Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A bloody good argument for electing Vice Chancellors

The article below is taken from the blog of John Molyneux, written just after the General Election of May 2010. Given the apparent wish of politicians to fine tune the electoral/voting system in the UK in order to make the process appear fairer and thus make the political system seem more democratic, the question is asked why can't highly paid Vice Chancellors (many of whom who receive salaries higher then the British Prime Minister funded naturally from the public purse) like MPs, be elected to their posts? Thanks to John for allowing this to be reproduced on Vagrants in the Casual Ward of the Workhouse.

Towards a Democratic University

This article was first written for The Heckler, the magazine of Portsmouth University UCU branch. It therefore refers specifically to the situation in Portsmouth Uni but clearly its arguments are generalizable to other institutions. If anyone wants to take up those arguments or adapt this text to their situation please feel free to plagiarize shamelessly.

On May 6 we in Britain elected a new government. The process was rather messy and confused, which is not surprising given the nature of the British electoral system. Nevertheless the election took place and a new government emerged. The turnout was up, which took some returning officers by surprise but was generally regarded as a good thing, since it seems to be the prevailing attitude that it is our civic duty to exercise our vote. With the exception of a few very specific categories (peers of the realm, criminals in prison etc) all adult citizens have the vote, a right which was very hard fought for over a long period in many campaigns (such those of the Chartists and the Suffragettes) but which is now taken for granted by more or less everyone. I know of NO political party or pressure group or even significant individual which says openly that it wishes to rescind this basic democratic right, or even curtail it. What would one think of someone today who proposed the government should be appointed by the Queen (without any election) or by the House of Lords, or wanted to remove the right to vote from, say, women or working class people?

The struggle for democracy 1819

Pretty much the same applies to the United States with the difference that there the people directly elect an individual as President and that on November 4, 2008 this produced the historic victory, by a landslide, of Barack Obama; this being especially dramatic as the right to vote for black people was still being fought for in parts of America as late as the 1960s. Again what would one think of someone who suggested that the right to elect the President should be taken away, either from the US citizenry as a whole, or American women or people of colour?


My experience is that when I ask this question it is generally assumed that I am joking, certainly not being serious. EVERYONE knows that’s not possible – we just don’t do things like that. If I put the question to people in positions of authority in the University they generally do not even deem it worthy of a response. Which is convenient because it is very hard to formulate a response which is not at the same time an argument against democracy in general, an argument against, for example, the right to elect the government.

For instance, the most obvious argument against electing the Vice Chancellor is that it would be likely to lead to the wrong person getting elected. The absurdity of this proposition becomes manifest the moment you apply it to British parliamentary or US presidential elections. If you are a supporter of either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, the wrong party gets elected about half the time in Britain, likewise if you are a Republican or a Democrat in the US. If you are a Liberal Democrat or a radical Socialist, or a Green or a fascist, the wrong party or leader gets elected pretty much all the time. But unless you are a fascist this is not a reason for getting rid of elections.

Yes its run by the bosses but they are at least elected bosses

Sometimes it is argued that the reason why the wrong people get elected is that the electors are not capable (too stupid, too uneducated, too immature, too fickle etc) of making the right judgement. This, of course, was the kind of argument advanced against giving the vote to working people in the 19th century, to women before the First World War, to women under 30 between 1918 and 1928, and to black people in South Africa under apartheid. It is, however, a rather difficult argument to defend in a university.

If, on the other hand, we actually had an election for Vice Chancellor the incompetence of the electors argument might come into play in determining the franchise in this election. Personally, I would favour voting rights only for male academics with PhDs. I joke; the important thing would be to restrict voting to academic staff and exclude the support staff who are mainly female, I mean less well educated. Or perhaps the white collar support staff could be included, so long as the really working class riff-raff like caretakers, canteen staff and cleaners were kept out. Actually, I suppose – if all that sounds a bit elitist, or sexist, or classist, or politically incorrect – ALL university employees could be allowed to vote, on one condition – no votes for students. Obviously students are too young, too inexperienced, too uneducated, and too volatile to be allowed to vote in parliamentary…I mean university elections.

"Second vote... I don't even have a first"

In this context it is interesting to note that, just as the present parliamentary systems in Britain, the US, and France, all owe their existence to very unparliamentary wars and revolutions, so the present unelected Vice Chancellor actually owes his position, at least in part, to a vote: namely the vote of no confidence that unseated his predecessor, Neil Merritt, in which EVERY university employee had a vote. It is also worth noting that ONE section of the University community does govern itself relatively democratically, and does elect its leaders, locally and nationally, and that is the Students’ Union.

