BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason

Archives for May 2011

New beginnings

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Paul Mason | 14:07 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011

In line with the BBC's new policy for all the editors and correspondents who blog, Idle Scrawl is coming to an end in its current form.

In future you will be able to find all of my writing here.

Lady Gaga for IMF boss: Wael Ghonim for ECB?

Paul Mason | 11:12 UK time, Thursday, 19 May 2011

So IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn has resigned, meanwhile ECB boss Jean Claude Trichet has merely walked out of a meeting with the man who runs the Euro group (says the FT).

Trichet and his fellow ECB board member Jurgen Starck are currently holding a hard line against EU politicians who want to begin the process of letting Greece default on its debts; meanwhile back in the IMF, a process that makes the Pope's election look transparent has begun to "select" a new leader.

Is there a pattern emerging here?

If there is it concerns the relationship between elected politicians, sovereign governments and the plutocrats they select to run organisations that are supposed to enforce transnational agreements.

Traditionally the IMF was run by a bureaucrat - not exactly faceless but somebody with an impeccable record inside, say the French civil service. In the ECB there is no such thing as "traditionally" because it's only been going since 1998; its leadership was carved up between France and Germany: Wim Duisenberg, its first boss, gave way to Mr Trichet (once Trichet had been cleared of fraud charges) in 2003.

Last week it was carved up again when most EU states agreed Mario Draghi should be the next boss.

What's changing is the overt politicisation of the roles. Clearly, just doing some amateur sociology, you would have to conclude the gene pool from which such posts are recruited is not large. You have to be an older man with a long history of backroom dealings with politicians.

While technically I have as much chance as Gordon Brown as becoming the next leader of the IMF, in practice, almost nobody in the world has a fair chance of competing for these vital jobs.

They are carved up from within the elite circle of people who go to Davos, Bilderberg, the Group of Thirty and all the other places where rugged men with earpieces and bulging jackets separate the elite from the demos.

But since these transnational institutions were invented something has changed: the world is no longer dominated by the United States economically; Europe is no longer the fiefdom of Germany, and no longer confident of the basis on which the single currency was founded.

Both the IMF and ECB need people in charge who can square vested interests; do deals; wield the machinery of public and private power. Having chosen a forthright and idiosyncratic social democrat as the first overtly political head of the IMF, the two front runners now seem to be forthright and idiosyncratic politicians again: Christine Lagarde and Gordon Brown.

The IMF and ECB are, right now, locked together around a single, pivotal problem: Greece.

Greece was given a bailout that demanded austerity; it enacted austerity and plunged into recession; there is protest - and more importantly civil disobedience. The markets believe Greece will be forced to restructure its debts - ie not pay them all back.

This could amount to 50% of what they owe. EU politicians are divided over what to do: Mme Lagarde wants to allow Greece to do a "soft restructure" - ie delay payback - in return for a massive round of privatisation; Germany wants to delay the crunch until 2013 and then impose losses on the banks that lent Greece the money.

But the ECB is having none of it. After Trichet's walk-out from his meeting with Herr Juncker, the head of the Eurogroup of political leaders, ECB negotiators have adopted "Non, nein, ochi" approach to Greek requests for restructuring. They have good reason to do this because the constitution they are guardians of forbids it. But the constitution is, in reality in tatters.

On the other side of the table sits the IMF. Under DSK it accumulated more than enough money to deal with the Eurozone crisis; it has already saved Eastern Europe by imposing flexible terms for bailouts; until DSK's involuntary trip to a Harlem police station he had been engaged in trying to soften the EU's stance, in order to avoid a fracturing of the Eurozone and of social order in Greece.

The tricky problem for democracy here is: none of these men is actually elected - they are selected by those nations who wield real power in the world. However those nations do have leaders who are elected, and they are elected in order to promote the interests of the country they come from - not somebody else's.

So while figures such as DSK or Trichet may look like distant mandarins, otherworldly and at the same time possessing knowledge of where every economic skeleton in the world is buried - actually they are the best means we have of allowing nations to mediate between their interests. They are both wielders of, and the products of, hard power.

