Cambridge Analytica – Watergate without convictions

Instigated by a report in the Guardian on March 17th, the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica has now been blown into almost astronomical proportions. The scandal first broke surrounding the use of data mining in electoral campaigns; the harvesting of millions of Facebook user’s personal data in order to create personalised and targeted political advertising campaigns, that would influence voter preference. Following on from this, video footage from an undercover report into Cambridge Analytica uncovered admittance by a senior figure in the organisation, pertaining to the use of data mining, political entrapment and even the use of ‘honey traps’; the use of escorts to entrap politicians in sexual scandals.  Since the story broke less than one week ago, the fallout has been significant and international. Facebook itself has come under fire, losing over $60 billion in its stock value, facing lawsuits from shareholders, and with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg being summoned to several judicial reviews into the incident.

Scandals surrounding political influencing are nothing new. Campaign donor scandals, intentional spoiling of ballot papers; where there is democracy, there is the potential for scandal to emerge around elections and voter preference shaping. Where Cambridge Analytica becomes significant, however, is in three ways; its scope, its precedent, and the high likelihood that, when the dust settles, there will be no convictions or real legislative impact on this sort of growing arena. Though the accusations surrounding the use of ‘spies’ and ‘honeypots’ are nothing short of accusations of corruption, blackmail and extortion, it is important not to call for conviction until these charges have clear evidence. Evidence of data mining, however, is more than clear; it is undoubtable and unequivocal evidence of an operation to access, analyse and manipulate private information to produce ‘favourable’ election results for Cambridge Analytica’s clients.

What is primarily startling about the scandal is the international scale on which Cambridge Analytica is accused of influencing politics and elections. According to Straitstimes.com, the reach of Cambridge Analytica’s influence has been reported from Malaysia to Kenya; the latter being accusations that the success of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, was due to influence and management by the firm. Rumours have even begun to circulate that the Trump campaign had ties with the firm, with CNN reporting that the firm helped to establish the digital aspect of the campaign that – in Analytica’s own words- contributed significantly to the 2016 election victory. It has been near unanimous that political influencing is a thing of the past in modern liberal democracy. No longer. Here we have a firm being hired by politicians worldwide, accessing online data through the largest social media site in the world, to create personalised campaigns that sway voter opinion significantly – and such data mining is the most reputable thing the company stands accused of.

Focus on the data mining aspect of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, however, raises a more insidious point. A firm built around electoral campaigning, hired to process voter data and advise on electoral strategy is nothing new whatsoever; firms have been making millions advising in political campaigns for decades. What is scandalous about Cambridge Analytica is the fact that the firm mined millions of Facebook profiles to construct its analytical models. Regardless of whether you believe their attempted justification that all the files were ‘legally and correctly obtained’, what has occurred is that a private firm accessed, downloaded and analysed millions of user’s personal data, online preferences and private information, to create targeted advertising campaigns for politicians willing to pay highly enough. It is perhaps nothing short of the largest invasion of privacy we have seen in the 21st century. With the scope of such invasion of online privacy still unknown, Cambridge Analytica raises serious questions on how secure our private information is; especially with the ever-increasing commercialisation of social media, and societal reliance upon new technology and social media platforms in our everyday lives.

So, what can be done? Apparently, next to nothing. As far as international law relating to such cyber mining extends, it is increasingly difficult to keep pace with the exponential growth of the information sector. Though several criminal investigations in various countries are certainly a good place to start, it is highly unlikely that criminal charges will land on the heads of the senior figures involved. Political campaigns, from Trump to Kenya, have a certain degree of deniability surrounding the extent and maliciousness of the data mining undertaken; the same can be said of Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook group. Co-operation with the criminal reviews may even act to benefit them; though it is impossible to predict or speculate with any accuracy until the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s influence becomes clear. Though the scandal has created waves internationally, it is highly likely that the only real impact the scandal will have, besides the potential for a few arrests within the Cambridge Analytica organisation, is the fall of Facebook stocks.

One thing remains clear, however. With the continuing growth and centrality of the internet in our society, and with the increasing focus of using media platforms for all our personal information, the international community must respond to this scandal with a serious legislative framework; one that protects us as consumers, as individuals and as citizens, from such exploitative and invasive data mining again. We are people; individuals with rights, not data sets available to the highest bidder.

