LYME DISEASE IN UK – 2017

 

Lyme Disease is one of several bacterial infections which can be passed to humans by the bite of an infected tick.  It is important to be aware of it, and the potential risks posed by a tick bite, because it is a multi-systemic infection which can affect the central nervous system, muscles (including the heart) and cognitive function of the brain: it can be severely disabling, long lasting and potentially fatal.  Therefore early diagnosis, and prompt treatment, is crucial to minimising the effects of disease.

Knowledge about Lyme Disease in the NHS Primary Care system is patchy, official advice and guidelines are inconsistent, therefore prompt diagnosis and effective treatment are not assured.  The first line of defence is to avoid being bitten.  Nobody wants to stop people enjoying the open air.  The physical and psychological benefits of enjoying the countryside outweigh the risks, but you need to take sensible precautions.  Wear appropriate clothing: long sleeves, trousers with cuffs tucked into socks: not shorts, sandals and sleeveless ‘crop tops’.  Use a DEET based tick repellent on exposed skin, but remember it may need to be reapplied if you are out all day.

If you might be at tick risk, say on a day out in the countryside, it is good practice to check yourself thoroughly at the end of the day, and at intervals through the day to check your clothes for ‘questing’ ticks.   You may need the assistance of a good friend: ticks can hide in places hard to see.  Remember that a tick which can carry disease may be as small as a poppy seed, but if you find a tick attached don’t panic: they don’t all carry disease.  Although disease transmission can begin in as little as 6 hours, it is as important to remove an attached tick correctly as it is to remove it promptly.  Use of the correct technique, preferably with a purpose designed tick removal tool or needle-nosed tweezers, is vital to avoid crushing the tick and provoking it to pass any bacteria to you. Do not use your fingers, apply creams, Vaseline, alcohol or attempt to burn it off with a match head or cigarette end.

Ticks are not “spreading north”, as has been rather sensationally described recently.  The UK has, and has had for many millenia, ticks widely distributed.  Although we know their preferred habitat is leafy woodland, heathland, and long vegetation, anecdotally ticks are becoming more active over a wider geographical range and longer across the seasons.  Again, anecdotally, 2017 seems to be a ‘bad’ year for ticks.  It is not known whether this is because of global warming, changes in land use, changes in agricultural practices or some other reason.  While there are so-called ‘hot spots’, even within ‘tick country’ like the Highlands, or the New Forest, it is not really known where they are in greater or lesser numbers or whether the ticks there are proportionally more or less infected than elsewhere.  In fact there is no reliably accurate information on the proportion of UK ticks that carry disease.  Estimates range from 2-15%.

The fact is you don’t need to be wild walking or camping to find a tick.  You could get bitten by an infected tick in your urban garden, allotment or an urban park, because they can travel on mice, hedgehogs, domestic pets, urban foxes and even migrating birds.  At present there is no mandatory check for ticks on pets returning from a foreign ‘holiday’ and some species of imported ticks can survive indoors, unlike our ‘domestic’ ticks which need moisture to survive, and they can carry disease pathogens not normally present in the UK.

The official estimate of new cases of Lyme Disease, in the UK, annually is about 3000.  Until very recently the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA estimated cases there as 30,000.  They have revised that to 300,000.  There appear to be more cases Lyme Disease (and other tick borne diseases) in mainland Europe than the UK, but that may be because other countries collect data differently.  The wide range of estimates of new UK cases is, regrettably, just estimates.  Any apparent increase in cases may be down to increased awareness, both in the public and the medical profession.  Since 2010 Lyme Disease has not been a notifiable disease in the UK, unless acquired occupationally when it would be reported to the HSE under the RIDDOR regulations, or in military service.  Data are not collected in the UK unless the disease is confirmed by a UK laboratory blood test.  An unknown proportion of cases are treated on clinical judgement without a confirming blood test.  This needs to change if we are to understand the scale of the incidence of UK acquired Lyme Disease.

Both Public Health England (PHE), and The Big Tick Project (based in Bristol) receive ticks collected by members of the public in the UK.  PHE will examine the ticks it receives to see what disease pathogens they carry.  Anything, like an app, that more reliably records where, and in what numbers,  ticks are found may be helpful.  Indeed there have been apps developed in the UK before, and there are a number of so-called ‘tick MAPS’ to be found on the internet.  Unless the information is properly recorded, in a standard format, it may not provide scientifically reliable data.  Incomplete information can also lull people into a false sense of security if they are led to believe they are in a low risk area.

There is, as yet, no vaccine against Lyme Disease.  Scientists and Doctors are beginning to accept that their previous certainty about detection and treatment of Lyme Disease is less secure.  There is more open-mindedness about the sensitivity and reliability of standard tests.  There is more willingness to consider different drugs, doses, duration and method of delivery of treatment.  There is less certainty than hitherto about the potential for complete cure, about relapses or about the persistence of the bacteria.

