Saturday, 25 May 2013

Mps hitting pay dirt and why we may never be safe again

Mps could be in for a cash windfall following recommendations made by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) that their pay should be given a pay rise of up to £20,000.

Actually it is thought IPSA will plump for a £10,000 rise instead, big of them don’t you think? Unless you happen to be one of the millions of people who haven’t had a pay rise since the big crash of 2008, in which case you will have ground your teeth to powder before reaching the end of this sentence.

If a £10,000 pay rise for MPs seems like a slap in the face then their own assessment of what they deserve is more like a punch on the nose. According to a survey conducted in January most MPs think their not ungenerous £66,000 salary should rise to £83,000, a considerable number of the members polled think it should be raised to £100,000.

John Bercow, a man who was only made Speaker because a dying Labour government though doing so would annoy an incoming Conservative one is said to be ‘sympathetic’ to their demands. This just about shows his worth as a parliamentarian, and it’s a lot closer to a handful of tarnished pennies than £100,000.

I am well aware there are many MPS who, though it is sometimes a struggle to believe it, who aren’t in politics for the money. Their motivation is serving the people and advancing democracy, what a pity their voice has been drowned out yet again by pinstripe clad piggies squealing to be given a bigger trough.

It’s that man again; Eric Joyce I mean, the former member for Falkirk has been arrested following an ‘altercation’ with staff at Edinburgh airport.

A spokesperson for the airport said Mr Joyce had become ‘abusive and confrontational towards airport staff and police’ during a row over a lost mobile phone. He is due to appear in court at a later date.

I don’t doubt Mr Joyce has his demons to battle, but isn’t his behaviour becoming more than a little tiresome?

Being suspended from the commons for fighting in one of its many bars may be a cry for help and he deserved a measure of sympathy; screaming airport staff earning the minimum wage takes him into the territory of the unregenerate yob.

Any sympathy towards him has long since curdled into boredom, it is more than high time he went away and didn’t come back until he’s grown up.

David Cameron says the government is going to focus on ‘big picture’ issues and not waste any more time squabbling about Europe or gay marriage. Meanwhile Nick Clegg says that he cannot ‘envisage any circumstances’ under which the coalition will come to an end before the next election.

They might hate each other but they’re going to stay together for the sake of the children, I mean the voters; anyway they’re not going to split up, honest, fingers crossed. I can just imagine the tense silences around the cabinet table punctuated only by the rustling of David’s newspaper and an occasional martyred sigh from Nick.

This, future historians will note, is the moment when the coalition entered its Terrance Rattigan era. A stage of British political history marked by well spoken people sitting stoically in drawing rooms as they seethe internally with rage and resentment, like a bad marriage the coalition will stumble held together by a rope of mutual dependency.

I can see the closing scene of Act Two now as the doomed pair sit in a chintz crowded drawing room.

“Would you like some more tea David?”

“No, I think I’ll go to the study and smoke a pipe before bed.”

The clock ticks, dust settles and as the curtain falls two great parties trundle a few seconds closer to political oblivion.

The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on a suburban street in Woolwich South London almost defies words. Most of the millions that have been written about it seem trite, a hardly adequate response to the horror of what happened.

The best I can do is to add the following observations.

It is heartening to see that moderate Muslims, the majority despite what the tabloids would have us believe, have been quick to disown the actions of two deluded extremists. No faith tells its followers to go out and kill, it is individuals who pull triggers, set off bombs and use knives with deadly intent; god has nothing to do with it.

This might not be the first atrocity recorded by ‘citizen journalists’, it is though the first where the participants have played up to them. One of the defining images of Wednesday’s outrage was that of one of the murdered telling people recording events on their mobiles that this was a response to crimes committed by the west in ‘Muslim lands’ as blood dripped from his hands.

It was noting of the sort; attacking and killing an innocent man isn’t a political act; it is murder pure and simple.

This is though a very special sort of murder, one that combines the violence and self justification that has been the signature of malcontents down the ages with a thoroughly modern taste for showing off. They may have been dangerously deluded on every thing else, but the perpetrators were chillingly right about one thing; after this we will never be safe again.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Mrs Bottrill is the first casualty of austerity- she won’t be the last.

Remember the name Stephanie Bottrill; in life she was obscure; in death she earned a bitter sort of fame. When she threw herself in front of a lorry on the M6 Mrs Bottril became the first casualty of the austerity policies pushed by the coalition government since 2010.

