Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms

Since the moratorium on new hotels passed by the Ajuntament de Barcelona (The Barcelona City Council) in June last year, the local government headed by Ada Colau has been working on a plan to find a balance between the demands of the tourist and the demands of the local.

This was always going to be an impossible task. On one hand, you have a multi million euro industry – which contributes 12% of Catalan GDP – and on the other hand, some very, very noisy locals, and trust me, Catalans can be particularly noisy.

The results are out and the locals are reacting

Announced in March The Special Urban Plan for Tourist Accommodation (PEUAT) “promotes a sustainable urban model to make tourism compatible with residents’ basic rights” and it has without doubt curtailed the tourist sector in Barcelona, as the number of new beds allowed will fall way short of demand.

The headline figure from the PEUAT is that a maximum of 12,000 more hotel beds across the whole city will be allowed over the next six years. The 12,000 figure is still, of course, a substantial number of new beds in what is a relatively small major city, but overall the barrios, the local areas, will see the stymying of many planned hotels as a victory. However, for some, it is a small victory.

Twelve thousand new beds would still mean approximately 8% rise in the number of beds available in the city. And for many locals, the city already has too many tourists.

Does Barcelona have too many tourists?
I didn’t think they needed to change if from “Space Invaders”

As Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms, hotels struggle to keep on top of current demand

Following a detailed census, we now know that Barcelona currently has around 130,000 beds in hotels, apartments, hostels and pensions. Following bumper visitor figures for each month this year, we know that occasionally those beds just aren’t enough. This was clearly demonstrated by Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona each Febraury, with the event maxing out the hotels in Barcelona this year. That event is set to grow every year (it will be in Barcelona to at least 2023), so you have to wonder, will 12,000 new beds even just keep up with that event?

As well as demands from the “right kind of tourists” (the ones that attend Mobile World Congress, rather than the partying tourists) there is substantial pressure from the “wrong” type of  tourists.

The number of expected tourists is likely to pass the 8m mark in 2016, with demand continuing to grow year on year. Adding 12,000 new beds in Europe’s third most visited city will do little to match demand.

So if 12,000 new beds will do little to appease the tourism industry, how will this number affect those locals? Well, it depends where you are local to.

Where will the 12,000 new tourists go?

The regulations and restrictions laid out in the PEUAT are different for each area, with the tourist sector in the centre of Barcelona facing the greatest restrictions (detailed zone by zone can be found here). In summary, the legislation will be more relaxed the further away from the centre you go. Sectioning the plan into zones will push tourists further from the old parts of the city. However, those 12,000 beds need to go somewhere and certain barrios have the potential to go the way of Barceloneta – the once quaint fishing port now transformed into Barcelona’s very own little costa. 

Poble Nou, the barrio where I live, sits in the zone known as 22@ and will be greatly affected by the PEUAT. As you can see from the image at the top of the page, the locals are not happy, and quite rightly so.

As detailed by the citywide plan, over the next six years there could be 3,200 new hotel beds in 22@, with the majority in, or at least very close to the most popular barrio Poble Nou. On those numbers alone, you can take pity with the locals who think they are being “invaded”.

As Ada Colau was keen to stress the plan seeks “to preserve the rights of residents to housing, rest and privacy” but for those in and around 22@ the idea that 3,200 more tourists would preserve their rights seems as unlikely as they are to accept the plan in its current form.

Puigdemont and Salmond to meet in London in May

It happens with friendships. You don’t speak to each other for a while and despite your shared interests and similarities you drift apart. Time passes and the things that brought you together slowly disappear from the memory. But as we know, sometimes it just needs one thing to bring friends back together. For old buddies Scotland and Catalonia, SP16 was that moment.

For the first time both Scotland and Catalonia have a majority of pro independent members of parliament represented by more than one party. Now more than ever we have to share the successes and failures to date of our respective campaigns.

At the highest political level Catalonia and Scotland should be the best of friends. We should see MPs who support independence from both countries sharing platforms, arranging flying visits to their respective capitals and generally acting like best buds. But this isn’t happening.

During the run up to the Scottish elections (and with the date for Spanish elections having been recently agreed) I looked for Scottish MPs or MSPs speaking in Barcelona; it was like searching in the same city for Irn Bru: fruitless. So this week I was delighted to see that the new Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will meet Alex Salmond in London and I hope this starts a more formal dialouge. As demonstrated by Puigdemont’s visit, the Catalans seem very keen to build the relationship. And he’s not the only one. Last year Ramon Tremosa an MEP for Catalonia, said in an interview with CommonSpace:

“Catalonia and Scotland have much to learn from each other on the road to independence. Scotland has set the precedent for a binding referendum in Catalonia, which has contributed enormously to the democratic credibility and feasibility of independence there. Catalonia has shown an example, in Scotland in terms of popular organisation and mobilisation.” And he is right, the precedent set by the UK is a powerful one for Spain to ignore and Scotland has a lot to learn from the actions of civic Catalonia in forcing through the political agenda.

So how does Scotland view the importance of Catalonia?

Last week the Catalan News Agency interviewed Michael Keating, Director of the Edinburgh-based Centre on Constitutional Change stated that, “Catalans need Scotland more than Scotland needs Catalonia” His rationale was that because the Scots “have in recent years been doing much better than the Catalan independence people: they got a referendum, they got the right to self-determination and they got more powers” Now, considering Catalonia will welcome independence in 14 months or so (according to the Generalitat de Catalunya’s time table) he is speaking utter mince, and if this is the prevailing belief in Scotland our movement is in serious trouble.

Since the loss of the referendum we had spectacular SNP victories in both the UK and Scottish elections, however Scottish Independence is not a foregone conclusion. I would hate to see a movement shift from gallusness to arrogance: we have to learn what we can from the Catalan struggle. For the #Indyref2 movement, we must learn three things from the Catalan cause:

  • how to build a successful cross party support for independence
  • how to create a timetable for indepndence, that everyone signs up to and
  • how to move more people to openly demonstrate their passion for an independent nation

Sure, we have a lot to give but we also have a lot to gain. Let’s remember what friendships are for and build bridges and links at every level.

