Saturday 28 May 2016

This is not a migrant crisis

"This is not a migrant crisis" is the headline of a double-page spread in the latest magazine of Global Justice Now, formerly the World Development Movement, of which I've been a member and supporter since its inception some forty years ago.  The front cover of the magazine has a picture of the white cliffs of Dover with the slogan "# REFUGEES WELCOME" projected on them.

The double page spread  argues  that the genuine crises are: of war, of resource exploitation, of inequality, and of climate change.

Leaving the European Union will not solve any of these.

Indeed it is doubtful if leaving the EU will actually make much difference to migration into the UK either. As explained in an earlier post, those countries with access to the single market, such as Norway and Switzerland,  have to accept the EU policy of freedom of movement.  It is highly unlikely that the UK would, after leaving, be given more favourable terms.  And we are already in control our borders for immigration from the rest of the world - or would be if  Border Force UK were properly staffed, rather than starved of resources as part of the mistaken cuts in public expenditure.

So the main plank of the Brexit campaign, if not actually based on a lie, is at best based on very optimistic speculation on the terms of a post-Brexit deal for which there is little evidence.

But beyond the EU debate a rich, well educated and mature country such as ours should be both capable of facing the facts and playing a constructive part in trying to solve the real crises enumerated above. Rather than pulling up the drawbridge to tackle the symptom of these crises we should be devoting our energies, in partnership with others, to solving them.  Here Britain's achievement of reaching the target of 0.7% of GDP to be spent on reducing inequality between nations is something to be celebrated rather than resented.   More sincere efforts towards the use of renewable rather than finite  energy resources would be welcome, along with  co-operative efforts  to tackle climate change and diplomatic efforts to solve the causes of war and limit the trade in armaments.

 Even if and when  the severity of these crises is reduced, and that won't be overnight, people will still want to move.  We have to recognise that modern communications and relatively cheap travel  mean that the world is now the oyster for the many, and not just the privileged in developed countries.  Maybe Global Justice Now's enthusiastic embrace of the future is rather too "raw meat" for the electorate to swallow, but it is the direction in which  our politicians should be leading us, rather than cravenly trying to appeal to the baser "what we have we hold" instinct which so shames us a present.

Post script (added 4th June, 2016)  There is an excellent article on the refugee crisis by Giles Fraser in yesterday's Guardian.  It should be posted on every hoarding in the land. 


Thursday 19 May 2016


Like hundreds, possibly thousands, of others, when the Hillsborough Inquest  confirmed the incompetance of the South Yorkshire police in their management of the Hillsborough disaster, and their duplicity in the subsequent cover-up, I wrote to the Home Secretary requesting a public enquiry into the "Battle" of Orgreave during the miners strike. There are many similarities between the two incidents. In particular in each the same police force, with some of the same senior officers, tried to place the blame for the disasters on the pickets or football fans they were supposed to be policing, and then used questionable measures to  divert any blame from themselves.

I have received a response from the Home Office saying that Mrs May is too busy to respond to me personally (accepted and understood), that on the 15th December she received a legal submission from the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign setting out their arguments for establishing a public enquiry  into those events, and is considering them.

So what's holding her up?  Just how long does it take to "consider" something so obvious?  Or is it just another cover-up - the "establishment" protecting itself?

In contrast, when some of our  "lower orders" rioted in 2011 over the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police,  courts were set up overnight to deal with the miscreants, and  one young lad was given six months' imprisonment for stealing a bottle of water worth £3.50.

It's also worth noting that , although proceedings are being taken to sack the present Chief Constable of South Yorkshire for his part in directing the force's tactics during the Hillsborough Inquest, his dismissal will not affect his pension (which, I suspect, will give him rather more than the equivalent of the minimum wage to ensure his comfort in retirement.  Actually I believe he's still quite young so will probably also get a well paid job with G4S or similar.)

There really is one law for the establishment and one for the rest. It is dichotomies such as these which, I believe, weaken trust in the democratic process and fuel determination to "give the establishment a black eye" as in the support for UKIP and Brexit.

