Monday, 19 December 2016

What is Christmas all about?

The sight of people on the street in the freezing cold, huddling up on park benches seems an increasingly regular occurrence  in 21st century Britain.

Still one of the riches countries in the world yet more and more people go to food banks, whilst a drumbeat resounds throughout the media for vilification of the poor.

Alongside this world of growing poverty another exists, which is that of the wealthy. They spend ludicrous amounts on food and presents to celebrate Christmas. The largesse is grotesque against a background of poverty and suffering.

Then there is everyone else, many of whom also seem to think to celebrate Christmas requires spending a huge amount on stuff.  People flock into the shops, many stony faced as they march down the shopping aisles filling baskets and trolleys with the good required (or not) for Christmas.

It is difficult at times not to think Christmas has morphed from a religious celebration - marking the birth of a child in a manger - into some sort of retail gorgefest, whereby everyone has to spend – many not really knowing why – supposedly to satisfy the need for retailers to make huge profits. It is a duty to spend because otherwise what will happen to the bottom lines of those companies.

Christmas is a religious Christian festival yet stretches beyond the world of faith.  When it is at its best is when the spirit of generosity comes forth from people across the world. People reach out to neighbours and help those less well off than themselves. Christmas is a time for giving, for charity but not a time for forgetting.

Helping the homeless is not just for Christmas. Christmas should also be a time to reflect as to why so many people are homeless in the fifth biggest economy in the world. Why do more than a million people go to food banks in a country of 150 billionaires? Why are there outpourings of concern about refugees, yet little concern as to the role of this country in fuelling such crises with arms sales around the world.  The compassion of a country like Britain has to be measured against its role as a major arms supplier.

So yes Christmas is an important time for celebration of all that is good but it is also important to remember the suffering across the world. Remember the role that we as citizens of the UK play in the maintenance of a massively unequal and unjust world. Then try to do something about it.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Relief as West Ham nick second home win in four days

West Ham 1- 0 Hull City
How West Ham emerged victorious from this game will remain one of the great mysteries of this Christmas season.
A perplexed Hull manager Mike Phelan admitted that this was his sides best performance of the season yet they came away with nothing.
And West Ham boss Slaven Bilic admitted that Hull deserved something from the encounter.
The first gilt edge chance came when a misplaced Aaron Cresswell back pass saw striker Dieumerci Mbokan clean through with only keeper Darren Randolph to beat. But Mbokani somehow managed to hit the post.
Mbokani then had two further chances that went just wide.
Bilic switched to a four, four two formation at half time bringing on Andre  Ayew and Edmilson Fernandes for Manuel Lanzini and Pedro Obiang. However, this did not stop the Hull onslaught, with home skipper Mark Noble diverting an early cross onto his own post.
The overlapping left back Andrew Robertson then saw his thumping 20 yard shot bounce back of the far upright. Fernandez then cleared another Hull effort off the line.
The half time changes, that freed up Michail Antonio from right back, finally bore fruit in the 76th minute. Picking the ball up from defence Antonio ran three quarters the length of the pitch before being hauled down on the edge of the Hull penalty area. The resulting free kick saw Antonio pulled down in the penalty area by Tom Huddlestone, resulting in a penalty being awarded by referee Lee Mason.
Skipper Noble duly dispatched the spot kick.
Payet then nearly doubled the lead with a dipping free kick that Hull Keeper David Marshall pushed out from under the bar.
The result ended a good week for West Ham following the victory over Burnley on Wednesday and a point gained at Liverpool last Sunday, however the team must have used up a large slice of their luck quota for the season.
Bilic admitted relief at getting the six points from the two home games. “Our position now is much better than a week ago,” said Bilic, who believes the confidence that has been so lacking over recent weeks can be seen coming back.
The West Ham manager had complimented Phelan on his side’s performance, assuring him that if they continue to play that way the results will come.
Phelan seemed less sure, highlighting how a number of teams have come up over the years, played attacking football and ended up getting relegated. “When chances come along you have to be ruthless, we had more than enough chances to win it,” said Phelan.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

West Ham ride luck to beat Burnley 1-0


West Ham rode their luck to emerge the narrow winners of this keenly fought contest at the London Stadium.

A relieved West Ham manager, Slaven Bilic praised the “great character” of his players in holding on for the win.

He identified how recently the lack of confidence in the team made holding on for victory difficult. “We now go into Saturday’s game (against Hull) with more confidence,” said Bilic, who hoped the victory will provide the platform for his team to climb the table.

West Ham controlled much of the first half, going close with Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble both hitting the post with strikes from 25 yards. The home team were also denied a penalty when Michael Keane handled in his area.

However, the luck turned in injury time, with an Andy Carroll header being punched out by Burnley keeper Tom Heaton. In the resulting scramble, Winston Reid was unfairly wrestled to the ground, according to referee Bobby Madley. Mark Noble’s spot kick was saved by Heaton but following up the West Ham skipper rammed home.

