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Are we witnessing the slow death of Bonfire Night?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

The number of Bonfire Night celebrations looks to be on the wane. Local authority cuts combined with the rise of Halloween as an alternative, seems to have decimated our enthusiastic for the most British of traditions. Londonist has no events listed for Greenwich, Kensington & Chelsea, Hackney or Islington. Lewisham continues our lone support for the huge Blackheath fireworks display (after Greenwich Council helpfully pulled out). Once a festival mandated by law through the “Thanksgiving Act” of 1606, are we witnessing the slow death of Bonfire Night?

This could be a reaction against what is seen as an anti-Catholic festival, out of step with contemporary multicultural Britain. A point made by historian David Cannadine:

“But although it’s been around for much longer, the prospects don’t look quite as good for Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night once this anniversary is past. Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it – a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic.”

But is the modern Bonfire Night particularly anti-Catholic any more? My Roman Catholic primary school, for instance, celebrated Bonfire Night. As the BBC notes:

“Roman Catholic opposition to the event has never been very vocal – it’s not unusual to find fireworks displays run by RC schools or churches. In fact, fireworks night is for most people just another excuse for a party, and most of the event’s political connotations have been sloughed off. In this context, burning an effigy on a fire seems a bit, well, surplus to requirements.”

Not only do we increasingly celebrate the American importation of Halloween, the Hollywood version of Guy Fawkes has been imported back to our shores too. Guy Fawkes, the traitor who attempted to destroy our parliament, has been reborn as the heroic anti-totalitarian figure of ‘V’ from the film ‘V for Vendetta‘ (who wears a Guy Fawkes mask throughout the film). The mask, and by implication Guy Fawkes, is now a symbol of popular resistance, used by libertarian and anarchist figures from Julian Assange through to the hacking collective Anonymous. David Lloyd, the co-author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, argues: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.” If Guy Fawkes is now a hero, celebrating his death and the foiling of his plans, seems questionable.

Finally, there is what we think of the act of blowing up Parliament. When Parliament burnt down in 1834, huge crowds lined the streets and by the banks of the Thames to cheer the fire that engulfed and destroyed 500 years of parliamentary history. As chronicled by Caroline Shenton’s The Day Parliament Burned Down, popular opinion saw the destruction of parliament as visible punishment for the institution’s cruel Poor Law Act of the same year. Now, only 7% of the public trust politicians and as Russell Brand has highlighted, there is a serious democratic deficit. Perhaps, 400 years on, our lack of enthusiasm for celebrating the thwarting of this act of political terrorism, reflects on our lack of faith in the current political system.

Parliament burns down

Russell Brand speaks for his generation – and it’s problematic

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

Comedian Russell Brand declared all politicians liars. Sadly, few in Generation Y will raise an eyebrow.

On BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, aimed squarely at Britain’s fusty establishment, Russell Brand let rip: “Politicians are all liars”. There isn’t much wiggle room in “all”. Yet, Russell Brand’s interview struck a chord. With over 6,000,000 views on Youtube (and counting), the interview and Brand’s petulant call for revolution was viewed across the globe. The commentariat quickly condemned Brand’s views as dangerous, or as the ever-prescient Nick Cohen noted “artists have always made a show of being drawn towards fanaticism. Extremism is more exciting and dramatic”. If we take Brand’s comments at face value, every single sitting MP in the House of Commons is a liar. If you accept this to be true, as many young people now do, then why retain parliamentary democracy?

Generation Y’s faith in democracy is limited, at best. Asked who they trust, two-thirds of British young people say they have “little” or “no” trust in politicians. Why would they? For a generation weaned on the quick-fix e-petitions, politics is a series of cocaine highs (“By signing this - You changed the law!”) followed by crushing lows (“Why won’t they listen?”). Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble identified the social media filter that surrounds young people’s conception of the political truth. A 16 year old rural Texan will, due to their friendship groups and habits, see a totally different series of news posts on Facebook than another 16 year old in New York City. Our polarised politics says these two truths can’t both be right, someone is lying.

