Here we are on the eve of a new era. It is so profound a revolutionary step, we English should mark it with a new calendar, but until that’s sorted let’s adopt the French Revolutionary model, so today is 11 Pluviôse (apologies if I haven’t got the date quite spot on, we’re in a real democracy now so I can say what I like without Brussels telling me off. So there.) Eventually, we will devise our own Faragian calendar, which will be non-metric and far superior to anything the Europeans have got, as will be our new currency. Tentative, infant steps have already begun on the latter course with the issue of the new 10 shilling coins although due to some Bank of England (ENGERLAND!) incompetence they still have ‘50p’ written on them. Have no fear, Britannia will be back soon and it will once again, triumphally take 144 pennies to make a pound.
I was in Whitby today, famous for its being the (near) birthplace of Captain Cook, who did his bit to create the British Empire; of course Whitby now, a la Dracula has its other existence, which I feel certain some people believe is as real as Capt. Cook. Funny how Dracula has benefited the town when all he fictitiously did was come here to suck the blood out of people. But hey, that’s free movement for you. So it was with some amusement to me at least, in these last hours of our membership of that blood-sucking EU that I came across the sign above, which boldly credits the EU with supporting the repair and rebuilding of Whitby’s iconic piers. How such a sign has survived un-vandalised in a constituency that voted strongly for Brexit I don’t know. I suspect that most people are more interested in a symbolic departure from the EU than the real thing. If that’s the case they may be in for a shock. Thank God we have a Prime Minister who has thought it all through.
In the pub tonight I cracked a joke. After Brexit, don't use your mobile in Italy. You'll be stung for Roman charges. Sorry.
+The Labour leadership race is not exactly setting the house on fire. We are in a period where the whole thing looks rather irrelevant—and this despite the fact that party membership is at an all-time high of 580,000. Membership of the Party seems to be in inverse ratio to its influence. This will change, it’s not quite like what happened after 2010, when the Tories could lay the blame for Brexit on Labour ‘profligacy.’ This time round the Tories own everything that is going to befall the UK, and Johnson in particular will have absolutely nowhere to hide. Even Michael Gove in an interview yesterday seemed to acknowledge this fact. If things go the wrong way up the creek without a paddle neither the EU nor the Labour Party will be to blame. So what qualities will Labour’s new leader bring to bear on this agenda? As things stand at least for me the jury is out, but since the elephant in the room is climate change the candidate who speaks most strongly on that will likely get my vote. Having said which, this is still not a subject that sets the house on fire in the UK, even if it does literally elsewhere.
+I had a good opportunity to speak to the Russian people about all of this yesterday in a half-hour interview on Channel 5 (St. Petersburg). I’m not sure why they have me down as a go-to person to spout off on Brexit, etc., but it’s fun to imagine viewers in Russia listening attentively to my views, as if they may be representative of what we Brits are thinking. I have to admit, not being a regular Skype user what fun it was, to the extent of trying to set things up beforehand so as not to look too amateurish. Then, seeking out the Russian Channel 5 website and having the whole thing translated into English at the touch of a button. There are some things about the internet that should aid international understanding—one wonders why it doesn’t work out quite like that.
+I think I’m mixing up catch phrases here. Was it Neville Chamberlain who said ‘This is the deal of the century?’ And was it Donald J. Trump who said ‘This is peace in our time?’ Or is it Benjamin Netanyahu who’s mixed things up? Funny that both Don and Ben are now facing trial. At least Neville didn’t fall into that trap, although his unfailing innocence didn’t do anything for his reputation. Trump’s so-called Israel/Palestine peace deal is as crap as anything he’s ever produced, most of which has ended up with bankruptcy, it seems (the last two words added for legal reasons).
+What I’m reading at the moment: Duty Free Art : Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War by Hito Steyerl (Verso, 2017). If you’re not into art don’t be put off by the title—this is a book which digs deeper into the deep shit culture we’re mired in today than practically anything else I’ve read lately. And who wants us to read books about that anymore?
+Heads up: I had an article published in Lobster last year looking at the number of Labour peers who have taken up an interest in cyber security companies. I just thought it was all a bit coincidental, although I’m not entirely sure what the coincidence was/is. But in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books there’s an article which in passing comments on the role of a couple of cyber security businesses having an involvement in the Harvey Weinstein affair, that is seeking to provide information against his accusers. This is something that needs digging into. Somebody more au fait than me has perhaps already been there, and if so it would be interesting to see what is going on. I should add that my starting interest in cyber security firms was the Labour connection, but that doesn’t lead us into this latest territory. The companies mentioned in the NYRB article are Black Cube and K2.