I really hope that someone who is opposed to the idea of democratically electing the University’s leading figures replies to this article – in fact I challenge them to do so – and in that reply I hope they explain why it would be wrong to elect VCs (and deans etc) but possible, nay mandatory, for the Students’ Union to elect its President. Or perhaps they would like to argue that the student president should be appointed (by the Directorate perhaps, or maybe by the Board of Governors). But, of course, one of the ironies of the situation is that because those who run the University are not subject to any real democratic accountability, they do not need to justify their position in democratic debate, but can simply ignore these arguments relying on their undemocratic power to preserve the status quo.

An argument that might be used by an astute opponent is that elections would ‘politicise’ the running of the University and that it would be much better for the University to remain ‘non- political’. This argument is superficially attractive because it appeals to popular (and entirely understandable) hostility to ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ but in reality it is completely specious. First it relies on the very narrow, and false, definition of ‘politics’ as limited only to what goes on in the Palace of Westminster and City Hall, and ‘politicians’ as only elected MPs and Councillors. Second it fails to recognise that the running of this and every other university is already deeply political and could not be otherwise – the ability to present decisions and institutional structures as non-political is really just testimony to their political hegemony, in the same way that the ability to present ideas as ‘just common sense’ as opposed to ‘political’ or ‘ideological’ is merely evidence of their deep political and ideological hold. For example the belief that the free market is the best way to run society is presented by its adherents as ‘common sense’ but its acceptance as such represents a very important victory for a definite political ideology, namely right wing neo- liberalism. A system of appointment, as we have at present, is every bit as ‘political’ as a system of election, it’s just a different undemocratic politics. Finally, and I keep coming back to this, if elections equal politics and its good for things to be run non-politically why shouldn’t the country (or the Students Union or Trades Unions) be run that way i.e. as dictatorships.

In the end there is only one serious argument in favour of the undemocratic way the University is run, and it is an argument that all the senior officials in the University know in their bones but that none can state openly, namely that the University has to be run in a way that is contrary to the interests and values of the vast majority of its staff and students. That is it has to be run first and foremost as an instrument of government and ruling class policy and as a business enterprise rather than meeting people’s educational, scholarly and human needs. That is why the powers that be don’t want democratic elections and precisely why I do want them.

I've been asked to 'consult' with you about my appointment

In practice this stark contradiction is papered over with the device of ‘consultation’. The decision makers ‘consult’ with staff and students and then go ahead, regardless of what is said, with what they wanted to do in the first place. I have lost count of the number of times I have been through this experience – being ‘consulted’ only to be ignored. What we need is not just more consultation but some democratic power. I therefore propose for Portsmouth University as a democratic minimum:

1. The election by universal suffrage, i.e. by the whole university community, of the Vice- Chancellor on a five year fixed term basis.

2. The election by universal suffrage on a faculty by faculty basis of Deans for a four year term of office.

What’s good enough for the White House is good enough for University House!

John Molyneux, 22 May 2010

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Whistleblowing academic cleared of harassing a Vice Chancellor

Good news that former lecturer at Kingston University Howard Fredrics, has been cleared in Kingston Magistrates Court of harassment. Fredrics had been accused of harassing the Vice Chancellor Sir Peter Scott via his satirical whistleblowing website Fredrics used his site to draw attention to less than Kosher practices at Kingston University.

Doesn't this sound a little familiar?

Does this victory prove that they are equally balanced?

Dr Fredrics was convicted in abstentia in December at Kingston Magistrates Court. Fredrics who was ill, could not appear on the orders of his GP. His barrister Mr Richard Thomas had argued that Dr Fredrics' right to a fair trial was compromised as the court refused to postpone the case until he was well. In addition a "compelling police report that indicated there was no evidence that the site contained anything that could lead to such a charge" was ignored by the court.

Although Dr Fredrics has been cleared of harassing Sir Peter Scott, he was convicted of a Public Order offence. This related to an incident in Kingston last year in which Scott claimed Dr Fredrics used 'threatening behaviour' towards him. Fredrics is considering appealing the conviction.

Money well spent

It is estimated that Kingston University spent in the region of £500,000 prosecuting their case against Fredrics. This is a great victory for freedom of speech. Yet what a pity that bosses at Kingston saw the need in the first place fit to impinge on this valuable freedom and choose this route.