Her suicide was, it has emerged, motivated by the stress caused her by the removal of £80 per month in housing benefits under the ‘bedroom tax’. In a letter written to her son she wrote ‘don’t blame yourself for me ending my life; the only people to blame are the government.’

In an interview given to the Sunday People Mrs Bottrill’s son said his mother, who had lost 25% of her housing benefit under the withdrawal of the ‘spare room subsidy’, had been struggling to cope. Previously she had, he said, been in good spirits, commenting on the ‘bedroom tax’ he added ‘it was dreamt up in London by people in offices and big houses. They have no idea the effect it has on people like my mum.’

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls told Sky News Mrs Bottrill’s suicide was a ‘tragedy’ and that the changes to housing benefit were ‘driving people to the edge of despair.’

David Jamieson, Labour Group Leader on Solihull Council, also speaking to Sky News, said he was ‘absolutely appalled this poor lady has taken her own life because she was worried how she would pay the bedroom tax.’ He added that in the light of what happened to Mrs Bottrill the government would ‘sit up and take notice and reconsider this policy.’

Although small beer in comparison to the horrors enacted in Syria on a daily basis the death of Mrs Bottrill marks a turning point for the Cameron government, the moment when it stopped being comically inept and became a menace. Stephen Bottrill is right to lay the blame for his mother’s death at the door of the coalition, however hard David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne wash their hands it is a damned spot they will never be able to remove.

Before the 2010 election Iain Duncan Smith put forward the analysis that the welfare system was harming rather than helping the poorest people in society and needed to be reformed. In this he was quite correct, the welfare state is a creation of the 1940’s that has had bits bolted on over the subsequent decades at the whim ministers who pass like ships in the night. As a result it has become a confusing and perverse tangle that neither claimants nor administrators can understand.

What was needed, according to Mr Duncan Smith, was a programme of simplification allied to a change of culture so the system actively worked with claimants to help them back into work whilst giving real support to those people who genuinely can’t work. Again he was right; so how did things go so wrong?

The went wrong at the point when having entered office Iain Duncan Smith signed up to the myth of ‘austerity’ being the solution to every economic problem that has hoodwinked the rest of this hapless government. He has compounded this mistake by setting up a fatuous conflict between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers.’

Let’s be clear Mrs Bottrill was not in any way a ‘skiver’ by all accounts she was an honest and hard working woman. Freeloaders, be they fraudulent benefits claimants or city traders who bend the rules don’t worry themselves to the point of suicide over going into debt; they max out their credit card and yours too without a thought.

Neither do they queue up at food banks every week as many Britons just like Mrs Bottrill do every day; they order up the sort of banquet that would make Henry VIII feel faint then saunter off leaving someone else to pick up the tab.

Most of the people who will be hit hard by the ‘bedroom tax’ and the rest of the austerity agenda aren’t ‘scroungers’ riding for free they’re hard working people struggling to make ends meet.

The tax that drove this innocent woman to her death has nothing to do with fairness; it is manifestly unjust, or even to do with balancing the books. It is an exercise in pure political cynicism, an attempt to blow long and hard on the dog whistle to appeal to disenchanted Tory voters in the shires whilst using the sillier end of the tabloid press to set the people hurt most by the cuts fighting amongst themselves.

Shamefully it seems to have worked, all week the media has focussed on the tedious squabble within the Conservative Party over Europe. Once upon a time Labour would fought the corner of women like Mrs Bottrill, not any more, the grassroots are demoralised and the leadership, after making the required noises moved on to the next photo-opportunity and the next sound bite.

Those people who think fairness is more than just a glib phrase used by politicians on the make should remember Stephanie Bottrill and how she died, particularly when it comes to casting their vote.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Hollowed out Labour, misfiring tweets and the perils of motherhood

Thirteen years in office left the Labour Party ‘hollowed out’ according to shadow cabinet member Sadiq Khan.

Speaking on the BBC he said ‘what you’ve got to realise is between 1997 and 2010 we did some remarkable things in government, but we lost five million voters, we lost tens of thousands of members, we lost thousands of activists and thousands of councillors.’

Gaining more than two hundred councillors in last week’s local elections has reversed the worst of the losses incurred under Gordon Brown, but Labour’s success was overshadowed by that of UKIP. The party has, according to Mr Khan, recruited fifty thousand new members since 2010 and is trying to persuade many of them to stand in areas where Labour currently has little representation.

