Jonathan Fryer

Archive for August, 2010

Katie Ghose to Spearhead Electoral Reform

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th August, 2010

As both sides on the British electoral reform debate gear up for eight months of intense campaigning for and against adopting the Australian-style Alternative Vote (AV) system for British general elections, one of the key figures on the Yes side is now in place: the new Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, Katie Ghose. Katie is a barrister and an experenced NGO campaigner, having for the past five years been Director of the British Institute for Human Rights. She also worked previously for Age Concern and Citizens Advice as well as helping carry out the biggest ever independent review of Britain’s asylum system. Katie got the Electoral Reform Society job despite fierce competition, including from at least one former MP.

‘I’m joining the Society at an exciting time,’ Katie says. ‘The coming referendum will be the first time the British public have had the opportunity to decide how they elect the politicians who speak in their name. The year ahead will see a real national debate on the system that defines our politics. I look forward to working with the Society’s members, supporters, staff, trustees and all members of the Yes campaign to deliver an historic victory for political reform and for British voters.’

Britain currently uses a ‘first past the post’ system to elect Members of the House of Commons, which has tended to favour the larger parties unduly and occasionally to give outright victory to a party that received fewer votes than its main rival. At the May 2010 general election, no party secured a majority, which resulted in the UK’s first peacetime coalition, between the Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are firm supporters of electoral reform, ideally favouring the proportional system of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), as indeed does the Electoral Reform Society. Moreover, it is proposed that the House of Lords (the upper chamber, currently filled by appointed and some hereditary peers) might in future be elected by STV. Nonetheless, the LibDems and the ERS and other interested groups such as Unlock Democracy have all agreed to back the preferential AV system in the referendum. which is currently scheduled for next May. The (LibDem) Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is expected to play a prominent role in promoting it, though the Yes campaign will be both all-party and non-party.

Link: www.electoral-reform.org.uk www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk

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Take Back Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th August, 2010

This lunchtime I spent a windy hour helping man a street stall outside Angel tube station put up by the Islington branch of Take Back Parliament, the coalition of NGOs and lobbying groups that is campaigning for a reform of Britain’s broken electoral and political system — and therefore for a ‘yes’ vote in next May’s referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV). The campaign’s colour is purple and its supporters are self-dubbed the Purple People. A big demonstration of them turned up in Smith Square in May, to lobby Nick Clegg and his LibDem colleagues to press ahead with electoral and parliamentary reforms. The Deputy Prime Minister Clegg is indeed in charge of the Coalition government’s programme of reform and will be playing a leading role in the ‘yes’ campaign in next year’s referendum. But the Take Back Parliament movement is strictly non-party political. The argument has to be won among supporters of all of Britain’s political parties, as well as the non-aligned. This lunchtime’s effort was a modest affair — a much bigger event is due to be held at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church on Tuesday evening — but every little helps. And it is imortant that the colour and the message start getting across to the British public — which is one reason why activists today and on other occasions festooned the surroundings with with purple ribbons.

Link: www.takebackparliament.com

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Is There No Limit to Labour’s Hypocrisy?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th August, 2010

According to an exclusive article in the Independent on Sunday, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband says that his conscience is clear over alleged UK government complicity in extraordinary rendition and other instances of the Bush administration’s use of torture in the US ‘war on terror’. He seems to be trying to push some of the blame for tolerating or remaining silent about inhumane practices onto his predecessor Jack Straw, who held the ministerial post in 2001, after 9/11. But as the eminent QC and human rights campaigner Philippe Sands rightly tells the Independent, David Miliband seems to be ‘burying his head in the sand’ over this. I would go further: what he is trying to do is to wriggle out of both the collective responsibility for the Labour government’s acquiescence to disgusting behaviour by US forces and agencies — not to mention the illegal Iraq War! — and his personal responsibility, given what he must have known at the time he was at the FCO. It is just not good enough for him to try and wash his hands of it all now and pretend that somehow New Labour is or was squeaky clean over the matter. This is rank hypocrisy. But then hypocrisy has become the theme tune of Labour’s public campaigning and utterances since the party lost the general election, whether it is attacking the Coalition government for doing things that it intended to do had it been re-elected, or denouncing plans for AV electoral reform, even though that was in the Labour manifesto. Perhaps Labour hopes that if it shouts loud enough and tries to rewrite history to a positively Stalinist degree then somehow the British electorate will believe it is the sweetness-and-light party. But the record of 13 years of New Labour is there and it stinks — as does the hypcorisy of those of the party’s leadership contenders who want to portray themselves as unsullied by what has gone before.

