Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014 

The Tory cult of insincerity.

At the very first opportunity, the language of modern warfare descends into euphemism.  It has to, such is the mundane, horrific reality it hides.  Places where fighters might be sheltering become "command and control centres"; "a heavy weapon position", which could mean a tank or more likely, some form of artillery, is "engaged"; reports that civilians may have been caught up in the bombing are always "being looked into", while raids are invariably "intelligence led", as opposed to being carried out on the off chance.  War is a business, and since 9/11 business has been extremely good: how can it not be when a single Brimstone missile, used yesterday by the RAF to destroy an "Isis armed pickup truck" costs over £100,000?

War all the time, all of the time.  Our enemy is always intractable, impossible to negotiate with.  Always we try every possible step first, always we go into combat with a heavy heart.  Always those who rightly become ever more indignant with each new conflict are mocked, shouted down, asked what their solution is, have their arguments misrepresented.  It takes a lot for me to agree with George Galloway these days, but every single thing he said in the Commons on Friday was right.  Islamic State could not have established itself in either Syria or Iraq without the support of some of those it operates alongside; he wasn't claiming for a moment the Yazidis, Christians or Kurds were quiescent in the face of their onslaught.  The Obama strategy, our strategy, offers no solution except a fantasy one where a mythical "moderate" force in Syria overcomes IS while the Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militas that are now the de facto Iraqi "army" make nice over the border.  The one realistic option, a truce between the Syrian rebels and Assad, is off the table, such is the Syrian president's lack of "legitimacy".  As compared to what, exactly?

As for matters closer to home, the threat will once again be used to justify otherwise unthinkable restrictions on free speech and liberty.  Give credit to Theresa May: she coated her speech to the Tory conference yesterday with so many platitudes and doths of the cap to liberalism you could have almost missed she was proposing the equivalent of 19th century controls on activists and political campaigners.  If necessary she would legislate to enforce the limiting of stop and search; she quoted from the Quran in an effort to prove that the Islamic State is not Islamic (which is a completely baffling line of argument: no, IS is not in any way representative of Muslims, but to claim it has no connection whatsoever to Islam is just as ludicrous, and seems as much as anything a way of distracting from how our friends in Saudi Arabia are most responsible for spreading the Wahhabism IS and al-Qaida are indebted to); and even at times seemed to be coming near to criticising her party's own foreign policy.  "We can't just remove dictators and assume liberal democracy will follow," she said, to which you almost felt she was dying to add, like we did in Libya.

Only later did it emerge quite what her "banning orders" and "extremism disruption orders" would amount to in practice.  Banning orders the Tories have banged on about for years, constantly threatening to outlaw the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir without ever going through with it.  May's extremism disruption orders by contrast seem to have been designed to deal with the Anjem Choudary "problem": i.e. the gobshites who just about stay on the right side of the law and whom the media love to quote for their own purposes.  The police, suitably empowered, will able to apply for an order against someone judged to be a "threat to the functioning of democracy" or as little as "causing alarm or distress", almost exactly the standard currently in place that has resulted in evangelical Christians being arrested under section 5 of the public order act.  If granted, those sanctioned would then have to submit any online communications to the police in advance, and would also be barred from taking part in protests.

Ostensibly targeted against the far-right as well as Islamists, so broadly drawn are the plans they're an authoritarian wet dream, capable of being used against protesters of almost every conceivable hue.  Rather than being out of character, the proposals are of a piece with the Lobbying Act's crackdown on charities daring to poke their noses into politics, epitomised by Brooks Newmark's comments on how they should concentrate on their knitting.  Little wonder the Conservatives are set on repealing the Human Rights Act, knowing full well the orders would be judged to breach it.

David Cameron for his part insisted getting rid of the HRA was all about sticking two fingers up at Strasbourg, "the country that wrote Magna Carta" needing no lectures about human rights.  Not that he mentioned leaving the European Convention itself, meaning those not satisfied with the replacement "British" Bill of Rights could presumably still go to the ECHR, just at far greater expense than at present.  Perhaps the family of Trevor Philpott would like to ask if their action against Essex police would still have gone ahead under the replacement act, or indeed which rights it is exactly the HRA provides the replacement won't have, a question left unanswered before.

Considering just how low the bar was set by Ed Miliband, forgetting the deficit aside, it was always likely Cameron's speech would be seen as a success by comparison.  That doesn't however absolve the media from failing to notice Cameron has delivered essentially the same address three years in a row now.  Last year he contrived to answer the sneering of a Russian politician by pointing out how we battled fascism; this year he related his experience in Normandy with a D-Day veteran, "how when people have seen our flag - in some of the most desperate times in history - they have known what it stands for".  Well, quite.  Last year, as he has repeatedly, he built himself up into a fit of faux righteous indignation over some slight from Labour; this year he did it twice, over Labour daring to suggest the NHS isn't safe in his hands and over Labour's plans to deal with the deficit, or lack thereof.

It was nonsense, but it was nonsense decreed acceptable whereas Labour's nonsense is pounced upon.  Cameron's plea for a majority government isn't so much you've had four years of us and hated every minute, it's either me for another 5 or it's Ed Miliband, as it is I'm a bit shit, you're a bit shit, don't put your trust in someone completely shit.  As Larry Elliott points out, Cameron's tax promises today now make them the party without a plan for cutting the deficit: if cuts of £25bn already look next to impossible without certain parts of government shutting down completely, how can a further £7.2bn worth be found to finance cutting taxes for middle earners?  Just as Cameron says he's a relatively simple man, it simply can't be done, unless that is he gives with one hand and takes with the other.  Which is precisely what he's doing by raising the income tax threshold to £12,500 at the same time as freezing tax credits, hoping the lowest paid won't notice his sleight of hand, or how the continuously rising threshold helps middle earners the most.

For all its manifold, myriad faults, Cameron and the Conservatives have a vision.  It's a vision that ignores the inexorable rise of food banks, the penalising of the most vulnerable through a "spare room subsidy", the fact living standards have fallen and show no sign of recovering despite inflation coming in below 2%, and instead emphasises things could be worse.  You can only be sure of continuing mediocrity with the Conservatives, so long as you're upper middle class like they are.  Everyone just needs to work harder, do the right thing, and they'll get the same rewards.  It's the natural order.  Should they win, they'll make life even harder for those whom continue to oppose them.

