Thursday, 31 October 2013

Defending the Indefensible

Here's an amazing press statement from the Unite web site which makes a huge fuss  about the allegedly unfair treatment of Stephen Deans - without ever explaining that the union's real objective was to stop an investigation into Mr Deans' behaviour.   

As far as I can see, Unite's case was that because the Labour Party had dropped its investigation into Mr Deans over alleged wrongdoing in the Falkirk 'vote-rigging' scandal - that Ineos should follow suit and do exactly the same.

Although I fail to see what one thing had to do with the other - and if this was how the issues were explained to Unite members who agreed to go on strike in support of Mr Deans - then all I can say is that they were badly advised and misinformed. 

The company was clearly quite within its rights to investigate claims that Mr Deans was abusing his time-off arrangements at the Grangemouth plant - where he was being paid to represent the interests of the workforce.

Whereas it turns out that Mr Deans was devoting a significant amount of his time and energy working on Scottish Labour Party business - something no other employer in Scotland would tolerate, for sure.

Yet, incredibly, Unite tried to 'persuade' the company to turn a blind eye to what was going on through a damaging campaign of industrial action - but these strong-arm tactics quickly blew up in their face, and rightly so.

How any Labour supporter or trade unionist could defend this kind of behaviour is beyond me - but just imagine what could have happened if the company just rolled over and failed to stand its ground.        

To my mind this is 'Tammany Hall' politics - not the legitimate interests of trade unions in representing their members - though not everyone, it seems, can tell the difference between the two which is worrying. 

The essential point is that it's not part of the Job Description of a union official to work on behalf of a political party - any political party - that can only ever be a voluntary matter outside of an employee's contract of employment.

And that remains true for a full-time official directly employed by a trade union such as Unite - or a local official employed by a private company like Ineos or one employed by a big public sector employer, for example, North Lanarkshire or South Lanarkshire Councils.

Unite seems to think that the trade union's interests and the Labour Party's interests are one and the same, but that is simply untrue and the fact of the matter is that the great majority of union members in Scotland don't even support the Scottish Labour Party.

If anything, I would say that the majority of union members in Scotland vote SNP although that's really beside the point - because the job of a trade union official is to represent the interests of union members at the workplace and that means party politics have no place, at least if people are doing their jobs properly.       

Patience runs thin as Grangemouth workers announce action

30 September 2013
Unite, Britain's biggest union, has today (30 September) given Ineos management seven days notice of industrial action that will begin on Monday 7 October as the union steps up its opposition to the ill-treatment of a union rep at the site and the growing use of agency workers.

The action will involve a ban on overtime and a work- to-rule, meaning the disruption and slowing down of operations at the Grangemouth site in Scotland (see notes to editors).  Workers on secondments will also be recalled to their original roles.

Last week, the workers voted by an overwhelming majority to support suspended union representative Stephen Deans, allegedly in relation to his political role in Falkirk CLP, of which Mr Deans is the chair. He could be sacked if the company rules against him. On a 86 per cent turnout 90.6 per cent of workers voted for industrial action short of a strike and 81.4 per cent voted for strike action.

The union will also hold a mass meeting tomorrow (1 October) at the Grangemouth site where Ineos workers will discuss the potential escalation of industrial action unless the company ends the unfair treatment of Stephen Deans.

Unite Scottish regional secretary Pat Rafferty said: "Unite has given Ineos manangement opportunity after opportunity to come to its senses and end the unfair treatment of Stephen Deans.

"Unite has announced action which will slow down operations from next Monday but the workforce are losing their patience and are ready to escalate the action unless the company ends its treatment of a loyal member of staff with 24 year's service.

"Ineos is trying to spin this dispute into a fight over the future of Grangemouth - this is not the case, we have always been willing to sit down with the company and discuss the challenges facing the business.

"This dispute is about the unfair treatment of Stephen Deans who has already been cleared by the Police  and by the Labour party. We repeat our call to Ineos management to step back from the brink and end this wholly unnecessary dispute."

Stephen Deans was working with Falkirk CLP to select a Labour party candidate to replace the disgraced MP Eric Joyce.

His union Unite has challenged all assertions of wrongdoing by Mr Deans and the CLP, and has been proved correct in this when the Labour party announced on Friday 6 September that Mr Deans was innocent, importantly reiterated by Police Scotland in August when they announced that there was no case against Mr Deans. However, irrespective of these facts, Ineos, which is majority-owned by Jim Ratcliffe, is continuing with a campaign of unfair treatment against an innocent employee.

The union has repeatedly made clear to Mr Ratcliffe and his HR team that it views their actions as nothing other than the unfair treatment of a trade union representative, and that this will not be tolerated.

The Ineos refinery, which sits on the Firth of Forth, is the only refinery north of the border and is Scotland's main fuel supplier. The plant powers the Forties pipeline which is connected to the oil fields in the North Sea and supplies 30 per cent of the UK's North Sea oil.

Unite met with John Swinney SNP cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth on Friday 13 September to urge the minister to put pressure on Ineos' management to end the unfair campaign.

