Thursday, April 03, 2014 

The right doesn't own the future.

As putting shotgun inside mouth and pulling the trigger inducing as it is to recognise, there's still over a year to go until the general election. Not that this matters much, as some are already convinced the Conservatives have it in the bag. John Harris, not usually a defeatist, talks of how history suggests as much as a 5 point deficit for the party has turned into a 7 point lead come election day. This ignores how no governing party has increased its share of the vote at the following election since 1974, as the Tories must if they want an overall majority. Lord Ashcroft certainly isn't convinced his party can do it, as his polls attest, while the sheer fact they will have failed to win a general election in 23 years by May 2015 has to count against them.

Harris's counsel of despair doesn't end there, oh no. The reason it feels like the Tories are on the up is they have come up with a solid vision of the future, whereas the left and by extension Labour are still fighting the battles of the past. We might not like their version of what's to come, where those who can cope with globalisation are divided from those who can't and rewarded accordingly, but it seems to be working.

This appears to me a classic example of someone over-analysing what is in fact a much simpler, and cruder move by the Tories.  They're not dividing people according to whether or not they're up to playing their in the "global race", it's rather that they're throwing a few scraps to those they believe share their values while concentrating most on those who do turn out to vote.  Hence the pensions and savings reforms and the promise to keep free TV licences and other perks, while the more apathetic young can look forward to being denied access to housing benefit until they turn 25.  Meanwhile, Russell Brand is telling the young not to vote as politicians are all the same, and plenty of commentators either nod sagely or call him a demagogue.  Such open bribery combined with the economic recovery ought to be translating into far better polling results for the Tories, and yet after the narrowing post-Budget, the gap to Labour seems to be opening up again.

Where Harris does have a point is in the left wanting to fight yesterday's battles again.  Talk of the spirit of 45 is rose-tinted romanticism of the highest order, but it is very much a minority pursuit.  Labour itself clearly isn't reaching for such nostalgia, nor is it even remotely likely that the party is going to promise the renationalising of the railways in the manifesto.  Looking back to a supposedly better past is hardly a solely left-wing thing though; the entire UKIP and traditional right-wing Tory view of where we're going wrong and what needs to change is refracted through the belief that the metropolitan elite has a stranglehold on power.  What's more, it's a powerful message, and not one that can be proved wrong with insults, as Nick Clegg found out last night.

Which is where Harris's analysis of why the Tories are in the ascendant falls down.  He says the left is failing to realise that the world of work has changed fundamentally, hasn't begun to adjust to the dawning of an ageing society, and doesn't know what to do about the overbearing state in an age where anyone with an opinion can make themselves heard.  On the first point Harris seems to be confusing the views of some on the right with that of the Tories themselves: if there's one politician who can be described as a work fetishist despite it being ever more apparent that work alone is not the way out of poverty, then surely Iain Duncan Smith fits the bill.  Moreover, it's the left that's long realised the impact of job insecurity and has urged the minimum wage to become a living wage.  This territory has since been grasped somewhat by the right, but when they are so supportive of zero hour contracts and workfare it's impossible not to see through it, as was George Osborne's laughable promise of full employment.  Ed Miliband's emphasis on the cost of living hasn't focused in on pay as much as it could have done, yet you can't argue it hasn't had an impact.

Harris is on surer ground on ageing, where as yet no party has got a firm grasp.  He says self-sustaining social networks will be vital and says government won't be a part of it, to which the only response seems to be to say: when was it?  As for the state itself, Harris is betting that the right's answer of cutting back and urging the third sector to move in is sustainable.  As yet few have noticed services getting worse; the crunch is still to come, as Rick has continued to set out.  Nor do we know how the party that wins the next election will aim to close the still yawning deficit, as Osborne's slashing of the non-protected government departments simply doesn't look achievable.

