Monday 31 March 2008

Licence to drive you nuts

The political silly season continues, and now it's the Tories' turn to come up with a ridiculous idea - extending the TV licence fee to fund not only the BBC, but also fund ITV, Channel 4 etc (BBC News: Tories plan to share licence fee)

To achieve this, either the TV licence fee will have to rise even higher, or there will have to be even more cutbacks in the BBC. This will lead not only to yet more job losses (I never forgave the Tories for BBC Transmission making me redundant back in 1995, and I have 'no love lost' for New Labour for continuing to force the BBC to cut jobs), but also to poorer programmes - the reverse of what the proposal allegedly aims to achieve!

For ages, the alleged 'raisin d'etre' of having both the BBC and independent TV companies was: The BBC, being state funded and not reliant on advertising, did not need to chase ratings or impose self-censorship to please the advertisers. ITV, conversely, had a revenue stream independent of the state, and was therefore, theoretically, less prone to state interference in broadcasting. Yet, with creeping privatisation having taken place within the BBC for some time (starting with BBC Transmission in the late 90's), can we be 100% sure they are still free from commercial pressures? As for ITV, it has always de facto had to watch its @$ due to the ITV licencing system over the years, and bidding for state funding will surely only make matters worse in that respect.

The Tories' aim is to introduce competition into broadcasting, in the same way that contracting out and tendering within the BBC has introduced a form of competition there. Strange, then, that the capitalist Establishment's love of broadcasting competition has stark limits when it comes to free community radio. Birmingham unlicenced community radio station PCRL had already suffered over 100 DTI (now Ofcom) raids by 1998, and some London pirates got belted even harder :-(

Yet there is a point in having a state-funded non-commercial broadcaster, which can not only cater for minority groups, but also provide an alternative to populist carp (typo) like Big Bother, I'm A Nonentity and Brat Camp Xray. But the licence fee should be scrapped; it is a steeply regressive form of taxation, effectively making poor families with an old TV pay the same licence fee as a rich capitalist with a 2000" plasma-screen TV in every room. Instead, the BBC should be funded by income tax (which should itself be focused more on taxing the rich, but I've already covered that in earlier entries).

On the other hand, I also think there should be independent broadcasters. Independent not only of the state, but also of capitalist advertisers, fat cat shareholders, and the capitalist Establishment in general. They should be run by their workers - programme producers, actors, presenters, musicians, technicians, etc. Programmes should aim to serve the whole community, rather than doing the bidding of the rich and powerful by distracting us with alienated drivel and brainwashing us with biased, sensationalistic 'news and documentary' programmes.

In short, there should be radio and TV by the community, for the community!

Sunday 30 March 2008

Now Mumia must be freed!

The news that Mumia Abu Jamal is no longer on death row in the US (BBC News: US court overturns death sentence) is welcome as far as it goes. But it is no cause for celebration - Mumia has not been freed, and has not even been granted the retrial he has been demanding for decades, merely a new sentencing hearing.

Mumia Abu Jamal is a former member of the Black Panther Party, a socialist organisation which fought for black people's rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following the smashing of the Black Panthers by the American Establishment, he went on to become a journalist and radio presenter. In 1981, while working part-time as a taxi driver, he was framed for the murder of a policeman. After an extremely flawed trial, where racism was abundant, he was sentenced to death. Yet, even while he was on death row, Mumia - a brave and deeply political man - continued to write about the injustices of capitalist society, raging against the system yet rarely mentioning his own plight! For more info about Mumia and his campaign, visit the Free Mumia Abu Jamal Coalition website.

Mumia's case, sadly, is far from unique. Indeed, it is the tip of a grotesque iceberg; the death penalty is routinely used in many US states - especially Texas, from where president George W Bush hails. A disproportionate number of people executed in the US are black, even people with learning difficulties or mental illness have been put to death. No wonder anti-capital punishment campaigners in the US call to an end to "the racist death penalty"!