The union has also held meetings with BP which owns the Forties pipeline and has written to Petrochina which has a 50 per cent stake in the Ineos refinery to urge the stakeholders to get Ineos to return to peaceful relations with its workforce.


For further information contact Ciaran Naidoo on 07768 931 315

Notes to editors:

The action to be notified to the employer today covers;

Continuous overtime ban for all members.
Work to rule for all members
Withdrawal of members on secondments and special projects.

Unite is Britain and Ireland's largest trade union with 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.

Star Chamber

The strange world of union politics took another bizarre twist the other day with this story in the Times claiming that Labour Party members in Falkirk were awarded star-ratings - based upon their loyalty, or otherwise, to Unite.

Now that seems like a strange thing to do at any time - never mind at someone's place of work during normal working time - and as the report says this comes on top of a letter sent in June by the Unite general secretary to all Labour Party members in Falkirk - despite the fact that they were not all members of Unite. 

So what's all that about?

Because on the face of things it certainly appears that someone has been passing personal information on to Unite which ought to have remained private - and that presumably explains why the matter has been now reported to the Information Commissioner.

In the meantime, I'm sure Labour members in Falkirk would be interested to know what 'scores' they were all given for their loyalty ratings to Unite - I imagine that would be a fascinating document to read.

Unite official rated Labour members for union loyalty

Stephen Deans said he would step down 24 hours before a disciplinary hearing

Stephen Deans said he would step down 24 hours before a disciplinary hearing - Photo by James Stewart

By Lindsay McIntosh and Laura Pitel

Labour Party members in Falkirk were awarded star-ratings based on their loyalty to Unite, and a database containing the information was found in the workplace of Stephen Deans, the trade union official at the centre of vote-rigging claims, The Times has learnt.

Ineos, the owners of the Grangemouth plant, have now alerted the Information Commissioner to look into any data protection breaches.

The revelations emerged on the day Ineos announced that Mr Deans — who was Unite convener at Grangemouth — decided to quit his job at the plant. His resignation came hours before managers were expected to sack — or at least heavily discipline — him for alleged breaches of company rules.

The company had called in lawyers to investigate his activities amid allegations he was seeking to influence the outcome of Labour’s choice of candidate for the Falkirk seat. Their check led to the discovery of the database last week. The files are believed to hold details of members of the Falkirk Constituency Labour Party. Each individual has been given a star-rating from zero to three according to their perceived support for Unite.

Last Thursday, managers at Grangemouth summoned Mr Deans to a meeting and told him they had evidence that he was using company resources inappropriately. He was given five days to respond and on the fourth day — yesterday — he quit.

It is understood that the lawyers had discovered he was spending about 25 per cent of his time on activities not related to his job, which was to represent the workforce to management. Most of his extra-curricular work is thought to have related to the Falkirk Labour Party, which was selecting a candidate for the Westminster seat. Mr Deans is also understood to have been spending time doing work for Unite not related to Grangemouth.

Ineos said in a statement: “Mr Stephen Deans has today resigned from the company with immediate effect. The company has conducted a thorough investigation into Mr Deans’ activities over the last 18 months and made Mr Deans aware of these findings last week. Mr Deans requested an additional five days prior to the final disciplinary hearing to allow him time to provide any further relevant information. The company was due to meet with Mr Deans again tomorrow but has now received his resignation.”

Asked about the database, the Information Commissioner’s Office confirmed: “We have recently been made aware of a possible data breach. We will be making inquiries into the circumstances of the alleged breach of the Data Protection Act before deciding what action, if any, needs to be taken.”

A spokesman for Police Scotland said: “Papers were handed in to Falkirk police station and will be passed to the electronic crime unit for examination.”

Unite has previously been accused of misusing the personal data of local party members. In June Len McCluskey sent a letter to all party members about the scandal, despite the fact that they were not members of the union.

Responding to the report to the Information Commissioner, Unite said: “As Chair of the Falkirk Labour Party, Stephen Deans’ access to Labour Party members was entirely legitimate. And therefore no breach of the Data Protection Act.”

Energise Ryanair

I enjoyed this opinion piece by John Rentoul in the Independent which reviewed the performance of the Big Six energy companies in front of a House of Commons select committee - to which he seems to have concluded that the cuckoo in the nest (Ovo) came out the real winner.

Now I would take this whole business a bit further - I would let someone like Ryanair loose on the UK energy market because although Michael O'Leary's highly successful airline has its detractors - there is no doubt that Ryanair has revolutionised the costs of air travel both in the UK and across Europe.

Personally speaking, I would welcome a budget airline like Ryanair operating across the Atlantic to Canada and America, for example - where air fares are far too high - and travellers have little choice but to pay what the big operators demand.

I learned the other day that the last Labour Government reduced the number of energy companies from 22 to what we have now - the Big Six - which now looks like a mistake although the real question is whether or not these companies are making excessive profits and exploiting an uncompetitive market - in which case a windfall tax on the companies may be the best short-term solution.

If Labour is now taking the view that more competition not less is what's needed - then why now create a new publicly owned company to compete with the Big Six and turn them into a Big Seven - always remembering that Ed Miliband was a senior member of the last Labour Government and at one time energy secretary, if I recall correctly.

