Thursday, 30 June 2011

Population Growth - Welfare Not Immigration

It was announced today that the UK population increased more last year than at any time in almost half a century. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the number of births in the UK is now at its highest since 1991, with 797,000 during the year to mid-2010 and this contribution to overall population growth is greater than that from net migration.

So why has there been a new baby boom without a war for an excuse?

Increased government support for families – notably the introduction of the Working Families’ Tax Credit (WFTC) in 1999 and greater generosity of means-tested Income Support (IS) payments – has coincided with a rise in births among couples who left school at 16 relative to those who stayed in education after 18.

According to research summarised in the Autumn 2008 issue of Research in Public Policy, the probability of having a birth increased by 1.2 percentage points among women with low education, which equates to nearly 45,000 additional births. The study also finds that the decision whether to have children – or when to begin having them – seems more susceptible to financial incentives than the decision over how many to have. The UK birth rate has increased steadily since 2001 and now stands at an average of 1.9 births per woman, the highest level since 1974. 

Some women told researchers they had stopped using contraception. The more generous welfare system is being credited with contributing to an increase in the overall UK birth rate, which is now at its highest level since 1974. The report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes: "We have shown that more generous Government support coincided with an increase in births among the group most affected by the [welfare] reforms.

The study says that the introduction of Working Families Tax Credit and an increase in Income Support between 1999 and 2003 triggered a rise in taxpayer spending on children "unprecedented" in the previous 30 years. Because the reforms were targeted at the poorest families with children, the value of their state handouts increased by 10 per cent of their total household income. For couples who both left school at 16, the reforms meant an increase in benefits of 45 per cent, from £39 a week to £56.76. This is a rise almost twice as much as the handouts for which a couple who went on to sixth form college would be eligible, which increased by 25 per cent to £37.27 a week. The researchers then looked at fertility rates both before the reforms were announced and after, for a sample of 101,330 women aged between 20 and 45. They found a large increase in the first year after the benefits were made more generous, particularly among women who had left school as soon as possible. The results show a 15 per cent increase in the probability of having a baby in the "low education group".

People will have different views about whether a larger population is a good or bad thing. What cannot be rationally disputed is that dipping into taxpayers pockets to encourage the births of a whole new generation of welfare dependants can only take us closer to the economic collapse that state spending and borrowing has speeded us toward. Labour justified this handout on the grounds of reducing child poverty. The result will be lots more children in homes where inadequate parents don't have the will or the ability to raise these children to be responsible and contributing members of society.

Strike At The Heart Of Freedom

Today most schools are disrupted, some emergency call handlers are not working and many other public sector workers are striking in a struggle with the government over pensions.
LibCon ministers and the London Mayor are muttering darkly about how most trade union members did not vote for the strikes and that it might be necessary to change the law if workers persist in disrupting public and emergency services in this way. But what is the legal position and would it be right to make striking more difficult?
These problems have a long history. The Combination Act 1799, and the Master and Servant Act 1823 stipulated that all workmen were subject to criminal penalties for disobedience, and calling for strikes was punished as an "aggravated" breach of contract. But then the position was slowly liberalised and through the Trade Union Act 1871 and the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act 1875 trade unions were legitimised. Toward the turn of the century the House of Lords emphasised that businesses should be free to organise into trade associations in the same way that employees organised into unions. However, with growing unrest and industrial action the House of Lords changed its mind. Soon afterwards the Taff Vale judgement made unions liable for the costs of industrial action. Although employers could dismiss employees without notice, employees in a trade union were open to penalties for withdrawing their labour.
This case led trade unions to form a Labour Representation Committee, which then became the Labour Party, to lobby for the reversal of the law. The Trade Disputes Act 1906 prescribed that any strike "in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute" is immune from civil law sanctions. The Trade Boards Act 1909 created industrial panels to fix minimum wages.
Discrimination in employment was prohibited on grounds of race in 1965, gender in 1975, disability in 1995, sexual orientation and religion in 2003 and age in 2006. Starting from the Contracts of Employment Act 1963, workers gained a growing list of statutory rights, such as the right to reasonable notice before a fair dismissal and a redundancy payment.
From 1979, the Conservative government enacted laws reducing the power of trade unions. Reforms to the internal structure of unions required that representatives be elected and a ballot is taken before a strike, that no worker could strike in sympathetic secondary action with workers with a different employer, and that employers could not run a closed shop requiring all workers to join the recognised union. The wage councils were dismantled. In 1997 the new Labour government brought the UK into the European Union Social Chapter, which has served as the source for most reform in UK law since that time. The National Minimum Wage Act 1979 established a country-wide minimum wage. The Employment Relations Act 1999 required employers to compulsorily recognise and bargain with a union.
A 'repeal of all anti-union laws' is official TUC policy. A ludicrous objective since it would be impossible to get agreement on what laws are anti-union, but they are on to something. What is needed is for the repeal of all laws relating to the workplace or industrial relations. The common law that applies to all of us for activities outside work is just as adequate for our needs when we are working as it is when we are not.
When a person enters into a contract to work for somebody else they have all the same rights and responsibilities as a person contracting to buy a house, borrow money, go on a holiday or make any other commercial transaction.
It is nonsense to have special laws for picketing when the common law of public order is long established. A workplace dispute which spills onto the public highway is no different from a possibly unruly gathering outside a football match, pop concert or night club.
Just as it was wrong for the state to prevent the formation of unions, it was wrong to protect contact breakers from the consequences of their actions and the huge body of industrial law since then has only confused and worsened the situation.
The reason we need government is to protect the life and property of citizens from crime and external threat. The police have not been on strike because it is illegal for them to do so, and those who have chosen to join the military do not have trade unions. As far as the rest of the public sector is concerned there is only one solution to their pension problems. That is to transfer all of these 'services' to the private sector and let the new employers work out the right package of remuneration for their staff as determined by the market in which they operate.


When you could see the ribs of the poor
and the fat man watered their beer.
You knew who got exploited
You knew who to pity or fear.

The waif who was wan with rickety knees,
the rich man deaf to his desperate pleas,
died of consumption or killed at the loom.
Nothing marked his pauper tomb.

Now we have underprivileged
who are fat and spotty and rude.
While the super rich are toned and trim,
helping the starving grow food.

An oil rich man with a yacht or two
and a football club for fun
is an easy shot for the feckless lot
who think they have been hard done.

The fat cats they say are parasites
bloated on ill earned gains,
but who is tied to their Blackberry
and who on a couch just lays?

A thirty stone woman
wheezes and pants
the fifty hard yards
to the pub.

There she labours through
five portions a day
of alcohol, burger, nicotine, pizza
and pure, pure ecstasy.

Her loutish lover leers
through smack wracked, bloodshot eyes
at the writhing teenage arse
framed by a thin black thong.

Her blotchy beau with spike pierced cheeks
leaps to honour's cause.
He and Mr Stanley
will carve respect on cheeky jaws.

Through blood and screams the medics work
to save these wasted lives.
Their patients kick and shout abuse
at those who treat their wounds.

Like education, that they valued,
free health care is their right.
They use it every weekend
after drinking through the night.

The woman lurches homeward
to her seven dadless kids.
They have their chips and Gameboy
and the freedom of the streets.

Just a normal family
struggling through life.
The fat cats are just ignorant
of the poor who have such strife.

Electro Angst Unlimited - All These Rats are Dragging Me Down

This race I'm in
is leaving me depressed
You're demanding effort but
I could not care less
All my wheels have fallen off
and I'm about to crash
I can't help but think that it's
about time to take out the trash

Save my soul cos the suits upstairs
are choking me and stealing my thunder
Save my soul since nobody cares
that I never dreamt of being a number
I always hoped that
there might be more to this life
I always hoped that
there might be more to this life

This game I'm in
I just don't get the rules
Dice loaded in favour of
alleycats and fools
Sadsack climbs the ladder
but hey, that's the way it goes
I can't help but ask about
the brown stuff that sits on his nose

Save my soul cos the suits upstairs
are choking me and stealing my thunder
Save my soul since nobody cares
that I never dreamt of being a number
I always hoped that
there might be more to this life
I always hoped that
there might be more to this life

My genitalia
make me feel like a failure
And the one that thrills you
is the hope that kills you
I've got this job, you say I suck at,
I went and found something to look at
And now face down, in the slime
a sign that I'm
wasting my fuckin time

Save my soul cos the suits upstairs
are choking me and stealing my thunder
Save my soul since nobody cares
that I never dreamt of being a number
I always hoped that
there might be more to this life
I always hoped that
there might be more to this life

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Not a Bad Day for Personal Liberty

I appreciate the posts on OutspokenRabbit can often leave readers with the impression that I am some sort of miserable malcontent. There might be a grain of truth in this, but I must confess to seeing two news items in a single day with which I was absolutely delighted. It's not often that personal liberty wins on dual fronts within a matter of hours, so we had better enjoy it while it lasts.

First up, Mr Justice McCombe's ruling in the High Court following the Hookway Case last month means that cops now have a maximum of 96 hours in which to either charge a detainee with the offence for which they are a suspect, or release them without charge. This has thrown our police, an institution used to getting its own way for more than a decade, into a state of utter chaos - good. The predictable rabble of politicians have turned up in various media streams to announce their widespread sense of panic at these developments, and their intention to pass 'emergency legislation' in order to get around the 'difficulties' caused by them. So much for an independent and apolitical judiciary, eh?

The reality is that this change does not equate to a charter for more criminals to roam the streets, as some have warned. What this simply does is re-establish the principle that until there is sufficient evidence with which to charge an individual with a specific offence, then the state has no right to impose restrictions on their personal liberty. There is nothing to stop the police from investigating further, then re-arresting the same man if new evidence comes to light, so what is the problem? A large part of it lies in the way in which a succession of measures have slowly eroded the notion of the presumption of innocence. Once this fundamental piece of our legal framework becomes compromised in the eyes of the public, then all manner of draconian steps can be justified in the name of security or law and order.

What people perhaps need to remember is that it is not just villains and general scumbags who get caught up in this mess. The individual subjected to bail restrictions could be you, I, or any innocent person who could have been in the wrong place in the wrong time, maybe deemed guilty by association on the basis of a hunch from a solitary PC. Dragging the process out for weeks or months does not make the streets any safer in such instances, and instead smacks of high-handedness for the sake of it. This is where the political arms race to be 'tough on crime' and appease the populist press has inevitably led us.

Any imposition of the state's will on individuals in the name of security is a trade-off, and sometimes the general population neglects to calculate whether the old statist maxim of "if it saves one life then it is all worth it" is really a proportionate response to whatever problem might be facing the authorities at that moment in time (the raft of insane anti-terror legislation is a high-profile example of this). After all, if we want to pursue such simplicity to its logical conclusion, why not just lock everyone up or at least tag them, thereby ensuring virtually no crime is committed at all?

So God bless the independent judiciary for striking a blow in the name of personal liberty - however, the news got even better as Ken Clarke unveiled plans to change the laws on self-defence in the home. In the future, the old grey area of "reasonable force" will be replaced by "whatever force is necessary" when determining what a householder can do to repel intruders. This would mean that as long as the force used was deemed necessary at the time, someone who for instance stabs and kills a burglar would not be liable to prosecution. While this is not the end-game of where I would want to go, it certainly represents progress on a number of levels, and is also a refreshing step change from the indecisive 'giving householders confidence' rubbish spouted by the Tories in recent years on the subject.

Aside from the fact that this stops people from having to think about legal ramifications while in a state of blind panic, the most important element of this amendment is that it breaks the notion that the law is the exclusive possession of the state. It is fair to say that Tony Martin and others in his situation have divided opinion between the ruling class and us mere subjects on this issue, with the Norfolk farmer held up by many of the population as a martyr in the name of self-defence, while the establishment sought to treat him as firmly as they could, using his case as a deterrent to the rest of us regarding the question of 'taking the law into our own hands'. In reality, the law belongs to all of us, and we merely delegate it to the police and the courts for enforcement on our behalf. Anything which clearly allows people to defend themselves, their loved ones and their property represents a shift towards this line of thinking and ought to be welcomed.

But then, won't intruders begin to carry guns as a means of loading the dice back in their favour? There's no point lying about it - maybe they will. We will then face the prospect of a popular law on self-defence with absolutely no appetite for change, and the spectre of more armed criminals on our streets. This will push the case for allowing widespread gun ownership to the top of the political agenda for the first time in decades. We would have to look again at the emotionally-charged laws that came as an result of the Dunblane massacre, and the logical conclusion would surely be that if you really want to even up the game between householders and intruders, then allowing you and I to own a firearm (unless we have been convicted of a firearms offence I should add) is the only way to go. The statists tell you to lie down and give them everything you have worked for - I'd ask, why not simply give them a face full of lead?

So today we've seen a significant shift towards restoring due process and the presumption of innocence in our legal system, followed by the first steps towards establishing the castle principle on the question of self-defence. This may well be the sewing of the first seed towards an end to the state's monopoly on force and firearms, and for an individual committed to the concepts of freedom and personal liberty, that can be no bad thing. It's not too often I say this, but all things considered, it's been a pretty good day to be a libertarian.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ways to Prevent a Funding Crisis - Part 1 - Fewer Students

So the government's Higher Education white paper promises a more student-focussed environment in which universities will be forced to compete for students in a market environment. As a general rule, I'd argue that the concept of market forces can usually be applied to any setting when one is talking about driving up standards and improving outcomes for the consumer (in this case, the student). The under-performance of many taxpayer-funded institutions serves to illustrate how protection from the consequences of failure invariably leads only to further institutional sluggishness.

However, for this plan to work, students have to be as free as the next consumer to take their business elsewhere in the middle of their course if they find themselves unhappy with current arrangements in terms of lectures, support and accomodation. Whether this paper empowers the paying customer in such a way is at best doubtful.

But does this not all rather miss the point? There are two contributing factors to the funding crisis which brought about this review of higher education and they are 1) the notion that the taxpayer should pay for degrees which ought to result in higher earnings potential for the student is deeply unpopular with those who never got the opportunity, and 2) as a country, our obsession with sending as many young people as we could onto degree courses rendered the existing model, then the one that replaced it, utterly unsustainable. In reality, there are simply far too many students between the ages of 18 and 21 in the Uk, and too many third rate universities offering nonsense degrees with them.

At some point in the last decade, it became conventional wisdom that attending university was a fundamental right for any 18 year old leaving college. Many of those who rioted against the cuts last year indeed behaved with the sense of grievance you would come to expect from a group who had lost a substantial slice of their personal liberty, and it is worth meeting this pernicious and misleading line of argument head on. A degree (and I speak as someone who does not have one) has to be an elite qualification, because by definition, the more participants you allow to win a prize, the more devalued that honour becomes. The current participation rate in Higher Education stands at around 36% amongst those aged between 18 and 21, and it is difficult to fathom how most of them can leave university with a skill applicable to the real world.

Many would be doing themselves more good in the long run by attending a vocational course or simply getting a job, but the current political fad of presenting the choice between a university education and eternal damnation has greatly diminished the standing of these other avenues. In reality, the value of the degree itself has fallen too thanks to the 'prizes for all' mentality of the previous government, but with them being so widely held, you can't really blame someone at 18 for swallowing the yarn spun to them that life will become incredibly difficult without one. Of course, I have known enough holders of HE honours stuck in dead-end employment to recognise that this is another of those lies that people are sometimes told to force them down the 'correct' path, but then 'the lies of post-adolescence' is probably a post of its own, best kept for another night.

We have somehow ended up with the worst of all worlds - degrees that have become worth increasingly less in the outside world, which is manifestly unfair on those who have them, and the absurd requirement to import skilled tradesmen from overseas due to the damage done to such career paths by the 'uni fad' in which mainstream politicians on all sides have become engrossed. With the state's contribution to the overall pot shrinking to such an extent that another look at funding became inevitable, has it occurred to any of them that a tightening of the academic criteria would both increase the relative size of the state's contribution, ensuring that those from deprived backgrounds could be looked after, while not saddling a great many other young people with mountains of debt in exchange for qualifications that do not equate to passports to the land of milk and honey, as they perhaps first imagined?

Some Libertarians believe in total freedom to learn - ie that any individual with the means to purchase a place on any educational or training course should be allowed to do so. Personally, I don't see how this ties in with the concept that our higher education establishments should be places of academic rigour. Yes, those participating should be required to at least contribute a majority stake of the costs of doing so as long as their means do not prohibit it. However, those who display high levels aptitude and application ought not be deterred from maximising their potential because of their background, or idle parents who may spend student loans on themselves.

Perhaps some form of bursary to be repaid once the individual is earning, either through private philanthropy or out of a reduced taxpayer contribution, would be both a just outcome and in all likelihood a sensible investment? Like most, I see the massive benefits to society of our brightest and most able furthering their education, regardless of their background or economic circumstances. What strikes me as utterly pointless is the herd of average achievers following the same path.

Only by restoring higher education as the preserve of the academic elite will we return real value and merit to degrees, and by doing so, we can rid ourselves of the crazed ideas that 1) furthering your education regardless of academic ability is a fundamental right and 2) that not having a string of initials next to your name amounts to some kind of occupational death sentence. Then we can get to work on returning vocational training and the careers that come with them to the standing that they deserve in our society, hopefully negating the requirement to import such professionals from Eastern Europe in particular. For our economy and society to function as it should, both academic and vocational aptitude need to be encouraged, rewarded, recognised and respected.

As with many of New Labour's brainwaves, the widening of participation in higher education was in all likelihood the product of healthy and altruistic intentions. However, they again forgot that the law of unintended consequences invariably brings about unwanted and unpleasant results. In this case they have been widespread and damaging on many different sides - a funding crisis in an era where HE was widely seen as an entitlement, and the simultaneous devaluation of both the degree itself and the alternative routes that might face someone at eighteen. There is nothing 'nice' about leading someone into heavy debt for the sake of qualifications that mean increasingly little once more and more people possess them. It's time someone in government triggered an end to the circus by standing up and admitting that the Uk just has too many students.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Two Faces of Sporting Schadenfreude

Nick Hornby commented in the quite brilliant Fever Pitch about the 'cruel clarity' that makes competitive sport so compelling, "there is no such thing as a bad hundred metre runner who got lucky" is as appropriate a sentence as any around which one may wish to wrap their appreciation of the finality of sporting contests. Yes, it is true that the league table does not lie, and no there is no substitute for results. So with that in mind, those involved with River Plate have an awful lot of self-examination on their hands as they contemplate their first ever season in Argentina's B Division in a glittering history which includes 33 National Championships, 2 Copa Libertadores triumphs and an Intercontinental Cup success, when they defeated Steaua Bucharest to become recognised as the best club side on the planet in 1986.

The most baffling aspect of River's shocking decline is that it has taken place in a domestic structure which really ought to load the dice in their favour. Relegation is calculated not on the points tally of the recently completed season, but is instead decided by a mean average across three years of domestic football. This of course gives the likes of River and Boca Juniors the bonus life of one potentially terrible season, safe in the knowledge that as long as it is followed by two half-decent ones then there is no immediate cause for panic.

That a club the size of River have contrived to put together two disastrous terms followed by a slight improvement in the third defies logic in many ways, and underlines that there can be no doubt whatsoever about the merit of their demotion to the second tier. A chronic lack of goals in the second half of the current campaign dragged them into the danger zone and an eventual playoff with Belgrano Cordoba - a 2-0 reverse in the away leg was followed by a return match in which a penalty miss left the scores at 1-1 and River were comprehensively beaten.

While Belgrano can look forward to a return to the top flight after a five year absence, the current crop of River players will have to live with the unwanted tag of being the first to lose the Buenos Aires giants' Primera Division status, fifteen years to the day of their last Copa Libertadores victory. The angry demonstrations of supporters, who then had to be water-cannoned away from the ground by police, were the embodiment of frustration at a spiral of financial crises, the sale of the club's best players and subsequent failure on the field.

South American club soccer may not be what it once was in an age where the best players invariably see the major European Leagues as a path to professional and financial success. More than 1,000 Argentinians currently play in a recognised league somewhere other than home, but the names of clubs like River, Boca Juniors and Independiente still hold something in the form of international currency. Fans of the other two, who can at least boast more domestic titles than River between them, will no doubt be of the view that Christmas has come six months early. After all, nobody does Schadenfreude quite like a football fan.

As neutrals, most of us would tend to support the underdog in one-off matches such as a domestic cup competition. When a small and unfashionable club achieves feats thought to be beyond the limit of their reasonable aspiration, it is common for supporters of bigger fish to adopt them almost as a second team, wishing them well in all but two matches of the current campaign. The flipside of this is that of course, practically everybody enjoys watching a so-called giant of the sport falling flat on their collective faces. Leeds United have never enjoyed much love from neutrals as it is, and so their relegation from the Premier League in 2004 (followed by a drop to the third tier three years later) was met by many with a mix of wild celebration, scorn and ridicule. Likewise Newcastle United, a club thought by most to be massive only in the heads of their own supporters, did not receive much in the way of sympathy when it was their turn to fall through the trapdoor in 2009.

In many ways, this agony of the previously successful is one of the best aspects of competitive sport. To return to Hornby's point, its outcomes are usually just (especially if they are based on three seasons instead of one!!). Idiosyncrasies such as Blackpool and Wigan Athletic operating at a higher level than Leeds last season serve to illustrate that in much the way as justice at least should be, the clunk of the sporting gavel holds no respect for a man's past achievements, fame, name recognition or reputation.

A friend of mine is a long distance runner, and the clear cut and meritocratic sphere in which he operates sometimes leaves me dying of jealousy. In a world where the professional futures of so many are dependant upon the personal view of one deeply flawed individual, the sight of big fish succumbing to the relative plankton of the any sport tugs at an idealistic heartstring somewhere that I think or at least hope most of us possess. Nobody is held back from achieving the most that they can with the means available to them, and similarly there is no protection for any competitor, regardless of size or stature, from the consequences of prolonged failure. We just need a reminder of this every now and then to maintain our faith in whatever game it is we love, and the relegation of River, akin to a club like Arsenal falling out of the Premier League, will keep people believing for the time being.

However, after a while something else takes over, even amongst those supporting the most fierce rivals of whoever has fallen from grace. The fun wears off, perhaps after a season or two, and it actually becomes quite sad to see a familiar name in an unfamiliar place. Almost everyone bar their own supporters smiled at the freefalls of Leeds and others in the previous decade, but then there comes a point where, in the words of a great man, "that joke isn't funny anymore". Followers of rival teams of roughly equal size begin to notice the absence of two big occasions on the calendar, realising that the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing your own side get one over on them.

Naturally, bragging rights tend to mean a great deal more when they have just been taken on the field of play, rather than by glancing at a newspaper and reminding oneself that the club with whom your own holds a natural antipathy occupies a lower division. River Plate were relegated on merit because they were pretty useless over a sustained period of time, and with an 85% reduction in television revenues on the horizon, a fire sale may become a necessity in the summer. As a result, escaping from the second tier at the first attempt may prove more difficult than one would first imagine. However, should they begin the 2012-13 season outside the Primera Division, will fans of Boca in particular want their Superclassico back more than they might wish their biggest rivals to fail?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Electro Angst Unlimited - Glad we Met (we weren't supposed to)

Seems this green and pleasant land
has now fallen into the hands
Of mercenaries, crooks and thieves
with hidden aces up their sleeves
Those that swear they will amaze ya
make you pine for euthanasia
Living in their personal toy
is to endure and not enjoy

So when we run into each other
it's nice to come across another
Independent, open mind
who knows group thinking is just blind
Conventional wisdom saunters on
being its own oxymoron
Let's escape from the asylum
come and meet me on this island

Everybody loves a man
who can execute a plan
A minute of your precious time
is all I need to explain mine
Here's a place for only those
talented and loving souls
Fail to meet this strict criteria
there's no room for your posterior

No time here for mindless sheep
or bores who'll send you straight to sleep
They're the cancer in this world
silly little boys and girls
All I want is stars like you
to do the things you want to do
Take some time if you've got doubts
call me and we'll fly you out

To a land of blooming and blossoming flowers
Talk about the things you love for hours
Without bureaucracy that devours
individuality from inside ivory towers

Here you will be left alone
in what's a government-free zone
And anyone who does oppress
will have to publicly undress
Bullies won't be tolerated
here they are despised and hated
Not supported de facto
like in the bullshit life we know

Glad we met – we weren't supposed to
looked fate in the eyes and told her
Could have been a big success
in the eyes of the sadly soulless
Their plans for me seemed pretty strange
so this cat chose to make a change

Come live a life that's civilised and cultured
No imbecile is gonna insult ya
Where we cannot be vexed by vicious vultures
I really want you there because I love ya

Saturday, 25 June 2011

I'd Happily Take to the Streets for None of the Above

The relatively low turnout in general, local and european elections has been something of a black mark on British politics in recent years. Only 41% bothered to vote either for First Past the Post or the Alternative Vote in May, and we should remember that this is only the percentage of those registered to do so. I know plenty of people who never bothered sending the form back, or maybe had another reason for sliding under the radar of big brother for a while. The 2010 General Election did see a small rise to a 65% rate of participation, after 2001's pretty feeble 59% and the not much better 61% that turned out to vote in 2005.

However, this is still a pretty poor show when viewed in the course of history, best illustrated by the graph here This clearly demonstrates that while participation in elections amongst the franchise was never quite as widespread as some nostalgists would have you believe, there has been a definite dip in the last decade. The answer as to why that is would depend on exactly who you asked. Some would suggest that the voting system is a large part of the problem, and I would be inclined to agree with this analysis, at least partially. But the general population rejected AV by a two to one majority? Yes, that's a fair point, and it's worth adding that only 34% showed up in one polling booth or another for the Euro Elections of 2009, where the Proportional Representation system (the lesser of several evils as far as I'm concerned) was in effect.

It's worth making a few observations about that AV referendum. First up, this was 'get Nick Clegg night' and not without good reason. He could have advocated free money and casual sex for all, and would still have met a glut of willing opponents ready to object to anything he said on a supposed point of principle. So while FPTP may still have won, albeit more narrowly, the case for the status quo was helped in no small way by the identity of those who argued most vociferously for change. Most importantly, I had never met anyone prior to the referendum who genuinely believed that AV was the way to go. The real argument in terms of electoral reform is between FPTP and PR, and has been for as long as the issue has been on the table.

I support a version of PR with multi-member constituencies to negate the power of the party list. I know Malpoet favours a form of PR too, though from the conversation we had on the subject his favoured system is a slightly different one. Though I profoundly disagree with supporters of FPTP, I hear their arguments and the case for what we have now. I look forward to the day when that is the discussion to be had, because there is a greater swell of enthusiasm for PR than there ever was for the "miserable little compromise" of the alternative vote. The suggestion that because AV took something of a hammering there must be zero enthusiasm for electoral reform in Britain is therefore based on a completely disingenuous premise, and those that support the status quo know this as well as anyone.

All that said, there is so much more behind low voter turnout than the perceived or real inadequacy of the electoral system. There is a substantial section of the population who have no great desire to vote for anybody, especially a candidate from the three main parties, and again opinion is divided as to why that is. Politicians call it 'voter apathy' as if they are a group of abstract artists who we are either too lazy or not cool enough to understand. This is of course complete bollocks. While 'they're all as bad as each other' has something of a lethargic ring to it, there has been a growing grain of truth in such sentiments over the last decade or so as the three main parties have simultaneously charged towards what they refer to as 'the centre ground'. In reality, this is a statist and PC plot of land buried somewhere between the New Statesman and the Guardian's Womens' section, but hey, that's for another night.

As it stands, we only have three political parties capable of making significant headway and the two observations that are fairly clear cut are 1) there is no genuine choice between them in terms of the real questions of the day and 2) none are fit for purpose. All three are really embodiments of old tribal and ideological battles that they appear to have settled, at least amongst themselves. Where for instance is the party that openly promotes free markets and personal liberty? I have no time for old school socialism, but who is going to stand up and represent those that do? The old maxim that 'whoever wins the election, the government always gets in' could never be more appropriate than it is now, so people stay at home and refuse to participate en masse, choosing to concentrate on the management of their own personal bubble instead.

For all whining politicians feign concern about 'voter apathy', it would cause them too much discomfort to actually do something about it themselves. In my experience, people do not want parliamentarians to 'listen' as is sometimes the stock answer to frustration. For all I could sit and profoundly disagree with the man for hours, did Tony Benn listen? Yet he is greatly admired, even by his opponents, because he believed in something and did not care whose wrath he incurred by speaking his mind. In fact it's a form of 'listening', mainly to focus groups and swing voters, that has landed us with the dishwater politics we have now. MPs could re-engage the electorate with remarkable ease by ignoring their pagers and the whips and answering the question with complete and occasionally brutal honesty.