Burnley took charge in the second half but wasted their chances. Sam Vokes saw his overhead kick, following a free kick, go narrowly wide. Another attack,  led by the dangerous Scott Arfield, saw a deflection bounce up invitingly for the onrushing Vokes who headed over.

Another freek kick effort was pushed aside by home keeper Darren Randloph.

A disappointed Burnley manager Sean Dyche rued “the three big chances” his team missed in the second half. “I was disappointed with the outcome, not so much the performance,” said Dyche, who regretted the ease with which so many players go down in the Premier League.

He recalled how if his team does not do it they get called na├»ve or old fashioned. “I’m happy to be old fashioned. The Premier League should do something about it, I’m seeing it week in week out,” said Dyche.  

Monday, 12 December 2016

Jeremy Corbyn needs a proper media operation

There has certainly been a concerted media onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn since he first became leader of the Labour Party last year.

The objective observer looking in from outside could be forgiven for confusion; with the Labour leader seemingly at times portrayed as both Stalin and Mr Bean to paraphrase Vince Cable’s famous jibe at Gordon Brown.

Some lobby journalists undoubtedly make common cause with those members of the Parliamentary Labour Party membership who organised the coup against Corbyn just after the Brexit vote.

Corbyn critics certainly seem to have been given unlimited access to the press and broadcast media. However, all of that said, Corbyn’s media team really does need a shake-up.

The approach needs to become more professional and pro-active. A number of what could be called public relations gaffes like the failure to sing the national anthem, call for Article 50 to be enacted immediately and mishandling of the Trident nuclear issue at the Labour Party conference could easily have been avoided with a decent media operation.

Also, when the leadership comes under attack is no the time to go silent, as so often seems to happen. A more robust approach is needed.

A good example of such an approach came recently with shadow Foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who when quizzed by Sky’s Dermott Murnaghan turned the tables on her inquisitor, accusing him of adopting a pub quiz type approach.

There could be more of this pro-activity, questioning the inquisitors own background for instance when it comes to question like education and poverty.

On immigration why not turn the tables and challenge the frame of reference that immigration is a bad thing and success can only be judged in terms of how much numbers can be reduced.

Corbyn has the troops available to adopt such an approach, with Thornberry, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow chancellor John McDonnell all well able to take a more assertive approach to setting the agenda

A major problem with the Labour Party communications team is the existence of a siege mentality.

This attitude results in the employment of people based on their loyalty to the leader, rather than an ability to do the job.

It is an attitude quite prevalent in the trade unions.  So it has been interesting to note some of the same communication strategies employed by unions being used by the Corbyn media team.  Maybe not surprising given some of the personnel in the team come direct from the unions.

There is a fixation with social media - something that is becoming increasingly prevalent among union communication operations.

This often amounts to a navel gazing exercise of talking to the converted, resulting in a failure to reach out beyond the core support.

Corbyn supporting writer and columnist Owen Jones urged that social media should only be seen as a complement to targeting the mainstream.

He made the point that most people do not spend their time discussing politics on social media. “Millions of people do get their information about what’s going on in politics from watching a bit of the 10 oclock news, or listening to news on radio,” said Jones, whose claims were backed up by an Ofcom report, News consumption in the UK, which found 78% of adults used television for news, whilst 10% chose Twitter.

Notably when Jones made these points during the last leadership campaign, he was immediately decried by many Corbyn supporters as being a Blairite and not a true believer.

A real sign of the siege mentality attitude of you are with us or against us on show for all to see.

The attitude born of the siege mentality is that the capitalist media are all hostile. This may not be far from the truth but it is no reason to stop trying to communicate.

Previous Labour leaders have all had similar problems with the media but notably in the case of Tony Blair, he recognised the nature of the challenge and brought in Alastair Campbell to build a team to counter the attacks and set the agenda.

Campbell is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially among the Corbynistas, but the point is the need for media professionals, who are equipped to deal with the onslaught.

Notably, the most proficient press operators for party leaders have rarely been outstanding journalists in their own right. They may, as in Campbell’s case, have jumped over the fence from journalism to PR but few have previously been great columnists or investigative reporters.

The mass media does offer an important channel to the voting public – not the only avenue but an important one.

If Labour is serious about winning power, they cannot just ignore the mass media. Not everyone in the mainstream is opposed to the Corbyn agenda.

There are the usual supportive suspects like left commentators Paul Mason and Jones but there is potential in areas like the business pages of many outlets where there is a growing disillusion with the neo-liberal way of doing things.

There is also a genuine belief in much of the media of the need for an effective opposition to the government of the day, representing a real alternative. This after all is supposed to be a democracy.

The problem for the Corbyn team is to shift that media belief into giving air to a radically alternative ways of doing government. To date, the mainstream has shown itself prepared to support democracy but this only means, in Labour Party terms, tolerating a neo-liberal lite version of the type represented by Tony Blair.

There is still some shifting of the agenda required before a Corbyn style agenda is seen as a real alternative. There are though plenty of subjects, where Labour can start to really make waves such as over the Brexit negotiation and Theresa May’s grammar school policy.

