Yesterday’s acquittal of 3 men from Bangladesh and Pakistan on charges of being involved in the 7July 2005 bombings in London will have two dramatic consequences. It will allow the publication next month of a devastating report by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) which reveals how MI5 and the West Yorkshire police failed to follow up leads which could probably have prevented the suicide bombings. It shows that, contrary to the line put out initially by MI5 that these were ‘clean skins’ about whom nothing was previously known, in fact the security services knew a great deal about two of the bombers, whom they had extensively photographed and bugged. They also knew that these two bombers had attended training camps in Pakistan, but dropped them from surveillance when they returned to the UK. The report also shows the extraordinary incompetence of MI5 when its Director-General, Manningham-Buller, actually assured MPs only 24 hours before the bombings that there was no imminent threat to London. And even the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Met has openly recognised that a public explanation needs to be given why MI5 monitoring of the bombers was dropped when it could well have prevented the killing of 52 innocent victims. But there are still other critical revelations which should now be opened up.
The lack of any real effective democracy in the House of Commons was on view again in yesterday’s Budget debate. A budget of £670bn including unprecedented borrowing of £175bn, with debt levels expected to double over the next few years to a staggering £1.2 trillion, 80% of our entire GDP, and debt interest charges already at £28bn a year expected to rise to £43bn a year, plus a black hole in the public accounts of £45bn left unaccounted for – all this sailed through with decultory debate and just four votes on relatively minotr consequentials. The House desperately needs an Estimates Committee, complementary to the PAC and the Treasury Committee, which examines systematically and in depth the whole of the Government’s Budget, how it is financed and how it is allocated, what are the goals it is designed to achieve and therefore what size it should be, and what on a zero-budget analysis year-by-year should be expanded and what reduced. The session should be open televised hearings with independent experts called to give evidence, both about the structure and shape of the Budget as well as its component parts. Alas, that is but one – though an exceptionally important one – of the many gaps and shortcomings in the Commons’ procedures which mean that the House is massively failing to hold the Government to account, which is its one real function. But there are now beginning to be some stirrings in the dovecotes.
Well, I never! I always knew there was more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth than over 99 just men, but I never thought David Cameron would oblige. Yet his speech yesterday to the Conservative spring conference in Cheltenham opened up some quite radical ideas which Labour should take at his word and develop further. As a means of encouraging his “new age of austerity”, he proposed publishing all public sector salaries over £150,000 online. What a splendid idea, so good that we shouldn’t just confine it to the public sector. In the interests of getting people to accept having less, we should also require the earnings of the bankers, managers, lawyers, traders, and finance and industrial executives who are paid over £150,000 (the top 1% of the income distribution) to be published online as well. And why stop at their pay which is often so small a part of their totaoal remuneration? Publish their bonuses, stock options, fringe benefits, and incentive schemes as well. Good for you, Dave, you’ve really started something here. I like your proposal too that any public sector executive earning more than the Prime Minister on £194,250 should have to justify their pay to the Chancellor. What a cracker of an idea, but even better if we applied it to the private sector as well where it’s even more necessary.
The mass of new video evidence piling up on the G20 protests raises some very searching questions which cannot be brushed aside on the usual grounds that the police have a difficult task, demonstrators can get aggressive, and in a crisis the police must always be supported. Over 185 video recordings show (1) riot police charging protesters who have raised their arms in the air exclaiming ‘this is not a riot’, (2) riot police shoving people back inside the ‘kettle’ by striking people on the head with riot shields, (3) police bearing the badges of medics striking people with batons, (4) uniformed officers accompanied by plainclothes officers armed with batons, (5) police with their numbers concealed and a police inspector from Bishopsgate who refuses to identify himself when asked, (6) riot police officers grabbing a woman from behind and throwing her violently to the ground, as happened also to Iam Tomlinson, (7) a police inspector who tells the media to leave the area or face arrest, (8) a woman hit in the face by a back-handed blow from a police officer and then batoned hard on the back of her legs, and (9) a police handler who lets his dog bite the arm of a man who has just turned away. This is not simply maintaining law and order. It is provocative, aggressive, take-’em-on policing, and it immediately raises the question: is this form of policing out of control, or if not, who is controlling it?