Thankfully, here in the UK, we no longer have the death penalty - despite regular calls from sections of the Establishment, notably Tory MPs and their allies in the right-wing press, to have it brought back. The thought of bringing back capital punishment fills me with horror as, like the US, the UK has no shortage of miscarriages of justice; prominent examples include the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Bridgewater Four. And as the government passes more and more 'catch all' laws (such as ever more ill-defined "anti-terrorist" legislation), and as Police are demanding - and being granted - more and more powers, the risk of such miscarriages of justice can only increase.

I guess there's no wonder the US Establishment (and sections of the UK Establishment) are so gung-ho about the death penalty. To see how cheaply they value life, we only have to look at their wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and any other country which refuses to do the imperialist West's bidding, where men, women and children are slaughtered for oil, money and power.

Mumia is no murderer, and should be free. Bush, Blair, Brown et al, on the other hand, are murderers who should be rotting in jail!

Friday 28 March 2008

Political genes are pants science

Why am I a socialist? Is it because I have seen too much of the social damage that capitalism has done to society? Is it because, as a person with disabilities, I have come to hate the system which perpetuates my oppression? Well, according to some genetic scientists - and Lib Dem MP Matthew Taylor - it is all in my genes! (BBC News: The search for the 'political' gene)

This comes soon after the recent claim that happiness is genetic (BBC News: Genes 'play key happiness role'). The implications of this are, if you're unhappy, it's got nothing to do with poverty, oppression or over-work, it's all in your genes. How very convenient for the capitalist Establishment!

The idea of our behaviour being genetically influenced, is nothing new. Back in the late 1990s, a 'gay gene' was supposedly discovered. It was hoped that, if it became accepted that homosexuality was genetic, and therefore 'natural', homophobia would decrease. Such a notion, however well-intentioned, was rather naive; skin colour, for example, is genetically influenced, but that has not stopped racism. So, hardly surprisingly, soon after the 'discovery' of the 'gay gene', some right-wingers were speculating about 'curing homosexuality'.

To make matters worse, the 'gay gene' was followed by a glut of dodgy claims to have found genetic links with behaviour - including a 'homelessness gene'! Perhaps the most poisonous piece of bad genetic science was a hideously right-wing book by Chris Brand called The Bell Curve (Bell End more like :-P ), which suggested a genetic link between intelligence and race, and slanderously claimed to 'prove' that black people were less intelligent than whites. The Socialist Review article "Born Or Bred?", from July 1996, covers the topic in more detail.

The idea that behaviour is influenced by genes is very convenient to the capitalist Establishment, as it denies the role of society and material circumstances - which capitalism has had a detrimental effect upon - in determining peoples' behaviour and character. In that respect, it seems to be an extension of the medical model of disability - which similarly implies that disabled people's handicaps are due to a flaw with their body, which must be cured, rather than an intolerant and non-inclusive society and built environment.

A further potential negative implication of' genetics (real or bogus) is the potential for (real or equally bogus) tests for medical conditions - or medicalised behaviour. There is then a danger of the results of such tests being used to deny people employment, insurance, etc. Who needs MI5 or the Economic League, when a simple blood test will do the same job :-(

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against science and research. I'm against bad science, like the politically motivated "behavioural genes", and research which will benefit the capitalist Establishment while attacking working class people (eg nuclear weapons development).

So, it's not our politics which are influenced by genetic factors. On the contrary, it's genetic research which is influenced by political factors, namely the right-wing agenda of the capitalist Establishment.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Kids' web pages and employers' black books

While the media is harping on about a government-backed review of the classification of video games (BBC News: Video games face ratings overhaul), another - in my opinion more important - computer-related issue is being largely ignored.

The Childrens' Charities Coalition for Internet Safety is lobbying the government to take serious action against strange people looking at kids' social networking sites and gleaning info which can be used against the kids. Who, I hear you ask? Paedophiles? Cyber bullies? Conmen? How about potential employers and admissions tutors!

An open letter to Margaret Moran MP (linked to on the NCH information page) calls on the government to outlaw the practice of using information on private social-networking sites as a basis for deciding who to employ in a job or give a place on a university/college course. Quite rightly, too!