With increasing frequency, university managers are using the law to quash vital and justifiable debate in order to hide from public scrutiny, questionable practices. Given the fiscal restraints being placed upon the Higher Education sector, we can most assuredly expect many more cases such as these as senior managers seek to redress the wider trends towards greater accountability whilst maintaining their positions of power and their privileged lifestyles.

Where's my chauffeur?

Sadly victories such as these will overshadow the many defeats among those who have little choice but to battle on alone, unable to muster the vital resources and the legal heavyweights necessary to combat often vindictive and unscrupulous senior managers.

Nevertheless, this is indeed a valuable and well deserved victory not just for Dr Fredrics but for us all. And we must congratulate him for his tenacity and single-mindedness. Fully savour the moment.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Life and Time of Postgraduate Researcher A.

This time of year, students throughout the country will be celebrating with their families and friends the completion of years of hard and intensive studies and research. Traditionally this celebration revolves around the Graduation Ceremony. The Graduation Ceremony is a rather a formal affair. The graduate or post-graduate student hires or purchases formal gowns and head wear. Sat among his peers, the student is summoned to the rostrum where he ascends the steps and is presented with the fruits of many years of hard work - the degree or postgraduate degree award. The presentation of the award is made to the student by the Vice Chancellor or one of the Vice Chancellor's proxies. After receiving his award, the student is more usually photographed in the paraphernalia with family and friends and retires to a hostelry or some other place of beer worship.

It's a hard-knock student life - isn't it?

University life is often portrayed in the press and media as one long extended self-indulgent piss-up and for some well-heeled students it is. Yet for increasing numbers of students, the day-to-day worries of debt and paying next years fees, means long hours working in low-paid part-time (and increasingly full-time) jobs.

What's often conveniently overlooked by the degree-holding hacks who churn out this type of headline-grabbing blather, whilst they characterise most students as alcohol-fuelled sybaritic wastrels on Chlamydia, they largely ignore the role they play - particularly those in the field of postgraduate research - in providing society and capitalism with the next generation of cutting edge research. This is the way, so the theory goes, by which British capitalism remains dynamic and one step ahead of the competition. Yet despite the negative press, an undergraduate degree is the necessary training ground on which the post graduate researcher learns his/her trade.

What's in a Degree?

There is a massive gulf between the three years of study as an undergraduate and that of a postgraduate. Studying for an undergraduate degree is a very social experience. In the main it consists of lectures, drinking, tutorials, drinking and lots of debate in the pub drinking, discussion, drinking and healthy argument over a few drinks. One of the bonuses in studying politics and history is that argument is encoded into the DNA of both disciplines particularly if the student happens to be an argumentative bastard! Studying for a degree imbues the individual with huge levels of confidence as well as knowledge. It's a very socialising and liberating experience. It's an opportunity that every young person should experience regardless of their ability to pay for a round.

The PhD is a different chap

What immediately hits the prospective postgraduate researcher on embarking on the PhD is the disjuncture between what went before and now. There is a very sudden realisation that you are pretty much on your own. Gone are the days of cooperative learning - the sharing of ideas after the lecture, the extensive conversations about what essay to write, how to write it, the collective worries about exams and what will be on the exam paper. In postgraduate world, the camaraderie of 'all being in it together' is about as prevalent as a cholera victim at a United Utilities conference on advanced water purification procedures. Not even the time-honoured institutional cushion of the resit exists in this fustian brave new world, ready to break the fall of the wayward student should she or he humanly err.

The socialising element that postgraduate researcher A. came to associate with work and study as an integral part of university life is almost surgically excised like a magniloquent goitre at a reunion of once-removed Burmese Pa Dong villagers. It's history. For post graduate researcher A. every piece of research involves many long hours of hard work, soul-searching, self-motivation and often large amounts of self-doubt as well as hugely increased levels of rancorous self-abuse. Libraries, become a second home as do archives. A book is constantly welded to your other hand. In fact you find books secreted in around your former place of residence in places that only forensic scientists would be remotely interested in. Yet slowly, piece by piece, as if by some sort of random act of a metaphysical omnipresence, the thesis begins to take shape. The initial research question is refined through endless hours of meetings with your supervisor whose initial enthusiasm dissipates faster than an Avon representative's smile in a weekend commune of post-Marxist identity-theft feminists. A battle ensues as you seek to retain a wider perspective of the research area, whilst the supervisor seeks to encourage the researcher to be more specific, focus more acutely on a discrete (and often obscure) subject in order to make the task in hand manageable.

