. Yes, I know, it's a New Year's resolution staple, but it's a cliche for a reason. If I get any bigger, I'll be visible from space and I'm not having that. So my goal is to be at or under 13 stone 10lbs in weight on 1 Jan 2013.

2) Finish my book. Note that that says finish, not get published or write a bestseller (I might do those things in 2013.) This should be the easiest of all goals. I already have 55,000 words of a firsr draft that I wrote in 28 days, so actually getting the words onto paper is the easy bit. Generating characters that don't feel contrived and having a storyline that gets and keeps your interest is a little harder...but that's something for a second draft.

3) Pay off my personal debt. God, these are aiming a bit low this year...but it needs to be done so I can start enjoying myself again. I'm glad David Cameron took the bit out of his speech about getting people to pay off their credit cards. Otherwise I'd feel like I was being told off by a Tory.

What are your plans for 2012?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Labour's Fatal Assumption

For only the second time since he rose to the leadership of his party, I have found myself admiring Ed Miliband. When he spoke today, he was keen to emphasise the values of the modern Labour party and he even came up with the very quotable, 'When those in power say, "You're going to face five bad years and there is nothing to be done about it," that is a statement of their values and priorities.' There are no surprises about the values and priorities of the coalition government, who are pressing ahead with plans to reform the benefits system, despite widespread condemnation and a wealth of evidence that suggests those in genuine need will suffer tremendous hardship as a result of the changes.

The year ahead will prove to be a defining one for Miliband and for the Labour Party. The last Labour government sold the soul of their party in an attempt to frantically garner floating votes, and polls suggest that despite massive cuts that have savaged entire communities and crippling inflation that will see real incomes stagnate for at least five more years, the Labour Party's support doesn't appear to be growing.

With poll support for the Liberal Democrats having already evaporated, voters are instead looking to fringe parties such as the Greens or UKIP, or even switching to the Conservatives themselves. This phenomenon comes from a shared public perception that the longer austerity goes on, the more necessary it must be in order to tackle the economic crisis. And while cuts may help to balance the books, what will the price be in social upheaval, inequality and shattered lives in the decade to come?

What then, can Miliband do? Gregg McClymont, the shadow pensions minister, has written that the Tories are attempting to tag Labour as the party of 'tax and spend', and that the party will only avoid what he calls 'the Tory trap' by resisting the temptation to appeal to its core supporters in the public services.

I disagree. I am an educated professional, a public sector worker born into a low-income family with naturally socialist leanings. I should be a dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter, but I am not. Modern Labour thinking offers no alternative to the Conservative slash-and-burn policy, and I simply do not agree that cutting public services is an unavoidable necessity to promote an economic recovery.

So to you, Labour Party, I have this to say. I should be your core support. My vote is here, and I want you to claim it. But it would be a fatal assumption for you to assume that you'll get it without radically changing your thinking.

Today, there were signs that that change may be just around the corner. Ed finished his statement by saying that the Labour Party would promote the 'fairer sharing of rewards so that we discourage irresponsibility at the top and the bottom of society.' It is a statement of intent that shows that Ed at least is facing in the right direction.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

When Time Called Time on Heroes

The significant details in life are often the small ones. The appointments forgotten, the words said or left unsaid, the people we meet and engage with - these are the details that determine the bigger picture in our lives.

When a Tunisian military policewoman insulted and slapped a fruit vendor in the market square of a tiny, unremarkable town just south of Tunis a year ago, she could not have expected that her small act of disrespect and violence would be seen as the trigger that has started a worldwide democratic protest that has inspired and involved the actions of millions worldwide.

That fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, enraged when his subsequent complaint was ignored, took himself to the local provincial capital building and set himself on fire. Those around him who were similarly upset with years of corrupt dealings with police and local officials, began to protest at the way in which they were treated. So began the Arab Spring, a movement that toppled governments, ended dictatorships and prompted similar explosions of discontent as far afield as Russia and the US.

2011 will be remembered as as a watershed in world history. The most singly defining year since the major financial crisis that has impacted all our lives, this was the year that people worldwide stood up as one and demanded a new form of social contract from the people that governed them. No longer would they accept corrupt systems that saw the richest siphon off the main share of the wealth as long as some reached the rest of us via the trickledown.

