Tuesday 26 February 2008

Failure at the IPCC

Why has the Independent Police Complaints Commission failed?

Accusations of mediocrity, incompetence and poor-quality decision-making within the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) have been levelled by the Police Action Lawyers Group, which resigned on Monday from an advisory group set up to support the IPCC's work. This decision by the network of over 100 specialist lawyers, one that campaigners working on police misconduct and custody death issues have known for some time was inevitable, represents a damning verdict on the Commission's five years as the police complaints body for England and Wales. The IPCC was established to replace the long discredited Police Complaints Authority and its roots lie in the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report of 1999. It was supposed to be a fresh start. So how have things managed to go so wrong?

Back in 2003, I met Nick Hardwick, then newly appointed as chair of the IPCC, as part of a delegation of family members whose loved ones had died in police custody. Looking back on the notes of that meeting, the promises that were made about the new role of the Commission seem impressive. One firm commitment - that the IPCC would intervene immediately when a death involving the police occurred - still sticks out because of subsequent events in Stockwell in 2005. But the overwhelming feeling of the sceptical families who attended was that, no matter how good a pitch Hardwick was able to make, the IPCC had to prove in practice that it was different. It had to demonstrate that it was genuinely independent, that it would not bow to pressure from powerful interests within government and the police, and most importantly that its decisions would be fair and robust.

Sadly, the litany of complaints from the lawyers who put their credibility on the line to act in an advisory role for the the IPCC are mirrored by those raised by campaigners and complainants over the intervening period. What is perhaps most surprising is that it has taken the Police Action Lawyers Group so long to call it a day. For from the start, the IPCC has been more concerned with trying to create the impression of even-handedness than of facing up to its biggest test - providing consistent, authoritative and transparent judgements.

The result has been utter confusion and condemnation from all sides. Some might argue that criticism from groups as fundamentally different as the Metropolitan Police Federation (MPF) and the Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign somehow proves that the IPCC is demonstrating its independence, but what it really shows is how the feebleness of its decisions leave them open to interpretation and ridicule. In the period of often long delay that has characterised the way the IPCC reaches a judgement on a controversial complaint, Hardwick and his organisation have been repeatedly guilty of stoking up expectations to lawyers and families, whilst sending a completely different message to the uniformed readership of 'Police Review'. In many ways, the MPF's description of the IPCC as a 'pressure group' is correct, albeit for the wrong reasons: the only 'cause' that the Commission fights most vigorously for is its own public image.

And its advisory group has evidently been a part of this process. I have spoken to people who have attended its meetings and they have described them as dull, directionless and having little practical value. The meetings do, however, provide the IPCC with a useful way of claiming its inclusiveness and openness, even if the the advisory group makes no real difference to the way complaints are investigated.

There is a reason why organisations end up resorting to more and more spin and invariably it is to try and hide their shortcomings. That's certainly true of the IPCC. Partly this is the fault of the Police Reform Act 2002, which created the Commission not as a completely independent body but one sponsored by the Home Office and supposedly at 'arm's length' from it. In an area as potentially controversial as complaints against police officers, the temptation for ministers to loosely interpret the length of the government's arm requires strong leadership and a willingness to resist the greatest threat to the IPCC's independence. This is not the Police Federation and certainly not the campaigners, but a government so terrified of being seen as 'soft on crime' that it competes with the Conservatives to unravel other reforms introduced following the Lawrence Inquiry. Unfortunately, what the IPCC has lacked since its inception has been any indication of a backbone, and the fault for this lies squarely with Hardwick and his fellow Commissioners.

There are many examples of this lack of nerve: the failure, for example, of the IPCC to insist that the Home Office overrule Humberside Police Authority and demand interviews with the five officers who refused to cooperate with investigation into the death of Christopher Alder. When an unnamed informant provided false information to the police that led to the Forest Gate raids in June 2006, the IPCC chose not to investigate the steps the police took to assess the quality of the intelligence that they received. This presumably, would have opened a can of worms about the quality of 'anti-terrorism' policing in Britain.

And most notoriously, the IPCC failed to robustly defend its statutory duty to investigate the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, gunned down at Stockwell police station in July 2005, allowing the Metropolitan Police to prevent its investigation for five days after the shooting. Even in this most serious and damaging challenge to the IPCC's credibility, there was never any prospect that Hardwick might face down the government by threatening to resign or by publicly criticising the Home Office for preventing hs organisation from doing its job.

