Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2009

Ryanair-style Public Services? No thanks!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th August, 2009

Barnet logoThe spectre of Britain under the Tories if the radical right gets its way loomed today, as the story broke about Barnet borough council in London adopting the business model of low cost airlines: offering no frills services, which would mean that some services now taken for granted in most local authorities would have to be individually paid for as surcharges. Fine and dandy for the affluent inhabitants of Mill Hill, maybe, but a dire prospect for the poor, especially needy elderly. Barnet Council — one of whose own spokesmen has informally dubbed the approach ‘EasyCouncil’, as a bow to EasyJet — says this is all part of its ‘relentless drive for efficiency’. Rather as with Ryanair — which reportedly investigated the possiblity of putting passengers in the hold, if only they could find some way of stopping them freezing to death — Barnet’s relentless drive could lead to some very uncomfortable as well as unfair outcomes.

Barnet is the borough which spawned the inimitable Brian Coleman, now ensconced in the Greater London Assenbly. But the new bete noire for opponents of Barnet-style Conservatism is the current Council leader, Mike Freer, who cheerfully told the Guardian, ‘Going back to the Ryanair example, some things will be cheap and cheerful and in other areas we will provide complete services.’ The interesting thing to watch will be David Cameron’s reactions to all this. Will the supposed Prime Minister-in-waiting hail Mr Freer and his colleagues as visionaries, who have provided a template for a future Conservative government’s approach to public services? Or will he realise that the model is about as appealing as a sandwich with no filling and is therefore an electoral liability?

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Moving towards an Elected House of Lords

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th August, 2009

Jack StrawThe Guardian hosted a seminar yesterday, co-sponsored by Unlock Democracy, on Moving towards an Elected House of Lords, at which the star performer was the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, interviewed by Guardian journalist Jonathan Friedland. Although there was inevitably quite a bit of discussion about the Government’s 2008 white paper on the issue, the Secretary of State was remarkably candid in his comments and responses to questions. There was an audible gasp from the room when he confessed that he went into the ‘no’ lobby on the last vote over a largely or wholly elected Upper House having not really thought about the issue; instead, he just followed the suggestion of a colleague who was voting at the time. He says he has now had time to think about the matter and has changed his mind. Well, that’s a relief, then.

Polly Toynbee, who was one of three Grand Inquisitors who got the chance to make statements, rather than just put a short question, really tore into him, basically saying that the Labour government had been a huge disappointment on electoral reform (and much else). Jack Straw spluttered that actually they had done rather a lot (from Scottish devolution onwards and indeed the eviction of most herditary peers from the Lords), but Polly got a loud round of applause. She knows how to play to the gallery.

I asked the Minister the following question: ‘Given the scepticism among proponents of electoral reform about the degree of commitment of the current government to the matter and its awareness of the urgency, and given the fact that you have said you would favour an open or semi-open* regional list for elections by some form of proportional representation for the Lords, would it not be a quick an easy way for the government to demonstrate its good faith by bringing in legisation to change the elections for the European Parliament to an open or semi-open list system?’

I rather expected an evasive or even negative response, but on the contrary he said that as there have now been three direct elections to the European Parliament under the regional list system, perhaps it is time to review that system. This is something that I (and I hope others) will pursue.

(NB An open list system means that voters can put their cross by the name of their preferred candidate, rather than by the name of their preferred party, as is the case under the current ‘closed’ list system. A semi-open list system means that they can put their cross either by the party or by an individual candidate.)

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Remembering the Baltic Way

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th August, 2009

The Baltic WayLast night I attended a reception and the opening of a video installation at the 12 Star gallery at the London offices of the European Commission, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way. That was the human chain made up of well over a million people on 23 August, 1989, stretching from the bottom of Toompea in the Estonian capital Tallinn to the base of the Gediminus Tower in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, via the Latvian capital Riga: 600 kilometres of an unbroken line of people of every age and walk of life. Those demonstrators were marking the 50th anniversary of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but they were also demanding the right to run their own affairs, free from the shackles of Moscow. This would indeed soon lead of the regaining of independence by the three Baltic states, with Lithuania making the bold move first.

Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, who had been the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent at the time of the Baltic Way, spoke at last night’s event and reminded people that the demonstration was preceeded by moves within the local Communist parties to gain greater autonomy. Moreover, some members of the substantial Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia took part in the human chain. Even some of the state security police drove round in their cars waving the national flags of the three states. By then, Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow must have known that Soviet control of the region was in its twilight days.


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What Gordon Brown Should Tell Bibi Netanyahu

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th August, 2009

Binyamin NetanyahuThe British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, will receive his Israeli counterpart, Binyamin Netanyahu, at 10 Downing Street this afternoon. Behind the diplomatic courtesies, some hard truths need to be conveyed, namely that there will never be peace in the Middle East unless the Israeli government changes its policies towards the Palestinians, and that a viable, independent Palestinian state — which is in principle what most people want — is being made impossible by the continuing Israeli colonisation of the West Bank.

Settlements are the key issue at this juncture, as Barack Obama has rightly stressed (though without the necessary threat of sanctions unless something is done about them). President Obama has called for a freeze on new building, which Bibi Netanyahu’s government is blithely ignoring. But a freeze is not enough. A phased process of withdrawal of settlers needs to be started, as happened years ago in Gaza. Zealots who continue to set up illegal ‘outposts’ on Palestinian land need to be prosecuted, not protected. Mr Netanyahu also needs to be reminded forcefully that all of the West Bank settlements are illegal under international law anyway.

Secondly, the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem must stop. Arabs — both Muslims and Christians — are being pushed out of their homes and businesses, by a mixture of persuasion, intimidation and force, including house demolitions. The clear objective is to make Jerusalem as far as possible a Jewish city, the undivided ‘capital’ of the Jewish state of Israel. This is a violation of thousands of years of heritage of a unique town, holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. It should have become an international city after the partition of Palestine and Britain, as the country that held the Mandate for Palestine, has a responsibility to try to ensure that that heritage is not detroyed.

Last but not least, there is the issue of the blockade of Gaza, which must be lifted, on both humanitarian and pragmatic grounds. There then has to be dialogue with Hamas. That won’t be easy, but the mutual loathing and reciprocal violence will never be overcome unless there is some constructive engagement.

Of course, the responsibility for change does not rest entirely on the Israeli side. Far from it. But today Gordon Brown is seeing the Israeli leader, so these points need to be stressed. The next time a Palestinian leader is invited to 10 Downing Street, I will set out some uncomfortable but necessary truths for the Palestinians too.

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Why David Cameron Should Be Dating Angela Merkel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd August, 2009

Angela MerkelAccording to Forbes Magazine, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has risen significantly up the charts of the most powerful women in the world. Actually, one doesn’t really need an American publication to tell us that: here in Europe it is bleeding obvious. At least, one would have thought so. But apparently that is not the case for the UK Conservative leader, David Cameron, who recently cold-shouldered Frau Merkel and her Christian Democrat party by getting into bed with some pretty distasteful Eastern European fringe politicians in the European Parliament. He may well live to regret this move, as like Mrs Thatcher when she was in office, Angela Merkel keeps a close eye on who is ‘one of us’ and who is not. Moreover, despite being dismissed as a frowsty East German technocrat when she first entered post-reunification German politics, Frau Merkel can be steely when she wants. She certainly knew when to stick the knife into her former leader Helmut Kohl when the time was ripe.

David Cameron 4David Cameron’s crass misjudgement of where his party’s best interests lie, in terms of European alignments, could unfortunately have serious repercussions for Britain. Angela Merkel is no longer just the apparent ‘token woman’ in photo line-ups of EU or G8 leaders. She positively oozes authority and competence, in contrast to counterparts such as the superannuated Italian Lothario Silvio Berlusconi or the flash Frenchman Nicolas Sarkozy. Those two men do nonetheless have the nous to keep close to her politically, as any sensible British Conservative leader should have done. If the Irish approve the Lisbon Treaty in their second referendum this autumn, as seems highly likely, it will be Frau Merkel who will be seen to be then pushing the European project forward, even if technically the Swedes are occupying the presidential seat.

