tom watsonJim Pickard, the FT’s Chief Political Correspondent, reports that MP Tom Watson, who played a significant role in the ousting of Tony Blair, may be the party’s deputy leader by September.

In September 2006, after the Iraq war had ruined the Labour prime minister’s popularity, Mr Watson resigned as defence minister along with several other junior figures and published an open letter calling on Mr Blair to go.

He came to the attention of the general public after mounting a high-profile campaign against Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking and – later – over allegations of child sex abuse by powerful politicians.

Pickard reports that Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, describes him as a “Marmite” character. “There are some people who absolutely love him . . . Then there are others who see him as a throwback to the bad old days of machine politics under Gordon Brown.”

Power-hungry? Union bound?

“It mostly seems to be about power with Watson, I would have more sympathy if his manoeuvres were for a bigger cause or purpose,” says one Labour MP. “He just sees politics as a game.” Friends reject that claim, pointing out that he has resigned three times from government or party positions. “Why would he walk away from power if it was so important to him?” says one. Critics answer that Mr Watson’s influence in the party is so great that he can wield power without needing a title.

Mr Watson’s union ties also came under close and damaging scrutiny in Pickard’s article.

The writer, as an outsider, simply notes that this MP, who spoke out against the Iraq war and the covering up of phone-hacking and child sex abuse, has made some very powerful enemies.

To read more go to the article – free registration may be needed.

Library queue

  • Don’t expect to enter before 11am.
  • Be prepared to obey a barked command to form an orderly queue.
  • Be patient: when the hour arrives a hundred or so people, mostly students, will be allowed to pass slowly through a single entrance.
  • Be ready to tell bewildered visitors from other areas the saga of the two libraries and the funding constraints hampering what was formerly – in the other place – an informal and carefree experience.
  • Don’t expect to use the ground floor toilets – being short-staffed the barriers won’t be removed until later.

Library cafe

  • And remember to keep your coffee cups on the table in the café gallery (up the wooden staircase) – because a uniformed martinet will come along and call a security guard to evict you, if you have deposited them in the bin and cannot give proof of purchase.

 

A far cry from relaxed visits to the Madin library.

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prof m steven fish“Is Islam violent? I would say absolutely not,” Steven Fish said in an interview, according to the New York Times.

Professor M. Steven Fish, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, studies democracy and regime change in developing and post-communist countries, religion and politics, and constitutional systems and national legislatures. He is the author of Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford, 2011), which was selected for Choice‘s Outstanding AcademicTitles in 2012: Top 25 Books.

It is the first major scientific effort to assess how Muslims and non-Muslims differ–and do not differ–in the contemporary world.

are muslims distinctive coverIn this book, he seeks to quantify the correlation between Islam and violence and found that murder rates are substantially lower in Muslim-majority countries and instances of political violence are no more frequent.

Using rigorous methods and data drawn from around the globe, it reveals that in some areas Muslims and non-Muslims differ less than is commonly imagined, and shows that Muslims are not unusually religious or inclined to favour the fusion of religious and political authority.

Zack Beauchamp (Brown University and the LSE], pilloried by American rightwingers as an anti-semitic leftist hipster, quotes from the book: “Predominantly, Muslim countries average 2.4 murders per annum per 100,000 people, compared to 7.5 in non-Muslim countries. The percentage of the society that is made up of Muslims is an extraordinarily good predictor of a country’s murder rate. More authoritarianism in Muslim countries does not account for the difference. I have found that controlling for political regime in statistical analysis does not change the findings. More Muslims, less homicide”.
Fish further fleshed out these findings, for example by re-running the numbers to exclude non-Muslim-majority states with extraordinarily high murder rates (Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Lesotho, South Africa, and Venezuela). Countries with lots of Muslims were still less murder prone by a pretty large margin.

Turning to the Google Books extracts differences are noted:

  • gender inequality is more severe among Muslims,
  • Muslims are intolerant of homosexuality
  • and democracy is rare in the Muslim world.

Other areas of divergence give Muslims the advantage:

  • less violent crime
  • lower class-based inequities.

Professor Fish’s research findings have vital implications for human welfare, interfaith understanding, and the foreign policies of the United States and other Western countries.

As Seumas Milne in the Guardian put it: “The perpetrators of one attack after another, from London 2005 to Boston 2013, say they’re carrying them out in retaliation for the vastly larger scale US and British killing in the Muslim world”.

Extracts from Are Muslims Distinctive? may be seen here and a more recent article in the Washington Post by Professor Fish here.

