Why we should mix Politics with Sport

Georgia Lewis 

Image © Morning Calm News

This week, mass laughter has been the overwhelming reaction to the South Korean flag appearing on screen just as the North Korean women’s football team was about to take to the pitch. Cock-ups like this are funny, and are as inevitable at events on the scale of the Olympics as the overreactions from the aggrieved parties. But should North Korea even be allowed to participate in the Games at all?

It is a challenging question because, on one hand, it is a great opportunity for North Korean athletes to see a bit more of the wider world and it can help bridge gaps between the rest of the world and one of the planet’s most secretive nations. Then again, with their constant threats to world peace and internal human rights abuses, should they be banned to send a strong message to the government that it should not treat its own people so appallingly and expect to be part of the global community? But if we exclude North Korea from the Games, do we also exclude China? Bahrain? Saudi Arabia? The US, even? Hell, should my own country, Australia, be excluded as a protest against the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, including children? Pretty soon, we’d end up with a very small Olympics indeed. The modern Olympic movement has grown since 1896, when just 14 countries competed, to become a global event – regardless of what you might think of the billions of taxpayer pounds spent on the games, the principle of bringing the countries of the world together is not all bad.

But to try and separate politics from any sport, let alone the Olympics is naive in the extreme. And again, this isn’t always a bad thing. Jesse Owens’ magnificent achievement at the 1936 Berlin Games made a mockery of Hitler’s ludicrous and lethal Aryan master race ideology. The image from the 1968 Games in Mexico City of Men’s 200m gold medallist Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos with their heads down and fists raised in the black power salute is one of the most powerful protest images of all time. In 1980, the Moscow Games was marred by a 61-nation boycott led by the US over the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan – a boycott that looks rather bizarre in light of the polarising US presence in the Middle East to this day.  Read more of this post

Is Socialism on the Rise?

Alex Clackson 

Image © Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي

As the economic crisis in Europe continues to make life challenging for ordinary citizens through high unemployment rates and cuts in the public sector, people are starting to wonder whether the capitalist system, which Europe has trusted so well over so many years, is the answer to today’s woes. Over the last five years, the economy of Europe, the United States and other parts of the world has been anything but stable. Just when the population thought the recession of 2008 was coming to an end, the world was hit with another one just a few years later. In the United Kingdom, the unemployment rates for young people are soaring and the recent cuts to the public sector have angered the citizens to the point where the Coalition government no longer have the trust of the British youth. As the new generation searches for answers to today’s economic and social problems, the concept of socialism seems to be making a return.

Even though socialist principles are only starting to make an appearance, it is an extraordinary revival of a theory which was considered dead and buried after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many scholars and politicians in the 1990s proclaimed capitalism to be the outright winner of the battle of the political and economic theories on how to organise and live on our planet. And while capitalism is still currently standing on its feet, the recent economic and social troubles are hitting it hard and it seems it is only a matter of time before capitalism receives a knockout blow. Whether socialism will step up to prove to the world that it can save our planet is highly debatable and too early to say. But the recent polls in America certainly show that people are willing to give Marx another try.  Read more of this post

Interview with Paul Burstow MP

Mathew Hulbert @HulbertMathew 

Image © Department of Health

Paul Burstow MP has one of the hardest jobs in UK politics, as Minister of State at the Department of Health…and a Lib Dem one at that!

He had to try and sell the largely hated (certainly among Lib Dems) NHS Bill to a sceptical public.

As a visceral opponent of the aforementioned Bill, I wasn’t, it has to be said, Mr Burstow’s biggest fan.

Whilst I continue to disagree with the Health and Social Care Bill-I still believe it is, at least in part, privatisation by the back door-I think maybe I was a little harsh on Mr Burstow himself.

At the recent Social Liberal Forum Conference, held at the Waterloo Campus of King’s College in London, I along with three other bloggers got to interview Mr Burstow.

