Sunday, 28 September 2008

Kicking Off The New Term

Below are two reports from Bangor from campaigning amongst students in the last two weeks. For reports from the rest of wales see

Coleg Menai

Last Tuesday, members of Bangor University Socialist Students ran a stall outside the FE college, Coleg Menai against EMA payment delays.
We received a lot of support from students who, in particular, agreed with our demand that FE students deserve an EMA they can actually live off, that does not leave them reliant on their parents.
One student came back after reading our leaflet and said we should organise a protest. We invited her to join our Campaign to Defeat Fees day of action on 16 October and our upcoming meetings. Others came back later with friends to sign the petition and buy copies of The Socialist and the new Student Socialist magazine. We now aim to build links between college and university students in Bangor.
It looks like a busy autumn as we also prepare to campaign for the student union to support the Campaign to Defeat Fees, despite opposition from the national leadership of NUS.

A Bangor Socialist Students member

Bangor - Success at Serendipity

With the undertaking of a new academic term around the corner, Bangor was buzzing with fresh faces and an encouraging sense of avidity.

Lizz Evans. Bangor Socialist students.

‘Serendipity’ or ‘Freshers Fair’ took place on the 24th and 25th. The response to the two Socialist Student stalls that were set up on both days was very encouraging to say the least: twelve Socialist Student magazines and 12 copies of the socialist were sold in total, also nine people paid membership fees on the actual days of Serendipity. In addition to this, the response to the hard hitting posters that blazed the slogans of ‘Fight for Free Education’ and ‘Solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia’ was promising; thirty people altogether approached the stand in order to sign up for further information, with many more signing our petition and taking away leaflets. With all this said, the Bangor Socialist Student society looks forward to another year.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Fresher's Week

Next week is Freshers week at Bangor University so I will be incredibly busy printing leaflets, petitions etc. Doing stalls, holding meeting etc. and generally trying to win as many people as possible to Marxist ideas. That said I'll be taking a break from blogging for the next week and a few days as I'm doing all this as well as working.

To keep you entertained, why not check out these old posts

Charities and Private Companies Getting Cosy in a Prison Bed?

On Arbitrary Laws and Punishments

Nid oes bradwr yn y ty hwn (No traitor in this house) - The Great North Wales Quarry Strikes

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Scrap This Broken Fees System

A discussion document for Bangor University Socialist Students.

At the beginning of September NUS launched their latest report into higher education funding, entitled ‘Broke and Broken’. Inside it sets out a quite damning critique of the top-up fees system that was created by the 2004 Higher Education Act and of the governments plans to lift the cap they set on top-up fees.

The document starts out by noting that by lifting the cap would raise student debts to unprecedented levels – a student paying £7000 a year in fees and claiming maximum living expenses in London would owe about £37,000 by the time they graduated (and some universities are pushing for the new cap to be higher than that!). They also point out that students would need to be earning over £25,000 to begin paying off just the annual interest of a debt of £25,000 – they note that an Association of Graduate Recruiters survey found that £24,500 was the average starting salary for a graduate position, but the report points out “many graduates do not take jobs designated as ‘graduate’ jobs, so the true average of all post-graduation salaries is likely to lower than this figure.”(pg.6)

Top-up fees were also supposed to widen access to universities, but the report shows that students going to the prestigious Russell Group universities are more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups and have gone to private schools. Furthermore, there is also an inequality in the bursaries that universities can provide to poorer students (another key plank of the 2004 reforms). As the report points out, “institutions at the top end of the market of prestige are able to give large needs-based bursaries to their relatively sparse population of students from low income backgrounds…The low end of the market of prestige has far more students from low income backgrounds, and these institutions cannot afford to provide as much support to individuals.”(pg.4)

The report in conclusion comes out with no clear recommendations, with instead NUS President, Wes Streeting’s introduction to the report saying “our next duty is to produce a rigorous alternative policy, and we will do so in the coming months.”(pg.1) and also uses his introduction to take a swipe at campaigning for free education, arguing “…I know the debate has moved on and we won’t tin by dredging up the old arguments.”(pg1)

