Saturday, September 29, 2007

A very 21st century revolution

Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection is a little bit special. Almost all blogs can slide into triviality now and again, this one included. Back in July, just to take one example, I posted an item on here concerning the old ITV kids series Rainbow. It was relatively amusing but it was probably also a sign of how easy some of us have it. Ko Htike is unlikely to ever write a post on Rainbow.

Ever since monks, workers and students took to the streets of Rangoon and other Burmese towns and cities to protest against the continuing rule of the military junta we in the west have been receiving fascinating photos and videos being sent out of the authoritarian southeast Asian nation. In the age of the internet and the mobile phone not even the most extreme dictatorships have succeeded in silencing dissent. North Korea has probably had the most success (nobody has internet access, mobiles are banned and only trusted members of the Workers Party of Korea can have a landline phone) yet even there some mobile phones and foreign DVDs have managed to be smuggled across the border from China. Compared to Kim Jong-Il’s little paradise however Burma is leaking like the proverbial sieve.

My good comrade in Waterford, councillor Seamus Ryan, has posted an entry on his site directing us to a blog run by a pro-democracy campaigner inside Burma. Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection carries stories and images of a revolution in progress. We still don’t know how this is going to end. It may not be happy. Then again, it just might be.

To visit Ko Htike’s website just click on:

Friday, September 28, 2007

Disturbing Northern Ireland’s political peace: Labour prepare to fight elections north of the border

The chances are you probably didn't notice an extremely significant campaign launch a while back by the Northern Ireland Labour Forum of the Irish Labour Party. It received little attention in the media and only appeared to be discussed on blogs run by the most hardened political junkies. However, if the campaign turns out to be successful it could potentially have enormous implications for the future of left wing politics in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Labour Forum was set up three years ago to, as Pat Rabbitte put it in its inaugural meeting, "create space for debate on the centre left". The impact was hardly ground breaking but it was significant. The reason for the significance? Parties in the Republic and GB may be quite happy to enjoy good relations with their friends in Northern Ireland but over the past eighty or so years few have ever ventured so far as to extend the apparatus of their organisations into the province.

When they have the results have been far from spectacular. While the Irish LP did have some limited electoral success up here in the mid 20th century their opponents in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have always survived as 26 county organisations. Attempts at organisation by 'mainland' parties are even rarer; success has been non existent. Ever since the United Kingdom was born Irish politics has always been unique and was never integrated into the British system to the same extent as Scotland and Wales.
The Conservatives have been having a stab now at the Ulster electoral game for the best part of 25 years though for most people here in Northern Ireland the Tories appear as alien to them as Hezbollah. And as we all know the British Labour Party never set up shop here despite the appeals on many on the left. The result of all this has been that since its creation Northern Ireland has had an oddball political system comprising of its own minor toothless provincial parties.

Members of the Northern Ireland Labour Forum now appear to be moving things forward. They have announced that at the next conference of the Irish Labour Party in Wexford they will be seeking the support of their comrades to register as a political party with the Electoral Commission in Belfast and contest the 2009 local elections here. If this vote is passed at the conference it could open up a plethora of opportunities for the left north of the border.

The establishment of a centre left alternative for Northern Ireland is the subject that is perhaps closest to my heart and certainly the one that has been written about most since I first put finger to keyboard and kick-started this blog last year. I must even admit to even restraining myself from writing about it more over the past year in order to make sure I am not giving the impression that I am repeating myself. But then we should I show any such moderation?
If the mainstream media insists on overlooking such important developments then it is up to those of us - even those of us in as ineffectual a sphere as the internet - to generate the discussion necessary to raise the profile of our aims. So, if in the coming weeks and months more and more articles about the development of centre left politics start to pile up on this website to the point that it appears it is spiralling out of control then tough.

A few questions now arise when we look at whereabouts exactly the project goes from here.

First of all some may wonder just how much support these proposals will have within the Labour Party. I cannot answer for certain as I am not a member but it appears that the campaign has got off to a good start. Last week Labour Youth announced that it would be supporting the attempt to fight elections in the north. I can see no reason why other members will attempt to face down the motion when it comes to being voted on.

The next question that always pops up at this point is what to do about the SDLP and individuals who would prefer to be affiliated with the British Labour Party. I've touched on this during previous entries so I'll be as brief as possible. The vast majority of SDLP members consider themselves nationalist first and foremost. If there is a social democratic or left minority still within it then I believe we should appeal to them to join the new project that will put centre left politics before constitutional nationalism.
As for the British Labour Party, that is a different kettle of fish. There are members of the British Labour Party here in the province but that is that. They have no formal organisation, no forum to develop views and have quite simply been treated with contempt by the leadership in London. Their right to a membership card was only gained by way of a court case brought forward by Andy McGivern of the GMB. I personally do not want to see another generation of good socialists waste their time by begging disinterested Labour officials for the right to organise here. A solution does exist and it can be explored in the next question.

