22 April 2011

Clegg-phobia is based on two hard facts

The deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats is hated by many across the political spectrum.

Why is Nick Clegg the focus of so much hate? There are two reasons.

First, he campaigned against tuition fees, VAT rise, etc and adopted the façade of someone who would bring integrity to dishonest politics. He sold out to the Tories and reneged on his promises.

Second, at least since Thatcher, the Liberal Democrats have presented themselves as a liberal-minded party of the centre left – and with Labour the centre-left had a majority in Britain. Clegg betrayed that tradition by turning the Liberal Democrats into the Tories junior and subordinate partner.

Many want the cane to bite deep into Clegg’s backside and so will now vote no to AV.

21 April 2011

The Royal Wedding

The wedding of Price William and Kate Middleton is a combination of absurd entertainment and a slap in the face to democracy.

To my aesthetic taste the sight of Regent Street decked out in Union flags is grotesque. This kind of omnipresent display of symbols works at the same psychological level as the Nuremberg rallies, even if the political context is different.

However, we should not forget that the monarchy today is mainly a source of entertainment, rather than an institution of deference which cements together a political community. If some people want enjoy the fanfare of the wedding, then stand back and let them get on with it.

Of course, as a democrat I object to the selection of the future head of state being determined by the sexual organs of these two privileged people. A hereditary head of state makes no more sense than a hereditary dentist. I object to public money being spent on their wedding; and I object to either of them having any legal status in Britain, other than that enjoyed by other British citizens

Yet that said, I won’t lose sleep over the wedding because when set against all the other inequalities and injustices in Britain, this one ranks as not very important. At least one can laugh at it – or better still ignore it.

19 April 2011

Using the Alternative Vote to cane Nick Clegg

Voting no to AV just to hurt Nick Clegg is cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

On 5 May 2011 Britain will have its first referendum on electoral reform. On offer is to replace the current simple majority system (aka. first-past-the-post) for electing the House of Commons with the alternative vote. According to opinion polls, the “No to AV" campaigners have a 16% point lead in a referendum campaign which has generated little enthusiasm among the electorate. It seems that those planning to vote are more intent on having the cane bite deep into Nick Clegg’s backside, than they are on marginally improving the effectiveness of their votes in general elections.

AV, if introduced, would have two noticeable effects. The first would be to permit some voters a first preference vote for candidates who can’t win (Green, BNP, etc) and after those candidates are eliminated to transfer their votes to the big parties. This is a sop to gesture politics, nothing more.

Second, in those constituencies in which the winning Tory or Labour candidate had less than half the votes and the Liberal Dems were in a strong second place, transfers would give some of these seats to Clegg’s party. The result would be to boost the possibility of the hung parliaments – and hence Clegg’s bargaining power. It is exactly to prevent that latter possibility that many will vote no to AV – even if it is cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

AV, however, need not always increase the chance of hung parliaments. In 1997, for instance, AV would have increased New Labour’s massive overall majority because votes for eliminated Liberal Democrat candidates would have disproportionately transferred to Labour candidates leading to more Tories losing their seats to Labour.

While AV does lessen the amount of wasted votes in elections, it is not a system of proportional representation. Only full fledged PR can realise the principle of one person, one vote, one value – and Cameron has made sure that is not on offer.

13 April 2011

Humanitarian bombing in Libya

Under the pretext of a humanitarian agenda the US, Britain and France are bombing government targets in Libya. Socialists should not support this.

Aerial bombing in Libya in support of the weaker side in a civil war increases the humanitarian agony in the country. The left could urge the US, Britain and France to do one of the following.

One, support a rapid military intervention and the establishment of a pro-Western regime in Libya on the grounds that this action would end the civil war; and – even if non-democratic and non-socialist – such a regime would perhaps be more humanitarian than Gaddafi’s personal dictatorship.

Two, leave Libya to its own devices on the grounds that it is not for the capitalist countries to deny Libya its sovereignty by determining what happens there.

The third idea that the West can partially intervene to promote a left-leaning democracy is nonsense. You only have to look at Western support for the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to see that pro-capitalist orientation is the purpose of Western foreign policy, not the promotion of democracy which may end up questioning imperialist domination of the region.


When we talk about intervention in Libya we are not talking about something akin to socialists going off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. For all practical purposes, the left has a simple binary choice: back Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy in their use of state military might against Gaddafi, or not back it.

The purpose of the Western powers is to topple Gaddafi and establish a pro-Western regime in Libya. They wish to do this without “putting boots on the ground,” so they reply on aerial bombing. The effect is to prolong the conflict. The well-being of Libyans stuck in a prolonged civil war hardly matters beyond the realms of spin and false pretext for their action.

Perhaps when/if the Gaddafi regime is toppled a more human will emerge, but it may not. Libyans should determine Libya’s future not the US, Britain and France.