Austerity – Asymmetrical, abhorrent and avoidable

“Unless we deal with this debt crisis, we risk becoming once again the sick man of Europe”. This was David Cameron in 2009, addressing the Conservatives in Cheltenham on how best to deal with the wake of the 2008 global financial crash. More specifically, this was the beginning of the age of austerity in the Conservative party mindset – the treatment of our nation as a failing business that demanded sweeping cuts across the public sector. Cut to the beginning of 2018, and it was announced that Austerity had finally reached its targets of debt reduction – a full 2 years later than the brutalist model of spending reduction was supposed to. But how successful has Austerity really been for the United Kingdom and its future?

With the aim of reducing the national debt to a level that investment could begin again without compounding trillions in national debt, Austerity has been ‘successful’ –  it has finally succeeded in its core promise to reduce the budget deficit significantly.  Indeed, according to UKPublicSpending.co.uk’s estimations, the current budget deficit between 2010 and 2017 has fallen from £99.74 billion to only £14.04 billion. Though this is a considerable reduction in national debt, there are two key issues that prove the truly devastating impact of Austerity on the United Kingdom – the impact on the economic prosperity of the people, and the precedent set by both former and future conservative action surrounding the national economy.

To take national debt reduction as evidence that austerity has worked for Britain is almost laughably reductionist. Rather, austerity has led to significant economic hardship, regional economic disparity and a fall in opportunity for many. This is not to argue that societal hardship in times of economic uncertainty is surprising; rather, the extent of such hardship was widespread, brutal and largely unnecessary.  Take women in the national economy, for example. Due to austerity and the severe public spending cuts, female workers in the public sector have been most harshly impacted by this policy of financial subtraction. Due to cuts in tax credits, sweeping redundancies across largely female dominated sectors, and the growth of the casual job market as the only route back into employment, it is estimated that women have been 15% worse off as a result of austerity – equivalent to just over £70 billion lost in potential wealth. Similarly, massive cuts to the welfare system have severely impacted the lowest earners in our society – with a 2016 WBG assessment estimating that the lowest 10% of households will be 21% worse off as a result of austerity.  Austerity has had a similar regional effect, with massive cuts to budgets outside of the regional south leading to a disparity in unemployment. According to the Office for National Statistics, unemployment in the North East reached 5.8% in 2017; compared with 3.3% in the South East. It is no complex conclusion, therefore, that the effects of austerity have been not only significant, but wide ranging and unequal.

But it is the failure of the neoliberal consensus that makes austerity not only brutal, but unnecessary. It must be conceded that the wake of the 2008 financial crash demanded a somewhat revolutionary economic response. In a world with families being kicked out onto the streets, Multinational banks closing and national economies such as Greece almost collapsing under the weight of their debt, to maintain the economic status quo would have achieved little else but gradual and unavoidable economic collapse.  But to claim, as the Conservatives did, that Austerity was the only solution is not a problem of debt but of failed foresight. The problem itself relates to the consensus of privatisation and state reduction that has prevailed since the 1980’s. The need for economic revolution after the brutal conditions of the 1970’s, coupled with a political desire to appeal to the electorate, led to a shift in economic models; away from taxation, and towards venture capital and debt. This allowed of economic growth based on lending, debt and speculation, whilst pacifying voters by protecting their ‘hard earned money’ from the evils of taxation. At the same time, the growth in faith that the private sector facilitated economic revolution led to mass privatisation, the shrinking of the state and the sale of numerous sources of government revenue, external to taxation. How, then, does a state fund itself whilst maintaining this ethos of low taxation and sale of its own revenue streams? Any attempt to increase spending through taxation, after the prosperity of the 1980’s, would have been little else but the proverbial bullet-in-your-own-foot; thus, the money must be borrowed or gained from the sale of government assets.

This is where the problem of failed foresight emerges. Austerity was not inevitable, had the neoliberal consensus recognised that privatisation, low taxation and increasing focus on debt was the recipe for economic crisis on an unprecedented scale. Austerity is the product of ignorance to the inherent fluctuations of capitalism; an ignorance that removed any state capability for self-investment, any capability to reinvigorate the economy and consumer confidence, and any ability to enact any alternative to brutal cuts that affected millions. Not only did the population face severe cuts, it also faced negative real wage growth. The UK achieved the 2nd worst economic performance in Europe between 2007 and 2015, only Greece managed worse. The nation sank to the bottom of the OCED wage growth index in 2018.

