Sunday, September 29, 2013

Where do the Tories get their ideas?

Around 50,000 marched through Manchester in protest at the government's austerity measures as the Conservative Party conference began

WORKING PEOPLE were marching outside.Part of demonstration against Tory Austerity and in defence of NHS. Greater Manchester Police said it was biggest demonstration they had ever had, and no arrests were made but it wasn't to be seen on BBC TV.
  Photo from Manchester Evening News

"FOR HARD WORKING PEOPLE" read the banner greeting delegates arriving at this year's Tory party conference, in Manchester, echoing something said repeatedly at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Well, they're a little bit rattled, and not too proud to nick a phrase, or anything else.

True enough, I imagine avoiding tax can be hard work, and so can justifying bankers bonuses. If the 50,000 or more (according to police estimates!) people marching outside against austerity and to defend the NHS disagree and don't recognise the Tories as being for them, there were high metal barriers to shield them from view, and security to stop TV from filming the demonstration.

I don't know whether that really explains how so many people filling the streets of Manchester became invisible on the early evening news (though we got a little glimpse later). Not even HG Wells' imagination could run to that, but it's a free country, so we're told, and where would we be without the media?

What we got was David Cameron saying he is "not going to stand by as people's aspirations to get on the property ladder, and own their own home are trashed". Ninety per cent mortgages. It won't lead to a housing bubble, we're assured. Not that house prices are already out of reach of working people. Nor - apart from a woman from the Institute of Economic Affairs - was anyone so rude as to recall the part played by sub-prime mortgages turned "toxic assets" in bringing on the world financial crisis.

We were given clips of Margaret Thatcher for the faithful, championing the "right to buy", but I suppose  it would have been disrespectful of the dead to blame her for so many Brits being so in debt, remember the words "negative equity", or mention how a big proportion of council homes that were sold have ended up in the hands of private landlords. As for new homes being built, a large percentage are now being sold abroad, not for would-be immigrants, dread the thought, but as an investment. 

Of course when Cameron promises to help people to own their own homes, he does not say anything about the increasing numbers who have not got a home, or those whom the combination of bedroom tax, rising rents and benefit capping are driving from pillar to post.  

 For those already on the pavements, who include a large number of ex-services personnel about whom our politicians and papers care so much, we've seen Redbridge police snatching food and sleeping bags from them, and Westminster council is making it illegal to give them food. The government has criminalised squatting but maybe David Cameron will promise the right to purchase your own bit of pavement and cardboard box.     

  But of course the whole point of the claim to be for "hard working people", to promote marriage, and to support those with "aspirations", is that rather than be angry with the rich who are responsible for the mess we're in, we are supposed to find someone worse off and less respectable than us to take things out on. Which is why Cameron and his crew are expected to announce new measures extending workfare, forcing the unemployed and disabled not only to search for jobs that are not there, but to accept work at less than a living wage, or even unpaid, what amounts to slave labour. Those who are in a job are supposed to feel better that someone is making those lazy b.s work, even if we wake up to find that the employer is getting rid of us because he can not only hire someone cheaper off the dole, but get them free of charge because they have to work for benefit.

There have been setbacks for this drive, companies have dropped out because of resistance and bad publicity, but notwithstanding that old slogan I recall that "Conservative Freedom Works!", it is becoming Conservatives Will Make You Work for Free!", and the government's advisers and septic think tanks are saying Workfare is popular!   

Reading about the so-called Policy Exchange which tends this kind of advice, people ask what it is and where it comes from. Something made me do a search linking 'Policy Exchange' with 'LM' and 'Spiked'. Well you never know. And here is one of the little tales this brought to light. I'll call it

Boris and the Handmaid.

Munira Mirza is an Oldham lass who went to Oxford, and the University of Kent, where she studied under Frank Furedi, the onetime thinker of the Revolutionary Communist Party(RCP), and Living Marxism (LM). A lasting association with this particular strain of "leftism" does not appear to have hindered Munira's career. Quite the contrary.

Today she is the Advisor for Arts and Culture Policy of the Greater London Authority under Boris Johnson's Tory mayorality.

According to her former employer, centre right think tank Policy Exchange, “Munira - author of the Policy Exchange pamphlet Culture Vultures - is not a card-carrying Tory member, but is one of a new generation of thinkers behind David Cameron's makeover of the party that is attracting money and fresh ideas.”

It was soon after Munira Mirza joined Boris Johnson's team that the Cuba Solidarity Campaign was told that its Cuba Fiesta stage event was no longer wanted as part of the Rise festival in London. This festival, a hangover from Ken Livingstone's time, when it used to be called Respect (before George Galloway's party took that name), had been used to promote enjoyment of cultural diversity and good relations between communities, but as Mirza told the Cuban campaign, "it is no longer appropriate to have overtly political organisations involved in the programme or in the community area". When it was learned that "United Against Racism" would be dropped from the festival's publicity, trade unions and others who had taken part previously decided to take their support elsewhere.

But Boris' handmaid had set out her ideas beforehand, in a paper arguing that promotion of multiculturalism and emphasis on diversity actually strengthened racial divisions. This was published in 2004 by the Institute of Ideas - an outfit headed by Claire Fox, a former leading member of the RCP and co-publisher of LM magazine. Criticisng the Race Relations Amendment Acts and its requirement on bodies to promote good relations and diversity policies, she also  argued against any special conditions for minorities, and any measures to outlaw religious incitement, treat racially motivated crime differently, or interfere with the "free speech" of such as the BNP.  The Institute of Ideas is particularly keen on free speech. Claire Fox has been a guest on the BBC's "Moral Maze" and "Question Time". 

In 2007, Munira Mirza was one of the authors of Living Apart Together, British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism in 2007, published by the Policy Exchange, of which she had become  an Associate Research Fellow and for whom she also worked as a fundraiser, having the title Development Director.  Unlike the Institute of Ideas, which shared the old RCP offices with Spiked, the Policy Exchange has always shared offices with conservative think tank CChange (active 2001-2007), of which Dougie Smith, her now husband, was the co-ordinator.  ,

As we've said, Mirza does not seem to have had much trouble combining her links to the "Left" and Right. (But then Claire Fox has said these two terms no longer mean anything). Her association with Spiked!, which enables former RCP types esconsed in the Tory media to keep up their 'radical' pretensions, will have brought her in contact with Brendan O'Neill. In 2006 they co-founded the Manifesto Club, an organisation "with the aim of challenging cultural trends that restrain and stifle people's aspirations and initiative" . Brendan O'Neill too has opposed efforts to counter racism, in sport and other fields,

The report Mirza co-authored for the Policy Exchange, ‘Living Apart together’ included references to work from Josie Appleton, Andrew Calcutt, Kenan Malik and Brendan O'Neill. The last two are both former members of the RCP,  O'Neill, who writes for the Daily Telegraph, has been a supporter of the government's "welfare reform", criticising those who drew attention to the deaths of disabled people who had been passed "fit for work" and lost benefits.

    Munira Mirza's husband Dougie Smith, is a former vice Chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, and ex-Cameron speechwriter. In this intertwining of libertarian spirits we are reminded of the coincidence remarked in west London, of former RCP general secretary Kate Davies at the Notting Hill Housing Trust, and her partner becoming housing director with Hammersmith and Fulham council, where former FCS figure Harry Phibbs is a prominent councillor. 

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    Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    The Violence at Khalet Al-Makhoul

     Israeli Forces Attack EU Diplomats


    ” ‘They dragged me out of the truck and forced me to the ground with no regard for my diplomatic immunity,’ ” French diplomat Marion Castaing said.” ‘This is how international law is being respected here,’
    THE pictures went around the world. European Union (EU) diplomats attempting to deliver emergency humanitarian aid, dragged from their vehicles by armed troops, who confiscated badly needed blankets and other supplies.

    Not in some hidden corner of Africa, or forgotten Latin American dictatorship, but in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank, and by the troops of the supposedly civilised State of Israel, which boasts that it is "the only democracy in the Middle East", claims to uphold international law, and expects not just fair but privileged treatment by the European Union.

    Here is the report of what happened on Friday, September 20:

    (Reuters) - Israeli soldiers manhandled European diplomats on Friday and seized a truck full of tents and emergency aid they had been trying to deliver to Palestinians whose homes were demolished this week.

