Saturday, 27 June 2015

UoN MOOC : Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

BFTF has recently completed a MOOC (a "Massively Open Online Course") entitled "Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life" . It was provided by Future Learn (run by the Open University), drawing on academic expertise at the University of Nottingham, as well as documents from the British Library.

Below are the key points that BFTF took away from the course (which took about 15 hours, spread over 5 weeks). It goes without saying that the course content was a lot broader and more detailed than the selective summary points listed below. And worth adding that the online comments and discussions from the participants were every bit as interesting as the course itself.

WEEK 1: FREEDOM AND POWER
Liberals believe that less government is better. For example, Edmund Burke (key figure in British conservatism) said "it is in the power of the state to prevent much evil, but it can do very little positive good" - but others have argued that politics is needed to overcome exploitation of citizens.

French philosopher Michel Foucault has argued that citizens needed to be behave in ways that made them easily governable. One analogy to this is the modern open plan office, where workers police each other, preventing skiving etc and ensuring the everyone keeps to the "norms" of behaviour. For Forcault, the modern state achieves something similar by having a population that internalises certain beliefs to the extent that they are felt to be self-evident. One can think of structures such as pensions, visas, insurance schemes etc as being examples of constraints on the freedom of a population, but they are not viewed as such.

Foucalt - with top button done up Bond villain stylee

The concept of "negative freedom", where people should be free do as they wish (such as smoke or gamble) so long as they are not harming others, versus...

The concept of "positive freedom", where people are believed not to be free if they are doing something wrong or irrational. For example, a smoker may not be free to quit smoking because of his addiction.

So, (dependent on whether they support "positive" or "negative" freedom) the policy of a government could vary from allowing people to self harm via smoking - to banning smoking to prevent addiction. Politicians will frame language to define "freedom" such that it supports their view. Steven Lukes, in his book "Power : A Radical Review" describes these forms of freedom as being "three faces of power", which are described by Wikipedia thus :

"This theory claims that governments control people in three ways: through decision-making power, non decision-making power and ideological power. Decision-making power is the most public of the three faces, and is the manner in which governments want to be seen: the power of governments to make policy decisions after widespread consultation with opposition parties and the wider public. Non decision-making power is the power that governments have to control the agenda in debates and make certain issues (such as the possible merits of Communism in the United States) unacceptable for discussion in moderate public forums. The third and most important face of power is ideological power, which is the power to influence people's wishes and thoughts, even making them want things opposed to their own self-interest (such as women supporting a patriarchal society)."

Ideologies can change. For example, 19th century liberalism was focused on private property. However, over time it became more interested in self development and then also in human welfare (i.e. by removing hunger, poverty etc).

The Marxist philosopher Gerry Cohen described how all political systems (from libertarian to communist) allocate freedoms differently. In a libertarian world, I may not have the freedom to pitch a tent on "your" land, whereas I could in a communist world, for example.

We think we are free, but where is the closest place you could pitch  a tent?

Interesting that the historical context in Italy resulted in a common view that irregular soldiers fighting for freedom (e.g. WW2 partisans) were honourable, in contrast to professional soldiers fighting for pay.

Also interesting was mention of Naipaul's comments on how strong tribal codes and national laws do not mix well: "Where there was no law, no institutions that men could trust, the code and the idea of honor protected men. But it also worked the other way. Where the code was strong there could be no rule of law. In the frontier...the modern state was withering away; it was superfluous. People were beginning to live again with the idea of clan and fiefdom..."

To revisit an earlier theme, it is worth noting that the ideas that a group has dictate what they believe is good and bad, as well as their behavior. Critically, these views and behaviours become ingrained over time to the extent that people stop noticing them (this process is called socialisation).

Fashion is a great example of socialisation. This get up was fine in 1761 -
but is unlikely to win you a promotion at the office in 2015.

WEEK 2: BELONGING AND COMMUNITY
Nationalism can be viewed as a politic that aims to align the nation and the state. To achieve this, some nationalists try to achieve a homogenous population, either by assimilating or by expelling immigrants or other minority groups. In its most extreme form, this is expressed as fascism.

