William Blake: apprentice and master

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 14:05

While the English language is gifted with many great poets, William Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. Now a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum is celebrating his visual and literary work in tandem. 

'Songs of Innocence' image via Bodleian Museum, University of Oxford

The following is adapted from two speeches given by Phillip Pullman at the launch of the William Blake Festival at the Ashmolean Museum on 18 January 2015. The exhibition will run until 1 March 2015.

The more we look into the curious case of William Blake the more curious he seems, and the more we find to discover. A great poet, undeniably; a print-maker, designer, graphic artist, of huge originality and power. A maker of vast and complex myths, and a master of the tiniest morally explosive aphorism. A religious and philosophical thinker whose insights into those fields and into human psychology are only now beginning to be fully recognised and understood.

But this is a museum. A great museum of art, and it’s not easy to put together an exhibition of thoughts and insights and myths. We need things to look at, and that’s where writers and poets are disappointing, exhibition-wise: a couple of manuscripts, a lock of hair, a pen, a walking stick that he might once have used, a tea cup that she possibly drank from—that’s the sort of thing that an exhibition devoted to most writers or poets must consist of.

But Blake! 

'Newton' image via the Philadelphia Museum of ArtHe left us a whole world of visual splendour. Images that once seen are unforgettable: the great picture known as ‘The Ancient of Days’, depicting Urizen, the embodiment of law and reason, leaning down from a cloud with his measuring compasses; the vision of ‘Albion Rose’, sometimes called ‘Glad Day’; Newton, seated on a rock, with compasses again, a version of which rendered in bronze by Eduardo Paolozzi stands outside the British Library; ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ … any of those images, or of many others, would have ensured the immortality of an artist who never wrote a word or said a memorable thing.

This image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote.

But the thrill of this exhibition is that it shows us how this image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote. They were conceived as one thing. They were printed from the same plates. The words were written—backwards—in the same varnish as the design, to stop out the areas of the copper plate that he didn’t want the acid to bite into. It was all one thing. Both the words and the design, the illumination, both together were the anvil on which he hammered out the meaning of his thoughts.

And in this marvellous exhibition we can see the stages by which Blake arrived at the extraordinary integration of word and image, from his apprentice work drawing the tombs in Westminster Abbey through his increasing familiarity with all kinds of print-making and the work of the great artists of the past whose paintings were reproduced in engravings, discovering what he favours, what he finds full of truth, clear lines, that is to say, and what he dislikes: anything fudged or blurred or obscure.

'House of Death' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

It’s fascinating to look at the stages of a print emerging gradually from the first marks made on the wood or the copper, and to look at the hefty machinery involved in printing it on paper, to imagine the sheer toil involved in working at a relatively minute size, poring closely over the plate in the light that struggled in between the tall buildings outside the window, and then going through all the processes of inking the plate and putting it through the massive press and then working on it further with colours until it was ready; all that lovely physical stuff that people who do nothing but write feel such envy for. I do, anyway.

Visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years.

And all that is fully and richly represented here. The catalogue is a treasury of information that I know I’ll be consulting for years to come. I think that visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years, with all the difficulties, financial and otherwise, that crowded around him. But most of all, for me anyway, it’s a sense of the grandeur of what that extraordinary imagination conceived and brought forth. Blake is all of a piece; his enormously complex mythology wasn’t just made up at random—all the parts do fit together, and the more we see, the more we marvel at its richness and beauty and truth.

'Young Blake' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

We are lucky in this country, in this Albion, with our mongrel language that is so flexible and so friendly to all kinds of utterance, to have more great poets than perhaps we deserve. But Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. He was a friend of language: it did what he wanted it to, it fell gracefully into his hands, he had a sense for the sinews and the muscles, the bones and the structures of the language that was as sure and firmly founded as his knowledge of the structure of the human body, a knowledge formed in the course of a long and diligent apprenticeship. He knew how to draw a clear line around a figure: whatever tormented or contorted position he put it in, the figure works, the shoulders and the arms meet each other convincingly, the feet grow firmly from the legs.

And when he put words together, he did so in such a way that they are now inseparable, unforgettable: 

I wander thro’ each charterd street

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear. 

'Abel and the Shepherd' image via Tate Museum, London

We certainly don’t show our poets as much gratitude, or celebrate them as a smaller, poorer nation would. But here, at the Ashmolean, is our chance to pay our respects to, and wonder at, the genius of one of the greatest, and certainly one of the strangest of all the poets who’ve ever written in English; and certainly the greatest who ever drew, and etched, and printed, and coloured the illuminations that make his work unique.

The exhibition 'William Blake: apprentice and master' runs until 1 March 2015 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. openDemocracy is grateful for permission to share these images. 

Topics:  Culture Equality Ideas Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

William Blake: apprentice and master

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 14:05

While the English language is gifted with many great poets, William Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. Now a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum is celebrating his visual and literary work in tandem. 

'Songs of Innocence' image via Bodleian Museum, University of Oxford

The following is adapted from two speeches given by Phillip Pullman at the launch of the William Blake Festival at the Ashmolean Museum on 18 January 2015. The exhibition will run until 1 March 2015.

The more we look into the curious case of William Blake the more curious he seems, and the more we find to discover. A great poet, undeniably; a print-maker, designer, graphic artist, of huge originality and power. A maker of vast and complex myths, and a master of the tiniest morally explosive aphorism. A religious and philosophical thinker whose insights into those fields and into human psychology are only now beginning to be fully recognised and understood.

But this is a museum. A great museum of art, and it’s not easy to put together an exhibition of thoughts and insights and myths. We need things to look at, and that’s where writers and poets are disappointing, exhibition-wise: a couple of manuscripts, a lock of hair, a pen, a walking stick that he might once have used, a tea cup that she possibly drank from—that’s the sort of thing that an exhibition devoted to most writers or poets must consist of.

But Blake! 

'Newton' image via the Philadelphia Museum of ArtHe left us a whole world of visual splendour. Images that once seen are unforgettable: the great picture known as ‘The Ancient of Days’, depicting Urizen, the embodiment of law and reason, leaning down from a cloud with his measuring compasses; the vision of ‘Albion Rose’, sometimes called ‘Glad Day’; Newton, seated on a rock, with compasses again, a version of which rendered in bronze by Eduardo Paolozzi stands outside the British Library; ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ … any of those images, or of many others, would have ensured the immortality of an artist who never wrote a word or said a memorable thing.

This image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote.

But the thrill of this exhibition is that it shows us how this image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote. They were conceived as one thing. They were printed from the same plates. The words were written—backwards—in the same varnish as the design, to stop out the areas of the copper plate that he didn’t want the acid to bite into. It was all one thing. Both the words and the design, the illumination, both together were the anvil on which he hammered out the meaning of his thoughts.

And in this marvellous exhibition we can see the stages by which Blake arrived at the extraordinary integration of word and image, from his apprentice work drawing the tombs in Westminster Abbey through his increasing familiarity with all kinds of print-making and the work of the great artists of the past whose paintings were reproduced in engravings, discovering what he favours, what he finds full of truth, clear lines, that is to say, and what he dislikes: anything fudged or blurred or obscure.

'House of Death' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

It’s fascinating to look at the stages of a print emerging gradually from the first marks made on the wood or the copper, and to look at the hefty machinery involved in printing it on paper, to imagine the sheer toil involved in working at a relatively minute size, poring closely over the plate in the light that struggled in between the tall buildings outside the window, and then going through all the processes of inking the plate and putting it through the massive press and then working on it further with colours until it was ready; all that lovely physical stuff that people who do nothing but write feel such envy for. I do, anyway.

Visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years.

And all that is fully and richly represented here. The catalogue is a treasury of information that I know I’ll be consulting for years to come. I think that visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years, with all the difficulties, financial and otherwise, that crowded around him. But most of all, for me anyway, it’s a sense of the grandeur of what that extraordinary imagination conceived and brought forth. Blake is all of a piece; his enormously complex mythology wasn’t just made up at random—all the parts do fit together, and the more we see, the more we marvel at its richness and beauty and truth.

'Young Blake' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

We are lucky in this country, in this Albion, with our mongrel language that is so flexible and so friendly to all kinds of utterance, to have more great poets than perhaps we deserve. But Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. He was a friend of language: it did what he wanted it to, it fell gracefully into his hands, he had a sense for the sinews and the muscles, the bones and the structures of the language that was as sure and firmly founded as his knowledge of the structure of the human body, a knowledge formed in the course of a long and diligent apprenticeship. He knew how to draw a clear line around a figure: whatever tormented or contorted position he put it in, the figure works, the shoulders and the arms meet each other convincingly, the feet grow firmly from the legs.

And when he put words together, he did so in such a way that they are now inseparable, unforgettable: 

I wander thro’ each charterd street

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear. 

'Abel and the Shepherd' image via Tate Museum, London

We certainly don’t show our poets as much gratitude, or celebrate them as a smaller, poorer nation would. But here, at the Ashmolean, is our chance to pay our respects to, and wonder at, the genius of one of the greatest, and certainly one of the strangest of all the poets who’ve ever written in English; and certainly the greatest who ever drew, and etched, and printed, and coloured the illuminations that make his work unique.

The exhibition 'William Blake: apprentice and master' runs until 1 March 2015 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. openDemocracy is grateful for permission to share these images. 

Topics:  Culture Equality Ideas Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

The other, dark winner of the Greek elections

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 12:38

Why is nobody talking about Golden Dawn coming a sensational third in the Greek elections?

Golden Dawn supporters march in central Athens. Flickr/alba.christiansen. Some rights reserved.

Think of a party that lost approximately 10 percent of its share in the vote from the previous election ― in most people’s books, this is a bad result. Yet in the case of Greece's Golden Dawn, this was anything but.

Having enjoyed being catapulted phenomenally into the country's parliament in 2012, the far-right party quickly made international headlines with its food rallies “for Greeks only”, its orchestration of racist attacks in Athens and beyond, and eventually, in September 2013, with the assassination of anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas.

In the international outcry that followed, it momentarily appeared as if Pavlos' assassination would signal the death knell for Golden Dawn themselves. Their leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, all MPs and tens of key party members are now facing justice. The mainstream media in the country was quick on a u-turn from their previously implicit (or even explicit) support of Golden Dawn and their politics. But the arrest of the party leadership did little to counter the country's institutional racism.

Months after a legal case had been opened against the party, a top party MP, Ilias Kasidiaris, revealed his secretly-recorded private conversation with the then conservative PM's chief of staff, Takis Baltakos. On the one hand, the incident revealed the depth to which racism and far-right ideology was ingrained in the Greek state apparatus. On the other, it tarnished Golden Dawn's own, self-made image of a supposedly anti-systemic force battling against the Greek political and economic elites.

The chief of staff in question resigned, and Kasidiaris followed his fellow MPs into prison. At this point, one would once again be excused in thinking Golden Dawn's exit from the political scene would indeed be as swift as its entrance, but the electoral result of January 25 perfectly revealed how systemic the far-right vote has now become in the country.

In the previous elections, approximately half of the country's police force voted for Golden Dawn; there is no reason to suspect this time round the results will paint a different picture. A dominant political culture where nationalism, xenophobia and homophobia prevail has formed fertile ground for Golden Dawn to grow, now leading to a great paradox: in spite of being excluded from the same mainstream media that had previously aided its catapulting into the spotlight, and even though it essentially ran its entire electoral campaign while its leadership was in prison, Golden Dawn still won 6.3% of the vote, overtaking even the social-democrats of PASOK and the nationalist Independent Greeks to become the country's third largest party.

An initial defence reserved for Golden Dawn voters was that they were uninformed of the party's real policies and ideology. This then shifted to the suggestion that these voters were deceived by the largely positive image painted for the party by certain national media outlets. It is difficult to see what excuse may be used this time around: just under 400,000 Greek voters backed a party whose crimes and vile ideology have now fully come to light.

This is why Golden Dawn have scored a chilling victory: they have triumphantly displayed a core of party faithful strong and determined enough to make them the new parliament's third largest party, despite being run from behind bars. It will take years to soothe the devastating effects of austerity, as well as the far-right political culture administering it, while setting the stage for the entrance of Golden Dawn.

The country's new government will have no choice but to decisively fight its natural political enemy, but if this struggle is not met by firm, widespread anti-fascist education and action on the ground, there might be little time before Golden Dawn's vile far-right ideology solidifies its position in Greek society, and before institutional racism turns truly and fully social.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Why the Irish political elite is terrified of Syriza Country or region:  Greece
Categories: les flux rss

Colombia: the year of peace?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:44

The unilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC last December is a historic and positive step towards a permanent peace, but questions remain. 

Balloons released in April 2013 in support of the peace negotiations, now entering the third year, between the government and the FARC. Pablo Medina Uribe & Julián Camilo García/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

For the first time in a half-century-long conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed on 20 December 2014 to a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire.

The decision marks a turning point in the on-going peace talks in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla leaders since August 2012. Not only is the step unprecedented but it also came just three weeks after the end of a crisis which had endangered the whole peace process.

On 16 November, the FARC kidnapped a senior military figure in the armed forces, Rubén Darío Alzate, in a small municipality in the Chocó department. The event forced President Santos to halt the negotiations, only to resume them following the release of the general two weeks later.

To some extent, the ceasefire highlights a transformation in the guerrillas’ tactics, paving the way for a significant reduction of violence between the two sides. According to analysis conducted by CERAC, the FARC have not committed a single violation of the ceasefire despite continued operations by Colombia’s armed forces . A month on, violence associated with the conflict has plummeted to levels not seen since the mid-1980s.

