Saturday, May 07, 2005

Tunnels Supplement

I didn't catch it while focusing on the British elections, but two days ago tunnelers reached hands after holing through the Guadarrama tunnel in Spain, which will be the fourth longest in the world when high-speed trains start to whiz through it in two years' time.

(pdf link in Spanish; I note they err when calling it the fifth longest - possibly they count the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which won't open until 2015)

Friday, May 06, 2005

More British Election: Nazis

At this point five seats were declared. All held and kept by Labour, with strongly falling percentages. However, what's depressing that there is apparently a strong swing to... BNP. Yes, the British pseudonazi outfit. UPDATE: with three more seats declared, the trend is even more alarming. In Rotherham, Labour lost 11.1%, while BNP has gone from zero to 6.6%.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Slim Majority & Yellow Tories

The first exit poll predicts a 66-seat majority for NuLab, a pleasant surprise (tough under 50 had been my wish).

Also, let's slack off the LibDems a little too - quoting from another fine pre-election rant, this time from Where There Were No Doors, some contrast to a LibDem campaign pamphlet claiming their party is the only one caring about the environment:

Nobody involved with the Newbury Bypass protest can forget David Rendell, Liberal Democrat MP for Newbury, and just how much he cared about the environment when big business wanted to build a completely unnecessary road through some of the most important and ecologically sensitive sites in his constituency. A sitting Liberal Democrat MP. Can you imagine the boost the campaign, if the local MP had come out against the project? If he hadn't been one of it's most vocal supporters?

And when a developer in Kingston wanted a row of mature trees felled in order to provide a better view from the luxury flats they built, the local LibDem council was quick to give permission.

You can't claim to be a "green" party when you consistently put business before the environment. Every party - the tories included - will make the environment a top priority when there's no financial downside. The only relevant question is whether your priorities change when there's big wodges of cash involved. And the LibDems (supporters of GM crops in Scotland) have demonstrated that whenever they actually find themselves in a position of power, they're just as willing to sell out the environment in the name of short-termist profitwank as the tories and Labour.


Third Way

"Have you seen the stranded travellers on TV? Those left in Florida by the fake travel agency? 'WE WERE DEFRAUDED!', they cried. They just thought they have paid for cheap travel. Cheaper than the airline return ticket... but they cry, 'WE WERE DEFRAUDED!'"


Our electorate is like the man walking around and round a city block. Every time he steps into the doggie-do at one corner, he wonders why he got into such shit again... And the electorate cries, 'WE WERE DEFRAUDED!'" _Volker Pispers, 1998

One of those undying stereotopes that believers will always look and find evidence for, is that Germans don't have humour. (Then again, their private TV networks have no room for the multi-storeyed allusions and associations, not to mention relentlessly scathing and on-point political humour of a leading cabarettist like Volker Pispers, only mindless & harmless super-low-quality "comedy shows" by the dozen.)

Today Britain will re-elect Tony Bliar's New Labour government, despite its highly disliked foreign policy even among supporters, and domestic policies whose lack of success (at least in leftist terms) is only thinly veiled by massive spin and propaganda. Also, the leading opposition party will be one IMO economically less different from New Labour than Thatcher, which now tries to differentiate itself mostly with rhetorical excesses in xenophobia. Part of the reason is the first-past-the-post election system, which I blasted several times before, won't repeat here. But even so, at least 70% of the British voting/doggie-do-stepping population will have a chance to cry, 'WE WERE DEFRAUDED!' (Read Blood & Treasure's "fuck your misgivings" rant too.)

Still, I hope small leftist parties - Greens, Respect, Scottish Socialists - will do relatively well, and despite their even more mindless adherence to the free market idea than NuLab, the LibDems too - anything to weaken the two bigs if defeat is not realistic now.

Back to Third-Way-ism. It is often said thirdwayism doesn't have a real ideology, but I don't think that's the point. While caving in on fundamental issues is nothing new for social democrats (just think of WWI), I think what happened since the second half of the ninetiesis more fundamental, and just because of the ideological angle. We have to admit that it's not just the leadership: the party leaders led a great many people towards seeing everything in economic terms. (And to boot, in currently fashionable free-market economic terms.) To illustrate what I mean: for example, if there had been a 20% increase in the income of both the fast food industry and the fitness, fat-removing, cardiac-treating medical and pharmatic industries, even an old social democrat would have seen social decline, but a present-day one likely sees GDP growth.