The decision of Time magazine to award the title of 'Person of the Year' to 'The Protester' is an interesting one in the context of the small details I mentioned earlier. To those of us in the UK who have defended our rights and the rights of those around us in the last year, it is a moment in which to reflect and be proud of the way in which we have conducted ourselves and been a part of something far more significant than the simple goals we hope to achieve. However, we should also remember that there is a world of difference between our struggles and those of protesters in Russia and the Middle East, who stand up against totalitarian regimes in the full knowledge that some of their number may never return to their homes.

For me, the most telling aspect of Time magazine's decision not to select a person of the year is instead that in a world which is desperately crying out for leadership, not one leader or prominent person of influence has conducted themselves in such a way as to deserve the title. In Russia, Putin is pictured as the pointlessly macho leader of a discontented people. In the US, the UK and Europe, the likes of Barrack Obama, David Cameron and Andrea Merkel stand at broken tillers as their countries swirl in a whirlpool of conflicting financial interests. Worst of all, in Egypt and Syria, strong militaries and politicians like Bashar al-Assad continue to oppress the populations they are supposed to protect and represent.

So arise to defend your rights, protesters, and bear your title with pride. 2011 was the year that you became heroes when your leaders could not.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Will there be a Soviet Spring?

Tensions are high in Russia as former soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has added his voice to the growing list of individuals calling for Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin to scrap the results of Russia's recent parliamentary elections and start the ballot process from scratch.

Despite widespread allegations of vote rigging and ballot-box stuffing, Putin's United Russia party saw their share of the vote in the Duma (the Russian representative assembly) drop below 50% of the total vote for the first time since Putin came to power twelve years ago. Gorbachev, the Nobel laureate who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, called the elections 'dishonest' and urged the Kremlin to change its authoritarian stance towards pro-democracy protestors.

The new Russian constitution allows a candidate to stand for two six-year terms, meaning that if Putin is re-elected in next year's presidential election, he could retain the power in Russia until 2024. However, those who are pressing for political and economic reform in Russia will realise that the single biggest obstacle to achieving those goals is Putin himself. Questions are rightly beginning to be asked about increasing corruption, politically-motivated arrests and the murders of Putin's opponents.

Following Boris Yeltsin's disastrous free-market reforms in the early nineties, many Russians adopted a stoically fatalist attitude towards politics. Up to now, most Russians had accepted an informal social contract whereby they allowed the state to restrict their personal freedoms to a degree in return for political stability and rising living standards. Now that those living standards are stagnating in the aftermath of the global political crisis and Russia's younger generation are able to compare their lives to those in the rest of Europe because of easy access to travel and Wi-fi (ironically, a consequence of one of the regime's genuine successes), discontent is spilling out onto the streets of Russia's largest cities.

Quality of life is not the only thing waning in the former superpower. Russia's indomitable figurehead is no longer the immensely powerful man that he once was. A million people have seen YouTube videos of Putin being booed at a judo competition in his constituency heartlands. Imprisoned anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny has poked fun at Putin's hardman image and his posts have made him one of the most popular political commentators in Russia.

The state has transported 5,000 police and interior ministry troops into Moscow in response to a Facebook campaign that has attracted a pledge from over 40,000 people to attend demonstrations this weekend in Triumfalnaya Square and Revolution Square in the shadow of the Kremlin. Amnesty International are monitoring the situation and warning that a bloodbath could result if security services are determined to put down the demonstrations at any cost.

As whispers persist about the potential of a Soviet Spring political uprising, both Putin and the pro-democracy campaigners will be holding their breath in the days to come.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Why Capitalism Has To Step Up

Ring the bell, call off the dogs...the time has come to admit it. Our green and pleasant land (though not perhaps as Green as it could be, if campaigning groups are to be believed) in is more than just a bit of a pickle.