With near perfect timing I received an e-mail last week from an outfit called ALERT (Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers) with the attention grabbing subject ‘Are You Racist If You Avoid MSG?’ It seems a big debate is raging in the US about Monosodium Glutamate and its connection to so-called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (CRS). The whole background is here. A campaign has been started by Far Eastern food manufacturers to counteract the ‘myth’ that MSG is bad for you—and part of this campaign is to suggest that prejudice underpins avoidance of Chinese food (I wasn’t aware that Americans did avoid Chinese food, but there we are). The campaign wants to remove a reference to CRS in a well known American dictionary. It is claimed that MSG is harmless and has been unjustly maligned. From my own experience I used to love eating Bombay Mix liberally coated in MSG and I am not aware of any ill effects. That’s the limit of my expertise.
So we now have something which may be described as culinary racism. If you don’t like a certain foreign food, could you be racist? Could there be a slippery slope between taste and racism? Perhaps one reinforces the other. But now we have the Coronavirus epidemic might such thoughts be compounded a million-fold? It seems the virus leapt to humans from an animal source in Wuhan, where live meat is traded and reading between the lines of British reportage, health standards are not high. The story feeds a narrative that these people eat strange things and aren’t as finicky about food standards as we like to believe ourselves to be. The whole thing reinforces the idea of the Other, face masks and all. Another variation of this theme is Halal. How soon will it be before all the new vegans are accused of being racist should they protest the Muslim method of animal slaughter? Perhaps it all puts chlorinated chicken in a new light . . .
In writing the following I want to make it clear from the very start that I have no issue with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) carrying out an investigation into alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party They received complaints and they have the legal discretion to investigate them. What I am concerned with is whether such an investigation could be ’weaponised.’ In the context of our current state of politics and rabid tabloid media an investigation in itself suggests that there cannot be smoke with out fire, and in the billionaire-owned media’s hands, guilt on the part of the accused is an automatic assumption. Hillary Clinton, despite her many faults fell prey to the CIA ‘investigation’ into her emails, regardless of the result of that investigation - which more or less exonerated her. So, in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies, one might argue that this case, politically was analogous in the way that it was capitalised by his foes.
In this light, I (acting alone) sought to dig deeper into the EHRC’s justification for launching its inquiry. I sent them an email on 6th January asking the following questions, under the FOI Act:
a) Between 1st January 2015 and 31st December 2019, how many complaints about racism has the Commission received for each of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, broken down by month and by the form of racism complained of (e.g. anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc.)
b) Over the same period, how many complaints about racism has the Commission received about other bodies, public or private, broken down as in (a).
c) Over the same period, how many investigations into allegations of racism (broken down as in (a) above) has the Commission launched regarding other bodies, public or private.
d) The terms of reference of the Commission's investigation into the Labour Party states (Paragraph 8) that the Commission 'may' have regard to the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism whilst recognising that this definition is not legally binding. Please provide the legal definition of anti-Semitism the Commission WILL use in this investigation whether or not it chooses to use the IHRA non-legally binding definition. I note that this investigation is being carried out by the Commission using its legal powers provided by the 2006 Act.
In asking these questions (a to c), I was trying to flush out what it takes to get the EHRC to launch an inquiry. Admittedly a purely numerical answer would be insufficient, some complaints about racial discrimination could be small in number but egregious in seriousness. But one has to start somewhere. Question (d) was aimed at finding out what the EHRC actually understood to be the legal basis of its definition. The EHRC can only act under the powers it is given by Parliament, and if that means it has a wide latitude, fine—but let’s be clear what that latitude entails for the accused.
On the 23rd January, I received a reply from the EHRC which claimed that my request would be too expensive to comply with. The relevant part of their response said:
Following consideration of your request we have determined that the
Commission will hold information relevant to your request, but the cost of
complying with your request would exceed the £450 / 18 hour limit.
Your email dated 6 January consists of a series of requests with an overarching
theme / common thread running throughout. As such we have aggregated the
costs of complying with these requests as permitted by the Fees Regulations.
We have determined that it will take well in excess of 18 hours to locate,
retrieve and extract the requested information. This is due to the extensive
nature of the searches required. We have outlined below how we have
calculated this estimate.