This would drive people to the polling station like nothing else could, although many of course would go out solely to vote against them, so the era of Thatcher, Powell, Benn and all the other divisive but engaging figures of our political history is dead and buried. Be prepared for at least two more generations of careerists checking with their boss to see what the 'correct' answer is before spending a lifetime sitting on the fence and finding splinters in their arses during old age.

What is really required to bring about change in this area is the ability of a voter for go out and give a mandate to absolutely nobody. All sorts of fun is possible if 'None of the Above' ever blights a ballot paper. In the event of NOTA actually winning a constituency election, we could always keep the seat vacant - maybe the idea would catch on and the House of Commons emptied as a result inside a decade? Imagine a country without politicians, and no new laws, edicts or initiatives, statists hanging around Westminster twiddling their thumbs, unable to devise new methods by which to tax and regulate people half to death. Well, we all need a dream to cling to, don't we?...

As an equally valid name on the list, NOTA would no doubt command a fairly substantial share of the vote, and think of the spin-offs that might result. People would be free to canvas for None of the Above just as fervently as they might want to for any other outcome - I'd gladly join in with any such campaign, either taking to the streets or writing literature for it. If it did well first time around, would NOTA not qualify for an election broadcast? That would be pretty good fun, and if we're honest it's not like they'd have a shortage of material to go on. What about a None of the Above representative on Question Time the week before an election? "Look, you've heard those three drone on about the cigarette paper differences that separate them and why you might want to vote for them instead of the other two - let's face it, they're all a bag of shit, they're all going to break their promises and fiddle their expenses and you'd be better off just keeping the seat empty and being left alone". Alternatively the rep could, in true NOTA style, refuse to take his or her seat on the panel - eerie but effective.

I didn't vote last time out and I know enough people who are interested in politics but disengaged by the current mainstream scene to know that far from being 'apathetic', there is a mass of the population that is thoroughly pissed off by the alleged choice in front of them. Giving every voter the right to stick a black X next to the universal "fuck you" would provide the genuinely angry and disenfranchised with a voice as well as sufficient reason to first register and then actually cast a valid vote. Finally, we could then establish how much apathy actually exists towards politics in Britain, and I'd dare to venture that anything up to about 20% of the electorate in these circumstances is a figure not worth becoming overly worried about. However, what money that the introduction of NOTA would coincide with a massive increase in voter turnout?

That's why whatever they may say on the issue, mainstream politicians will always take 'voter apathy' ahead of the alternative. In the meantime, it looks like the biggest campaign on this issue needs some fresh impetus to put it politely. Those who agree with the principle of NOTA may wish to contact them here:-

Ciao for now, take care and I'll see you tomorrow

Thursday, 23 June 2011

All Hail the Glorious House of Saud

Vile parasites.
Your golden,oily skins
oozing with excess.
Drunk in your dry kingdom.

Saud lechers mawling
voiceless, voteless beauties
who may not drive
or leave their homes
without the right man.

This land you stole
in the name of vile Wahhab
bleeds daily.
The blood of lopped limbs,
mingles with the blood
of heads rolling beneath
the sword.
The only voice to be heard
is the scream of the tortured.

Your palm is greased by armourers
that you might intimidate
the better with your might.
Your guns and your courts
imprison all other than you.

You steal, but keep your hands and feet.
You fornicate yet keep your head
and the skin on your back.
You are drunk in your dry kingdom.

Height of your glory,
you flog and jail a
teenaged woman
for being gang raped
by the fine young men
of your pure, religious paradise.

Of course she deserves her punishment.
The harlot traveled in a car
with a man unrelated to her.
How just it was in the name of
Allah, the merciful,
that she should have 200 lashes

Surely your achievements
will echo through the ages of history.
Your prowess shadows all.
None but you Abdullah,
and your ten thousand spawn,
could have made the satan Bush
no more than a naughty boy
a little out of hand.

In a shocking verdict, a Saudi Court ordered a gang rape victim to undergo 200 lashes and six months in prison for "being in the car of an unrelated male" when the crime was committed.

The 19-year-old victim was initially ordered to undergo 90 lashes by judges from the Qatif General Court, but the case was referred back to an Appeals Court after her lawyer had urged a harsher punishment for assaulters, the Arab News reported.

A source at the Qatif General Court said the judges had informed the rape victim that the reason behind doubling her punishment was "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media", the report added.

Saudi Arabia enforces a strict Islamic doctrine known as Wahhabism and forbids unrelated men and women from associating with each other, bans women from driving and forces them to cover head-to-toe in public.


Those feeble, ulcerated legs
which cannot support your shrunken body
are the powerful pistons that
drove your heavy old bike to work.

Your faltering, tearful voice speaks,
but your bellows echo down the years.

"Look at that silly tit over there"
A nurse smiles back from her patient labour.

"No bloody rabbit food or foreign muck for me"
You eat the steamed fish and salad in a plastic dish.
All politeness and compliance to
the faces of black doctors and staff
serving food you would have thrown in mum's face.

"Want a new suit boy?" You grinned
as you came in from the betting shop.

"STAND STILL! Too late it's in the tree."
Your pigeons were a fascination, but a terror too.
Excited by you clocking the winning bird,
and knowing that a loser would be my fault.

"Bloody Arabs 'll cut your throat as soon as look at ya."
The ranted bigotry lived on
fifty years after a brief military
encampment in wartime Egypt.

"What have you done with my bloody glasses?"
You squinted at the racing pages and
clutched for the telephone as
the horses lined up for the start.

"No pay today gal." You mumbled
as you came in from the betting shop.

"He's got the darkies disease he has. Bloody idle."
Revolting insult thrown at a black youth on the TV
without bothering to listen why he was there.

"Get 'em a cup o' tea gal."
The command shouted from an
armchair in front of the television
made a visit feel an imposition.

Glimpses of an intelligence
sometimes shone through
from your limited and distorted world.

Off to work before I got up for school.
Back from the pub after I was in bed.
I knew you were home when I woke
to the shouting downstairs.

In your eighty fourth year you told me
that seventy five would have been enough.
My stomach knotted.

Shame I never knew you.
I am curious now
you are dead.

Electro Angst Unlimited - I Don't Hate You

I remember a time
when the mention of your name
brought all those flashbacks
of the sick and twisted game
You played with my heart
til it didn't work no more
but yes it starts to beat again
and no it just don't feel so sore

I Don't Hate You
That sounds too much like hard work
My teenage angst is treasured
and let's be fair you're just not worth it
I Don't Hate You
That sounds too much like an effort
Thinking time is precious
and let's be fair you don't deserve it

It was Xmas time
when you got to my fellow peasants
presuming that I'd follow
but begging always felt unpleasant
They threatened yet more pain
and you know just what I said
Make sure that gun is loaded
before you point it at my head

I Don't Hate You
That sounds too much like hard work
My teenage angst is treasured
and let's be fair you're just not worth it
I Don't Hate You
That sounds too much like an effort
Thinking time is precious
and let's be fair you don't deserve it

There has been a time
I've been unable to escape
as you've etched yourself
into a loveless life's landscape
I took it out on people
you're not fit to shine their shoes
The guilt is making me implode
since you're the one who blew my fuse

I Don't Hate You
That sounds too much like hard work
My teenage angst is treasured
and let's be fair you're just not worth it
I Don't Hate You
That sounds too much like an effort
Thinking time is precious
and let's be fair you don't deserve it

Electro Angst Unlimited - Institution

This nightmare that I had
woke up in the bridal suite
And thought “my, this is worse than bad”
just where on earth did I meet
That chick with whom I share this room?
Champagne's inappropriate
right now and so are those balloons
got no cause to celebrate

This nightmare that I had
woke up wondering what the heck
happened? This ring upon my hand
just like a noose around my neck,
I know this gorgeous thing in here
will now morph into a witch
And I'll live out my life in fear
soon I will become her bitch

I said,
I just don't wanna know
Got somewhere I have to go
Mulled over the mess I'd made
reached right for that razorblade
Slashed my wrists until they bled
clear thoughts running through my head
You've joined this glorious institution
meet your new friend destitution

This nightmare that I had
woke up everyone's but mine
And what makes this especially sad
is twelve hours ago I was fine
With my headache and memory gap
I try to re-trace my steps
And I realise now that I'm trapped
in vows that just can't be kept

I said,
I just don't wanna know
Got somewhere I have to go
Mulled over the mess I'd made
reached right for that razorblade
Slashed my wrists until they bled
clear thoughts running through my head
You've joined this glorious institution
meet your new friend destitution



The joy of Music as Creative Therapy

One of our more humorous trolls suggested recently that I find myself a hobby. I appreciate the concern, but would urge him or her not to worry since I already have a few, one of which is writing music. It's something I only got into properly at the relatively late age of eighteen, but have been doing for over a decade now. Most of what I wrote in the early years was of course complete junk, with predictable hooks and hackneyed lyrics, but of course all crafts and talents are nurtured in the course of time, and though it's not for me to judge whether my own material is particularly good or not, I'd venture that it is a mile better than what I was passing off as music 10 or even 6 years ago, albeit starting from a pretty low base!!

When I first learned to play guitars and keyboards, the process of repeating stuff you'd heard elsewhere was indeed useful as a means to an end. However, the thought of joining the ranks of young men who will go to an open mic event and blast out Champagne Supernova never appealed to me. What I always wanted to do was create something of my own, from scratch and alone if needs be. My ideal situation is to have another brain and pair of ears around, someone with whom you can share the creative workload, bounce ideas between each other and act as a filter for any misguided thoughts that the other person may have. Occasionally I've taken a creation of mine and then said to the other guy, "rip that up and redo the whole thing from scratch". The results aren't always what you wanted to hear and are never what you expected, but then that's not necessarily a bad thing.

People have different drives and motivations for wanting to create anything, be it a piece of art, a poem, a song, whatever. Some are possessed by the notion of seeing their name up in lights, something I was once told could happen by a small label bod outside a bar. Thanks but I think I'll pass, plus what I do is hardly the kinda thing that is gonna make you millions. Some musicians wanna rock out, be big stars and have a crowd sing their anthem back to them in a packed football stadium - can't say that's me either. Two things appealed to me about writing original material - the notion of leaving a mark on mortality, a piece of work that will remain here long after you have been buried, is not something that too many people will manage in their lifetime. Even if you never made a dime out of what you wrote, it will be there, either on a CD or buried online somewhere.

However, the biggest satisfaction I get from writing is that I find it therapeutic. It's something you can at least trust yourself to get vaguely right when everything else around you appears to be crashing and burning. It's a means by which you can either escape what is bothering you or express whatever you're feeling about the situation, depending on the general mood. One of the great advantages about writing down lyrics that originate from angst or frustration is you do not have the pressure to deliver the killer line there and then that a disagreement or argument with someone would place upon you. Another plus is the fact that nor does the other party involved necessarily need to read it, especially if they happen to be a boss at work, a relative or a member of the opposite sex...

These tend to be the songs that I remembered most fondly - one of my favourite lyricists of all time, the one and only Morrissey, explained in an interview a few years ago that the most rewarding part of what he did was people sending him letters explaining how his work had helped them get over "the death of their pet hamster and that sort of thing". It's quite clear from much of his own work that he was also ridding himself of a few personal demons or "getting something out of his system", which is what one member of his band attributed two of the songs on Mozzer's 1995 Southpaw Grammar album to. It's always pleasant to come out of the other side of the storm, then play something back, preferably to an audience, while realising how the creative process aided your recovery.

Rabbit in the Headlights', easily the best composition from my limited collection, always stands out in my mind as an example of this - this bunny will never tire of listening to it, performing any version of the song to those who want to hear it, and thank the man upstairs for the night I was lying on my bed, angst-laden and listening to Talk Talk, when the whole idea flowed very rapidly into my head. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, and the whole thing was written and mapped out within 24 hours. The Colonel and I had a demo recorded in less than a week (actually the demo remains superior to the version you can hear online to this day) and went out for a drive with a mate of ours, listening to our new work of art and revelling in its power as we played it on repeat. A great buzz of recording any music comes from the first time you listen to it - most of the time you just want to play the same track on a continuous loop and an in my experience, an extremely reliable measure of the quality of your work is how long you can do this for before the buzz gives way to boredom.

I've got some far from brand new music which I never quite got round to wrapping up, but will make sure it is in the can before the summer is out. The art of producing something euphoric or anthemic, and backing it with words from the deepest part of your soul or brain has left me with a collection of soundtracks to good times, bad times and bloody miserable times, and I wouldn't exchange anything that I wrote, even the truly dreadful stuff, for all the tea in China. I should also be grateful for the day that I wandered into a guitar shop and saw not a means of making money or being invited to debauched parties, but a tool which would aid my life, and could assist the expression of everyday observation, thought and feeling. When I'm writing, my guitar and keyboard are to me what a pen is to a Malpoet or a rifle is to a marine - they are the best chance I have of completing the task ahead, and seldom if ever let me down.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A Failure's Guide to Winning the Rat Race

Evenin all - while taking care of business last Wednesday, I floated a couple of ideas for books that could be published. The one that appeared to get the best response from the gang was the title of this piece, and it is easy to understand why. I'm yet to encounter anyone who thinks that the rat race is a wonderful thing, that the right people do well in it and that the corporate ladder at least loosely correlates to levels of aptitude and ability. Everyone who has ultimately failed to get anywhere (myself included) sees themselves as a victim of office politics as opposed to being an individual who was not quite good enough, while we all know a thoroughly limited brown-noser or five who really have slithered their way up the greasy pole.

I've acknowledged that I'm more likely to win Miss Teen America than I will ever be to make any sort of headway in the occupational games that people play. There's no point getting overly annoyed about it and taking some advice from Malpoet a couple of weeks ago, the best thing a person can do is indeed their own thing. Therefore, I'd advise anyone in my position, especially if they're still young enough to get other things done, to stop caring, have a sense of humour about what is really a silly situation and thank the man upstairs that they did not become what they had to in order to get ahead. As a dismal failure in the rat race, I'm pretty well qualified to tell you what you should have done - namely the complete opposite of what I did - so here are some tips for those who still believe there is something worth saving:-

1 - Understand that How Talented you are is Completely Irrelevant...

In my recent piece 'Rat Race Misery and the Lies of Adolescence' I intimated that many teenagers grow up with some deeply misguided notions about the 'grown up' world - ie that those of us who possess skill and a conscientious disposition have the land of milk and honey on the tips of our fingers in adulthood, if only we are prepared to grasp it. Before you can approach becoming a sensation in the corporate world, one must first ditch this youthful idealism if they clung to it in their formative years and embrace the quality that will instead serve them most effectively - namely that of obedience. If there is one thing that a megalomaniac wannabe cult leader already in power loves, it is a disciple who never asks questions, or ponders whether the course of action about to be taken is the correct one. Worry not about having to relinquish your ability to think for yourself, because once you have submitted to a culture of blindly doing as you are told, then insignificant factors such as whether you know the square root of anything will be conveniently overlooked.

Leave your brain and your independent streak at the gate and the suits will love and reward you appropriately for it. Most who cracked the higher echelons of the corporate ladder are enduring triumphs of obedience over ability.

2 - Learn the Message - then Get on it...

Within any organisation there will always be a dominant culture. There will also be words and phrases which you will hear over and over again, and appear to substitute quite nicely for actually doing anything. Worry not, for you don't actually have to know what any of this lexis means - in fact much of it has very little or no meaning at all. In order to enjoy the trappings of life as a flourishing rat, fluency in English is advantageous, but getting your head around management speak is absolutely essential. In order to help you with this quest, a nice link is attached here:-

Moreover, try to appreciate that there are individuals within any organisation whose views on any subject are those you should seek to parrot at all times. In the event of an equally influential person within the group expressing a different answer to the same question, then simply adopt the Groucho Marx philosophy of "those are my principles - if you don't like them, I have others". Above all else, do not attempt to think for yourself, on any issue, at any time.

3 - Cultivate an Image and Re-Invent Yourself more often than Madonna...

An organisation is a lot like a woman (thanks Swiss Toni) in that what she requires from you can change at the snap of the fingers or the blink of an eye. Of course, by leaving that dangerous tendency of yours to think independently on the street outside, you've laid a lot of the ground work here, but it's worth asking exactly what this group of people is looking for at this moment in time. For instance, do they want an employee who displays a capacity for going about every task at breakneck speed, charging up and down like a blue-arsed fly as a means of demonstrating how 'committed' they are?

Like obedience, the presentation of a relevant image will always be of far more use to you than a basic aptitude for any given task. Appearing busy, focussed and on the ball is therefore far more important than actually being so. Look the part, act the part, get the part - who said anything about actually playing the part? It's that simple...

4 - Remember You're all One Big Happy Family...

Not only is networking a vital part of a successful career path within any organisation, it also operates as a 'two birds with one stone' method of 'fitting in' and enabling your 'face to fit'. Only by appreciating that those you work with are an extended family will you truly achieve this aim, and company events are as good a place as any to start. Corporate parties are not 'the Horror, the Horror' as some useless scribes would have you believe, they are joyous occasions at which people come together and express their genuine (honestly) affection for their colleagues, even those they have only just met.

So attend stag parties, hen parties, weddings, divorce parties, funerals, pets' funerals and any other en masse event that one of them invites you to, making sure you create the impression you enjoyed all of them equally. Remember, you're on a warning if you don't.

And, absurd as it sounds, bring cakes in on your birthday too...

5 - Until You've Made it, Keep it in your Pants...

What is often forgotten is that the rules of occupational engagement vary quite wildly depending upon whether you are a Chief or an Indian. Once most of the grease on the pole sits well below you, the number of 'thou shalt nots' will of course rapidly diminish, but until then, it would be wise to live the personal life of a monk. People love to gossip and many also operate under the insane delusion that what any situation requires at any given time is a bit of their own personal interference - in short, people are shits, aren't they? If you're fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to hook up with a colleague, then the chances are that one of you will need to move on sooner or later in order to escape the circus. If the love-in breaks down or turns into an awkward "I love you more than you love me" situation, then this automatically becomes 'baggage' and a permanent black mark on your record.

Therefore, the smartest move is to completely compartmentalise the workplace and your bedroom, at least until you've become a 'somebody'. At that point of course, the rules cease to apply, and you can blur those zones marked 'work' and 'play' as much as you please...

6 - Learn to Smile as you Kill...

You knew there would be sacrifices, and here's the last one for this instalment. Unless you can fake sincerity and harness the ability to take someone under your wing then shaft them as only a true corporate can, then a glass ceiling will continue to apply in terms of how far you can go. Spotting an axe-murderer is a fairly straightforward task, but a smiling assassin can become an altogether more difficult figure to trace. A good trick here is one you can practice this on people you know - learn to look them in the eye, and tell the most direct lie that you can while keeping a straight face, "no I didn't have a drink on the way home", "of course I didn't have a bet on the 4-30 at Newmarket", or if you're feeling particularly daring "yes, it's true - Iraq has weapons of mass destruction".

If you can pull this kind of material off to people who you care about, then the veneer of occupational sincerity will be as watertight as you can possibly make it. And another thing - once you've stomped them to death and done a little dancing on their grave, try not to feel too bad about it - it's only a game after all...

What I think will be necessary in order to complete a book on this subject is a string of willing volunteers ready to share their stories of arse-lickers getting their bosses' food for them in the canteen and that sort of thing. Hopefully one or two of you will be able to provide some insight on this subject which will supplement and enhance my own with some amusing anecdotes. I'm gonna sit down with a few people who have already offered their assistance and try to flesh this out, but in the meantime, take care and happy racing...

Monday, 20 June 2011

June 18 Bill - Robin Park - Magnificent Martin Bludgeons Blackwell

The headline contest of this Hatton Promotions bill between Martin Murray (22-0 with 9 early going in) and Nick Blackwell (8-0 including 2 stoppages) was one which could be viewed as difficult to call on a number of levels. Blackwell, while unbeaten, had built more than half of his clean professional slate against opponents who had losing records themselves. The contest against St Helens warrior Murray for the British and Commonwealth titles therefore represented a step up that could be measured in stratospheres. Did the Trowbridge man have the skills, ringcraft and the ability to both dish out and take a shot that would gain the respect of his opponent? This would be the key factor in determining what chance (if any) he had of springing an upset.

As it was, following a close opening round that could conceivably have been scored even, Murray (11st 5lbs) proceeded to systematically break down a game but ultimately out-hustled foe who came in three pounds lighter. Blackwell was busy in the second but spent large parts of the round hitting arms and gloves while taking some quality punches in return. By round three, the pattern of the fight had been established, with Murray cutting off the ring at will, walking through Blackwell's punches in a manner which rendered the challenger's nickname of 'Bang Bang' bitterly ironic. Blood seeped from the nose of Blackwell who produced a spell of fighting driven purely by instinct in both the third and fourth sessions, but his bravery was only prolonging what was becoming an ordeal of 'too much, too soon', as Murray repeatedly cornered his man and then dominated the exchanges with sharp, heavy punching.

In the break between rounds four and five, many of the press row had seen enough and were calling for the fight to be stopped. As it was, Blackwell's corner gave their man what was to be a final crack at turning the tide. Murray by this time was teeing off at will against an opponent who was firmly in the modes of survival and damage limitation, and though the underdog was showing commendable bravery to fight back, the notion that we were watching any kind of contest was long dead by this point. Fortunately, the retirement of Blackwell for his own safety at the end of the fifth prevented the bout from descending into a massacre of Calzaghe vs Lacy proportions. Murray, rated as number four challenger by the WBA, surely has bigger nights with more difficult challenges ahead of him, while Blackwell will at least live to fight another day. It is difficult to work out on the basis of this fight whether he was not ready for the step up from a technical point of view or if the occasion, with a partisan and hostile crowd in his opponent's favour, got the better of him. Either way, a few outings to build confidence and experience would appear to be necessary before the Trowbridge fighter attempts to move up in levels again.

In the chief support, 'Genius' Joe Murray moved to 11-0 (5 early) with a hard-earned points victory over teak-tough Scot James Ancliff (now 11-14-2). The scores of 120-108, 120-110 and 118-111 suggest a one-sided affair (I had it 119-110) but the Aberdeen man played his part by continuing to come forward, justifying the imprinting of the words 'All Action' on his trunks. The former amateur star dominated most stanzas by boxing intelligently on the back foot, darting in and out of range while causing all sorts of problems for his stockier opponent with his handspeed. As a result, Ancliff's aggression usually contrived to work against him, apart from a fourth in which he appeared to show he could trouble Murray with his strength, and also in the ninth session where his enterprising start coincided with the Mancunian perhaps taking some time out. 'Genius Joe' took the rounds down the stretch as his opponent visibly tired and his advances did not carry the same sense of endeavour that they had earlier.

Following his contest with Daniel Kodjo Sassou in February, this was another excellent learning fight for Murray, who will no doubt have gained far more from his last two outings than he did from the previous nine. A great deal of the credit for that should go to Ancliff, who showed immense durability, took a lot of shots from his opponent and was courageous from first bell to last. Murray will probably look to make a few more defences of his IBF Youth title before making a further step up in class. A former British Olympian, he certainly possesses the skill and lateral movement to compete at a higher level, and further contests like the two he has had this year will do no harm whatsoever to his progress. Both men weighed 9 stone exactly.

Anthony 'Million Dollar' Crolla (9st 8lb) enhanced his professional record by making light work of Belgian late replacement Herve De Luca (9st 9lb). A series of vicious body-attacks was sufficient to end this one as a contest within just over a minute, with De Luca twice dropped by sickening punches round the corner. After taking mandatory eights on both occasions, the Belgian spent the rest of the fight's solitary session back-pedalling, attempting to survive the onslaught from the current British Champion. As the opener drew to a close, a further bodyshot saw De Luca crumple to the canvas once more, and although he beat managed to rise at eight, the contest was quite rightly waved off. Crolla advances to 21-2 (9 early) with this blow-out, while De Luca slides to 16-6-1 (7 stoppages). After what can only be seen as a 'marking time' fight, 'Million Dollar' will surely be hoping for a more meaningful event next time out.

An engaging affair took place at SuperMiddleweight, as Accrington's Luke Blackledge took a 40-35 decision over Derbyshire-based debutant Adam Stretton. Again the scoring, while not unfair, did not tell the full story of a bout in which both men laid it all on the line, trading blows in the trenches and Stretton in particular showing immense heart to see the fight through to the bell. Floored in the first by a slingshot right hand, and hurt on other occasions, Stretton (12st 2lbs) clearly experienced difficulties with the power of Blackledge (12st 4lbs), whose punches always appeared to carry that bit more capacity to do damage. Though the action was punctuated by spells of scrappiness, a pulsating final round was akin to a saloon bar shoot out and was received by a thoroughly deserved round of applause from the crowd for both men. Blackledge progresses to 3-0 (1 early) while it will be interesting to see if Stretton perhaps takes a less gruelling engagement in his second pro fight. After watching one of the most taxing initiations to the sport I have ever seen, he could certainly be excused for doing so.

There was also a win for Steve Jevons, who moved to a perfect six at the start of his pro career with a 39-37 decision over Jason Nesbitt, a veteran participating in his 142rd fight. After a strong opening round, Jevons' lateral movement appeared to desert him somewhat as he became easier to hit than one would expect against a tough but limited opponent. Nesbitt clearly took the third, and the fourth, while scored correctly in Jevons' favour, was closer than it should have been. Both men weighed 10st 6lbs. Dale Miles (10st 2lbs) looked useful as he stretched his unbeaten sequence to 11 (8 early) as he halted Ibrar Riyaz (9st 9lbs) in a corner retirement at the end of the fourth.

With his rangy boxing and fast hands, Miles dominated this from the first bell, but was perhaps over-eager for the knockout, crowding his work when building off the jab had already dropped his man in the first and was causing the Albanian (now 4-23 with 2 early wins) enormous problems. However, he deserves credit for becoming only the second man to get Riyaz out of there early and does appear to have the talent to make further progress – hopefully the patience required for distance fights will come with experience. In the show-opener, Dudley's Chris Male scored the second inside distance victory of his 11 fight unblemished start as a pro, forcing Dougie Curran (now 5-7-1) to pull out with a swollen eye at the end of the third. In what was an entertaining encounter while it lasted, Male (9st 6lb) always had the edge over his Newcasle-based opponent, who came in a pound heavier.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Cameron and the Politics of the Madhouse

So David Cameron wants us all to hate what he calls 'runaway fathers'. Well thanks for that Dave, but like most people I'm perfectly capable of deciding for myself who I think should be "stigmatised" have "the full force of shame heaped upon them". Moreover, not only is the comparison between absent fathers and drink-drivers completely absurd, his over-simplification of the wider issues around breakups, child access and maintenance does an injustice to many people while skating over some of the nuances of the subject.

Of course, having a child and then disappearing from sight is a highly irresponsible thing to do, but then the way that Cameron speaks suggests that this single trademark narrative broadly covers all instances where a father does not see his child anymore. I've met many who were struggling to get official access sorted through the courts, or upon being granted it were finding the child's mother making the actual meeting of father and child increasingly difficult. One of the other traps which Dave has fallen into here is leaving the impression that these situations are, without exception, the fault of the man.

This is clearly not true - there are unfit and absent parents of both genders, and would it not enhance the discussion if we simply talked about parents instead of singling out one sex or the other? You may well point out that Sunday was Father's Day, so presumably Dave will be talking about 'manipulative mothers', who poison their kids' minds against Daddy next March? No he won't? Well thank fuck for that...

There are legal adults who are barely capable of looking after themselves and therefore should probably not have children. Sometimes it is surely no bad thing that a parent who is an alcoholic, a drug addict, an abuser or predisposed to violence is not a major part of a child's life? Although the statistics suggest this is not the general trend, there will be occasions where one parent is preferable to two, or the two biological parents anyway. Nearly all lone parents of course do the best that they can, and many are indeed "heroic" as Dave puts it. However, this applies to single fathers as much as it does to mothers, and I speak as someone whose parents split and whose father fled the scene, refusing to pay towards the upkeep of his 13-year old daughter.

However, this was not the most interesting aspect of Cameron's Daily Telegraph piece. The line that really caught my eye regarded his intention to "recognise marriage in the tax system so as a country we show we value commitment". I was never convinced that this particular project in social engineering had been shelved, despite the strong opposition to it by Dave's Liberal Democrat coalition partners. However, it is immensely sad to see it's re-emergence nonetheless. There are two major reasons why such a policy is dangerously flawed, namely the disturbing anomalies it will create and the societal pressures that will be fed by it.

The plan in itself is bullshit gesture politics at its worst - the notion that people would get married and stay together for the sake of £3 a week travels far beyond the realms of the merely ridiculous and enters "what you smokin?" territory. However, more importantly, it creates some undesirable and manifestly unfair fiscal situations. If you think of a tax break or benefit as a pot of money, it is always worth asking:- who is walking up to the pot, dropping a few pounds in and then walking away so somebody else can take it? This invariably helps in assessing whether or not any redistribution of taxpayers' cash is fair or not.

Under Cameron's arrangement, single people on a low income will be putting money in and then walking away so middle class married couples can take it. Meanwhile, someone who battered or abused their spouse then moved on to marry their next victim stands to benefit from a tax break, while the injured party in the first relationship (who could be a woman living in a refuge or a man who just wants to be left alone) will be left picking up the tab. I struggle to see how by the definition of any sane person either of these instances represent fair and just outcomes, and how the 'battered spouse' example in particular 'rewards' the 'right' behaviour? This serves to illustrate that the law of unintended consequences never fails to bite state interference on the arse.

That Dave apparently believes that all married couples should try to stay together, regardless of how bad things get, is equally insane. How is growing up in a household blighted by (for example) addiction or violence in any way beneficial to a child? When I was an early teenager, the thing that always struck me was that people my age were far more perceptive than adults actually gave us credit for. We knew when something was fucked up and wholly destructive, and when it would clearly be in the best interests of all parties for the circus to end. If this tax break is intended as a statement in favour of continuing marriage under any circumstances, then it also serves as an inadvertent green light to Carry on Warping - ie subjecting some children to further damage and unnecessary mental scarring.

What this also does is feed the horrible societal pressures that tell young people what they should want from their lives. Of course the Tories' pet hate in the past was homosexuality, best typified by the thoroughly bigoted Section 28, passed in 1988. This is without doubt the best (or worst) example of an Act of Parliament which played on the Tories' socially statist instincts of saying "this lifestyle = good - that lifestyle = bad". In addition, it fed on the absurd notion that someone's 14 year old son, upon being informed that some men liked men and there was nothing wrong with that, would suddenly be overcome by the urge to dip into a public toilet on the way home from school - in short it was ridiculous and fascistic bollocks driven by bigotry and hatred alone.

Cameron's public apology for Section 28 at last year's Pride festival (where he promised that tax breaks would also apply to civil partnerships) clearly owed far more to political expediency than it did to any sense that these instincts had waned if this pledge is anything to go by. It's just that the target has changed, and now the unmarried individual (possibly a previous victim of domestic abuse at the hands of a partner) finds him or herself as the scum of the myopia that is the Tory earth. Anyone who does not express a particular wish to go down the route of marriage, two kids, a dog and a lawnmower must have something wrong with them, they must be selfish and irresponsible, and therefore they must be penalised by the tax system in order to reward those who made the 'correct' decision.

That's why I always struggle to get too enthusiastic about young adults in my acquaintance who announce that it is their turn to tie the knot. Of course, I'm not 'anti-marriage', a brainless smear that people supporting personal choice on this issue invariably have to endure. It's just that somewhere at the back of my head there's always this nagging voice asking, "who's leaned on them and told them this is 'the right thing to do'?" When you're dealing with those who maybe have a few more miles on the clock, you can at least be assured that in all likelihood they possessed the confidence to decide for themselves that this was what they wanted. As a result, I tend to find it a lot easier to express genuine happiness for someone in that situation.

My biggest fear regarding 'special status for marriage and civil partnerships' is that it will burden many young people with the sense that this is the path which your life should follow. By giving one lifestyle choice the state-sponsored mark of superiority, all others become distinctly inferior by definition, and a hierarchy of relationships will naturally play on the minds of young adults, teenagers and (most depressingly) their parents. Cameron clearly wants this to ripple through society and put enormous strain on people to do the right thing, but should be careful what he wishes for.

Increasing the number of people manipulated or pressured into entering marriages and raising families that deep down they never wanted in the first place is both an affront to the notion of personal choice and in policy terms, a recipe for disaster. Higher levels of divorce and family breakup are likely long-term consequences of such action, and as a result, so is a rise in the number of absent or runaway parents. Given that this is a doomsday scenario as far as Cameron is concerned, his proposal to give special tax status to marriage can hardly be considered the work of joined up government, can it?

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Philip Davies should have stuck to his guns

Tory MP Philip Davies has clearly dropped himself in something of a hole with his suggestion that disabled or impaired people should be allowed to opt out of their entitlement to the national minimum wage. By focussing on these vulnerable individuals, Davies has ended up sounding as if he advocates some form of employment apartheid, where those deemed to be of full mental and physical fitness are treated considerably more equally than those who are not. As political own goals and gaffes go, this is right up in the higher echelons of the scale, with a policy suggestion which I believe stemmed from perfectly benign intentions incurring the wrath of mental health charities and members of his own party alike.

Davies' comments make for interesting reading - the fundamental premise of his argument is that those with a mental or physical condition that impairs them may be seen as 'less productive' and therefore a greater calculated risk to an employer than someone who is medically of (for want of a better phrase) able body and mind. The requirement to pay the national minimum wage to whoever the potential employer chooses to hire is therefore likely to tip the balance in favour of the 'able' candidate,"Given some of those people with a learning disability clearly, by definition, cannot be as productive in their work as somebody who has not got a disability of that nature, then it was inevitable given the employer was going to have to pay them both the same they were going to take on the person who was going to be more productive, less of a risk,"

Now some of the language here is clumsy and insensitive, as is the assumption that someone with a learning difficulty would automatically possess less aptitude for any job at all. Of course, every individual is but a collection of their own strengths and weaknesses, and there are very few who I have encountered in life that appeared to possess absolutely no kind of 'talent'. People are sometimes fortunate enough to find themselves in an occupation that taps into their niche or area of expertise, thereby rendering whatever issues they have (be it a health issue, disability or whatever) somewhat irrelevant. So Davies' application of the broad brushstroke in such black and white terms was not exactly helpful, but then it stuck me more as ill-chosen words than anything deliberately malicious.

But there's a deeper observation to be made when absorbing some of his other musings on the subject. Davies continues, "My view is that for some people, the national minimum wage may be more of a hindrance than a help. If those people who consider it is being a hindrance to them, and in my view that's some of the most vulnerable people in society, if they feel that for a short period of time, taking a lower rate of pay to help them get on their first rung of the jobs ladder, if they judge that that is a good thing, I don't see why we should be standing in their way." I'd concur with that sentiment 100% and then ask why he felt that singling out a vulnerable group in society would somehow enhance his case or make it easier to digest from a political viewpoint?

In reality, this is an argument against the principle of the minimum wage itself, and the only logical explanation that I can think of for Davies diluting it to the point where it appeared positively hideous is that the minimum wage, and the notions that first brought it onto the statute book in 1999, are now accepted conventional wisdom in the political mainstream. The main threads running through an argument for a state-imposed price fix on labour are that 1) it reduces poverty, drives up living standards and stops exploitation while 2) not increasing unemployment. It's worth addressing these two points separately.

There are undeniably winners as a result of the minimum wage. At the 2000 Labour Party Conference, John Prescott proudly announced that "1.5 million people got a pay rise last year thanks to a Labour government". Some of them would probably have got that pay rise anyway, but it would be churlish to suggest that most, let alone all would. Now a lot of the debate about whether or not to have a legal minimum comes down to how one defines the value of an individual's labour. If you take the view that it is not what one believes themselves to be worth, but the price an employer is actually prepared to pay them, then it is likely that the biggest winners of a minimum wage would be those whose genuine market value fell just a fraction below it - ie low enough to actually benefit while not necessitating the huge increase in remuneration which would price them out of gainful employment.

However, when balanced against the relatively small numbers of beneficiaries, there is a much greater number for whom the price-fix operates as a barrier to the acquisition of skill and experience. Now this perhaps does not apply so much to those who had a relatively unbroken record of employment prior to the introduction of the minimum wage. Even in the absence of a tangible skill, a track record of reliability and having done a job well in the past will drive up the value of a potential employee. Those that suffer most are young people who have no such list of positive experiences to call upon. Britain's official unemployment level currently stands at 2.43 million, and over 900,000 of those are under the age of 25. Now the question naturally follows from that statistic is - has the minimum wage priced any of these people out of work?

It is difficult to understand how a fixed minimum could not cause at least some level of state-imposed idleness. For it to have any of the desired effects of the statist, then it has to be set at a level considerably higher than the real market value of some of the lowest paid. After all, a minimum wage that did not (hypothetically) raise the earnings of a great many would be pretty pointless, right? But if a legal minimum does not cause unemployment, as the statists would have you believe, then why don't we raise it to £15 an hour, make everybody comfortable and raise living standards across the board? Because the almost certain end result would be that of pricing millions out of work, leading to a mass outbreak of state-imposed idleness. So it stands to reason that any minimum wage that has the intended consequence of raising living standards for a fortunate few will also have inevitable, undesirable and unintended ones.

Next question - is an increase in unemployment therefore a price worth paying in an ideological war against worker exploitation? I'd answer this by making two observations. Firstly, the most important thing for a person perhaps leaving education at 16 or 18 is to get on "the first rung of the jobs ladder" as Davies himself put it, and let's be realistic about what someone in that situation can offer to an employer, and their bargaining position as a result. Without the benefit of a track record or demonstrable skill applicable to their occupation, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the would-be employee does not hold many of the cards in a discussion about remuneration. In reality, the two potential selling points of employing a school or college leaver are that they are usually enthusiastic and as a rule are a lot cheaper than someone with proven skill and experience.

By applying a price-fix, presumably with the intention of strengthening their hand in that conversation, the state actually contrives to weaken it by reducing one of their competitive advantages. Is work for a short period on what might be a very low wage preferable to no work at all? I would argue that it always is and struggle to see anything compassionate in forcing people onto benefits to stop them from being 'exploited'. Surely it is up to an individual to decide for themselves if their employer is short-changing them or not? If they spend time building an experience and knowledge base then find that their reward does not mirror the change in circumstances, then someone, somewhere will be prepared to pay what they are worth.

