Archive for September, 2010

The Wrong Milliband

Posted: September 26, 2010 in Current affairs

So Labour’s elected Ed Milliband as leader….just about.  Cue media questions about legitimacy and authority. Ed just scraped in ahead of David on the back of trade union second preferences. Even worse, he trailed David on both the parliamentary and constituency party vote. This will make it difficult for him to lead from the front in opposition to the coming cuts because the unions, his effective patrons now, are planning a much more radical campaign than envisaged by the party. Can he oppose with any credibility widespread strikes in the public sector? In the very same breath, the media also point out that Ed won the union vote on a very low turn-out! Whichever way they look at it, Ed’s just the Wrong Milliband.

"Take me to your leader!" Will David stick around?


Now, note the framing of these questions. It’s very typical of the mainstream media in general and is based on three underlying assumptions:  first, that cuts to the public sector is the only alternative; second, that the only legitimate opposition to those cuts is through parliamentary debate; and, three, that trade unions are subversive organisations whose planned campaign of opposition to the cuts will drag Britain back to the “winter of discontent” (1978-79) – widespread strikes in essential public services and general chaos. 

Yet, as I’ve argued already in previous posts, there is an alternative to the cuts and it’s through the kind of taxation measures proposed by Greg Philo and others. Up until Vince Cable’s speech at the Lib Dem conference last week, it was barely considered. But I suspect the Tories had to cut Cable some slack, so to speak, and allow him to soothe anxiety among the liberal wing of his party; concern that Lib Dem ministers are being too acquiescent with the Tory cuts agenda. It was all smoke and mirrors, though, and as far as Cameron would ever allow him to go. Going after wealthy tax dodgers and their offshore accounts sounds tough but will make very little impact on deficit reduction. It’s just spin and Cable knows it.

The assumption that opposition to the cuts should only be mounted in parliament is also wrong. It’s not that MPs don’t have an important role to play. They do – but not on their own. And this leads me to the third assumption: that the unions’ planned campaign will bring Britain’s public sector and its essential services to a halt and make it even more difficult to reduce the national debt. This an interesting proposition for its sheer hypocrisy. The government proposes savage cuts to the public sector that will reduce essential services, leave the poorest and most vulnerable in society worse off than before and threaten economic recovery by reducing demand and the tax take. Yet it attacks the unions for planning a campaign that it says will have the same effects!

So where does all this leave Ed Milliband?  With very little room for manoeuvre, I’d say. If he lends explicit support to the union campaign, he will be pilloried by the government, by a good section of his own party and by the media. If he swallows a dose of New Labour pragmatism and buys into the current deficit reduction agenda – we accept the need for cuts but not so fast or so drastic – then he will be seen as expedient or weak or both. Again, he will be the Wrong Milliband.

Ed’s only hope is that the cuts, when they come, will change everything. I can’t help thinking that people in general simply don’t realise how this still  very abstract prospect of cuts will actually affect them. If the cuts are as savage as I fear, then voters might just look to their MPs and ask serious questions. Those in work might just realise after decades of anti-union propaganda that their only protection lies in their union. Or if they work for an employer that bans union membership, they might just take matters into their own hands. In that context, Ed Milliband’s very slim union mandate might not look like such a liability.


My good colleague and friend, Milne Rowntree, is to jump off a 9-floor tower for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. He’s a great guy and I’ll be sorry to lose him but as he said to me over a pint the other day, it’s a good cause and sometimes you have to do these things!  And it IS a good cause – one that could really help someone dear to me.  Have a look at his appeal here and think about donating if you know Milne and/or live in Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland/Occupied northeastern six counties of Ireland! Or just lend him some support via the comment thread to this post. 

I’ll miss the guy, though. And I was on the verge of asking him for surfing lessons! Close call. 

Good luck comrade!

