Berlin – some lessons

I have recently returned from a 3 day visit to Berlin. It was in the company of three generations of the same family: grandfather, father and son/grandson. The grandfather was born in the late around the start of World War II. The father was born just after the Berlin Wall went up. The son was born in the last few days of the 20th Century. This is of little relevance to what I am about to write other than adding, perhaps, some additional poignancy to impressions the city gave me.

The first thing that struck me was just how exceptionally flat the whole city and surrounding area is. It makes Holland seem, well, bumpy at least. The next thing I noticed was the network of blue pipes going around the city centre at about 4 metres off the ground. It turns out that these two things are connected. The blue pipes are not, as urban myth would have it, carrying beer, but are temporary installations carrying vast quantities of melt water away from deep building sites. You see, Berlin is build in the middle of a vast glacial outwash plain and is fundamentally unstable to its very foundations. There is a a major analogy for you for the city’s history!

Historical instability is evidenced at every turn in the city centre, focussed around Potsdamer Platz, at one time the busiest road junction in Europe. Google its name and look at images over the course of the 20th Century. There are plenty of these historical images all over the place in central Berlin. One old building caught my eye in particular.

Where had I seen something very similar? Where else but Hiroshima.

The main difference between these is that in Hiroshima, the building has been preserved within the boundaries of the Peace Park, whereas in Berlin, it has beed razed to the ground and replaced with impressive modern high rise edifices. But these have been a very recent addition (since the wall came down). Prior to this the site was in (or adjacent to) the notorious Death Strip – the barren empty wasteland, c.150 metres wide behind the Berlin Wall. Peace Park v Death Strip; a very different post war experience.

The situation in Hiroshima and Berlin in 1945 was, of course very different. Hiroshima was pretty much abandoned initially and had to pick up the pieces with negligible foreign assistance. Berlin, on the other hand was overrun by foreign forces from both East and West, As the capital of the Third Reich, it was a prized token of victory for all involved. It was to be carved up in a faintly ridiculous compromise as the tensions between the communist ‘Victors from the East’ and the neoliberal ‘Victors from the West’ manifested themselves.

As Europe found itself divided down the centre of Germany by the Iron Curtain, Berlin found itself 100 miles behind the curtain. The Western Allies were not having that! Berlin was too symbolic to be ceded entirely to the dastardly commies! Thus it was that a bunch of politicians sat around a table, a bit like they once did to crudely carve up Africa, to rip Berlin in two, half to the East and half to the West, with the Western Allies further carving their half up into three portions – British, French and American. Was this absurdity the work of the same idiots that conjured up the State of Israel? Probably not, but it was symptomatic of the imperial arrogance of the victors that they felt empowered by military success to do pretty much as they liked with territory and people for whom that territory was home.

Not that I have a great deal of sympathy for Germans, and especially Berliners, of the time. In the final analysis, they facilitated the Nazi rise to power; they provided the massive labour to create a formidable war machine; they complicit (by at the very least, turning a blind eye) with all the atrocities of the regime. I have always struggled to get my head around how that could ever happen. A visit to the Typography of Terror exhibition (on the site of the SS HQ) helps to shed some light on this. Here some extracts on display:

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I have studied such material before and struggled to conceive how it actually happens like this. But the politics of the UK and USA over the last few years has seen this sort of history repeating itself via the Tories/UKIP in the UK and the Republicans in the USA. It confirms all my worst suspicions that we are on a very slippery slope indeed.

The stark clash of ideologies between the left and the right, and its ability to divide people, is graphically in your face the moment you walk out of the Typography of Terror exhibition. For there is one of the longest remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall, preserved for posterity.

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This is 200m of what was once 150km encircling the whole of West Berlin. It was put up in a matter of days in 1961 by the communist East German authorities, calling it the “Anti-fascist Protective Wall” (they saw the Western neoliberal as tantamount to fascists). They had grown impatient of way the existing borders were proving porous and allowing literally millions of East Germans to ‘escape’ to the West. The reality was that prior to the wall going up, Berliners were commuting backward and forward across sectors, for work or visiting relatives, largely unhindered. This came to an abrupt end as the Cold War’s icy grip took hold of the city.

 

The symbolism of this outpost of Western liberal values in a sea of Communist oppression made West Berlin an irresistible magnet for many, especially musicians and artists; the likes of David Bowie, the Beatles, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and many more all took inspiration from time spent there.

A visit to the GDR museum gives the lie to the propaganda that life was unremittingly grim in the East. Living standards for the poorer working classes were probably higher than the west with good quality, well equipped homes for most. But the inefficiencies of the Soviet economic model meant that access to a good range of what might be considered ‘luxury’ goods was pretty pathetic and bound to generate discontent when things were so patently different just across the wall. Nothing embodied this more than cars. While West Berliners had their Mercs, VWs and BMWs aplenty, East Berliners had 15 yr waiting lists to get their hands on a Trabant!! That today you find Trabi World just along the road from Checkpoint Charlie, paying tongue-in-cheek homage to this piece of shite simply underlines the farce of the situation.

Farce played its part in the moments that led to the wall finally coming down. Russian President Gorbachev was leading a peaceful revolution based on glasnost (creating openness) and perestroika (economic reconstruction) but the East German leader, Eric Honecker was a hardliner who was having none of it. It was a botched news conference that tipped the dominoes. Under growing pressure to make concessions similar to those in Russia, some minor changes to travel rules were to be announced. The bumbling Politburo member running the conference, Günter Schabowski, read the news release for the first time on air. Much of his reading was garbled, but a few phrases popped out: that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen,” starting “right away, immediately.” Shorn of their context, these phrases mistakenly gave journalists and TV viewers the impression that the wall was open. With the public awaiting news eagerly and with confidence that the times were a-changing, huge numbers descended upon the wall in Central Berlin and sheer weight of numbers forced the guards to stand aside, despite a lack of instruction to do so, and wall was joyously overwhelmed and Honecker’s regime was swept away with it.

Today, fragments of wall dominate the souvenir shops. Wallpeckers, as they came to be known, hacked away all around the wall, creating holes and breaches very quickly. It was symbolic act and everyone would have wanted a piece of the action and a piece of the wall. Some stretches have been preserved, but even those bear the scars of the Wallpeckers.

This ‘pecked’ hole is in the preserved section that runs along where the SS HQ once was. Across the road that was once part of the death strip, is the Nazi Air Ministry building, that survived pretty much unscathed. That authoritarianism has not been banished is symbolised by the modern CCTV on the wall. Layer upon layer of oppression in one image!

This is what I have found, looking back at my pictures from Berlin. Most of them tell multi-layered stories. These were taken from the top of one of the modern skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz built on the east side of the wall in what would have been in Death Strip less than thirty years ago.

This is looking due North towards the Brandenburg Gate. Built in the 18th Century as a monumental gateway to the Prussian monarchs’ palace, it survived two world wars to then find itself just on the east side of the Wall that ran up the road from Potsdamer Platz, with Tiergarten Park on the west side of the wall. The wooded parkland extends for 210 hectares (520 acres). Originally part of royal hunting grounds, they were completely stripped of all trees towards the end and after WWII as the Berliners desperately needed firewood to survive the bitter winters. The cleared land ended up as vegetable allotments as they fended off starvation too. The trees are back today, largely replanted by Berlin residents apparently, but it comes as a surprise that none of the trees there are much more than 60 years old. The area to the east the road/wall was once the fortified communist-imposed Death Strip. That it now has the Holocaust Memorial and huge US Embassy on it side by side seemed appropriate and disconcerting in equal measure. Just off picture in the Tiergarten (in the old West Berlin) are much smaller individual memorials to other groups targetted by the Nazis: homosexuals, Sinti & Roma, Russians.

