Saturday, 31 March 2012

Adverts - polluting our mental environment

Before I say another word I need to apologise,  make a plea - and a promise.

The apology is simple and heartfelt. You may have noticed that there are now some adverts on this 'blog - adverts which serve to pollute your mental environment. I hope you'll forgive me: of course they are there as a way of generating some revenue from this site, effectively buying me the time to keep writing it.

Of course that's no real excuse, and I hope I'll find a better way soon. I'm sorry.

The great French philosopher Michel Serres (pictured) has described adverts as analogous to dog-piss - as the pollutant corporations use to mark their territory. It's an interesting argument, and one that sits neatly alongside the work of others who have suggested our very minds are being colonised by the advertising industry. Look at the Olympic Torch relay, for example: when it comes to Brighton it won't only be drawing attention to the wonderful people chosen to carry it, or the Olympic ideal, it'll be making sure the logo of Coco-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds-TSB, three particularly unsavoury corporations, are metaphorically 'sprayed' on every street corner the torch passes.

So, here's the promise: I'll make sure that I use this 'blog, as best I can, to shine a spotlight on the advertising industry's role in society, at least here in Brighton, and hopefully provide (however quiet a one) a voice arguing that we should prevent the further colonisation of our public spasce by those who just want us to buy more stuff.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Last summer's riots: were they really caused by bad parenting? Or was something bigger going on?

Earlier this week the commission set up to examine the cause of last summer's riots published its final report, blaming social exclusion and 'poor parenting', rather than police violence, for the disorder.

It had been thought that the death of Mark Duggan, the young man shot dead by police in Tottenham for no apparent reason, lay at the root of the trouble.

Blaming parents certainly takes the heat of the Met, who seem to be a little under the cosh at the moment: just a few days earlier we heard that we'll probably never get to know why they really killed Mark Duggan (too many secrets at stake, apparently) and, just a few days later, we hear how corrupt officers at the Met have been systematically deleting evidence at the behest of criminal gangs.

I don't know whether parenting or police violence was to blame - more likely that it was  a combination of all sorts of factors. An estimated 15,000 young people took part in the rioting, and there were probably no fewer than 15,000 reasons really.

But I'm amazed that the report hasn't mentioned the  revolutionary movements in the Middle East at all. I'm not saying the rioters were attempting to overthrow the Government, but how can daily coverage of young people taking to the streets and protesting against their voicelessness and near-invisibility in society not have had an impact?

I reckon that in the long run we'll look back at last summer's riots and remember them in the context of the Arab Spring, the worldwide 'Occupy' protests and other revolutionary movements and 'moments' across the world.

Long after we've forgotten the Tories' 'troubled families initiative', I think we'll remember 2011 as the year a global revolution touched England. Discuss!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Could Brighton go down in history as the city where universal human rights law began to be abandoned?

Brighton could just be about to add its name to a new international human rights treaty, forever earning it's place in history. Again. (It's already made the history books as the first place in England to elect a Green Party MP and a Green Party council!)

To mark the UK's chairmanship of the Council of Europe - the international body (not related to the EU by the way) which upholds the European Convention on Human Rights - leaders of its 47  member states will come to our seaside city next month for a ground-breaking conference set to revise the treaty.

Trouble is, if David Cameron and Nick Clegg get their way, it'll be one of the first times in history a human rights treaty has been watered down rather than beefed up.

And Brighton's place in history could be as the city where, nearly 70 years after world leaders adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea that the international community should, for example, protect the right of all people not to be tortured by their Governments, began to be abandoned.

The Government wants to use the Brighton conference to increase the power of national courts to sort out human rights matters - and reduce the power of international bodies like the International Criminal Court.

It wants to move away from the idea that some human rights are universal, to be protected by all of us, and back to the pre-1939 idea that states can - and should - look after the rights of their own citizens.

If that happens, any 'Brighton Declaration' will be loved not just by this Government, and nationalists everywhere, but also by dictators, pariah stets and enemies of universal human rights everywhere.

Hardly a reputation that answers the aspirations of the people of this city - one that has always revelled in its liberalism and international solidarity!

Dark days ahead for everyone in Brighton and Hove as Tories repeat Poll Tax disaster

Remember the 'Can't Pay, Won't Pay' campaign that greeted the Tories last time they tried to make the poorest in our society pay for local services?

Whatever you think about the Poll Tax, its imposition was a political disaster for the Tories. Many have argued that it was the issue that did it for Margaret Thatcher once and for all.

But it seems the Tories just can't help themselves - they're about to repeat it all over again. And we'll all pay the price.

Of course, they're doing it through the back door this time: instead of introducing a flat rate charge for everyone to fund local councils, they are just abolishing Council Tax benefit.

