Swimming lessons for adults

October 16, 2009

Swimming lessons for adultsIf you’ve made it to adulthood without learning to swim, it may seem too late to start. But when Ben Field became a father, he decided it was time to overcome his fear of water

Have you learned a childhood skill later in life? Let us know in the comments section below
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Ben Field guardian.co.uk, Thursday 15 October 2009 12.18 BST Article history
In the deep end Ben was told to fold his arms, sink, and then allow the water to bring him back to the surface. All photographs: Matt Howell

At your local swimming pool you’ll see people of all ages splashing about, diving in and generally having fun. But look a little closer and you might see a man with a white-knuckle grip on the handrail. There’s a fixed smile on his face but fear in his eyes, and for all his splashing, he’s fooling no one. This man can’t swim.

Swim Inns 01352 781666 learn-to-swim.co.uk Ben learned to swim on a Swim Inns course in North Wales. The course costs £470 for five days’ tuition – the price includes accommodation, breakfast and three-course evening meals. Additional ‘after-school’ tuition is available at £20 per hour. Up until a few months ago, that man was me. I was a holder of the order of the armband, a fearful denizen of the shallows. Blame, and it is good to apportion blame for something you can’t do, had always been set squarely at: water’s inability to keep me afloat; Mrs Tench* and her tracksuit-clad ilk; whistles.

If I was ever going to stand a chance of swimming, I had to stop blaming nature, vitriolic instructors, and the shrill resonance of pea-powered signalling devices. But for the two decades that followed school, chlorine and I were rarely in the same room.

This all changed when my children came along. Soon I was back in the pool all too regularly for my liking. This grudging, rail-gripping dad would watch as wife and children splashed and swam. He’d field questions from his daughter about why he wasn’t joining in. This embarrassment, coupled with the paternal need to be able to swim to the rescue in the event of one of my offspring copping a lungful of water, eventually spurred me on to make a life-changing call.

Ben: a ‘can’t swim’ Steve Cutt from Swim Inns was on the other end of the line. His residential learn-to-swim course had never failed to turn a ‘can’t swim’ into a ‘can swim’, he told me. Steve also assured me there’d be no tracksuits and definitely no whistles. Water, however, was unavoidable.

The five-day course certainly began differently to the last swimming lesson I had endured. Steve joined me and three other non-swimmers in the pool and talked at length about the body’s natural buoyancy. To prove this point we were encouraged to hold our breath and push ourselves under the water using the bar at the edge of the pool. By tucking my chin into my chest I was able to stop water going up my nose, while my flash-looking goggles let me see what I was doing and really helped to reduce the fear levels. I was amazed at how much effort it took to hold my body under the surface: perhaps water could keep me afloat after all.

From this confidence-building exercise we moved on to stretching out flat from the edge of the pool with our faces in the water to further aid our belief in buoyancy.

Staying under is surprisingly difficult But it all started going wrong with the next exercise: gliding. Gliding involves crossing the width of the pool with just a kick off the wall. Three times I failed to move from the side on Steve’s command, but on the fourth attempt I gave a big kick and propelled myself across the pool.

By the next morning the whole group was capable of floating, some better than others. Men, apparently, don’t float as well as women, and I was the worst floater in the group. If ever there was an inglorious title to hold, that was it. Still, my leaden body helped enormously when Steve asked us to dive down and touch the floor of the pool with our noses. By propelling ourselves to the bottom of the pool with freshly learned breaststroke arms, we all ended up doing the best part of a width underwater.

After another day of sub-aquatic activity, I then struggled with swimming on the surface – mainly because I could see the vast, terrifying watery expanse in front of me. I got over this, and continue to do so, by starting off underwater before popping up to the surface after a couple of strokes.

Ben starts swimming at last! By the end of the course I’d swum a length of the pool, jumped in, sunk down and bobbed up again in the deep end, and generally overcome the base fear that gripped me every time I went near water. Since then I’ve been practising regularly at my local pool. I’m slow, and my legs aren’t very well synched, but I’m getting better with each visit. I get the occasional quizzical look from other swimmers, but I don’t care – my days of bar-gripping and blaming are behind me.

* This is a suitably water-based pseudonym to protect the identity of the instructor in question, but close enough to her real name so she’ll know that she’s being talked about.

What to take on a swimming course
Goggles Screwing your eyes up to stop water getting in only increases tension. Goggles let you keep your eyes wide open and aid relaxation in the water.