That, after all, would involve a demonstration of independence that is clearly beyond the comprehension of the supposedly 'Independent' Police Complaints Commission.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Do We Know How to Party, or What?

Everyone who ‘chased the glowing hours with flying feet’ at last night’s wonderful birthday celebrations for Zainab, Naz, Zareena and myself already knows the answer to this one.

Getting everyone to the same place at the same time can be an almost impossible task in London, as we all know. That’s why I’d like to pass on to everyone my love, affection and unbound delight that so many old friends and comrades made it to Camden from different parts of the country. You all helped to turn the eve of my 40th year (I still have three more days as a thirty-something) into such a special evening.

And the best present of all was hearing so many say how much fun they had. I agree wholeheartedly. Throughout the night it felt, to me at least, much more like ‘a gathering of the clan’ than just a party. That wasn’t about the great venue, or the food, or the outrageously strong cocktails (green tea mojitos have a real kick, don't they?). No, it was down to the people who attended, who managed to recreate an energy and spirit that reminded me of the Monega Road and early Shack parties. For me, it was a perfect example of that state of well-being that has no word in English but in German is called gemütlichkeit, which I tried to describe back in early January. So congratulations everyone – even without the considerable talent for party-hosting of our great friend and brother Gilly, you made a night I reckon the Big Fella would have loved.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there wasn’t planning involved – all credit for this is down to Zainab, not me, and I know she had a brilliant celebration of her 30th birthday too. There are a few others that deserve special thanks: Naz for the music, Estelle for the amazing birthday cake, everyone from Brighton and Leamington who made the journey to London. I can’t thank you all enough.

Loads of friends said yesterday that we should do this more often - so let's not hope but decide to gather the clan whenever we can. On Saturday 15th March, there'll be a party at the Shack to mark the first anniversary of Gilly's passing in the only way that could possibly be appropriate - no sleep to morn, and let's chase once more the glowing hours with flying feet...

Thursday 21 February 2008

Proud to Be a 'Stopper'

If you haven't come across John Rentoul before, he's the chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday', author of the first biography of Tony Blair and was an ultra-loyal courtier in defence of the former Prime Minister, not least in the internecine warfare with Gordon Brown. Last Friday he was at it again, writing on Blair's suitability for the new post of president of the European Council. Sniping within New Labour usually bores me, but I couldn't help noticing that Rentoul has coined a new insult - the 'stopper'.

He describes stoppers as people, "named by the pro-war left of Harry's Place and the Euston Manifesto, who want to stop the war, stop globalisation, stop the world, stop Blair... These are the people whose only foreign policy over the past six years has been not to intervene in Iraq and to refuse to accept the possibility that this might have had adverse consequences. They exist all over the world.."

They do indeed. It's been hard for the so called muscular liberals (lets not pretend they can ever again be described as part of the 'Left'). They simply refuse to accept that Iraq has been anything but an unmitigating disaster and that outside of the political elites, Blair is loathed by millions of people, not least in the Middle East. All they have to cling onto is an argument that failing to invade Iraq might have had "adverse consequences", as though the actual consequences have been wholly positive. But at least, they sneer, their side had a foreign policy, rather than just being against everything - even if that policy has been an abject failure.

It's nonsense of course, another example of the Blairite impulse to be seen to be taking action rather than having a world-view. And coming from a 'chief political commentator, it's surprisingly apolitical.

Politics, as a study of power, is about taking sides. For the (thoughtful) Left, it also means taking sides alongside those without power against those who do. Inevitably, in a world controlled by a tiny minority who control military and economic power, much of our time will be spent reacting to the actions of the powerful. It's not as though we have much choice - the only alternative is to do and say nothing. So we want to stop the exercise of America's imperial might and to prevent the obsequiousness of our government in acting as its cheerleader. We want to stop the brutal and devastating impact of capitalism's global mission. We are 'stoppers' - and we wouldn't have it any other way.

And it's not as though our opposition doesn't take sides too. Commentators like Rentoul would rather we forget that Saddam was a creation of the West, funded by the US and Europe to act as a bulwark against the theocractic regime in Iran, the source of some much venom from muscular liberals but itself a creation of Western support for the the corrupt dictatorship of the Shah. They selectively ignore, too, that the foreign policy they advocate continues a long process, set out brilliantly in Robert Fisk's book The Great War for Civilisation, of acting as midwife to everything from al-Qaida to increased support for Islamists like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah.