To the SE of Potsdamer Platz is the what was the nerve-centre of the Third Reich. It used to be called Prince Albrecht Strasse, but was by the East Germans after a prominent member of the communist resistance to the Nazis. It was a sector border street and had the Berlin Wall built along it in 1961, running up to Checkpoint Charlie (see wall photos above).

The Government building dates back to the Prussian Landtag but were subsequently used for Berlin city government functions right up until very recently.including during the Nazi era. The Exhibition Hall, built in the late 19th century has been a cultural and art establishment throughout the turbulent times around it. It is severely pock marked by gunfire, but avoided major damage. During my visit, it was the central venue of the annual Berlin Film Festival, not that I had chance to partake. The one film that did catch my attention will not surprise regular readers – an Israeli comedy called “Holy Air”. It is set in the Arab Christian community of Nazareth, it tells the story of a man who, after his wife gets pregnant, decides it is time to make it big and provide for his family by selling bottled holy air to tourists. Sounds like the perfect scam – as bits of Berlin Wall will run out eventually. (Or will they?) The juxtaposition of this film being promoted literally next door to the exhibition describing the systematic programme to eliminate the Jews, which in turn leads to the formation of the Israeli state got my head in somewhat of a spin.

Walls, barriers, divisions. Separatism, fascism, communism, neoliberalism. All in evidence, often simultaneously, from many vantage points, but especially around Potsdamer Platz. The line of the wall is marked on the ground along its full length, except where it has been built over. This mostly takes the form of a double line of cobbles. Around Potsdamer Platz alone, this threw up some incongruous and/or poetic images.

Here we have the double line of cobbles crossing a footpath and road before disappearing for 30m or so under a new office block. Parked across it is, facing east, a woman’s bicycle; facing west, a brand new BMW i3 electric car on a free charging point. Two very different perspectives on sustainable transport staring at each other across an entrenched divide.

Here we have the line of the wall interrupted by the modern reincarnation of underground station. An historic site that saw the city’s first rail terminus in the 1830s and the city’s first underground lines in the 1930s. The Nazi’s wanted to have it complete before the 1936 Olympics to demonstrate the state of the art technology and efficiency of the Third Reich. Technical issues – related to the difficult geology eluded to at the beginning of this piece – meant it was not actually completed in time – much to Hitler’s intense annoyance. In the Cold War era, it was seen as a possible weak link in the barrier that the wall represented and as such was heavily patrolled by GDR soldiers throughout the time of the Wall. Its ultra modern technology and efficiency today would have had Hitler purring.

There are just a few small fragments of the wall left in Potsdamer Platz today, with them utilised to give information about the sites history. Smack bang on the line of the wall in the foreground of my picture is another of those incongruities that mess with my mind. For lo and behold, it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is really difficult to assimilate all the stories and messages to be gathered around this historic city. Very little of it is uplifting. Even the big shiny modern tower blocks remind me of instability as soon as I realise they belong to banks!

The two most uplifting things I saw may not inspire many. During my visit to the Espionage Museum, amongst all the 007 nonsense and displays of gadgets was a story that ought to be more familiar to us all. At the height of the Cold War the Americans undertook some provocative military exercises that had Russian militarists convinced that the Americans were about to launch a first strike conquest. Pressure quickly mounted for a preemptive strike to be launched from Russia. It was only the intelligence received from spies within the American military that convinced Russia that the manoeuvres were no more than exercises. In other words, the spies averted a nuclear apocalypse.

In what sense is this uplifting? It tells us that it is secrecy that is dangerous. It is the preserve of tyrants and crooks. All the time we know what is going on we can have rational responses. So hooray for al the spies, all the whistle blowers, for Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Chelsea manning et al. There is no place for secrets of any sort in democratic government. National security can never be enhanced by allowing governments to keep secrets from the people. This much we have to learn from the Nazi era. In the digital era, relationships between people and the powers that be are evolving fast. This is why we should be broadly supportive of the Anonymous network of activist and hacktivist entities, and why I was pleased to see the Espionage Museum promoting this too. I convinced my 17 yr old Government and Politics student to this viewpoint I think – such that we bought some souvenirs that will hopefully see much future use.

The other uplifting sight was to see thousands of people taking to the streets and marching on the Brandenburg Gate – this time in protest at rising violence against women. (See below)screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-19-59-18

If Berlin has anything to teach us, it is that putting our faith in governments to act in our best interests is foolhardy at best. Glasnost/opennes, transparency and accountability has to be the bedrock of any true democracy. Any thing less is a sham. And shams can quickly become shameful. Freedom is only possible when the masses grasp it.

 

 

The Norman Foster designed dome (top of a gherkin?) on top of the Reichstag building was added in the 1990s to symbolise the reunification of Germany and a new era of open, transparent democracy. Well, that was the theory at least.

Shut Aberthaw Power Station; reflections on a day of protest

I have been very quiet recently and keeping a low profile. With the world slowly turning into a quagmire of shite at every turn, I have consciously decided to avoid adding my voice to the cacophony of doom mongers. I look back on everything I have written in such a vein over recent years and it is all panning out even worse than the most pessimistic of predictions. Talking about it without doing anything about just seems to perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies.

With regards most issues, knowing what to do that might change things, or at least things that I am able and willing to do, is the big challenge. For some reason, assassinating Trump just crossed my mind as an example to illustrate this conundrum.

Of the issues and campaigns that I have been involved with, the one that I cannot seem to give up on is the anti-fracking/anti-fossil fuel/pro-renewables issue. For me, this still encapsulates the essence of everything that is wrong in the world today:

  • the capitalist mantra of profits before people
  • the rancid corruption of our governments
  • subversion of democracy
  • climate change denialism – denying both the science and the social impacts
  • the lack of respect for our life support system – planet Earth
  • reckless gambling with all our futures
  • the lack of any rationality in decision making (with the concurrent rise in religiosity being no coincidence)
  • the way all of the above leads to the refusal to grasp the solutions staring us in the face – in terms of renewable energy technologies
  • the continued prevalence of Thatcherite greed and selfishness

and so on and so on.

Perhaps more importantly, in terms of my continued participation in the campaigns, is that I know what we can do to affect change. I search through their blog for fracking and coal related stuff highlights the range of options that have had impacts:

  • we have won support from democratic institutions (local authorities; notably NOT national government)
  • we have won court cases
  • we have brought activity to a halt by occupying sites and blocking access routes
  • we have persuaded people to change their energy suppliers, especially to renewables suppliers
  • we have encouraged community energy schemes
  • we have raised awareness considerably, through various media and educational programmes
  • we have built a community of experts and activists that ensure the above will continue indefinitely, for as long as is needed.

Which brings me to today’s events at Aberthaw.

A number of groups co-ordinated today’s protest. Reclaim the Power, United Valleys Action Group, Bristol Rising Tide and the Coal Action Network held a public demonstration demanding the prompt closure of Aberthaw coal-fired power station and support for renewable energy in the UK.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-22-53-36The forecast the day before was pretty abysmal and that, to my certain knowledge, put quite a few people off turning out (for justifiable health reasons in some cases), but as it turned out, the weather was actually about as good as it gets for hanging around Aberthaw beach in January. So a turn out of somewhere between 150 and 200 hardy souls was pretty good I would say. Considering that many had come from Aberystwyth, Bristol and Gloucestershire, with some from as far away as London and Lancashire, it is always possible to be disappointed in the numbers from more locally, but hey!