Instead of the current universal scheme, which means that most benefit recipients pay nothing at all towards local councils, they will be giving the money to local councils instead - and ordering them to implement their own benefit scheme.

Great, you might think - localism in action! You'd be wrong though - as the Government will only be giving councils 90% of the cash currently spent on Council Tax Benefit: leaving a shortfall of about £2m a year here in Brighton and Hove. The rules say that the council can't collect that from anyone currently not receiving Council Tax Benefit, or pensioners, or indeed anyone the council itself considers 'vulnerable'. That means it'll all fall on everyone else, basically families who just can't afford it, many of whom will never have been expected to pay any Council Tax at all.

Obviously, this will push many thousands into hardship - especially as it comes into force at about the same time as the new Universal Credit - and its impact will therefore be felt most keenly by the least well off.

But since so many of them will simply not be able to make the payments - and the few who can may decide they're just not going to - we can expect to see a return of the 'Can't Pay, Won't Pay' campaign that brought down the Poll Tax.

And that'll mean less money for Brighton and Hove City Council to spend on the services we all use every day: things like schools, maintaining roads and parks, social services and so on. And that will be bad for all of us.

The Tories really are the nasty party.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Green Council helps secure £3.5 million to improve city buses

Brighton and Hove Buses launched its first two 'hybrid' diesel/electric vehicles on the Number 7 route last week - and it was announced on Friday that it has received funding to buy 11 more.

The news means that both total carbon emissions from the city's buses - and fuel consumption - will go down. This is excellent news: not only is it good for the environment, but it will reduce costs too, and therefore, hopefully, fares.

The news comes as the city council's commitment to improving transport in the city impressed civil servants sufficiently to award a £3.5m grant to the city to improve bus accessibility and routes to try and make them a viable alternative to residents wishing to leave their cars at home - or even get rid of them altogether.

The grant will be spent improving services in the Edward Street/Eastern Road Corridor, around the Valley Gardens area (Valley Gardens could be a beautiful city centre park, but after years of neglect it serves a little more than a glorified central reservation at the moment) and to improve bus stops along Lewes Road.

It brings the total external investment in the city's transport infrastructure to more than £8m since the Greens took 'control' of the council last May.

For me, it rather begs the question: if we are to see improvements to bus routes travelling East from the Old Steine, is it time to reconsider diverting them from St James's Street to allow for pedestrian priority, creating the quirky, pedestrianised, tourist hub for Kemp Town that so many have argued for for so long?

Of course many have argued exactly the opposite - particularly residents with reduced mobility who rely on buses to access the streets' shops - but perhaps better serving their needs will be one of the improvements we can expect to see?

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Why a weather station in the front yard might help us deal with the coming drought

After a weekend of truly glorious weather it's worth reflecting on the climate chaos that's bringing severe drought to Brighton (and, of course, much of the UK).

A hosepipe ban across the region comes into force in about a week's time after the driest winter since 1992. I'm informed that all our city's water comes from aquifers under the chalky South Downs, and they are at their lowest March level for almost 50 years.

I've loved the sunshine: both yesterday and today have seen great crowds on Brighton's beaches (yes, even in Kemp Town!), and I've really enjoyed hanging out on the pebbles with my son.

But today we constructed a weather station too, so we can measure for ourselves the level of rainfall over the next few months, and, hopefully, have a conversation or two about the need to reduce our water usage: while mine is pretty good, my son still doesn't really get it yet when it comes to not leaving taps running while he's brushing his teeth and so on.

Every day the very act of measuring the previous day's rainfall will, I hope, change our relationship with water - and make Southern Water a little less likely to turn off the taps and make us trudge to a shared standpipe at the end of the street, an outcome that becomes a little more likely with every dry day and with every wasted drop of water.

Of course, using a little less water is only one part of the solution: the other being reducing the Greenhouse Gas emissions that scientists say are driving the increasing unpredictability of our weather in the first place. As a household, we do our bit, but that will, by itself, never be enough.

We need Government action: and with Labour and Tory councillors voting together to sack staff from Brighton Council's Sustainability Team in the quest for a short-term tax freeze, that'll be, locally at least, a lot harder now.

Nationally, with a budget designed to promote fossil fuels at the expense of renewables while talking up the need for new airport capacity in the South-East, it'll be even harder.

We might all be a few pence a week better off - but if we end up with standpipes in the street replacing the water supply to our homes that doesn't sound like a very good deal to me!

Corruption at Brighton Council - an update

Following last week's Brighton and Hove City Council meeting, I posted a piece on this blog suggesting that the motives of the Tory councillors in voting for a motion condemning Smash EDO might have been that the proposer, Tony Janio, works for one of EDO's partners in the arms industry.