A word on swimming attire for men learning to swim Skin-tight trunks suggest a competence in matters aquatic that you don’t yet possess. They also look ridiculous unless you have a Baywatch-spec body. Stick to swimming shorts instead.

Nose peg (optional) Good: Stops you inhaling water. Bad: Makes you sound like a Network Rail announcer.

Other good swimming schools
Swimming Without Stress

Learn To Swim With Us


Why does Labour bail out bankers, yet deny the young?

August 23, 2009

Why does Labour bail out bankers, yet deny the young?
Despite unemployment rising and thousands denied university places, the government just sits back
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Nick Cohen
The Observer, Sunday 23 August 2009
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The modern conservative, JK Galbraith once observed, “is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”. If he were still with us, I am sure he would have relished the rationalisation of self-interest offered by Philip Hammond, the Conservative frontbencher, who will soon be in charge of slashing public spending.

When confronted with accusations that he was expecting his interns to live on the loose change in the office petty cash box, he was not remotely shamefaced. “I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other members are obtaining for nothing,” he replied in an indignant email leaked to the admirably bolshie Interns Anonymous website. “I therefore have no intention of changing my present arrangements.”

Now I accept that interns are both exploited and fortunate. Overwhelmingly, they receive the opportunities denied to poorer children because their parents can subsidise them. I agree too that journalists have no right to criticise politicians when the media have led the way in using the intern system to reinforce class privilege and to give the children of journalists and mangers unfair advantages.

Nevertheless, Hammond’s patrician parting shot – “I therefore have no intention of changing my present arrangements” – encapsulates the complacency of a political class which is behaving as if we were still living in the bright, bubbly summer of 2007. If bankers still want million-pound bonuses, by all means pay them, even if they come at public expense. If unemployment explodes, there is no need for emergency measures.

You might argue that, overall, unemployment has still not exploded to emergency levels. But no one should be complacent about youth unemployment which is heading to unprecedented heights, as a blighted generation sees the door to a better future slammed in its face.

Hammond’s miserliness ought to shock because graduates’ chances of finding work too often depend on signing up for one, two – maybe more – internships. As for their less well-qualified contemporaries, the number of young people in England not in education, employment or training rose to 935,000 this month. It is already higher than in the recession of the early 1990s and within months will top the numbers reached in the early 1980s.

David Willetts, the Tories’ thoughtful higher education spokesman, believes that Gordon Brown’s raid on pension schemes and the ever-increasing costs of an ageing population are imposing an unintended penalty on the young. Companies, which would once reduce numbers by offering generous early-retirement packages, can no longer afford to buy off older workers. They are not only freezing the recruitment of (mainly young) job applicants, but also operating a last-in-first-out policy, which again hits the young disproportionately hard.

Older leftish readers should be stunned that the result could be Labour leaving power with higher youth unemployment than in the darkest days of Mrs Thatcher’s administration. The under-25s will not share our surprise because they cannot remember the 1980s.

We are witnessing the eccentric spectacle of the young responding to a failure of financial capitalism by turning rightwards because most have only known a Labour government. Now that they have seen through its vain promise that security would be theirs if “they worked hard and played by the rules”, they must watch on as it denies tens of thousands places at university.

The rejected will either go on the dole or take jobs that others who never thought of going to university might have had. The new unemployed ought to study the 1980s, for they will then learn what happens next. Danny Dorling of Sheffield University summarised the research in the British Medical Journal earlier this year. Whether they are 16, 18 or 21, unemployment hits the young harder than the old. The experience of rejection, the failure to pass from youth to adulthood, leaves them more likely to suffer from ill health, depression and premature death, as they stammer and stumble through life.

It is extraordinary that Labour acts as if it does not know this and sits back while university admissions tutors turn away able and in some cases exceptional candidates. Further education was the best means at its disposal of combating youth unemployment. All it had to do was stick to its target of getting half of 18-year-olds into further education and there would be no problems now.

To be as generous as I can in the circumstances, I should note that David Lammy and Peter Mandelson have found the money to subsidise 10,000 more students , but that still left 140,000 applicants chasing 22,000 places on Friday. Labour’s main concern is to stop the former polytechnics piling working-class students high and selling them a cheap education. They are not thinking about how to pay for a radical adaptation of the system to meet the new demands of hard times.

Two sources of funding cry out for attention. When Gordon Brown came to power, he tried to distance himself from Tony Blair’s unpopular but necessary policy of introducing student loans by increasing taxpayer support for middle-class students.

