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    If Boris Johnson wants to subdue the population by militarising the police, he has an extensive catalogue of weapons to choose from.

    Water cannon are so last century. If Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, really wants to subdue Londoners using militarised police, he could choose instead from the arsenal of modern non-lethal weapons scientists have created.

    A simple upgrade to the water cannon, for instance, makes it possible to break the water jet into droplets that fire out like bullets; the effect is similar to being hit by particularly brutal hailstones. You can then electrify the water bullets, giving the crowd a low-level shock that forces it to pull back.

    Or perhaps Johnson should copy the Israeli police force’s skunk bomb. This uses a water cannon to disperse an awful smell that sticks to clothing. As no one can bear to be around it, the odour breaks up demonstrations in no time. It was first deployed in 2008 against Palestinians protesting against the construction of a checkpoint, and was used in 2012 at the Qalandiya checkpoint outside the Palestinian city of Ramallah to quell an International Women’s Day celebration.

    Image: Israeli “skunk bomb”.

    The Israelis weren’t the first with this innovation. During the Second World War, Allied researchers combined sulphurous odours to develop a chemical called “Who Me?”. The aim was to break up cadres of enemy soldiers by making their uniforms smell too bad for them to stay together. The updated version, developed by the US government’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, mixes this with a particularly noxious substance originally developed to test bathroom air fresheners. Standard Bathroom Malodor smells like really appalling excrement. Combined with Who Me? it is a hugely effective dispersant. Even showering and laundering your clothes doesn’t get rid of the stink.

    If smell isn’t powerful enough for the mayor, how about sound? A 2011 patent application from the defence contractors Raytheon describes police riot shields fitted with acoustic horns that emit sound at a frequency that resonates the human windpipe, making it difficult to breathe. The crowd has no choice but to back off if it wants to stay alive.

    Image: Raytheon US patent.

    The Active Denial System being developed for the US military is similarly effective. It uses a pulse of energy to activate the nerve endings in people’s skin, creating a burning sensation, as if you’ve been scalded by boiling water.

    Then there’s the sticky foam designed to trap protesters and make them easy to arrest. Developed by chemists at the US Sandia National Laboratories in the 1970s, it sticks people where they stand. The US Marine Corps used sticky foam in Operation United Shield to help UN peacekeepers withdraw from Somalia in 1995. It’s not a perfect solution, though: subsequent evaluation at Sandia suggests that, although not lethal, the foam is severely irritating – to those who use it, that is. Because it often sticks people together, they will eventually need to be separated, requiring law-enforcement officers to get close to the people they have just assaulted with the weapon. As a result, the material actually “exacerbates control and restraint problems”, the Sandia report says.

    In the next few weeks, the mayor will embark on a public engagement programme to see what people think of introducing the water cannon. According to a YouGov poll, 90 per cent of British people are in favour. Maybe the realisation that this will open the door to a range of rather more terrifying options will bring that figure, and the mayor’s plans, crashing down. 

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    A majority would vote for independence if they believed they would be £500 better off, but just 9 per cent of voters think they would be personally wealthier.

    It is self-interest, not sentimentality, that will determine whether Scotland votes for independence in September. The annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows that 52 per cent would support independence if they believed they would be £500 a year better off (although this is down from 64 per cent in 2011), compared to just 30 per cent who would oppose it. But were they to be £500 a year worse off, only 15 per cent would vote for secession, compared to 72 per cent who would vote against it. 

    The conclusion is clear: if Scots believe that they will be richer under independence, they will not hesitate to break up the Union. The problem for Alex Salmond is that they don't. Just 9 per cent believe that they would be personally better off under independence, while more than three times as many (29 per cent) believe that they would be worse off.

    It is the SNP's misfortune to be campaigning for independence at a time of falling living standards. The only time the polls showed a plurality for separation was in 1998, shortly after the devolution referendum and during the long economic boom. Were we living in less straitened times, voters might be more willing to take a leap into the dark. But if Salmond can't persuade voters that they'd be richer under independence, can he persuade them that they'd be more equal? Not at the moment. Only 16 per cent believe that the gap between the rich and the poor would be smaller as a result of secession.

    Consequently, while support for independence has risen from the joint low of 23 per cent recorded last year, it still stands at just 29 per cent (three points below the level found in 2011). Around a third of voters remain undecided but, as I've written before, there is no reason to believe that they will break for the Yes side in the numbers required for victory. 

    The sceptics on the Union side and the optimists on the nationalist side remind us that referendums are uncertain beasts. But while true, this ignores the tendency for support for the status quo to increase as voting day approaches (as in the case of the 1975 EU referendum, the 2011 AV referendum and the 1980 Quebec referendum). Faced with the real possibility of secession, I expect a significant minority of Yes supporters to pull back from the brink.

    The SNP is keen to point out that the survey was carried out between June and October last year, before the publication of the independence white paper in November, but with more recent polls showing no increase in support for independence, it is doubtful this would have made much difference. 

    For now, Ed Miliband, who would struggle to govern if Labour was stripped of its Scottish MPs, and David Cameron, who would become known as the prime minister who lost the Union, have no reason to lose any sleep over the outcome on 18 September. 

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    Jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news.

    “Jam,” my late mother was fond of saying, “is not a food.” This is just one example of what we, as children, viewed as her risible sen­tentiousness; another of her equally weighty pronouncements – and this was in the 1970s – was: “Don’t waste water.” While in the case of the latter Mum has been proved prophetic, not pathetic, when it comes to jam she was, is and forever shall be wrong. Of course jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news. We may be lashed by wind and rain, but so long as the distribution chain remains unbroken and the supermarkets’ relentless price-cutting drive to the bottom of im­miserated Britons’ pockets continues, there seems no reason why we shouldn’t have jam today and jam tomorrow and even retrospectively dollop days gone by with the gooey ambrosia.

    I usually start my day with a couple of pieces of toast smeared with jam. I say smeared, but trowelled would be closer to the truth; indeed, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d keep a plasterer’s hawk and trowel to hand in the cutlery drawer so I could apply the stuff more effectively, my aim being to create a sort of table mountain of confiture. Why, I hear you ask (all that sugar can get a man pretty high), don’t you simply dispense with the toast altogether? Well, sometimes I do. Creeping into the kitchen late at night, I’ll go for it armed only with a spoon – but this is shameless and decadent behaviour. Jam is certainly a food in its own right but it’s one of those – like caviar or foie gras – that requires another comestible pretext.

    The analogy with these cruel and unsustainable snacks is not lightly made; for is not the widespread access we have to jam as much of a social safety net as the NHS or unemployment benefit? You may think it offensive and patronising, but let me tell you: when I offer the beggars round my way a jar of Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade rather than a couple of quid towards their next can of extra-strength lager, they often weep hot tears of gratitude.

    There is in jam such implicit largesse – such natural beneficence – that I find it simply astonishing that anyone should want to keep it to themselves. And yet they do: once upon a time, children, you could go to a tea shop, or plonk yourself down at the breakfast table of a B&B, and presently a small aluminium dish of jam would be plonked down in front of you. Those days are long gone and we’re condemned to live out the balance of our days in a purgatorial scraping of jammy bits from the curved corners of plastic containers.

    But I say: what sort of individual could possibly survive on such short commons? Not me – not you, not anyone. Even the dear little upmarket jam pots punted by the likes of Tiptree are still woefully inadequate and I often find myself creeping from table to table in quite august establishments collecting up enough jam to make a glistening fist of it.

    Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms by Bono for filching several teensy pots of apricot conserve from the tables occupied by representatives from sub-Saharan African countries. “How,” he inveighed, “can we expect to end world poverty while you’re behaving in this hateful, selfish fashion!”

    I gave as good as he did: “Stick to dog food, Bonio,” I told him as I feverishly delved and smeared. “Anyway, what can you possibly know of hardship? It’s probably in your concert riders that you be permanently supplied with a dedicated conserve chef.” He looked a little uncomfortable at this – so I could tell I’d hit the mark.

    Still, I wouldn’t leave the toast lying face-down on the floor of the debating chamber and kept on: “Besides, these chaps are all Wabenzi who’re probably skimming the collective jam pot for their own pockets. If you want to do some real good in this world, instead of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful you should load your private jet with Robertson’s finest and deliver it straight to the refugee camps.” They were strong words, but utter nonsense, of course. Food aid is a terrible blight and a corrupting influence and so – as my mother would doubtless have pointed out – is jam aid.

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    Sport is defined for some by its macho (and often homophobic) tone of behaviour, but beneath the adversarial veneer it is one of the ties that bind us together.