Nationalism can be ethnic (defined by birthplace, ancestry and race), or it can be civic (defined by rights, responsibilities and values)

One way that nationalism can be reinforced is by so-called "banal nationalism" of barely noticed symbols and language (e.g. the countryside, flags, sporting events, Hovis, afternoon tea)

Fascinating to learn how Communist China encouraged its multi-ethnic population to ethnically self-define but had to back pedal when thousands of groups came forward, some with only a few members. The government eventually reduced the number of groups to 56

The rolling countryside of the Cotswolds, often used as banal propaganda

WEEK 3: BELONGING, PLACE AND SPACE
Thinking about maps, it is worth considering not only which maps have been made but also which maps HAVEN'T been made (BFTF notes that maps of who owns land are conspicuous by their absence). And also which maps are kept and which are throw away (elements of history being written by the victors here perhaps?)

Urban planning can also be a form of political planning.

Public service films are a rich furrow of propaganda, with one example being given that of the 1939 film "A Midsummer Day's Work", which looked at the construction of telephone lines across the county, emphasising their ability to connect communities and connecting images of hi-tech telecoms with images of rural idylls.

WEEK 4: JUSTICE, PUNISHMENT, PROTEST
Interesting to learn that "rational" legal systems (as proposed by Cesare Beccaria for example), where rich and poor were treated alike are a relatively recent phenomena and the public courtrooms they require have only been in existence for the last 200 years or so.

But there is a difference between "the law" and "justice", with the latter being a much more subjective and contested space than the black and white of the former.

Interesting to consider the similarities between exile of people by the Russian state to Siberia and exile of people by the British state to Australia...

Early 20th Century French thinker, George Sorel was fascinated by the stories of Christian martyrs who had given up their lives for a cause they believed in. He was searching for a similar myth that could be used to unity the working class into siezing the means of production. The myth he decided upon was that of the General Strike. Sorel expected violence to be used, but wanted it be be in a very idealised, limited form.

Perhaps ironically, it turned out that Sorel had the right idea, but the wrong myth. It was nationalism that proved the most effective motivator to get people to rally to a cause. Indeed, it was the fascist Mussolini said that he had "learned the most from Sorel".

Richard Tunney describes how people are more irrational (or, in other words, altruistic) when dealing with close family and friends than when dealing with strangers.

Benito Mussolini - a fan of George Sorel. Pictured here doing a knock out impersonation of Colonel Kurtz.

WEEK 5: CONSUMERISM AND IDEOLOGY
Considering Public Health campaigns, Canadian researcher Dr R.E.G Upshur has suggested that there are four principles for the justification of Public Health Interventions:

The Harm Principle,
The Principle of Least Restrictive Means,
The Reciprocity Principle, and
The Transparency Principle

In the context of consumer taste (food, art, decor etc), the 1960s French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that upper and middle class cultural taste was something that functioned just like monetary capital in that it gave status and opened doors. Thus these classes worked hard to ensure that their children had the "right" tastes. (something that chimes with a pithy comment that BFTF heard recently "Class is how you are prejudiced against people who look like you").

Governments have sometimes taken up the baton of nudging the population towards "better" taste, as in the UK example of the post war Council of Industrial Design

And in these ecologically aware times, companies can often persuade people to "buy ethical" as a salve to their conscience.

[This can often extend into greenwashing]

[True story from BFTF : Once, when travelling down the M1, stopped at a service station to buy a cup of coffee. Asked for Fairtrade, as is BFTF's tendency, and noticed that there were a great many teens and twentysomethings also at the service station. Turned out that they were on their way to London for a big charity concert in aid of the developing world. BFTF asked the guy at the coffee stall how many of these people were asking for Fairtrade when buying their coffees. "None of them" came back the reply"....]