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-22-53-22I am never sure whether to be disappointed or pleased at relative lack of familiar faces at such events. There are always some familiar faces from among the organisers of the respective groups, but today there were a lot of new faces, who if they had anything in common at all, from what I learned from talking with them, was that they came from downwind of Aberthaw (Cardiff, Newport, Bristol), i.e. in the firing line for many of its worst impacts. This throws up the thought NIMBYism always plays a big role in such protests. The big problem for the climate change campaign has been in creating that NIMBY mindset for a global problem.

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Pete the Temp

But wherever and for why people turned up today, on a bleak and remote beach in mid-winter, they were rewarded with a pretty good carnival atmosphere. For this, one man deserves enormous credit. Take a bow Peter Bearder aka Pete the Temp. Bristol-based Pete describes himself as a ‘poet, looper and educator’. I can’t believe I have not encountered him before. He was brilliant. Check out his Facebook page and blog. Chortle has this to say about him: ‘with fire in his belly, expert performance skills and a keen sense of mischief, he’s poetry’s answer to Mark Thomas, able to make the depressing enjoyable.’ (Here is a wee taster)

Spot on and just the tonic I needed, along with everyone else I suspect. Throw in some hot soup, homemade cakes and inspirational words from UVAC residents and the ever-reliable Marianne Owens from the PCS union and a good time was had by all in the wintery sunshine with rainbows as a backdrop. Ever an abrupt shower on the march from the beach to the gates of the power station could not dampen the spirits.

The one thing that did piss me off big time, however, and not for the first time at such screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-22-52-15events, was the ridiculously over-the-top policing. I anything give the lie to the Tory austerity agenda it is the criminal waste of public money that routinely seems to accompany these events. I counted in excess of 50 officers on the ground, 2 on horseback, and a relatively short-lived overhead helicopter presence (which costs around £2000 an hour in itself). When I quipped to one officer that it seemed like that there was almost as many coppers as protestors about, he laughingly agreed and said there were even more on standby ‘in case they were needed’! Welcome to Police State Britain.

By my reckoning, this must add up to a policing bill of somewhere between £10k and £15k, when half a dozen plods would have been ample to ensure the safety of the public and the protestors. What this actually represents is a paranoid security response to protect the assets of the capitalists who own and run the plant. As such, I hope (without any conviction that it will be so) that it is the company that picks up the bill rather than the taxpayer, who is told everyday how their more important services have to sacrificed on the altar of the Tory phoney austerity agenda. The police bill here would pay the annual wages of a nurse or a teaching assistant FFS.

Anyway, back to the substance of the protest.

It is my understanding that this protest was prompted, in no small measure, by the publication of a Friends of the Earth Cymru (FotEC)/Greenpeace report last September, entitled AIR QUALITY AND HEALTH IMPACTS OF ABERTHAW POWER STATION (available in pdf format here) This is yet another example of reality being even worse that I had realised. I used Aberthaw Power Station as a case study when I was a geography teacher in Barry (1995-2004). We knew then that it was a power station especially designed to burn the shitty quality coal that was left in South Wales. We knew that it faced technological challenges in burning this stuff while maintaining ‘acceptable’ pollution levels in its emissions. We were told that it was a ‘state-of-the-art’ and

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The pollution from the stacks heading off towards Barry, Cardiff, Newport, Bristol ….

meeting those challenges with technological wizardry – that on closer examination seemed to amount to little more than some water sprays in the chimney stacks to ‘wash’ out the pollutants. We knew that they had been rapped my the environment agencies of the time, but were told that this simply proved how rigourous the whole regime was. I whiffed bullshit overtime I heard that on our annual school visits.

What the FotEC report, written by their then-Director Gareth Clubb and the Greenpeace coal and air pollution expert, Lauri Myllyvirta, uncovers is little short of a nightmare and national disgrace.

The full report is 25 pages long, but here is the Executive Summary:

Executive summary

The 1,500MW Aberthaw coal-fired power plant in southern Wales is among the largest
point sources of air pollution in the UK . In 2013 it had the 3rd highest emissions of nitrogen oxides of any industrial installation throughout the EU . Of the 12-highest nitrogen oxides polluters in the EU, Aberthaw is by some margin the greatest polluter relative to the electricity generated1 .

Hundreds of people’s lives are ended prematurely as a result of pollution from Aberthaw power station every year . This pollution also causes tens of thousands of days of lost productivity through sick leave, and hundreds of thousands of days of illness every year . The annual societal cost of the premature deaths resulting from Aberthaw’s NO2 pollution is £226 .4 million in total, and £37 .9 million in Wales alone .

The pollution is responsible for causing asthma symptoms in children, bronchitis in children, chronic bronchitis in adults, hundreds of hospital admissions every year, and low birth weight in babies .

Over the 45 years since it started operating, pollution from this one power station alone is likely to have caused the premature deaths of more than 3,000 people in Wales, and 18,000 across a wider area .

Governments and environmental regulators appear to be failing to comply with requirements of European legislation through failing to even monitor spikes in emissions from Aberthaw power station, let alone act on them .

The electricity produced by Aberthaw power station could be substituted by renewable sources, creating substantially more employment for Wales .

Given the particularly heavy pollutant load associated with this power station both in absolute terms and per unit of electricity generated, the serious health impact of this pollution and the massive quantities of greenhouse gases emitted, we call for the full and permanent closure of Aberthaw power station .

The data and methodology used are both rigorous and credible. The conclusions and recommendations it produces pull no punches. They underline pretty much all of my ranting points in the first bullet list above (indirectly at least). And this is why I hold little hope of any speedy resolution despite clear evidence that somebody dies and many fall ill every single day of the year directly because of this capitalist folly.
Here is the last page of the report:

Conclusions and recommendations

Extensive research into air pollution of the nature emitted by Aberthaw power station led the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants to conclude that a precautionary approach should be adopted in planning and policy development76 . It is this precautionary approach that should now be adopted by the Welsh Government, the UK Government and Natural Resources Wales . Every pressure should be applied to RWE to cease its operations at Aberthaw power station with immediate effect .

The Welsh Government does not appear to be responding to the very real harm being caused to the health of the people of Wales as a result of the pollution from Aberthaw power station . This is despite the Welsh Government’s statement:
“Controlling air pollution in Wales is a high priority for the Welsh Government. The driver is not only compliance with European legislation, but a commitment to protect human health and the environment”77 .

We can find no reference to Aberthaw power station in the Welsh Government’s three Air Quality (NO2) plans for southern Wales, nor in the Respiratory Annual Report .

On average, pollution from Aberthaw is responsible for curtailing the lives of 67 people in Wales every year . This is equivalent to 64% of the death toll on Welsh roads – yet there is no special strategy for securing the accelerated final closure of the plant.

At a wider scale, the estimated health impacts due to NO2 exposure are 400 premature deaths per year . The emissions from the power plant are estimated to be responsible for 195,000 days of illness per year, including 35,000 days of sick leave . In other words, on an average day, 530 people are ill due to the harmful health impacts of the pollution .