Another question posed is whether or not the Irish Labour Party would be unpalatable for unionist and Protestant voters. I am under no illusions that accusations about the party's all-Ireland nature would be levelled by unionists against it once it started to pose a threat to the status quo, as no doubt nationalists would accuse the British Labour Party of being a 'London party' if it ever bothered to organise here. For instance, some unionists have actually dared to criticise the blatantly non-sectarian Green Party for being a 'Dublin-based organisation'. It doesn't seem to have had much impact as most of the constituencies where the GP has made an impact have been in traditionally unionist constituencies east of the Bann, including the election of an MLA in that last bastion of Ulster Unionism, North Down.
To be able to counteract these demands the party must be able to demonstrate a degree of autonomy in the north (as exists with the Welsh Labour Party and the Scottish Labour Party) as well as having ties to the British Labour Party. While the leadership of the British party may not want to actively form CLPs in Northern Ireland it may be open to having some "formal structural relationship" with the NILF, as the Forum's policy document 'Part of Both - Excluded from Neither' proposes.

And it is with the mention of 'Part of Both - Excluded from Neither' that I'm brought onto the next point: the border. Clearly the constitutional question is and will for a foreseeable time be a major element in Northern Irish politics. For any aspiring party of the left to try and make an electoral breakthrough there are two ways not to do things.
First is to take sides. If you declare yourself for a united Ireland or in favour of the United Kingdom you immediately defeat the whole raison d'etre of the project by landing yourself into one of the two camps. Not only will you lose the potential support from 'the other side' but it's also extremely unlikely that you'll receive the support of pro-British or pro-Irish elements as well. Why go for the imitation when you can have the real thing? The other way not to do it is ignore the constitutional question. This sort of opportunism has plagued some good intentioned attempts by left wingers in the north to get a non-sectarian party off the ground. People respect honesty and we cannot be seen to be dodging the issue. So, what to do?

As Jenny Muir pointed out recently during a discussion on her South Belfast Diary blog, support for Irish unity is not a central component of socialist or social democratic thought. In fact, neither support for a united Ireland nor support for the union with Britain can be viewed along left-right lines. Why then should we let this issue drag us down? Let’s not avoid the question of partition, let’s do the opposite. Let’s say to the mainstream parties, “we’ve got a better idea than you have”.

Last year’s ‘Part of Both - Excluded from Neither’ document puts forward a position that cuts across the traditional either/or option when it comes to the constitutional question. In a Northern Ireland that is becoming increasingly being exposed to the effects of globalisation, increasingly diverse ethnically, increasingly integrated into the international market place and as a tiny, almost insignificant part of an ever growing, ever closer European Union will it really matter which state we belong to in ten, twenty or thirty years time? So how’s about this novel suggestion from the ‘PoB-EfN’ document:

"In accordance with our view that our society is not and never will be exclusively British or Irish, we take the view that Northern Ireland should be part of both the UK and Ireland and that political structures should be established accordingly. Such political structures should be such as to ensure that both the British and Irish governments are accountable to the citizens of Northern Ireland. In any future referendum on the border issue, as envisaged by the Belfast Agreement, in addition to the highly divisive and mutually exclusive British or Irish options, we will actively seek to have a third 'part of both' option included."

A solid position on the national question is crucial in any future project because today, more than ever before, Northern Ireland requires a vigorously anti-sectarian party of the centre left and if we mess up on the question of the border then the likelihood is that we mess up completely. Providing a realistic, imaginative alternative that recognises the different circumstances facing us in the 21st century is the way to avoid messing up.

Dostoevsky said that what people fear most is taking a new step. There are no certainties about what will happen if the party does decide to put people forward for the elections in two years time but a resounding vote in Wexford later this year in favour of the proposal by the Northern Ireland Labour Forum would mark a very brave first step indeed.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Change is Gonna Come

I thought it was time for a spruce around here. I had grown tired of the old yourfriendinthenorth look so I reckoned it was now or never - out with old and in with the new. Gone is the old blood red masthead at the top. Like the ‘Red Flag’ at the end of the Labour conference it may someday return. I’ve left a few dollops of red on the page as a superficial way at least of proving I’m not afraid of a bit of lip service socialism. Don’t worry though, the green header hasn’t been brought around by some road to Damascus-style conversion to nationalism triggered by the announcement that Fianna Fail is moving into the occupied territory. Gone too is the Verdana font. With hindsight wasn’t that bloody horrible? Tacky as hell. Now I’ve settled for a very conventional Times point 12 set up (Jesus, it’s like writing essays at university again).