    The decision by Thomas Hitzl­sperger, the recently retired German footballer, to come out as gay is personally brave but only half a step forward for football. Hitzlsperger’s highly impressive public comments – delivered with a mastery of the English language that instantly marked him out as German – suggest he did not come out during his playing career because at first he considered himself straight, and was then too busy with the day-to-day challenges of professional life. But the feeling endures that the culture of professional football, in England and elsewhere, makes gay players feel that they must keep their sexuality secret.

    More than 10,000 players have appeared in the Premier League since it was founded in 1992 and yet none has felt able to be openly gay. Homophobia is commonplace in football. In 1999, in a demeaning on-field taunt, the player Robbie Fowler infamously gestured that Graeme Le Saux was gay. Le Saux isn’t gay but he did admit to reading the Guardian, which presumably was evidence enough for Fowler. Justin Fashanu, the first British footballer to come out – albeit after he had semi-retired – killed himself at the age of 37.

    Hitzlsperger must surely have weighed up whether he was prepared to tolerate the reaction from both the dressing room and, especially, the terraces. The most depres­sing aspect of modern football is the hatred poured at players from the stands – often, bizarrely, from home “fans”. Footballers live with weekly exposure to grotesque personal abuse in which any point of difference is seized upon and ridiculed.

    But other sports should hold back from anti-football smugness. During my cricket career, I witnessed the same kind of casual homophobia that dissuades elite footballers from coming out. Unapologetic articulateness and intelligence, a willingness to show emotional vulnerability, enjoyment of the arts, a gift for non-sexual intimacy: all were routinely labelled “gay”.

    Cricket had to wait until 2011 for its first openly gay professional, Steve Davies, although it is a statistical certainty that I’d played with and against gay cricketers. The subject was taboo inside the game. That was reinforced by the stag-trip-style conversations that dominated dressing-room discussion of sex. My instinct tells me that attitudes became more liberal over the span of my career (1996-2008). But my memory may be skewed: with age and seniority, it became easier for me to drop out of conversations that I found distasteful.

    Sport’s problems with sexuality hint at wider flaws. They get to the core of what many people don’t like about it: a pack mentality that suppresses individual differences; bullying thinly justified as banter; a willingness to let “winners” get away with prejudices; the assumption that toughness is bound up with suppressing humanity rather than embracing it. One widely held view of sport holds that it promotes a limited, self-serving and prescriptive version of success, and actively discriminates against people who don’t fit the mould.

    A few years ago, I appeared in a Radio 3 debate called “Sport v the Arts”. It was a slightly silly premise, of course. But I did learn one uncomfortable truth that day. The panellists speaking against sport felt personally affronted and excluded by its aggressive and narrowly male tone. I argued that this noisy constituency was far from reflective of the whole of sport. But perhaps I would feel very differently if I hadn’t belonged to the sporting community from a very early age.

    The case against sport, in fact, comes easily enough to me, too. I quickly weary of macho posturing, dislike voyeuristic hero worship and despise tribal hatreds. The case for sport is actually far subtler and harder to pin down. I am not convinced that sport builds character, though clearly some lives are rescued by the discipline and structure that it provides. Much more often, however, it merely builds the character of people who were already inclined towards self- improvement. Put differently, sport is often the accidental vehicle for personal growth: “character-building” opportunities could have come through music, or theatre, or any other form of communal activity.

    Yet, with often flickering but never ex­tinguished belief, I continue to think that sport does more good than harm. As a form of joyous collective memory and experience, it is a central thread of human identity. Beneath the adversarial veneer, sport is one of the ties that bind us together.

    I would go further. Sport can actively advance society as well as just enhance and reflect it. Though there are still depressing instances of racial prejudice in sport, racism is generally in retreat. Right up to the 1980s, football indulged the absurd idea that black players didn’t have the “character” to be good defenders. Eventually, however, even the racist’s last stand – that his team’s black players were somehow different from the opposition’s black players – became overwhelmed by the multiracial brilliance out on the pitch.

    Playing sport has the power to overcome prejudices even more strongly than watching it. Team-mates win and lose together and suffer and celebrate together. This richness of experience is shared by people who have little in common beyond belonging to a shared enterprise. Playing team sport teaches us that we can be very different on the surface and yet so alike in essentials. And when it comes to breaking down prejudice, a splash of shared experience makes more impact than hours of liberal theorising.

    That’s why sport, eventually, has the power to modernise attitudes towards sexuality rather than repress them.

    Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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    Unemployment fell at its fastest rate since 1997 to 7.1% but average earnings rose by just 0.9% - 1.1% below inflation.

    Ahead of PMQs, today's jobs figures are a gift for David Cameron. Unemployment has fallen from 7.4 per cent to 7.1 per cent, the sharpest drop since 1997 and the lowest level since the start of 2009. In the same quarter, employment rose by 280,000 (0.5 per cent), the biggest quarterly increase on record. There are still far too many people working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs (1.4 million) but the situation is better than almost anyone expected. As recently as August, when it introduced forward guidance for interest rates, the Bank of England expected unemployment to fall to 7 per cent (the trigger for the MPC to consider a rate rise) in 2016. It is now just 0.1 per cent above that level. 

    The squeeze goes on 

    Source: ONS

    But the counterpart to the jobs boom is the wage squeeze. Average earnings are up by just 0.9 per cent (as people price themselves into work), leaving them 1.1 per cent below inflation. Those Tories who proclaimed the end of the "cost-of-living crisis" when inflation fell to the Bank's target rate of 2 per cent have been left looking predictably foolish. After five years of declining real wages, there is still no end in sight to the longest fall in living standards since 1870. So long as that remains the case, Cameron will still struggle to rebut Ed Miliband's attack lines. 

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    The old yardsticks of success no longer apply in a digital age: profitability, circulation, scoops. And with the Guardian's sale of its stake in Auto Trader, the newspaper world is taking huge risks.

    Tony Gallagher, who has been sacked as editor of the Daily Telegraph, is an old-fashioned newsman who spent 16 years at the Daily Mail and is famed for a robust management style. Under him, the Telegraph broke the story of MPs’ expenses. With the company profitable, and the paper’s print circulation over the past year steady, you’d expect the management to be happy.

    But old yardsticks of success no longer apply in the digital age. Gallagher is to be replaced by two “acting print editors”, one for weekdays, the other for Saturday and Sunday. Jason Seiken, the chief content officer and editor-in-chief hired from the US last year, says: “We must . . . move beyond simply putting news and information online and be an essential part of the audience’s lives.” In that context, “print editor” sounds about as important as crossword editor and being appointed one, I fear, carries as few prospects as being made “illuminated manuscript editor” in the late 15th century.

    In the US, at the broadcaster PBS, Seiken introduced “failure” into his staff’s annual appraisal, telling them “if you don’t fail enough times . . . you get downgraded”. No, I’ve no idea what he’s on about either, but we shall hear much more of it.

    Auto erratic

    The Guardian’s sale of its remaining stake in Trader Media Group (TMG) is scarcely less important than Gallagher’s departure. For the best part of 30 years, the group’s magazine Auto Trader provided the cash that kept the Guardian in rude health. In 2006-2007, the paper’s owners, the Scott Trust, decided to diversify its assets and sell half of TMG to private equity. It sank a chunk of the proceeds into another magazine publisher, Emap, which promptly fell on hard times. A funny kind of diversification.

    This time, the money will be invested more widely and wisely. It isn’t a panic sale; the Guardian will get as much for TMG now as it is ever likely to. But it doesn’t represent salvation for the Guardian, either. It, too, is striving, to quote Seiken, “to become an essential part of the audience’s lives” – management-speak for getting oodles of money out of them – and hopes to do so before revenue from print collapses and cash support from the Scott Trust runs out.

    We may be sure none of the money will be used to buy the Independent, now looking for a new owner. The bookmaker Paddy Power offers 66-1 against the Guardian. The favourite is the Express and Channel 5 owner, Richard Desmond (5-2), followed by Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail (both 5-1). Those odds tell you all you need to know about the state of national newspapers and of the left-wing press in particular.

    Pretty, Polly?

    Last year, the BBC Sport presenter John Inverdale speculated that the Wimbledon tennis champion Marion Bartoli had been told by her father that “you are never going to be, you know, a looker”. Inverdale rightly apologised.

    Now the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, writing about Lord Rennard, the Lib Dems’ “groping peer”, hypothesises that, if the allegations against Rennard are true, “power would have given this physically unprepossessing man the nerve to try his luck with younger, more attractive women”. “The portly peer”, she adds, was making passes at “women well out of his league”.

    Is she implying that his behaviour would have been acceptable if he had been blessed with good looks? Is it OK to cast aspersions on the looks of a male politician but not on those of a female tennis player? I merely ask.