On Friday, Jeremy Paxman wrote an article about HS2 in the Financial Times, opening with incredulity,“How on earth are we even contemplating this scheme?”

The project had not been an issue for the three main parties during the election campaign; “All decided that the planned HS2 high speed railway line from London to Birmingham and then — if things go to plan — on to Manchester and Leeds by about 2033 was A Good Thing . . . it was left to the UK Independence party and the Greens (who generally love railways) to point out that HS2 is a grotesque waste of taxpayers’ money”.

Some points raised:

  •  Despite living in an age of austerity, the main parties were as one in believing it a brilliant way to blow a projected £50bn of public money.

hs2 cartoon

  •  It will not be £50bn; cost controls on public spending projects are laughable – see the over budget Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly buildings, the cost of the first high speed rail link and the National Health Service IT project.
  • At the end of years of digging and disruption we shall be able to get from London to Birmingham 30-odd minutes quicker.
  • To get from Leeds to Manchester on HS2 you would have to travel south to Birmingham and then north again on the other side of the country.
  • If, as has been predicted, Birmingham will turn into a suburb of the capital, that will only be for those wealthy enough to afford tickets.
  • The point that seems not to have been much recognised by huge numbers of the poor saps who will have to pay for this project is that at the end of their journey north, the happy business folk will not be alighting in the centre of Birmingham, at New Street station, but will have to take a 10-minute walk to get there from the planned HS2 terminus (Ed: unless the Metro is completed).

Jeremy Paxman concludes:

“Britain is notorious for its shuddering transport policy. When was the last time you heard an MP say, “I’m begging the prime minister to let me go to the Department for Transport and stay there forever, so we can get this country moving properly”? Building a decent infrastructure is serious, unglamorous work with little political dividend, so our system is hopeless at long-term planning . . .

“[U]nless someone comes to their senses soon, future generations will . . . be able to look at great tracts of concrete laid across the countryside to enable a slightly quicker journey through our overcrowded island. More than likely, they will still be paying for it”.

Having long ceased to buy a local or national newspaper or watch TV news, in favour of hearing radio headlines and reading a serious online paper, it was a surprise to find, by chance, a serious informative TV news bulletin at 9.30, devoid of the minutes wasted on fanfare and giving the news without repetition or presentational gimmicks.

big centre tv logo

The station was called Big Centre TV and an online search revealed that it was the local TV channel for Birmingham, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Solihull and The Black Country, which broadcasts on Freeview channel 8.

According to Wikipedia, Big Centre TV, launched in February 2015, is transmitted from the Sutton Coldfield and Brierley Hill antennae to an estimated audience of 2.3m viewers on Freeview.

It is owned by Kaleidoscope TV Ltd, a Midlands-based voluntary organisation which specialises in locating previously missing, believed lost, television footage and coordinates ITV’s Raiders of the Lost Archives campaign through its website at www.lostshows.com.

Big Centre TV’s headquarters are at Walsall Studio School in the West Midlands. The studio school, for 14-19 year olds, enables young people to achieve industry-recognised qualifications, build relationships with employers and get into employment or university. Big Centre TV uses the school’s state-of-the-art technical facilities and students train alongside experienced TV broadcasting professionals.

It is said to offer a wide range of genuinely local content featuring live news, sport, entertainment and children’s programming and – though a less than favourable report was published by the Birmingham Mail – the writer found its 9.30pm Midlands news programme last night infinitely preferable to others and will watch or record it if the standard is maintained. The Mail did refer to sound quality and the sound was low, though clear, during the first half of the programme, but this was rectified.

The selection and sheer volume of interesting local news more than made up for this and readers who want information are urged to try it, if they have not already done so.

Open meeting at the Library of Birmingham, 11am.

wmneg 2

In the aftermath of the election, and possibly while a government is being formed, WMNEG will meet to consider its programme for the next few months.

Its vice chairman writes: “If the opinion polls prove correct then the most likely outcomes could be more conducive to decentralisation and economic and political change than for many a decade”.

alan clawley 3Newcomers to the library: go to the cafe at the main entrance, buy a drink and go upstairs to a gallery which has signs to say the area is for customers of the café. If crowded, look for the chairman, Alan Clawley.

phillip bennion2Ben Jephcott has circulated a report about missing election leaflets which was reproduced in the Birmingham Press: “Last week, our Hodge Hill candidate Phil Bennion was canvassing in Newland Road in Bordesley Green and found that residents there were confused as they had wrongly been delivered the Ladywood Lib Dem freepost”.