Section 12 search strategy
Between 1st January 2015 and 31st December 2019, we did not have a
centralised case management system for legal/enforcement work. As such, it
will be necessary to go back to a number of different documents and files to
determine the breakdowns you have requested. For example, with regards
question (b) above, we would need to consider a number of folders, including:
1. Allocations for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and 2019-
2020 (9 months);
2. Pre-allocations for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and
2019-2020 (9 months);
3. Legal requests for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and
2019-2020 (9 months);
4. EASS for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and 2019-2020
5. Notices of commencement for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-
2019; and 2019-2020 (9 months); and
6. General correspondence complaints for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-
2018; 2018-2019; and 2019-2020 (9 months).
We are conscious that in some instances information may not have been
recorded in and we will need to go back to the original case file.
To try to obtain an estimate of locating the information requested, we have
conducted the following sampling exercise:
I. Allocations: In 2018-2019, there were 29 race cases recorded through
Allocations. We estimate that to locate and extract the information will
take 4 minutes per case. Therefore, 29 cases x 4 minutes would take 116
minutes. As you have asked for 5 years’ worth of data, we have calculated
that this could take 580 minutes (116 minutes x 5 years). However, this
is a very conservative estimate as it is likely to be substantially longer for
the years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 as records were not kept as
thoroughly and we would likely need to go back to the original files.
II. Pre-allocations: In 2018-2019, there were 10 race cases recorded
through Pre-Allocations. Again, it would likely take 4 minutes per case.
Based on a 5 year period, this would amount to 200 minutes ((10 cases x
4 minutes per case) x 5 years). Again, this is a very conservative
estimate as it is likely to be substantially longer for the years 2015-2016
and 2016-2017, as records were not kept as thoroughly and we would
likely need to go back to the original files.
III. Correspondence: From 1st January 2015 to 31st December 2019, there
were 1403 issues returned by the enquiry strand ‘race’, recorded in our
general correspondence tracker. In order to determine whether these
were complaints about race and, if they were, break them down as
requested, it would take approximately 2 minutes per issue. This amounts
to approximately 2806 minutes (46.76 hours).
So, without considering the information from Legal Requests, EASS or Notices
of Commencement (3-5 above), we are already at 3,586 minutes (59.7 hours).
My first reaction to this detailed breakdown of how costly it would be to answer some (in my mind) perfectly simple and reasonable questions is yes, maybe it is a big ask. But on second thoughts, maybe not. The period I am seeking information on is well within the era of computers. It may be noted that in the same period under review (2015 to 2019, with more or less equivalent financial year end periods) the EHRC’s income from the taxpayer was around £76 million. In that context, I am astounded that they do not have systems in place (as they acknowledge in their response above) to simply draw out the information requested at the touch of a button. Presumably they have a system of indexation?
What I find interesting here is that a body with possibly inadequate information systems, which finds it difficult to dig out relatively simple information ('records were not kept . . thoroughly') is now tasked to consider whether another body—the Labour Party—is better equipped to deal with complaints which may need a considerable time to consider. Judge not lest ye be judged may be a suitable working premise.
The observant reader will have noticed that the above answers—which are the complete actual substance of their response to my questions do not even tackle question (d), which is about their actual definition of anti-Semitism. This could be an oversight, but it is possibly a revealing one. I have asked the EHRC again to answer my question, which surely would not require more than five pound’s worth of anybody’s time to answer. The EHRC operates with the authority of law and it should not be acceptable, particularly in controversial circumstances to arbitrarily choose what definitions may or may not apply in its deliberations. I await their answer on that one.
CORRECTION (made 26th January 2020) - it was the FBI not the CIA that investigated Clinton's emails - thanks to a comment on the JVL website for this correction. It doesn't alter my substantive point.
Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian today ‘all hail to the chief’ in a rapturous welcome for Johnson’s (or is that Cummings’) idea to shift the House of Lords maybe to York (see yesterday’s blog). Jenkins is not usually so delusional and he seems to have lost touch with reality on this one. Hence a letter to the editor:
Of course Johnson would love to shift Parliament into the regions - the further away from the seat of power the better. It seems he's already learning similar tricks by diminishing the power of the lobby ('Parliament's lobby system now at the heart of the battle,' 20th Jan.) If Parliament is to hold government to account, then it needs to be sitting on top of Whitehall. Moving the House of Lords to York would just be theatrics, and it's not as if York hasn't got enough visitors already. The obvious alternative, so far as Yorkshire is concerned is to devolve power to a Yorkshire Parliament, but the slogan 'power to the regions' rarely leads to genuine devolution.