The civil service then compounded Brown’s folly by messing up the maths and allowing far too many students to receive the new grants. Ministers ought to take the money back and use it to fund additional places. I suspect they won’t because in an election year they do not want to hear “moral justifications for selfishness” from middle-class parents accusing government of cruelly adding to their children’s burdens.

The alternative is to divert money from academic research to the maintenance of a larger student population until the crisis passes. When I suggested doing just that to a leading academic, she said that her colleagues would go “ballistic” and cry that the government was threatening the top universities whose expertise Britain needs if we are to build a new economy.

She had a fair point, but also a selfish one. For someone has to pay the price of economic failure. And she, like far too many others, was happy for state-financed bankers, middle-class students and research fellows to be spared and to leave our doomed youth to pick up the bill.

Western hostility to Islam is stoked by double standards and distortion

July 21, 2009

Western hostility to Islam is stoked by double standards and distortion
The political and media bias is clear. But we Arabs and Muslims too must combat false, retrograde ideas around our religion
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Alaa Al Aswany
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 July 2009 23.55 BST
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Denny Pattyn is an American priest of a special kind. In 1996 in Arizona, he set up a programme by the name of the Silver Ring Thing with the aim of urging young Americans to refrain from sex before marriage, convincing them that it is fornication, and sinful. Pattyn regularly holds events attended by hundreds of young Americans who read the Bible with him and then pledge before the Lord to preserve their virginity for their future spouses. At the end of the celebration, each puts on their left hand a silver ring inscribed with Biblical verses, which they wear until they marry.

The surprising thing is that Pattyn’s campaign has won a large following in the US, and received funding from the government. On French television I saw a long programme about Pattyn in which his followers defended virginity as a measure of virtue. A French psychologist appeared to discuss their ideas respectfully.

I began to wonder: Pattyn’s ideas about chastity as a measure of virtue are completely in line with Arab Muslim culture, but yet on French TV they deal with him politely because he is American, Christian and white. If an Arab or Muslim had said the same thing, he would have faced a barrage of accusations that he was backward, barbaric and contemptuous of women.

This western double standard is widespread, and there are countless examples. Elections recently took place in Iran and the winner was President Ahmadinejad. But there were allegations of vote-rigging. Western governments were up in arms, issuing strongly worded statements in support of democracy in Iran.

Yet Egyptian elections have been rigged regularly for many years and President Mubarak has taken office through rigged referendums, so why hasn’t that provoked such anger? The outcry is not to promote democracy but rather to embarrass the Iranian regime, which is hostile towards Israel and trying to develop its nuclear capabilities, which are a threat to western imperialism. The Egyptian government, on the other hand, in spite of being despotic and corrupt, is obedient and tame, so the western media overlook its faults, however horrendous they might be.

When the young Iranian woman called Neda Soltan was shot by an unknown assailant, her death quickly became global headline news. Western politicians were so moved that even President Obama, close to tears, said that it was heartbreaking. A few weeks later in the German city of Dresden, an Egyptian woman called Marwa el-Sherbini was attending the trial of a man who racially abused her because she was wearing a hijab. Fined €2,800 for insulting her, the extremist then went on a rampage, attacking Marwa and her husband with a knife. Marwa died on the spot.

The murder of Marwa and the murder of Neda should be seen as crimes of equal barbarity and of equal impact. But the murder of the Egyptian woman in the hijab did not break Obama’s heart and did not receive front-page coverage in the west. The murder of Neda incriminates the Iranian regime, whereas the murder of Marwa shows that terrorism is not confined to Arabs and Muslims – a white German terrorist kills an innocent women and tries to kill her husband simply because she is Muslim and wears a hijab. The western media do not care to convey this message.

In short the west, politically and in the media, generally adopts points of view and policies that are hostile towards Arabs and Muslims. But are Arabs and Muslims merely the innocent victims of this prejudice? Definitely not. We cannot use “the west” as an exclusive term meaning only one thing. There are millions of ordinary westerners who neither love nor hate Islam, simply because they know nothing about it.

Now, what of the image that Muslims themselves convey of Islam? If an ordinary westerner decided to find out the truth about Islam through what Muslims do and say, what would he find? Osama bin Laden would look out at him, as though emerging from a medieval cave to announce that Islam ordered him to kill as many western crusaders as possible, even if they are innocent civilians who have done nothing to merit punishment. Then the westerner would read how the Taliban has decided to close girls’ schools, arguing that Islam bans the education of women on the grounds that they are as intellectually and religiously deficient.

