Thursday, 31 March 2011

Talking to Tony Benn

Tony Benn was out there at the head of the TUC march last weekend arguing for an alternative to the cuts. In many ways the theme of the march provided a good subtitle for Mr Benn’s life, staying strong to his principles, arguing for a fairer and more just way of organising society. “Every generation has to fight the same battles, again and again,” says Mr Benn who still speaks three or four times a week at meetings around the country. At 86, it is not unreasonable to say that the former Labour cabinet minister has seen it all before. As such he remains dubious about the so called allies’ intervention in Libya. “The West has decided to intervene supposedly to stop civilians from dying. Yet in Bahrain they have sent troops into crush the revolt and Yemen is also using force against demonstrators,” said Mr Benn. “It is not logical and it means in effect we have gone to war with Libya. Not that this is anything new, Britain used to run Libya.” As a former energy minister in the Labour Government, Mr Benn has always been concerned about nuclear power. He does not believe the industry is trustworthy and will repeatedly lie to protect its own interests. He recalls when in office not being told that plutonium was being exported from British power stations to the US to be used in nuclear weapons. “We were effectively running bomb factories for the Pentagon,” recalled Mr Benn, who believes the destabilisation of the Japanese power station Fukishima provides a timely reminder of the danger of nuclear power production. “The earthquake provided a reminder that nature is our master. I hope and believe it will make people ask questions about the nuclear industry. It is dangerous and when I was in charge of it I realised I could never believe a word those running the industry said,” said Mr Benn. What the industry is good at is reinventing itself. Most recently this has seen the nuclear industry gaining a rebirth as a means to cut carbon emissions in the fight against global warming. Mr Benn points out that this has happened before, some 10 years after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Then it was sold as cheap, safe and for peace. But this was false; it is not cheap once the cost of clear up is taken into account. It is not safe as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukishima show and it does not promote peace,” said Mr Benn, who does not believe the public are being told the truth about the nuclear damage being done in Japan now. The former energy minister hopes that the tragedy in Japan will cut short any plans in Britain to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Mr Benn believes that David Cameron is a straightforward neo-liberal Thatcherite. “The attack on the NHS is something Mrs Thatcher would not have dreamed of,” said Mr Benn, who can never recall a time of such public anger. The fact that the mass of people are now being made to pay for the irresponsibility of the banks is fuelling much of that anger. He is though optimistic about the prospects of the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, which he sees getting more back to its fundamentals after the New Labour neo-liberal experiment foundered. He believes that Mr Miliband will be more respectful of the trade unions and the people who they represent remembering that it was the unions which put him in place. “It is going to be the popular movement that shapes how the Labour Party reacts,” said Mr Benn, who remains loyal to his democratic socialist principles. He quotes the creation of the National Health Service as one of the most socialist things ever done by a Labour Government. “The NHS remains the most popular institution. People won’t accept a world dominated by wealth and money, a world where the rich benefit at the expense of everyone else,” said Mr Benn. “Socialism is about democracy, people taking control.” Mr Benn still believes in the programme of industrial democracy that he put forward in the early 1970s, which would have seen 25 areas taken into state ownership remains a useful blueprint for today. Today, these would include banking, health, education, energy resources and railways. “The government plays a very important role in shaping the economic policy. It has to do more than manage how capitalism runs,” said Mr Benn. The state of the traditional media is not something that inspires hope in Mr Benn, though he does take heart from the different sources of information now made available through the internet. This has helped inspire some of the popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. In Britain, Rupert Murdoch’s interests dominate broadcast and print media. Meanwhile, the BBC represents the British establishment. “There is no trade union news, it is all about the financial markets, it is a view from a rich man’s world,” said Mr Benn. “The BBC refuses to mention the Morning Star which carries trade union and international news.” He is though keen that the BBC is not sold off to Mr Murdoch. The arrival of Wikileaks on the scene has also helped to set many people free. “Wikileaks is important because information is a source of power. In the old days governments wanted to know everything about everyone with no one knowing what they did. Wikileaks has changed all of that, bringing a transformation of power to the people,” said Mr Benn, who believes Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and US military source Bradley Manning are important figures in helping to liberate us. It has been a long held theory of Mr Benn that there are real radical reforms every 40 years. The last big change came in 1980 when Thatcher came to power bringing the neo-liberal capitalist model. Previously there was the Labour Government of 1945 and the reforms of the Liberal Government of 1906 and formation of the Labour Party. So there should be major change coming over the next few years, whether it will be caused by economic meltdown, global warming or a combination of the two no one knows. What Mr Benn though is sure of is that if the change is to be for the betterment of humanity it is likely to come from the struggle of the mass of people for justice and democracy. Who knows, maybe the changes have already started with the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where next London?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