Mr Puigdemont and Mr Salmond are rekindling that relationship and collectively, our independence movements need to meet for a beer and remember why we grew so close in the first place. And that might be easier than you think, because believe it or not the Catalans actually like Tennent’s.

Tennent's In Poblenou.

Balancing Tourism in Barcelona

In Barcelona the walls very often come to life: “this community is not for sale” reads the statement painted on a new hostel development in Poblenou. The city’s citizens are hostile.

If you’d just been reading the business headlines you certainly wouldn’t think this was the case. The tourist industry in Barcelona would succinctly sum up by saying “we’ve never had it so good” That industry is of course made up of thousands of individual bars, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. And within these establishments there are doormen, chefs, cleaners and managers, and every one of them would lift a glass in celebration: Salud! Las turistas!

The impact of a successful industry ripples prosperity across the community that supports it. For Spain, Catalunya, and Barcelona in particular, tourism is a super successful, money making enterprise.

The importance of tourism to Catalunya

The entire tourism industry generates 12% of Catalunya’s GDP (to give you some comparison, tourism is only 5% of Scottish GDP) Tourism is widely credited with cushioning Barcelona from the recent global financial crisis. Some 120,000 jobs in the Catalan capital are fuelled by tourists.

From a purely commercial perspective the strength of this sector is  regarded as an unmitigated success. That view would see Barcelona proudly placed in an enviable position, looking down on other tourist hungry cities. However, scratch the surface and you will find that many of the capital’s Catalans abhor the wider negative impact of tourism; for them, they have never had it so bad. And it is only set to get worse.

In 2016, with many tourists fearing terrorism, should they venture from continental Europe, Spain, Catalunya and Barcelona will welcome more tourists than ever. Actually, as I am finding out, walking the streets and talking to locals, “welcome” is definitely not the correct word.

So when did the love affair with tourists end?

Spain has always found it difficult to find a balance between welcoming tourist money and cowering from their habits. Under Franco in 1959 the greatest of all compromises came in the two cupped shape of the bikini. As the ultra Conservative government scrambled to find a solution to topless, sunbathing foreigners, a thin strip of material allowed seaside Spain to reap the rewards from Tourism, while the Spanish state maintained its decency.

Throughout the following years Barcelona locals have seen, at an increasing rate, areas of their city taken over by tourists and tourist hungry businesses. It started with Las Ramblas, one of the city’s most important historical centres. The street that had seen pitched battles between rival factions in the Spanish civil war has lost the battle with tourists.

Tourist traps gradually spread out across the Barrio Gótico and Ciutat Vella – the two oldest parts of the city – then increasingly touched areas further from the city centre, all but consuming the tiny ex fishing community of Barceloneta. All to the chargin of locals.

The idea that the “success” of Barcelona as a tourist destination was anything but a blessing appeared on the horizon for many foreigners for the first time in 2014. Coverage of the “anti tourist” documentary Bye, Bye Barcelona hinted at the negative impacts of this massive trade. In a rather one sided take of the complex issues at play Bye, Bye Barcelona was never going to be able to cover the difficult balance that the citizens and especially the city’s legislators now face.

A less than quiet revolution

Take a walk through any of the large barrios in Barcelona and within ten minutes or so you will more than likely come across something that more than hints at the local dislike and distrust of this increase in tourism. It may be a homemade banner in Barceloneta that reads, in English, “Tourists Go Home”, or a recent magazine article posted to a pillar in Poblenou. The noise is constant and growing.

Poblenou a worrying and major focus for low cost tourism
Poblenou is fast becoming a new major focus for low cost tourism. And its residents are not happy

To understand why the volume has been turned up to 11, you just need to look at the numbers. Barcelona (pop. 1,604,555) is now the third most visited city in Europe, behind London (pop. 8,539,000) and Paris (pop. 2,249,975). A record 8 million people are expected to visit Barcelona this year. With roughly 5 tourists for every 1 resident it is hard to argue that Barcelona may on several levels struggle.

It is not tourists per say, but the rate of the increase where the real issue lies. In the last twenty years the city has seen tourist numbers quadruple and many believe that the city and especially the locals can no longer cope. The complaints fall broadly into three categories:

  1. Barcelona is attracting the “wrong type” of tourists
  2. Accommodating tourists is pushing residents from their homes, and businesses from the high street and
  3. The identity and cultural heritage of the city (and the wider region) is disappearing

With these three areas in mind Ada Colau, the charismatic new Mayor, has a plan to re-balance the tourism sector’s interests more in line with local residents.

The wrong type of tourists

“Low cost” tourism is a particular pain to the Catalans. The Barcelona authorities are at pains to suggest that there is no “drunken tourism” in Barcelona and have for several years taken steps to ban pub crawls and booze cruises. However a short walk on any summer night through El Born, or down Passeig de Joan de Borbó, across Gràcia, El Raval or Eixample will bring to life the issues. Tourists are literally reveling in low cost accommodation, food and entertainment in Barcelona.

Poblenou during Carnaval
Poblenou during Carnaval

There are of course “desirable” tourists and even the left wing Mayor is keen to point that out, for example the 80,000 extra visitors heading to Barcelona at the end of February for Mobile World Congress are this town’s type of tourist.

The Mayor’s support for this event proves that she is trying to find a balance. Mobile World Congress provides a multi million euro injection every year into the Catalan economy and Barcelona’s new Mayor has offered to support the organisation in the city beyond the current agreement, with Barcelona continuing to host the event until at least 2023. Tourism is crucial to the success of this thriving city and it has the Mayor’s support. 

Accommodating the tourist market

Following on from her predecessor, Ada Colau’s administration took two brave steps to redress the balance in accommodating locals and tourists. One of her first decrees, introduced in July, was a one-year moratorium on new tourist accommodation. The move is “provisional and precautionary” said Colau in an interview with Catalunya Ràdio. “Tourism is an asset that the city needs to take care of and make more sustainable, because it created tensions”. As a former anti eviction campaigner Ada Colau knows all about dealing with tensions.