    A Reuters reporter saw soldiers throw sound grenades at a group of diplomats, aid workers and locals in the occupied West Bank, and yank a French diplomat out of the truck before driving away with its contents.

    "They dragged me out of the truck and forced me to the ground with no regard for my diplomatic immunity," French diplomat Marion Castaing said. "This is how international law is being respected here," she said, covered with dust.

    The Israeli army and police declined to comment.

    Locals said Khirbet Al-Makhul was home to about 120 people. The army demolished their ramshackle houses, stables and a kindergarten on Monday after Israel's high court ruled that they did not have proper building permits.

    Despite losing their property, the inhabitants have refused to leave the land, where, they say, their families have lived for generations along with their flocks of sheep.

    Israeli soldiers stopped the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivering emergency aid on Tuesday and on Wednesday IRCS staff managed to put up some tents but the army forced them to take the shelters down.

    Diplomats from France, Britain, Spain, Ireland, Australia and the European Union's political office, turned up on Friday with more supplies. As soon as they arrived, about a dozen Israeli army jeeps converged on them, and soldiers told them not to unload their truck.

    "It's shocking and outrageous. We will report these actions to our governments," said one EU diplomat, who declined to be named because he did not have authorization to talk to the media.
    "(Our presence here) is a clear matter of international humanitarian law. By the Geneva Convention, an occupying power needs to see to the needs of people under occupation. These people aren't being protected," he said.

    In scuffles between soldiers and locals, several villagers were detained and an elderly Palestinian man fainted and was taken for medical treatment to a nearby ambulance.

    The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement that Makhul was the third Bedouin community to be demolished by the Israelis in the West Bank and adjacent Jerusalem municipality since August.

    Palestinians have accused the Israeli authorities of progressively taking their historical grazing lands, either earmarking it for military use or handing it over to the Israelis whose settlements dot the West Bank.

    Israelis and Palestinians resumed direct peace talks last month after a three-year hiatus. Palestinian officials have expressed serious doubts about the prospects of a breakthrough.
    "What the Israelis are doing is not helpful to the negotiations. Under any circumstances, talks or not, they're obligated to respect international law," the unnamed EU diplomat said.
    (Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Louise Ireland)

    The Israeli troops who manhandled EU diplomats at Makhoul might have embarrassed Israel's representatives in Brussels and its supporters, insofar as they embarrass that easily. But they were not just unruly soldiers or raw conscripts flustered ("provoked" in the words of the IDF) by a difficult situation. They were carrying out their government's policy, and implementing consistent brutality.
    Makhoul is one of a group of hamlets in the northern Jordan valley, part of what has been designated "Area C".  Israeli government propagandists here say the area was allocated to Israeli control under the Oslo agreement, as though that temporary arrangement for five years, made 20 years ago, was meant to give them permanent rule. They say the village has been ruled illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court, as though the people there are invading newcomers, like the illegal Israeli settlers.  But the people of Makhoul and neighbouring villages were established there on their land long ago, before the Israeli state existed, let alone the occupation.

    And not even the shabby and threadbare Oslo Agreement which Israel cites when it suits provided for blatant ethnic cleansing, which is being practiced.
      Here, from an Israeli who knows and does not mind telling the truth, is the background to what was happening:
    DON'T SAY YOU DIDN'T KNOW #381 by Amos Gvirtz, (kibbutznik and long time peace activist, writing a weekly column):

    The IDF was sent to evict the inhabitants of Khalet Al-Makhoul in the occupied Jordan Valley. The village existed long before the occupation started in 1967, when it was demolished the first time. The question is how to send soldiers to perpetrate a war crime, without them understanding that that is what they are being required to do …

    One way is to devise a “legal” pretext. Probably the IDF lawyers realise it’s impossible to physically expel people, so the military acts in ways that are acceptable only to an Israeli court, in order to set up a situation in which it’s feasible to evict people. First, the area was declared a closed military zone. Next, residence permits were issued for two year periods. At a certain point, those permits were no longer given out. The Palestinian planning and building committees were cancelled and that authority was given to the IDF. At this point, the IDF has not authorised any construction plan, not a single one, so all construction has to be carried out “illegally.” Then, there’s no problem, at the next stage, in issuing demolition orders.

    So the village has been demolished a few times over the years. On 16th September, 2013, all tents and shacks were demolished, and the residents were forbidden to erect tents or build homes or constructions of any kind. Under pretext of a “closed military zone,” the army confiscated trucks bringing humanitarian relief to the villagers, and prevented entry to international humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross. The villagers, including women and children, are there in the scorching sun, without any relief aid or roof over their heads.

    The army wants to force the Palestinian residents out in order to implement a plan to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. “Willing transfer”…

    Questions & queries:

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    Monday, September 23, 2013

    War of Shadows, and Weapons Stories

    TRUTH, it's been said, is the first casualty of war. And we might add that presenting what's said as truth can bring another casualty, in credibility.

    On September 5, in a posting saying that the use of sarin gas in Syria was a crime, whoever committed it, I quoted an article which said Syrians in Ghouta were accusing Saudi-backed rebels of using chemical weapons in the conflict.

    "...the following article does merit attention, even if we cannot vouch for its reliability", I said.

    The article, which had appeared on a site called Mint Press News on August 29, was bylined as from two journalists, .

    Alas, though we still cannot say whether the article was true, two things have cast doubt on the author's reliability (apart from the fact that the Russians, who might have been expected to welcome the report, and according to some were behind it, appear to have put it aside by deciding to concentrate on getting the Syrian government to register and hand over control of its chemical weapons.

    First, Dale Gavlak, who has worked for Associated Press, and was supposed to be one of the authors, has denied having anything to do with the story. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said.

    This was not quite the whole truth, apparently.  It seems Gavlak had recommended the story to Mint Press, having received it in Arabic, and maybe they credited her in the byline thinking that her name as an established freelance with AP would give it more credence.   After the story had circulated for a week or so and some journalists began questioning elements of it, Gavlak dissociated herself from it, leaving them looking bad.

    And what of Yahya Ababneh, the man who got the scoop?  Well, his credibility is looking less since Guardian  writer and Comment is Free editor Brian Whitaker has posited that Ababneh and a man called Yan Barakat, a Jordanian journalist who has written for the Jerusalem Post, a right-wing Israeli paper, are one and the same.

    One does not need to start building conspiracy theories or attributing allegiances to journalists who may just have an eye for a good story and use their creativity to provide what different editors need. Having more than one name and identity presumably helps their flexibility.

    My fellow blogger Richard Silverstein has more to say on this. 

    For my part, I am still not ready to throw away the story about Saudi-supplied chemical weapons as being entirely disproved or untrue.

    But for the sake of my own credibility and conscience I think it only right to acknowledge that some doubts have been cast on the reliability of the author of this report. 

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    Friday, September 20, 2013

    State snoops and private blacklisting

     POLICE supposedly keeping watch on "extremists" in order to counter terrorism co-operated with the so-called Consulting Association, which kept illegal files on trade unionists whose only crime was that they sought better and safer conditions at work, and thus fell foul of employer blacklisting. 

    Many of us have long suspected collusion went on between the police Special Branch and employer-funded outfits, but evidence was anecdotal or circumstantial, or concerned chance finds of documents in firms. Now however the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), which deals with data protection, has come across solid evidence of the relationship between governmental and private snoops.

    Reporting the breaking news, Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Association says:
    "The ICO have revealed that they have in their possession minutes from a Consulting Association meeting held in November 2008 where a senior police officer from an undercover police unit called NETCU gave a Powerpoint presentation. Despite a FOI request, the ICO have refused to provide the documents to lawyers Christian Khan, representing the Blacklist Support Group in our complaint against the police to the IPCC.

    "However, the IPCC have written to Christian Khan admitting that the police were aware of the Consulting Association and that all Special Branches provided information about prospective employees". In February 2009  officers sent by the ICO raided the Consulting Association offices in Droitwich. It was revealed that the Association, which had taken on the business of the notorious Economic League,  held files on about 3,200 construction workers, including political activists, shop stewards and health and safety representatives. The database was seized four years ago and Ian Kerr, who ran the operation gathering and exchanging information among member firms  was fined £5,000. Invoices were discovered showing that 44 companies in total had paid for this service. They included big names in the construction industry like Skanska, Laing, McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Taylor Woodrow and Mowlem. 