FIS urge Irish to register on census

The Federation of Irish Societies (FIS)is keen that Catholic churches play a major role in its campaign to get Irish people resident in Britain to register on the census.
The census which takes place on 27 March could be the last such count as the government has suggested it may do away with the process.
At the time of the last census in 2001 there was a major undercounting with just 670,000 people registering as Irish. It is believed that the Irish community amounts to well over 2 million in Britain.
The campaign organisers suggest that if the number counted in any one given area last time is multiplied by 2.5 that would give a more accurate representation.
FIS chief executive Jenny McShannon pointed out that public bodies like the local and health authorities make decisions on community needs based on what comes out of the census. A failure to accurately represent the number of Irish people can have serious detrimental effects on later resourcing decisions. “For example there are higher incidences of cancer among Irish people, a higher mortality rate generally and a genetic disease that can hit one in five of the Irish population – these are things the authorities need to know,” said Ms McShannon.
The genetic disorder is the liver disease known as haemochromatosis which involves an iron overload in the system. If left undiagnosed it can lead to diabetes and heart problems. Ms McShannon points out that what can happen is an Irish man comes into a hospital drunk suffering with haemochromatosis but the staff put it down to the alcohol and miss the underlying condition altogether. A better understanding of the Irish community would stop this type of problem occurring.
A combination of reasons are thought likely to have contributed to the failure of the Irish to register in the census last time. These include a misunderstanding between nationality (national identity) and ethnicity, confusion over the eligibility of recording other household members as having Irish ethnicity and people not reading the question properly.
Significantly while 90 per cent of first generation Irish people registered on the census in 2001, just nine per cent of second generation registered.
One second generation Irish man backing the campaign is TV presenter Terry Christian who explained that last time he did not realise he could register as Irish. “This time I will be ticking the box, as will all of the rest of my family,” said Mr Christian.
Among high profile Catholics backing the campaign are chairman of Sunderland FC Niall Quinn and former Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy, MP. Other high profile supporters include Wolves football manager Mick McCarthy, footballer Kevin Kilbane, Sir Terry Wogan and Big Issue founder John Bird.
The FIS are hoping to reach the second generation Irish group through the Catholic Church and a number of public meetings around the country. After a House of Commons launch in January, there have been meetings in Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and at the Welsh Assembly.
Former Labour Mp Kevin McNamara was part of the original campaign to get Irish as a separate ethnic group on the census. “It is important for the Irish to stand up and be counted, particularly at this time with the government saying this might be the last census,” said Mr McNamara, who is keen that the Catholic churches play an active role in pushing out the message to register for the census. “It would be great if the churches could have the leaflet in the porches.”
Mr McNamara, who spoke at the Liverpool meeting, believes there is a real danger that integration can lead to sameness. “Multiculturalism is not about separation but celebrating diversity. It is important for people to say where they come from otherwise they won’t know where they are going to,” said Mr McNamara.

Is Red Nose Day just about cheap publicity for desperate celebrities?

The population has over recent weeks had to endure the irritating build up to Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day.
The event offers an opportunity for comedians and entertainers to do something to help the poor of the world – both at home and abroad. The event has been supported by the public in their millions, since its inception in 1988.
Red Nose Day sits together with Sport Aid, Children in Need and other great charitable fests organised to help the less well off.
Charitable activities to help the poor are ofcourse most laudable and to be encouraged.
One of the problems though with events like Red Nose Day is the crass celebrity led nature of the process.
One programme in the lead up to Red Nose Day was titled Famous, Rich and in the Slums featuring comedic actor Lenny Henry , Eastenders actress Samantha Womack and former newsreader Angela Rippon visiting poor people in the slums of Africa. Can it get much more patronising?
The celebrities are lauded for giving their time and taking the trouble to find out what is going on. Another side is that this is easy cheap positive publicity for the celebrity class. It is a sad society that can only understand poverty and suffering viewed through the lens of their own priveliged rich celebrities.
These fundraising fests in the main simply reinforce the stereotypes about poverty in the world. The subjects are victims to be showered with pity. They pull on the heart strings, people react and give generously. They do not address the real causes of poverty and what can be done to eliminate it.
In this country, what of the structures that mean one in five live under the poverty line? The fact that 9,000 elderly people died over the past year due to the cold. And that it is the poor and vulnerable who are being hit by the austerity budget to cut the deficit. These questions do not arise as part of Red Nose Day.
These TV celebrity led charitable affairs in the main simply reinforce unhelpful stereotypes about the poor.
The people who contribute are made to believe they are really making a difference, while reinforcing their generally negative views about the helplessness of the poor.
They give no dignity to the victims, simply providing them with a bit part in a warped soap opera of suffering.
The all important element missing is justice. If justice were part of these events, then the links that keep so much of the world - at home and abroad - poor would become apparent.
The fact that many in this country could not enjoy the lifestyles that they do, were it not for the suffering of others, needs to be pointed out. The economic system that dominates throughout the world demands that so many people remain poor.
If some of these points were made and a vision for real change offered then there would be a point to these fundraising affairs.
At present they are at best band aids for suffering, at worst a means to massage celebrity egos and reinforce unhelpful stereotypes of the poor.
If the celebrity class want to do something useful then they should learn about the causes of poverty at home and abroad. Then they could use their positions to inform about these matters. It would be interesting to see because no doubt were they to move out of the passive self publicising charitable role then they would soon find demand for such appearances would drop off. Imagine, the arguments about too little tax being imposed on the rich in this country (a subject close to home for many celebrities) or the need to curb arms exports to Africa.
These various fundraising events have gone on for decades now but how much difference have they made? The world is more unequal than ever. No doubt there have been important changes made at individual level by much of the work done by these events but do they not just obfuscate the whole injustice of the bigger picture.
Giving to charity is a very simple way to feel good and salve consciences. Questioning why the world is set up in such an unjust way is a much more difficult challenge to undertake. This requires that justice be put to the forefront and that charity does not replace it.