In truth, Streeting and the NUS leadership have already made up their minds as to what they want. As Streeting details in the debate between himself and Matt Dobson in the latest issue of the Student Socialist, NUS are arguing for a graduate tax to fund higher education. But such a tax will mean a similar drain on graduate students resources as paying off a student debt, with the added problem that it won’t be written off after 25 years. How will low paid graduates (for example those who go into some public or voluntary sector work) be able to buy a house and afford increased living costs as the coming recession hits? It doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

The Broke and Broken document also makes a big play of the fact that the businesses that benefit from the education students get hardly contribute anything to it, they simply reap the rewards. But a graduate tax proposal doesn’t change any of this, instead, as Socialist Students argue, the cuts in corporation tax should be reversed, tax loopholes should be closed to bring in more revenue and fundamentally the biggest companies in the economy should be taken into public ownership so their wealth can be used for public need rather than private profit.
NUS also has announced that they will be holding local days of action on student debt. About time too! Socialist Students organised the first Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF) day of action over a year and a half ago and have been calling on NUS to organise action even before then. Whilst we will support NUS’s ‘Students in the Red’ day on November 5th, we will use that and the CDF day of action on the 16th October to call for the NUS to also organise National Action that goes further than the mere lobbying of parliament NUS proposes. Socialist Students will also continue calling for local Students Unions to back the CDF, including at the referendum being held in October at Bangor University.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Hong Kong’s sharp shift to the left

From the chinaworker wesbite.

Legco elections: anti-establishment mood and gains for the League of Social Democrats leave government and business leaders in state of shock

Vincent Kolo,

The 7 September elections to Hong Kong’s pseudo-parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco), were hugely important for the future of the territory and in the longer term also for mainland China. The results have been described as “stunning”, “unexpected”, and “surprising” in newspaper commentaries. The International Herald Tribune (8 September) spoke of “a sharp leftward shift” in which “pro-business candidates lost out”. The League of Social Democrats (LSD), a left-leaning electoral alliance formed just two years ago, defied most predictions to finish with ten percent of the popular vote. It’s election slogan, “No struggle, no change”, marked it out from the grey mass of political parties and groupings. As The Standard noted, “The success of the radical League of Social Democrats in Sunday’s election should set alarm bells ringing in the government.”

Big setback for Beijing

And its not just Hong Kong’s unelected bureaucrat-government, led by the hapless Donald Tsang, that has cause for alarm. Tsang’s paymasters in Beijing will also have been shaken by these election results coming just two weeks after the most expensive Olympic Games in history. The organisation of the Beijing Olympics won plaudits from the world’s capitalist press – the general verdict afterwards being that hosting the landmark event had “strengthened China’s rulers”. The voters of Hong Kong – and an eruption of angry street protests in three mainland provinces – contradicts this assessment. The ruling CCP dispatched China’s 51 Olympic gold medallists to Hong Kong just days before polling day, to spread some patriotic ‘feelgood’ and lift Tsang’s sagging popularity. Less than one in three of Hong Kong’s population are satisfied with his government’s performance. This was just the latest in a series of moves by Beijing to “woo the middle-class in Hong Kong” and defuse mass pressure for swifter implementation of universal suffrage. Last year, Beijing designated the year 2017 for direct elections for the post of Chief Executive (Prime Minister), while for the Legco, free elections would apply “not earlier than 2020”. At the same time, the central government has pumped funds into the territory to boost economic growth, which was 6.1 percent last year and 6.8 percent in 2006. Despite this, Beijing’s political representatives in Hong Kong failed to make the headway they had confidently predicted, while the most clearly identified anti-establishment candidates did spectacularly well. This reflects the fact that working people have not benefited from the booming economy.
An editorial in the South China Morning Post expressed the mood of shock and disbelief among Hong Kong’s political and business elite: “The biggest winners are the independent mavericks and veteran provocateurs.” On a more serious level, this mouthpiece of the capitalist class noted: “In general, candidates who tackled livelihood issues and appealed to the working class did well, those perceived to favour business interests did not.” [Editorial, SCMP, 9 September 2008]
Not only the pro-Beijing camp was wrong-footed by the election results, but also the ‘moderate’ sections of the pan-democratic camp. Pan-democratic parties like the Civic Party have stressed negotiations with Beijing in recent years and – in practise – acquiesced to a slower tempo of democratic change. As Augustine Tan noted in a posting on Asia Times Online: “The rise of the radicals was probably the most ironic result of Sunday’s poll. It had been widely believed, even by the leaders of the pro-democracy camp, that pro-Beijing candidates would sweep the board, the Democratic Party would be reduced to a minor role, the Civic Party would assume leadership of the anti-Beijing forces, and the enigmatic “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and his newly-formed League of Social Democrats would be history. The new reality: slight numerical improvement for the pro-Beijing sector, slight losses for the Democratic and Civic parties but big gains for the League of Social Democrats (LSD). Previously they had two seats, now they have three, and all three were won with handsome majorities.”

