France’s General Election: Whoever wins, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Daniel Crump 

Image © Nicolas SAL1

For a time, it appeared as though someone was benefitting from the 2008 financial crisis. A perception that the political left cannot be trusted in times of recession meant that voters across Europe unseated left of centre governments in favour of the centre right. Put simply, it appeared as though the advocates of small government and austerity had won themselves at least a decade of uncontested control.

A mere two years later, it has become clear that this picture was never going to be as simple as it once appeared. Most opinion polls in Britain place the opposition Labour Party ahead of the ruling coalition. In Spain, strikes are as common as siestas, due to a widely unpopular €27 Billion austerity package. In the Netherlands, a major cheerleader of Merkel’s austerity drive, the government has lost majority support in parliament due to disagreement about budget cuts.

In further contrast, it is almost certain that the centre right will be the ones who are defeated in the second round of the French Presidential election a week today, in favour of a self professed socialist. If Mr Hollande does what many are expecting him to do and unseats Sarzoky, he will be bringing with him a radically different set of policies from ones we have come to expect in times of economic stagnation. He has promised a 75% top rate of income tax, a reversal of Sarkozy’s rise in the retirement age and a separation of retail and investment banking to curb France’s dependency on the financial sector.

To make matters a little more complicated, the perception of economic credibility does not appear to be translating into overall public support. The unpopular British Conservative party continues to lead Labour on questions about economic competency. They score 44% in opinion polls as opposed to Labour’s 31%. A similar picture is found in France where the otherwise trailing incumbent leads Hollande by 14% in terms of ability to make difficult economic decisions.

The French election gives some insight into why such a confused picture has blanketed Western Europe. Several economic commentators, including the Economist, have been arguing for some time that the Presidential contenders were all doing a brilliant job of avoiding the existential problem that France is facing. France’s public spending accounts for 65% of GDP as opposed to an OECD average of 43%. Public debt is slowly reaching 90% and could conceivably reach 100% by next year. Once one takes into account France’s lack of competitiveness, in terms of exports, social charges and youth unemployment, it becomes utterly baffling that perceived economic competency is not translating into votes for France’s centre right President. Instead, they prefer to see a reversal of Sarkozy’s modest economic reforms and yet more public spending, paid for by taxing 75% of the earnings of the wealthiest few.

Put bluntly, Europe’s politicians are failing to convince their electorate of the long term necessities for economic reform. Their chosen economic philosophy, which they presumably believe in wholeheartedly, is failing to persuade citizens. As a result, far too many European elections are becoming either referendums on personality or unnecessary, unhealthy and divisive squabbles over class or race.  Read more of this post

Radical cooperatism can deliver fairer capitalism

Mike Morgan-Giles

Image © Uli Harder

2012 has been officially named by the United Nations as the International Year of Cooperatives. They are widely recognised as being a force for good – with the impact of cooperatives extending from housing to community shops to football clubs.

Yet it appears this is an opportunity that the Government plans to let slip. By the end of this Parliament, their only commitment to a cooperative agenda will likely have been the conversion of public services from being state run to being cooperative led.

While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is an indication that the Coalition views cooperatives and mutuals as mechanisms to disengage the state from the provision of public services, rather than because they genuinely believe in the development of a cooperative economy and society.

On the other hand, Labour has held a historic connection to the cooperative movement, with the Co-operative Party having been a sister organisation since 1927. In fact, there are 29 Co-operative Party MPs, with further representation in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and in local government.

The MPs range from senior figures like Ed Balls and Stephen Twigg, to fast up and comers such as Stella Creasy and Luciana Berger. This is a Parliamentary coalition that should be utilised to promote a new consensus on the companies where people work, the shops and services that people use and the places where people live.

Earlier this year, the Government said that they intend to introduce a Cooperatives Bill in the upcoming Queens Speech on 9th May. This is to be cautiously welcomed, but undoubtedly the devil is in the detail.

Creating a genuinely cooperative society requires more than just a bill – it requires direction, policies and an end target. There are around 13 million cooperative members within the UK, all of varying degree, but the ambition should be to involve almost every person across the country in one way or another.

The left therefore need to start laying out what is required in law to make this a reality. A good start would undoubtedly be simplifying the rules around starting a cooperative or mutual and providing advice to do so. But there is a need to go a great deal further.