But optimism should be carefully qualified. The ceasefire is conditional, dependent on measures that the FARC has sought from the government, including oversight of the deal by national and international bodies. It has also warned that, should government armed forces attack, the ceasefire will be dropped.

The government welcomed the announcement, claiming that it could indeed lead to a permanent peace. But Santos reinforced the state’s duty to ‘protect’ the Colombian people and deferred discussions on a bilateral ceasefire until further rounds of negotiations in Cuba. This leaves the ceasefire vulnerable and begs further questions. First, why isn’t the government willing to accept a bilateral arrangement right away?

At one level, this stems from past failures. The only bilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC and the government dates back to 1983, under the presidency of Belisario Betancur (1982-86). Neither side ceased hostilities and it only exacerbated the deterioration of the peace process, which collapsed shortly thereafter. Under Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), the FARC was granted a demilitarised area in which the peace process took place. But this allowed for the visible training and strengthening of the guerrillas, proving fatal to the negotiations in the end.

The current negotiations could not produce either of these concessions Far from it: they were facilitated by the strength of the armed forces, which forced the guerrillas to come to an agreement with Santos in August 2012. And the government has no incentive to remove this military pressure, for fear of upsetting the balance upon which the peace process has rested.

Moreover, the multiplicity of violent groups acting inside Colombia—including the ELN, the second largest guerrilla organisation, as well as a panoply of paramilitary, self-defence and vigilante groups and organised criminal bands—would make it very difficult for the government to implement a bilateral ceasefire. Finally, should the government reduce the steady military pressure on the guerrillas, political support for the negotiations—now approved only by a slim majority of the population and the governing coalition–would be severely shaken.

Secondly, is the ceasefire likely to stand? There is scope for optimism, owing by and large to the positive record of past truces undertaken by the FARC and the Santos administration, during the Christmas and new year’s festivities of 2012 and 2013, as well as around the presidential elections in May and June last year.

But a third and rather different question follows: what will happen if either party attacks the other? The straightforward answer is the ceasefire would collapse. But very different consequences would follow, depending on the perpetrator. A FARC breach would damage the credibility of its control over its armed apparatus and represent a political defeat for the guerrillas. Should the government take the first step, however, by virtue of the FARC’s conditions the deal would be no more, and Santos would have to confront the political consequences of an attack waged by the armed forces.  

In line with the president’s own promises, the armed forces has not ceased to operate against the guerrillas. On 31 December, they attacked FARC troops in Algeciras, a municipality in the Huila department, and captured Carlos Andrés Bustos (alias Ricardo), second in command of the Teófilo Forero columna. Interestingly, while the FARC condemned the operation, as with other alleged attacks by the armed forces, the ceasefire did not come to an abrupt halt.

But then the Teófilo Forero unit has proved problematic for the FARC’s highest cadres for quite some time, so the kidnapping of one of its leaders could turn out to be beneficial in at least two ways. First, it would appear to be a contained blow against one of the guerrillas’ most troublesome divisions. Secondly, it leaves the FARC in a position to point the finger against the government’s military provocations as a major threat to its own ceasefire.

Should the armed forces disrupt the truce the FARC could effectively shift the blame on to the government, making it bear responsibility for the missed opportunity for peace and the crisis that would ensue. This would strengthen the FARC’s position within the negotiations, boosting its image as the purported defender of peace, and bring more pressure on the Santos administration from the international community­—and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Colombian public.

But a failed ceasefire might not lead the entire peace process to collapse. Even if the truce between the FARC and the government were suddenly to break down, the peace talks in Havana would still likely progress, even if impaired, towards a final agreement between the two sides.

In his last speech of 2014, Santos wished for the Colombian people that 2015 would be the year of peace. The ceasefire still holds but the path towards a definitive peace is still laden with risks.

On 15 January Santos announced that he would be ordering the government’s delegation in Havana to begin discussing the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC. The initial aversion towards a bilateral agreement that would entangle both the armed forces and the guerrillas appears already to have waned. But in some fundamental ways Colombia is already living under a virtual bilateral deal.

The drastic reduction in clashes between the army and the FARC has brought an easing of hostilities unlike anything in the past 30 years. The relationship between the two sides has shifted from attempted mutual annihilation to mutual avoidance. For both actors, the benefits of a decrease in violent confrontations outweigh the costs of a breakdown of the current equilibrium.  

The FARC’s decision voluntarily to renounce operations against the armed forces poses a crucial test for Santos’ government as well as the guerrillas. It has shown the latter that violence may not be as useful as it may have been in the past. The FARC cannot hope to wage a successful war against the armed forces; indeed, nor can it hope to resort to violence again without suffering a catastrophic blow to the credibility and political capital accrued through the past two years of negotiations. Yet the ceasefire will leave the onus on Santos to make the next steps—and show the true extent of his willingness to negotiate a political way out of Colombia’s conflict. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The body of Colombian women is a battleground Back to basics for Colombia's rebels Organized crime, Colombia's peace spoiler? Uncovering Colombia's systems of macro-criminality Country or region:  Colombia
Categories: les flux rss

Colombia: the year of peace?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:44

The unilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC last December is a historic and positive step towards a permanent peace, but questions remain. 

Balloons released in April 2013 in support of the peace negotiations, now entering the third year, between the government and the FARC. Pablo Medina Uribe & Julián Camilo García/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

For the first time in a half-century-long conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed on 20 December 2014 to a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire.

The decision marks a turning point in the on-going peace talks in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla leaders since August 2012. Not only is the step unprecedented but it also came just three weeks after the end of a crisis which had endangered the whole peace process.

On 16 November, the FARC kidnapped a senior military figure in the armed forces, Rubén Darío Alzate, in a small municipality in the Chocó department. The event forced President Santos to halt the negotiations, only to resume them following the release of the general two weeks later.

To some extent, the ceasefire highlights a transformation in the guerrillas’ tactics, paving the way for a significant reduction of violence between the two sides. According to analysis conducted by CERAC, the FARC have not committed a single violation of the ceasefire despite continued operations by Colombia’s armed forces . A month on, violence associated with the conflict has plummeted to levels not seen since the mid-1980s.

But optimism should be carefully qualified. The ceasefire is conditional, dependent on measures that the FARC has sought from the government, including oversight of the deal by national and international bodies. It has also warned that, should government armed forces attack, the ceasefire will be dropped.

The government welcomed the announcement, claiming that it could indeed lead to a permanent peace. But Santos reinforced the state’s duty to ‘protect’ the Colombian people and deferred discussions on a bilateral ceasefire until further rounds of negotiations in Cuba. This leaves the ceasefire vulnerable and begs further questions. First, why isn’t the government willing to accept a bilateral arrangement right away?

At one level, this stems from past failures. The only bilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC and the government dates back to 1983, under the presidency of Belisario Betancur (1982-86). Neither side ceased hostilities and it only exacerbated the deterioration of the peace process, which collapsed shortly thereafter. Under Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), the FARC was granted a demilitarised area in which the peace process took place. But this allowed for the visible training and strengthening of the guerrillas, proving fatal to the negotiations in the end.

The current negotiations could not produce either of these concessions Far from it: they were facilitated by the strength of the armed forces, which forced the guerrillas to come to an agreement with Santos in August 2012. And the government has no incentive to remove this military pressure, for fear of upsetting the balance upon which the peace process has rested.

Moreover, the multiplicity of violent groups acting inside Colombia—including the ELN, the second largest guerrilla organisation, as well as a panoply of paramilitary, self-defence and vigilante groups and organised criminal bands—would make it very difficult for the government to implement a bilateral ceasefire. Finally, should the government reduce the steady military pressure on the guerrillas, political support for the negotiations—now approved only by a slim majority of the population and the governing coalition–would be severely shaken.

Secondly, is the ceasefire likely to stand? There is scope for optimism, owing by and large to the positive record of past truces undertaken by the FARC and the Santos administration, during the Christmas and new year’s festivities of 2012 and 2013, as well as around the presidential elections in May and June last year.

But a third and rather different question follows: what will happen if either party attacks the other? The straightforward answer is the ceasefire would collapse. But very different consequences would follow, depending on the perpetrator. A FARC breach would damage the credibility of its control over its armed apparatus and represent a political defeat for the guerrillas. Should the government take the first step, however, by virtue of the FARC’s conditions the deal would be no more, and Santos would have to confront the political consequences of an attack waged by the armed forces.  

In line with the president’s own promises, the armed forces has not ceased to operate against the guerrillas. On 31 December, they attacked FARC troops in Algeciras, a municipality in the Huila department, and captured Carlos Andrés Bustos (alias Ricardo), second in command of the Teófilo Forero columna. Interestingly, while the FARC condemned the operation, as with other alleged attacks by the armed forces, the ceasefire did not come to an abrupt halt.

But then the Teófilo Forero unit has proved problematic for the FARC’s highest cadres for quite some time, so the kidnapping of one of its leaders could turn out to be beneficial in at least two ways. First, it would appear to be a contained blow against one of the guerrillas’ most troublesome divisions. Secondly, it leaves the FARC in a position to point the finger against the government’s military provocations as a major threat to its own ceasefire.

Should the armed forces disrupt the truce the FARC could effectively shift the blame on to the government, making it bear responsibility for the missed opportunity for peace and the crisis that would ensue. This would strengthen the FARC’s position within the negotiations, boosting its image as the purported defender of peace, and bring more pressure on the Santos administration from the international community­—and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Colombian public.

But a failed ceasefire might not lead the entire peace process to collapse. Even if the truce between the FARC and the government were suddenly to break down, the peace talks in Havana would still likely progress, even if impaired, towards a final agreement between the two sides.

In his last speech of 2014, Santos wished for the Colombian people that 2015 would be the year of peace. The ceasefire still holds but the path towards a definitive peace is still laden with risks.

On 15 January Santos announced that he would be ordering the government’s delegation in Havana to begin discussing the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC. The initial aversion towards a bilateral agreement that would entangle both the armed forces and the guerrillas appears already to have waned. But in some fundamental ways Colombia is already living under a virtual bilateral deal.

The drastic reduction in clashes between the army and the FARC has brought an easing of hostilities unlike anything in the past 30 years. The relationship between the two sides has shifted from attempted mutual annihilation to mutual avoidance. For both actors, the benefits of a decrease in violent confrontations outweigh the costs of a breakdown of the current equilibrium.  

The FARC’s decision voluntarily to renounce operations against the armed forces poses a crucial test for Santos’ government as well as the guerrillas. It has shown the latter that violence may not be as useful as it may have been in the past. The FARC cannot hope to wage a successful war against the armed forces; indeed, nor can it hope to resort to violence again without suffering a catastrophic blow to the credibility and political capital accrued through the past two years of negotiations. Yet the ceasefire will leave the onus on Santos to make the next steps—and show the true extent of his willingness to negotiate a political way out of Colombia’s conflict. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The body of Colombian women is a battleground Back to basics for Colombia's rebels Organized crime, Colombia's peace spoiler? Uncovering Colombia's systems of macro-criminality Country or region:  Colombia
Categories: les flux rss

The arguments against proportional representation have melted away

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:34

First Past the Post was designed for a previous era. We must change all of our politics - but the voting system first.

Close your eyes and imagine a democratic dystopia in which no one gets what they want. Now open them. Welcome to the politics of Britain in 2015. An election looms and whoever we vote for we wont get to save the planet, stop the inequality gap widening or end the housing crisis. If you’re a social democrat, a compassionate Conservative, an anything – forget it. It ain’t happening. Our democracy is broken – beyond repair – and the biggest irony of all is that this democracy crisis isn’t on the agenda either.

Politics no longer works like a see–saw. As one side goes down the other no longer automatically rises. The spell of the two-party duopoly is broken. It was broken on the rocks of globalization, individualization and now technology. Following the ‘big bang’ of the 1980s, power in the form of money went global while politics stayed national. At the same time the culture of consumerism and an end of deference swept the land. We no longer did as we were told or as expected. Today these twin mega trends are magnified and accelerated by the internet and social media in ways we are only just beginning to fathom. It’s left our political class stranded.

We recognise the symptoms. Westminster is hollowed out of talent because the talent knows the game is up. Instead it goes to corporations, the media, NGOs, tech start-ups – anywhere but Westminster. We look at David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and feel at best pity, at worst fury. They appear like political pygmies compared to Attlee and Thatcher or even Ashdown and Blair. But here is the truth – all three, by some way, are the best leaders their respective parties have. There is no one better waiting in the wings. No one is coming to save us – this, under the current system, is as good as it gets.

Fixing that system is beyond policy tweak or personality trait. It can only be transformed for the 21st century through a totally new democratic architecture. Power needs to be passed up to the global level and down to the local. Direct and deliberative forms of democracy are going to have to be experimented with. But the first, and therefore foremost, we must remake our electoral system.

First past the post is strangling the life out of our democracy. With a third of the electorate refusing to vote for either of the main parties, outright power is impossible. We are in an era of NOC – no overall control, where weakness begets further weakness.

First past the post exaggerates support, in terms of seats, for the two main parties so the position is more precious than it looks. But why should either mainstream leader care how shrunken the political prize is when only one of them can lift it?

Close your eyes again and imagine waking up on 8th May. All that campaigning, all that political sound and fury and nothing, absolutely nothing will be settled. The ‘winner’ will pretend they have power – but they will have no mandate. The crown will be hollow. The economic, social, environmental and therefore political crisis will continue.

