A Free Web


Every so often there is a news story absurd enough to make cliched people ask: “Is it April 1st?” This week there was one, it was April 1st, but the story is depressingly real. I refer to government plans to extend the surveillance of our online lives.

While I believe in a strong state, and I certainly trust a democratic state more so that any private company, this represents another unnecessary intrusion into the private lives of us all. I believe that the internet must be totally free; that is as a true anarchy. A “crime” can only exist on the internet where is co-exists in reality (e.g. fraud). It must be a totally free place where ideas can be exchanged and where speech must be entirely free. While this naturally carries risks, I believe these can be better averted through user education rather than through cumbersome regulation. The internet can never be policed to protect the naïve or the over-sensitive from the troll, nor should it be. I realise that this probably sounds a little woolly or idealistic, but I will always favour the optimism of hope in humanity’s better instincts over the pessimistic urge to control and restrict us.

This isn’t just about our ability the watch daft videos of cats, to pointlessly argue the toss in comment sections, or to create weakly satirical memes. Consider how online communication is used to build campaigning and enable activism. Most organised protests will have Facebook events, with wildly optimistic “attending” lists. Debates over the injustices or otherwise of government policies will rage on page walls, or in twitter feeds. Last year saw the (perhaps over-hyped) power of online protest in deposing dictators. Fear those in positions of power who wish to curtail our online freedoms – they are a threat to democracy itself.

I am not talking only of the specific implications of these more recent proposals. They build gradually on the already extensive powers of our police and security forces. If implemented I imagine they will ultimately be another notch on the ratchet towards an authoritarian state. A future Prime Minister, trying to reduce these powers, would no doubt have their ear bent by senior security figures. They would supposedly be so useful in catching the genuine terrorists (who may in any case have been caught though traditional methods). Never mind the “inconvenience” to the ordinary citizen who by now has normalised having their online activity watched. I argue for a free internet, and against all efforts to regulate it, from a point of principle.

Remember ID cards. New Labour was at its worst in its authoritarian spasms. Remember the Tory manifesto of 2010: “Labour have subjectedBritain’s historic freedoms to unprecedented attack. They have trampled on liberties.” Now see that opportunism exposed as another incumbent government threatens the sacred privacy of the individual. To quote inhuman oxygen thief Chris Grayling in 2009 “Too many parts [of the government] have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that’s really got to change.” This same creature is now involved in the DWP’s outsourcing of databases to India, with the privacy of millions of innocent people being dependent on the integrity of the lowest bidder.

If the Tories believe in freedom it is merely the freedom for the powerful to enslave the rest of us. Labour have barely shed the worst of our authoritarian Blairite heritage. The Liberal Democrats are making very promising noises, but I don’t fancy placing too much faith in them any time soon. Who then will stand up for our online freedoms?