“Anti-business atmosphere”

Long Hair has a track record of opposition both to Hong Kong’s capitalist establishment and the authoritarian rule of the CCP. In July he was refused entry to mainland China on a humanitarian visit to the Sichuan earthquake zone, even as the travel ban on other pan-democrat lawmakers was lifted. During the Olympic Games in August, Long Hair was ejected from the equestrian arena (these Olympic events were staged in Hong Kong) for holding a banner and shouting “End one-party rule”. He has supported causes like the right of self-determination for Tibet, which were far from popular in the atmosphere of heightened nationalism prevailing earlier this year. In addition to Long Hair, its most well-known figure, the LSD saw Albert Chan Wai-yip re-elected to the Legco, while the group’s chairman Wong Yuk-man, a well-known radio presenter nicknamed “Mad Dog” by a hostile media, was elected for the first time.
The LSD only fielded five candidates in this – its debut – Legco election campaign. The five received a combined vote of 152,800, from a total of 1.52 million. Only half the 60 Legco seats are elected by voters, under what the South China Morning Post describes as a “a system of mutant democracy” that was designed by representatives of British capitalism (the outgoing colonial power) in conjunction with Beijing. The other half of the Legco is made up of so-called ‘functional constituencies’: small circle contests between representatives mostly of privileged business and professional groups like bankers, property developers and lawyers. In the half of the Legco that is elected, the pan-democratic camp took 60 percent of the vote, while the pro-Beijing camp remained on 40 percent. The main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) becomes the largest force in the Legco with ten seats, but this is a small consolation when overall the pan-democrats increased their preponderance of elected seats from 18 last time, to 19 today. The DAB is effectively the Hong Kong ‘front organisation’ of the CCP. Mainland CCP officials were sent to Hong Kong to help this party “expand its grassroots organisation” [International Herald Tribune] and mobilise voters. Clearly, the CCP is better at organising sporting events than election campaigns!
Long Hair did especially well, receiving 44,700 votes, the second highest vote for any candidate in these elections. In the same constituency (New Territories East) the leader of the most outspoken pro-capitalist party, the Liberals, lost his seat. This party, part of the pro-Beijing camp, suffered an electoral collapse and is now “finished” in the words of its former chairman and founder. The Liberals have been key allies of the Tsang administration in the Legco, but are now resigning from their government or advisory posts in a last ditch bid for political survival. Few commentators give much for their chances, however. “The party has no future except merging with the DAB,” says its former chairman, Allan Lee Peng-fei.