In his delivery of the Budget Alistair Darling probably made the best fist of it he could in the circumstances. But it is the wrong Budget. The reason the national debt has ballooned out of all historic proportion and the cost of servicing it this year (£175bn) is therefore so huge is that the Government’s response to the credit crunch meltdown has been badly misconceived. The Government has been right to pursue the Keynesian strategy of increasing State expenditures to generate demand to head off a slump, and the Tories have been wrong to advocate letting the brutal self-corrective devices of capitalism play themselves out, while keeping a tight lid on any increase in national debt incurred by remedial Government action. But the manner in which the Government has chosen to develop their strategy has been wholly ill-advised. It has been geared to splurging eye-watering sums on bailing out the banks (a staggering £1.2 trillion, 80% of UK GDP) in the hope that the banks would correspondingly expand their lending to businesses and home-owners, when in fact the banks have done the opposite and continue to contract their lending. M4, the relevant measure of this lending (3 month, seasonally adjusted) actually fell from 17% in September 2007, when the crisis began, to 7% in February this year. The Government chose this route to stimulate the economy because the whole power structure of neo-liberal finance capitalism is built on the nexus between the banks and the State. But by concentrating on preserving their own power structure as the first priority, the whole of the rest of the economy and society has been exposed to the failure of this policy. What the Government should have done, and could still do now, is focus its economic stimulus directly on businesses and homeowners, not through the intermediation of the banks. Then a much more stable, less costly and more rewarding Budget becomes possible.
Today’s Ministerial statement paving the way for 4 new coal-fired power stations is a very questionable decision. It was announced with the triumphal flourish that the era of unabated coal was now over. It certainly isn’t. Not only will existing coal stations continue to churn out huge quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, most notably Drax the single biggest polluter in the country, without any requirement to abate, but even the new coal stations will not abate their emissions up till 2020 if the trials of carbon capture and storage (CCS) do not work. Nor is there any guarantee they will, when a commercial prototype has never been built anywhere in the world. And if they don’t work, the Government has given no guarantee that they will close the plants.
What is so extraordinary about the Budget is not just the magnitude of the deficits (national debt rising to a staggering £1.2 trillion, Treasury borrowings this year of £175bn), but the acceleration of the decline over the last year. A year ago the Chancellor predicted growth of 2.5% a year; the actual out-turn has been a contraction of 3.5% – an error of no less than £90bn in Treasury expectations. The Chancellor had earlier said he expected growth to resume in mid 2009; now the Treasury expects unemployment to go on rising to reach at least 3 million by the end of 2010. And judging by experience of the last year, all these predictions may turn out to be under-estimates, perhaps by some considerable margin. This is not only the longest and deepest recesssion since the Second World War, but it also casts forward the longest shadow, with austerity enveloping the next 4 years even to get the annual borrowing down below £100bn. For that reason the biggest issue raised by the Budget was how exactly that enormous squeeze in the nation’s finances is to be carried through. Alistair Darling’s proposals are not encouraging.
Reforming the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), aka MPs’ second home allowance, is clearly needed in view of the abuse of the system by a small number of MPs, in a few cases outrageously, but the method chosen by Gordon Brown combines all the worst elements. Basically there are three alternative ways to reform the system. Either the second home allowance is abolished and replaced by a daily overnight allowance, which is what he proposes, or it is replaced by an increase in MPs’ pay, or the second home allowance is retained but drastically tightened up. The problem is that the first of these options, for which the Government has rashly jumped far too hastily, is full of pitfalls and has not been thought through.
The revelation today that DBERR officials supplied police intelligence data to the German energy company E.ON executives in order to thwart environmental protestors over Kingsnorth lays bare several truths about the nature of the State and the current regime. The idea that the civil service impartially holds the ring between conflicting forces in support of the public interest is blown away for the fanciful shibboleth it always was. It clarifies the mindset of the government that business-as-usual should routinely trump climate change concerns, even to the point of neutralising them altogether. It exposes the government machine as little more than an adjunct of business, using the State’s intelligence data to advance a highly controversial commercial interest. And it reveals the development of a highly authoritarian streak, which came through strongly in the policing of the G20 protests, that demonstrations are somehow illegitimate.
Erith and Thamesmead is a microcosm of everything that is currently wrong with the Labour Party. The Blairites have used every underhand trick in the book to parachute into a safe Labour seat the 22-year old daughter of Lord Gould, Blair’s pollster whom he rewarded with a peerage. She has no connection with the constituency, but postal votes in her favour have been sought in disproportionate numbers by canvassers who conceal that they are her supporters. All the Blairite big names have been lined up to give endorsements of this unknown, prompting an official complaint from the sitting MP about inappropriate interference. If it is like other notorious selection contests, party officials may well have been suborned to go out of their way to give support to the preferred candidate, whether by facilitating access to membership lists or by using their influence to sway votes or by other means. And now postal ballot boxes have been tampered with. It stinks, and every decent member of the Labour Party will be ashamed.