Aberthaw power station has been generating for 45 years . It is an old power station that belongs in a different era . The fact that its pollution has been causing respiratory sickness and prematurely ending the lives of thousands upon thousands of people in Wales and beyond for decades has eluded scrutiny .

The time for proper public scrutiny is now upon us . The Welsh and UK Governments must do everything in their power to ensure that Aberthaw power station ceases operating . For good .

So there you have it. In the quagmire of shit that the world is turning into, here is one particularly obnoxious and noxious turd right on my doorstep. But hey, what a lovely day we had highlighting this fact, here in the asylum of the universe!

A betrayal too far?

The schism in the Parliamentary Labour Party shows absolutely no sign of being healed. The will and beliefs of the majority of the Labour membership are clear. This translates itself into the will and belief of the vast majority of the Labour constituency parties. The will and beliefs of the Labour leadership, supported said membership and constituency parties, is also very clear.

That leadership put forward a truly important motion before the houses of parliament. It was a motion that, in the words of the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, “gave us the opportunity to send the opposite message to the world … that, while Saudi Arabia will remain a valued strategic, security and economic ally in the years to come, our support for their forces in Yemen must be suspended until the alleged violations of international humanitarian law in that conflict have been fully and independently investigated. And until the children of Yemen have received the humanitarian aid that they so desperately need,” she said.

Personally, I don’t believe we should value the Saudis as a strategic or economic ally. It is a barbaric, religiously fundamentalist (i.e. socially backward and primitive) country that should be ostracised rather than courted. Concern over its importance due to its oil wealth is also backward and primitive in a world that needs to be rapidly turning away from fossil fuels. It is only the warped logic of the neoliberal capitalists that seeks to preserve dependence on finite resources.

This reality underlines my utter contempt for the Labour MPs that abstained on this vote in defiance of a three-line whip from the Labour leadership. They not only stuck two fingers up to Party discipline; they not only chose to make a pathetic gesture at the cost of innocent children’s lives and well-being; they also underlined, in blood red, that they share the warped neoliberal, capitalist mindset of the Tories, to whom they handed victory in this vote.

It was the simplest and most straightforward of requests that was made of them. They were being asked to support the sending of message to the Saudi regime that humanitarian issues matter more (the Socialist worldview) , not less (as is the Tory worldview) than economic issues. Other Party’s MPs understood this and did the right thing:

Emily Thornberry said that she was disgusted that (all but one) Tory voted against the motion and disappointed that 102 Labour MPs abstained. That should be the other way round surely! We should never expect anything else from Tories. It is a constant disappointment that anybody thinks like a Tory. What is truly disgusting, to the point of making me want to vomit all over them, is that the proud socialist heritage of the Labour Partry, that has been trodden into the dirt consistently by the neoliberal Blairites, up to and including their humiliating defeat in the recent Leadership election, should continue to be dragged down by these contemptible, self-important bastards.

Well, now they well and truly have blood on their hands. And the rest of the world sees them for what they truly are.screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-21-53-19screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-21-53-32

To be fair, some of Corbyn’s PLP detractors refused to get involved in this most revolting of revolts. Newspapers reported one Labour MP, who is not supportive of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but voted for the motion, said he was frustrated and upset that a number of his colleagues were “using the issue as a way of trying to beat Jeremy. It is such as serious issue and it’s obviously going on the Tory side as well, but there is a massive humanitarian disaster here. It should not be an opportunity to score political points,” he said.

But nine Welsh Labour MPs were amongst those that simply could not resist. Of course, I am especially disappointed that my own MP is heading this listscreen-shot-2016-10-29-at-21-30-44but just like with Tories, we really could not have expected anything else. Her track record of cosying up to arms manufacturers goes before her these days. She will probably be the guest of Lockheed Martin UK at the next big arms traders’ banquet. She would certainly welcome them bringing jobs to Bridgend were it ever an option. Imagine her pride at having Bridgend made cluster bombs slaughtering civilians in Yemen, like their British made BL-755 bombs that have been uncovered being used against Yemeni civilian targets by ITV. 

It is patently clear that Madeleine Moon and her likeminded colleagues can have no future in the Labour party that has been re-born, re-invigorated and returned to its members. They have become insufferable boils on the face of the party. They disfigure and repulse. The sooner these boils are lanced and proper healing of the sores achieved, the better for everyone involved in progressive politics in this country.

P.S It was a surprise to see Paul Flynn on this list. I am told he had a genuine reason for being absent from the vote. I am happy to believe and acknowledge this.

Where does Jeremy Corbyn stand with the PLP, post-‘Chicken Coup’?

When enough members of the PLP signed the nomination papers to get Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper in 2015, they thought they were just paying lip service to the idea that the Labour Party was still a fairly ‘broad church’ with a few genuine lefties still hanging around. It was a sop to try and keep them in the fold, knowing that Labour needed all the help it could get in recovering from the Milliband calamity. Nobody, myself and, I suspect, Jeremy himself included, thought there was any real prospect of him pulling it off.

What Corbyn’s comprehensive victory revealed was, despite all indications to the contrary in terms of the performance of the vast majority of Labour’s elected representatives at all levels, that the majority of the party’s members were actually still socialists at heart. This was a shock to me, having spent the best part of a decade mixing with Green Party lefties that had abandoned the Labour Party at various points over the last 30 or so years. I had assumed that there were very few left in the Labour Party, given that so few made it through the ranks to prominence at Westminster, in the Senedd and in most local council chambers. It was an even bigger shock to the Blairites and centrists of the PLP.

The totally unexpected nature of the outcome meant that it was inevitable that some sort of shambles would ensue, but alongside the mess created, something beautiful arose from the quagmire. Lo and behold, socialism was seen to be alive and kicking, and even more crucially, the membership of the party saw the opportunity to wrest control of the party away from the unrepresentative cliques that had come to control the party with an iron fist (resembling an iron lady?) from the point at which Blair’s New Labour Project took over. Socialism has been a dirty word in the Labour Party for too long as a result. I’ve heard more members of the Green Party and Plaid Cymru proclaim themselves to be socialists than Labour politicians in the 25 years I have been living in Wales. This is because Tony Blair seemed to prove to them that the only electable Labour Government was a neoliberal-loving, just-left-of the-Tories (no matter how far right they go) party that only ever aspired to be not as bad as the Tories. Sticking to true socialist convictions was untenable in the modern world, or so we were told.

The election of Corbyn, and the now obvious common appeal he has, brought hundreds of thousands of people into the party (a mix of old lefties like me and, more crucially, many first time party members – of any party – under the age of 30) and meant that, from nowhere, Corbyn had a huge mandate to re-assert the Labour Party as the party of the people; a party created by its members for its members; a socialist party that stood tall and proud of everything that this should stand for; everything that had become anathema to the professional politicians that make up a huge chunk of the PLP these days.

Given the circumstances, it was always going to be interesting to see how the PLP took to their new leader and how quickly their new leader would take to the task. In short, the PLP recoiled in horror at what they had done, and Jeremy found himself in a position that he had probably never even dreamt about, let alone planned for. I watched on with initial amusement, but then increasing admiration as Jeremy grew into the job and proved his leadership quality by toughing it out against the predictable forces seeking to undermine him, both within and outside the party. When I decided to join and do what I can to support this resuscitation of the socialist agenda, I knew that the PLP were one of those forces seeking to undermine him. This underlined exactly why I had not been able to go anywhere near Labour on a ballot paper for 30 odd years, but also underlined the importance of rallying behind him to win the battle for the direction of the party. At the point of joining, there as no obvious sign (to me at least) of the treacherous lengths the PLP would go to, just a few days later, with their vote of no confidence in JC.