Perhaps more troubling than this, the rhetoric surrounding austerity removed the decision from the political sphere. The Conservative government made it appear as an unavoidable evil that we, the people of Britain, would just have to grit our teeth and bear the severity of. It is important, now more than ever, to challenge the ideas around austerity as a ‘success’ and those who seek to remove debate and democracy from political decisions. If light is not continually shed on how brutal, unequal and unsuccessful austerity has been for the current and future state of Britain, then we leave ourselves prone to this kind of unnecessary rhetoric again; perhaps even as a cover for more inherently unequal policy.

Lords delay Dickensian changes to free school meals, but they must be overturned

Approximately 30% of children live in relative poverty in the UK, and for most of these, school meals are the only way in which they get a hot meal each day. However, under proposals voted through by the Conservatives last week, which children get Free school meals will be changing in line with the controversial Universal Credit system.

With 1.3 million children claiming free school meals, there is clearly an issue in Britain with child poverty, and we can all agree that for such a developed country this is a disgrace. Under new plans, The Children’s Society and The Labour Party claim that “over a million children will be without a hot meal in schools”.

Under the new proposal, those earning over £7,400 from work and on Universal Credit, your child won’t be entitled to FSM if they’re in Year 3 or above. But by this definition, the government is effectively saying that if you are earning even one penny over the means test threshold (£7,401), you aren’t in poverty and you can afford to feed your child. This, to put it lightly, is atrocious.

With the cost of living increasing, and real wages going backwards, many people who has a household income of £25,000 per year are struggling to cope, let alone £7,400. For example, the Minimum Income Calculator shows that a couple with two primary school age children need to be earning £19,230 per year EACH to have a decent standard of living. Yet the government argue that if you’re earning over £7,400 per year, you don’t need your child to have free school meals. This is nothing short of a disgrace. The reform is yet another example of a Tory government that simply does not understand poverty.

The Government estimate that if earning “around the threshold of £7,400” and on Universal Credit, families would have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 when benefits are taken into account. But with the aforementioned Minimum Income Calculator statistics, its clear that earning in the government estimated amounts per year from benefits and work simply isn’t enough to live comfortably. And once again, it must be emphasised that if you earn £8,000 for example, and are on universal credit, you aren’t going to be eligible for FSM.

So what can we take from this? Well, clearly, less children will be receiving FSM in the future, and this could have a devastating effect on their education and lives as a whole. It’s a known fact that during childhood, proper nutrition is important to academic success. If a child isn’t eating enough, they will struggle in school and in their normal home life as a whole. Free School Meals offer them the chance to eat a hot meal in school and combat malnourishment caused by poverty. The Conservatives clearly don’t care about this.

The Labour party were desperate for these plans to go ahead, this meant the Tory party needed further support. The solution, buying of the DUP. Promising that Northern Ireland would be excluded from the proposals so they got the bill through the Commons. This is, in my view, political corruption, and while not punishable in any way by parliament, it should be by the electorate. So many children in the future will be adversely affected by these horrific changed, and we must fight them. Winning the vote by 312 to 254, the Labour annulment failed, much to the displeasure of the  Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who promised to “continue to campaign for free school meals for the poorest children”. The fact the DUP knew that doing this was wrong, evident by the fact the initiative will not go ahead in Northern Ireland, yet voted for it anyway is disgusting.

I recently wrote to my local MP, Conservative Whip David Rutley, and his response back was simply an attack on the Labour Party, not a justification of the new policy. Claiming that Labour have lied about the policy and that no children will lose FSM in the future, Mr Rutley was insistent that this policy would be beneficial, inserting the claim that 50,000 more children will be eligible for FSM in the future. While this may be true to an extent, we have a rising population so naturally, with more people going into a state of poverty, and his party failing to combat this, of course more children will need to be eligible for FSM in the future.

On 20th March however, the government was dealt a damaging blow, when a motion proposed by Labour Peer Steve Bassam urging the government to halt the changes to its Free School Meals policy, and this motion was won by 167-160 votes. While having no complete power over government policy, this shows that even the Lords don’t agree with the policy. The lack of coverage of this by the Mainstream Media is disappointing, as not only is this a crucial blow for the government, but it also shows that the Lords have some relevance after all.

While they should be a fully elected body, the fact they’ve rebelled against the government shows that they can have a purpose. Obviously, they haven’t stopped the government on this issue, they at least have the chance to influence and stop them from putting forward such a disastrous policy.

The debate on Free School Meals is one that must not be brushed under the carpet. We have a duty to help our vulnerable children in poverty, and the governments careless and thoughtless policy will only serve to damage the lives of these children and indeed, their families, even further. We must stand up and fight the government on this issue or else face the most vulnerable group in society suffering even further.