Citadel of capitalism

Hong Kong is widely seen as a citadel of capitalism. It is regularly voted “freest in world” by various right-wing think-tanks due to record-low corporate taxes and a laissez faire economic tradition. This year, Hong Kong came fourth in the World Bank’s annual ‘Doing Business Report’ behind Singapore, New Zealand and the United States, as the best place for companies to operate.These election results are therefore extremely significant, revealing “an anti-business atmosphere,” according to the right-wing mouthpiece Voice of America.“One of the most unexpected results was the number of votes Long Hair got,” a top political commentator told The Standard. “This probably means some people are very angry with the current pro-establishment policies.”
The popular image of Hong Kong as an affluent metropolis is misleading. Huge social problems abound beneath the city’s glittering skyline. One in four of Hong Kong’s children live in poverty. This is the other side of the ‘small government, big market,’ doctrine that Tsang & Co pride themselves upon. Even some capitalist journals recognised that this year’s election centred around issues such as inflation, jobs, a minimum wage, education and housing. As if surprised by their discovery, the local media said that ‘bread and butter issues’ proved decisive in this election.
The vast majority of Hong Kong’s workforce is trapped in low-paid jobs in the service sector, as almost all manufacturing has been outsourced to mainland China. Inflation, running at over 6 percent, has squeezed pay packets hard. Rents, among the highest in the world, are a huge burden for working class families. Average monthly wages actually fell by 4.5% in the second quarter of 2008, from HK$11,000 to HK$10,500 (equivalent to 1,350 US dollars). These figures show how Hong Kong’s economy is driven by low-paid ‘McJobs’, involving long working hours. The average working week for shop assistants, a major occupation among young people, is 51 hours. As reported on, there have been a number of small but successful strikes this year, reflecting mounting anger over low pay and rising prices. The public sector too has seen protests, most recently over a programme to close ten percent of secondary schools over the next five years.
These factors were reflected in the election results. Hong Kong’s voters went out to punish those groups and parties that stand closest to the corporate pro-Beijing establishment. This was despite the ten percent lower turnout compared to the 2004 elections, that many believed would hurt the pan-democrats. Even at 45.2%, the turnout in these elections was higher than the 43.6% in the 2006 US Congressional elections. Inflation was a key issue as was the demand for a minimum wage. All parties to differing degrees gave verbal support to a minimum wage, but working class voters clearly placed greater trust in the LSD to fight for this.

Struggle for democratic rights

The election results also shine a spotlight on which social classes and forces stand for democratisation in Hong Kong and which are against. Contrary to a popular myth it is not the ‘business community’ that is pushing for universal suffrage in Hong Kong or China. The pressure comes instead from below, from the most oppressed layers in society: the working class and the poor.
While the Legco has little real power, these elections pose a major problem for China’s rulers and particularly for Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong, Xi Jinping, who is also president Hu Jintao’s heir-apparent. Constant manoeuvres and foot-dragging over universal suffrage by the central government have, in conjunction with the effects of neo-liberal pro-rich policies, undermined the Tsang administration just as they undermined his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, who was forced to resign in 2005. Now, Beijing will be even less enamoured with the prospect of elections on the basis of universal suffrage and the possibility of ‘anti-business’ politicians winning a majority in Hong Kong in future. As the South China Morning Post (9 September) noted: “the setback for businessmen in direct elections, and the underperformance by Beijing loyalists, might make the central government more wary of democratisation in the city.”
But more stalling, or an attempt by Beijing to re-impose the absolutism of the British-era, risks triggering a social explosion with implications for the whole of China and especially Hong Kong’s neighbouring province of Guangdong. The central government’s strategy for Hong Kong is part of a complex chess game for maintaining control of China, including unruly regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, and even coaxing Taiwan in the future into a closer formal relationship modelled on Hong Kong’s autonomous status. At all costs, however, the CCP wants to avoid releasing the ‘virus’ of democratic demands from Hong Kong into the 1.3 billion-headed mainland.
As Augustine Tan points out, support for the pro-CCP camp in Hong Kong comes especially from the capitalist class and the privileged: “Beijing chalked up significant middle-class support ... More telling are the pro-Beijing camp’s gains in the functional constituencies, which represent business and professional groups.” [Asia Times Online, 12 September]
In equal measure these social layers are horrified by the electoral gains of the LSD. As Tan notes, “The professionals – lawyers, doctors, accountants – are finding China ever more attractive and the radicalism, represented by “Long Hair” and “Mad Dog” repulsive.”

