Wednesday, January 25, 2012


The New Year got off to a bad start for the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband when Lord Maurice Glasman, his presumed guru, blasted him and the party for “showing no signs of winning the economic argument” in a wide ranging article in the New Statesman.

The media guns were swiftly turned on Miliband but should they have instead been aimed at the other Ed - Balls. After all the Labour Party leader has to lead on all fronts; it is the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, who is meant to dominate the economic debate. Balls, who was an advisor then a ministerial colleague of the Iron Chancellor, Gordon Brown, knows more than anybody how he jealously guarded his turf, especially as Ed was one of his economic enforcers.

I will return to this theme shortly but first I want to concentrate on the speech given by Ed Balls to the Fabian Society at their Economic Alternative conference held on January 14. Whilst the Shadow Chancellor intoned the Labour Party economic policy mantra the main theme of his address was a robust defence of Keynes.

Balls is a disciple of John Maynard Keynes. He told the conference: “the reason why the real Keynes is so relevant today is that the global economy has been sliding into that rare and dangerous ’special case’ that Keynes identified in the 1930s and Japan suffered in the 1990s.

“You either learn the lessons of history or repeat the mistakes of history.

“With growth stagnating around the world, every country pressing ahead with deep cuts risks being a catastrophic mistake.

“Which is why Ed Miliband and I have argued for a global plan for growth, with clear medium-term plans to get deficits down, but stimulus now to avoid a global slump too.

“Rejecting the complacent isolationism of the 1930s and instead following Keynes’ lead by setting out a global solution to global problems – an economic alternative based on growth, job creation and balanced deficit reduction, which is the only sane way forward for Britain – and the only way back to credibility in the Euro area too.”

There were few detractors to Balls message and those that there were formed two camps. Some felt that Balls having argued the Keynes case didn’t go on to reach the Keynesian conclusion whilst others had no time for Labour’s timid approach on the economy.

On my way to the Fabian Society event held at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London in Bloomsbury, I passed through Gordon Square. A blue plaque on one of the buildings tells us that it was here that John Maynard Keynes spent many years of his life. I wondered whether Ed Balls’ female side may have got to him and he would have placed flowers on the doorstep before his speech but sadly no.

This is relevant because after Ed Balls speech I spoke to a number of people who said how impressed they had been with his performance as normally they found him repulsive; he was simply too aggressive. At the Fabians he was amongst friends but if Labour supporters rejected him because he acts in the media like an aggressive pit bull terrier imagine what a negative impact he must have on floating voters.

After Balls speech I sent out a Twitter on this theme. Here are just a few comments but I did not receive one in support of the present Balls style.

“Well that’s his and Gordon’s fault then; bring the real Miliband back and maybe, just maybe, people will start listening.”

“He was always been shallow and selfish in power. Now out of power why would that change?”

“Balls past behaviour and failings undermines everything he says and does now. People are neither stupid nor amnesiac.”

Now my point is this. It is all very well Ed Balls warmly embracing John Maynard Keynes but for the majority of voters the only Keynes they know is Milton. If he presents himself to the public as a rabid dog of war: first he is not seen as a Chancellor in waiting; secondly he is roundly rejected by the majority of the population, thirdly and worst of all Labour’s economic message is lost because the voters do not like the messenger.

So this presents Ed Miliband with a major problem. He has a shadow Chancellor who is identified by the majority of voters with the economic failures of the last Labour Government. He has an economic policy that is not even getting heard because of Balls’ aggressive stance. Hence when Glasman states Labour is showing signs of not winning the economic argument it could be said the good lord is merely stating as they would say in my part of London “the bleeding obvious”.

It was Tony Blair who said the New Labour project would only be complete when the Labour Party loved Peter Mandelson. I am not sure all the party ever did but Ed Miliband has a tougher job on his hands. He has to persuade the voters to love Ed Balls and when they have done that his economic policy. Sadly time is not on his side.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on January 26 2012).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