Politicians have hardly helped themselves. Trust in the British political system has collapsed. The MPs expenses scandal exposed the fact our representatives were, alongside their staid day job of writing laws, finding common purpose in stealing lots and lots of our money. The Liberal Democrat party specifically ruled out raising student tuition fees in their election manifesto. Within a year of entering government in coalition with the Tories, they increased fees from £3,000 to £9,000. Meanwhile Britain’s housing boom (central London prices are rising by 10% per annum) is robbing a generation of any chance of owning a home of their own. As Jilted Generation co-author Shiv Malik points out, while the baby boomers got free university education, could easily get a free council house (state housing) and lived in an era of full employment, all of these things have been robbed from Generation Y.

So the anger mounts. As a councillor, I’ve experienced first-hand the hatred reserved for the political class. Public humiliation, being sworn at on countless occasions, threatening phone calls: having spoken to other young councillors it’s now commonplace to be subject to a barrage of abuse if you seek political office.  Why not – all politicians are liars, remember?

Russell Brand, a Hollywood celebrity, is no fringe figure fuelling this rage. He happily promotes HP touchpads – and Disney Parks. His personal wealth is estimated at $15 million. On Newsnight his rhetoric edged closer to that of a 9/11 truther than someone who has a sideline in promoting corporations. Brand said:

“I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system”


“I’m not saying – the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs. They’re only interested in servicing the needs of corporations.”

The anti-politics mood fuels a strong sideline in fantasies. Whether the lone extremist such as Anders Behring Breivik, or connected conspiracists such as the LaRouche movement, the internet has allowed those on the fringes of society to connect globally and feed their conceits unchallenged. Some of this infects the body politic. When UKIP candidates (the party most likely to win Britain’s European elections) quote from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion* and describe the EU as the “EUSSR” and new Home Office Minister Norman Baker MP does a star turn on Alex Jones’ podcast to reveal he believes government scientist Dr David Kelly’s death was covered up by MI5, can we still say this is the fringe? Is Generation Y wrong to get tipsy on conspiracies when they work to elect a liberal President and he says nothing of note – nothing – when the most paranoid delusions of dystopia are made to look unambitious compared to the NSA’s system of mass surveillance buried deep in the Utah desert? Francis Fukuyama predicted the “end of history” when the Berlin Wall fell. Instead we got 9/11, Guantanamo, Iraq’s non-existent WMD and Wikileaks. My former hero Blair, promised democracy in Iraq, failed and now shills for a murderous tyrant in Kazakhstan. No wonder Generation Y is so confused.

Russell Brand’s views are merely the tip of an iceberg of hostility to the political class. The complexity of the modern world and the inability of the political system to adjust to the great leap forward of the internet and social media has led to widespread disillusionment. But they have also failed to wake up to the challenge they face. Politicians are distrusted; political parties are losing activists and money, the far-right is on the rise in continental Europe. Can we really say Russell Brand’s views are no longer the mainstream?


Could London property prices rise another 30%?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

The FT’s Alphaville Blog carries an interesting article today, London as a cheapo Hong Kong. The piece analyses a report by Deutsche Bank that notes while Central London prime property prices are rapidly gaining value the rate of return on all UK property over the last 5 years still remains over 9%.

Yet the most telling paragraph taken from the Deutsche Bank report is this:

For those from China and Singapore London house prices remain less than 60% of peak, for Malaysian, Hong Kong and US$ investor’s less than 70%. This also compares to house prices in some of the investors home territories which [have] shown massive increases, eg through 2010 house prices in Hong Kong increased by 50% impacting affordability and the ability of secure attractive income returns on properties. In some Asian countries in a bid to stem house prices tax regimes have been put in place. This has also pushed investors towards the UK…

As foreign investors now make up 73% of Central London new build property buyers and a staggering 90% of prime Central London property (£2,000+ per square foot), it’s clear they are the real driving force behind the current price boom. Worryingly, if the pound’s depreciation means that real estate in the capital is a mere 60-70% of peak prices (in 2007), this suggests that foreign buyers could drive property up another 30% before it regains parity with the previous peak.