If David Cameron becomes Prime Minister next year (and increasingly I believe it is ‘if’, not ‘when’), far from automatically being one of the Big Four political beasts at the heart of Europe, he will look very much out on a limb — which reflects current Tory policy towards the EU, of course. This is bound to weaken Britain’s role in European decision-making. Cameron will also stand out for his blatant inexperience, which has already been made painfully obvious, by his politically snubbing Anglea Merkel instead of dating her.

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Jim Fitzpatrick’s Wedding Gaffe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st August, 2009

Jim FitzpatrickMy local MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, is in the doghouse in the eyes of many of my Muslim neighbours, having walked out of a wedding reception at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel Road, because he was told that the event was segregated by gender, which meant that his wife would have to go to the women’s room. Doubtless he just left in a huff, without thinking through the consequences, but when questioned later he said he did not think that gender segregation was appropriate in the modern age and that it damages community cohesion in Britain. But the affair has blown up into a major scandal. The bridegroom, Bodrul Islam, who had invited the Fitzpatricks, has reportedly demanded that the MP apologise for ‘politically hijacking’ his wedding, and Hanif Osmani of the Council of Mosques in Tower Hamlets told the East London Advertiser, ‘Mr Fitzpatrick’s own actions have undoubtedly caused more harm to local and national community cohesion than any such wedding ever could.’ The Advertiser is having a field day, of course; right in the middle of the summer silly season, here is a really meaty local issue!

George Galloway, Respect MP for neighbouring Bethnal Green and Bow, who is planning to hop over into Poplar and Limehouse constituency to challenge Jim Fitzpatrick at the next general election, has gone typically overboard, calling on Gordon Brown to sack Fitzpatrick as Minister of Food and Farming. That would of course be quite absurd, as the MP’s gaffe has no bearing on his abilities as a government Minister. However, the affair does reflect badly on his ability to represent half of a borough in which there are an estimated 70,000 Muslims, many of whom are outraged at what they see as a slur on their cultural practices. Some of the readers’ letters in this week’s Advertiser are vitriolic about the MP and the Labour Party is taking flak as a consequence. ‘The local Labour ship is sinking and it is sinking fast,’ one correspondent writes. ‘His ignorance and rudeness are symptomatic of the desperate state of the Labour party, which is haemorrhaging past supporters to the extremes of politics,’ says another. A third notes pertinently that Orthodox Jews have gender-segregated religious events, too.

Meanwhile around the taxi rank and newstand at Mile End station, some of the old East End white working class is mutttering loudly about how ‘these Muslims are not like us’ and making similar disparaging remarks. Jim Fitzpatrick might be encouraged to know that he has some local supporters for his stance, but the whole affair has dealt a blow to multiculturalism in Tower Hamlets. Coming on the eve of Ramadan, it could hardly have been worse-timed.

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London’s Camp Ashraf Hunger Strikers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th August, 2009

JF speaking  at Camp Ashraf demonstrationFor over three weeks now, a small group of dedicated Iranians have been on hunger strike in front of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, vowing to continue their protest until the United States guarantees the safety of thouands of their exiled compatriots who live in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, the major base for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). The late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gave sanctuary to the mujahideen, much to the fury of Tehran, but after his overthrow, US forces took control of the camp and disarmed its inhabitants. However, at the start of this year, as part of the Americans’ policy of handing more and more responsilities in Iraq to the government in Baghdad, Iraq assumed authority over the camp. Alas, at the end of July, Iraqi security forces stormed it, in an extraordinarily inhumane operation that led to several deaths and scores of casualties. The brutality of that operation was graphically illustrated in video footage screened last night at the protest demonstration in Grosvenor Square.

Earlier, I spoke at the event — as one of a series of British politicians and representatives of non-governmental organisations over the past three weeks — calling on the United States to take control of Camp Ashraf again until some sort of UN or other international supervision can be put in place. The Iraqi government would dearly like to get rid of the PMOI inhabitants, but sending them back to Iran could be a potential death-sentence for many of them. This week, the London protestors  tried to deliver a letter to the US Embassy calling for urgent action, but the Embassy refused to accept it. The official American (and indeed Briitsh) line is that the situation at Camp Ashraf is being monitored closely to ensure that the Iraqi government complies with its written guarantees that the camp’s residents will be treated hunanely, but one can see why, after last month’s assault, many of those inhabitants and their relatives in cities including London consider those guarantees to be hollow.