    As workers who were able to see their files took legal action, the scale  of the blacklisting and snooping has become more evident. An ICO official told an industrial tribunal for a person who had been blacklisted that he believed the information on the database could only have been supplied by the police or the security services.  

    Carillion, whose business ranges from building and railway maintenance to hospital services management, figured in the legal action brought by Dave Smith over blacklisting. Carillion management was also at the centre of a dispute with Swindon hospital workers who complained of  corrupt practices and bullying.
    This week it was reported that Carillion had lost its space at Labour Party conference as a result of pressure from GMB, to whom it has been reallocated, and UCATT, though the latter union has reportedly had to cough up so the party can compensate Carillion.

    This followed the good news that blacklisted sparks and Unite shop steward Frank Morris had won reinstatement on the Crossrail project. The move to get local authorities to bar contractors who carry out blacklisting received a big boost with the Welsh government announcing it was banning them.
    But the collaboration between police and private agencies is a whole further dimension to the blacklisting scandal.

    Here is Dave Smith again:

    'In a recent Guardian front page article, undercover police officer Peter Francis, from the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) section within Special Branch admitted spying on a number of union activists who were involved in an anti-racist group that he had infiltrated. He says that specific information on their blacklist files almost certainly originated from his evidence gathering.

    Brand new confirmation that police colluded with blacklisting trade unionists has now come to light. The Blacklist Support Group submitted a complaint to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) in 2012. The IPCC and Met  Police initially refused to even register the complaint but after an Appeal by Christian Khan solicitors the IPCC passed the complaint over to Operation Herne (the ongoing police investigation looking into the conduct of undercover police units).

    In a recent letter about the Blacklist Support Group complaint, the IPCC update progress in the investigation and admit:
    "initial scoping by the Operation Herne team identified that the
    Consulting Association was an organisation that had developed from a number
    of other organisations dating back to 1917. The scoping also identified
    that it was likely that all Special Branches were involved in providing
    information about potential employees" *(full letter attached)

    This is an absolute admission by the police that Special Branch colluded with the blacklisting conspiracy which has been described as *"the worst human rights abuse against workers in the UK since the war"* by Michael Meacher MP during a debate in the House of Commons.

    Another undercover SDS officer called Mark Jenner (aka Cassidy) spied on
    activists in London in the late 1990s. Jenner used a cover story that he
    was a building worker and attended picket lines about unpaid wages and even
    chaired meetings of rank and file building workers campaigns. Information
    about those picket lines and about the campaign that the undercover SDS
    officer chaired appear on a number of Consulting Association blacklist

    One of the blacklisted union activists that was spied on by Mark Jenner is
    Steve Hedley, current RMT Assistant General Secretary, who even invited the
    undercover SDS officer to stay in his family home in Derry during a trip to
    Ireland at the time of the peace process.
    Steve Hedley said:
    "I feel utterly violated by a police officer befriending me, then spying
    on me and passing information on to the blacklist which resulted in me being unemployed for a year.This man stayed at my family home as a guest.
    Are we now living in a police state?"

    Brand new documentary evidence has now come to light that proves beyond
    doubt that senior officers from the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) attended secret Consulting Association meetings. NETCU was set up in 2005 after lobbying by big corporations.'

    According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, "The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit’s role is to support others to prevent, reduce and disrupt criminal activity associated with domestic extremism and single issue campaigning.
    Because domestic extremists don’t work within police force boundaries, NETCU works with police forces across the country to provide tactical advice and guidance in order to promote a co-ordinated and consistent approach to tackling domestic extremism.
    Acting as a crime prevention unit, NETCU supports industry, academia and other organisations that have been or could be targeted by extremists, by raising awareness and building resilience through security advice..."

    Dave Smith continues:
    'Last week the Information Commissioners Office responded to a Freedom of Information request which requested "a copy of any minutes/notes/powerpoint presentations in relation to and the list of attendees of the meeting between the NETCU and the Consulting Association in November 2008 held by the ICO." In an email response dated 3rd September 2013, the ICO have now stated:
    "We can confirm that we do hold information in the scope of your request  which are dated November 2008. It is unclear whether this is a formal minutes or just notes taken by an attendee at the time or afterwards." This is documentary evidence that senior police officers attended secret meetings of the Consulting Association blacklist. The ICO have refused hand over this documentary evidence claiming it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act. The IPCC are investigating police involvement with an illegal blacklisting conspiracy - the ICO have the documents that prove this and they are refusing to hand it over to the lawyers of the blacklisted workers. A similar FOI request to the police has also resulted in no documents being disclosed. This smacks of a cover up.

    (We might remember here the government's refusal to release all documents relevant to the Shrewsbury pickets trial, which also involved collusion between the law, police and big employers, forty years ago).
    "To make matters worse, when the ICO gave evidence to MPs as part of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee investigation into blacklisting they were asked specifically about possible police involvement in the Consulting Association blacklist and completely failed to mention that they had documents in their possession that proved the police attended CA meetings.

    Blacklisting campaigners believe that the police officer who gave the powerpoint presentation at the CA meeting in November 2008 was previous head of NETCU, Superintendent Steve Pearl, currently director of a firm which provides employment vetting.
    But as Dave Smith says, this is not just a matter of individual officers:

    "Blacklisting is no longer an industrial relations issue; it is a conspiracy between multinational construction firms, the police and the security services. The parallels with phone hacking are obvious. There is, however, a significant difference from phone hacking, where the police involvement was supposedly due to individual corruption. The police collusion in blacklisting is not one or two rogue officers, but standard operating procedure by the state to target campaigners under the guise of "domestic extremism", routinely sharing information with big business.'

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    Thursday, September 19, 2013

    "No Evidence". Says WHO?

    "But the data presented does not relate birth outcomes to exposure to bombardment or heavy fighting".

    IN March this year the BBC broadcast a documentary by Yalda Hakim called “Born under a bad sign”, in which a senior official of the Iraqi Ministry of Health said "All studies done by the Ministry of Health prove with damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancers" in Iraq. During the same interview, two other MoH researchers confirmed that the situation with cancers and birth defects constitute a "big crisis" for the "next generation" of Iraqi children.

    Many people suspect that the rise in birth defects and cancer in Iraq is a lasting effect of the use of weapons such as white phosphorus and depleted uranium munitions by US forces and their allies.

    In my blog yesterday I relayed the concern of Iraqi medics and others that the World Health Organisation (WHO) which looked at this issue together with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, had not published its report. I have signed and helped to circulate an online petition calling on the WHO and the Itaqi Ministry of Health to do so.

    Now I learn that the WHO has published a report of sorts, in which what was described as "damning evidence" in the BBC documentary in March has become "No clear evidence", according to the authors. 

    But who are the authors?  It appears that is not clear either. No authors are listed, which is unusual in a report of this kind. And so, it seems, was their method, according to a scientific expert in this field. 

    Here is Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, commenting in an article for al Jazeera. Dr. Savabieasfahani, who comes from Iran, is an environmental toxicologist based in Michigan. She is the author of over two dozen peer reviewed articles and the book, Pollution and Reproductive Damage (DVM 2009).
    A short and anonymous report just appeared on the World Health Organization (WHO) website. It is titled "Summary of prevalence of reported congenital birth defects in 18 selected districts in Iraq." Previously, this report was referred to on the WHO website as a "joint study" with the Iraqi Ministry of Health (MoH) which began in May-June 2012. It was to examine the prevalence of congenital birth defects in a number of geographically dispersed areas of Iraq which were exposed to bombardment or heavy fighting, or were unexposed. This joint investigation was initiated following widespread public alarm over unusual increases in poor reproductive and birth outcomes in Iraq after the US-led invasion.
      Across Iraq, increasing numbers of birth defects appear to be surfacing, including in Mosul, Al-Ramadi, Najaf, Fallujah, Basra, Hawijah, and Baghdad. In some provinces, cancers also are rising. Sterility, repeated miscarriages, stillbirths and severe birth defects - some not found in any medical books - are reported widely. This explains why many public health scientists awaited the release of the WHO/MoH report on birth defects in Iraq.

    In a BBC documentary which aired in March 2013, “Born under a bad sign”, a senior official of the MoH speaking on camera, said, "All studies done by the Ministry of Health prove with damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancers" in Iraq. During the same interview, two other MoH researchers confirmed that the situation with cancers and birth defects constitute a "big crisis" for the "next generation" of Iraqi children.