The problem for the pro-war camp is that when they came to make choices about which side to back, they were so caught up in the wave of hysteria after 11 September 2001 that they had a 'Diana-moment'. Reason, defended so vigorously by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, went out of the window. There can be no other explanation for backing a war based on what they must have known were shameless lies, with an absolute refusal to accept the possibility that this might have had adverse consequences on their credibility. All they are left with now is railing against the growth of religiosity that is a direct result of the fatal, immoral decisions they backed in 2002 and 2003.

I think that secretly, this keeps Rentoul and his kind awake at night. What really bothers them is that history will not vindicate them, that Blair will be remembered not as a suitable candidate for president of the European Council but as a potential candidate for a war crimes court, and that our side won the argument.

Face it, John, the stoppers won. When we marched back in February 2003, we were right and you were still too upset by 9/11 to think straight.

But now there are millions more of us stoppers.And we not buying the crap you try and spoon feed us ever again...

Friday 15 February 2008

Mark Kermode On Pirates of the Caribbean

The original review of Pirates 3:

And Jason Issacs v Mark Kermode on Johnny Depp's performance:

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Introducing... Blowe's LeftDex

This only includes coverage in the "mainstream" European media, but if you want to know what activist types are making the news this week, check out the new "Blowe's LeftDex" for movements in the 'radical market"...

Seems the press have gone right off anti-capitalism...

Double click on one of the categories (eg leftist) to see some of the stories

Sunday 10 February 2008

Sharia and the Archbishop

Sharia and the Archbishop – Why Rowan Williams is Wrong

The decision by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to argue that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK "seems unavoidable", because some of Muslim citizens do not relate to the British legal system, has drawn a storm of protest. Williams is a noted theologian and has a reputation as a liberal, not least for his opposition to the Iraq war and his call for reparations for the slave trade. But his statement has mainly attracted fury from the right-wing press because they see the word ‘sharia’ and quiver with rage about an attack on British values, particularly as groups like the Muslim Council of Britain have welcomed Williams’ views. Condemnation from Tory newspapers is to be expected, but it shouldn’t mean that we offer Williams the least sympathy. He may be more liberal than his predecessors but his arguments on this issue are profoundly reactionary. And the only voice raised against them cannot come from those motivated principally by a hatred of Muslims.

The basis for all progressive thought is a simple idea: that all humanity is part of one family. From this starting point, the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq are equally as important as the 2,974 fatalities on 11 September 2001, slavery is always an affront to humanity and asylum seekers have as much right to dignity and freedom as British citizens. If we believe we are all one family then the fact that around 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water (and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation) is horrifying and a situation where the richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half the world's wealth, whilst half the world - nearly three billion people - live on less than two dollars a day, demands action. One of the strongest criticisms of the documents like the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, finely worded though they undoubtedly are, is the way they are celebrated by governments in the northern hemisphere and then systematically ignored. State violence against the world’s people is the most obvious example of this – in late 2007 there were 24 states directly affected by ongoing wars – and it is the arms manufacturers of the G8 countries that are largely responsible for sustaining these conflicts.

But it is not only governments that are profoundly hypocritical about humanity encompassing one universal family. Organised religion, although claiming to be founded on principles of peace and love, is fundamentally based on exclusivity and division, on the premise that those who have not embraced its deities are most definitely not part of the same family. As a result, every religious establishment has demanded that its exclusivity must provide it with exemptions from ideas of universal rights and freedoms, on the basis that its laws come directly from whichever Creator it happens to subscribe to. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, for example, qualifies all human rights as subject to the strictures of Sharia, whilst Catholic Church have demanded the right to exemption from UK discrimination laws in order to discriminate against lesbian and gay adoption. This extends to exemption from criticism - the Church of England actively campaigned for the introduction of laws on religious hatred even though religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and about ideas on which people can change their minds and have vigorous debate. Only vigorous opposition ensured that the eventual legislation was diluted to such an extent to make it almost unenforceable in all but the most clear-cut cases.

Religion’s sectarian rules differ completely from secular laws that apply equally to everyone, not least because secularism has the capacity to provide for the freedom to follow any religious belief (no matter how little evidence there might be for it in experience and reason) or to choose not to. This is because the imposition of theocracy is fundamentally about the exercise of control over the faithful, over those who dissent from the ‘correct’ interpretation of ‘the word of God’ and over those who wish to think differently, or even to renounced their faith. Every time the advocates of religious lawmaking ask us to ignore the exercise of theocratic regimes in the real world as somehow unrepresentative or illegitimate, they are effectively admitting that no matter how much they argue sectarian laws are handed down by their God, in practice all law is man-made and all legal systems controlled by those who wish to use it as a means of social control.