The salt 'n' vinegar strokes

The final year of the PhD for postgraduate researcher A. is spent in writing up the thesis, pulling together all that has been researched and drawn upon over the past few years. Weeks from submission, a copy is printed off and read. It's full of mistakes and obvious grammatical howlers. Panic sets in. It's immediately revised. In fact you re-write it as it's had the same slumberous effect on you as the tablets prescribed to you several weeks before by your GP in order to help you catch just a few desperatley needed hours of panic-negative sleep.

The by-now frantic visits to your supervisor's office become increasingly frequent as are your trips to the latrines. He greets your knock on his office door much in the same vein as an old couple who've just wished their hideously mangled son back to life over a dead simian's dessicated paw. Having been nominated for an academy award for his heroic attempt to appear remotely interested in your increasingly bestial attempts at written coherency, the seasoned supervisor feigns a manoeuvre that would astonish Irwin Rommel. He brazenly suggests that you ask someone to proof-read your work thereby selflessly denying himself that particular pleasure once more. Rather phlegmatically and all too quickly in your eagerness to appear professional, you agree. Once out of his office and after removing the brown paper bag from your bloated purple physiognomy, the auto-resist mechanism kicks in. You vainly attempt, using all the analytical powers at your disposal, to rationalise your reticence in exposing your lifetime's work to the public on the basis that: (a) you're embarrassed about your research, (b) you're embarrassed about your use of grammar, (c) you're embarrassed about your spelling and punctuation which has been compared to the combined output of a lecture theatre full of less than proficient pre-hominids vaingloriously banging away on a single Remington portable, (d) they won't understand the subject matter, (e) it's your baby and you resent the fact that a virtual stranger will internally criticise and giggle at four or five years of work while explaining earnestly to your rapidly ageing anxious face that it's very good but "it needs pairing down"(f) it's shite!

The reckoning day

Inexorably the day arrives for submission. The thesis is printed, loosely bound and sent off to the external and internal markers. The day of the Viva Voce arrives and you manage like some sort of gaggling twat to waffle your way for over an hour and a half past a series of metaphorical and conceptual tank-traps. But you're on a roll and you're spewing out any old shite in order to impress. You are asked to leave the room and wait in the foyer and as you walk along the grey corridor you're sure you can hear gales of laughter and heightened leg-slapping emanating from the examination room. Twenty long minutes later you're informed by the examiner you have passed. Several text messages and telephone calls later and your family, friends and peers are sending you messages of congratulations, overjoyed that you've a last completed your postgraduate degree successfully and that the topic of conversation might move away from your utter rejection of the theoretical concepts of post-materialism. Even relations with your supervisor seem to have improved as he's had the barbed wire, armed sentries and sentry boxes removed from outside his office door. A few weeks later and you're informed officially that you have passed by letter. Three more copies of your thesis are printed and professionally bound and are handed over to the University who deposit the fruits of several hard years of labour in their archives. Yes it's an expensive game you say to yourself as your plastic demonstrates that it's not only aluminium aircraft wings that exhibit signs of structural weaknesses under prolonged stress.


The icing on the cake

The final act in this long-winded affair and we arrive back at the beginning of our little story - the graduation ceremony. For postgraduate researcher A. - now Dr A. - your partners, family, and friends are excited at the prospect of joining your celebratory day.

The only problem is, you've been banned.

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Saturday, 3 July 2010

For Fox Sake

On Sunday 4th of July, Channel Four aired a documentary film entitled 'Urban Fox Attack'. The web-synopsis read:

"In May 2010, on a balmy summer night, east Londoners Pauline and Nick Koupparis heard a noise from their twin baby girls' room. They were horrified to find a fox in the cot and the two girls covered in blood. The fox fled and the parents rushed their babies to hospital, where one remained for 12 days. Film maker Riete Oord has been filming foxes for three years in Hackney, the borough where the attack took place. In this film, she examines the issue that is dividing the suburbs: whether the urban vulpes vulpes is a welcome reminder of the countryside and an asset to every back garden or a dangerous menace."