In any event, wholesale nationalisation is not the answer - as John Rentoul rightly says - so let's have a bit of new thinking about what's really in the best interests of of the consumer.   

The Big Six in front of MPs: This was supposed to be a grilling, but even Russell Brand would have struggled to give one

By John Rentoul

Nationalising the energy industry will not make electricity bills magically cheaper

The trouble with russellbrandism, in one easy-to-understand afternoon session. The energy company bosses were lined up in front of the tribunes of the people for their ritual, cathartic humiliation, and failed resolutely to be humiliated. If Brand had been there, he would have disappeared into his self-combusting rhetoric, unable to decide whether to condemn the MPs or the fat-cat capitalists in the more colourful language.

For normal people, with a passing sympathy for Brand’s summons to revolution, the energy bosses would have been the more pressing target at which to rant. The voice of the people in this case was a northern Labour MP (Ian Lavery) who asserted in a loud and cross voice that energy company profits were “unfair” because some people couldn’t afford to pay their bills.

That is the sort of statement that makes less sense the more you think about it, and the trouble with select committee hearings is that they give people a lot of time to think about things, including, “I wonder how long this is supposed to go on?”

Normal people don’t have to sit through select committee meetings, but I suspect that most of us have an understanding of market economics that works at two levels. Level one is that prices seem to go up a lot, don’t seem to go down when world prices go down, and that the bosses of a lot of companies seem to get paid an awful lot, which doesn’t seem to go down if their companies do badly. But level two is that nationalising the energy industry would not make gas and electricity bills magically cheaper.

People do not have to sit through an afternoon’s committee meeting to know this. But anyone suffering from a touch of russellbrandism would learn it quickly enough if they had to listen to energy company executives talking about “buying ahead on a 24-month curve”. All the jargon and percentages cannot obfuscate the laws of economics. A 5 per cent profit margin is roughly what Tesco makes in a ferociously competitive grocery market, dominated by a Big Four, not even a Big Six. The rest is decoration.

If some people switch to a cheaper tariff, other people will pay by being too intimidated to fill in some forms on the internet. If the Government decides to take the help for old people to insulate their houses off the bills, it will have to be paid for by taxes instead. The green taxes could be reduced or abolished, but everyone on level two thinks that a few windmills or solar panels are a good idea, and anyway they are a tiny part of the bills - the pure green taxes account for only about 2 per cent.

The only people who really gained from this afternoon’s session were Ovo, one of the new entrants to the energy supply market, whose salesman - I mean managing director - Stephen Fitzpatrick used it to advertise his prices as being 12 per cent lower than his rivals’. Thus a people’s trial set up to vent revolutionary fervour at the expense of the energy company bosses was co-opted by the creative life-force of capitalism to sell us another product.

Police Numbers

The BBC reports that an independent survey of police officers in England and Wales confirms that over 9 in 10 (91%) believe that it is time for the organisation that represents them - the Police Federation (police trade union) - to change.
The survey of 12,500 serving police officers also found 64% are dissatisfied with the performance of the federation and that its members are "appalled" at the damage the 'Plebgate' affair is doing to the Police.
In the understatement of the year, the Police Federation called the initial findings "worrying" - while reserving its position until the full results are published in January 2014.
No great hurry then, just move along there - in your own time!

All joking aside, I think the Police and Police Federation are to be congratulated for asking what their officers/members really think - in an independent survey - and having the courage to publicise the results.

Now I ask you this: Can anyone imagine Len McCluskey and Unite doing the same thing over Grangemouth? 

Logic and Reason

Richard Dawkins is someone whom I greatly admire for his steadfast determination to tell the truth about religion and religious belief, as he sees and engages with the world - on the basis of science, logic and evidence - and for his refusal to be browbeaten by by fundamentalism of any kind.

I have heard Richard Dawkins debate these issues on many occasions and my observation is the same as Isaac Chotiner's - the scientist is soft-spoken, reserved and extremely polite - not unlike the speaking style of Christopher Hitchens, albeit much less combative.

To my mind the 'ferocious' reputation pinned on Richard Dawkins by some - stems from his willingness to challenge their beliefs with reason, persistence and civility - but never rancour or personal hostility.  

I particularly enjoyed Richard Dawkins Twitter comments on a 'virgin birth' and the following exchange during the course of his interview with Isaac Chotiner:

IC: You have more of a reputation as someone who shouts people down.

RD: I don’t shout people down. I argue people down, perhaps. 

Now that's the kind of answer that drives Dawkins' detractors mad - not least because it's true.   

Richard Dawkins interview: On Pope Francis, poetry and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes

The controversial biologist Richard Dawkins talks unrepentantly to Isaac Chotiner about Muslim scientists, the uses of literature, Pope Francis, and Darwinian altruism.


Richard Dawkins speaking at a book festival last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

This piece was originally published at

Richard Dawkins first became famous for his pioneering work in evolutionary biology, but these days his reputation stems mostly from his no-holds-barred advocacy of atheism. On Twitter, his attacks on religion are blistering and relentless. Sample tweet: “I’m not ‘intolerant’ of your belief in a virgin birth. Please be tolerant of my right to tolerate your belief but call it stupid.”