The War on Jobs 4:The Philo Tax

Posted: September 14, 2010 in The economy

Greg Philo, director of the Glasgow Media Group, was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio 2, recently (14 September) to propose an alternative to the current war on jobs and the poor in Britain. His proposal sounds very reasonable: to impose a one-off tax on the top 20% of the British population that owns 62% of the country’s wealth. This, he argues, would more than repay Britain’s £927bn of national debt.  Read all about it here at the Media Group’s website, which includes a specially commissioned YouGov opinion poll and hard figures from the National Statistics office.

It’s a good idea and one I strongly support but it has largely been ignored. I challenge you to find it reported on the BBC’s dedicated website on the impending Spending Review. But what interests me here, though, is the reaction in the media the few times it is considered on air. Philo’s public opinion research suggests widespread approval among the general population: 44% of the sample strongly supported the proposals, while another 30% expressed a tendency to support them. Yet one would think to listen to the pundits that it was an exercise in lunacy that no rational person could consider. 

Opposing Philo on the programme was Vanetia Thompson, an ex-City of London trader and author of Gross Misconduct: My Year of Excess in the City. Outraged, she was! And the fact that Philo took it all in good humour and calmly stated his case just seemed to make it worse for her. This was “the tyranny of the many over the few!” she complained. (Heaven forbid we should have majority rule in a democracy, Venetia! ) “It’s extorting the rich on an ad hoc basis”, she went on, “which is not only unprincipled but grossly unfair!”  Ah bless. But as Greg Philo pointed out, the wealthy have been extorting the less well off for decades to the point where a large section of British society is now in negative wealth, or what’s commonly termed the ‘poverty trap’. 

Venetia was also mindful of the practical problems of putting the plan into effect. Philo’s idea is that the assets of the top 10% or 20% would be valued and taxed by, say, 20%. Venetia wondered how a diamond or a painting could be valued and then taken away from some poor unfortunate in Highgrove or somewhere. Valuers and big lorries, Venetia! The rich use valuers all the time when they need to liquidise some assets for ready cash. And when they put that big Carravagio up on the wall, they do it in such a way that it can be easily taken down again to dust off or sell on. It’s not complicated.

The valuers arrive for a look at Venetia's assets


The thing is, though, Philo is not proposing anything objectively unfair and he’s certainly not advocating evictions or repossession. It’s not revolution yet the argument is always that increasing tax on the wealthiest people damages wealth creation, not that the wealthiest 10%  have a moral responsibility to share wealth more equally via a fair and humane taxation regime. After all, they benefit from the labour of working people and from the perks of wealth in British society including universal welfare benefits. But our Vanetia was having none of it. “You can’t be going round taxing the wealthy for the sake of it!” she protested. Honestly! The next thing, she said, Philo will be wanting to turn Britain into North Korea or  Cuba!

Artist's impression of Venetia after the Philo Tax


And this is the thing. Isn’t it remarkable how a perfectly rational alternative to the impending cuts is regarded by vested interests as irrational, unthinkable and a threat to the national wealth while the current plans to tax the poor and shrink the public sector is accepted without question as the only way?  It’s a classic insight into the very neo-liberal ideology that brought us to the current crisis in the first place and which underpins Cameron’s Big Society.

There’s a very interesting new book just out that takes a critical look at the role of media and culture in the Northern Ireland peace process. Written by Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker, and published by Intellect Books, The Propaganda of Peace examines a range of factual and fictional representations, from journalism and public museum exhibitions to film, television drama and situation comedy. The authors propose a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach to analyzing the role of such representations in communicating what they call ‘the propaganda of peace’. They go on to explore whether it simply promotes conflict transformation or if it actually underwrites the abandonment of a politically engaged public sphere at the very moment when debates about neo-liberalism, financial meltdown and social and economic inequality make it most necessary? The ‘propaganda of peace’, as defined and identified in this book, has been reproduced in different media and cultural forms, supported and sponsored by various political, social and cultural agencies. Nevertheless, it has demonstrated a remarkable unity, narrowing the terms of political debate and shrinking the cultural imagination to promote two complimentary narratives about Northern Ireland’s bright new future. The first, most explicit and immediate narrative was about the need for an end to violence and the achievement of a political settlement between Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist. The second, implicit and far-reaching narrative was about making Northern Ireland fit for integration into the global capitalist system or, as Tony Blair preferred to call it, the ‘civilised world’.