Oxfam and other NGOs are already calling for the IMF process to be an election by open voting (albeit within the rigged voting system of the IMF); and for nominations to be open.

However, the problems with these posts go beyond the election process.

Because if you were to make a list of all the potential candidates for the ECB job, and all the potential candidates to replace Strauss-Kahn, it's not just the "old male white guy" problem that is obvious - it's the fact that they were all formed in a previous economic epoch: the dirt that hit the fan in 2008 accumulated "on their watch"; the democratic revolutions that broke out in 2010 were a challenge to their worldview, and they had done little or nothing to promote them.

Meanwhile, the world is moving on: a new generation of businesspeople, thinkers, workers is rising with very different mindsets, priorities: in politics, the extremes are becoming stronger.

The interchangeable centre-left/centre-right technocrats barely interface with such people as Timo Soini or Sarah Palin, and regard them privately with disdain; ditto with the generation of youth that - so far leaderless - has embraced activism, eco-warriordom, democratic revolution in the Middle East etc.

While we all start obsessing about which old geezer will replace DSK, and track the rumours spilling out of the ECB's clash with Ecofin over Greece, it's worth wondering - even if only in the last paragraph of a blog post - whether somebody like Lady Gaga, or Ellen MacArthur, or Egyptian Google icon Wael Ghonim, or Chinese blogging superstar Han Han might do the job just as well.

But this is, of course, unthinkable: could such a job be trusted to such mercurial and untested people? Just think what trouble they might get themselves into!

Strauss-Kahn: how it will make a difference to the bailouts

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Paul Mason | 21:27 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

The IMF exists to do, above all else, two things: raise money from governments and lend it to other governments while extracting structural reforms in return.

Ten years ago the Fund stood accused of doing that in a way that - during the 1980s and 90s - actually increased poverty in the developing world, blighting the lives of millions of people; and then in the Asian crisis - imposing solutions that harmed the people there - Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia - but directly benefited the USA.

Then there was a big change in international thinking and the first test of it was the financial crisis of 2008.

During that crisis DS-K did the following:

- he raised so much money there was at one point too much of it

- he brought China, India and Brazil and Russia closer to the decision making centre

- long before it moved to save Greece, Ireland and Portugal the Fund had bailed out Hungary, Ukraine...

- threw the IMF's weight behind multilateral re-regulation of finance; so the IMF was a key voice in all the G20 summits where they co-ordinated bank bailouts and fiscal stimulus...

Through it all, it's fair to say that Strauss-Kahn's IMF demanded less outright structural reform; was less ideological; and with some countries was lenient to the point startling those who knew the Fund of old.

I would also add that, with DS-K's encouragement, the Fund's economists became some of the biggest alarm-ringers about the global slump, and advocates of co-ordinated fiscal stimulus, at a time when domestic politicians were pretty blase about it and some even advocating pro-cyclical "let it rip" approaches that would have plunged us well and truly into a 30s style denoument.

So how will the incapacitation of DSK - tonight denied bail in New York - affect the current round of bailouts? Quite simply it will deprive the pro-leniency faction in Europe of an ally.

The IMF leadership is already hollowed out; the current deputy has announced his departure date this year some of the new MDs are not quite in position.

From Ireland to Greece to Portugal - what you always hear from politicians, on the edge of these fraught negotiations in soul-draining posh hotels is: we'd rather be bailed out by the IMF than by the EU and the IMFcombined. The IMF's economists are basically seen like the classic British Army sergeant: "tough but fair". Not so the EU, whose response has become increasingly politicised.

Right now the country that could bring the bailout plans crashing down is Greece. It wants a second bailout valued at 50bn and many commentators, and almost all investors (but no politicians) believe it will eventually go for a partial default on its debts.

There's a joint EU/IMF fact finding delegation there, and while the EU governments response to that report will now be seen as highly political - they've all got right wing parties on their backs demanding tough conditions - the IMF will be less tough.

Strauss-Kahn's role would have been to moderate that.

I've no doubt that at his meeting with Merkel, postponed indefinitely now, he's likely to have said: look Angela, don't make the Greeks eat more dirt than they have to or you'll cause a revolution.