London property is now an international asset, like the dollar or bonds. We need to deassetise property from an internationally traded commodity to an asset whose primary purpose is to fulfil a basic human right in line with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unless we begin to intervene in the market, either by government intervention to build more properties, or by making these assets less attractive to foreign buyers with stricter taxes, there is no chance that any young person today will be able to afford to own their own property (unless they are fortunate enough to be in the top 1% of earners). Public anger is growing. Politicians now must act.

Update: interesting map from Savill’s residential research on the rise of the £500,000 flat across London.

Lewisham is building council houses

Written by Mike on . Posted in Labour, Lewisham Council

Lewisham Council is in the process of building new council houses. Yes, you read that right houses. After a considerable amount of hard work attracting grants by the Labour party, and the sale of some older buildings formerly used as offices and centres by the council, we’re in the process of building up to 300 homes in the near future.

The initial projects for social housing and low-cost housing in Lewisham Central will be as follows:

Mercator Road, SE13

This is the site for the first new homes in the programme and planning permission for the scheme was granted in September. The scheme consists of four three-bed and two two-bed homes, all of which will be let at social rent levels and managed on the Council’s behalf by Lewisham Homes. The Council hopes to have appointed the contractor and handed over the site before Christmas with a view to starting on site in early January 2014 and completing 10 months later in November.

There will also be new affordable home ownership on Mercator Road too. The plan is to build some private housing for sale to peole who currently live in Lewisham at a 20% market discount on the market rate with 26 X 1 bed and 1 X 2 bed homes. Dependent on the results of the consultation and approval to dispose of the site, and then the planning process, work could start on site in the first half of next year.

Community self build scheme on Church Grove

Over 100 residents have expressed an interest in taking part in the proposed self build scheme on Church Grove. Our London, a social enterprise, is bringing these residents into groups to help them to understand the options for self build and support them to develop their ideas for the site. The idea is that the residents selected will currently be in social housing, or on the council waiting list, so the new housing reduces demand for social housing and the waiting list further.

There will be a discussion day on Saturday 5th October, from 10 until 12 at St. Mary’s Centre which will present some successful self build schemes from around the world. You can register here.

The Chiddingstone Extra Care scheme

Earlier in 2013 Lewisham Council successfully bid for £2.3m allowing a new 51 unit scheme to provide extra care housing for vulnerable people. Planning and a consultation is still needed but hopefully an excellent proposal will come forward that will allow us to top up our social housing.

The Penal and Criminal Codes of various European Union countries – in English

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International, Uncategorized

Very occasionally it’s useful to be able to reference accurate English translations of the penal codes of European countries, so you can see what the law says for yourself. From across the internet these are the translations I’ve managed to find, so far. I’ve attempted to verify each translation using the few sections of the law I know, which means they should be partly accurate at least.


The French government has helpfully translated whole sections of its legal code in English including the Civil Code (2006), the Commercial Code (2004), the Consumer Code (2005), the Intellectual Property Code (2006), the Penal Code (2006) and the Monetary and Financial Code (2010).


In 2009, Prof. Michael Bohlander provided an English translation of the German Criminal Code. A 1998 version is also available online here for comparison.


Selected elements of the Criminal Code of Greece have been translated into English. Many of the elements of the Criminal Code relating to defamation are available separately here.


The 1997 Penal Code of Poland has been translated into English here.


In 2011, The Ministry of Justice published an English translation of the Spanish Criminal Code. You can also buy an Android application with the Spanish version of the criminal code.

BNP’s website the most visited during the 2010 UK general election

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

Surprisingly considering the British National Party’s implosion, but the BNP’s website was the most visited website of any British political party during the run-up to the 2010 UK general election according to figures published in the Journal of Europe-Asia Studies (p. 1467, Vol 64, Number 8, October 2012).