Well my post seems to have rather put the cat among the pigeons, so to speak.

I thought it sensible, therefore, to clarify a few things: it seems some councillors (and a few others - it seems I do have a couple of readers who aren't Tory councillors looking for evidence of my lefty nonsense!) misunderstood what I was saying.

Firstly, I wasn't alleging any corruption at all: rather I was reporting that (a) Cllr Janio (known to some fellow councillors at Mount Hangleton Volcano due to his tendency to erupt or storm out of meetings) proposed a motion condemning a planned lawful protest, (b) that, according to his register of interests he works for a firm that produces military equipment, Thales, and that Thales has worked with EDO before, (c) that he declared no such interest at last week's meeting, (d) that it all looked a bit dodgy, and (e) that sorting it all out would keep council lawyers busy for weeks.

Secondly, that Cllr Janio himself has said he doesn't work in the bit of the company that produces any weapons, rather that he works with flight simulators for the civil aviation industry. I daresay that's true: I haven't the faintest idea, but of course I'll take his word for it. Personally, I don't think that makes much difference, but perhaps the lawyers will.

And thirdly, I'll be asking the council's head of law for some advice about  Mount Hangleton Volcano's actions, and whether they amount to any wrongdoing or not tomorrow. I've no idea what they'll say, of course, but if they come to the view that all was above board then all the better for the council, really - I think any formal process will probably be a waste of the council's time and money: formal processes involving lawyers usually are.

One of the most interesting things to have come out of this whole saga is a 'tweet' I received from Labour councillor Warren Morgan (perhaps embarrassed to have got caught up in all this) challenging me to produce any evidence if I was alleging corruption - to be clear, I'm not - and defining corruption as 'payment for actions'.

I'm not surprised to hear a Labour politician say he thinks corruption is about 'payment' rather than 'standing up for your mates' or, as is at issue here, 'promoting the shared interests you have with a third party' - perhaps this sort of logic was at play when Tony Blair took us off on all those military misadventures that cost so many innocent lives but out of which arms manufacturers made so much cashin the first place!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Corruption as Brighton Tory and Labour groups seek to silence critics of the arms trade? You couldn't make it up...

Last night saw, for me, a new low in the increasingly robust Tory-Labour coalition at Brighton Council: the two groups, who together hold the majority of seats, voted together for a motion calling on protest group Smash EDO to abandon a planned protest on June 4th, the bank holiday called to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

I argued (and presented an amendment, which was rejected) that while no-one wanted to see disruption and disorder on the streets of the city, adopting a motion calling for protesters to abandon their plans would make that more, not less, likely to happen, as it would undermine the council's successful approach of using trust and relationship-building to minimise the cost of protest in the city by promoting dialogue, low-key policing and respecting the right to protest in the first place.

That'll now be much harder on June 4th. The Council, thanks to the Labour and Tory groups, has now adopted a position condemning the protesters and calling on them to abandon their planned demonstaertion.

Well, maybe a few political points were scored, and maybe they've gathered some material for election-time leaflets and press releases, but one thing's pretty sure: protestors will still march and, whetever might have been the case, organisers will be angry at this weird decision and will be far less likely to engage now with the council or the police in the run up to the demo.

So, never mind whether you agree that it's fair enough to protest against a Brighton-based arms manufacturer that has reportedly made parts for bombs used against civilians in Iraq or not.

Never mind whether you think it's fair game for councils to interfere with the internationally-protected human rights of free speech and free assembly by dictating who can protest, about what, where and when.

On a simple practical level, the Tories and their junior coalition partners, Brighton Labour, have just increased the chances of residents and visitors to the city suffering disorder and disruption on June 4th.

I don't really understand Labour's motivation - but that of the Tories became a bit clearer today when the protest group themselves, Smash EDO, issued a press release linking to the register of interests of Tony Janio, the councillor (pictured) who proposed the motion showing that he, himself, works in the arms industry, an interest he didn't declare at the meeting.

This looks a bit like corruption to me - keeping silent about his links with the arms industry while trying to shut down the activities of a group campaigning against it - either way the question will keep council lawyers busy for the next few weeks.

So it looks like Brighton Tories, motivated by a desire to silence critics of the arms trade, have, in a seemingly corrupt way, increased the chances of disorder on Brighton's streets and struck a blow to the council's tourist reputation. Oh and they had the full support of the Labour group. You just couldn't make this stuff up!

If you're really interested, you can watch the debate here, from 3.36.59 (yes we have long meetings!)

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Tory MPs' no show at Brighton's last hurrah to save the NHS

Yards of column inches have been written about the way the Government is dismantling the NHS. About the way hospitals will be renting out their equipment, space and skills to the private sector to fund healthcare for those who can't afford to buy it. About how doctors will be distracted from the day job by being sucked into management of local health services. And about how unpopular it all is, among healthcare professionals as well as patients. Etc. I'm not gonna add to them here.