This documentary arrives on the back of a series of sensationalist tabloid headlines such as 'Fox attack on my girls was like a horror film', and 'Maimed' and a BBC documentary aired on 1st July imaginatively titled 'The Fox Attack Twins'. This was produced by a company called Leopard Films. Coincidentally the father of the twins, Nick Koupparis is the Head of Finance for Leopard Films. Clearly the attack on these two children was awful and the writer of this blog naturally wishes them a quick and full recovery. However, since the attack a swathe of sensationalist headlines have adorned the front pages of the scandal sheets. The ubiquitous urban fox has it seems almost come to replace Osama bin Laden in the press and media as public enemy #1.

So good they named him twice

Other attacks are now making the headlines with a child in Brighton reported in The Argus to have suffered an 'attack' at the hands of the vicious now-garden dweller. Indeed it's seemingly such a threat to Western civilisation that it's been named twice - vulpes vulpes - emphasising the uniquely terroristic qualities of this surreptitious night-stalking sampler of sprogs. The sense of heightened fear around the Koupparis incident was further enhanced in the local community when police made the decision to provide the family with round the clock police protection over a few days for fear of a repeat attack by a determined bushy-tailed 'divine winder'.1 The police stressed that talk of a series of threatening phone calls to the family with a distinctive 'hedgerowy accent' were silly rumours and not the reason for the protection. The police confirmed that the reason for the protection was fear of reprisals from animal rights activists who according to a report in the left-wing London Evening Standard, have made "online threats". With their usual steely logic and clarity of thought, Scotland Yard have said that they "are aware there is a potential threat" although they further noted that "there were no specific threats".

A brief and potted history of the press-induced 'moral panic' - the Irish menace

The press have a long and distinguished history in raising the spectre of the fear of an internal enemy. From the 'gin panics' of the early 18th century to the anti-Irish onslaughts where the Irish were regularly portrayed as ape-like terrorists in sickeningly racist Victorian caricatures. This was during the growth of Fenian resistance in the shape of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, to continued British rule and oppression in Ireland. In many respects, and mirroring the fact that Ireland was Britain's oldest colonial acquisition (remains), the anti-Irish hysteria continued thorughout the 20th century. It reached something of an apogee in the 'Irish joke' and the terrible miscarriage of justice in the wrongful imprisonments of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four during the 1970s (again shadowing the heightened campaign by Irish nationalists in this period to remove British political and military interference from Northern Ireland).2

Making anti-semitism respectable

The gutter-press were also at the forefront of a campaign against Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe escaping a wave of anti-semitic pogroms at the turn of the century, which directly laid the foundations for the 1905 Aliens Act. In the decades following this campaign, anti-semitism became the preferred form of racism for right-wing political opportunists and many middle class bigots who coat-tailed them. This was adopted by Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirts in the 1930s who like their German Nazi counterparts blamed Jews both for disseminating virulent anti-capitalist communism throughout Europe and Britain, and for using their domination of the banks to bring about the Wall Street Crash and subsequent global economic slump. The same processes are at work today with the Nazi BNP and their fellow travellers the fascist EDL. It is they who have picked up the baton of virulent anti-Muslim racism - Islamophobia - from the press, politicians and the media in portraying Islam (and by association all Muslims) as responsible for the spread of militant Islam and terrorism. Once again, imperialism has played a dominant role in promoting racism and division to justify wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lock up your doors and your daughters

In the 1970s, the word 'mugging' was invented by the press and used specifically to colour public opinion against young black men, who were portrayed as a predatory threat to civilised society, or worse, were heavily sexualised and ready to pounce on unsuspecting young (white) women. This coincided with the global downturn of 1973 and the wholesale jettisoning of thirty years of Keynesian economic policy in the form of state intervention for a return to the once discredited economic orthodoxy of the Chicago School and the doctrine of laissez faire. As politicians took the axe to public spending and jobs, the press and media actively promoted the idea that the free market could provide services, jobs and our social needs far more efficiently than could the cumbersome state. In reality, the market let rip throughout society and the economy resulted in mass unemployment, the destruction of capital on a scale not seen since the Great Depression and massive social upheaval. That this impacted on the poorest sections of society, more usually ethnic minority groups, was reflected in the increased levels of confrontational and racist policing of black communities. Young males of West Indian descent became the the targets of the police and the racist 'sus laws'.3 Riots were the almost inevitable outcome of the massively increased levels of racist policing. The portrayal of young black men in this way was designed to provide the public with an alternative target for their anger instead of blaming the politicians for the devastation.

