Thursday, 25 March 2010

What is the point of the Global Poverty Project?

Last term Cambridge was full of leaflets and posters for the newly launched Global Poverty Project. It aims to end extreme poverty, which is defined as people living on the equivalent of less than $1.25 per day, within a generation. This is the situation 1.4 billion people find themselves in, so, says the GPP, we have 1.4 billion reasons to do something about it.

I admit I haven't been to one of their ninety minute presentations, “1.4.billion reasons.” The trailer for this begins with shots of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Berlin Wall coming down. So does the GPP advocate a campaign of mass civil disobedience (King), a combination of violence and non-violence to overthrow reactionary governments (Mandela) or a mass uprising along the lines of 1989? Nope. They're setting their sights rather lower:

“To make sure that we get it right, we are working closely with advisors from NGOs, government, multilateral agencies, academics and civil society, who you can meet here. The presentation answers five big questions that people have about extreme poverty:
What is extreme poverty?
Can we do anything about it?
What are the barriers to ending extreme poverty?
Why should we care?
What can I do?”

The GPP doesn't want your money, it wants to raise awareness. It wants to “catalyse a movement to end extreme poverty.” The implication is this: people are heart-shatteringly poor because we haven't got around to doing anything about it yet. If only more people knew that poverty existed. The closest GPP comes to acknowledging a structural problem is when, during the presentation, we are told that one in seven people go hungry every night even though there is enough food in the world to feed everyone one-and-a-half times over. Does the GPP advocate a radical redistribution of wealth or changed political system to deal with this? Well, their online How-To guides tell us to buy Fairtrade and write to politicians. So no.

We've been here before. The GPP is a direct continuation of the Make Poverty History campaign (remember that?) Hugh Evans and Simon Moss, the people behind the GPP, were both leaders of Australian MPH. Simon Moss “has contributed on development issues at some of the world's leading conferences including the G20, the World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative.”

The ideology behind the GPP is good old fashioned development. More roads need to be built to allow aid to be effective, and so on. Why not volunteer overseas and teach kids English? So much more useful to them than learning one of their own languages. In fact, the GPP seems to write off the agency of the world's poorest all together. This is all about speaking for them. Indigenous peoples' movements and trade unions can make way for Western corporate-wannabe grad students and PR men.

Sitting on the “Global Activation Advisory Panel” of the GPP is Joe Talcott, head of marketing at New Ltd in Australia, a media group owned by that well-known champion of the poor, Rupert Murdoch. More worryingly, the former CEO of Levi's Australian operation, Peter Murphy, is also there. Levi's record on workers' rights in the past has been pretty appalling. And their environmental record, to put it kindly, leaves a lot to be desired. In this interview while he was still CEO, Murphy says “The cost differential currently today between imported and local manufacture is some 25 to 30 per cent.” In other words, we need to ship production to places where we can afford to pay people much less, and put people in Australia out of a job while we're at it. Surely someone committed to ending global poverty would have wanted to pay workers in poor countries at Western rates?

The GPP is a step backwards. If you're a liberal concerned with global poverty, why not just get involved with Oxfam? If you're a liberal concerned with human rights, why not just get involved in Amnesty? Is it cynical to suggest that there might be a bit of CV building going on? Fighting poverty with patronising platitudes has never worked in the past. What makes the GPP think it will work now?

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Red Barons Ate My Baby

“Has your flight been cancelled? Are you stuck somewhere trying to get back to the UK? Send us your comments and pictures” pleads the BBC News website. “Have your say: Do Unions have too much power?” Well, do they? They do, don't they? Look at them! With their flags and placards and everything. Who do they think they are? Here's another story about the American Teamsters, who support the BA strike. Did you know their leadership had links with organised crime 35 years ago?

Yesterday's Sun gave a column to union-busting BA chief executive Willie Walsh. He feels sorry for the customers. He respects the cabin crew a great deal but is angry about their decision. Here are some pictures of pickets, smiling. How dare they have any fun on a picket line, while they're ruining your holiday. Why not ring us or email us if your family's hard earned holiday has been wrecked? We'd value your impartial judgement. Len McCluskey and Bob Crow make speeches that are “throwbacks” and “anachronisms” more suited to the 1970s and 1980s. And thus the media coverage of the BA strike goes on and on.

But we're not in the 1980s. OK, there are similarities: all the music is shitty electro-pop and nobody has a job. But I'm pretty sure it's 2010. Perhaps union leaders still make speeches about striking to defend members' conditions because it's still relevant. For the mainstream media, strikes and union militancy are both “a thing of the past,” and no matter how many strikes there are they will still be “a thing of the past.” No-one does it these days. The cabin crew are just an exception. Oh, and so are those railway signallers. And those others ones, the civil servants. And when our own reporters walkout against the job cuts we will make, they will be an exceptional case too.