Whatever the accurate number of new UK cases, every year there is a fresh cohort of victims: new blood samples, new prescriptions of drugs, new outcomes.  Because there is no centrally directed or co-ordinated recording, monitoring of diagnosis, treatments or outcomes, there is no dataset of Lyme Disease victims available to researchers to see whether one treatment works better than another, whether there is a measurable treatment failure rate, or for evidence of relapse or post-treatment persistence.

A large number of Lyme ‘victims’ have, over many years, reported persisting illness despite approved treatment.  Naturally, in desperation, and with the help of the internet, they look elsewhere for help.  This has led to a rise in the number of ‘alternative’ or ‘unorthodox’ treatments being offered and tried.  While, for the most part, there is little evidence that these work it is well to remember that “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence”.  In due course it may be proven, by more research and clinically controlled double-blind trials, that there is scientifically replicable evidence.  Without such evidence the orthodox medical community, and regulatory bodies, will always rely on the official guidance.

The longer someone has disease without treatment, the more intractable it can become.  Given the potentially large number of under, or undiagnosed, victims there may need to be more work on so-called late stage, or disseminated, Lyme involving referrals to specialist clinics and a multi-disciplinary approach.  One of the things we do know is that, amongst recorded and confirmed cases, the age group most at risk of developing the disease appears to be 45-64.  We do not know why this is, but we do know that we have an ageing population so it is not unreasonable to extrapolate from this that, if for no other reason, there will be more cases in future.

I Robot, You Robot.

I’ve just been watching a worrying short item on the BBC’s technology prgramme ‘CLICK’.  It was about robots replacing humans in more and more jobs. Nothing new there, you might think.  After all, we have become used to robots in manufacturing, where they have been replacing repetitive manual tasks since as long ago as the industrial revolution, improving the human condition by replacing humans in jobs where the environment is hazardous.  However it is predicted that by 2030, yes 17 years from now, 30% of all jobs currently performed by humans, in America at least, will be performed by robots.  There is already a debate going on, predictably led by California, about…..wait for it…..the loss of tax revenue from people no longer in work.  One suggestion is that the robots should, themselves, be taxed and the revenue raised used to retrain the displaced humans.

The problem, as I see it, is that the social consequences of, and reaction to, increasing automation are now potentially as serious as those faced by the cotton weavers who were confronted by the invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny in the 18th century.  And this is why.  The ever-increasing rate of technological ‘advance’ is allowing ‘robotisation’ of tasks that are not repetitive but require decision making, adaptive (learning) response and predictive ability:  we are talking not about robots but artificial intelligence.  We’ve already seen the squeezing out of clerical jobs formerly held by the moderately educated working class.  Face-to-face interactions have been largely replaced by menu driven telephone and internet contact.  Even those that retain jobs where customer contact is required are subject to the sort of reliance on automation as parodied by David Walliams’ comedic character who says “Computer says no”.  Everything is subject to automation: farming, retailing catering, even fighting wars, are already being stripped of humans.  Robot delivery of goods bought from an entirely automated warehouse is being trialled, along with driverless cars.  Pilotless airliners are, and have been for years, entirely technically feasible.  Even nursing and some medical interventions are being automated.  The upward pressure of artificial intelligence is moving inexorably on to squeeze the educated middle class.  The technically competent will be deployed devising and maintaining the robots, but what will the ‘thinkers’ do?

The idea that humans doing low grade, low income, low satisfaction work, will somehow be released by automation into a utopian world of creativity is laughable.  It’s not, and never has been since the days of Spinning Jenny, about  change for the benefit of society: it is, and has always been, about productivity and profit.  How to make more money for less investment. What then of those whose educational attainment is not suited to this world?  How will the politicians, the industrialists and the financiers, ensure that the displaced still have a living wage?  If they have been superseded by a machine, on the basis that the machine will be cheaper per transaction (whatever that ‘transaction’ is), how will they be paid more than the machine ‘earns’?  It makes no sense.

And so I return to the title of my piece.  “I Robot, You Robot”.  Isaac Assimov wrote “I Robot”, but from H.G. Wells’s “Time Machine” to Philip Dick’s “Blade Runner” and James Cameron’s “Terminator” the world of literature and film has been describing a dystopian future where a disatisfied underclass rebels against the machines and their guardians.  It used to be called Science Fiction, but look around; it doesn’t seem much like fiction any more.

 

Grenfell Tower – A Tombstone for Austerity?

Image from ‘The Grocer’

The disastrous, multi-fatality, fire in a London residential tower block exposes more than questionable building practice.  With any luck it may, just may, also finally drive a stake through the still twitching heart of Austerity.

On the night of 13/14 June Grenfell Tower, 24 storeys of flats in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, caught fire.  At the time of writing it appears the fire started accidentally in one flat on the 4th floor.  There are unsubstantiated suspicions of arson, perhaps because the block seemed almost to be home to many ethnic minority families, some of them refugees.  It is critically important that the Fire and Police authorities establish (and hopefully rule out) whether the cause was deliberate but the painstaking forensic work to prove, or disprove, arson has added to the slowness of the recovery operation.  This slowness added to frustrations which boiled over into direct action and the storming of the Town Hall.

