Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Oh God, we're voting again... *opens wine*

Way to kill the long weekend buzz, Theresa! There we all were, eating chocolate and hot cross buns, getting drunk, and generally enjoying a four-day weekend when - BOOM! - the Prime Minister calls another sodding election.

Theresa May strode out the front of 10 Downing Street looking for all the world like she was about to declare the Hunger Games open, and took on an increasingly megalomaniacal tone as she announced that on 8 June, Britain is again going to the polls. Whoop-de-doo! She won't give a flying fuck if there is a low turnout due to sheer voter fatigue as long as she can shore up her majority and continue to drive us over the hard Brexit cliff.

It has been said already that she is gambling on an increased majority to quell the noisy Eurosceptic Tories but that would depend on how many Eurosceptics end up getting elected. She may well find herself with more hard Brexiters to contend with on her side of the house.

Her delusional rhetoric about how the country is united behind Brexit but Westminster is not is laughable. Or it would be if it wasn't so damn effective. For weeks now, she has been implying that if you are not 100 per cent behind her car crash of a Brexit, you hate this country and you are an unpatriotic scoundrel who probably uses bunting for bog roll.

Of course this is some serious short-termism on the part of Theresa May. She can bang on until she is blue in the face about how a Conservative victory will give her a strong Brexit mandate but basically she is pouncing on her 20-point poll lead. She knows she can win this thing in the next few weeks. She is out-UKIPping UKIP so those votes are hers, except for a few hardcore racists, there are the safe Tory seats that she can still count on, there will be Labour seats that will fall to the Conservatives - and she knows there are plenty of ardent remainers who cannot vote for Corbyn and won't vote Tory, but she is banking on there not being enough of these people to topple her.

The simple fact is that  Corbyn has never been pro-EU, has so far enabled Theresa May's hard Brexit, and he has outed himself as drinking the moronic lefty Brexit Kool-Aid. His recent comments on how great a post-EU Britain will be show he is trying to scoop up UKIP votes by being the third choice for UKIP voters after UKIP and the Tories. He has all the political acumen of a slow-learning kitten and, as such, he is a gift for the Tories.

If Labour lose the election in the predicted landslide, one can only assume that will be the end of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Or will he be the party's unflushable turd? If he does step down after an electoral annihilation and someone who is not a Russia-and-Iran-and-Venezuela-and-Cuba-dictatorship apologist nor an overgrown student protester is put in charge of Labour, that may well give Theresa May something to lose sleep over. But not for now. And "for now" is her focus.

"For now" means that not only can she capitalise on Corbyn's terrible polling but she can also nip the threat to the Tories by Arron Banks in the bud. I'm sure she will pull something out of her craven bag of tricks to appeal to the worst racists.

For the remainers who would not trust Corbyn to lead Brexit negotiations any more than they'd trust May and her incompetent clown car of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis on such a massive task, this election is quite the pickle. (Disclaimer: I count myself to be in that pickle).

There will be plenty of voters willing to overlook Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron's religious conservatism on abortion - after all, he has not shown any signs that he would override the pro-choice views that prevail within the party. He abstained on the same-sex marriage vote and now says he regrets that decision and would now vote in favour. People seem to be forgiving of him on these two issues. Whether there will be enough voters to forgive the party as a whole for the 2010-2015 coalition with Conservatives remains to be seen. It is on that issue that the potential success of the Liberal Democrats will hinge in this election.

Will the Greens gain any traction or are they a step too far to the left for many of those who will vote to oppose - or at least soften - Brexit? Brexit casts such a long shadow over pretty much every aspect of policy-making that for many, it will be impossible not to vote with this as the foremost issue. For those who voted remain, there will be some serious nose-holding in polling booths across the country on 8 June.

In any case, on any given day between now and 8 June, it will never be too early to start drinking. What a time to be alive!

Photography by Wojtek Szkutnik

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Nuance: the first casualty of war

Nuance is in very short supply at the moment. All over the place, sledgehammers are being used to crack walnuts. Binary thinking is commonplace. Seeking a sensible middle ground is out of fashion. Extremists at either end of the political spectrum gain traction. We are truly living in pathetic times.

And this brings us to the disgusting spectacle of Assad gassing his own people once again in Syria. This was followed by Donald Trump ordering airstrikes without the permission of Congress, although this latest intervention has now received conditional bipartisan support. This is in sharp contrast to Trump's campaign rhetoric about not dragging the US deeper into war in the Middle East. But apparently he saw some distressing footage of gassed "children of God" on telly and now it's bombs away!

This, in turn, caused further astounding spectacles. Trumpian cheerleaders, such as Milo Yiannopolis, Paul Joseph Watson and Ann Coulter, all felt betrayed by their phlegm-haired father figure and swiftly announced their disappointment to the world. They seem genuinely stunned that Trump changes policy like he changes his socks, even though it was clear before the election that his foreign policy was always going to be a hot mess. The poor little snowflakes.

