Friday, 14 October 2011

Deja Vu on the Streets of Libya - Spot the Difference

Further to my article yesterday something I recently predicted would happen, has happened.

Pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, albeit at the moment rather small ones, are beginning to break out on the streets of Tripoli.

The response of the new Western-backed government? They have opened fire on them!

Can somebody please refresh my memory as to why NATO claimed to have become involved in this conflict in the first place?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Playing the New World Order's Tune

The forces of the Libyan "revolution".  Will you tell him or shall I?

There was a time, in a previous life, when I was happy to sing the praises of the almost-but-not-completely-deposed Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

It was a time, after all, when I dealt solely in absolutes and, having read the Green Book and marvelled at its convoluted strategy for total democracy, I would hear nothing that suggested revolutionary Libya was any less a paradise on Earth in practice than it was in theory. The Third Universal Theory, to lend it its correct title.

Of course in truth Gaddafi's Libya was anything but a paradise. Power games, between tribes as well as politicians and army generals, and some simple realities about human nature and the personal ambitions, and innate corruptability, of some ensured that not everybody stuck to the manual. Clearly it became a dictatorship with an idea, and one which wasn't too fussy about some of the friends it made around the world in its efforts to carve for itself an ideological niche that would challenge the twin evils of capitalism and communism for the hearts of minds of the people of the world.

But the diet of lies, so barely concealed as to be insulting to the intelligence, that has been fed to the British public in respect of the current NATO campaign has led me instinctively to sympathise with the pro-Gaddafi elements as they continue their desperate, impossible fight against hopeless odds in those few isolated Libyan cities that remain outside of "rebel" (i.e. NATO) control.

From the moment the United Nations gave them the green light for intervention the NATO bombing campaign has quite obviously had nothing whatsoever to do with "protecting civilians" and everything to do with regime change. The fact that there remain up to 10,000 civilians holed up in Sirte, and that NATO is bombing their city relentlessly whilst turning a blind eye to the completely indiscriminate rocket attacks being made upon them by the inexpert and untrained "rebels" provides us with indisputable evidence of this.

Yes Gaddafi was a dictator, a murderous one to boot, but considerably less so than many of the rulers in the region whom the West is actually arming as well as doing regular business with. The difference is of course that Gaddafi was a dictator with a political ideology that, in times of real economic strife such as those we would seem to be heading into, presented a real danger of being taken seriously. After all, who wants a Third World leader who, unlike us it would seem, was able to provide an efficient free healthcare service and universal access to education without increasingly prohibitive tuition fees?

How embarrassing was it for our political establishment to see Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and released on compassionate grounds two years ago due to his terminal cancer, still alive after all this time thanks to a drug that is freely available in Third World Libya but had been kept quiet about and withheld from British cancer sufferers because it is too expensive to issue?

Who wants a Third World dictator who, in his own small way, had begun to build his own political power base in Africa to rival those of the US superpower or the almost-super powers of Russia and China? Not much we can do about the global machinations of such giants on the world stage, after all. But Libya?

Most of all, who wants a Third World dictator who threatened to trade his people's own oil in "African dinars", based upon gold reserves, as opposed to US dollars?

Understand this and you will understand how a man who was a political pariah in the 1980s and 1990s became cuddly Uncle Muammar in 2003, and how his elite forces became worthy of SAS training little more than a year ago, only for his "dictatorness" to be suddenly rediscovered earlier this year.

We are told the ground forces that are currently struggling to overwhelm Sirte in spite of their massive numerical superiority and unanswered NATO air support are "revolutionaries". But revolutions come from the people, they are not imposed by foreign powers. What has happened in Libya has not been a revolution, but an invasion.

Even now, after having taken Tripoli, the "revolutionaries" have been entirely dependent upon NATO air power in order to take a small city from the scattered remnants of an already defeated army. These guys may believe they are fighting for freedom, and their grudges against the old regime may be well-founded and very real, but they will discover before very long that they have in fact been the foot soldiers of a far more subtle and sinister dictatorship than their eccentric ex-Brother Leader could ever have imposed upon them.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Hounslow Homes Annual General Meeting 2011 - Election Lost, Argument Won?