    In fact one researcher, pointing to a colour bar chart, said that cancers and birth defects are increasing simultaneously in three areas. As she pointed to the peaks in the figure, she named these areas "Nineveh, Anbar and Najaf". In the September 2013 report, Mosul (the capital of Nineveh Province) appears at the top of the list. Nineveh has the highest rates of spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), stillbirths, and congenital birth defects in the country. It is shocking to see this report declare "no clear evidence" for any abnormality in rates of "spontaneous abortions", "stillbirths", or "congenital birth defects" anywhere in Iraq.
     Even though data analysis is prone to variations in output, which can lead to potential changes in conclusions, for a change of this magnitude - from "damning evidence" to "no clear evidence" - extensive data manipulation must have taken place. What happened to the data between March and September? 
    How and why the data was manipulated to render such drastically different results remains unknown to us. The ultimate question to be answered is, how can this analysis, these results, and these conclusions be believed? In March, the same MoH reported "damning evidence" of a rise in Iraq birth defects. Now in September, this new report must be viewed with extreme caution if not with suspicion and disbelief.

    Another unusual and outrageous feature of this report is its anonymity. No author(s) are listed or identified. An anonymous report is rarely seen in epidemiological reporting given the multiple questions that often arise when interested readers examine complicated study designs, large data sets, and multiple analysis. Identification of corresponding authors is critical for the transparency and clarity of any report. Without author names and affiliations, without identified offices in the MoH, the reader must ask, who is responsible to answer for this report? To whom must the public direct their questions and concerns about this report?

    The WHO has simultaneously broadcasted and vanished from this report. The described methods of this report are not without fatal shortcomings. First and foremost, an epidemiologic study must clearly show that individuals who were selected for the study accurately represent the population of interest. To that end, methods must offer clear and justifiable criteria for the inclusion of individuals in the study, and for their exclusion from the study. The methodology section of this report simply declares that the selection criteria were "determined by the Ministry of Health". The critical questions of "on what basis" and "why" remain unanswered. Selection criteria have major and critical influences on an epidemiological investigation and are universally expected to be fully discussed, even in short reports.

    We cannot tell whether selection bias, a common problem in epidemiological studies, has occurred here. If it has, then the study is fully discredited. Based on information available in this report, we cannot rule out selection bias issues. The undisclosed criteria for recruitment of participants appears to have "included areas that had and had not been exposed to bombardment or heavy fighting." The maps and tables in the report do not indicate which areas were exposed to bombardment or heavy fighting and which areas were not. Another fatal shortcoming of the report is that the exposed and unexposed populations remain unidentified throughout. How is a comparison between two population's rates of "spontaneous abortions", "stillbirths", or "congenital birth defects" possible if their exposure status is never described?

    Using unscientific methods The "Findings" section summarily reports a few basics of the study. These include the number of visited households and of completed questionnaires. Shockingly, the findings say that "around a quarter (27.5 percent) of the congenital birth defects were diagnosed by parents". One may wonder, how reliable is a parent's diagnosis of a newborn's defect? Many birth defects are only detectable by trained professionals and some remain undiagnosed until months after birth. Relying on untrained diagnosis of birth defects introduces yet another serious source of error into this study. Indeed, this study leaves much room for potential error in measurement. But the data presented does not relate birth outcomes to exposure to bombardment or heavy fighting .... The data also disregards the exposure status of the population. The section continues by stating that, on the whole, 32 percent of the collected data corroborated with medical records. In other words, almost 70 percent of data on birth defects was provided by people with no medical expertise in the detection of birth defects. Wouldn't a systematic examination of hospital records in different districts and governorates provide a more reliable measure of potential increases in birth defects in the Iraqi population?

    In fact, this simple method of examining hospital records for the occurrence of birth defects in Iraq has successfully been used in some available studies, indicating increases in both birth defects and cancers in selected Iraqi hospitals when comparing medical records from before and after the 2003 invasion. The main question this report is trying to answer is: "Compared to districts that were not exposed to bombardment, has there been an increase in rates of birth defects in districts that were exposed to bombardment or heavy fighting?" But the data presented does not relate birth outcomes to exposure to bombardment or heavy fighting. This failure to integrate exposure data to outcome data makes it impossible to detect any changes over time, in a particular district, as a result of high exposures. The data also disregards the exposure status of the population. How can a potential change in adverse reproductive outcomes be evaluated when the exposure status of the population remains unknown?

    A more informative way to present this data would have been by district, and by exposure, before and after 2003. In other words, tables could have been constructed for individual districts indicating which districts had high exposure and which ones had low exposure to bombardment or heavy fighting. This presentation would be more likely to show changes over time in individual districts, based on the exposure status of the population. Indeed, some may argue that in a study such as this, even "district" may be too large a unit of analysis to render real effects visible. Based on numerous limitations and uncertainties, some of which are indicated in the report itself, the conclusions of this report are overstated. According to the data provided by its unknown authors, they cannot legitimately make any conclusion regarding rates of birth defects in the governorates of Iraq. This amounts to an immense failure of this report in accomplishing what it set out to do: to detect changes in adverse reproductive outcomes before and after exposure to bombardment or heavy fighting in Iraqi population.

    This anonymous report seems to be pointing a finger of accountability at the largely anonymous attendees of two WHO meetings. These consist solely of an "expert meeting" in June, and an "expert peer review" meeting held for two days in July. Out of these meetings, only six people are named: two from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three from the UK, and one from Norway. There is no indication that any of these people authored the September report. There is also no concrete contribution to that report which can be attributed to any of these "experts".

             Hence we must insist on full disclosure of the "damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancers" in Iraq.

    There seems nothing I need add.

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    Wednesday, September 18, 2013

    WHO sits on Iraq report

    CRIME does not pay, they say. That must bring smiles to the face of many successful criminals, especially governments, which can find ways to make the victim pay, twice over. In 1986 I saw for myself a new home destroyed by Israeli forces in a hamlet near Um el Fahm, and the family scrambling amid the rubble to rescue some possessions.

    I learned that the homeowner had been detained for building in breach of discriminatory planning restrictions, and would be ordered to pay for the cost of demolition.

    I was unkindly reminded of how the Nazis found ways to make Jews pay for damage to their own premises during Kristallnacht, told insurance companies they need not pay out, and ordered synagogues be razed to the ground and replaced by car parking lots.

    But crimes against property are one thing. A US court has gone one better, ordering that Iraqis who had sought some redress for having been tortured in Abu Ghraib prison should have to pay the costs of the US contractors they accused of torturing them.

    Not that I should be so surprised at anything coming from US courts (unless it was justice), especially where the Middle East is concerned. It's almost a year since a US judge found Iran and Hizbollah liable for the 9/11 attack, along with their bitter enemies in the Taliban and Al Qaida. Anyone except the Saudis, in fact, though Saudi money funded both Taliban and Al Qaida (as it does jihadis in Syria), and the hijackers were Saudis. 

    Guess the judiciary has to keep US foreign policy in mind, but if the US courts are not independent what about international organisations?

    Murder will out, is another saying, but what if those investigating the crimes are sitting on their information?

    While the world has been rightly horrified by the use of chemical weapons such as sarin gas in Syria, whichever side is to blame, people are still suffering and dying in Iraq after the war which the US and its allies waged there. There has been considerable evidence of abnormal rates of cancer and birth defects in places like Faluja, where US forces used white phosphorus and depleted uranium.