Whatever the cause, the fire took hold and spread with astonishing speed and, despite heroic efforts of firefighters, the result has been scores of deaths and injuries and hundreds more made homeless.  The shell of the building will probably be demolished but perhaps part of it should remain, Reichstag-like, as a permanent reminder of the obscenity of Austerity: a symbolic headstone for one of the most unfair and divisive policies of our times.

Questions are being raised about the safety of similar high-rise residences, and especially local authority social high-rise residences, all across the UK.  As the initial shock subsided, anger appeared.  Anger directed at government (local and national), at architects, building contractors, indeed at anyone who represented authority who, however well intentioned, appeared at the scene to offer ineffectual sympathy and support.  This anger has already been seized on by groups who have taken advantage to promote a political agenda.

What we have seen, though, is the paralysis of parts of the local and national government system.  It seems unable to act in a coherent and effective way, and yet there are co-ordinated and rehearsed response plans for tragic events which result in mass casualties, like terrorism, a train or plane crash, or a sports stadium fire.  These plans derive from, or are refined because of, previous events where procedures were found wanting.  In this case, however, the authorities seem to have been totally unprepared and, worse, made incapable of responding by not having resources (physical, financial and especially human).  Faced with hundreds of people evacuated from the fire in their nightclothes, who had lost everything including the lives of family members, they appeared to not know what to do.  It was left to the community itself to respond with water, food, clothes and even shelter.  The immediate, and urgent, need to distribute casualties to hospitals across London, many of them unidentifiable or incapable of identifying themselves, led to mass uncertainty about the numbers, identity, and whereabouts of survivors.  The apparent systemic failure to track, and keep track of, people has added to the anger.  Furthermore, the event has exposed an uncertainty about who was in the building in the first place.  Some flats were owner-occupied, presumably sold off under Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” legislation.  Questions about who was entitled to be there, who may have been visiting legitimately, who was absent for any reason, who might have been ‘camping’ unofficially with friends or relatives, who may have been illegally sub-letting from the rightful tenant appear, so far, to be unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.  We may never know, and we may never even know the identities of those persons whose bodies are recovered.  If the building collapses spontaneously before all the victims are recovered, we may even not have a total number of bodies, never mind all the identities of victims.

At the heart of this is the housing crisis:  in a major city, with high numbers of transient people, there will always be some who ‘bend’ the rules.  It is inevitable.  However when housing provision is inadequate (in quality, quantity and affordability), the pressure to do so is increased.  Starved of funds to build, maintain, and manage housing stock many local authorities have been forced to pass on these responsibilities to arms-length groups or the private sector, a private sector primarily driven by profit rather than public service.  In the case of Grenfell Tower, the building was maintained and managed by The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO).  Ostensibly such an organisation is devolutionary: it is meant to improve democracy, to make the tenants themselves more directly involved in decision making, priority setting, maintenance and tenancy management.  It is meant to be more responsive than a town-hall based bureaucracy but, in reality, it devolves the management to people who may well be ill-equipped to handle it, leaving only a ‘rump’ of administrative expertise and support to liaise with them at the town hall.  And, of course, it is intended to save money.  This is especially a feature of post-financial crash local government: Austerity has seen local services closed down, or taken on by charitably funded volunteers.  Taking on a local library or swimming pool is one thing, running a large housing project is another thing entirely.  I have no way of knowing if this played a part in Kensington and Chelsea, but certainly local authorities across the country have been stripped of experienced housing officers, building inspectors and other professionals, like Architects and Surveyors, while their work has been sub-contracted.  In the case of Grenfell Tower it seems the building was recently refurbished, part of which was the over-cladding of the structure with insulated panels to improve the thermal performance of the structure.  There are suspicions, as yet unproven, about these panels being the cause of the rapid spread of the fire.  In due course we shall know if this is the case.  Even if they were, it may be that their specification was completely in accordance with the Building Regulations.  It may be that the work was competently carried out, and inspected, in accordance with the specifications though, given the state of the building now, it may be impossible to tell.  If that is so, then the Building Regulations may be changed.  If there were contractual failures, or unauthorised substitutions of materials, then the law will take its course – eventually.  Eventually is not good enough for the victims, their families, or residents in similar buildings the length and breadth of the UK.  The underlying question is whether an organisation like KCTMO is capable of effectively monitoring something like a complex building project, or its on-going management.  The more you break down and extend the chain of management, the more layers you build in, the more risk there is of failure.  What happens to accountability in these circumstances?

The tenants at Grenfell Tower, apparently, made repeated representations to KCTMO, to their elected council representatives and to their MP about safety concerns.  They claim these representations have been ignored.  When the inevitable public enquiry concludes, and reports, we may well find it isn’t only Building Regulations that are revised.

