The Campaign For Real Democracy

At this time of year a lot of people assess where they want to be in a year's time. I think politically for those of us on the left of politics, what happens in the next year is absolutely crucial to what direction politics takes for a very long time.

The right have dominated for a very long time now, even when we had a Labour government and even though we currently have a Democratic President. This year more than ever we can see how our right wing press is run like a protection racket, blackmailing and bribing our politicians. The day the press all turned on Clegg during the election was the funniest example of Tory bias. Will the people continue to tolerate a 'free press' owned almost entirely by 4 billionaires and headlines that reflect their tax averse priorities. In fact we must remember that even that is incorrect, because these wealthy people living abroad have no problem with high taxes on the lowest earners, as long as they at the top are left alone. So we head inexorably towards a US style tax system where the US median earner pays more than the average Brit yet gets no decent health service or state education system, let alone welfare. Rich people like money spent on defence and law and order, but hate pretty much everything else. They figure they are paying for other people's services - 60% of people get more back than they pay in. But what price a decent safety net even for those doing well?

So, the questions seem to be; how do we get the rich to pay their taxes and how do we reduce inequality? I think the answer for the left, is not just to represent the 99%, but to persuade the 1% that paying taxes is also in their interests. Even if the Occupy movement achieve nothing else, at least they have put inequality back on the agenda.

The big problems as I see it are; an overcomplicated tax and benefit system that annoys all and fails to achieve even the most basic aims of society. There is also talk of 'a culture of greed' both at the top and bottom of society, a media that feeds this selfish attitude and is corrupting and corrupted by the powerful elites in our political and judicial system. Inequality seems only to perpetuate itself unless something dramatic alters course.

So to the Labour party and Ed Miliband. First of all, Ed has to learn some hard lessons from the failure of new Labour to control the media and tame the very rich. Ed has to be prepared to go against what his focus groups tell him. He has to start taking real risks, he has to lead public opinion not just follow it. Because one thing is sure, opinions do change and you need to anticipate this before the media do. Yes, all Labour leaders have a lot harder job than any Tory, because the media will never be their friends and the concentration of media ownership especially with so much local media now in fewer Tory supporting hands is something that Labour have to tackle. That will not win them any friends and somehow it has to be done without Labour facing accusations of censorship or political interference. Here are my suggestions for what it is worth.

1. Vocally support the coalition where their policies lean to the left; so support Ken Clarke in reducing prison numbers, lowering sentencing and even fewer police numbers. Support the abolition of legal aid. Anything that is truly liberal. Not only will this guarantee attention from the media (obviously negative, but you never get positive attention anyway in the long run), it will strengthen the leftist rebels in the government and help schism. It will also show the public in no uncertain means that you will go against public opinion and demonstrate you as a strong liberal. Obviously this is a risk.

2. Defend Gordon Brown where you need to. Explain constantly that you reject in strong terms any indication that the deficit is "labour's fault". State that before the crisis hit Brown borrowed less every year than John Major did and also the obvious fact that the banking crisis has led every country to take on bankers debts and that that is the real reason for the crisis and not spending on essential public services. We still spend less than most of Europe on health and education etc.

3. Back the strikes and back the occupy movement and do it with real conviction. Explain however that you are for the 100% not the 99%. Even the wealthy 1% can benefit from the social cohesion and economic efficiency that reducing inequality will bring. Explain in detail how you are going to radically alter the tax system, how you will tax the 'bad' and exempt the 'good'. So expect tax cuts for R&D, wealth creating income and profit. Taxes that the big guys/companies no longer seem to have to pay anyway. Taxes will focus on 'unearned' speculative income and land values and taxes that cannot be avoided. Also tax will have to become more redistributive, so regressive taxes like VAT and council tax will have to be reduced if not abolished. A 2% land value tax and 0.05% financial transaction tax will raise enough revenue to fund a small citizen's income for all equivalent to dole. This would remove one benefit trap as dole is paid regardless of unemployment. Miliband should also reinforce the view that ALL means testing is bad, much cheaper to have universal benefits that avoid the stigma of testing all. The Tories and Lib Dems will come for bus passes and winter payments first but then what next; the NHS? If they want to make the rich pay more then up their taxes - much easier and more efficient and without putting any stigma or hassle on the poorest.

Anyway, happy xmas and new year to you all. Here's hoping some of this becomes true in 2012, but I'm not holding my breath.