There is no need to rake over the revolting stinkfist that was the leadership campaign this summer, but on reflection, it may well prove even more of a seminal moment for the party than Corbyn’s initial victory. The measure of Corbyn’s second victory, given the blatant gerrymandering of the floundering NEC in denying me (and something like 200,000 other members) a vote, was effectively a vote of no confidence in the PLP members that had precipitated the whole thing.

The PLP now finds itself between a rock and hard place. They are representatives, put before the electorate by the Labour membership. The views and desires of the membership are now crystal clear. The socialist values of the membership have been revalidated and given new voice and new confidence. This has seen the socialists, lost by the party over the years, returning in droves, and younger generations, that have never witnessed anything but neoliberalism in their lives, suddenly realising that an alternative does actually exist. The sense of excitement, of anticipation, of genuine hope is palpable. So what can we expect from the dissidents in the PLP now?

Some are clearly beginning to smell the coffee and recognising that they have to fall into line for the sake of their careers (the most important thing for some of them). Being the decent man that he is, but also being a bit wiser after the experience of the last year, JC has held out olive branches to those that he feels he can trust to drop the daggers. But it is patently clear that too many still clutch those daggers. Listening to a backbench MP sniping that Corbyn lacks confidence in dealing with the PLP as a group, even when acknowledging that he delivers when addressing mass rallies, makes me shudder. I know I would be more comfortable addressing 10,000 friends than a room of 150+ people holding knives behind their backs. It makes it very hard to see how this vital section of the party can be left as it is. screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-13-50-36Corbyn holds majority support in every significant section of the party now, bar the PLP. Yet it is the PLP that is the principle face of the party to the general public. Plummeting polls are bad news, of course, but history tells us that nothing discourages voters more than parties washing their dirty linen in public.

It is patently clear that Corbyn has the respect of just about everyone of a serious left-leaning disposition. He has the respect of many, maybe even most, in other parties and groups of the left. I know this is true from my own personal circle of friends and acquaintances in trade unions, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, SWP, Socialist Party, anti-racist groups, LGBTIQ groups, refugee support groups, peace campaigners, human rights organisations, and more no doubt. He is the man that all these people, groups and organisations can work with. If they all can, and in doing so unite all the opposition to the neoliberal hegemony, then the PLP simply cannot be allowed to get in the way.

Listening to my Labour MP, Madeleine Moon, sneeringly state that she would have nothing to do with anything connected to the Communist Party, to the SWP or to Momentum simply underlined the disconnect between what she herself stands for screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-13-40-36(i.e. Trident and as many jollies as she can extract from the arms industry it seems) and any appreciation of what socialism actually means. Her vicious disdain for Momentum, in particular, suggests there is nothing to build on. She clearly has no idea who Momentum members actually are. That she exhibits such derision and hostility for what Momentum stands for tells us all we need to know. screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-13-38-51That Momentum is independent, but supportive of, the Labour Party and Labour leadership is, of course, the problem. It cannot be controlled directly by the diehard controlling Blairites/centrists refusing to accept the new reality. They would love to outlaw Momentum members but wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court unless they treated their chums in the Blairite ‘Progress’ group in the same way. That Progress loves purple tells you all you need to know about it mixing plenty of blue in with the true Labour red. screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-23-04-15We all know where Nick Clegg’s Orange Book took the the Lib Dems. So beware Progress’ Purple book! When asked, Madeleine Moon quite bluntly said she has no problem with ‘Progress’ at all.

It is to be hoped that members of the PLP, like Madeleine Moon, will reflect on what is best for the Party that they try to insist they love. They have had their time and, I guess, served their purpose. However,they have wrecked the dignity of the party over the last year or so by refusing to bow to the will of the members. For the sake of their own personal dignity, they should start thinking about doing the honourable thing so that their ignominious removal does not have to be considered. In Madeleine’s case, she will be 70 by the time of the 2020 General Election; not a reason in itself to go, but an additional factor to surely be considered. Mandatory re-selection should, of course, be part of the constitution of any truly democratic party. I am sure that will come, but it would be a shame if that were to be twisted into some sort of perceived witch hunt or the like. That anybody should fear democratisation of the party simply reflects how undemocratic it has become. That is the only way that the PLP could have become so out-of-touch with the party membership in the first place, I would suggest.

So, it is clear that Jeremy still has his work cut out in dealing with the PLP. He needs to press on, along with the reshaped NEC, with continuing to democratise the party. That way he can relax and let us, the members, deal with shaping a more representative PLP that everybody, including the country at large, can believe in and take into power. But these things need resolving sooner rather than later if we are going to stand any chance of gathering the momentum needed to win in 2020. (And yes, that was a deliberate pun!)

Moon and others probably do have some valid concerns on the efficacy of JC’s team in responding to new situations like Brexit and Syria. It is to be hoped that the new Shadow cabinet steps up to the plate and ensures that this is sorted out. I (and I presume most others that support Corbyn) have faith in him and his team shaping appropriate responses. I have less faith in the rest of the PLP taking on those responses with the conviction that they should, simply because we know they don’t share socialist convictions at all. The biggest danger to all this unravelling is in Corbyn and his team wavering in their convictions.

Hearing Nia Griffiths (anti-Trident but pro-Owen Smith) state in her first serious pronouncement as Shadow Defense Secretary, that the party will not revisit its pro-Trident policy before 2020 was alarming. It was primarily alarming as, in a democratic party, this decision is not her’s (or JC’s) to make. It is a policy created partly via the back door by the 2015 Conference. TU and Constituency delegates at the time kept an anti-Trident motion from being debated. This, for a start, could easily change in the future. But the 2015 Conference actually went much further, but most probably missed it! In a little-noticed vote, it endorsed full renewal. The Britain In The World policy report included a paragraph committing the party to supporting a continuous-at-sea-deterrent, which would entail the replacement of all four submarines. Labour First, the moderate “old right” group, noted in an email to supporters: “If the rules are applied properly, this issue should not be considered by conference again until three years have elapsed!” Well, we know how the Party is a stickler for rules, but three years from 2015 takes us to 2018. It was, therefore, foolhardy and needless for Nia Griffiths, presumably with JC’s backing, to make such an announcement. If it was a sop to the centrists/Blairites, it was a poorly judged one in my opinion. It will probably, though, earn Madeleine Moon some further invites to arm dealer banquets.

So, my message to Corbyn is to stay strong and resolute. Continue the democratisation of the party and continue to have faith in the membership, that has put so much faith in you. The PLP will then either fall into line or face the decision to either jump or be shoved. Sadly, many of them have proven themselves to have little honour or integrity and further unseemliness will probably be inevitable. Ultimately we will not be able to shy away from it.

Corbyn is the will of the members. Is Carwyn?

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-18-23-0012 months ago, when Corbyn swept all before him to take the helm of the UK Labour Party, I was excited at seeing socialist ideas in the spotlight and gaining support from the grass roots – those that understand what life is really like in Tory Britain, unlike the detached and privileged senior figures of the unpalatable Blairite New Labour project. Almost immediately I was being questioned, and even pressured, by those that know my commitment to socialist ideas about whether I would join the returning flood of socialists into the Labour Party to support the Corbyn re-invigoration of the party. At that stage I just couldn’t do it and wrote this piece to explain why: “Why I simply can’t bring myself to join my local Labour Party”.