Tory East Cheshire Council face six police investigations

Currently facing SIX ongoing police investigations, the Conservative led Cheshire East Council has been in the firing line recently for its perceived corruption. It all started when it was revealed that the Executive had controversially awarded contracts to a company belonging to the physiotherapist of former Council Leader Michael Jones £70,000 for an academy in Crewe, bypassing normal procedures to do so. In addition Jones is also being investigated for falsifying air pollution figures and his conduct as a Councillor. Another senior figure, Mike Suarez, is under investigation for allegations of bullying.

Earlier this year, it was reported by the Macclesfield Express that police had opened two further investigations into the council, while further bullying claims have since arisen from staff members at the troubled council. The government considered placing the council under special measures, however since the investigation by the government, nothing has changed, and the council remains in a state of utter chaos.

Popular satire magazine Private Eye named the council as ‘Filthy Liars of the Year’ last year on the basis of their falsification of air quality figures, and this title couldn’t be more appropriate. A failure to pay some staff the National Minimum Wage sparked one of the many police investigations into the group, with it being revealed that the council were ‘fully aware’ of the fact that care workers within the local authority were being paid below the minimum wage.

In September 2017, 10 of Cheshire East’s Independent Councillors called upon the Cabinet to resign or face special measures. No action was taken. The cabinet remains as it was, and the Secretary of State Sajid Javid has since taken no action at all, despite a petition of over 2,000 signatures at the time.

So why has no action been taken by the government? Residents of the authority argue that it is down to the fact that the Conservative Government don’t want to acknowledge the problem facing the council, so they are choosing to ignore them. With police investigations piling up, many residents argue that it’s time for action to be taken.

Laura Smith, MP for Crewe, has also contacted the Secretary of State, voicing her concerns, however it’s clear that these concerns aren’t shared by the government, perhaps as a result of the fact that at the end of the day, the council has proven to be very loyal to the Tories ideological pursuit of austerity and other policies, with Smith passionately campaigning for more funding for the care sector from the council.

The inaction of Macclesfield MP, David Rutley, to address the public concerns into the council only further shows the lack of concern that the Tories have about Cheshire East. The council is failing residents, with austerity policies affecting areas such as the buses in the local authority and the care sector, and calls for meetings to be closed to the public.

Councillor Laura Jeuda of Macclesfield South Ward recently claimed that council staff are ‘too scared to speak out’ regarding the bullying that is claimed to be going on at the Council, with anyone who threatens to blow the whistle on the practices and treatment of staff being told they will be dismissed according to the councillor. Many have linked the rumours surrounding the aforementioned Mike Suarez scandal to the bullying accusations, so its entirely possible that this abuse of staff is a long-term issue embedded into the group.

This week it was also reported that the Council had contracted the group ‘Orbitas’ to oversee the continued care of Macclesfield Cemetery, however pictures on social media revealed that the area had fallen into a state of disrepair. Contractors were accused of ‘recklessly damaging’ memorial stones after car tracks were found to have driven over memorial stones. While the council has since come out and denied any involvement in this, the fact that they were accused in the first place demonstrates the low regard the council is held in.

Of course, local Tories haven’t kept totally quiet about the council’s issues, and the leader, Rachel Bailey has said that given that the executive had delegated investigations to the police, it was clear that the Conservatives were taking necessary action to combat allegations. However, twitter account CheshireEast Exposed claims that “everything that is wrong happened when she sat in cabinet or was Leader of the council”.

Buses have been a dominant topic for local residents in regards to the shortcomings of the council. Cuts to local bus services have been brutal, and as reported by The Crewe Chronicle, a Crewe bus campaigner said planned cuts to bus services were ‘unbearable’, pointing out that bus users would suffer while suspended officers were being paid full wages for example, when the buses bore the brunt of austerity.

With the council clearly not listening to its residents, and the Vice Chair of Macclesfield Constituency Labour Party, Rob Vernon, calling it ‘the most shambolic, most corrupt council in the United Kingdom’, it’s becoming clearer by the day that Cheshire East is suffering. While the outcomes of the ongoing police investigations are obviously unknown currently, residents have been left expecting illegal wrongdoings by the council leading to judicial action. The current regime seems unable and unwilling to fix the issues, and Labour/Independent councillors last year called for an executive made up of people from all parties. This proposal was thrown out by the Tories, who are clinging onto power. But with the local elections for the borough in 2019, and more citizens of towns like Macclesfield and Crewe coming forward to speak out against the council, could Labour stand a chance of finally restoring order to the council in disarray? Early signs look positive for Labour candidates, and in turn, Cheshire East residents themselves.