    Alpine retreat

    On the subject of portly peers, the former Tory party treasurer Lord McAlpine, who has died aged 71, was a celebrated bon viveur who had two heart attacks, “brought on”, he admitted, “by sheer gluttony”. Nevertheless, his friends, notably the Mail’s Simon Heffer, insisted his death was “hastened” by false allegations, originating in a BBC Newsnight investigation, propagated on Twitter and further fuelled by ITV’s This Morning, that he once molested underage boys at a children’s home.

    Heffer even dragged in Sir David Bell, the subject of an extraordinary 12-page Mail hatchet job last year. Bell, a former Financial Times chairman and assessor to the Leveson inquiry on press regulation, was accused of orchestrating an elitist liberal conspiracy to gag the press. Now Heffer found it “interesting to note” that he was a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which provided inaccurate information for the BBC programme.

    Only the Financial Times obit recalled that McAlpine, a keen art collector, acquired “nude portraits of seemingly pre-teen girls” which he later sold. No doubt the Mail will see Bell’s long arm behind the inclusion of this curious fact.

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    Sex discrimination in the workplace is not eradicated - and it's not just to do with having children.

    Self-appointed equalities expert Nigel Farage claims that women who work in the City do not experience sex discrimination. They might be paid less than their male counterparts but this is merely because motherhood reduces their actual value (sorry, fellow mums). According to the UKIP leader-cum-gender analyst, "young, able women that are prepared to sacrifice the family life and stick with their career will do as well if not better than men." There's little evidence to support this (City pay disparities kick in long before a woman gets pregnant) but not to worry. It's only a story. It's the kind of thing we tell ourselves to make inequality feel okay.

    Another thing we might tell ourselves is that such stories don't even matter. Situated, as ever, in the land of the über-privileged, they have no relevance to the day-to-day experiences of most women and men. What's being offered is a highly individualistic narrative, in which love, ambition and biological impulses compete for the soul of some self-absorbed high flyer (who probably wears shoulder pads and still thinks it’s 1986). Factors which might concern the rest of us, such as food, warmth and security, don't even feature. What women want is there for the taking. If they are constricted, it is merely by the weight of choice and a petulant reluctance to compromise.

    In the real world, of course,  it’s different. Gender pay disparities persist but here we find multiple, intersecting reasons why women are considered to be worth less than men. Biology, or rather one’s reproductive role — which Farage chirpily admits that he "can't change" — is merely one element that interacts with many others. The fact that she could become pregnant (or is perceived to have this potential) means the female employee can be depicted as less efficient and more disruptive, yet the intersection of ageism and sexism means there’s no let-up even once the menopause can be assumed to have occurred. The practical division of childcare and household labour is influenced by cultural prejudice and stereotyping, while class barriers, multiple discriminations and poverty wage levels mean that many women (not just mothers) are unable to find a job they can afford to do. It is messy, and this is without even factoring in the base-level gender prejudice that still insists women, irrespective of their reproductive lives, cannot perform certain roles as well as men. Yet this is the way of things. That we could do something to make life different – beyond a little half-hearted tinkering around the edges of employment law – seems to remain beyond imagining.

    Perhaps what’s most frustrating about the story Farage tells – one that’s been repeated time and again in an effort to convince women and girls never to complain – is the utterly dishonest division between present and past. There is a past in which women were held back by sex discrimination (which is false and had to be challenged), whereas today the only thing that makes women unequal is reproduction (which is real and has to be accepted). This is a nonsense. Women have always worked and always borne children. It is not biology but a failure of social structures to accommodate individuals whatever their reproductive lives (or our expectations thereof) that is oppressive. It is ridiculous to pretend that our inability to assimilate pregnancy, childcare and stereotypical “women’s work” into our current system of rewards is in no way symptomatic of a sexist, discriminatory worldview.

    The impact of all this is real and powerful. Accepting the pay gap as an unavoidable “maternity gap” limits women’s access to physical safety and self-determination, and suggests there is no collective benefit from the unpaid work that carers do. The temptation may be to respond to the likes of Farage on his own terms, putting an emphasis on the idea that women can still have babies and remain perfectly functioning cogs in the capitalist machine, but this isn’t enough, particularly not for those who aren’t merely choosing between a City bonus and playing the angel of the hearth. It’s not all twee little stories about ambitions denied and family sacrifices made. Such tales might create an impression of privilege and self-indulgence, but this is not how most women experience economic disadvantage.

    A true challenge to gender pay disparities – one which considers, not just some abstract idea of “sex discrimination”, but the interaction of this with culture, class and reproductive experiences – would be far more disruptive and revolutionary than the likes of Nigel Farage could ever anticipate. It would change the way in which we currently perceive worth and reward people based, not on what they contribute, but the environments and bodies they are born into. If we would rather ask people to “sacrifice” their families than see wealth distributed more equally, something has gone badly wrong. No one expects a politician to “change biology”, but if that is the only way in which his or her politics can make any moral sense,  it’s worth asking just how distorted our discourse has become.

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    The real reason for the Geneva II talks taking place is so that the international community can pat itself on the back for "doing something".

    The discussions focused on finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria, called the Geneva II talks and due to start in Montreux today (why not in Geneva?), have hit another snag. On Saturday the Syrian National Coalition voted to attend the talks. This was a major breakthrough as the meeting would have been mere farce without their presence. Then on Monday they announced that they were threatening to pull out due to the latest development: the UN had invited Iran to officially attend. Then the US stepped in and said that Iran couldn’t come. So Iran aren’t coming. But the SNC are. These talks are off to a flying start already.

    The UN and most of the western powers seem to be acting willfully blind when it comes to Syria. "There is a binary choice here," Hugh Robertson, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said to Al Jazeera. "You either put pressure on them and try to have a peace agreement in Geneva. Or you do not bother and the fighting continues. If Geneva fails, we stop, we understand why, we regroup and we try again." This statement from the Right Honourable Member for Faversham and Mid Kent is fairly typical of what is being pumped out by western governments ahead of Geneva II. The question is this: what do they really expect to get out of these talks? This is not a moot question; even if you take the "it is for the participants to decide" angle, surely you have to have in mind something that would be considered a win?

    I would love to see the talks result in any sort of peace, even a temporary ceasefire if nothing else. But the prospects for even this are wholly unrealistic. For a start, the SNC have declared that they would not consider the result of the discussions in any way binding. This is a reasonable position for them to take; the whole reason they were considering not attending the talks was that they felt they were being arranged as a set piece to demonstrate how the Assad regime was "fighting terrorism", a supposition that is at least partly true.

    Due to the length of time the civil war had raged on, bringing with it an inevitable flood of jihadists into Syria, the Assad regime’s pronouncements on the subject have finally come to have a ring of truth about them. Assad has also already declared that any solution that would demand the stepping down of himself as President would be dismissed out of hand. William Hague, in a statement welcoming the Geneva discussions said, "As I have said many times, any mutually agreed settlement means that Assad can play no role in Syria's future." This is a lovely thing for the Foreign Secretary to say, but now that the west has on numerous occasions failed to back up its words with actions what would make the Assad regime accept a solution that everyone except President Assad liked? I don’t see it. All this, sadly, makes the talks doomed before they have even begun.

    It seems to me like the real reason for the Geneva talks taking place is so that the international community can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about Syria. Unfortunately, Syria needs a lot more than token gestures at the moment. 

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    Listen Up Philip concernes a self-involved Jewish writer, named Philip, who visits an older Jewish writer, named Ike Zimmerman, at his secluded country home.

    You've read the canon, read the Roth Pierpont, read all the pieces about the Roth Pierpont (which, it should be remembered, isn't even a biography in the traditional sense - that is being worked on by Blake Bailey, and is due, sometime around 2022), seen the schmaltzy PBS documentary and untangled his great Paris Review interview. What next for the Philip Roth fanatic? Watch the movie, of course.

    Listen Up Philip, a super-16mm project by Alex Ross Perry starring Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume and Elizabeth Moss, premiered at the Sundance film festival on Monday 20 January. It concernes a self-involved Jewish writer, named Philip, who visits an older Jewish writer, Ike Zimmerman, at his secluded country home. The film also features a slew of women both admiring and aggreived, along with a Franco-esque (why not?) celebrity bromance.

    The writer's name is Philip Lewis Friedman - not Philip Milton Roth - but the outline, if not the details, suggest the presence of the big macher. The same with the swinging vintage typology used, ala Wes Anderson, to introduce the film's cast:

    Here are the production notes from the Sundance programme:

    Anger rages in Philip as he awaits the publication of his second novel. He feels pushed out of his adopted home city by the constant crowds and noise, a deteriorating relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley, and his own indifference to promoting the novel. When Philip's idol Ike Zimmerman offers his isolated summer home as a refuge, he finally gets the peace and quiet to focus on his favorite subject: himself.