As the shock continues to subside, and recovery begins, people are asking what can be done to support all those directly affected: victims and relatives, emergency services workers, police etc.  I have heard pleas for on-the-ground community mental health workers to be deployed.  I have to ask where they will come from?  Surely not from NHS mental health services so eviscerated like every other public service by Austerity cuts that in normal times you can’t get an appointment for week or even months!  And as for rehousing the survivors in three weeks, as the government has promised; what about funerals?  The heartbreak of those whose traditions and religion require particular arrangements, which cannot be observed, is palpable.

No, everywhere you look in this tragedy you find the taint of Austerity that has been sucking the life blood out of our communities for years.  The aftermath of the fire has also exposed fault lines that run through ethnic, cultural, and class divides, and exposes the very centre of our political system to a charge of institutional disinterest and carelessness.  If not handled with great sensitivity, and determination, the consequences for our society may reach further, and last longer, than the immediate effects of the fire itself.  It would be tragedy heaped upon tragedy if another victim of this event were community cohesion.

Austerity: The Emperor’s New Clothes

During the Second World War, and the years of recovery afterwards, much of the world endured privations which, today, are almost unimaginable.  In pre-war UK society it was the norm for families to be ‘nuclear’, with one main source of income.  Post-war many families were without a breadwinner.  Children slept in the drawers of furniture, some went shoeless.  There was severe rationing.  Many were, quite literally, homeless having been ‘bombed out’.  Ordinary people experienced restrictions on their lives and aspirations which make our present use of the term “austerity”, to describe a deliberate political policy, an insult.  I am reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

The major difference between then and now is that the general population had a clear, in many cases very personal, cause for the pain and a reason to endure it.  During the war the economy was directed, it was not a free market economy, and it was directed to one purpose: winning the war.  The only people who made any money were the arms dealers and black market spivs, and the latter were subject to extreme penalties if caught.  Soon after WW2 the country elected a Labour government which directed the economy to peace, and creating a platform for social equality: universal free education, the NHS, mass social housing, which gave the population a pay-off for the pain. It had a vision of what the country could be like.

The so-called “austerity” of the years after 2008 was entirely different.  The world financial system collapsed, not under the weight of war but under unsustainable debt created by ‘loadsamoney’ gambling, and stock market speculation.  Unlike WW2, the cost and pain of our 21st Century “austerity” has not been borne equally.  The long term pay-off is not at all clear except to those who have imposed it.  It has had no vision other than to deliberately, and nakedly, deconstruct the state’s involvement in directing, and contributing to, the economy.  Its primary driver was ideological and its aim was to shift the responsibility of delivering almost all state service functions into the private sector for profit.  And as a result, for example, we have burgeoning private health care, housing, prisons, education (for those that can afford them) and, at the same time, the state providers of these services have been systematically starved of resources.  The gaps, where possible, are filled by charities and individual compassion.

In the wake of an unexpected rebuff at a General Election, for the Conservatives to be addressing why so many people didn’t vote for them, by changing leadership ‘style’ and, particularly by rethinking “austerity”, shows how far removed they are from really understanding the popular mood.  They do not seem to see, as we do, that if they can change economic policy now, just because of a poor election result, they could have changed course before.  If they can listen now, they could have listened before.  In my opinion it’s not “austerity” per se that the populace have rejected, it is the pointlessness of it except for those who have benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from it.  There is no ‘holy grail’ other than some nebulous notion of deficit reduction.  There is no gain worth the pain.  Until recently many young people, who apparently voted en-masse for something better on 8th June, had only ‘being famous’ as an aspiration to escape the future that was being mapped out for them.

The Conservatives simply do not, and cannot, ‘get it’ because they seem to be intellectually, socially, culturally, some even morally, incapable of grasping that we finally see the Emperor (and Empress) has no clothes.

 

 

 

 

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

You couldn’t make it up.  I almost feel sorry for Theresa May (TM).  Almost.  Since her decision to press ahead with business as usual, in an unbelievably inept statement in front of No 10, the house of cards has started to collapse.  I don’t know if the Conservative ‘grandees’ know what to do for the best: should they let TM carry on for a while or add to the pressure and ease her out?  She’s fatally wounded, but the party top echelons, and the rank and file MPs, need to be reminded THEY voted for her as leader after David Cameron resigned.  As a supporter of Labour the temptation to gloat is overpowering, but we need to be careful.  There is a real risk of economic collapse if the government can’t govern.  A run on the pound isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.  Foreign investment might desert the UK, not only because of the uncertainty of government, but also of an increasingly uncertain Brexit.  There’s no certainty that another election would help clarify things.

The situation in Northern Ireland is toxic, and made worse by the failed power sharing executive.  Sinn Fein are making hay, but it isn’t a huge leap of the imagination to see paramilitairies on both sides of the sectarian divide taking advantage (with or without encouragement of their political ‘wings’).