But there's a different, local issue: the contempt shown to Brighton and Hove residents by the city's two Tory MPs, Mike Weatherley and Simon Kirby. Both were invited to address residents outside Hove Town Hall yesterday, to explain the reforms. Both refused, saying they were too busy, according to the event's organisers, Brighton Against the Cuts. Too busy to talk to residents? As the hundred or so city residents gathered, Mr Weatherley tweeted: "This weekened I'm relaxing at home. Might stick on a film. Any recommendations?"

Personally, I think the moment for the Government to back down over its plans to privatise the NHS has probably passed. But, given that Messrs Kirby and Weatherley have consistently voted for the reforms, I think their failure to explain how they think they'll benefit us is nothing less than shameful. I hope they start taking their responsibility to communicate their positions to residents more seriously in future - perhaps by taking a leaf out of Green MP Caroline Lucas's book. Dr Lucas (pictured above) not only turned up (along with at least six local Green Party councillors), she spoke with residents, explained her position on NHS health reforms and generally doing the job of an MP.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Single parents - you're brilliant!

Bringing up a child a single parent is harder than bringing up a child in a traditional family.

It costs more (relative to parents' incomes), you lack the support of another adult and, when it comes to making difficult choices (and, believe me, parenting is so often about making difficult choices) you often have to do it alone, you are often without 'backup' when it comes to clashes of wills (they happen often too), and you never really get a break, even, sometimes, for a minute (ever tried going to the toilet with a toddler in tow?).

Children in single parent households too are often forced to 'grow up before their time' and take on far more responsibility for running a household - on top of all the homework, play and general tomfoolery that makes up a childhood - than their counterparts in a 'more traditional' family unit.

For single Dads the whole business of understanding and communicating with daughters can be tricky, especially in the teenage years - for single Mums the same is, of course, true when it comes to boys.

Oh and there's the small matter of having to fight with ex-partners, the courts, the Child Support Agency - and sometimes even friends and relatives - over access times, maintenance, parenting choices, and so on. All too often these legal fights can dominate a single parent's life.

And then there's housing issues, trying to find time to work and develop a career - and the associated financial hardship.

Single parents are all too often condemned as being feckless and lazy for facing these problems - even by their friends and relatives.

Of course that's just the start of it - as any single parent will tell you.

Amazing then that they do so well!

But this Government seems determined to make it even harder - with all the evidence suggesting benefit and public service cuts will hit single parent families hardest, and with David Cameron even suggesting that they ought to pay more tax as an 'incentive' to encourage marriage.

The campaign group Gingerbread offers a free telephone helpline to assist any single parent needing support or expert advice on anything from dealing with a break-up, going back to work, or sorting out maintenance, benefit or tax credit issues. Give 'em a call on 0808 802 0925.

Why being a Green Party councillor can make an enormous difference

Sometimes, as a local councillor, I feel a little despondent about the difference you can actually make.

So many good, clever people, think being a Green Party councillor is pointless, at best, and legitimises an undemocratic, expensive and harmful way of organising our lives, at worst.

To paraphrase the extraordinary Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction: 'Who wants to be an elected Green? I don't!'

And when it comes to many of the big problems our society faces - war, climate chaos, racism, poverty, violence, cruely to animals, wage slavery and rapacious economic growth, and so on - sometimes they do seem right.

As a local councillor in Queen's Park, for example, it's been impossible to make American Express compensate neighbours for the misery, ill-health and hardship caused by the construction of their new HQ in Carlton Hill. It's proved impossible to stop the advance of clone town Britain into Kemptown: despite huge community and council opposition, there was nothing we could do to stop a new Sainsburys Local or even Starbucks opening on St James's Street. The ward remains one of the most deprived in the country, despite five years of working to strengthen community groups, trying to make countless Government schemes a success, and so on. It's proved impossible to solve the parking chaos that blights residents lives in some areas of the ward (the problem, at root, is that there are more cars than people here now, and there's nothing we can do about that). The list goes on.

Of course, we have managed to achieve lots of smaller victories: tress and flowers have been planted, bike racks have been put up, new play equipment has been installed in both Tarner and Queen's Parks, community engagement has increased, lifts in high-rise housing blocks have been replaced, energy-efficient  buildings have been built, refuse collection and recycling services have improved, the police are committed to attending regular neighbourhood meetings, and are more visible on our streets. We've been able to advocate successfully for countless residents on matters ranging from housing standards to parking issue to noisy neighbours - and everything in between. And so on.

I stress here that neither of these lists are meant to be exhaustive: merely illustrative. I hope you get the point.