Retraction: We stated previously that “Jones’ successor Mike Suarez is also under the spotlight for allegations of bullying.” This was incorrect. Mike Suarez did not succeed Jones as leader of the council and is instead the chief executive of the council. We also stated “with leader after leader resigning, from Jones to Suarez” again Suarez did not lead the council and nor did he resign. Suarez was suspended and has not resigned.

Can the special relationship overcome Trump’s protectionist dialogue?

For ultra-Conservative politicians like Nigel Farage, Anglo-American relations have never been better. With Trump in the White House and Britain leaving the EU, it was time to celebrate. When Farage stepped into the lobby of Washington’s plush Hay-Adams hotel earlier this month, to deliver a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, one would be forgiven for glossing over the fact that Farage wields no power in the corridors of Westminster.

Nevertheless, the current pastiche of Fox-branded Conservativism is central to the Trump presidency, and it is the Trump presidency that will forge a new era in Anglo-American relations post-Brexit – one that Brexiteers believe will ultimately result in an iconic US-UK trade deal surpassing anything that could have been offered by Brussels.

It seemed Mr Trump agreed, hosting Theresa May just days after his inauguration. The Prime Minister was the first international leader to visit the White House in the Trump administration, and very obvious attempts were made by both sides to reaffirm the “Special Relationship”. Mr Trump held Mrs May’s hand on the walk down the colonnade and assured the world’s media that the US will always have Britain’s interests at heart, likening their relationship to that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

It was great PR from both sides, but as with many subsequent press conferences from Trump and May, it lacked any evidence of substantial policy to provide certainty as to how this relationship would work in practice. Naturally, the two nations will always continue to collaborate and defence and security matters and will be natural allies in global conflict. For example, Trump affirmed his commitment to NATO, and the two nations reached an agreement in December 2016 to deploy US-built F-35 fighter jets on the Royal Navy’s new fleet of aircraft carriers.

However, the success of Theresa May’s government lives and dies by the completion and success of Brexit. 52% of the population, we are told, voted to take back control of Britain’s borders and statute books, and give Downing Street the power to agree its own trade deals. Therefore, a crucial marker for the success of any post-Brexit government will be its ability to strike better trade agreements for Britain than if it were a member state of the EU. Naturally, all eyes will be on trade negotiations with the US – its largest single-nation trading partner, when Britain leaves the EU in 2019.

Similarly, Donald Trump’s presidency lives and dies by his perceived ability to ‘Make America Great Again’, with his ‘America First’ rhetoric appealing to voters in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where the decline of traditional industries has caused jobs and incomes to stagnate. It should come as no surprise to anyone Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has significant implications on the administration’s approach to global trade. After all, his campaign speeches often criticised the Obama administration’s handling of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

What started as vague threats on Twitter has recently turned into real action, with Trump announcing tariffs of 25% tariff on steel and 10% on aluminium imports on March 9th, a move which apparently triggered the resignation of Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser. This followed announcements in January over tariffs on solar panels and washing machines – all decisions made in Trump’s mind to protect American businesses and give a competitive advantage to US-based manufacturers, by increasing the prices of foreign goods.

Although the White House has offered exceptions to the tariffs for America’s, the move has been heavily criticised by China and South Korea, who supply the US with aluminium, steel and white goods. They both believe that the policy violates World Trade Organisation rules, though Washington argue that the tariffs are in the interests of national security under Article XXI of the WTO treaty. At the time of writing, European Council president Donald Tusk is urging the US to resume trade talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, in response to Trump’s threat of increased taxes on EU cars.

So where does this leave Britain? Clearly, protectionist trade policies and threatening America’s most important existing agreements in TTIP and NAFTA make for a less-than-ideal environment for Liam Fox and his team, tasked with eventually securing the US-UK trade deal promised at the start of Trump’s presidency. Fox’s first task is to ensure the UK will be exempt from the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium while it is still a member of the EU, a tariff that has many British companies such as Jaguar Land Rover very worried.

As for the wider promise of securing a US-UK trade deal after Brexit, it’s clear that Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to global trade will most likely make for an uncompromising approach to future talks with London. The UK’s aviation industry has already expressed concern over compromises to existing agreements, which could limit flights between the two nations. Boris Johnson was right to claim that the UK was “first in line” for trade talks with the US, but Trump’s current stance suggests his loyalty to his domestic supporters will outweigh any concessions the UK can expect on trade talks in the name of the ‘Special Relationship’.