Seen in these terms, Northern Ireland is not only undergoing a peace process aimed at settling its constitutional position. It is potentially undergoing a process of pacification, a denial of politics upon which the free market depends. The construction of a peace process ‘consensus’ has somehow pre-empted the need or desire to question, re-imagine or propose alternatives at a critical moment in history.

Indeed, in his book, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, Eric Hobsbawn considers the prospects for war and peace in the 21st century, pointing out that ‘the more rapidly growing inequalities created by uncontrolled free-market globalisation are natural incubators of grievance and instability’. He was writing at a time when the neo-liberal project still seemed unassailable but the credit crunch and the financial meltdown of September 2008 have thrown it into a crisis of legitimacy, giving rise to what Antonio Gramsci called ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms’. In the specific context of Northern Ireland, such symptoms include increasing sectarian conflict, social exclusion and poverty.  Journalist, David McKittrick, has reported that a total of 1500 sectarian attacks – an average of four a day – took place in there the space of one year (2007/08). Meanwhile, the number of families evacuated from their homes because of intimidation had also risen in that period. (Independent, 14 September, 2008). Yet, according to the authors, these realities were rarely acknowledged in the media and cultural representations examined in this book. Instead, the overwhelming emphasis of the propaganda of peace has been a discourse of ‘no alternative’ – effectively a denial of politics in preference for domesticated consumerism – just at a time when what is really needed, post devolution, is politically engaged public discourse and active citizenship.

 Post script

The Propaganda of Peace went to press before the recent upsurge of activity in the north by the Real IRA. Yet the public reaction to their shootings and car bombs in some ways underlines one of the key arguments of the book. It is as if the peace process has marked for Northern Ireland a cultural year zero, in which the history and politics of the conflict it apparently resolved has been sucked out of public memory, replaced instead with incomprehension and an inability to look at republican or loyalist dissidence, or indeed any other social, economic or political problem, as a sign that the framework of the political settlement is somewhat shaky, the foundations unsound. Only this week, Tony Blair has been promoting his new book, A Journey, in which he confesses to having “stretched the truth a bit” in negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. These developments may have come too late for the book but  they certainly lend the authors’ arguments some extra edge. 

The key themes of the book also resonate internationally.  For example, the authors show how the British state played a key role in helping transform the image of republicans from pariahs to peacemakers, reversing decades of anti-terrorist propaganda in order to justify face-to-face negotiations with them. It may have to do likewise if it is to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan, an eventuality the state is at last coming to terms with. President Obama’s attempt to revive the peace process in the Middle East, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Spain’s response to the ETA’s recently announced ceasefire, will also dictate a radical shift in official positions if they are to bear any palatable fruit. Such contingencies demand that in each case the state provides cues and leads to the mainstream media, helping to transform the atmosphere and create the right mood music.

However, the lesson of the ‘propaganda of peace’ is that the role of the state and the media in conflict transformation is about more than just contingency. Ideally, in a post conflict society, they need to broaden their conception of peace as more than the mere absence of conflict. They need to play a part in accommodating competing visions of a new and inclusive civil society rather than just settle for a one-dimensional political system and integration into a global economy that has since been so fatally compromised and discredited.

 The Propaganda of Peace  is an important addition to the research and literature already published on the role of the media in war and peace in Northern Ireland and should be of interest to scholars in media studies, Irish studies and conflict studies as well as to the media and politicians involved in the process. It should also appeal to grass roots political activists and organisations on the left in the North who object to the way in which the peace has been sold to the voters and need some extra ballast for their arguments. It is available direct from Intellect Books or by order from Amazon or your nearest bookshop for £19.99. 

Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker are lecturers in media studies at the University of Ulster and fellows of the University’s Centre for Media Research.