For some time, there has been a yuk-factor about strangers viewing online photos of young people, due to its (real or perceived) connotations with paedophilia. Yet, when a survey "appeared to show that one in five employers admitted that they used the internet to check on candidates" (according to the CCCIS letter mentioned), it seems that unwarranted viewing of text information can easily be as damaging to young people as viewing photos of them.

Not that employment blacklisting is anything new. Back in the 1980's, there was a shadowy organisation called the Economic League which used to keep files on 'political activists' so employers would know not to employ them. A number of large multinational companies, including banks, contributed to and used the services of the Economic League.

Fair enough, the Economic League was very different from social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo - the Economic League deliberately damaged people's careers, whereas social networking sites do so accidentally, as a result of carelessness; either on their part or that of those who post their profiles there.

The aims of the CCCIS letter and campaign, namely stopping discrimination based on information posted while still at school, are aims which I support. However, maybe the focus on banning the use of such profiles to influence employment and admissions decisions, may make such a law difficult to enforce. Perhaps the emphasis should instead be on preserving the privacy of using such sites.

I think social networking sites should, by default, make all profiles and postings Private, unless the user him/herself expressly wishes to make them public. All sale to, or sharing of personal information with, other companies and organisations should be banned (who needs spam anyway??) All personal profiles and message groups should be kept out of the eye of search engines (easy enough to achieve by using robots.txt commands). All this is well within the means of the large social networking sites which are mainly used by young people; MySpace, for example, is largely owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International media empire.

While we're waiting for such measures to be implemented (and it may be a long wait), there are still things we can do to protect our own privacy. For more info, see the Information Commissioner's Office's Keeping your personal info personal section.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

The lesson today is how to die

Good to see the teachers' NUT union (they've been rather active recently!) voting to oppose military recruitment in schools (BBC News: Teachers reject 'Army propaganda'). Especially since this comes against a backdrop of the increasing unpopularity of imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US death toll in Iraq exceeding 4000 (BBC News: US military Iraq toll hits 4000), the UK death toll there exceeding 100, and 1.22 MILLION Iraqis killed in Iraq (Stop The War Coalition: Iraq study: 1,220,580 murdered since invasion)

The NUT's decision is especially welcome, since it also comes against a backdrop of the military Establishment - government politicians included - using incidents of harassment of soldiers as an excuse to attempt to stifle any criticism of the military. This has led to the attempts to gag former soldiers who have spoken out against the war, such as Ben Griffin who spoke at the Stop The War rally in London on 15th March (report on STW website). The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, has even gone so far as to tell coroners giving verdicts on dead soldiers, not to criticise the armed forces! (BBC News: Minister in soldier inquests plea)

I decry any harassment of soldiers, who are, like Gordon Gentle (son of Rose Gentle, of Military Families Against The War) who was one of the first British soldiers to be killed fighting in Iraq, brave people who have been sent into an unjust war by their leaders. Yet to call them 'lions led by donkeys' would be a grave insult - to donkeys!

Yet, as the number of Armed Forces recruits drops to the point where the military has a recruitment shortfall, it's not just in schools where this 'military grooming' of kids is taking place. The Army themselves have websites devoted to recruitment, advertised on TV, and in many areas the Army Cadets are the dominant (if not the only) free-time activities for young people. In the US it's even worse, with social networking sites, YouTube, and even video games being used as tools for Armed Forces recruitment.

But there is hope. Even as the Iraq War started back in 2003, many school students walked out of school to take part in anti-war protests (who says kids don't understand politics!), and there was no shortage of young people on the March 15th Stop The War rally.

And it is quite probable that many more young people would be less interested in joining the Armed Forces if they knew what such a career choice really entails. This will be hard when they are subjected to an onslaught of propaganda glamorising the Armed Forces, which does not mention the down sides of military life (eg having to kill, risking being killed, being subject to heavy discipline).

If anyone reading (that means you!) knows any young people who are thinking of signing up to the Army, Navy or RAF, you can help them make a more informed choice by suggesting they visit the Before You Sign Up website.