Having spent a large part of the previous decade tearing into Welsh Labour’s shocking record of complacency and underachievement, and especially being based in Carwyn Jones’ home patch, it was too daunting a prospect to put myself into, so soon after quitting the Green Party (I resigned from GPEW in May 2015). For much of the next 12 months, I kept a watching brief on Corbyn’s progress in Labour, while also taking a positive look at Plaid Cymru, but mostly taking time out from politics and campaigning, and looking after my mental health.

Jeremy Corbyn increasingly impressed me. Honesty, integrity, dignity, tenacity were his personal qualities that shone ever brighter in the face of exactly the opposite qualities in the voices opposing him, both inside and outside the Labour Party. The shameless bias, misrepresentation and shit-stirring of the media again just served to underline that this man must be doing something right! As I said on Facebook the day I signed up, it was time to stop prevaricating and properly get behind the man. I joined in mid June 2016. And wasn’t that good timing?!!

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-18-24-3728th June saw the infamous vote of no confidence by the 172 (wide range of adjectives possible – I’ll settle for:) mischievous MPs, closely followed by Angela Eagle‘s pathetic leadership bid, who was then usurped by fall-guy par excellence, Owen Smith. Oh what a Summer it has been!

One consequence of all these shenanigans was the decision to ban party meetings until after the leadership contest, and deny me a vote despite joining before any leadership contest was initiated. I went to my first ward branch meeting the day the voting closed, just last week. But it also meant that the support for Jeremy got organised, through screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-18-28-01Welsh Grassroots/Momentum, and I quickly came to realise that Corbyn has much greater support in Wales than I had previously realised. Realising I was not alone has been an important step in giving me renewed strength of purpose. Finding some longstanding local Labour members that were beginning to smell the coffee, and relish the new direction of the party, further heartened me.

So now we find that Corbyn is re-elected with a huge mandate from members and supporters (forget the 62% of the vote – it must be around 80% if all the gerrymandering by the NEC is factored in). There can now be no question as to which direction the Party is heading. Hallelujah! There are still battles to be fought and won (Trident is going to be a messy one), but the Blairite red tories must now realise that they are caught between a rock and a hard place i.e they have to fall into line or push (or be pushed) off. Personally, I think they should just keep calm, keep quiet and exit right.

Which brings me around to Mr Carwyn Jones. One of the last bits of fiddling done by the outgoing NEC was to secure a seat for a Welsh representative on the NEC. In itself, this could be seen as a positive thing, but in typical Carwyn/Welsh Labour fashion, there was no consideration as to who should take that seat – it was handed straight to Carwyn, in line with the NEC’s desire to boost the anti-Corbyn element of the new NEC, in light of all the seats beholden to the membership going to Corbyn supporters. This makes Carwyn beholden to the ‘centrist’ and/or Blairite factions, as if there was any real doubt that that is where he belongs.

Corbyn’s huge margin of victory is a clear signal that Labour members are no longer going to allow the relatively right wing PLP to call the shots. Having sold its soul to the devil when allowing Blair and Brown to run amok under the New Labour banner, followed by the tame Tory-lite acquiescence of the Millibland (sic) years, 21st century socialism is alive and kicking and the new name of the game. Welsh Labour, and Carwyn Jones in particular, has always tried to pretend that it is a distinct and separate entity to the rest of the Labour Party. It is not, although it may become so at the will of the membership. But that does not seem likely. Welsh Labour discouraged constituency parties from holding nomination meetings to endorse one or other of the leadership candidates, despite one of them being one of their very own – ‘valley boy made good’ Owen 29″ Smith. The outcome was, however, emphatic:

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I make that 14 constituencies backing Corbyn and a mere 3 backing Smith (with 23 not nominating).
That is 82%, of the CLPs that voted, backing Corbyn in Wales – much in line with the mandate he would have overall from an undoctored vote across the whole membership. All things considered, you would like to think that Carwyn Jones would be considering his position, wouldn’t you?

Remember those words I used to describe Corbyn earlier: honesty, integrity, dignity, tenacity. Carwyn could score one out of four at best, I would suggest.

What has been Carwyn’s response to Corbyn’s re-election this week? I have yet to see him pass comment on it at all, let alone congratulate the man, and most certainly not to welcome the result. Instead, he embarks on an another relaunch of priorities for the next five years. They are the usual meaningless bluster that could have been summarised in one over-riding priority i.e. cling to power for long as possible while exerting or utilising that power minimally. It is the same priority as the last 17 years of Welsh Labour in government in Wales.

I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting Welsh Labour and Carwyn’s record – that has been done repeatedly elsewhere – but a quick look at his latest declared priorities, in relation to their record to date, is worthwhile. Welsh Labour has many achievements it can point to – which is only to be expected after 17 years – but as a former school teacher used to writing reports, pointing out the positives cannot be allowed to gloss over underachievement in relation to potential. After 17 years, they can surely only be given a screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-18-30-14grade C, at best, for effort and for attainment. Attainment in some areas can only really be given a E grade. For the complacent and unambitious, that is often accepted as good enough. But Wales deserves at least grade ‘A’ effort, accepting that if you do your very best, top level attainment can still be elusive due to extraneous factors

You can read a good summary of Carwyn’s masterplan for the next five years here at walesonline. Opening up with the highly dubious assertion that “Wales is punching above its weight” certainly invites scrutiny. Hands up those of you that are sitting there thinking “Yep, all the evidence around me supports that assertion”. Anyone? If pressed, I’m sure Carwyn would have a few stats to back it up, but there has always been lies, damned lies and statistics!

He picks out a number of key areas of policy:

  • Education
  • Health
  • Economy
  • Housing
  • Living wage

He may well pick on these areas, as they areas of dire need, despite 17 years of continuous Labour administrations looking after them.

Education. screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-12-15-50He is proposing to throw some more money at it. An extra £100m to drive up standards – but why are those standards the lowest in the UK and amongst the worst in Europe after 17 years of Welsh Labour controlling it (and getting worse if anything)? screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-12-17-06£2bn on refurbishing our schools – but why have they been allowed to become so appallingly and shamefully dilapidated after 17 years of Welsh Labour looking after them? Student support better than in England (where it is amongst the worst in Europe so setting the bar very low). Where is the ambition to do everything possible to boost the higher educational attainment of Welsh Students?

 

Health. Improved access to GPs is promised – although this is already among the best (least bad) in the UK. Reduction of waiting times through investing in facilities is promised, which I guess is a nice reversal of closing facilities down (just don’t use the ‘downgrading’ word!). A new treatment fund is to be established to eradicate the postcode lottery of drug availability. Why is there a postcode lottery in drug availability after 17 years of Welsh Labour controlling this? There will be more investment in health professionals supposedly. But no suggestion that this can come from anywhere but overseas, as pay and conditions remain unattractive (and even below living wage levels in many cases). 41% of doctors in England and Wales come from outside of England and Wales, with over 20% coming from Asia. Investing in the salaries of overseas workers is importing skills, with all that this means in terms of exporting wealth and de-skilling poorer countries that seem to be able train up medics far more readily than we can, only to see them scarper overseas to work for our sick, elderly and invalided. This is the what happens when neoliberalism rules instead of socialism. Why are neoliberal policies still dominating our NHS after 17 years of a Welsh Labour government?