For further and better particulars on the Orgreave incident follow the link above.

If you would like to add to the pressure on the Home Office to set up and enquiry, their Email address is;

Monday 16 May 2016

Boris, Hitler and EU

It is a truism of debating that when  a team  resorts to invoking  Hitler in support of their case they have lost the argument.  Boris Johnson's comparison of the aims of the European Union to those of Adolf Hitler is a fine illustration. Not, in my view, that the "out" campaign  ever had much of a serious argument in the first place. However, that does not mean that Johnson's absurd claim will have no effect.  His clowning panache has considerable public appeal (as has that of the almost-as-flamboyant Nigel Farage.)

In fact Johnson's position as de facto leader, or at last most prominent spokesperson, for the "Leave" side does not bear much scrutiny. He left it to the eleventh hour to announce on which side he would be campaigning, allegedly struggling to to decide which option was the best  for Britain's future.  If this is true then he must find the differences finely balanced.  So why, then, is he campaigning so vigorously for "Out" if he feels that it doesn't make much difference one way or the other?  The alternative is that his decision  was really based on which option would give him the best chance of  becoming leader of the Conservative party.  Neither alternative makes him a credible advocate.

I spent an hour or so last Saturday handing out leaflets (or rather, trying to hand out leaflets) explaining the case for voting "In."  It was not an encouraging experience.  The vast majority of people in a busy small-town centre hurried past, too preoccupied  to stop and talk, or even take a leaflet.  A very few took time to turn their heads and say they were voting "Yes."  Rather more, and with rather more vigour, indicated "No way."  The very small number who stopped to talk were for "Out."  The simplistic  UKIP messages of "making our own laws" and "controlling our own borders" have resonance.  And the greatest of these is "controlling our own borders."

From this very small sample I suspect that the referendum is in grave danger of becoming a vote on immigration, and, sadly, in particular Muslim immigration. When it was pointed out that we do control our borders for incomers from outside the EU, and it is only within the EU that free movement operates (and will probably continue to operate if we want continued free trade access to the market) the possibility of Turkey's joining was quickly raised.

Unhappily, the evidence for the concentration on immigration above all other factors  is wider than my corner of post-industrial West Yorkshire. Former prime minister John Major has warned Tory Brexiteers that they risk morphing into UKIP.  The newly elected Labour mayor of London warns against the referendum becoming "a proxy  for people's fears about immigration."

As is evidenced from the experience of other countries, the trouble with referendums is that voters tend to answer a question other than the one on the ballot paper.  That, in my view, is  why referendums should have not place in a representative democracy.

 P G Wodhouse, author of the admirable Wooster novels,  said of political debate: " Party now booms to party like mastodons across a primaeval swamp."  This is truer than ever of this campaign and one of the reasons why people aren't listening.  The "Remain" campaign needs to widen its scope beyond hyperbolic predictions of economic gloom and doom, listen to people, and present the reasoned arguments for remaining part of an exciting  co-operative and civilising venture.

Friday 13 May 2016

Immigration, wages and the EU debate.

Both sides in the EU debate are, sadly, relying on their own versions of "project fear."  Remainers predict economic disaster if we leave, which is a  gross exaggeration. Leaving will be economically damaging, but will not be a disaster - we shall survive.  Brexiters play hard on a populist, and in my view unsubstantiated, fear of immigration.

In an earlier post I have described how my own life is both enriched and made much more comfortable by immigrants and their offspring.. Yesterday a  researchers at the London School  of Economics released a report on the effect of immigration on domestic wages.  I have not read the report but have no reason to doubt Larry Elliott's summary of their conclusions, viz

  • areas of Britain with the biggest  rises in workers from the rest of Europe had not seen sharper falls in pay  or a bigger reduction in job opportunities  than other parts of the country;
  • goods and services consumed by immigrants raise demand in the British economy and create opportunities for UK-born workers;
  • the fall in real wages over the past decade is caused by the deep recession which began in 2008 rather than the numbers of immigrants from other European countries;
  • for the most part [immigration] has likely made us better off;
  • EU immigrant pay more in taxes than they use public services and therefore they help to reduce the budget deficit.
That does not, of course, alter the fact that many immigrant workers are wickedly exploited by gangmasters, as Felicity Lawrence so vividly describes in this Guardian "long read."  This should not be possible in a modern and well-regulated developed country. Something should be done and presumably it would be if there were the will.