Labour, meanwhile, doesn't have anything resembling a vision.  Yet still on choice of party if nothing else it retains the edge.  That's how beatable the Tories are, should be, how people want a vision of something better that isn't cod-Thatcherism from a politician who can only remind you of how much better Tony Blair was at insincerity.  You believed Blair's insincerity.  Cameron can't even pull that off.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 

Shorter Theresa May.

We have to destroy the town in order to save it.

(More tomorrow once the nicer effects of an anaesthetic wear off.  Don't ask.)

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Monday, September 29, 2014 

I chose not to choose Osborne.

If his actions hadn't been so unfathomably stupid, you could almost feel sorry for Brooks Newmark.  Chris Bryant is still constantly reminded of his posing in a pair of y-fronts for his Gaydar profile (and I, err, seem to have also just brought it up again), but at least he kept his pants on.  Newmark, being the archetypal Tory rather than a wannabe vicar turned MP, was just a touch more classy in his exposing.  Not by deciding upon a sepia filter or anything though, which might have been trying just a little too hard.  Instead he flopped the old johnson out of his dark blue and red paisley pyjamas, apparently convinced this would ignite fires of passion in his correspondent on Twitter.  Who just happened to be a freelance hack trying his luck with the old honeypot ploy, rather than Sophie Wittams, blonde Tory PR bombshell.

Cue many complaints about entrapment and all the rest of it, moans which were few and far between when Mazher Mahmood finally met his match in Tulisa.  Admittedly, they have a point: rather than a targeted operation against someone known to be liberal in their sending of private images, this seems to have been a fishing expedition, with "Wittams" contacting a number of Tory MPs.  All the same, I can't be the only one thinking it wasn't so long back Lord Rennard was being denounced for his (alleged) threatening sexual behaviour and touching of prospective Lib Dem MPs.  Even if this was a consensual exchange of pictures, should an MP be doing such things in any case, or indeed, shouldn't it be seen as indicative of a lack of judgement?

Newmark being ensnared by the Sunday Mirror would have been bad enough for the Tories on the eve of their conference, only for Mark Reckless to join his compadre Douglas Carswell in defecting to UKIP.  Much as we could just defer to nominative determinism on this one, as many others have, it says much about the state the Conservatives find themselves in that Nigel Farage's merry band has proved more attractive to not just one but two Tory MPs with healthy majorities.  Reckless could no longer stand being in a party apparently doomed to defeat at the next election, so he's joined one that's err, even more doomed to defeat at the next election.  Still, at least he can now be happier in his own skin, no longer forced to defend his party to those in Rochester who believe themselves to be "over taxed" and "over regulated", those key complaints on the doors.  As for the cost to the taxpayer of his decision to resign and seek re-election when he could have waited a few months and done exactly the same thing at the time of the general election, more important is the Farage bandwagon.  Quite how this is championing his constituents' interests rather than his new party's isn't clear, but no doubt he can justify it to himself somehow.

Yesterday in Birmingham then felt more like a conference of a far-left sect than it did that of the main governing party, with Reckless being denounced from the platform for his lies and betrayal.  Not that you could ever imagine Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, aka Sebastian Fox being a leftie agitator, mainly as he comes across as far too dim.  Nothing is too obvious for Shapps, no sentiment too trite, no soundbite too overcooked.  If all else fails he can perhaps look for work at GCHQ, as the Tories now do a sideline in recording phone calls without the other person's knowledge and then playing them to all and sundry.  More the actions of an authoritarian one party state than the Tories of old, but needs apparently must when it comes to exposing the double dealings of those who are Reckless.

It was still preferable to what's become the Monday ritual, the delivering of the George Osborne gospel.  Worth keeping in mind is by some difference Osborne is now the most popular and also the most successful of all the coalition's ministers: that he's been a miserable failure when judged by the goals set by err, George Osborne doesn't matter when the competition is even worse.  By any real measure Michael Gove would rank as most successful such has been his impact on education, only for his charms to be deemed just too offensive to teachers and in turn voters.  Osborne by contrast, who must inspire thoughts of doing a Mantel in many, remains in place and dividing and ruling the same as ever.

Having got off relatively lightly of late, one would hope due to the Tories realising just how unpopular the bedroom tax has become, those on benefits whether in or out of work are due to cop it once again.  Should the Tories get a majority the under 21s will face the equivalent of "community payback" once they've claimed JSA for 6 months, while they also won't be able to get housing benefit.  The benefit cap as a whole will be lowered to £23,000, while only those in the support group of ESA will see their payments rise in line with inflation for a further two years.  Meanwhile, those under 40 who can afford to buy their own home could potentially get a 20% discount whether they need one or not, and another "death tax" will be abolished, with what's left of a pension pot no longer taxed at 55%.  It really couldn't be any more stark: if you're "one of us", aspiring to own your home, wanting to pass on money to your kids, Osborne and pals will be more than glad to help.  If you're struggling to make ends meet, claiming anything from the government whatsoever (with the exception of those able to jump through the hoops of the work capability assessment and everyone lucky enough to be 65+), you're on your own.  We hear that nice Mr Miliband, the same one who couldn't even remember the deficit, instantly disqualifying him from entering the room of the Very Serious People, will be happy to have you.

You could understand Osborne's gambit more if the £3bn estimated to be saved by these changes went a lot of the way to making the savings Osborne claims they will.  The problem is this is just £3bn of the £12bn total from welfare, with another £13bn to come from savings from the non-protected government departments.  Neither figure seems likely to be achieved without extreme pain, nor does it seem realistic taxes won't have to rise in some way, despite all of Osborne's fine words, if that is he means what he says about running a surplus.  It could be just as he's failed miserably to get rid of the deficit in a single term, he could relent once the election has been won.  Equally, he could raise taxes straight away to get it out of the way, even if it was to break his promises.  Or it could be he means what he says, and to hell with the consequences.  Whichever it is, there's no evidence making his stand now will win the support he believes it will from those who favour the Tories on the economy.  Keen as he apparently is on paraphrasing Trainspotting, no doubt to Irvine Welsh's ire, he and the Tories shouldn't be surprised if we decide to choose something else.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014 

Run for the hills.

Boris Johnson's announcement he intends to return to parliament is about as much of a shock as Tony Blair signing up to shill for another dictator.  Beneath the bumbling act lies a man whose life has been one long tale of relentless ambition, as his biographer Sonia Purnell has documented. Having succeeded in becoming London mayor, it was only a matter of time before he made his move back to the Commons, readying himself for if or rather when there becomes a Conservative leadership vacancy, convinced as he is he was born to be prime minister.