The remaining strongly left Left (both 'radical' and what was just recently 'moderate') can't be content with just pointing out the broken promises of the "centre-left", the battle for ideology is as timely as ever.

To come full circle, back to Germany. While Tony Bliar's continued rule is the most significant influence of thirdwayism, with its ideological destruction and the bad role model Bliar has become for a lot of other SocDem top dogs, even bigger disaster for the broad Left is what is happening in Germany.

German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, tough called "Genosse der Bosse" (comrade of the bosses), was never as gifted as Tony. He was always a bungler who was lucky - being buoyed by the final frenzy of the New Economy bubble and such. (I for one never understood why he was popular in the first place.) The rare progressive successes of his government were mostly connected to the Greens, and then a few SocDem leaders always rose to brake out even those. And by now, the bungling has become an almost unbroken series of self-defeats, whether trying to lick the arse of foreign war criminals (from Putin to Bush), business interests or union archdukes. Meanwhile, with the burgeoing visa fraud scandal around (up until this) popular foreign minister Joschka Fischer, the in-charge "realo" fraction of the Greens reached the point where the public's diffuse sense of sympathy got exhausted. In short, this Red-Green government is on auto-pilot to self-destruction, almost certain to lose the elections in late 2006.

But German doggie-do-steppers won't return to circle the same city block they circled four times in the eighties & nineties. Old West German conservatives weren't as austere as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, they were kind of like what Social Democrats have become now: a clique maintaining a cozy relationship with business captains, and the former getting some benefits for workers from the latter to maintain social peace. A system reaching its height under Helmut Kohl, who'd mostly do nothing but that with an air of authority.

But the new breed poised to take over is entirely different. They sound civilised, but lie with the zeal of a missionary. Berlusconi somewhat, the neocons a great deal they view for inspiration. Not so much for ideology, as for recklessness and technologies of power. But what they take over in ideology (pro-business, anti-jobless, 'war on terror', 'war of civilisations' elements) is enough to make me cringe, given where things already head with Schröder. These guys seem to me like engineers fighting over who should drive the train as it races down the valley towards a missing bridge, instead of applying the brakes and change the switch at the junction.

But, maybe the current fools' destruction on the Left wasn't big enough to foil a regrouping into something better by 2010.

Star Scientists Against Bliar

Stephen Hawking:

I urge everyone to vote in the election tomorrow only for MPs who voted against the war in Iraq.

Richard Dawkins:

Tony Blair's otherwise baffling conduct is illuminated by his statement that "I am elected as prime minister to do what I believe is right - and that is what I did" (Cheers and jeers in leaders' TV trial, April 29). No, Mr Blair was elected MP for Sedgefield and the Queen then invited him, as leader of the majority in the Commons, to form a government. He is first minister of a cabinet in a parliamentary democracy.

Article continues
But Mr Blair evidently thinks he is a president, if not an absolute monarch, whose private beliefs of right and wrong should determine a country's policy. In his unseemly rush to war, he neglected to inform or consult his cabinet, feeding them and parliament carefully censored allowances of intelligence and legal advice, doctored and spun to justify an irrevocable decision agreed long before in Washington.

Disillusioned Labour supporters now understand this and more, yet many dare not change their vote. Polls show them about to reward a known liar, because they have been conned into believing Michael Howard could become prime minister. This scaremongering is about as realistic as the infamous 45-minute weapons scare, which successfully duped parliament into voting for war. The constituency boundaries are such that no plausible swing could bring us even close to a Tory majority. Former Labour supporters who feel inclined to vote Liberal Democrat may do so without fear. Blair succeeded in scaring us into an illegal war. Don't let him scare us now into voting against our true inclinations.

(Disclosure: even tough I had to learn that political naivety can rule in even the brightest minds, as someone trained as an astronomer - but landing rather far from that in professional life - I still retain a higher respect for the opinions of scientists.)