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Breakthrough in Turkey?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th August, 2010

Government officials in Ankara have confirmed that talks have been held with the imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdish PKK military group, Abdullah Ocalan. In fact, according to reports in the Turkish press, such exchanges with the prisoner have been going on secretly for some time. The new openness has come about partly because Mr Ocalan — not for the first time — has called for a ceasefire in the fighting, which has cost thousands of lives directly or indirectly over the past few decades. And he has refused to endorse a boycott of the referendum that will be held next month on a new constitution for the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is gambling a great deal by promoting this Constitution, which he hopes will bring Turkey a further step nearer to a European norm, thereby perhaps enhancing Turkey’s chances of EU membership. Predictably, some opposition parties have lambasted him for this and have accused him of trying to woo Kurdiah voters by his more conciliatory approach. Kurds make up about 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, but have long suffered political and cultural oppression. Under the government, significant improvements have been made in Kurdish rights, though there is still a long way to go, as indeed is the case with freedom of expression issues generally in Turkey.

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How Could Israel Change?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th August, 2010

The Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy — one of the sanest Jewish voices in Israel today — is in Britain at the moment to promote his new book The Punishment of Gaza (Verso), an impassioned account of the one of the latest and most grotesque aspects of the prolonged Israeli policy of belligerency and occupation. I met Mr Levy along with a number of other journalists and area specialists for an informal session in London and he is a very impressive performer. He reminded us starkly that Israel has been an occupying power for more than two-thirds of its existence, during which it has invaded and occupied every one of its neighbours: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, as well as so far preventing the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Yet still Israel presents itself as a victim. Most Israelis, Gideon Levy argues, are indifferent to this situation. They live the good life — especially if they are in Tel Aviv — and largely ignore what is going on in the occupied territories. Settlement building continues, despite the fact that the presence of 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem now make a two-state solution virtually impossible. The main Israeli political parties are virtually alike and the small liberal ones of yore have died out. Israel is demonstrably an apartheid society, Mr Levy argues, and that situation can only get worse. He is pessimistic that change can come from within Israel itself, particularly after the influx of Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union, may of whom swell the ranks of the far right and often racist political forces. And as the only voice Israel listens to is Washington’s, the only hope is if the United States puts its foot down. But President Obama, beholden to Congress and the more conservative Jewish lobbying groups — appears incapable of living up to early promise in promoting a just peace. On the gound, new mooted negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are likely to deliver nothing of real substance.

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Why All the Fuss about Renting?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th August, 2010

The ‘golden age’ of home ownership is ending, trumpets the Observer on its front page, as if this is a tragedy of huge importance. ‘Young people face a lifetime of renting instead’, the article wails. But let’s look at the facts, as well as my own personal experience. When I came down from university, I rented a flat in Pimlico with a former university chum; I couldn’t afford a place on my own. Then Reuters sent me to Brussels, where I rented for seven years (as many people in Belgium and Germany, more significantly, do). I returned to London in 1982 and rented, in South Kensington, before buying my first home at the age of 33. The mortgage payments were more than I could really afford, however, so two years later I sold and rented again for a while, in Tower Hamlets, before buying a house here with a friend. All these latter moves were of course during the Thatcher era when home ownership became a shibboleth (set in stone by a woman who believed anyone still using public transport at age 30 was a failure). Alas, New Labour adopted the policy hook, line and sinker. As the Labour MP Denis MacShane points out in a separate article in today’s Observer, ‘Labour was in denial over the growing crisis in social housing… Since 1997, under a Labour government, 481,530 council homes have been sold off.’ Home ownership has become a national obsession and house prices, especially in London and the South East, are now grotesque. Of course many young people cannot afford to get on the property ladder (or indeed many older non-homeowners). But the answer to this is simple, surely? Remove the stigma from renting, build more social housing for rent, scrap the right-to-buy legislation and encourage more private rentals at affordable rates too. That would also make it easier for people to move, which is an important factor in a period of greater job-led mobility.