Not all liberals would agree. Deborah Orr, writing in the Independent, argues that Williams has been misinterpreted, that “far from pandering to extremists, he is thinking about how to beat them at their own game.” Orr believes that “a religious body that took seriously the business of distinguishing between religious and cultural demands could be an asset in a pluralist society.” She asks that we “imagine a legally and religiously recognised board of religious Muslim people, widely supported, and committed to taking a lead in plotting a modern yet Islamic attitude to the rights of women in Britain and around the world. It could be rather wonderful, and is quite a different proposition from the one we have been led to believe that Williams made.”

But such a formally recognised religious body exists only in Orr’s imagination. The reality is far more likely to be that the semi-official status of any British sharia court would make it both a battleground between those who think themselves best able to interpret what is man-made and what is God-given law, and a reinforcement of the very cultural conservative values that progressive Muslims seek to overcome. Moreover, Muslims do not constitute a homogenous faith: there are considerable differences in opinion within Islam (especially between the Sunni and Shia traditions) requiring not one sharia court but many.

And what would they be used for? Williams argues they would be nothing more than a means of arbitrating disputes – a kind of Islamic Acas. The idea of a market place for different legal authorities offering a greater range of ‘choice’ seems very in keeping with the times, but experience suggests clearly that powerful cultural prejudices can change real choice into an obligation to participate. If you are told from childhood that a sharia court is ‘your court’ and that the civil courts are for the unbelievers, making a choice becomes a far harder step to make.

The basis of the Archbishop’s claim that sharia courts seem unavoidable is that they already exist. That’s undoubtedly true and if some people are foolish enough to trust a system based on thirteen hundred year old hard certainties then they have the freedom to visit bodies such the Islamic Sharia Council up the road from me in Leyton. It has issued edicts reinforcing the need for a wife to pay off her husband to be granted divorce, banning the release of an animated film about Mohammad, pronounced on the necessity of Muslim men to wear beards, and of Muslim women to wear a hijab because (and I kid you not) “free mixing with men lead to scandals like that of Mr Clinton & Monica which is not acceptable in Islam which invites for a clean and pure society”. Those Muslims can of course decide to follow the Council’s rulings, although most others (amongst my friends, certainly) pick and choose the limits of the faith. But such ‘law-making’ as this definitely has no business being accorded even the least degree of quasi-official status.

There is one final conclusion from William’s musings. Part of the reason they have been given so much coverage is precisely because the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the established church and apparently (this was news to me) the highest-ranking non-royal in the United Kingdom's order of precedence, higher even than the Prime Minister, for whatever that may be worth.

If religious authorities cannot be trusted to refrain from promoting exclusivity or continually engaging in special pleading, surely it’s time to admit that the idea of a ‘state religion’, even one that is no longer a fully fledged theocracy, has had its day?

Sunday 3 February 2008

Why Are We The Way We Are?

On Friday evening, I attended a really warm, friendly meeting of the Jewish Socialist Group in a front room in Walthamstow and listened to Mike Marqusee talk about his new book If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew. Mike recounted stories about the lives of his grandfather and father, both activists on the American Left, who actively fought against fascism and racism, often at some risk to themselves, and yet whose uncritical support for Zionism and Israel seemed to contradict many of the principles they upheld. He described the impact this had on a young teenager growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement in America and the opposition to war in Vietnam, and how this guided Mike’s politics towards a rejection of Zionism’s claim on Jewish loyalty. And it started me thinking – what are the triggers that lead us towards the views that we eventually hold? Why are we each the way we are?

Clearly, the line along which Mike Marqusee’s politics developed started from a point well to the left of centre and that his father’s ideological values were important triggers that helped decide the direction that line would take. That makes sense, for generally the strongest influence on our political outlook, both positively and negatively, seem to come from families. It's certainly true of many of the friends and comrades I know. On numerous occasions, I have also heard people described as having grown up in poverty, or having experienced a tough upbringing, as explanations for the views that they come to hold in adulthood. And that seems to make sense too.