But in his new memoir, An Appetite For Wonder, Dawkins reveals a softer side. The book covers his childhood—including his struggles with a stammer and nasty teachers—and his discovery of the beauty of science. He writes about scientific discoveries with a sense of joy: In the early 1960s, as a zoology student at Oxford, he was transfixed by the experience of processing data on the university’s sole computer. The memoir concludes with the publication of his foundation-shattering 1972 book, The Selfish Gene, which argues that selflessness is a good genetic strategy because it can help close relatives thrive.

When I met Dawkins at a hotel in Washington, D.C.—he currently lives and teaches at Oxford—he did not noticeably resemble his forceful public persona. Instead, he was soft-spoken and reserved. He is not exactly warm, but listens attentively, a rather rare quality among famous academics. Over the course of two chats, he discussed a wide range of topics—including Pope Francis, his love of poetry, and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes—without any apparent concern for political correctness.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think religion can be eradicated from society?

Richard Dawkins: Yes, because individuals clearly get rid of it, and they can be educated into realizing the truth. Faith is the lack of evidence, and it shouldn’t be that difficult to convince people that the right reason to believe something is that there is evidence for it. People do not innately go for this view, but nevertheless it is not that difficult to teach.

IC: When you think about faith, do you think about it as an ideology, the way some people “believed in” communism? I am not comparing the two, but do you think religious beliefs and ideological commitments are similar?

RD: Yes, I think I do. Again, it is belief without evidence. In the case of Stalinism, people actually distorted science, because it was for the good of the Communist Party.

IC: Are you trying to say that people go along with religion even though they know some of it isn’t true—the way American Catholics, for instance, pick and choose what to believe, but don’t question the fundamental tenets of the faith?

RD: I wrote The God Delusion in 2006. You are giving me an interview about The God Delusion and faith, not about my memoir.

IC: We are going to cover it all.


IC: Do you see any dangers from science? And I don’t mean simply that scientists can do bad things just like religious people can do bad things. But also that, with technology and environmental damage and nuclear weapons, the real dangers come from scientific advancement, rather than faith?

RD: If you want to do bad things, science is the most powerful way to do them. If you want to do good things, science is the most powerful way to do them. It is just an effective way to get things done. The whole of technology depends on a scientific background, and of course technology can be used for evil purposes. You can’t blame science for that. What you can do is say, ‘This is an exceedingly powerful tool.’ And you want to make sure it is used for good purposes, not bad ones. That is a political decision.

IC: Do you feel the same way about religion, though? You frequently highlight things like men in Saudi Arabia who stone their wives for having affairs. Is that not a political action rather than a religious one?

RD: You are trying to say, I suppose, that religion is a powerful weapon that can be used because it persuades people to do things. And thus it can be used for good or ill. But it should not be a powerful weapon at all. There is something wrong with using faith—belief without evidence—as a political weapon. I wouldn’t say there is something similar about using science. Science—or the products of science like technology—is just a way of achieving something real, something that happens, something that works.

IC: Doesn’t religion work for people, like for someone who has had children die and gets comfort from believing they are in heaven?

RD: Yes, it can be consoling to think your children are in heaven. You have got to understand that that doesn’t make it true. Many people cannot understand that distinction.

IC: You have gotten involved in a lot of controversies on Twitter about faith. One thing I have noticed is that you often use the argument that religion is something that we choose, unlike, say, race or sexual orientation. I wonder what the word “choose” means if you go to, say, a poor, religious, Muslim country.

RD: You don’t really get much choice.

IC: In two senses: One is that you cannot go on the street and shout that you are an atheist, the other is that you are never given the intellectual framework for calling your faith into question.

RD: That is true. I suppose I would like to give them the intellectual framework. I would like to find a way in which people in Saudi Arabia could learn that they can be something other than a Muslim. Some people may not realize this. Of course, there is the problem that you can get in trouble or get stoned.

IC: Small side effects.

RD: Yes. But you are asking how much freedom of choice we really have. It is important not to confuse race and religion.

IC: You got in trouble for a tweet where you noted that there had been more Nobel Prizes from King’s College, Cambridge, than from “all the world’s Muslims.”

RD: Trinity College, you mean.

IC: Trinity College. I am American. But back to your remark.

RD: That was unfortunate. I should have compared religion with religion and compared Islam not with Trinity College but with Jews, because the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.

IC: OK, but what do you make of that?

RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.

IC: I still want to know what you draw from this. Do you think the Torah is more progressive than the Koran?

RD: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that.

IC: So then what?

RD: I haven’t thought it through. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a minor thing; it is colossal. I think more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews. And especially if you don’t count peace prizes, which I think don’t count actually …

IC: Kissinger won one of those. C’mon.

RD: Exactly. Most of the ones that have gone to Muslims have been peace prizes, and the [number of Muslims] who have gotten them for scientific work is exceedingly low. But in Jews, it is exceedingly high. That is a point that needs to be discussed. I don’t have the answer to it. I am intrigued by it. I didn’t even know this extraordinary effect until it was pointed out to me by the [former] chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks.