The hostility will continue but that is no reason to stop trying to get the message over. A strongly led media team would also insist on stronger discipline in the Parliamentary Party, even playing an active role in asserting that discipline. So yes it is an uphill task for Labour to communicate its message to the public via the media but it is not impossible. A more professional and pro-active media operation, properly led, is a vital part of getting that message over.

*published in British Journalism Review - Only Themselves to Blame - December 2016

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Warning to the world in John Pilger's film The Coming War on China


Journalist John Pilger has produced an excellent film chronicling the build up of tension between the US and China, which will have repercussions for us all.

The film looks at how over the years the US has built its military might, placing its bases across the world but particularly recently encircling China. There seems to be a push to fence in the biggest growing economic power via military means.

The Pacific Ocean it would seem is packed full of US warships, just off the China coast. In a telling interview with a US official, Pilger asks how the US would react were there a similar build up off the coast of California.

The veteran documentary maker looks at how the US has behaved in the post war period, using the Marshall Islands for its nuclear tests, with devastating consequences for the inhabitants – many of whom died from cancers.

At one point Pilger looks at a near miss during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when nuclear warheads based on Okinawa, off the Chinese coast, were about to be fired at China. One of the military personnel involved gives a powerful interview 53 years later, where he is still clearly shaken as to how the action could have effectively ended the world.

The focus on nuclear weapons brings home to any rational person the lunacy of proliferation. The number of times these weapons have almost been accidentally set off over the past 50 years should be enough alone to bring an immediate ban. The deterrent argument is a grotesque miscalculation that could have grave consequences for humanity.

Pilger unveils what appears to be the unstoppable growth of the US military industrial complex, with spending on nuclear weaponery and other forms of offence spiraling up under President Obama.

The hope from this rather frightening film comes from people resisting on the ground. There is the Catholic priest Father Mun Jeong-hyeon who has been protesting for a decade against the building of a US base on the Korean island of Jeju.

Father Jeong-hyeon together with other priests says mass every day on the site of the base. He has been arrested and manhandled many times for his protest. There are other similar protests in Okinawa.

These people give the hope needed to fight back against what seems to be a drift to a terrible conflict between the US and China. The most worrying element going forward is the election of President Donald Trump. The film carries footage of some of Trump’s most belicose attacks on China.

John Pilger has revealed a war that is virtually growing in the shadows. The sabre rattling of the US seems intended to provoke some sort of response from the Chinese. The hope must be that as more people become aware of what is happening that the world can be pulled back from what could be the last war.  

* see Independent Catholic News - 9/12/2016
*The Coming War on China can be viewed on playback, while the DVD can be bought from John Pilger’s website – johnpilger.com

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Michael Heseltine relives tarzan moment at performance of This House

Lord Michael Heseltine was taking a trip down memory lane on Monday night when he attended a performance of the political play This House. The play tells the story of the struggle of the whips in the Labour minority government of the 1970s to get Parliamentary business enacted. Sitting a couple of rows back from the stage, there must have been a sense of deja vue as one scene relived the night in 1976 when Tarzan (Heseltine) wielded the mace amid angry scenes in the Commons. There was also the EU referendum in 1975 that resulted in a vote to remain..oh those were the days.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Bilic apologises to the fans after humiliating defeat at the hands of Arsenal


West Ham 1- 5 Arsenal

West Ham dived further toward the relegation zone with this comprehensive defeat at the hands of Arsenal.

A  distraught West Ham manager  Slaven Bilic apologised to the fans and the club for the display.

The manager agreed with Arsenal counter part Arsene Wenger’s assertion that the Hammers lacked confidence. “Confidence is one of the reasons,” said Bilic. “We don’t have the intensity at the level required. The intensity is in the players but there is a lack of consistency. Intensity and dedication to the cause is mssing. It is my responsibility as the manager and we have to get it (intensity) back as soon as possible.”

The home side had the opportunity early on to take the lead when Dimitri Payet split the Arsenal rearguard, putting Manuel Lanzini clear but the little Argentinian saw his shot hit the side netting.

Arsenal capitalised on the miss when Francis Coquelin intercepted a pass from Angelo Ogbonna, putting Alexis Sanchez clear to square for Mesut Ozil to tap home.

It wasn’t though until the 71st minute that the game turned into the Alexis Sanchez show, with the Chilean forward plundering a quick fire hat trick to sink the home team.

First, Sanchez picked up the ball in mid half, then driving into the West Ham area he finished expertly slotting the ball past keeper Darren Randolph.

Nine minutes later Sanchez jinked on the edge of the penalty area, working a space that allowed him to slot home to the right of Randolph.

West Ham did belatedly hit back when a Payet free kick rebounded off the bar to returning striker Andy Carroll, who heade d home.

The Gunners though were not finished, with Alex Oxlade Chamberlain curling in an exquisite shot from outside the area to make it four, before Sanchez completed his hat trick expertly chipping over Randolph after being put clear by Oxlade Chamberlain.

Wenger was happy with the result, reflecting that  his team have scored more goals away than at home, where they play with “a bit more freedom.”