That Johnson has chose to set out his availability now rather than wait until nearer the election and parachute into a safe seat courtesy of a late retiree isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the skills of his former adviser Lynton Crosby and his "Kill Mill" strategy.  Johnson clearly believes regardless of his transparent suggestions to the contrary that Cameron's position should the Tories fail to win is likely to hang by a thread; indeed, you can only really see Cameron remaining leader in the event of a Labour minority government.  A Lib-Lab coalition or outright Labour victory, distant as the latter might seem at the moment, and he would surely be forced to resign.

Johnson is far too canny though to just wait it out, hence the report he commissioned which finds although staying in the EU would be in our best interests, it wouldn't be a disaster to leave either.  Despite Cameron's placating of the right of the party by getting rid of the few remaining holdouts against leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, Johnson is positioning himself as the man to really get us out of the EU, whereas Cameron won't even contemplate his renegotiation strategy failing.  The one problem with this is Johnson is just as socially liberal as Cameron and Osborne (he could hardly not be) something that doesn't sit entirely comfortably with the headbangers who believe the only thing holding the Tories back is a "real" right-wing manifesto and leader.

Whether we'll see Cameron and Johnson on the campaign trail together isn't clear, although you have to suspect we won't be seeing a Tory version of Cameron buying his rival an ice cream.  Those with links to the "players" are making out this was all agreed in advance and how delighted Dave and pals are by Boris deciding to battle on two fronts.  Underneath George Osborne must be seething, his own designs on the leadership having clearly been thrown into the utmost jeopardy.  As for where this leaves Londoners, destined to have a part-time mayor for over a year in spite of Johnson's past promise to not do precisely this, they've never really been at the forefront of his considerations anyway.

The other question is whether the country as a whole could really stomach Johnson as leader of the Tories, let alone prime minister.  You have to go back almost half a century to find someone else with such a how, shall we say, distinctive past in a similar position.  We prefer our leaders if not boring then certainly staid; our most recent flirtation with someone even closely comparable didn't end well for us, although it certainly has for him.  The "Boris ler-gend" cult can only go so far.  Should the Tories not win next year however, making it 23 years since they last got a majority, longer than the 19 Labour spent in the wilderness, they might just be moved to decide Boris couldn't possibly make things any worse.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014 

The differentation of fools.

It begins.  Still 10 months away from the election and the two constituent parts of the coalition are starting their differentiation strategies.  Apparently we're meant to believe it was pure coincidence Danny Alexander penned an article for the Mirror detailing how deeply iniquitous the bedroom tax, sorry the spare room subsidy is just after Cameron launches his biggest reshuffle of the parliament and news "leaks" out about how the Tories intend to engineer a "legal car-crash with a built in time delay" with the European Court of Human Rights.  The Tories are feigning shock at the duplicity of the Lib Dems at the same time as Nick Clegg claims to have been left "blindsided" by the very much anticipated sacking/retirement of the ministers opposed to leaving the ECHR.  If it wasn't all so obvious you'd be forgiven for deeming it cynical.

What certainly is cynical is the Liberal Democrats only now deciding the bedroom tax doesn't work, can't work and is extraordinarily unfair even by the coalition's benefit reform standards.  It was the report this week (PDF) that truly opened our eyes they say, ignoring the assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions carried out beforehand which predicted exactly the outcome we've arrived at.  This can only be explained in one of three ways: either they didn't read the assessment, they didn't believe it, or they just didn't care either way.  The Conservatives for their part say not once had the Lib Dem leadership raised concerns with them over the policy, and on this occasion it's difficult not to believe them.

After all, this is the same Nick Clegg who gave a speech back in December 2012 claiming that the welfare system was in danger of becoming unaffordable, in only one of many remarks Iain Duncan Smith or David Cameron could just as easily have made.  The only thing that's changed between now and then is, unlike most of the rest of the welfare reforms, the bedroom tax has become unpopular as a direct result of people knowing friends or relatives affected by it.  When there are no suitable alternative properties for someone to downsize to, as the government knew there wouldn't be, the policy was always going to result in flagrant injustice.

While the Tories have been in the vanguard of attempting to portray all those claiming benefits (with the possible exception of child benefit) as scroungers, both of the other main parties have been happy to go along with it, not prepared to fight against the increasingly pernicious narrative pushed by both the tabloids and broadcast media (although the Lib Dems should be given some credit for opposing the Tories on limiting housing benefit to the over 25s).  Labour eventually realised so many of those who couldn't be easily dismissed as dole scum were being affected they could oppose it without the Tories and the tabloids tearing them to pieces.  Now the Lib Dems, despite having voted against Labour's attempts to alter the legislation as recently as February, have moved on the most obvious policy they can quickly say they were never convinced of in the first place.

It's precisely the kind of politics that only increases cynicism, rather than as the Lib Dems clearly believe might persuade a few former supporters to return home.  It's also one thing for the Tories to move to do something they've threatened for quite some time, regardless of the politics involved; it's another for the Lib Dems to row back on a policy that would have never passed in the first place but for them.  Just as every previous attempt by the Lib Dems to make amends for broken promises has been rebuffed, so too will this latest desperate gambit be.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014 

It's not a peak, it's a plateau.

Well, here we are once again.  Another state opening of parliamentAnother Queen's speechAnother brick in the wall.  Somehow, quite possibly as a result of a voodoo curse, the coalition has stuck together four whole years.  If any Lib Dem MPs would like there to be a conscious uncoupling, ala Gywnnie n' Chris, then clearly Clegg and Danny Alexander aren't listening.  They must know the longer they remain bound together the less chance there is of their old supporters returning, and yet they seem determined to see it out to the bitter end.

Speaking of which, we can't have a Queen's speech post without remarking on the lunacy of the ceremony itself.  You can't help but wonder how much longer poor old Brenda is going to put up with having to don full regalia for the benefit of a bunch of sycophants and royalist nutbars, not least when she has to read out such a wretched shopping list of bills and platitudes.  She's now 88, is she really going to be expected to keep doing this into her 90s? If we can't just dispense with the entire parade of stupidity, is there any real reason as opposed to a nonsensical traditional one why Charles can't take over? And what happened to the idea of the Lord Chancellor performing the head of state's role?

As for the speech itself, when one of the pages collapses out of stultifying boredom, you know it's pretty bad. At best there are three notable, important pieces of legislation: the pension reforms we've known about since the budget, the tax relief on childcare, and the fracking act. The rest are typical of legislation left over at the end of a parliament, only the coalition has been running on empty for the best part of two years. Liz was duly left with even more flannel to spout than is usual, informing the world of how her government intends to prevent further violence in Syria, not something immediately compatible with supporting the people attacking polling stations, and will also continue "its programme of political reform".  Sorry, which one is that again?