    But as former UN humanitarian co-ordinator  Denis Halliday reports:
     September 13, 2013 "Information Clearing House -  The World Health Organisation (WHO)  has categorically refused in defiance of its own mandate to share evidence uncovered in Iraq that US military use of Depleted Uranium and other weapons have not only killed many civilians, but continue to result in the birth of deformed babies.
    This issue was first brought to light in 2004 in a WHO expert report “on the long-term health of Iraq’s civilian population resulting from depleted uranium (DU) weapons”. This earlier report was “held secret”, namely suppressed by the WHO:
    The study by three leading radiation scientists cautioned that children and adults could contract cancer after breathing in dust containing DU, which is radioactive and chemically toxic. But it was blocked from publication by the World Health Organization (WHO), which employed the main author, Dr Keith Baverstock, as a senior radiation advisor. He alleges that it was deliberately suppressed, though this is denied by WHO. (See Rob Edwards, WHO ‘Suppressed’ Scientific Study Into Depleted Uranium Cancer Fears in Iraq,  The Sunday Herald, February 24, 2004)
    Almost nine years later,  a joint WHO- Iraqi Ministry of Health Report on cancers and birth defect in Iraq was to be released in November 2012. “It has been delayed repeatedly and now has no release date whatsoever.”
    To this date the WHO study remains “classified”.
    There is an international petition asking the WHO and the Iraqi ministry of health to release their information, and here is a doctor in Faluja who introduces it:

    My name is Dr Samira Alaani and I am a pediatrician working in Fallujah General Hospital. In the years since US forces attacked our city my colleagues and I have recorded a horrifying increase in the numbers of babies born with congenital defects: spina bifida, heart abnormalities and defects that I do not even have a name for. Many do not survive. For those that do, we care for them as best we can with the limited resources we have.
    I have worked in Fallujah as a Pediatrician since 1997 but began to notice something was wrong in 2006 and began logging the cases; we have determined that 144 babies are now born with a deformity for every 1000 live births. We believe it has to be related to contamination caused by the fighting in our city, even now, nearly 10 years later. It is not unique to Fallujah; hospitals throughout the Anbar Governorate and many other regions of Iraq are recording increases. Every day I see the strain this fear puts on expectant mothers and their families. The first question I am asked when a child is born is not ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ but ‘is my child healthy?’

    When I heard that the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were going to carry out research I finally felt a glimmer of hope. I knew it would only confirm what we already knew; that there had been a rise in birth defects, but I saw it as a stepping stone to finally spur Iraq and the international community into action.

    The research is now complete and we were promised that it would be published at the beginning of 2013, yet six months later the WHO has announced more delays. We worry that this is now politics, not science. We have already waited years for the truth and my patients cannot wait any longer. The WHO has another option. The data should be published in an open access journal for independent peer review. The process would be fast, rigorous and transparent.
    My patients need to know the truth, they need to know why they miscarried, they need to know why their babies are so ill but, most importantly, they need to know that something is being done about it. The Iraqi Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation need to release this data and give us answers.
    I have signed this petition and urged my friends to do likewise. Here is the link:

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    Monday, September 16, 2013

    Marching, or "Creeping Fascism"?


    ON Saturday, September 7, the right-wing English Defence League was prevented from marching into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and its leader Tommy Robinson, or Stephen Yaxley Lennon to use his proper name, arrested for incitement. Permitted to march by Tory Home Secretary Theresa May, the EDL's flag-waving army of Islamophobic bigots and boozy brawlers had apparently been promised a rally in Altab Ali park, by Aldgate East, and the prospect of chanting their provocative insulting slogans by the East London Mosque, then marching into Cable Street, symbolically avenging the humiliating battle, when police gave up trying to force a way through hostile crowds for Mosley's fascists, on October 4, 1936.

    This time the police did not try to force a way through. Allowed to march from Southwark over Tower Bridge, the EDL were allowed no further than Aldgate, allowed a half hour rally then sent home.

    There was a rally in Altab Ali park, but it was much bigger, and composed of anti-fascists, local people mobilised by United East End, and Unite Against Fascism. Speakers ranged from Muslim youth to 98-year old Max Levitas, a veteran of the battle of Cable Street, and included trade unionists, a local vicar, the Labour member of the Greater London Assembly, and Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets. Reminding the crowd that Altab Ali, after whom the park had been renamed, was a young Bengali clothing worker murdered by racists, Dave Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists' Group said allowing the EDL to gather there would be "like dancing on his grave".

    Several speakers linked the fight against prejudice and fascism with the need to unite working people against the Con-Dem coalition's austerity cuts and bedroom tax, and for housing and health, while Steve Hedley of the RMT went further, calling for an alternative to Labour, a real workers' party.

    Later in the day the crowd surged out to occupy Whitechapel Road and make sure there would be "no pasaran" for fascists.  Only after we had heard the EDL had been sent back over Tower Bridge and away from the East End did we turn and march the short distance past East London mosque before ourselves dispersing. "Whose streets? Our streets!" people chanted in triumph.

    Well, unfortunately that was not quite true. Earlier that afternoon a section of the crowd, mainly young people, had left the rally in Altab Ali park and, with black-clad anarchists and supporters of the Anti-fascist Network to the fore, marched off eastward with the aim of wheeling around to evade the police and confront the EDL directly. With 3,000 police on duty and helicopters monitoring the streets from overhead, they were blocked, and kettled for several hours. Almost 300 arrests were made, mostly under the Public Order Act, and those arrested, who included legal observers, were taken to police stations some miles away.

    Whose streets? The Metropolitan Police had no intention of letting us get away with any illusions on that score.

    It was after the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 that parliament passed the first Public Order Act. Though it forbade setting up forces and wearing political uniforms, its main thrust was giving police powers to control marches and public assemblies. The first victims, in 1937, were striking Nottinghamshire miners, who were certainly not fascists, though some of the coal owners were.
    In the early 1960s, following a revival of activity by the Mosleyites and other fascists, and clashes with their opponents, petitions to the Home Office to do something were followed by a strengthening of the Act, and it was used to arrest trades unionists again, supporters of Lambeth trades council who were demonstrating against a colour bar operated by a pub in Brixton.

    The 1986 Public Order Act strengthens police powers, making it an offence to organise a demonstration without giving police at least six days notice, ennabling police chiefs to ask the Home Office to ban any public procession for three months, and allowing police to set conditions on any public assembly if they think it might lead to "serious disorder", criminal damage, or "serious disruption to the life of the community". It seems most of those arrested on September 7 were charged under sections 12 and 14 of this Act, simply for being there. Some are getting used to it.    

    The discretion given the police to decide what constitutes "serious disorder" is striking.
    In 2005 the Labour government inserted a clause restricting demonstrations near parliament into Serious Organised Crime Bill, and the first person charged under this was peace campaigner Maya Evans, whose only offence was standing near the Cenotaph reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. The following year half a dozen protesters were charged for demonstrating against the Israeli raid on Jericho prison, which took place with what looked suspiciously like British collusion, because they had not given police sufficient notice when requesting permission. As Betty Hunter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign objected, "We did not have 24 hours notice of the Israeli army's attack on the prison".

    This reminds me of the way workers who walked out on strike over an immediate issue, safety or even a death on site, say, could be told they were in breach of anti-union law, for not giving notice of a ballot first, by which time, even without employers' lawsuits the issue and the job could be long gone. Police come into industrial relations when unleashed on pickets, as we well recall from the miners and Wapping disputes. On the other hand, they sometimes seemed uncertain what to do when taken by surprise by novel tactics during the electricians' struggle. With all their powers, they may be wary of acting without explicit encouragement from above.

    A few days after the September 7 arrests, MPs debated a bill which would not only restrict the right to protest, but to engage in any kind of campaigning.  The government's Lobbying Bill comes after years of public concern, not to say contempt, for politicians who front private interests, and lobbyists who sell access to them; but these, together with press barons who want to influence policies but avoid taxation for them, are the last people to be threatened by this Bill.

    On the other hand, if your union, instead of handing money over to the Labour Party, spends some of it paying for advertisements and campaign posters on matters of concern during the period leading to an election, it could be in trouble under these restrictions.

    A top medic has warned that doctors could be gagged from raising concerns about privatisation of the NHS. The Bill's proposed cap on spending “for election purposes” could stop them speaking out about the impact on patient safety of private companies running NHS services, British Medical Association chairman Dr Mark Porter has warned. “We don’t want to be muzzled or subject to spending caps just because the Government doesn’t like to hear anyone but themselves talking.”

    Dr Porter told the Daily Mirror : “The test will change from ‘do you intend to cause people to vote for one party or another’ to ‘could what you say have the effect of causing people to vote for one party or another’. Dr Porter added: “Privatisation of the NHS is a key issue which is bound to be an election topic. Doctors have a right to say what they think about how the NHS is run for patients. ”

    The Lobbying Bill — or, to give it its full name, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill - is so slanted away from touching business interests and towards restricting others that opposition has come from well beyond the 'usual suspects'
    Some are saying it is an "assault on democracy itself"

    The National Council for Voluntary Organisations  has written to Parliament with the backing of charities including Shelter, the Royal British Legion, the British Heart Foundation and Guide Dogs.
    Karl Wilding, the NCVO’s policy director, explains: “At the moment you have to intend to influence an election to be in trouble. "But the wording is being changed to ‘if you have the effect’ of influencing an election.What is really dangerous about this is that you may not intend to influence the outcome of a local election — yet the punishment is you could go to prison. We think this legislation will make people frightened of speaking out.”