HIV-AIDS - it's a gay thing apparently

One specific moral panic is however never satisfactory in engendering a wider climate of fear and increased social atomisation. In the mid 1980s the threat to society (and the Victorian family values the Tory government were promoting) came in the form of another press and media driven moral panic. This time another oppressed minority group became scapegoats as a new and fatal disease took its toll on men from the gay community. The press and media surpassed themselves in sensationalising the threat that HIV/AIDS posed to the public. Led by the Murdoch press, The Sun, always game for providing the tabloid reading public with 'witty' sensationalist headlines dreamed up the term 'Gay Plague' which rapidly became absorbed into the public lexicon. Gay men, because of their 'deviant' sexual behaviour were seen as wholly responsible for inflicting this almost medieval contagion on humanity, because they rejected the Victorian morality and family values. The almost millennialist fervour with which gay men were portrayed by the press not as victims but as the progenitors of this terrible disease and part of the wider cause of social breakdown in British society was in marked contrast to the their collective amnesia in denying any link between the disorder and years of neoliberal economic orthodoxy promoted by a government that wanted to spend less public money on public health, not more. This irrational fear of HIV/AIDS (and gay men) was in 1986 codified in law as the notorious piece of homophobic legislation known as Section 28. This prevented local authorities from promoting or publishing material with the intention of promoting homosexuality "as a pretended family relationship".

The 'enemy within'

The miners and Arthur Scargill came in for a particularly nasty press and media campaign with Margaret Thatcher famously evoking the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy 'red menace' branding them and their leadership as 'the enemy within'. Dutifully, the right-wing press, the police and the leadership of the Labour Party and trade unions, combined to provide Thatcher's assault on the Conservative Party's historic enemy with the tools that led to the miners' eventual defeat. Despite being proved correct in his analysis of what the government had in store for the mining industry in Britain, the name Arthur Scargill today is synonymous with a particular sort of violent and irrational militancy. The assault by the combined forces of the state on the miners was never about closing 'uneconomic pits' (nuclear power has been uneconomic since its inception) but about smashing the organised working class in order to lay a proper foundation for the neoliberal onslaught. It was also about retribution for the humiliating defeat of Heath's Tory government in 1974 brought down by the miners and a militant working class.

Mum's the single word

Since then, single mothers, young kids with no jobs and nothing to do but get pissed or stoned in order to while away the almost complete alienation instilled in them by the 'must have' capitalist system ('feral estate-dwelling youths), paedophiles, 'black on black' crime and gun-toting/knife-wielding black youths, have provided unscrupulous journalists and news proprietors with the social tinder necessary to instil widespread fear into an increasingly atomised society. With the 'new politics' of Camoclegg, it's now the (re)turn of the undeserving poor - in this case anyone unfortunate enough to be claiming long-term Incapacity Benefits - who are portrayed as scrounging idlers stealing from those that need it and an increasingly strained or nigh-on-empty public purse.

The clash of civilisations - the Hijab, the Burqa and the threat young Muslim women pose to the fabric of Western society

Finally, a more recent target for the combined ire of the press and right-wing bigotry alike, and one the promises to take centre stage at sometime in the not-too-distant future is the young Burka or Hijab wearing Muslim woman.4 Having played itself out in France, and more recently in Belgium, a ban on the wearing of the Burka or Hijab in the public arena will find support in the most unlikely of places. Prepare to see an unholy alliance of middle class liberals incensed at the inate and fundamentally oppressive nature of these medieval religious symbols and Daily Mail/Sun readers whose primary motivations will be racism dressed up in the garb of enlightenment rationality.5

The 'Red Menace' out-foxed?

But what about our erstwhile friend (or enemy) Renert? While the urbanised fox continues to target the be-feathered ecologically friendly egg-layers of Hackney's Good Life living 'Tom and Barbaras' (or indeed the odd bite of a wayward podgy hand), he'll continue to make the headlines.

Yet there is a more serious sub-text to this latest 'moral panic' and it's about class. The more sceptical among you might concur with this author and the historical record in suggesting that there might be vested interests in raising the current fox-terror-threat to critical. If foxes can be culled in our inner-cities because they're deemed 'a pest' (the subtext being that they really do constitute the most serious threat to the stability of capitalism,seriously undermining the ability of the middle classes to reproduce the next generation of managers through eating their children alive while they sleep), then why can't they be culled in the countryside. They are after all pest there as well. They consume large quantities our poor farmers' poultry which is damaging to our National Agricultural interest. And of course, there are thousands of toffs with thousands of currently unemployed horses and dogs literally chomping at the bit to get their teeth into this quintessentially self-effacing nocturne.

