Archive | Politics RSS feed for this section

Big Brother is Watching You

8 Jun

By Kieran Connell

The first blog posted on In Birmingham (30th April) noted the appearance of giant, grey CCTV cameras on the streets of Moseley and Sparkhill, and the possible threat these posed to the artistic work of the street photographer, especially in light of recent moral panics regarding terrorism.

One of more than 150 CCTV cameras trained on Muslim communities in Birmingham

An investigation by local resident Steve Jolly, the findings of which were printed in the Guardian last weekend revealed the shocking extent of this moral panic in Birmingham.

The investigation showed that the new cameras, of which there are 150 around Sparkhill, Sparkbrook, Moseley and Washwood Heath, were requested by the West Midlands Police counterterrorism unit two years ago, and erected over the last few months with £3 million from the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) fund.  Funds from TAM can only be obtained if it can be proved that a project will help to prevent terrorism.

The cameras carry automatic number plate reading technology, and until now have only been installed in ‘iconic sites’ deemed to be potential terrorist targets.  This is the first time that such cameras have been targeted at specifically Muslim areas covering not only areas where Muslim people live in Birmingham (Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Washwood Heath all have above average Muslim populations) but also all routes in and out of these areas.  Alongside the obvious street cameras in grey boxes by the side of roads in these areas, like the one pictured, covert cameras have also been hidden in trees and walls.  Furthermore, this was all implemented with limited or no consultation with either community groups or local councillors.  Some councillors even claim they were ‘misled’ by West Midlands police into thinking the cameras were being installed to prevent crime in these areas, not terrorism.

All of this fits into a pattern of increasingly paranoid behaviour by the police, both in Birmingham and nationally.  The cases of Jean-Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson were well documented; in February 2009 West Midlands police forcibly removed a mural to the victims of Israeli atrocities in Palestine by local graffiti artist Mohammed Ali in Small Heath; and, as reported on this blog (17th May), 2009 also saw the police effectively ban a film set and filmed in Birmingham from being shown in local cinemas.

More than an invasion of artistic freedom, for the people who live in the affected areas these cameras are in effect an invasion of liberty.  For Muslims, it comes just a week after another disturbing Guardian report revealed the horrific anti-Islamism of the English Defence League.  The politics of the scheme is perhaps best summed up by the support the fascist BNP has lent to it, with the group claiming it ‘confirmed once again the accuracy of the BNP’s interpretation of the cause of terrorism in Britain’.

However, there are plans to resist the scheme.  A petition is in circulation on Facebook and currently has more than 200 hundred signatures, and cameras have also been daubed in graffiti, with slogans including ‘1984 Big Brother’, ‘the cops are watching you’ and ‘you are now entering a police state’.  Those worried by the new cameras are encouraged to raise the issue with their MP, either in writing or in person.



A new kind of politics?

18 May

By Peter Cameron

David Cameron and Nick Clegg took centre stage outside number 10 last week for what represented a pivotal moment in British politics. With the 2010 general election failing to provide an outright winner negotiations were thrashed out over the proceeding days, resulting in Cameron replacing Gordon Brown in Downing Street with Clegg installed as his understudy. The pair took this moment to place emphasis on ‘a new kind of politics,’ and regardless of your political allegiance it would be difficult to argue with that notion – but perhaps not for the reasons the new Prime minister and his deputy had in mind.

Not only was it the first time the Conservative party had formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, but it was the first time in 36 years a general election had thrown up results with enough disparity to leave the country with a hung parliament. Any number of reasons can be cited for this change. Among other factors, the centralisation of the three main political parties over the past two decades has had a role to play in the belief that all politicians are ‘the same,’ leaving many voters disillusioned. This election was also the first to follow three – much publicised – live Prime Ministerial debates. The media age has changed the way politics is received by the electorate and the results of May 7th only served to reaffirm that this is the case. In addition to the debates themselves, newspapers have printed countless column inches on the lead up and follow up, while Gordon Brown will be the first to point to “bigotgate” as an example of the important role TV can play. In this way it is true that we are experiencing a new kind of politics and we along with the parties will need to adapt to this change.