All this works against producing a picture of a general, albeit still small, upsurge of industrial activism among many different sections of the working class, for similar reasons. The only possible effect of a strike is that more “passengers face travel chaos.” In this narrative, a victory for the employers will not give a green light for others to behave the same way. A victory for the workers will not inspire others to take a stand. Painting a dispute as an isolated, self-contained event means it is just a nuisance, the workforce are selfish no matter what their actual grievances are, the management may be incompetent but are not malicious.

Anyone who wants an alternative view of the dispute, including more extensive interviews with the strikers themselves, can check out Air Strike, a blog run by Socialist Party supporters.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Why is 'Skins' so shit?

I hung on to the fourth series of Skins until the end, hoping desperately that it would get better, or that any of the dozen half-written storylines would be brought to a conclusion. More fool me. Up until this series, Skins was more-or-less what would happen if the best night out you ever had as a teenager, and the worst night out you ever had as a teenager, kept happening over and over again. Sometimes simultaneously.

This series was obviously supposed to be darker. Naomi slept with a girl who then killed herself. Effy descended into a suicidal downward spiral and had her boyfriend beaten to death by her therapist.

I found it hard to care about any of this though. Unlike the first set of characters, it was difficult to sympathise with this lot, who just spent their time being awful to each other then unconvincingly saying “I love you, man” at the end of each episode. So Freddie was beaten to a pulp by a rogue medical professional with a baseball bat. But he was no big loss; he only spent his time masturbating and smoking weed anyway. None of them were engaged at all with the wider world. Even the pretence that Naomi was the one with a social conscience who, like, gives a shit about important stuff, was dropped pretty early. So what is Skins trying to say? Head writer and co-creator Brian Elsley says:

Skins is a show made with love and respect for you and your lives by people who try to be close to that. Is it supposed to be realistic? No. Can it be funny all the time? No. Should it be depressing? No. But it should say something important; that being young can be so fantastic, and such a disaster at the same time. And that you are not alone. Somewhere, there is a person experiencing the same things as you; whether they are stupidly hilarious or just terrible. Finally: That the way adults see you is not all you are. That is Skins.

Yes, being a teenager is good and shit at the same time. These characters, though, are only ever allowed by the writers to express themselves through sex and violence, which I think does a disservice to young people. Angry? Get high. Sad? Fuck someone. Had a bad day? Beat the shit out of a stranger.

There are lots of shots of mopey teenagers trekking across Bristol while quirky “anti-folk” music plays in the background, very little actual dialogue or plot progression in a given episode. As Effy's depression got worse, Freddie's response was only, “Effy, enough of the heavy shit, yeah?” Brilliant, he's useless. It's OK though, because he loves her so much. We know this because he filled a book up with the words “I love her” and nothing else.

At least the adult characters are, generally, two dimensional caricatures that don't demand to be taken seriously. The Sixth Form director obsessed with results, the doctor who, whenever JJ tells him about feeling worried or angry, just replies “Don't,” the jaded parents played by almost every middle-aged British comedian. This is pretty good satire. But the kids.... urgh.

Maybe I'm just getting older, and don't get it any more.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lords, Vice-Chancellors, and Democracy

Why are we so willing to put up with such a lack of democracy in so many areas of our life?

Our political system is a democracy, but our society is far from democratic. Most people have very little power over most aspects of our lives. Three incidents from recent days have got me thinking about this.

Beckham's Green and Gold scarf

Manchester United's comfortable thrashing of AC Milan in the Champions League was somewhat eclipsed by their former captain's donning of a Green and Gold protest scarf after the match. It was great to hear, on the radio, the anti-Glazer chants in Old Trafford for the whole of the last half hour of the match. Fans at Old Trafford seem to be waiting until United are comfortably in the lead, then turning the game into a demonstration.

However, they have no recourse, no democratic method of removing the Glazers from ownership. The fans' best option currently seems to be the so-called Red Knights, a group of (rich) investors who have expressed an interest in the club. Portsmouth fans and staff have seen their club kicked around between rich owners for months, and now have to pay for the incompetence of others with relegation and job losses. The choice of one rich owner over another doesn't solve the problem.

Corpus Christi Protest

This week, students at Corpus Christi College staged a protest picnic against the college authorities' mismanagement. Students are having to bear the burden of increased costs in a college that is rumoured to be one of the wealthiest in town. Emphasis on the word “rumoured”, of course no college finances are transparent enough for us to know how rich they are, or exactly what it is they do with our money. For all we know, they could be bathing in it at weekends.

Corpus spent one million pounds on a stupid clock that doesn't even tell the time properly, as a gimmick to attract tourists. Perhaps there should have been a democratic decision to spend this money on something that would actually be useful?