Who would take her place?  I hear the usual pro-Boris Johnson sentiment, but he seems like an accident waiting to happen (again, and again).  He appeared on camera yesterday (having been confirmed as Foreign Secretary) looking, frankly, like he’d been dug out of a rugby club booze-up rather than holder of one of the highest posts in the country.  Not Gove (whom he hates and May sacked in favour of Boris Johnson).  I think we might see TM ‘crack’ under the pressure (really or as an excuse) sooner rather than later and I don’t see the party going for someone young and untried in the perilous condition we find ourselves in.  I think we might see Sir Michael Fallon, currently Defence Secretary, step forward (with all due humility) and accept the heavy burden of office he didn’t seek.  If you believe that, you believe in Father Christmas.  All in all it’s a disaster, and while I can say “serves you right”, it’s really worrying.

 

OK, I was wrong, but not completely.

Well, I was wrong about the 2017 general election, and am happy to admit it.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party did a lot better than many expected.  My own predictions were pretty accurate, though; first of all I predicted the election would happen in 2017.  Secondly I predicted a Tory win, but without a clear majority.  I did expect the SNP would drop a few seats from its historic near monopoly in Scotland, but did not see the big resurgence of Tory vote there coming (without which we might be looking at a left-of-centre coalition not a right-of centre one).  I did predict a ‘coalition’, but I thought it would be with the LibDems again (despite what the LibDems were saying publicly, they had ‘form’).  Instead we’ve got the Ulster Unionists propping up the Tories, which is a pretty frightening prospect – I’ll write about this later in this post.

I was wrong about Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to reach the public.  As the campaign went on he did better and better; he played to his strength of public speaking and getting out into the country.  Even with the help of some blatant lies, a lot of hostile and smearing press coverage and, it has to be said, subtle (perhaps institutional) bias in the BBC, Theresa May showed she couldn’t do it, if anything she was worse than Jeremy Corbyn.  She couldn’t campaign, and being unwilling to debate and being seen to only speak at carefully staged meeting of party activists, she seemed detached, even aloof.  She provided an unlimited supply of ammuniton for a well organised social media campaign against her.

Good ‘on the stump’, Jeremy Corbyn did less well on camera, and showed he isn’t as fleet of foot as he needs to be – as has been seen time after time at Prime Minister’s Questions in th House of Commons.  Why is this important?  Well, for a couple of reasons.  First, Theresa May cannot survive as PM beyond (perhaps even up to) the end of the Brexit negotiations.  You can almost hear the knives being sharpened.  The timing of her departure is entirely dependent on how well the Brexit negotiations are perceived to be going. Her replacement is unlikely to be as inept or non-combative at the next election.  I predict another election will be fought at the time the Brexit negotiations are concluded – 18 months for Labour to get its act together. The Conservatives will not make the mistakes they did this time round.  Realising they shot themselves in the foot with an ill-considered manifesto, they already realise a more collegiate approach to policy forming is required.  Labour can’t count on many more ‘own goals’ from them.

Secondly, the secret weapon of Corbyn’s unassailable integrity can only last so long; the young and first time voters go ‘off the boil’ quickly.  They must be encouraged to remain active, engaged and ready to vote.  The part of the Labour party that tried to dump Corbyn and then, when they failed, turned its back on him, must rue the fact that he took them to within a whisker of victory.  They must be thinking “if only”, especially those that came close to, but failed, to winning a seat.  It’s good to see a few of his detractors have publicly recanted.

Now, to the ‘unholy alliance’ with the DUP.  The LibDems stuck to their, broadly, anti-Brexit stance and said “No deals”.  The only others left standing with enough votes to keep Theresa’s Tories in power are the DUP, The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  During the election, one of the smears repeatedly thrown at Jeremy Corbyn was his alleged sympathy with the IRA (and others).  Even though this was shown to be misreported and taken out of context, some of that stuck.  The DUP are the political representatives of Ulster “Loyalism”:  their power also grows from the barrel of the gun, they are to the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunter Force (etc.) what Sinn Fein is to the IRA.  After the so-called Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to open armed conflict between Loyalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland, known as “the Troubles”, the two sides came together in a devolved power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly.  This institution collapsed just before the UK election was called, resulting in an election in Northern Ireland which has, so far, failed to restore functioning government there.  Suspicion and anger has returned, open (and armed) hostility might be only just around the corner.  Sinn Fein has 7 members elected to the UK parliament, but they have consistently refused to take those seats becuase they don’t recognise the authority of the institution over Northern Ireland (which they see as properly part of the whole of Ireland), and refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen.  How will Sinn Fein see the inclusion of its ‘mortal enemy’ in the government apparatus of Westminster?  They have, for years, believed the UK government is secretly “in cahoots” with the Loyalists. They are bound to think that the DUP is going to get concessions, and help, in exchange for keeping the UK Government afloat.  Even if they don’t really think this to be true, they are going to say it.  They have a constituency to maintain and you can imagine guns being dug up and oiled, on both sides, already.

In the context of an already extreme security threat, from ISIS etc., the last thing our already overstretched security services need is another, this time internal, threat to deal with.  The broader implications of this election result are therefore very, very worrying. “Strong and Stable” was Theresa May’s ‘tag line’; if nowhere other than Northern Ireland, things look considerably less stable.  And, as for strong….?