Faith and unions must unite against cuts

The Trade Union Congress is organising a march against the Coalition Government’s cuts agenda on 26 March.
The TUC have called on faith communities to join the March for the Alternative and be part of that movement but how do they intend to engage with those people in order to get them onto the streets.
So far the approach seems to be one of follow us. This is an approach last deployed by the Stop the War Coalition at the time of the protests against the Iraq war.
On that occasion, there was a genuine opportunity to form a mass movement to not only stop the war but to become something else that would unite all of those groups which have become so disenfranchised over the years. Stop the War failed in this respect but could have gone so much further than just marching, marching, marching.
The question now is will the TUC and others seeking to create a proper movement against the cuts agenda have learned any lessons? Simply telling the faith communities to follow the unions will not work.
Many in the faith communities are ofcourse members of trade unions. There has though been a parting of the ways on a number of narrow issues.
In any coalition of interests there are going to be differences of opinion but these need to be accommodated in favour of the common good. Catholic Labour MP Jon Cruddas has outlined the need to recreate the broad Church concept of the labour movement bringing together faith groups, trade unions, the charitable sector and Labour Party supporters under the banner of commonality that unites.
For this to happen though there needs to be some genuine outreach on both sides.
The example of the Catholic Church and the unions does not offer much encouragement of any outreach going on from either side.
On the Church side, while the hierarchy seem quite happy to conduct meetings with bankers in the City of London and sign up to the Coalition Government’s Big Society, they do not meet with the representatives of the trade unions
On the union side, a number of leaders who were Catholics positively disavow their faith roots. One leader of a major union was keen that his name did not appear in a list of the top 100 Catholics in a Catholic magazine. Others simply don’t seem to want to speak to the Catholic audience. There are exceptions. The general secretary of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes has spoken out about his Catholic roots and how they led him to trade unionism.
The reservations of both faith and union leaders are understandable but they need to be overcome and a dialogue established. Most faiths do not believe in a society where a small number of people keep all the wealth for themselves – it runs contrary to the common good.
In the Catholic case, how can the Church be making a preferential option for the poor if it will not speak to those bodies that play an active part in ensuring a more equitable division of resources in that society?
The unions too need to drop their hostility to faith. Many trade union leaders developed the very values that led them into union work from their faith formation. It is particularly surprising the number of union leaders who are Catholics.
It is no good for those who are committed to change and want to build broad coalitions for the purpose to shut themselves off in isolated silos. This is what is happening at the moment in the case of the leaderships of the trade unions and faith communities.
There are though some encouraging signs. The National Justice and Peace Network has embraced the TUC’s campaign and encouraged its members to come out and join the march on 26 March. The annual conference in July is about Justice at Work, bringing together Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC, Jon Cruddas, John Battle and the Movement of Christian Workers.
Community organisers London Citizens have been the most successful body in bringing together faith, unions and educational bodies to work for social change. Their work is the best sign of the broad movement being recreated.
So there are some encouraging developments but much more needs to happen if faith groups and the labour movement are to truly mould into a much larger body for real change based on justice. The barriers need to be broken down, with the common good becoming the aim that can unite all.