IC: He must have been anxious to share this fact.

RD: Yeah. He shared it with due modesty, but I thought it was astounding, and I am puzzled about it.

IC: There have been a lot of studies done—Paul Bloom at Yale is one of the big guys behind this—that say there is a genetic basis to faith. Or at least a genetic reason that we look for patterns in things that are not there. Are you sympathetic to this view?

RD: Oh yes. I think that Bloom’s approach—and others who take it—is not so much that there is a precise genetic basis to faith. But there is a genetic basis to a psychological predisposition that manifests itself as faith and religion under the right conditions.

IC: Does this change, in any way, your belief that faith is a choice?

RD: No, I don’t think so.

IC: I am curious how much you try to convince people about religion. I am sure you have heard people say that you are a great advocate for science and others who say that you alienate people. Do you worry about that?

RD: There may be some people who are turned off, but I think there are a lot who are not. Possibly we need both approaches. When I sign books, I get lines of people and what they usually say is: “Thank you. You have changed my life.” I am really moved by that.

IC: These are people of faith?

RD: They are either people of faith who have lost their faith from reading my books, or they are people who had already lost their faith, and something about my books encouraged them to affirm that.

IC: How old were you when you began to think about science and faith?

RD: I remember at the age of six regaling my poor little sister with stories about the planets, and how far away they were and which ones might have life. I think by the age of about nine I recognized that there were a lot of different religions, and it was an accident I happened to be born into one of them. If I had been born somewhere else, I would have had a different one. Which is a pretty good lesson, actually. Everyone should learn that.

IC: Are you interested in science fiction?

RD: Yes, I’m fond of science fiction. But not all science fiction. I like science fiction where there’s a scientific lesson, for example—when the science fiction book changes one thing but leaves the rest of science intact and explores the consequences of that. That’s actually very valuable. I’m not so fond of the sort of science fiction that isn’t really science fiction but is sometimes thought to be—Gothic princesses and white horses and bats and castles and things.

IC: Your wife was an actress on “Doctor Who,” so I guess you’ve seen it.

RD: I’ve seen her episodes of “Doctor Who.” They’re good, at least partly because the scripts were written by Douglas Adams. I think Douglas is writing with an eye to irony for adults at the same time as entertaining children.

IC: That’s true of a lot of great writers. P.G. Wodehouse, whom I know you like, but also Philip Pullman, right?

RD: Yes, I do like Philip Pullman. And that’s an exception because Philip Pullman’s books allow magic.

IC: This fits into the two conflicting popular conceptions of scientists. You have this very serious person who’s doing experiments and is somewhat austere. And then you have these dorky people who love Star Trek and Star Wars.

RD: Well, Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle’s science hero, was a sort of irascible man constantly bellowing at people, so he was a little bit of a departure from both of those stereotypes.

IC: So you don’t feel like you fit either stereotype?

RD: No, I don’t think I do.

IC: You have more of a reputation as someone who shouts people down.

RD: I don’t shout people down. I argue people down, perhaps.

IC: Your book The Selfish Gene talks a lot about Darwinian altruism: How the promulgation of the species causes us to act in generous ways. Some people have said that altruism is something distinct—when you go out of your way to do something nice that’s not about the promulgation of your tribe.

RD: People who criticize The Selfish Gene like that often haven’t read it. The selfish gene accounts for altruism toward kin and individuals who might be in a position to reciprocate your altruism.

Now, there is another kind of altruism that seems to go beyond that, a kind of super-altruism, which humans appear to have. And I think that does need a Darwinian explanation. I would offer something like this: We, in our ancestral past, lived in small bands or clans, which fostered kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, because in these small bands, each individual was most likely to be surrounded by relatives and individuals who he was going to meet again and again in his life. And so the rule of thumb based into the brain by natural selection would not have been,Be nice to your kin and be nice to potential reciprocators. It would have been, Be nice to everybody, because everybody would have been included.

It’s just like sexual lust. We have sexual lust even though we know perfectly well that, because we’re using contraception, it is not going to result in the propagation of our genes. That doesn’t matter, because the lust was built into our brains at a time when there was no contraception.

IC: One problem with these Darwinian explanations, however convincing they are, is that they aren’t really falsifiable.

RD: That is a very common criticism, and it’s probably a valid one. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, of course. I think from my point of view—I won’t say it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong, it’s just sufficient in some cases, for me, to be able to say, Well, at least it’s not totally implausible from a Darwinian point of view.

IC: But is that science?

RD: Yes, it sort of is. I mean, it would be really worrying if, as a Darwinian, it was impossible to think of ways in which our behavior could be explained.

IC: But it seems like evolutionary psychology gets presented as hard science in a way that it’s not.

RD: I think that’s absolutely right, and the better examples of evolutionary psychology actually do get evidence. They do psychological studies.

IC: To what degree did your findings on the selfish gene influence your feelings about politics or religion or the world at large? Or do you bracket those things?

RD: I think I put them in a separate compartment. I’ve always been antagonistic to any na├»ve application of the selfish gene theory to politics. Some people have attempted to suggest that it means we are selfish or we should be selfish.

IC: What other big thinkers do you really like?