There were always two arguments for First Past the Post – it delivered strong single party government and it maintained the link between the MP and the constituent. We know it is unlikely to ever result in a single party majority again and we know too what MPs think about the link to their constituents given their rejection of the right to Recall them. Today there is no objective case for our busted voting system – just a misguided vested interest in its retention. It is so indefensible that even those who deny climate change cant deny the electoral crisis we face. Nigel Lawson, recently accepted that “First-past-the-post was well suited to the old two-party era. In the present ferment, with four parties vigorously contesting all seats, it is no better at providing a stable government than proportional representation”. (Sunday Times 16th Nov 14)

The case for a proportional voting system that matches seats to vote is now unanswerable. Indeed negotiated and systematized coalitions is the only thing that will give Britain any sense of political stability. It is time to grow up embrace complexity and a politics that is open and consensual. Only children demand that they are the centre of the universe. None of this means we stop believing in a good society or that the bonds of ideas and tribes no longer matter – but our beliefs are going to have to be negotiated, not imposed.

For the next few months we will be fed a dull diet of the least worst option. But more and more simply refuse to accept the politics of no choice. They will vote Green, SNP, UKIP, for a myriad individuals and causes – even when they know they are electorally hopeless. Or they will elect to stay at home and reject a system they know is utterly broken. And so the Westminster bubble shrinks further – but how long before it bursts?

Multi-party politics can't be squeezed into a two party straightjacket. Mainstream politicians have no incentive to change the voting system - but we do. We have the incentive of hope and the belief that progress is still possible. This must be the last election under a voting system that fails the many but not the few.

The Compass Change How? conference where all this and more will be discussed is on Sunday 8th February

 

Categories: les flux rss

The arguments against proportional representation have melted away

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:34

First Past the Post was designed for a previous era. We must change all of our politics - but the voting system first.

Close your eyes and imagine a democratic dystopia in which no one gets what they want. Now open them. Welcome to the politics of Britain in 2015. An election looms and whoever we vote for we wont get to save the planet, stop the inequality gap widening or end the housing crisis. If you’re a social democrat, a compassionate Conservative, an anything – forget it. It ain’t happening. Our democracy is broken – beyond repair – and the biggest irony of all is that this democracy crisis isn’t on the agenda either.

Politics no longer works like a see–saw. As one side goes down the other no longer automatically rises. The spell of the two-party duopoly is broken. It was broken on the rocks of globalization, individualization and now technology. Following the ‘big bang’ of the 1980s, power in the form of money went global while politics stayed national. At the same time the culture of consumerism and an end of deference swept the land. We no longer did as we were told or as expected. Today these twin mega trends are magnified and accelerated by the internet and social media in ways we are only just beginning to fathom. It’s left our political class stranded.

We recognise the symptoms. Westminster is hollowed out of talent because the talent knows the game is up. Instead it goes to corporations, the media, NGOs, tech start-ups – anywhere but Westminster. We look at David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and feel at best pity, at worst fury. They appear like political pygmies compared to Attlee and Thatcher or even Ashdown and Blair. But here is the truth – all three, by some way, are the best leaders their respective parties have. There is no one better waiting in the wings. No one is coming to save us – this, under the current system, is as good as it gets.

Fixing that system is beyond policy tweak or personality trait. It can only be transformed for the 21st century through a totally new democratic architecture. Power needs to be passed up to the global level and down to the local. Direct and deliberative forms of democracy are going to have to be experimented with. But the first, and therefore foremost, we must remake our electoral system.

First past the post is strangling the life out of our democracy. With a third of the electorate refusing to vote for either of the main parties, outright power is impossible. We are in an era of NOC – no overall control, where weakness begets further weakness.

First past the post exaggerates support, in terms of seats, for the two main parties so the position is more precious than it looks. But why should either mainstream leader care how shrunken the political prize is when only one of them can lift it?

Close your eyes again and imagine waking up on 8th May. All that campaigning, all that political sound and fury and nothing, absolutely nothing will be settled. The ‘winner’ will pretend they have power – but they will have no mandate. The crown will be hollow. The economic, social, environmental and therefore political crisis will continue.

There were always two arguments for First Past the Post – it delivered strong single party government and it maintained the link between the MP and the constituent. We know it is unlikely to ever result in a single party majority again and we know too what MPs think about the link to their constituents given their rejection of the right to Recall them. Today there is no objective case for our busted voting system – just a misguided vested interest in its retention. It is so indefensible that even those who deny climate change cant deny the electoral crisis we face. Nigel Lawson, recently accepted that “First-past-the-post was well suited to the old two-party era. In the present ferment, with four parties vigorously contesting all seats, it is no better at providing a stable government than proportional representation”. (Sunday Times 16th Nov 14)

The case for a proportional voting system that matches seats to vote is now unanswerable. Indeed negotiated and systematized coalitions is the only thing that will give Britain any sense of political stability. It is time to grow up embrace complexity and a politics that is open and consensual. Only children demand that they are the centre of the universe. None of this means we stop believing in a good society or that the bonds of ideas and tribes no longer matter – but our beliefs are going to have to be negotiated, not imposed.

For the next few months we will be fed a dull diet of the least worst option. But more and more simply refuse to accept the politics of no choice. They will vote Green, SNP, UKIP, for a myriad individuals and causes – even when they know they are electorally hopeless. Or they will elect to stay at home and reject a system they know is utterly broken. And so the Westminster bubble shrinks further – but how long before it bursts?

Multi-party politics can't be squeezed into a two party straightjacket. Mainstream politicians have no incentive to change the voting system - but we do. We have the incentive of hope and the belief that progress is still possible. This must be the last election under a voting system that fails the many but not the few.

The Compass Change How? conference where all this and more will be discussed is on Sunday 8th February

 

Categories: les flux rss

My vast Siberian motherland is dying

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:15

Southern Siberia is dying: farms are failing, the forests have been felled, and the people are leaving – a vast area has been failed by its government.

 

Vast is my Motherland,

With many forests, fields, and rivers!
Soviet song (1936)

The Siberian town of Kalachinsk is, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of Omsk, a city of a million people. Lying 100 km to the north of Omsk, Kalachinsk may not be very big (it has some 30,000 inhabitants), but the town seems prosperous. Smoke rises from the chimney at the meat processing plant, scaffolding frames the cathedral under construction, and a new three-storey shopping mall gleams in the sun.

But only 20 minutes away the picture is very different. The wheels of my car wince as they break through the snow: the track to the village of Kiber-Spasskoe is blocked by snowdrifts. At one time, Kiber-Spasskoe was home to one of the biggest farms in the region. Now, its gloomy grey houses with their broken windows, peeling facades and drunkenly slanting roofs bear little resemblance to homes. There are no children playing in the snow, old ladies no longer sit on the benches, and you can’t even hear the sound of dogs barking.

The near wilderness

Yet people still live in Kiber-Spasskoe. There used to be 600 residents, now there are 150. Five years ago, the school was closed down and the bus service withdrawn; only the school bus remains. Kiber-Spasskoe’s only two-storey building housed a social club, a modest health centre, and library. There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030. Instead, last autumn, the district administration sold the building to a businessman from a neighbouring district for a risible 347,000 roubles (£3,500). The businessman, however, has no need of such ‘assets’ and intends to sell the building off wholesale – beams, boilers, pipes, and tiles. The people of Kiber-Spasskoe lined up to form a human shield around the former school; and their appeals to various departments did eventually bear fruit: district head Friedrich Metzler promised to tear up the deal. Though neither the club, nor the health centre nor the library – nor, of course, the school – are functioning.

There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030

 ‘For a long time the government has not considered us. They wrote us off,’ Nikolai Avdonin, Kiber-Spasskoe's chief advocate explains to me. ‘When I took on the farm enterprise in 1975, everyone was sent to live and work here. We were told it would be paradise, and gingerbread would rain down on us out of the sky. I had been at agricultural college in Kalachinsk and was offered a place in an engineering works looking after agricultural equipment, but the first secretary of the city council summoned me and said “Off you go, Nikolai, you take on the new farm and get it up to scratch.” So that's what I did. But what for? My wife is ill, you can't get to the doctor because taxis are expensive for pensioners. It's 700 roubles [£7] there and back, almost one tenth of our pension. I'm keeping the farm going, though looking after the cows and the pigs is hard now. But I still care for the geese. We used to have to fetch water, now there are two wells for the whole village – no thanks to the government..It was the Communists that built them.’

‘Houses are empty, many of them are falling down, pillaged for wood for repairs. Whole families are leaving, simply abandoning their homes – who would they sell them to? There are only three children left in the village. Parents take their children all the way to the main road to catch the school bus, in minus 30..’

‘There hasn't been a health worker for ages, so people die from all sorts of things There are six families here. We’re not the problem, we’re old, but what are they supposed to do if they fall ill?. They've been told they should get themselves to the hospital in Kalachinsk – as if they have their own car. So you go if you can. If you can't, you either get better – or die.’

Broken promises

The former governor of the Omsk region, Leonid Pozhelayev, often stated that if a school closes, the village will disappear. Pozhelayev was right, but that hasn’t prevented his administration from closing more than 300 schools over the past five years. The new governor, Viktor Nazarov, promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise.

In the Kalachinsk district, all the primary schools have been closed. So children now have to get up at five or six in the morning to catch the bus to the next village, on terrible roads – through rain, snow, and black ice. The children get back just after three in the afternoon, and whoever has the least homework waits for the others before walking home together. They can't join any after-school activities because adapting the timetable to each and every one would be impossible.

The new governor promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise

‘Closed-down schools, abandoned homes, skeleton farms, that’s what Siberian villages are now,’ says Alevtina Kabakova, a distinguished teacher and first secretary of the district Communist Party branch.

‘There are 14 villages in the district, all dying. And that’s not counting the villages that have died already. No work, no schools. The young are fleeing. The regional government never sets foot beyond the district centres, and has no desire to see real life, preferring to concentrate on the fancy life they lead. If they did come, they would see for themselves that there’s no agriculture. The Kalachinsk meat processing plant imports from China rather than using local produce. The harvest last year was not brought in, so it got covered by snow. Why? Because there’s only pensioners here, and they can’t do the work.’

Few signs of life

One exception in this picture of deterioration is the Tatar village of Great Tebendya. There is a real community here. The village has just built 30 new houses. But the men work rotation shifts in Tyumen and Khanti-Mansiisk – anywhere where there is oil 

‘Most of the men in the Muromtsevsky district [in the east of the Omsk region] go to the Far North to work, as do virtually all men who live outside the district centre,’ says Aleksandr Rakhno, a deputy in the Muromtsevsky district council and chair of the district social affairs committee. ‘I don’t know how they could live any other way. They have no rights at all – no sick leave, no holidays – but people need some kind of salary, even if it isn’t much. In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district. We may have lots of land, but there’s no work; there are forests, but there are almost no big animals left because for years officials have come from all over the region to hunt here. It would be okay if these people looked after the forests, but they simply plunder them, and completely legally. There’s so little forest left that any announcement of increased felling will mean that in ten years the district will be stripped bare. There are no social programmes. Yet the authorities pay themselves shameful amounts of money, and are constantly increasing their own salaries. The bureaucracy just expands, taking money from the budget, unemployment is on the increase and businessmen, who might create jobs, barely make a living. 

‘In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district’ 

One trillion roubles

As long ago as 1994, the Omsk regional economic committee produced a programme for developing an efficient labour force in the northern regions. It showed a drastic reduction in population numbers and villages. Since then, the situation has deteriorated still further, with people – just like the rest of Siberia – being drawn to the district centre, and then on to Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Russian government never stops talking about the importance of these territories, and has even promised to invest one trillion roubles in their development up to 2020.

But Igor Vyatkin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Natural History, tells me that by northern territories the government only means land where there are mineral deposits. Investments are indeed being made, but mainly into the Arctic (which promises considerable oil wealth); and it is questionable whether this will benefit the state or just a few corporations.

‘The government is investing in those areas of the Far North where there is oil and gas,’ said Vyatkin. ‘Laying roads over the marshes, building houses on the permafrost. But there’s no sun and nothing grows there. Most of the South Siberian population lives in the Near North, where there are forests, rye, farming, potatoes, flax, and wild produce such as mushrooms and berries. Land reclamation here took centuries, but there’s no promise of big money so the area has been abandoned. The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness. There’s some sort of life around the towns, even small ones like Kalachinsk, but there are very few of them around Omsk or Novosibirsk. Mineral resources in the Far North will be exhausted in 50 years, and then living there (without oil money) will be impossible.’

‘The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness’ 

In Soviet times, at least, there was a sensible resettlement plan. The country was divided up into economic regions, and textbook terms like ‘division of labour’ and ‘complementarity’ actually had some meaning (and funding) behind them. In the Kuzbass region of southwestern Siberia, miners dug up coal, and their wives worked in textile factories, which had been built for them. In the Tyumen region, it was oil; in Omsk, the food to feed the miners was grown. The system was not particularly accurate, but it was an attempt to distribute resources in such a way that the territories could develop. In terms of GDP, 20% went on agricultural development. Now it’s 1%. Siberia is an area of risk farming, so without government support, it cannot survive. 

A quick buck

In 2002, several international organisations (WHO, UNESCO, and the UN) published a plan for the development of the planet up to 2015. The plan contained specific recommendations to governments, one of which was that people should eat local produce, thus reducing the import and export of food (with a few exceptions to keep some diversity). 

Siberia has done the opposite: its agriculture has been destroyed. Even potatoes in the shops and canteens are not local. Until recently, vegetables came from Turkey and Israel because it is cheaper to import than to build storage facilities. 

With the Russian economy in recession, there is no money to invest in the regions. The 2015 budgets for Siberian regions are directed towards social needs – paying minimum levels of salaries, pensions, and benefits. Even then, expenditure outstrips revenue. Novosibirsk and Omsk regions are living on credit: the only difference is that, by the end of 2015, Novosibirsk’s debt will reach 40% of revenue, whereas in Omsk the figure is 70%.

