Donald Trump and the Turks – Burying Bad News by Jean Calder

Donald Trump’s suggestion that all Muslims be temporarily banned from visiting the USA has been greeted with horror. It comes as only the latest of many offensive comments from Trump.It’s understandable that this issue should head news broadcasts in the States, currently absorbed by the nomination race for Republican presidential candidate. It’s also the case that British television has for some years now been disproportionately concerned with US news. However, it’s not clear why it should have dominated British news to quite such an extent for more than two days. 

Given the decision to bomb Syria, it may be that UK politicians of both right and left are keen to burnish their multicultural credentials. They’re probably also very eager to ensure that Trump gets nowhere near the White House. However, I suspect it’s more than that. I suspect buried news. 

The big story that has barely been reported is that Turkey, our NATO ally, within the last two days has deployed hundreds of Turkish troops into the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Despite the protests of the Iraqi government and their appeals for help to NATO, Erdogan’s government has refused to recall his troops and is now bombing Iraqi Kurds.

It’s worth remembering that Erdogan’s forces recently shot down a Russian jet in Syrian airspace, on the grounds that it had crossed the Turkish border for 17 seconds. It further justified this action on the illegal grounds that it was defending Syrian ethnic Turkmen fighting Assad’s Syrian army on the Syrian side of the border.

The Kurds are loathed by Erdogan, but are recognised by NATO to be the only group that has mounted an effective ground challenge to Isis. They have done so with inadequate equipment and against constant disruption by Turkey, which has closed its borders to Kurds, while leaving the same borders open to Isis. It has reportedly also served as a willing conduit and buyer for most of Isis’ oil while routing looted antiquities through its borders.

Since Turkey shot down the Russian plane, Putin has relentlessly exposed the extent of Turkish collusion with Isis and questioned why, after more than a year of us bombing, Isis’ oil supply lines remained largely untouched – until the Russians became involved. 

Focus on such questions is deeply embarrassing for the West, not least because the EU is set to pay millions to the Turks (and offer other sweeteners) to persuade them to keep refugees their side of the border. The EU is also offering the possibility of free movement to Turkish citizens and once again holding up the possibility of joining the EU. This means that Turkey only has to grant Turkish citizenship to refugees (many of whom will be former Isis or al Nusra Front fighters) to give them free access to the EU. 

It’s hardly surprising that the politicians want us to concentrate on Donald Trump.

David Cameron’s Big Lie about Syria

The following blog was published as a letter in the Guardian and Independent of 1st December 2015:

Tony Blair’s big lie, before the war in Iraq, was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. David Cameron’s big lie is that there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian ground troops, ready to sustain ‘democracy’.

In fact, the majority of anti-Assad forces fighting alongside ISIS are violent Islamists – such as the Al Quaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. The Front is known to pose a serious threat here in Britain, yet we are expected to maintain the fiction that its fighters are moderates or de facto allies. If the government gets its way, we will bomb only ISIS – and civilians of course.

Cameron’s long term aim continues to be illegal regime change. He is intent on removing Assad by force, even if it means allying himself with people far worse than the Syrian President. The consequences for the people of Syria, especially for women, the Shia, Kurds and other minorities are likely to be truly terrible.
Jean Calder.

Cuts to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

Visitors to Brighton’s Museum and Art Gallery have dropped by over a half since introduction of a £5 entry fee for non-residents. Just 33,000 visitors went to the Museum and Art Gallery between 5th May and 5th August. This compares to 71,000 in 2014 and 87,000 in 2013.

It was no surprise to me to read of this reduction. In May, I wrote in the Argus, of my horror at the decision to introduce fees, given that, in London and in almost all other parts of the country, such basic services are free. I also highlighted how difficult the council had made it for residents to gain ‘free’ entry, by requiring them, at each visit, to queue, provide proof of residence and be checked against a computer list. 

At the time, I thought the queues for residents were a glitch in the system and that very soon the Council would allow residents to move freely in and out – for example, by showing a library card. However, no changes were made. In subsequent weeks, I queued a few times, then gave up. In the 40 years I’ve lived in Brighton, I’ve probably visited the museum on average about four or five times a month. Now I don’t go at all.

Back in May, I had no idea the Council planned to introduce charges. Still less did I know that, before making this decision, the Council officials predicted that a 50 – 75% reduction in visitors would result. I find it extraordinary that Council officials and elected members – whose job is to protect our heritage – proceeded with this policy in the full knowledge that many thousands fewer people would benefit from facilities previous generations have taken for granted. I recall no publicity about this and no debate.