The Arsenal boss confirmed that Sanchez has all the qualities needed to be a top striker. “Sanchez  is quick, dribbles, has a short back lift and killer instinct, he has the quality to play there and is sharp,” said Wenger, who reflected that all the top strikers in Europe at the moment are South American.  

* published Morning Star - 5/12/2016

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Nurture not neglect needed for Wanstead Park

How disappointing to see notices appearing in Wanstead Park warning of "deep mud" around the Ornamental Water. It has been with much dismay that those who regularly visit the park have watched the water gradually draining out of the Ornamental and other lakes over this year. Now, much of the lake is just mud with the amount of debris in the way of fallen trees and silt that has been allowed to build up over the years visible for all to see.
The disappearance of the water has been well documented with the Ilford Recorder highlighting the issue in January.
The custodians of the park, the City of London Corporation appear to have done little to address the issues.
There are I believe now plans to get a licence to obtain water from the nearby River Roding pumped into the Ornamental but this is only a stop gap measure.
The unique water system of the park which sees the lakes flowing into each other to retain water levels is broken. It has been broken for some time, it is the major reason why the park was put on the At Risk register by English Heritage in 2009. It must be a matter of ongoing embarrassment that the park remains on the register seven years later.
The Corporation are aware of the problems but seems dedicated only to a sticking plaster approach.
A lack of money is always quoted as the reason why things cannot be done. But we know the Corporation has deep pockets, it spends huge amounts of money on maintenance in other parts on its estate - such as Hampstead Heath. Why is Wanstead Park always the poor relation?
Wanstead Park is a fantastic ecological treasure for the local community, it needs to be nurtured and cared for, not left alone to die.
 
*published Ilford Recorder - 24/11/2016 and Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 1/12/2016

Also see articles in Wanstead and Woodford Recorder 1/12/2016 and Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 8/12/2016

Monday, 21 November 2016

Review of "Citizen Clem"

This excellent book from John Bew gives a comprehensive account of the life of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee from cradle to grave.

The book charts Attlee’s journey from a middle class upbringing, going to the public school Haileybury and on to Oxford. He is set to follow his father into the law but then gets diverted to the east end, finishing up working for a charitable organisation, linked to his old public school. It is this experience that leads Attlee from big C conservatism to socialism.

Attlee served in the First World War, taking part in the failed Gallipoli venture and getting badly injured. His war service though also serves him in good stead for his future life as an MP and later war leader. He was elected as MP for Limehouse in 1922.

Bew captures the sense of Attlee being the right man in the right place. A good example being the rout of the Labour Party in 1931, which saw the party reduced from 288 to 46 MPs. As one of the few remaining, Attlee was well placed to take over the leadership, when his friend George Lansbury stood down in 1935.

One fascinating element of this book is the examination of the relationship between Attlee and Winston Churchill. Bew reveals the crucial role that Labour played in first opposing appeasement in the 1930s and then insisting it would not serve in a government with Chamberlain as PM. There seems to have been a close if at times antagonistic relationship between Churchill and Attlee, the latter often acting as a lightening conductor for criticism really intended for the former. .

Attlee was also a visionary, making preparations very early in the war for the building of a new socialist based society afterwards.

Bew makes much of how the reforms brought in by the 1945 Labour government, including the welfare state and NHS, encompassed Attlee’s radical views going back 40 years.

The author does overplay how much Attlee’s vision was a continuation of the reforms begun by the Liberal Party in the early part of the century. The role of nationalisation in laying the building blocks of what Attlee saw as a socialist future is underplayed.

The fascination of Attlee is that a man who was himself basically small C conservative all his life oversaw such radical change. Bew points out how Attlee would use the institutions to bring about real change in people’s lives, rather than destroying those bodies. He was foremost a pragmatist and realist, not a dreamer.

Perhaps the best example of Attlee’s conservatism was his lifelong devotion to public schools, born of his own childhood at Haileybury. The 1945 Labour government probably had the best chance of sweeping away the public schools forever but declined to do so. This was in part due to Attlee, who called for the public schools to “not be killed but adapted.”

Bew also brings out Attlee’s supreme skill at managing the Labour Party, harnessing the diverse skills of the likes of Herbert Morrison, Ernie Bevin, Aneuran Bevan, Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps for the common good of the party and country.

The leader had to deal with the constant left right battles that have marked the Labour Party down the years. The left led by Bevan was particularly critical of the leadership in the wartime coalition. The hostilities simmered during time in government, but Attlee was able to keep the actors together bringing about radical change in society.

Once Attlee was gone one of the many civil wars in the party broke out with the right being led by Hugh Gaitskell facing the left led by Aneurin Bevan.

At the start of the book Bew seeks to set Attlee in a Labour context, in doing so he dismisses any parallels some might like to draw with Jeremy Corbyn. At the start, this was off putting, however by the end it was possible to see that the author was right with his analysis. Corbyn is no Attlee. Both men share basic socialist principles but Attlee was a master of managing the party both in and outside Parliament.