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures’

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures,’ says Igor Vyatkin. Now everyone is talking about import substitution [because of Western sanctions], which would be excellent, but agriculture needs investment. Every year, there are tons of unpicked berries and mushrooms, but premises for processing are essential. And it would have to be government investment, because the regions are destitute and can’t do anything. People in villages are surviving, rather than living. Only the state can create the economic and social conditions for development, build an infrastructure. We have fields, forests, and rivers, but no people. They might come back, but where would they go?

‘In Finland, when they realised that half of their 6m population lives in Helsinki, they started thinking what they might do about it. Not everyone can live in capital cities, after all!' But this hasn't yet dawned on our government. What do we need so much land for? Why don't we give it up to someone else if we don't want it ourselves? If we are a state, rather than a territory, then we should take care of people’s lives, rather than just calling on them to be patriots. Our human resources are getting older and weaker, the economy has ever fewer entrepreneurs, but the government does nothing. Either it should decide to help the Near North develop, or simply wait for it to die.’

Sideboxes Sidebox: 

Russian Near North: Siberian lands lying 300-800 km from Trans-Siberian Railway. Outside the permafrost zone, so there is agriculture, forestry and some mineral deposits.

Russian Far North: lands stretching across the north of the Russian Federation, mostly north of the Arctic Circle. Extremely harsh climate, but rich in natural resources e.g. oil, gas and minerals

Siberian Federal District: Russia is divided into 9 Federal Districts headed by presidential envoys appointed personally by the President, and employed by the Presidential Administration. 

Region [Область]: the Russian Federation has 83 constituent areas divided into 22 republics, 9 territories, 47 regions and 3 federal cities (Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol), as well as some smaller units

District [Район]: an administrative sub-division of a region. The Omsk region has 32 districts

Related stories:  A burning issue in Siberia The battle for the Siberian harvest Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

My vast Siberian motherland is dying

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:15

Southern Siberia is dying: farms are failing, the forests have been felled, and the people are leaving – a vast area has been failed by its government.

 

Vast is my Motherland,

With many forests, fields, and rivers!
Soviet song (1936)

The Siberian town of Kalachinsk is, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of Omsk, a city of a million people. Lying 100 km to the north of Omsk, Kalachinsk may not be very big (it has some 30,000 inhabitants), but the town seems prosperous. Smoke rises from the chimney at the meat processing plant, scaffolding frames the cathedral under construction, and a new three-storey shopping mall gleams in the sun.

But only 20 minutes away the picture is very different. The wheels of my car wince as they break through the snow: the track to the village of Kiber-Spasskoe is blocked by snowdrifts. At one time, Kiber-Spasskoe was home to one of the biggest farms in the region. Now, its gloomy grey houses with their broken windows, peeling facades and drunkenly slanting roofs bear little resemblance to homes. There are no children playing in the snow, old ladies no longer sit on the benches, and you can’t even hear the sound of dogs barking.

The near wilderness

Yet people still live in Kiber-Spasskoe. There used to be 600 residents, now there are 150. Five years ago, the school was closed down and the bus service withdrawn; only the school bus remains. Kiber-Spasskoe’s only two-storey building housed a social club, a modest health centre, and library. There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030. Instead, last autumn, the district administration sold the building to a businessman from a neighbouring district for a risible 347,000 roubles (£3,500). The businessman, however, has no need of such ‘assets’ and intends to sell the building off wholesale – beams, boilers, pipes, and tiles. The people of Kiber-Spasskoe lined up to form a human shield around the former school; and their appeals to various departments did eventually bear fruit: district head Friedrich Metzler promised to tear up the deal. Though neither the club, nor the health centre nor the library – nor, of course, the school – are functioning.

There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030

 ‘For a long time the government has not considered us. They wrote us off,’ Nikolai Avdonin, Kiber-Spasskoe's chief advocate explains to me. ‘When I took on the farm enterprise in 1975, everyone was sent to live and work here. We were told it would be paradise, and gingerbread would rain down on us out of the sky. I had been at agricultural college in Kalachinsk and was offered a place in an engineering works looking after agricultural equipment, but the first secretary of the city council summoned me and said “Off you go, Nikolai, you take on the new farm and get it up to scratch.” So that's what I did. But what for? My wife is ill, you can't get to the doctor because taxis are expensive for pensioners. It's 700 roubles [£7] there and back, almost one tenth of our pension. I'm keeping the farm going, though looking after the cows and the pigs is hard now. But I still care for the geese. We used to have to fetch water, now there are two wells for the whole village – no thanks to the government..It was the Communists that built them.’

‘Houses are empty, many of them are falling down, pillaged for wood for repairs. Whole families are leaving, simply abandoning their homes – who would they sell them to? There are only three children left in the village. Parents take their children all the way to the main road to catch the school bus, in minus 30..’

‘There hasn't been a health worker for ages, so people die from all sorts of things There are six families here. We’re not the problem, we’re old, but what are they supposed to do if they fall ill?. They've been told they should get themselves to the hospital in Kalachinsk – as if they have their own car. So you go if you can. If you can't, you either get better – or die.’

Broken promises

The former governor of the Omsk region, Leonid Pozhelayev, often stated that if a school closes, the village will disappear. Pozhelayev was right, but that hasn’t prevented his administration from closing more than 300 schools over the past five years. The new governor, Viktor Nazarov, promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise.

In the Kalachinsk district, all the primary schools have been closed. So children now have to get up at five or six in the morning to catch the bus to the next village, on terrible roads – through rain, snow, and black ice. The children get back just after three in the afternoon, and whoever has the least homework waits for the others before walking home together. They can't join any after-school activities because adapting the timetable to each and every one would be impossible.

The new governor promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise

‘Closed-down schools, abandoned homes, skeleton farms, that’s what Siberian villages are now,’ says Alevtina Kabakova, a distinguished teacher and first secretary of the district Communist Party branch.

‘There are 14 villages in the district, all dying. And that’s not counting the villages that have died already. No work, no schools. The young are fleeing. The regional government never sets foot beyond the district centres, and has no desire to see real life, preferring to concentrate on the fancy life they lead. If they did come, they would see for themselves that there’s no agriculture. The Kalachinsk meat processing plant imports from China rather than using local produce. The harvest last year was not brought in, so it got covered by snow. Why? Because there’s only pensioners here, and they can’t do the work.’

Few signs of life

One exception in this picture of deterioration is the Tatar village of Great Tebendya. There is a real community here. The village has just built 30 new houses. But the men work rotation shifts in Tyumen and Khanti-Mansiisk – anywhere where there is oil 

‘Most of the men in the Muromtsevsky district [in the east of the Omsk region] go to the Far North to work, as do virtually all men who live outside the district centre,’ says Aleksandr Rakhno, a deputy in the Muromtsevsky district council and chair of the district social affairs committee. ‘I don’t know how they could live any other way. They have no rights at all – no sick leave, no holidays – but people need some kind of salary, even if it isn’t much. In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district. We may have lots of land, but there’s no work; there are forests, but there are almost no big animals left because for years officials have come from all over the region to hunt here. It would be okay if these people looked after the forests, but they simply plunder them, and completely legally. There’s so little forest left that any announcement of increased felling will mean that in ten years the district will be stripped bare. There are no social programmes. Yet the authorities pay themselves shameful amounts of money, and are constantly increasing their own salaries. The bureaucracy just expands, taking money from the budget, unemployment is on the increase and businessmen, who might create jobs, barely make a living. 

‘In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district’ 

One trillion roubles

As long ago as 1994, the Omsk regional economic committee produced a programme for developing an efficient labour force in the northern regions. It showed a drastic reduction in population numbers and villages. Since then, the situation has deteriorated still further, with people – just like the rest of Siberia – being drawn to the district centre, and then on to Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Russian government never stops talking about the importance of these territories, and has even promised to invest one trillion roubles in their development up to 2020.

But Igor Vyatkin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Natural History, tells me that by northern territories the government only means land where there are mineral deposits. Investments are indeed being made, but mainly into the Arctic (which promises considerable oil wealth); and it is questionable whether this will benefit the state or just a few corporations.

‘The government is investing in those areas of the Far North where there is oil and gas,’ said Vyatkin. ‘Laying roads over the marshes, building houses on the permafrost. But there’s no sun and nothing grows there. Most of the South Siberian population lives in the Near North, where there are forests, rye, farming, potatoes, flax, and wild produce such as mushrooms and berries. Land reclamation here took centuries, but there’s no promise of big money so the area has been abandoned. The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness. There’s some sort of life around the towns, even small ones like Kalachinsk, but there are very few of them around Omsk or Novosibirsk. Mineral resources in the Far North will be exhausted in 50 years, and then living there (without oil money) will be impossible.’

‘The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness’ 

In Soviet times, at least, there was a sensible resettlement plan. The country was divided up into economic regions, and textbook terms like ‘division of labour’ and ‘complementarity’ actually had some meaning (and funding) behind them. In the Kuzbass region of southwestern Siberia, miners dug up coal, and their wives worked in textile factories, which had been built for them. In the Tyumen region, it was oil; in Omsk, the food to feed the miners was grown. The system was not particularly accurate, but it was an attempt to distribute resources in such a way that the territories could develop. In terms of GDP, 20% went on agricultural development. Now it’s 1%. Siberia is an area of risk farming, so without government support, it cannot survive. 

A quick buck

In 2002, several international organisations (WHO, UNESCO, and the UN) published a plan for the development of the planet up to 2015. The plan contained specific recommendations to governments, one of which was that people should eat local produce, thus reducing the import and export of food (with a few exceptions to keep some diversity). 

Siberia has done the opposite: its agriculture has been destroyed. Even potatoes in the shops and canteens are not local. Until recently, vegetables came from Turkey and Israel because it is cheaper to import than to build storage facilities. 

With the Russian economy in recession, there is no money to invest in the regions. The 2015 budgets for Siberian regions are directed towards social needs – paying minimum levels of salaries, pensions, and benefits. Even then, expenditure outstrips revenue. Novosibirsk and Omsk regions are living on credit: the only difference is that, by the end of 2015, Novosibirsk’s debt will reach 40% of revenue, whereas in Omsk the figure is 70%.

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures’

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures,’ says Igor Vyatkin. Now everyone is talking about import substitution [because of Western sanctions], which would be excellent, but agriculture needs investment. Every year, there are tons of unpicked berries and mushrooms, but premises for processing are essential. And it would have to be government investment, because the regions are destitute and can’t do anything. People in villages are surviving, rather than living. Only the state can create the economic and social conditions for development, build an infrastructure. We have fields, forests, and rivers, but no people. They might come back, but where would they go?

‘In Finland, when they realised that half of their 6m population lives in Helsinki, they started thinking what they might do about it. Not everyone can live in capital cities, after all!' But this hasn't yet dawned on our government. What do we need so much land for? Why don't we give it up to someone else if we don't want it ourselves? If we are a state, rather than a territory, then we should take care of people’s lives, rather than just calling on them to be patriots. Our human resources are getting older and weaker, the economy has ever fewer entrepreneurs, but the government does nothing. Either it should decide to help the Near North develop, or simply wait for it to die.’

Sideboxes Sidebox: 

Russian Near North: Siberian lands lying 300-800 km from Trans-Siberian Railway. Outside the permafrost zone, so there is agriculture, forestry and some mineral deposits.

Russian Far North: lands stretching across the north of the Russian Federation, mostly north of the Arctic Circle. Extremely harsh climate, but rich in natural resources e.g. oil, gas and minerals

Siberian Federal District: Russia is divided into 9 Federal Districts headed by presidential envoys appointed personally by the President, and employed by the Presidential Administration. 

Region [Область]: the Russian Federation has 83 constituent areas divided into 22 republics, 9 territories, 47 regions and 3 federal cities (Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol), as well as some smaller units

District [Район]: an administrative sub-division of a region. The Omsk region has 32 districts

Related stories:  A burning issue in Siberia The battle for the Siberian harvest Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Confronting racism in the US: are civil rights enough?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 10:00

A UN committee has recommended that the United States set up a national human rights institution. But why are US government officials resisting the idea?

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest. The committee’s focus was on the international convention against racial discrimination, which the United States ratified in 1994. Their argument, supported by the non-governmental US Human Rights Network, was that the American civil rights framework is insufficient to confront racism.

While the hard-fought US emphasis on civil rights targets individual acts of discrimination, it does not address the broader structural inequalities perpetuating racism. International human rights norms imply a different kind of accountability than domestic civil rights standards. They call on governments to take steps to prevent institutionalized forms of violence, or to confront social and economic inequalities.


Demotix/James Cooper (All rights reserved)

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest.

This is where an NHRI enters the picture. It would serve as a body that monitors, implements and educates about any number of human rights obligations spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including economic and social rights, with which US civil rights laws do not deal. If institutions elsewhere are any bellwether, it would do so imperfectly; but the question is whether having such an institution is better than not having one at all.

Despite its conventional name, an NHRI is a term of art. It refers to an administrative, quasi-governmental body mandated to promote and protect human rights domestically. First mentioned in international documents in the late 1940s, these bodies took their cue from historical precursors like the ombudsman; nineteenth century government commissions; and ironically, inter-racial bodies in America, which appeared in the interwar period and evolved alongside the country's civil rights struggles.

