Saturday, 31 May 2014

As the Tower Hamlets disaster enters a new phase, it remains an object lesson to Labour

Last weekend, Lutfur Rahman was re-elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets, after easily the most contentious polling day and count in recent UK electoral history. Even though the mayoral result was announced on the Friday night after recounts, thousands of spoiled ballots, accusations of intimidation and a count venue lock-in, the council result, extraordinarily, did not get announced until the following Tuesday

And thus an administration, already notorious for incompetence, links to extremism and allegations of misuse of council funds, secured further national notoriety, this time over complaints about electoral practices.

For reasons regular readers will be aware of, it would be a gross understatement to say that I find it difficult to summon any enthusiasm for Rahman's win, but at least the events of polling day and the preceding Panorama exposé have given the borough's desperate predicament a national profile.

We will await the results of the investigation announced by the Electoral Commission to judge whether or not electoral law was broken, but there were certainly widespread allegations of intimidation, coercion, large crowds gathering in the streets outside polling stations and the count, and so on.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Eurosceptic earthquake that wasn't

“Earthquake”, screamed the headlines of even reputable news outlets on Monday. Witnessing them, it seems as if a large chunk of the Europe’s 400-odd million voters had got up one morning, and said to themselves in unison, “instead of supporting the mainstream parties I’ve voted for all my life, you know what, I now really like all the policies of the radical right. What the hell.”

Indeed, it makes scant sense, if you choose to look at it as part of the normal ebb and flow of left-right politics. Yes, we haven’t had quite enough of austerity yet, so let’s move a bit further to the right, shall we? I don’t think that harsh medicine is really tough enough. Said no-one at all.

No, to understand it all, we must dig a little deeper. There was a rather good cartoon doing the rounds yesterday which explained the phenomenon in Europe’s three largest states: Hollande and Cameron were shown being eaten whole by large dogs, called “Front National” and “UKIP”. Angela Merkel was shown with a little dog called “NPD” (the German far right), snapping ineffectually at her ankles.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

That morning-after feeling

My Euro-elections piece for Progress, on Labour's hangover from two years of hubris about mid-term poll leads, is here.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Memo to Labour: hold the champagne

My fourteenth piece for the Independent, on the conclusions from Thursday's local elections, is here.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

BREAKING: world's greatest poll-predictor system discovered in Ukraine

Barkashov - note the symbol behind him
So, it seems the Ukraine referenda were fixed in a stunningly obvious and clumsy way. But don't just take my word for it: read this piece in the Economist, an august organ not known for its casual use of words such as "bogus" and "farce".

One last word on last weekend's referenda in Ukraine: as reported in the now-essential Interpreter magazine, more taped conversations have come to light (better than watching gangster movies, this, and certainly more realistic).

An audio recording was posted on YouTube, apparently between Dmytro Boitsov (a rebel leader in Donetsk) and Aleksandr Barkashov (a Russian neo-Nazi leader at national level*)
Boitsov: The troops are landing... Donetsk won't stand up...If we don't get support, if Russia does not bring its troops, we will be fucked up. I am cancelling the referendum set for the 11th, because it can't be held. We can't conduct it lawfully as long as these cocksuckers are here.
Barkashov: Dima, Dima Dima, there is no way that you cancel it. It will mean that you got scared...
Boitsov: No, we are not scared at all. We simply can't hold it, we're not ready.
Barkashov: Dima, just flog whatever you want. Write something like 99% down... Are you going to walk around and collect papers? Are you fucking insane? Forget it, fuck them all...
Boitsov: Got it.
Barkashov: Write that 99%... well, not 99%... let's say 89% voted for the Donetsk Republic. And that's it, fucking shit.
In other words, it seems that Barkashov, the skinhead-friendly thug, had just about enough mental capacity to realise that 99% - the Crimean referendum result - did not exactly sound credible and reduced it to 89%.

And the referendum result polled last Sunday in Donetsk was...wait for it...89%. What an extraordinary coincidence!

Ah, you say, but the source of the taped recording is the SBU (Ukrainian security service). This is just blatant propaganda, like the Russians are doing, right? Naturally the new Donetsk regime has dismissed it as fake. Well, that would be a perfectly legitimate argument, were it not for three things.