The BNP website in the three months to 16 March 2010, had more visitors than the websites of the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats combined. Yet, ironically it also had the lowest audience share of British visitors with only 65.3% of visitors to the site emanating from the UK with 12.6% of visitors from the US. This compares with 85.9% of visits to the Labour party website coming from the UK.

While the BNP still managed the largest audience share of all the three main political parties, in the run-up to the election its audience share actually fell 10% during this period, while it rose 13%, 25% and 29% for the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives respectively.

Why LOLs may soon swing elections

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

For some time political parties have been working to harness social media to help them win elections. The Obama campaign famously outspent the Romney campaign online by a factor of 10 to 1 ($47 million vs $4.7 million). Even its use of traditional media was tailored using the huge amount of digital information the campaign hoovered up from online sources.

As the New York Times (“Data You Can Believe In“) found:

“the campaign literally knew every single wavering voter in the country that it needed to persuade to vote for Obama, by name, address, race, sex and income. What’s more, he hinted, the campaign had figured out how to get its television advertisements in front of them with a previously inconceivable level of knowledge and accuracy.”

Yet, with the notable exception of the Obama campaign, contemporary political parties have been uniformly bad at building their online presence. Online startup 38Degrees has more campaigning “members” than any British political party including their Facebook likes.

To the fill the gap left by the professional, but ineffectual, online presence of the major political parties, third parties including trade unions and individuals have stepped in. Working often with minute budgets and turning out material that can cause embarrassment to the established parties, these third party actors are beginning to make an impact. is created “BY A HUMAN BEING WHO DOESN’T BELONG TO ANY POLITICAL PARTY BUT DOES GIVE A SHIT”. Sweary, blunt, highly simplified and pro-Labor the site went viral near instantly with over 1 million unique visitors in just 24 hours (with possibly up to 4% of total registered Australian voters viewing the site). Jesse Richardson, the site’s creator, had to issue a media statement re-iterating it was a personal project and nothing to do with his employers or the Australian Labor Party.

Meanwhile, in Germany, trade union IG Metall’s video implores voters not to believe the re-election of Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition is a done deal – through the medium of LOLs. A bolt-together of amusing Youtube clips spliced with a light political message, it’s amusing and effective. It works because on the face of it, the film is a spontaneous response to the direction of the election. The video opens with an unflattering image of Peer Steinbrueck of the Social Democrats (SPD) looking miserable, presumably after losing the election. No permission was sought from the SPD.

These LOL campaigns are often more effective than the efforts of the mainstream political parties. Only one SPD Youtube clip has just over 100,000 views on their channel, while the IG Metall clip has been viewed over 750,000 times – more than all the SPD’s official videos combined.

While Britain’s three main political parties limber up to the next election, it’s likely that the online political moment to go viral will be created by none of the above.

Kim Kardashian: Enemy of Human Rights

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

Last Saturday night in Almaty, the capital of post-Soviet dictatorship Kazakhstan, Kim Kardashian joined her partner Kanye West at the wedding of Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbaev’s grandson. According to Radio Liberty, Kardashian joined wedding guests to pose for photos. It is unclear how much the couple were paid to perform for the dictator’s grandson, but unconfirmed reports say West was paid as much as $3 million for the gig.

This isn’t the only time Kardashian has enjoyed a cosy trip to a dictatorship that violates human rights. In December 2012, Kardashian ignored appeals from human rights organisations not to visit the country during the government’s clampdown on the opposition. Instead she helped to promote business inside the country in particular “Millions of Milkshakes”. Before arriving in Bahrain, Kardashian tweeted to her 17 million followers: “Inshallah next week I head to Kuwait & Bahrain with my friend @sheerazhasan Time to set the record straight!”