But yesterday a meeting of Brighton and Hove Council's cabinet reminded me why it's all worthwhile.

We adopted a range of policies and plans that will make an enormous difference to life in the city.

For example, a £400,000 plan to promote community banking to break the stranglehold of loan sharks and high-interest doorstep lender on the estimated 1,500 households in the city with no access to a traditioal bank account. A real strike against poverty.

We adopted a new Traveller Strategy, based around balancing the needs of the Travelling and the 'settled' population, and recognising the needs of both communities, and approved the comnstruction of a new Traveller site at Horsdean. A real strike against racism.

We adopted a new Equality and Inclusion strategy that will make Brighton and Hove a best-practise council. It means we will carry out proper, dialogue-based, Equality Impact Assessments on everything the cuncil does. If any decision looks like it will penalise any particular group, we will seek to mitigate that as part of the decision. It means we will go further than the law requires us to do. A real strike for equality.

Of course, that's only a snapshot: but I came home yesterday feeling like I had done a really good day's work. And that's why being a Green Party councillor does make an enormous difference.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Trying to break the stranglehold of banks, moneylenders and loan sharks in Brighton and Hove

Financial exclusion is an increasing scourge in this city.

As our economy worsens – exacerbated by the failure of this and the last Governments to properly regulate the banking sector - more and more people are unable to access credit and financial services, good money advice, even in some cases to be employed or adequately housed.

This is destroying families and pushing more and more people into either committing or becoming the victims of crime. The police are already warning that we are seeing an increase in acquisitive crime fuelled by financial desperation, and we know that the activities of unscrupulous loan sharks and 'Cash Converters' type high-interest loan providers is on the rise.

A 'Financial Inclusion' strategy due to be adopted by the Council's cabinet today sets out some of the ways in which we are seeking to tackle this: 

* By promoting community-based alternatives to high-interest money lenders and even the high street banks whose casino banking approach has caused the financial crisis in which the UK finds itself – for example via the East Sussex Credit Union, 

* By supporting the establishment of an 'advice partnership' to make sure all city residents have free access to high-quality financial information,

* And by offering help to residents seeking to improve their understanding of money matters through the city's libraries, and partner organisations, including the Whitehawk Inn and the Bridge Community Education Centre at Falmer.

Of course the problems, at a national level, are expected to worsen before they get better. The introduction of changes to the ways Housing Benefit is calculated, and the planned abolition of Council Tax benefit, will mean it is more important than ever to make sure everyone in the city is able to access financial services and good quality advice on how to manager their household budgets.

I hope that the measures outlined here will go some way to achieving this and insulating the city from some of the impact of disastrous Government policy in this area.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Evidence of health and environmental benefits of veganism mounts

As the annual celebration of all things vegan comes to Hove this weekend in the shape of Vegfest 2012 the evidence seems to be mounting of both the environmental and health benefits of giving up meat.

Well, I say celebration of all things vegan: of course Vegfest is really a trade fair allowing producers of animal-friendly goods to showcase their products and encourage us to buy them - but hey, we've all got a living to make.

And as long as we live in a society organised along capitalist lines, I guess we should be pleased at the growing number of vegan-friendly products on the market.

But I digress.

Two recent reports seem to suggest that the impact of beef farming is worse than previously thought, both environmentally - apparently the production of one kg of beef causes about 1 tonne of CO2 to be emitted - and on human health: it has been reported today that some scientists reckon regular red meat consumption is responsible for about one in seven premature deaths.

Of course the meat industry has been quick to denounce these reports - well, it would, wouldn't it?

I don't know the truth about these things, but I'll keep erring on the side of caution!

Meanwhile I look forward to being inspired by some of the hundreds of devoted activists campaigning against speciesism at Vegfest...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Abolition of Work?

In 1985 Bob Black wrote 'The Abolition of Work', an essay which called into question the relationship most of us have with employment and employers.

He noted that most of us spend more time with our co-workers and bosses than we do with our family, friends or lovers, that for most of that time most of us are engaged in tasks we don't much enjoy (and sometimes are of questionable social value too) and asked whether that was the best way of organising our lives.

Of course, such ideas seem almost commonplace now (someone much more clever than me once observed that no-one, on their deathbed, wishes they'd spent more time working, but almost everyone laments time spent apart from their loved ones), but they certainly didn't 27 years ago.

Anyway, with unemployment rising fast (particularly among young people and women) perhaps now is a good time to revisit these questions: in short, perhaps we should stop worrying about how to create jobs for jobs' sake and instead focus our efforts on how to promote happiness and well-being, perhaps by redefining social attitudes to work.