Colleges lie about tiny things because they assume they can get away with it. The political memory of students is so short that they can safely misrepresent what the Kitchen Fixed Charge or cost of laundry was five years ago, in order to justify raising it. Student union reps on committees get fobbed off, lied to, or ignored. After a year they are frustrated enough to start getting pissed off, but then they have to step down in favour of some new, bright-eyed reps, who know that of course the college is an academic community and only wants what's best for its members.

The executive body of our university, the University Council, lacks even official Student Union, or staff union, representation. The university refuses to allow online voting, which would increase turnout. College JCRs are given the responsibility for running the ballot, which means that if they don't, there is no way for people to vote. There are three student representatives on a body of twenty-one, and no representation for non-academic staff. The heads of colleges and Professors could push through as many Golden Clocks as they like, and make everyone else pay for it.

Lord Adonis and the BA strikes

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has strongly condemned British Airways cabin crews' decision to take strike action. Let's leave aside for a second the condescending language which treats people like children (decisions to strike are always “unacceptable” and “irresponsible). Let's ask the question, in whose name is Adonis speaking?

The cabin crew have voted by 80% on a 77% turnout to take this strike action. Lord Adonis has been elected by 0% of anyone, on a 0% turnout. He was made a Lord so that he could sit in the cabinet. He has no democratic mandate whatsoever. He once won a ward in a town council election. For the Liberal Democrats. Twenty years ago. But he can go on TV and, with the full authority of an elected government, condemn a group of people who have made the collective, democratic decision to defend their working conditions.

Putting a cross in a box every year is no democracy, as long as the Lords, Vice-Chancellors and union busting bosses retain all the power.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

General Election Hustings and Soul Reversal

On Tuesday night Clare College politics society held a Question Time style hustings with five candidates for the Cambridge constituency at the general election, chaired by former Tory MP and Clare alumnus Matthew Parris. Present were the candidates of the three main parties, the Greens, and Martin Booth for the Cambridge Socialists, who are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Perhaps inevitably, questions were wide-ranging and candidates were not really given enough time to do them justice. It was clear that the Green and Socialist candidates were on the left, with the Tories and Labour on the right and a LibDem falling down the hole in the middle while trying to please everyone.

Tony Juniper for the Greens argued for a “different kind of economics.” This meant investment for the creation of green jobs, higher taxes on the wealthy and a Tobin Tax. Nothing there that a Socialist candidate would necessarily disagree with, but Martin went much further than Juniper when dealing with some key issues. Martin called for the meaningful nationalisation of the banks, to be run genuinely democratically as opposed to carrying on private sector practices as RBS are at the moment. He also argued that combating climate change necessitated a challenge to the capitalist system.

Implicit in this is the question that the Greens, as a party, need to face. If their “different kind of economics” is not socialism, is not aimed at giving decision-making power in society to the working class majority, then what is it? A nicer form of capitalism? If so, how will it work? How would the Greens challenge the power of big capital?

Martin very much stressed the need to mobilise people to achieve our goals, whether this be in the defence of public services or the fight against climate change. Juniper, an experienced lobbyist with Friends of the Earth, called for this or that law to be enacted. But he seemed to have no strategy for action in the (very likely) case that the political class lets us down.

Daniel Zeichner is Labour's candidate. His contributions were heavily critical of the “fantasy politics of opposition world.” I can well believe that Zeichner is not a New Labour hack right now, but he said nothing to indicate that he wouldn't become one if elected to Parliament. His answer on Afghanistan was particularly telling, as he came out with some crap about the threat of Al-Qaeda and the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist hands if Western troops left, that could have been a press release from the darkest days of the Bush Jr. White House.

Zeichner said that a few years ago he pushed for Labour conference to adopt a policy of building more council housing, and that doing so cost him dear in terms of progress within the party. That this perhaps tells us a lot about the state of the Labour Party itself, was apparently lost on him.

One question, “Do you think Britain is a broken society?”, indicates how difficult it can be to put a socialist message across in circumstances like these. The question reminds me of the Day Today sketch on “Tightening up the law” or “Soul Reversal.” Seeing as the question is centred around a meaningless phrase, any answer given is meaningless. "Society is broken." "180 degrees should be the average soul reversal for a football match." And so on. Martin did a good job in limited time of trying to explain how phrases like this are used implicitly or explicitly to blame the poor in society for their own problems.

“Broken Society” is, of course, a Tory-Tabloid chestnut. Nick Hillman, for the Conservatives, came out with a few more of these, most notably that “violent crime is going up,” without giving any real statistics. He also dismissed a recent poll showing that most Tory candidates don't care about global warming with the rather unconvincing pearl of wisdom that “every party has fringes.” He also reassured us that he hasn't taken any money from Lord Ashcroft, but defended the latter as a great contributor to the Cambridge community because he provides funding to ARU. This is worth looking into; maybe he owns it, along with Belize.