It prompted the writer to look at a few highlights of Mr Bennion’s work as an MEP:

  • his call for a binding international convention on drone strikes and targeted killings: “The indiscriminate use of drone strikes by the U.S. in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Yemen must come to an end. “These so-called ‘targeted killings’ are often not very targeted at all, and can end up killing large numbers of civilians, destroying vital infrastructure and crippling the local economy. Far from eliminating terrorism, these strikes play into the hands of Islamic extremists by fostering anti-Western sentiment;
  • his co-sponsorship of a Written Declaration (similar to an Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament) in the European Parliament calling for action to highlight the plight of thousands of people across Europe born with severe disabilities and life-shortening conditions caused by the drug thalidomide;
  • his backing for a cross-party appeal to Catherine Ashton, Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to ensure that EU cash does not end up funding activities in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, illegal under international law;
  • his vote against the EP travelling to Strasbourg every month, “ridiculous when most of our meetings and staff are based in Brussels. It is not just a waste of public money but the carbon footprint is astronomical. We voted by a large majority to end this charade but it needs action by governments”.
  • His concern for youth unemployment, “we need education systems which are fit for purpose so everyone has the opportunity to get appropriate qualifications and the chance to develop their skills to the full. We have to concentrate on skills for young people through things like work experience which will give them the confidence to compete in the economy”.
  • he lobbied with Potteries ceramics firms and eventually the EP imposed provisional anti-dumping duties on imports of ceramic tableware and kitchenware from China.

Hodge Hill would find him an active constituency MP.

 

lwm header

Over the last few weeks Localise West Midlands emailed parliamentary candidates across the West Midlands to seek their views on decentralisation and devolution, to deliver greater local political and economic power. In particular they were asked what they would do about:

  • Devolving powers, resources and political representation to more local levels such as local authorities or regional bodies
  • Refocusing Whitehall and Westminster on UK-wide issues rather than micromanaging sub-national issues
  • Ensuring our locally-owned businesses can thrive and maximising how money recirculates in the area
  • Ensuring planning is democratically controlled for the common good
  • Delivering housing markets that work for everyone
  • Keeping public services locally controlled, not outsourced to large and distant organisations.

LWM hopes that this exercise will help voters who are interested in these issues – whatever their perspective – to understand how their candidates may be thinking. They may read a detailed set of tables with the responses, here: http://localisewestmidlands.org.uk/candidates_devolution/

lwm logo largerThe candidates who responded were thanked, particularly those who gave longer responses to which this brief analysis does not do justice. LWM would be happy to talk with them further about achieving greater political and economic decentralisation in the UK, whether or not they are elected.

1utrecht canalside2

As Birmingham develops canalside flats and offices, the potential for passenger transport – already flourishing on the Thames in London – is greater than for carrying freight. The city also has a great need to improve its air quality.

The city of Utrecht in the Netherlands uses a zero emission electric boat to make deliveries in the city centre. Owned and run by the city and known as the ‘Beer Boat’, the vessel makes six trips, four days a week supplying more than 60 catering businesses along the canal front. Funding for the boat came from the city’s air quality improvement budget.

The advantages of water transport include:

  • greater safety: separated from pedestrians, cyclists and motorists,
  • lower emissions,
  • lower fuel costs,
  • less need for road and track maintenance,
  • less road traffic congestion
  • less noise and vibration,
  • improved quality of life and urban environment.

The Passenger Transport Executive Group – pteg – which brings together and promotes the interests of the six transport bodies serving the largest city regions outside London, published a report in February. To enable more use of the canals, the report recommended ‘network capacity enhancements’, including the development of more support for ongoing maintenance of waterways.

ross barlow city backgroundAs Professor Rex Harris once wrote, our canals and the emission-less hydrogen fuel cell boat, the Ross Barlow, designed by a team at the university of Birmingham, provide a pointer to the future.

One reader pointed out that electricity powered boats should be preferred because the technology is tried and tested, but so is the Ross Barlow prototype (left). Hydrogen has been generated and stored safely and reversibly for long periods as a metal hydride on the boat – storing energy to be converted into electricity by means of a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell which produces ultra-pure water as the only by-product.

Both electricity and hydrogen-driven vessels will stand or fall by the source of their power: electricity or hydrogen generated by renewable resources. The price of renewable energy is becoming more competitive and Denmark is developing technology to produce hydrogen at the tanking station from wind energy. Their goal is low costs hydrogen with a high conversion efficiency. It is also reported that in Germany hydrogen is already being pumped into its grid, and electrolyzers are storing excess wind energy as hydrogen gas for long periods.