OK, that’s enough about my redecorating. I don’t want people thinking I’m the blogging equivalent of Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (pictured above just before, it appears, the storming of the Bastille). That might actually be a potential show. LLB or Lowri Turner or some other daytime TV presenter comes round to your house and helps to restyle your blog. Unlikely. Then again have you actually seen ‘Cash in the Attic’? Good lord.

Just one more thing. I have been away for a couple of weeks and didn’t get the chance to post anything during that period. Dedicated as I am I continued writing, sans laptop, and have now posted them for your perusal. They aren’t earth shattering or anything but at least they prove I wasn’t sitting on my arse all that time. I’ve also discovered two things: 1) I can no longer write properly using a pencil or pen, and 2) I cannot spell without the help of F7.

Capitalism, eh?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

In defence of Paxman

A lot has been made about comments uttered by Jeremy Paxman at last week’s Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival regarding the future of the BBC. Now, if you’ve read any of the items that I’ve written on this website in the past you’ll know I have a great deal of respect for the British Broadcasting Corporation. As well as standing by the Beeb in good times and bad I also have a considerable amount of time for Mr Paxman too.

I was, however, surprised to read that good old Jeremy had launched a ‘stinging attack’ (not his words) on his employers and claimed that the BBC had to ‘change or die’ (again, not his words or mine). Strong stuff indeed. And it got even better when the Newsnight presenter was hauled onto the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 to face a grilling from John Humphrys, a moment likened in The Guardian to that scene from ‘Heat’ where Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are brought together onscreen for just a few, short tantalising seconds.

So what did Jeremy have to say exactly? Well, at the beginning of the radio interview Humphrys chose what was perhaps the most ‘stinging’ (OK, OK, it was ‘The Daily Mail’ that used that term!) section of the sixty minute lecture. It said:

Working for the BBC is like living in Stalin's Russia. It would be foolish to be confident that the BBC has a future. The idea of a tax on the ownership of a television belongs to the 50s. Why not tax people for owning a washing machine to fund the manufacture of Persil?

I listened to the interview on Today. I subsequently read and reread the published transcript of the interview again. I have read more of what was actually said in the lecture. My opinion? I actually think it is extremely difficult to disagree with the comments made by Paxman.

It is worth adding a few things that Paxman has since contributed to the debate as the quote read out by John Humphrys was quite selective and doesn’t really convey the message that was articulated at the festival in Edinburgh. First of all Paxman insisted on Radio 4 that this was indeed an attack but an “attack on television as a whole” and not simply against the Corporation. He continued to state that the only questions being asked by the BBC and others nowadays is can a programme be afforded and will it make any money, whereas the question that we all should be asking is what exactly is television for. The answer, from JP’s perspective at least, is to “enlighten people” and create “an informed democracy”. The BBC has, in his view, a particularly special role to play as it is publicly funded, operates outside of normal market procedures and therefore should be providing a service that the market forces cannot provide. In other words, a “higher moral purpose than commercial return”.

Perhaps this is why I’m not a journalist. The John Humphrys’ of this world see a catchy couple of lines that name check Stalinist Russia, the TV licence and Persil and, hey presto, you’ve got a front page article for tomorrow’s paper. In reality, Paxman said more than a couple of lines. Perhaps he could have saved himself all of this bother if he had said something along the lines of: “Look, can we just get rid of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps? Please? And maybe all of BBC Three when we’re at it?”

Some have accused Paxman of overreacting. Others have muttered some things about him betraying his BBC comrades. But the truth is that the quality of programming on the BBC has become worse and, as Jeremy pointed out, the reason that this is a cause for concern is because the BBC is that bit more special than the other broadcasters - it is the public service broadcaster and is funded by its viewers. I pay a TV licence and I am actually happy to do so. The reason? A guarantee of quality. Or at least that’s the idea.