Whilst I certainly don't pine for my old "job" these days, it was slightly surreal to find myself sitting in the Council Chamber at the Civic Centre in Lampton Road on Thursday evening.

The reason Caroline and I were so doing was that we had accepted an invitation, sent to us both in our capacity as former Board members, to attend the Annual General Meeting of Hounslow Homes.

The AGM itself is something of a formality. The local authority is the sole shareholder of Hounslow Homes and the various appointments, retirements and other items of business are approved (hopefully) by the Lead Member for Housing, currently Councillor Steve Curran, on its behalf. I know how it works because I did the job myself for three years between 2006 and 2009.

But it was good to spend a little time chatting with some old acquaintances - officers from Hounslow Homes and the Council, Board Members, and councillors from both the political parties that managed to retain representation on the London Borough of Hounslow amid the carnage that saw off all the independents and minor parties in May 2010.

Obviously there were differing opinions as to the success or otherwise of the current administration. Everybody agreed, not unreasonably, that it was a difficult time to be a councillor, with the swingeing cuts that all local authorities are being forced to make. In many respects I am glad not to have this responsibility.

There seemed to be a general assumption across the board, both from officers and politicians, that the ICG in general and I in particular would be seeking to restore the pre-2010 status quo when the next local elections come around in 2014, an assumption that certainly should not be made. Times change, things move on.

What pleased me most of all at the Meeting was hearing the Chief Executive of Hounslow Homes, Bernadette O'Shea, referring positively to the concept of localism during her short address to the meeting. Bernadette and other senior officers spoke favourably and often about localism and empowering tenants when I was Lead Member but the cynic might say, well, they would wouldn't they?

But they speak of it still, and that is hugely encouraging.

During my days as Lead Member some of my then coalition colleagues did not think particularly highly of Bernadette, but I always found her approachable, intelligent, innovative and - best of all - honest. Whom she may or may not vote for in the privacy of the polling booth was never of any interest to me.

When reflecting upon the mood of the AGM it crossed my mind that in some situations it was maybe possible to lose a vote yet still win the argument. Certainly the advantages of embracing the wider community seem now to be apparent to most of those involved with the local political scene.

If the ICG never involves itself again in electoral politics I am satisfied that we will still clearly have left a legacy to be proud of.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Only Two Cheers for Community Politics

By David Boyle

I wasn’t there to hear the Birmingham conference back the community politics motion. I had meant to be but had to go back to London early.

It was one of those pieces of sacred Liberalism that you daren’t speak against, but I would have done. I’m not sorry it was passed but the party must also understand that there is another side to it.

Community politics may be a revolutionary doctrine, but BAD community politics – and we have practised some of that occasionally, let’s face it – damages the party and damages the political process.

I know I’m on sacred ground. Criticising community politics at a Liberal Democrat conference is like criticising the Pope in St Peter’s Square. But there are four very good reasons why we must go into this with our eyes open:

First, because we’ve long since abandoned real community politics in favour of its outward manifestation – a blizzard of leaflets with no obvious ideology. Which have been copied by every political opponent for a generation.

Sometimes there is no ideology beyond the demand to stuff paper. Sometimes even worse, there is a kind of off-putting and desperate campaigning on empty.

Second, because community politics has become muddled with New Labour’s rhetoric about ‘empowerment’.

Empowerment is a nonsense for Liberal Democrats. People already have the power. Even Tony Blair, even Ed Miliband, can’t distribute it. It isn’t theirs to give. The point is to encourage people to use their power, and to teach them how.

The third reason is that the intellectual underpinnings of community politics are now riddled with dry rot and need to be renewed. We know so much more now about what works than we did in 1970. We have concepts like social capital and co-production.

There are radical ideas out there about the power shifts in public services when users work alongside professionals. There are techniques about revitalising local economics. By comparison, community politics is almost as vague as the Big Society, which basically means: ‘wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had lunch together’.

The party could not even bring itself to write a radical new localism policy this year. We ran out of intellectual puff.

The fourth reason may be very naive. But it seems to me that community politics has became infected with the corrosive language of the political classes. Some of our leaflets – like our opponents’ leaflets – are so disconnected from real life, so unpleasant in their accusations as they drop through the letter box, that many people find them repulsive. That is hard but true.