One, because earlier secretly-recorded tapes by the SBU (see previous blog here) gave a remarkably convincing explanation of what happened in the case of the murder of a local councillor. Hardly proof, but this at least makes us treat them seriously.

Two, logic dictates that it is quite hard to credibly fake a dialogue between two public (or semi-public) figures, because there will always be someone who knows well the voice of one or both of them, and can tell.

And three - rather a clincher, this - because it was posted on 7 May. The referendum was the 11 May. So to believe that it is a fake, we would have to also believe that the tape exactly predicted the outcome of the Donetsk referendum, four days before it actually happened.

*There is, by the way, a certain irony in Moscow's dogged insistence that Kyiv is a neofascist administration, when it is seemingly they who are making use of fascist thugs to do their dirty work.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Euros are the elections that don’t matter. Except they do.

UKIP's results themselves are not the issue
It’s complicated. Next week’s election will not change very much in itself. We will send members of our favourite parties off to Brussels again in greater or lesser numbers to vote on things that, we tell pollsters on a regular basis, we care little about. Everyone’s eyes will be on the greater prize of a general election, less than twelve months away.

And you can forget the polling around this election; it means very little. Rarely has there been an election with so much of the electorate avowedly committed to protest voting, often for parties they don’t even really like.

A friend of mine, traditionally to the left of me, is voting UKIP. Why? Not because he likes them. Because he’s fed up with both right and left. “Because there’s a chance, just a chance”, he says, “that something might change”.

Now, I believe him to be wrong. But his vote forms part of an anti-establishment effect, which transcends right and left and which has blossomed in recent troubled times right across the developed world. It is not just UKIP, but Respect. It is the People’s Assembly, UK Uncut and other anti-austerity groups. The Occupy crowd. The other nationalists and secessionists. The Spanish “Indignados”. The Tea Party. The list is long.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Ukraine: three down, seven more regions to go?

A tweet which fascinated me yesterday came from Chris Dzieciolowski, the Al Jazeera correspondent in Donetsk.

Scribbled on top of the map with a slightly chilling informality, by the newly-independent region's president, was this diagram. In it - by my calculation - he included a further seven regions of eastern Ukraine after counting off Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea.

Of course, this could just be a pipe-dream of a euphoric local politician post-election, who looks forward to his region joining Russia very shortly (a second referendum is expected on Sunday).

However, we have noted before at this blog that the Donetsk regime appears to be quite close to the Kremlin. It is not beyond the wit of man to conclude that it might also be an inkling of exactly how the Putin administration sees the ideal endgame in Ukraine - a gobbling-up of more than half the country.

By the time that little lot has gone, we are talking definitively about a "rump" Ukraine. We shall see very soon which of these two readings is the right one.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The triumph of pseudo-democracy

Three years ago I wrote about pseudo-democracy, how a phenomenon of our times has been the introduction of a democracy-that-isn't, to allow despots to continue in power while providing a vague cover of legitimacy.

It occurred to me this morning that nowhere has this been better exemplified than with the referenda organised in Crimea and tomorrow in two breakaway provinces of Ukraine.

Hitler, for example, did not bother to carry out a plebiscite before taking control of the Sudetenland. He merely threatened and then cut a deal with Western powers. No consultation with actual people necessary (indeed, the Czechoslovak president was not even invited to the conference). Our wish for non-involvement in a further war was at least an honest and open one, if a somewhat cowardly and short-sighted one.

But our more enlightened times require a democratic veneer, to salve Western consciences. So, there are referenda for independence in two provinces tomorrow (an independence which the pro-Russians transparently do not want), both of which will almost certainly join Russia. 

Indeed, a nugget which I have - amazingly - yet to see reported in major news outlets is that the provisional government of Donetsk has already stated its intent (here, although you need Google Translate to read it) to hold a further referendum the following weekend to join Russia, on the 18th May (thank you, Twitter).

What is fascinating, however, is that opinion polls have consistently shown that, although a win is to be expected, Ukrainians (at least, outside of Crimea) do not want to join Russia, even in the East. You can probably guess why the contradiction.

