Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More thought for food 

The food and supermarkets debate goes on, with a thoughtful contribution by Joe Otten – making the point that it isn’t just the structure of ‘supermarkets’ that presents the problem – there are wider issues taking the problem beyond any one organisational boundary. With that point I agree –and as someone who has in the past had to live on JSA of £50.00 a week and scraped subsistence by haunting supermarkets at the times of day that ‘reduced to clear’ items came on the shelves I also concede his point on the social factor of low food prices.

Just a couple more thoughts and bits of reportage – no conclusions here.

News from elsewhere, form a totally unsubsidised agricultural system. In Canada a Toronto Globe and Mail article back on 6th February 2006 February (by Heather Scoffield, behind subscription firewall) had this to say:

In case you missed it, yesterday was Food Freedom Day -- the day when the average Canadian has made enough money to cover the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks for an entire year. That's good news for consumers. And bad news for food retailers and farmers.
The portion of disposable income that Canadians spend on food has slowly eroded over the past decade. In 1997, Canadians put 12.5 per cent of their spending money towards food; today, it's about 9.25 per cent. Not only are Canadians spending less of their money on food, but a smaller and smaller portion of that is going to farmers. They are reporting the worst three years in recent history in terms of farm income……

Generally, prices of basic food have been falling steadily for years, because of advances in agricultural technology and huge productivity gains, said Richard Gray, head of agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan. Food prices overall are rising because of spending on processed food and going to restaurants.

Productivity gains have been so enormous that a subsistence diet bought directly from a farmer would cost well under $50 a year in Canada, Mr. Gray said.

Fifty Dollars Canadian is about £20 sterling I think.

But the article also says that the profit margins in the stores are getting massively squeezed. As I see it, if we really are interested in ‘cheap food’ we should look at where the big price hikes are coming between producers and the shops.

Another bit of news from elsewhere – SLATE online magazine in the USA is carrying a dialogue on ‘Is Wall-Mart good for the American Working Class?’ between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman. Some interesting exchanges illustrating the complexities of economic interactions… One claim Furman puts forwards is that 50% of the productivity edge that the USA has over Europe over the last decade comes from the revolution enforced by the big-box stores such as Wall-Mart. References for this claim in this article by Kenneth Rogoff.

On cheapness of supermarkets an article in today’s Independent by Terence Blacker (also firewalled) discusses a report just published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Blacker says:

Nine years ago Suffolk Coastal District Council bravely withstood the blandishments of TESCO and refused planning permission for one of their outlets near Saxmundham. The result according to the CPRE report is that … within the catchment area of the proposed superstore independent shops have bucked the national trend and are thriving.. beyond the ethical good sense of shopping small, customers who are lucky enough to have decent locals hops have discovered that the cost-choice-convenience mantra offered by supermarkets is at least two-thirds a lie. Buy local food from local suppliers and it will be cheaper.

The CPRE report (1.1MB .pdf) is available here. Blacker's slant on the story can be summed up in his headline: Tear down these ugly cathedrals of capitalism.

Quite a lot of material for an ongoing debate!

On one thing I disagree with Joe Otten. He says

I see no way for a little blog to give a convincing argument either way on whether more intervention is necessary. I hope the authorities are getting it right, and I am powerless to help them.

Actually both Joe and I have our little blogs and our other voices in a political process which includes the LibDem Party and other organisations we may help to influence. Just on occasion one or other of us, or someone else we may glimpse in passing, may ask the question that puts the spotlight on the emperors clothes. And the whole complex of market forces is there for us to influence in our little ways.

I have no intention of ‘trusting the authorities to get it right’ just like that, any more than I trust the government to make war and peace and get it right just like that.

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Food and the Markets 

Great to see the write-up in the Guardian of David Mwanaka’s unique farm. I must try White Maze sometimes. His inspiring story does also illuminate the debate going on about supermarkets good or not so good (and what this means for food supplies) in various blogs – Stephen Tall and Richard Huzzey to the fore.

For my part I think it is clear we have a market malfunction, and need to correct it, especially if we want more peopel like David Mwanaka to get some entrepreneurial success.

What actions to take? Well an example. The Women’s Institute is campaigning for a more rigorous competition policy for supermarkets so we politicians may find ourselves engaged on this issue from unexpected quarters. The NFWI says that it is

…not convinced that price cuts in the big supermarkets are in the best interest of consumers in the long run. Destroying farming in this country will not serve consumers long term interests, neither will pushing small independent stores out of business, often the life blood of local communities.
Other campaigns on this theme are run by

Breaking The Armlock, which campaigns against what it calls the ‘passing on of
unreasonable costs and demand’ to farmers in the UK and overseas.