Though approximately two-dozen NHRIs were created before 1990, the vast majority of the 100-plus NHRIs that exist today proliferated rapidly in a post-Cold War context, part and parcel of the global discourse on democratic governance and human rights. I trace the history, proliferation, and contested significance of NHRIs in my recent book, Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

If these institutions are so popular today, and indeed few states reject the idea of creating one, why does the United States remain a holdout? Critics are correct, after all, that NHRIs can have overly expansive mandates and mixed records. And for many governments NHRIs are externally oriented symbols more than domestic agents of change. The United States itself already has the federal Civil Rights Commission and hundreds of local and state human rights agencies. Expecting a single institution to tackle complex human rights problems, skeptics note, is unrealistic—an experiment set up to fail.

How can ongoing structures of discrimination in the United States be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  While understandable, these warnings overlook the potential value of accountability institutions, including NHRIs, in setting standards, documenting patterns of abuse, recommending changes and moving to prevent wrongdoing. How can the United States promote human rights abroad credibly when it clings to the discourse of civil, rather than human, rights? And how can ongoing structures of discrimination be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  

The US Civil Rights Commission was last reauthorized over twenty years ago, in 1994. First proposed in a 1947 report commissioned by President Truman, To Secure These Rights, and established a decade later in 1957, the Commission has a distinguished (if uneven) history in shaping civil rights laws and discourse. As I discuss in Chains of Justice, the Commission has always helped to ensure that America’s rights struggles would remain primarily a domestic concern. Fast-forward to 2015, and a re-imagined Civil Rights Commission—reconstituted as an independent human rights body—should not be out of the question.

Skeptics caution that an NHRI that promotes the ratification of human rights treaties would be an activist agency; yet human rights advocacy, they claim, should be left to non-profit organizations. Governmental agencies should enforce the law, and US law does not recognize the economic, social and cultural rights integral to international standards.

The concern that an NHRI would be advocate more than enforcer is misplaced. It suggests that human rights abuses in the United States are aberrant or exceptional, and change is unnecessary—an ethically questionable view. It is also technically flawed in assuming that NHRIs must promote all international laws. The Paris Principles, which regulate (and serve as the basis for accrediting) today's NHRIs, call on these agencies to assess compliance with "international human rights instruments to which the State is a party."  

Arguments opposing the creation of an NHRI in the United States are couched in legalized terms but reveal fear of change. To resist an NHRI because it may promote treaty ratification is profoundly undemocratic in its unwillingness to allow debate and contested viewpoints within the state. Strategic innovation in any complex organization thrives on ensuring a diversity of perspectives. Why should the regulation of human rights be any different? More fundamentally, opposing an NHRI for the United States exposes an uncomfortable truth: some US leaders and members of the public deem racial discrimination wrong, while deep social and economic inequalities seem to be acceptable, even when these systematically intersect with race, gender or other bases of discrimination.

Whether or not the United States creates an NHRI, the debate itself is significant, acknowledging entrenched racism and shared responsibility. A government that promotes human rights abroad must confront inequality at home, and these confrontations are best played out in public deliberative institutions, rather than in violent street clashes. An NHRI in the United States would not end human rights abuses, including racism, but it might help shift the terms of the debate in ways that could, over time, shape policies for the better.

Transforming the country’s Civil Rights Commission into a Human Rights Commission would be a bold step for the United States, an opportunity to join this global trend.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Time for the US to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights Exposing torture - the virtue of American hypocrisy For racial healing, we need to get real about racism For jobs and freedom, 50 years on: the struggle for racial equality in the age of Obama 14 Shocking Facts That Prove the US Criminal Justice System Is Racist Privacy and security in cyberspace: right of all or luxury of the few? A truly bad idea: a World Court for human rights Doors closing on judicial remedies for corporate human rights abuse Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy
Categories: les flux rss

Confronting racism in the US: are civil rights enough?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 10:00

A UN committee has recommended that the United States set up a national human rights institution. But why are US government officials resisting the idea?

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest. The committee’s focus was on the international convention against racial discrimination, which the United States ratified in 1994. Their argument, supported by the non-governmental US Human Rights Network, was that the American civil rights framework is insufficient to confront racism.

While the hard-fought US emphasis on civil rights targets individual acts of discrimination, it does not address the broader structural inequalities perpetuating racism. International human rights norms imply a different kind of accountability than domestic civil rights standards. They call on governments to take steps to prevent institutionalized forms of violence, or to confront social and economic inequalities.


Demotix/James Cooper (All rights reserved)

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest.

This is where an NHRI enters the picture. It would serve as a body that monitors, implements and educates about any number of human rights obligations spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including economic and social rights, with which US civil rights laws do not deal. If institutions elsewhere are any bellwether, it would do so imperfectly; but the question is whether having such an institution is better than not having one at all.

Despite its conventional name, an NHRI is a term of art. It refers to an administrative, quasi-governmental body mandated to promote and protect human rights domestically. First mentioned in international documents in the late 1940s, these bodies took their cue from historical precursors like the ombudsman; nineteenth century government commissions; and ironically, inter-racial bodies in America, which appeared in the interwar period and evolved alongside the country's civil rights struggles.

Though approximately two-dozen NHRIs were created before 1990, the vast majority of the 100-plus NHRIs that exist today proliferated rapidly in a post-Cold War context, part and parcel of the global discourse on democratic governance and human rights. I trace the history, proliferation, and contested significance of NHRIs in my recent book, Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

If these institutions are so popular today, and indeed few states reject the idea of creating one, why does the United States remain a holdout? Critics are correct, after all, that NHRIs can have overly expansive mandates and mixed records. And for many governments NHRIs are externally oriented symbols more than domestic agents of change. The United States itself already has the federal Civil Rights Commission and hundreds of local and state human rights agencies. Expecting a single institution to tackle complex human rights problems, skeptics note, is unrealistic—an experiment set up to fail.

How can ongoing structures of discrimination in the United States be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  While understandable, these warnings overlook the potential value of accountability institutions, including NHRIs, in setting standards, documenting patterns of abuse, recommending changes and moving to prevent wrongdoing. How can the United States promote human rights abroad credibly when it clings to the discourse of civil, rather than human, rights? And how can ongoing structures of discrimination be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  

The US Civil Rights Commission was last reauthorized over twenty years ago, in 1994. First proposed in a 1947 report commissioned by President Truman, To Secure These Rights, and established a decade later in 1957, the Commission has a distinguished (if uneven) history in shaping civil rights laws and discourse. As I discuss in Chains of Justice, the Commission has always helped to ensure that America’s rights struggles would remain primarily a domestic concern. Fast-forward to 2015, and a re-imagined Civil Rights Commission—reconstituted as an independent human rights body—should not be out of the question.

Skeptics caution that an NHRI that promotes the ratification of human rights treaties would be an activist agency; yet human rights advocacy, they claim, should be left to non-profit organizations. Governmental agencies should enforce the law, and US law does not recognize the economic, social and cultural rights integral to international standards.

The concern that an NHRI would be advocate more than enforcer is misplaced. It suggests that human rights abuses in the United States are aberrant or exceptional, and change is unnecessary—an ethically questionable view. It is also technically flawed in assuming that NHRIs must promote all international laws. The Paris Principles, which regulate (and serve as the basis for accrediting) today's NHRIs, call on these agencies to assess compliance with "international human rights instruments to which the State is a party."  

Arguments opposing the creation of an NHRI in the United States are couched in legalized terms but reveal fear of change. To resist an NHRI because it may promote treaty ratification is profoundly undemocratic in its unwillingness to allow debate and contested viewpoints within the state. Strategic innovation in any complex organization thrives on ensuring a diversity of perspectives. Why should the regulation of human rights be any different? More fundamentally, opposing an NHRI for the United States exposes an uncomfortable truth: some US leaders and members of the public deem racial discrimination wrong, while deep social and economic inequalities seem to be acceptable, even when these systematically intersect with race, gender or other bases of discrimination.

Whether or not the United States creates an NHRI, the debate itself is significant, acknowledging entrenched racism and shared responsibility. A government that promotes human rights abroad must confront inequality at home, and these confrontations are best played out in public deliberative institutions, rather than in violent street clashes. An NHRI in the United States would not end human rights abuses, including racism, but it might help shift the terms of the debate in ways that could, over time, shape policies for the better.

Transforming the country’s Civil Rights Commission into a Human Rights Commission would be a bold step for the United States, an opportunity to join this global trend.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Time for the US to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights Exposing torture - the virtue of American hypocrisy For racial healing, we need to get real about racism For jobs and freedom, 50 years on: the struggle for racial equality in the age of Obama 14 Shocking Facts That Prove the US Criminal Justice System Is Racist Privacy and security in cyberspace: right of all or luxury of the few? A truly bad idea: a World Court for human rights Doors closing on judicial remedies for corporate human rights abuse Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy
Categories: les flux rss

Feminism’s undeservedly bad reputation in anti-trafficking discourse

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 5:00

The strain of feminist thinking that promotes the rescue industry and the criminalisation of sex work springs from a small but vocal community of activists. Treating it as the voice of feminism silences competing voices, especially those outside of America and Europe.

A Campaign Designed to Drop Sales/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Trafficking has been a central preoccupation in South African public discourse since 2006, when the US State Department first included it as a ‘problem’ country in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report. This indicates that South Africa was either taking insufficient action against trafficking or that trafficking problem there was particularly severe. Fierce debate broke out about the source and accuracy of the figures following the report’s release, but nevertheless it gave rise to a significant counter-trafficking programme and the development of what has since become the Trafficking Act. The Trafficking Act set a record for the fastest piece of legislation ever to make its way through parliament, a remarkable feat given the extent of legislative change in South Africa since the end of apartheid. It however stalled, in part because of the debates I outline below, and was only passed into law in 2013.

Much of the debate centred on sex work, in part because the 2000 Palermo convention against transational organised crime (see Prabha Kotiswaran) emphasises sexual exploitation of women and girls, and in part because sex work and traffficking are frequently conflated in South Africa. Much work has been done trying to untangle these two, mostly by sex worker rights groups, but in the meantime a polarised debate has broken out between two camps of activists. One side, driven by local sex worker organisations and representatives, espouses a human rights perspective that is critical of counter-traffickig interventions and pro-decriminalisation of sex work. The other camp, spear-headed by US and occasionally European activists, has been labelled the ‘feminist’ perspective. It supports the rescue industry, the counter-trafficking campaigns associated with it, and the criminalisation of sex work.

Those campaigning under the banner of human rights have levelled a withering critique against the ‘feminist’ perspective, suggesting it is just another colonial project to rescue naïve Africans. In doing so they elide a number of very important nuances that I highlight in this article. One is that there is no one ‘feminist’ perspective. The very vocal position described above comes from a minority of activists in America and Europe, and in no way represents the positions of many other feminists either there or in South Africa itself. This critique furthermore fails to account for support within South Africa for the rescue industry with anything more than blithe dismissal. Finally, it attempts to globalise a set of ideals with little concern for local circumstances.

There is great diversity in feminist approaches to trafficking and exploitation. The position held up as ‘feminist’ is a minority position that ignores the debates within postcolonial feminism and indeed African feminism. Since Gayatri Spivak first caricatured western feminism as “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” the postcolonial feminist movement has responded to the representation of Africans as lacking agency and in need of saving from themselves. We should not allow a minority of activists to claim sole representation of the feminist position(s). This is crucial as their perspective reinforces the perception that feminism is somehow unAfrican, a very colonial idea given that it imagines African women to be so saturated in their oppression as to be unable to critique the forms of patriarchy that shape their lives. This minority perspective also silences the continent’s very active feminist movement that has very bravely challenged the growing repression of non-conforming sexualities in Africa today. In this way further power is given to the kinds of western feminism that have been unable to recognise or respect the diversity of feminist voices.

The claim that counter trafficking interventions are solely western feminist impositions also needs more thought, as it ignores the remarkable enthusiasm that South African organisations have shown for the trafficking interventions and the rescue industry. Indeed, entire organisations have sprung up in response to this discourse. Thus, notwithstanding the influence of US TIPs reports on South Africa and the similarities of the counter-trafficking industry to colonising projects, it is wrong to write off local groups as simply puppets of a western campaign. Rather, we need to engage with how global ideas about trafficking gain currency locally and with what consequences.

Post-apartheid South Africa is caught in the grip of a “moral regeneration” campaign, driven by multiple crises including the spread of HIV, the perception that families have been destroyed, growing youth unemployment and crime, and a strong Christian fundamentalism. These conditions make a ripe environment for counter trafficking campaigns, and they need to be understood and explained rather than cast off as ignorant Africans who obey the western master.

This leads me to my third point, which is that one of the consequences of a global campaign against trafficking is that it erases the nuances of context. Campaigners who insist on universal understandings of trafficking disregard local dynamics as well as local forms of exploitation when they force both victims and perpetrators into existing categories and definitions. This is dangerous, as it inexorably leads to the invisibility of some and the incorrect labelling of others. For example, when debating the Palermo convention with magistrates in South Africa, a long debate was held about whether a mother who sends her child across a border to beg on the streets is trafficking her child. Such a scenario does not fit easily into any universal definition of trafficking, and thus calls them all into question.  However, in the polarised fight between human rights and feminism, the same universal traps have been reproduced in which local debates are erased and the loudest global voices are presented as the only positions.

So in spite of feminism being presented as part of the reason why the counter trafficking campaigns have been so problematic, I am arguing that in fact what we need is a feminist analysis of trafficking. However, such analysis needs to spring from the branches of feminist thinking that refuse universal claims and allow space for individual rights.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Feminism’s undeservedly bad reputation in anti-trafficking discourse

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 5:00

The strain of feminist thinking that promotes the rescue industry and the criminalisation of sex work springs from a small but vocal community of activists. Treating it as the voice of feminism silences competing voices, especially those outside of America and Europe.