In recent times though the Corporation has broadcast an increasing amount of, well, rubbish. If you want to find a good example of this just switch on BBC Three after seven o’clock any evening. BBC One and Two are little better. Almost everyone in the UK has now commented how the early morning Breakfast show is now little more than a three hour trail for upcoming BBC programmes. At least most of us though have a job and can escape. If you elderly, unemployed or off work sick you can strap yourself in after Breakfast for four hours of shows about animals being rescued, houses being renovated and shit ornaments being sold off at auction for a fiver. Then you’ll get the news at one o’clock which will then be followed by a decades old schedule that brings in Neighbours and that Angela Lansbury thing that nobody has apparently ever sat through a whole episode of. As well as this the main afternoon, evening and night time news bulletins are bland and soulless (its RTE, Channel 4 or the World Service these days for me). At night the odd gem does pop up but a lot of what we are subjected to consists of uninspired run-of-the-mill dramas like Holby City and Silent Witness and unfunny comedy such as the phenomenally irritating My Family. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the regional output.

I’m going to stop here as this is rapidly beginning to look like a letter you would see tucked away in the Daily Express. I like the BBC. I don’t enjoy criticising it and neither I’m sure does Jeremy Paxman. Mark Thompson and his mates have no time to be getting offended by what one of their high profile employees has said. What they should do is take heed. And scrap BBC Three of course.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Waiting for Geimhreadh

Call me miserable if you like but I for one am glad that the summer is over. Even as a child I disliked the season and came fairly quickly to the conclusion that its only saving grace was the school holidays, the football and hurling championships and - albeit only once every four years - the World Cup. These highlights were cheapened to a large extent as I sadly came from a county with a fairly poor football team, a diabolically bad hurling team and live in a country that rarely qualifies for the World Cup. So, despite growing ever closer to the magical age of 30, I have not yet allowed nostalgia to take hold and mould my memories in such a way that all my Julys and Augusts were sunny as a kid. Reality and myself are still very much in touch.

Still, this is the first week of September thankfully and I’ve decided to mark the change in seasons by some uplifting music. As we are now officially in autumn we will no longer have to look at poor Angie Phillips pretend to be surprised when she tells us that rain is forecast for (at least) the next five days. Yes, it will get colder. It will inevitably get darker. It will get wetter too. But at least, if nothing else, you won’t be disappointed because you’ll have been expecting it. And me? Well, I’ll be that wee bit happier than I have been for the past couple of months.

Only twelve weeks to winter. Bring it on:

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Ming the Pointless

If ever there was a man born to lead the Liberal Democrats then surely Sir Menzies Campbell is that man. He holds all the characteristics needed to be at the head of Britain’s third party. Could we ever imagine him being Prime Minister? Of course not. Does he overestimate his own importance? Indeed. Does he have that special streak of incompetence that only a Lib Dem could possess? Oh yes.

Sir Ming’s latest statement to be ignored by most right thinking individuals was about Iraq, an issue which has been at the heart of Liberal Democrat ‘policy’ over the past five years. You see Ming and co feel that they are somehow spearheading the anti-war movement. They aren’t of course. Any credible dyed-in-the-wool anti-war activist would much rather have RESPECT, the SWP, some irrelevant loony faction or the Labour left on their side than, say, Sarah Teather.

Campbell thought it would be a good idea to pen a letter and post it off to Comrade G. Brown in Downing Street requesting that the British premier immediately introduce a timetable indicating when UK troops will be withdrawn from Iraq. Now how long has Menzies been leader of the Lib Dems? I think it’s about eighteen months or so. So, after eighteen months the best suggestion this man can come up on the most prominent issue in the world today is that Britain should just remove its troops from Iraq - the leave-and-see-what-happens policy. What a guy. What a party. This is of course also the Iraq policy of organisations as rational as the British National Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Just to make Ming’s suggestion of a timetable even more ridiculous it came at the same time as our old friend - the man that the far left love to, er, give critical support to - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hinted that Iran was preparing to ‘fill the vacuum’ in Iraq. The total ineptitude of this man could be funny but it is not. We are talking about the burning issue of the day here, yet the leader of the Liberal Democrats can only muster the sort of policy you would expect to hear trotted out by some halfwit student activist at a freshers fayre. The one saving grace for us all though is that this man (or should that be any Lib Dem) will never be Prime Minister.

Incidentally, the Lib Dem head honcho met Nelson Mandela a couple of days back, saying that it was an honour to meet “a leader who has spent his life tackling injustice. He is a giant amongst the political figures of the modern age. At a time when we are looking for role models, what better role model than Nelson Mandela?” Indeed. Unlike yourself, Ming.

Oh, and by the way, the Prime Minister has actually replied to Ming’s letter. Obviously he didn’t tell the third man of British politics to fuck off. No. Gordon is shrewd enough to know that that chore is the task of the electorate.