A particularly interesting discussion related to the comparison of the dystopian futures depicted by George Orwell (in "1984") and Aldous Huxley (in "Brave New World")

Orwell feared that the population would be controlled by fear, censorship, doublespeak and the banning of books.

Huxley feared that the the population would be controlled by apathy, pursuit of pleasures and a deluge of trivial distractions.

Author Neil Postman suspected that Huxley got it right and described how in his book "Amusing ourselves to Death" (see also some cartoons on this here)

BFTF worries that some people regard this book not as a dystopian vision, but as more of a project plan

Related Content
Talk : Who's afraid of Groups, and Why?
Talk - Uri Gordon on Anarchism

Image Sources
Foucalt, Tent, 1761, Cotswolds, Mussolini, Brave New World

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

BFTF loves cycling 2015

Following on from the "BFTF loves cycling 2014" post, a new year demands a new post for cycling related comment and tomfoolery....

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Trimmed cycle path hedges (Jun15)
Nice to see the hedges by the cycle paths by King's Wood, near the Embankment, have been trimmed.

Trimmed hedges make you feel loved!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Heroes

An an antidote to the current anti-Muslim frenzy, here are some stories of Muslim heroes from around the world.

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Lassana Bathily
Article here
"A Muslim shop assistant [Lassana Bathily] has been hailed a hero after saving at least six people by hiding them in a walk-in freezer at the Jewish grocery store where an Islamist gunmen made his final stand."

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Mr. Muhammad Ishaq
Article here)
"The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are deeply saddened by the killing of Mr. Muhammad Ishaq, a local community worker who was part of the polio eradication initiative in Pakistan.

Mr. Ishaq was shot and killed in the Gadap town area of Karachi on Friday evening.

Polio immunization activities were suspended in this area of Karachi earlier this week after a shooting incident injured two WHO staff members who were supporting the implementation and monitoring of a vaccination campaign.

Until activities were suspended, Mr. Ishaq had worked with the national polio eradication effort as a Union Council Polio Worker for several months, helping to plan and implement vaccination campaigns to protect the most underserved and vulnerable children against this debilitating disease.

Because of the dedication of heroes like Mr. Ishaq, Pakistan is this year closer than ever to the eradication of polio. He was known for his dedication and diligence to immunize all children against polio.

Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that can cause permanent paralysis in a matter of hours. There is no cure, but there are safe and effective vaccines. Polio can be eradicated if every child is immunized until transmission stops worldwide."

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Malala Yousafzai
Main Blog Post here
Malala Yousafzai is a school-girl who lived in the Swat region of Pakistan who actively tried to improve the availability of schooling for girls in the area. Malala's efforts were recognised within Pakistan, with awards of the National Youth Peace Prize and the National Peace Award for Youth. By 2012 she was planning to organize the Malala Education Foundation, which would help poor girls go to school.

On 9 October 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Yousafzai as she rode home on a bus. She was hit with one bullet, which went through her head, neck, and ended in her shoulder. Two other girls were also wounded in the shooting.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with an article reporting Sirajuddin Ahmad, a spokesman of Swat Taliban as saying :“We had no intentions to kill her but were forced when she would not stop (speaking against us).."

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Salaman Taseer
Main Blog Post here
Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in Pakistan on 4th Jan 2013. The governor had campaigned against the abuse of the country's Blasphemy Laws which are often abused to settle scores and persecute minorities. Taseer had been campaigning for the release of Asia Bibi who had been accused of blasphemy after an argument with a group of women while harvesting berries.

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Aitzaz Hasan
Article here "Aitzaz Hasan, 15, was with friends outside school when they spotted a man wearing a suicide vest. Despite the pleas of his fellow students, he decided to confront and capture the bomber who then detonated his vest, his cousin told the BBC."

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PFI

To BFTF's complete surprise, there has never been a post on PFI finance on this blog - let's sort that our right now.

PFI deals, which have been promoted by both Labour and Conservative Governments in recent years, have allowed public buildings to be built with private money. However, there have been many concerns that the contracts are inflexible and offer poor value for money, locking in taxpayer repayments for, literally, decades.