I’m not about to jump ship to the Yorkshire Party. Genuine devolution should be available for all English regions. The last time ’devolution’ was offered, to the North East in 2004 it was swiftly kicked into touch by the electorate in a referendum with 78% against. I think they saw through the shallowness of New Labour’s then proposal and weren’t enthused about the thought of having a new tier of politicians elected merely to talk about spatial development strategies. The idea was deservedly sunk, it was quite plainly not worth the paper it was written on. Nor is the current proposal.
The Sunday press today, when not going overboard with their ‘Megxit’ rampage are ramping up a story that the government is considering moving the House of Lords to York, as some kind of sop to Johnson’s new northern Tory ‘heartlands.’ Apparently, a site has even been identified not far from York railway station. This is all part of a plan to bring democracy ‘closer to the people’ and it’s all bollocks of course, no more credible as the ‘big society’ and every other Tory commitment 'to the people' ever is. If there is any truth in it, it would only happen to assist in the further de-democratisation of the UK.
That’s not because the Lords is a democratic institution, but because it does at least have a majority of non-Tory peers. Move them away from the centre of power and their influence will diminish. Then there’s the suggestion that the Commons itself could move around the country in some peripatetic caravan. This could all begin happening by 2025 we’re told, when the Palace of Westminster is closed for its multi-billion refurbishment. Once again, get MPs away from Whitehall—and the attention will increasingly focus on No. 10—another step on our road to a fully fledged presidency. Move the elected element away from the seat of power. That’s the intention, but I suspect it won’t happen. The logistical challenges are enormous. Even those Coalition efforts to show the people real democracy in action, with PR stunt ‘Cabinet’ meetings held in places like Leeds fizzled out. But such talk now helps embed the idea that Johnson actually cares.
The formula is the same as Osborn’s in 2010, which is to promote a false narrative whilst Labour involves itself in a period of self-reflection with a leadership battle. This plays out this time around as ’look at us, we care about you compared to them (Labour) who only care about themselves.’
The first test of Johnson’s government’s environmental credentials didn’t take long to materialise. The prospect of bailing out airline Flybe with a relaxation of Air Passenger Duty (APD) demonstrates the power of the short term over the long term. Twas ever thus. It won’t be long before the fracking moratorium is ended, as the government’s ‘review’ discovers that all is well. Other big decisions, on Heathrow 3 and HS2 will no doubt proceed along similar lines.
But perhaps we have in all this found a new friend who rails against the billionaires’ club. Step forward Michael O’Leary CEO of Ryanair, who said ‘This government bail-out of the billionaire-owned Flybe is in breach of both competition and state aid laws. The Flybe model is not viable, which is why its billionaire owners are looking for a state subsidy for their failed investment.’ (Guardian, 17th January) Ouch! Shouldn’t this kind of critique be coming from Labour’s transport team? It seems not. Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald told the House of Commons: ‘There is clearly a case for government intervention and I trust the government will learn the lessons from their inept response to the Thomas Cook collapse, which saw other nation states being prepared to step in while this government sat on their hands and contacted the company only after it was too late.’ Mr McDonald noted how ‘important’ the airline was for regional connectivity but then went on to say ‘Slashing air passenger duty across the board would make a mockery of the Government’s supposed commitment to climate emissions. It would also benefit a wealthy minority. Some 70% of UK flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population, with the great majority of people not flying at all. Aviation is set to be the biggest source of emissions by 2050, with Ministers planning for demand to double.’ (Hansard, 14th January) So, it looks like regional connectivity is important—but mainly for the top 15% of the population. And what is this regional connectivity all about? It seems the ‘billionaires’ only want this hallowed concept in order feed the hubs for their international routes, thus compounding the environmental problem. This is all just business as usual, and in the absence of Labour saying what exactly ‘government intervention’ means, it’s hard to see much of a distinction between HM Opposition and HM Government.
+At some point I must have browsed the Daily Telegraph’s website, since I now get regular emails from them inviting me to subscribe. Hell would freeze over first of course. I got this from them the other day: ‘A curated selection of shock Sussex stories.’ This makes it sound like an exclusive box of chocolates from an upmarket chocolatier. Delicious centres! How about a taste of ‘Step back if you want to, but snubbing the Queen is unforgivable’ with its nutty crunch or why not try ‘I said to Meghan: 'Why don't you just jack it all in?' I didn't expect an answer’ for its fruity, gooey tongue tingling centre? So, the news is now ‘curated.’ Presumably all news is susceptible to this misapplication of the word. How about curating a selection of news about some famine, or perhaps the Australian bush fires?’ What would our old friend Clive James have to say about that I wonder?