Economy. Carwyn talks of relentlessly driving improvement in our economy, while lining up his excuses in the form of ‘uncertainty caused by Brexit’. But his recipe has the same ingredients that he has been relying on for years. More business rates relief for small businesses. More childcare provision. More apprenticeships. More investment in transport in the Cardiff city regions with the much heralded Metro plans. (Nothing about rail links up the west coast, or upgrading the A470 through mid Wales and helping link North and South Wales). Is any of this going to start addressing the following shameful economic indicators, when they have failed to do so to date?

Who said doing the same things and expecting different results was madness? Someone brighter than Carwyn for sure.

Housing. Investment in housebuilding is another restated priority, but, again, the story to date has been of a lack of ambition that has left the country as whole running to stand still after 17 years of Welsh Labour. Housebuilding arguably has unrivalled economic and social value, yet Welsh Government’s own figures show that only 289 homes for registered social landlords were completed in the Apr-Jun quarter of 2016, with 1342 in the private sector and none at all in the local authority sector. This equates to an annual rate of barely 6,500 new homes a year currently. The best annual figure I could come across was just under 10,000 a few years back. Now, all of a sudden, Carwyn is promising 20,000 affordable homes a year (very few private housing developments fall into the affordable category). And of course this is only part of the problem. Neoliberal policies allow vast amounts of housing benefit to leave the public purse, to go into the hands of private landlords, who are allowed to have tenants in fuel poverty due to the inadequacies of the accommodation.  In total, 23% of Welsh households are in fuel poverty.  Another shameful legacy after 17 years of Welsh Labour in government.

Living wages and zero hours contracts. Some of Carwyn’s vaguest promises covered these areas. He will ‘take further action’ on living wages and ‘limit the use’ of zero hours contracts. Perhaps he could crack the whip on welsh councils for starters, including Labour administrations including his very own CBC in Bridgend. At the turn of 2016, only 6 out of 22 Welsh Councils had implemented the living wage for their staff. Bridgend CBC? Not a chance. At the end of 2014 there were 8 councils, including Labour strongholds in Bridgend and Swansea, using zero hours contracts as well!  Nothing undermines politics like hypocrisy from leaders.

And what of incomes overall in Wales after 17 years of Welsh Labour administrations? The answer is record levels of poverty.

  • 23% of the population and 33% of the children in Wales living in relative poverty (less than 60% of median household income) – the worst in the UK.
  • Wales is the only region of Great Britain in which disposable income in every area is below the UK average.
  • The proportion of peoples incomes made up of benefits reached 26% in 2012 – the worst in the UK.

The overall message here is that Welsh Labour’s leaders have an appalling legacy of underachievement, due in no small measure to adhering to Blairite neoliberalism and shunning their socialist roots and origins. They have survived, indeed thrived, on the back of communities that have developed a blind loyalty to the Labour Party that did so much for them in its heyday. That so many of their supporters have had their heads turned by UKIP, and others, does not reflect that their values have significantly changed, in my opinion, but more that they have finally woken up to the fact that Welsh Labour no longer have any answers that have any impact on their lives. The anti-establishment, anti-immigrant bluster of blaggards like Farage and Hamilton hints at easy answers that are what people crave.

The true answers to the needs of the vast majority of people in Wales are in the 21st century socialism that has seen Jeremy Corbyn sweep all before him, despite the best efforts of the out-of-touch, ‘self-interest first’ cabal that wrenched control of the party away from members in the Blair era. It is brave and it is bold.

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Hmm!!!

These are two qualities that cannot be ascribed to Carwyn and most senior members of Welsh Labour. They have had it too easy and too comfortable for far too long. They need to move aside and facilitate a refreshing new wind of change, to blow the cobwebs away and bring about the change that Welsh Labour and Wales truly need. If he is any doubt about that, Carwyn needs to put it to the membership in Wales.

The party will bend to the will of the members or disintegrate.

Over to you Carwyn!

British education retreats further towards the Dark Ages

During the Middle Ages, schools were established to teach Latin grammar to the sons of the aristocracy, as part of preparation also for the entry of some into the clergy and religious orders. The church preserved literacy and learning during this period, and education was closely tied to the religious vocation, in order to read the Bible and related documents. The Protestant Reformation had a major influence on education and literacy in England, as it encouraged the reading of the Bible in the vernacular of the people. In the 19th century the Church of England sponsored most formal education until the government established free, compulsory education towards the end of that century. However, unlike the French, who followed a strict policy of secularisation of publicly funded education, a strong voluntary-aided church sector has maintained a strong presence in the British system.

The half-baked attempts at comprehensive education in this country were accompanied by the scaling back of grammar schools and religious schools during the middle of the twentieth century. That comprehensive schools were never as good as they could and should have been was partly down to them being undermined by the continued existence of grammar, church and independent schools, alongside the usual resourcing and training issues. But what we have seen with the establishment of the Thatcher/Blair/Cameron Tory hegemony of the last 35 years is non-sequitur thinking that the way forward in education is to go backwards. screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-48-20Thus the support for an ever-increasing diversity of ideologically driven schools, often overtly religious and fundamentalist in character. Organisations such as the British Humanist Association (BHA) have done crucial work in attempting to ensure some balance, and especially in terms of getting non-relgious world views considered alongside the religious. But this is now under direct threat and and we are seeing disturbing trends in the very essence of education in this country.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on RE, led by Conservative MPs Fiona Bruce and David Burrowes, has voted to remove the study of non-religious worldviews from its purpose. Since its foundation, the purpose of the group has been ‘To provide a medium through which parliamentarians and organisations with an interest in religious education can discuss the current provision of religious education, press for continuous improvement, promote public understanding and advocate rigorous education for every young person in religious and non-religious world views.’ This has now been amended to remove ‘and non-religious’.

screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-40-35The British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed its shock at the decision. In addition, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), which until a few months ago provided the secretariat for the group, and National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE), have both expressed their disappointment.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘Non-religious worldviews, including Humanism, have been part of RE in English schools for over half a century. Their study alongside religions is supported by a huge majority of teachers, parents, and pupils and contributes to a broad and balanced curriculum. Their study is vital for children to understand today’s society in Britain and globally, as well as our history and heritage as a country; it is vital for the moral education of the majority of children who are not religious; and it is vital for their intellectual development. More than that – it is the law. This alarming development by ideological parliamentarians – all of them conservative Christians – places them almost as far outside the educational and general mainstream as is possible and guarantees their irrelevance at the same time as it illustrates their prejudice.’

With aspects of science, such as evolution, undermined in some of the Government’s academy schools, and blatant disregard of attempts to control illegal teaching of it until some had to be forcibly closed, it may have been hoped that things war improving. But it is far from being so.

screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-51-31Newsnight, earlier this year, found that a number of illegal strictly orthodox Charedi Jewish schools in North London are, not only carrying on regardless of the law, but have been granted charitable status. Only pressure from the BHA is seeing this situation finally be investigated.