But, as usual, there will be the usual suspects on the British left pretending that the referenda are legitimate, fair and tamper-free. They are not.

The most baffling logic of all is that an administration which has shown itself capable over recent weeks of the most blatant lies (for example, oh no, there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, ha ha) should be somehow expected to be completely straight-down-the-line and fair when it comes to elections in which it has a clear geopolitical interest. (For other examples, see Venezuela, Iran, etc.) Or that Putin's feigned negativity towards the referenda is anything more than a transparent pretence that he is not pulling the strings.

In short, Ukraine is surely one of the greatest successes of pseudo-democracy to date: to make it so that one country can effectively invade another without provocation, and still have some believing - or at least, using as a convenient excuse for their lack of interest - that it was simple manifestation of "the will of the people". Oh, the irony.

UPDATE 20:29: In fact, the BBC finally reported the second Donetsk referendum yesterday. Only five days after the information was made public. I should also note that a third province, Kharkiv, pulled out of having a referendum the same day, for which reason I have amended the piece. However, that does not mean that Kharkiv will not secede; the reason cited was being unable to agree on wording with the other two provinces.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Unite’s takeover of PCS raises the stakes for Labour

PCS' Mark Serwotka
While we all want the morning of 8 May, 2015 to be defined by a triumphant Miliband glad-handing a crowd of jubilant supporters in Downing Street, it is worth taking a moment for a cold, hard look at the opposite: the Armageddon scenario of Labour returning to opposition.

Although this may be seen as a distasteful or even a disloyal task, neither is it, if the direction of travel of poll lead continues, one that is unthinkable in an election still far too close to call. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The murder of Volodymyr Rybak

This morning I have been much affected by reading this excellent piece by Jaime Dettmer at the Daily Beast, which I heartily recommend to all; especially anyone who even vaguely doubts the brutal and murderous nature of the "pro-Russian" militias currently in the process of taking over East Ukraine.

Rybak was a rather brave city councillor and former policeman who had angered the local militia and subsequently disappeared on 17 April. His mutilated body was found in a river four days later; he is thought to have been very seriously injured, but not yet dead, when his body was dumped.

In particular, the role of the militia leader in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, is chillingly clear:
'The SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] has released portions of intercepted calls in which on April 17 alleged Russian agent Igor Bezler orders underlings to capture Rybak.
Bezler’s boss Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite whose real name is Igor Girkin, is heard in another subsequent intercepted conversation instructing the thuggish separatist leader in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, to dispose of the body, which is “lying here and stinking.”
In the audio recording, Strelkov is heard to say: “Slava, please, settle the matter with the stiff, so that he is quickly dragged away from us today.” 
Ponomarev responds: “I will go quickly and settle the issue of burying this bitch.”
According to the SBU, Strelkov and Bezler are colonels in Russia’s GRU military service and were in Crimea previously, helping with the annexation.'
I remain profoundly irritated by the stupidity of some on the British left, such as the Guardian's resident useful idiot Seumas Milne (read this piece on how it's all the warmongering West's fault), in parroting the transparent propaganda of the Putin administration. 

For example, the ridiculous insistence that Kiev is governed by a quasi-fascist regime, when the far right holds a paltry few per cent of the parliamentary vote, as it does in such scurrilous countries as, er, France.

By the way, latest news reports seem to indicate that the long-feared direct intervention of the Russian troops is imminent, on the spurious grounds of "peacekeeping" (no, irony is not the Kremlin's strong point).

The obvious proposal from the US and EU would seem to be that if there is any peacekeeping to be done, it should be carried out by the UN, because it then would actually be peacekeeping, as opposed to - call me old-fashioned - an invasion of a sovereign country.

However, on previous form, I'm not holding my breath.

UPDATE 06 May:

The superb Interpreter website reports that the above-mentioned Strelkov has also been caught on tape seeking approval from Putin's envoy, Vladimir Lukin, apparently for involvement in the kidnapping of the OSCE envoys who were recently released by the Donetsk de facto "government". The transparency of the whole thing and its direction by Moscow is amazing.

UPDATE 26 July:
Photographic evidence emerges linking Strelkov to Bosnian ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. Wow.
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