After that, the westerner would read statements from those who call themselves Islamic jurists, saying that a Muslim who converts to another faith must repent or have his throat cut. Some jurists will assert that Islam does not recognise democracy and that it is a duty to obey a Muslim ruler even if he oppresses and robs his subjects. They will welcome women covering their faces with the niqab so that those who see them are not driven by sexual desire.

The westerner will not find out that Islam gave men and women completely equal rights and obligations. He will not find out that in the eyes of Islam if someone kills an innocent it is as if he has killed everyone. He will never find out that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam but is a custom that came to us with the money of the Gulf from a backward desert society. The westerner will never find out that the real message of Islam is freedom, justice and equality, and that it guarantees freedom of belief, in that those who wish may believe and those who do not, need not, and that democracy is essential to Islam, in that a Muslim ruler cannot take office without the consent and choice of Muslims. After all that, can we blame the westerner if he considers Islam the religion of backwardness and terrorism?

Last year, I had to make a speech in Austria about the reality of Islam. I told how the Prophet Muhammad was so mild-mannered that when he knelt down to pray his grandsons Hassan and Hussein would often jump on his back in play. He would stay kneeling so as not to disturb the boys and then he would resume his prayers. I asked the audience: “Can you imagine that a man who stopped praying for the sake of children would advocate killing and terrorising innocent people?”

Many listened to this story with interestand later asked me how they could obtain real information about Islam. It is true that the west’s policy treats us as colonial peoples who do not deserve to enjoy the rights of their citizens, and it is true that its media is mostly biased against Arabs and Muslims – but it is also true that the retrograde Wahhabi reading of Islam that is now widespread helps to entrench an unfair and mistaken image.

It is our duty to start with ourselves. We must save Islam from all the nonsense, falsehoods and retrograde ideas that have attached themselves to it. Democracy is the solution.

Equal opportunity is fantasy in any society this unequal

July 21, 2009

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Equal opportunity is fantasy in any society this unequal
Declining social mobility has exposed Labour’s delusion that huge gaps in wealth do not harm poor children’s chances
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Polly Toynbee
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 July 2009 23.30 BST
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Everyone thinks they want a society in which each child has the same chance to succeed according to their own talent and hard work, regardless of social background. Of course they do. Every politician mouths the same platitude, every party affirms it in its manifesto. Tony Blair spoke movingly of the day when two babies, rich and poor, born into the same maternity ward, would have the same opportunity to flourish – and he meant it. Of course he did. So did Gordon Brown when he set up the social mobility panel, under Alan Milburn, which reports today.

But on Labour’s watch, class has become more rigid, destiny for most babies is decided at birth, and the incomes of rich and poor families have drawn further apart. Labour didn’t mean that to happen and has tried to reverse it. Tax credits, Sure Start, nurseries for all, much better schools, many more university places and apprenticeships almost certainly stopped inequality growing far worse. Since Labour’s babies are still only 12, the long-term good effects of these programmes should prove deeper than current figures show: Milburn says he sees signs that the decline in social mobility “has bottomed out”. At last GCSE results are becoming less closely tied to parental income than before. But all the same, in Labour’s time the haves have accumulated more and made even more certain that their children would be haves too. The ladders up from bottom to top have grown steeper. The barriers preventing the rise of interlopers have grown higher, while the safety net preventing even the dimmest privileged children from slipping downwards has grown stronger.

That was the context when Brown surprisingly asked Milburn to investigate how to improve social mobility. Why Milburn? Perhaps as a sop to an old foe, but more likely because Milburn is as an arch-third wayist who would not frighten the horses by over-emphasising the true cause – gross inequality of wealth and income. Nonetheless, expect the report’s 90 recommendations to offer strong condemnation of the way top universities, professions and businesses perpetuate class privilege in their recruitment policies. Success will depend on persuading professions and employers that it’s in their interest to recruit from a deeper talent pool than the public school-educated cadres that dominate the bar, journalism, medicine, upper ranks of the civil service and all the most desirable jobs. The findings will make dismal reading, showing how the over-coached mediocre but well-spoken applicant with an easy manner wins over the brighter one from a bad school whose A-levels are a personal triumph against high odds. Milburn points to research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showing that state school students with two A-level grades lower than private school students will get as good or better degrees.