    The Government has said campaigning by charities or voluntary sector organisations should not be caught by the legislation. But Mr Wilding says: “The amount you have to spend to get captured on this is too low.

    "If you spend £5,000 or more in trying to raise awareness about your issue, you will now have to register with the Electoral Commission as a third party. All you need to do is hold a meeting in the village hall, feed everyone and give them all a drink a couple of times a year, spend £5,000 — it soon mounts — and not register with the commission and you could go to prison.

    “I am convinced this will deter people from campaigning about things they think are important in their area, whether it be about greenbelt, jobs for young people or beer. This is not the kind of legislation I expect in a country like Britain which has a proud tradition of people being allowed to speak out.”

    The anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate fears the bill would slash the amount it can spend on campaigning in the run-up to the election by up to 70 per cent — while the British National Party would still be allowed huge spending.

    Hope Not Hate co-ordinator Nick Lowles says: “This is one of the biggest attacks on charities and campaign groups for many years. It is basically an attempt by government to silence groups that might criticise them."

    On September 11, as MPs finished debating the Bill, Chileans and their friends were outside their country's London embassy, as at many other locations, remembering the military coup forty years ago which ended democracy in Chile and brought death and suffering to so many of their people. Tanks on the streets, 'planes strafing the presidential palace, trade unionists rounded up in the football stadium, students "disappeared" for torture or death, was the price Chileans paid for touching big business, especially US big business, and trying to gain something like a welfare state. Right-wing dictatorship was the way that capitalism and the CIA imposed the kind of policies  we came to know as Thatcherism, monetarism, and the Con Dem austerity measures we face. And we should not forget that among our rulers there was not only admiration and sympathy for General Pinochet, but willingness to consider if necessary imposing his kind of regime here.

    Of course, bourgeois democracy, however repressive, is very different from fascism, and we should not make the stupid mistake that some have made in the past, of devaluing the f word by throwing it around so much it becomes a joke, and we at very least are crying wolf. All the same, we should not make the mistake either of complacently thinking the different forms of capitalist rule are absolute opposites, ignoring the real erosion and attacks on our rights, or imagining fascism can only come wearing sinister uniform and a silly moustache, or even stagger in drunkenly draped in an England flag.

    In the 1930s, while Hitler and Mussolini were crushing opponents and preparing for war, and Sir Oswald Mosley practicing his salute, not all his admirers wore blackshirts. But as Sir Thomas More, Tory MP for Ayr Burghs, enthused in the Daily Mail (where else!) after coming from a meeting of Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the Albert Hall:
    “ What is there in a black shirt which gives apparent dignity and intelligence to its wearer. . . . All seemingly filled with the same emotions, pride of race, love of country, loyalty, hope. ... As I listened to the vibrant tones of Sir Oswald Mosley ... I got my answer. There was little if any of the policy which could not be accepted by the most loyal follower of our present Conservative leaders. The majority of the essentials and many of the details are part and parcel of strict Tory doctrines. ... In truth much of this national Blackshirt policy has already been initiated by the National Government. Why, therefore, the Blackshirts? The answer lies in the one word—Action ! . .   
    (The Blackshirts Have What the Conservatives Need, Daily Mail, April 25, 1934).

    Of course, More was just one MP, if not alone, belonging to a pro-Nazi wing of the Establishment. But even Winston Churchill seven years before had told Mussolini "Had I been an Italian I would have been with you from the start...You have shown the way in defeating the bestial appetites of Bolshevism".

    Walter Eliot, (Conservative M.P. for Kelvingrove) advised a different approach:
    “ If one wants to do a new thing in this country, one must do it as if it were an old thing. For that reason it seems to me to be courting failure to tell people that they have first to dress themselves in black shirts and throw their opponents downstairs in order to get to the corporative state. . . . This new economic order, i.e., the corporative state has already developed further in England than is generally recognised.”

    That was then, and now is now, and a lot of things including a world war happened between. A lot of people came back saying "Never again", and they meant they would not tolerate either fascism or the conditions that led to it. But Europe is in crisis, and we see fascism rearing its ugly head again in more than one country, and its thuggery already claiming victims without waiting for power.

    In Britain, while we oppose the far Right groups and racists that seek to exploit confusion and intimidate people, let us not lose sight of other threats. We have already got the worst anti-union laws in Europe, being followed by restrictions on our political rights, and trespass which was never a criminal offence rendered so by new laws on squatting. We have young people being forced to work without pay, and disabled people and long-term ill being forced into desperate poverty so that many are dying or committing suicide. Perhaps if Walter Eliot MP were here now he could say "it is courting failure, and unnecessary expense, to think you must put the unfit on special trains and send them to camps with the motto 'Work Makes Free' just to get rid of them."

     We don't want to over-dramatise or exaggerate. But just as in Russia the enactment of Section 28-type laws has encouraged barbaric attacks by fascists upon gays, so in this country government treatment of the disabled and the homeless has apparently spurred on lumpen thugs to violence against the most vulnerable targets, as a change from racial attacks. Fascism is always eager to find new victims. 

    It cannot help to rouse opposition to fascism if people are numbed by seeming indifference to what they are already suffering. Let us not forget either, that when right-wing dictators and fascists come into power, they are only too happy to use precedents and powers that already exist, rather than having to introduce entirely new measures. Therefore, whether or not we like the term "creeping fascism" to describe what's being done, we should be opposing it.


    The quotes from Sir Thomas More and Walter Eliot are from Simon Haxey's book 'Tory MP' (Gollancz, 1939), the quote from Winston Churchill can be found in 'The Trial of Mussolini', by Cassius (Gollancz,1943).     

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    Tuesday, September 10, 2013

    Jerry Hicks has gone too far

    BEFORE the dust has settled on Ed Miliband's misguided -or Tory press-guided - moves against my union, Unite, with the admission it did nothing wrong in the Falkirk constituency, than another case is being got up, and though unlike the previous fiasco it does not go so far as wasting police time, it does invite the law into the union's affairs. 

    The odd thing is, that though it may also be picked up by the right-wing anti-union press, anxious for fresh "scandal", this affair is being stirred up by someone on the "left". The so-called "Grassroots Left" to be precise.

    A press release headed "Len McCluskey'’s rival calls for Unite leadership election result to be annulled" announces that "Jerry Hicks, Len McCluskey’s only rival in this year's election for Unite General Secretary has lodged a complaint calling for the result to be annulled after it emerged that 158,000 ballot papers were sent to members no longer paying fees. And it may result in the election having to be re-run."

    Len McCluskey, 63, won the election in April with a margin of 60,000 more votes than Jerry Hicks. Bro.McCluskey evidently called the election to consolidate and prolong his leadership of the union, as it takes on the Con Dem coalition and its cuts, and he pursues his agenda of reclaiming the Labour Party. He called it early so as to avoid hustings falling during the next general election campaign. A Labour Party member himself, Bro. McCluskey said earlier this year that if Labour did not serve the interests and hopes of the working class the unions might have to find another way. (Mind you, this was while sharing a platform with Bob Crow of the RMT who says reclaiming Labour is a lost cause and we need a new party now).

     A former Rolls Royce convenor who was victimised, and a former SWP member, Jerry Hicks got quite a good vote when standing for Respect in his home town, Bristol, but since then he has become better known as a challenger to union leaders, first against Derek Simpson in Amicus before it fully merged into Unite, and then coming a surprise second out of four to Len McCluskey after a vigorous campaign in Unite. Promising to only accept a worker's wage if elected, and demanding that union posts be filled by elected rather than appointed officials, Jerry Hicks has been seen as a champion of the rank and file in the union, and workers' democracy, against the bureaucrats.

    In his second stand against Len McCluskey, he objected that the Unite leader's was attempting to prolong his stay in office beyond retirement age, something previously tried by his predecessor Simpson, and arguably against union rules or at any rate, policy.