Monday 24 March 2008

Freedom of speech

A recent news report in the Education section of BBC News, on speech therapy (Speech problems 'need attention') got me thinking. As a follower of the social model of disability, and as someone with speech disabilities myself, I think speech disabilities are probably one of the most obvious examples of a disability where the social implications massively outweigh the medical implications. So, although I think there should be free speech therapy for those who actually want it, I also think that social change would benefit people with speech disabilities far more than any amount of medical intervention.

Speech disabilities, however caused, are one of the most obvious disabilities and therefore the hardest to hide away - hence people with speech disabilities are often the butt of prejudice and discrimination (see my article on speech disabilities on the Red Disability website). Yet, as with all disabilities, the oppression of people with speech disabilities has nothing to do with 'human nature' (as often asserted) but is caused by the capitalist system (see Red Disability's Roots of disability oppression aticle).

As for why speech disabilities are currently being targeted by the Establishment as something which needs to be 'cured', I suspect this may be to do with the shift in UK employment from manufacturing work to service industries such as catering, office work, call centres etc. Disability, far from being 'given by nature', is largely defined by the contemporary needs of capitalist labour (see Red Disability's Changing face of disability article)

At the same time, it is not only speech disabilities which can result in speech-related oppression. The Establishment has always had a problem with slang, especially youth slang, citing it as a barrier to effective communication (which is rather hypocritical when you realise that official documents, forms included, are often written in inaccessible language!). Then there's the xenophobic carp (typo) about how immigrants should learn to speak English, as part of the promotion of a (artificial and alienated) 'Britishness' which is currently being promoted by the Establishment. Even within the UK, regional dialects and - even more importantly - perceived 'class differences' in speech, often carry negative implications within this capitalist society.

All these prejudices are not just oppressive to individuals, they lead to a more oppressive, 'cloning', society. Instead of trying to make individuals (with disabilities or otherwise) fit into the strait jacket of capitalist society, we need to fight for a more tolerant, more diverse, less oppressive, socialist society.

Sunday 23 March 2008

Teach the government a lesson!

Good to see teachers' union, the NUT, balloting for strike action over pay (BBC News: Teachers to ballot on pay strikes).

The government's assertation, that the teachers' 2.45% pay offer is above the rate of inflation, beggars belief - especially when you consider the recent hyper-inflation in energy and fuel prices (electricity and gas up by about 15%, petrol and diesel up by well over 20% in the last year). Indeed, very recently, the criteria for measuring inflation were changed (BBC News: Muffins enter typical UK 'basket') - I wonder why ?!?

At the same time, teachers have seen increasing workloads as the government impose changes to the curriculum, adding to the existing high workloads (on both teachers and kids!) caused by SAT tests and the pressures of league tables. The raising of the school leaving age to 18 will not help matters, either!

At the same time, I don't agree with all the NUT have said recently. Their blaming of children and their parents for problems in the classroom (BBC News: Spoilt children 'disrupt schools') has reactionary overtones in two ways. Firstly, it ignores the real reasons kids are increasingly demoralised, due to increased workload (we're back to the SAT's), fewer facilities for kids both in and out of schools, parents stressed out due to increased workload and declining living standards, and lack of a real future. Secondly, it gives the 'green light' for the government to further attack the benefits and living standards of families, single parents etc, saying the kids are over-indulged.

The planned teachers' strikes are very welcome, but their best hope of victory will be if they make links with, and support the struggles of, other workers - namely the parents of the kids in their classrooms.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Liberals and democracy

So sorry to see the Lib Dems have caught the disease of populism, and ill-thought-out populism to boot. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's idea of reducing the number of MPs (BBC News: Clegg wants to see 150 fewer MPs), while popular (understandable considering the abuses of expenses etc), would have a detrimental effect on the number of elected representatives (while still leaving the unelected holders of power, ie the bosses and bureaucrats, in place).

Some of the ideas of the Lib Dems I can support, such as acap on individual donations to parties, and proportional representation (I personally like the Eireann PR system, based on Single Transferrable Vote). Yet, even with PR, the representation of minority parties (such as Respect and the Greens) would be adversely affected if the number of MPs was reduced - thereby increasing the percentage of the vote needed by a party to pass the threshold at which a member could be chosen from the party list.