PS. Also just to mention once again that the all 17 countries will remain in the Euro. Reading the media you would think the Euro breaking up is a certainty, but as I have explained before, devaluation is only a short term help and setting interest rates is over-rated as you still have to follow the big countries rates anyway.

PPS. What this government is doing to our electoral system is disgraceful. Not only did we reformers lose the referendum on AV, but the Tories are making the present system more undemocratic by removing 10 million from the registered rolls by making it harder for them to register and removing the legal requirement. So the 2015 boundaries will be bigger, more remote from voters and ignore 3.5m unregistered adults of voting age. In 2020 this will rise to 10m unregistered voters rights removed by enlarging their constituency. The job of MPs in poorer areas with these massive number of adults without a say will be even harder. Won't affect any Tory MPs though as the poor never vote for them anyway.

A very Merry Christmas!

A very Merry Christmas to everyone.

Keep in mind the fact that the Son of Man, the Christ who lived and was executed by the government of His day, was a great leader, and leader of the common people. It was his great message of Love and Brotherhood which brought him to his death. He knew the poor of the earth were oppressed by the rich and wealthy, and in scathing terms denounced the money changers and all those who defiled the Temple and brought suffering to starving humanity.

George Lansbury, 1926.

How Conan Doyle's detective destroyed Jeremy Brett

 This piece of mine on the late, great Jeremy Brett, appears in the Sunday Express.

With a movie and TV series based on Sherlock Holmes out soon, Neil Clark recalls Jeremy Brett and the sacrifices he made to be the greatest Baker Street detective.

This weekend the latest Sherlock Holmes film, ‘A Game of Shadows’, starring Robert Downey Jnr in the title role, opened in cinemas across Britain.  The New Year meanwhile sees the return of Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC‘s series ‘Sherlock’.  Overall, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective has been played by more than 70 actors on the big and small screens but for Sherlockians-the hardcore fans of the pipe-smoking Victorian sleuth, one stands out from all the rest for his portrayal: Jeremy Brett. 

Brett played Holmes in 36 one-hour episodes and five feature length specials on ITV between 1984 and 1994, programmes which are still regularly broadcast all over the world today. Brett’s Holmes is widely regarded to be the definitive version; the closest to the Sherlock Holmes in the original stories.

Brett was a perfectionist who took his role seriously but he paid a terrible price for his art. In a story as fantastic as any of Conan Doyle‘s tales, the brilliant but melancholy detective took over the life - and mind- of the sensitive British actor who played him.

"Holmes was a shell in which he (Brett) began to live. The dark, cerebral detective sometimes took him over, and the actor and the part he played for ten years eventually became one,” says Terry Manners, author of ‘The Man who became Sherlock Holmes- The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett’.

At the time he started playing Holmes, Brett was already a well-established actor. Born Peter Jeremy William Huggins, into a wealthy upper-middle class background in 1933, Brett’s father was the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, while his mother, Elizabeth Cadbury, was a member of the famous chocolate manufacturing family. After attending Eton, Brett set out to be an actor and made his stage debut in 1954. His most famous film role came 10 years later, when he played Freddie Eynsford-Hill in the classic musical My Fair Lady.

In 1982 he was offered the part that was to change his life. Terry Manners says that Brett’s close friend, the actor Robert Stephens- who had played Holmes in a 1970 film, warned him about the demands of the role. “Don’t bloody well do it! You will go into such a pit to get into that man that you will self-destruct“.

For Brett, however, the challenge of playing the great sleuth in the new Granada tv production was too big to pass up. Brett immersed himself in his new role. He re-read all Conan Doyle’s original stories. The producer of the series and his assistants compiled a 77-page ‘Baker Street File’ on everything relating to Holmes’ habits and mannerisms which became Brett’s Bible. “While other actors disappeared to the canteen for lunch, Brett would sit alone in the set’s Victorian sitting room , thinking about Holmes, fretting about him,. Terry Manners records. “Jeremy was anxious to capture not just the darkness and cerebral power of Holmes, but also the period. Day and night he would sit huddled over history books, trying to recapture the Sherlockian 1890s”.

Brett was determined not only to ape all of Holmes’ mannerisms, but to look exactly like the man he was supposed to be portraying. He grew his hair longer and lost a stone in weight to appear as Holmes appears in Walter Paget’s illustrations. His brother even taught him to smoke a pipe.