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this

Daniel Crump 

Image © Que Comunismo

Initially, South America’s near continent-wide economic expansion meant great advantages for the rest of the Western world. In the opening decade of the century, with Argentina largely at the mercy of the IMF, South America was led mostly by governments that the West could do business with. For better or worse for the people of South America, this meant that the West had stronger trading partners, a decline in drug related violence and yet another example of liberal, free-market economics becoming the default setting for any nation that wished to exist within the international community.

This was also a time when we knew how to differentiate the good guys from the bad. Across the border from Colombia, and 90 miles off the coast of Florida, lay Latin America’s answer to the Axis of Evil. With the menacing prospect of further international terrorism following September 11th, US President George W Bush was able to maintain a healthy distance between Pro and Anti US Latin America. Nowhere was this more evident than between neighbours Colombia and Venezuela. The Bush administration was able to manipulate this relationship by placing US military bases on Colombian soil which were, in the US’s own words, designed as a launch pad for military operations against Anti US Latin American Governments.  South American politics seemed to fit so neatly into the US world-view.

Fast forward to the present day and something rather unexpected seems to have taken place; South American governments are increasingly beginning to think for themselves. Last month’s Organisation of American States (OAS) Summit was the biggest indication yet of the diverging paths taken by South and North America. At the discussion table were measures such as the legalisation of the drugs trade, British claims over ‘Las Malvinas’ and Cuba’s absence from the summit talks. With better relations between Colombia and Venezuela and an increasing desire to settle internal matters through UNASUR rather than the OAS, South America is speaking with its own voice and making its own decisions. The most significant development of South American integration is surely the growing contribution of the Continent’s left-wing bloc.

South American Integration

During the Bush Administration it was clear that the OAS took the majority of decisions affecting the American region. The Organisation was largely designed to satisfy North American goals such as the fights against terrorism and the illegal drugs trade. Cuba was suspended from talks between 1962-2009 and there appears to be no pressing need to reinstate them.

Since then, both the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have gained a more influential voice. ALBA stands for a rejection of trade liberalization and free trade agreements, preferring to project a vision of mutual economic aid transfers, bartering and social welfare. UNASUR is becoming ever more effective at curbing the influence of the US in South America by resolving the Colombian Venezuelan conflict and agreeing to prohibit US military bases in Colombia being used for military purposes outside of Colombian soil. Read more of this post

Tests don’t hold all the answers

Daniel Mann

Image © Mackius

A-levels, GCSEs, GCEs, Highers, Standard Grades, 11-plus, and SATs. Comprehensives, key stages, and grammars. Sixth form, primary, secondary, and reception. What does it all mean, what is the point, and most importantly, why do several acronyms and how one performs on them determine the course of one’s life?

Each of the acronyms above represent either a standardized test itself, or something that is determined by standardized test. A-levels are often the sole factor where one goes to university, GCSEs the sole factor in determining if and where one goes to sixth form, and in several places, one test an the early age of eleven years old determines the outcome of two more standardized tests by determining the quality of education that one receives.

Ostensibly, the purpose of standardized testing is to determine what educational stream a child should be put into, as well as determining how successful he or she is likely to be. The issue that arises here is one of educational diversity. No two people are exactly alike and, as such, no two people learn in the same way. Some are excellent in a testing situation while others perform better in a practical assessment than an exam. Education and testing is an issue which the Labour Party has historically been indecisive on, having overseen the implementation of the Tripartite System – whose sole determinant was the 11 plus to making plans to eliminate state grammar schools.

In opposition, it is incumbent upon the Labour Party to set out a clear, concise and workable education manifesto, especially having seen the effects of such Coalition-driven legislation such as the Academies Bill. The answer is not to do away with standardized testing in its entirety, but it is not practical nor is it fair to put an emphasis on testing above all else and also to attempt to stream children at the age of 11 as is done in several local authorities with, in many cases, no chance for reassessment at a later age.

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Guest Blog: Gendercide and The West

Ram Mashru

This article was written for It’s A Girl, a film about gendercide in South Asia. It originally appeared here.

Gendercide is the unreported tragedy of our age.

I was one of those guilty of dismissing gendercide as an Asian problem. Surely, unwanted female foetuses were aborted there, in illegal clinics, not here. And surely unwanted daughters were killed there, in forgotten villages, not here. The egalitarian Shangri-La that is ‘The West’ would never allow unwanted daughters to be eliminated in this way. Surely? The shocking truth, I discovered, is that gendercide is a global tragedy.