He goes out of his way to emphasise that this isn’t just about the poor, but about families on average incomes with high aspirations for their children who lack the contacts and influence to push their children into top slots. The rise of unpaid internships gets the blast it deserves. It’s free labour slavery for the young who can afford to do it and yet denies access to all without parents to support them. All kinds of professions gladly take in bright graduates for free, so their CVs shine with experience their less fortunate contemporaries lack. It should be banned under employment law: instead the recommendation here is for a code of practice with a Kitemark, requiring wages and grants. Milburn is pressing for a permanent social mobility commission of distinguished experts to report every year, just as the child poverty target was fixed in law, with an annual progress report. It won’t make it happen, but it will embarrass any government that lets it slip backwards.

One of the report’s main authors, Geoffrey Vos QC, former chairman of the Bar Council, also chairs the Social Mobility Foundation, which organises high-grade mentoring and two-week taster internships in investment banks, chambers and businesses for clever pupils from schools unused to sending students to top universities. He tells of one investment bank that sends staff out a few days a year for community work in schools; when his foundation suggested it would be more useful if they invited in bright pupils to teach them about investment banking, they refused. The programme was designed to widen the experience of banking staff, not to mess up their office with inconvenient school students. The same famous investment bank had a special programme to assist the sons and daughter of its employees to follow in their parents’ footsteps – social immobility guaranteed from the very same gene pool. Too many top employers choose recruits in their own image – people they feel comfortable with – when what they will need to succeed is diverse staff to face a diverse world.

The report will put a deadly black spot on some cherished government programmes: Connexions, the £470m careers advice and teenage support scheme, Aimhigher and the Gifted and Talented school programme get short shrift. Instead it wants money diverted to making universities sit on the board of every secondary school – close school-university familiarity giving timely advice to 14-year-olds on choosing exam options works best in helping pupils upwards. Expect radical suggestions for training, skills and schools, though axing fees for undergraduates who live at home risks making it less likely poor students will travel to better universities.

On social mobility, Labour willed the ends without confronting the politically difficult means. Equality of opportunity doesn’t happen in any society as grossly unequal as this. The report shows graphically how the only countries that nurture talent regardless of class are those where incomes and lifestyles are most equal. The Nordics do best, because the ladder from top to bottom is short: it’s easy to climb and the social penality for slipping down is less. The US has the least mobility and the steepest ladders, despite the persistence of the anyone-can-make-it American dream. Britain lives with the same delusion, but Labour has learned the hard way that you can’t allow the well-off to keep acquiring more and at the same time hope the children of the poor can catch up with rich children’s life chances. Social mobility is not a separate programme that you can add regardless, like pepper and salt.

A culture of corruption has seeped far into governmenT

July 2, 2009

A culture of corruption has seeped far into governmentWhy do ministers still cling to discredited privatisation? Part of the answer must lie in the lure of the corporate embrace
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Seumas Milne guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 July 2009 21.00 BST Article historyThere is no end, it seems, to the fiasco of rail privatisation. For the second time in three years, the holder of the coveted east coast franchise has walked away from a contract it can no longer afford. Not only that, but it turns out that National Express – whose chief executive, Richard Bowker, has decamped to the Gulf in a hurry – has protected itself from the vast bulk of the £1.4bn it owes the government by insulating its subsidiary, Fred Goodwin style, as a “special purpose vehicle”.

But far from slinking off into the corporate undergrowth, National Express is now threatening to sue the government if it also takes over the company’s two other profitable franchises. Once again, we are in the world of the Metronet consortium, whose collapse finally discredited Gordon Brown’s disastrous public-private partnership for the London underground: where instead of transferring risk to the private sector, the government ends up subsidising private profit and picking up the bill when the music stops.

For all its rise in passenger numbers, Britain’s rail system remains hobbled by the folly of privatisation: overcrowded, unreliable, fragmented and exorbitantly expensive. But far from putting it out of its misery to create a reintegrated publicly owned railway at zero cost, the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, was yesterday insisting the east coast line would be up for tender again as soon as he could manage it.

It’s the same with nationalised Northern Rock. Instead of using it as an engine of public credit, ministers are itching to unload it – maybe on to Tesco. And even as evidence emerged this week that private prisons are performing worse than publicly owned ones, the government is pressing ahead with building yet more.