Brett’s meticulous performances earned him rave reviews. “Brett’s true brilliance is overlooked not because no one says he is splendid but because everyone does”, wrote Kevin Jackson. Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of Sir Arthur, sent him a letter which said : “You are the Sherlock Holmes of my childhood”. Few knew the stresses that the actor was under however. The death of his second wife Joan from cancer in 1985, pushed Brett into depression. Playing Holmes added to his anguish. “Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played — harder than Hamlet or Macbeth. Holmes has become the dark side of the moon for me. He is moody and solitary and underneath I am really sociable and gregarious. It has all got too dangerous”, he admitted.

After suffering a nervous breakdown, Brett spent eight weeks at the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in London. He was diagnosed as a manic-depressive.

Brett’s mental torment took a toll on him physically. The lithium which he was prescribed for his depression made him appear bloated. During the filming of the last Holmes series in 1993, Brett, whose heart had been damaged by childhood illness, arrived on set in a wheelchair and needed an oxygen mask. When the programmes were televised, fans were shocked at his physical deterioration. Those who worked on the set with Brett, and who loved him for his generosity and kindness, were greatly saddened at his decline.

Brett died from heart failure in London in September 1995, aged just 61.

“Some actors fear if they play Sherlock Holmes for a very long run the character will steal their soul, leave no corner for the original inhabitant", he said in one of his final interviews.

As the latest incarnations of the world’s most famous detective appear at the cinema and on our television screens over the festive season, let us remember the ultra-dedicated professional who gave everything he had in his ambition to be the greatest Sherlock Holmes of them all.

Let's hear it for Ed Miliband (and not just because it's Christmas)

This piece of mine appears in The First Post/The Week.

Neil Clark: Ed has become the equivalent of Stoke City – we're told they have no style but they keep winning

HE'S A 'WASHOUT'.  His prospects are "bleak". He's the man "with the word 'Loser' printed on his forehead". He's the geek "who can't even get being a geek right".

Reading newspaper commentators opine about Ed Miliband and his leadership of the Labour Party you'd think that the party had actually lost last week's Feltham and Heston by-election.

In fact Labour won it with an 8.56 per cent swing from the Conservatives. The party's share of the vote increased from 43.6 to 54.4 per cent and its majority rose from 4,658 to 6,203.

You can read the whole of the piece here.

Vaclav Havel: Another side to the story

This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

Neil Clark: The Czech leader was a brave man, but the voices of those who lost out after communism's demise are seldom heard

He was the symbol of 1989, the anti-communist playwright who helped free his country – and the rest of eastern Europe – from Stalinist tyranny and who put the countries that lay behind the iron curtain on the road to democracy.

So goes the dominant narrative of the life of Václav Havel, the former Czech president, who died on Sunday aged 75. Havel, we are told, was a hero and one of the greatest Europeans of our age.

But, as with the recent consecration of Christopher Hitchens, another "progressive" opponent of the communist regimes of eastern Europe who found favour with Washington's neocons, there is another side to the story.

You can read the whole piece here.

Iraq: The Supreme International Crime that remains unpunished

 So the last US troops are leaving Iraq. Supporters of the war would like us to ‘move on’ and forget the illegal invasion- the porkies told about Iraqi WMDs to justify it- and the death and destruction it caused. 
But until those responsible for this great crime are brought to justice we must never do so.

It’s timely to remember the words of Robert H. Jackson, Chief U.S. Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

Europe needs an FDR to break the mould and bring prosperity

This article of mine appears in the First Post/The Week.

Neil Clark: Under Sarkozy and Merkel, all Europe can look forward to is years of unemployment and falling living standards.

WHILE most of the attention in Britain has been focused on the domestic political implications of the Cameron-Clegg split over Europe, the bigger, more important story is what the EU leaders actually signed up to last week.

You can read the whole piece here.

Why The Euro Will Not Collapse.

I didn't explain clearly in the last post why I think the Euro will survive, so here goes.

The Euro is a political project first and an economic one second. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a weakness because there will always be a reluctance for individual nations to commit financially to the project. So the stability and growth pact was broken - even Germany and France failed to stick to the rules on borrowing, yet alone the 'club med' countries.

There was never a recognition (or large enough central fund to redistribute) that could cope with very different economies, cultures and languages. This was always going to restrict the mobility of labour needed to allow for a single market/currency zone. But it is also a strength because ultimately when it comes to the choice between a united Europe or a fractured one, from Italy to France, Germany to Spain they will choose the former. Germany certainly played a brinkmanship game over funding Greek debt but it had too much to lose by any country leaving.