An Oxford University study revealed that between 1995 and 2005, 1500 girls “disappeared” among Indian communities in England and Wales. Sex selective abortions are the only plausible explanation. If the study is correct, the figures mean that 1 in 10 extra girls, who should have been born according to normal birth statistics, were selectively aborted. Sex-selective abortions are illegal in the UK under the 1967 Abortion Act and yet, as the recent investigation carried out by The Telegraph exposed, families can and presumably have had pregnancies terminated here. Doctors, being secretly filmed, agreed to falsify paperwork to circumvent legal prohibitions even though they recognised the immorality of ‘female infanticide’. Sex-selective abortions are, shockingly, legal in the US and the post-communist states of east Europe all have unnatural discrepancies in their birth gender ratios.

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Clowns to the Left of me, jokers to the Right

Craig Berry

Image © The Prime Minister's Office

In 2010 David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to measuring levels of happiness. There’s more to life than money, he argued. Accordingly, the Office for National Statistics included four questions on ‘subjective well-being’ in the Annual Population survey for the first time in April 2011.

This is the sound of the Conservative Party moving away, albeit very tentatively, from neoliberalism. The economic downturn has not altered but reinforced Cameron’s point of view on this. His support for measuring happiness, alongside GDP, derives instead from his profound commitment to conservative ideology.

As New Labour’s ‘accommodation’ to neoliberalism and the Thatcher legacy became stronger rather than weaker – contrary to early promises – Cameron carved a space for himself in promoting traditional English values in contrast to Labour’s fanatical modernisation.

It would be easy, and not unjustifiable, for the left to be cynical about what the government is doing. But the left’s bêtes noires of recent decades, the neoliberals, are also cynical, and in some cases incensed – see for example Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod’s research for the free market think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs. And take another look at the speech on happiness Cameron gave in November 2010. He contrasts the pursuit of happiness in public policy with three shining examples of a neoliberal agenda in action: immigration, cheap booze, and consumerism.

This does not mean there is not a major flaw in the government’s thinking. In terms of measuring social progress, the effectiveness of happiness measures are undermined by the fact that, as Johns and Ormerod point out, people always say seven. The ONS asked people ‘how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’, ‘to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’, and ‘how happy did you feel yesterday?’; across all three questions, three-quarters of people said seven out of ten. (When the question was posed in more negative terms, that is ‘how anxious did you feel yesterday?’, the vast majority said three out of ten.)

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The UK needs another airport, London doesn’t

Andrew Calderwood

Image © Curt Smith

The 3rd of May 2012 marks the culmination of the London mayoral elections. Amid the announcement that seven candidates have joined the fight to become the next mayor, campaigning for the position is building up a head of steam.[1] Each contender is currently being put to the test and their aims for the next four years are being scrutinised as their suitability for the role is examined. The current incumbent, Boris Johnson, is aiming to secure re-election, arguably with the aspiration of securing a legacy. In an effort to advance his reputation and to gain the support of his peers, it looks as if he is maintaining his ambition to eventually succeed David Cameron as the leader of the Conservative party.

Although Boris Johnson may currently be concerned with more pressing matters such as issues with the economy, policing and transport within London, an issue that has not gone unnoticed is that of the proposed construction of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Boris Johnson has made it clear that while he is the Mayor of London, he will not sanction the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. A host of negative implications that it would mean for much of West London has seen him confirm that a new hub airport situated on the Thames Estuary is his preferred choice. In contrast, the Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, arguably the strongest rival to Boris Johnson in his quest for re-election, has aligned his support to the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport and the formation of a third runway.[2]

Each of the aforementioned options are deemed, by virtue of various supporters, to be effective ways of dealing with the increasing capacity demands currently afflicting UK aviation. David Cameron has stated that the UK must ‘retain its status as a key global hub for air travel.’[3] In recognition of the need to increase airport size in the Southeast, further expansion in the region would allow the UK to remain competitive against its European rivals within the business and tourism sectors, while creating a boost to the economy.

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Are you with U.S or against US?

Daniel Crump 

Image © eltiempo.com

Some may view the behaviour of the US secret service agents this week in Colombia as a further sign of the growing discontent between the US and the rest of Latin America. The sheer audacity of these professional individuals, tasked with securing the safety of President Obama, carries with it an ugly reminder of the disrespect that characterised US attitudes towards Latin Americans in a period of time thought to be long resigned to history.

