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.

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.

Siren performing this coming Saturday in Brighton

Siren, the 1980s Lesbian New Wave Band are performing this coming Saturday (13th June) at 8 PM at the Malborough Theatre in Brighton. Fascinating insights into the feminist and gay politics behind their music. I saw them perform last time and it was a fantastic show.

image

(Click to enlarge poster)

An alternative view to the Brighton and Hove Independent 100

The Brighton and Hove Independent last week (30th May) published a list of the “100 people who make our city what it is”. The Editorial Director, Greg Hadfield has said he “expects – and even hopes – that almost everyone will disagree” with the list.

Let me be the first. There are the predictable names but it is who Greg has missed that demands comment. For example, why is your Humble Blogger not included? No politician can hope for recognition and success without endorsement from this awesome blog.

It is all very well to have Martin Harris from the bus company, but what about former Mayor, Brian Fitch, who singlehandedly, in a career stretching back to when Methuselah was a boy in short trousers, has saved bus route after bus route, most recently the Number 5, from being callously axed without a second thought to those isolated on our estates. What hope is there for them now that Brian has moved to Eastbourne?

More seriously, in the media section, there is no mention of anyone from the Brighton Argus. I just can’t imagine why not! Adam Trimingham, at least, should be there.

Three politicians from each of the main political parties are listed although the Green, Major Druitt, is listed because of his business influence, and Katy Bourne appears to have transcended her party political affiliations to be listed under Public Services.

But how does one make a judgement on who has made a contribution to make our city what it is. When reviewing the list, I was hard pressed to say for over half of them one thing they have done to make or change the City. Merely holding a position, elected or otherwise, doesn’t mean that you have helped to shape a place.

A better list would be who, over the last 25 years or more, has helped to make Brighton and Hove what it is today. Who is the modern day Herbert Carden, Margaret Hardy, Lewis Cohen, Dorothy Stringer, John Morley, Denis Hobden, Tony Hewison, Asa Briggs, or Richard Attenborough? Their influence on the City remains even though they are no longer with us.

I could mention people like Linda Pointing, Dani Ahrens and Melita Dennett, who (amongst others) were pioneers in the movement for lesbian and gay rights and recognition, and opposition to Section 28. Or Shirley West who was, for many years, the backbone of the Women’s Centre. Jess Wood from Allsorts continues this work, particularly with children and young people.

For fifty years Patricia Norman was central to the Friends Centre and to its adult education arm. Into her nineties she continued with a group for pensioners run from the Friends Centre, as well as being involved in the work of Brighton Housing Trust for over 45 years, most recently as its Life President.

Kate Page has been at the Resources Centre for almost 35 years, helping countless community organisations shape their communities. And Faith Matyszak provided the backbone of BME services throughout the 1980’s, 90’s and noughties.

Local domestic violence services were saved by a group including the above-mentioned Shirley West and Jean Calder, who subsequently became the first Director of the Women’s Refuge Project (now Rise). Jean later led the successful campaign to save St Peters Church as a place of worship, alongside Janet King, Isabel Turner and others. (Jean now has the honour to be a regular contributor to this esteemed blog.)

Interfaith activities were championed by Tehm Framroze, and now by Anthea Ballam. They should be on the list. Andrew Manson-Brailsford and Ian Chisnall continue to make the Church relevant in the community. Rabbi Elli Sarah does likewise for Progressive Jewish community.

While he will no doubt write a strongly worded letter against his inclusion, Tony Greenstein should be included for being a public irritant of gargantuan proportions but, more so, for being one of the most consistent anti-fascist in Brighton and Hove.

What about the campaigners who helped to close down the Dolphinarium? Or Duncan Blinkhorn and Mark Strong for getting the needs of cyclists acknowledged.

Mushtaq Ahmed was pivotal in establishing Sussex CCC as a force to be reckoned with. Dick Knight could represent all those who helped secure a stadium fit for the 21st century at Falmer.

Michael Chowen, a local businessman and employer, has been a philanthropist with a particular commitment to women’s services. Peter Field has had a long history in charitable work, not least in nurturing and developing housing services for homeless people.

I could go on and on, and I usually do, but those named above would be 25 of my 100.

New Charges at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

I avoid public loos. I especially dislike the loos in the Pavilion gardens. I don’t care how many ‘awards’ they’ve received (I wonder who gives out these things and what contractors have to do to get them). They’re dark, depressing and terribly cold. And as any woman or child will tell you, temperature matters when you have to disrobe in the lavatory.  So I try to avoid them. 

