Thursday, 24 January 2008

The Post Office - a New Labour mess

Isn't visiting the Post Office a joy these days? Whilst one is standing in the always-lengthy queue, you are assailed by at least one TV screen showing irritating clips of the chubby barman from Early Doors, and a range of other slebs - Westlife, Joan Collins, and soon Bill Oddie! - encouraging us all to use the 'People's Post Office' (we're already doing it! We're in the queue!!); on looking away ones eyes settle on boxes full of cheap dvds, tacky cards and derivative calendars.

Down here in the south, a number of post offices have recently been shut, in yet a further rationalisation in the drive to make the Post Office profitable. Each closure means that the remaining outlets have greater queues, and yet despite a seeming surfeit of customers, they still can't make a profit.

This is because it can't; the range of services it offers - car tax, postage, passports etc - surely place the Post Office into 'public service' category. Indeed, this is what it was when Labour came to power; the Tories had mooted privatisation, but hadn't got anywhere. Labour attacked it with glee. Rather than make the case for taxation to support the institution - and including within this analysis that a post office in, say, a remote village is an important social contact for many isolated people - the Government constantly pushed it to make itself more profitable, and meanwhile hived off the profitable elements to competition; that phrase, once used of Thatcher, of 'knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing' is, appallingly, one that sums up this government.
(photo Dominics pics on Flickr)

Sunday, 20 January 2008

'New' - what does it now mean?

Even though I didn't like it much at the time, I can see why Labour rebranded itself as 'New' in the 1990s. But when do they - or anything - cease to become 'new'? Can they ever change back?

I think not; saying 'we're just going to be 'Labour'' would be seen as a retrograde step; renaming as something newer than 'new' is semantically ridiculous - which means that the party has been permanently rebranded.

I have to confess that I stupidly didn't appreciate the enormity, permanence and implication of a simple linguistic change; it places us under a Government that has to, by virtue of its name, be forever new - meaning constant change, new initiatives (that often directly contradict earlier ones, viz internal health markets, national curriculum changes etc) and thereby new legislation - and which, with a missionary zeal, has to find ever more ingenious ways to impose itself in every social realm.

And, as a population, we acquiese in this - so it's our fault really. We give up the power to think and act responsibly without recourse to law and lawmaking - the 'cradle to the grave' stretches far beyond healthcare for many of us - and they happily step into the vacuum, and exert ever more power - an unvirtuous circle!

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Curtailing people's liberties - why do people do it?

Here's the scene: an antiquarian bookshop in Brighton. The owner has run it for decades, he's the only employee. I saw him a few days back, standing outside his own shop, cold, in order to have a fag. If he stepped inside his own shop, he could be liable to arrest.

Here's another: some old ladies used to meet downstairs in a local greasy spoon near the bookshop, to have a cup of tea, a fag and a gossip. Since last July, I've not seen them. Where are they? Where do they go now?

Most people I know might be reasonable enough to say 'that's a shame', and mildly lament the fact that the law penalises people who are merely enjoying themselves, and not forcibly hurting anybody else (nobody has to shop in that bookshop, and there are about 30 other cafes in the same area). But the same people were all for the law in the first place, adopting a haughty 'I don't want my health damaged by these people' attitude, without stopping to think; 'Do we need legislation?'; 'Can't we have a law whereby some establishments - one in ten pubs for example? - could apply for a smoking license, thus allowing some people the right to enjoy their vice?'; 'Wouldn't that be the sign of a civilised, decent society'.

No, the self-righteous got their way, and in the process managed to divest more power to the executive, whilst eschewing the virtues of tolerance and accommodation that one might hope decent people would favour. It's a small but indicative example of how New Labour has got away with so much legislation; rather than deal with the diversity and complexity of human relations, too many people just want a law, and to feel looked after and 'governed'.

A shame on all of them. I was all for banning cigarettes in most pubs, and all public places where people might gather - gig venues, theatres etc - where a decent smoking area couldn't be provided; people do have a right to avoid secondhand smoke. But why are people so keen to go further, and ban others, anywhere, from congregating and doing what they like, in full awareness of the danger to their own health? The generous answer might be that they didn't think the implications of the legislation through - which makes them stupid. The less generous answer is that there is a - possibly subconscious - fascistic urge in an awful lot of people - which scares me just a tad.
(photo by superfantastic on Flickr)

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Gordon Brown

I've just been reading Gordon Brown's biography, by Tom Bower. Bower is chiefly known for his biographies of the likes of Tiny Rowlands and Robert Maxwell, which were very scholarly and well-researched. This one doesn't quite match those standards - his sources aren't noted, and his own (fairly right wing) opinions often peer out from behind his supposedly objective veil. That said, he convincingly demonstrates that Brown is, at best, a conniving, power-hungry, mendacious dissembler - and at worst an unstable megolamaniac liar.