The day after somewhat defending politicians, it can only be described as immensely depressing to realise today effectively marks the beginning of the general election campaign.  Not one, not two but three Tory MPs stood up to demand to know whether Labour intends to put a penny on national insurance to fund the NHS, further dispiriting evidence of where the Lynton Crosby-helmed Conservative campaign is going to focus its attacks.  Had he wanted to be truly honest, Ed Miliband could have responded by pointing out whoever wins the next election is almost certain to raise taxes, such remains the size of the deficit thanks to three years of the economy flatlining, with it being almost impossible to keep the roughly 80/20% ratio of cuts to tax rises.  The correlation between the pensions reform, all but encouraging early cashing out, as it provides the Treasury with a healthy percentage at the same time and the continuing state of the public finances is obvious and direct.  In the long run it might turn into a loss for the exchequer, but by then Osborne and friends hope to be long gone.

Much of the rest was similarly short-term.  The infrastructure bill looks set to reform the trespass laws to make it impossible for landowners to object to drilling under their property, something that strikes as just a little ironic considering the coalition's insistence on toughening the law against squatting only a couple of years ago.  An issue no one saw as being a major problem had to be tackled in order to defend property rights, while here we are now doing precisely the opposite to start the dash for gas.  There's also yet another crime bill, as no parliamentary session is complete without one, despite last year's currently being stalled in part down to the row over sentences for those caught with a knife for the second time.

If we had a media that was more interested in the substance as opposed to the procedure and knockabout, they might have dedicated slightly more time to Miliband's response.  In a similar style to how Cameron took on Gordon Brown at the height of the expenses scandal, he set out how many believe "this House cannot achieve anything at all", condemning the paucity of help on offer to those for whom work doesn't pay, and how following the Mark Carney's declaration that inequality was one of the biggest challenges facing the country, politicians should be judged on how they respond.  It was a strong performance, one Miliband desperately needs to put in more often, and suggests behind the scenes the party has finally realised how to develop the cost of living from being merely a slogan into a defining argument against the lethargy of the coalition. 

The election obviously isn't going to be fought over the final year's tepid legislation, but Labour must hold it against the coalition.  Wasted years, a masochistic fetish for austerity then swapped with a lust for reflating old bubbles in the search for growth of any kind, and a determination to play one part of society off against another.  We can and have to do better than this.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014 

The scandal hiding in plain sight.

Anyone surprised by the Labour Force Survey figures confirming there hasn't been an influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers since the restrictions on free movement were lifted at the beginning of the year?  No?  Thought not.  To listen to Danny Alexander though, you would have imagined he and the rest of the main political parties had always rejected the idea there would be a similar movement of labour as when the A8 countries joined back in 2005.  "Gives the lie to UKIP's scaremongering," apparently.  Forgive me for having a memory slightly longer than a gnat, but that most certainly wasn't the message coming across last year, when politician after politician lined up to say they were taking the issue very seriously indeed, and people were right to be concerned. Didn't Tory backbenchers force a vote in an attempt to reintroduce the restrictions? Were they told to stop being so damn silly? Ask a stupid question.

Not that we should think this one survey puts the matter to rest. The numbers might yet pick up, and it could be there have been a few thousand unemployed Bulgarians/Romanians who've made the journey without being counted by this particular survey. That there's been a drop in the first quarter seems a good indication this probably isn't the case, and bears out what some of us argued: why would they come here when the whole of Europe would be open to them? The fall is probably attributable to some moving closer to back home, the countries that had more stringent visa programmes now being as open as everywhere else.

Besides, the issue never was actual immigration, as I doubt Farage or the tabloids believed their own rhetoric, unless they fell into doing so after repeating it so often. It's that those 26 million Europeans can and could come here and we can't do anything about it. Anyone making just the economic argument is part of the problem, not understanding it's the speed of change, the perception of unfairness, the stories about migrants working for a pittance, putting locals at a disadvantage.  What does it matter if it's not affecting you personally when you simply know it's happening?

There is always something easier to blame.  It's all the stranger when you consider the latest employment figures suggest the coalition might be encouraging something on the scale of the parking of the long-term unemployed on incapacity benefit in the 80s.  Scratch beneath the headlines of a "jobs boom" and the most people in work ever, and the massive rise in the number becoming self-employed stands out.  In the year to March, 375,000 designated themselves as such, more than the number entering work in the private and public sectors.  This has been hailed by some within the coalition as a example of entrepreneurial zeal, only research by the TUC suggests the number starting their own business has in fact fallen.

Some of this rise can be explained perfectly normally, with agency workers for instance being pushed into self-employment.  Others have set themselves up on eBay, selling the odd thing to keep the wolf from the door and away from the ever harsher Jobseeker's Allowance regime.  Another explanation becomes clearer once you take a look at the also released today numbers of those sanctioned, i.e., had their benefits stopped in the last three months of 2013.  Incredibly, this had risen to 227,629, or almost a quarter, yes, a quarter of those who were claiming JSA in November.  Back in February of last year there were reports Work programme providers were pushing people into self-employment, getting the clients off their book, a payment for their company and delighting the DWP in the process.  The "customers" were told to claim working tax credit, especially if they had children as the additional child tax credit would almost certainly take their overall payment above the amount they would get normally on JSA.

With Jobcentre advisers under intense pressure to issue sanctions for non-existent infractions, life on any sort of income, even if below the £72.40 a week pittance JSA provides suddenly becomes attractive.  This also ties in with the crash in earnings of the self-employed since the recession, not all of which can possibly be put down to an increase in people fiddling their incomes.  With the ironically named "Help to Work" scheme rolled out at the end of last month, the aim of the programme being fairly transparently to stop those who have been out of work for 2 years claiming at all, or to sanction them when they fail to show up at the Jobcentre every day, it wouldn't be a surprise if the more sympathetic at the dole office were informing their customers of this almost government backed alternative.  Keep in mind also that those on workfare schemes are counted as in work, rather than unemployed, and the fall in unemployment no longer looks quite so impressive.