Birmingham’s canals are a neglected and underused resource; clean waterway transport should be integrated into plans for canalside residential, retail and office developments.

canalside ariel mailbox

One precedent is the dedicated waterbus service (above, pink) operated by Sherborne Wharf Heritage Narrow Boats, stopping at Brindleyplace, King Edwards Wharf, Gas Street Basin and The Mailbox. However, like most waterway vessels currently used, they cause both noise and air pollution.

Proposals for the use of clean hydrogen-powered barges in Birmingham, include:

  • transport from the City Centre to the Soho Foundry associated with Boulton and Watt, becoming a major tourist feature and source of employment and income for the City and the Black Country;
  • a reconsideration by Sainsburys, leading to the restoration of the Lapal canal link at Selly Oak, incorporating a mooring site for the Ross Barlow. The old pump-house could serve as a visitors centre and the trip into town would take in the new aqueduct over the Selly Oak by-pass;
  • a hydrogen powered water-bus to provide a city-centre service for the long-delayed development at Icknield Port. As city-based architect and urban planner Joe Holyoak says in the Post, the site has an unusually high ratio of canal frontage, more typical of Amsterdam or Bruges than of Birmingham.

One reader responded to an earlier article on the Ross Barlow, emailing that the emphasis should be on walking and cycling rather than vehicular transport. This writer is also a walker and cyclist, but ecologically sound public transport will always be needed for longer distances or quicker journeys, for people constrained by age, disability – and those who have wanted to move to a better form of transport but have found cycling too frightening after years driving a car.

canalside cafe brum

Hopefully, canal passenger transport policy will focus not only on leisure canal traffic, enjoyable though that can be (above) and will learn from Sustrans who years ago used the large funding awarded to them to build leisure cycling tracks in rural tourist areas instead of prioritising dedicated urban cycle paths to take thousands of people to their daily workplaces.

Birmingham has been named and shamed by the World Health Organisation for breaching safety levels for air pollution. Noting that the funding for its zero emission boat came from Utrecht’s air quality improvement budget, the city council should do all it can to encourage low and no emission transport of goods and passengers.

A Financial Times article opens: “David Cameron, prime minister, this month put forward what could be one of the worst policy ideas ever: extending “Right to Buy” to allow housing association tenants to purchase their homes for less than they are worth. It would make the housing supply crisis worse, by removing housing associations capacity to build more homes. It would push up rents, by creating a buy-to-let bonanza.

“Unfair and shameful . . .”

bournville social housing

Peter Roach, chief executive of Bournville Village Trust – a housing treasure trove – described the plan as “unfair and shameful . . .”. He said: “We understand people’s home ownership aspirations, but the concept of giving huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to provide discounts for people already enjoying the comfort of good quality affordable homes whilst at the same time watching waiting lists soar is unfair and shameful.”

Points made in the FT by Peabody Trust’s CE include:

  • One in three of the homes bought under Right to Buy, has been privately rented often to recipients of housing benefit.
  • A continuation of this would mean higher rents, with the taxpayer funding housing benefit payments.
  • This would be a compulsory transfer of social and charitable assets, at a discount, to people who have already benefited from sub-market rents and security of tenure.
  • A social asset would be lost.
  • Only one in 10 social homes sold under this scheme has so far been replaced.

MEP Keith Taylor has issued a new report on the UK housing crisis which demonstrates that the current system, with its unaffordable prices and rents and a depleted stock of social housing, is directly linked to Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, and the failures of successive governments to ensure that those in greatest need are provided for.

Its summarised recommendations:

  • Rent control and tenant protection.
  • Investment in social housing as the best way of ensuring an availability of genuinely affordable housing.
  • New taxation frameworks to ensure those who have benefited from the property boom are contributing a fair share and disincentivise speculation and land banking.
  • New powers for local authorities to deal with empty properties, and the decriminalisation of squatting.
  • Structures to support and promote housing co-operatives.
  • Improved standards for construction and maintenance of all homes, to improve quality of life for residents and tackle domestic emissions.

Mr Taylor concludes that, though the current housing system is failing people, this doesn’t have to be the case. His report demonstrates that housing has become unsustainably expensive, and that fresh political will and innovative mechanisms are needed to make housing work for people again.

Keith Taylor sits on the Environment Committee and the Transport and Tourism Committee within the European Parliament. He also sits on the delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council.

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