The task now, he said, was to ‘make sure the public understand we’ve got new policies that can persuade them to give us their trust in 2015.’

Put like that it all sounds so simple, just a matter of recruiting shed loads of new members, tell them about your shiny new policies than sit back and watch the votes stack up.

In the real world things aren’t quite so simple, for a start many of those new members are actually ‘supporters’, they have little involvement in the life of the party beyond sending off a donation now and then. As for the new policies that are going to turn them all into activists overnight, they’re always coming; but never seem to actually arrive.

About the only thing Sadiq Khan said with which I can agree is that the Labour Party has indeed been ‘hollowed out.’ Only it wasn’t, as he suggests an accidental side-effect of being in office, it was done intentionally by the two dysfunctional men who led the party from 1994.

Alex Ferguson has announced his retirement as manager of Manchester United this week, cue much lamentation from the terraces and one mistimed tweet from Ed Milliband.

As is so often the way when politicians and popular culture meet he made a fool of himself, his message, which read ‘Proud man. Great manger. Staunch Labour Party supporter. Sir Alex Ferguson will never be forgotten,’ was interpreted as suggesting the great man had died, rather than just decided to spend more time with his racehorses.

Actually I doubt Red Ed and his aides even know who Alex Ferguson is, it is a miracle the leader of the opposition didn’t end up on the World at One babbling away about how he’d watched every wicket he took in the Grand National. Like Gordon Brown before him Milliband is a bookish man and he does neither himself nor his party any favours by blundering out of the library to comment on things he is only vaguely aware even exist like premiership football.

The UK has come twenty third in a list of one hundred and seventy six countries ranked by Save the Children by their quality as a place in which to be a mother.

Top of the league, unsurprisingly, were Sweden, Norway and Finland with Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo trailing in last. Stuck in stodgy mid-table the UK has fewer women in parliament and a higher infant death rate; more older and teenage mothers and a six times greater chance of a woman with an unemployed partner dying in childbirth.

These problems pre-date the coalition, but have been exacerbated by the obsessive commitment to austerity they have shown since 2010. Away from the leafy suburbs and rolling shires where David Cameron and his cabinet of the complacent make their home levels of inequality are approaching those last seen in the thirties; something has to be done and quickly too to avert a social disaster.

It is telling that Scandinavia, where creating equality is a realistic goal rather than political window dressing is the best place to bring a child into the world. For decades they have understood that you cannot have a strong economy, as opposed to an endless cycle of boom and bust without an equally strong society.

As we contemplate the increasingly troubled and unequal mess of our own society isn’t it time we took some lessons from our friends in the North?


Tory Euro-sceptics have tabled an amendment to the motion approving the Queen’s speech calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. This is, of course, a ‘wheeze’ calculated to cause the maximum amount of embarrassment for David Cameron as his authority with his party shrivels faster than its poll ratings.

What it isn’t is what the country wants to see its elected representatives doing as the economy trundles to hell in a handcart. Last week the public showed it had lost patience with the insular squabbling of the boys in the Westminster bubble; this week we’ve been served up more of the same anyway. And they wonder why people don’t bother to vote.

The Tories want to raise the number of children nursery workers can look after from four to six, the Liberal Democrats disagree, cue the sort of squabble that wouldn’t be out of place in a nursery.

Watching the toys fly out of the pram two things sprang to mind. First of all it is typical of the thinking inside the government that they have latched on to the idea that letting child minders look after more children, as they do in many other European countries, whilst ignoring the fact that in these countries people who deliver childcare are trained and paid better than they are here.

Second when the story broke journalists asked a number of cabinet stuffed shirts how they’d cope with looking after six boisterous toddlers, personally I’m inclined to think the inmates of a kindergarten could do a better job of running the country than a government that can’t even sell its policies to itself never mind the rest of us.

And finally Ray Harryhousen, the genius who created the special effects for films such as ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ and ‘Clash of the Titans has died at the age of ninety two.

A sad loss for his family and for the film world, particularly since he was about to start work on a new creature feature about the big beasts running the coalition, it was going to be called ‘Tantrum Amongst the Tiddlers.’

Friday, 3 May 2013

Smears, Stankovites and a turbulent priest

UKIP are a ‘collection of clowns’, ‘the most successful none of the above party of their day’ and their leader Nigel Farage, aka the Dick Dastardly of British politics, is the ‘heir’ to Nick Clegg.