George Osborne's Autumn Statement reflected a government that knew full well that it has no answers for the current economic crisis. But then, we live in unprecedented times, so who does? When your opposition are offering nothing more creative than the same slash-and-burn policy that you are offering yourself - albeit with a caveat that it should be somehow slower and more touchy-feely - where is the impetus to deliver an alternative option? What is certain without a shadow of a doubt is that if we follow the current economic plan, we stand to see a decade of misery that will have a social impact on the lowest paid that goes beyond the understanding of the middle earners, who will be too distracted by their own financial concerns to realise how this is all interconnected.

So misery there is, and misery there will be. And what of solutions? I am minded of the young Occupy campaigner, who when asked for a solution to the current economic crisis, replied, 'a kind of system that works both like capitalism and like communism.' I scoffed. And I remind you, I am pro-Occupy and left-wing by birthright. But then, I got thinking. We have all worked for capitalism. And as it failed us so badly when it was circumvented to allow a safety net for banks who could have been allowed to fail (an ultimate lesson that may have proved more painful than the bailout that was agreed), it is time to make capitalism into a tool that works for us, rather than a giant rolling ball that crushes us all on route.

So as the public sector realises it can no longer cling onto the terms and conditions that insulate them from the real world, so the private sector must realise that they can no longer claim vast wages and put the needs of the shareholders above the needs of the societies in which they operate. I realise that in both instances, this represents a paradigm shift to how each sector operates, but greater clarity of understanding is required if social unrest and bitter rivalry are not to bring the country to its knees.

In times of crisis, a government faced with falling living standards has a responsibility to arrest this decline by operating in a role that redistributes wealth. Much has been made of George Osbourne's pledge to reduce tax rates for the highest paid to encourage entrepreneurism. Well, rather than waiting for this to happen of its own accord, why not legislate for it? For example, you could try increasing the tax rate for individuals above a certain level, and investing the monies received in a growth and job creation fund. And yes, I realise that this takes money away from servicing the UK's vast debts, but as we have discussed in previous posts, we have to think about growth rather than just debt. To use an analogy employed by a friend of mine, when you buy a house, you don't starve your family so you can pay off the debt in a year.

The scariest of notions, and the one that all of our political parties have yet to face because the public itself remains in denial, is that we are now playing a different game to any that we have played before. Our ideologies of individual responsibility and free-market determination will not save us, and as things become increasingly fraught in the decade to come, we will need fresh ideas and a different model for how to run a society. And to prove how innovative we can be, we will need to completely remodel capitalism and make it work for us.

Our new capitalism must lead by promoting social interest. It must espouse the virtues of investment and innovation above all else. It must encourage us to ask ourselves what has happened to our manufacturing industries and to ask ourselves why our high streets have become clones of one another, supporting only the interests of giant chains who do so little to meet their social obligations to the rest of us. We must ask what our high earners do that makes them worth their high salaries. And when we think we have answers to these questions, we must have the courage to act on the answers that we have, rather than allowing political inclination or fear to temper our response.

Friday, 2 December 2011

N30: Putting the Strikes in Perspective

It's been a good week for the left-wing, and a bad week for Jeremy Clarkson. On Wednesday, two million public sector workers around Great Britain withdrew their labour and took to the streets of the nation to protest against proposed changes to their pension scheme.

I've been reading an excellent new blog by RepresentingtheMambo that talked about his experiences of attending a strike rally at the NIA.

It seems that the experience of being in opposition is a trying one for the left. Anyone who attended a pensions rally will be familiar with pro-Labour and anti-Conservative rhetoric, but how many trade unionists are really Labour supporters any more? The Labour Party has clearly forgotten about the hand that feeds it in a race to pander to the pampered interests of Middle Britain.

One of my previous posts concerned the ways in which the Labour Party needs to reinvent itself, and in turn how it needs to bring some hope back to the world by resisting the prevailing neoliberal way that is causing so much misery as it now struggles for survival. However, if we really want to start making positive changes to the country, we need to dare to make some really difficult decisions about how to prompt growth, rather than replicating the Tory cuts.

Now, however, is a the time for optimism and not fresh cynicism. For the first time in so long, people are standing up and opposing all of this government's cruel plans. The government may just have underestimated the strength of public support for its own sector. There may yet be scope for an alternative. And whatever the alternative might be, it has to be better than this coalition of continued abject failure.