With the election of the Tory coalition government whose leader supports repeal of the 2005 Hunting Act, it is simply a matter of time before the Countryside Alliance backed by their wealth and a long list of public-spirited landowning pest controllers have their day. Maybe even TV chef Heston Blumenthal can make use of what's left of their torn bodies and knock up an extravagant fox-based menu for a few of his very worthy celebrity friends.

Anyone for rabies?

Gary Paul Duke

1'Divine Wind' is a common translation for the word 'kamikaze'.
2 For an interesting account of the history of anti-Irish racism see Curtis L, Nothing but the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism, Information on Ireland, London 1991
3 See Farrell A, Crime, Class and Corruption, Bookmarks, London, 1995
4 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'They are right to ban the burka, even if it is for the wrong reasons' in The Independent Online, Friday, 8 January 2010
5 For an interesting analysis of the debate on the banning of the hijab see 'The Hijab, Racism and the State', Boulange A, in International Socialism Journal, Issue 102, November 2004

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Right-eousness of the 'Watchers'

This morning (2nd July 2010) I awoke to reports on the BBC news reporting on the high levels of remuneration for trade union bosses. Now in these times of public service cutbacks, attacks on public sector pensions, and the possibility of hundreds of thousands of former public sector workers filling a potential New, New Labour anti-Tory election billboard at the next General Election, my first thought was "yes indeed, you are paid far too much. Why don't you set an example and take the average wage?" Almost as a whispered aside, the report mentioned that an organisation labelled the Taxpayers Alliance was responsible for compiling the list and exposing the salaries of these professional bureaucrats. I thought a little digging into the background of this fiscally pious campaign group might be rewarding.

Who are the Taxpayers Alliance?

What was interesting about their website was its claim that the Alliance would "hold any government to account and represent taxpayers interests..." laudable sentiments indeed. Statements such as "...over the last decade, British taxpayers have been saddled with hikes in taxes on everything from driving to work to buying a new home..." would clearly have an appeal to many ordinary low-paid workers and those (un)fortunate enough to be home-owners. Yet the apparent concern with representing the interests of ordinary people stood at odds with the suggestion that "Public sector staff are now paid more (good), get better pensions (good) and work fewer hours (good) than people in the private sector. Public spending is simply far too high (hmmm) and there need to be cuts (bad)." For the TPA, the 'fiscal crisis' and 'huge structural deficit' is a result of huge levels of public spending, and high levels of public sector pay, not a result of pouring hundreds of billions of taxpayers pounds into the coffers of the banks. Now the alarm bells were peeling like VE Day had just been officially reannounced. A little bit of investigation was called for.

An independent grassroots campaign?

I've been involved with a few independent grassroots campaigns in the past, many of them numbering tens of thousands of members. I was keen to determine how independent this 'campaign' group was. According to their website, the Taxpayers Alliance:

"Under the leadership of Matthew Elliott, ...has grown from operating as a small group of volunteers meeting in various coffee shops around London, to being “arguably the most influential pressure group in the country” according to The Guardian. With 35,000 supporters and fifteen members of staff working from offices in London and Birmingham, it attracts an average of 700 high quality media hits every month and is a significant force in local government, Westminster and Brussels."

Given the levels of influence this organisation claimed it had, I wondered whom exactly the leading lights of the TPA might be. A quick search on Google and I perchanced upon an article by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian who writes:

"The three founders [are], Andrew Allum, a former Conservative councillor, Florence Heath, a geologist and former Young Conservative, and Matthew Elliott, co-founder and former Tory researcher..." (The Guardian, 17 March 2008)

It was quite apparent that co-founder Matthew Elliot wasn't as 'independent' as he claimed:

"In no way are we a Tory Party front group. We attack both parties. We don't actually think any political party in the UK is now representing those people who actually want to see lower taxes and less government spending."

If it looks like a Tory, talks like a Tory, it is a Tory

Elliot is currently a member of the advisory board of the Young Britons Foundation a right-wing organisation described by the former leader of Conservative Future Donal Blaney as "a Conservative madrasa". What is also clear is that the membership and supporters of the YBF read 
like a cast of characters from previous and current Tory administrations. More sinisterly, the YBF also declared its intent to lay bare "left-wing bias" in British universities. Blaney trumpets the overseas trips to the Blue Ridge Arsenal, Virginia in 2008 where YBF and young Conservatives were given firearms training. This begs the question why British security services haven't interviewed Mr Blaney and his gun-toting fledgling Tories. Young British Muslims have been detained at her majesty's pleasure for less. The YBF also has substantial links with US neo-conservative groups and other right-wing organisations.