In England’s health service creeping privatisation is turning into a full-frontal assault as the government strains every nerve to give health corporations a bigger slice of the action: not only in buildings and maintenance, but diagnostics, elective surgery, GPs’ surgeries, district nursing, health visiting and trust commissioning – regardless of the views of staff and patients; the evidence on cost, inefficiency and lack of accountability; and the corrosive impact on the NHS ethos.

When Gordon Brown announced his new entitlement for cancer patients to be seen by a specialist within two weeks, he insisted on an entirely unnecessary extra pledge of private treatment if the NHS was unable to deliver. And when a string of private finance initiative projects – whose costs are now estimated to be double what they would be in the public sector – were on the point of collapse earlier this year, the government bailed them out rather than take them over.

What exactly is going on? At least with PFI, a major motivation continues to be to keep public investment off debt totals. But the passion for all things private goes far beyond that. Partly it’s an ideological conviction that still grips all the main party leaderships, regardless of multiple failures or alternative models.

But the ideology is driven by powerful vested interests. The market for privatised public services is getting on for £50bn and companies are hungry for more. Decades of lobbying politicians, the civil service, corporate-funded thinktanks and the media have created a received wisdom about markets and the private sector, resistant both to facts or the views of ordinary voters.

But corporate capture goes much further than lobbying. The revolving door that propels civil servants into the arms of companies for whom they previously set rules and signed off contracts was well established before New Labour came to power. But the process that saw Tony Blair’s former health adviser Simon Stevens effortlessly transmute into European president of the US company UnitedHealth, or his foreign policy adviser David Manning collect a clutch of directorships, from Lloyds TSB to Lockheed Martin, has now become the norm.

What’s new for Labour is the stampede of ministers for the revolving door. Since 2006, 37 former members of the government have been given permission to take private sector jobs within two years of leaving office. As with their Tory predecessors, many of these jobs involve working for companies directly bidding for government contracts and privatised services. They include Blair himself, of course, whose £12m annual income now includes multimillion contracts with banking groups JP Morgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services, in a sector lovingly protected during his time in office.

But there are plenty of others. The ex-transport minister Stephen Ladyman took a job with the traffic information company Itis, pitching for Whitehall business. The former defence minister Adam Ingram signed up as a consultant for EDS, whose major clients include the Ministry of Defence. One-time home secretary John Reid works for G4S security services, which also does business with his old department.

Interestingly, former health ministers have done particularly well. The ex-health secretary Patricia Hewitt earns more than £100,000 as a consultant for Alliance Boots and Cinven, a private equity group that bought 25 private hospitals from Bupa. After leaving the department, her predecessor, Alan Milburn, worked for Bridgepoint Capital, which successfully bid for NHS contracts, and now boasts a striking portfolio of jobs with private health companies.

When I rang Milburn yesterday to ask whether he saw any conflict of interest in his directorships, he swore and hung up, but later emailed to say he had “always followed the proper processes laid down for former ministers”. Which is perfectly true. None of these politicians has broken any rules, let alone the law. Their appointments were all signed off by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which insists “it is in the public interest” that ex-ministers “should be able to move into business”.

So it’s the rules that need drastic revision. This is a scandal that dwarfs the House of Commons expenses saga or the wider focus on MPs’ second jobs. It beggars belief that the prospect of lavish future consultancies doesn’t influence or shape the decisions of ministers when they’re dealing with corporate regulation and private contracts. A culture of corruption pervades the links between government and business, fuelled by and fuelling privatisation. These relationships are – as Adam Smith put it – a conspiracy against the public interest.

Even in a slump, strikes and occupations can get results

June 25, 2009

Even in a slump, strikes and occupations can get resultsEmployers are hailing a revolution in industrial relations, but the message seems to have been lost at the sharp end
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Seumas Milne guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 June 2009 21.30 BST Article historyA revolution is taking place in industrial relations, the Confederation of British Industry claims, courtesy of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A new “solidarity of employers and their employees” has taken hold, John Cridland, the CBI’s deputy director-general enthused this week, as managements and staff roll up their sleeves to take the “difficult decisions” needed to survive the slump.

If so, news of the new understanding clearly hasn’t reached Lincolnshire, where hundreds of engineering ­construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery burned dismissal notices on Monday after they were sacked for going on strike – and thousands walked out in sympathy across the energy industry for the third time in five months.