I'm not talking about just making it easier for people to work part-time, or job-share, or to find better ways of valuing the unpaid caring, parenting, housekeeping or voluntary work so many of us spend so much of our time doing (though all of those things matter greatly) - I'm talking about changing the nature of society so we all do less work and have more leisure time, even if we've got less material possessions to show for it.

If we want to do this, a good place to start is surely in schools, which increasingly seem to be just about giving pupils the skills they'll need in the workplace - and incarcerating them in the day-time to allow their parents to work all day too.

Perhaps they should be more about having fun, and learning the skills needed to live a long, and, crucially, happy, life.


Tory councillors storm out of community meeting... again!

Yesterday Tory councillors Tony Janio and Dawn Barnett stormed out of a meeting of the Brighton and Hove Community Safety Forum (CSF) - in Tony's case, for the second time in three meetings. It means that neither councillor has attended a full meeting of the forum, on which they can raise issues of community safety affecting residents of their ward, for nine months now.

Why? Simples, innit. Cos I refused to apologise for earlier remarks  warning all councillors to take care not to use racist or inflammatory language when discussing Gypsies or Travellers.

Tony felt - although they clearly weren't - that my original comments were directed at him. Personally I can't really understand his behaviour - which has really got under the skin of several CSF attendees (one of whom repeatedly asked him to shut up during his pre-exit speech yesterday) - unless he really thinks the cap fits so well he just wants to wear it.

Perhaps what's going no is just a bullish face-saving thing, and he refuses to back down despite having edged himself into a corner.

Whatever the truth behind Tony and Dawn's behaviour it's the forum is the worse for the failure of two experienced councillors to ' take part - and it's residents of this city who, ultimately, pay the price. Especially those who, for some reason, think that Tory councillors will be able to represent the views at meetings like yesterday's. Clearly they can't represent anyone if they won't even take part!

Anyway my next step will be to write to Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald, asking him to reaffirm his party's commitment to working with communities and the police at the CSF by replacing Tony and dawn with two members who will.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Becoming Anonymous must be a fundamental right in a free society

Becoming anonymous is a powerful tool for anyone trying to change anything in society. It comes with some pretty major advantages: the sublimation of ego gives a certain purity to any protester's message - it also helps activists not to get caught if they end up doing anything illegal.

But it also has its down sides: principally that your anonymous identity can be tarnished by anyone at all (we saw an example of that just yesterday, when it emerged that a hacker claiming to represent ther uniquitous 'Anonymous' group was working alongside anti-abortion campaigners here in Brighton.

The 'Anonymous' group - such it has any consistent identity at all, is more usually identified with action against Governments and banks than health services. I think it's pretty unlikely that the group - such that it is a group at all - would be involved in a pro-life campaign in the first place. But hey, that's one of Anonymous's great strengths, really, that you just can't tell who's doing what.

That's why repressive regimes around the world - and the police here in the UK - have tried so hard to outlaw the wearing of masks, balaclavas or anything which grants anonymity to protesters, demonstrators or anyone opposed to existing power hierarchies.

None of us asked to be born into a particular society - that's just one of those accidents of fate that befall us all during the crazy journey we call life - so it does seem pretty fundamental that we should have the right to act anonymously.

Anyway, I'm only writing this as an excuse to share this brilliant photo, which shows Green MEPs wearing 'Anonymous' masks during a recent debate at the European Parliament on some pretty nasty proposals to change copyright law across the EU.

And to talk up one of my favourite book/film combos, V for Vendetta, which includes a glorious scene in which tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, protected by the anonymity of wearing identical Guy Fawkes masks, descend on the House of Commons and manage to topple a brutal Tory dictatorship in a UK of the near future, and one of the best lines of political philosophy ever:

"People shouldn't be afraid of their Governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."

Here's a clip. I don't pretend to own the copyright. If anyone who does wishes me to take it down, just get in touch and I will. I've no wish to go to prison or have my life destroyed or anything for violating intellectual property laws.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Is it time for a city without ads?

In 2007 Sao Paolo in Brazil became the first city in the world to ban advertising hoardings.

The move was designed to de-clutter the city's visual environment, protect its citizens from the rapacious consumer culture that is fuelling a personal debt crisis and the status anxiety of needing to keep up with the neighbours, and open up some of the 'hidden areas' behind adverts to improve community safety.

On all three counts, it has been judged to have been a success.

As cuts bite, and more 'core' services are being funded by selling advertising space, and allowing companies to 'brand' public infrastructure (consider, for example, the 'Adidas' logos prominent on basketball hoops in playgrounds around the city) is it time for Brighton and Hove to adopt the same policy?

