Monday 31 May 2010

Flotilla passengers attacking IDF soldiers

Any loss of life, especially civilian life, is a tragedy. But if you were attacked in this way by 'aid workers' and 'peace activists', what would you do...? (Via)

Gaza flotilla: some alternative views

The lack of comment on the Gaza flotilla incident from progressive pro-Israel voices has allowed knee-jerk anti-Zionists to dominate online reaction - well, Twitter, anyway. I guess most people are waiting for the dust to settle and the full story of this awful tragedy to emerge. It's almost certain to be less straightforward than the 'Israel-murders-harmless-aid-workers' narrative that's currently doing the rounds. In the meantime, here are some useful alternatives to the dominant narrative:

Sunday 23 May 2010

Indépendance Cha-Cha

Some gentle anti-colonialism for a sunny Sunday morning. I heard this on yesterday's excellent World Routes programme on Radio 3 about the music of post-independence Francophone Africa. I love the way that Latin American beats, which owe so much to African rhythms, have been re-appropriated by African musicians: though apparently this track was recorded in Brussels, of all places.

Monday 17 May 2010

His master's voice?

In his (re?) launch speech in South Shields today, David Miliband declared:
The Blair-Brown era is over. New Labour is not new any more. New Labour did fantastic things for the country but what counts is next Labour.
However, in his latest tweet, Miliband summarised the speech thus:
Speech today said Labour must look outward and forward not inward and backward. Key to winning and changing the country.
Remind you of anyone?
Europe is not a question of left or right, but a question of the future or the past, of strength or weakness. [...] It's about today versus yesterday. Less about politics and more about a state of mind; open as opposed to closed.
That was Tony Blair, speaking in France in 2008 (in French, as it happens, so it might have lost something in translation). I've mocked Mr. Miliband's tendency to ape TB's consonant-less Estuarian before (it seems to be a family trait: his brother Ed affected the same glottal style in his speech on Saturday). Now it seems the former Foreign Secretary is echoing his master's habit of speaking in vacuous binaries.

If the Blair-Brown era really is over, then Labour needs to move on rhetorically, as well as politically. And David needs to strip out of his speaking style anything that reinforces the sense that he's just a Miliblair with a tendency to be a little Milibland (much as many of us miss his master's voice).

(Oh dear, now I'm feeling guilty. While I was writing the above, I received an email from the man himself: 'Dear Martin, Thank you for joining my movement for change....Really looking forward to working with you over the campaign and beyond. Best wishes, David.' Aw, shucks.)

This is a bad bad hotel

Proving that political protest doesn't have to be po-faced: LGBTQ activists use music, dance and wit to highlight poor pay and unsatisfactory health care provision for hotel workers, in the lobby of the Westin St. Francis, San Francisco. Only in San Francisco could demonstrators sneak the words 'gay ass' into a song about working conditions.

Lovers of historical trivia will know that the Westin, whose rather grim towers loom over one side of Union Square, has been witness to a number of remarkable events, including the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford in 1975. It's also the hotel where Dashiel Hammett wrote (and set) many of his detective stories.


Saying no to Noam

Fisking BBC News' online report of Noam Chomsky's exclusion from the West Bank:

The report describes Chomsky as a 'renowned US scholar', and later as 'renowned for his work on linguistics and philosophy'. Nothing about his notoriety as a genocide denier and apologist for tyrants. Not even any mention of his 'renown' (which you'd think might be relevant) as an unrelenting critic of Israel.

Apparently Chomsky was on his way to give a lecture at the Palestinian university in Bir Zeit when he was denied entry:

Prof Chomsky said the officials were very polite but he was denied entry because 'the government did not like the kinds of things I say and they did not like that I was only talking at Birzeit and not at an Israeli university too.'

Note that we only have Chomsky's word for the rationale behind his exclusion: handy that it aggrandises his own reputation. Note too the characteristic Chomskyan attempt to cast himself as the fearless outsider:

He added: 'I asked them if they could find any government in the world that likes the things I say.'

Well, yes, that might be difficult, now that Pol Pot and Milosevic are no longer around. But I reckon authoritarian populist Hugo Chavez is quite pleased with the things Prof. Chomsky says, and he also seems pretty popular with the theo-fascist government of Iran.