Where there maybe a parallel is Attlee, the quiet man who was pilloried by Labour’s big beasts and the media generally, but came good. By the post war period, Attlee’s personal ratings with the public were high, a man who could be trusted and depended upon. He became Labour biggest electoral asset.

Taking the parallel argument further, there is possibly more similarity between Attlee’s predecessor as leader, George Lansbury, and Corbyn but that is another tale.

Bew has done an excellent job in chronicling the life of one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers. There are many lessons for the Labour Party today. It must also be hoped that this latest contribution to the legacy of Attlee and the post war Labour government does something to further raise that memory in the popular consciousness. There has been far too little written and broadcast about the amazing story of Attlee and what the Labour Party achieved during those post war years. The domestic reforms, as well as granting independence to India and other countries of the empire.

It is a period that needs to become better known, if for no other reason than that people come to learn what can be achieved when there is a genuine socialist government in power working for the common good of all.

Published by Riverrun Price £30

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Emily Maitlis reveals lack of Catholic knowledge with Knights of St Columbus gaffe

Emily Maitlis, the BBC Newsnight’s expert on all things American, exposed the limits of her Catholic knowledge in a special programme, following the election of Donald Trump as president.

In a discussion with two members of the programme’s panel, Maitlis was questioning the candidates endorsement by the Klu Klux Klan (KKK).

Robert Emmet Tyrrell jnr, editor in chief of the American Spectator, shot back on the accusation that the KKK were holding a celebratory rally following the Trump victory. “But so too probably are the Knights of St Columbus (KSC),” said Emmett, who sensing Maitlis maybe out of her depth, suggested “maybe you don’t know who the Knights of St Columbas are?” Maitlis duly confirmed Emmet’s suspicion declaring:“another terrorist organisation?”

The US commentator then triumphantly revealed that the KSC are the largest organisation of Catholic males in the country. Hook line and sinker, the Newsnight’s anchor was sunk.

The US  Knights of St Columbus ofcourse are a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights, which includes the UK based Knights of St Columba. The organisation is devoted to charitable works and promoting Catholic education.

Maitlis later tweeted an apology: "Dear Knights of Columbus I apologise."

* published Tablet - 19/11/2016

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Dave Harewood’s documentary “Will Britain ever have a black Prime Minister?” is good on analysis but weak on class and solutions

The BBC programme, Will Britain ever have a Black Prime Minister, presented by actor Dave Harewood, provided some devastating facts to illustrate the prejudice that still exists in British society.

Facts like that 45% of black children were growing up in poverty, compared to 25% of whites. A black person is 12 times less likely than a white one to become Prime Minister.

The programme went through the various institutions, such as education, the media, the law and Parliament, finding high barriers in all to the advancement of black people.

There are just 13 black MPs, representing 2% of the total number of MPs, whilst 4% of the total British population is black.

A visit to the BBC news room, revealed a sea of white faces. There was reference to past Director General Greg Dyke’s comment about the corporation being “hideously white.”

Little it would seem has changed throughout the Corporation, though there are more Black And Minority Ethnic (BAME) people fronting programmes like the news, so some might claim a window dressing exercise has taken place.

What the programme did not underline clearly enough was the role of class in keeping working class people out of the top positions in society. The few people who go to public schools, then onto Oxbridge are the ones who dominate the top roles in society – whether it be in Parliament, the City, the law, medicine or education. It is the priveliged route for the very few, mainly white, and wealthy.

Now, within that class definition, race and gender play a key role, disadvantaging people even more. So those with the least chance are likely to be working class BAME females.

The programme presented by David Hare, with Faiza Shaheen, director of the think tank Class, providing the stats, did well in outlining the problem but failed really to provide solutions. There was no mention of things like positive discrimination or forcibly opening up some of these institutions to make them more diverse.

Solutions are what is needed, because a more ethnically and gender representative Parliament say is bound to act differently to one drawn largely from a narrow priveliged band of what are in the main are white males (Faiza Shaheen’s blog provides some answers – see:@faizashaheen).  

These solutions are also part of addressing the increasing feeling of dissolution and disempowerment that was so clearly voiced at the EU referendum, for whatever reason.

It would also be wrong to suggest that if we had a black prime minister all would be well. A black prime minister could be an indication that things are moving in the right direction but not that the problem is solved.

Hare was quick to unfavourably compare Britain with America, which has horrendous race issues. Yes, there maybe more BAME actors in prominent roles in the leading roles in society – most notable being the first black President Barack Obama. But the presidency of Obama provides encapsulates the point, not having done a great deal for the welfare of the average black working class person in America.

If anything, America should provide a salutary class lesson for the Britain, in that in the US there was a tendency amongst some, especially in the middle class commentariat, to treat the election of Obama as a sign of total diversity and that the problems of the black community were no more. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So there is much to be done on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to giving proper representation for BAME but it is wise to remember that this is only part of a problem that is class based, requiring some major changes in society - if the country is ever to be run for the mass of people as opposed to a narrow clique of the priveliged.