It remains to be seen how far the extent of the LibDem candidate to mark out territory distinct from the other two main parties is successful. He came out against tuition fees, which the LibDems were equivocal on before they realised that scrapping this pledge would gut their student vote. He seemed to be off message, saying that there would be no drastic spending cuts under the LibDems. presumably just “savage” ones, then. He also called for the quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which is something I've never heard from Clegg et al.

Despite this, there was little between the main parties' candidates. Juniper was impressive, but Martin was the only panel member to get across any ideas about a totally different political or economic system, and the need to involve people in grassroots political campaigning.

Read Martin's own take on the evening here.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Junk Mail Vol. 2

So the Tory leaflet finally came through. Guess what? It's made to look like a regular newspaper (intouch). Guess what else? It has a bar chart. The Tories won a general election poll in the Cambridge News. i.e. not a real vote in an actual election.

In fact the Tories are so "intouch" that they have to devote an entire quarter of the leaflet to a bullshit survey finding out what residents want. This includes such helpful questions as "Do you think it is time for a change of government?" and "Are you worried about the huge debts built up by the Labour Government? My answer to both these questions is yes, so maybe the Tories are under the impression that I will vote for them before glaciers reach the gates of hell.

They are playing a heavily localist card, promising more national resources for Cambridge and greater "academic freedoms", whatever that means, below an obligatory picture of King's College chapel.

Also there is a funny picture in a section on anti-social behaviour where it looks like David Cameron is about to be arrested by two policemen. We can dream.

Petition against summary expulsions at Sussex Uni

Six students have been suspended for their part in a peaceful demonstration against cuts at Sussex Uni.

This action shows that university managements are shaken and worried by protests but also sets a dangerous precedent for responses to protests in the future.

See the heavy handed police response to the protest here and sign the petition for the reinstatement of the six here.

Check for updates at

Friday, 5 March 2010

SU Manifesto Parody

Soon I will write a real post about student union elections. But for now, suffice to say that there are far too many candidates with manifestos that look like this:

Hi. I'm running for [position] in [students' union name] because I care about what the union can do for you. I am a friendly and approachable person with the passion and commitment to take our union forward. I am passionate about my CV and committed to my future career.

I have lots of experience sitting on some committee you've never heard of in a position you didn't elect, where my spineless toadying brought minimal changes. I was head [boy/girl] at my school full of rich kids who faced no actual problems, and for some reason think that this fact is relevant to my campaign for a leadership position in a union. I have also served as [treasurer/secretary/persistent arse licker] of the debating society which is weird because I have no discernible opinions about anything.

I will aim to represent all students rather than push a political agenda, because I'm afraid that if I tell people what I think about things, they will disagree with me. I will rise above factional politics by refusing to ever commit myself to anything. Students are sick of politics getting in the way of achieving change. I will improve communication by sending out more of the same emails that people will, for some reason, actually read this year.

Some people say that students have become apathetic. To them I say: I don't care about this. But I will put my name to some wanky liberal campaigns that no-one except a hard-right nut-bar could complain about. Probably something to do with the environment. But I pledge to continue to use the myth of student apathy as a cover for my right-wing views.

I have no principles in which to ground my policies so I will just write the first thing that comes into my head, something like [more vending machines/more student discounts/something vague to do with sports facilities] to make it sound like I've actually thought anything through.

I think it's imperative that we keep the cap on tuition fees because I want to pay lip service to a tradition of student radicalism to which I have never belonged. We can achieve this through mature negotiations and not mindless activism. I passionately believe that people are stupid enough to fall for this crap. We need to find dynamic and efficient new ways of sitting on our arse for a whole year while the Higher Education sector is smashed to pieces.

Vote for me because I am the pragmatic, experienced candidate and I will deliver on my promises, if you can remind me what any of them were. Here is a photo of me in some costume or other during freshers' week to remind you that I like a laugh, really. And in the end, isn't that what student unions are really about?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Things I keep seeing/hearing in music videos

People who you think are a band because of their name but are in fact just one person. Marina and the Diamonds, Florence and the Machine, Owl City.

Mr Hudson. You know what, Mr Hudson? Why not write some of your own songs?

People dancing in front of huge walls of light. Why does this happen so often? Who builds the walls? Has anyone thought of the carbon footprint?

Excessive autotuning. Surely the machine should get some credit?

Women with several different hairstyles over the course of one song. Does this mean they have to sing the same song over again with different hair? Isn't this a big waste of time?

Somebody please make a good music video.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Occupation at University of Westminster

Students at the University of Westminster are occupying their Vice-Chancellor's office in protest against cuts and job losses in the university.

For more information see their blog