Monthly Archives: May 2011

Serious Rape Ignorance

by Anne Archist

Ken Clarke has made the headlines in the past few days due to a serious of what could be called pseudo-gaffes. I won’t go into all the details as it’s easy enough for people to read about it here, here or here, though that last one has a very misleading title at the time of linking. Hell, you could even read about it on a left-wing blog, I’m sure, though I don’t remember seeing any other than here. Rather than outline what happened, I want to give a short commentary on the lessons and implications.

The first is that Clarke evidently didn’t actually know what ‘date rape’ meant, as he later admitted; he was under the impression that ‘date rape’ was the term applied to consensual acts between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old man. This is worrying in its own right, particularly in light of how often he must have heard statistics about date rape in his long career and misinterpreted them (e.g. the fact that the majority of rapes are “date rapes” in the common loose sense that they are perpetrated by acquiantances, lovers, relatives, etc – exact statistics vary depending on how you measure it, but every source I’ve seen puts it at more than 50%).

I’ve known what date rape was (insofar as these colloquial terms have strict meanings) since I was a goddamn schoolchild, so my mind is somewhat boggled at the prospect that Clarke doesn’t. Let’s be clear about this – he’s a 71-year-old Cambridge-educated man who studied and practiced law, was a Health Minister for 3 years, Health Secretary for 2 years, Home Secretary for a year, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor for a year. In all this time nobody told him what ‘date rape’ meant?

Secondly, it seems as if Clarke is also unclear on how the law stands, though this is a bit of a hazy topic. The law actually refers to his hypothetical case of the 18-year-old and 15-year-old as “intercourse with girl between thirteen and sixteen”, not rape (unlike sex with a girl under 13, which is now called “rape of a child under 13″). ‘Rape’ used as a legal term of art, therefore, would seem to be an inaccurate application in this case. Maybe he was using the word in some kind of loose sense, but that would seem to be at odds with the point he was making, which was that the legal term means something much wider than the general usage “in conversation”.

The exact wording might seem pedantic given that it’s still an offence, whatever it’s called. However, this overlooks the actual status of those hypothetical people in relation to the law. While the man would technically be committing an offence, CPS guidelines should prevent the case from ever getting to court. Many people don’t realise the true extent of what technically counts as an offence precisely because these guidelines are constructed to give some rationality to how the law is applied, so that people aren’t arrested and imprisoned for swearing in public or otherwise subjected to ridiculously inflexible laws.

It’s therefore unrealistic for Clarke to suggest that there are large numbers of people on short sentences for having consensual sex with underage partners who are skewing the average sentence towards a shorter period, as he did. And, of course, if there are such people, maybe he should be doing something about it, as the Justice Secretary – I assume his job includes the task of preventing innocent people being convicted as well as the more frequently-acknowledged task of ensuring that guilty people are convicted…

What really makes my blood run cold in relation to this story, however, is that there has been a public outcry – led by leftists and feminists – in this instance but none in the case of Tony Benn. While a public campaign for Ken Clarke’s dismissal gains momentum (though I expect it will go the way of Theresa May’s), I’ve yet to find even a single newspaper article about the latter; kudos to Zetkin for bringing this to my attention, in fact. This would make a perfect case study of the endemic sexism and opportunism of the left – the SWP and others bay for blood when Clarke implies a difference between “forcible” rapes and other rapes, but when their darling in the House of Lords does the same they laugh along as if they’re watching a Bill Hicks “war on drugs” routine.

For those that don’t know (as I didn’t until today), Benn said at a StWC meeting that “a non-consensual relationship… [is] very different from rape, which, er, most people would understand to be the seizure by force of a woman for the gratification of man’s need” (start watching at 3.05). Note the gendered terms (he’s not generalising here, which is legitimate, he’s defining rape in gendered terms) and the reference to a “man’s need” (yuck); presumably this particular view wasn’t one he shared in the letters to his grandchildren

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Universities to offer ‘Off Quota’ places – could this be anything else than entrenching privilege?