We had meant to be speaking to Lib Dem Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes MP, but he failed to show and so we were very fortunate that Mr Burstow agreed to stand in at the last minute.

He was very generous with his time.

A colleague started by asking him about Social Care.

“About 90% of what was announced on Wednesday didn’t get any (media) coverage and about 90% will make 100% of the difference,” said Mr Burstow.

“What’s the 90%? The 90% is that we’re completely overturning the principle of the poor law that still applies to social care. We’re establishing, for the first time, that social care in England has a universal aspect to its character, that anyone who has care needs or may need care needs in the future, should have access to reliable and trusted information and advice to plan and prepare’’.

He went on, “That there should be a universal offer of preventative services to stop people needing care in the first place, to help them age healthily. That there should be a responsibility on the Council to ensure there’s a sufficiency and quality of care available in their community, just not the ones that the Government will pay for, but for everyone.”

“Also, Councils do need to work in partnership with the NHS but also with housing. You can’t actually have wellbeing if you only fix the health and the care needs, you’ve got to address the housing needs as well as part of that. So, that’s the big revolutionary sort of change in what we’re proposing.”  Read more of this post

Afghanistan: Will it Survive After the USA Withdrawal?

Alex Clackson 

Image © DVIDSHUB

As the United States plans to leave Afghanistan in 2014, two main questions arise. Firstly, have the USA managed to achieve any substantial goals in increasing security and stability and in the last ten years and secondly will Afghanistan be able to survive after the occupation of the country comes to an end in 2014?

Unfortunately the answer to both questions is no. While the Taliban and other terrorist organization activity is low at the moment, it is only a matter of time before they make a return after the USA has pulled out from Afghanistan. The question here though is political, not military. It is a question of depriving the Taliban of their most powerful weapon, which is the claim that they are defending Afghanistan and their enemies are non-Muslim foreigners. A swift withdrawal of Coalition forces from the front line would be a very painful test for the Afghan military, though they would be free to choose their battles. The central problem with President Obama’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan has always been his deadline. The Taliban claim that we have the watches, but they have the time. And the President has already compromised our war effort(s) by setting deadlines for troop withdrawals that are unconnected to the end state his strategy seeks to achieve.

But the reason why Afghanistan may be heading toward anarchy is not simply due to the Afghan National Army’s lack of military preparedness to fight an insurgency without foreign support. Rather, some of the most challenging problems that the government must face once the U.S. leaves will be economic. Today, the United States and its allies provide the government of Afghanistan with the vast majority of its operating budget. American taxpayers have not only built up schools, hospitals, government ministries, and the Afghan National Army and police force; they have also paid the salaries of those who man these institutions. Further, U.S. military and foreign assistance operations in Afghanistan support many thousands of soldiers, foreign aid workers, and contractors, who pump millions of dollars into the local economy.  Read more of this post

The State of School Dinners

Osmi Anannya 

Image © USDAgov

Jamie Oliver has renewed his series of attacks on Michael Gove, after the Education Secretary appointed Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the dynamic twosome from the healthy fast-food chain, Leon, to examine school dinners in Britain. Oliver, who has been relentlessly campaigning for bringing about healthier alternatives in school meals for many years now, toxically remarked that another expensive review of the situation is really not required and more should be invested in getting involved in the matter and bringing about a positive change. Oliver has also criticised Gove’s decision to not include academies and free schools in the legal requirement framework, which states that school meals must adhere to certain basic nutritional standards, because he trusts the professionals in such institutions to act in the best interest of the pupils.

It seems an odd decision to pick the men from Leon to carry out the examination, even though they do admirably have a good record of producing healthy, tasty food with a commercial perspective, because so do many other restaurateurs around the country. The co-founders of Leon are to chart up an “action plan” to ensure improvements in the standards of school food, as well as determine, more broadly, what role food plays in school life, in an attempt to make more nutritious and tasty food available to school children.