 

Election 2017 – A Wasted Opportunity

Having watched the televised, separate, public ‘interviews’ with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, last night, I don’t know whether to be in despair or incandescent with anger.

I feel despair because, once again, Jeremy Corbyn showed why he is seen as unelectable as Prime Minister, even by some Labour supporters.  I’m a Labour supporter, and sometime activist and member of the Labour Party, but even I was unconvinced – and I voted for him as leader.  I cringed.  He did well on his firmest ground, unfairness, inequalities, lost opportunities: the socialist agenda.  He was utterly hopeless on defence and, especially, nuclear weapons.  He proved totally unable to step away from his principled stand, which is broadly that of a disarmer, into the here and now.  Instead of ducking the question and making weak (if correct) statements about avoiding conflict with dialogue, he could have pointed to Britain’s membership of NATO.  He could have said that, although our weapons are (questionably) independent they would, in reality, never be used outside of the NATO treaty.  He could also have said that many members of NATO do not have nuclear weapons.  He could have said that the UK’s nuclear weapons are a deterrent, not a first strike weapon and that, if they were to be used then the whole theory of deterrence would have failed.  He could have said that, as a last resort, they might have to be used.  He couldn’t have said, though it is true, that the UK has continued to develop other, equally horrible, weapons.  He could have made more of the passing reference to the Conservatives having eviscerated our military capability.  He could have mentioned the obscenity of food banks; he could have said a lot, but he’s not fleet of foot, not a cut-and-thrust, counter-punching, ‘street fighter’.  He’s too nice, and his unwillingness to answer a binary question just looked ‘shifty’, but his tenedency to look perplexed and irritated by some questioners was damaging too.  It was absolutely not good enough to answer a question, however loaded, about policy detail by telling the questioner to read the manifesto!  For one thing, it seemed like he didin’t know the answer himself.

I feel anger because, despite Theresa May having showed just how patronising, uncaring and unconnected she is, she will still be Prime Minister on June 9th.  Faced with personal and harrowing evidence of the impact of her, and the 2010/15, Conservative government’s, austerity policies all she could say is “I’m not going to make excuses (for bad treatment) but hard choices had to be made.”  Hard choices like funding cuts in Corporation tax by taking away benefits from disabled people?  She doesn’t know what ‘hard’ is: try having to decide between feeding your children or keeping them warm.  That’s a hard choice.  We know that money doesn’t grow on trees, Treeze, but what you do with the money available is what’s at issue here.

I’m in despair because the Labour Party ‘heavyweights’ have, for the most part, been invisible and unheard throughout the campaign so far.  The 2017 General Election could go down as the Labour Party’s worst own goal in history.  It’s not about Corbyn, it’s about Labour, you selfish dummies!  What a waste.  If only….

Why I’ll be voting Labour

I’ve just finished watching a DVD about, and by, Tony Benn, “Will and Testament”. Highly recommended, even if you think you have no interest in politics. It reminded me of my own history, and of my parents’ and their parents’ histories. It also reminded me of why I’m voting Labour, even though I think a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will not win. I was recently asked by someone “Why are you voting for him if you think he can’t win?” My response was a) he’s not my parliamentary candidate, I’m voting for my constituency candidate, b) I’m a socialist and I believe in what he’s trying to do and c) I’m not voting for a leader of a political party.  Leaders come and go and at least one serving Prime Minister has been replaced by their party.  However I was puzzled why anyone would decide their voting intentions on the basis, not of policy or principle, but of wanting to be on the winning side. That seems to me to be worse than not voting at all; not voting is a betrayal of those thousands who have died to win us the right to vote, and those all over the world who still don’t have a vote. I’m not encouraged by the fact that 30% of the electorate couldn’t even be bothered to vote in the Brexit Referendum.  Please, you have to vote.
 
Now, back to my DVD. I’m sorry, but Jeremy Corbyn is no Tony Benn.  If he were, though, he would be subjected to the same vicious character assassination that Tony Benn was. The same vested interests, the same powerful forces, (and some in his own party, just as Tony Benn was), would make sure he failed.  Unfortunately (or fortunately if that’s your view) he’s doing that job for them by being, well, Jeremy.  It doesn’t matter that the words coming out of his mouth are much the same as those of other socialists in the past, he’s not seen as a threat.  What is a threat, is you and me.  Our votes for our constituency candidate are a threat.  When I put my bit of paper in the ballot box I’m saying, “I don’t care what you think, this is what I think”.  It wouldn’t matter if Jeremy Corbyn lost his own seat, after all he is only one MP, as long as a Labour government was returned.  The choice isn’t Corbyn or May it’s Labour or Conservative.  Left or Right.  The choice is between a party and government with a history of making the poor and defenceless pay for the excesses and failures of the rich, and one that doesn’t (even the right-of-centre New Labour).  The choice is not between two people but between two parties whose gut instincts are diametrically opposed:  one wants more “austerity”, more cuts in education, police, social care, health, pensions etc., and one doesn’t.  The choice is between a party that believes having any kind of job (even one with no contract) is enough, and one that believes you should be secure and paid a living wage for what you do.  The choice is between a party that believes the social and industrial infrastructure of the country should be in private hands, and one that doesn’t.   I know what I want.  I’m voting Labour.