    There is, as yet, no release date attached to the film.

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    Yasha the parrot joins an elite menagerie of animals that have entered politics.

    An activist in Belarus has registered his pet parrot, Yasha, as a candidate in a local council election. The BBC reports that Yasha’s application, including his photoshopped ID card was accepted, but his owner, Kanstantsin Zhukouski, withdrew it shortly afterwards.

    Zhukouski said he pulled out because “being a regional councillor isn’t very prestigious”, but perhaps he also wanted to avoid a penalty. He had registered Yasha to expose the futility of Ukrainian politics, the BBC said.

    Funnily enough, Yasha isn’t the only animal to have entered local politics. Last year, Morris the cat put himself forward to be Mayor of Xalapa in Mexico, under the slogan “tired of voting for rats? Vote for a cat”. His Facebook page has almost 179,000 likes – more than any other candidate running in Xalapa. Morris also inspired the political career of a number of other animals across Mexico: a donkey in Ciudad Juárez, a dog in Oaxaca and a chicken in Tepic. "It is important to vote for the registered candidates," the head of the electoral commission felt compelled to say.

    In Alaska, one cat was even more successful in his political career. Stubbs was elected mayor of Talkeetna in Alaska when he was just a kitten, and has held the post for over 16 years. He reportedly only drinks water out of a wine glass spiked with catnip. Last year, Stubbs was attacked by an insubordinate dog, but I understand he’s still in office.

    Animals don't always behave so very differently from humans in office. In France, a Dachshund named Saucisse (sausage) received four per cent of the vote in Marseilles 2001 municipal elections. Like many a struggling politician, he later tried to boost his profile by entering the French equivalent of the big brother house in 2009. 

    In the UK, the closest we’ve got to voting for animals is voting for people dressed as animals. Professor Pongoo, the climate change activist Mike Ferrigan dressed in a penguin suit, received more votes in Edinburgh’s 2012 local council elections than the Scottish Lib Dem candidate Stuart Bridges. Ten years earlier, H’Angus the monkey, (independent candidate Stuart Drummond in a monkey outfit), was elected Mayor of Hartlepool. He lost his seat in 2012. 

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    Anthony Clavane asks if British radicals have “a Jewish problem”, Sophie McBain considers the utility of closing women’s prisons and Mehdi Hasan claims that Labour has got it wrong on immigration.

    The New Statesman 24-01-2014

    24 JANUARY 2014 ISSUE

    Cover story: the radicalism of fools

    Anthony Clavane on the rise of the new Anti-Semitism

    Letter from Paris: Andrew Hussey reports on Dieudonné’s war against France

    Should we close women's prisons? Sophie McBain meets campaigners and former inmates

    Chris Patten asks: What makes us human?


    Rafael Behr: short-term political tribalism will dominate the infrastructure debate

    Mehdi Hasan: Labour must stop the mea culpas for immigration

    Laurie Penny on the Rennard affair and Westminster’s casual bullying of women

    Simon Heffer: how Britain won Waterloo with biscuits, spies and the city

    The New Statesman Arts Editor Kate Mossman meets the actor John Goodman

    Carla Powell remembers Michael Butler, one of Britain’s greatest diplomats



    Do British radicals, like their French counterparts, have “a Jewish problem”, asks Anthony Clavane in this week’s cover story. Clavane, whose most recent book – Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? – explores the history of Jewish involvement in football, recalls the moment in December when West Bromwich Albion’s French striker Nicolas Anelka celebrated the first of his two goals for West Brom with his right arm extended towards the ground, palm open, and the other arm bent across his chest, palm touching his right upper arm. It was, apparently, a reverse Nazi salute, invented by the Parisian comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.

    The “quenelle”, for which Anelka has now been charged by the FA, is a gesture well known in France, where, as Clavane writes, “race-hate discourse” is now appealing to a fashionable, anti-globalisation, up-yours, them-and-us (“them” frequently being Jewish financiers and Holocaust memorialisers) coalition of radical Islamists, hip middle-class white Parisians, alienated black youth and Jewish-world-domination conspiracy theorists.

    Increasingly, “the kinds of people who stick, or once stuck, Che posters on their bedroom walls” are being attracted to Dieudonné’s brand of anti-Semitic humour, “which raises a troubling question: is anti-Semitism now the radicalism of fools?”.

    Though this worrying phenomenon has not yet entered the British cultural mainstream, the left here has always had, “to put it mildly, a problematic relationship with the world’s oldest monotheistic religion”, says Clavane, who notes that the liberal-left commentariat has remained curiously silent over the Anelka affair.


    Andrew Hussey visits the Faubourg Saint-Antoine headquarters of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the comedian of “mixed French and Cameroonian background . . . whose allegedly anti-Semitic performances have lately convulsed France”.

    His stage act, writes Hussey, speaks “directly to a French public for which the quenelle used by Dieudonné and his supporters is a gesture of contempt for and defiance of what they see as ‘official France’, mainly controlled by a Jewish elite whose only mission is to preserve Jewish interests”. Dieudonné, Hussey says, is placing himself firmly in the “negationist” tradition of French politics. It is a strain of thinking that began in the 1950s with the writings of Paul Rassinier, who argued that the Jews had brought the calamities of the Second World War on themselves and that the gas chambers never existed anyway. For a time these ideas held currency in far-left circles (the big names backing them included Pierre Guillaume, Jacques Vergès and Roger Garaudy) but also found approval in the Front National (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s infamous reference to the gas chambers as a “detail of history”).

    As a young Orthodox Jew in the nearby rue des Rosiers tells Hussey: “Dieudonné is not the problem. He’s just one guy, one anti-Semite. The real problem is that in France there are so many of them out there.”


    This week’s NS reporter at large, Sophie McBain, meets campaigners who want to see the entire women’s prison estate in Britain closed, and speaks to women who have been through the penal system at HMP Styal and HMP Bronzefield, where prisoners often self-harm and attempt suicide.

    McBain meets Gemma, who has served sentences in both institutions and gave birth as an inmate:

    Gemma learned a lot from prison. On her first day in HMP Styal, eight years ago, she learned how to take heroin and crack cocaine. “I didn’t tell the girls I hadn’t done them before – I just wanted to fit in,” she tells me when we meet at Brighton Oasis Project, a charity for women with drug or alcohol addictions . . . Gemma says she didn’t know before prison that if you slit your wrists the blood can spurt so high it hits the ceiling – but self-harm was so common at Bronzefield that a deep-clean team was often called in to mop up the bloodstains, and the staff carried knives to cut ligatures from inmates’ necks. One woman repeatedly tried to hang herself but the guards “didn’t do anything to stop it. They just put her on meds and kept on cutting her down.”

    McBain finds that the statistics support campaigners such as Rachel Halford, the director of the charity Women in Prison, who wants the state to close all women’s prisons in England.

    . . . 51 per cent of women leaving prison will be reconvicted within a year, and among those on short sentences of less than 12 months, this rises to 62 per cent. If one of the aims of prison is to reduce offending by women, it isn’t working. In fact, given that roughly a quarter of female inmates have no previous conviction, sending a woman to prison increases the probability of her offending again.

    At HMP Bronzefield there’s a woman who often tries to hang herself. Is it right just to keep cutting her down?


    In his column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, describes the battle between David Cameron and Ed Miliband to win a short-term victory by promising long-term investment in Britain’s ageing infrastructure:

    Everyone in Westminster knows that the nation’s creaking infrastructure needs an upgrade but no one is sure how to pay for the job. British politics being what it is, Labour and the Conservatives have found ways to dress the same ambition in clashing ideological colours. For David Cameron, it is all about the “global race” – equipping the UK to rival emerging economic powerhouses around the world . . . Labour is much more comfortable with the idea of state intervention to foster growth, especially if it means bolstering sectors other than financial services and regions other than the south-east.

    Such “short-term political tribalism” will undoubtedly preclude “any constructive discussion of what the challenges are and how the investment that everyone agrees we need can be afforded”, Behr says, but it seems that the tribalism is “indispensable in order to form a government committed to the long-term national interest”. And, he notes, “irony is one industry where Britain has always been a global leader”.


    In his Lines of Dissent column this week, Mehdi Hasan argrees that Labour “got it wrong” on immigration, but not in the way its frontbenchers seem to think.

    Enough with the apologies. Week after week, senior Labour figures queue up to express regret over the party’s record on immigration. Ed Miliband thinks “low-skill migration has been too high and we need to bring it down”. Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy review co-ordinator, claims the party “got things wrong” on immigration. The former foreign secretary Jack Straw believes opening the UK’s borders to eastern European migrants was a “spectacular mistake” that he “deeply regrets”.