So this is what I believe. When our tone of voice alienates people – not just from one political party but from them all – then we’re not practising community politics.

Unless community politics is capable of rescuing politics itself, unless it is generous enough to embrace everyone in the community, unless it is based firmly on an ideology which includes working in public services, and economic action too – unless it does all that, then it won’t revitalise our party and it won’t work.

There needs to be the same generosity of spirit that was there in the original community politics, so that the prime purpose is to spread power – no matter which political party benefits to start with.

Don’t forget that the political crisis isn’t just ours. The total membership of all political parties is less than the circulation of a small magazine in Smiths. So the new community politics has to be different. It has to be about training everyone in political, economic and social change, locally and face to face.

Did the motion say that? No it didn’t.

David Boyle is a member of the Federal Policy Committee, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and his new book The Human Element is published next month.  This article appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice.

Party Activists Should Escape the Herd

By Will Self

Hee-haw! Massed infantry being ordered to storm impregnable defences, their successive waves scythed down by the inexorable enfilade of machine gun fire. This surely is what we associate with the phrase "lions led by donkeys".

And yet there is a still more pathetic phenomenon in the field of human endeavour, and that is donkeys being led by donkeys. It occurs in warfare certainly, and it also happens in that introversion of the aggressive impulse we call democratic politics.

In the past few years we here in Britain have almost taken a perverse pride in the self-immolation of our political class. Fiddling their expenses, kowtowing to media moguls, bowing down before psychopathic dictators, grovelling to security-averse bankers - is there, we wonder, any further baseness to which our erstwhile governors will not descend? And so we urge them on in their corrupt limbo-dance, while gaily chanting "how low can you go?"

Of course, as with any binary moral judgement, implicit in our condemnation of "them" is our exaltation of "us". We aren't like them - vain, duplicitous and meretricious. We are sanctified by the fact of our apathy alone. After all, if we do nothing we cannot reasonably be blamed for anything.

Nevertheless, we are blamed. Blamed for our very refusal to play a bigger role in the civic realm apart from once every lustrum or so milling around the polling booth with the rest of the extras. Commitment, responsibility, engagement - these are just some of the buzzwords that have resounded around the conference centres of provincial cities in the past fortnight. Doubtless when the Tories assemble in Manchester next week that much-vaunted Big Society will loom large.

Yet looking at the neatly-bridled donkeys on the platforms, and listening to them bray, it struck me that really it was too easy to lay all the blame for the straw-like insubstantiality of contemporary British politics at their stable door. For when the television cameras tracked sideways, revealed were all the other donkeys that helped haul them up there. Yes, I am referring to the membership.

If those of us who do not belong to any of the main political parties ever have cause to doubt ourselves, we need only take the most cursory of looks at these endlessly biddable Dobbins in order to confirm us in our righteousness.

Tell me is there anything more supine on this fair earth than a party conference audience rising to deliver a standing ovation? Carefully orchestrated by party stewards, these so-called activists display a mental passivity that makes the average X Factor audience look like the participants in one of Plato's symposia.

And can we think of any benighted populace, ground beneath the jackboot of state tyranny, who would so speedily and rhapsodically declare that this hackneyed phraseology represented the very flower of rhetoric? I think not. But lest we imagine that party members only succumb to a herd mentality when they're corralled together and issued with regulation coloured saddle cloths, it's worth examining the breed in isolation.

I have - gulp - friends who belong to political parties, and the other evening over dinner I asked one of them, who was preparing to go a-conferencing, why it was that he persisted with the whole futile go-round of the dressage arena. "Well," he told me. "You have to understand that unless you participate you can have no influence whatsoever, and therefore no opportunity to see your ideas and your principals become enacted in the form of government policy."

"But," I cavilled, "you can't tell me that you supported the invasion of X?" "No," he conceded, "I most certainly didn't." "Nor," I continued, "did you approve of the light-touch regulation of Y." That's true, he admitted, it made me profoundly uncomfortable.

"And what," I persisted, "about the Z partnerships that have ended up wasting such a prodigious amount of taxpayers' money, and which your own leadership now concede were ill-conceived? You didn't think they were an effective way of renewing old schools and hospitals, did you?" "Well," for a donkey he looked decidedly sheepish, "no, no I didn't think Z partnerships were going to do much good."