The Bankers’ Budget

Nobody would expect a fair budget from George Osborne. The Chancellor was never going to give a budget that benefitted the many over the few, or one that put the realities of everyday life above right-wing economic dogma. Expectations suitably adjusted, we can perhaps take small comfort from the 50p tax band “only” being cut to 45p. Ed Miliband gave a sterling speech in response, and I raise a glass to the intern who wrote the jokes. Professional hacks will be casting their own analysis; what follows is my personal take on some of the details.
The Chancellor’s big spin on this budget is that it “rewards work”.  We already know that under-18s are to endure a cut in the minimum wage. In the UK it is possible to work a 40-hour week and still live in poverty. The way to make work pay is, surprisingly enough, to actually make work pay, by implementing a proper living wage. Today we heard no commitment on improving the pay of the low paid. It would be naive to ever expect one from a Tory Chancellor. Increasing the income tax threshold seems reasonable, but not when even the poorest are still hit by VAT, and duty on fuel, alcohol and tobacco. What Osborne gives with one hand, he takes several times over with the other.
Projections for economic growth and for a fall in unemployment are welcomed.I only hope they hold true. As far as I am aware the budget made no specific commitments relating to the latter. I fear that further cuts to the Department of Work and Pensions will only result in more inhumane box-ticking and the harassment of the vulnerable. The Government – as ever – has put all its faith in the hands of the wonderful private sector.
On the 50p rate, the detail most comprehensively leaked, news was always going to be disappointing. Having endured two years of the government chaffing on about deficit reduction, one could at least have assumed that they intended to maximise tax revenue. Basic maths will tell anyone that a 50p rate will raise more by its presence than its absence (“Laffer Curve” / wishful thinking / pseudoscience aside). Osborne himself stated that the rate raised around £1 billion. To me a lot, to him “next to nothing”. Cutting it will cost £100m. That’s a lot of disabled children who will have to go without.
The moral case for the 50p rate is even more clear cut – there can be no reason why someone “earning” in excess of £150,000 per year needs a penny more. Greed can be the only motive, and the one which leads to tax evasion and avoidance. It will be argued that such non-payment means that the tax rate might as well be cut. Just apply this same rational to other crimes such as burglary and murder – “You’re never going to catch every criminal, might as well legalise it!” – to see what a fallacy it is.
Tax evasion is “morally repugnant” according to Osborne. It is hard to shake off that dirty feeling that comes from agreeing with him – especially given those are often my own words. Tax evasion, and avoidance, are both morally reprehensible. They are as much a theft from the community as your typical off-licence robbery, in scale perhaps more so. The problem is that Osborne is the last person I would expect to do anything about it. I fear that despite pledges to the contrary, he will be all talk and no trousers. Every spending decision taken thus far by the government has convinced me that it is a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
Miliband’s best line came when he challenged the government front bench to admit who among them personally benefit from the budget. Furthermore it is worth considering how many prominent Tory donors will also benefit. Such borderline conflict of interest makes a mockery of democracy – and will certainly not be reported in the Tory press. The headlines will trumpet crumbs from the rich men’s table, and ignore the widening inequality that will be a direct result of Osborne’s decisions.
Labour should commit to restoring the 50p band, and to actually getting serious on tax fraud, just as we should commit to renationalising the NHS. Anything less will be to continue to concede to the rightward drift of our national political discourse.
By Chris Nash

Ich bin ein Trot

In the past week the “progressive” mask of the Tory party has all but disintegrated. Once again, boggle-eyed theories of “the enemy within” have been aired. By now most people in the country will be aware of the morally repulsive government scheme that is workfare. Anyone with a heart and a social conscience will be opposing it.

According to Grayling and IDS though, we opponents are just a tiny “unrepresentative” bunch of extremist “trots”. Ah yes, “trots”, meaning trotskyists; because if you can’t counter an argument with logic, reason and facts, then why not descend into slurs, name-calling and ad homninum? I have used the term “trots” in the past to refer to left-wing opponents. It was wrong of me then, being both ignorant and a lazy and knee-jerk form of argument. All in all its use by the government signifies an intellectual unwillingness to engage in the issues.

Yet what can we expect from men who so clearly do not know the difference between right and wrong? Already they have lied through their teeth about the “voluntary” nature of workfare. Government documents are, even now, being fabricated or hidden from official websites. The DWP, as always, peddles its Orwellian propaganda. Everyone who has first hand experience of the Job Centre and these schemes knows that Grayling and IDS are open liars. When brave individuals like Cait Reilly have dared to stand up against workfare, they have been mercilessly slurred and slandered in the Tory press. Now there are threats of a heavy police presence at future workfare protests – presumably to intimidate the vulnerable into compliance.

I am against workfare because I believe in a fair days pay for a fair days work. I oppose businesses exploiting the free labour of the unemployed. I oppose the unemployed being punished for economic circumstances beyond their control. I oppose undermining the wages of paid employees by working for free. I oppose already rich individuals and shareholders profiting from forced and unpaid labour.

According to Grayling and IDS, all this makes me an “extremist” and a “trot”. This being so, all hail Comrade Trotsky!

By Chris Nash

Birmingham Riots: A personal view

It seems I picked a bad week to break with my “current affairs” abstinence. I’m thoroughly sick of the news. I’m sick of the politics. I don’t care who’s on holiday and who isn’t. I don’t care who’s coming back, and who said what about who. I don’t believe that one event can make a crisis. I don’t believe that the riots are the fault of any one person, or of any one policy. They are not an argument against police funding cuts, nor against EMA cuts. They are not an excuse for pointing fingers, or for scoring points.