Proud father moment of the day

Some of you will have seen this before. I'm shameless - I just don't care. You can watch it again. There are some special moments in life: your first kiss, your first spliff, the first time you get work published (and paid for!) - well if you're a writer or an artist - the first time you climb a mountain, being present at the birth of your first child, the first time you stand for public election, and so on.

But in anyone's books one of those moments must be the first time you hear the output of a child's first band - especially when they're eight years old and it's a punk band called Violent Vomit.

I hope you enjoy it - even though I realise you won't do so anything like as much as I do. But watch for them in a few years time: Polly and Sammy really are Brighton's answer to The White Stripes. As Polly says, 'Enjoy!'

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Will someone do a Sex Pistols for the Diamond Jubilee?

An extra day off's always welcome, but I'm already getting sick and tired of hearing about the Jubilee. It's almost as bad as the bloody Olympics.

I was inspired to see that Republic - a campaign group advocating for the abolition of the monarchy - have called a national demonstration on June 3rd to mark the occasion.

With a 'Smash EDO' demonstration against illegal arms dealers in Brighton taking place the next day, it'll be a busy, but fun, weekend.

I do hope no-one (except of course members of the Royal family and arms manufacturers and traders) are significantly inconvenienced by either demonstration - I'll certainly be asking police here in Brighton to take a very low-profile approach to the Smash EDO demo in the hope that trouble (which usually flares up between a small minority of protesters and the police) won't happen. It stands to reason, really, that if one 'side' doesn't turn up, you can hardly have a fight - and it's always been the case that a tiny minority of protesters who turn up at Brighton peace protests are, ironically, apparently more interested in a ruck with the coppers than much else.

That said, there's bound to be a few complaints about disruption - there always are: but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, as they say, and, in both cases, the whole point is to make a public noise and be noticed.

Of course in both cases if there's any 'trouble' the protesters will be blamed by the police and the media, because they always are, regardless of the facts.

Anyway, back to the Jubilee. The badges are already doing the rounds - campaign group Coalition of Resistance wins the prize for coming up with my fave design so far with their 'Stuff the Jubilee - Stop the cuts' motif, but perhaps what we need most this June, if any of these campaigns are to make any lasting difference, is a band that can emulate the Sex Pistols, who managed, 35 years ago, to capture the public mood, and spoil a monarchists' party or two, with their classic version of 'God save the Queen'.

Of course, it's quite reasonable to ask: 'What difference did they make?' Well, we've still got the monarchy, but the British public was introduced to a whole new type of freedom to disrespect authority, and we haven't really looked back.

Oh, there's also the small matter of the influence the band, and the song, had on the world of music, and popular culture more generally.

Why I think the Kony 2012 campaign is ace - and why I'm not a pacifist


If you've got a spare half an hour - and aren't one of the 50 million-odd people who have already done so in the past week - I urge you to watch this video.

If nothing else, you'll have something to talk about if you're going on a date tonight.

But, seriously, it's attracted a lot of comment from both sides of the argument.

Of course, it's impossible not to be disgusted with the terrible crimes against humanity it documents (it tells a simplified version of the story of the Lord's Resistance Army, a weird rebel faction that has been abducting children by the tens of thousands, turning them into child soldiers or sex slaves, in central Africa for over the past three decades or so).

But the video - and the campaign that has produced it, Invisible Children, has come in for criticism, for oversimplifying a complex issue, for encouraging US military intervention in Africa, and for playing a bit fast and loose with the facts.

These charges are all quite serious, and important: US military intervention is rarely (ever?) the answer to human rights abuses and there is a real danger that, by helping the Ugandan military, the US is helping legitimise another African dictator, Yoweri Museveni, a notable homophobe and election-rigger.

But as far as I'm concerned, it's always impossible to judge the rights and wrongs of foreign military engagements and rebellions from afar - look at Libya: women's rights are going backwards thanks to the NATO intervention that led to the collapse of the brutal Gadaffi regime. Hardly the plan.

I genuinely don't know whether the arrest of Joseph Kony would make much difference, or whether lending legitimacy to yet another central African dictator will make things much worse, and in what time frame.

I don't believe any journalism can be value-free, or even that there can be a non-theory-laden objective observation in the first place, so I'm not too bothered about the charges that the video is a bit inaccurate in places: in short, what story isn't, really?

But there's one thing I AM sure of, and that is many on the left are scared of the very idea of military intervention to stand up for human rights abroad - and I think that minimum standards of decency and the idea that, for example, it's always wrong to deny children the right to life, require an international community that is prepared to use force to uphold them when needs be.

The problem has all too often been the way such intervention is carried out: only by countries with a vested interest, and only in situations where a successful outcome can be measured in economic, not humanitarian, terms.

So if this campaign does persuade Governments, in the US or anywhere else, to intervene in situations where they have no particular national interest in order to protect universally-affirmed human rights, tat'll be a good thing, to my mind.