In this, despite the political rivalries with Sarkozy, his position mirrored that of the French - to insist on toughness but to play realpolitik across the whole continent (Frau Merkel does not currently seem capable of playing it even in Baden Wurttemberg, despite it being a German word).

The danger is, not so much without DS-K but without a firm IMF, north Europe imposes such a high price on southern Europe for the next round of bailouts that the solidarity cracks.

While everyone is obsessing about the "European ownership" issue of the IMF top job (it always goes to a European), I think it's more significant that DS-K was the first active social-democrat politico to run the Fund in modern times: its economics department, its expanded agenda to take in global financial stability and the reshaping of the global balance of power reflected that.

Of course there is a huge dynamic now unfolding in French politics now, as well - and the legal drama is riveting. We'll explore some of that on Newsnight, tonight.

O Brave New Blog...

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Paul Mason | 15:14 UK time, Friday, 13 May 2011

I am about to migrate the blog yet again to a new platform; having started out as a side-of-desk operation on Typepad (see here) the BBC then set up a blogging platform on Moveable Type that went through two iterations; the first exists here and somebody is currently writing a PhD about it; the second here.

I start with these links because they will instantly become hard to find from the Newsnight main page.

To pick two of my favourite links at random, for nostalgia's sake, go here (on Sven) and here (on 7/7).

The new blog will be on in-house software that I have not yet had the pleasure of using. It will contain my Twitter feed and links to reports I have done on Newsnight. I don't know if I will be able to drop anarchically self-generated graphs and pictures into it yet - I hope so.

It will be surrounded by the page furniture of an ordinary BBC website so I will have fun trying to replicate what an actual blog includes - ie blogroll, external links, quirky animated gifs of whippets and embedded Northern Soul songs from Youtube etc.

The prose will retain its chaotic, first-draft-beta style and I will try to write in paragraphs of more than one sentence. I will continue to tweet deep links to the content. Apparently there is some rebellion going on among commenters about the proposed limitations on comments on other blogs and I leave you to it.

I will continue to cover the usual subjects: quantitative easing, English football, the London stage, the Arab Spring, the global economic crisis, all things geeky and any riot I can get safely close to.

Despite the numerous logistical challenges of the move it will be worth it as the content will now be only a few dozen clicks away from the BBC's main page. I will retain the dry humour, of course.

And I might squeeze one last post onto this platform if, as I expect, the secret bailout of Greece happens sometime Sunday.

The blog technically migrates on Tuesday night, so I will keep you posted on what happens at the Orwell Prize via Twitter (@paulmasonnews) - however, whether I win or not, the tweets may become progressively less coherent on the night, though for different reasons.

NHS Reform: Goodbye Year Zero

Paul Mason | 10:19 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

What's changed over the weekend, in the light of the Lib-Dems' drubbing, is not the Coalition's willingness to re-look at the NHS reforms; it's the scale of the re-appraisal.

Having tried to do several things at once, they may now struggle to achieve just one.

Having drifted into presenting the reforms as a kind of market-led Year Zero (and allowed numerous private sector participants to hail it as such) there may now be just a series of incremental changes. But this creates its own problems.

At the heart of the NHS White Paper (July 2010) were three principles:
1) Money follows the patient, allowing GPs to choose the best care provider, cutting out the last part of the Labour-invented health bureauracy (the PCT/SHAs)
2) A focus on outcomes not inputs: so an eventual move to patient reported outcome measurements (PROMS) rather than targets for numbers of operations done
3) Clinicians rather than politicians or managers in charge of decisions on care; this meant the effective "denationalisation" of the NHS, creating an arms length body nationally and allowing failing hospitals to go bust.

The White Paper was, if nothing else, intellectually coherent. The Conservatives, in opposition, had concluded that the internal market introduced by Labour was functioning badly; failing to boost productivity; failing to bear down on costs; failing to give bang for bucks to the patient or the taxpayer.

Being Conservatives they concluded what was needed was a more perfect, less interrupted or constrained market. So they set about constructing a more pure one.

First there would be a clear "customer": the GPs, who would hold up to £80bn a year spending power on behalf of the patient.

Second there would be a clearer measure of value: PROMS - patient reported outcome measurements would replace input measurements (ie number of operations done, lengths of stay in hospital etc).