As I have said repeatedly before, the existence of extreme sects of any religion is only possible as offshoots of a main body. This means the pressures for schools to serve these extreme sects can only grow in some sort of proportion with the number of supposed mainstream church schools. The news that the Church of England is seeking too open more than a hundred new schools by 2020, as part of the Free Schools programme that gave rise to the creationist and Charedi problems, is therefore cause for great concern. This concern should be heightened by the the Church being remarkably open about its motivations. In the face of declining church attendance and diminishing proportions of adherents in their schools, they are now openly stating that the evangelising of children must be engaged with ‘a new sense of urgency’, a view echoed by the Catholic Church and cross-denominational groups.screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-53-01

Given this impending assault, aided and abetted by the Christian Right in parliament, we are very much in danger of seeing the hideous sort of politics we currently see purveyed by the Christian Right  in the USA becoming more prevalent here.

Scary stuff. God help us? If only!!

One last point – if you want to help counter this growing tide of religiosity in our schools, you might like to consider supporting the BHA’s “What is Humanism?” Book Appeal.  The appeal aims to send a copy of the an important new book aimed at helping primary school children have some perspective on some big questions.
screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-33-11What does it mean to be a humanist? Is humanism a new idea? How do people live their lives without religious beliefs? The first of its kind aimed at  a new curriculum for upper primary and lower secondary school children, this book will examine how humanists respond to fundamental questions about morals and ethics, the origins of life, religion and the state. It will look at how humanists mark the milestones of birth, marriage and death. How do people without belief in God live moral and fulfilled lives, with respect for humankind and the universe? A thought-provoking approach will encourage readers to think about the big questions for themselves.
The book includes contributions from a number of prominent humanists, such as Stephen Fry, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Philip Pullman, Jim Al-Khalili, Natalie Haynes and Shappi Khorsandi, who will explain their own philosophy and tell us what is important to them.

Every home should have a copy!

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Jonathan Bartley – is he more of a problem than a solution for the Green Party?

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As a former Green who has gone to Labour to support Corbyn, I can tell you that Bartley is complete anathema to me on three grounds 1. Prominent Tory background. 2. Founder of a pro-religion think tank 3. BBC connections. So the answer to the Independent headline’s question is “Au contraire”.

1. It is not that it is great that someone can have ‘seen the light‘ etc. But it is naive in the extreme to think that, in this day and age,that his background will be overlooked by the media and wider public. After all, he was not just a run-of-the-mill Conservative member. After graduating from the London School of Economics in 1994, Bartley worked at the UK Parliament as a researcher and parliamentary assistant for a number of years, and was part of John Major’s campaign team in the 1995 Conservative Party leadership election against John Redwood. If Owen Smith deserves a hard time for having his job at Pfizer on his CV, then how can we realistically expect the media and wider public to see working directly for the Leader of the Conservative Party?

Joining the Green Party and becoming party leader within 4 years is a meteoric rise by anybody’s standards. He was a London Assembly candidate within 12 months, a general election candidate 3 years later and sought to be the London Mayoral candidate this year. And yet I never saw or heard anything of him in all my time involved in the Green Party from 2010 to 2015. This marks him out quite clearly as a very ambitious London-bubble politician. However nice and competent he may be, excuse me for thinking that this is the last thing the Green Party needs right now. Purely on paper, Will Duckworth and Sharar Ali were always more attractive propositions in terms of broadening the Party’s appeal.

2. Religion. Let me try to choose my words carefully to address the problem in this context. I’ll use his own words where I can. The following quotes come from an interview published in Christian Today just yesterday, to mark the announcement of his becoming co-leader of the Green Party. I find this slightly problematic:

“My faith is still what drives my politics. I have always been driven by that. I have always been driven by the desire to make the world a better place. To make it more as it was intended to be.”

The problem here is that his faith appears to have driven him to work with and for Margaret Thatcher’s successor as Leader of the Conservative Party at one point, and yet now that religious faith apparently drives him in the completely opposite direction to be Leader of the Green Party. That is a very strange faith indeed. The fact of the matter is that his personal epiphany appears to have very little to do with his faith at all. He explained to Christian Today that it was the birth of his now-14 year-old son with spin bifida that was the “pivotal” moment.

“I started to see the world in a very different way,” he said. “I saw all the barriers that are put up to people who are disabled and I took a long hard look at all the different parties. I realised the Green party embodied the values of the bias to the poor, the bias to the vulnerable and standing up for the voiceless”

So what on earth was his faith telling him before this moment? Apparently, it was telling him to work for a party whose bias has always been to the rich, the powerful and the establishment. The one thing that perhaps he learned from the Tories was self-interest. This is going to sound very harsh, given that I have never even met the bloke, but convictions shaped by personal circumstance are not convictions built on solid foundations. Personal circumstances are always prone to change. What is right or wrong rarely does. Using religious faith and supporting ones views from scripture are cynical ploys that we see being used in vile ways around the world on a daily basis. Let me complete the quote above:

“I realised the Green party embodied the values of the bias to the poor, the bias to the vulnerable and standing up for the voiceless which are the themes that run through the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.They embody the character of Jesus and the character of God.”

There are plenty of other themes that run through the Hebrew scriptures, in particular, that are far less compatible with Green Party politics – I hope!!! Misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, slavery etc. etc.

Of course, these are common themes in most of the world’s major religions. Which brings us to one of Bartley’s proudest achievements, Ekklesia; a Christian think tank with a strong commitment to Transforming politics and belief“. I’ll resist the oxymoron jibes (whoops) but just what sort of transformation is Bartley seeking? According to their website:

While remaining committed and involved in a positive exchange between mainstream traditions (Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal and indigenous), Ekklesia naturally draws much of its specific inspiration from the dissenting strands within Christianity, not least the ‘historic peace churches’ (Quakers, Mennonites and other Anabaptists), liberation theologies and other nonconformists inside and outside inherited denominations.

Ekklesia is therefore ‘radical’, not in a narrow or aggressive way, but in its conviction that the Gospel subverts power and privilege, both personally and corporately. And it is ‘progressive’, not in subscribing to a myth of progress, but in seeing change as coming through risk-taking hopefulness, rather than through a destructive lust for security and certainty.

So, it is all about bringing Christian denominations together and challenging the nasty power-grabbing tendencies and intolerance within some denominations. Hallelujah to that, I suppose, but underneath it all it is still the same old divisive, primitive nonsense of ‘one Christian god’ etc. And still a long way away from the ‘Imagine’ gospel according to John Lennon.

3. BBC connections. He is a regular contributor to BBC One‘s The Big Questions. He has formerly contributed to BBC Radio 4‘s Thought for the Day and been a guest on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. This may be a good or bad thing going forward. He clearly is seen as a go-to person on certain types of issues, but as I suggest above these may not be the issues that best represent the Green Party. If he can use his connections to gain a better platform for the Party’s progressive policies, then this may prove beneficial (he did very well here, for example, on the BBC News Channel). But we all have to be very wary of BBC manipulation, and I look forward to seeing how he tackles Andrew Neil, Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Marr. Hopefully he will now stay well away from the Christian moralising stuff! Having a good media performer is seen as hugely valuable. It is why Rhun ap Iorwerth was fast-tracked in Plaid Cymru, at considerable cost, I would maintain (but they will never acknowledge), in terms of the compromising of Party policy and values that he brought with him (over nuclear policy in particular). Bartley strikes me as representing a similar sort of gamble.

And finally, if this is an attempt to broaden the Party’s appeal, then I think the losses from losing Sharar Ali in a leadership role will more than offset the gain of a few eco-minded Christian Conservatives. I sincerely hope I am wrong about all this, but I think this will come to be seen as a retrograde step by the Party. Although it is great to have Caroline Lucas back, I question her judgement on this occasion.