More polemically TESCOPOLY takes aim specifically at the world of TESCO.

FARM, which bills itself as the Independent voice of farmers in Britain, also covers some wider issues.

National Association of Farmers Markets will help you find your local alternative outlet. If you are in Wolverton Farmers Market (in Milton Keynes) this Saturday morning (1st July) you might run into me puffing round the stalls at that fortnightly event, which isn’t listed by NAFM.

I think we LibDems really need to take a serious look at Market Reform in the food industry, especially if we are serious about 'free markets' and also about 'a new localism'..

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Fight for our British Rights 

The inconsistencies and hypocricies of The Infant David's rants on Human rights are beautifully skewered by Richard Allen in this post and I agree with every word. Just to add two points.

We need to campaign and campaign now to 'Save British Rights', taking up the challenge of Infant Dave's europhobia manipulations. Slap an Union Flag campaign button on our websites if need be.

And what is with the proposed Cameron Bill of Rights based on the US Bill (which is based on the English Bill of Rights of 1688 anyway)? The major change that came with our incorporation of the European Bill of Rights into UK law was that UK courts could cite the Bill in its decisions. It is the power of US courts to hold Executive and Legislature to account by applying the Bill of Rights which distinguishes US practice from some earlier British practice. Will Camerons Law follow this US proceedure? If so what difference will it make unless British Courts become as craven as are current US courts?

Lets throw this right back at him.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Another way on risky offenders? 

There is a project that helps prevent re-offending by people convicted of sex offences after they are released from prison. It will not be popular amongst those promoting the current uproar, which perhaps makes this a bad time to discuss it. The implementation of a “Megan’s Law” in the UK risks compromising this initiative.

It is the ‘Circles of Support and Accountability’ project run in the Thames Valley Police area under an initiative of concerned Quakers.

A small circle of volunteers contact an offender before release from prison and after release support them in their moves towards living an offence-free life. The circle also challenges them if they show signs of slipping back into risky or abusive behaviour. This is a much higher degree of involvement with a released offender’s life than the probation service could ever manage, and offers a kind of interaction that probation can never achieve.

To date 23 circles are operating in this Thames Valley pilot project, each concerned with one person regarded as being high-risk for re-offending, and (touch lots of wood) so far none have re-offended.

You can get a report on the first three years of the Thames Valley project from the Quaker website. The report is also on the INTRANET of the probation service.

So far this pilot project has been funded by the Home Office. From April 2007 funding for local projects will have to be provided locally or regionally so it is likely that some LibDem councillors and other activists will be hearing about this work for the first time shortly. It might be helpful for our colleagues to see what the project actually claims to do before the inevitable sniping at ‘do-gooding’ or ‘soft’ projects fouls the debate.

Circles are now becoming active in Hampshire, and projects are starting up in Manchester, Somerset, Exeter, Norwich, Yorkshire, Bedfordshire and Scotland.
Oxfordshire LibDems might like to know that the headquarters of all this work is in Didcot.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Midsummers Eve 

This is it - the biggest holiday of the year. Or it would be if we had kept up the old Midsummer celebrations instead of allowing the Puritans to suppress it during the reformation. In the Baltics it is still a big deal - bonfires at midnight on June 23/24, all-night parties, dancing and feasting.

A much better time to have a bank holiday than dreary May Day and not tangled up with the local elections either.

Estonia has the whole week off. Not suggesting anything so radical but I have half a mind to campaign in Britain for the shifting of the Late May Bank Holiday to this Midsummer date.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Migrants, Supermarkets and our comfortable lifestyle 

An interesting defence of supermarkets in Stephen Tall’s blog, taking up a David Cameron theme. As Stephen says:

Supermarkets exist, and are popular, because they are good at giving people what they want. Simply to diss them… is to miss the point, or deliberately to avoid it. They are a creation of society’s aspirations to have a choice of quality foodstuffs available at reasonable cost whenever we need them.

Stephen makes a strong and decent point here. And of course ‘cheap food’ was an essential part of the old Liberal Free Trade Policy, so this is not unfamiliar ground.

One question I have to ask though is – in meeting this “aspiration for quality foodstuffs ..whenever we need them” do Supermarkets actually meet all the costs involved in their profit chain or do they pass on some to other people, as I suggested earlier that they might? Do the supermarkets just-in-time purchasing policies load up costs on to suppliers which in turn means that suppliers have to use extortionate labour policies to meet their costs? For example, by exploiting migrant workers.