A new workers’ party?

These elections show the huge need and also the potential for a mass working class party offering an alternative to neo-liberalism, authoritarianism and capitalism. This is a feature of the entire world situation, where the complete pro-capitalist degeneration of one-time mass workers’ parties – social democrats and Stalinists – has created a gaping political vacuum on the left. These election results show that Hong Kong, and mainland China too, are very much part of this international process.
The LSD is a very recent formation, launched as an electoral alliance – not yet a party – in 2006. It is a politically heterogeneous formation comprising a wide variety of positions from anti-capitalists to admirers of Scandinavian-style social democracy (something that workers in Scandinavia can testify no longer exists and long ago capitulated to neo-liberalism). While the LSD includes those like Long Hair and his group, the April 5th Action Committee, that have been influenced by Trotskyist ideas, it also includes Wong Yuk-man, the LSD chairman, who is an evangelical Christian with reported links to the Kuomintang (the nationalist party that ruled China 1925-49, and had its main base of support in southern China). There will now be attempts by the political establishment and in particular by the bourgeois leaders of the pan-democratic camp to woo some sections of the LSD into the ‘political mainstream’ and away from any emphasis on protests and struggle. This is a danger that confronts all new left formations elected into capitalist parliaments and can only be countered by building a mass membership and putting down strong roots in the working class communities.
The issue of socialism and how to build support for socialist ideas is quite complex in Hong Kong and China as a whole, where this word often – falsely – conjures up associations with the CCP and authoritarianism. This is particularly ironic given the solid support for the CCP from Hong Kong’s capitalists and parties like the Liberals. Given the overarching importance of democratic demands and the – stalled – struggle for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, popular propaganda for socialist policies and democratic rights are inextricably linked. It is therefore necessary to use the term ‘democratic socialist’ to stress a fundamental distinction from Stalinist or ex-Stalinist political formations. In the Chinese context, however, even this term leads to confusion and is virtually indistinguishable from the term ‘social democrat’, a term that is increasingly discredited among the most conscious layers of workers and youth in Europe, but not yet in Asia.
The spectacular success of the LSD in these elections have undoubtedly raised its authority among important sections of workers and youth. This also means that the idea of a new working class party has been placed on the agenda. In order to attract fresh forces and develop a genuine mass membership, any new left-wing political formation must orientate towards struggle, rather than putting all its focus on electioneering. It must also be completely democratic, allowing freedom of left tendencies, and seek to use its impressive electoral gains as a platform from which it can popularise democratic socialist policies as the only real alternative to Hong Kong’s thinly disguised authoritarian capitalism.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Bangor University students union fees referendum

From this weeks Socialist. An Article and a letter.

Over the last year Socialist Students and the Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF) have been tirelessly campaigning for our students union to take a campaigning approach to the question of tuition fees.
April last year saw us hold a small protest to accompany the handing in of a 250+ strong petition calling on the students union to organise a referendum on whether the union should adopt the CDF demands on free education as its own. In the last few weeks the students union have finally got back to us with a proposed date for the referendum - Thursday 16 October, which coincidentally is the same date as the next CDF day of action.
In addition to this we have been informed that the national NUS leadership would like to come down and take part in the referendum. It has even been suggested that they would form the main opposition to our proposals. Although, based on their failure to campaign effectively against fees, we find it unsurprising that the current leadership of the National Union of Students is opposed to the CDF.
Surely the NUS's resources would be better spent on doing something about the ridiculous amount of debt just about every student gets into (of which fees are one part of), rather than using bully-boy tactics against students who don't want to accept the poverty we have to endure.