I also think his idea of asking people who go to vote, if they want the state to make a £3 donation to their chosen party, is flawed. It's bad enough being accosted by credit card salespeople in shopping centres and motorway service stations, and being phoned to ask you if you'd like insurance / double glazing / to take part in a "survey", without being subjected to intrusive questioning at the ballot box!

But enough of what I don't want ... here's a few suggestions of my own, for reforms which I think should be made to parliament and the voting system:

Firstly, if we really must save money on democratic rule, a good start would be to reduce the wages and expenses of MPs - to that of the average worker (approx £25,000 per year and the cost of renting a 'cheap and cheerful' flat or B&B). This would also make MPs have more experience of the lives of working class voters, who elected them in the first place!

Next, a severe cap on individual donations to parties, to stop rich capitalists buying political influence. And democratisation of the political funds of all trade unions, so union members can decide where their unions' (indirectly their own!) money is donated, rather than it going automatically to the Labour Party (as is currently the case in too many unions).

The voting age should be lowered to 13. Already, some reformist politicians, even in the main parties, have expressed an interest in the lowering of the voting age to 16. This is welcome, but it doesn't go far enough. It is debatable whether we really need a voting age at all, and certainly teenagers have shown - contrary to assertations by the Establishment - that they do have political understanding; back in 2003, many school students walked out of classes to take part in anti-war demos when the Iraq war started. Besides, reducing the voting age would stop teenagers being seen as a 'soft target' for repressive legislation!

All people with disabilities should be allowed to vote, and any legislation preventing this should be immediately repealed. In addition, all measures should be taken to make sure that people with disabilities are able to vote. Such as accessible polling stations, ballot cards in Braille, and state-provided transport to polling stations on election day.

The law banning prisoners from voting should also be repealed; in addition to the glut of laws which potentially carry a jail sentence, many are already jailed for petty offences already (many people, especially women, are in jail for not paying fines, including fines given for not having a TV licence or defaulting on poll tax payments). And, as the Birmingham Six and Bridgewater Four will tell you, miscarriages of justice do occur!

Yet even these measures will not give workers full power. The real power lies largely in the hands of rich capitalists in the boardrooms of big business, and with unelected bureaucrats (notably the heads of the Police and Armed Forces) who do the capitalists' bidding. Yet it can just as easily lie with working class people; a strike can deprive the bosses of protits, and make them give concessions to their workers. And when it comes to influencing decisions by the Establishment, one large demonstration is worth more than a thousand mealy-mouthed speeches by MPs.

As the chant went on yesterday's Stop The War demonstration in London: "This is what democracy looks like!"

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Enough to make you swear

I see the latest kooky plan from Mr Brown's advisers, is to make all school-leavers swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country (BBC News: Pupils 'to take allegiance oath') This comes against a backdrop of the Establishment promoting nationalistic jingoism dressed up as 'defending British culture', as epitomised by the BBC's hideously racistly promoted 'White season' (Socialist Worker: The truth about the 'white working class') which implies that immigration is eroding British culture. Nothing could be further than the truth; as well as contributing enormously to the British economy, immigrants have made an invaluable contribution to British society and culture.

As for the allegiance to the Queen - well, I am a republican who has no time for the bunch of hereditary parasites known as the Royal Family. They came to power many centuries ago by war and bullying, and are still an integral part of the Establishment (although, to be fair, Elizabeth II is probably the most benign monarch Britain has had to date).

They are little more than talentless and over-rated showbiz celebrities, wheeled out by the media every time they want to take our attention away, whenever the Establishment is in deep shi ... crisis. A recent example is the "big news" about Prince Harry serving in Afghanistan, reported in an 'action man' style by the Establishment media; let's all forget the 5th anniversary of the illegal and murderous war in Iraq (and the fact that the Afghanistan war is little better, either morally or in terms of success!)