I’m going to speculate a lot in this post, almost to the point of being a conspiracy theorist, but I think it’s important to realize that there must be a rationale behind Tory policy which, at first glance appears to be absolute nonsense. I might be totally wrong about the rationale for ‘off-quota’ university places, but we can’t assume that the Tories are just dumb. On the contrary, they are the most vicious neoliberal, anti-welfare state government since Thatcher, and we need to understand what they are doing before we can have any chance of stopping it.

The Universities minister, David Willetts yesterday announced that students, when applying for an elite university may be given the option of paying very high fees up front (bwtween 12 and 24 grand a year), and will not be eligible for a loan. However, they will have to meet the same entry requirements as everyone else. It’s obvious that this is good for the government and the university as they get more money, and they get it sooner, but what possible incentive do rich parents have for paying tens of thousands of pounds more, when their kids have to meet the same entry requirements as everyone else? We can only conclude that the Tories are assuming that the system will lead to covert erosion of entry standards for off-quota students, encouraging parents to cough up.

However, there must be more to this than making sure that kids with wealthy parents can buy their way into Oxbridge. This isn’t just about Cameron worrying that his new child is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Class, privilege and the Tory project are more complicated than a mere gang of friends in Westminster, the City and the civil service. So, what else might motivate this policy?

First, universities are allowed to offer ‘off quota’ places over and above the limit set by the government for admissions numbers to each university. They will enable an increase of competition between universities, by letting them sell as many places as they want. So this policy can be seen as part of the wider project of encouraging market competition between universities.

Second, this policy may give the elite universities more ability to function without state subsidy – if Oxford and Cambridge find that they can make vast and increasing sums of money from teaching well-educated (if slightly lacking in natural talent) ‘off quota’ students and wealthy overseas students, they may have the confidence to ‘go private’.

Why would the government want elite universities to go private? Let me count the ways: an ideological commitment to privatization and a desire to shift as much responsibility as possible away from government towards private institutions. In addition, the country needs top-class universities to stay competitive, but it doesn’t necessarily need many. Privatisation would allow the creation of a two-tier system composed of cheap (for the government) glorified technical colleges to train the proles and middle classes for the world of work, whilst the private universities obtain heaps of money from rich undergraduates, corporate research contracts and the occasional government contract from say, the Office for National Statistics, or the MoD.

The government will release a white paper outlining this policy in the summer. As one would expect, the coalition is seeking to encourage corporations and charities to sponsor ‘off quota’ places, just like all the social enterprises, businesses and charities that were supposed to fund the free schools. I don’t imagine that the Big Society concept will suddenly start working in the next year or so. I imagine the vast majority of sponsors of ‘off quota’ places will be wealthy parents, or parents who’ve bankrupted themselves trying to get the best for their child. Even if corporations are willing to shell out sixty grand to train a single graduate employee (because they’re in really short supply now, right?), the graduate in question would experience university not as a mind-expanding three years, but more like a prolonged corporate training course. Yawn.

I intend to read every word of this summer’s Higher Education White Paper, as it may signal the final piece of government policy required to transform our university system into a clone of the US system.

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An analysis of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections

by Liam McNulty

In many ways last week’s election in Northern Ireland cemented several trends which have been under way for years.  Most obviously, the dominance of the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, continues.  Despite the Robinson affair at the beginning of last year, the DUP added two seats to their total, bringing them up to 38 on a similar vote share to 2007.  Sinn Féin, too, increased their representation on a slightly higher vote share.  Both the UUP and the SDLP lost 2 seats and will be wondering if they can ever close the gap on their Executive rivals.

A more recent trend has been the growth of the Alliance Party, adding 2.5% and 1 seat to its 2007 total.  This can be in part attributed to the higher profile of both Naomi Long and Justice Minister David Ford, as well as the relative stability of the power-sharing institutions which clearly favours a party more concerned with building on the status quo than raising the constitutional issue.  Although they have cemented their base in the east coast of the North, the challenge now will be for Alliance to spread out into constituencies such as East Derry or Upper Bann.