Therefore, stop the bombing.

4 April 2011

Ian Tomlinson - The Meaning of His Death

The death of a street newspaper vendor following a vicious assault by police shows how Britain's repressive state operates.

On 1 April 2009 a diverse crowd of people gathered in the centre of London to protest at the G20 summit meeting of world leaders. Most were peaceful if noisy; a tiny minority were there to commit acts of vandalism. But overall, the commercial district of London came to resemble a street carnival of clowns, jugglers, hippies and ordinary people taking to the street to make a point.

Sometime after seven in the evening news filtered through of a death. The police soon made it clear what had happened: a newspaper vendor in his late forties, Ian Tomlinson, uninvolved in the demonstration but surrounded by black-clad anarchists, had collapsed: a heart attack was suspected. Police medics rushed to his aid but were met with a barrage of bottles hindering their efforts. News outlets aired the story.

In the following days several witnesses challenged the police account, but the police complaints authority (IPCC) felt safe in dismissing them and endorsed the police version of events. A post mortem revealed that Tomlinson had indeed died of a heart attack.

A week later conclusive evidence of what had really happened emerged from an unlikely source: the mobile phone footage of a New York hedge fund manager. The film showed Tomlinson walking along, hands in his pockets away from a line of police. Suddenly one of them, Officer Simon Harwood, dressed in a black balaclava partially obscuring his face and with his police identification number removed from his clothing, stepped forward. He truncheoned Tomlinson on the legs and then pushed him to the ground. Stunned, Tomlinson struggled into a sitting position and was assisted to his feet by a demonstrator. Far from helping, the line of police looked on or through Tomlinson as if he were not a person in distress at all. A dazed Tomlinson stumbled out of sight of the camera and minutes later he collapsed and died.

Two further post mortems by independent doctors established that Tomlinson had died from internal bleeding consistent with being thrown to the ground. The first was made public immediately; the second only months later.

The police behaviour on the 1 April 2009 against largely peaceful civilian demonstrators was almost certainly the most gratuitously violent in modern times. Little, if any, attempt was made to distinguish between people committing crimes and those simply attending and protesting, or in Tomlinson’s case by-standers caught up in the event. Forced into street holding pens (popularly called ‘kettles’) with no means of escape, men and women were punched, kicked, hit with batons and shields and bitten by police dogs. In attacking Tomlinson Officer Harwood’s behaviour was probably no worse than that of many of his colleagues. Harwood was unlucky for two reasons: Tomlinson died and the assault was filmed.

Some argue that the police went berserk in London on 1 April 2009. That is not the case: had they done so many tens of people would have died; in fact neither Harwood nor the police in general wanted to kill anyone. The police operation, led by a Commander Broadbent, certainly allowed officers to humiliate lawful protesters and beat them in a non life-threatening way. And to ensure that individual officers were not accountable for their actions, they were permitted to wear balaclavas and a blind eye was turned to their removal of identification badges on their uniforms. Broadbent felt, not without good reason, that the government, courts and media would side with him and his officers even when their actions constituted illegal assaults on innocent people.

The Tomlinson death presented a problem. State disregard for police violence at public order events normally depends on two conditions: first, that the police don’t kill or seriously injure people and second that the details of who was at fault in any particular confrontation remained murky. Tomlinson’s death broke both these conditions. Justice in a state supposedly governed by the rule of law now demanded that charges of assault and (given that Tomlinson had died as a consequence of a serious assault) manslaughter should be pressed against Harwood.

The Crown Prosecution Service took fifteen months to come a decision; it decided in the end not to prosecute Officer Harwood. It’s reasons were transparently dishonest. Manslaughter charges could not be brought, it said, because of the conflicting post mortem results. Yet the results of the first police-instigated post mortem had been rejected by two independent doctors; and even if Tomlinson had died from a heart attack, it was impossible to argue that his experience at the hands of Officer Harwood had not contributed to his death. In addition it was by now apparent that the police had summoned the first pathologist, Dr Freddy Patel, because he could be relied on to give the police the results they wanted at the time (i.e. that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack brought on by being surrounded by black clad anarchists). And to finally demolish the credibility of the police-instigated post mortem it was revealed that Dr Patel was later stuck off the list of approved Home Office pathologists on account of other incidents of misconduct undertaken in support of the police.

And what of the assault charge? Well, it was time-barred because it had to brought within six months and the prosecution service had taken fifteen to reach its decision.

Some have argued that the institutions of the state (prosecution service, courts, etc.) will always support the police when they are in conflict with ordinary people, so the decision not to prosecute Harwood is no surprise. There is much precedent to support this argument, but it should be pointed out that by not prosecuting Harwood, the police and prosecution services suffered a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of all those who cared to look - not just people on the left. It would have been far more beneficial to the police in the long run to have claimed Harwood was a ‘bad apple in the barrel’ and to have sent him to court.