    Give it a rest, folks. For a start, the mea culpas are unnecessary. Migrants from new EU member countries helped boost growth and wages; a report in 2013 from University College London concluded that immigrants to the UK since 2000 had made a “substantial” contribution to the public finances.

    Labour should be apologising for its record on immigration, Hasan argues, but for very different reasons:

    Why not express regret or remorse for the pernicious rhetoric around immigration and asylum during the New Labour years? Remember David Blunkett channelling Margaret Thatcher in 2002 and accusing the children of asylum-seekers of “swamping” our schools? Remember Gordon Brown demanding “British jobs for British workers” in 2007? It was left to David Cameron to point out that Brown had “borrowed” his slogan from the BNP and the National Front. Why not say sorry for that, Ed?

    Hasan calls on Miliband to put an end to the strategy of “self-flagellation and populist gestures”, which is both “politically suicidal and morally untenable”.


    Chris Patten is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, but he finds answering the question a challenge:

    After all, genetic comparisons show that we human beings have more than a 50 per cent match with bananas. And with animals the similarities are much greater, which underscores the case for anthropomorphic fiction. We are 90 per cent cat, 80 per cent cow and 75 per cent mouse. Question – am I a man or a mouse? Answer – 75 per cent mouse.

    Many of the attributes we think of as exclusively human – a sense of humour and loyalty, for instance – are shared by animals, the BBC Trust chairman observes:

    But there is one thing that clearly marks out human beings from animals, and I offer it without getting into a religious discussion about souls, though souls do in a sense come into it. Human beings create art. Not all human beings, of course (not me, for example) – but we all have the potential to be Rembrandt or Mozart, and to appreciate them, too.


    From freekeh to ramen burgers, Felicity Cloake introduces 2014’s food trends

    Caroline Crampton on why we need to stop overanalysing Girls

    Michael Brooks shows how volcanoes could provide proof of life on Jupiter

    George Eaton on the case for nationalising the railways

    Ian Steadman welcomes the return of contact with Rosetta

    Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire’s take on the latest Westminster gossip


    To purchase a copy, visit 
    or visit the App Store

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    The Labour leader had no convincing riposte to Cameron's claim that he was "an arsonist" who "complains that the fire brigade aren't putting the fires out fast enough".

    Armed with today's impressive jobs figures, David Cameron arrived at today's PMQs confident of a win - and a win was what he got. Ed Miliband rightly pointed out that real wages are still falling (average earnings rose by just 0.9 per cent with inflation at 2 per cent) but Cameron had prepared a better response than usual. He argued that the headline figures were misleading since they did not take into account the tax cuts introduced by the coalition and that, on this basis, disposable incomes rose last year. It's worth noting, as the IFS has said, that families with children are an average of £891 worse off this year due to benefit cuts and tax rises (most notably the VAT increase) but Miliband failed to make this point in the chamber.

    More problematic for Labour than this line, however, is Cameron's continuing ability to pin the blame for the crisis on the last government. In a neat put-down, he compared Miliband to an "arsonist who goes around setting fire after fire then complains that the fire brigade aren't putting the fires out fast enough" and cited the IFS's statement that it "would be astonishing" if wages hadn't fallen after "the biggest recession in 100 years". Having maintained his new restrained style up to this point, Miliband lapsed into traditional PMQs rhetoric when he accused Cameron of doing "his Bullingdon Club routine", a sign of his frustration at failing to land any blows.

    When the economy was shrinking and unemployment was rising, Miliband could reliably hope for a win on this subject. But with the UK growing faster than any other European economy and joblessness falling at its fastest rate since 1997, it has become much harder for him to knock Cameron off his stride. Cameron ended with a succinct account of the improved situation: "Our plan is working, there are 1.3m more people in work, that is 1.3m more people with the security of a regular pay packet, we are securing Britain’s future and it would be put at risk by Labour."

    Miliband had begun the session by challenging Cameron on the UK's refusal to accept any Syrian refugees. As usual, Cameron responded by pointing to the UK's status as the second largest international aid donor and argued that it was wrong to "pretend a small quota system can solve the problem of Syrian refugees". But after three questions, he eventually conceded that he was prepared to look again at "extreme hardship cases". While Miliband's new sober style (he praised Cameron's "reasonable tone") has not always served him well, it succeeded on this occasion. Speaking with clear but restrained passion as the son of refugees, he wrung an important concession from the PM.

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    Stoya can't give talks in high schools, because she makes porn films. If she could, here's what she'd say about respecting other people's boundaries during sex.

    In August 2013, a bunch of performers in adult entertainment got together to talk about our industry and said: "Shit's fucked up. The shit in question is more fucked up than it was a few years ago. Someone ought to do something."

    Rather than wait for someone to become an actual person who will fix things, we collectively pulled on our grown-up pants and decided to do something ourselves. Thus began the organisation called the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee.

    We've got grand utopian dreams. We've got practical short term goals. We’ve got Nina Hartley (who, if the United States had a monarchy, should have been given the title of Dame by now) teaching us phrases like “best ethical practice guidelines”.

    The first project we put together was an educational primer on performing in the adult film industry. We collected all the lessons we learned the hard way, and all the lessons we watched other performers learn the hard way. We cut out the personal opinions.

    We prioritised the most important concepts and mercilessly edited them until they fit into 15 pages of solid dialogue. Medical professionals donated their time and expertise. People with experience in workers’ rights and the fight for recognition of sex work as real work gave their wisdom.

    On 5 January, we shot the video. Thirty performers showed up on very short notice. As I was listening to the script being read over and over, I noticed that almost everything boiled down to three subjects:

    Are you really really sure you want to make the decision to have sex on camera?

    Here’s all this sexual health information you need to know.

    Let’s talk about consent and boundaries.



    I was overjoyed at the amount of support shown by both the performer community and people who have absolutely no stake in the adult film industry, but I also couldn’t help thinking that it’s kind of absurd that people sometimes make it to 18 or 22 without knowing at least the basics of this stuff.

    For instance: “You always have the right to say No, and you do not have to defend or explain your choice. ‘I don’t want to’ is a perfectly good reason for saying No.”

    Before you assume that inability to express limits is a porno problem, think about how many times you’ve heard a friend talk about not knowing how to say they’re uncomfortable with something at work or during sex. Toddlers are generally fantastic at saying No. How do so many people lose their ability to say No to things between the terrible twos and adulthood?

    Not only is there a sad lack of publicly accessible education regarding physical sexual health, there’s a sad lack of discussion about mental sexual health.

    A person’s first condom, strap-on, or lacy thong doesn’t come with a pamphlet explaining active consent. Tampon companies don’t print statements on the back of their boxes encouraging teenagers to express their desires and ask for the desires of their sexual partners. Someone should do something about this.

    It would be extremely inappropriate for me to march into high schools and begin expounding upon communication, respecting other people’s limits, and taking responsibility for expressing your own. What I can do is expound upon some basic guidelines on the internet and hope the core concepts trickle down. So, here they are:

    1. Ask the people you will be having sex with what their preferences and limits are. This fosters active consent and encourages communication.

    2. In order for a sexual partner to be able to give you what you want, you have to tell them what your desires are. A sexual partner can’t respect your limits if you don’t express them.

    3. It is completely OK to retract your consent during a sex act. You can say that something is more intense than you thought it would be and you are no longer OK with it. If you do not speak up your partner(s) have no guaranteed way of knowing that you are unhappy or uncomfortable.

    4. If a sexual partner says something hurts, uses a “safe word” or other signal to communicate that they want the sexual interaction to stop, or just looks unhappy, freaked out, or generally not OK, you need to stop what you’re doing and check in with them.

    5. If your partner(s) are drunk or high, their ability to consent is questionable. If they’ve previously expressed distaste for anal sex and are slurring “Fuck my asshole” you should politely decline and bring the subject up later when they’re sober. This applies to any sexual act that you have not previously engaged in with this person.

    6. As a general rule, don’t penetrate an orifice, pee, vomit, or bleed on someone, or slap them around without discussing the act first.

    7. If your sexual partner(s) express a limit or ask for something to stop and you do not respect it, you are stepping onto a scale that ranges from “jerk” to “full-on rapist”. Personally, I don’t want to be on that scale at all, and I don’t want to engage in sexual activity with anyone who does hang out on that scale.

    8. If one of your sexual partners steps on to the jerk-to-full-on rapist scale, call them out on it. You have the right to end the sexual activity you are engaged in and to decline sexual activity with them in the future.

    There you are. If any condom companies want to use those bits on their wrappers, hit me up.