At heart, Harris is right.  Few parties have ever won power without offering a positive vision of where they intend to take the country, and the left and Labour certainly don't at the moment have a coherent one.  Ed Miliband has tried to sketch out what One Nation under Labour would look like, and frankly hasn't got very far.  Neither though have the Tories worked out what they want; they know what they don't want, but when it comes to promoting themselves and the country at large they fail miserably.  Are we hard-working or simply going through the motions?  Does anyone believe a word of the global race nonsense, and not instead see it as being about a race to the bottom?  The electorate could well end up favouring the Tories, certainly.  They won't however do so because the right has the won the arguments, but as they're the incumbents and look vaguely more competent.  On such matters are elections won or lost, not on the role of the state.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014 

This blog is fully in favour of fundamentally disrupting power relations and reframing the debate to make a good society both feasible and desirable.*

Within hours of the budget last week, the Labour Uncut blog had a post up quoting a anonymous backbencher as saying such was Ed Miliband's response to George Osborne's pensions gambit, the way things were going the party would need a Devon Loch scenario to win a majority come the election.  For those under the age of 70 or who aren't much interested in the annual flogging a live horse round a deadly obstacle course soiree at Aintree, Devon Loch did a Bambi while just yards from the finishing post in the Grand National.  This rather strained metaphor ignores that for some time it's been Labour out in the front, not the Tories, but still.

Such is the way some of those on the right of the party have long responded to even the slightest of setbacks, or in this case less than that. Absolutely no one remembers the responses to budgets, and as it seems the coalition declined to provide Labour with the traditional redacted version of Osborne's speech in advance, Miliband would only have been able to respond to the specifics off the cuff.  Instead he went for a general critique, and while it wasn't great, it was nowhere near as poor as has been made out.

Nor is the rise in support for the Tories since the budget anything approaching a surprise. Osborne succeeded in presenting it as a giveaway, albeit "fiscally neutral", and reined in the austerity masochism as far as he could. There were no further painful cuts outlined, although whether they might well be needed when Osborne is spending money he hasn't properly allocated as the IFS pointed out remains to be seen.   Precision geared towards those already more likely to vote Tory, in effect bribing them with their own money, exactly the claim they used to throw at Gordon Brown, add on the changes to pensions and the bounce ought to have been expected.  The real question is whether the uptick remains over time, as it did for Labour long after the omnishambles of 2012.  As yet there's nothing so much as approaching an indication this will turn out to be the case.

For Dan Hodges and his ilk though this is the final proof Miliband is a loser, or rather, "isn't working".  Hodges has been pushing his the only way to win is to out-Tory the Tories shtick for so long now it's stopped being entertaining in the same way as watching a film that's so bad it's good is, and has just become incredibly boring.  Nonetheless, Hodges' line into the soul of the party is John Mann, who urges Ed to speak the language not of a Hampstead academic but of the average resident of Bassetlaw.  These would presumably be the same people telling Mann that what the country desperately needs is a vote on our membership of the European Union, a cause he insisted was top of their agendas just a couple of weeks back.

Thankfully for all concerned who should enter the fray at this precise moment other than a horde of think-tankers with their own views on how Labour should fight the 2015 election.  Or, as they describe themselves, "members of the progressive community".  Think my writing is turgid, highfalutin, unnecessarily verbose and arch?  You should try this unholy alliance, who take Birtspeak to extremes.  They want Labour to make all powerful institutions accountable to their "stakeholders", action on the causes of "our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems", something that requires a "holistic" approach, and obviously, the "empowerment of everybody".  Not aiming too high there, are you lads?  Apparently the time of politicians doing things to people are over (or at least prospective Lib Dem candidates must hope this to be the case), while the era of "building the capacity and platforms for people to do things for themselves, together is now upon us".  Translated, this essentially means they are in favour of devolution and localism, and while it all sounds suspiciously like the Big Society all over again, only rebooted for the crowdsourcing Twitter and Wikis can solve like, everything, man age, it isn't meant as a cover for cuts.  Only there's no money to pay for anything, so sisters people doing it for themselves does help matters immensely.