Third there would be a completely level playing field between the public and private sectors in terms of provision of the service: a free as opposed to an unfree market.

In addition the move to private and charity-sector provision would "create the largest social enterprise sector in the world" - fulfilling the touchiest, feeliest of the Big Society goals; mutually-owned clinics etc.

It's important to unpack where it's all gone wrong, and how it might be put together again, because the Bill is currently being torn apart by three sets of people: the Libdems, responding to their left-leaning voting base who want no private involvement (none at all, as Simon Hughes said yesterday); the NHS workforce and professions, who all have varying degrees of concern about the workability of the project; and Conservative health policy wonks and civil servants who fear (to their despair) that the whole thing only works if you do it all at the same time.

If you take the "pure" market as designed by Andrew Lansley, with its GP customer, its PROMS measure of value and its newly neutral stance on who can provide services, what was the ideal outcome supposed to be?

Actually it's the one numerous Labour reforms hinted at but never enacted: a publicly financed market in NHS care from which the private sector can at last make serious profits and into which, eventually, middle class customers (aka patients) can add-on services through insurance, co-payment etc.

Early on, Tory ministers and outsourcing company chiefs envisaged a mass of mutually-owned clinics (with protected pay and pension rights for the medics and nurses etc who formed them, but not for the next generation of employees); they envisaged that 30+ NHS trusts would go bust, allowing the private sector to take them over and estabilish a new footprint in the secondary healthcare sector; and that private "commissioning support" companies would swarm into the GP group practices, providing profit-generating services there.

It was supposed to be win-win. The health outcomes would get measurably better; patients would feel they had some modicum of choice; the professions, especially primary carers like GPs and practice nurses, would feel like they had a bigger stake in the NHS; the private and mutual sectors would gain access to business opportunities in the NHS.

There was only one problem. As numerous medics and health experts pointed out, there was no guarantee it would work.

The transition costs alone, in disruption, would be huge. But above that, the reason serial Labour health ministers had constrained the market, adopting state-ist rather than truly market measurements of performance, was: a pure market can go chaotically wrong, or begin to deliver benefits to the wrong participants.

So first, there's been a marked reluctance among health professionals form mutuals. As one leading consultant at a London hospital put it to me: "yes we could take over our clinic and run it ourselves; but it would pit us in competition against our neighbouring hospitals whereas our medical ethos is one of collaboration".

GPs apart, there were very few material inducements for health professionals to take part; meanwhile a few former managers were going around claiming to have enhanced their salaries by moving to the "commissioning support" sector. True or not, this has played very badly with NHS staff.

Second, there is fear among the public that the majority gets a second-class service. One health outsourcing company boss, who'd been influential with Mr Lansley at an early stage, put it to me this way: "even though there's no co-payment, what you could get are GP surgeries totally dedicated to serving professional middle aged men, specialising in prostate screening, cholesterol etc; and then next door maybe there could be a private health company offering the stuff you don't get on the NHS - prompt physio for all those squash injuries; alcohol counselling; a gym etc".

This appealed to me, put that way, as I am a professional middle aged man. But as the thought occurred to non-professional, non-sharp elbowed groups that they would be left dumped in surgeries with no middle class people at all, indeed a surfeit of the neediest and unhealthiest, the term "cherry picking" gained currency. As measures were put in place to reassure people about cherry picking, some of the advantages to the middle class (who governments are perennially worried will "desert the NHS" if they are not molycoddled) seemed to fizzle out.

Third, there is an obviously un-won argument about private provision. One boss of a private treatment centre group complained to me, during the Labour years: "The NHS is a learning organisation; we will start out beating its performance but given time it will copy us and do it cheaper; we don't need a level playing field; we need the playing field tilted in our direction." One measure he requested was to pay, like the NHS, zero VAT.

Though private provision - of core NHS services - is at the heart of the White Paper, large sections of the public remain unconvinced that this will deliver anything more than profits to the private sector at the expense of care.

One reason is that the lessons of Labour's experiment with ISTCs - factory style treatment centres staffed by indefatigable South African and Aussie eye surgeons - was not 100% successful. Outsourcing overnight GP services to private companies has, likewise, not been acclaimed as a major success.