Then there was Friday's Stop The War debacle. Stop The War should perhaps be named Stop The War If It Is Waged By The West But Let's Never Call Out The Crap From Tyrants We Cravenly Apologise For Particularly As Our Chairman From 2011 Until 2015 Is Happy To Cash Cheques from Iranian State TV And Russia Today, but honesty is seldom catchy. @STWIIIWBTWBLNCOTCFTWCAFPAOCFTUTIHTCCFISTART is a rubbish Twitter handle,

For an organisation that professes to believe in dialogue instead of bombs and guns, and claims to support the rights of refugees, they were shockingly disinterested in constructively engaging with Hassan Akkad. He approached the protesters to ask them why they weren't protesting against the Assad regime but he was shouted down.

It was a disgrace. Megaphone-wielding, placard-waving fools, the lot of them. Some tosser yelled: "Keep chanting!". Because that is all these people have. They are part of a particularly loud but pointless element of left, and they are as devoid of nuance as Trump's one-eyed fanatics. And, just like Trump's disciples, they hate constructive discussion and seek to silence anyone who might have a different take on things. They are ferociously pro-censorship unless it's something they agree with, something else they have in common with alt-right lunatics.

Hassan Akkad is a Syrian refugee living in the UK. He has been imprisoned and tortured under the Assad regime. He knows first-hand that Syria is not a triumph of secularism, an offensive and ludicrous claim made by many an Assad apologist.

Akkad is an intelligent man who is worth listening to. Here he is sharing the story of his escape from Syria:

Everyone who howled him down at the Stop The War fiasco should watch that video, hang their heads in shame, and personally apologise to him for failing to engage in dialogue or to even try and understand the story of a refugee. Everyone there was a hypocrite.

The protesters refused to listen to a word he had to say. Akkad knows that Trump has no great affection for the Syrian people. He knows that Trump has his own agenda. He also knows that to oppose Assad is to not be an automatic jihadist. And he understands that destroying the airbase in Syria from above is not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike the Stop The War protesters, he is capable of nuance.

Click here to watch the video he tweeted, where he articulately explains his version of events from the protest.

The simple truths are that Assad and Daesh both need to be stopped. A military campaign solely made up of airstrikes will not achieve this. I am not going to pretend that I am sitting here at home in London holding all the answers to the appalling situation in Syria. War is awful but I do think boots on the ground are needed to wipe out Daesh and quite possibly to help the oppressed people of Syria overthrow Assad. Indeed, it has been reported today that US-supported rebels in Syria, with Jordanian and US support, fended off a Daesh assault. The very nature of the conflict, of the geography, of the joint enemies of Assad and Daesh, mean any military action will be long and grinding.

A humane solution for the people displaced by the conflict is also essential. Syria has degenerated into a place where it is hard to tell who the bad guys are and anyone who whines about young, able-bodied men fleeing the conflict would do well to remember this before shooting their damn fool mouths off from the comfort of countries that are not currently war zones.

Boris Johnson has done the right thing by cancelling a trip to Moscow and attending a G7 meeting instead. Anyone who thinks Putin is not in bed with Assad is either naive or stupid. Johnson is in no way suited to the job of foreign secretary, although at least this means he is not behaving like Basil Fawlty in Brexit negotiations. Whether the G7 meeting will lead to a ceasefire and whether any ceasefire will last longer than a New York minute remains to be seen, but it is better than kissing Putin's arse.

Dialogue is essential, military intervention will be a necessary evil, nothing will happen quickly. And if we listen to the experiences of people like Hassan Akkad, people who have lived through the long-term horrors of life under Assad, it might become clear that removing Assad from power and neutering the outrageous influence of Russia are essential to this tragic, horrific process.


Image by zio fabio/Flickr

Sunday, 2 April 2017

NHS reform for dummies

Amid this week's entirely justified furore about the Daily Mail's "legsit" front page in which Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon's Brexit/Scottish independence discussions were reduced to body parts, there lurked another steaming turd that demanded closer inspection.

Directly below the calf-obsessed photo of our two most senior politicians, there was a deafening headline about NHS reforms that will apparently fix everything and save billions of pounds. The Daily Mail was selling the story as if the reforms are a good thing, the Daily Mirror was taking the opposite view, pointing out longer waiting times and no extra money being spent on the NHS by the current government.

But without an electable opposition, this does not really amount to a hill of beans. That said, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth did a solid job when he was interviewed by Sophy Ridge on Ridge on Sunday this morning. Whenever Jeremy Corbyn quits hanging around the Labour Party leadership like a fart in a car, I'd urge his replacement to keep him on.

In the meantime, however, people continue to prove the notion I put forward last time I blogged on the NHS which is that there is still plenty people will tolerate in terms of stupid healthcare reforms before they will get angry.

The Tories currently own the "free at the point of use" rhetoric - as long as people are not noticing any real difference to the healthcare they receive, it is very hard to get people to care about issues such as taxpayer money going to private companies to provide services formerly provided by the NHS, or private companies getting away with all manner of crap because they are exempt from Freedom of Information laws. The cost of administration of NHS contracts, which renders any cost savings meaningless, is not being discussed especially widely and the billions that are sucked into the PFI debt vortex each year is a problem consigned to the too-hard basket.