*published Morning Star 17/11/2016 - Class structures hold us back from a black PM  

Saturday, 12 November 2016

West Ham United's problems this season resonate both on and off the pitch

The problems of West Ham United both on and off the pitch never seem far from the headlines. Indeed, many would argue that the two areas tend to mirror each other.

Off the pitch there are problems with fans fighting, security in and around the ground, getting to the ground and the orbiting cost of the stadium. On the pitch, results have been dire, with the club hovering just above the relegation zone and knocked out of the Europa League at the qualifying stages.

Taking the playing side first, West Ham recruited badly in the summer. They brought in 11 new players, of which only a couple can at this stage be said to add anything to the pool of players they had before. Amazingly, the two areas where the team needed strengthing, at right back and up front were not really addressed.

The best right back (make shift though he was in that position) James Tomkins was sold to Crystal Palace. The club seemed happy to rely on Michail Antonio, another makeshift right back - only one who really does not like playing that position - and Sam Byram. The latter got injured but was not a favourite of the manager, even before he was forcibly taken out of contention.

In a rush move, the club brought in veteran former Real Madrid right back Alvaro Arbeloa but he is another who has seen better days.

At the front, the club brought in Andre Ayew, Simeone Zaza, Jonathan Calleri and Ashley Fletcher. None has thus far impressed, though record £20 million signing Ayew has been out injured for most of the season.

Zaza just does not work, while Calleri and Fletcher both lack confidence. The club’s two best strikers remain Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll, both of whom have been injured for most of the season. Sakho wanted to leave in the summer, only remaining at West Ham because he failed a fitness test, thereby collapsing a proposed move to West Bromwich Albion.

But despite the bad recruitment, it has been the failure of those players who performed so well last season to really fire that has caused many of the problems. Talisman Dimitri Payet has been nothing like the player he was last season. There have been flashes of brilliance, like the solo goal against Middlesbrough, but in the main the Frenchman has increasingly looked uninterested - with press reports that he may be looking to a move away from West Ham in January. Manuel Lanzini is another who has not performed to the standards he achieved last season.

The thrilling football produced last season tended to flow through Payet, Lanzini and Antonio. All three could run with the ball, backed up by the full backs and pressing midfield - putting West Ham immediately on the offensive. Too often this season, the players have not been ready to get on the front foot and make those runs, resulting in the ball being player across the midfield, allowing the opposition to regroup.

Finally, at the back there have been some horrendous displays. Things improved with the return of Aaron Creswell at left back and the deployment of Cheikhou Kouyate as a third central defender in a sweeping role. The centre backs also settled down. However, things have not been helped at times by the erratic form of the usually dependable goalkeeper Adrian. Brilliant at one moment, Adrian can then pull off a howler the next. The last home game against Stoke City was a classic example, the keeper inexplicably coming out thereby gifting the opposition a goal and a point. All season Adrian has been weak on collecting crosses, often flapping at them, rather than collecting.

The erraticism of Adrian began at the end of last season but his position always seems assured. His more than able deputy Irish international Darren Randolph should be given a chance, at least to remind Adrian that he is not an automatic pick.

So there is much for manager Slaven Bilic to sort out, though he can undoubtedly resolve the issues. A couple of good signings in the January window and resolution of the Payet situation should see the form improve. It certainly has to be resolved because the one thing that would turn the first season at the London Stadium into a total nightmare would be relegation.

Off the pitch, many of the problems are logistical. There are so many security staff around, doing who knows what? A typical visit to the London Stadium goes like this. Once off the train at Stratford station, one climbs the steps onto the bridge that takes people across to Westfield and the Olympic Park.

The first encounter with stewarding is a guy standing with a loudhailer shouting at fans and public alike who are stepping onto the bridge area. There are individuals walking around with notices, saying no way to the stadium or this way to the stadium. The aim appears to be to make the fans walk as far as possible before they get anywhere near the stadium. Some walk on down past Westfield, cutting through John Lewis to come out on the road opposite the Olympic Park.

Enroute there are more security people, whose main function seems to be to get in the way or put barriers in the way of avenues where people might seek to walk. There are for instance numerous barriers put in front of the Aquatics centre (former Olympic Swimming pool), narrowing the walkway – why? The effect is to corall the spectators into narrow spaces.

One of the problems with the whole experience outside the stadium for the West Ham fan (which probably spills over into frustration, once inside the ground) is one of not feeling welcome. The fans are a problem to be managed, not welcome visitors.

Westfield for instance is willing to take fans money in its overpriced bars but really does not want too many of them around.

Inside the ground, there are again lots of security staff around. There are a whole number of different security companies operating in the ground. One question must be what happened to the very professional security operation that used to operate at the Boleyn ground. Are those people involved at all?

There are other problems in the ground, such as the standing up by many fans. The view of the game, although distant for some is generally pretty good. Much of the trouble in the ground is no doubt due partly to bad stewarding and management of fans but also the growing frustration of being corralled on the way to the stadium.