PFI debacle No1 : Notts Riverside Police Station
The Nottingham Post reported back in 2011 on the story and explains how Notts Police signed a 25-yr contract for the new station in 2001, The contract specified payments to the contractor of £960,000 a year for the next 25 years (much of this payment comes from central government).

The building is about half the size of a football pitch hat FOI requests had revealed that the the station is costing taxpayers

So Notts Police Authority signed a 25-year contract for Riverside under which, on top of staffing costs, it pays £80,000 a month – or £960,000 a year.

The building was constructed on a three-acre site and covers a space of 27,000 square feet – less than half the size of a football pitch.

But today, with redundancies and cutbacks being forced on all departments, the station costs are a severe strain on Police finances.

Phil Matthews, chairman of Notts Police Federation, comments that "We are [now] trying to shoe-horn people into the station just to make the most of it. This contract has become an albatross round our neck."

While the TaxPayers' Alliance, says that "Too many PFI deals were badly negotiated and now public bodies are stuck with huge monthly bills...that taxpayers are struggling to pay for".

The Cheerios Manifesto

Sickened, frankly, by the cynical, manipulative text on this pack of Cheerios:


Cheerios Manifesto

It's Simple, we're campaigning to let everybody know that kids looove Cheerios
And they come in bags too

And guess what?
We looove delicious
Chocolatey Cheerios
made with 4 whole grains and a source of calcium
More than just delicious - the're wholesomely nutritious too !

So Mums & Dads - it's Good to say YES!

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By the way, the ingredients for Cheerios are, in decreasing order:
Cereal Grains, Sugar, Wheat Starch, Partially Inverted Brown Sugar Syrup, Salt, Tripotassium Phosphate, Sunflower Oil, Colours, Antioxidant


Did you spot the cyncial way percentages are used in that ingredients list?

In contrast, the ingredients for a packet of Porridge Oats are, in decreasing order:
Rolled Oats

One of those two choices is "wholesomely nutritious", but BFTF is not sure it is the Cheerios.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Some notes on the Charlie Hebdo Attack

Some notes from the coverage of the murder of Charlie Hebdo staff.

Condemnation of the attack (see also here) many Muslim Organisations, for example :

Grand Mosque of Paris :
"We strongly condemn these kind of acts and we expect the authorities to take the most appropriate measures. Our community is stunned by what just happened. It’s a whole section of our democracy that is seriously affected. This is a deafening declaration of war. Times have changed, and we are now entering a new era of confrontation."

Tariq Ramadan :
"Charlie Hebdo: NO! NO! NO! Contrary to what was apparently said by the killers in the bombing of Charlie Hebdo's headquarters, it is not the Prophet who was avenged, it is our religion, our values and Islamic principles that have been betrayed and tainted. My condemnation is absolute and my anger is profound (healthy and a thousand times justified) against this horror!!!..."

An article by Jonathan Freedland :
"There can surely be no doubt now – as to what we’re up against. It is a murderous cult. And, at the risk of mind-reading, it seems bent on fusing itself with Islam, claiming to act in the name, and on the authority, of that faith...

It follows that our responsibility is to thwart that effort. For Muslims, that has meant spelling out that these killers speak only for themselves. Note the speed with which a delegation of 20 imams visited the Charlie Hebdo offices, branding the gunmen “criminals, barbarians, satans” and, crucially, “not Muslims”.Of course they should not have to do it. The finger-wagging demand that Muslims condemn acts of terror committed by jihadist cultists is odious: it tacitly assumes that Muslims support such horror unless they explicitly say otherwise...So no one else should demand it. But when it comes, as it did so rapidly and spontaneously this week, it speaks with an extra power.