Although the SDLP also lost support, its situation is arguably not yet as critical as that of the UUP.  Despite the 1% drop in support from 2007, the SDLP still has a solid base in South Down and Derry, it polled strongly in Newry & Armagh and has 3 MPs at Westminster.  Moreover, it remains at least reasonably competitive in Strangford and should have added a seat in South Down.  However, it is certainly a much diminished force and questions have to be asked about its current leadership.  More fundamentally, it risks further marginalisation to pockets of support in the north-west and south-east of Northern Ireland, and perpetual relegation to second place in the Nationalist camp.  Nevertheless, with better leadership and a more professional apparatus it is not inconceivable that the party could pick up some seats or at least stem its slow decline- that is, if it doesn’t rip itself apart over the next period in post-election recriminations.

The same cannot be said of the Ulster Unionists.  It is difficult to identify any major Ulster Unionist strongholds left in Northern Ireland, a situation reflected in last year’s Westminster election wipe-out conducted under First Past the Post without the benefit of DUP transfers.  Tellingly, the only three constituencies where UUP got candidates elected on the first count (Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Newry & Armagh and Lagan Valley) are home either to ministers or party leadership candidates.  A few relatively high profile figures, transfers from other Unionist parties and a diminishing reserve of voters averse to supporting the DUP rabble does not a secure base for a party make…

Also worrying for the UUP is its virtual disappearance from Belfast.  With the loss of Fred Cobain, the party has just 2 of the capital’s 24 seats and even the Health Minister, Michael Gimpsey, only got elected on the 5th count. As Splinty has noted, this reflects the decline of the old ex-Vanguard urban unionism of Trimble and Empey.  Now in control of the party is the rural Border Unionism of Tom Elliott and his busload of pensioners and farmers who arrived at the Waterfront Hall to place him in the leadership.  One could almost hear the ghost of Harry West in Elliott’s ill-advised attack on ‘Sinn Féin scum’, an outburst which must have made hairs bristle in the boutiques of the Lisburn Road and it will no doubt hinder attempts to woo back the Independent former UUP MLA David McClarty.  This sits uneasily with the moderates such as Basil McCrea and Mike Nesbitt, which perhaps explains the contradictory and unfocused nature of the UUP in recent years; on the one hand, presenting itself as a party of non-sectarian civic unionism, and on the other trying to out-bigot the TUV.

The DUP and the Alliance Party have been the main beneficiaries of UUP decline, fulfilling their respective historic missions to rip the populist and liberal wings off the once dominant Unionist Party.  One year on from Irisgate, the DUP looks almost unstoppable in its eclipse of the other Unionist parties.  It managed to win seats all across Northern Ireland, and approaching the hegemonic status of the pre-Troubles Unionist Party, cutting across class and geographical boundaries.  The collapse of the PUP perhaps represents the final nail in the coffin for the populist Unionism of Tommy Henderson and David Ervine, but the declining turnout in working-class Protestant areas is a cause for alarm.

The results for the left were mixed.  Eamonn McCann was the left’s only viable candidate, and even then a victory for People Before Profit in Foyle would have been an upset.  Nevertheless, Eamonn increased his share of the vote from 2010 to a respectable 8%.  Gerry Carroll, also of People Before Profit, scored a commendable 4.8%, which exceeded the combined vote of the far-left in West Belfast in 2007.   A single far-left candidate, perhaps on the model of the United Left Alliance, could on a good day hope for around 8% in that constituency but instead the vote was divided between PBP, the Socialist Party, the Workers’ Party and Socialist Democracy (the Irish section of the Mandelite Fourth International).  Elsewhere, however, prospects are dim although the lower turnout suggests there is a growing amount of people dissatisfied with the current political system.  Whether the support of those people can be tapped is another question.