RD: Daniel Kahneman.

IC: What about novelists?

RD: I read novels for entertainment rather than for edification, so I tend not to read the sort of novels that are said to illuminate the human condition.

IC: You don’t look to art for that?

RD: I have never quite understood—and this is no doubt my failing—I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition. Although I’m easily persuaded that a really good novelist who gets inside somebody else’s head could be serving a valuable purpose. I enjoy satirical novels that take a wry, humorous, ironic look at modern life.

IC: You know, Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced former New Yorker writer, has a bookcalled Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

RD: I haven’t read that.

IC: Well, it’s a stupid book, but the idea is that science has uncovered things about the way the brain works that novelists did in the past. I do think you can find something about the human condition by reading George Eliot or Dickens.

RD: You probably can. That’s probably right.

IC: I was wondering what you think of the current Pope. What’s your emotional reaction to religious figures who don’t seem so doctrinaire or who reach out to people who are less religious?

RD: I’m a sucker for nice religious leaders. I fall for it every time. But that doesn’t mean that I accept their arguments. Pope Francis seems to be a much nicer man than Pope Benedict, but I’m not sure that his views on things that really matter are all that different. Whereas Benedict was perhaps a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Francis is perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

IC: People talk about “new atheism.” Is there something new about it?

RD: No, there isn’t. Nothing that wasn’t in Bertrand Russell or probably Robert Ingersoll. But I suppose it is more of a political effect, in that all these books happened to come out at the same time. I like to think that we have some influence.

IC: Sometimes when I read the so-called new atheists, there’s almost a certain intellectual respect for the fundamentalist thinkers. For being more intellectually coherent.

RD: I’m interested you noticed that. There’s an element of paradox there—that at least you know where you stand with the fundamentalists. I mean, they’re absolutely clear in their error and their stupidity, and so you can really go after them. But the so-called sophisticated theologians, especially ones who are very nice, like Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks, you sometimes don’t quite know where you are with them. You feel that when you attack them, you’re attacking a wet sponge.

IC: Do you want people to become secular, or do you want religion to be less conservative and patriarchal?

RD: Ideally, I’d like everybody to be secular. I suppose I have to say politically I would like religion to become gentler and nicer and to stop interfering with other people’s lives, stop repressing women, stop indoctrinating children, all that sort of thing. But I really, really would like to see religion go away altogether.

IC: Have you ever been tempted by faith? Felt there was something missing?

RD: It’s wonderful what we’ve got! How much more do you want? It would be a shallow chimera to want some sort of spook in the sky to look up to when you have such wonderful reality.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This piece was originally published at

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Straws in the Wind

Jack Straw on events at Grangemouth and the behaviour of Unite - the trade union. Jack Straw is a former Labour Government Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.

The video requires Adobe flash player but here is an extract of jack Straw's comments on the BBC's Daily Politics  programme:

Former Foreign Secretary Mr Straw, the Labour MP for Blackburn, said the union had adopted "catastrophic tactics" in the industrial dispute at Grangemouth.
"Whichever way you look at what happened at Grangemouth it's hard to see how on earth the Unite union ended up with those tactics," he continued.
"Is there something of concern there? Of course there is. And is it a saga that does not reflect well on the national leadership of Unite - both in respect of their relations with the Labour Party but also in respect of their representation of their members at a huge plant like Grangemouth? Yes."

Bish Bash Bosh

Here's a remarkable opinion piece by Len McCluskey published in the Guardian yesterday which cements his reputation, I would say, as the Del Boy of the trade union movement.

In Len's assessment of the great Grangemouth disaster which came within a whisker of losing thousands of workers their jobs, Unite has nothing whatever to apologise for - instead it's a case of 'bish, bash, bosh' because the union was simply sticking up for its members.

Now it's not nearly as simple as that I'm afraid, in that Unite is not remotely passive when it comes to representing its members - since the union actively advises on what members should do and which direction or choice to take in any given situation.

And having encouraged Unite members to reject the Ineos rescue plan at Grangemouth, the union must have had a strategy for what was to follow - including the possibility that the site owners were not bluffing, that the plant was struggling to survive - and that without big changes the whole business might just go to the wall.

Because that analysis is exactly what the workforce accepted only a day after Unite advised its members to go into battle with Ineos - which turned out to be a big mistake as the union reversed its previous position, dropped the war-like rhetoric and signed up to a package of measures which included a three-year, no-strike deal.    

While all this was going on the local, full-time Unite convener - Stephen Deans - had been accused of abusing his time off privileges by working on Scottish Labour Party business - but rather than deal with this 'problem' in a reasonable and mature way the union went on the attack, accused management of victimisation and called a strike - at a more reckless time than even Unite's worst enemy could imagine.

In the event, instead of defending himself against these charges - with Unite's support - Stephen Deans decided to resign and walk away without putting up any kind of fight or credible defence which will leave union members and the wider public in little doubt about the union official's guilt or innocence. 

Perhaps Len's most ridiculous Del Boy moment is that the negative comment about Unite in recent days represents a hysterical smear campaign against trade unions - when all that is being said is that trade unions should resist the temptation to play politics, especially party politics, with people's jobs and livelihoods. 