The refusal of the prosecution service to charge Harwood seems to have its cause elsewhere. The evidence against Harwood was rock solid and a majority of people wanted and expected him to be charged with at least assault. What the Crown Prosecution Service was saying in its decision is that WE the state decide prosecutions, irrespective of the evidence and the demands of justice. You, the people, can collect all the evidence you like and argue as logically as you want, but is WE who retain the power.

The Meaning of the Tomlinson Case

The meaning of all this is not, as some have suggested, that the police have been given a carte blanche to assault and kill at random. Officer Harwood, even if he never faces a criminal trial, has not been given a pat on the back but faced interrogation and a possible charges for manslaughter for over a year. No police officer could be sure that if these events were repeated in the future he would be treated so leniently. The meaning of the Tomlinson case is more subtle.

Tomlinson demonstrates that the institutions of force and law (police, police complaints authority, prosecution service) cannot be held to popular legal account. They are corrupt, not in the sense that the people working in those institutions take money to mis-perform their duties, but that they brazenly disregard the purpose for which they exist and citizens have little or no form of address against their maladministration. The police lie and organise ‘bent’ autopsies; the police complaints authority act as puppets of the police. The prosecution service obstructs and drags its feet and gives wholly dishonest reasons for failing to prosecute. Such is the nature of the institutions of the British state today.

Also noticeable is the near total silence of British politicians; they seem quite relaxed with a society in which a police officer truncheons a passer-by, hurls him to the ground and to his death, but then goes unpunished. The maladministration of the police, the police complaints authority and the prosecution service leave them equally untroubled.

Tomlinson has divided effects on state power. On the one hand the case has undoubtedly undermined trust in the police; the misconduct is too clear-cut for anyone who cares to notice. On the other, the state has reinforced its unaccountable power over the people in that even when there is rock-solid evidence of state misconduct, citizens have no right to remedy. People are subject to the state; the state is not accountable to the people who live within it.

Postscript: Following the urban riots of 2011 when public sympathy with the police had at least been partially restored, P.C. Harwood was tried for manslaughter. The severity of the charge and the then prevailing public attitude, if nothing else, meant that a divided jury failed to convict him. He was later dismissed from the police.

1 April 2011

The Fortnum and Mason Affair

The British state is doing all it can to shut down the popular UNCUT movement

Uncut is a grass roots activist organisation, consisting mainly of the educated young. The movement is opposed to tax avoidance by retailers and other companies, particularly at a time when sadistic spending cuts are being inflicted on the services required by ordinary working people. Uncut tactics involve non-violent direct action without vandalism, typically noisy sit-down protests in the department stores owned by tax avoiding companies.

On 26 March 2011, in an action separate from the TUC sponsored demonstration, Uncut staged a sitdown protest in London’s upmarket Fortnum and Mason department store. The facts of what happened are not disputed.

The police arrived and informed the protesters that they could leave unmolested. Once outside every protester – in excess of one hundred persons – was arrested. The young people were distributed to police stations around London and held overnight. Their mobile phones and clothes were confiscated and they were charged with the offence of aggravated trespass and banned from entering the centre of London. Charges of criminal damage were imposed and then, at least for most of them, dropped. Whether they are later found guilty of a criminal offence or not, their names will entered on the police lists of "domestic extremists" for life.

The decision to make a mass arrest and then detain Uncut activists overnight – a wholly disproportionate action given the minor nature of the offence - was a political one. By contrast, far fewer anarchist vandals were arrested. Quite clearly, the police wished to intimidate young people from engaging in effective peaceful protest against tax avoidance, rather than arrest anarchists engaged in property damage.

In their propaganda after the event the government and police sought to associate the Uncut activists with anarchist hooliganism and violence. Yet among the left and the informed, nobody believes that. The barefaced lying by the police to the activists has also further undermined the credibility of the police both in the eyes of Uncut and the public.

Uncut alone is no substitute for organised political opposition, but in terms of raising consciousness and involving people in constructive protest action, there is nothing better in Britain today. Socialists should support it with their voices, money and bodies.


Two views are circulating on the internet about the police prioritising Uncut and not the Black Bloc anarchists in the London protests of 26 March 2011.

One view holds that the police targeted the peaceful Uncut activists out of frustration because they were unable to arrest the anarchists. The other view maintains that the anarchists, who are at least in part infiltrated by police agents, were not stopped in their street rampage in order to bolster public support for harder policing. The arrest of the Uncut activists was then undertaken to associate them in the public mind with the anarchists.

I do not know which view is correct. However whichever alternative is the case, the police are shown to be acting improperly.