Blairite MPs support government over Russia sanctions

Just hours after Theresa May announced sanctions against Russia following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury last week, Labour MPs have tabled a motion in Parliament backing the Government, opposing the line taken by Jeremy Corbyn.

Early Day Motions, which have no chance of being debated and are purely symbolic, is being organised by John Woodcock, chair of the Labour Backbench Defence Committee and arch-hawk on military and defence issues. Many of the others are from the right of the party, associated with the Progress faction.

Responding to May at lunchtime, Corbyn called for the maintaining of “robust dialogue” with Russia despite the high-level bilateral contact being suspended. He also criticised the savage cuts which the Conservatives have carried out to the diplomatic service, with the Foreign Office cut by 25% since 2010.

The exchanges were tense as Corbyn raised questions of the Prime Minister, including what steps were being taken to provide Russia with a sample of the nerve agent for their own analysis and if any analysis has been carried out to try and ascertain where the nerve agent was produced.

The MPs behind the EDM, many of whom are longstanding critics of the Corbyn leadership and led the coup in summer 2016, are falling in behind the Government line. This comes just hours after the French Government announced they want to see definitive evidence and proof of Russian involvement before taking action.

As a member of the Privy Council, Jeremy Corbyn will have had access to intelligence that Labour backbenchers haven’t. There are rumours that some frontbenchers may be willing to go as far as to resign in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories.

Disabled man requesting additional assistance from DWP taken off Disability Living Allowance

In the UK one million people have a disability, long-term illness or serious impairment. One in five. This is the story of one of them.

My son, Ben, lives in Cornwall. He is 44 and has been disabled since he was six months old after a vaccination precipitated Salaam epilepsy.

At Great Ormond Street Hospital, doctors prescribed a high dose of steroids which left him so weakened he contracted pneumococcal meningitis. He then developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid inside the skull which can cause catastrophic brain damage.

To alleviate the pressure, the hospital fitted a Spitz-Holter shunt to drain cerebral fluid from his brain into his heart. It was the doctors’ conclusion that Ben would never lead a normal life.

Since 1973, he has struggled against his physical and mental impairments. His eyesight is poor and the right side of his body has atrophied and shortened which causes him to walk with a limp. He often falls and has to use a stick.

He picks up common illnesses easily due to a compromised immune system. In recent years, he has had a recurrence of epilepsy.

Despite his limitations, Ben achieved a BTEC National Diploma in HND in Business and Finance but, other than an 18-month stint at MTV, has never been able to hold a full-time job. He occasionally picks up small bits of income working as a DJ and runs an online radio station from his home.

For 20 years, he received a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) of £80 per week and £108 per week working tax credits, a weekly income of £188. That’s £112 worse off than working full time at minimum wage.

He recently went for a scan on his right ankle which was causing him discomfort and was given anti-inflammatories and pain killers. His doctor is currently helping him with a request to be given an electric wheelchair.

Because his mobility was worsening, he contacted the Department of Work and Pensions to request assistance with his housework. He could only stand for 30 seconds without being in agony. He said, “They told me that my benefits had been stopped. As a result, my weekly income fell from £188 to £67. They said I could apply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which had replaced DLA. I did so, but my application was rejected.

“It was a massive blow and has has left me with a huge shortfall. It’s crazy because my disability means I have to take five tablets twice a day as I’m in constant pain.”

Ben’s list of drugs include Keppra for epilepsy, Citalopram for depression, Omeprazole for acid reflux and sore throats, Paracetemol for pain and Ibuprofen for anti-inflamation.

He has lodged an appeal with the DWP, but this can take up to a year to be heard. His ageing parents are now using their savings to help him and he is fortunate to have a cousin who, as a lawyer, gives him free legal advice.

Ben will not end up on the street. He will not starve. He will not die. But what of the many thousands who face the same mistreatment at the hands of the DWP and don’t have family or friends as a safety net? Many are desperate and it has been acknowledged that ninety people a month are dying after the DWP has declared them ‘fit-for-work’.

Sir Patrick McLoughlin, former Chairman of the Conservative Party, said ministers had to view the funding for people with disabilities in the context of a wider need to reduce the UK’s budget deficit. This is code for what lies behind government austerity polices.

According to the Resolution Foundation, last year the richest reaped 80% of the rewards from tax and benefit changes, while the poorest became worse off,

For this obscene transfer of money from poor to rich, it’s not so much “Let them eat cake”, as “Let them die”.