‘Go Compare’ Politics, and Labour’s Train Wreck TV.

You know the sort of thing I mean by Train Wreck TV.  “Epic Fails” on YouTube, or those tittilating films that sit at the side of your Facebook page, offering vicarious enjoyment of some poor person’s misfortune.  That’s what it feels like with the Labour Party at the moment: you can’t watch, but you can’t help yourself.  It’s a gruesome fascination with the inevitable bloody outcome.

Unusually, we have had local government elections just before a general election.  The result seems to have indicated that a Corbyn-led Labour Party is seen as unelectable, even by many natural Labour supporters, and are likely to be heavily defeated on June 8th.  The extraordinary thing about this, and I’ve seen it expressed in vox-pop interviews with these disappointed Labour supporters, is that much of the belief of Corbyn’s “unelectability” is based on false perceptions.  Just the other day I saw a clearly distressed life-long Labour supporter say that he could no longer vote Labour because Jeremy Corbyn was anti-Brexit!  As far as I know, if anything, Jeremy Corbyn was for Brexit: at most he was ambivalent during the Brexit campaigning.  So, where did that impression come from?  Along with much else negative about the Labour Party, it comes from a very slick Conservative election machine.

It is clear, from what we have seen of the campaign already, that the decision to call an election was anything BUT a snap decision.  The Conservatives have been preparing for this for weeks, if not months, and have hit the ground running.  Labour, on the other hand, have been caught out because they are so busy navel gazing that they ignored the signs, and the warnings, that an early General Election was a very predictable outcome of the Brexit referendum last June.

The saving grace, if there is one, is that an unrestrained right-wing Tory government will feel it can do anything…until the country runs into the buffers of Brexit in 18 months time.  That’s only 18 months to realign the left and prepare for another general election.  Let’s hope that, by then, they learn that UK elections are not just about ideas, but votes; not about integrity but learning how to fight dirty; not about unpicking what your opponents say they will do but what they actually have done.  As well as projecting their vision of an alternative Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and the present Labour party leadership should be banging on about what the Torys have already done in the last 7 years.  The only hope they have of staving off a landslide, and having a sizeable left of centre contingent of MPs, is to wake the electorate up to the unvarnished, un-airbrushed, history of Conservative rule since 2010.  Collapsing NHS, collapsed social care, schools closing or overcrowded, teachers leaving, roads full of potholes, homelessness and food banks rising etc., etc.  The tragedy is that many of those who have been directly and personally affected by these failures have been successfuly gulled into believing it has all been the fault of the EU and, especially, immigrants.  Only one week after Parliament has been dissolved, starting the general election properly, the Conservatives have again wheeled out immigration as a major policy issue.  Classic distract, divide and rule tactics. In the absence of a Labour election manifesto, despite there having been a Labour Party conference last autumn where policy is supposed to be decided, the Conservatives are recycling Labour policy pledges from 2015, which they then derided as Marxist, or unaffordable, and claiming them as evidence of their own inclusiveness.

While Theresa May complained that the EU was trying to interfere in the UK election, actually the election of Emanual Macron, an avowedly pro-European and pro-globalisation politician, as president of France plays very nicely into the Conservative general election plan.  They can claim, and already have, that this is proof that Theresa May must be returned with a strong mandate, otherwise a reinvigorated French-led EU will roll over the UK in the formal Brexit negotiations.  Theresa May can now pose as Britannia going into battle with the nasty ‘Frenchies”, while keeping the UKIP vote on-side.  Theresa May was against Brexit and yet has managed to convince the electorate she was not!

I despair that the present Labour leadership have not understood the lessons that crystalized in the Brexit vote: politics is visceral.  Much of the British electorate is not fair minded, it’s not calm and reasoned, it’s not politically correct, it’s not well informed.  It’s no use appealing to the altruism of the British electorate because much of it is self-interested. Thatcher saw that when, in 1987, she said “there is no such thing as society”.  She was, in a real sense, quite right because she was in the process of creating the sort of “loadsamoney”, “me first”, “pull the ladder up” kind of country where people would vote this week for whatever gave them the best deal, and next week for something else, but meantime (and in the longer term) to hell with everyone else: a kind of ‘U Switch’, ‘Go Compare’ approach to politics.  If I could, I would weep.