The cold reality is that stories such as the Daily Mail's splash about a "blueprint to save the NHS" are swallowed en masse without too much thought. If only more people got their news about the NHS from Private Eye instead.

"Dramatic drive to cut costs unveiled that will see dolling [sic] out of painkillers scrapped and GPs ordered to crack down on health tourists" is the online headline that sets the tone and the agenda.

The health tourism line is routinely trotted out because it appeals to xenophobes. Sure, there is an argument for ensuring that those who are not entitled to NHS care pay up but it is delusional to expect that to magically fill a funding hole - it makes up around 0.3% of NHS spending. Additionally, since 2015, non-EEA citizens who come to the UK for more than six months as students or temporary migrants have paid a health surcharge as part of the visa process. But because the figure is estimated at £300 million, the outrage ensues. Daily Mail readers are held in utter contempt by the paper with the editor and his acolytes assuming they will be dazzled by a big number, the kind of figure very few of us will ever see in our bank accounts.

And the Daily Mail is at it again in this week's report, dazzling its readers with the claim that Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has a plan that will "save the Health Service up to £1 billion in two years". So all these plans might save around half a billion per year out of an annual budget of around £120 billion. Meanwhile, PFI has left the country £222 billion in debt.

As ever, people are getting excited over plans for the NHS that are the equivalent of getting 20 plumbers over to fix a leaking toilet while nobody is being called on to look at the house's crumbling foundations.

As for the painkillers crackdown, if the NHS simply used its enormous purchasing power better, it would be procuring painkillers far more cheaply. In any case, painkillers will still be given to patients in hospital and the whole "make people pay for their own Panadol" rhetoric is pretty lame. Don't tell Simon Stevens this, but most of us already do buy painkillers for ourselves.

The plan also includes making people pay for their own indigestion and hayfever remedies. Again, millions of us across the country already do this. Even the most die-hard NHS defender probably just pops a pill from the bathroom cabinet in the event of a hangover, a springtime sneezing fit or a growling stomach after too much curry.

The move by Stevens to crack down on GPs prescribing gluten-free food is another pretty stupid distraction. At a cost of £25 million a year, it is far from the NHS's biggest cost pressure but the NHS does get ripped off by suppliers charging it more than supermarkets, but a voucher system for supermarkets would solve that problem - or, once again, better procurement.

In any case, prevention is better than cure, for patients' wellbeing and in terms of cost-efficiency, and ensuring coealics have access to gluten-free food is a good example of this. But it's another easy, lazy headline if people think the NHS has become a gluten-free outpost of Greggs.

Then there is the scandal of the NHS funding unscientific, non-evidence-based homeopathic treatments. It is hard to come by exact figures on how much of our money is spent on woo and bunkum but the excellent Good Thinking Society estimates it at around £5 million per year. Again, it is a drop in the ocean - although still a dazzlingly large sum of money in Daily Mail land - but any plans to entirely scrap this bullshit from the NHS is absent from Stevens' plans. At least the funding of gluten-free food and painkillers is based in science. But with Jeremy Hunt being a homeopathy-loving health secretary and Jeremy Corbyn being a homeopathy-loving ageing student protester, this won't change any time soon.

Unsurprising to anyone who has been paying attention, Brexit will cast a long shadow over any attempts to fix the NHS, including this latest blueprint from Simon Stevens. It is all well and good to desperately tweet "FORGET ABOUT BREXIT! THE NHS IS BEING DESTROYED!" but the harsh reality is that Brexit is now inextricably tied to the future fortunes of healthcare in this country.

The plan includes trying to ensure NHS managers don't hire expensive locum doctors but we are facing a Brexit-induced doctor shortage. A British Medical Association study found that 42% European doctors are considering leaving the UK following the Brexit vote and another 23% are unsure. Out of 10,000 EU-trained doctors, that is a significant number we could lose.

On top of this, from July GP surgeries will be acting as border control when they will be obliged to check if all patients registering have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). These are issued by one's home country and entitle EU citizens to NHS care on the proviso that their government pays back the costs. If someone is turned away from a surgery for not having the EHIC, they can simply go away and obtain one and then register. But this alleged reform sounds like it's going to be punitive for EU citizens so it holds appeal for Brexiters.

Additionally, we in the UK are entitled to the EHIC so we can receive medical treatment in Europe. It is a wonderful thing because it works both ways - but once we leave the EU, we will probably lose that entitlement. Possibly. When the blisteringly incompetent Brexit secretary David Davis was quizzed on this by Hilary Benn at the Brexit Select Committee this month, he said he did not know what would happen to our access to the EHIC. He admitted that his department had not looked into this not-insignificant matter.

So there you have it, kids. A blueprint to save the NHS that merely tinkers around the edges, with bonus features that will probably be rendered pointless thanks to the idiocy of Brexit, all brought to you by the Department of Smoke and Mirrors.

Photography by Elliott Brown/Flickr