If the challenge, then, is to frustrate the killers’ desire to fuse themselves with Islam, then that puts a burden on ..[non-Muslims also] have to take great care that nothing they do, especially in response to this threat, treats the Muslim majority and the jihadist cult as if they were one group..."
Freedland also commented on the chorus of voices insisting that papers like the Guardian should republish Charlie Hebdo cartoons:
"Behind this argument is an assumption that Islam is a unique case. Yet for that to be true, a paper like the Guardian would be running images every day that it knew trampled on the sensibilities of, say, women or Jews or people of colour or myriad others – holding back only when it came to Muslims and what matters to them. But that’s not how it is. Mostly we do our best, not always successfully, to avoid causing that kind of pain.

And this is the key point. It is not only violent jihadists who resent representations of the prophet: such pictures trouble many millions of peaceful Muslims too. To print one now would be to take a stand against the former by offending the latter.

And that makes no sense. Not when our every move must now be aimed at confounding the killers’ wish to make this a holy war, pitting Muslims against everyone else. It is no such thing. Theirs is a dirty little war, a handful of wicked fanatics against the rest of us. And they must lose."

A visit by 20 Imams to the Charlie Hebdo offices after the attack:
"..On Thursday a delegation of about 20 imams from France’s Muslim federations visited the Charlie Hebdo offices...These men are criminals, barbarians, satans. For me, they are not Muslims,” the imam of the Paris suburb of Drancy, said, addressing the media. “Their hatred, their barbarism, has nothing to do with Islam. We are all French, we are all humans. We must live in respect, tolerance and solidarity.”"

Some comments from Rabbi Michael Lerner:
"And when the horrific [Charlie Hebdo attack] resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn't an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners

So don't be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media-circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in...I could easily imagine (and regret) how some Islamist fundamentalists will already be making these points about the ethical inconsistencies of Western societies with their pomposity about human rights that never seem to constrain the self-described "enlightened democracies" from violating those rights when it is they who perceive themselves as under attack."

An article in the Telegraph by Michael Deacon:
"Here's a theory...[Terrorists] merely pretend to be offended by cartoons, in order to give themselves a pretext to commit murder. Murder so horrifying, on a pretext so unWestern, that non-Muslims – blinded by grief and rage – turn on Muslims. Blame them. Persecute them. Burn their book, attack their mosques, threaten them in the street, demand their expulsion from Western societies. Actions that, in turn, scare Western Muslims, isolate them, alienate them. And thus drive some of them to support – and even become – terrorists"

Deacon adds that:
"I don't think the terrorists "win" if we fail to reproduce cartoons. I think the terrorists "win" if we leap up, gulp down their bait – and hate Muslims."


Having read all the above, and much else, BFTF's own thought are that this attack would have happened even if Charlie Hebdo had not existed. Whichever group did this decided they wanted to attack FIRST and decided what to attack SECOND. If not Charlie Hebdo, it would have been another publication, or a police station, or the parliament, or a company HQ or a church, or a synagogue.. Focussing on what Charlie Hebdo did or did not do is missing the point entirely. Further proof of this is how the attackers had no problem in killing civilians in a kosher supermarket.

Update 10th Jan
Touched by the story of how a Muslim saved many lives in the Kosher Supermarket that was attacked:
"When the Islamist gunman broke into the store, Lassana Bathily, a 24-year-old Muslim from the African country of Mali, told customers to hide in the store's basement freezer. Closing the freezer's doors, he told the customers to wait calmly inside while he keeps a lookout. After police raided the supermarket and killed gunman Amedy Coulibaly, the hostages emerged safely from the freezer."


Friday, 2 January 2015

Housing

As a parent of three children, BFTF is VERY concerned about the cost of housing; the lack of house building; and the rise of BTL squeezing out first time buyers.

And that's without the issue of the next generation of young adults starting out life with a 27k university dept around their necks.

This post is intended to contain some (hopefullycoherent) thoughts on the issue, but for now is just a place to hold information so that BFTF can get his head around the issues.

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Millionaire landlords Fergus and Judith Wilson begin evicting large families
"..Fergus and Judith Wilson, whose property empire extends to nearly 1,000 homes in Kent, have begun evicting families with more than two children, banned tenants on zero-hours contracts and thrown out extended families where the grandmother comes to stay."