The finding that Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 protests, not of a heart attack but of an abdominal haemorrhage, is truly devastating for several reasons -
1 Had the City employee not by chance captured the episode on video, the whole matter would have been swept under the carpet.
2 The police rushed to spin a story to the media which exculpated them any blame, and indeed present their involvement exclusively in a good light, before they had taken any witness statements or examined any CCTV evidence.
3 The Home Office pathologist brought in to do the first post mortem hastily produces a verdict which conveniently also excuses the police of any responsibility.
4 The IPCC (independent Police Complaints Commission) initially simply accepted the heart attack story and left it to the Met. to carry out any inquiry, claiming that no video evidence was available (though there were 4 CCTV cameras in the vicinity).
5 The media, with the exception of the Guardian, all tamely accepted the police version without any independent checking of the facts.
Quite apart from a possible manslaughter charge against the Territorial Support Group police officer who struck down Tomlinson, this catalogue of misdirections and deceptions calls for drastic rform.
Yesterday’s report, that the EU was demanding “clear consent” from internet users before their private data could be used to gather commercial information about their shopping habits, confirms yet again – almost every week – that secret surveillance has got completely out of hand in Britain. It appears that the UK-listed company Phorm has developed technology that allows internet service providers to track what their users are doing online – information that can then be sold to media companies and advertisers who can thus put more relevant advertisements on websites the users visit. This technology was recently tested on BT’s internet customers without their consent, which then provoked complaints from users and MEPs and, in the absence of any clampdown by the UK Government, triggered the EU intervention. Nor is this the first time that invasions of privacy have sparked resistance, which may finally generate the systematic law on privacy that is now so urgently needed.
The latest leak from Downing Street that the long-awaited inquiry into the Iraq War will be delayed until well after the next election in May 2010 does not come as a surprise, in view of the repeated politicising of due process over this matter for the last 6 years. The excuse for deferring the inquiry all that time – that it might undermine the morale of troops still engaged on the battlefield – is so transparent that it makes the political management of the whole process quite blatant. The inquiry into the disaster of the Gallipoli landings in 1916 was held while the war was still raging, yet there was no evidence of any loss of morale among the troops in the field. The real significance of the continual circumvention of any investigation into the causes, conduct and aftermaath of the war is that it reveals yet again the overriding power of the Executive in being able to resist what for them would be a deeply embarrassing inquiry whilst at the same time Parliament is so weak and tribalistically divided that it cannot enforce what a majority of its own members and of the public strongly believe is necessary. But the feebleness does not stop there.
Within the last week the nature of State power has once again been clearly exposed. We now know that at least two persons were assaulted by police at the G20 protests, Ian Tomlinson who died and a woman (so far not named), even though neither was acting violently or illegally. Then a few days later there wer mass arrests of 114 people alleged to be planning direct action at a coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire, though 12 hours later no charges had been made. However, when it came to a construction industry-operated blacklist designed to prevent union activists from getting work on building sites, no action was taken at all though the blacklist had been known about for decades. Yet there is a consistent logic lying behind all three of these episodes.
The death of Ian Tomlinson leaves several uncomfortable questions unanswered. The initial response of the police was that they had had no involvement with him before he collapsed, and that when he did collapse police medical officers tried to treat him despite a barrage of missiles which made their support and care for him more difficult. It was only the fortuitousness of the video taken, unbeknown to the police, by a City worker that caused this story of helpfulness to unravel. The video made it clear thata in fact he had been assaulted from behind at least once by a police officer (a member of the Territorial Support Group often deployed to deal with potentially violent situations) with a baton before being pushed over roughly to the ground. Even more telling, the video reveals that several other police officers witnessed the incident, but stood around offering no help. Nor could anyone recall missiles being thrown when Tomlinson collapsed. It therefore appears that the police constructed a false account of the event in order to put themselves in a good light, and only changed it when incontrovertible evidence came to light which indicated they had been lying or at least selective with the truth. The question then arises: was this a panic reaction in one unique incident, or is this a pattern which needs to be dealt with?