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    Former transport secretary says that the "chronic incompetence" of the government means "there’s a very good chance that the contract won’t be let by the election".

    When Labour renationalised the East Coast Main Line in November 2009, it did so out of necessity rather than conviction. The private holder of the franchise, National Express, had defaulted on the £1.4bn contract agreed with the government just two years earlier and the then transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, was “not prepared to bail out companies that are unable to meet their commitments”. Adonis, who was nicknamed “the thin controller” by the industry, suggested that the franchise would be “re-let again to a new private operator” by mid-2011.

    Three years later, the coalition government is in the process of doing just that but Labour’s voice is raised in protest. East Coast, the publicly owned train operating company established by ministers as an operator of last resort, has proved more successful than almost anyone anticipated. It has cut journey times, carried more than a million extra passengers and achieved the highest customer satisfaction of any rail company. Free of the need to pay dividends to private shareholders, it has also returned £640m to the Treasury to reinvest in the service. In 2012, Virgin Trains received seven times as much in taxpayer subsidy to run the West Coast Main Line.

    “There’s a great esprit de corps among management and staff,” Adonis told me when I asked him to explain East Coast’s remarkable performance. “They haven’t had to work to an impossible business plan, which was the big problem with National Express before. All of those factors have contributed to good performance and a strong, self-confident public company.” The Conservatives’ desire to reprivatise the line was, he suggested, based on pure ideology. “They don’t like the concept of a successful state company and they’re keen to kill this idea before it gains traction and might gain other franchises. The other private-sector companies are also very anxious that East Coast is abolished before the election, so that it provides  less competition to them for future franchises.”

    But with the government aiming to complete the privatisation by February 2015, Adonis, who is now Labour’s shadow infrastructure minister and is leading the party’s growth review, warned that ministers are short of time.

    They’ve got literally only a few weeks of leeway, and given the chronic incompetence of the Department for Transport in letting recent contracts, I think there’s a very good chance that the contract won’t be let by the election. And if East Coast continues to exist as a company at the election then I’m sure Labour would want to keep it in operation as a state company.

    Some in Labour have suggested the party could incrementally renationalise  the railways by taking franchises back into public ownership as they come up for renewal (an option supported by 66 per cent of the public according to a YouGov poll last November, with just 23 per cent opposed). “I don’t use the language of renationalisation but of fair competition,” Adonis told me. “My view is that the performance of East Coast as a state company is sufficiently strong that it would stand a good chance of being able to win future franchises on a fair basis. And, of course, because it doesn’t have to pay dividends, it has a substantial financial advantage.”

    He concluded: "I would say at the moment, given the catastrophic performance of the government in handling the West Coast franchise, and the fact that the lawyers will be deeply nervous about legal challenges to the franchising process next time round, I think there’s a very good chance that East Coast will still be a public company by the time of the election."

    The irony is that a government ostensibly committed to competition is, in this instance, determined  to quash it. But even the Tories’ aversion to public ownership has its limits: one of the three approved bidders is the foreign firm Keolis: 56.7 per cent owned by the French state.

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    Young workers don't need education in "turning up in time" - they need job opportunities that pay at least a living wage.

    Both a Tory minister and a Labour shadow have this week made the latest in a long line of deeply worrying, stigmatising comments about the unemployed that show a profound failure to understand the nature of our job market, what young people in particular have to offer, and what employers are failing to offer workers.

    Today, Esther McVey, employment minister, told the Daily Mail that young people should "take a job in Costa [coffee shops]" where they could learn to "turn up on time", and from there build up their career. She complained that they were less qualified than immigrant workers. McVey’s comments show a profound lack of knowledge of both our young jobseekers and of the current labour market. Huge numbers of highly qualified young people are desperately seeking jobs, but if they take jobs well below their training and skills, this can blight their future career chances. A year in Costa is unlikely to prepare you for a graduate-level job – it will more likely sentence you to a life of low pay, insecurity and non-development of your career.

    Yet young people are applying for these jobs anyway, despite what McVey says. The most famous example is the new Costa in Nottingham, that saw 1,700 people applying for eight jobs. In a case like that, getting or not getting a job can be little more than a lottery, with odds just about as bad as the national one. Young workers don't need education in "turning up in time" - they need job opportunities that pay at least a living wage, are not zero-hours contracts, and that offer a chance of building a career - in short, jobs that you can build a life on.

    But there’s little sign that the Labour Party grasps these facts either. Earlier this week, Rachel Reeves, yes, she of the "we’ll be tougher on benefits than the Tories" infamy, came out to say that Labour would force unemployed people to take tests in English and computer skills, and force them on to courses if they failed, at the pain of losing their benefits.

    Providing training for people who need it is, of course, a good general principle, but to do so under these circumstances is a recipe for inducing humiliation and penury. Imagine the 50-something former manual worker, who perhaps missed out on reading and writing at school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. Will the kind of course likely to be offered – based on Labour’s track record, by some delightful company like Atos or G4S – provide adequate for his or her needs, or will it leave them so humiliated that they give up and lose their benefits? And will this level of assistance really help them get a new job?

    And it implies that Labour believes, as the Tories clearly do, that unemployment is an individual failing, not a reflection of the state and nature of the economy. The fact that we now have a level of long-term youth unemployment matching that of John Major’s time doesn’t reflect on our young people – it reflects on the failure of our job market to provide appropriate employment.

    While young people with parents who can afford to support them do years of unpaid internships in search of the elusive professional jobs, those without that backing are forced to take what they can get – damned to professing passionate devotion to serving coffee when they’re qualified to be filling professional roles. And as workers with PhDs, master’s degrees and bachelor's degrees fill coffee-serving jobs, those with A-levels struggle, and those without are pushed into hopelessness. And what’s to become of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who find themselves pushed out of jobs and in desperate need of new ones?

    We need to transform our economy so it works for us, rather than us slaving away for the untaxed profits of giant multinationals, and to pay for the recklessness of the fraud-ridden, and still unreformed, financial sector. To create the varied, skilled range of jobs we need, the government should follow the re-shoring trend and adopt policies to bring manufacturing and food production back to Britain. It needs to be forcing multinational companies to pay taxes, and provide decent pay and conditions, which will widen the opportunities for small business and cooperatives to thrive, and create strong local economies that see money circulating within towns and cities, rather than swooshing out of them to London or the most convenient tax haven.

    And in the meantime, we should stop blaming the unemployed for the fact that our society has failed to provide them with decent paying, reasonably secure jobs that they can build a life on.

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    Everybody needs representation to fight against the inequalities caused by capitalism.

    My generation has it tough. Under the coalition government we have faced a frozen minimum wage, high unemployment rates, and now the removal of housing benefit. And yet, our membership of trade unions, one of the few organisations that could actively help our cause, is minimal and steadily declining. According to the Trade Union Membership: Statistical Bulletin 2012, less than 10 per cent of trade union members are aged between 16 and 24, while 36 per cent of trade union employees are aged over 50.

    The problem seems unique to my generation. While the Conservatives wouldn’t want you to know it, union membership has thrived in the past year, with a 59,000 increase in membership since 2012. In times of austerity it seems incomprehensible that young people would not want to be represented in trade unions and beyond. Does this reflect a general political apathy among my peers, a lack of awareness, or simply a change in attitudes and approaches towards employment?

    Admittedly, before coming to university I knew very little about unionism. However, the way that many universities are structured means that there is a dependency on unions. My student union is integral to university life, and although funded in part by the main university itself, effectively works as an independent force to represent all students. There would be no Freshers' Fair, societies or welfare support without it, and every student at my university is a member of the student union whether they like it or not.

    Nevertheless, as reflected by low voting figures in student union elections, even students appear uninterested in unions, and the politics that come with them. According to the Telegraph, Sheffield University Student’s Union has the highest student satisfaction rating in the country, but still only 39 per cent of its student body turned out to vote at its student elections for 2013, and at my allegedly political university, Goldsmiths, figures were even lower at 20 per cent.   

    Speaking to the National Union for Students (NUS) president Toni Pearce, she notes that “There is a special bond between the student and trade union movements,” describing how this is “even more important at a time when the future appears bleak for so many of our members.” Although not offering an explanation as to why trade union membership is so low among young people, she does note that the “feeling of powerlessness and instability is rife among the rising generation who are squeezed by global recession and biting financial pressures.” Perhaps it can taken from this that young people do not join unions because they feel as if they will not do anything to help them.

    But, more than students, it is those young people that are currently in full or part-time employment that are the most vulnerable to exploitation under the current government without the help of trade unions. With 49 per cent of young people going into Higher Education in 2011-12, the rest are assumedly in employment, or part of the just under 1 million unemployed 16-24 year olds. If they do not get representation from unions like UNITE and UNISON, the chances of the coalition showing them any financial or career support seem minimal in light of their recent benefit announcements.