A Campaign Designed to Drop Sales/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Trafficking has been a central preoccupation in South African public discourse since 2006, when the US State Department first included it as a ‘problem’ country in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report. This indicates that South Africa was either taking insufficient action against trafficking or that trafficking problem there was particularly severe. Fierce debate broke out about the source and accuracy of the figures following the report’s release, but nevertheless it gave rise to a significant counter-trafficking programme and the development of what has since become the Trafficking Act. The Trafficking Act set a record for the fastest piece of legislation ever to make its way through parliament, a remarkable feat given the extent of legislative change in South Africa since the end of apartheid. It however stalled, in part because of the debates I outline below, and was only passed into law in 2013.

Much of the debate centred on sex work, in part because the 2000 Palermo convention against transational organised crime (see Prabha Kotiswaran) emphasises sexual exploitation of women and girls, and in part because sex work and traffficking are frequently conflated in South Africa. Much work has been done trying to untangle these two, mostly by sex worker rights groups, but in the meantime a polarised debate has broken out between two camps of activists. One side, driven by local sex worker organisations and representatives, espouses a human rights perspective that is critical of counter-traffickig interventions and pro-decriminalisation of sex work. The other camp, spear-headed by US and occasionally European activists, has been labelled the ‘feminist’ perspective. It supports the rescue industry, the counter-trafficking campaigns associated with it, and the criminalisation of sex work.

Those campaigning under the banner of human rights have levelled a withering critique against the ‘feminist’ perspective, suggesting it is just another colonial project to rescue naïve Africans. In doing so they elide a number of very important nuances that I highlight in this article. One is that there is no one ‘feminist’ perspective. The very vocal position described above comes from a minority of activists in America and Europe, and in no way represents the positions of many other feminists either there or in South Africa itself. This critique furthermore fails to account for support within South Africa for the rescue industry with anything more than blithe dismissal. Finally, it attempts to globalise a set of ideals with little concern for local circumstances.

There is great diversity in feminist approaches to trafficking and exploitation. The position held up as ‘feminist’ is a minority position that ignores the debates within postcolonial feminism and indeed African feminism. Since Gayatri Spivak first caricatured western feminism as “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” the postcolonial feminist movement has responded to the representation of Africans as lacking agency and in need of saving from themselves. We should not allow a minority of activists to claim sole representation of the feminist position(s). This is crucial as their perspective reinforces the perception that feminism is somehow unAfrican, a very colonial idea given that it imagines African women to be so saturated in their oppression as to be unable to critique the forms of patriarchy that shape their lives. This minority perspective also silences the continent’s very active feminist movement that has very bravely challenged the growing repression of non-conforming sexualities in Africa today. In this way further power is given to the kinds of western feminism that have been unable to recognise or respect the diversity of feminist voices.

The claim that counter trafficking interventions are solely western feminist impositions also needs more thought, as it ignores the remarkable enthusiasm that South African organisations have shown for the trafficking interventions and the rescue industry. Indeed, entire organisations have sprung up in response to this discourse. Thus, notwithstanding the influence of US TIPs reports on South Africa and the similarities of the counter-trafficking industry to colonising projects, it is wrong to write off local groups as simply puppets of a western campaign. Rather, we need to engage with how global ideas about trafficking gain currency locally and with what consequences.

Post-apartheid South Africa is caught in the grip of a “moral regeneration” campaign, driven by multiple crises including the spread of HIV, the perception that families have been destroyed, growing youth unemployment and crime, and a strong Christian fundamentalism. These conditions make a ripe environment for counter trafficking campaigns, and they need to be understood and explained rather than cast off as ignorant Africans who obey the western master.

This leads me to my third point, which is that one of the consequences of a global campaign against trafficking is that it erases the nuances of context. Campaigners who insist on universal understandings of trafficking disregard local dynamics as well as local forms of exploitation when they force both victims and perpetrators into existing categories and definitions. This is dangerous, as it inexorably leads to the invisibility of some and the incorrect labelling of others. For example, when debating the Palermo convention with magistrates in South Africa, a long debate was held about whether a mother who sends her child across a border to beg on the streets is trafficking her child. Such a scenario does not fit easily into any universal definition of trafficking, and thus calls them all into question.  However, in the polarised fight between human rights and feminism, the same universal traps have been reproduced in which local debates are erased and the loudest global voices are presented as the only positions.

So in spite of feminism being presented as part of the reason why the counter trafficking campaigns have been so problematic, I am arguing that in fact what we need is a feminist analysis of trafficking. However, such analysis needs to spring from the branches of feminist thinking that refuse universal claims and allow space for individual rights.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Why the UK needs improved caretaker conventions before the election

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

In 2010, the UK’s underspecified caretaker conventions caused the “Squatter in Downing Street” controversy, when Gordon Brown remained in office after Labour’s election defeat, and the country still lacks adequate rules to govern caretaker situations.

Flickr/gordon 2208. Some rights reserved.

Caretaker periods and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support - between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.

In the UK, the rules governing caretaker situations have historically been underspecified. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average, government formation in the UK took just four days in the period from 1945 to 1994, compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe. However, the recently lengthened election timetable, and polls that predict a more fragmented parliament, make clear that the UK is likely to experience a more extended caretaker period in May 2015.

Inadequate caretaker conventions give rise to considerable costs and risks. As the ‘squatter in Downing Street’ episode illustrates, they can generate high-profile political controversy. As a result, parties were forced into unwisely frantic government negotiations in 2010, under tremendous public and media pressure. Moreover, poorly specified caretaker conventions can cause serious economic instability when they fail to ensure that the normal process of government continues largely unhampered. In New Zealand in 1984, for instance, a serious exchange rate crisis was triggered by unclear caretaker conventions in the context of fundamental disagreements between the outgoing prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the incoming Labour administration over the country’s exchange rate policy. The Reserve Bank was forced to suspend all currency exchange dealings to halt a run on the dollar.

Increasing Vulnerability

Two developments have increased the UK’s vulnerability to crises during caretaker situations. First, the electoral timetable has been lengthened considerably. Following recommendations by the Modernisation Committee, twelve days were added to the period between the election and the first session of the new parliament in 2010, doubling the length of that period compared to the three previous elections. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 further extends the length of the general election timetable from seventeen to twenty-five days, excluding weekends and bank holidays. The anticipated cumulative effect of these changes is that ‘[t]he length of time between dissolution and the formation of the next government in 2015, and therefore the length of the caretaker/purdah period, may be considerably greater than for any other election in modern times’. (Remark made by Ruth Fox in her written evidence to House of Lords Library, LLN 2011/002: Constitutional and Parliamentary Effect of Coalition Government, 2011)

Second, these institutional changes are compounded by secular electoral trends that are making hung parliaments and the need for coalition negotiations increasingly likely. The 2010 general elections produced the UK’s second hung parliament and its first coalition since the Second World War. Longitudinal data suggest that partisan de-alignment has steadily eroded the vote share accruing to the Conservative and Labour parties in the postwar era. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties attained a combined vote share of 96.1 per cent. A mere 8 seats went to MPs from other parties. By 2010, the electoral dominance of the two parties had been significantly eroded—their joint vote share was 65.1 per cent and fully 86 seats went to parties other than the Conservatives and Labour. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year, which is also likely to be characterized by a more complex constellation of political forces than its predecessor.

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

The UK’s current caretaker conventions are part of the Cabinet Manual (2011). They recognise three situations in which ‘governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character’: ‘in the period immediately preceding an election’, ‘immediately afterwards if the result is unclear’, and ‘following the loss of a vote of confidence’ (§2.27). In all three situations, the same ‘restrictions on government activity’ apply. The government is expected to defer activity such as ‘taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’. The Manual further states, ‘[i]f decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition’ (§2.29).

However, these conventions still leave the UK vulnerable to crisis and controversy because of three major shortcomings which could easily be addressed.

First, the current rules do not fulfil the central and minimal purpose of caretaker conventions, which is to ensure that the country is never without an acting government. A key gap in the current UK caretaker conventions is the lack of provisions to prevent a caretaker government from resigning. The Cabinet Manual merely notes ‘[r]ecent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention’ (§2.10). To date, therefore, there is no duty of the incumbent government to remain in office during caretaker periods until the next cabinet is formed.

To ensure effective governance in the transition period, it is essential that the Prime Minister and government do not resign until the next regular government has been formed. Clear expectations about the identity of the government during caretaker periods are critical in effectively managing political and economic uncertainty during those periods. The UK should therefore follow the example of other parliamentary democracies and affirm the first principle of all caretaker conventions: a caretaker government cannot resign until an alternative government has taken office because the country cannot be left without a functioning executive. If the Cabinet Manual is not the appropriate vehicle to introduce such an innovation, it could be securely established by legislation.

Second, the current conventions lack clarity about the termination of caretaker periods. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘[t]he point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons’ (§2.30). A central feature of this guidance is its indeterminacy. In the absence of an investiture vote, there is no clear consensus as to when a government’s ability to command parliamentary support can be considered to have been tested. As the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, the period in which the caretaker conventions apply should be carefully defined, and the fact that a caretaker period has commenced or concluded should be explicitly announced. Greater clarity would have the merit of helping to manage public expectations and market reactions during transitional periods, and would provide political actors with a clear understanding of the rules and restrictions that are in effect.

Third, the current caretaker conventions do not adequately detail the restrictions on government activity during caretaker periods. If the UK is to be well prepared for the possibility of a lengthy post-election caretaker period, more attention has to be given to the practicalities of applying the caretaker conventions. Caretaker conventions are self-policed; they are thus only effective in so far as all major parties agree in their interpretation of the general principles and accept cross-partisan responsibility for their maintenance and observance. To this end, it is important that all parties understand and agree on shared definitions of what constitutes ‘major policy decisions’, ‘large/contentious procurement contracts’ or relevant appointments, before these issues become contentious. Some Westminster systems have chosen ‘definitions revolving around the monetary value of the contract’, for example, and ‘many have codified the level of appointment [permitted without consultation during the caretaker period] with precision’ (A. Tiernan and J. Menzies (2008). Caretaker Conventions in Australasia. Canberra, ANU E Press, 2008, pp. 36–7.). Similarly critical are appropriate protocols for the consultation process between the government and the opposition, should they become necessary. One central question that requires clarification is the degree of agreement required between parties before decisions can be taken. Another question that ought to be clarified is who should participate in the consultations.

Conclusions

In sum, the UK’s caretaker conventions are inadequate and the price that the country may pay for the political and economic uncertainty that these rules may trigger is potentially high. The polls indicate that the UK is set to elect another hung parliament in May 2015. Policy makers should act now to develop more adequate caretaker rules. Moreover, they must ensure that the media, the markets and the public understand that adequate conventions allow the normal processes of government to continue largely unhampered while a new government is negotiated.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Categories: les flux rss

Could students swing the general election? No, obviously they can’t – and neither can badgers.

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

The election strategies of “modernised” unions and NGOs are becoming increasingly futile. We need to create mayhem to move the ground from under politicians, not fight on their terrain.

 

For the next three and half months, the general election will dominate every area of public life. Years of strategy and planning and comical manoeuvres and blunders – along with all the social movements and demonstrations and faintly dissenting occupations of public space – will be watered down and blended together by politicians and the mainstream media into a moment which combines ideological blandness with procedural unfairness. This weekend’s hint from Labour that it might replace tuition fees with a graduate tax was a clear example of what is to come – policies undoubtedly rooted in the demands of real movements, but a pale shadow of what anyone actually wanted.

Perhaps the most tedious and futile thing about general election periods is the refusal of pretty much every charity and left-leaning NGO to recognise the broader picture, instead insisting on campaigning around the election as themselves – seeking to mobilise their own supporters over their own narrow set of objectives.

In reality, May 2015 will witness a vote about whether or not Britain’s welfare state continues to exist in any form: on one side will be the washed-up and unimaginative remnants of post-Blair social democracy, on the other a well-honed ideological vision for a privatised society. For Dominic Dyer, however – Chief Executive of the Badger Trust – it is a moment in which “Badgers [will] take centre stage”. The Badger Trust will, accordingly, be campaigning seat-by-seat for candidates which oppose the badger cull – in doing so swinging few, if any, seats, for a mixture of opposing political parties.

If all one cares about is the welfare of badgers, this kind of general election campaign can work as part of a lobbying strategy. But applied for any organisation that wants to see more than minor changes, it is a dead end. The National Union of Students (NUS) is the most glaring example: having produced a manifesto of demands ranging from free higher and further education, to ending immigration and asylum restrictions and effectively abolishing private providers in education, it is making no attempt to mobilise its members in any meaningful sense beyond the ballot box.

An accompanying toolkit for NUS’s “days of action” before the election underlines this in almost comical terms: its suggested actions include running mock car boot sales and coconut shies; direct action and occupations are not mentioned once. In fact since 2010, NUS’s only serious attempt to mobilise its membership on a national scale has been to march a few thousand students to Kennington Park in south London under the banner of ‘educate, employ, empower’ in November 2012.

Back in December, there was a flurry of news stories about the voting power of university students. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report which seemed to back up NUS’s strategy of focussing entirely on getting students registered to vote, while quietly dismissing its somewhat ‘out there’ claim that “students could swing 200 seats” in May.

There is no particular reason to believe that students will all vote for a single party: the interests of an Eton-schooled Oxbridge student are almost as different as it is possible to imagine to those of a working class student at London Met. But where students do turn out for one party overwhelmingly (44% of them voted Lib Dem in 2010, 16% more than the general population), vanishingly few will do so because they have been told to vote in one way or another by NUS. If political parties are going to promise the abolition of tuition fees, they usually tell people about it themselves.