On arrival she added: “I just got to Bahrain! OMG can I move here please? Prettiest place on earth!” A tweet deleted promptly after tear gas was fired on nearby protesters. Sheeraz Hasan, the person mentioned in her tweet with his business partner Paresh Shah founded the “Millions of Milkshakes” chain. The two were given a mandate by the government to “source unique investment opportunities” for Bahrain after a visit to Bahrain only weeks after the controversial Grand Prix in April 2012 (while human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was on hunger strike). The pair enjoyed the delivery of a pair of Rolex watches from the royal family – direct to their private plane. It comes as no surprise that the trip they organised for Kardashian had her actively tweet praise for the regime while ignoring invitations to meet persecuted human rights activists such as the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

Maybe we shouldn’t care that the international celebrity class has no qualms treating with dictators. The amounts of money on offer for single day visits trump actually releasing an album, or the effort of a TV series. It is more depressing to note the adulation these celebrities are held in when they are such morally bankrupt creatures.

A list of style guides

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

Writing well requires rules. Luckily, we have style guides to follow. Here are a few of the best:

The Economist Style Guide is an absolute must read. I still don’t think I’ve mastered the art of writing in the active, rather than the passive. The guide is based loosely on a George Orwell essay, “Politics and the English language” (1946). A masterpiece on how to write. It is worth reading first hand.

Beyond style guides, there are the debates. For instance, I love commas. Most people don’t, and argue that you should never use a comma where it can be supplanted with a full stop. You certainly shouldn’t use a comma before an “and”. These people are wrong. Mary Norris of the New Yorker explains why they are wrong, “In defense of ‘Nutty’ commas”. New York leads the way, not just with commas, but semicolons too.

Finally we come to the much-maligned hyphen. As Ben Yagoda points out in the New York Times, the hyphen is not – as commonly believed – a modern phenomenon, in fact:

The Nobel Laureate of this form of punctuation in poetry was Emily Dickinson. Not only was she inordinately fond of the dash, she wrought impressive variations on it. As one commentator has noted, “Dashes [in her work] are either long or short; sometimes vertical, as if to indicate musical phrasing, and often elongated periods, as if to indicate a slightly different kind of pause.… Dickinson uses dashes musically, but also to create a sense of the indefinite, a different kind of pause, an interruption of thought, to set off a list, as a semi-colon, as parentheses, or to link two thoughts together…”

The longest list of style guides can, of course, be found on Wikipedia.

Will Stevens: no great loss

Written by Mike on . Posted in Labour

Will Stevens, a journalist, has been a member of the Labour party for 3 years. Today, he announced publicly on Comment Is Free that he was quitting the party because:

Ed Miliband is so afraid of the ‘Red Ed’ tag, he’s done nothing to challenge the austerity and anti-poor narrative of the coalition

Will argues:

Meanwhile, the true opposition to the government is to be found away from Westminster. David Blanchflower, Polly Toynbee and even the Institute of Directors have all made a better job of holding the coalition to account than Labour.

Will’s piece is so far the finest description of an increasing modern phenomenon that treats the low-level tittle tattle on Twitter, as the world as it is. It is the tiresome media-centric nonsense that thinks what’s happening on Twitter or in the blogosphere is somehow more important than community organising. That op/eds and thinktanks do more than the very complex work of local and national politics. That Newsnight sets the entire political agenda, not thousands of community meetings or protests about the bins, planning projects, schools or hospitals.

I really like Polly Toynbee. I have a lot of respect for her as a journalist and as someone who has fought for election. But having spent literally weeks of my life, knocking on doors in the snow, rain and wind speaking to people about their everyday concerns I find it absolutely hilarious that Will thinks that opinion pieces in the Guardian are somehow worth as much as the work of a political party going out every single weekend and talking to voters.

Will probably doesn’t know this, but this week Labour-controlled Lewisham Council (alongside an amazing civil society campaign) successfully took the Health Secretary to court and won. Our local hospital’s A&E services may now not face the axe. This means a hell of lot to hundreds of thousands of people. This news made a light ripple in the media, less than George Mudie’s comments that Will quotes.

Bubble politics is here to stay. Most voters don’t care about what’s trending on Twitter. But judging political parties by the media narrative, and not what their land armies are doing, is naive. And it’s a mistake the Conservatives are making at the moment.