The decree affected eight of the eleven new luxury projects in Barcelona, stymying thirty hotels in total but it is not just hotel chains which are under the spotlight, those offering their homes (or in some cases – their rental investments) for short term rents are under the spotlight too. Airbnb has not had an easy ride in this city.

Airbnb and similar platforms pose a direct and measurable threat to affordable housing. In many popular areas rents are increasing quickly, pushed ever higher by speculative properly purchases.

In Catalunya all establishments used by tourists must be registered with the City Council or the Catalan Government and a tiny tourist tax of 0.65€ is due in Barcelona. The Generalitat has already taken direct measures to slow the flow of properties going online by imposing the first €60,000 fines on AirBnB in January. The Generalitat opted to fine the site, rather than the individual owners, for the unregistered short term lets appearing on rental sites.

The Barrio in which I have chosen to make my home Poblenou is particularly affected. Sitting in the larger district of Sant Martí, between 2012 and 2014 almost 900 homes with the official “Los apartamentos de uso turístico (HUT)” have been listed, however the actual number available and openly advertised is likely to stretch into the couple of thousand.

The identity and cultural heritage of the city is disappearing

Two of Barcelona’s most famous “attractions” have started to limit access to tourists. Groups of tourists are now strongly discouraged in La Boquería the largest market in Barcelona, with security guards expected to operate over the busier months this year. Parc Güell, which was originally built by Gaudí and opened as a public park in 1926, now sets a limit each day on the number of available tourist places to visit the park. The locals are making their move and they now have a very supportive Mayor and regional Government.

Spend any significant amount of time in Catalunya and you will find that Catalans are exceptionally proud of their heritage and culture. This cultural defense has spread from Barcelona. At the end of last year as part of the deal to invest a new Catalan President, the political party CUP called for the abandonment of BCN World, a huge 800 hectare project that would have seen a competitor to EuroDisney in Catalunya.

Millions of Euros would have been spent in the region and in fact the inflow of money was one of the reasons for a popular party not to support the development. The quiet decision to mothball BCN World was made with the knowledge that in Spain, when such large sums of money flow, corruption comes along for the ride.

The message is clear from local resident groups to the Generalitat. Las Ramblas can’t house more tourist tat. Poblenou can’t have any more hotels and Catalunya is not the home for a super casino and an extended theme park: enough is enough. There is a balance to be found, and many in Catalunya believe the scales have tipped too far in favour of the tourists. 2016 is still to redress the balance.

The Super Bowl and Paid For Patriotism

For a truly mainstream American experience I would certainly recommend dropping yourself down on a swivelling stool in a Dallas bar, watching the Super Bowl, eating buffalo wings and chatting to an off duty Texan Cop. It’s how I spent Super Bowl Day 2014.

Should you just happen to tune in to the game at home somewhere in the UK don’t fret; you’ll be able to get the full flavour. You will still see the finale of the American Football season unfurl to review an onslaught of pageantry and paid for patriotism. Sit at home and gorge on the overt militarisation where pageantry is used to blur the lines between the football field and the battlefield. You will see a contest for sure: the battle for the continued blood thirst of citizens of the largest of the western imperialist states.

The essence of the show wasn’t so obvious to me back in January 2014 as we crossed the southern states. We had been following the sporting hype around the Super Bowl and we’d watched a playoff game in Philadelphia. We knew it was going to be a total cliche to find the local sports bar for the big game, but we were here for the American experience! Hailing a cab we were genuinely excited to be heading down to watch the game in a Texan bar.

Of course the bar was packed but we arrived just in time to find a little space next to a large Hispanic couple who were sat on stools way too small. Within a minute or so, as happened on almost every occasion while in the States, a local was quick to welcome us to their Bar / Borough / City / State / Nation. Our off duty Cop hit us with a “hi y’all welcome to Dallas, Texas” And we of course responded with a typically clean and crisp very British reply.

As we led up to the start of the game we had that chat about the differences between the USA (and in this case the very particular differences between Texas) and the UK. We spoke about British roads, no wider than aisles in an American supermarket. Of $20 cocktails in London; a price that would supply a Cop in beer and buffalo wings (some 40 or so) from this particular bar for the whole evening.

We covered crime and guns with our polar opposite views of the relationship between them. The Dallas Cop tried to comprehend a UK Police Officer walking the beat gunless. I waved my finger side to side and tutted loudly in response to his question “how in hell do they keep the peace with no weapon?”

We were the charming, quirky and inquisitive British couple and they were the very personification of gregarious, warm and welcoming Southern American hospitality. Despite the distance across their land and the Atlantic Ocean our shared cultural connections and a common language made us feel part of that mass of raw Texan meat ready to sizzle at the start of the Super Bowl.

All eyes fixed on the dozen screens reflecting the same snowy scene from the stadium in New Jersey.

Like all American sporting (and of course many other occasions) The Star Spangled Banner was sung before the main event: it boomed from the TV screens and from the mouths of most of the patriotic patrons.

We stayed seated and smiled while trying to look serious. We maintained a dignified exterior while cringing slightly inside. We were miles from Waco, Texas but this seemed like an automatic and mass response to rise: almost cult like. And when representatives from the military took to the sporting field our bar, no doubt like thousands of other bars in the States, shook with emotion. Another link in the cultural chain that connects American Sport and war had been welded together.

What places the Super Bowl – and all the matches played under the National Football League more widely – apart from many other mass gatherings in the US is the presence front and foremost of the military. The differences between the battlefield and the sporting field seem to have been steadily broken down by pageantry and this is no simply coincidence. 

This overt militarisation of Football recently led two Arizona Senators to uncover almost $7 million in “paid for patriotism” at sporting events, with 18 NFL teams receiving more than $5.6 million over four years. Blurring the lines between sport and war is a concern for some Americans. 

During the Super Bowl there is no respite from the “paid for patriotism”, not even during the ad breaks. In fact, this medium supports an amplification of the solider / player, sporting field / battle field connection.

During Super Bowl Week there is only one thing that’s more anticipated than the game, and that’s the commercials. In Budweiser’s “Coming Home” commercial a returning solider receives a Bud sponsored Heroes Welcome.