Labour set minimum nutritional standards for school food in England in 2008 – 2009 and spent millions of pounds transforming menus to include healthier options, following Jamie’s School Dinners (2005) show on television. The show had revealed how unhealthy much of the school food in England was. In fact, a survey carried out by the School Food Trust, just a few days before Gove’s recent decision regarding the situation, found that only about 22.5 % of schools provided pupils with the standard requirement of at least one portion of fruit and vegetables a day. Around a half of secondary schools, the survey also found, served up pizza and starchy food, cooked mostly in unhealthy oils.

Michael Gove’s intentions to re-examine the situation is perhaps commendable in the sense that getting a different point of view about the situation will help to deliver a better plan than simply listening to everything that Jamie Oliver has to say about the issue. The point remains though, that in order to improve standards in school food, Gove should not delay the work to be undertaken to deal with the crisis.

In the UK, around 27% of children are overweight, which at the present moment is the highest in Europe. The Government’s Foresight report suggests that this is expected to get worse with 40% of Britons expected to be obese by 2025. An obesity epidemic seems to be just looming over the horizon for Britain, and appropriate measures should really be taken to curb the situation before it becomes truly problematic. Apart from the health problems-aspect, an obesity epidemic also has an adverse effect on the emotional make-up of children.  Read more of this post

The World Turned Upside Down

Dominic Turner @dominic_turner

Image © Scorpions and Centaurs

In the week that yet more fraud in the banker’s paradise, called The City of London, was exposed, we find the media establishment closing ranks, bemoaning the destruction of trust between the British people and the corrupt iron triangle of politicians, journalists and the financial sector. Indeed, a recent poll revealed only ten and thirteen percent of the public trusted bankers and journalists respectively (and I’m surprised the figure is that high). I can hear it now, the political class crying into their next bottle of Jacobs Creek about the tragic decline of trust in British public life, before trotting out the same self righteous protestations that most people enter public life for noble causes such as cutting taxes for the super rich or slashing benefits for the disabled

I for one find solace in the fact that ordinary people can see these institutions for what they are. Instruments of entrenched privilege almost always inherited or attained through brutality. Why should one shred of faith be placed in institutions that have only served to swindle and actively lobby for the robbery and deceit of the British people? A political class, provided with cover from a servile and supine media establishment, who sent hundreds of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians to their deaths, bankrolled by their friends in the financial sector, deserve all the contempt they have earned

However, an unrelenting scepticism of the motives of all public institutions can sometimes lead the impressionable down the blind and treacherous trenches of conspiracy theories. I am in no doubt that the centres of power in London and Washington would like nothing better than for the left to be distracted by absurd and illogical lectures that 9/11 and 7/7 were inside jobs, from someone who has become an expert on structural engineering after spending twenty minutes on the internet. Moreover, conspiracy theories perpetuate this very sense of hopelessness, and give a certain amount of comfort to the lazy amidst our ranks who refuse to believe that civil disobedience, striking and occupying can change society. How could they possibly hope to change the international order if they believe the insane proposition that the world is run by the Jews, or the Freemasons or the Reptilian Humanoids? The plots to undermine and crush the lives of ordinary people are not hatched in smoke filled rooms, but across the policy tables of Whitehall and board rooms of Barclays PLC. The truth, hidden in plain sight, is that something can, and must, be done. And we can only tread the march of human progress in trust and solidarity.  Read more of this post

British Aerospace Industry: Winners and Losers

Laurel 

Image © bisgovuk

Dr. Vince Cable captured headlines today when he announced a boost in Government investment for research in the aerospace industry.  Dr Cable is quoted in the Times as stating ‘This sector is one of our winners. There is nothing wrong in Government getting behind a sector, a successful industry, a large employer, one with such growth potential’.

Some of the money is going to fund 500 new aeronautical post-graduate university places, but a large slice – some £40m – is apparently to be invested in a Rolls-Royce led low carbon aircraft engine project called Siloet.