My habit, for many years, has been to use the toilets in the museum and art gallery, though I admit it’s often just been an excuse to visit the museum. I love walking unimpeded through the stone entrance into the building, up to the purring Pavilion cat that my daughter and I used to feed with coins, past Salvador Dali’s red sofa shaped like Mae West’s lips (my daughter was always convinced she’d one day be rich enough to buy it) across to the stoneware bison and the Lalique table with the heavy glass bust of Beethoven. Then it’s on to the Voysey dresser and chair and brass lamp, a stop at the yellow glazed Minton pilgrim flask then right at the plate display and I’m almost there. Whatever my previous mood, by this time I’m happy. I’m walking on air. 

I look at other people peering at the displays and it occurs to me we’re like a family pottering around a well-loved family home that we haven’t visited for a while – along with visitors who haven’t been there before. I must admit I feel pride and a bit proprietorial. It occurs to me that that these are all our things, given, bought and paid for by previous citizens or by us. Sometimes I go upstairs and have coffee and a scone and read the paper and survey my, or rather our, domain.

As a child in South Africa, I visited the Durban library and museum each Saturday. I was too short to see over the library desk – and too young to understand why the only people there were white – but even then I had the same feeling of belonging and civic pride. The Victorian paintings were awful, but I loved the stuffed animals and birds, the lion and hyena, even an elephant and a hippo – and the model of a dodo bird, with a real dodo egg beside it. 

When I first came to this country in 1972, I lived in London and was terribly lonely and had very little money. Every weekend I’d leave my bedsit and visit the national gallery and the museums. They were all free and I’d mix with the people and look for hours at the portraits, especially the Rembrandts and feel just a bit less lonely.

In 1975, I came to Sussex University as a student. One of the first things I did was to visit Brighton’s museum and art gallery and make the acquaintance of its pictures and artefacts. Then my parents settled here and they too came to love the displays.

All this being the case, imagine my distress when, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit the museum, but was turned away. I strode in confidently, only to be stopped at a desk by several officials who told me the facility was no longer free to tourists – and that if I wanted to visit I needed to show proof of residence. A library card was not sufficient.

On that occasion, I rummaged in my bag and I was lucky enough to find a letter from my bank. My address was checked and entered on a computer (not a swift process) and I was allowed in, wearing a purple badge. In some distress, I left the museum through the Corn Exchange entrance.

Two days later, in a dream, I walked in again, only to be stopped again. I said “I’m on your computer”, but that cut no ice. I still had to show my letter. I said “This is an awful hullabaloo to go to the loo. Can’t I just go in?” Could I heck. “When was this decided?” I asked “Was there any consultation?”. “Oh yes,” one replied, while another said at the same time “I think they did try to keep it quiet”. Too true, they did – just before an election.

Two days later I visited again, but this time, I remembered. I went in through the Corn Exchange entrance where (note well) there are no barriers. I looked at the displays and visited the loo at my leisure, noticing with sadness how many people wore badges indicating they had had to pay. I somehow found it hard to meet their gaze. 

As I left by the main entrance, officials insisted on yet again checking my bank letter against their computer, presumably to make sure it wasn’t a fake address. As I walked out into the sunshine, past the sad little queue of people wanting to go in, I did not feel proud of my city.

Electoral Fraud and How to Stop It by Jean Calder


I hate electoral fraud, not just because it undermines democracy, but because it insults the memory  of those who have fought and died for the right to vote. 

When I first came to this country, almost all voting took place on polling day, in privacy and in the polling booth. Registration was determined by where you lived on a particular date – 10th October – and though that was overly restrictive, it had the benefit of not allowing people to ‘multi-register’.  Voters needed proof of illness (or a need to travel) to obtain a postal vote, the police guarded the  polling booths and it was unheard of for anyone to ‘assist’ someone to make their cross on a ballot paper. The only exception would be if someone was severely disabled and needed physical assistance, in which case it would be provided by a council official, observed by colleagues. These council officials strictly enforced rules preventing candidates or their supporters from harassing, or even approaching, people on the way in to the polling station. Even large posters could be removed.

Since then, the Electoral Commission’s obsession with widening the register and making it easier to vote, especially by post, has made the system wide open to abuse. Many regulations have been swept away while others are simply not enforced. It has made it far easier to ‘personate’ individuals; to pressurise people into voting in a particular way; and to commandeer or steal postal voting papers.

Over the past few years, evidence of fraud has been mounting. The Tower Hamlets case is only the most recent.  

I’ve seen nothing to convince me that former Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman is any thing other than what Judge Richard Mawrey QC, the Election Commissioner, said he was, a corrupt, ambitious man who blatantly broke electoral law for his own interests, using a section of the local community to do it.  If he appeals and presents evidence that the original allegations were wrong, I’ll be the first to acknowledge it, but I don’t think for a moment that will happen. I hope the police will finally act on the information they have held for so long.