May announces sanctions on Russia following Salisbury attack

When Theresa May came to the House of Commons on Monday and pointed the finger for the Salisbury poisoning at Russia and the Kremlin, she gave a deadline of midnight last night for a full response. When it soon became apparent that Russia wouldn’t be forthcoming, the Prime Minister had to come forward with strong “response” she promised.

So this afternoon, following a meeting of the National Security Council where Theresa May described the Salisbury incident as a “Kremlin calling card” she returned to the Commons to set out the sanctions Russia now faces.

May accused Russia of showing “complete disdain” for the process and the gravity of the situation. She added, “the Russian state is culpable” for the events, which she branded “an unlawful use of force” which forms part of a “well-established pattern of Russian aggression”.

The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have spent the past week discussing potential sanctions with allies both in the EU and NATO, but ultimately the steps set out this afternoon only involve the UK.

There will be 23 diplomats expelled from the UK, all of which have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers. This is the biggest expulsion for more than 30 years and these individuals will have just one week to leave.

The Government will also bring forward an amendment to the Sanctions Bill to enable further steps to be taken, despite blocking a similar amendment when proposed by Labour in the past month. The Home Secretary is also considering new powers to detain suspects at the UK border, something currently only available for suspected terrorists.

Some state assets from Russia will be frozen and all planned high-level bilateral contact has been suspended. This means that the planning visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been cancelled. May stopped short of cutting all diplomatic ties. And some dialogue will continue with Russia. May also eluded to other secret actions which may be taking place, following speculation that cyber attacks could be conducted against the Russians.

Responding to the statement Jeremy Corbyn raised the cuts that have taken place to the budget of the Foreign Office, and called for both strong diplomacy and political pressure.

The Government has stopped short of some of the other suggested sanctions including withdrawing England from the football World Cup, though no members of the Government or Royal Family will attend, and taking RT – formerly Russia Today – off the air.

It remains to be seen how the Russian Government will react in the coming days, but it’s almost certain that UK officials will be expelled from Moscow in response.

Rock Bottom: Can Europe’s Left learn from Corbyn to reverse its decline?

Europe’s centre-left is locked in a cycle of decay. Across the continent historically unassailable parties are sliding into electoral oblivion, failing to take advantage of growing discontent with the status quo.

The recent failure of Renzi’s centre-left coalition in Italy is just the latest in a string of brutal defeats for the European left. There is hope for Europe’s progressives though, if they can learn from the few success stories of the European left then they may be able to reverse this decline.

Matteo Renzi has overseen the most recent electoral disaster for the European Left

The recent failures of Europe’s left are numerous and seem to repeat similar stories of lack of identity in crowded political environments:

  • In 2017 the Dutch Labour Party was reduced from a close second place to the seventh largest party, pushed out of a crowded electoral field that instead rewarded the radical GreenLeft and Gert Wilder’s far-right Freedom Party.
  • The French Socialist Party was similarly heavily defeated last year in both the presidential and legislative elections after being outflanked on the left and centre by Mélenchon and Macron. The party achieved only 36% of the vote and was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election, then lost 286 seats in parliamentary elections soon after.
  • The German SDP suffered an equally disappointing result, which stung bitterly after the ‘Shultz-mania’ polling surge of last year. This ultimately fizzled-out into a bitter defeat, with the party achieving only 5% of the vote. To make matters worse, despite the efforts of radical young activists, the SDP have now repeated their previous mistake and signed a new ‘grand coalition’ deal that leaves the party unable to do the necessary soul-searching needed to redefine itself outside of the trappings of government.

The latest in this series of progressive defeats was Italy’s Centre-Left Coalition which has now fallen into third place after defeat in March to the populist Five Star Movement and the Centre-Right Coalition. This is a particularly disheartening case, as the centre-left coalition had taken Italy out of recession and achieved slow but steady economic growth over the course of its term, showing that even proven economic competence is no longer enough to save moderate social democratic parties.

Polling shows that even Sweden’s Social Democratic Party – historically Europe’s most successful progressive party – is maintaining only a slim poll lead as it faces serious challenges from parties of the far and centre right in September’s upcoming election.

So why is the European left facing such steep decline? To answer this question, it is necessary to contrast the performance of the moderate parties above with some of the rare success stories of Europe’s contemporary left.