Investment in industry is to be welcomed. One can`t help feeling though that this is just the Government jumping on a bandwagon and that the Rolls-Royce led project may not really need the government contribution. This is a company that charged some £463m of R&D expenditure in its 2011 financial statements and capitalised another £93m. With a profit before tax of some £1.1bn after charging the above £463m of R&D it hardly seems to need another £40m from the Government to help fund the project, although no doubt it will be welcomed.

On 10 July the BBC reported the Government announcement that 27 Remploy factories were to close putting 1,471 jobs at risk.

The two stories present a stark contrast, perhaps an unfair one. But whilst the former presents a picture of a government with imagination and willingness to invest, the latter seems like a particularly unimaginative approach to the issue of employment for the disabled.

It would be much better if the government were to encourage positive discrimination by companies towards those organisations in which disabled people are employed. This approach has been adopted by some large companies in Europe, where corporate social responsibility is paid more than the lip service it often receives in the UK.

One large company VINCI S.A. has such a policy and a few extracts from its financial statements are shown below. The UK Government could do more to encourage this sort of attitude from large companies in the UK, particularly those which are as successful as Rolls-Royce.  Read more of this post

Why the House of Lords Reform is Important but Unwanted

James Nickerson

Image © UK Parliament

By now we have all heard a lot of news about the House of Lords, its role at Westminster, and the pros and cons of reform. The coalition, last night, dropped its plans for a ‘timetable’ amidst its fears of defeat. The scale of opposition from Labour sparked these fears, but it was Cameron’s own backbenchers that put the nail in the coffin. This may have served as an embarrassment for both Clegg and Cameron, but more importantly Clegg’s fantasy of reform is simmering away.

Reform of the upper chamber is not a new concept. In fact, since the Lords was formed in the 11th century it has been continuously reformed, with arguably the most important changes occurring in the 19th century: The Parliament Act of 1911 and The Parliament Act of 1949, limiting the amount of powers severely that the Lords possess. By now, the power of the House of Lords is much inferior, and rightly so, to the House of Commons. The argument, however, has now moved on from the powers of hereditary peers to an argument against the appointment of peers.

For Nick Clegg, deputy Prime Minister, the House of Lords ‘lacks legitimacy’ due to its unelected status. So what does Clegg suggest we do about this problem? The House of Lords reform plans want to reduce the chamber from 826 members to 450, with the majority (80%) being elected. The other 20% (90 members) would still be appointed, on a non-party basis. These elected members would serve a 15-year term, instead of being life members. Spiritually, the number of bishops from the Church of England would decrease from 26 to 12.

From the coalition’s point of view, this cannot be seen as anything but a defeat. Cameron, ultimately, could not achieve the numbers that he needed. Reportedly, around 100 backbenchers, led by Jesse Norman, would rebel against these proposed changes. It is convenient that Sir George Young, the leader of the Commons, would place blame on the Labour opposition, and that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, would shout about opposition for opposition’s sake. Clegg, however, has taken the view that it is ‘a plague on both their houses’. Read more of this post

The Irrelevance of the Lords Reform Bill

Eddie Hodgson 

Image © UK Parliament

Reform of the House of Lords has been taking up much of the headlines in the newspapers over the last few days. It must be the silly season when such an irrelevant subject grabs the attention of the leader writers.

Most of the (mainly) pro Tory newspapers are accusing the Lib Dems of blackmailing the Conservative Party by threatening to oppose boundary changes (that favour the Tories) if they oppose Nick Clegg’s proposals for Lords reform.