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We Are London Met Occupiers Evicted

by Liam McNulty

We have just received word that the London Met occupation has been evicted.  The occupation started on Wednesday in response to Vice Chancellor Malcolm Gillies decision to make 70% cuts to courses including Performing Arts, Philosophy and History.  In a statement released by the occupiers, it was noted that:

None of the university teaching staff was consulted about the cuts. A majority of the excellent, dedicated tutors are under imminent threat of losing their jobs. Students already enrolled on the courses face an uncertain future. There have been rumours about transfers to other universities with which WE DO NOT AGREE. This statement is our call for help to save our university, our future and our dreams: to keep London Metropolitan University open to everyone, regardless of their social class, wealth and chosen subject of study

Those who occupied the Graduate Centre of the Holloway Road campus were mainly first-year performing arts students who have been given no guarantees that their course will still exist by the time it comes for them to graduate.  The University is being ripped apart by a Vice Chancellor who wants to turn it into a much reduced institution, orientated towards the market and interested in nothing but turning a profit.

What is happening in London Met is a microcosm of the government’s wider national strategy.  However, writing in a personal capacity for Solidarity last week, LMU Student Union President Claire Locke pointed out the brazen class nature of the attacks on London Met: ‘The people who will be affected by these cuts are students from working-class backgrounds, parents, people who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to university if it wasn’t for London Met.’

From the London Met Facebook page and blog it appears that police officers gained access to the occupation and, together with bailiffs and outsourced security guards, evicted the occupiers under threat of arrest.  In a statement posted tonight, the occupiers say:

The fight for our futures is now hanging in the balance. Please join us for a mass lobby of the Board of Governors on Wednesday at 4.30pm in Moorgate, to make a public protest to save London Met, and call for the resignation of Malcolm Gillies. This is disgraceful behaviour and such actions by Management should not be acceptable in a University environment.

This blog extends its solidarity to the campaign to save London Met.  The outcome of their fight is of the utmost importance to the wider struggle against the government and let it go forward, to victory.

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A Referendum Retrospective

by Anne Archist

The overall result isn’t in yet, but it looks like the no campaign are on course for a 70/30 split victory in yesterday’s referendum. Whatever the exact result, FPTP has definitely taken the day. A substantial majority against AV will secure the tory inclination to spin this as an endorsement of the current system, and to refuse further attempts at reform. The libdems, judging by the local election results and recent polls, are more than decimated and will be in no position to put pressure on anyone for electoral reform agreements; presumably this leaves our only hope of achieving PR in the short term with Labour, among whom there seems to be considerable division on the issue (unlike the libdems), with the LRC seemingly supporting FPTP rather than just opposing AV in the referendum (they repeated false claims by ASLEF that AV “gives some people more votes than others” and their statement generally had the tone of a group quite happy with the status quo, thankyouverymuch).

What can we learn from the referendum, in retrospect? Firstly, the result was probably significantly influenced by utter lies like claims that AV would cost £250m or violate the principle of “one person, one vote”. Secondly, the hypocrisy has been staggering. Labour and the tories both use AV to select their leader, and front-benchers of both parties, as well as some rank and file members of Labour and the vast majority of tory members, supported the no campaign. There’s nothing inherently hypocritical about supporting different voting systems in different contexts, but to do so on the basis that the system is inherently unfair and undemocratic because it gives some people more votes than others (as Cameron and others did) is completely inconsistent.

It’s particularly worrying that the LRC waxed lyrical about “one person, one vote”, given that Labour not only uses AV to elect the leader, but also uses electoral colleges which absolutely uncontroversially do violate that principle (in contrast to AV, which preserves it). There was less objectionable no campaigning from other sources like the RMT – while they also elect their leader by AV, their reasoning was that the referendum was a “distraction”, not that AV was fundamentally unfair. The AWL, CPB, and some others on the left will be celebrating a victory (of sorts!) tonight, but we’ve yet to see whether the reasoning behind their no vote will be borne out in practice – we can assess the help or hindrance this result gives to the cause of PR, and the damage it does to the coalition, but it’s beyond me as to how we’d establish claims that AV would have returned worse governments and so on.