Letter: New broom needed

Increasing evidence of the growing levels of student debt has evoked an interesting response from Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students (NUS). In an NUS survey he describes students as “sleepwalking” into financial crises. But as the official leader of those ‘sleepwalkers’ shouldn’t he be doing something to rouse them?
His answer is to provide more information and advice to students about coping with debt. But students would probably not be in such a predicament if the NUS leadership didn’t keep squandering opportunities to build a mass campaign against fees and for the replacement of loans with a living grant. The Campaign to Defeat Fees was set up because of the failures of those like Streeting in the leadership of NUS. Part of the fight for a free education must be to sweep our student unions and NUS clear of these miserable creatures.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Review – The Red Book by Leon Sedov

There are few serious books that can make you laugh, and this one did which sort of makes me ashamed given the seriousness of the topic it discusses. But Sedov’s ridiculing of the ineptitude of those preparing the Moscow show trials and the glaring contradictions he reveals in the case the accusers are trying prove had me laughing in disbelief.

But the topic is deadly serious, Sedov writes about the first Moscow show trial which saw Zinoviev and Kamenev, two long-standing Bolsheviks shot for a crime they didn’t commit (the Kirov assassination) and the prosecutors trying to make some sort of case to argue that the assassination had been ordered by Trotsky (who was in exile) and Sedov, his son.

Dates are made up, people and places invented and the ‘terrorist network’ that Trotsky supposedly led appears to be the most incompetent in history, calling off all the assassinations they were supposed to be attempting at the last minute. The book leads one very well through the contradictions in the arguments and is well worth a read even today.

But it also got me thinking about whether show trials are not just limited to this period or whether you could group such trials together where the trial is really just a symbolic denunciation of someone done for mostly political reasons with the verdict fixed in advance. Despite Saddam Hussein being guilty of what he was tried for, I think his trial could fit into this category, due to all the things he could have been, but wasn’t, tried for.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Law and Order in Kronstadt

Most people on the left will have heard of Kronstadt – the naval fortress guarding the approach to St. Petersberg. They’ll either know it for one of two reasons, as being a stronghold of the Bolsheviks in the run-up to the 1917 October revolution or for the 1921 uprising. Today, I’m referring to the former, and the running of the fortress by the Soviet during May which Trotsky discusses in his History of the Russian Revolution in the chapter Shifts in the Masses.

So what happened? On May 13 the Soviet resolved that it was the sole power in the fortress and deported the government commissar. According to Trotsky, “Model order was maintained. Card playing in the city was forbidden. All brothels were closed, and their inmates deported. Under threat of “confiscation of property and banishment to the front,” the soviet forbade drunkenness in the streets. The threat was more than once carried into action.”(pg.441)
Of course, the capitalist press at the time tried to slander the soviet, according to them the Kronstadters were “…plundering state property, the women are nationalised(!), robberies and drunken orgies are in progress.”(pg.443) The big contrast here is apparantent, as if the farcical nature of what is being suggested by these newspapers.

The main problem for the dual-power government at the time (the Provisional government and the Soviet ‘executive’) was that eighty officers had been arrested. The government suggested that they were being kept in appalling conditions. Trotsky quotes their appeal as follows “The officers, gendarmes and police arrested by us in the days of the revolution have themselves declared to representatives of the government that they have nothing to complain of in the treatment they have received from the prison management. It is true that the prison buildings of Kronstadt are horrible, but those are the same prisons which were built by czarism for us. We haven’t any others. And if we keep the enemies of the people in those prisons it is not out of vengeance, but from considerations of revolutionary self-preservation.”(pg.442)
In summary, the officers were arrested for purposes of incapacitation are kept in whatever facilities were available. But given that these arrested officers had put down an uprising in 1906 with mass shootings and drownings.