"Like many other landlords across Britain, Wilson has also taken the decision to reject anybody who is on a zero hours contract...'“I only have experience in rejecting them as tenants,” said Wilson. “No landlord in his right mind will accept tenants who do not have a guaranteed wage. No rent insurer will accept them, so that effectively makes the landlord’s decision for them. No pay … nowhere to live. Welcome to the real world.”"

"Roger Harding, Shelter’s director of communications, policy and campaigns, said: “It beggars belief that a landlord can evict a family simply because they have three children, and the fact that this one has is yet another sign of our broken rental market.“For many families, private renting is their only option. Families now make up nearly a third of private renters and if more landlords turn them away this will make it near impossible for many to find anywhere half-decent to live. Politicians must make private rented homes a stable place to put down roots, and not somewhere you can be turned away from for no good reason.”"
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How housebuilding helped the economy recover: Britain in the 1930s
"In the early 1930s Britain recovered impressively from a double-dip recession which ended in 1932. In every year from 1933 to 1936, before rearmament could have made any difference, growth exceeded 4% per year. Growth was not driven by fiscal stimulus; indeed it blossomed at a time of fiscal consolidation. So what was the magic formula?

Houses were cheap because the supply of land for housing was very elastic, which in turn meant that there was no incentive for developers to sit on large land banks. Underpinning the availability of land for house-building was an almost complete absence of land-use planning restrictions which applied to only about 75,000 acres in 1932; the draconian provisions of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act were still to come.

Could we repeat the 1930s experience today? It would be very difficult since both mortgage availability and planning rules are very different."
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Why Labour's land banking ultimatum will not boost housebuilding
"Miliband said a Labour government would threaten developers failing to develop with a use-it-or-lose-it ultimatum that would allow councils to buy back the land or fine the developer for not building...

The first and most obvious problem is planning. Britain's bureaucratic planning system means even simple applications can take years. Berkeley Group has spent about 15 years redeveloping parts of Vauxhall in south London, and has gone back to the planning authority several times to increase the number of homes allowed. It certainly hasn't been a case of sitting on the land.

..Besides, land banks are simply not an efficient use of housebuilders' money. This was underlined recently by Barratt chief executive Mark Clare, who said his organisation aims to bank land for a "relatively short" three-and-a-half years in order to maximise the return on investment.

...A large amount of undeveloped land is owned by the public sector but two thirds of it lies in areas that aren't particularly well-off. The key here will be incentivising developers in non-affluent areas. Unlocking this land will require innovative arrangements to make the sites more attractive, such as fast-tracked planning, reduced development levies or a commitment to provide necessary infrastructure enabling communities to be created."


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One estate’s tradition of providing affordable flats is ending with the rush to cash in on the housing boom
"[Lyndsey Garratt] lives on the fringes of the City of London, on the New Era estate. Built by a charitable trust in the mid-1930s, the redbrick square has provided homes to local working people at affordable rents...At least it was until Benyon’s family firm recently moved in as part of a property consortium and snapped up the lot. The investors have made no bones about jacking up rents to match the rest of the market. Garratt was previously paying about £640 a month for the two-bed she shares with her daughter; when her contract expires in July 2016 residents expect they will be charged around £2,400 a month. For Garratt, a care co-ordinator at the local NHS trust, that is way more than her entire take-home pay."


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Parliament's failure to outlaw revenge evictions is yet another setback for renters, landlords, and democracy
"Today was set to be a landmark day for private renters in this country. The Tenancies (Reform) Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Commons, to kick start a process many hoped would lead to legislation to end retaliatory evictions. That didn’t happen. It didn’t happen primarily because Tory MPs Christopher Chope and Philip Davies filibustered so the bill could not be passed, despite having cross-party support. A sad day for democracy. A far sadder day for the 9 million of us who rent our homes with little protection in existing law."