I do not support any one political grouping in Iran, but I have followed events in the country closely since I first visited it 40 years ago. As has been demonstrated in Iran itself in recent months, there are many varied and valid political strands and many brave people there, and I for one long for the day when there can be the sort of freedom and security which would mean that there can be a truly democratic contest in which the different political parties and groups could set out their stalls without fear of prohibition, harassment, imprisonment or worse.

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Bromley Tories’ Educational Faux Pas

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th August, 2009

Bromley Conservatives have never been scared of ploughing their own furrow. It was they who scuppered Ken Livingstone’s ‘Fares Fair’ scheme, for example. And when I was an opposition councillor in the borough in the late 1980s, some of the ruling party out-Thatchered Mrs Thatcher. Now they have put the cat among the pigeons once again, this time by suggesting that Bromley borough council might give financial help to the parents of children in private education who are finding it hard to come up with the school fees, because of losing their job or other negative effects of the financial downturn. There have been understandable — and correct — rumblings of protest from Liberal Democrats in the borough, amongst others. I share the general unease felt by many in this country that private education can deliver a better start to life for children than the state sector. But that unease becomes something much stronger when the suggestion is made that the tax-paying public at large should be expected to subsidise this privilege. Not surprisingly, in the face of negative reactions, the Council leader, Stephen Carr, has insisted that there are no concrete plans to pursue the proposal. 

Someone said to me yesterday that the next general election is there for the Conservatives to lose, in other words, that they will win comfortably unless they do something seriously silly in the meantime. Coming on top of the trashing of the NHS by Daniel Hannan MEP and some of his Westminster colleagues, the Bromley Tories’ line on public money for private schoolkids is a warning to David Cameron that losing is indeed a possibility, if the party riles the electorate too much.

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Mount Pleasant

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th August, 2009

Today I went out to Reigate for the day, to have lunch with my fellow biographer Michael Bloch at Mount Pleasant, a retreat for people involved in the creative industries (disconcertingly described as an ‘artists’ rest home’ in most directories of charitable organisations) which enables writers, potters, architects and the like to stay at an extremely modest price in a rather beautiful, substantial house in Surrey’s stockbroker belt, with wonderful views of the Surrey hills from its gardens and dining room. I have been there for Sunday lunch on several occasions over the past decade or so, though never to stay. To write, I need to be in my upstairs study at home in Bow, the curtains drawn and the cat snuggled up by my feet. But Michael has for years been one of the institution’s most assiduous repeat visitors and I can see the attractions of the mini-country house lifestyle, where the everyday concerns of preparing food, making beds and so on evaporate, while one can just write, think, read or walk in the surrounding countryside. Mount Pleasant was generously endowed, but it has inevitably been hit by the economic crisis of the past year. One just hopes that it can continue to offer the tranquility and inspiration it has done for so many for so long.

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A Good Time for Muslims to Quit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 13th August, 2009

SmokefreeNHS Tower Hamlets’ Stop Smoking team deserve congratulations for standing outside the East London Mosque the other day, handing out leaflets explaining their campaign to ‘Make Ramadan a good time to Stop!’ During Ramadan — which is scheduled to begin at the end of next week — pious Muslims must not eat, drink, smoke or engage in sexual intercourse between dawn and the evening breaking of the fast. And health campaigners would like to persuade Muslim smokers that Ramadan is the perfect time to quit smoking completely. According to NHS statistics, 22 per cent of deaths in Tower Hamlets (where I live) are smoking-related, compared with 18 per cent for London as a whole. As Jill Goddard, tobacco control lead for NHS Tower Hamlets, told the East London Advertiser, ‘Tower Hamlets has some of the highest smoking rates in London and within the Bangladeshi community one of the highest in the country.’ I have lost count of the number of times I have seen young Bengali boys — and they always are boys — puffing on a cigarette as they make their way home from school in the afternoon. Doubtless they think that smoking is cool, but the mosque and their elders could usefully tell them: it ain’t cool, it’s potentially lethal.

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