The Guardian (5 June 2006) reports on conditions in a strawberry field near Leominster where both local residents and migrant workers are angry about conditions

When Val Salisbury walked down her Herefordshire lane and into a giant plastic polytunnel where dozens of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other east Europeans were picking strawberries, the workers were surprised. She was, after all, a 69-year-old Englishwoman using a walking frame. But when she started pulling up the plants all around her and throwing them to the ground, they understood why she was there.
Their reaction surprised Mrs Salisbury. According to people who witnessed her act of defiance against S&A Davies, Europe's largest strawberry grower, the east Europeans started clapping. As more and more plants went flying, they cheered her on.

Details of the contract conditions help suggest why:

The documents suggest a strict regime. Pickers can be sacked for eating a single strawberry, for stopping work, going to the toilet in a hedge, or for smoking indoors. If rooms are not "clean and tidy", they can be asked to leave. If they want to invite a visitor to the camp, they must ask permission two days in advance.
When organising a profit centre in a market economy, passing on costs to others instead of paying for them yourself is one way to ensure your own bottom line is in the black. Enthusiasts for markets need to keep this simple truth in mind and work to make sure that market pressures act to prevent this ‘pass the parcel’ on costs. Otherwise we leave the moral field open for simplistic ‘socialist’ central controls.

For my part I think it is completely hypocritical for anyone on the one hand to call for strict immigration policies and get into hissy fits about migrant workers, and on the other hand turn a blind eye to the way our own lifestyle demands create the market for migrant and other low level insecure work. I will take Cameron seriously on his lifestyle celebration when he confronts his party with this truth.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Words for That match 

Unlikely that we will see a more appropriate time soon to look at the words of the Trinidad and Tobago National Anthem, so here they are:

Forged from the Love of Liberty
in the Fires of Hope and Prayer
with boundless faith in our destiny
We solemnly declare

Side by Side we stand
Islands of the blue Caribbean Sea
This our native land
we pledge our lives to thee

Here every creed and race
find an equal place
And may God bless our nation
Here every creed and race
find an equal place
And may God bless our nation

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

New maps for an Island Planet 

The Interdependence Day event on the afternoon of July 1st at the Royal Geographical Society which I flagged up earlier looks a really good day out with 'debate, films, art perfrmances and workshops'.

The concept is that "demands to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, or to act on poverty are often daunting in scale, distant from daily life. But there is good news: there are acts of compassion, care, curiosity, and creativity that are already part of everyday life, and modes of communication that are already helping these ordinary acts to span great distances".

I do urge Libdems with an interest in this, and some free Saturday time, to attend this and give us some feedback in the blogs.

As for me I am landed with an absolutely unbreakable committee meeting elsewhere that same afternoon. Curses.

The links to further work on the Interdependence Day website are also of interest.

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Dropping the Torch 

It won’t make me more likely to vote Tory – sorry Dave – but the rumoured replacement of the ‘stiff arm and torch’ Tory logo will certainly remove one source of my gut antipathy.

Basically I could never support a party with a symbol echoing the Nazi salute, for family pride reasons if no other. As a refugee in Germany in 1944 my mother was in the streets of Berlin one day when Hitler passed. She and another young Lithuanian woman refused to give him the ‘Heil’ and had to flee for their safety through the back streets.

After that example the 'Manic Arsonist' Tory symbol would have made that party a no-go area even if its politics had been remotely attractive.

I have no printable suggestions on a replacement Blue Meanies Logo. The ‘Bird of Liberty’ is good enough for me and is already taken.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Take care on 'Tax Cuts' talk 

I am getting a little nit picking, but my instinct is to take care on the ‘Tax Cuts’ chatter.
Cuts are not quite what we are talking about overall – it is really a reformulation of the ‘Tax Base’.
What we need to do, and are doing, is to set out how taxes will be collected and what areas and activities will be targeted. When we have done that we need to compare the old and the new tax bases by setting out a revenue-neutral statement; how we would raise exactly the same sum of money overall on the new base as on the old base. That way we can compare like with like.
After we have established the revenue-neutral position we can see if ‘cuts’ or ‘increases’ are in the pipeline overall.
Talking about ‘Tax Cuts’ at this stage gives the wrong impression and leaves us with hostages to fortune later.
As for getting al this accepted as ‘party policy’ – and real ‘policy’ is what the mass of members and supporters feel in their guts – Id like to recall my suggestions on the Japanese process of Nemawashi. I am slightly concerned that all this tax excitement is emerging in place before most members and supporters know the arguments and evidence in the Tax Commission report.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

More on al-Zarqawi 

The 'short violent life of Abu Musa al-Zarqawi' is covered in a long article in the Atlantic Monthly. Required reading I think for anyone who wants to counter the enrgetic myth-making of this killing being a 'blow to al-Qaeda'. On the contrary the removal of the chief formentor of a civil war between Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis may well benefit real al-Qaeda objectives.