It is hard to see why anyone should care about this. The only significant facts in the proposals are that:

  • The aim is to have 300 members of the reformed House of Lords
  • The term of office for each member will be 3 parliamentary terms (15 years)
  • Members will be paid a salary

The reasons why this proposal is unnecessary and irrelevant are:

  • Assuming a salary of £75,000 per year, this will cost the taxpayer £22.5m a year. The Government should be looking at better ways to spend this considerable sum of money.
  • The present system is not perfect but it ‘ain’t broke’ so there is no need to fix it.
  • The proposed reforms would mean simply that parties nominate individuals who would vote along party lines, hardly much change from having a second House of Commons. We already have a parliament voted in along party lines and we don’t need another one.
  • The proposals are merely Nick Clegg’s attempt to show that he is trying to get Lib Dem policy enacted. This is one of the dregs left in the Lib Dem manifesto, the most important parts of the manifesto now either abandoned by Clegg for a taste of power (such as abolition of tuition fees) and others having been roundly rejected by the electorate (AV).

The main reason, however that the proposals are irrelevant is that there are much more urgent priorities for this Government than reforming the Lords.

People generally care about four main things: health, jobs, homes and friends. The Government has failed the electorate on at least two of these issues, jobs and homes. Ask any young person and they will tell you that all they want is an opportunity to work, not an internship or work experience stacking shelves at Tesco, but a real job. Usually one can rely on the market to create jobs but the market is essentially self interested and will not create opportunity unless it is in the market’s interest.

Governments on the other hand exist to carry out a duty towards the electorate. The duty is to take responsibility, where the market won’t, to ensure that the people have the opportunity to find work. That means creating jobs or incentivising the market to create opportunities. With jobs people become bigger consumers and the market itself benefits. People can afford to take out mortgages or pay rent again. But this won`t happen while the market is in ‘stall’ mode.  Read more of this post

Getting to Know the Venezuelan Opposition

Daniel Crump @dannycru 

Image © Globovision

Later this year, the citizens of Venezuela will go to the polls to decide whether the Hugo Chavez era will continue for another six years. His opponent, Henrique Capriles, head of the Democratic Unity coalition (MUD), promises Venezuela social and political reform and a return to bosom of the International Community after years of suspicion and a stint in George Bush’s Axis of Evil.

Despite the clear battle lines currently being drawn by both candidates, Mr Capriles appears to be refusing to charge in head first into an absolute criticism of the President’s rule, instead preferring to score his opponent well on some issues whilst maintaining a ‘could do better’ approach to others. This may well be because of the nature of the Chavez years, at best a passionate, nationalist defence of the spirit of Simon Bolivar, and at worst, a couple of election results away from being the 21st Century’s most unpredictable dictatorship.

Thanks to the President’s media hegemony following a failed 2002 coup against him, Venezuelans are treated to daily Presidential addresses and regularly see scheduled television programming interrupted by speeches with no set time limit. This has no doubt permeated Venezuelan way of life to the extent that even Chavez’s opponents must struggle to visualise an MUD period of power. Being so used the familiar, even when not finding it favourable, has the effect of casting dark shadows over the alternative and this is something Hugo Chavez looks set to exploit. Perhaps wisely, Capriles stays firmly on the side of caution when voicing his desire for reform.

When it comes to Venezuelan policies on oil manufacturing, the opposition recognises that the largest state owned firm, PDVSA, has become a symbol of national pride, much in the same way as YPF has come to personify the credibility of the Argentinean state and its leader Christina Fernandez. Therefore, despite being more inclined to privatisation in principle, Capriles proposes to keep PDVSA in state hands whilst introducing a more professional and cost effective system of management, making the company ‘de-politicised’. This is in line with his wider vision for Venezuelan business, arguing that a sweeping wave of privatisation is not what the country currently needs, but promising to look at each case on its merits.

If Hugo Chavez has become synonymous with oil policy and wealth redistribution, Mr. Capriles has sighted education as his flagship policy. He has been vocal in praising the President for building more schools, along with more health centres, in the country’s most deprived areas, something the opposition leader promises to continue. However, he has called for a more professional approach to the running of new schools and aims to curb the high levels of corruption and political partisanship that has been an unfortunate side effect of Chavez’s social policies. Capriles sights education as the long-term solution to Venezuela’s high crime wave, the issue that most Venezuelans claim to worry most about.  Read more of this post

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