Councillors recently warned council officials against using falling attendances to justify reducing opening hours. This immediately made me fear that this was exactly what was planned – particularly as I was subsequently contacted by an anonymous informant who told me that council plans were well advanced to put the museum service and art gallery out to tender and to close the much-loved Hove Library. An Argus investigation has now confirmed this – almost certainly well before the Council intended the information to get out. 

My cynical soul tells me that it’s a classic tactic to deliberately run public services down, suggest they are ‘failing’, then use this as an excuse to cut them and even sell valuable assets, while putting potentially profitable services out to tender to private companies – often leaving insufficient time for the public to examine proposals and mount protests. 

I fully understand that the museums and art services need to make £200,000 savings this financial year. However, this is a tiny amount when set against the millions that the Council this year failed to collect in parking fees. Coin Co International (CCI), the company contracted to collect the fees, collapsed earlier this year owing the council £3.2 million. The loss was not insured and the Council is believed to be unlikely to recoup more than £25,000.

CCI was paid almost £300,000 a year to collect more than £11 million cash from Brighton and Hove’s parking meters and £8 million cash from Council offices and schools. The company was allowed to hold the funds for up to ten days, enabling it to earn interest in addition to its fees to the Council. The money should have been paid into a separate account by CCI, but was not. The debt was allowed to build up over several months and at one point reached £4.7 million. Little action seems to have been taken to protect the Council. This is despite the fact the council’s previous cash collections contractor, Estate Security Southern, also collapsed.

There are two things which strike me about these events. The first is that, even in a time of austerity and threatened cuts, officials seem not to be held accountable for catastrophic loss of public funds. The second is that serious reductions to key public services have been planned in secret, without any regard for public consultation. This is no way to run local democracy.

I call on councillors of all parties and committees to act to protect our heritage and key services and to consult fully and in public. Above all, I ask them to realise Council officials are the public’s servants not its masters – and to hold them to account when they lose our money and threaten our services.

Letter to Jeremy: Listening to the People, by Jean Calder

Dear Jeremy,

I enjoyed listening to your speech at this year’s Labour Party Conference. It was good to hear a Labour leader so obviously rooted in his community, address moral issues once again. 

Throughout the conference – and during the leadership campaign – much of your focus was on being prepared to listen to ordinary people. You said formulating policy would be a ‘bottom up’ process, dominated not by focus groups and MPs, but by ordinary members and supporters.

I’m no longer a member, but I like the idea of ordinary people being able to influence Labour policy. However, I’m sceptical. There is such a strong tradition of limiting free speech in the party, I find it hard to believe you and your team really will listen. 

I did smile when I heard your Blairite opponents in Parliament predict that your leadership will bring ‘punishment beatings’ and deselections of right wing MPs. In the past, I recall that it appeared always to be the left, not the right, that was disciplined for behaviour ‘likely to bring the party into disrepute’. The same rules never seemed to apply to rightwing MPs – who seemed free to break party policy at will and viciously criticise fellow members and their leaders.

Those of us who were on the left of the party in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, recall all too well the ways in which the leadership of the party limited our freedom. Many members were expelled or disciplined. As a Labour councillor in Brighton, I was one who had the Whip removed and therefore couldn’t stand for Council again. Our local party was closed down for two years, while investigations by the national Labour Party were carried out. Twenty six party members were investigated by the national party which, after many months, organised ‘trials’ at the Royal Albion Hotel. Many people believe this period of dislocation led directly to the rapid growth of the Green Party in Brighton.

You may say that that if the left gains ascendency they will behave better. However, I wonder. I’m very familiar with the Labour left ‘script’ – a set of views you’re ‘supposed’ to have and many others that you’re not. I wonder what will happen when people – ordinary people – ask questions that don’t fit the script or use ‘unacceptable’ language in doing it. Will they be subject to insult and hostility, the indrawn breath, the shocked silence, the turned shoulder – if they ask the awkward questions that liberal progressives don’t like?.

It’s not as if there are just a few areas of sensitivity. Rigid convention binds and stultifies left debate on most areas of policy from immigration, the NHS, education and patriotism, to nationalism and Europe, defence, foreign affairs, religious tolerance and equalities. 

It seems to me that if Labour is to win elections, it must be prepared to engage with issues it finds difficult – and abandon its script. There’s no point in saying you’ll listen, if you then silence ideas you don’t like or avoid speaking to opponents. In this regard, it’s disappointing to hear you recently chose not to speak to local TV stations, but did carry out an interview with Al Jazeera.