    Besides the support of militant members, and particularly the faction called Grass Roots Left which had come into being around his campaign (and in opposition to the more traditional United Left,seen as "fixers" and backing McCluskey), Jerry Hicks won votes more widely among those who admired his independence and commitment, and liked the idea of leaders not taking six-figure sums; but also among the disgruntled - some who feel the union did not give them enough support, but others, possibly, who blame changes in the union for taking away privileges and security they had enjoyed. Some Unite members feel Len McCluskey is too close to Labour, others think the union should not criticise or intervene in Labour politics at all. Ironically, with no right-wing candidate standing, Jerry Hicks might have attracted support from both, the latter, obviously, not intending he should win, nor supporting his stated aims, but wanting to undermine McCluskey's leadership by whatever means.    
    Jerry Hicks can not be blamed for such a possibility, but he and the Grass Roots Left do need to relate their case for union democracy, however justified, and their campaigning, to the wider economic and political  struggle in which the union, and like it or not, the working class, are engaged. It was because I feared they'd lost this perspective, as well as my having been pleasantly surprised by some of McCluskey's actions since he was elected, that I voted for McCluskey the second time he stood, having given my vote to Jerry Hicks the first time around.

    Now Jerry Hicks  is complaining that between the end of December last year and January this year the union increased the number of potential voters in the leadership race by about 158,000. He has written to the trade union watchdog – the Certification Officer - to ask how "former trade union members" could be allowed to vote in the leadership election.

    He has also complained that slurs were made against his name. That's a reasonable complaint to make, and having referred to it before I won't comment now, except to say that if Jerry had made a complaint under union procedure he'd have my support.

    As to the legal complaint, Jerry Hicks' press statement notes that "The certification officer has wide-ranging powers and in 2011 forced construction union UCATT to re-run a leadership election, declaring the vote invalid. The barrister acting against UCATT on that occasion was Jody Atkinson, and he is now representing Jerry Hicks on a ‘pro bono’ basis [free of charge]. " He says "it appeared that Unite had been balloting people who had left the union, most likely because they had not paid their subscriptions. And it seems that ballot papers have been sent to people who have not been members for years."

    In an interview with ‘The Guardian’'s Randeep Ramesh’, Jerry Hicks said “that he was told by Electoral Reform Services, which oversaw the union ballot, that Unite had identified "there was a group of 'members' who the Union had considered no longer to be members of the union" but "it was decided that they should be treated as continuing members and therefore for the purpose of the election eligible to vote"  He adds that possibly as many as 77,000 of the 158,000 ballot papers had no postal address at all, and asks "what on earth happened to them?".

    Allow me to declare an interest. Like other retired members of Unite I received a letter some while back from the union, suggesting that having ceased paying subs, I might like to become a "Retired Member Plus", participating as such in some union affairs and enjoying some benefits and rights in return for an appropriate subscription. My first response was indignation, how dare they say I was no longer paying subs when I was still paying full whack? I'd not even registered as a retired member,having been advised by my branch secretary that I'd lose rights. It was only when I checked my bank statements that I discovered the union had ceased debiting my account some months back. There was also the word "Amicus" beside the note, though I had not been a member of Amicus but of the Transport and General Workers Union. I assume this means that Amicus was nominally handling the merged unions' joint accounts. It has not been so easy merging two different rule books or ways that members are used to working.

    I signed up for Retired Members Plus, though I've had mixed feelings since about the way me and others have been coralled into a retired members' branch like an old horses' home. (Amusing though it is to encounter some brothers I've not seen since we were Young Socialists, having travelled via different unions), But that is by the way. The point is that I can imagine a lot of people ignored the letter (perhaps thinking it was yet another offer of car insurance), or decided not to bother keeping up their subs, when money is short; or put the letter to one side and then forgot about it. Couple this with a degree of chaos at headquarters and it is easy to see that someone unsure whether people were no longer members or simply in arrears might have sent them out voting papers anyway.   

    Does this matter? Would people who are really no longer members and not interested in the union have bothered to vote anyway? And if anyone voted who was not entitled to, because they had not paid their subs, does Jerry have any reason to think they must have voted for Len McCluskey and not for Jerry Hicks?  (Incidentally, I was going to vote for one of Jerry's allies from Grass Roots Left in a more recent regional by-election, my old branch had nominated him, but those - and there are some - who disapprove of retired members voting, will be pleased to hear that I did not get a vote in that one). Since the election for general secretary was supervised by the Electoral Reform Society, there is surely no suggestion that one of McCluskey's minions was caught stuffing ballot boxes?

    If not, what we are left with is a technical irregularity, and it reminds me of the kind of objection we have seen the employers and their lawyers coming up with to challenge strike ballots. Remember that jackanory about the RMT supposedly sending ballot papers to non-existent members in long-closed and empty signal boxes? (The union pointed out that these were sent to members' homes).  Or the way Balfour Beatty thought it was clever taking Unite to court challenging a ballot, rather than facing the need to negotiate with its electricians?  

    It is obvious that the class enemy has an interest in challenging union votes, on any excuse, bringing the law in, feeding stories to the media, and if nothing else saddling the union with the expense and nuisance of rerun ballots, so members get fed up, and campaigns are undermined.

    It is hard to see how this tactic serves the common struggle in which, whatever our differences, trade unionists and socialists are engaged.    

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    Sunday, September 08, 2013

    This Damsel in Distress Needs More Than Tea and Sympathy, though she is entitled to both.

    CUP THAT CHEERS, but can it placate Aussie immigration controls?

    MAY KING TSANG is a young woman from Bolton in Greater Manchester who has made a name for herself, and I'd say a good one, in the Antipodes, having stepped out of her previous role as an  IT  instructor in order to bring sophistication-seeking Aussies the fine art of brewing, tasting and supping tea.

    Tea in all its varieties, on which May King has become an expert and enthusiast, and on which she has built a business. Tea for your health, and tea as in tea parties, tea for which "everything stops", as we used to sing in the good old pre-Thatcher days when England was almost civilised, and tea in the tradition of the Chinese Gong Fu ceremony.

    I.T. to High Tea?  The invention of Afternoon Tea in England is attributed to Anna Russel, the 18th century Duchess of Bedford, but as May King and friends show in this photograph, they can blend old and still older traditions. 

    "Gong Fu Tea-tasting is an art form in which many Chinese people take their daily beverage.  Gong Fu or Kung Fu may conjure up images of martial arts but the translated words merely means the art of doing something well.  Drinking tea is not just about the fluid intake but it’s about the admiration of the dry leaf, the aroma of the liquor (the liquid derived from the making of the tea) and, of course, in the final tasting of the tea.

     "Here is a little insight into what a Chinese Gong Fu Tea Ceremony entails.  This is my version of the Chinese Gong Fu Tea Ceremony which I call “Chinese Gong Fu Tea Ceremony with a Dash of Milk” as a tribute to my BBC (British Born Chinese) upbringing

    As May King jokes, "Gong Fu or Kung Fu may conjure up images of martial arts..."
    but I first met her in London through the anti-war movement. It was a wet and windy night in Wembley and we were the only two volunteers who turned up to leaflet outside Wembley Park tube for a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition.

    Strangers in the night soon got along fine, as I discovered May King was from Bolton, just up the road from my home town Salford, and our shared greater Manchester imperviousness to the rain was reinforced by her cheerfulness and sense of humour. 

    At this time May King was working as an IT instructor, and her job with the Swedish firm Ericsson took her out of the country sometimes, but I met her again at a fundraising quiz night in Willesden, and later with her partner Euan, also a tekkie, at the 'Skies Are Weeping' concert in Hackney (dedicated to Rachel Corrie). Each time I remember for her geniality and ready laughter. Right now she needs more than that resilient sense of humour.

    I remember another friend telling me Euan and May King had wed in a Scottish castle (though they started married life in the less noble London Borough of Hackney).  That choice of venue might show their romantic imagination, but along with creativity May King has kept her common sense and feet on the earth. "Whilst we all love tea many questions are poised with accompanying bold statements and at times we often forget that our own opinions may not be held by others.  I was brought up in a working class background; my parents didn’t have two pennies to rub together.  I was also brought up in a Chinese household which meant no hoighty-toighty-ness; simple as you like with no fuss.  These two influences have also lent themselves into my business."