The only problem for the coalition (as opposed to those who are being left reliant on food banks, which the DWP insists is not due to the mass sanctioning of JSA claimants) is this dodge can't last, thanks to Iain Duncan Smith's own Universal Credit wheeze.  As Johnnyvoid explains, once fully rolled out only those earning the equivalent of someone working full time for the minimum wage will qualify for the UC replacement for tax credits.  Should UC ever be fully introduced, or indeed if the Tories are still in power, this has the potential to suddenly and apparently inexplicably increase the unemployment rate.  Hopefully by then Labour or even UKIP might have realised a real scandal is hiding in plain sight.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014 

The return of the stupid party.


There is only one thing to draw from the Tories' BINGO! ad, as tweeted by Michael Green Grant Shapps, and it's not that the party itself has a pretty dim view of those it's attempting to appeal to, as we already knew that. It's rather that the party's advisers and advertising partners seem to be similarly crass and thoughtless. Is this really the same party that, regardless of what you thought of it, could at least be relied on in the past to commission effective, even iconic campaigns? Compare it to the viral video released by Labour a few weeks back, which used the template of Facebook's otherwise deeply creepy auto-generated history videos to look back on the coalition's four years in an both amusing and critical manner.  Forget patronising, Shapps' tweet was downright stupid, the only surprise being it hasn't been deleted.

Thankfully, we don't just have to rely on the Tories' own chairman to show up the coalition, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has once again cast their eye over the budget. As last year, they condemn George Osborne in wonderfully understated language, as he continues to find money for tax cuts and spending without it being made clear where the money's going to come from.  "A Chancellor focussed on sound management of the public finances over the long tern would not make a habit of repeating these sort of manoeuvres," Paul Johnson said (PDF), but then it's been clear for some time that Osborne is no more focussed on the future beyond the next election than Gordon Brown ever was. The IFS notes there was again not even the slightest reflection on whether the scale of cuts required from non-protected departments are achievable, as they and many others doubt. Such shocks, whether they be tax rises, further cuts or both are to be left until after 2015.

Nor were the more widely praised changes to pensions spared. Despite the best efforts of the coalition and their supporters in the press to say so, it is not patronising to ask whether some will underestimate the amount they'll need to live on come retirement, nor whether the result will be a rise in the cost of annuities for those who do want them.  As Paul Johnson also pointed out, the Treasury expects the amount brought in from allowing people to cash out their pension pots if they so wish to increase in the short term, then reduce over time.  The real worry is not that those approaching retirement age will run out and buy Lamborghinis and then rely on the topped up state pension to live on, but as Tode says, it will spark a further round of buying to let, further limiting the opportunity of those on low incomes to purchase their own home.  Having already made it almost a right for parents to pass their homes on to their children, now it seems they'll be able to bequest their property portfolio as well.

Not that everything is entirely rosy for the comfortably off.  The additional 2 million who have found themselves dragged into the 40p tax band since 2010 have but one person to blame: the chancellor who has slashed corporation tax and abolished the 50p rate for the mega rich, meaning the shortfall has had to be made up somewhere.  Even so, the IFS makes clear whom has suffered the most under the coalition, and it sure isn't middle earners: with the exception of the top decile, who can more than shoulder their share, the poorest have been hit hardest.  It's worth remembering that this was Alistair Darling's plan for closing the deficit, almost the model of progression.  The coalition by contrast has assaulted the poor and got away with it, helped along by those who've focused on Benefits Street rather than the Square Mile.  Still, "they" can be bought off with beer and bingo, right?

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Monday, December 23, 2013 

Thing of the year: the immigration monster.

Hasn't it been a fantastic year?  After the miserable period of darkness that was 2012, brightened only by the Olympics, 2013 has been a 12 months without parallel.  We've had twerking, the fourth wave of feminism, selfies, people disappearing even further up their own arseholes on Twitter and, and, and, yeah, I can't keep this up.  2013 hasn't been as bad as 2012, for the reason 2012 would have been improved markedly had the world ended on the 21st of December. We were then starting from just about as low a point as was possible.

All the same, it's still been fairly catastrophic.  We've moved from having a flatlining economy to one where growth is being driven almost entirely by the housing market and consumer spending, without so much as a indication that the rebalancing the coalition supposedly wanted is beginning to happen.  And does this worry George Osborne?  Of course not.  The man who had the audacity to criticise Labour for not fixing the roof while the sun was shining (the only reason public services have held up so well during the first few years of austerity is thanks to the billions pumped in during the good times) is so desperate for any sort of growth that he's not bothered where it's coming from.  His plan for eliminating the deficit and running a surplus by the end of the decade we now know is based on two eventualities: first, that the Conservatives will be back in opposition and so the problem will be his successor's, or second, failing that, he'll have to massively put up taxes, as it simply won't be possible to cut everyday government spending back to the same share of national income as in 1948 without something, or rather many things breaking.

The real clusterfuck of the year has however been, yet again, on immigration.  Almost as soon as Jools Holland brought in the new year the tabloids picked up on the fact that in 12 short months hordes of marauding Romanians and Bulgarians would be free to come to this green and pleasant land and despoil it by working for a pittance picking the vegetables their readers are currently shovelling into their trolleys.  Within the month the government had decided on the perfect solution: they would fund advertisements informing all the gypsies, mafia types and other assorted stereotypes that far from being a welcoming, tolerant place, life in Britain is pretty damn terrible, especially if you're a for'n and don't speak the lingo.  Incredibly, this didn't placate our famously agreeable press, and for the rest of the year the scaremongering has just kept building.  Little things like how there isn't going to be anything approaching a repeat of the '05 cock-up, when only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden opened their borders immediately while the rest of the EU put in controls on the A8 states have either gone unexplained or been ignored.

Rather than attempt to counter this by calling out the tabloids and UKIP on their nonsense, the Conservatives have just gone with the flow.  Each month seems to have seen a re-announced crackdown on migrants' benefits, with by my reckoning the restriction on claiming before 3 months set out, eerily enough, 3 times.  We have in fact reached such a point that the Tories now seemingly want new states joining the EU to have to wait far longer before their citizens gain the right to free movement, their economies needing to have caught up further before any Albanians or Serbs would be allowed to come to Blighty.  That it will be at least a decade before Albania might be able to join, meaning under the current rules it would then be a further 6 years before EU states would have to open their borders doesn't seem to matter; we need these changes in place now, damn it.  To that end, a potential yearly cap of 75,000 migrants has been mooted by the Tories, again despite how such a policy would be illegal and would almost certainly lead to other EU nations putting limits on the number of Brits they would allow in each year, as both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have pointed out.