The problem for Unite is that the slapdash, uncritical and tribal mentality of the union's leadership is more akin to Trotter's Independent Traders (TITs) - than the spirit of the famous UCS 'work in' on the Upper Clyde in the early 1970s.        

Grangemouth shows the inequality of the fight that unions face now

Unite's priority is standing up for its members in the face of onslaught by powerful companies. Labour should take note

By Len McCluskey

Worker Eddie Heaney celebrates after a deal is reached with Unite and owners Ineos to keep the Grangemouth petrochemical site open. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

Seldom has one industrial dispute said so much about our society as the now concluded issue of the future of the Grangemouth refinery. Unite has reached an agreement with the owner, Ineos, which will guarantee the future of skilled and well-paid work at Grangemouth well into the future. In essence, it is not different from the difficult discussions my union and others have had with many employers during the current banking slump, working to keep jobs alive while adapting to the position some companies find themselves in.

I went to Scotland last week to save those 800 jobs and keep a vital national asset open in the face of a real threat of closure from the employer. But I applaud our team on the spot for also fighting to maintain the pay and conditions of the people who pay their membership subscriptions. That is what trade unions do.

And I am delighted that at a mass meeting of Unite members on the Grangemouth site on Monday, unanimous support for and understanding of the union's role was expressed. These are the people I answer to, not Rupert Murdoch's leader writers.

But there are far larger issues raised even than the future of one plant. Because what has happened at Grangemouth shines a vivid light on the nature of power in our society today.

The central message is clear – the rights of private ownership are unchallengeable, even in a vital economic sector like energy, and the ability of the capitalist to hold workforce and community to ransom is undiluted. It is hard to blame Ineos or any company for exercising the power we have for too long been happy to let them have.

This is the bitter harvest of years of laws designed to weaken trade unionism, of neoliberal dogma that rules public ownership out of court, and of rule by a smug elite whose greatest achievement is not economic or social, but to have paralysed the will of politicians.

And if you want to know what the consequences can be of standing out against this consensus, consider what has happened to Stevie Deans, the union branch secretary who resigned from Ineos this week, having been targeted by management as the "enemy within".

Stevie's crimes appear to have been twofold. He looked after the workers at Grangemouth – all too effectively for some people's tastes. And he took on vested interests in the political field too, trying to involve more ordinary people in democratic life.

For this he has had to leave his job, he has been traduced in the press, he has had his private correspondence placed in the public domain, been the subject of police investigations and more.

Now there is a demand for a new investigation into the whole issue. The published material I have seen shows no basis for reopening the Falkirk wound. Remember that the candidate Unite supported has withdrawn from the selection race, and none of the members recruited – quite legitimately under the rules as they were – will have a vote when it comes to choosing Labour's candidate.

And Labour is already reviewing selection procedures, a process which I hope will create a level playing field, something which has been notably absent in the recent Lord Sainsbury-funded, grace-and-favour New Labour past.

For all the hyperventilating in the media, nothing has been shown that changes any of that. Already Labour and the police have given Unite a clean bill of health – if Labour in Falkirk is to move on, then I think a fresh inquiry would be of less help than the overdue resignation of its sitting MP, Eric Joyce, whose misconduct set this whole sequence of events in train.

Just as Unite has nothing to apologise for in becoming a more active participant in the life of the party we created, rather than just a cheque-writing machine, nor will we apologise for sticking up for our members.

Today we are in the midst of something all too familiar to those of us who remember the 1970s and 1980s – a hysterical smear campaign directed against trade unions because we represent the only real organised challenge in society to the values and views of our bankrupt establishment.

At a time of economic slump and people casting around for an alternative, that elite will only feel secure when they can dance on the grave of trade unionism. I am afraid they will just have to get used to sleepless nights instead.

So we are witnessing a witch-hunt against Unite and Stevie Deans. Ineos's PR advisers, the charming people at corporate reputation specialists MediaZoo, boast of their capacity to help companies deal with "crisis situations including … fatal accidents and child labour", according to their website. In a "crisis situation" Unite's priority is not protecting the reputations of the powerful, but protecting the victims of the exercise of their power. That power inequality has been on brutal display this week, and Labour politicians above all need to pay attention.

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite

Questions to Answer

Eric Joyce, the former Labour MP and sitting Member for the seat of Falkirk East has posed a blog about the sudden resignation of Stephen Deans - former Unite convener at the Grangemouth oil refinery and petro-chemical plant.

To my mind the five questions posed by Eric Joyce in the third paragraph of his post are all entirely reasonable and sensible - even if some folks might be tempted to say 'he would say that anyway'.

Because this is a squalid and unbecoming affair which has, literally, been playing party politics with people's jobs and livelihoods. 

Just imagine the 'grotesque chaos' (to borrow an old phrase from Neil Kinnock) that would have resulted - if the plant at Grangemouth had remained closed, with thousands of jobs being lost.

The Labour Party and Unite have a lot of questions to answer although as Eric Joyce points out - with so many Labour MPs and MSPs having close links with Unite that will be no easy task.   