The BBC quotes the reaction of Chomsky's Palestinian host, Mustafa al-Barghouti: 'This decision is a fascist action, amounting to suppression of freedom of expression'. Well, maybe. But there's also this quote from Israeli interior ministry spokeswoman, Sabine Hadad: 'We are trying to contact the military to clear things up and if they have no objection we see no reason why he should not be allowed in'. Even Chomsky admits that the officials who denied him were 'polite'. The incident has been widely reported in the Israeli press and has been the subject of protests by the Association for Civil Right in Israel. Sound like a fascist state to you?

Of course Chomsky shouldn't have been denied entry to the West Bank, any more than that other objectionable self-publicist Geert Wilders should have been refused entry to Britain. But to present this incident as the action of a repressive state against a poor innocent scholar is at the very least disingenuous (but unfortunately rather typical) of the BBC.

Saturday 15 May 2010

A few final (?) post-election reflections

The commentators seem to agree that, contrary to expectations, this was a television rather than an internet election. But in this peculiar post-election week, when the political landscape has changed from hour to hour, the web - and Twitter in particular - has come into its own. I've been a Twitter sceptic until recently, failing to understand our teenage offspring's compulsion to tweet at regular intervals, and certainly unable to see its relevance for myself: what one earth would I tweet about, and who would be interested?

But this has been the week that micro-blogging has come into its own, especially for political obsessives like me, as journalists have used Twitter to provide minute-by-minute updates on the coalition talks, and commentators have exchanged instant reactions to events. I signed up for Twitter last Friday, and already I can't imagine doing without it (mind you, the appeal might wear off as British politics settles into something like a normal rhythm again). It's hard now to imagine getting by without my regular updates from the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg, tweeting and twit-piccing even as she broadcasts to the nation from outside No. 10. The woman is a force of nature - US readers should try to imagine NBC's Savannah Guthrie with a Glasgow accent. (Speaking of whom: Savannah interviewed the BBC's Matt Frei on The Daily Rundown the other day. He claimed he'd flown over to Washington with a senior female member of Nick Clegg's party who was on the phone with the Lib Dem leader, urging him not to cut a deal with the Tories but link up with Labour instead: it must have been Shirley Williams.)

I guess the whole thing must look very odd from the other side of the Atlantic. Barack Obama, with his constant struggles to get key legislation through Congress, must envy the powers of the incoming British government to use its parliamentary majority to push through major reforms. Fixed-term parliaments might be a good thing, and everyone's now saying that the 55% needed to unseat the government is not as undemocratic as it sounds, but still: one could wish for a few more of the US constitution's checks and balances to restrain the executive from simply imposing this kind of change by fiat. There's something a little Chavez-esque about a new administration immediately changing the rules by which it can be kicked out. Tony Benn always used to say that, when he met a foreign leader, his first question was 'How do I get rid of you?' (Mind you, I don't recall him raising that issue in his infamous interview with Saddam.)

Turning to Labour: I still think refusing the temptation of a cobbled-together rainbow coalition was the right thing to do, morally and politically. I think Polly Toynbee and others were wrong to see refuseniks like John Reid and David Blunkett as tribalists. If anything, it was the pro-coalitionists, with their unwillingness to accept the public's verdict and desperation to hang on to power by their fingernails, by offering unrealistic concessions to assorted nationalists, who represented the old politics.

Now Labour has a chance to refresh its policies and its leadership. As regular readers will be aware, I've long been a partisan for David Miliband, though I wouldn't be unhappy if his brother, Ed (who has just declared his candidacy) were to win. You can already imagine a David vs. Ed divide opening up across progressive dinner tables across the land. Certainly most of my lefty academic colleagues, among whom disappointment with New Labour and dislike of Blair is de rigueur, are going for Ed, while to speak up for David is to mark yourself out as a hopelessly Blairite centrist. I'm sticking with David, but offer him a word of advice: for goodness sake shave off that half-moustache, it makes you look like an overgrown schoolboy - and get yourself a decent haircut.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Another turn of the screw

Been in a seminar since this morning so missed most of the electoral back-and-forth today. Only just emerged to catch up on frantic exchange of tweets. So, another turn of the screw: looks like the Lab-Lib talks might have come to nothing and the Lib-Con coalition is back on the cards. Journos expecting imminent important announcement (again).