One question that remains is why there was not a direct route established between the rail station and the ground, a tunnel or covered corridor with travellator. True, this would have required some foresight on the part of those planning the Olympic Stadium at the outset, regarding what the stadium would ultimately be used for as part of the legacy.

So there do seem to be a number of problems both on and off the pitch for West Ham United at the moment, however all are resolvable. On the pitch, no doubt the excellent Slaven Bilic will sort out the problems. Off the field, stewarding needs resolving, with the treatment of fans being made a priority.

In terms of the cost of the stadium and other such issues, it does need to be remembered that West Ham are only one body among a number using the stadium, it is not their ground as such. They have given up the ground they owned (the Boleyn) to rent the London Stadium on a long lease. Not every problem on the Olympic Park and surrounding interests can be laid at the door of the football club. West Ham want to play football in what is a magnificent stadium – no doubt the problems can be resolved, though some synchronisation both on and off the pitch is needed.

*published Morning Star - 12/11/2016

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Remembrance has become a struggle between war and peace makers

There has been another silly argument over the past week concerning whether the England and Scotland football teams should be allowed to wear the poppy on their shirts for the international match on Friday.
It is a stupid objection from FIFA to the wearing of the poppy, yet it has brought the issue into the public discourse. Remembrance Sunday has been an important event for the best part of the past century, paying tribute to those who died in the world wars.
The original idea was to remember the sacrifice and incredible loss caused by those conflicts. An underlying intention has been that by remembering the tragedy of the past, that the recurrence of  such an appalling slaughter might be avoided in the future.
However, over recent years there seems to have been a cutting away at that worthy peace making aim, moving the occasion instead onto being a jingoistic celebration of war.
It is noticeable how remembrance has moved from a few events over the weekend (nearest to 11 November) to something that now runs over weeks. Poppies began being worn this year in late October. Football clubs were having minutes of silence, with soldiers marching around the grounds weeks before the actual remembrance weekend.
The transformation or remembrance seems to have been something that has gone on over the past decade, coinciding with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It has been sad to see the dignity of the Remembrance Day sullied by those who seek to use the occasion to effectively promote war. Remembrance should be about remembering in order to avoid it all happening again in the future.
Maybe there should be other elements to remembrance, like remembering the contributions that this country has made to conflicts around the world in its role as a major trader in weapons.
The lamentable British response to the refugee crisis - much of it caused by a conflict, - where British weapon supplies have played a part in contributing to the devastation.
The recent shameful foot dragging about the acceptance of refugees from the Calais “jungle” is another insult to those who fought for freedom in the two world wars.
Let’s also remember the reasons for fighting in the world wars, namely to ensure freedom, tolerance and democracy. How does attacking those who don’t wish to wear a poppy – for whatever reason – fit in with those ideals?
Sadly, the remembrance day celebration seems to have become a tug of war between those who genuinely want to mark the sacrifice and suffering of many in order to secure our freedom and those cynically seeking to exploit the occasion to whip up a jingoistic patriotism that in its worse forms amounts to the promotion  of war.
This year things have been even worse with the growing antagonism toward the foreigner in post EU referendum Britain. A time when the worst elements of the British character have come to the fore – a mean minded island dweller looking inward to protect what he has, rather than looking out in a spirit of generosity to embrace others in a drive for a more peaceful co-existent world.
It can only be hoped that the peacemakers, who seek to mark this time of year for the losses incurred come out on top and that those seeking to promote war under the aegis of remembrance are defeated. Those who have fallen in war deserve no less.

 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

West Ham held to draw by Stoke, ahead of tough run to Christmas


West Ham 1-1Stoke City

A lack lustre West Ham threw away two points ahead of the international break and the start of a run of four difficult games.

In a game that never really caught fire, the hosts managed one decent chance in the first half when Pedro Obiang rose to meet a Dimitri Payet cross but the keeper Lee Grant pushed the ball away.

It was the 64th minute when West Ham snatched the lead, the  curiously quiet Payet knocking over a cross which Michail Antonio headed home via  a deflection off Glenn Whelan at the near post. The Premier League are putting it down as an own goal, though Antonio will feel aggrieved

The home team then looked comfortable, until keeper Adrian inexplicably came out to intercept a ball on the edge of his penalty area. He completely missed the ball, clattering Jonathan Walters in the process, Ths striker managed to chip the ball across for the onrushing substitute Bojan Krkic to finish.

The goalkeeper made several important saves, not least turning aside a Charlie Adam free kick in the dying minutes but there must be questions over his place in the side. He has given away other goals this season and cannot bring much confidenced to the defenders in front of him, when he continually seems to flap at crosses.

With such a competent deputy as Darren Randolph in the wings its can surely only be a matter of time before the Irish man is given his chance on a regular basis.

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was standing by his keeper, despite the mistake, “We have a perfectly good goalkeeper, he is still number one,” said Bilic, who hopes to have striker Diafra Sakho back after the internation break. Andy Carroll is also back in training.

The return of both strikers will provide a welcome boost for Bilic, with his team lacking a cutting edge, In this game, record signing Andre Ayew battled away with little reward, while substitute Ashley Fletcher once again lacked confidence.