+I heard on the radio this morning that Trump had sent out tweets in both English and Persian. If (as a rule) the former is anything to go by, the latter will be indecipherable.
+The Labour leadership contest is about to go through a silly phase, in the media at least, of finding the candidate with the best working class credentials. So far as the media is concerned, this will be about setting somebody up merely to knock them down again. I remember the late lamented Michael Meacher getting involved in something similar, which came down to the question of whether he was entitled to wear a flat cap or not. Thinking about it, I can’t recollect Tony Blair or Gordon Brown ever wearing a flat cap. It’s a big issue.
+The leadership contenders will necessarily have to confront the issue of alleged anti-Semitism in the Party (and elsewhere in the country, although that’s rarely mentioned). The news on this front is that the Board of Jewish Deputies have issued a list of 10 pledges they demand candidates adopt, namely:
‘ . . . to resolve outstanding cases of alleged antisemitism, to devolve the disciplinary process to an independent agent and to ensure transparency in the complaints process.
The remaining pledges are:
· Prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders
· Provide no platform for those who have been suspended or expelled for antisemitism
· The full adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism “with all its examples and clauses and without any caveats”
· To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training
· To engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour
· To replace “bland, generic statements” on anti-Jewish racism with “condemnation of specific harmful behaviours”
· For the Labour leader to take personal responsibility for ending the “antisemitism crisis”
(from the Jewish Chronicle website, 12th January)
I don’t take issue with most of this, whilst sadly acknowledging that the heavily flawed IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has already been adopted. I note that the word ‘alleged’ has at least crept into the narrative and indeed the words 'anti-Semitism crisis' appear in quotation marks. A minor acknowledgement there I think, of the questionable nature of this ‘crisis.’ What surely cannot be accepted by anyone who wishes to lead a broad based party is the thought that an outside body can dictate which groups it may engage with. It is well-known that the Board of Jewish Deputies does not represent the Jewish community in its entirety (Jewish Voice for Labour makes no such claim for itself). The Jewish Labour Movement too was distinctly anti-Labour in the recent general election, which does not make it an automatic choice for an educational role. Also, I have nothing against an independent body looking at cases of alleged anti-Semitism within the party—but then it should have a similar duty to consider all forms of alleged racism, not just one variety. Finally, I would comment how interesting it is that the Board has not made any mention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation. Do they fear it won’t deliver the result they desire?
There’s to be a big Andy Warhol retrospective at Tate Modern this spring. They say it’s the first Warhol exhibition there for 20 years, although as a Tate member for around 20 years it seems to me that he’s never been far away, and of course exhibitions can be dressed up in different guises (all to pull the crowds in). This time round we’re promised new insights, and no doubt for non-members the £22 ticket price will produce all sorts of fascinating glimpses into the man’s creativity for those who see him as a latter-day Messiah. But I’ve lost interest in Pop Art—its baleful influence has been to license veneer as depth, immediacy as significance. This is not to say one can’t appreciate a powerful image, but context free powerful images dim our sensibilities and denude aesthetic appreciation.
I agree with the art critic Hilton Kramer on this:
As a movement Pop Art came and went in a flash, but it was the kind flash that left everything changed. The art public was now a different public—larger, to be sure, but less serious, less introspective, less willing or able to distinguish between achievement and its trashy simulacrum. Moreover, everything connected with the life of art—everything, anyway that might have been expected to offer some resistance to this wholesale vulgarisation and demoralisation—was now cheapened and corrupted. The museums began their rapid descent into show biz and the retail trade. Their exhibitions were now mounted like Broadway shows, complete with set designers and lighting consultants, and their directors pressed into service as hucksters, promoting their wares in radio and television spots and selling their facilities for cocktail parties and other entertainments . . .
(Hilton Kramer, The Triumph of Modernism, The art world, 1987-2005, Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland, 2013 pp 146/7)
Yes, Warhol has a lot to answer for, but his defenders would no doubt argue that his ‘Factory’ democratised art and helped blow apart the elitist clique who considered art the preserve of connoisseurs. But the clique has merely refashioned itself in new clothes and its portals are more expensive than ever as artists seek to relocate themselves in the world of designer labels. Looking at an ‘original’ Warhol (is there such a thing?) one is more likely to ask ‘what’s it worth?’ rather than ‘what does it say?’