If it's true, then Cameron will be kicking himself for giving away so much to the Lib Dems - including referendum on AV - just to stop them climbing into bed with Labour, when all he needed to do was sit tight and wait for the other parties to 'do the math', as they say across the water.

The longer this tortuous process goes on, the more Machiavellian my thinking becomes. Now I'm wondering whether Gordon's resignation and his behind-the-scenes chatting up the Libs was a cunning ploy to hobble the inevitable Lib-Con alliance. Will Dave ever be able to trust two-timing Nick again?

Still, whatever happens, at least Brown has finally been crowbarred out of the leadership and the way is clear for Labour to start afresh with new policies and a new team. David Miliband for leader and John Cruddas for deputy, anyone?

Gordon through the looking-glass

In this strange looking-glass election, events can be interpreted one way when they happen, but come to resemble something very different a few days, or even a few hours, later. So what seemed on Friday morning like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, by Sunday was beginning to resemble an agonising lose-lose situation in which Nick Clegg would be condemned by the electorate and his own party whether he chose to jump into the bed with the Tories, prop up Labour, or do nothing at all.

And Gordon Brown's offer to resign yesterday evening, which at the time appeared to be a gracious and selfless act, a political masterstroke even, in the cold light of day looks like a last desperate bid to cling to power - until September for himself, and indefinitely for his party, despite the fact that both were roundly rejected by the electorate.

Of course, as politicians and hacks queued up to remind us last night, Britain has a parliamentary not a presidential system, and the incumbent party has a right, a duty even, to attempt to form a government - even if it garnered significantly fewer votes and seats than its rival. But perception is important too, and in this time of deep disillusionment with politicians of all stripes, how will it look if the parties that came second and third (not to mention fourth, fifth and sixth) gang up to prevent the party that came first (even it was a rather wobbly first) from assuming power?

And in the same way that the electorate handed Clegg a poisoned chalice last Thursday, so it can be argued that, on Monday night, Gordon Brown saddled his successor, whoever that might be, with the prospect of leading an unpopular and unstable coalition, with even less personal legitimacy (as yet another unelected prime minister) than he himself had during his time as premier. Assuming that David Miliband is the favourite, is it too perverse and Machiavellian to see this as Brown's last act of revenge against the Blairites?

Unpalatable though it is, I'm slowly coming round to the John Reid and David Blunkett position: that Labour should do the right thing (strategically as well as morally) and let the Tories have a go, with or without the Lib Dems, using the opportunity to regroup under a new leader with refreshed policies. Then, at the inevitable second election, whether in the autumn or in a year or two's time, Labour will be able to present itself to the nation as a renewed and principled opposition, rather than as the tainted leaders of an illegitimate and compromised coalition.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Curtains for Clegg?

Two contrasting references to Nick Clegg on this morning's Broadcasting House on Radio 4. A couple of the newspaper reviewers blamed hostile press coverage for bursting the Clegg bubble and producing the lower-than-expected Lib Dem result. I think this is wrong: it affords too much power to the media and patronisingly paints the British people as passive dupes. Instead, I think many of those who had been impressed by Clegg's undoubted presentational skills in the first debate slowly realised that there was very little substance behind the platitudes. In the final debate on the economy, the Lib Dem leader had (almost literally) nothing to say, and the highlight of his election eve rally speech was a vacuous promise to 'deliver fairness'.

A rather different reference to Clegg on this morning's programme came in retiring MP Chris Mullin's diary of the election. Reflecting on the first debate, Mullin scoffed at the hypocrisy of Clegg railing against the sins of politicians when he himself is a 'maximum claimer' of expenses who was prepared to flip-flop on policy at the drop of a hat, carefully omitting his earlier call for savage spending cuts from his new improved message.