    Carl Roper, National Organiser of the TUC, however, offers a different explanation for the lack of interest in trade unions shown by my generation. Commenting that “the workplaces in which younger workers are predominate in are those with the lowest union density”, Carl notes that the private sector, retail and other little unionised industries tend to be where young people are working. He does not suggest that young people are apathetic towards unions, rather stating that there is “not something fundamentally unattractive about unions to young people”.

    When I ask him about the reasons why he believes unions are important for young people he echoes my own thoughts on collectivism, stating that “the only way workers can get collective rights is through union membership.” He has little faith in the current government’s loyalty to average workers, and adds that there is also “lots of evidence to suggest that there’s disproportionate impact on young people (and women).”

    Unfortunately, it makes sense that the Conservative-led coalition is against unionism – why would they support something that essentially works against the free market? Trade unions have historically supported movements from anti-apartheid to the minimum wage. It is no wonder that the Conservatives have recently introduced legislation which will dampen the powers of trade unions. But as you can see with the increase of those in the private sector becoming union members, everybody needs representation to fight against the inequalities caused by capitalism.

    Although Roper’s argument is convincing, the conclusion I’ve drawn is not purely that young people aren’t joining unions is due to their choice of workplace, although I do accept that this is a factor. From a personal perspective, among my peers there seems to be generally little knowledge of the work that unions do, but as noted by the NUS, “a lot of young people may not feel that politics isn't relevant to them, which is why young people need to be encouraged to take part in democracy, not kept out from it”. So maybe, rather than trying to work out the reasons why young people aren’t joining unions, like Unison, we should simply be encouraging more young people to get involved.

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    It seems that incorrect information, rumours, hoaxes and hearsays will inevitably bamboozle financial markets from time to time. The consequences appear frightening but some argue this sort of noise is actually necessary for trading.

    On the morning of 22 January 2013 a story started to develop on Twitter about the imminent and unexpected resignation of Jens Weidmann, the CEO of Deutsche Bundesbank.

    The first documented tweet came at 10.02am and was traced back to an anonymous blog profile called “Russian Market”, which currently has just over 23,000 followers.

    In 25 minutes the information had been exposed 256,634 times and by 10.20am the euro had fallen from 1,3340 to 1,3267 against the US dollar, dropping 0.55% in value. Decimal movements like these may seem insignificant but given the heavy gearing of the international currency markets, vast amounts of money can be made on micro movements if you can control the fluctuations and have this information prior to all other investors.

    The rumour was not only tweeted and re-tweeted by wild market desperados and self-appointed experts but also by more established parties in the business. Stock traders at banks and finance editors at established newspapers ran with it too.

    When a spokesman from the Deutsche Bundesbank issued an official denial of the rumour, which hit Twitter at 10:20am via the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, it was with the rather strong wording “komplette blödsinn”, meaning “utter garbage”. In just seven minutes, the official denial of Weidmann’s resignation had been shared 344,863 times on Twitter and in the meantime the euro had pretty much re-stabilised to the same value it had before the rumour mill went into overdrive.

    The Weidmann case is not isolated. Social media platforms have more than once been used as vehicles for spreading junk evidence that has excited the markets in unfortunate ways.

    The AP hoax Tweet that caused a financial wobble.

    On 23 April 2013 a “hoax tweet” was sent from the Associated Press, which appeared to have had its account hacked. The tweet read: “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is Injured" and caused widespread panic in the financial sector. The US stock market crashed within minutes and the CBOE Volatility Index, also known as “the fear index” because it predicts potential volatility in the market surged 10%.

    During this storm, the S&P 500, the NASDAQ and crude oil all dropped 1% and the broader market apparently lost almost US$200 billion.

    Noise traders

    It seems that incorrect information, rumours, hoaxes and hearsays will inevitably bamboozle financial markets from time to time. The consequences appear frightening but some argue this sort of noise is actually necessary for trading.

    The American economist and former president of the American Finance Association, Fisher Black has argued that some traders, known as noise traders, act on mistaken or incorrect information and feel overly confident that this information gives them an edge but that this is in fact a false sense of security. Even more alarmingly, Black suggests that noise trading is in fact essential to the existence of liquid markets and that noise from these traders makes financial markets imperfect, which in fact makes them possible.

    If markets were efficient in the sense that everybody has access to, and can act on, correct information, there would be no such thing as profitable trading, so trading would stop.

    If traders won’t trade, the market will no longer be liquid. That would be the end of it. There would be no information in stock prices and the scarce capital of society would be be misallocated. Markets must suffer from imperfection and for that to happen, some traders need to be less well-informed than others. Some act on information and others act only on noise. And so the market keeps moving.

    In a world in which businesses rely so much on algorithms to automate their processes, noise can infiltrate the retail sector too. The results can be more amusing than alarming, such as when a book about moths ended up being listed on Amazon at a price of more than US$23 million. Behind this absurd tale was the use of automatic price-setting algorithms by two retailers – Bordeebook and Profnath. Each had set their prices according to what the other was doing. Bordeebook’s algorithm would set the price at 0.9983 of whatever Profnath was charging and the latter was setting its own price at 1.270589 more than its rival. This automatisation of price adjustment led to the gradual increase in price that ultimately resulted in the absurd valuation of the book.

    Noise makers

    If noise traders are needed to make financial markets function, perhaps noisemakers are just as necessary for the functioning of the blogosphere. Black seemed to anticipate this when he wrote in 1985: “I suspect that if it were possible to observe the value of human capital, we would find it fluctuating in much the same way that the level of the stock market fluctuates.”

    Over in finance, the smart money drives out the dumb money. Sophisticated traders, have adequate information and rational expectations. They can correctly balance asset price against its fundamental value. They will win out over noise traders, who make bad decisions based on informational misconceptions and false beliefs about a risky asset’s price and the underlying financial instrument’s fundamental value.

    Noise makers or trolls in the blogosphere and on social networks may fuel the fire of heated debate and facilitate exchanges of opinions.

    Bubbles of opinions, or conviction peaks, may grow accordingly for or against a certain company, person, position, policy or viewpoint without necessarily reflecting real personal preference or even the facts. False information can spread online and can have serious consequences, as was seen in the high-profile case of Robin McAlpine in the UK.

    But if it becomes clear that the aligned convictions of Twitter users or bloggers are based on noise and social proof rather than correct information and convincing arguments, then the bubble that has been created may quickly deflate. If no new evidence emerges to fan the fire, the Twitter storm dies out.

    If the rumours are based on correct information, they are more likely to endure. As we become more accustomed to using new media, we, like the well-informed stock broker, should be able to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the bad information from the good.

    Vincent F Hendricks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

    The Conversation

    This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    The party has taken the action after a report into allegations of sexual impropriety.

    The Liberal Democrats have suspended Mike Hancock MP's party membership over the allegations of sexual impropriety contained in a council report.

    They have issued the following statement:

    The Liberal Democrats have this afternoon, for the first time, had sight of a Portsmouth City Council report by Nigel Pascoe QC into allegations of sexual impropriety by Mike Hancock.

    Mike Hancock resigned as a Liberal Democrat MP last year in order to contest allegations of sexual impropriety in a High Court civil action.

    Given Nigel Pascoe QC’s conclusions in his report, we have immediately suspended Mike Hancock’s membership of the party.

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    Nintendo's losing money, and won't puts its games on iOS or Android because it doesn't trust anyone else's hardware - so why not start making tablets for gamers?

    When the Wii U was first announced at E3 in 2011, one crucial detail was left out by Nintendo of America’s president, Reggie Fils-Aime - whether it was a new console or not. It was introduced as “a new gaming companion”, a logical next step to the Wii’s knock-out success at bringing casual gamers, families and friends together. The videos showed the new touchscreen controller from every angle, but not the new box that it was meant to connect to - the new box that looked almost identical to the old one.

    Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, admitted at the time that it wasn’t a perfect launch, even if he stopped short of calling it a “blunder”. The problem is, Nintendo’s still struggling against that misconception. Here’s Polygon on Nintendo’s latest “hey guys, did you know the Wii U is an entirely new console?” ad campaign:

    "Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii," said Iwata during the company's financial results briefing earlier this year. "We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product."

    Iwata said at the time that Nintendo will endeavour to help consumers understand the console and bulk up its software lineup to help the Wii U regain its sale momentum.

    Nintendo issued a message to Wii owners in May outlining that its new hardware is not a Wii upgrade but an "all-new home console from Nintendo" that "will change the way you and your family experience games and entertainment."