BTW, who thought Terry Jones (of the Pythons) was a radical left voter.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Ethnic Violence?

Juan Cole comments on the latest carnage in Iraq among police recruits:

Its location is significant, however. The guerrillas are also attempting to foment ethnic violence, and among the aims of the attack today was surely to promote Kurdish-Arab hatred.

This conclusion is not warranted. Here Juan Cole works from his assumption that most of the resistance is ex-Baathist (something he bases in part on Scott Ritter's earlier evaluation, something Ritter was moved away from by facts a few months ago). However, Cole forgets that one of the strongest (if not the strongest) Sunni fundamentalist fractions in Iraq is Kurdish: the Ansar-el-Islam group. In Ibril as in Mossul, Ansar is active.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Rail Renationalisation

...was the demand of British transport union protesters last weekend in London.

Thatcher hater national rail, but even she didn't dare to start rail privatisation. It was her successor John Major who started this mess, but only under Tony Bliar's New Labour government was it fully going. The result was: both the numbers ond dissatisfaction of passengers rising, safety levels falling, private investment into infrastructure low, infrastructure costs spiralling out of bounds. No convincing examples elsewhere either.

In Sweden, a number of companies went bankrupt, and the remains of state company Sj is struggling too. Like elsewhere, tilting trains proved no substitution for investment into upgrading infrastructure.

Privatisation advocates would then point to the Eldorado of railways, Switzerland, where nationalisation was never all-encompassing. However, they'd ignore that most "private" companies fell progressively under the control of state, canton and local governments, or that of their supposed rivals - which of course made coordination easier -, that the state company SBB took over some services, and that current plans foresee the consolidation of major "privates" into two majority-public-owned regional bigs.

But despite the lack of positive examples, most major parties in all European countries support the basic idea of rail privatisation - even those who attempt some protectionist measures to defend their own national railways. Yet this basic idea is faulty even on capitalist terms. The lack of competition can't be the problem of railways, for there is already quite strong competition: from roads and airways.

The problem more lies in something that can't be solved for free, with a few new regulations: decades of lack of investment, while at the same time there was a lot of investment into competitors (new roads, airports, tax-free airplane fuel etc.). Worse, railways got most subsidies to keep (a part of) services at level, rather than to keep them competitive (i.e. improve steadily as the competitors).

Furthermore, there is a false philosophy that predates the privatisation madness, but whose bad effects are enhanced by it: the idea to break down railway profitability into the profitability of single lines. However, capping a branchline won't just mean losing those living nearby as passengers, nor just losing some mainline passengers who'd transfer from this line. It also means that people along mainlines who may not travel often along this line, but who now will have to use a car anyway, could abadon train travel altogether and drive to other destinations as well. (Yes, this is stating the bloody obvious - but obvious to passengers, less so to company car-riding bureaucrats and managers.) Railways are networks, and should be seen as whole. If "profitable" mainlines are opened to competition of private companies, those will eat up (with price cuts and dividend payments) all the surplus that could have been used to maintain other parts of the network.

Those are already serious problems, and I haven't even mentioned the usual problems with private companies - the pricing tricks, the sparing on safety and investment, the instability (from financial to that of services), the exploitation of rail workers (again leading to safety problems) etc. - there was a reason rail became a public transport.

As a sidenote, not all is bad in current EU rail policies. One reason that rail's market share of freight transport in the USA far exceeds that in Europe is borders. In Europe, borders usually mean system changes, which mean time-consuming locomotive changes, paperwork, different rules. The EU's aim of synchronising approval processes, safety standards and systems, and subsidizing cross-border projects are all sorely needed.

Everything Exposed: Giving War A Chance

The final element of the puzzle is in place. From the records of a British government meeting in July 2002, leaked to The Sunday Times, we learn:

“If the political context were right, people would support regime change,” said Blair. He added that the key issues were “whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan space to work”.
That is, we now have proof that all the British diplomatic efforts were aimed at giving war a chance.

In other words, there never was a honest effort to find the truth about WMD. And beyond the original sin of starting an illegal war I also note: given that by July everything was set for war, the lack of post-war planning now looks an even graver crime of omission than before.