I could've gone on but I like to give a donkey sanctuary quite as much as the next man, so I contented myself by observing: "Which then, precisely, of your ideas and principles did the government formed by the party to which you lend your unswerving allegiance actually transform into effective legislation?"

However, while my friend's ears may have been long, this was something he wasn't able to hear. Instead of answering me he began to talk about consensus and unity and collective responsibility and how that as it was to the cabinet, so it was to the party as a whole.

How like a politician, I thought, as he evaded answering the question. And indeed, that surely is the problem with the main political parties' grassroots-eating membership, almost to a jack and a jenny they are made in the image of their donkey leaders.

This kind of politicking is something we have come to take for granted. Indeed, to be a "consummate politician" is in our lexicon synonymous with being blandly evasive.

We have come, sadly, to take it for granted that our political leaders and their followers will also spend a disproportionate amount of time butting and biting members of their own herd. The only point at which a halt is called to this internecine idiocy is when an election is called - and then a disproportionate amount of time gets spent butting and biting the other herds.

So it goes on, the adversarial character of our politics paradoxically inducing a deadening conformism. Indeed, it is the inverse correlation between the fissiparous character of the major parties and the winnowing away of their convictions that, over and above everything else, has characterised British politics during the past quarter-century.

The last time one of the "Big Three" split over a matter of principle rather than personality, the Social Democrats whirled away from Labour into inner space, only in seven short years to be snagged in by the dark-yellow star of the Liberals. Twenty-three years on, some of those SDP members will have had the joyous experience of rising to their hooves to applaud the actions of a government they have helped to put in power, a government with the policies of which they probably disagree point-for-point.

It is the same for Labour, it is the same for the Conservatives - both parties contain substantial minorities that, in as much as they have any passion left at all, passionately dissent from the centre ground their leaders are determined to hold - and if at all possible extend - at any cost.

Is it any wonder that such a charade is a massive turn-off to a public that see real issues, pressing concerns and genuine anxieties at every turn? The main parties continue to haemorrhage members, while those left behind are those who prefer to be clots.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution William Butler Yeats penned The Second Coming, a reactionary dithyramb the words of which still resonate almost a century later. Yet how strange it is that our own comparatively lacklustre era can also be evoked by the same ringing declamation: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

Evoked, that is, with this caveat - that the passionate intensity of the Millibands, the Cleggs, the Camerons and all those who frenziedly applaud them masks a vanishingly small amount of real conviction.

For Yeats what troubled his sight was that mythical and frightening creature the manticore - "a shape with a lion body and the head of a man" that came slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born". But what should trouble our sight are the more homely silhouettes of the donkeys being led by donkeys trotting back to their paddocks from Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Hee-haw. 

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News Magazine.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

I Know It Sounds Absurd, Please Tell Me Who I Am

I don't know whether it is just my age, creeping dementia or a profound insightfulness that has caused me to be uncertain about the domestic political situation, but for the first time in my life I really do feel unsure about where we are all going, locally and indeed nationally.

For many, many years right up until about a year or so before the local elections of 2010 it was all very clear. As a champion of my community's rights of association, as an advocate of civic power and of a real and meaningful participative democracy the enemy sported a rose and a red rosette. Whilst I had long been aware that the gang in the blue corner cared little about the things that most inspired me and espoused an "I'm All Right Jack" philosophy that was in many ways antithetical to the mutuality of the communitarian ideal that remains close to my heart, I had felt reassured by the impression received that, as long as it didn't cost any money, there was no real hostility from this particular source to the aspirations that I and those around me held dear.

Then came the vicious rearguard action by the senior management team at the London Borough of Hounslow, and the lack of support that I and my fellow community councillors received from our coalition partners when it did come, and suddenly we were on the back foot. The jury remains out as to whether the officers were following a political agenda laid down by our partners, or whether it was an officer initiative to which our partners willingly turned a blind eye, but in not very much time at all some real lessons were being learned that I for one had hitherto had no inclination we were in need of learning.