Of course it will be difficult to convince those against immigration of its economic benefits  since people on all sides tend to believeonly the evidence that supports their prejudices (me included,)  Nor will determined Brexiteers believe the plethora of economic predictions from most respected economic sources - the IMF, Governor of the Bank, the Treasury et al  - that leaving the EU will be damaging to our standard of living and quality of life.  This is partly human nature and and partly distrust of government figures.  This distrust has probably always been the case but has, I believe, become much worse since the Thatcher era, when manipulation of official figures to suit the purposes of successive governments has become more common.

I regret that a mature democracy such as ours seems incapable of conducting a civilised
debate based on agreed facts

Monday 9 May 2016

Labour's election performance: a positive spin

The norm after elections in  the UK is for the big beasts of the various parties to tour the newsrooms and point out that, given this, and considering that, and taking into account the other, their party has done quite well and is on track for even greater things.  As in Alice in Wonderland, "all have won and all shall receive prizes."

Last week's election was unique in that almost all Labour's big beasts seemed to be hoping for an electoral disaster so as to give them an excuse for trying to topple their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. And now this hasn't happened they go out of their way to play down his success and call for new directions if the party is to remain viable.

So here is the positive spin which the Labour performance deserves.

Last week's council seats were last contested in 2012, which was a bumper year for Labour, when they gained a total of  823 seats.  Pundits commentating before this year's election predicted that it would take a miracle for Labour to hold on to them, and there was speculation that losses could be in the region of 400.

In fact, Labour lost just 17,  less than 2% of the total.  By contrast the Tories lost 23, over 4% of their total.  (And joy of joys, the Liberal Democrat haemorrhage ended and we actually gained 32 seats.)

So in actual fact Labour's "holding on" under Corbyn was a triumph which defied the predictions.

In addition Labour's share of the vote was 31% , slightly up on the general election, and a point ahead of  the Tories, who were  down 7% (and, more joy, the Liberal Democrat share, at 15%,  was nearly double our general election performance -  we're on our way!).

And Labour's Sadiq Kahn has won a convincing victory as London's new Mayor, despite a scurrilous campaign against him

All this, plus two parliamentary by-election victories, has been achieved  against a background of continuous sniping from fellow labour MPs, some of them even in Corbyn's  cabinet, and a vicious attack of anti-Semitism,  curiously timed just a week or so before the election (see earlier post).

There is no evidence whatsoever that  any of the other candidates for the Labour leadership could have led the party to any greater performance.  If they would unite behind Corbyn then the result could have been even better and put the Tories more obviously  on the back foot.

You may ask why, as a dedicated Liberal, I am urging a better performance from Labour.  The answer is that Labour replaced the Liberals as the dominant  progressive force in British politics after the First World War and so they are, for the moment, the major vehicle around which a progressive majority can coalesce.  We, along with the Greens, need them to do well.

Most of us on the left in 2015 had our fingers crossed  for a balanced parliament in which Labour with the Liberal Democrats, Greens and possibly the SNP ,could have formed a progressive coalition.  Surely by now such a government would have made some mistakes but I think we can say with confidence that under such a government:

  • we should not be wasting time squabbling over our membership of the EU;
  •  there would have been no tax credit reduction fiasco;
  • no forced acclimatisation of schools fiasco - perhaps even an attempt to restore local authorities to the proper and historic role in eduction;
  • no further emasculation of  the trade unions;
  • no forced sale of social housing or a counter-productive housing bill;
  • prompt action to safeguard our  steel industry (perhaps even pat-nationalisation of Tata - what  a meal a Tory opposition have made of that);
  • a secure future for the jewel in our national crown - the BBC;
  • the Human Rights Act would be secure;
  • with a  welcome to refugees, particularly unaccompanied children.
Labour's malcontents (which alas seem to include my own MP, the newly elected Jo Cox ) must realise that if this rainbow future is to be realised within the foreseeable future they must unite with enthusiasm behind the the man their membership has elected.

