Thursday 24 March 2011

Census Day - Make Lockheed Martin Pay!

It's hard to believe, but it was all the way back in December 2007 that I first wrote about the prospect of US arms company Lockheed Martin winning the contract to process data from the 2011 Census.

Now census day is almost upon us on Sunday and a growing number of people are far from happy. After all, Lockheed Martin makes Trident nuclear missiles, cluster bombs and fighter jets, processes data for the CIA and FBI and provided private contract interrogators for the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. So what to do?

Lockheed Martin's census contract is worth about £150 million and whilst there may be ethical merits in taking a principled stance by boycotting the census, this won't hurt their profits - they get paid anyway. There could be some impact on local government funding if there is a mass boycott, although there's no sign of one and this argument is less compelling now that councils are implementing cuts based on little assessment of need or numbers. There is an outside chance too that you could receive a fine of up to £1000 for non-compliance, but there were only 38 prosecutions following the census in 2001. More importantly, there are probably far more rewarding things to do with your free time than worrying about a knock at the door from the census collector.

But this doesn't mean that, by taking a few simple steps, it isn't possible to make it as expensive as possible to process your census form and help to undermine Lockheed Martin's financial margins. Some examples I've read about include:

  1. Using the paper copy - don't fill in the form online.

  2. Obliterating completely bar codes (on every page), serial numbers and other codes on your form - like we used to do with the Poll Tax forms! These are used for electronic tracking so you would probably need to add a note saying "bar codes missing - please keep pages together" or they may think you haven't returned the form at all.

  3. Ensuring that information on your form must be keyed in by hand, which is a vastly more expensive process than high-speed computer scanning. You could stray outside the white boxes, make repeated corrections to written text or cross out answers if you mistakenly tick the wrong box (adding, "“Sorry, it should have been this one” in the margin). The Data Capture and Coding System used by Lockheed Martin cannot read these responses and they will have to be processed manually.

  4. Apparently, writing text upside down (i.e.. rotating the form upside down when you write entries) is likely to be extremely effective in slowing data processing. And you will still have completed the form!
Remember, however, that waiting for a field officer to come round and visit you at home will not affect Lockheed Martin's contract - that part of the census comes out of our taxes.

Finally, you may wish to complete the following rather excellent 'Supplementary Questions' sheet [PDF] and send it back with your census form (free of charge, naturally)

Have fun!

Tune Of The Week - The Andrew Lansley Rap

Quite brilliant - if this was available on iTunes, it would be massive:

Saturday 19 March 2011

Newham Bookshop Presents: Mark Thomas - Extreme Ramblings

On 19 April, comedian and activist Mark Thomas joins Newham Bookshop to launch his book Extreme Ramblings at Stratford Circus. During 2010 Mark decided to go rambling in the Middle East and walked the entire length of the Israeli Separation Barrier, crossing between the Israeli and the Palestinian side. This is the story of 300,000 settlers, a 750 km wall, six arrests, one stoning, too much hummus and one simple question: can you ever get away from it all with a good walk?

Tuesday 19 April
Stratford Circus
Theatre Square,
Stratford E15 1BX

The event starts at 7.30 pm. Tickets are pricey (£16) but includes a copy of the book. They are available from Stratford Circus - telephone 0844 357 2625. Here's more from Mark on Radio 4's Loose Ends:

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Policing The TUC March - What Is Liberty Playing At?

At the beginning of the month, the Independent reported that Liberty (the former National Council for Civil Liberties) had been asked by Scotland Yard and the TUC to provide legal observers for the forthcoming anti-cuts demonstration on 26 March.

The news raised a few eyebrows amongst experienced protest watchers. Not only is this a role that Liberty has little recent practice, having abandoned street-level work years ago in favour of parliamentary lobbying, but the paper claimed the NGO had agreed to provide some observers who would “watch from the Met's operations centre”. Quite how they would manage to maintain their independence in such circumstances is unclear, but we now know that Liberty does not have the promised “200 legally-qualified volunteers” and is trying to recruit around 100 law students to take on this role on 26 March.

In an “external opportunity for students” e-mail, Liberty says:

Liberty was founded in 1934 in response to police brutality against hunger marchers. One of the first actions of our founder members was to “maintain a vigilant observation” of a march in February of that year.

77 years on and we are seeing an upsurge in protest as people respond to the Coalition Government’s austerity measures. Recent demonstrations have seen the police respond to the threat of disorder with some controversial tactics, particularly “kettling”. Liberty opposes the use of kettling. But we also appreciate that the police sometimes have to deal with people – often a tiny minority unconnected to the protest’s organisers – intent on causing trouble.

The independence of legal observers from the police is critical for their safety and credibility. That’s why casually repeating the Met’s common refrain that violence is the result of a “tiny minority” who are “unconnected” with a protest – rather than, say, an inevitable result of brutal and oppressive policing – is deeply worrying.