Connecting the theatre of sport and the theatre of war will of course be aided by multinational companies thirsty for “profit from patriotism” and back in our bar it is no exaggeration to say this advert brought 300 or so patrons once again to their feet. The majority brought to either cheers or tears. The passion led some of the biggest guys to bear hug fellow big guys, as well as of course, the tiny barmaids. Two Brits sat detached and stupefied, and increasingly many more American eyes are being opened to the dangers of this paid for patriotism.

Senators McCain and Flake’s investigation found that linking military propaganda with sporting prowess was obviously money well spent: the Pentagon had been doing it for years. But what is the purpose of linking American sport so closely with the military and American foreign policy? Why does the Pentagon rate it so highly?

An army is of course a miniature of the society that produces it and if society sees war in terms of the field of sport it perhaps sees contests that end; with a clear winner and loser; a score on one side always lower than that of the other.

We know and we are continually told that ISIS are hell bent on bringing civilians – across the Middle East as much as Western Europe – onto the battlefield. We are disgusted at their approach and their aims. Yet Western Governments – by placing the military at the heart of their institutions – do little to draw what should be a clear and profound distinction between civilian and military life. It is past the time for the west to draw this line and stick to it.

The Super Bowl has morphed to appear almost as much about the role of the military and the love of America as the celebration of a season long sporting journey for two teams. Paid for Patriotism is clearly state sponsored big business.

This year, in the UK, as the debate continues around the renewing of Trident Nuclear Weapons System keep your eyes open for our own homegrown versions of paid for patriotism. It will be coming to a stadium or bar near you. The power of imagery is not to be underestimated.

 

A timetable for Catalan Independence

It is January 2016. By June 2017 Catalonia will be independent

The independence movement in Catalonia is back on track following, eventually, the investiture of a new Catalan President.  After months of negotiations Artur Mas stood aside to allow the consensus candidate and 130th Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to take the driving seat. Closely mirroring Nicola Sturgeon replacing Alex Salmond post referendum, a younger less controversial political figure will be tasked with ultimatley bringing the independence process to its conclusion.

A timetable for Catalan Independence

In Catalonia that conclusion is for many tantalisingly close. In what would no doubt make every #Indyref2 supporting Scottish nationalist drip with envy, in Barcelona there is a roadmap to independence. Within 18 months Catalonia will – assuming of course there are no major bumps or roadblocks – be ready to  declare itself to be independent.  The new President is already working to that timetable. There’s very little doubt in Catalonia or in Spain: the countdown has started.

For the Catalan nationalists this timetable is a rallying call. It is a call to arms with an end in sight. It is a clear and shared vision by supporters of the many political parties and civic groups that support Catalan independence. The Catalan independence movement is far from a united one but this timetable is holding this movement together. Conversely there is little doubt that a lack of a timetable in Scotland is currently splitting the pro indy campaigners. The First Minister’s  recent comment in the Scottish Parliament on winning a second referendum “In the next few years” has only really mudded the waters. The Scottish Ship’s Captain – when compared to the newly charged Catalan Captain – seems a tad lost at sea.

A similar journey until now

Up until now Scotland’s and Catalonia’s journeys have tacked roughly the same course as pro indy parties have risen to power only to hold referendums that ultimately won nothing but the status quo. The sea has been rougher for one and then the other. The gift of the referendum from Westminster to Scotland was in stark contrast to Madrid’s refusal to allow a Catalan plebiscite (which they just ignored and Madrid in return just ignored the result). However the September election victory by pro indy parties in Catalonia released a new lease of life into the movement in the north of Spain. In Scotland last years UK election deflated many nationalists despite the SNP routing the Unionist parties; it was a shallow victory, as a heartless London centric Tory Government remained in Westminster.

But it is a new year and a very big year for both Scotland and Catalonia. Both Parliaments are packed with pro independent representatives. However at the moment one Parliament speaks with a loud and united voice “18 months” and the other, talks of something, well, sometime in the future.

The Scottish independence campaign is stuck in the dry dock the Catalan Cruiser is off. Their destinations appear to be the same but the routes at the moment appear very different.

Political timing or base opportunism?

The one defining skill of this Conservative Party leadership is its unmatched gift for political timing.

Political timing or base opportunism?

In politics timing is everything and right on queue enter our ever opportunist Prime Minister. If the Paris tragedies were the final pieces in the war making puzzle the first were dropped out of the box and placed on the table at the onset of summer.

But summer seems like a long time ago. So shocking was the carnage in Paris in November that it is hard to cast our minds back to the political landscape that preceded them. But should we take a moment we can see that the summer soundtrack was a monotonous Tory megamix with the aim to make us all dance to a particularly bloodthirsty tune.

The march to war started back in July

At the end of July Mr Cameron made, what was billed as, his first major UK speech on tackling extremist ideology. In that speech he set out the Government’s “five-year strategy” to deal with extremist ideology. With this speech and the anticipated media coverage he was of course building the narrative that may well lead to an increase in hostilities in Syria. Extremist ideology so the speech goes has to be dealt with at home and abroad.

The content was the focus for most but as this speech was just a rehash of one he made ten years ago I focus on the timing. The horrific massacre of tourists on a Tunisian beach at the end of June allowed Mr Cameron an opportunity he couldn’t miss to support his grand narrative: that to root out and end terror we must heap more terror on far away lands.

The echo of that last gun shot in North Africa was the sound of an increased march to war in the UK. David Cameron placed a direct link connecting those beaches – where the Foreign Office has withdrawn tourists – to the battlefields in Syria where the Ministry of Defence is already – on a small scale – engaging our military hardware.

Another piece of “good timing” over the summer came when it was “leaked” that UK armed service personal were already involved in attacks on the sovereign state of Syria. This revelation was a very useful test of likely public and parliamentary opposition to a new campaign. This “leak” approach to policy follows on from years of Labour Party spin. Every successive Government has built on the experience and knowledge of the last to become peerless in the management of the dissemination of information. The media is the first theatre of any war. Victory on that battlefield is of profound strategic importance.