Among opponents of the Royal Family, it is often stated that they are in fact German in origin. This is true, but it is also beside the point. Although the Establishment use the Royals as a symbol of the British people, British workers have more in common with German workers - or Indian, African, Japanese, Chinese, or Martian workers - than we will ever have with ruling class Establishment figures like the Queen.

Sadly, it comes as no surprise that Gordon Brown and his cronies have a hand in this ridiculous plan. His New Labour party's love affair with the capitalist Establishment yesterday plumbed new depths, as they chose a City fund manager as their new general secretary (BBC News: Labour's general secretary named). If you ask me, surely it's time the trade unions got a divorce from this increasingly unfaithful (and sometimes abusive) partner, and started supporting a party which truly looks after workers' interests!

Back to the Royals, getting rid of them would be a good start. But it would not be enough; in many capitalist republics, such as the USA, the working class is no better off than in the UK. The Royal family are merely one of the public faces of the Establishment, which includes unelected rich company bosses and owners, and top bureaucrats (such as the heads of the Police and Armed Forces). For true workers' power, all the capitalist Establishment must be done away with.

Including Brown and his cronies, his plastic opponents in the Tory party, and any politician whose 'oath of allegiance' is to the interests of the rich and powerful!

Sunday 2 March 2008

Planes, planet and planning

On Wednesday morning, protesters from the environmental group Plane Stupid held a protest on the roof of the Houses of Parliament (BBC News: Inquiry into Commons roof protest) against plans to expand Heathrow airport. (After the earthquake that morning, for them to scale the Houses of Parliament, they're braver than me!) Predictably, they were arrested. Even more predictably, their protest was decried by the government, with comments that decisions should be taken inside parliament, not on its roof. But if you ask me, considering some of the decisions taken by MPs in parliament, maybe they should have been taken falling off the roof :-P

Seriously, climate change is a serious issue and does have to be dealt with. From sea level rises threatening coastal regions to worsening famines in Africa, from Hurricane Katrina to last June's floods in the UK, climate change threatens nothing less than the survival of this planet. And, even though it isn't the only cause, aircraft emissions are certainly one of the main causes of the greenhouse gases (such as CO2) which cause global warming.

Banning all plane travel would be rather draconian, as it would reduce people's ability to travel and explore the world. But there are many ways in which it can be significantly reduced, making its effects easier to offset.

For starters, it is crazy that plane travel within the UK is often cheaper than train travel. This is partly due to the privatisation of the rail network, leading to chaotic competition causing inefficiency on the one hand and fat profits for the rail companies on the other. The railways, a natural monopoly, should be re-nationalised (especially when one considers also the deterioration in rail safety since privatisation).

Then there's the needless transportation of goods which could just as easily be produced locally (and sometimes are!), due to unregulated competition between companies, even countries - rather than production and distribution according to need. This is aggravated by the tendency of companies to shift production abroad, where wages are cheaper - causing unemployment in the UK due to factory closures, and CO2 emissions as the goods then have to be transported huge distances to be sold here. This is yet another reason why factories threatened with closure should be nationalised - without compensation, as their owners have effectively abandoned them (and their workforce!)

And let's not forget the emissions from military aircraft - which are often supersonic, leading to greater CO2 emissions. All those bombing raids on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as killing thousands and f**king up the local environments with the bombs (including Depleted Uranium), are also contributing to global warming which is damaging the environment globally - including the UK and US!

Finally, in many cases, people flying abroad has less to do with seeing the world, and more to do with escaping the British weather. (After last summer - again, due to climate change, who can blame them?) This could be reduced by the investment in British seaside resorts, to provide all-weather leisure and entertainment; I see no reason why Center Parcs-style resorts could not be built near the seaside, encouraging more people to holiday in Margate rather than Marguerita. As well as reducing the production of greenhouse gases, this would also provide employment and regeneration for run-down seaside resorts.

All this could be paid for by taxing air travel, especially first class and business class, and punitive taxes on private planes chartered by the rich. And taxing the fat cat profits of the air companies.

But for now, it seems the politicians' crocodile tears for the environment are unlikely to be matched by effective action, just hollow speeches. And I dread to think of the contribution to global warming caused by all that hot air :-(