 And another thing.   Today is Europe Day .  I am reminded by this Email from a professor at the University of Bradford, which gives an interesting "other national" perspective.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Grammar: the parents' revolt.

Yesterday all seven and eleven-year-old children in our top-down education system were required to take tests in grammar, spelling and punctuation, and mathematics.  A number of parents, sadly only a minority, withdrew their children in protest.

One of the grammar questions required the children to recognise a "subordinating conjunction," something I suspect 98% of English speakers have never heard of (and which the minister for schools, Nick Gibb,  failed to recognise correctly whilst on air on the BBC.)   Much of the reporting gives the impression that this item was on the test for seven-year-olds, whom* I should have though would have difficulty in pronouncing it, never mind identifying one.  But even at eleven this is hardly a useful skill.

When I was tying to improve my French one of my language partners claimed that he knew "instinctively" which nouns were masculine and which feminine.  I think "instinctively" is the wrong word: rather "osmosis" - he knew becasue he'd been exposed to the distinction all his life.  Much the same applies to our acquisition of the grammar of our mother tongue: we pick it up by hearing it and reading it.  This point is splendidly made by Harry Ritchie in "English for the Natives - Discover the Grammar You Don't Know you Know." 

For those who claim that children left to this chance osmosis may pick up "wrong" habits I recommend Simon Horobin's recently published "How English became English."  Horobin is an Oxford professor, no less, but is much less fussy than I would be about what is and what isn't "correct."  (For example, he would see the use of the accusative "whom" above, rather than the nominative "who", as over-fussy, and would even tolerate "yous" (maybe even "y'all" as in some regions of the US) as a plural form of "you" - which of course used to be the plural form anyway - singular "thou.")  In truth, there is no permanently "correct" form of any language, however hard the "Immortals" try with French. All languages are constantly evolving.

A claim by a pundit on a radio programme I heard yesterday, that a solid foundation in English grammar is necessary for learning a foreign language, puts the cart before the horse. It is the learning of a foreign language that reveals the grammar of our own, which so far we had understood "instinctively" (or by osmosis.)

What children need to do to acquire a fluent command of English, is to read, and read, and read, and then read some more.  Elevated literature is fine, but any connected prose is acceptable.  I grew up on a diet of Biggles and Just William, the serials in the Wizard and the Hotspur and war and detective stories galore.  Today the genre will be different (Horrible Histories, perhaps, Winnie the Witch.  Probably  Harry Potter is no longer cool)

All teachers know that to progress learners need to succeed rather than fail.   By training and experience teachers know when to encourage fluency in both speaking and writing regardless of accuracy, and when, gradually, to introduce improvements to pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and grammar

But most of all our primary schools should be concentrating on generating an enthusiasm for reading, and leave the grammar to look after itself.  And similarly our politicians should leave the teaching to the teachers, who know what they doing, rather than impose priorities based on prejudice rather than evidence.

PS (added 5th May)

Alas the Guardian has chosen not to print the letter I sent to them yesterday.  Here it is:

 Dear Editor,

You quote the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw: "If by the age of seven a child
[singular] has not mastered the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics, the odds will be stacked against them [plural] for the rest of their lives." (Fun for some in scattered 'strikes'  as debate over primary testing rolls on.  4 May 2016).  Well, that should re-assure our stressed seven-year-olds that bad grammar is no obstacle to getting a knighthood and a posh job  at the top of the educational tree.
Yours etc.