Simply judging by David Cameron’s actions over the summer there was never any doubt that the aftermath of Paris would lead to more opportunist warmongering in the UK. We knew this would happen because the Government had recent form. Using the humanitarian crisis over the European summer months to propagate war Cameron and Osborne, et al, have shown beyond all doubt that they will never balk at any opportunity that comes their way.

Over the coming days, weeks and months – depending on the resilience of Labour MPs moral fibre – they will continue to skillfully and munipilatively push towards war: somehow shielding from the media spotlight that their cure is in fact the cause.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria spilling over into Europe could not have come at a more opportune time for a Government hell bent on war

As the end of summer approached The Establishment’s vile mouth piece The Sun was already depicting those against increased military action – including Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbin – in Syria as “Cowards”. Not to be outdone by the Government in the Shakespearean duplicity The Sun told its readers that going to war in Syria is the best way to show anger and frustration at the death of Aylan Kurdi.

No coincidence that Parliament was in recess at the start of this propaganda war

As MPs headed for a break from Parliament over the summer the Tory Party had a couple of months to lobby MPs to back a fresh military campaign in Syria.

Strengthening your position while your opposition was weak was too good an invitation to miss for the opportunist PM. Labour as the main parliamentary opposition – if only numerically speaking –  welcomed their new leader in September. With the entire party focused on internal matters over the summer the timing, once again, from the Tory party perspective was priceless. With Labour electing a leader who was exceptionally unlikely to vote for military action in Syria the Tories took full advantage to split the opposition.

Mr Cameron has a well respected and recognised gift for rolling the political dice at just the right time. There is an accepted narrative that we admire his astuteness and adroitness. It is more correct of course to rile at our Prime Minister for being a callus opportunist who used the death of 130 civilians in France and 30 civilians in Tunisia to catapult his argument that we need to be at war into every home. But that is what Warmongers do; there is no level that they will not sink to bolster the blood thirst.

The power of imagery is not to be underestimated

On the political battlefield imagery is almost as important as timing. The militarisation of the return of those murder victims from Tunisia, emerging as they did from an RAF aircraft, to be carried slowly and solemnly by military personal, seemed rather incongruous for the repatriation of murdered plumbers, post office and factory workers who had tragically but simply set out on holiday. They were and remain civilians caught up in horrific tragedy.

President François Hollande’s choice of Les Invalides – the home of the military museum of France – to commemorate the victims of November’s attacks in Paris come straight from the Warmongers Handbook. Theses subtle decisions are important, deliberate and meaningful steps in the abhorrent process of militarising the civilian population.

We know and we are continuously told that ISIS are hell bent on bringing civilians – across the Middle East as much as Western Europe – onto the battlefield. We are disgusted at their approach and their aims. Yet our politicians – by honouring the dead in such overt militarised style – do little to draw what should be a clear and profound distinction. Civilians even when they are targets are not military personnel. It is past the time for the west to draw this line and stick to it. To remove all military connotations from civilian tragedy.

It is time to say no to increased military action by the UK in Syria.

Neoliberals – the real fundamentalists

Last weeks speech by David Cameron was not the first time he had a speech written for him around the hook of the “struggle of our generation”.  He used this back in 2005 while he was Shadow Education Secretary. The struggle then as now is against fundamentalism and I couldn’t agree more. However.

He focused on the evil of islamic fundamentalism. I have another view on the vilest form of extremism affecting the globe. So in that speech I replacing the following:

– Islamist terrorism
– Global terror
– Terrorists
– Islamist
– Jihadist

With “Neoliberalism”. It’s a vast improvement.

Neoliberals – the real fundamentalists

Here’s my highlights.

“And there’s no better example than the subject I would like to focus on today: the threat from extremist Neoliberalism. In recent weeks I have been outlining some of the challenges I believe we face as country – and the need to foster a new sense of shared responsibility to deal with them.”

“The challenges of Neoliberalism require exactly that kind of response. We’re all in this together, and we must act together to defend our security.”

Anti Extremist March in Edinburgh
Anti Extremist March in Edinburgh

The global threat

“Britain has joined the long list of nations to be directly targeted by Neoliberalism: Indonesia, India, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Russia, Kenya, Tanzania and the United States of America.”

“The range of nations targeted by Neoliberalism underlines the global nature of the threat – as does the background of the attackers.
It is profoundly shocking to learn that those responsible were British citizens.”

“It is clearly right to say that there is no list of demands we can accept and no group of Neoliberalism we could meet and negotiate with – even if we wanted to – to stop the attacks.”

“But we can and should try to understand the nature of the force that we need to defeat. The driving force behind today’s threat is Neoliberalism. The struggle we are engaged in is, at root, ideological.”

“During the last century a strain of Neoliberalism thinking has developed which, like other totalitarianisms, such as Nazism and Communism, offers its followers a form of redemption through violence. The seeds of this ideology are various.”

“But the Neoliberalism programme is not limited to these goals. They work, like Trotskyist “transitional demands”, to rally support among the disaffected and radicalise them for the greater struggle”
“This is the establishment of a single, puritan, fundamentalist strain of Neoliberalism across the world, and the eventual advance of Neoliberalism influence across the globe.”

“Neoliberalism feeds into the bewilderment, alienation and lack of progress felt by many in the world. The corruption of many states. The lack of democracy. The concentration of power in the hands of elites whose lifestyles. All these things create resentments.”

And my personal favourite: “Those resentments are very far from being restricted to the poor. Neoliberalism, like Nazism and Communism before it, often bewitches the minds of gifted and educated young men.”

I think his latest speech could do with the same treatment.

The hidden agenda of #Indyref2

“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”

–Lao Tzu, 6th Century BC Chinese Poet

On the 18th May 2015 I predict the following: That during the next Westminster parliament:

1. There will be no #IndyRef2
2. There will be no UK exit from Europe
3. There will be no electoral reform

Bold? Maybe.
Daring? Perhaps.
Foolish?

Only if I assume that everything fed to me by the major news channels is the whole news. These issues are chewing up inches in our papers and pixels on our TV screens. They are playing their role; shifting focus on to meaningless debates, disproportionately filling our newspapers and news bulletins. Think of them like three Nigel Farages – scary though that is.

