Saturday, June 17, 2017

Grenfell: Big Anger or Big Reforms?

We are all angry over the Grenfell Tower fire, but the anger of those who lost loved ones, friends and neighbours is naturally at very high levels.  The energy of anger needs to be channeled, otherwise it turns to destructive behaviour. Many of us were relieved that there were no riots in London last night. Riots are the last thing we need, because riots cause fires, and more fire deaths are exactly what Daily Mail, Sun etc desire in order to put an end to concern about tower blocks.

Anger needs to be expressed, but expression is not enough. 
There must be significant change in the way people are housed and also in the way we live. 

We need to put forward a specific set of policy changes to present to Government - and be seen to be putting them forward.

Here's a few to begin with:

  1. First we must not let the Government delay any action until the Inquest (which is preferable to May's Judge-led Inquiry) has been published. There are plenty of reviews and reports to guide salient action. It is important that action can be seen to be taking place.
  2. People are calling for "Justice for Grenfell". This will take time, But we can easily identify those Ministers who suppressed the Review of Housing Safety. No need to look too far. We have the names of three MPs who failed to act on warnings: "Sir" Eric Pickles,  Brandon Lewis (now Minister for Immigration)  and Gavin Barwell, who is now Mrs May's Strategy Advisor.

    Barwell and Lewis should lose their jobs immediately, as a symbol of contrition of the Government, and  for what has happened. Pickles should lose his knighthood.

    Then there is a large number of committee members in various bodies like the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council and their devolved bodies who made wrong decisions. This is subject to a criminal investigation by the police, and will take time.
  3. Physical changes need to be made to all tower blocks in the country. Already reviews are happening. They need to be quality checked by the Health and Safety Executive.
    Here are them main things to be done:
    a) remove all flammable cladding, replace with inflammable (not just Fire Resistant) material.
    b) Install sprinklers, fire alarms etc
    c) research innovative ways of escape from tall buildings
  4. Review of fire instructions in case of fire, first the "stay put" advice, and then organisation of information and support for survivors
  5. No new tower blocks to be built
  6. National debate over the difficult question of whether the existing stock of tower blocks should be demolished. If they are kept, we should set up community workers and community space in each and every block with the aim of turning them into "vertical villages".
These are a few of the most important points. Many more will emerge in empowered discussion with those immediately affected.

Over and above this matter of accommodation, now is a good time to press for a completely new deal for the working classes. Government should study ways of setting up universal Basic Income, and find ways of providing work for all in the green sector of the economy, namely work that helps with the  healing of society and environment.

These seven (or more) points may seem far-reaching, but they are preferable to widespread riots - or even an attempted insurrection. Anger is unpredictable and destructive. Reform is stabilising and constructive. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Grenfell Tower Fire: is it the beginning of the end for neo-liberalism?

In a nutshell, the Grenfell Tower fire is the end product of Tory penny-pinching, light-touch regulation, and contempt for the poor.

History may see the tragic, preventable fire as the beginning of the end for the false ideology of the neo-liberal elite. Chameleon-like it exists under many names, individualism, neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, free market fundamentalism, small statism, Ayn Randism, but in the end it boils down to one thing: the rich are free to do as pleases them, and the poor can feck off and die.

There are, of course, decent people in the Conservative party, but as someone pointed out recently, they have their integrity, but it is the integrity of a piece of sweetcorn in a turd. Here, for instance, is Cameron (an innocent in comparison with May) proudly aiming to "kill off the safety culture".

The Grenfell atrocity was preventable. The fire spread through the flammable cladding applied in a recent refurbishment. Cladding consists of aluminium sheets enclosing a material either plastic or fire-proof mineral fibre. 

You don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and you do not need to be a fire expert to see that the cladding was responsible for the spread of the fire. The videos show the flames propagating upwards at incredible speed, up the cladding. Concrete does not burn.

The cladding had two purposes, for insulation, fine, but also for aesthetic reasons. It was the only one of Kensington's blocks to have the flammable type of cladding.

Q1 Was it chosen for its colour, to please the rich inhabitants of Kensington? 

Q2 Or was it chosen because it was £2 a sheet cheaper, saving £5000 in a £10 million refurbishment?

Q3 Who made the decision to use flammable cladding?

Flammable cladding has been implicated in many fires already:

These cases should be enough for competent fire safety professionals to advise Government and Local Authorities to insist on totally fire proof (ie mineral) cladding.

Q4 Did professional officers advise decision-makers clearly of the dangers in flammable cladding? If not they were professionally negligent.

Q5 Did decision makers (usually politicians) ignore professional advice? If so, they should be prosecuted.

The coroner at Lakenal incident wrote to Eric Pickles, the Community Secretary, with a set of recommendations. Pickles rejected the coroner's call for retro fitting sprinklers in social housing, and also dismissed calls for landlords to provide more info to aid firefighters.

Q6 Does Pickles still stand by his decision?

After Lakenal the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group ordered a review of fire safety in social housing, but this Review has been suppressed by a series of Housing Ministers, including Brandon Lewis and  Gavin Barwell, who lost his MP seat in 2017 and was immediately appointed by the Maybot to position of her own strategy advisor. (Another error of personal judgment by May along with Johnson, Hunt, and Gove).

Q7 Will Lewis and Barwell admit they were wrong to suppress the Review?