If this argument about private provision had been aired in the general election, the government might have had less trouble winning it now; but it wasn't.

And then there are the minor, cultural niggles which turned out to be major. Many GPs don't want to be businessmen, wielding their part of the £80bn. They don't want to be part of a giant clinic but want to go on being family doctors. It took some time for this feeling to filter through to the GP organisation leaderships, but eventually it did.

Meanwhile, many patients, wondering already whether the amount of time their GP spends staring at a computer screen during consultations, were worried that the new arrangements create a conflict of interest: how does the GP take the best decision for the patient when his/her profits depend on the most efficient use of the money attached to that patient?

So, predictably once people realised what's involved, the reform has stalled. But what, logically, can be saved?

The patient-reported outcome measurement was always something that, given time, might supplant the pure measurement of inputs, if it can be proven technocratically to be better. Given time, in any kind of market - even a constrained one - a better measure of value can deliver better results.

Private involvement: well that is already looking more constrained at the level of care provision; private providers were complaining they did not have the capacity to deliver in the short term much more than 5-10% of care (Labour's ceiling on private provision, once, in the last days of Blairism before Andy Burnham took over, was 15%, if you remember). So what you could do is let the private provision angle - and the mutualism - evolve over time.

What you cannot do is compromise half-and-half on who spends the budget. Either it is the old commissioning system, half dismantled but now having to be reinstated; or a new one based on GPs. To save the latter proposal you would have to address the problem of conflict of interest, cherry picking and place a limit on the amount of a GP's budget that can be spent on "commissioning support".

The problem is, then, none of this becomes a revolution; it becomes a technocratic evolution of the old system by trial and error.

But then what you do not need is the "denationalisation" of the NHS. This has been at the heart of the White Paper, and is what many of the Royal Colleges etc are worried about; creating an arms' length service, where the NHS is not controlled by politicians; where there is no duty of the Secretary of State to provide healthcare as now; and where a hospital can - like a university - go bust, disappear, be privatised etc.

The White Paper's problem lay in trying to do many things at once: solve a productivity problem; a health outcomes problem; to create biggest mutual sector in world; to mend what they said was a malfunctioning half-market system; and to save money - all at the same time. We will never know if the system as designed would have worked, because it is already clear parts of it will not get through.

If you started with just one of the aims outlined above it would choose itself: saving money is a given; and health outcomes are the only measure the public actually cares about.

All the rest could be scrapped, or left to evolutionary non-legislative change if you wanted to. But it would not exactly be a great example in systems design, and you could not present it as Year Zero.

Finally there is a missing player in all this: Labour. Apart from campaigning to "defend frontline services" and stop an "expensive top down reorganisation" there is little sign of a comprehensive policy (it's in review of course). As 2015 gets closer, health professionals are going to want to know how much of what gets through this year Labour would unpick.

There are huge strategic problems facing healthcare in Britian: fiscal austerity, an ageing population, the patchy outcomes of the present system and the growing expectations of patients; de facto rationing; plus the timebomb of an essentially privatised adult social care system.

What they demand is a comprehensive strategy. What's probable now is that we get a less comprehensive one.

Strong personalities with narratives win elections, shock

Paul Mason | 07:56 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

I've just flown in from Egypt to be confronted by a media awash with the early results of the UK local, Welsh, Scottish and AV polls. It's a big switch from the slums of Cairo to the psephological niceties of Blaenau Gwent. However coming in from abroad always brings you to the essence of a situation: you see it vicariously as foreign journalists might, filtering out the local detail.

Here's my snap judgement: it's those with strong personalities and strong narratives that are navigating the choppy waters best.

Alex Salmond has a strong narrative, not just on nationalism but on a mixture of social, economic and eg health policies. Cameron has a strong (ish) narrative and a growingly distinct international profile (on Libya, and despite that new quiff, OBL); he is convincing the Conservative heartlands of southern England that the cuts agenda is right (for now - the cuts have hardly started; and bear in mind he has done a body swerve on the NHS).