Even if students did vote entirely for a single party, there are just 9 ‘student seats’ in England (where students are more than 13% of the electorate) in which either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats are first and Labour second, in which the student population exceeds the majority of the incumbent party. Outside of these constituencies, any attempt to swing the seat is reliant on the population at large.

A closer look at the data reveals that students’ impact on constituencies where they are most highly concentrated is by no means straightforward. Labour should benefit overall from the student vote, but with many young Labour voters switching to the Greens, the split vote could benefit the Conservatives in some constituencies. In 2010, a similar swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats increased a wafer-thin Tory majority in Reading East.

What if, instead of trying to swing a handful of marginal constituencies which are likely to swing anyway, NUS organised another big national demonstration, followed by a series of direct action targeted against the government, putting education funding at the top of the national agenda on the eve of the election? Many of the policies that NUS now advocates are very basic elements of social democratic consensus before Thatcher came to power – but they are now radical, outsider demands.

The only way to put free higher and further education on the political agenda – or rent controls, or a progressive taxation system –is by building a mass, combative movement. In orientating themselves so wholly towards voter mobilisation at the general election, organisations like NUS are fighting on the worst possible terrain: where the ideological consensus is far enough away that no politician of government might give them what they want unless there is external pressure, and where the number of people they can mobilise to vote will probably not make a meaningful difference to the result.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the election. In the era after the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, this ritual is, sadly, the closest thing that ordinary people ever get to directly deciding who runs the state. But the slick-looking, professionalised mode of election campaigning pursued by NUS and other leftwing NGOs is out of step with the need for something which many social movements identified almost as soon as the Coalition came to power: a move away from single issues and towards a broader sense of class solidarity and opposition to austerity and neoliberalism.

In the current context, it is not glossy brochures or lobbying strategies that are needed, but politically calculated mayhem. And the “outdated” trade union movement’s strategy of honestly advocating a vote for a political party, while – in theory at least – having a means of holding that party to account, seems almost refreshing, and looks like it will have far more of an impact on the election than badgers and students ever will on their own.

Categories: les flux rss

Defending the status quo: Labour and leftist responses to the Green Surge

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

Shouts of "you'll let the Tories in!" are again doing the rounds, will it ever be acceptable to vote for a lefty party that isn't Labour?

The Green's Natalie Bennett. Flickr/jonanamary. Some rights reserved.

The ongoing Green Surge—the Green Party of England and Wales now has over 46,000 members—has produced some illogical and politically blinkered responses from progressives both inside and outside of the Labour Party.

In December, before they increased their membership by nearly 20,000 people, the bizarre advice from The Guardian’s Richard Seymour to the Green Party was “to discover their dark side.” Bafflingly, he explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Tweeting at Green MP Caroline Lucas, feminist writer and Labour supporter Julie Bindel demanded to know “will the Greens hold its policy of legalising and legitimising the international sex trade? This is a deal breaker for many.” Apparently the Labour leadership’s direct responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan men, women and children, it’s pro-austerity policies—which, incidentally, would push women into prostitution—and, er, the future of humanity, are not deal breakers for Bindel.

Finally, there is left-wing Labourite Owen Jones. In his latest Guardian blog Jones sets out some of his arguments for not voting Green, before explaining that Labour should not base its anti-Green strategy on these arguments. By feigning sympathy for their position at the same time as bashing potential Green voters Jones is very much attempting to have his cake and eat it.

Before I get into the detail of Jones’s arguments, I want to make it clear my criticism is not personal – Jones is simply the most prominent, and therefore most influential, figure on the Labour Left. I think Jones does magnificent work in and out of the media spotlight. As I’ve noted previously “Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.” However, on the topic of electoral politics the inescapable fact is that Jones is currently acting as a conservative force, attempting to hold back the progressive, arguably radical, surge coming at Labour from the left. Jones wants to increase the number of people voting Labour and decrease the number of people voting Green.

All this leads to some bizarre political contortions. For example, Jones desperately wants Labour to back rail nationalisation to take votes away from Greens – the party that actually backs rail nationalisation.

Talking about Green voters, Jones also snidely comments that “Few of those who claim there is no meaningful difference between a Labour and Tory government are being hammered by the bedroom tax.” This, of course, plays into the popular, though questionable, stereotype of the Green Party as a haven for the middle-class (the Green Surge will likely change the social make-up composition of the Green Party). And it also hides the blindingly obvious fact the Greens are attracting support, including many former Labour voters, precisely because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.

Echoing the age-old Labour fear-mongering, Jones notes that Green voters could well wake up the day after the election with “buyer’s remorse” when they realise their principled vote has helped another Tory Government into power. Jones, of course, fails to mention the “buyer’s remorse” hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters have felt since 1997 when they realised they helped to elect a New Labour government – again, a key reason many people are switching their vote from Labour to the Greens.

More importantly, Jones seems to be unaware of the history of his own party. Circa 1900 there were two main political parties in the UK. The Tories who, as now, commanded the support of much of the ruling class, and the Liberal Party, whose establishment reformism received substantial support from recently enfranchised working-class voters. The newly born Labour Party – then known as the Labour Representation Committee – won just two MPs in the 1900 election. The Owen Jones’s of the day would have argued that voting for the nascent Labour Party, however unhappy you were with the Liberals, would have split the anti-Tory vote. Luckily for us today, millions of voters ignored such pleas, and voted for the Labour Party, eventually leading to the watershed 1945 election victory. In short, the Labour Party is only a serious contender for power today because people ignored Owen Jones’s argument about not splitting the anti-Tory vote.

But it’s not just early twentieth century history that people wearing their specially-fitted Labour Party blinkers are unable to see and comprehend. Last weekend Jones travelled to Athens to support Syriza’s astonishing election victory. However, Syriza received just 4.7% of the vote in the 2009 Greek election. PASOK, Greece’s equivalent of the British Labour Party, received 43.9% of the vote, winning the election. Following PASOK’s support for the savage austerity agenda, by the June 2012 election Syriza had become the second party in Greece with 26.9% of the vote, while PASOK had slipped to third place, gaining just 12.3% of the vote. So, again, it needs to be emphasised that if Syriza supporters had followed Jones’s logic and voted for Greece’s Labour Party, PASOK, then Syriza would never have been in a position to win the last week’s election.

There is an obvious question for those who scream “You’ll let the Tories in!” at any progressives who vote for anyone other than Labour: when, exactly, will it be safe for people to vote for a left-wing party other than Labour? The answer for those keen to protect the political status quo, of course, is never. Luckily many people are ignoring this conservative argument and joining and voting for the Green Party in increasing numbers.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Why the UK needs improved caretaker conventions before the election

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

In 2010, the UK’s underspecified caretaker conventions caused the “Squatter in Downing Street” controversy, when Gordon Brown remained in office after Labour’s election defeat, and the country still lacks adequate rules to govern caretaker situations.

Flickr/gordon 2208. Some rights reserved.

Caretaker periods and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support - between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.

In the UK, the rules governing caretaker situations have historically been underspecified. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average, government formation in the UK took just four days in the period from 1945 to 1994, compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe. However, the recently lengthened election timetable, and polls that predict a more fragmented parliament, make clear that the UK is likely to experience a more extended caretaker period in May 2015.

Inadequate caretaker conventions give rise to considerable costs and risks. As the ‘squatter in Downing Street’ episode illustrates, they can generate high-profile political controversy. As a result, parties were forced into unwisely frantic government negotiations in 2010, under tremendous public and media pressure. Moreover, poorly specified caretaker conventions can cause serious economic instability when they fail to ensure that the normal process of government continues largely unhampered. In New Zealand in 1984, for instance, a serious exchange rate crisis was triggered by unclear caretaker conventions in the context of fundamental disagreements between the outgoing prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the incoming Labour administration over the country’s exchange rate policy. The Reserve Bank was forced to suspend all currency exchange dealings to halt a run on the dollar.

Increasing Vulnerability

Two developments have increased the UK’s vulnerability to crises during caretaker situations. First, the electoral timetable has been lengthened considerably. Following recommendations by the Modernisation Committee, twelve days were added to the period between the election and the first session of the new parliament in 2010, doubling the length of that period compared to the three previous elections. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 further extends the length of the general election timetable from seventeen to twenty-five days, excluding weekends and bank holidays. The anticipated cumulative effect of these changes is that ‘[t]he length of time between dissolution and the formation of the next government in 2015, and therefore the length of the caretaker/purdah period, may be considerably greater than for any other election in modern times’. (Remark made by Ruth Fox in her written evidence to House of Lords Library, LLN 2011/002: Constitutional and Parliamentary Effect of Coalition Government, 2011)

Second, these institutional changes are compounded by secular electoral trends that are making hung parliaments and the need for coalition negotiations increasingly likely. The 2010 general elections produced the UK’s second hung parliament and its first coalition since the Second World War. Longitudinal data suggest that partisan de-alignment has steadily eroded the vote share accruing to the Conservative and Labour parties in the postwar era. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties attained a combined vote share of 96.1 per cent. A mere 8 seats went to MPs from other parties. By 2010, the electoral dominance of the two parties had been significantly eroded—their joint vote share was 65.1 per cent and fully 86 seats went to parties other than the Conservatives and Labour. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year, which is also likely to be characterized by a more complex constellation of political forces than its predecessor.

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

The UK’s current caretaker conventions are part of the Cabinet Manual (2011). They recognise three situations in which ‘governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character’: ‘in the period immediately preceding an election’, ‘immediately afterwards if the result is unclear’, and ‘following the loss of a vote of confidence’ (§2.27). In all three situations, the same ‘restrictions on government activity’ apply. The government is expected to defer activity such as ‘taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’. The Manual further states, ‘[i]f decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition’ (§2.29).

However, these conventions still leave the UK vulnerable to crisis and controversy because of three major shortcomings which could easily be addressed.

First, the current rules do not fulfil the central and minimal purpose of caretaker conventions, which is to ensure that the country is never without an acting government. A key gap in the current UK caretaker conventions is the lack of provisions to prevent a caretaker government from resigning. The Cabinet Manual merely notes ‘[r]ecent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention’ (§2.10). To date, therefore, there is no duty of the incumbent government to remain in office during caretaker periods until the next cabinet is formed.

To ensure effective governance in the transition period, it is essential that the Prime Minister and government do not resign until the next regular government has been formed. Clear expectations about the identity of the government during caretaker periods are critical in effectively managing political and economic uncertainty during those periods. The UK should therefore follow the example of other parliamentary democracies and affirm the first principle of all caretaker conventions: a caretaker government cannot resign until an alternative government has taken office because the country cannot be left without a functioning executive. If the Cabinet Manual is not the appropriate vehicle to introduce such an innovation, it could be securely established by legislation.

Second, the current conventions lack clarity about the termination of caretaker periods. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘[t]he point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons’ (§2.30). A central feature of this guidance is its indeterminacy. In the absence of an investiture vote, there is no clear consensus as to when a government’s ability to command parliamentary support can be considered to have been tested. As the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, the period in which the caretaker conventions apply should be carefully defined, and the fact that a caretaker period has commenced or concluded should be explicitly announced. Greater clarity would have the merit of helping to manage public expectations and market reactions during transitional periods, and would provide political actors with a clear understanding of the rules and restrictions that are in effect.

Third, the current caretaker conventions do not adequately detail the restrictions on government activity during caretaker periods. If the UK is to be well prepared for the possibility of a lengthy post-election caretaker period, more attention has to be given to the practicalities of applying the caretaker conventions. Caretaker conventions are self-policed; they are thus only effective in so far as all major parties agree in their interpretation of the general principles and accept cross-partisan responsibility for their maintenance and observance. To this end, it is important that all parties understand and agree on shared definitions of what constitutes ‘major policy decisions’, ‘large/contentious procurement contracts’ or relevant appointments, before these issues become contentious. Some Westminster systems have chosen ‘definitions revolving around the monetary value of the contract’, for example, and ‘many have codified the level of appointment [permitted without consultation during the caretaker period] with precision’ (A. Tiernan and J. Menzies (2008). Caretaker Conventions in Australasia. Canberra, ANU E Press, 2008, pp. 36–7.). Similarly critical are appropriate protocols for the consultation process between the government and the opposition, should they become necessary. One central question that requires clarification is the degree of agreement required between parties before decisions can be taken. Another question that ought to be clarified is who should participate in the consultations.

Conclusions

In sum, the UK’s caretaker conventions are inadequate and the price that the country may pay for the political and economic uncertainty that these rules may trigger is potentially high. The polls indicate that the UK is set to elect another hung parliament in May 2015. Policy makers should act now to develop more adequate caretaker rules. Moreover, they must ensure that the media, the markets and the public understand that adequate conventions allow the normal processes of government to continue largely unhampered while a new government is negotiated.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Categories: les flux rss

Could students swing the general election? No, obviously they can’t – and neither can badgers.

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

The election strategies of “modernised” unions and NGOs are becoming increasingly futile. We need to create mayhem to move the ground from under politicians, not fight on their terrain.

 

For the next three and half months, the general election will dominate every area of public life. Years of strategy and planning and comical manoeuvres and blunders – along with all the social movements and demonstrations and faintly dissenting occupations of public space – will be watered down and blended together by politicians and the mainstream media into a moment which combines ideological blandness with procedural unfairness. This weekend’s hint from Labour that it might replace tuition fees with a graduate tax was a clear example of what is to come – policies undoubtedly rooted in the demands of real movements, but a pale shadow of what anyone actually wanted.