Such is the way things have gone that we now have the Telegraph and Tory MPs outraged that Cable should so much as mention Enoch Powell and "rivers of blood" in the same breath as talking about immigration panics.  Anyone who isn't a complete idiot will have realised Cable wasn't suggesting the Tory rhetoric was comparable to Powell's, rather bringing up past examples of panics as evidence of what happens when we don't have a sensible debate or politicians acting responsibly. Whether Cable is a hypocrite for being so critical while remaining a minister in the government that's presiding over such self-defeating policies is worth considering, but it's a separate issue.

As John Harris writes, of course it isn't racist to be worried or anxious about large-scale immigration. It's also the case that the A8 accession did transform life in a number of towns, such as Peterborough and Boston. The point is surely though that the eastern European migration was a one-off due to the aforementioned factors, and won't be repeated again. For reasons known only to themselves, rather than calm the debate, the Tories have spent much of the year stoking it.  If the idea was to then claim their changes have stopped tens of thousands coming, then any credit they might receive will be outweighed massively in the long-term by the whole situation repeating. The immigration monster isn't going to go away when you keep on feeding it. And if you think you're going to gorge yourself over Christmas period, just wait until you see it tuck into the headlines over the new year.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013 

The cycle continues.

At times, you just have to sit back and admire the sheer cant of some of our elected representatives.  Take David Blunkett, who's rather cross that his giving an interview to BBC Radio Sheffield resulted in headlines claiming he predicted riots, something he denies so much as saying.  Whether he did or not, the national media piled into the Page Hall area of the city and came away with the distinct impression that something had to give, such was the local anger at the Roma who had moved into the community daring to stand around in groups outside at night.  They even found a bloke at Halal Fisheries who said a Romanian couple had tried to sell him their baby, as those wacky gypsies are so often trying to do.  While he might not have expressly talked about riots, the Graun does quote Blunkett talking about "explosions", "implosions" and the three northern towns that saw race rioting back in 2001.  All he wants you see is a calm debate, such as the one he instigated previously when he said the children of asylum seekers were "swamping" schools, not to mention the time he gave an interview to the Sun agreeing with them that all these asylum seekers should be sent back, guv.

You can't really blame people for being cynical though when it's become clear just what the government was up to in suddenly announcing yet another benefits crackdown for those supposedly coming here just to leech off our fantastically generous welfare state.  Rather than net migration falling towards the desired tens of thousands, as Cameron and pals pledged, it instead went up in the year to June 2013, rising by 15,000 to 182,000, mainly thanks to a fall in emigration.  Considering Dave has been chastised in the past for apparently pre-empting releases by the Office of National Statistics, it's not that big a stretch to think this might be another example of the coalition acting on information only it has seen.

We are then once again seeing the destruction wrought by the immigration monster.  No amount of facts or pleading can stop the tabloids from claiming come the 1st of January Bulgaria and Romania are going to empty out, the whole population of the two countries upping sticks and coming to sponge off our soft touch welfare system.  It doesn't matter how many Bulgarian ambassadors we hear from who point out that most applications for work permits are already accepted, and that it was 2007 when the two countries actually joined the EU that the largest number decided to start a new life in the UK, clearly the migrant horde is going to be snaking its way through Dover on New Year's Day.  Nor does it have it any impact pointing out that unlike in 2004, when the citizens of the accession 8 states had only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden to choose should they want to look for work elsewhere, this time all the states that haven't yet allowed free movement have to open their borders.  Why would Romanians and Bulgarians come here rather than chance their arm in Germany, say, or somewhere slightly more receptive?

It perhaps does bear repeating that we aren't the only country where sentiment against immigration has turned decisively.  There is also a certain amount of truth in the government claiming that the Germans and French are taking action themselves ahead of January 1st, although again this seems mainly in an attempt to placate public opinion rather than out of there being any hard evidence of benefit tourism.  Putting further restrictions on when migrants can gain access to certain benefits only encourages rather than refutes the narrative that migrants aren't here to work.  Indeed, Cameron didn't so much as attempt to argue that the concern might be misplaced, instead yet again blaming Labour for getting it wrong in 2005.  The opposition meanwhile continues to up the rhetoric, criticising the government for "panicking" at the last minute, while former ministers dig themselves further into the mire by continuously apologising for the mistake they made in thinking other countries would be opening their borders in 05 as well.  The estimate now ritually criticised was made on that assumption, which was why it was so out of line with the reality.

The latest immigration figures in fact suggest politicians are fighting the last battle; rather than it being workers from eastern Europe making the journey, there have been large increases in those arriving from the countries hardest hit by the crash.  Free movement of labour goes both ways: wanting to put an end to it might please the UKIP tendency the Conservatives are still trying to win back, but it isn't going to appeal much to businesses who are already complaining about the government's approach.

Such has been the shift from defending immigration or singing its praises to saying it must now cease while not being able to do much about it, combined with the lack of political will to confront the hysteria from the tabloids, we've reached the point where the public doesn't believe any of it.  More to the point, only a fifth were able to pick out the "tens of thousands" pledge as being government policy.  Why not then be brutally honest with everyone: whether we remain in the EU or not, freedom of movement is highly unlikely to go away when the economic benefits are fairly well established.  We could raise the drawbridge entirely, like say Israel or Australia, but is that the type of country we want to become?  Acceptance of migrants excepting the unskilled is in fact fairly high.  Besides, regardless of whether most know the tens of thousands pledge now, they will come 2015 when UKIP and Labour will doubtless make great play of the coalition's failure.  Only then might it occur to some of our politicians to break out of this self-defeating cycle.

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Thursday, October 31, 2013 

The immigration monster and the "go home" vans.

If anything, it's a bit of a surprise that as many as 11 people decided to "go home" rather than face the rather distant possibility of arrest after learning of the Home Office van campaign. This raises the obvious question of just how desperate a situation they must have been in to want to take their chances back in their home country, but such concerns are clearly irrelevant. These people shouldn't be here and they should go.

Only, as the reporting of Mark Harper's written answer makes clear, it costs more to enforce a deportation (£15,000) than the average illegal immigrant costs the taxpayer a year (just shy of £5,000). The latter figure seems difficult to believe, in any case: most illegal migrants won't/can't access public services, and so will use hardly any resources at all.  The motivation behind the campaign is then somewhat financially sound: paying for a flight for someone is hell of a lot cheaper than doling out money to our friends at G4S or Serco to "Mubenga" someone.