    The lass from Bolton certainly seems to have carved out her own niche since traveling via Brent (and Hackney) with her spouse to Brisbane. Invitations to speak at food trade fairs, worldwide contacts exchanging tea lore, a Facebook page turning into a group promoting Queensland businesses and training. Seeing her enthusiastic and colourfully illustrated postings about different teas and fresh travels, one could not help but share her joy and wish her continued success and happiness.

    But starting after a change in her personal circumstances, May King has also had an albatross hovering over her in the shape of the authorities wanting to take away her visa, and permission to remain in Australia. I had noticed lately that she seemed a little preoccupied, not her usual jolly self, even slower to laugh at my jokes. It seems that having been persuaded to extend her time once, the authorities have returned to the visa topic again, so that just when everything seemed to be going well and Queensland society to have accepted May King with pleasure as one of its own, she could have only days to start packing her bags and get thrown out.

    Why? I know nothing about Australian immigration laws, apart from the news that after Labour and "Liberal" leaders competed in inhumanity, arguing whether to sink boats or send people to Papua New Guinea, the country has been rewarded with a government not unlike our own. But I had not heard of any hoarding vans parading Brisbane as one did through Brent, telling people to "Go Home".    
    What has May King Tsang done wrong?  She has not, so far as I am aware, committed any crime. She is not even unemployed or taking benefits. She has not been peddling drugs, unless Lapsang Souchong has been reclassified. Like most immigrants, in Australia or here, far from taking anything away from society she is giving it something, in more ways than one. In fact, I'd say May King Tsang   is the sort of person any society should be glad to have, and I only question whether Australia, particularly Queensland, deserves her!  But my prejudices apart, May King Tsang deserves the right to stay and pursue her career, I hope my friends in Australia and all fair minded people there will agree and give her support.

      May King makes appeal

    Online Petition:

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    Friday, September 06, 2013

    Storm grows over Modi invite

    JUST IN CASE there was any doubt. As Gujarat economic glitter fades, Modi's posters in Mumbai  prepare voters by proclaiming what he really stands for. 
    The storm of opposition is growing against the invitation to Britain of right-wing Indian politician Narendra Modi. There's to be a protest on Monday outside the surgery of Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who has invited Modi to speak in the Commons on "The Future of India".

    Modi is chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, where as many as 2,000 people may have been killed in 2002 in pogroms against the Muslim minority. His bid for premiership of India at the head of the BJP, a party combining right-wing businessmen with fascist thugs and Hindu fanatics, is worrying moderate Hindus, religious minorities and people dedicated to India's traditional claim to secular democracy.
    There are fears Modi's trips abroad to meet supporters and Western politicians will be used not only to raise campaign funds but to shine up his "respectable" image, suggesting foreign governments are prepared to forget the massacres in Gujarat and let investments come rolling in. But opposition is growing. At Westminster, Labour MP Mike Wood MP has been joined by Respect's George Galloway in an Early Day Motion against Modi's visit to the UK. Reminding MPs and the government of the 2002 slaughter that led to a ban on Modi entering the UK, the motion calls for the ban to be reinstated. (see full text below).

    Wood, the MP for Batley and Spen, has also written to fellow Labour MP Barry Gardiner (Brent North) to complain that Labour Friends of India, which Gardiner chairs, were not consulted about the invitation to Modi.

    Brent Trades Union Council has also written to Gardiner, and is backing a protest against the Modi visit.

    Among British Asians of all backgrounds who oppose a Modi visit is Turner prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor who was quoted in the London Evening Standard, on Monday, September 2,  calling  on the Government to block (Modi) from speaking in parliament..."I join fellow citizens who abhor discrimination and intolerance...I call on David Cameron and Ed Miliband to provide ethical leadership and urge those responsible for the invitation to rescind it immediately"'

    Those in the West singing Modi's praises like to focus on his success on fetching foreign investment and the supposed prosperity and technology it brings, but recent reports from Gujarat concerning corruption and child poverty indicate how little any of that wealth has trickled down. Politically, Narendra Modi and his campaign managers seem to be turning away from mere economics to the theme for which his wing, at least, of the BJP is notorious.
      MUMBAI: Narendra Modi declaring "I am a Hindu Nationalist" has suddenly become one of the most ubiquitous ad campaigns in Mumbai, hogging space in prominent and highly prized outdoor locations across the city and stoking speculation that the Gujarat CM's upcoming election campaign may emphasise so-called 'Hindu' themes.
    The multi-lingual advertising drive features images of Modi, who is expected to be BJP's contender for the post of prime minister in the next parliamentary elections, alongside various statements he made during a recent, highly publicised interview with Reuters.The campaign is the brainchild of Ashish Shelar, the head of BJP's Mumbai unit. Local BJP leaders told ET there is no wider game plan behind the campaign. The advertising, they claim, is simply an attempt to reflect on a debate that is playing out in the media. Conveniently, it also helps the party get noticed at a time the state assembly is in session.

    BJP leaders in Delhi claim the Mumbai hoardings are not meant to be a precursor to a nationwide campaign. Shrikant Sharma, in charge of BJP's national media cell, says the state unit is attempting to highlight Modi's 'talking points'. "If state units feel they must acknowledge some of his talking points, they will do so," he says.

    Senior party general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi adds that while supporters and state leaders are free to post hoardings and posters, the catchline mentioned is not part of any authorised campaign. "The theme of the campaign is still good governance, and we are designing our campaign to reflect that," he says.

    Not everyone accepts this explanation. To many who have seen the hoardings, they signal the start of BJP's poll campaign for the 2014 elections. The line itself is evocative of the 'Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain' (Say you are a Hindu with pride) slogan coined during the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid movement of the early 1990s. Party leaders admit there is likely to be merchandise with slogans like 'Do you want your country Modi-fied?' on T-shirts, caps and key chains, all coloured in a saffron hue. In Karnataka, some of this merchandise is already up for sale.
    According to KV Sridhar, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, the agency that created the 'Aam aadmi ko kya mila' campaign that is credited with having brought the UPA to power in 2004, "Narendra Modi is making a transition from being seen as a growth agent to being considered primarily a Hindu nationalist. The three statements he has made - about puppies (in reference to the Gujarat riots of 2002), being a Hindu nationalist and that Congress is wearing the burqa of secularism - are not coincidental. He's appealing to the masses, and that is the only mass appeal platform the party has."
    "We tell our brands if you can't correct your weakness, play on your strength. BJP's weakness is secularism and its strength Hindutva. They have chosen the one plank Congress cannot attack them on. India may have changed a lot, but it is still a predominantly Hindu country," believes Sridhar.
    Modi's return to his party fundamentalists and Hindutva has alarmed the more moderate members of the BJP such as those in Goa where there is a Christian electorate.
    But as Modi pauses his visit to sort out his party, he has continued to enjoy support from Barry Gardiner who in interviews rounded angrily on the BNP leader's Indian critics. 
      In 2001, when Barry Gardiner proudly presented a cheque for earthquake relief in Gujarat he could be forgiven for not knowing those accepting this were officials of Hindu supremacist outfits who, according to critics, made sure the funds passed on through sectarian channels. Besides this was the year before the Gujarat pogroms which left little space for innocence.  
     The Brent North MP has continued to defend Modi against opponents, and stressed the importance of British investments in Gujarat.
    This is not just a matter of Gardiner's views or relationship to Gujarati Hindu voters in his constituency, who might well resent their political allegiance being assumed from their religion or ethnicity. There has been an orchestrated pro-Modi campaign at work organised by professional lobbyists.
    If Barry Gardiner cannot bring himself to break from such company, the Labour Party in Brent must be prepared to divest itself of Barry Gardiner. 
    EDM on Modi visit submitted by Mike Wood MP: 
    That this House calls on the Secretary of State for the Home Department to reinstitute the ban on Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, from entering the UK, given his role in the communal violence in 2002 that claimed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Muslims, including British nationals; expresses its concern that the ban was lifted for economic and diplomatic reasons, ignoring the role Mr Modi and his administration played in the violence that warranted the ban that stood for more than 10 years; notes that Mr Modi was previously denied a visa on grounds that he was 'responsible for or directly carried out... particularly severe violations of religious freedom'; and calls on Mr Speaker and the House authorities to ban Mr Modi from entering the Palace of Westminster. 
    LOBBY calling on Barry Gardiner MP to cancel his invitation to Narendra Modi:
    Monday, September 9, Brent Civic Centre, Engineers Way, Wembley HA9,nearest tube Wembley Park,
    11.0am to 13.00

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