We’ll never know for sure which arguments held most weight with the public, but it certainly seems hard to believe that the poll reflects a fully and honestly informed electorate. If, indeed, about 70% of the public back FPTP purely on the basis that it avoids coalitions and results in strong governments (which as far as I can see was the only argument in favour of FPTP that survives even superficial rational scrutiny), we might as well pack up and hand the country over to the tories and the NF.

Admittedly, there is a generational gap in polls; though PR looks to be even further on the back-burner now, we may see more people becoming comfortable with preferential voting systems over the next decade or two. Interestingly, this may be at least in part due to Labour policies, but not ones to do with constitutional or electoral reform; I’m thinking of their considerable emphasis on more young people going to university, and their devolution of powers.

Regarding the university issue, I’m not saying this because a population with a higher percentage of graduates is better educated and therefore better able to understand the issues – in fact, I doubt this is true except for a very few subjects like economics or maths. The reason that more people going to university could be making a difference is that universities tend to use AV to elect students’ union officers; the more graduates there are in a population, the more people we can expect to have already used AV and therefore got over the barrier of understanding how to mark the ballot correctly, roughly how the votes will be counted, etc. Devolution, of course, has given people in some parts of the UK a chance to get their head around using things other than pure FPTP, particularly in Northern Ireland, where STV is used (more or less identical from the voter’s point of view to AV).

The coming weeks and months should give us a clue as to whether PR will remain a live debate or evaporate into the murky politico shadows it crept from just a few months ago and once again evoke ‘Public Relations’ for most of the electorate. Certainly the former won’t happen on its own – it’s now the responsibility of those on the left that argued for a no-to-AV-yes-to-PR vote to lead  an energetic display of campaigning and debate that will make it impossible for electoral reform to be forgotten amongst the cuts (however much this might piss off Bob Crow), and to give a sharp rebuke to those elements that aligned with them for more conservative reasons, like the LRC.

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Steel City election results

by Edd Mustill

Sheffield is one of those English councils that has “returned to Labour” this week. The party won a comfortable majority at the expense of the LibDems.

The council itself remains Tory-free:

Labour 49 seats (+9) 47.9% (+12.3%)
LibDems 32 seats (-9) 25.9% (-10.3%)
Tories 0 seats (n/c) 11.7% (-2.9%)
Greens 2 seats (n/c) 11.2% (+4.9%)
UKIP 0 seats (n/c) 1.8% (-1.0%)
TUSC 0 seats (n/c) 0.8% (+0.3%)
BNP 0 seats (n/c) 0.4% (-3.4%)
Independent 1 seat (n/c) 0.2% (+0.1%)
SEP 0 seats (n/c) 0.1% (+0.1%)

So even though we have a government made up of two of the three big parties, they can only muster between them just over a third of the vote in a city like Sheffield. In a story close to national patterns, the Tory vote changed only modestly, suggesting large numbers of people switching directly from the LibDems to Labour.

Although much of leafy West Sheffield with its detached houses stayed yellow, Labour did take seats in Broomhill and Crookes (areas with significant student populations whose allegiance was perhaps with Clegg until… you know), as well as Nether Edge. Gleadless Valley with its public sector workers went back to Labour, as did working-class Hillsborough.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is due to the LibDems coalition with the Tories, Clegg’s own unpopularity, the Forgemasters episode, the lack of an economic recovery, etc etc. If anything, I’m surprised that a quarter of voters still backed the LibDems, although in some of the poorest wards (Burngreave, Firth Park) they finished bottom of the heap. Up on the Manor, the two national governing parties mustered less than 600 votes between them.

So where is the coalition government’s mandate to make any decisions affecting the working-class North? Non-existent.