The latest dispute began nearly a fortnight ago, when a subcontractor for Total, which owns the refinery, made 51 workers redundant while another contractor was hiring 61 staff on the same project. After hundreds stopped work in protest and unofficial strikes spread by text and flying pickets across Britain, 647 workers were summarily sacked on Thursday night.

By any reckoning, this was surely a provocative and self-defeating move. Not only had the same workforce already demonstrated its capacity to shut down the site – and significant sections of the wider industry – if it believed agreements were being undercut. But the layoffs were in direct violation of a deal to settle an earlier dispute. Perhaps the idea was finally to bring to heel what one manager described as an “unruly workforce”. But after point-blank refusals to negotiate until the workers had applied for their jobs back, the contractors blinked once again and were back in talks on Tuesday, now due to be resumed .

This was, after all, the same group of workers whose unofficial strikes stopped refineries and power stations all over the country in February after a Sicilian contractor shipped in a non-union, and apparently less skilled, Italian and Portuguese workforce. That first Lindsey walkout was portrayed as anti-foreigner because of “British jobs for British workers” placards held by some strikers, as to a lesser extent was another strike in May over a refusal to take on locally based labour at ExxonMobil’s South Hook terminal in Wales.

In fact, both walkouts were clearly aimed at halting the exploitation of EU directives and European court ­judgments to undermine the terms and conditions of all workers in the industry, British and migrant alike – which is why hundreds of Polish workers joined the stoppages. And, crucially, they were successful. In a profitable and highly contractualised industry, a tightly knit workforce has turned a fragmentation designed to benefit employers to their own advantage.

Now, as the unions prepare to ballot 30,000 workers to turn the wildcat walkouts into an official strike, they look set to prevail again – just as Grangemouth oil refinery workers and Shell tanker drivers did last year in battles over pension rights and pay. Success seems to be catching.

The most recent walkouts have naturally focused on jobs, as insecurity grips the labour market. But they also show that, as one leading trade unionist puts it, “it isn’t inevitable that employers have the whip hand, even during a recession, and collective action can deliver results” – while passivity guarantees that jobs, pay and conditions are culled, squeezed and slashed.

Second, they underline the irrelevance of anti-union legislation when workers are determined and well-organised. Every single one of the walkouts at Lindsey and at dozens of other power stations and refineries has been illegal under what Tony Blair boasted were “the most restrictive union laws in the western world”. But so far no employer has even hinted at a visit to the courts, so counter-productive would that be in the real industrial world.

It’s now become obvious that only by defying or ignoring the anti-democratic legislation bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher – which outlaws, for example, all solidarity action – will there ever be the political will to ditch or replace it with something more reasonable.

Of course, there are few workforces with the industrial muscle and organisation of energy or rail. Despite the crisis, some firms and sectors are still highly profitable, while others are on their hands and knees, genuinely struggling for survival. That gap is being exploited by managers reaching for once impossible wish lists on pay, pensions and productivity – and often getting away with it, even as bonus schemes remain stubbornly in place, regardless of public revulsion at bankers’ and executive pay.

In the case of BA chief executive Willie Walsh – who volunteered to give up a month of his £743,000 salary and asked his staff, some of whom earn closer to £11,000, to match him for the sake of the loss-making carrier – such opportunism has tipped over into the grotesque. In any case, it’s not that there is “less ideological resistance these days” when firms demand staff “make sacrifices”, as John Philpott of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development claims, or a newfound partnership between employers and employees, as the CBI insists. It’s the much more straightforward fear of losing their jobs that keeps large parts of the labour force compliant.

But even workforces with far less leverage than those in energy or engineering construction have got results in recent months by taking action against lockouts and closures. Occupations of Ford parts Visteon factories at Enfield, Basildon and Belfast, of Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Prisme Packaging in Dundee all saved jobs or won better pay-offs. Earlier this month, a threatened strike at the Linamar car parts plant in Swansea won the reinstatement of a sacked convenor. As jobs are lost even faster than in the 1980s, others seem bound to conclude there’s no point waiting for politicians to intervene – and take things into their own hands as well.

Meanwhile, the next major industrial relations flashpoint is likely to come in the public sector. That would be true whoever wins the general election. But if David Cameron takes over, the combination of a Tory cuts programme, pressure for new Thatcher-style restrictions on unions and a battle over public sector pensions makes confrontation almost unavoidable. What looks certain is that once the economy starts growing again, the CBI’s revolution will already be a thing of the past.