The problem was in the execution, but then that was clearly the point. This was a stunt straight out of the Lynton Crosby playbook. Wait until news was slow, then launch a campaign using a borderline racist slogan designed to attract both condemnation and attention in equal measure. If some people did take up the kind offer, all the better. The Tories could portray themselves as tough as well as practical, and Labour would be caught in the trap of either condemning sending illegal immigrants home, or condoning a 70s style National Front demand.  They didn't however factor in that this being the social networking age, a thousand people would prank the phone and text line, or indeed that even Nigel Farage would denounce the campaign as being too nasty, designed purely to win back some of those who had defected to his party.

Without figures for voluntary deportations for a similar period prior to "Operation Vaken", we clearly can't make a comparison as to how successful the whole charade really was.  It might well be that a similar number to the 125 total claimed to have been motivated by the operation would have submitted themselves anyway without prompting.  This is the thing: there is absolutely nothing wrong with ensuring those here illegally know they can return to their country of origin if they so wish, with the government picking up the tab.  It's how you go about doing so, and telling people to go home or face arrest is manifestly not the right way, not least when it's clearly a political campaign designed to look tough and win votes.  It probably does save money, although the idea the Vaken might have saved the taxpayer £830,000 is ridiculous.

Something that wouldn't just save money but actually benefit both the taxpayer and the economy would be an amnesty, bringing those working cash in hand out of the shadows and onto the path towards citizenship.  That however would go completely against the rhetoric and policies of the past few years, where politicians have followed public opinion rather than attempt to lead it.  Too bad that as Sunny wrote previously, it's now probably too late: the monster is loose.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013 

Land of misopportunity and Tory.

If there's just one thing to be taken from this year's Tory conference, it's that the supposed natural party of government is stuck in a quandary.  Far from the predictions this week would see one half of the coalition in a buoyant mood, the economy finally growing in what looks to be a sustainable manner, if anything the Lib Dems had a more enjoyable week up in Glasgow, which is really saying something.  Having installed Lynton Crosby as pedlar of lowest common denominator Conservatism and statements of the bleeding obvious, for which see the highly questionable "achievements" plastered all over the walls in Manchester, the more thoughtful are quite rightly wondering how resorting to a core vote strategy this early in the electoral cycle is going to win the party the increased share of the vote they need to form a majority government in 2015.  It didn't work in 2005, exactly the reason why Cameron tried to shift his party towards the centre in 2010.

Regardless of the show they put on for the cameras, the party is also clearly worried about Ed Miliband and Labour.  After the party's wretched summer, they didn't expect Miliband to pull the energy prize freeze policy out from seemingly nowhere.  Nor was the party helped when the big six then spat their dummies out, their pathetically petulant outbursts threatening blackouts persuading no one, while the fact the markets fell due to the potential for a cut in their profits made clear they regard a Labour victory in less than 2 years a very real possibility.  Whether or not the policy would work in practice doesn't matter for now, just as it didn't matter when Osborne pulled his inheritance tax stunt back in 2007 as Gordon Brown dithered over calling a snap election.  Thanks to the Mail's startlingly cackhanded attempts to do the Tories' dirty work for them, Miliband's battle with the paper has also overshadowed their big week, leading bulletins while their turgid mastications have been well down the running order.

Just how many of the continuous attacks on Labour emanating from the platform were written well in advance and how many were hastily pasted in after the opposition's successful week in Brighton is difficult to tell.  The vicious and entirely partisan nature of the relentless assaults have though taken even me by surprise: every single main speaker has either peppered their entire address with screeds of blame, or dedicated at least one section to doing so.  According to Jeremy Hunt, everything that went wrong with the NHS during Labour's last term was the fault of Andy Burnham, even as the coalition kept on the NHS chief executive who actually was in charge during the crisis in care at Mid Staffs hospital.  Eric Pickles found it hilarious to create a parallel universe in which Labour had gone into coalition with the Lib Dems, except instead of the "land of opportunity" we're now entering, in this opposite dimension the country was, naturally, in rack and ruin.  George Osborne meanwhile, when not setting out how he'd run a budget surplus despite failing to succeed in eliminating the deficit in the timescale Alistair Darling initially planned to, was blaming Labour entirely for the crash, not mentioning how he and his party pledged to match the government's spending plans they now maintain caused it in the first place.

The prime minister's speechwriters however saved the worst for last.  No one quite seems to want to say it, but regardless of how incongruous it sounds (and is, considering his £139 bread maker), Cameron's conference addresses mark him out as the poor man's Tony Blair.  Blair's great skill was in making in either a mediocre or dreary speech sound good; everyone had forgotten everything in it the next day, but it worked at the time.  Cameron can't even reach those levels, as his speeches are erased from the memory within minutes; I had to look up what he said last year to recall any of it.  Compare that with Miliband, who has improved his delivery and message year on year, while you can actually remember what he said (predatory capitalism; one nation; Britain can do better than this) and it rather shows the prime minister up.
 

Indeed, it's as if he wasn't even trying.  Two thirds of the speech can be summed up as "The Evil That Labour Did", which three and a half years in is really getting tiresome.  The other third was boilerplate Thatcherism, Britain is booming, land of hope and Tory, very well alone self-improvement aspirational heard it all before claptrap.  Cameron doesn't come across so much as a prime minister as Bob the Builder crossed with Tom Cruise's character from Magnolia.  Can we build a land of opportunity? Well, it'll be tough, but together we can tame the cunt!

A case in point is how for the second time Cameron felt he needed to respond to a Russian minister describing Britain "as a small island that no-one pays any attention to." Anyone truly comfortable with our position in the world would ignore such petty cat-calling from an authoritarian state; Cameron by contrast reeled off a point by point rebuttal, and as per spouted bullshit back, seeming to suggest we were the first to introduce women's suffrage (we weren't) and that we offered "blood, toil, tears and sweat" when "freedom was in peril".  The Russians may not have been fighting for their own freedom, but they sacrificed more than any other nation state to destroy the Nazi war machine.

His real failure though was that he had no answer to Miliband. The leader of the one time party of small business misrepresented his opponent's espousal of cutting their tax by putting up corporation tax on large corporations by a whole one percent, claiming it would make them look elsewhere, while he didn't so much as attempt to defend the "spare room subsidy" or that his global race is one straight to the bottom. There was nothing for those struggling to make ends meet in his glorious land of opportunity other than the same empty aspiration he's resorted to before.  That he then pretty much abandoned the under-25 vote by presenting further conditions and an end to housing benefit as "tough love, learn or earn" exemplifies how far removed his party has become from the young.