These aren’t my views, necessarily; they were handed down to a breathless public by respectively Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and Tory donor Lord Ashcroft at the start of this week. It was all part of a media campaign highlighting the supposedly shambolic organisation behind the UKIP brand.

This was supported by a number of emails sent by former UKIP Treasurer Stuart Wheeler leaked to the Observer suggesting the party’s policy making process is chaotic and may lead to a split in the near future.

Spin the tape forward to today, a day after much of the country went to the polls in county council elections and the picture looks very different. Far from spinning down to the ground with his tail in flames Dick Dastardly Farage is flying high, meanwhile the Tories are wiping a lot of egg off their faces.

At the time of writing UKIP are coasting towards a national tally of sixty seats and twenty five prevent of the vote, not bad for a fringe party. The political earthquake some journalists, most of whom have been up all night and drunk too much coffee, have been predicting all day might not happen; but the clowns have certainly given the rest of the circus a damn good scare.

UKIP have a number of problems that could stymie their making the big push into the political mainstream, their organisation is appallingly badly run and, Farage aside, they lack any senior figure capable of coming over on television, but they are still managing to connect with a jaded public in a way the three main parties can only dream of doing.

This is due entirely to an ever growing realisation on the part of the voting public that the old way of doing political business no longer works, it is time for an alternative, or better still for several. UKIP don’t tick any of the boxes for me, but I can see why they might for someone else.

The Tories, the Lib Dems and Labour are all going to have to come up with something new to say and a more positive way of saying it or face exiting the big top once and for all.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has revived the ‘Hero of Labour’ decoration last awarded during the Soviet era. In a ceremony held in St Petersburg he handed out the first batch, honouring amongst other a coal miner, a mechanic and a theatre director.

This is part of a project to find ‘new heroes’ for Russia that are not linked to the darker parts of the country’s recent past.

Speaking to the BBC this week the director of the Lenin State Farm, there really is such a place apparently, said ‘Is it not an act of heroism to get up at five am to milk the cows and not come back home until ten at night?’

He added ‘What about doctors on call twenty four hours a day, are they not heroes? Today young people only seem to respect TV stars. It’s time to honour individuals who make a real contribution to our country.’

If you think I’m going to snigger at this in the way I do at the bare chested machismo Mr Putin usually displays you’re quite wrong. There is much to dislike about the Russia of the new capitalist tsar, not least the yawning chasm between the rich and everyone else and the regime’s brutal repression of free speech; but this time I think he might be on to something.

Something from which we here in Britain may be able to learn, our honours system does go some way towards recognising selfless charity work, but it is still too crowded with political hacks and celebrity grotesques. What it doesn’t do is recognise the men and women who do the dull, badly paid and usually unappreciated jobs like stacking shelves in supermarkets, caring for the elderly and cleaning out the drains without which our society wouldn’t function.

It may be going a bit far to address the checkout assistant as ‘Comrade Hero of Soviet Labour’ the next time you do the weekly shop, but would it hurt to honour them with a little courtesy. As they say down on the Lenin State Farm, are they too not heroes?

New Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welsby is shaping up nicely; he might yet turn out to be as much of a thorn in the side of the establishment as his predecessor Rowan Williams.

He’s certainly ruffled a few feathers by attacking the ‘culture of entitlement’ to be found within the City of London in his role as a member of the all party Banking Standards Committee. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme he said ‘I think in banking, in particular, and the City of London a culture of entitlement has affected a number of areas, not universally by any means, in which it seemed to disconnect from what people saw as reasonable in the rest of the world.’

Bishop Welsby, who worked as an oil executive before taking holy orders, called for bankers to be given training in managing risk and the social consequences of their actions. When asked if his comments had caused upset in Downing Street he replied ‘sometimes feathers get ruffled, I mean, that’s life.’

Well spoken that clergyman. Even though I am still dubious about giving the church a seat in the legislative process, but if they’re going to be there then the bishops might as well use their position to, to keep the avian metaphors going, the odd cat amongst the pigeons.

Needless to say the archbishop’s comments have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst people who would be happier of the Church of England would go back to being the Tory Party at prayer. As ever such nostalgic souls are missing the point entirely.

It is the job of a bishop to call people, either literally or figuratively, to their prayers, and as even we agnostics know prayer should be an awkward interrogation rather than a cosy chat. There is no more awkward question for a rich person to answer than; did I make my money honestly?