I despair for humanity. We may only have about sixty years left, but is there really need to accelerate it? Why? Why is that happening to my people?

Ask yourself this; why aren’t you rioting?

How alienated and desperate would you have to be to smash up your own town? How limited would your life prospects have to be for looting to be worth the risk? What if the only “legitimate” channels appear to have failed you, and your parents before you.

I argue for compassion, and for understanding. But for mere quirks of fate – the circumstances into which I was born, and those which followed –  I could have been one of those rioting and looting tonight. Comfortable people don’t riot. People with decent jobs, and stable incomes, and education, and quality housing; these people do not riot. The triggers may be recent, but the root causes go back decades.

I know many, perhaps most, will disagree. So little is known for certain. So many are eager to fit narratives. Some will blame “mindless thugs”, and resort to comfortable stereotypes; where facts are bent to fit theories. These are the easy answers, the lazy unthinking reactions. Blame the troublemakers. Blame the degenerates. Blame the chav.

I have more faith in humanity than that. Maybe I’m misguided, but I would much rather be wrong than I would unnecessarily condemn. We must all of us ask ourselves “Why?”

By Chris Nash, former BULS member

The Armchair Politicians of Redbrick

As the recently concluded Guild Officer elections fade to a happy memory, you may be inclined to turn to an opinion piece [http://www.redbrickpaper.co.uk/2011/03/after-the-campaign-the-friction-within/] published in today’s Redbrick. Journalist Joe Jervis gives his assessment of the election results and the composition of the new team.

But in an otherwise almost passable piece, a gross slander is committed against many of my friends and colleagues. Jervis alludes to the success of former BULS Chair Dora Meredith in being elected Guild President last year, and the role many BULS members played in that victory – yet barely a breath later BULS are written off as lazy and ineffective campaigners:

“However, this year lackadaisical campaigning [without vigour, interest or determination] from the BULS contributed to losses for its respective candidates in every position.”

I’m prepared to overlook the lazy research in referencing us as “the BULS”. I’m prepared to overlook the pompous use of “lackadaisical” and the needless showing off it implies. What I will not stand for is seeing my fellow BULS members declared to be half-arsed campaigners. Many BULS members worked their arses off for two weeks on the campaign trail; for Emma, James, Rachael and I. They stood to gain very little other than the satisfaction of a good campaign and of supporting the right policies and ideas.

In all their door knocking, leafleting, lecture shouting and banner waving; Oli, Catie, Luke, Max, James, Jake and many others besides were the exact antonym of lackadaisical (whatever that may be). They have all been insulted by this unsubstantiated slur from a misinformed hack.

Further to all of this, what Jervis overlooks is the simple fact that Guild Officer Election candidates run as individuals, not as party candidates. We may have met through BULS, but we campaigned together as friends; and it was out of friendship, not blind party loyalty that many in BULS joined us as campaigners. Labour Party members campaigned alongside non-members. Party affiliation is utterly irrelevant in an election where it is the wellbeing of all your fellow students and your student union that is at stake.

I take full personal responsibility for my own defeat. My own reluctance to adopt a cheap gimmick, and my preference for speaking with people on the doorstep instead of shouting at them on campus, were both far bigger factors in the loss than any perceived idleness on the part of my team. To make scapegoats of BULS as a whole or of any individual member would be dishonest, petty and vindictive. I would not contemplate even the slightest ingratitude against my campaigners, even though our efforts were in vain.

I concede that this blog may read as a bit of a rant, but when people I know to have worked bloody hard for me are slagged off by someone who not there and whose critiques are without citation; I tend to get slightly irate. From Mr Jervis I request an apology and a retraction of this pathetic accusation against us all.

By Chris Nash, BULS member and former VPDR candidate

How to lose a PM in 30 days

Observing recent political events in West Island from across the ditch, I have been struck by both the swiftness and the apparent brutality of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s removal by his own party in favour of his second-in-command Julia Gillard. The justification for his removal apparently a decline in Labor support in the polls during an election year; for which he as leader was deemed responsible. To a UK political observer the initial comparison is inevitable (and Martin Kettle at the Guardian milks it for all its worth).