A recurring theme at this year’s Organisation of American States (OAS) was the ever- growing divide between North and South America, ranging from issues such as the British claim over the Falkland Islands, to the de-criminalisation of the drugs trade. This is in line with the economic dissociation that has seen the decline of US influence in the region and the gains made by China as a result. Chile and Peru, along with Brazil, the economic powerhouse of the continent, now have closer trading links with the Chinese than the US, with Colombia and Argentina likely to follow suit. Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank stated in a pre-summit report that ‘”Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs and with declining capacity to propose and carry out strategies to deal with the issues that most concern them.”

For instance, South American leaders argue that the legalisation of drugs would put a large dent in the profits made by the trade and help to reduce drug related violence that has crippled South American economies and deprived them of much needed foreign investment. Predictably, any hopes of US enthusiasm for the policy were soon dashed, but Obama did concede that the United States is the region’s biggest consumer of illegal drugs and has a responsibility to reduce demand.

Also, on the 30th anniversary of the conflict, Argentina’s request for a negotiation of the Falkland Island’s sovereignty from Britain was supported by a handful of leaders including Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro who said ‘there should be no colonial possessions in our America’. Again, the US opposed this sentiment.

Perhaps most significant of all was the debate surrounding the makeup of the organisation itself. Rather unsurprisingly, Cuba was ostracised from proceedings as it has been since the birth of the OAS. A more surprising development was the Bolivian President Eva Morales’s claim that this ought to be the last OAS summit without Cuba. Latin America is largely united in their opposition to the US trade embargo of Cuba, and the absence of Castro provoked Ecuador to boycott the summit altogether. Read more of this post

Guest Blog: Forget Rio’s infamous favela: I’ve seen it all in Liverpool

Vicki Kellaway

Image © Vicki Kellaway

I sat down at my computer today to tell you how I walked around a favela, one of those notoriously impoverished, crime-ridden communities huddled on the hills of Rio de Janeiro. But I’ve changed my mind. Instead I’m going to tell you a story about a land far away – 5,800 miles to be exact.

It was 7.30pm on Good Friday when my news editor wandered past my desk. “You know what darlin’,” she said (she really talks like that) “There’s a 13-year-old girl who’s been missing two days now. She might just have run away but, you know, it’s a quiet night. Why don’t you go and have a chat with her mum and see what happened?”

Forty minutes later, I pulled onto a street in which mine was the only car. I parked, I knocked and the girl’s mother let me in. Her house was bare, save for a few chairs on the carpet-free floor and a sofa that had seen better days. There was a puppy and several kids though, including an eight-year-old who had his nose pressed against the window.

“Is that your car?” he asked me excitedly. “What is it?”

“It’s a Vauxhall Corsa,” I replied, trying not to smile.

Four years have passed since that night but I remember it perfectly. It either altered the way I see the world or it confirmed simmering doubts I didn’t know I had. The girl’s mother was vague. Her kid was a runner – always disappearing somewhere. Maybe she was being bullied at school but, then again, maybe she wasn’t even going to school. Her mother had no idea.

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How to ruin the Party

Daniel Mann

Image © Don Shall

It’s another slightly grey Monday here, and things seem as they always are. The city wakes up to a new day and a new week. As ever, Labour has control over the City Council, and down in Westminster, the ConDems are as muddling and incompetent as ever. To a certain extent, I think we in the Labour Party still don’t entirely understand why we’re in opposition, at least not from an internal perspective. But I’ll get to that in just a minute. First, let me introduce myself. I’m Dan, 21, BA in International Relations and currently an MSc student in Social Change at a certain North West redbrick university that’s a part of the Russell Group. It all sounds straightforward, right?

No, it isn’t. You see, I’m American by birth, but British by choice. I grew up in New York, but this is the second occasion that I’ve lived here in the UK. I wasn’t here for the 2010 election but, when I was living in London soon afterwards, I witnessed the numbness that we as a Party found ourselves in, having joined in mid-June of that year. But I digress. When I moved back ‘across the pond’, several months ago, I did the natural thing and plunged headfirst into local Party activities here, and I haven’t looked back. One such activity has been my involvement with my local Constituency Labour Party (CLP).

Quite recently, the CLP had its Annual General Meeting (AGM), which was, as ever, held in our Town Hall, an appealing Gothic edifice overlooking the city. As was expected, a great deal of members showed up, including quite a few whom I’d never seen at CLP meetings previous, all but one of which I’ve attended.

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