The Maybot has ordered an Inquiry. Normally, Tories resist Inquiries, but she has been swift to act here. The reason is that Inquiries take a long time to complete compared to a Coroners Inquest. Also Inquests are more free-ranging: Government can set limits to their judge-led inquiries.

Therefore it is vital that the inquiry is not used as a ploy to divert criticism from the Government, and to  delay making towers safe by removing flammable cladding, installing sprinklers, amending stay-put instructions, fitting fire alarms and installing escape technology if possible. These works have to be commenced immediately. The Government will try to stall. It is our job to hold their feet to the fire, and I personally feel strongly that we should do this by holding regular, protracted and persistent demonstrations outside every Conservative Party Headquarters/Association in the land.

There are many aspects to this tragedy, not least the closing of so many London fire stations, but the cladding narrative here is important because it shows so clearly the intolerable failure of the Tory neo-liberalism with its low regulation, penny-pinching, and disregard for the situation of the poor.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Tory Fracking policy

The Tory Manifesto (2017) contains these words on fracking:

click to enlarge

Non fracking drilling will be treated as permitted development. This by-passes planning process. Your house extension needs planning permission. A massive drilling rig does not. Madness.

"Expert planning functinos will be established to support local councils". In other words, commissars will sit in with planning officers and elected members and control their thinking.

A new Regulator will control decisions - again without local democratic control.

Local communities will get cheaper gas. This is the mechanism that has been used in Europe to help acceptance of wind turbines. But while incredibly destructive fracking is backed in this way by the Tories, onshore wind power is denied this benefit, and is in fact effectively blocked by the wretched neo-nasty party. 

What can we do to correct media bias?

The Maybot and Lynton Crosby are not the only losers in this general election.

Five billionaires - Murdoch, Rothermere, Desmond and the Barclay brothers - poured millions of words into the minds of the electorate through their newspapers, only to have their neo-liberal propaganda thrown back in their faces by a large section of the voting public. The BBC also showed a clear bias towards UKIP, with a similar lack of success. 

For every single leftish newspaper article read in this country, there are 3 written from a right wing viewpoint.  If the Press in this country had anything like a reasonable balance between right and left, we would be living in a more equal, happier country, and a world leader in human rights and sustainability.

It is time that we took action to correct the unacceptable press bias that distorts our politics. We have Leveson to work with, but it is an uphill struggle, because any attempt to change press legislation is viciously criticised by tabloids as an "attack on the freedom of the Press".

To avoid this, the best place to start, in policy terms is to require that any correction of error should be given equal prominence to the original erroneous article. In other words, you put up a false front page headline, you put up a front page headline correcting it. This will counteract the problem of tabloids printing a lie prominently, then correcting it weeks or months later on page 94. It will also make journalists check their accuracy far more thoroughly than they do at the moment. 

This will take time. While we wait, perhaps the place to start is in our local newsagents. If we see offensive headlines on the news stands, there is nothing to stop us from collecting up the stack of papers, taking it to the sales person, and asking them quietly but firmly to keep them under the counter. 

Maybot and Crosby will not like this. But their opinion does not matter as much today as it did last week.

[This was published as a letter in the Guardian]

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Terrorism and nuclear deterrence in the 2017 General Election

Big weapon 

Big weapon

Terrorism and nuclear deterrence have been big issues in this election. The debate has been very low-budget, dominated as it is by sloganeering and point scoring, primarily from the Conservative Party, and stage-managed by  mainly  right-leaning journalists and interviewers.

The reality of what happened in Manchester and London is only just beginning to sink in to our national psyche.

It is neither true nor helpful to repeat the cliche "This has nothing to do with Islam". It is a statement deployed by liberals and moderate Muslims in direct opposition to the ugly emotional response of generalised hatred coming from the Right. It is still not true, and weak arguments do not help the progressive case - in fact, it just makes the right more angry.

Islamic terrorism does have to do with Islam. The bastards who murdered in Manchester and London may be criminals, but their criminality (and suicidal tendencies) are also mentally infected  with, and made worse by, violent jihadism. They may not have much in the way of Islamic scholarship, but they are in the sway of Salafism and Wahabism, both of which are based in a thread of Islamic tradition which is present in a significant numbers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere.

Therefore the Muslim community has a duty to help, and the most effective thing they could do is to declare a fatwa on terrorism. There has been some good news this week: 31 Islamic scholars have declared a fatwa against terrorism in Pakistan. Sadly, this has not been picked up by journalists here in the UK. We, the people, have a duty to ask our local mullahs and imams to do the fatwa. It's not going to stop terrorism in its tracks, but it must surely reduce the number of young recruits to the ranks of Daesh.

To balance things up, and to quash any sense of moral superiority, we should, at the same time ask our local vicar, pastor and priest to declare that nuclear deterrence is unChristian.

Christian fundamentalists do not nowadays cut off the heads of prisoners, or stab civilians.
On the other hand, they (and some Christian "moderates" too) do tend to adhere to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence is deferred terrorism. When deterrence breaks down, (which will almost inevitably happen at some time), the whole world is plunged into nuclear war, which is a war against civilians (and  also, incidentally, a war against God's creation, in the Christian and Muslim view).

Therefore the difference between Islamic jihadists and Christian nuclear deterrence supporters lies between in real time personal atrocities and a deferred, far greater, universal atrocity. There is no moral superiority. You support nuclear deterrence? You support deferred terrorism. If we condemn terrorism, we must actively work for nuclear disarmament.