But UK Labour is not Australian Labor, and we should be glad of this. Firstly Australian Labor is institutionally factionalised in a way which makes Blairite-Brownite “rifts” look like trivial squabbles over soccer team affiliation. Rudd had no core faction behind him, hence when the challenge came they swung behind Gillard. In addition, Rudd had probably alienated the powerful union factors with miner membership though his proposals for a new supertax on mining profits. The plan to reinvest these profits to the benefit of all Australians is in principle a sound idea, but one which threatened the interests of mine workers. Consequent hostile advertising from this sector likely cost a few points in the opinion polls and encouraged Rudd’s colleagues (with union backing) to act. Some of us in English circles may smile wryly at the thought that there is somewhere in the west where miners can still bring down a PM.

It is also much easier to stage a coup when only MPs have a say in their party’s choice of leader. Much of the action happened overnight in this time zone – talk of speculation coming around midnight followed by the news of Rudd’s resignation when I woke up on the floor the next morning. By teatime Gillard was meeting the Governor-General. Had Milliband, D. ever followed through on his many threats to stick the knife in we’d have gone through the whole nominations, campaigning, and membership ballots palaver. Arguably this grants the incumbent a significant advantage, but if it saves us the undignified spectacle of a brutal internal coup whilst being notionally more democratic then I for one am grateful.

Rudd had been in office for just under two and a half years, after a landslide victory in ’07. He had brought the Labor party back into power after 13 years of opposition. He’d initially taken a bold stand on global warming in a country with a deeply sceptical (and Murdoch-tainted) media, and at least attempted to redress historical grievances with the indigenous peoples. Until a matter of months ago he had polled as the 2nd most popular Australian PM in history – now he becomes the only to be ousted from office in a single term. 3-year term limits mean that an election was likely before the end of this year; with a change at the top it will likely come about even sooner (as Gillard herself has stated). We shall see if the Labor party’s gamble pays off. If it does, there may well be many a forlorn “what-if?” in the Milliband camp (though Labor’s defeat is not as likely, let alone as certain, as ours appeared in ‘09). I’m not sure which reflects worse on a party – regicide against a successful election winner, or the prospect of changing leaders twice in one term. “Unelected Prime Minister” rhetoric is disingenuous yet potent amongst the electorate, especially when there is very little to hide the naked ambition of those who make it to the top. I’ve seen identity politics used already to justify the outcome; a seemingly desperate spin. On this note it may be worth considering the success of other welsh redheaded Labo(u)r leaders.

I’m glad this undignified spectacle never befell Gordon. Rudd gave a gracious albeit tearful resignation speech, worth watching if only for his parting joke of “I’m still Prime Minister for another 30 minutes… I’m no longer leader of the Labor Party but I am Prime Minister… anything could happen folks”. To an outsider he seems a decent, honourable and principled man – I only hope his party don’t wind up regretting what they’ve done.

Comrade Nash

– BULS Southern Hemisphere correspondent

Class Warfare by another Name

This weeks Mail on Sunday has brought to light allegations (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1231774/Camerons-bid-toff-Tories-backfires-candidate-tells-leader-I-like-double-barrelled-name.html) that Tory HQ (or more exactly Mr. David Cameron) is urging prospective parliamentary candidates with more aristocratic names to drop or change them for the election next year. The case mentioned is that of Ms. Annunziata Rees-Mogg, PPC for Somerton and Frome, who was asked by Dave to change her name to the more prole-friendly “Nancy Mogg”. While Ms. Rees-Mogg is known to her friends as “Nancy” (understandably), she has so far refused to budge on the matter, as indeed has her brother Jacob Rees-Mogg (PPC, Somerset NE).

Good for her I say. The inverse snobbery utilised by some Labour campaigns in the past (see Crewe and Nantwich, byelection) is nothing but a shameful perpetuation of old Class Warfare tactics in my view. I would argue that most voters have more intelligence than to back or spurn a candidate on the basis of name alone. If either of the young Rees-Moggs are overly privileged or out of touch, that will speak for itself through words and deeds come the campaign. There will be many reasons for the good folk of Somerset not to vote Tory in 2010 – a candidate having a fancy name or being well spoken should not be among them.

What do the good folks of BULS think? Is a posh name fair game for attack? Should Labour be wary of a successful “de-toff” campaign by Mr. Cameron?

Comrade Nash, BULS member (in exile, NZ).