We are told the Occupy movement started last summer in the USA on Wall Street. Whilst that is probably true the fact is the mass protest movement started in Spain under the 15-M banner.
Pictures were flashed around the world as there were mass occupations of plazas in Madrid and Barcelona. Whilst the former was largely peaceful there were accusations and indeed evidence of secret police infiltrating the crowds in Barcelona and fermenting violent confrontations.
The 15-M movement, which took its initials from the date of the municipal and some regional government elections in Spain (May 15), was protesting over the financial crisis and unemployment but also about the all pervasive political corruption in Spain.
Whilst 15-M still exists it has been joined by other mass movements one of which deals with the plight of those who have lost their homes through repossessions. The story invariably starts with the victims losing their jobs so they cannot keep up the mortgage payments, and then the bank or mortgage lender has them evicted so now they have no salary or home. The property is sold off cheap and the former householders finds they are responsible for the difference between their mortgage and the forced sale price. Hence not only have they no job, no home but now they owe over 100,000 euros to the bank.
What both the 15-M and other action groups have in common is they are an integral part of the local community. So whilst the world watched Madrid and Barcelona I signed the 15-M petition in Ronda, which has around 35,000 residents then marched in Jerez, the bankrupt Sherry city, with the unions and local protestors. It was the people who were on the streets, young, middle-aged and old, the unemployed, those in work and on pensions, children in arms and in prams, all classes, marching against the injustice that surrounds us.
Which brings me to my native London. At the end of November I was back in town and it was suggested I went to take a look at the Occupy movement outside St Pauls. Given my experiences with the 15-M in Spain I needed little persuading.
In the ‘Fabian Review’ Tom Hampson reveals a new poll carried out by the society and the TUC. In his opening paragraph he writes: “Quietly and without much fuss the British mainstream has shifted. Across the nation, worn out political territory has been vacated and tents have been pitched on the new centre-ground, and middle England has unfurled polite and new placards and banners that read ‘people before profit’, ‘narrow the gap between rich and poor’ and ‘protect the workers’. Tea has been brewed and hardier souls are even sleeping out overnight. Only the new radical fringe – mostly Tory voters – have stayed away from the party.”
Well the 15-M and other Spanish movements would certainly endorse those sentiments but what I found outside St Paul’s was sterile in the extreme. In Spain we marched and the mainstream political parties took note largely because elections were in the offing and they tried the clothes of the protestors on for size. The far left Izquierda Unida found they fitted best but socialist PSOE and the centre-right Partido Popular looked like scarecrows as both parties are the problem not the solution.
I sat on the steps of St Paul’s and listened to one of the speeches and was immediately aware that the audience was largely young foreign tourists – next stop the Tower of London and Madame Tassauds. The woman protestor addressing the crowd even had to appeal for help with her tasks as she was doing the work supposedly assigned to others. I saw nobody rush forward to volunteer to help her.
So here I was in the centre of the City of London, to one side the empty tents of the protestors, to the other tourists taking in the sights, yet nowhere to be seen where the people of Britain displaying their anger over the injustices meted out by the greedy Capital of capitalism.
When I say the people of Britain I don’t mean those in the tents or those who wrap scarves around their faces to destroy property during riots. I mean the angry “young, middle-aged and old, children in arms and in prams, all classes, the unemployed, those in work and on pensions, marching against the injustice that surrounds us” – the same people I stood amongst in Spain.
It is an empty protest outside St Paul’s. It receives a nod from the clerics inside the cathedral, from some politicos and the public’s recognition that they are there. Yet they have failed to capture the mass support of the British public and until or unless they do the Occupy the City movement will be nothing more than a passing tourist attraction.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on January 14 2012)

Monday, January 9, 2012


As I scanned the Spanish press for some interesting reports to follow up I spotted the headline – Spain’s oldest prisoner kept inside over Christmas. I envisaged an 80 or 90-year-old spending the festive season locked behind bars which would make a good human interest story but on reading the article I discovered there was far more to it.

To start with Miguel Montes Neiro isn’t Spain’s oldest prisoner, he is just 61. Rather he is the country’s longest serving inmate although the prison service disputes that. The reason he generated so many column inches is that Miguel Montes Neiro spent Christmas, New Year and Three Kings behind bars – even though the Spanish Government had granted him a pardon.

Miguel and his family had hoped that a recent decision by the Council of Ministers, the Cabinet, of the outgoing Spanish Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero on a pardon for Miguel would be acted on. The decision was communicated from the government to the Supreme Court to the Granada provincial court for his sentence to be lifted. However the judiciary is always sensitive to orders from the executive branch of government and an outgoing administration holds little sway hence Miguel was not released in time for Christmas.

Miguel is being held at the Albolote prison near Granada and his family through their lawyer had asked the governing board for Miguel to be released to be with them for the extended Spanish Christmas. However the application was denied and although they travelled to the Granada court with a petition of ‘habeas corpus’ hoping to bring him home they returned alone as the duty judge rejected it on technical grounds.

Miguel is said to have been “very depressed” by the decision with his lawyer adding: “it is as if he has been sentenced to another 20 years”. A family member said they felt as if all the snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains had been dropped on them.

The prison’s governing body is in no doubt as to why Miguel spent the festive season behind bars. It says to be released under the terms of the current regulations a close family member has to have died or be seriously ill or his wife is giving birth. In Miguel’s case none of these applied.

Between escapes and crimes Francisco Miguel Montes Neiro, to give him his full name, has spent more than half of his life in prison since 1966. He recently stated: “Now they say I will be in prison to 2021. I will then be 71. I will not live ten more years neither do I want to live inside.” With his escapes he has spent 1,386 days at liberty. If you discount that time he has served almost 32 of the last 35 years inside the walls of Spanish prisons. Although he has been convicted of some 20 offences none of them are blood crimes.

He looks older than his 61 years and this is due in a large part to the three hunger strikes he has undertaken in order to seek an official pardon. He has been convicted of robbery, assaults, carrying of weapons, holding false documentation and what are described as “delitos contra la salud pública” in other words drug offences.

A spokesperson for the Instituciones Penitenciarias disputes the fact he is the longest serving prisoner arguing he has spent long periods on the streets in which he returned to crime.

From Granada, of the flamenco tradition, Miguel is regarded by the prison service as a grade one prisoner because of his many escapes. There are various grades – for instance grade three prisoners normally are free during the day and just sleep in their cells at night, returning home for the weekends.

The last time Miguel was given permission to leave jail was in 2009 for two hours to attend the funeral of his mother. Albolote prison is 25 kms from Granada and each week some of his four brothers or their children visit him but they say are not always allowed to enter the jail. The prison runs a tough regime, bars block the views from the windows and there is cheap plastic for mirrors which deform the image.

In Britain Miguel might be described as a habitual criminal or an aging “Jack the lad”. He has escaped, he has committed crimes and society has demanded he pay the price. Perhaps after a life of crime in some ways it is fitting that finally having been given a government pardon the judicial and prison service has had the last say.

My only comment is that I believe Miguel deserved better than to be used as a gimmick by the outgoing socialist government. I offer no other opinion here but to beg the questions has society failed Miguel or did he receive his just desserts? As a non-violent prisoner should he have received grade two or three treatment or as a constant escapee was he number one class?

Is Miguel’s treatment rough or true justice?

(A version of the above article appeared in the Morning Star on January 10 2012)