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Spotlight on Earl’s Court

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th August, 2010

It’s 25 years since I left Earl’s Court but I still retain a lot of affection for SW5. It’s no longer Kangaroo Valley — the haunt of transient Australians — or even that much of a gay village any more. And whereas it was considered very down-market when I lived there, it has become as chic as most parts of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. There was quite a frisson there, accordingly, when longstanding Conservative ward Councillor Barry Phelps had to resign recently after he sent innocent photos of young buys smuttily captioned to a colleague through the Council’s computer system. Mr Phelps, a journalist and writer, has often been a figure of controversy, for example having in February this year been accused of bringing the Council into dispute for branding a member of the public a malicious liar. Nonetheless, he believes he still has a strong support base locally and it will be interesting to see if he stands as an independent in the by-election due to be held on 16 September against the official Conservative candidate. In the meantime, the Liberal Democrats, who came second in the ward in May, are putting up a vigorous fight with local residents’ champion Linda Wade as their candidate.

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Humbug about Home Holidays

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th August, 2010

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has suggested that his compatriots might follow his example and holiday in Britain this summer, though this is a little disingenuous as his wife Samantha is so heavily pregnant that she can’t fly abroad at the moment. Anyhow, I do find the moral grandstanding by politicians of all hues around Europe on the joys of home country holidays at this time of economic recession to be largely humbug. It’s actually more expensive to spend a week at a decent hotel in Cornwall than it is to go on a package to a decent hotel in Spain. And what if all the foreign tourists who have been flooding into Britain again this summer (one can barely move for young Spaniards in central London!) decided they would all stay at home as well? Travel is part of economic activity and that is something that governments should be encouraging. Moreover, travel broadens the mind, which is good for people of all ages. I confess it is maybe cheeky of me to comment on this matter, as I travel so much for my work that when I do get a summer break, like now, I spend in firmly at home with the cat, working on the computer or reading in the garden.

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Turks Refuse Letter from Desmond Tutu

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th August, 2010

As a strong friend of Turkey, I was disappointed today when the Turkish Embassy in London refused to accept a letter from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was scheduled to be hand-delivered — by prior arrangement — by the Archbishop’s former assistant, the South African Anglican priest and campaigner for Kurdish rights Matthew Esau, accompanied by Ken Livingstione, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Siobhain McDonagh MP and myself. This really was something of an own-goal on Turkley’s part. The letter (of which I have a copy) congratulated Turkey for the principles stand that it has taken in defending the rights of the Palestinian people and then went on to argue that peaceful negotiations are the only way to resolve the ongoing and bloody conflict involving the Turkish state and sections of the country’s Kurdish minority. Indeed, as a conference in the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir which I attended earlier this year, it was agreed that much could be learned by Turkey from the experiences of both South Africa and Northern Ireland. As Archbishop Tutu writes in his letter (addressed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), ‘We want to appeal to you as the political head of Turkey, to use your office and your influence to bring a lasting end to the conflict in your Country. This could serve as a springboard to seek a similar resolution of the problems in the other parts of the Middle East. History will remember you for such a contribution — like history so eloquently acknowledges Mr. Nelson Mandela for the peace he brought in South Africa through peaceful means.’ Yesterday, the Embassy said they would welcome the delegation. But today, alas, the door remained firmly closed.

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Kabylie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th August, 2010

The last day I was in Algeria, a local friend drove me up into the Djudjura National Park, the physical and spiritual centre of Kabylie, the Berber region about two hours drive east of Algiers. The Kabyles built their settlements on hill tops, partly as a defensive formation but also because they like to be perched high so they can survey the land below, and in some places see right to the sea. The Djudjura National Park is a protected reserve, though in places the forest was cleared as government forces tried to remove safe hiding places for Islamic militants and, alas, the roadside is often littered with plastic and glass bottles and cans — including a surpising number of Heineken cans. Many Kabyles drink more than Algerian Arabs and indeed their attitude to Islam is often less strict. Some are Christians or free thinkers. But all share a passion for their region and their mountains. I was driven right up to the highest point, near an amazingly-shaped crag called the Jew’s Hand. At one point, the narrow road runs across a ridge between two peaks, with terrifying virtigenous drops on either side. But then one comes to a tranquil area where there is a running track for training athletes and in summer there are cows and sheep grazing. In one corner of this highland meadow there is a pothole, so deep one does not hear the splash of a stone dropped down. And even in mid-summer when the outside temperature is 40 degrees celsius and more, the air in the pothole is like a fridge.

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