And if it persuades the rest of us to expand our moral horizon and care more about the plight of others around the world - and not just keep selfishly banging on about protecting our national interest (about which, personally, I care not a jot) that'll be a good thing too.

So I think, despite the valid criticism, the Kony 2012 campaign is ace - and that's why I'm not a pacifist.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Food - a fundamental human right?

Food, water, shelter, companionship: these are the basic building blocks without which we can't, as a species, survive.

It follows that if states are to guarantee the universally agreed human right to life itself, they must guarantee these building blocks: it's not enough just not to kill people, or establish a legal framework that stops people directly killing each other.

It has to be observed that most states aren't especially good at this - I recently saw how UK citizens have chipped in to the tune of £73m to buy food and water for starving residents of East Africa. But famines don't just happen in Afrtica - today, for example, I literally encountered a handful of street homeless people begging for food on the streets of Brighton. Real poverty is getting worse here in the UK as the economy continues to struggle and as Government spending cuts bite.

That looks to me pretty much like prima facie evidence that the UK Government is failing in its international duty to protect the right to life - and should face prosecution.

Of course, legal processes themselves don't change anything, and prosecuting the UK Government isn't, in itself, gonna put any food in anyone's mouth.

But it will do something important: make the argument clearer so that cutting housing benefits to the most vulnerable in a way that is bound to lead to an increase in homelessness will be seen in human rights terms, thus changing the nature of the political debate.

The international community isn't much good at speaking with one voice when it comes to upholding the human rights treaties they all keep signing up to: China and Russia have, for example, blocked any UN criticism (let alone action!) of the ongoing massacre of civilians by the Syrian government.

So, I'm not holding my breath: but perhaps recognising that following policies that exacerbate hunger and homelessness breach human rights law might just be something world leaders can agree on: after all, none of them think they actually do this so it's hardly the turkeys voting for Christmas scenario it seems!

Now that would be something positive to come out of the UK's current presidency of the Council of Europe...

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Reflections on International Women's Day

Today, March 8th, is International Women's Day.

And with a Tory Government making life harder for women at every turn - removing services and reducing benefits predominantly used by women while pursuing economic policies that are seeing unemployment among women faster than in men - it's sorely needed here in the UK.

Locally too, women are bearing the brunt of sexual violence, rising unemployment - and even protests outside sexual health clinics.

I'm really proud that, under a Green Party watch, Brighton and Hove has agreed to go further than the law requires on equalities issues, and that the impact on women is considered before every major decision is taken.

But of course that's nowhere near enough.

I think it's worth reflecting that feminism can never be politically neutral. International Women's Day itself was born of International Socialism, and I believe we can never rid the world of discrimination until we start to organise the world along co-operative, rather than capitalist lines: in other words, it's not who holds the power that's the problem, it's the power itself. It's not the lack of women of corporate boards that is the problem, it's the fact that corporate boards have so much clout over our lives in the first place. Far more women are discriminated against by capitalist structures than could ever benefit from making those structures more equal - something that's logically impossible anyway.

So to mark my commitment to International Women's Day I'll be doing two specific things: I'm proudly wearing my Fawcett Society 'This Is What A Feminist Looks Like' T-shirt, and I won't be shopping today.

Oh I'll also be tipping my hat to the punks and squatters of Copenhagen who have fought for the free social space that made IWD possible in the first place in the face of some pretty nasty Government and police repression.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Desperate Tories remove requirement to be a party member for election candidates

I've been involved in politics for a few years now, and they say there's nothing new under the sun.

But there is, and now I've seen it: the local Tory party is so desperate for candidates to stand in Brighton and Hove's 2015 local elections it has abandoned the requirement that anyone seeking the office should be a member of the Tory Party.

Of course they are claiming this is all about democracy, and broadening their 'church' or 'tent' (or whatever weird metaphor is in vogue this week).

But that argument just doesn't stack up. Just last week the Tories were making the argument, publicly, that only people 'born and bred in Brighton and Hove' were fit to make decisions about the city. Hardly inclusive.

The Tories are cutting housing benefits to the most vulnerable in the city. Hardly inclusive.

They, along with their Labour coalition partners in the city, have fiercely opposed changing meeting times to allow parents of young children to participate. Hardly inclusive.

It does however raise the intriguing possibility that anyone opposed to the Tories - and the destruction they wrought on this city, and attacks on its most vulnerable citizens, during the 2007-2011 council 'term' - can seek to represent the party, either with the intention of getting elected and then abandoning the Tory 'whip', or with the intention of changing the party from the inside.

Either way, this looks to be a funny way of doing politics, and we can expect defections and an end to the Mears-Theobald show that has so dominated the party for years.