It is not that these constitutional issues do not merit consideration. In time, they will deserve proper scrutiny. But now? Now, it is a charade. A merry dance led by the Tory Government, cheek-to-cheek with the main stream media. While we consider the impact of any of these three constitutional upheavals, Westminster acts on its quite separate and real agenda.

We can see this as a certainty because the mood music has only recently stopped playing. The Indyref2 lament is still ringing in our ears.

#IndyRef2 – The Referendum that never was

Throughout this Spring, a second referendum on Scottish independence haunted the UK General Election campaign; a bogie man created for political purpose. Indyref2 lay under the bed ready to jump out and grab you in the middle of the night, before heading downstairs and raiding the house of £7.6 Billion of your money,  then driving away in your car. With your wife.

You lost. Forget about it. Stop going on about it. Why do you keep mentioning it? Losers. This narrative, as played out, for example by Caroline Flint in her appearance on Question Time, served as the aperitif – the boxer’s jab before the left (or right) hook.

That hook was straightforward – repeated by Labour, Tory and Libdem alike. The referendum was supposed to be “once in a generation.” IndyRef2 is bad. SNP is bad. Seperatism is bad.

Yet, the only main UK political party not talking about Indyref2 was the SNP.

In interview after interview Nicola Sturgeon with equanimity, both here in Scotland and in England, fielded questions on the “imminent referendum.” The mainstream media bought the narrative sold by Tories, Labour and LibDems. The absence of any manifesto commitment from the SNP for IndyRef2 was wilfully ignored.

Just take a minute to think about that. Election campaigns are so much about events and dazzle these days. Fancy 250gsm gloss-finished brochures. Pages of policies, promises and pledges. All delivered with with a flash, bang wallop in front of a room full of adoring acolytes. In all those fresh-smelling pages there was nothing about a Scottish referendum. At no stage-managed event did Nicola Sturgeon call for it. There was no manifesto commitment. The electorate could not vote for IndyRef2. So why all those questions and all that time discussing something that no one was suggesting? Weren’t there more important things to discuss?

In Scotland, we knew that we were being led up the garden path. 56 seats for the SNP. 50% of the popular vote. Scottish Labour rejected by an electorate that had awoken during the referendum campaign, by an electorate that had grown tired of the charlatan mainstream media. We are staying up all night so that we can cast further light into the dark shadows.

Cast some light on to the Indyref2 narrative and what do you find?

A good story that has legs. “David Cameron rules out a second referendum” screams the Telegraph. Of course, David knows that he can make no such promise and anyway no one is asking for a second referendum, but hey, it plays well doesn’t it?

This story is even more diaphanous when you consider that the chances of the SNP calling for a second referendum before 2018 are as likely as Scotland returning from the World Cup with a wee golden globe statue and a look of baffled bewilderment on the faces of players and an entire nation.

The SNP will not seek a new mandate until the polls prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there will be a wide margin of victory. This story – if it really ever was one – is dead, maybe not for a generation, but certainly for a whole World Cup qualifying campaign.

The story of how IndyRef2 was used during the election campaign is a clue. It is a smoking gun which shows how the Conservative Party will drive a right-wing agenda. It is smoke and mirrors and slight of hand. The election result in England in May proves its potential. So much so that the new Tory leader, when he arrives in a few years, will be more like David Blaine than David Cameron.

This is the murky prism in which the media coverage of the entire five years of miserable Tory rule will seek to debate an IndyRef2, voting reform and the consequences of the UK exit from the EU.

EU referendum

Another referendum beckons, but this time we have recent history to help us with the outcome. When the UK government agrees to a referendum the cards will be stacked in its favour.

The establishment parties will come together with one clear voice. The media will be on-side. Money will pile into the Yes campaign from the big businesses which rely so heavily on a single market to allow them to generate large profits. They can not afford to lose the flow of a well-educated, cheap, eastern and southern european workforce that helps them keep wages low in the UK. They will do everything to stymie an exit.

David Cameron will return with concessions. Small ones. But through the lens of the media they will appear large. The status quo will be saved and we will march on as before. But before we do – imagine the scenarios to be played-out, the what-ifs put to the MPs and the pundits and the experts.

Be Prepared. Hunker down. Put on your tin hat and don’t play the game.

You can spend hours and days watching and listening to people discuss something that will not happen. You can be diverted. Or you can focus on the real politics. To do that there is one further Establishment feint to be tackled.

Electoral reform

A truly proportional electoral system would change the way the UK is governed. It would, lets be clear, be the most fundamental democratic overhaul seen in the UK since universal female suffrage. The very thought places the Establishment on edge.

The route to power in Westminster would be very different. The polarised red and blue, two choices for Downing Street swingometer would cease. Perhaps there would be a body of support for political parties less pre-disposed to the US-style capitalism seen in the UK since Thatcher. That alone is reason enough to suggest that true electoral reform will never happen. 2020 will come and go with a Westminster Government elected under the First Past the Post system.

The fact is that electoral reform is not in the Tory manifesto. And they won. Labour and the SNP have nothing to gain from reforming the Westminster voting system. Perhaps the issue is considered less important in Scotland and Wales due to devolution.

Electoral reform is a ship that’s stuck in port, waiting for a captain and cargo.  Even those who would gain from it know that their efforts are better spent fighting the elections in Wales and Scotland where a list system offers a chink in the armoury protecting the two main UK parties.

The problem, for many, is that although the system may not be very good, its preferable to the alternatives. So their will be talk and debate and the ramblings of UKIP will offer further diversion on this issue.  However, when the dust has settled and we remain where we were, the real issues will have been relegated.  Again, attracted by diversionary tactics the media will place one, two or all of these chimerical issues high on their list of priorities.

The role of the three constitutional issues

By generating enough noise they will play a major role in this government’s planned programme simply by deflecting scrutiny from their policies (or lack thereof.) This Sunday morning’s papers and political programmes were brim-full of EU, PR and IndyRef2 stories.

What is absent?

Instead three, deliberately conceived, blind alleys.

The IndyRef2, EU exit and PR will draw flack from the public and shift the the attention from where the UK media – whose job it should be to hold the UK Government to task – should sit. Articles, papers and research will be carried out to fan the flames; a whole industry chasing non stories. 24 hours-a-day, in high definition and full technicolor, a kind of shadow press leading the electorate down dark alleys and dead ends.

My hope is that enough Scots and the awakening electorate in rUK will finally realise that the mood music is phoney. This mind-numbing but hypnotic Muzak will end and a story with a passionate and politically-enlivened soundtrack will take its place. If you don’t like the music you change the channel. See the light and remove yourself from the narrative of the mainstream media.

The good bank

With the longest election campaign in living memory now drawing to a close the bizarre theatre of facts and figures, claim and counter claim has had time to cover every single major issue facing the electorate. Scotland. Housing. The economy. The debt and the deficit. Immigration. Zero hour contracts. Scotland again. Coalitions. The likelihood and legitimacy of those coalitions. Trident. The NHS. Taxes and the avoidance of those taxes.  And a little bit more about Scotland. But there is an important issue that has been as hard to find as an impromptu walk about by a Tory Minister.  Remember those banks and the financial services sector and the mess they caused? Whatever happened to all that?

Scrutinising the role of the financial services became a media and public pastime after the the sector was bailed out by the grand total of £375Billion. Since the financial crisis took hold in 2008 and during every ‘banker bonus’ time since we’ve learned to look at banking through a squinting eye as we wondered just when are we getting our money back? So considering debt and the deficit have been ubiquitous in this campaign it seems to be amiss not to focus on the continuing role of the financial services sector and to ask:

– what has happened to make sure that there isn’t another financial services led crash again? and

– can our banks, if run differently, actually do some good?

What have the political parties been saying in this campaign about the financial sector?

The Tory Manifesto mentions, what has to be seen as an admission:

“our economic growth remains uneven, too reliant on financial services.”

They then cover exactly how the role of the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England will oversee the “best regulation in the world” Careful wording; not the most regulated but the “best”. The Tories talk about how their reforms covered in the Financial Services (Banking Reform Act 2013) – which will come into play in 2019 now that’s a long time in anyone’s book – will continue to strengthen the sector against future market failures.

Whatever you think of the scope of that regulation at least it is mentioned by the Tories but this seems to be the end of the reform. And to prove their lack of vision here’s the coalition government’s pre campaign announcement. Their paper “protocol for bank closures” does absolutely nothing to improve the regional support for SMEs and those consumers who most value a local bank in fact it’s not even on the agenda: “High street banks, consumer groups and the government have signed up to an industry-wide agreement to minimise the impact of branch closures” Yes, you read that correctly. Rather than looking at banks to support the regional development of the UK to how about just limit the negative impact? why set the bar high when it can be set so low?

Back to manifestos. In the Labour Manifesto there is a mention of a new way of banking and a brand new bank:

“We will develop a banking system that works for businesses in every region and every sector in Britain. The long-standing problems of our banking system mean that too many small and medium-sized businesses cannot get the finance they need to invest and grow.

Labour will establish a British Investment Bank with the mission to help businesses grow and to create wealth and jobs. It will have the resources to improve access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses, and will support a network of regional banks.”

Now this sounds good. Like someone is listening to the SME sector and a disenfranchised public. And there is a consensus that seems to be shared by the SNP and the Greens.

The SNP in their manifesto seek to hit the banks hard with an increased bank levy and a tax on banker’s bonuses. But the area of a new bank is the  most interesting part:

“….will seek seed-fund capitalisation of the Scottish Business Development Bank, enabling new investment in Scottish business growth and innovation, helping create thousands of new jobs”

The Green Party dedicate a couple of pages on reforming the Financial Sector in their manifesto. They typically peg their colours to the mast:

“The UK finance industry is a disaster area.”

And within the fruity language we again find the new (well a very old) bank:

“We will use the government-owned Royal Bank of Scotland to create a network of local banks for every city and region, ensuring that each bank is a People’s Bank, obliged to offer cheap basic banking services.”

Now this looks good a People’s Bank. A bank designed to do good?

In a variety of routes Labour, SNP and The Greens all seem to want to start to develop a new way to do banking. The route and the scope appears to differ but this overall vision has the potential to make an impact that will be felt across communities and in the wider economy and it is a shame there has been so little focus on this vision. A new approach to banking in the UK has the opportunity to affect real and meaningful economic and social change. And it is needed.

So far under the coalition government nothing much seems to have changed even in the banks that we own. As you can see from the Tory led coalition government their protocol for bank closures and their reliance on past regulation shows that the ship has sailed on more regulations. But maybe they are right, maybe we don’t need more regulation. So exactly how are things going?

RBS announced its latest figures at the end of April. A £446m loss in the year so far. According to RBS CEO Ross McEwan the bank is improving and if only they didn’t have to set aside millions of pounds to cover their potential loss owing to alleged criminal activity they would be in profit. Damn those illegal activities they can really hurt…..shareholders.

So if it’s not going so well and the opposition parties are looking at a new direction of travel is there anyone there to put meat on the bones? Thankfully there are other organisations talking about reform in the banking sector.

Local banking for the public good

At start of the election campaign the excellent Think Tank the New Economics Forum published a report entitled: “Reforming RBS: local banking for the public good”

In this detailed and explorative report the NEF pictured and supported a revisioning of RBS. A not for profit regional based financing network that focused on SMEs. In the many highlights a reformed RBS would lead to:

1. Increasing credit for the real economy. Local stakeholder banking networks focus more on small and medium enterprise (SME) lending and they increased lending to businesses and households during the recession while large commercial banks withdrew credit from the economy.

2. Protecting jobs and growing their number and quality. Investment in higher staff-to-customer ratios by local stakeholder banks with consequent tax revenues, saved welfare, and benefit costs and social benefits.

3. Improving the diversity and resilience of the UK banking system. Offering greater protection to the economy against future economic shocks. Which is  of particular interest to Scotland with %…..

4. Promoting financial inclusion through access to a current account for all UK citizens, and maintenance of universal branch coverage across the UK.