And that is the crunch, leaving the Euro wouldn't solve any debt problem. Yes they could devalue but the power to set your own interest rates is overstated. Interest rates would still follow the major economies anyway (that is why from the US to EZ to UK rates only vary 0.5%. The costs of leaving the Euro would be astronomical. The markets may wish for a Euro crash, but it just ain't going to happen. Cameron has just bet the UK economy on a Euro collapse. Both him and his Daily Mail, Murdoch Tories are going to be sorely disappointed and every Brit except perhaps a few hedge fund managers are going to suffer as a result.

The odds that the Euro will collapse are virtually zero.

Even the bookies are giving odds of 3-1 against and we all know they take no risks. The truth is a Tory leader has been here before. Knowing that a European bloc off its coast cannot be ignored but by wishful thinking just hoping it will be a failure and go away. We walked away from the Treaty of Rome. But eventually we realised that of you can't beat them better join them. Only on the inside could we at least shape the direction of this monster devouring our power and influence.

As an anonymous French diplomat said; Cameron is like a guy who wants to attend a wife swapping party but refuses to bring his wife. So the EU is dead, or to be precise now only has one member, the other 26 will form the super EU. Cameron is hoping that his hedge fund buddies are safe, but even in putting these elite few who constitute less than 1% of GDP, he is going to prove disastrous. A financial transaction tax will stabilise markets from their destructive behaviour. When Cameron realised he had no allies he could have set the level very low, rather than the higher level we will eventually have to accept. This whole episode will prove to be very costly for all of us in the UK. Cameron has sold us down the river.

How I'd stop neoliberalism in its tracks

This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website:

Neil Clark: If I had a Tardis, I'd save the world from the relentless march of neoliberal capitalism by going back to the 1970s

So, we're heading back to the 1970s. Well, at least that what some respected economic pundits are saying.

Of course, they're speaking metaphorically, and in fact the nearest we're going to get to the 70s is watching the regular Thursday night repeats of Top of the Pops on BBC4 and the Saturday night reruns of Dad's Army. But if it were possible to travel back in time to the decade of flared trousers, Opportunity Knocks and Fawlty Towers, I'd set the controls of my Tardis to 1 March 1973.

Here's why.

You can read the whole of the piece here.

Aung San Suu Kyi: It Ain't Half Hot Mum fan

I’ve always had enormous admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi. (you can watch a great John Pilger interview with her here). But she’s gone up even more in my estimation now….

Labour Will Struggle Unless They Shoot Down Deficit Lie.

It doesn't matter how right Labour are proved about the Coalition's slash and burn approach to the deficit if people believe that the deficit was Labour's fault in the first place. As Cameron and Osborne persist in destroying public services under the guise of responsible deficit reduction, the economy is going into a downward spiral. Reduce demand by sacking hundreds of thousands in the public sector and far from stimulating the private sector, it not surprisingly drags it down. And without growth, the deficit won't go down either. Labour will win the argument that the Tories and their Lib Dem sidekicks have cut too fast and too drastically. Labour might even win the argument that this was an ideological decision. But they will struggle to win support if people believe the deficit was created by Labour in the first place.

It actually wouldn't be that difficult for Labour to argue their case, but strangely they have given up the ghost and allowed the media and government free reign to claim that Labour overspent so therefore we have to tighten our belts. On first inspection this sounds very plausible to most voters, but as soon as we consider some actual facts it quickly looks very absurd.

1. In 2008 when the financial crisis hit, both the Tories and Lib Dems were still claiming they would maintain Labour spending on public services. Strangely this fact has disappeared from the media. If they believe Labour had overspent why would they claim to match their spending?

2. Just before the banking crisis hit, the national debt was actually lower than Labour had inherited off the Tories at around 37%!

3. The financial crisis has hit the entire developed world, even the most die hard Tory would struggle to claim that Labour spending policies in one small country off Europe - i.e. the UK have affected the whole world. So to blame Labour for the crisis just seems wierd.

4. Finally, government debt only ballooned when it had to take on the private sector debt of the banks. You can blame Labour for not regulating enough, but the only voices advocating that were on the left, certainly not from the hedge fund bankrolled Tories.

Imagine if Labour had not increased spending AT ALL on public services in its 13 years in office. Well for a start I don't imagine that would have gone down well with voters who in 1997 were crying out for investment in health, education and the rest. But leaving that aside, the maybe 200 billion Labour might have saved in expenditure, would still only have made a small dent in the trillions of bad debt the banks had racked up by buying up US and other bad debt in casino style deals.