Asian Capitalism Form

March 19, 2009

Lessons for the west from Asian capitalism
By Kishore Mahbubani
Published: March 18 2009 20:14 | Last updated: March 18 2009 20:14
Asian elites have always looked at the world differently from western elites. And after this crisis is over, the gap in perspectives will widen. Asians will naturally view with caution any western advice on economics, particularly because most Asians believe that the crisis has only vindicated the Asian approach to capitalism.

To be accurate, there is more than one Asian approach. China’s economy is managed differently from India’s. Yet neither China nor India has lost faith in capitalism, because both have elites who well remember living with the alternatives. The Chinese well remember the disasters that followed from the Maoist centrally planned economy. The Indians well remember the slow “Hindu rate of growth” under Nehruvian socialism.

The benefits of the free market to Asia have been enormous: increased labour productivity, efficient use and deployment of national resources, a tremendous increase in economic wealth and, most importantly, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of absolute poverty. Just look at Chinese history through Chinese eyes. From 1842 to 1979, the Chinese experienced foreign occupation, civil wars, a Japanese invasion, a cultural revolution. But after Deng Xiaoping gradually instituted free market reforms, the Chinese people experienced the fastest increase so far in their standard of living.

The desire for an orderly society is deeply ingrained in the psyche of all Asians, which helps explain why virtually all Asian states hesitated to copy America in deregulating their financial markets. Instinctively, they felt government supervision remained critical. This was equally true in India’s democratic system and in China’s Communist party system. It is telling that, while Y.V. Reddy, India’s former central bank governor, was occasionally vilified by his country’s media for holding back on deregulation, he has now become a national hero. His stance saved India from the worst effects of this crisis. China was equally wary of deregulation. Indeed the Chinese leaders may have understood earlier than most that America was building a house of cards with its reckless creation of derivatives. Gao Xiqing, an adviser to Zhu Rongji, then Chinese premier, said in 2000 that “if you look at every one of these [derivative] products, they make sense. But in aggregate, they are bullshit. They are crap. They serve to cheat people.” Mr Gao said all this while Alan Greenspan, as chairman of the US Federal Reserve, was waxing eloquent about the economic value of derivatives.

Asian culture has been honed by centuries of hard experience, which explains why Asians save more. All Asian societies have memories of turbulent times. They know from experience the importance of preparing for the bad days that will follow the good. Most Asian friends of mine find it inconceivable that some Americans can live from pay cheque to pay cheque. “But what happens if you lose your job?” they ask.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 may have been a blessing in disguise. The failure of the International Monetary Fund and western policies then confirmed in Asian minds that they had to create their own safety mechanisms for economic downturns. Thus began a decade-long exercise of accumulating foreign reserves. China’s went up from nearly $145bn at the end of 1998 to almost $2,000bn (€1,520bn, £1,430bn) at the end of 2008. India’s went up from $27.83bn in early 1998 to $315.6bn in June 2008. This enormous pool has helped to protect Asian societies as they hunker down for the storm.

And when this storm is over, we should not be surprised to discover that the greatest global believers in capitalism will be in Asia. But it will be an Asian mix of capitalism, not the western formula, that will become the dominant form of global capitalism, where the “invisible hand” of free markets will be balanced by the “visible hand” of good governance.

The Asian mix may have its own weaknesses. Asia is still underperforming in creativity and innovation. Corruption will remain a serious problem.

The Asian emphasis on the family unit may also be a mixed blessing. Many of Asia’s most successful entrepreneurs are keen to retain family control of the business. This enables them to take a long-term view. But the downside is nepotism and the lack of a deep culture of meritocracy.

On balance, the strengths of Asian capitalism are greater than the weaknesses. Within a decade Asians will have some of the largest free trade areas, including those between China and the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Japan-Asean FTA, and the Indian-Asean FTA that is likely to be set up. Recent history has taught Asians a valuable lesson: more trade leads to greater prosperity. In the Asian way – two steps forward, one step back – trade barriers will gradually come down. By the middle of the 21st century, intra-Asian trade will far surpass that of any other region.

Despite this, there will be no ideological trumpeting of the virtues of Asian capitalism. After their experiences of the past 100 years, Asians are wary of ideology. They prefer the simple, commonsense approach of learning from experience and they will heed the advice of Adam Smith, who said that prudence is “of all virtues that which is most useful to the individual”. It may also be helpful to nations.

The writer, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, has just published The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. To join the debate, go to http://www.ft.com/capitalismblog