Don't let Blair get away with his chorusing of the Bush disinformation mantra.

This for example is what happened when al-Zarqawi met Osama bin-Laden in December 1999.

(Al-Zarqari) and bin Laden met at the Government Guest House in the southern city of Kandahar, the de facto capital of the ruling Taliban. As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told (the author) , “it was loathing at first sight.”
According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. .... Bin Laden ... disliked al-Zarqawi’s swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive—which, of course, it was. (Bin Laden’s mother, to whom he remains close, is a Shiite, from the Alawites of Syria.)
Al-Zarqawi would not recant, even in the presence of the legendary head of al-Qaeda. “Shiites should be executed,” he reportedly declared.

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No Army game 

Now we can get down to the real business of life, hopefully not distracted by income tax mutterings and competitive explosions in Iraq. I will of course be supporting Costa Rica in today’s opening World Cup match. And not only because their opponents are Germany. Who can resist a country with such enormously abundant wildlife, and no Army. Scots still smarting over the world Cup defeat by the Chicos several world cups ago may remember the background story, but for those new to the excitement the basic tale: there was an attempted military coup in 1948 which infuriated the Costa Rican populace. So they made sure the Army could never pull such a stunt again by abolishing it and turning the Officers Training College into a Museum of Fine Art. Now that is what I call a ‘Clause Four’ moment.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

A thug not regretted 

It is good news, in as far as any killing is good news, if the one killed was actually al-Zarqawi.

But was he an Al-Qaida big shot? Or a local militant who used the Al-Qaida brand name?

If he was actually part of the Bin Laden franchise network , then Al-Qaida got established in Iraq from nothing after the ‘coalition’ invasion of Iraq.

However Juan Cole sets out the case that al-Zarqawi was a grandstanding thug of Wahhabi sympathies but with no al-Qaida links, who renamed his ‘Salafi Jihadi’ group as ‘al-Qaeda Mesopotamia’ to wind up Bush and Blair. A very convenient story for the US and UK as it permits bush and Blair to make speeches, such as now, confusing Iraq and its troubles with al-Qaeda and 9/11.

Al-Zarqawi had been engaged in a running crossfire civil war with other insurgents. Cole says:

… groups in Fallujah (had) launched attacks on Zarqawi followers there after the latter attacked the al-Husain Mosque in the Askari quarter two days ago, destroying the tomb of the founder of the mosque within it.

Salafis influenced by Saudi Wahhabism despise attendance at saints tombs, insisting on a Protestant-like elimination of all intermediaries between human beings and God. Many Islamists in Fallujah are actually Sufis, who value saints in the way rural
Catholics do.

An attempt by the radical Salafis to destroy the mosque (on the grounds that it had been tainted with polytheism) was stopped by the "1920 Revolution Brigades," a local ex-Baathist group. There was a running gun battle between the two.

Note the different stories on how he was killed. The Iraqi government says it was in a gunfight and gives a picture allegedly of his body. The US says he was taken out by a precision bombing attack and identified from fingerprints from the scattered remains. No doubt we will learn the truth sometime or other.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Corruption Uproar elsewhere may not be so far away 

Why should LibDems be concerned because of the political uproar in Lithuania where Prime Minister Brazauskas has just (June 1st) resigned? Well two reasons.

The resignation came in the wake of this, reported in the Baltic Times on May 24th:

VILNIUS - The State Security Department raided Labour Party headquarters on
suspicions that the party had received donations from Russian special services
and bribes in exchange for support in procuring EU funds. Prosecutors are also
taking part in the investigation, which has triggered a new wave of instability
in the minority ruling coalition – and some say the worst crisis yet. Members of
the Labour Party, which is Lithuania’s most popular party, are being questioned
by investigators.

So this may reflects on the controversies over the routing of the proposed Baltic Sea Gas Pipeline.

Secondly, The Darbo (Labour) Party -which is the successor to the Communist party - is at the level of the European Parliament affiliated to the ELDR group. Alongside our own MEPs. (The EP Socialist Group includes the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, which is actually Brazauskas’ own party).

Baltic Times says:

LNK television reported on May 25 that the Labour Party’s “black bookkeeping”
contains data about money “of vague origin” being paid to members of Parliament.
Reports suggest that the authorities came across documents proving that Labour
Party MPs were constantly paid large amounts of money from unknown sources.

If the investigation extends to Lithuanian Darbo Partija MEPs maybe some backwash our way to ride out – so I thought I would give some context to give a heads up.

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