I would suggest that the four individuals who put their careers and finances on the line by bringing the case against Rahman, whatever their politics, have in them far more of the Poplar Council spirit, than Rahman and his cohorts. It must have taken real courage to persevere in the face of allegations of racism and islamophobia. There has been a cowardly conspiracy of silence around electoral fraud and a shameful lack of action by most politicians, the police and Crown Prosecution Service. It needs to stop.

I hope that Parliament will:

  • return to the system of registering people according to where they live on a particular date
  • prosecute fraudulent registration and other breaches of electoral law
  • stop postal voting on demand and actively encourage people (especially women) to attend the polling station
  • stop the mobbing of polling station entrances
  • stop interference with voting inside polling stations, including by family members,
  • require voters to produce ID when receiving a ballot paper.

Tighter regulation in Northern Ireland has gone a long way to making elections fairer. Similar changes in Britain are long overdue. 

Jean Calder, electoral fraud, personation, postal voting, Electoral Commission, Election Commissioner, Poplar Council, Judge Richard Mawrey, mobbing of polling stations, Lutfur Rahman, Tower Hamlets


Immigration and British Citizens by Jean Calder


I’ve been interested to read responses to one of my recent blogs, Labour Fails to Listen. 

In his comment, Jim Grozier disagreed with what I’d said about immigration. He wrote: “I have a major problem with one paragraph, and one phrase in particular – “the rights of British people” – sent a shiver down my spine.” He added “Surely the only rights British people have are *human* rights – the same rights that the immigrants have – so why should British people be favoured over non-British people?”

I find these ideas fascinating. I am an immigrant. I remain immensely grateful to the UK for taking me in in 1972 and for providing me with a better and safer life than I would have had in South Africa. I’ve worked hard since I’ve been here and, like most immigrants,  have tried to give something back. However, back in the 1970s I never for one moment thought I had a right to the same services and benefits as British-born people. It simply would never have occurred to me, given that neither my parents nor I had contributed, by our work or our taxes.  

I worked for three years in order to gain what was then called ‘resident status’ and then went to Sussex University as a mature student on a full grant. I will always be grateful for this. However, if the government of the time had decided that immigrants like me needed to work for  five or seven years rather than three, because British born people needed the places or because the country couldn’t afford it, I would have accepted it. I wouldn’t have liked it, but it would have seemed to me fair and completely reasonable that the country should look after its own young people first. I’ve never had any difficulty with this notion, though I would expect that after a certain period of legal residence and contribution, rights would equalise.

It seems strange to suggest that British citizenship should bring with it no rights other than basic human rights. As Britons, we don’t live in a supranational European state or a world without borders. The nation state still exists and so long as it does, continues to confer particular rights and responsibilities on its citizens. This is true in all countries, not just our own. It seems to me absurd to suggest that national governments should, in all circumstances, give equal weight to the well being of visitors or settlers, whatever the hardship this may cause to the people of the host nation. 

Tony Greenstein commented that apparent concern about immigrants’ undercutting wages “has been the staple argument of racists for over 120 years.” He is right, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in some cases true. My point is that, over several years, an unscrupulous political elite in the UK developed a deliberate strategy of bringing in workers for the purpose of undercutting wages and conditions and undermining unionised labour. Unskilled jobs which could have been carried out by British people were, quite legally, advertised abroad rather than in the UK. Skill shortages were not addressed by a state education and training establishment, which, over decades, failed to prepare indigenous workers for key trades and professions, for example in building, nursing and medicine. One result is an NHS staffed by low-paid agency workers with poor English – and well-paid doctors from abroad, who could perhaps have better served their countries by working at home.  

Jim ended his comment by recalling MP Dennis Skinner’s Commons speech in which he attacked UKIP MPs and referred to what he called his “United Nations heart bypass” operation. He said: “..it was done by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor, a Nigerian registrar, and these two people here talk about sending them back from whence they came. And if they did that in the hospitals in London, half of London would be dead in six months.”

It was a moving and amusing speech and a wonderful piece of polemic, but Skinner should surely also have asked why our very wealthy country fails to train enough people to staff its NHS. After all, tiny cash-strapped Cuba manages to produce enough doctors and nurses to meet its own needs and has for decades been able to export them, as required, to war zones and disaster areas around the world. I have to ask, if they can do it, why can’t we?

I’ll respond to Tony’s comments about Lutfur Rahman and islamophobia, Ireland and feminism at a later date.