Moreover, Liberty’s e-mail goes on to say that volunteers “will need to give unbiased evidence of what [they] witnessed, regardless of whether bad behaviour is alleged against a police officer, demonstrator or other member of the public”. This is equally alarming. The role of a legal observer is not to simply act as a bystander with a notebook but is specifically political: to monitor the treatment of legitimate protesters by a state institution with sweeping powers to deny basic liberties in the name of maintaining order.

Any suggestion that observers may also monitor ‘bad behaviour’ by demonstrators increases the risk that they’ll be seen as an integral part of the police operation (more so if anyone at Liberty is foolish enough to involve officers from the Met’s CO11 Public Order Operational Command Unit in a planned morning briefing for observers on 26 March). Considering that Liberty is recruiting people who, in the majority, are likely to have little experience of monitoring demonstrations, this is bordering on outright irresponsibility.

All of which suggests that Liberty doesn’t know what it is getting itself into and that the Met, keen to cosmetically repair some of its tarnished reputation for brutality at demonstrations, has far more to gain from the NGO’s involvement. Certainly none of the veteran legal observers I know would make statements like those in Liberty’s e-mail. But then none would ever be allowed within a mile of the inside of a police operational centre – and I mean that in a good way.

Monday 14 March 2011

Time To Stop Being So Bloody Polite

So I've been out of circulation for three weeks, having had yet another operation on my shoulder, a very uncomfortable period of recovery and missing out on celebrating my birthday. Not really a barrel of fun and laughter, in other words.

It has also meant an absence from many activities I would normally have taken part in, notably the protest on 28 February against Newham council's plans for massive cuts in local services. I've had plenty of feedback though - on Sir Robin Wales' huge hissy-fit over protesters inside the environs of East Ham Town Hall and their deliberate exclusion from the council chamber's public gallery. The posting on Mike Law's blog repeats some of what I've heard from others.

Viewed from a distance, this is all a reminder of just how completely Newham has become both a post-democratic and post-political borough.The signs have, of course, been around for a long time: the small ruling group that admits only those into power with the same views as the Mayor, the vacuous management-speak mission statements, the 'consultations' that are designed to tick a box or reinforce a decision that has already been made, the enthusiasm for grandiose regeneration schemes that benefit business but have nothing to do with the aspirations of local people promised only the dim prospect of low-paid, non-unionised service sector jobs.

Other councils, of course, have followed the same route and other councillors have poured scorned on anyone has dared to raise disagreement and opposition - the fundamental basis of all politics - against their council's narrow managerial consensus. Newham is also not alone in seeking to exclude people from even witnessing its decision to slash services. But the borough isn't Tory Wandsworth, it is a 100% Labour council, one that still claims to hold on by some tenuous thread to a radical past that cared about social justice. However, the way it has decided to implement cuts, with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, as if this is nothing more than a troublesome administrative decision and with the docile acceptance of largely clueless local councillors, really does seem like a final break with that past.

Many of the people I've spoken to over the last couple of weeks are incredibly enthusiastic about protesting against the Coalition government on 26 March, organised by the TUC. But all were rather more dismissive of the value of demonstrating when the council set its cuts budget in February. What, they have said, would be the point when council meetings are designed simply to rubber-stamp the Mayor's decisions? The formal institutions of local democracy may continue to exist but democratic engagement, reduced to an election every four years that is interpreted by the Great Helmsman as a blank cheque to do almost anything, has produced an disconnected, self-referential political class cut off from the public they claim to represent. There is - quite literally - no point in lobbying a Newham councillor with thoughtful, evidence-based argument when they'll just vote the way they are told to anyway. Equally, few people I know still believe that thoughtful, evidence-based arguments presented in the traditional ways, through letters or petitions, have any value or are even read by those who hold power in Newham.

So where does that leave us as local citizens? With the recognition that the only alternatives left are to do nothing, or to stop being so bloody polite. If a local service is worth defending, taking it over and refusing to allow the bailiffs to enter has more chance of causing a storm than a strongly worded letter to the Newham Recorder. There are some, particularly within sections of the local voluntary sector, who will never bite the hand that feeds them. But for everyone else, what other options are there apart from passive acceptance or direct action?

Tonight at 7pm, the Labour Party in Forest Gate is meeting to talk about the impact of cuts. Not the impact on local people, but on their party - how the council's decisions can be spun into the ludicrous notion that over £100 million of 'Labour cuts' are somehow better than 'Tory cuts'. If I wasn't stuck in an horrendous 'shoulder immobiliser' that severely restricts my movements, I'd be there demanding to know how Labour Party members can sleep at night - even though it's at Durning Hall Community Centre and I'm sure I'd get into all sorts of trouble.

Still, there's always next time. As the cuts start to hit home, there will be many more opportunities to stop being polite.

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