Perhaps the most tedious and futile thing about general election periods is the refusal of pretty much every charity and left-leaning NGO to recognise the broader picture, instead insisting on campaigning around the election as themselves – seeking to mobilise their own supporters over their own narrow set of objectives.

In reality, May 2015 will witness a vote about whether or not Britain’s welfare state continues to exist in any form: on one side will be the washed-up and unimaginative remnants of post-Blair social democracy, on the other a well-honed ideological vision for a privatised society. For Dominic Dyer, however – Chief Executive of the Badger Trust – it is a moment in which “Badgers [will] take centre stage”. The Badger Trust will, accordingly, be campaigning seat-by-seat for candidates which oppose the badger cull – in doing so swinging few, if any, seats, for a mixture of opposing political parties.

If all one cares about is the welfare of badgers, this kind of general election campaign can work as part of a lobbying strategy. But applied for any organisation that wants to see more than minor changes, it is a dead end. The National Union of Students (NUS) is the most glaring example: having produced a manifesto of demands ranging from free higher and further education, to ending immigration and asylum restrictions and effectively abolishing private providers in education, it is making no attempt to mobilise its members in any meaningful sense beyond the ballot box.

An accompanying toolkit for NUS’s “days of action” before the election underlines this in almost comical terms: its suggested actions include running mock car boot sales and coconut shies; direct action and occupations are not mentioned once. In fact since 2010, NUS’s only serious attempt to mobilise its membership on a national scale has been to march a few thousand students to Kennington Park in south London under the banner of ‘educate, employ, empower’ in November 2012.

Back in December, there was a flurry of news stories about the voting power of university students. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report which seemed to back up NUS’s strategy of focussing entirely on getting students registered to vote, while quietly dismissing its somewhat ‘out there’ claim that “students could swing 200 seats” in May.

There is no particular reason to believe that students will all vote for a single party: the interests of an Eton-schooled Oxbridge student are almost as different as it is possible to imagine to those of a working class student at London Met. But where students do turn out for one party overwhelmingly (44% of them voted Lib Dem in 2010, 16% more than the general population), vanishingly few will do so because they have been told to vote in one way or another by NUS. If political parties are going to promise the abolition of tuition fees, they usually tell people about it themselves.

Even if students did vote entirely for a single party, there are just 9 ‘student seats’ in England (where students are more than 13% of the electorate) in which either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats are first and Labour second, in which the student population exceeds the majority of the incumbent party. Outside of these constituencies, any attempt to swing the seat is reliant on the population at large.

A closer look at the data reveals that students’ impact on constituencies where they are most highly concentrated is by no means straightforward. Labour should benefit overall from the student vote, but with many young Labour voters switching to the Greens, the split vote could benefit the Conservatives in some constituencies. In 2010, a similar swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats increased a wafer-thin Tory majority in Reading East.

What if, instead of trying to swing a handful of marginal constituencies which are likely to swing anyway, NUS organised another big national demonstration, followed by a series of direct action targeted against the government, putting education funding at the top of the national agenda on the eve of the election? Many of the policies that NUS now advocates are very basic elements of social democratic consensus before Thatcher came to power – but they are now radical, outsider demands.

The only way to put free higher and further education on the political agenda – or rent controls, or a progressive taxation system –is by building a mass, combative movement. In orientating themselves so wholly towards voter mobilisation at the general election, organisations like NUS are fighting on the worst possible terrain: where the ideological consensus is far enough away that no politician of government might give them what they want unless there is external pressure, and where the number of people they can mobilise to vote will probably not make a meaningful difference to the result.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the election. In the era after the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, this ritual is, sadly, the closest thing that ordinary people ever get to directly deciding who runs the state. But the slick-looking, professionalised mode of election campaigning pursued by NUS and other leftwing NGOs is out of step with the need for something which many social movements identified almost as soon as the Coalition came to power: a move away from single issues and towards a broader sense of class solidarity and opposition to austerity and neoliberalism.

In the current context, it is not glossy brochures or lobbying strategies that are needed, but politically calculated mayhem. And the “outdated” trade union movement’s strategy of honestly advocating a vote for a political party, while – in theory at least – having a means of holding that party to account, seems almost refreshing, and looks like it will have far more of an impact on the election than badgers and students ever will on their own.

Categories: les flux rss

Defending the status quo: Labour and leftist responses to the Green Surge

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

Shouts of "you'll let the Tories in!" are again doing the rounds, will it ever be acceptable to vote for a lefty party that isn't Labour?

The Green's Natalie Bennett. Flickr/jonanamary. Some rights reserved.

The ongoing Green Surge—the Green Party of England and Wales now has over 46,000 members—has produced some illogical and politically blinkered responses from progressives both inside and outside of the Labour Party.

In December, before they increased their membership by nearly 20,000 people, the bizarre advice from The Guardian’s Richard Seymour to the Green Party was “to discover their dark side.” Bafflingly, he explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Tweeting at Green MP Caroline Lucas, feminist writer and Labour supporter Julie Bindel demanded to know “will the Greens hold its policy of legalising and legitimising the international sex trade? This is a deal breaker for many.” Apparently the Labour leadership’s direct responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan men, women and children, it’s pro-austerity policies—which, incidentally, would push women into prostitution—and, er, the future of humanity, are not deal breakers for Bindel.

Finally, there is left-wing Labourite Owen Jones. In his latest Guardian blog Jones sets out some of his arguments for not voting Green, before explaining that Labour should not base its anti-Green strategy on these arguments. By feigning sympathy for their position at the same time as bashing potential Green voters Jones is very much attempting to have his cake and eat it.

Before I get into the detail of Jones’s arguments, I want to make it clear my criticism is not personal – Jones is simply the most prominent, and therefore most influential, figure on the Labour Left. I think Jones does magnificent work in and out of the media spotlight. As I’ve noted previously “Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.” However, on the topic of electoral politics the inescapable fact is that Jones is currently acting as a conservative force, attempting to hold back the progressive, arguably radical, surge coming at Labour from the left. Jones wants to increase the number of people voting Labour and decrease the number of people voting Green.

All this leads to some bizarre political contortions. For example, Jones desperately wants Labour to back rail nationalisation to take votes away from Greens – the party that actually backs rail nationalisation.

Talking about Green voters, Jones also snidely comments that “Few of those who claim there is no meaningful difference between a Labour and Tory government are being hammered by the bedroom tax.” This, of course, plays into the popular, though questionable, stereotype of the Green Party as a haven for the middle-class (the Green Surge will likely change the social make-up composition of the Green Party). And it also hides the blindingly obvious fact the Greens are attracting support, including many former Labour voters, precisely because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.

Echoing the age-old Labour fear-mongering, Jones notes that Green voters could well wake up the day after the election with “buyer’s remorse” when they realise their principled vote has helped another Tory Government into power. Jones, of course, fails to mention the “buyer’s remorse” hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters have felt since 1997 when they realised they helped to elect a New Labour government – again, a key reason many people are switching their vote from Labour to the Greens.

More importantly, Jones seems to be unaware of the history of his own party. Circa 1900 there were two main political parties in the UK. The Tories who, as now, commanded the support of much of the ruling class, and the Liberal Party, whose establishment reformism received substantial support from recently enfranchised working-class voters. The newly born Labour Party – then known as the Labour Representation Committee – won just two MPs in the 1900 election. The Owen Jones’s of the day would have argued that voting for the nascent Labour Party, however unhappy you were with the Liberals, would have split the anti-Tory vote. Luckily for us today, millions of voters ignored such pleas, and voted for the Labour Party, eventually leading to the watershed 1945 election victory. In short, the Labour Party is only a serious contender for power today because people ignored Owen Jones’s argument about not splitting the anti-Tory vote.

But it’s not just early twentieth century history that people wearing their specially-fitted Labour Party blinkers are unable to see and comprehend. Last weekend Jones travelled to Athens to support Syriza’s astonishing election victory. However, Syriza received just 4.7% of the vote in the 2009 Greek election. PASOK, Greece’s equivalent of the British Labour Party, received 43.9% of the vote, winning the election. Following PASOK’s support for the savage austerity agenda, by the June 2012 election Syriza had become the second party in Greece with 26.9% of the vote, while PASOK had slipped to third place, gaining just 12.3% of the vote. So, again, it needs to be emphasised that if Syriza supporters had followed Jones’s logic and voted for Greece’s Labour Party, PASOK, then Syriza would never have been in a position to win the last week’s election.

There is an obvious question for those who scream “You’ll let the Tories in!” at any progressives who vote for anyone other than Labour: when, exactly, will it be safe for people to vote for a left-wing party other than Labour? The answer for those keen to protect the political status quo, of course, is never. Luckily many people are ignoring this conservative argument and joining and voting for the Green Party in increasing numbers.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Islamic State: the unknown war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 23:07

Western states express optimism about the anti-jihadist campaign in Syria-Iraq. A report from a high-level meeting in London offers another view.    

At the multinational conference on Iraq held in London on 22 January 2015, the United States secretary of state John Kerry was able to claim that the tide was turning in the war against Islamic State. The evidence cited includes well over 2,000 airstrikes since August 2014, Iraqi army ground incursions backed by coalition support, more than 700 km sq of territory retaken, thousands of Islamic State fighters killed, hundreds of military vehicles destroyed, and half of Islamic State’s top military commanders “eliminated”.

If what Kerry says is accurate, then Islamic State must be facing serious problems. The narrative is supported by reports that the Iraqi army is planning an assault later this year to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which lies at the core of Islamic State’s rapid expansion in June 2014. Moreover, Kurdish sources claim that their peshmerga forces are now in control of the fiercely contested town of Kobane in northern Syria.

If the claim about the Islamic State military commanders is accurate that would be the biggest blow so far to the movement. Many of these men are Iraqi and they are among the most experienced paramilitary fighters to be found anywhere in the world. Many survived the long and bitter shadow war fought with United States and British special forces in central Iraq from 2004-07, especially Operation Arcadia in 2006; some are also veterans of the action that killed Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the then leader of al-Qaida in Iraq - the antecedent  of Islamic State - in June 2006.

On all these counts, then, the west's campaign seems to be making serious progress - quite a change from the gloomy predictions in the last months of 2014. The problem is that appearances may deceive. At least, there are indications of very different dynamics at work.

Between the lines

It is not just the repeated indications of a surge in recruits to Islamic State from abroad, reportedly running at around 1,000 a month to add to close to 20,000 already there. The numbers from western states may be in the very low hundreds, but a range of countries across the Middle East and north Africa - not least Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia - remain a significant source of new operatives, There are also clear signals that some western ground-troops are already becoming involved in direct combat with Islamic State.

Defense News reports in recent days that Canadian special forces operating with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in north-east Iraq close to Islamic State positions came under mortar and machine-gun attack, with Canadian snipers responding. They were part of a group of sixty-nine that has also been involved in target-designation for coalition aircraft, illuminating the targets with lasers. Defense News commented aptly that it was "a surprising bit of openness about a mission often clouded in secrecy”. It is certainly the case that United States, British and Australian military sources have been far more cautious about the activities of their own special forces - all known to be operating in Iraq, and some quite possibly in Syria as well.

Since then, there have been other Canadian special-force contacts with Islamic State fighters. Military Times reports this from a widely circulated Associated Press wire, adding an almost poetic gloss: “Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have engaged in two more firefights against Islamic State group militants, but Canada’s government denies they’re involved in combat”. On its own this is a reasonably clear indication of mission-creep  - the one remaining issue being to define when “combat” is “not combat”, with that distinction apparently the responsibility of government not media.

A revealing reverse

There is, however, a far more striking illustration of this "war of new connections". This relates to Britain's involvement and a decision that has been almost entirely missed by the country's media. 

The defence secretary Michael Fallon announced in December 2014 that Britain was going to commit hundreds of troops to a new mission to help retrain the Iraqi army. A battalion-sized group involving around 200 trainers supported by a strong protection force of a broadly similar size, this “heavy” force was scheduled for deployment in January 2015.

The current edition of Jane’s Defence Weekly, the authoritative defence publication, says that the entire plan has been put on hold. The troops will not, after all, be sent in the foreseeable future. The core reason is most indicative both of domestic priorities and of the real state of affairs in Syria-Iraq.

The decision, reports Jane’s, was taken at a meeting of the UK's national-security council (NSC) on 16 December  2014, chaired by prime minister David Cameron. “According to senior defence sources in London, fears that UK troops could be killed or taken hostage in the run-up to the UK general election in May were behind the rejection of the plans” (see Tim Ripley, "UK puts training Iraq mission on hold", Jane's Defence Weekly, 19 January 2015).

The political calculation is all too obvious. For a government facing a tight election and a public expressing strong opposition to further British involvement in wars in the Middle East, the prospect of video of captured soldiers in orange jump-suits prior to execution by beheading was too difficult to contemplate.

This kind of development helps explain why it is hard to assess the true course of the war against Islamic State. All that can be said is that some accounts of what is happening simply do not gel with the optimistic statements from John Kerry. Islamic State may have experienced some recent reversals, but that it is anywhere near defeat seems highly unlikely.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Department of peace studies, Bradford University

Oxford Research Group

Costs of War

Remote Control Project

Paul Rogers, Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto, 3rd edition, 2010)

Every Casualty

Paul Rogers, Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, 2007)

Long War Journal

Related stories:  Islamic State, a view from Raqqa America and Islamic State: mission creeping? Islamic State vs its far enemy Islamic State: from the inside A letter from Raqqa Islamic State: from the inside The Islamic State war: Iraq's echo Topics:  Conflict International politics Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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