Bilic admitted his team were too slow in the first half, wanting too many touches. The Hammers now fade Spurs and Manchester United away (twice), followed by Arsenal at home after the international break.

Stoke boss Mark Hughes was pleased with the point and praised the London Stadium as “ a fantastic place.” He did though have some criticism of the surface, as being a bit slow, which did not suit his side’s style of getting the ball down and playing quickly.

Friday, 4 November 2016

War on terror exhibition at Imperial War Museum provides timely reminder, as to how the security state has come out into the open

Edmund Clark’s exhibition at the Imperial War Museum touches on some of the most disturbing elements of the so called War on Terror.

The conditions that hundreds of people were held under at Guantanamo Bay for many years juxtaposed next to Britain’s own internal security model - the control order, which turned houses into prisons, with individuals being held in true Kafakaesque style never told  of what they were accused.

The images are haunting – the shackles from Guantanamo that were used to hold people down and restrict movement. The matter a fact regulations from the Home Office about the restrictions applied to an individual held under held control order conditions. Some of the correspondence from detainees held in Guantanamo but now released.

The exhibition brings home the vivid reality as to what happens when the most basic liberties are sacrificed on the altar of security. Someone asked me why I was going to the exhibition as I must know what it would be about. To an extent that was true. Having covered the cases of some  those put under control order detention in this country, much of the exhibition was eerily familiar.

Take the case of a man known only as G, who was first incarcerated after being picked up in the post 9/11 hysteria under the Anti-terror crime and security Act (rushed onto the statute book in December 2001). He was later released to restrictive control order style detention. His hell had been going on for six years when I interviewed him across his doorway in 2007.

G lived with wife and family in a cramped flat. He sat in a wheelchair, tagged, needing to report into the monitoring company several times a day. He had attempted suicide when in prison. The interview was published in the Guardian and elsewhere.

G continued though to be detained for many more years. The Home Office were determined to get him and a number of other –mainly Algerians – deported on the basis of being threats to national security.

Many of the individuals were represented by solicitor Gareth Peirce, who was constantly present at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) arguing their cases. The SIAC operated under immigration law, thereby enabling the men concerned to be held seemingly indefinitely, without there ever being made aware of what they were accused.

This whole process went on for years, with these individuals portrayed in the media as threats to national security that the government wanted to get rid of but could not due to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The men and their families were effectively kept under a variety of forms of detention. Then quietly, on 18 April 2016, the SIAC ruled that six of the men considered to be threats to national security for so long could not be deported to Algeria on the basis of diplomatic assurances relating to their safety. The Home Office did not appeal the decision, so the men were free to stay.
There were 52 people subjected to control order style detention, according to Clark in the exhibition. The process of such detention still remains available under different forms when required.

What this whole process of detention of “terror suspects” over the years showed was the build up of a security state operating pretty much in the shadows. Almost anything could be done to the individuals concerned, yet the evidence of the threat they represented remained secret. The police, the security services and private security companies all came to play a part in the panalopy of a fledgling police state operating in the shadows.

The media rarely touched on the issue beyond demonising the men concerned or decrying the European Convention for Human Rights for stopping the British government kicking people out of the country. The fact that most of the men accused would have probably faced certain death had they returned to their country of origin, escaped most commentators. Cost was another media favourite, regularly referring to the amount of money it was costing to keep these individuals under surveillance.

What this shameful episode in British and American history reveals is a drift toward authoritarianism that continues to this day. The control orders may have gone but the security state has most certainly come out of the shadows.

Asylum seekers are routinely detained in huge numbers in this country. Those living in the community often fearfully await the knock at the door, with the Border Agency ready to haul people off at a moments notice.

The explosion of xenophobia that followed the EU referendum vote has provided an opening for many operating in the shadowy world of the security state to come out into the open. Today, individuals are almost being defined as no-people on the basis of their status.

In the meantime, the drumbeat of rhetoric about the war on terror continues in the background – feeding the feelings of insecurity in the population at large. The fear of the other that turns neighbour against neighbour, poisoning communities continues unabated.

Edmund Clark’s exhibition provides a timely reminder of the extremes that Western democracies will go to when they feel threatened. The pity though must be that the exhibition did not appear 10 years ago at the height of the abuses going on across the world from Guantanamo to Belmarsh. The world could have done with being reminded about what was going on then behind the curtains of the secret state.

The exhibition today together with accounts of what has gone on over the past couple of decades in the name of fighting terrorism serve as timely reminders of where we could be heading, namely toward an authoritarian state where basically anyone considered an enemy for whatever reason can have their rights taken away in the name of security and freedom


*War on terror exhibition runs at the Imperial War Museum until August 2017


* For more articles on secret evidence/detention see -

 Independent - 27/4/2009http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/paul-donovan-deportees-should-have-rights-too-1674767.html

New Statesman - 17/4/2008http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/04/taleb-deportations-algeria

 Guardian -28/3/2007http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/mar/28/immigration.immigrationandpublicservices