I've grown to like Clegg less and less as the election, and the post-election kerfuffle, has progressed. At best, I'm irritated by his repetitiousness, studied body language, and curious habit of bobbing up on down on his heels as he speaks. He's just too keen for my liking, and he and his jolly Lib Dems remind me too much of the Methodists among whom I grew up. (Not surprising: many of them are Methodists, and other species of Nonconformists, who really really want 'fairness', but without any of that nasty class conflict business. I bet they serve weak tea at their meetings.) At worst, he has some of the superior high-mindedness and 'above the fray' piousness of the worst kind of religious puritan - ironic, given his vaunted agnosticism. He seems to genuinely believe that he's more progressive than Brown, when one suspects that he would secretly feel more at home cosying up to the Conservatives.

In short, I don't trust Nick Clegg's judgement in these difficult days, and for once I'm grateful for the Lib Dems' chaotic constitution and grassroots bolshyness. Maybe his party members will keep him from a precipitate leap into bed with Cameron. He's in an unenviable position though. If he fails to seal a deal with either party, he'll be ditched by his party for having passed up the best chance of power in a generation. If he allies his party with either the Tories or Labour, he risks being scorned by the electorate for propping up an unpopular minority administration. At the inevitable second election (October, anyone?), it's likely the voters will see the need to make a decisive choice between one of the big two parties, and the Liberals could end up with even fewer seats than this time. Either way, it could be curtains for Clegg.

Friday 7 May 2010

The morning after

A few stray thoughts...through the fog of sleeplessness:

The public saw through the platitudes and burst the Clegg bubble, but ironically he's the person everyone's waiting on this morning (about to make a speech as I write).

Brown has just indicated (10.30 am) that he's starting coalition talks, but David Miliband tweeted (at 10.13): 'Just woken up to hear someone on bbc saying I was talking to vince cable. Nonsense! I've been having a kip!

Best news of the night: Margaret Hodge increasing her majority in Barking and Dagenham and the BNP coming third.

Labour are holding on to their northern heartlands, and even regaining seats in Scotland - but losing the 'aspiring' white working-class vote in southern England - Harlow, Stevenage, Basildon, Thurrock have all gone to the Tories. Are we back to a pre-1997, pre-New Labour political map?

Great to see so many women and young candidates (re-)elected for Labour. It struck me that, on the whole, Labour's candidates look like modern Britain - generally, the Tories (viz. Zac Goldsmith) don't.

Update 10.43 Clegg speaking outside Party HQ - as usual being naive and incautious and saying far too much. Says he's sticking to his view that the party with the largest number of votes and seats should have first go at forming a government - showing that he doesn't understand the constitution - as commentators have been telling us all night, it's the sitting PM's right - and duty - to do this. Not that I'm happy with the prospect of any kind of stitch-up. Roll on the re-match - which some think could be before the end of the year.

10.54 Another bit of good news from East London: Labour have seen off George Galloway's challenge in Poplar and Limehouse. Don't think he even turned up for the count. Hope this puts paid to his fantasy of becoming mayor in Tower Hamlets.

11.10 Asked for his reaction to Clegg's statement, Paddy Ashdown waffled something about being proud to have a leader who put principle before party advantage. Translation: The man's a fool - he's just thrown away our best chance at power in a century - but at least he's a principled fool. (I wonder how all those new Lib Dem voters feel about their hero potentially cuddling up to the Conservatives? Go to bed with Clegg and wake up with Cameron indeed..)

11.52 Great minds: I see that Bob and I have almost identical reactions to the events of last night - and we've even picked the same title for our posts.

12.29 I'd been wondering what ordinary Lib Dems would make of the prospect of shoring up the Tories - and especially those who joined the SDP from Labour. But I've just heard David Owen on the BBC insisting in his usual abrasive and pompous way (a fair match, then, for his interviewer, Paxman) that Cameron has the best claim to govern...confirming the Labour prejudice that, for many, the SDP was just a stopping-off point on the way to Conservatism, and that Lib Dems have always been more viscerally anti-Labour than anti-Tory.

12.35 Oliver Kamm's take on the 'result' is worth reading. On this morning of disappointments, he shares my consolatory delight that the Guardian got it wrong.

13.26 And the consolations keep on coming. Just heard that Labour's Rushanara Ali has won back Bethnal Green, pushing Respect into third place. The end of the road for Galloway's Stalinist-Islamist alliance?

14.21 Just opened a Twitter account. Might make this live-blogging business a bit easier in future. You can follow me here: