Thursday, 17 April 2014

Letter in Rugby Observer: Tory vs Tory leaves ordinary people's concerns neglected

The Editor,
Rugby Observer

Rugby's interests come second when it's Tory vs. Tory


As a Labour candidate for the local elections in May, I've been campaigning on the streets of Rugby, hearing ordinary people's concerns about insensitive and damaging way that the Conservative-run  Borough and County councils have inflicted cuts on our communities.

Conservatives could perhaps be forgiven for giving preference to the interests of the wealthy, comfortable and strong - this is after all in their DNA. What is unforgivable about the behaviour of our local Tories is the recent bout of empire-building and infighting in their own ranks. The Conservative leaders of Rugby Borough Council and Warwickshire County Council are currently engaged in dispute over whether Warwickshire should become a unitary authority. We shall no doubt see in coming weeks the unseemly spectacle of Rugby's Cllr Humphrey slogging it out with Warwickshire's Cllr Izzi Seccombe over whose empire should gain ground.

Tories are placing their self-serving needs over the interests of the people of Rugby. People will make up their own mind about whether Tory candidates deserve their vote.  

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger
Vice-Chair, Rugby Labour Party

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

LabourList blog: HS2 and Trident should not be grand projects when there is a grand housing crisis

Online at Labourlist here.

HS2 and Trident should not be grand projects when there is a grand housing crisis

MARCH 25, 2014 3:00 PM

“Follow the money”, they say in detective stories. Apply your inner Sherlock to the government’s grand projects in modern day Britain and you’ll see that the vainglorious too often trumps the vital. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with HS2 (the same cannot be said of Trident), in these austere times, governmental largesse should be reserved for tackling genuine crises or meeting significant economic needs like housing. In much of the debate, the elephant in the room is the opportunity-cost of such spending.
The £50bn magicked out of austere air for HS2 has been justified variously as: needed to reduce wasted time for businesspeople on trains (until they said that mobile technology means this time is productive); vital to connect Britain to the European high-speed network (until the recent Higgins review killed the link to the Channel Tunnel); crucial to relieve pressure on existing lines; or to rebalance the economy in favour of the North of England (despite the clear need for immediate investment in the existing transport infrastructure there). That the government had to pay consultant KPMG to issue a report which unsurprisingly concurs with its argument, shows it’s on rusty tracks.
Another example of distorted priorities is Trident, a weapon of mass destruction designed to kill civilian populations, which can never be used, and is unnecessary given NATO’s doctrine of collective security. Some claim it’s the ultimate deterrent in a dangerous world, yet any attack warranting the use of Trident would by definition already have been fatal to the UK. It is argued that it justifies our seat at the “top table of international diplomacy”, and allows us to “punch above our weight”, yet this can be achieved by having more and better conventional forces which can actually be deployed. Instead, while engaging in savage cuts to conventional forces, the government began spending billions on submarine reactors while disingenuously stating that the final decision would be made after the General Election.
In both cases, there is neither an overwhelming need, nor decisive public support for the spending. What’s proposed isn’t the best use of resources, even to tackle the supposed need, which itself may be questionable. Other far more pressing problems exist which fare better under the scrutiny of opportunity-cost, yet the establishment issues the edict “make it so” and the arguments, finances, and politics are constructed accordingly. The question is not “why these particular projects?”, but rather, “why not others?” The answers show point to vested interests having become so entrenched as to have largely closed down debate about the real priorities of ordinary people.
There is no crisis in the rail network, yet in the case of housing, there is a very real crisis born of failure to meet an essential need. It’s multi-faceted: house prices and rents are too high, home-builders understandably seek to maximise profit rather than social good and the London market is fuelled by untaxed foreign wealth which distorts the entire country’s market. These complex problems have a single root cause: insufficient supply. Last year Labour boldly pledged to increase supply to two hundred thousand per year by 2020, while the Tories have predictably chosen to stimulate demand. No government since the 1950s has met or exceeded demand. In an age where Britain can help build double-decker airplanes, or invent graphene, why are we seemingly incapable of building sufficient homes?
Perhaps the reason is that the particular vested interests obstructing change are so powerful and have so much to lose?
  • First, current home-owners: the value of their homes would stagnate and possibly fall as supply increased hugely to meet the demand of hardworking people (even mortgage adverts admit this).
  • Second, house-builders: reforming the broken market in which they operate by giving preference to positive social outcomes will see a reduction in land-banking and a propensity to build the most profitable rather than affordable homes.
  • Third, land-lords who have massively benefited from the strangulated supply of new homes, will inevitably see their margins narrow, or in some cases, their market disappear.
  • Fourth, NIMBYs whose power over politicians is out of all proportion to their number, will find that as the balance is tipped in favour of the need of hardworking people for high quality housing, so their ability to frustrate new developments, including some on the green belt, will decline. Just as teachers in schools learn that the voices of stereotypical “pushy parents” aren’t the only ones of value, so the voices of the many will begin to be heard.
On opportunity-cost, politicians like Ed Balls seem to be contemplating a future in which these tens of billions could be used more productively or to improve the public finances. A simplistic example would be to imagine what could be done with the £100bn allocated for HS2 and Trident. At a £50,000 unit price per house, two million homes could be built. A party which had the courage to tackle these vested interests would of course pay a cost: an unprecedented media, establishment and political onslaught. But the opportunity, both for society, and electorally, would be immense. “The party of affordable homes for all” has a better ring to it than “the party of expensive nuclear weapons, defence cuts, a high speed train system that most people can’t afford and continually rising, unaffordable house prices and rents.” The opportunity outweighs the cost.
John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant and Chair of Pragmatic Radicalism

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

British MPs' Times letter shows why world must back moderate Syrian Opposition Coalition

On Monday, The Times featured an important letter signed by senior British MPs from all three major parties, offering support for the moderate Syrian Opposition Coalition ahead of the Geneva II talks next week, and urging that the international community does more to bolster their efforts. The letter is listed below in full.

If you agree with the letter, please share widely. The moderate Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) is battling both the Assad regime and the extremists, and is winning. The SOC and the Free Syrian Army require and deserve more support from the international community as they seek a Syria free of Assad's rule which respects the legitimate rights of  Syria's civilians to democracy, freedom, tolerance and safety.

The text of the letter can be tweeted via Meg Munn MP's website

The President of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, has tweeted about it

Other twitter handles that provide information on the moderate opposition are @SyrCoalition @PresidentJarba @smcmediaoffice (the Syria Supreme Military Command media office, giving updates from the Free Syrian Army).


Time is running out for the Syrians 


This month’s Geneva II conference must focus exclusively on the needs and wishes of the Syrian people, whose call for freedom has been brutally suppressed since 2011. To bring about a just, sustainable resolution to the conflict it must address two fundamental, interlinked issues.

First, it must chart the transition to a Syria free of Assad’s rule. The diplomatic success on removing chemical weapons must not deflect focus from the core challenge: a dictator whose regime continues to kill, maim and drive from their ruined towns countless thousands using conventional weapons.

Secondly, Geneva II must redress military disadvantage faced by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which does not receive the funding and weapons which their Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked rivals obtain from extremist networks outside Syria. In return for showing its commitment to a political process and political reform, the Syrian Opposition Coalition must receive more external support for the nascent governance structures, such as a new Ministry of Defence, that it is developing in the areas under its control and for the FSA. If we fail to do this, a combination of Assad and the extremists could annihilate the only opposition who are moderate and favour a peaceful solution.

While diplomats talk, time is running out for Syria’s civilians. The UN now supports three quarters of the country’s 20 million population, including 2.5 million in opposition-controlled areas which are hard to reach, and 2.3 million refugees. According to the World Health Organisation, Syria’s healthcare system has “totally broken down”, and a polio epidemic looms.

With the UN seeking $6.5 billion to alleviate the humanitarian crisis — more than it needs for the rest of the entire world, Geneva II must move us closer to a solution. The international community can do this by bolstering the Syrian Opposition Coalition in creating a secure hub for moderates, capable of defending itself and establishing a democratic, secular and tolerant future for Syria.

Brooks Newmark MP - former Government Whip; Treasury Select Committee
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP - former Middle East Minister
Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP - former Defence Secretary &Foreign Secretary; Chair, Intelligence &Security Committee
Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP - former Secretary of State for International Development
Rt Hon Sir Richard Ottaway MP - Chair, Foreign Affairs Select Committee
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP - former Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development
Hon. Bernard Jenkin MP - Chair, Public Administration Select Committee; former Shadow Defence Secretary
Nadhim Zahawi MP - No 10 Policy Board; Business, Innovation & Skills Select Committee
Robert Halfon MP - Public Administration Committee
Jeremy Lefroy MP - International Development Committee

[Liberal Democrats]
Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell QC MP - former Leader of the Liberal Democrats; former Shadow Foreign Secretary

Meg Munn MP - former Foreign Office Minister
Gisela Stuart MP - Defence Select Committee
Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP - former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; former Foreign Office Minister
Rt Hon Frank Field MP – former Minister for Welfare Reform
Sir Tony Cunningham MP – former Government Whip; former Shadow Minister for International Development
John Woodcock MP – Defence Select Committee
Mark Hendrick MP – Foreign Affairs Committee

Coverage of the letter on the front page of Monday's The Times

We have to help Syria rebels, MPs tell Cameron

David Cameron has come under fresh pressure to consider arming Syrian rebels after demands from a cross-party group of MPs to “redress the military disadvantage” in the conflict.

In a letter in The Times today, signed by politicians from all three main parties, MPs call on the “Geneva II” Syrian peace conference next week to “chart the transition to a Syria free of Assad’s rule”.

The intervention comes with rebels fighting not only President Assad’s forces, but also extremists connected to al-Qaeda. Civilians have been starved to death by the regime in recent weeks — some observers put the conflict’s death toll at more than 130,000. The letter stops just short of explicitly calling for Britain to support the arming of rebels, but many of the MPs behind it want the issue back on the table.

They fear that the rejection by the Commons last summer of possible British military action in Syria, together with the success in disarming the regime’s chemical weapons, has led to international inaction in helping the Free Syrian Army. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, will face calls in the Commons today to increase the help Britain is providing to the rebels.

Alistair Burt, the former Foreign Office Minister who oversaw Syria policy for three years, said that the time had come to arm the rebels. He said that Mr Assad was “very comfortable” and had no reason to sign a peace deal. “You could argue at the beginning of the conflict that putting more arms into the situation would make things worse,” he said. “I think it is very difficult now to see how things could be made worse.”

The Labour MP Meg Munn, a former Foreign Office Minister, signed the letter. She said: “The West should be getting involved and bombing strategic targets — that was my preference in rebalancing the military intervention.”

The former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell is the only member of his party to sign the letter. He opposes sending arms to the rebel forces, but signed up to increase pressure for a political settlement.

It is understood that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not reconsidering the question of arming the rebels. Many diplomats believe that the optimum time to give weapons to the right groups has passed.

Britain’s policy remains providing non-lethal and humanitarian aid to rebel forces. Diplomatic sources said, however, that there was some optimism that it may soon become clearer who were the “good guys” in the battle, potentially making it easier for other countries to hand them weapons.

Officials believe that the situation is deteriorating, with the Assad regime receiving funding from the Russians, and groups linked to al-Qaeda being given financial support from private sources in the Middle East.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Don't forget Syria's civilians this Christmas

I noticed a 24 hour news channel in my gym earlier, whose on-screen headline stated, inanely: "CHRISTMAS SHOPPING". Elsewhere, in the real world, millions of Syrian refugees huddle together in camps dotted around the Middle East (one if which I visited in June in Kurdistan Region, Iraq).

A worse fate befalls those left in their home country - a country where the world chose, collectively, to ignore crimes against humanity and the subjugation of human rights such as the "right to life, liberty and security of person" which it proclaimed in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. 

We must not turn our back on Syria's civilians, and we must not accept the argument of those who claim that our responsibility ends at the gates of refugee camps. We are all made less secure when our fellow humans are treated so appallingly by a dictatorship, yet the nations of the world choose not to protect them. 

Only this week, it was reported that the Assad regime continues to rain barrel bombs (literally barrels containing high explosive and shrapnel, normally dropped from helicopters) on civilian areas. And yet we were and are told that a No Fly Zone, like the one that protected Iraq's Kurds from the Saddam Hussein regime's genocide against them, is impractical and unachievable. This despite our multi-multi-million pound Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes, which we were told were essential in order for us to have the capability of breaching advanced air defences. 

Most of the civilians murdered in Syria were killed and continue to be killed by conventional weapons, not WMDs. Yet the deal on WMDs is dressed up as a diplomatic triumph. Only those sitting in safe, secure countries are in a position to exult diplomacy in such a way. Let's hope that the Geneva II negotiations can silence the Weapons of HUMAN Destruction. Thus far, diplomacy and expressions of outrage have not halted the regime's jets, helicopters, mortars and sieges.

Inaction in the face of great evil, is a form of action. We are witnessing a disastrous non-intervention. We must do more and not forget Syria's civilians as we celebrate Christmas. 

Meg Munn MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan, told me earlier today that there are now 13,000 children at the Domiz refugee camp, yet there are just four schools. 

Please donate to help build another school in the Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq .

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Mandela chose my distant relative G F Watts' painting 'Hope' for his prison wall

Hope by George Frederic Watts

In Gordon Brown's moving tribute to Nelson Mandela he mentioned that Nelson Mandela hung on his Robben Island prison cell wall, a facsimile of the above painting by British pre-Raphaelite artist G F Watts. I am indirectly related to G F Watts on my mother's side. It's good to know that a (very) distant relative of mine helped inspire the fortitude and hope of Nelson Mandela while he was cruelly imprisoned by the Apartheid state. Interesting to note too that 'Hope' is also said to be President Obama's favourite painting.

Gordon Brown said in the House of Commons on Thursday 9 December:

"Hung by Mandela on the bare walls of that bleak prison cell was a facsimile of the British painting by a famous artist, Frederic Watts. The haunting image he had in this prison cell was of a blinded girl sitting on top of a globe of the world. The painting, entitled “Hope”, is about the boldness of a girl to believe that, even when blinded and even with a broken harp and only one string, she could still play music. Her and Mandela’s belief was that even in the most difficult and bleak of times, even when things seem hopeless, there could still be hope. I believe that that explains why over these past few days we have both mourned the death of Mandela and celebrated his life with equal intensity. Who else could unite the whole world of sport unanimously, in every continent of the world, with applause? We are mourning because as long as Mandela was alive we knew that even in the worst of disasters, amidst the most terrible of tragedies and conflict, amidst the evil that existed in the world, there was someone there, standing between us and the elements, who represented goodness and nobility. And we are celebrating today because the lessons that we have learned from him will live on. He teaches us that indeed no injustice can last for ever. He teaches us that whenever good people of courage come together, there is infinite hope".

You can find out more about G F Watts at the Watts Gallery.

More about the painting 'Hope'.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

An inconvenient truth about Syria diplomatic 'triumph': WMDs bad; WHDs tolerable

There are many inconvenient truths in this world. Like elephants in rooms or the new clothes of emperors, they pollute the neatness of the narratives we contrive, as individuals, as the media, politicians, nations or international organisations. The inconvenient truth of our age is that despite, or perhaps because of the alleged 'diplomatic triumph' in Syria, through which President Assad's Weapons of Mass Destruction are to be destroyed, civilians' rights and often lives continue to be snuffed out by his regime's Weapons of Human Destruction (WHDs).

An inconvenient truth cannot be suppressed, as we were reminded last week in a brilliant piece by The Times's Tom Coghlan chronicling the text messages of a brave rebel fighter ("Gassed, shelled and starved: my life on the Syrian front line"). His harrowing words describe the gradual starvation his community is suffering due to a regime-inspired siege in Damascus. 

Journalists, bloggers and most importantly, Syrians using social media, must be congratulated for shining a light on the inconvenient truth that our response (if it can be called that) to a regime that has used chemical weapons on civilians, does not address Assad's continuing use of Weapons of Human Destruction. The WHDs have not fallen silent, and it seems that the world's plan to put them out of action, the Geneva II talks, face many challenges. Meanwhile, the civilians of Syria continue to be shot, blown up, starved or simply allowed to perish for lack of humanitarian aid caused by sieges like the one so dramatically described.

We should remember that the uprising against Assad began with peaceful protests and demands for democratic rights and freedoms that we in the West take for granted, which were brutally suppressed. Nefarious regimes are learning that the world might splutter into belated diplomatic action over WMDs, but seems unwilling to do more than express outrage at the continuing use of WHDs. Inconvenient truths are immutable. What can be changed is our collective response to them. While we ponder this from the comfort of our homes, time is running for civilians inside Syria and those millions in refugee camps outside.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Letter in The Times: The creative importance of music in schools


Available online at The Times here.

The creative importance of music in schools

Sir, The decline of music in state schools is a national tragedy (report, Nov 15; letter, Nov 16). Despite music having the potential to be as beneficial to children as sport, the latter gains preference in schools due to the myth that music is more difficult and less relevant to young people’s lives.

I benefited hugely by learning music from the age of 7 because an inspirational teacher [Caroline Lumsden, of Beauchamp Music Group - The Times edited out her name] set up a private but affordable weekend music school near my home. This improved my life socially, academically and culturally. I was also fortunate that the comprehensive I attended had a wonderful head of music, Miss Wrenn, who ensured that music was given as much prominence in school life as sport.

Learning music broadens horizons and improves concentration, teamwork, intellectual stamina, emotional development, mathematical skills and creativity. Music should not be an elite pursuit, yet it is becoming another facet of British society dominated by privately educated people.

We must not allow this dumbing down by those who share Mr Gove’s ideological “3Rs” approach. Music can improve the lives of all our children, but to do so requires investment of money and long-term political support. The Department for Education has much to learn from people like my inspirational music teachers.

John Slinger