Which ever way you face it, the problem is not that Labour overspent on public services (we still spend less than the EU average). Yet that Labour spent too much on public services is what most people believe, and until that changes, Labour and Miliband are in real trouble. They have to be clear about this and absolutely refute it when the media and Tory led government try to pin the blame on them. It is rubbish and people need to be told.

Don't Attack Iran: Please sign the Stop the War petition

We are extremely concerned at reports that plans are being drawn up for an attack on Iran. The case being made for war on Iran is based on a series of speculations about 'undisclosed nuclear-related activities' reminiscent of the disproven 'intelligence' about weapons of mass destruction used to justify the disastrous attack on Iraq.

The West's attitude to Iran's nuclear weapons is hypocritical and contradictory. The US and its allies remain silent about Israel's covert nuclear arsenal, the only one in the Middle East, while they are tightening the campaign of sanctions against Iran without real evidence......

You can read the whole of the Stop the War petition (which also calls for the lifting of sanctions against Iran), here. Please spend a moment or so to sign the petition, and tell your friends about it too. We can't allow the serial warmongers to initiate yet another war of aggression against an independent sovereign state.
UPDATE: Great piece by Seumas Milne in today’s Guardian: The war on Iran has already begun. Act before it threatens all of us.

The Green Budget

The Greens have produced a draft budget for Brighton and Hove. They consulted all the political parties, trade unions and voluntary organisations and over 2000 members of the public. They have done the best they can making very tough choices when faced with an unprecedented 33% grant cut from the Tory/Lib Dem government. The largest cut that any local authority has had to face. The greens have published this budget early and in detail and plan to consult even more before finalising in February. This is unprecedented transparency, see their budget calculator here and see if you could have done better than the Greens.

Because a lot of council expenditure is either ring-fenced, locked into long term contracts with the private sector and because council tax is capped to a maximum 3.5% increase. A lot of in-house front line services had to be cut, there was no getting away from that. As Jason Kitkat of the Greens put it, to refuse to comply with government cuts would have meant Whitehall writing the budget. This is what the Tories and Lib Dems call local democracy! Some Localism. Some freedom.

So the local Tories backed by the Tory Argus have attacked the Greens for cutting services and increasing council tax. Obviously the Tories could have frozen tax and maintained services. Will people really swallow that sort of lie? We will find out on 22 December in Westbourne. As for the Argus - lets have an Argus type survey - "The Argus is a lying Tory rag that has completely misrepresented the Green budget. Bearing this in mind do you a: Think they are lying Tory bastards. or b: Think they are paragons of virtue and I will happily give them my wage packet this week to spend as they wish." Not surprisingly the Argus gets the survey results it wants with this type of questioning. The Greens have produced a myth buster to combat Argus lies.

A lot has been made of the Greens refusing the 1 year grant to freeze council tax, supposedly worth 2.5%. But as the Greens rightly recognised, this 1 year grant coupled with the cap on council tax increases would mean depriving the council of even more revenue next year, as any 3.5% increase next year would be from the lower 2010 base losing the council 8% overall and meaning a massacre of services. Precisely what the Tories want.

The Greens have hit parking (hooray!) but as they point out, it is still cheaper here than Lewes or Eastbourne (boo).

The 3.5% rise is below inflation and is one of the lowest increases in council tax since the formation of the city. So not a big increase at all.

The gall of Labour and Tories claiming they could do better is so depressing it is beyond parody. It is appalling that lying is now the chief political tactic to combat the Greens. I hope this tactic is punished heavily by the people of Brighton and Hove. First up, Westbourne where another Tory can be thrown out and replaced with a Green - vote Green on December 22nd.

The west has Iran in its sights

Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya.... and now Iran.

William Hague has denounced the action of the students as a violation of international law. But Iran itself has been targeted for many years by a series of western and UK policies that are gross violations of international law. Repeatedly threatening Iran with a military attack, thinly disguised under the phrase "all options are on the table" and publicly announcing that the west must use covert operations to sabotage Iran's nuclear programme (as John Sawers, the head of MI6, demanded two years ago), are only two examples of the UK's disrespect for the UN charter. It is no wonder that many Iranians believe the UK must have been involved in the assassination of two prominent Iranian nuclear physicists in the past two years.

You can read the whole of Abbas Edalat’s great article on the west’s increasingly aggressive stance towards Iran, and what it is building up to, here.

Abbas is the founder of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran.
Do try and lend your support to their campaign.