Sheffielders experience of Liberal Democrat administration, between 1999-2002 and 2008-11, has only been that nothing changes. Sheffield’s two-party system means that each party gets punished in turn, usually due to something happening on the national stage. In fact, the council defected to the LibDems fairly early on in the New Labour years, back in ’99. So it’s too early to write-off the yellow-bellies completely; they may well come back when Labour get back into power in Westminster. But, across the North (Newcastle, Hull), they have destroyed in a year a lot of the municipal bases they built up over two decades. The longer they remain part of the coalition, they worse it will get for them.

Significantly, the Greens came very close to out-polling the Tories and becoming the city’s third biggest party, although without coming close to taking any more seats. In fact, it’s difficult to see how they can break out of their Central ward ghetto, except maybe by having a go at Broomhill in the next few years. Still, the point should be made that as many people in the city voted for a minor party with one Westminster MP as for the main governing party.

Among the smaller parties, the BNP vote collapsed as it could apparently only muster three candidates. Even in Beauchief and Greenhill they could only attract 262 votes in a ward where, not long ago, the party was polling closer to a thousand. Significantly, they had no candidate in Shiregreen and Brightside where they have achieved big votes in the recent past. The fash have never successfully got a foothold in the Steel City, and they look pretty much finished for now, electorally.

So the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) vote actually eclipsed the BNP, largely thanks to another good vote for Maxine Bowler in Burngreave, but other TUSC candidates (in Graves Park and Gleadless Valley) also recovered some of the votes that were squeezed out in the rush to Labour last year, when the general election was held on the same day.

Ultimately it’s perhaps surprising that the LibDems didn’t suffer even more. Perhaps they have a bigger municipal voter base in the Northern middle class than we would hope, or perhaps this indicates a lack of positive enthusiasm for the Labour Party.

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The Strange Death of Nick Clegg

by Liam McNulty

Polls are predicting a Liberal Democrat wipe-out in today’s local elections.  The party is expected to lose Sheffield, where this blog has already covered Paul Scriven’s antics, and several other councils in the north of England.  Is this the beginning of the end for the Liberal Democrats or am I tempting fate?  But if it is, how will this impact on popular consciousness?  Let’s imagine:

Exam papers

University of Cambridge Historical Tripos 2018, Part I, Paper 6:

1. ‘To what extent is Nick Clegg to blame for the destruction of the Liberal tradition in British politics?’

2. ‘Who is the most inept politician in British parliamentary history?  Candidates may answer with reference to one of the following: (a) Nick Clegg.’

Books

‘Penguin has announced a new edition of George Dangerfield’s classic book ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ with a foreword by  former Liberal Democrat leader and expert in the field, Nick Clegg.’

‘Having reinvented himself as an essayist, failed politician Nick Clegg has been commissioned to write a new introductory chapter to Toby Young’s ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.’  It is understood that the two met after Mr. Clegg opened Young’s free school in West London in 2011.’

‘Failed essayist and politician, Nick Clegg, has entered the world of books with a self-penned work of theology.  Entitled ‘Judas Iscariot: A Defense,’ Clegg seeks to rehabilitate the eponymous traitor with access to new archive material.  Mr. Clegg’s agents refused to confirm the value of the advance paid to the former deputy Prime Minister but sources close to the publisher suggest it was in the region of thirty pieces of silver.’

Definitions:

Clegg (vulgar) -noun

1. A superficial and dishonest politician: You are nothing but a Clegg

Clegg -verb

1. To say one thing and do another.

Cleggmania -noun

1.  Short-lived naive hysteria over the supposed merits of a bourgeois politician.

2.  The name given to the events of 5th May, 2011, when a disillusioned pitchfork-wielding mob drove Nick Clegg out of Sheffield.

Merchandise

‘Nick Clegg was accused of yet another U-turn today after it emerged that the Liberal Democrats had launched a new range of Clegg-themed punchbags.  Sources close to the deputy Prime Minister revealed that, just weeks after Mr. Clegg insisted that he ‘was not a punchbag’, the party’s dire financial position had forced them to market the product after an enthusiastic response from focus groups.  Shoppers have been camping outside Liberal Democrat headquarters since the early morning, indicating that demand is likely to be very high.’

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