But it has often made me wonder about why I think the way that I do, for none of this applies to me. I had a great childhood really, with loving parents who weren't rich but were hardly poverty-stricken and whose politics amounted largely to buying the Daily Mirror and voting Labour. OK, so my Dad spent most of his life as an immigration officer at Gatwick airport, a job that eventually I would argue vehemently should be abolished, but that came much, much later. Mum meanwhile was a mother, like many in the 1970s, cleaning other people’s houses for extra cash when I was young but returning late to education and eventually qualifying as a teacher. My brother Mark trained as a mechanic and never showed the slightest interest in politics. So how on earth did I end up an Left-wing activist with broadly anarchist sympathies?

I suspect that greatest trigger for a whole generation of activists has been the experience of the political wilderness that was the 1980s and of waiting endlessly for the election of a Labour government. I don't remember politics in the 1970s - I was 12 in 1980 - and from becoming active as a teenager, chairing the local ward Labour Party at 16 (it was Sussex and they were desperate), all I can remember about the 80s is never, ever winning a damn thing. On top of that, the Tories and their business allies exuded an arrogance that seemed to say, 'we can do whatever we want and there's nothing you can do about it.' Always batting for the losing side is hard work, but at least we had the hope that things, to coin a phrase, could only get better. Which is why, when the Blair government was elected, it was such a early disappointment that things would clearly remain pretty much as they were.

There are plenty of people who have reluctantly accepted, after such a long postponement of ambition, that this is the best we can hope for. The lesson they have drawn is that anything is better than more lean years under the Tories, even as the government they had dreamt of acted so much like those whose power they had inherited, siding with big business, dismissing trade unions, enthusing about PFI, driving asylum seekers to destitution and launching an illegal war in Iraq. Even after 11 years of a Labour government we still hear this, that things would be worse under the Tories, even as their party makes it clear it can do whatever it wants 'and there's nothing you can do about it'.

But I think they have missed two important lessons from the bleak period up to 1997 and then the Labour decade that followed. The first is how fragile the victories and gains of radicalism can be and how easily they can be taken away. The second is that the means to an end are just as important as the end itself, and that forgetting this makes the end increasingly unreachable.

We've seen how Labour has refused to reverse the destruction inflicted by 18 years of Tory government on many hard-fought working class victories and in many instances has gone further than the Tories ever dared. We know that even Labour's own mildly progressive policies can be reversed - as I have noted before, the important gains from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in the first flush of the new government in 1997 have evaporated. And we can recognise how Labour, fused to the notion that the appearance of competence is its only measure of success, thinks only in the short-term, that the business of holding power is more important than any attempt to give people the power to exercise greater control over their own lives.

But these lessons can be applied more broadly. Will, for example, Ken Livingstone's time as Mayor of London be remembered as one when Londoners had greater control over the way that London is governed, even if every one of his populist policies were reversed? Will the Greens be more radical? Every four of five years, anyone interested in British politics spends an inordinate amount of time speculating on the significance of questions like these, often in another vain hope that getting the leaders right might finally bring about lasting change. It's as though the idea that change only ever works if it comes from below, the lesson embraced by anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation activists over the last ten years, applies everywhere but Britain.

Unless there is a radical shift in the ownership of power, the small gains that are made can so easily be overturned. Unless we accept that how we seek to bring about change is as important as the ends we strive for, politicians like Livingstone will continue to govern with a tight clique of personal advisors and attack (or sometimes abuse) those who disagree with him. It might seem like an argument for a certain morality in the way that the Left conducts itself, but the alternative is also the likes of the Socialist Workers Party, imploding campaigns it can't control and engineering division to keep what little power it has.

And unless elected officials are held accountable by popular movememts that simply do not exist yet, people like the Greens' Jenny Jones can get away with voting to support the Met Police's Sir Ian Blair over the shooting of Jean Charles Menezes, solely on the basis that Sir Ian is a nice guy who has allegedly been 'good in the past' (a defence I hope to try out in court one day). So what should consume our energies more - building political movements or voting for idiots like this?

On the way back from Mike Marqusee's talk, it was put to me that Livingstone's plan to provide 24-hour free travel to the over sixties was reason enough to vote for him. But crumbs like this from capitalism's table have been swept away before and they can be again, and bus passes hardly make amends for the way that Livingstone is as consumed with the business of holding power as his fellow Labour politicians. The only answer I could give, after years of defeat and unfulfilled ambition, was straightforward.

Extending the hours on a bus pass is just not enough.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.