Stephen Deans resignation

Grangemouth is moving into a phase where 1600 jobs at Ineos, and the many thousands more in the local supply chain, are more secure than they have been for years. What workers need now is decent, intelligent representation.

For now, Stephen Deans’ resignation was inevitable, and it’s a shame anyone has to lose their job, but it does move things onto some larger questions.

Will the Labour Party re-open the inquiry into Falkirk’s selection-fixing by Deans? Will Unite’s Director of Legal Affairs, Howard Beckett, who organised ‘nasty stuff’ on Labour figures and wrote the script for the undermining of Labour’s inquiry, resign? Will Len McCluskey and Pat Rafferty, whose instructions Deans was following, accept responsibility for the worst ‘leadership’ in the history of the trade union movement? Will the politicians, who attended Grangemouth and encouraged Unite to lead workers into oblivion, apologise? Will Deans remain chair of Falkirk West Labour Party?

The answers to some of these questions are, I suppose, obvious. Unite and the frightened Scottish politicians they sponsor won’t be coming clean anytime soon. The largest question of all, though, is for Labour. Unite has betrayed thousands of Falkirk workers by putting juvenille Cuban flags and empty ideological rhetoric before them. Can Labour have the courage to confront Unite’s leadership now? Or are too many MPs and MSPs in just too deep?

It really is as simple as that.

Sentencing Policy

Here's another example of Scotland's criminal justice system in action - a case where a 22-year-old man literally kicked and battered a pensioner to death in his own home - yet gets sentenced to 18 years in jail (a minimum admittedly) when most people would expect such a person to spend the rest of their life in prison.

To add insult to injury - who denied all responsibility for his terrible crime and continues to protest his innocence despite convincing DNA and other forensic evidence - was on bail at the time of his murderous attack on Ronnie Simpson.

Now I don't support the death penalty, but like most people I think that a life sentence ought to mean life - whereas a violent killer like Keiryn Nisbet faces the real prospect of being released at aged 40 with the rest of his life still in front of him.        

Keiryn Nisbet jailed for life for murdering OAP Ronnie Simpson

Keiryn Nisbet was jailed for a minimum of 18 years before being eligible for parole

A man who murdered a pensioner in his own home in West Lothian has been jailed for life.

Keiryn Nisbet had denied killing Robert Simpson, 67, known as Ronnie, in Mayfield Drive, Armadale, on 6 October 2012.

Nisbet, 22, was jailed for a minimum of 18 years before being eligible for parole.

Sentencing Nisbet, judge Norman Ritchie QC said: "You are a danger to the public."

He added: "This was a horrific and sustained attack on an old man in his own home."

Nisbet entered the flat of Mr Simpson, who was a complete stranger, and repeatedly punched, kicked and stamped on his head and body.

He also struck Mr Simpson on the head with a blunt instrument and dragged him across the floor of his house.

Mr Simpson received a number of blows to his head, but died as a result of injuries to his body which included fractured ribs.

“You did not get help for him. He either died in front of you or you left him to die alone” Judge Lord Ritchie to Nisbet

At the High Court in Glasgow, Judge Ritchie added: "For no known reason you assaulted Mr Simpson. This brutal and senseless attack left Mr Simpson lying dying in the living room of his flat."

Mr Simpson had left his front door unlocked and it is thought Nisbet, who had been drinking for 10 hours and taken heroin and cocaine, may have gone inside thinking it was a former girlfriend's home.

Once inside he subjected Mr Simpson, who was sitting watching television, to the violent attack.

The police were called, but when they arrived they found Mr Simpson's home in darkness and left after seeing no signs of a disturbance.

During that time Nisbet was in the flat with Mr Simpson.

Judge Ritchie told Nisbet: "You did not get help for him. He either died in front of you or you left him to die alone."
Mr Simpson was seen on CCTV visiting shops near his home

Nisbet showed no remorse and later tried to get into a nightclub before heading to a house party.

When questioned by police he denied ever being in Mr Simpson's home, but was caught by forensic evidence as palm and fingerprints were found in the flat, along with footwear impressions, blood and DNA.

Distinctive fibres from a red hooded top he was wearing that evening were also found while CCTV evidence and witnesses also placed him near the scene.

Nisbet, who was on bail at the time, sent a message to a friend on Facebook saying he had attacked a man but could not fully remember what he had done.

He continues to insist he is innocent.

'Cold and callous'

Nicky Patrick, procurator fiscal for High Court cases in the east of Scotland, said: "Keiryn Nisbet subjected Robert Simpson, a quiet and frail man who walked with the aid of a walking stick, to a sustained, vicious and unprovoked attack in his own home."

Det Ch Insp Robert Cowper, of Police Scotland, said: "Keiryn Nisbet did not know Ronnie Simpson and throughout or enquiries we have been unable to establish any possible motive for this violent attack, which resulted in the 67-year-old's death.

"He has proven himself to be a cold and callous individual, who has shown no remorse for his actions and the impact they have had on Mr Simpson's family.

"With Keiryn Nisbet now set to spend a considerable period of time behind bars, I sincerely hope that Mr Simpson's family can put this horrendous ordeal behind them and begin to move on with their lives."