I’m glad you’ve spoken out against political abuse and sexist trolling and that you’ve condemned the demonstrator who spat at a journalist at the Conservative Party Conference. However, there’s much more you could do. There is a culture of macho insult and abuse in sections of the left, which makes it very difficult for anyone to disagree. Without dissent, there is no possibility of real democracy.

In 1956, when Mao Zedong said “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” he refused to accept the ideas the Chinese people subsequently expressed and arrested many dissidents. Some suggest the whole exercise was just a ploy to flush out his critics. 

You are judged to be a man of principle. It’s really important that, having raised people’s hopes, you don’t stifle ideas or crush dissent – or permit your supporters to do it for you.

Yours sincerely

Jean Calder

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t get my vote, by Jean Calder

(This is the complete text of my column published on 5th September 2015 in the Brighton Argus which was edited to remove the paragraph relating to Sinn Fein and the IRA)

I didn’t have a vote in the labour leadership election and I’m was glad of that. People assumed I’d want to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but they were wrong.
I like Corbyn’s anti austerity agenda, his respect for unions and the public sector, his rejection of privatisation and Trident and his scepticism about the European Union. However, I have some serious doubts about him. 

Despite apparent support for women’s rights, other policy positions he’s taken put their rights at risk. He appears to have been a broken reed in the Islington child abuse scandal, when desperate whistle-blowers first sought his help. I believe the stance he takes now on aspects of foreign policy put human rights at risk.

Much of what Corbyn has said about the plight of Palestinians and the brutality of Israeli state forces and illegal settlers is absolutely true. However, in rightly expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, he has also made common cause with Islamists who have no interest in establishing a just and democratic state (certainly not one offering equality to women, homosexuals or Jews). They want a caliphate, a theocratic fascist dictatorship. 

Corbyn has said it’s important to “talk” to people like Hamas and has offered the Peace process in Northern Ireland as an example. However, facilitating negotiation between participants in conflict is different from sharing a platform and giving the appearance of uncritical support for individuals such as Raed Salah of Hamas who has repeated the ‘blood libel’ against Jews (that Jews use Christian children’s blood in rituals) and says it is un-islamic to support women’s equality. 

It’s also absurd to equate violent islamists with the IRA. The IRA and Sinn Fein were not fascist organisations. Both were committed to Irish re-unification and British withdrawal, but crucially also to the maintenance of a democratic, non-sectarian secular Irish state. They was not imperialistic or expansionist. Hamas, in contrast, fights for a world-wide caliphate.

I question Corbyn’s attitude to Isis. In 2014, Corbyn said of Isis. “Yes, they are brutal,”..… “Yes, some of what they have done is quite appalling, likewise what the Americans did in Fallujah and other places is appalling.” Furious commentators have focussed on his comments on Fallujah and whether he should have equated Isis’ brutality with that of the Americans, but my concern is rather different. 

I make no defence of US conduct of the Iraq war. I question why Corbyn uses this to deflect attention from Isis atrocities. Above all, I want to know why he said only “some” of what Isis had done was “quite appalling”. I’d like to know which of Isis’ activities Corbyn thinks are acceptable. I see none – just brutal occupation by a so-called state in which men buy and sell naked children into sex slavery in public markets, pray before they rape them, stone women, throw gay men from high buildings and execute subject peoples and those they consider apostates with mediaeval cruelty – while abroad, waging war on civilians. 

Corbyn says the rise of Isis has been assisted by American and UK foreign policy. He’s right, but it didn’t create ISIS and it doesn’t excuse it – any more than the Treaty of Versailles caused or excused the rise of nazi Germany.  

There are some political forces with which no just government can safely negotiate because they are just too violent and dangerous to humanity. Hitler’s Germany was one, Pol Pot’s Cambodia another. Isis’ caliphate is yet another. At some point Isis, and crucially the fascist theocratic ideology that drives it, will need to be fought and beaten – not contained as Corbyn suggests. 

A Serious Case of Tail Wagging Dog, by Jean Calder

I recently wrote about the tendency of local councils to expand ‘innovative’ new departments, while at the same time failing to safeguard mainstream service delivery (Vampires at City Hall). Ian Healey responded, saying “..without numbers (of posts involved) or examples, it is difficult to see this as more than a partisan grumble. It may all be as you say, but what to do?”

As they say in Parliament, he makes a good point. In reality, it’s impossible to provide details. This is because council officers deny the information to the public, on grounds of staff confidentiality. It’s obviously right that the public should not have details about individual post holders and the exact level of their pay. However, it’s entirely improper that the very existence of these posts, their responsibilities and seniority, and crucially their broad salary grades, are shrouded in mystery.