At the general election that was held on the same day as the locals I voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate Andrew Dakers. Really it was something of a no-brainer. I had met the Conservative candidate Mary Macleod, who was subsequently elected, on several occasions and had found her to be affable, friendly and charming. Presumably she still is. But she was in my view surgically attached to her party in a way that could not be said of Andrew and this, coupled with his excellent performance as a quality local councillor over a sustained period of four years and my own natural progressive instincts, made him the absolutely obvious choice.

Then came the ConDem coalition government. To begin with it struck me as a reasonably good idea. Whilst I am not much interested in national politics I took the view that the previous one had not had very much going for it and that the LibDems would at least be involved. Progressive politics without the control freakery.

It would also have been churlish of me not to have given the new government a chance before criticising. I had, after all, been part of a group on the council that had gone into coalition with the Conservatives for four years on a local level. Sometimes one has to just go for it.

Meanwhile in Isleworth the victorious but still wet-behind-the-ears Labour team embarked upon a thoroughly bizarre, though as it quite turned out short-lived, leafleting campaign, attacking their defeated ICG opponents hysterically as though another election was to be held the very next week.

I was told the leaflets were withdrawn from circulation before very many actually went out. It was a sensible move, the ICG had indicated that it would not be taking an automatically adversarial position to the new councillors and the leaflets frankly just gave off an impression of stark fear, not to mention bad sportsmanship, when what the new councillor team should really have been doing was getting down to business and carving a niche for themselves within their new constituency.

A year on the picture looks so very different, from where I am standing, on both fronts. The arrogance of the Conservatives in their attacks upon ordinary working people ("We're all this together") does not sit well with their kid glove handling of the banks, whose responsibility the current economic crisis is. The free market, "sink or swim" mantra does not seem to apply in this case. When the bankers are needing a bail-out we are all good socialists after all.

And today came the news that working people will once again have to be employed at the same place of work for two years, rather than one, before having the right to seek protection from unfair dismissal at a tribunal. This may not be the most widely publicised or controversial piece of legislation to emerge from this government, but it is as clear a statement of intent as any. Why else would such a piece of legislation be introduced other than to send the message to employers that their rights to exploit and abuse are going to be upheld with a vengeance by this government?

The Lib Dems, it seems to me, are between a rock and a hard place. Despised by their coalition partners, whose instinct I know from first-hand experience is to betray (because they think it is just "politics" to behave like this and will for some reason be forgotten very quickly), they will be undermined all the way by the pro-Conservative media as the ICG was by the chief officers at LBH. The stitch-up over AV was a portent, if ever there was one, of things to come.

I have to say that I would still vote for Andrew if the general election were to be re-run tomorrow. First and foremost it is important to have the best possible constituency MP.

But - and here's the crunch - were anyone to ask me which of three main parties I would consider myself a supporter of I would have to, in truth, align myself to the ranks of the "Don't Knows". Indeed that was the answer I gave YouGov, for the very first time, when I encountered the question in a survey a week or two ago.

I actually find that I quite like Ed Miliband, and it doesn't surprise me too much that a significant section of his own party doesn't. Little things, like admitting that his party could "learn from" the wider public and speaking up for communities, not as a perceived adjunct of the Labour Party but in their very own right, is not language that I would ordinarily associate with Labour and must have some of his own supporters quietly seething. But either he understands or at least his advisers do, and if the latter one must be confident they will explain it to him.

He doesn't act, as some others do, as though he and his close colleagues were the custodians of some revealed truth that the wider populace lack the sophistication and wit to grasp for themselves. He seems to acknowledge that there is a world outside of the Labour Party which he and his cohorts might actually benefit from tapping into, hence his rather intelligent efforts to create a kind of "halfway house" between support and party membership.

Locally, too, I am not discouraged. Library cutbacks presented in council propaganda magazines as good news stories and whispers of community halls being closed down on the quiet do leave a bad taste, but councillors do at least seem to be engaging insofar as the rigid party structures will allow. They are never going to wield an effective power of veto, as we community councillors did, but they are at least interacting with local people.

What I guess I'm saying then is that it has taken me two decades of mature, rational analysis, and sustained personal involvement, to reach the point where, for the first time in my adult life, I really don't have any long-term vision or idea of where it is all taking us. I'll continue to fight for libraries and community halls, you can be assured, but for the time being at least I feel I am very much a spectator of the political game.