Clegg does not currently have a narrative, and so his personality - which played so well during the general election debates - cannot cut through the "betrayal" story. And he's finding out how well students can transmit electoral hostility now they are effectively 50% of every age cohort.

Ed Miliband? Difficult one this. Labour will be tribally delighted to have stuffed the Libdems in the north of England, ditto Plaid and the independent left in Wales.

But the Scottish defeat poses all kinds of strategic problems for Labour. The big one is obvious: if we now have an independence referendum and Scotland votes yes, that's the end of Labour's traditional arithmetic in Westminster. Even if things don't move that fast, Miliband faces having to take on and shake up the Scottish Labour mafia, which is essentially Brownite and has performed dismally. And then there's England. If the British political situation swings back to the Labour north versus the Tory south, Labour strategists believe the party can never win that game. The decimation of the Libdems merely clears the fog of war for the essential battle to begin, which under any electoral system will always be the Labour fight for the urban south.

Of course, economics plays into this, credibility, specific issues. But if you stand back and squint to see only the main outlines: the strongest and most charismatic party leader in Britain made the biggest gains; the weakest one had a catastrophe.

And despite a positive night at the tactical level in the north, Ed Miliband faces strategic problems that the removal of his adenoids will not make go away.

#OBL: "Politically, he died on 25 January"

Paul Mason | 19:43 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

By the time I woke up the global rolling news was in full mental jacket. There was not much actual material, only the mobile phone footage of the site of Bin Laden's death. I spent the day on the streets of Cairo, interviewing people. They did not seem as breathless as the news people. In fact a great many people were hardly interested at all.

The newspapers here in Cairo had missed the news, except one which squeezed a brief factual account alongside a picture of Osama. On another one the main picture is of a delegation from Britain's RMT union on Tahrir Square.

In the vox pops the overwhelming response has been: I don't believe he is dead. There are no pictures and they ditched the body. That is what anybody who cared to answer on camera said. and while it is a response stronger among the poor, I have now met several well educated Cairenes who say the same.

Many people believed he was already dead, and there is such distrust of the west, for it's alleged duplicity, that even people who go to the American University of Cairo are often not inclined to believe America.

What will sort this out is pictures and evidence. On Jan 25th, here, many mobs of potentially reactionary people were turned around to the revolution by seeing with their own eyes the truth. Interestingly the government here in Egypt has refused to comment all day on the slaying of OBL. Again, while scripted statements from world leaders are sometimes dismissed as pointless, they soon have meaning when they do not happen.

However, the death of Bin Laden is a significant moment. As Bahey Ael a din Hassai, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Study put it to me just now:

"Bin Laden died last night; but politically he died months ago; with the Arab spring the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and soon I hope Saudi took a step into politics."

The opportunity and the challenge for political Islam here is huge. The constitutional reform has created an electoral process which massively favours the Muslim Brotherhood; and their popularity in poor areas is a source of depression for the secular youth trying to take radical and liberal politics to the people.

However the Brotherhood has begun to splinter: a section of it's youth wing broke away; some leaders are forming a new party. The fundamental issue is this: it is one thing to wield street power by doling out charity to a population that has been dumped on by a wealthy secular elite. But once you are in politics you have to have a position on stuff like the minimum wage, should doctors go on strike, should there be kissing allowed on TV programmed. That is you have to go beyond charity and into the world of compromise and dialogue, because you cannot buy breakfast for 85 million people.

Bin Laden's death is only a signal moment in this regard. Actually the real challenge of political islam is only just beginning.

Chilled out and stunned to be there: Egypt's workers do May Day

Paul Mason | 18:19 UK time, Sunday, 1 May 2011

I've been in and around Tahrir Sq for most of the day - Egypt's first May Day for decades to be held in relatively free conditions. 

In the taxi there was the official trade union conference blaring from the radio, and it sounded like they, too were trying to come up with a tone differentiating their event from it's usual atmosphere - which was as befits a state run union full of factory managers in a dictatorship. Someone even denounced Mubarak.

On the square they've begun to go way beyond this.

