Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Still A Colliery And Not A Town

The Daily Telegraph's Web Site are running a story to say that John Darwin (on the left) who is known as the "Canoe Man" has been released from prison after three years under the condition that he does not talk to the media. They also indicate that he is living at Easington Colliery in County Durham.

I was born at Easington Colliery and was brought up there in what were probably its best days, although it also suffered its worst experience at the same time due to a massive pit disaster in 1951 when 79 local miners and three rescue workers were killed.

Yet it was an era of full employment, a highly productive local pit, a newly established and functioning health service, a wider welfare state and a nationalised coal industry. All of which provided hope for the future. Easington Colliery itself was a closely knit community.There were jobs in all parts for young people such as myself without qualifications. Coal was first drawn there in 1910 and its communal spirit had been forged out of the experiences of two world wars, the major mining strikes of 1912, 1921 and 1926 and the years of the inter-war economic depression. Especially from the mid-40s to the mid-50s its life seemed to me to have a tight social bond and to offer security for the future. No doubt much of what I felt was due to the feelings and hopes of youth. But there were also sound reasons for optimism about the future.

The start of the Daily Telegraph article now paints a starkly different picture for today. It reads -

"Easington Colliery is an obsolete town with an obsolete name. The coalmine that gave it its purpose is long shut but the place remains, lines of drab terraces marching down to the grey North Sea.

Desolation is its chief asset. When the makers of Billy Elliot wanted the perfect 'It’s Grim Up North’ setting, they settled on Easington. The town figures prominently in tables of deprivation, and lays claim to the most obese population in the country. Pound shops rub shoulders with pubs protected by steel window shutters, the standard furniture of broken Britain. No paradise, then. Certainly not the paradise envisaged by John Darwin when he was dreaming of wealth and sunshine"

The judgement of the writer is partly journalistic but it also makes use of uncomfortable truths. Strickly speaking it is wrong to call Easington Colliery an obsolete town with an obsolete name. It was and still is a colliery and not a town. It did not exist before its pit was sunk, although it lost its main purpose when the pit was closed in 1993. But it grew up as a colliery in the days when the pit, the miners' lodge, the local labour party, the workingmen's clubs, the miners' welfare, the co-op, local cinemas, chapels, allotments, the miners' own welfare park with its local football team, a long row of shops on the northern side of Seaside Lane , and almost a thousand colliery houses plus council housing and other rented accommodation and aged miners' homes all flourished. Its population peaked at 10,000 in the 1930s. Much has changed and much has gone, but it rightly refuses to be robbed of the word "Colliery" in its name. Also much of what remains makes use of and is embedded within its past.

And even though the Daily Telegraph's writer is correct to say that the Easington Colliery is no paradise, he is obviously unaware that the area in which I lived (containing mainly council houses) was known as Paradise - as a young boy my mates and I formed a football team which we grandly called Easington Colliery Paradise Rovers and beat Richie's Rockets 20-10. Perhaps it is that paradise that John Darwin now lives in.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

To Hack Or Not To Hack?

Today's Morning Star contains (a) an editorial on its centre page attacking hacking by News Corporations which it runs alongside (b) a major article by John Pilger which supports the use WikiLeaks is making in using information acquired in similar ways. I suppose the difference between the two uses of similar techniques is felt to arise from what are perceived to be the different purposes behind them. Yet the proximity of the two items does raise the question of just when we are justified in hacking and when we are to be condemned for doing it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Democracy And The Vote

The democratic principle should require that within an appropriate electoral area each person should have one vote. Any deviation from this principle requires a precise and equally principled justification. I can only see two main acceptable restrictions on such franchise rights. One that a person is considered to be too young to vote. As we should err on the side of caution in withholding franchise rights, I would like to see people enfranchised from the date of their 16th birthday. A second restriction on franchise rights needs to apply to those who have a serious mental condition such that they can not exercise a choice and there is a danger that persons they are dependent upon will exercise their voting rights in their place.

If we add to this list of restrictions, we need to be able to establish a solid and principled case. To say that prisoners who have been convicted of particularly nasty crimes should be excluded, is not a good argument in itself as it merely appeals to popular feelings of disgust for them. But to exclude people from the franchise because we judge them to be evil is a worrying approach. It could lead to different people wishing to exclude a variety of categories of the electorate by using arguments which are racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-capitalist or what you will.

Furthermore it is not just prisoners who are currently excluded from the franchise. In the United Kingdom the ban includes those who are settled here from overseas nations other than Ireland or Commonwealth Nations. Then there is the lack of attention we pay to the efficiency of the electoral registration system. Millions who qualify are missing from registers. These involve a high percentage of the homeless, the rootless, ethnic minorities, the poor and the young. An extra reason for votes at 16 is that those who are due to attain the vote at that age could initially be placed on electoral registers at school when they are"attainers" at the age of 15. If we achieve 100% electoral registration for 16 year olds, it will be easier for the registration system to keep people on registers as they grow older.

Are there no people who should be excluded from electoral registers outside of the two main categories I mentioned in my opening paragraph? There are only two more that I can think of. First, under the principle I am arguing from there is no need for people to register in more than one place at the same time and then choose which of their franchise rights they use on any particular occasion. And if people register in more than one place, there is no automatic check to ensure that they have only used their franchise the once at any one time. Secondly, there is no case for British Citizens settled overseas having the vote in this country. Under the democratic principles I am arguing from, they should be given the vote in the country in which they are resident. We should support any of their efforts to achieve these rights in their country of settlement.

If my arguments are to be challenged, then I hope that critics will either seek to show how their arguments fit in with democratic principles. It is, of course, possible to argue against the democratic principles which I have used on fascist, stalinist, elitist, populist and other non-democratic grounds. We should judge the opposition to "votes for prisoners" to see which of these perspectives they fit into.

Of course, democracy requires much more than democratic voting rights. But it is seriously hampered without them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We Should Not Pick And Choose As To Who Is Entitled To The Vote

Radical Jack

So much for the democratic and civil liberties credential of Jack Straw and David Davis in their efforts to withhold voting rights for prisoners. I am not against them obtaining a debate on the issue in the Commons, but I hope that enough MPs will be present to challenge the line they are taking.

Everyone who is capable of exercising a choice, is resident within the United Kingdom and has reached an agreed age (which I would put at 16) should have the vote in our parliamentary elections. They should all then be subject to laws determined under parliamentary procedures - even though acts of peaceful civil disobedience can be a justifiable avenue of protest against unjust measures where the protesters are willing to face the legal consequences of their actions.

Now and again we come across prisoners who are released because they are innocent. Then we are aware that masses of people who have committed crimes have never been captured. If we adopt the principle of kicking people off registers because we think they are nasty, heaven knows who will left with the vote.

We need to get people onto electoral registers and not kick them off. At least three and million who are entitled to the vote are currently missing from registers. Young people, ethnic minorities, the poor, the homeless and the rootless form the bulk of these. We need a pro-active system to ensure their rights are given to them.

Then there there are people who are firmly resident in this country other than Commonwealth and Irish Citizens who are find themselves disenfranchised, yet they are firmly subject to the law of the land and are not tax exiles.

What we are entitled to is a Full Franchise - we should not pick and choose as to who is entitled to the vote. It is for the people to choose who should represent them.

Friday, January 14, 2011