As ever, I much prefer the justice of the oppressed to that of the oppressors.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Review – Comrades in Conscience by Cyril Pearce (2001)

I couldn’t help but pick up this book when I saw. The book covers Huddersfield, where I lived for a few years, during World War One. In particular it deals with working class resistance to the war.
It is a well researched book, examining not only academic reports but examining both the local and national press reports (including the Huddersfield weekly workers paper simply called ‘The Worker’). Indeed it is able to discuss academic work and put forward his own views without boring the casual reader (which is something I which I could say for many other books).
Pearce starts by giving the background to the opposition to the war, covering the state of the two working class parties (the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the British Socialist Party (BSP)) in Huddersfield as well as the remnants of radical Liberalism and also other organisations in Huddersfield (such as Adult Schools, Socialist Sunday Schools, Huddersfield Trade Council, the local press etc.)
At the time the workers parties were in a bit of disarray but, ironically, the war fused them together and saw them organising jointly against the war, in particular, through the Trades Council. Such a no-go area for pro-war views was Huddersfield that it was labelled ‘a hotbed of pacifism’ (of course people were still recruited for the war from Huddersfield, just fewer than some other areas).
Pearce details the different stages of the war, the governments initiatives to supply themselves with troops for the front and the various tactics used by the workers parties and their sometime radical Liberal allies. In particular he focuses on conscientious objectors (COs and hence the title), not only refuting other academics work in this area, but explaining how support for working class COs was mobilised and how although leaders of the working class parties becoming imprisoned for their resistance for the war affected them, they were able to gather more support and replace them.

There are some problems with the book however. Firstly, it is £15 which I think is a bit steep for a book whose actual content covers only 210 pages (it has over a hundred pages of appendixes and notes however). Secondly, it ends rather abruptly at about mid 1917, although it does mention a few events after much more detail of the after effects of their struggle would have been interesting. And thirdly, for me the book lacks much analysis of the tactics of the various parties and organisations – it is more concerned with presenting the facts of how successful the tactics are, perhaps this a task for another writer though.
Despite these criticisms, the book is a very good read about a topic that contains lessons for all socialists and is worth reading if only to acquaint oneself with the history of this period in England.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Charities and Private Companies Getting Cosy in a Prison Bed?

This article in yesterday's Financial Times reported that charities are forming consortiums with private companies to bid for new prisons in the UK.

Already NACRO has joined forces with Group 4 Securicor (G4S) and Rayner Crime Concern is teaming up with Serco. Apparently this is so that "involvement of the voluntary sector at an early stage in design and management of new jails would help improve conditions and effective resettlement of inmates" according to NACRO's Paul Cavadino. Previously charaties occasionally subcontracted things like resettlement and drug rehabilitation.

Of course this is presented as far more humane than just letting the private companies run prisons like they already do in 11 across the country. But privately run prisons are on average run worse than public sector ones and are overcrowded so why let the private sector be involved at all, if we assumed that the involvement of charities was a good thing in prisons surely this could be done in the public sector?

The article gives the game away later on when it says "Ministers believe that such building and operational models will make it politically easier to push ahead with the prison-building programme." Exactly, PFI has become so unpopular because it is a disaster waiting to happen (or alreayd happening in many places), and the involvement of charities is meant to make it seem all cute a cuddly and safe.

But there is a further question of whether charities should be involved at all. In my opinion charaties are not fully accountable to the public, but they're seen by some people as more responsive than a state bureaucracy. However, NACRO for example gets over 80% of funding from the state, so its hardly independent in that manner of it. But aren't charities supposed to have stated aims that they abide by that are supposed to guide them and in this way be accountable? NACRO's says nothing about running prisons - the nearest you get is helping people after they've been in prison to resettle.
Far better would be some form of local democratic control over prisons and indeed the whole criminal justice system.

Review - Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan

Over the last few weeks Channel 4 has been showing a series of documentaries about a project they set up with the local council (Wakefield) to renovate various areas around Castleford chosen by the local population. Being from the area, this immediately caught my attention when it was advertised on TV and only being busy has stopped me writing about it before now.

Now there are probably issues about how this scheme was devised, how it has been funded etc. But I want to deal what is billed as the central question, can ‘good design’ re-invigorate a run-down town. The idea of designing out social problems is not one that I haven’t come across before, in criminology the idea of designing out crime exists for example. The project is conceived as follows; the funding from various bodies for 8 initial schemes will create a boost that will lead to the regeneration of the whole town.

That the design of things can make a difference I personally am of no doubt of. Just the physical dimensions of any object affect how it can be used. A good design that fulfils the needs of local people will be of more use than a bad one. But no matter how good a design you have it is not isolated from the conditions around it.