From around 1pm there were contingents turning up usually as follows: about 60 people; home made banners congratulating the workers of District X for celebrating 1 May. Usually fronted by broad chested, well turned out - ie skilled and non precarious - middle aged manual workers. Then their sons and a few wives, or occasionally with the white collar workers, women employees. They would chant for a bit then join the throng, about 10,000 strong by the end.

I interviewed numerous people speaking in Arabic - I have still gotta get translations so I summarise: 

Maintenance manager from a small town wandering around with his son dressed in the football colours of Spain: nothing has changed economically but we're happy to be here.

Ticket collector from the subway: dressed in the t-shirt of the new independent union federation, linking arms with his buddies: we want the old bosses to be kicked out of the enterprises; a minimum wage and the reversal of privatisations. Almost word for word a guy - again a middle manager - from the Cairo Gas Co, who adds that the revolution is now "my whole life" as it will determine my children's fate.

There is no singing of the International, and the only people carrying red flags are the newly "out" Communist Party (are they Russians, asks one old geezer, adding: Are you Russian?) - and the newly formed Democratic Labour Party - which is a project involving the far left and the Indy union leaders.

Mostly people carry Egyptian flags: and sing the national anthem. Plus there is a bit of football regalia. A young ultra from Zamalek FC tells me how he came with four thousand football fans on the 28 January, in defiance of people in the club hierarchy who told them the protesters were foreign agents.

"Why don't you ask me about football?" he says, when I begin quizzing him on the social dynamics of urban poverty. OK then, I ask him how Zamalek are doing. "The problem is the fans are spending too much time talking about the revolution and not enough about football".

It's clear that the football ultras, who never got on well with the cops, were one of the conduIts for bringing the urban poor onto the streets.

I ask a couple of older workers what they did on Jan25th: "We came down here with our workmates. Gradually other industries came down here and the strange thing is, though we all work in separate industries, we now know each other's faces."

Despite this, the independent unions are at a very rudimentary stage. Most have this mixture of wage demands, demands against particular corrupt bosses and things they want to happen to the structure of their industry: they are hyper specific. They do not see themselves as opposed to, or separate from the educated professionals who led the revolution.

This latter group is, as I have written before, increasingly perturbed by the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, it's alleged close relationship with the army, and the benefit both derive from the speed of the elections.

One activist, a female human rights worker and part of the newly formed Social Democratic Party told me of the hurdles you have to jump to get on the ballot paper: register 5,000 members and publish the entire list in two national newspapers. The estimated cost is equivalent to 200,000 GBP.

She was not worried by the proliferation of new parties. Only the election timing, which seems to her designed to deliver a majority for the old elite and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Increasingly liberal intellectuals are beginning to talk about an "Ataturk model" - ie making the army the guarantor of the secular constitution as in Turkey; they look wistfully at Tunisia, whose transition is being more heavily influenced by the international community, NGOs etc. I recommend the novels of Orhan Pamuk to them, on the pros and cons of Turkish military secularism.

As the military police moved people off the central reservation at dusk, it was peaceful and jokey. One veteran traffic cop told us: "it's chaotic now, with all the traffic and the marchers; but we are saying nothing now; later we will impose order". He meant later in the political process, I think.

Few among the protesters and activists doubt an imposition of order is one potential outcome, hence some would rather have it Ataturk style than Ahmadinejad style. 

Among the workers though, the thinking remains for many at the horizon of their own lives and workplace. They are still stunned to be standing there amid communists, social democrats and everything in-between, totally free of their old bosses, who they allege used the state run union to spy on them and dispense corruption.

The doctors' strike has been called for 10 May after a rancourous mass meeting lasting 5 hours in which the Muslim Brotherhood argued against the strike but got overturned, amid acrimony, by the largely young, secular membership (including many female doctors), with a lot of pushing and shoving on the platform.

As far as I can tell that is they only trouble there's been here, though after I left there were reports on Twitter that some people objected to having a music party in the square out of respect for its martyrs. [Update 1900 local: it seems there was some trouble and the police intervened, leading the stage to be dismantled, as the crowd had swelled to around 50,000. Thanks to the non-effectiveness of loperamide against the bug I have caught, I could not stay.]

However up to the time I left the first May Day in Egypt was chilled out and its sheer ordinariness what was extraordinary.

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