    This week, Nintendo announced that it had made its first annual loss for more than 30 years - that’s as long as it’s been in the computer console business - and that it had slashed its 2013 sales projections for the Wii U from 9m units to 2.8m. Its shares have taken a tumble by 6.2 percent, making it a 65 percent drop in value since 2009. We’re a long way from the heady “Nintendo: We print money!” headlines from five or six years ago, when the DS and Wii were dominant.

    Not that Nintendo is likely to fold any time soon, or even consider itself no longer a console company, as happened to Sega in 2001 after the Dreamcast bombed. As Keza MacDonald at IGN points out, Nintendo effectively has $10bn in cash reserves from its last three decades of pretty much constant profitability, so it can suck up a few years of losses while it figures out where to go next. That’s the key issue.

    The 3DS isn’t as successful as the DS was, and isn’t quite making its projections - which is understandable, as the mobile gaming market has been pretty comprehensively altered by smartphones and tablets - but it’s still a success. It’s just not as successful as it could be, and it’s certainly not compensating for the flat-lining Wii U.

    The big third-party games aren’t on Wii U, it’s underpowered compared to the XBox One and the PS4, and its key gimmick - that controller - isn’t particularly impressive. As for the Wii’s innovative motion controls, well, Microsoft and Sony have pretty comprehensively copied them. Kinect’s a lot better at it too, arguably. Grandma and grandpa don’t really see why they need a new console, either, when the one they bought just a few years ago still works fine.

    Nintendo’s been adept at pulling radical, industry-changing escapes from irrelevancy before. So, in that spirit, here’s a proposal - Nintendo needs to expand its product categories to include tablets and smartphones, running Android.

    Not stock Android, of course - it would be rejigged (or “forked”, in developer lingo) to conform to Nintendo’s aesthetic and anti-piracy demands, no doubt. The success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire range, which uses a custom Android build, shows there are viable niches for devices that excel in one area - the Kindle positions itself as the tablet for readers, but imagine a Nintendo smartphone and/or tablet that offered access both to the massive range of normal Android apps and exclusive Nintendo games, both classic and new.

    Nintendo could be the company that produces the definitive gaming tablet. Hell, it’s already halfway there with its eShop - it just needs to work on getting a larger range of licenses from older publishers for some classics, and it’ll be golden. There's also a good argument (as made by Wired's Chris Kohler) that Nintendo's charing too much for older games, considering how much they may have dated. 

    There’s no doubt that the industry trend is for device convergence. People are less and less tolerant of having to carry around more than one device for gaming. The key for Nintendo is to offer a device that could conceivably be that single device, while also offering the things Nintendo needs to make its games work - like, say, physical buttons. Have you tried playing some of the old Sonic ports on normal tablets? They’re horrid and sluggish to play with a virtual, on-screen touchpad.

    It’s a boring cliche for writers to call for Nintendo to make games for Android or iOS - or even to port older GameBoy games, like the first Pokemon games, over - but the company has always resisted because its entire design aesthetic has been that it can’t guarantee software quality without also being in control of the hardware.

    It’s not dissimilar to Apple’s approach, frankly, and since it’s served them pretty well so far, it’s not something that would conceivably be sacrificed so easily. Staying out of the general marketplace by sticking to their own device would also prevent an absolutely critical mistake on Nintendo’s part, which is to sacrifice game quality in favour of the quick, small, freemium model that is favoured on smartphones. Nobody wants to see a Nintendo reduced to that.

    Go the other way, instead, and create a device that offers access to the library the rest of the world wants, plus quality on top. Have the NinTablet or NintenPhone link up to the Wii U’s successor too, if Shigeru Miyamoto insists upon the dual-screen thing - but accept that the era of single-purpose devices for the living room is over, too, and take that into account when working on the Wii U 2. History has shown that as long as Nintendo’s mobile health has been assured, the company thrives.

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    Everyone in Westminster knows that the nation’s creaking infrastructure needs an upgrade but Cameron’s “global race” and Miliband’s “new economy” must be depicted as ideological antitheses.

    There is a cathedral of clay, concrete and steel 30 metres beneath the East End of London. Tunnels ten metres high stretch into the distance, reverberating to the growl of heavy machinery. At one end a drilling machine, 150 metres long, gouges tonnes of earth every day. This is Crossrail, Europe’s biggest engineering project – a £14.8bn colonisation of the space beneath the capital for new east-west commuter rail lines.

    Politicians love this half-built subterra­nean realm. David Cameron and Boris John­son recently came on a joint visit. George Osborne has been down here. Nick Clegg is planning a trip. The appeal is obvious. Here are jobs, apprenticeships, economic growth, progress. Better still, Crossrail is coming in on time and on budget.

    Everyone in Westminster knows that the nation’s creaking infrastructure needs an upgrade but no one is sure how to pay for the job. British politics being what it is, Labour and the Conservatives have found ways to dress the same ambition in clashing ideological colours. For Cameron, it is all about the “global race” – equipping the UK to rival emerging economic powerhouses around the world.

    This ambition is folded into a familiar Conservative prescription for a more competitive economy: lower corporate taxes, fewer workplace protections, emancipation from Brussels, benefit cuts as a device to promote self-reliance. Austerity is advertised as a means to make the state sleeker, not weaker. Slashing departmental budgets is supposed to leave capacity for investment in tunnels, roads and power stations, co-sponsored by private and foreign investors. (We can compete in a race with China if the Chinese build us enough running tracks first, apparently.)

    Labour is much more comfortable with the idea of state intervention to foster growth, especially if it means bolstering sectors other than financial services and regions other than the south-east. It is axiomatic for Ed Miliband that politics is now all about enacting this economic “rebalancing”. This flows from his conviction that the financial crisis irrefutably discredited notions of state shrinkage as a route to collective prosperity. In the Labour leader’s view, the Tories are disciples of “old economy” dogma and so incapable of meeting what he sees as the defining challenge of the epoch – redesigning the economy so wealth and opportunity are more fairly distributed.

    In truth, the Tory leadership is not opposed to a spot of economic intervention if it serves political expediency. Osborne is inflating the housing market with his Help to Buy scheme. In the depths of stagnation, the Treasury discovered an affection for infrastructure spending. Danny Alexander went rummaging behind Whitehall sofas for loose change to boost pet projects.

    With growth returning, the Chancellor doesn’t want that side of the story to complicate his message of steely fiscal discipline. The primary concern is establishing a distinction between the Tories, who have the guts to keep cutting until the deficit is slain, and Labour, which can’t wait to get splurging again. This permits no discussion of borrowing for investment.

    That is an option Labour wants to keep open, but Miliband knows that debt has been rendered politically toxic by the Tories. One shadow cabinet minister reports that his constituents view public borrowing about as enthusiastically as a policy of “slaying every first-born child”. This is a problem for Miliband. His instincts are to promise a government that does more; the election campaign will bring demands to prove that Labour knows how to do less. The rhetoric of national renewal doesn’t travel so far when delivered into a tight fiscal corner.

    One idea for escaping this trap, under active consideration in Labour policy circles, is to pledge devolution of revenue-raising powers away from Whitehall. Regions and cities could have more say over local property and business taxes, with a view to investing the proceeds in local housing and infrastructure. Crossrail offers a precedent. Around a fifth of the cost has been met by a dedicated “business rate supplement” paid by the capital’s enterprises.

    Labour enthusiasts for this approach point out that it also featured in Lord Heseltine’s 2012 review for Downing Street on “strat­egies for growth”. In keeping with White­hall tradition, Heseltine’s recommendations were welcomed by No 10 and diluted by the Treasury. Osborne found £2bn per year, a fraction of the sums Heseltine had in mind, for a Single Local Growth Fund, from which local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) will bid for handouts. LEPs were formed by the coalition to replace regional development agencies, which had been identified in 2010 as pointless Labour quangos and scrapped.

    It isn’t the first time a government has dismantled the work of its predecessor and then re-mantled it, having worked out what it was for. The need to overcome this cyclical volatility was one of the priorities identified by Sir John Armitt, the former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, in a report commissioned by Labour last year. He recommended the creation of a cross-party National Infrastructure Commission to develop priorities for investment without partisan point-scoring. The idea was lost in bickering over who was more responsible for the failure to think long-term. The irony went unremarked.

    The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition both want to present themselves as the sole proprietor of a vision to equip the country for the challenges of the future. Each will accuse the other of being trapped in the past. For general election purposes, Cameron’s “global race” and Miliband’s “new economy” must be depicted as ideological antitheses, precluding any constructive discussion of what the challenges are and how the investment that everyone agrees we need can be afforded. Short-term political tribalism, it seems, is indispensable in order to form a government committed to the long-term national interest. And irony is one industry where Britain has always been a global leader.

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