As many voters, myself included, prepare to see a Labour party in opposition for the first time in their adult life, we in Birmingham are perhaps best placed to see what a Conservative/Lib Dem union might have to offer. The second city is the proprietor of the largest Council in the UK and since Labour losing their majority in 2004, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have held an alliance here. Despite obvious differences in traditional standpoints, a negotiated mix of policies at this local level has seen emphasis placed on renewable energy resources and lower taxes. Those based in London will be quick to point to these negotiations as an example of how the two parties can work together despite the reservations many currently hold.

Conversely, in February this year it was announced that up to 2,000 jobs would be cut in Birmingham city Council. The council has also been accused of overspending millions of pounds in areas such as child protection and it is likely that care homes, libraries and housing will come under the axe. Question marks – and eyebrows – could be raised over how such an oversight happened and critics may cite a lengthy negotiation process and lack of a true vision within the council as part of the problem. With George Osborne scheduling an emergency budget for next month, and a reported £6bn of savings required centrally, the public sector could be set to take another hit in the coming months.

While there are merits and failings in our councils functioning, it is also important to note that politics functions differently at the national level. As the debates saw Cameron and Clegg lock horns over immigration and Trident, these issues are not the concern of local councils and it is likely to be more difficult to reach resolutions in parliament. In a time of economic crisis any distractions from the tasks in hand would be graciously avoided and the fact no party achieved an outright majority could yet provide more problems.

The true longevity of the coalition at Westminster remains to be seen and there are likely to be countless twists and turns before we reach another election, be it six months or five years from now. How long the ‘progressive partnership’ in Birmingham will last is also unknown but we are perhaps best placed to see – on a much smaller scale – how the central alliance could eventually develop.


The Progressive Politics of the Inner City

9 May

Amidst all the uncertainty that continues to surround last Thursday’s election, there is one thing that is resoundingly clear: the progressive politics of the inner city.  If one looks at electoral map of Great Britain and in particular England, in between the sea of rural blue are defiant pockets of red and yellow – in central Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and London.  In Birmingham, in wards such as Ladywood, Hodge Hill and Yardley, despite winning the largest number of seats nationally the Tories were well beaten into third place.  In my own constituency of Hall Green the Tories came fourth behind the Liberals, the Respect Party and Labour.  Even in leafy Edgbaston, a key Tory target before the election and the subject of considerable attention from the Tory party machine during it, the Labour vote held up.  Why, given the well-documented troubles of the Labour Party over the last thirteen years, is this?

One important reason is it is very hard to be insular if you live in the inner city.  Unlike in the Tory heartlands of the home counties and other rural areas of Britain, where populations are sparse and far more homogenous, living in the inner city means you have little choice but to interact – at however basic a level – with different societal problems.  You live your life with these problems in different forms, whether this is represented by the poor quality housing around the corner, the queue at the local job centre or the Big Issue seller outside Tesco’s.  However much people may turn the other cheek to such issues, it is difficult not to have some basic level of awareness that there are a great number of people around you that need help.

Following on from this, another reason is that growing up in the inner city, most especially in a Birmingham inner city, means that respect for and engagement with different cultures becomes natural.  You grow up singing songs about Diwali at school, living next door to Muslim women who wear the hijab or shopping in the local Polish shop.  This awareness of ‘difference’ means that any irrational anxieties are overridden, and rather than basing a politics on looking inwardly at narrowly defined set of self-interests, you have a more well-rounded view of society in pluralistic terms.

This is not to say that the politics of the inner city is perfect.  Far from it.  Every now and again it erupts in often-harrowing ways.  It was in Smethwick, for example, that the Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths ran an ultimately successful election campaign under the slogan, ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, Vote Labour’, and in Wolverhampton that Enoch Powell used as a setting for his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech.  The appearance of the English Defence League in particular Dudley is a contemporary reminder of the importance of being on our guard against poisonous fascist politics in the region.

But for most of us, as the result of the election in our area shows, and our everyday lives are testament to, whatever Margaret Thatcher may have said about there being ‘no such thing as society’, society is alive and well in the inner city.