Of course there are cowboy employers run by morons just as there are a great many who possess some form of enlightenment in their approach to remuneration. In reality, cowboy outfits are that way out for a specific reason - because they struggle to retain the services of talented individuals for very long. A large part of the notion of the minimum wage appears to be the denial of a very simple fact of life - namely that the labour of some people is worth more, sometimes a lot more than the labour of others. To use a sporting analogy, a player who runs round like a headless chicken while lacking an end product may please supporters who commend his effort, but in reality what a team needs is those who can score goals, create goals or stop goals - ie make something happen which has a tangible value. Such players invariably command higher transfer fees and wages for a very good reason, and so the same principle follows in every walk of life.

But surely people need to earn enough money to live on? I hear the cry and would raise a few points to answer it. Firstly, many of those who would fall below the current legal minimum in terms of real market value would be very young people living with their parents, so the notion that an admittedly very low wage would automatically equate to immediate starvation does not get off the ground. Is moving away from the tyranny of Mum and Dad and into a place of one's own a right? Well for those with particular circumstances relating to issues of (for example) abuse, then they can be taken on a case by case basis, and yes the state and/or a charity could temporarily fill any shortfall while the individual was taking responsibility for his or her own life and increasing their earnings potential. However, outside of these instances, surely the means to choose a more expensive lifestyle is something that one should earn on merit? And if you really want to boost the incomes of the least well off, surely taking them out of income tax altogether would be a more effective way to go? If the current minimum wage is seen as a measurable decency threshold, then why are those earning precisely that amount still subject to income tax and national insurance?

And here's a question to ponder - does comfort, at least in some cases, stifle motivation? Is it helpful to enforce an improvement in the living standards of those fortunate enough to find employment at the lower end of the pay scale? I ask this while recalling a conversation I once had with a manager from a previous place of work. He told me how he'd had to put in hefty shifts of overtime in order to pay for a holiday when he'd just started out, and acknowledged that the reward for his labour at the time was, in his own words "a bag of shit". However, it was apparent to me that this had clearly driven him on towards improving his lot, and it begs the question as to whether his motivation would have been quite the same had he been earning more between the ages of sixteen and eighteen?

This cannot become a central thread in the argument as it would be plain wrong to suggest that we are all motivated solely by money, but it is worth thinking about. A glance at the world of music or sport will bring up examples of people who achieved great things having seen the pursuit of their talent as 'a way out'. There are also plenty of instances where an individual never quite fulfilled their potential having become 'too rich too young'. Of course many were more than just comfortable, and so there is not an exact fit that is applicable to the 'normal' world. However, if you look at the plethora of sportsmen in particular whose nosedived after they made a few notes, it is clear that financial security somewhat affected their psyche and motivation.

Perhaps the best observation on this theme came from the great middleweight boxing champion Marvin Hagler, who once commented that "it is hard to get out of bed to go running at 5am when you're wearing silk pyjamas". A person's efforts are worth what they are worth, but does a state-imposed pay rise to increase living comfort actually hinder some people and reduce their earnings potential in the long run?

Some who take my side of the argument perceive the policy of a minimum wage as a further example of statist self-congratulation, of demonstrating to themselves how 'compassionate' and 'caring' they are while disregarding the unintended consequences. I don't take this view, and instead see it as a well-intended muddle that its supporters genuinely believed would improve the lot of the least well off while not increasing unemployment. The reality is that the acid test of a minimum wage is when the economy is not doing well, and 20% youth unemployment suggests that it has failed this examination fairly spectacularly. Sometimes statists contrive to blur the lines between opportunity and outcome, and by fixing the outcome, they inadvertently slam the door of opportunity in a great many young faces.

I believe that there is nothing compassionate about depriving people of the opportunity to get their first job even if it happens to be a badly paid one, thereby forcing them into the trap of welfare dependency. Philip Davies clearly believes this too, and had he simply said as much, then the negative press would not have mounted as quickly, while an interesting discussion of the subject would probably have ensued. There was no need for him to single out the handicapped or disabled in any way, and it is a great shame that he did.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Those opposed to Jury Trial will raise a glass to Joanne Fraill

Malpoet raised an interesting discussion point recently with his piece titled 'Abolish the Jury System'. Though I remain as instinctively opposed to his line of argument as I was beforehand, one of the points he raised was particularly difficult to counter. Essentially, a jury is made up of a wide cross-section of society, some of whom will be considerably better at absorbing and understanding the facts of the case than others. Many will be respectable and responsible men and women, but then again a few might not be. The likelihood of a jury consisting of 12 individuals all possessed with high levels of mental aptitude and undoubted integrity is slim to none when one looks at the situation from that angle, ergo - the scope for a miscarriage of justice increases if those passing judgement comprise of a large element who are either dumb, dishonest or both.

So was Joanne Fraill dumb, dishonest or both? Well what has become clear from her conviction and eight month sentence for contempt of court is that she had more than an inkling that by contacting recently acquitted defendant (Miss) Jamie Stewart, there was the risk of some serious legal consequences. While discussing the case with Stewart online, Fraill reminded her new Facebook friend that "pleeeeee dont say anything cause jamie they could call mmiss trial and I will get 4cked to0". Once the text speak is unravelled then it becomes pretty cut and dried that Fraill knew what she was getting involved in by contacting one defendant and carrying out 'research' into another. Stewart immediately told her solicitor of the conversation, and with it triggered the collapse of a £6 million trial that was still ongoing.

Gary Knox, Stewart's girlfriend and one of the defendants on whom no verdict had been reached at the time of Fraill's Facebook foray, is currently serving a six year sentence following a conviction for corrupting a police officer. However, he is planning an appeal on the basis of the farce into which the original drugs case descended. You can't really blame him for trying, and there will be at least some chance of this appeal being successful. I happen to see the lucrative nature of narcotic distribution as pretty firm evidence for the legalisation of them. However, that's for another day and what appeared to be proven beyond reasonable doubt last December was that Knox had PC Phil Berry in his pocket and had bought himself sensitive police information icluding the names of potential 'grasses'. Both men were rightly jailed - Berry for 'misconduct in a public office' and the accompanying 'conspiracy to' on Knox's part.

There are many who have expressed sympathy for Fraill in the wake of her conviction and the eight month custodial sentence which followed. Stewart, who herself received a suspended sentence, was amongst them, "I really feel for the woman. She's got kids. She apologised and she's not a bad lady." This of course raises two separate points. If she had not wanted Fraill to end up in chokey, she could always have er...not told her solicitor about their Facebook conversation...just a thought? From a distance it looks like her overwhelming concern was collapsing the trial of Gary Knox, and that the potential fallout was of secondary importance at best. As for "she's got kids", well I've heard this nonsense enough times in a multitude of cases to stop being genuinely annoyed by it.

The logical conclusion of that sentiment is that we should have two parallel sets of laws with requisite sentencing guidelines - one for the childless, the unmarried and the single, which is a draconian rulebook backed up by punishments akin to 'hang, flog or lock up and throw away the key'. The alternative legal framework contains exactly the same set of offences, but completely excuses some and results in much less severe punishments for others when applied to those who "have kids, or a family, or dependants". Of course under this system, nobody with children, or a husband/wife, or an elderly dependant can be given any form of custodial sentence, regardless of what they have done.

Next time someone attempts to tug at your heartstrings by wheeling out this argument, try to remember the natural endgame of what they are suggesting. Yes, Fraill has children, and it will indeed be horrible for them to live without a mum for four months or so. Naturally, I feel for them because of the position that their mother's stupidity has put them in, but that sympathy does not extend to Fraill herself, and no amount of emotional blackmail is going to bring it about. Did she stop and think about her kids before dabbling in a bit of Diagnosis Murder online, and compromising a £6 million trial? Clearly not, and so it baffles me when 'personal circumstances' like these are taken into account in any case. What's wrong with one law that applies equally to all without fear or favour? Can someone please tell me why someone's gender, marital or maternal/paternal status should ever be brought into the equation?

I support jury trials and always will - they are as someone once said on another subject, "far from perfect but a damn sight better than the next best thing". Coming from a political position that is predisposed towards suspicion of the state, I've seen the growth of a new form of totalitarianism masquerading under the cloak of a 'democratic' society. The thought of politicised justice scares me half to death, and that's why I think Malpoet, a man for whom I have enormous respect and agree with on many issues, is badly and dangerously wrong on the subject of juries. Replacing them with appointed inqusitive judges will take away the right of people like you and I to set free a man or woman whose prosecution was motivated by a political agenda rather than a legal one. It will also leave those inquisitors with a vested interest in pushing through such cases to placate those who appointed them in the first place.

However, we have to get juries to a point of being as close to perfect as possible. It would completely undermine the principle of trial by your peers to start suggesting that only people 'intelligent' enough to be jurors should take part, as some would have it. Exactly what the test would be to determine fitness for jury service escapes me, and the unwilling could always supply the 'wrong' answers on purpose, couldn't they? What we can of course do is ensure that jurors are honest and stick to their task of absorbing the facts of the case to the best of their albeit varied abilities. Moreover, the remit of a jury and its component parts needs to be made clearer than ever in a shrinking world where information, and indeed misinformation are available at the click of a mouse - ie you're here to hear the case, not play private detective and solve it yourselves.

The brilliantly-named Lord Judge appeared to be taking steps in this regard in his ruling in the Joanne Fraill case, "her conduct in visiting the internet repeatedly was directly contrary to her oath as a juror, and her contact with the acquitted defendant, as well as her repeated searches on the internet, constituted flagrant breaches of the orders made by the judge for the proper conduct of the trial." The key element in this case appeared to be the fact that however much her actions owed to naivety, she clearly knew that they were illegal, and likely to collapse the original trial. The alternative to jury trials is hideous in my view, but for them to work they need to maintain the ongoing confidence of the public to deliver just outcomes. With that in mind, it is logical to conclude that Lord Judge's ruling was a brave and correct one, and that jury trial itself was the winner of this case.