The Manifesto of the Taxpayers Alliance also closely resembles much of the policy promoted by the Tories, that I wondered if members of the TPA had been intimately involved in shaping Conservative Party policy?

The subjugation of investigative reporting by the right

There is no denying that this group have become influential in opinion forming within the press and media. If you like me have wondered why these media organisations seem to be singing from the same hymn-sheet, the TPA have quite deftly taken advantage of the large-scale 'rationalisations' imposed by major newspaper publishers over the last few years in order to try and reverse the decline in their overall profitability. With less journalists employed in the industry, those remaining are forced to increase their productivity. Consequently there is little time for in-depth investigative journalism. The TPA thus prides itself on its ability to provide over-worked and deadline watching journalists with ready-made bite-size press releases with attendant eye-catching headlines. Elliot comments that:

"The impression I get is that what the media like now is to have spokesmen representing groups in society and we have filled a niche in terms of speaking on behalf of tax payers in a credible and professional way."(B Wheeler, BBC News online)

Few of the organisations I've been involved in can claim to represent around 50% of the British population (30 million taxpayers). Even fewer can boast such significant levels of direct influence over the media and political parties, especially those currently in power. That such prominent press and news organisations allow themselves to be used in such a manner by the Conservative Party's proxies is quite shameful.

What's their beef with the trade union leaders?

The question of exactly why the trade unions have come under the scrutiny of the Taxpayers Alliance centres on monies paid to trade unions from the Union Modernisation Fund, funded from government grants from the coffers of the taxman. However, what the TPA have not made public is an arm of their organisation called the Politics and Economics Research Trust. According to a report in Slashnews, the trust came in for criticism recently as it was claimed it could benefit from tax subsidies of up to 40% from the donations of individuals:

"A leading tax accountant said it was extraordinary that the alliance appeared to be benefitting from charitable tax relief."Donors are typically saving tax on their contributions and so the government is chipping in between 20% and 40% to help the Taxpayers' Alliance with its work," said Mike Warburton, a tax specialist at Grant Thornton. "Your readers may be surprised that an organisation which argues for lower taxes and lower public spending is asking the government to do that for its research arm", said Mike Warburton, a tax specialist at Grant Thornton.(, Dec 21 2009)

There is certainly an element of hypocrisy at play here. What a pity the papers and media chose to ignore this. However, given the increasing numbers of important strikes in the UK such as the recent London Tube workers strike and those of British Airways cabin crews, one cannot help but think that the old game of 'divide and rule' is at work. This should be seen for what it is, part of the wider softening-up process by the Con-Dem coalition government in order to prepare us for a raft of savage and deep cuts across the public sector? One also wonders why the Taxpayers Alliance make no mention of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ending our (taxpayer-funded) reliance on nuclear energy or the scrapping of the proposed new generation Trident missile program, all extremely draining to the public purse.

Try the alternative

What is clear is that the Taxpayers Alliance is little more than an alliance of conservatives (with and without the big C), right-wing think-tanks and a motley crew of incredibly wealthy industrialists such as the secretive Midlands Industrial Council, a powerful an extremely wealthy organisation which donates huge sums of money to the Conservative Party. With backing such as this, it is clear that the TPA exists true to their ambitions in lowering the burden of taxation for the wealthy, and in order to do this they are happy to provide the media with the axes they need to help dismantle the public sector, promote privatisation and make Britain a better place for capitalism to do business in. All this of course at our expense.

A real Taxpayers Alliance

However, holding governments to account for where they spend our taxes is important. Clearly an organisation comprised of supporters of this current government is never going to hold them to account. Yet there are real campaigning groups who are serious about reducing the huge salaries and bonuses paid in the private sector to CEOs and others. Therefore I would encourage anyone who's interested to visit these alternative websites if they wish to involve themselves in a real taxpayers alliance called The Other Taxpayers Alliance. Alternatively try the Tax Justice Network.

A rum cove

One final example of the blatant hypocrisy of the leading lights of the TPA, Alexander Heath, a director of the organisation, has found a novel way of lowering his tax bill to zero. He resides in France.