The programme also suggests that it is innovative in involving the local community. In each programme there are some sort of community representatives, which although I am unsure how they are selected, I would think that any re-design of public space should include, indeed be the dominant group involved. Generally speaking though, in all the schemes covered, where the architects have listened to and taken up the ideas and needs of the people who are going to use it this has resulted in the best outcomes. Wherever the council takes direct responsibility for anything or tries to push its own agenda it ends up in creating something mediocre or worse. One programme has farce of a town square of benches, trees and paving being replaced by different benches, trees and paving.

Generally speaking it is the minor projects that have a large amount of local involvement that are big successes, and the ones where this involvement is either lacking or taken over by the council or a private company the result is less than satisfactory. But has good design reinvigorated the town economically. I think the answer is no – other factors such as the relocation of the market and a private investment plan are doing that for the town as a whole which are somewhat independent of the programme. But on a local basis around some of the smaller projects (particularly the parks) it has brought a community spirit back through a communal working together and ownership of these projects.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Contaminated Water – Yet Again!

Taken from the Socialist Party Wales website, yet another thing not on the list but it is a big thing up here.

For the third time in three years there has been an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the Gwynedd and Anglesey water supplies. Last time over 200 people were left ill after contracting the parasite which causes severe diahorrea, in late 2005 and a notice to boil all water (which kills the parasites eggs) was in place for several months.
Last time the company (Welsh Water / Dwr Cyrmu) agreed to compensate 37,000 customers £25 each for their inconvenience and were fined a tiny £60,000. After the incident the company spent £1million on new treatment equipment.But, the bug is back again with a notice to boil water on 30th August which will affect 45,000 people. It appears that this new treatment isn’t working either. A letter released by the Drinking Water Inspectorate pointed out that Welsh Water had been warned about possible problems with Cryptosporidium way back in 1998. The investigation into the 2005-06 incident said that treatment was in line with regulatory standards because it was believed the bug would be sufficiently dilute in the water not to cause harm!
Welsh Water, like other water companies across the UK was privatised by Thatcher in 1989. The debts of these companies were written off by the government, but this still led to price increases and staff cuts. Maintenance and investment was also cutback on as part of ‘cost-cutting’ exercises. So we have seen water shortages, outbreaks of bugs like cryptosporidium and poor maintenance of sewerage which made last years flooding much more severe.
The provision of water is a vital public service and should never have been privatised. Socialists argue for the re-nationalisation of the water companies, under democratic control and scrutiny of the local population.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Film Review – The Village (2004)

This wasn't mentioned on the list of stuff to come, mostly because I hadn't decided to write it then. They are still coming (a few are written but i've had internet problems!)

I was re-watching this film the other day and its criminological aspects struck me. Here we have in the film a group of people who have had family members who have been victims of horrific crimes and have taken upon themselves to live in isolation. ‘The Village’ is the ultimate gated community.
Of course, living in a gated community is only an option for the rich, with its private security. During the film we find out that the village ‘leader’ (although decisions seem to be made in a council of elders) came from a wealthy family and was able to enclose a large woodland area with the valley containing the village in the middle, pay for a security firm to protect woods, and bribe the government to create a no-fly zone over the woods.
Of course, in their desperate attempt to evade crime, crime finds them. Not only several characters cross over into the forbidden woods, but there is a stabbing in the village that is the catalyst for the secrets of the village being revealed.
Indeed there is a certain tension between the elders and their children over the arbitrary rules they have created to seclude the village. Indeed in their quest to avoid crime and live a simple life they are hooked up in a web of deception, having to instill fear in their children to avoid them venturing into the woods (and hence possibly revealing the existence of the village to the outside world).
Of course, no place like that could remain secret forever. For a start their financial resources can last only so long to maintain their protection. Then there is the question of accidental discovery too. All in all, one cannot run away from crime forever – only dealing with its material root causes can one have the hope of a crime free existence.