One of the few exceptions to the trend is the UK’s Labour Party, which has increased its votes, seats and party membership over the past two years. Despite an unexpected, heavy defeat in 2015 the party unexpectedly revived its electoral fortunes thanks to a considerable shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. The party defied expectations and overcame a twenty-point polling deficit to take away the parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party, and Labour have maintained a slim but growing poll lead ever since. Although the party remains in opposition, they are testament to the impact that radical political redefining can have on a mainstream party in decline.

The Portuguese Socialist Party is another impressive exception to the trend. A radical, anti-austerity party that is simultaneously popular and properly exercising these principles in power. Portugal can now boast significant deficit reduction and sustained growth thanks to a bold, anti-austerity programme. Portugal’s success has defied negative predictions, with the left overcoming serious economic difficulties and continuing to win-big in elections. It is an enviable model for the rest of the Europe.

The example of Portugal is a stark contrast to Syriza in Greece. In 2015 Syriza rose from a fringe-party to a decisive victory in Greece on a radical anti-austerity platform. This victory of radical politics was held-up at the time as an example of how to save the European left. However, the party is now paying the price in the polls after failing to stick to these principles and being forced to submit to severe austerity measures by the ‘troika’ made up of the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. Clearly radical politics can be a route to power but mean very little if they are not enforced once in office.

So, what can be learned from these contrasting stories of failure and success?

Firstly, it is clear that embracing radical politics is paying off for the mainstream social democratic parties with the courage to accept change. The UK’s Labour Party and Portugal’s Socialist Party clearly show that radical anti-austerity programmes are the only way to differentiate progressive parties in a context of increasingly populist politics.

Secondly, mainstream parties that refuse to set out bold political positions are being outflanked by radical parties from both the left and right. Italy, Holland, France and Germany have all demonstrated the rising threat from small parties across the spectrum to mainstream progressive parties. This trend cannot go unaddressed.

Thirdly, winning power for the sake of it won’t pay off if principles aren’t stuck to. The decline of Greece’s Syriza after capitulating to the austerity demands of the European Union demonstrates this, as does the steady decline of Germany’s SDP after a series of ‘grand coalition’ agreements. In contrast, parties that have stuck to bold political principles after winning power – like Portugal’s Socialist Party – have remained both popular and effective in office.

If the European left is to be saved from decline and irrelevance they will need to be bold and principled. European voters across the political spectrum are looking for radical alternatives, and if the left is to survive it will have to learn from its mistakes to meet that challenge.

Who is to blame for the deaths of 340,000 Syrian civilians?

More than 340,000 people died since what started as a ‘peaceful’ uprising of president Bashar al-Assad almost seven years ago. After succeeding his father in 2000 , protests began during the Arab Spring calling for al-Assad’s resignation. This followed the government’s prevention of freedom of speech and opinion when it came to calls for democracy. 

In Assad’s attempt to bring back government control the protests and violence worsened leading to the formation of hundreds of rebel groups which ultimately led to this civil war.   

Currently Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, home to 400,000 people, continues to be under mass destruction leaving families displaced and desperate. 500 people have been killed by the deadly bombing campaign by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies during the seven-year war. Syrian Civil Defence workers state that government forces targeted the town with a number of deadly weapons including barrel bombs which were dropped from helicopters.  

On 24 February, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2401 in favour of a month-long ceasefire, but this has failed to materialise.  Hospitals, schools, and shops are still being destroyed by air and artillery strikes, despite this Russia have taken action and enforced a “humanitarian pause”, replacing the UN ceasefire. The pause was to occur  for five hours a day allowing civilian corridors to let people flee and evacuate in order to get aid and medical attention. However, reports from Al Jazeera say that many of the victims say there is no guarantee of their safety if they choose to evacuate, whilst they continue to stay in their shelters in an attempt to avoid being seen or bombed they’re still far from safe. A man who recently spoke to Al Jazeera, spoke of being forced to go to a shelter in Douma after the area he lived in with his family was indiscriminately shelled.

Throughout the civil war the Syrian government has denied the use of poisonous gasses but those monitoring the situation have reported otherwise, claiming that there has been at least 200 incidences of poison gas attck. It has been said by local medical and other sources that gases released during a dawn rocket attack caused “cases of suffocation,” Reuters reported. Sadly, these allegations of using illegal chemical weapons is nothing new for the President, rather more of the same.

The blame game for who is responsible for the deaths of civilians continues, with both sides alleging the other is responsible for the number of deaths and destruction that is occurring. Russian Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, states that the accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in Eastern Ghouta is “groundless”, while  the Syrian Observatory claims that they’re able to distinguish between Russian and Syrian planes because Russians aircraft fly higher and they’re not to blame for the deaths.Who