To take one example: Brown's commitment - as opposed to his achievement - to eradicating poverty has always endeared him to those who wanted to 'vote Blair, get Brown', imagining that there was going to be some sort of quasi-socialist state slipped in by the back door. Unfortunately, the book - and a number of others - have shown that a) Brown was as deeply important to, and as much an architect of, New Labour as much as Tony Blair ever was, and that b) although he was in theory committed to reducing poverty as an almost personal crusade, his methods - working families tax credits, stealth taxes etc - resulted in confusion amongst those supposed to administer and receive the benefits, increased expenditure - overall tax rates rose for all - and most importantly signally failed in their main purpose (two authorative recent studies showed that the gap between rich and poor had widened in the past 10 years, and that those in poverty have a lower reading/writing attainment than 10 years ago, meaning that their chances of escaping poverty are greatly lessened).

One of the chief reasons for his failure was his inability to listen to the advice of senior civil servants - who, because they disagreed with him, had to go - and to continue ploughing ahead when in practise, e.g with tax credits, his schemes were obviously failing him. Alastair Campbell is generally thought to be the one who labelled Brown as having 'psychological flaws'. As more people look at his history, and how it's now coming home to roost - the credit crisis that results from a deliberate policy instigated in order to finance his changes to the economy, the criminal pensions changes which have left many working class people financially bereft, to name but two - and how he responds to crises - that hurt scowl, appearing to not comprehend how somebody can possibly disagree with him and, even worse, challenge him - we can begin to agree with Campbell; and, as more of us do, the less his chances of survival.

So, here's a prediction; a General Election by May, and a hung parliament.
(Photo by didby graham on Flickr)

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Prostitution - Yet more criminalisation

Harriet Harman's latest foray into the area is a proposal to identify where women are being trafficked, and criminalise men who pay for sex in those places (I can't help falling back on that old canard that people like Harriet would really rather men just didn't pay for sex -which they have always done, for a variety of sexual, social and political reasons - rather than actually try to create a safe environment for it to occur, but that's another argument). A number of flaws in her plan, and solutions to the actual problem identified, spring easily to mind:

1) If they know where there are trafficked women, they should give them money to either get a taxi and air fare home, or to set themselves up in the UK independent of the sex trade.

2) If they know the women have been trafficked, they must have some idea who the traffickers are. In which case, arrest them. It is already a crime.

3) DON'T MAKE ANY MORE LAWS! Everything that should be already is a crime; Labour have introduced more laws in ten years than were passed in the previous 100. Why do they feel the need to be 'doing something'? And, in spite of these new laws, does anybody feel any safer? Even further 'and', our prisons are absolutely full to bursting, with more being built. Are we really more evil than ten years ago (and if we are, the implications for the Government are pretty dire, as it's been on their watch) or is it just a case of 'create more crimes, create more criminals'; as I've mentioned elsewhere, this is so far to the right of where they started that it's amazing they're not voted out of power, and kicked around the streets for their craven-ness....

(photo: didbygraham at Flickr)

Organic humbug

No, it's not a new foodstuff, but a description of many people's attitude to food, particularly here in Brighton - a city which has a sizeable Green Party presence, and in which it's difficult to walk into a shop and avoid 5 million bars of organic chocolate.

Put very simply, organic food needs more land than non-organic food (which was pioneered during the last century in order to maximise land use; very successfully, since the system managed adequately to feed an unprecedented rise in human population). We have limited land, and a growing population, yet the pro-organic lobby insist that organic farming is 'the future'; the very economics of it mean that poorer people will, in such a future, be less able to afford vegetables, but that doesn't discourage them. Far better to messianically promote a system that will ensure fewer and more expensive basic foodstuffs than to accept that there are many of us who are very happy to eat food treated with pesticide - as with drinking water, the key measurement is not whether, but how much, 'poison' is in what we eat/drink - and, more importantly, are keen that other people can afford it too.

Many people atavistically, almost automatically, accept that organic food is better for us and the environment. I used to too - I voted Green in the 1989 Euro elections. But the more I look at the issue, it becomes absolutely and utterly unarguable that, at the very best, organic food is a lifestyle choice for those who are financially secure and politically undemanding, and at the worst will result - if it isn't already in other parts of the world - in the deaths of many of the less well-off.

For some further reading, check out Dick Taverne's book 'The March of Unreason - Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalists'.
(Photo credit: 'Tiny Knitted Vegetables' by 'WordRidden' on Flickr)

Here I go again...

...getting excited about Barack Obama; telegenic, young, dynamic, promising 'change', not being too specific about policies and what he believes in, highly intelligent, the opposite of the Old Order, etc etc etc.

Now, where have I heard all this before? Oh yes, ten years ago in Britain. My almost total hatred of everything that our Government has subsequently done has caused me to rethink my, and indeed 'our', belief in Utopian politics. Why do we believe career politicians who promise to change everything and make the world better for all - that's right, absolutely everybody - as if that were ever possible? What is it in our nature that compels us to fall for this, again and again? It seems to be a particular malaise of us 'liberals' - funny term that, must write a whole blog about it - that we want to believe in a saviour, as long as s/he isn't a religious one. John Gray writes that humanists, far from being non-religious, have a religious faith in the idea of progress and human development, and that (ahem) 'Things can only get better'. We keep on hoping that this is the case, despite all our disappointments and all the evidence to the contrary.
I still say 'Good Luck Barack', although I really have no idea why...
(photo by seiu_international on Flickr)