Mostly I would weep about the Labour leadership’s failure to see the world as it is, and deal with that, rather than wish in some nebulus way that it (and the voter) was thoughtful, decent, different and ‘nice’.  It’s no use wishing it doesn’t matter to the electorate what you wear, how your hair looks, whether your teeth are white and regular, and whether you look the part.  It just does: our entire economy is based on us embracing aspirational materialism.  Even to those with nothing, those who might be considered fertile ground for the Labour message, it does matter what you wear, what sort of house you live in, whether you have the ‘right’ car, and whether you look tired and half asleep in interviews. The campaign opening Conservative sound-bite slogan, “strong and stable leadership” and coalition of chaos” is as specious as it is effective.  It has been delivered at every opportunity, and in any context, even in presenting bananas to Jeremy Corbyn on the street.  Done on camera for the benefit of the BBC, who dutifully kept showing it as ‘entertaining’, it neatly kept the slogan in the public mind and linked ‘bananas’ with Jeremy Corbyn: for those who forget, ‘bananas’ is a colloquial synonym for ‘mad’.  Perhaps the Labour Party should turn each Conservative slogan in on itself as soon as it appears…”Mean and Nasty”  “Attacking the weak”…etc., etc. but I’m afraid Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t do ‘snappy’ and every question, instead of being met with a binary, yes / no answer, gets a reasoned discussion.  He doesn’t even seem to do passionate and angry, which plays to the Conservative-portrayed image of weakness.

So, I expect a new Conservative slogan every week.  Labour is, and will remain, on the back foot.  It’s as if the Labour leadership see this sort of “professionalism” in campaigning as somehow dirty, and part of all that is wrong with politics.  Well, it is wrong, and I want a different world too, but I know I’m not ever going to get it at a UK election.  The naivity is staggering.  I also weep for the constituents of the many experienced, electable, Labour MPs who appear to have left their leader ‘hanging out to dry’.  In being disloyal to him they have also been massively disloyal to their movement and the hundreds of thousands of do-or-die supporters up and down the country. They, at least, deserve to lose their jobs.

Treezer, Treezer, Lemon Squeezer

One of these two will be Prime Minister of the UK on 9th June

Whichever it is, more interesting questions are whether she will still be Prime Minister at the end of 2020 and whether Jeremy Corbyn will still lead the Labour Party.  In the case of the former, much depends on Brexit.  As things stand, at time of writing anyway, the whole Brexit project is looking increasingly ‘flaky’.  The EU negotiators are pointing out with increasing frequency, and bluntness, that the UK postion and attitude is unrealistic to the point of denial.  Over the next 18 months the economy looks like an inflationary one, with pressures on domestic budgets already rising.  There is no more room for manoeuvre because, since the “world-wide financial crash”, we have already seen the exchequer squeeze every last penny out of public services until the social infrastructure is in tatters.  The pips haven’t just squeaked, they’ve liquidised.

The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Scot Nats are all pushing for a ‘soft’ or even non-Brexit.  If it all goes horribly wrong, the Torys have form in back-stabbing their leaders, however popular they may have been, but actually it is Jeremy Corbyn that is most like a dead man walking: in fact he is ‘undead’, a political zombie.  Whatever one thinks of his programme, his personal ethics, and his integrity, it is clear after 3 weeks of the snap-election campaign that he has been left to fight this election on his own.  So far the only Labour spokespersons have been John Macdonald (shadow chancellor) and Diane Abbott.  The latter is a public relations disater in that she is not liked by the population at large and is prone to gaffes.

Where were the Labour party’s heavyweights?  Why didn’t they speak?  I guess because, having failed twice to unseat Corbyn by internal ‘democracy’, they hope the wider electorate will do the job for them by delivering a crushing defeat on 8th June.

This is unforgivable; by not fighting hard for the Labour ‘ticket’ they are consigning the working classes and the disadvantaged to at least 5 more years of Tory rule, and this time unfettered.  The Liberal Democrats, having paid the price of an uncomfortable coalition in the Cameron-led government by getting hammered in 2015, won’t make that mistake again.  They know they can’t win but, pointing to Labour disarray, have pitched themselves as the only viable opposition party to a Tory majority government.

In the immediate foreground, as a sort of ‘trailer’ for the General Election, we’ve just had local government, and regional mayoral, elections.  It is true to say that local elections are unreliable as an indicator of the national electoral mood; for one thing the voter turnout in the former is typically much lower than the latter. However, this time, I think it is safe to say the poor showing of the Labour Party is, if anything, likely to under-predict their impending humiliation in June because I doubt the Labour Party will manage to get its voters out.  The traditional Labour voters who deserted for Brexit and UKIP are unlikely to return to the fold.  Tory tails are up, Labout tails are dragging, and yet Jeremy Corbyn is merely expressing “disappointment” at the poor local election result.

Disappointment?  Man up, Jeremy, it’s an effing disaster.  He says he has 4 weeks to get his message across:  4 weeks?  Jeremy you’ve had two years, what difference will 4 weeks make?  In my opinion it is so bad that the only useful thing he can do to turn things around is to step down and give the electorate that 4 weeks to find belief in an alternative leader.  Barring an act of God that’s not going to happen, so I would go as far as saying would-be Labour voters should, as an act of damage limitation, vote for whoever is likely to stop a Tory being elected in their constituency.