During the recent public consultation that preceded Brighton & Hove’s budget-making, I telephoned the finance department to ask for more information – in particular about staffing structures and the costs of posts. I said I couldn’t answer the council’s questionnaire about budget priorities, unless I really understood the options. I was told that such detailed information wasn’t routinely provided because “it wouldn’t be fair” to the staff concerned. I persisted and was subsequently informed that more detailed information was available online if I cared to look. Unfortunately, it was not – or was so well buried that only a hacker could have found it.

I was annoyed at the refusal, but thought I’d get round it by speaking to councillors. However, I was stunned to learn from the two councillors I approached – both highly competent and holding senior positions – that they too were routinely denied detailed information about staffing. This was despite the fact that this was a very important and hugely contentious budget, in which cuts were to be agreed. Now, these were politicians and I am not naive. It may be that they actually did have access to the information, but were unwilling to admit that I and other members of the public couldn’t have it. However, from their somewhat confused and even embarrassed demeanour, I suspect not.

The implications of this, if true, are stunning. It means that the councillors we democratically elect to run the city, finalise budgets and agree strategies on our behalf, have been doing so with partial information – and that the people who have withheld key facts are those paid to carry out the council’s decisions. Elected councillors, accountable to us, are being ‘managed’ by people who ought to be accountable to them. If this is the case, I do wonder why we bother to vote. It’s a serious case of tail wagging dog.

I lament the loss of old fashioned senior council officers, who were hard working public servants – and generally accepted limits to their own authority. This all seemed to change in the late 1980s. Senior public ‘servants’ started to study for MBAs, ape the private sector, demand extortionate salaries and tell their workers there was ‘no such thing as a job for life’. Claiming to be ‘managing change’, they decimated services, cut the posts of manual staff who carried out the traditional work of the councils and justified their own promotion and pay rises by developing small fiefdoms of white collar staff, working in new and fashionable fields of endeavour.

Back in the day, senior council officers would have worked in the same local authority until they were 65, left with a secure pension and spent their retirement in unpaid good works. However, since the early 1990s, too many senior managers have taken early retirement at 50 or 55, sometimes with a golden handshake as well as a stonking great pension, then joined quangos and set up consultancy businesses selling their skills at inflated prices to – you guessed it – local authorities.

Where once senior council officers informed and advised elected members, and accepted they had operational not strategic responsibility, this new breed of senior officer, unaccountable, arrogant and well-paid, seeks to lead, not to serve. In such an environment, elected councillors, some new to their roles, reliant on officers and often earning far less than them, can readily be manipulated. Where there is no overall political control, it must be particularly easy for latter-day Sir Humphreys to play one politician off against another.

There have always been council officers who successfully managed, manipulated and flattered elected councillors into submission. However, the present situation in Brighton & Hove, in which senior officers withhold information and politely exclude councillors from crucial decisions about politically sensitive or senior staff appointments, is something new. I suspect councillors are concerned and frustrated, but that a culture may have developed that seems impossible to challenge.

But challenged it must be. A council which operates according to the priorities of an unaccountable elite is a dangerous beast and this is particularly so at a time of service cuts. My suggestion, now the election is over, is that councillors try to put aside partisan loyalties and come together to assert their position as elected representatives. Not for their sakes, but for ours.

Poor Taste for my SpAd, and New Beginnings for Purna Sen and Nancy Platts

One of my over-promoted SpAds, by the name of Andy Winter, has just bought himself one of those new Apple wrist watches. It’s hideous, a sort of bilious blue. My young intern (lovely gel) tells me  it’s like a teenager’s Swatch, whatever that is. I expect my staff to maintain standards at this Blog. I’m terribly shocked. There don’t seem to be any standards these days. Have you seen the way council officers dress these days, slobbing about in jeans? Quite extraordinary.

I hear the lovely Nancy Platts has been elected as chairman of the Labour Party. Well done Nancy. I’m sure the party will do well under your leadership. Bad luck in the election.  As the incumbent, Simon Kirby had a good opportunity of keeping his ‘grip’ on the seat (I said the jokes would be bad). What wonderful hair he has. I do envy men with a full head of hair. 

Tough about Purna Sen too, but what a fantastic job she’s landed at the UN. Much better than being an MP. No constituents to worry about. Purna, you’re moving into the upper echelons of society, but, be advised, I’m very used to that world. if you need any advice just call on me, the humble blogger.

Whatever you do don’t trust that Obama chap. He ate all the cake and pocketed the spoons last time he came to tea.

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