For all the talk of Miliband shifting Labour to the left, which is extremely questionable when he's signed up to the coalition's spending plans for the first two years after the election, the real story ought to be how far the Tories have attempted to take the country to the right, and certainly would given the opportunity.  Despite their denials, the only way to get a surplus would be either further cuts or tax rises. While the latter can hardly be ruled out when the IFS suggests the deficit can't be reduced without either lifting the ring fences or doing just that, the lie was given today with the announcement on housing benefit.  Combined with the pledge to repeal the human rights act, and presumably withdraw from the ECHR, the use of old racist sentiments on billboards, the commitment to never-ending workfare for the unemployed and the open pursuit of a housing bubble for short-term political gain, the spectre of a Conservative win in 2015 ought to chill the marrow.  Thankfully, and precisely because of the strategy the party is pursuing, that looks just as unlikely as before.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013 

Political dog-whistling: still not working in 2013.

It took a while, but by the end of last week the government's billboard campaign telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest" had attracted the wider press attention it deserved from the outset.  One of the old chestnuts we often hear when it comes to debating immigration is that politicians of old shut down debate by calling people racist.  Accurate or not, we now have the opposite problem: politicians are afraid to say that some of those opposed to immigration are racist, as one thing racists don't like being told is that they are racist.  Hence despite criticism of the campaign coming from the Lib Dems, a few Labour MPs (although not the leadership, again presumably because they fear it being used as "evidence" of their weakness) and even Nigel Farage for goodness sake, who in the next breath scaremongers about a Romanian crime wave, none have called a spade a spade.

It's therefore only lunatics on the left and the "pro-immigration industry" that believe such a straightforward message is racist, says Mark Harper, the immigration minister described by Nick Clegg as "a very good guy", given space in the Mail. He doesn't expand on just which organisations make up the pro-immigration industry, but perhaps he means the Office for Budget Responsibility, set-up by the coalition, which only last week published research on the continuing benefits. Harper for his part doesn't even bother to engage with the argument as to why the billboards are racist, which is that they reprise the old NF slogan and play on the most obvious of racist sentiments, he instead uses attack as defence, saying that those critical are encouraging the breaking of the law. To call this a non sequitur doesn't quite cover it; a billboard threatening illegal immigrants with arrest if they don't leave voluntarily is hardly the most striking example of the law being enforced. Rather, it only underlines the reality: it's completely unfeasible to deport every person here illegally.  Continuing to claim it is only raises unrealistic expectations which then feed further discontent.

For such a short piece, Harper makes up for it by packing in as many distortions as he can. He conflates perfectly legal migration with the illegal by going into the standard riff on Labour's supposed "open borders" policy, says there is evidence that migration has pushed down wages when there's plenty (PDF) that contradicts the claim, that some areas have faced "intolerable" pressure due to migration, despite services continuing to function, then tops it off by saying the government is controlling immigration, if failing to meet their target of bringing net migration down to 100,000 by 53,000 can possibly be considered controlling.

He ends by saying that if the poster campaign helps tackle illegal immigration, who could oppose it? Considering a poll for the Sun suggests that there's almost an even split between those in favour of and those opposed, a remarkable result when there's such a prevailing sentiment against immigration, it suggests plenty don't like such "stupid and offensive" campaigns, even if they don't regard them as racist.  Seeing as Harper doesn't even repeat the actual wording used on the billboards, perhaps he secretly feels the same.  Either way, someone ought to explain to Lynton Crosby that if dog-whistling didn't work in 2005, it isn't going to now.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 

Silly racism season.

The silly season is descending, although frankly it's getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the dog days of late July and August, and well, almost any other time of year.  Apparently, "bitchy resting face ... makes Gangnam Style look like a slow burner", at least according to Hadley Freeman, and yet somehow I had avoided encountering this cultural phenomenon until she elected to write about it. Beards have also reached their fashionable peak, doncha know, and in what seems to be an extraordinarily late April 1st joke, Kerry Katona is to be Marilyn Monroe.  Presumably alongside Peter Andre as JFK.  Oh, and Guido Fawkes, he of repeatedly declaring he can't be sued fame, threatens to sue Claire Perry.  Perry we've already established is a dangerous nincompoop, while Paul Staines is just a hypocritical tool.

Is there anything even vaguely serious going on then?  Well, sort of.  Coming from the same great minds behind the idea of putting up "adverts" pointing out how shit Britain is in Bulgaria and Romania (while at the same time declaring how great we are everywhere else), one of those billboard vans is being sent round six London boroughs telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest".  Why, we'll even be kind enough to help you with your travel documents, and we'll tell the immigration officers not to "Mubenga" you, as long as you come along quietly, of course.  Who wouldn't have their head turned by such a tempting offer?

Understandably, quite a few people are suggesting this is just a teensy bit racist.  On its own, it isn't.  There aren't that many pithy formulations you could put together that are simple to understand and carry the same message.  I mean, they could have gone with "In the UK illegally and want to leave?", but that doesn't carry the same element of menace all rhetoric on immigration must now have.  "Go home" though carries decades of baggage with it; it wasn't just a National Front slogan as Sunny says, go home (or words to the same effect)  is still one of the first resorts for racists, regardless of who it's used against.  "Go back to where you came from", even if you were born here and so were your parents; your skin colour doesn't fit.

When a government is reduced to such, err, dog-whistling, it ought to be apparent that it's in trouble.  One thing the Tories remain terrified by is the likely failure to keep their promise to get immigration down to the "tens of thousands" by the time of the next election.  Almost all the decline we've seen under the coalition has come as a result of the crackdown on overseas students, those grasping, scrounging bastards who come here, take almost nothing out and put hell of a lot in (is this right? Ed.).  Hence this year, as well as being partially in response to the rise of UKIP, we've seen further punitive policy proposals, including the ridiculous prospect of landlords being asked to do the job of the UK Border Force, as though making illegal immigrants homeless is something approaching a solution.  Sarah Teather made clear just how far the Tories would like to go when she revealed the "Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants' Access to Benefits and Public Services" was first known as the "Hostile Environment Working Group".

As pointed out before, this is a great example of how the new politics works.  Politicians say they're listening to concerns, they talk tough and tighten the rules ever further, and then act surprised and chastened when the mood against immigrants hardens as the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall precisely because freedom of movement is clearly here to stay.  Rather than confront voters with a few facts and ask them if they like being able to move freely around Europe even if they don't want to at this precise moment, we just get ever more discriminatory rhetoric.  Once, that the government was paying for adverts which contained allusions to the racist slogans of years gone by would have caused a storm.  That it hasn't shows both how the Tories have succeeded and why they will also end up being hoist by that petard.

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