5. Rebalancing the economy. Increasing investment and economic development in regions outside London, as well as greater financial support for local social, cultural, and sporting activities.

As well as all of the above the NEF suggests that RBS would add between £8billion and £13billion to GDP over the first three years acting as a good bank. The policy could almost single handily reduce that scary £30billion cuts figure that has dominated the campaign. Not only is this a vision but it is a practical solution that adds more good than simply increasing GDP.

Reading between the lines of the red lines there are many issues where Labour can lead a progressive anti Tory alliance. The reform of our financial services starting with a look at the role of RBS could be a way in which a successful working government redraws the lines of banks, challenges them to become part of the community and to serve those communities, not to serve shareholders.

For a bank it shouldn’t be about profit. It should be about doing good. Banks shouldn’t be there to make money for their investors; they should be there to support businesses and consumers to better their lives. Wouldn’t it be great if banks measured themselves on this rather than on the bottom line? What if they could actually do good. What if you wanted to hug a banker rather than bash him?

The “Right to Debt”

Bringing a young family back to Scotland and settling in Edinburgh I’ve noticed that those dinner party type conversations seem to revolve around two things: schools and homes. Setting my stall out early (which means I make a rather truculent guest) I am pretty fixed on three things in life. I wont be sending my kid to private school, I won’t be buying a home and I won’t be attending any more dinner parties.

Returning after living in Barcelona for a few years it is obvious that the desire for the best school for your child is universal but what sets us apart from many other countries and most of Europe is our relationship with our homes.

The Right to Buy

For much of the working class British population homes had until Thatcher’s introduction of the Right to Buy scheme (within the Housing Act in 1980) been solely where you lived. Your home was an expense, like food, clothing or heating; it was never an investment. With affordable rents and hundred of thousand of new quality homes being built in the 1970s especially in the New Towns of central Scotland, you could still make your house your home and live comfortably and securely. And then something changed.

With the introduction of that Right to Buy that home almost overnight became something else. Its bricks and mortar didn’t alter but it became a nest egg. The householders in those 1.5 million homes bought their houses at a 33% to 50% discount but more importantly for society they bought the idea that their house could be so much more than their home. In fact the change was that they considered it their right to own a property. This was democracy explained in the number of rooms and the size of your garage and garden.

Many labour supporting working class voters – like my own father who bought his Livingston council house – shifted their allegiance. Working class Scots followed the dream. This injection of consumer demand and consumer led debt allowed the 1980’s UK economy to explode. Without increases in productivity or wages the boom was powered only be debt as millions of working class families took out mortgages acting on their “Right to Debt”

The Right to Buy Reborn

Fast forward 35 years and the new “Right to Buy” policy from the Conservatives has been coming for some time. The recently announced reduction in inheritance tax for properties under £2million created a wonderfully bright aspirational picture to precede the announcement that even those in housing association houses can dream of that tax free bonus. The panacea is that you can buy your home and see its value soar. A heady height will be reached before you even pay tax on its transfer to your children.

For the Tories the dream of a “home owing democracy” has been given new life with the rebirth of the poster boy Thatcherite policy. The appeal to a million voters is obvious, visceral, heart felt: to own the home you live in and to one day sell it for a large profit or pass the value on to your heirs.

This powerful starting position must be understood by those opposed to the reintroduction of this controversial policy. Of which there will be many.

The strength of those desires can not be underestimated and it could just swing the election in favour of a conservative government: the victory build on a dream. In reality however this shared but ultimately personal dream has the potential to create a nightmare for society, communities and for the UK as a whole. Thankfully the policy is only muted for England but on this ever so closely linked island the effects will be felt across the nations.

There is no policy more damaging to the health of the nation than the right to remove affordable housing stock from public to private hands without counter actions to remove the negative impacts. As Richard Murphy outlines:

“……this is about deliberately increasing inequality when its impact is already very apparent in our society. Housing is one of our  most basic rights. This is a policy that seeks to deny that to many.”

The building of wealth of the working class could be achieved with much less damage if we followed polices which saw rises in real wages and improvements in public services.

The Right to Buy policy will see shares in the banking sector rise as a million new mortgages will be required. Those with shares will see their dividends rise allowing investors who own the bigger houses to afford even bigger ones. Bonuses for bankers will rise as millions of working class families pay interest on those loans; funnelling yet more money upwards in our society. Estate agents will boom replacing more high street shops.

The economy will be falsely boosted by debt as billions of newly created money will flush through the banking system. Many families will push beyond their means and a still poorly regulated financial service sector will support unattainable desires. Household debts, already at a record high, will increase. Overindebtedness will reign. The housing bubble will continue to inflate. The relative wealth of London will race further ahead to the rest of the UK.

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The affordable housing stock will be depleted. Many of these homes will quickly pass not to children but into the rental market offering an opportunity for thousands to make a living from rents. Almost half of the homes in the original wave of right to buy are now in the private rented sector. The commercialisation of our society will grow as many working class families strive for wealth by speculating on the value of land and property. And all the while the newly installed conservative government will hail a recovery.

Right to Buy is at the very crossroads that our society faces and for those who believe it is a horribly divisive policy the PR battle couldn’t be harder. Right to Buy places the individual against society. The aspiration of individual profit against the societal need for open access to housing. It places the haves against the have nots and it is here where the anti Right to Buy campaign will stall.

Those who oppose Right to Buy will have to defend their opposition against cries of “politics of envy” and “hypocrisy” It will not escape the heads of those households who seek this perceived financial escape that many of the commentators who speak out on the policy will own their own property. From here the opposition house is clearly built on sand.

Add to that perilous opposition the instinctive desire to provide for your children and opponents face two insurmountable cliffs. So exactly how do you counter those arguments?

The only way is to paint the reality from the palette used to create the dream. Opponents need to make that reality as powerful as the dream. Expose the scheme as a decisive policy that will not lead to riches but will burden society with further inequality. Point to an alternative route to secure the future for every family in the UK, seek to redistribute wealth through increased wages and investment in our communities.

Margaret Thatcher is dead but her ghost still stalks our society.

An independent Scot's view on the search for an independent nation