If like me you can recall the times when Luke Akehurst seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the Blairite tendency within Labour, it comes as a deep shock when his is the voice of reason.  He notes how the letter seems to leave room open for another coalition, suggesting everyone should just forget how the Lib Dems have rejoiced in ripping the state to shreds over the past 5 years, and more pertinently, that as much as localism excites a certain section of politicos, it's mostly deeply unpopular or treated with deserved suspicion by the voters.  Unlike the Hodges/Labour Uncut sect, he even suggests 5 policies which aren't the same old triangulation, nor are they obvious pipe dreams fluffed by arcane language.

All this is to rather ignore just how the Tories seem likely to fight the election.  When they tire of the country is saved thanks to us routine, they fall back on policies that are deeply divisive.  See Cameron returning to the theme of cutting inheritance tax, the coalition having wisely not touched it during this parliament.  The Conservatives have become a party that is openly in favour of oligarchy, the passing down of unearned wealth from generation to generation.  The Mail naturally thinks this is a huge vote winner, while anyone with half a brain can see that you simply can't go on saying you're the party of aspiration while doing everything in your power to screw over those who don't have comfortably off parents.  If Cameron couldn't win outright in 2010 on a centre-right ticket against Liability Brown, what makes him think they can do so on a right-wing ticket in 2015?  The obvious answer is that they can't.  Miliband and his ministers do need to flesh out many of their their policies, but to panic at this point or take advice from either extremely dubious faction would be a misstep.  The budget bounce will dissipate.  Everything is still to play for.

*Yes, that really is how the thinktank alliance conclude their letter to the Graun.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014 

Nothing changed.

Call me slow, but I'm just a trite confused by today's whole will we or won't we, shall we or shan't we announcement by Ed Miliband on a potential referendum on the European Union.  Not helped by how it was variously reported as meaning Miliband was in favour of a referendum when it's fairly obvious that he isn't, it also ignores that thanks to the wonderful stewardship of the coalition we have legislation on the statute books that requires a referendum in the event of any further power transferring to Brussels.  Technically that would be on whether that specific power should be given over, but not extending it to the question of EU membership entirely would both be seen as a betrayal and pointless.  May as well get the whole darned thing out of the way in one go.  As Labour has never suggested it would look to repeal that act of parliament, however perverse it is to legislate to hold a future government to do something, my assumption was always this was the party's position.

And so it has been confirmed.  The Tories, naturally, believe this is Labour walking straight into their trap.  The EU itself may rank extremely low on most people's list of pressing issues, but immigration is now consistently in the top three, for the precise reason one suspects that regardless of how we still have people insisting you can't discuss it at all no one seems capable of shutting the fuck up about it.  That leaving the EU over free movement of labour would be one of history's defining examples of cutting off your nose to spite your face, such is the way it works both ways, doesn't make much odds to those who have long loathed Europe for entirely different reasons. The thinking seems to be that Labour opposing a definite referendum will make the Tories the only party those who have defected to the UKIPs will even consider voting tactically for.

This, as has been gone over numerous times now, is to misunderstand where the UKIPs support has sprang from. It's not about Europe as much as it's a protest against the country they believe Britain has become, making it difficult to predict just how many of those who've voted UKIP once will go back to either Labour or Tory. There isn't the slightest amount of evidence that promising a referendum is a vote winner for those otherwise disengaged from Europe, despite the polls that suggest people want one, as they'll say that regardless of what the issue is. Moreover, Cameron has made himself a hostage to fortune as there are so many unknowns surrounding his pledge to renegotiate our membership. Even if he gets a few concessions, say on the working time directive, the Tories will be riven between those who just want out and the rest making the best of a bad job, a stay in vote by no means guaranteed.

It is by contrast easy to see why Miliband has clarified precisely what his policy is. The giveaway is the passage in his actually fairly decent speech, announcing how the CBI will be advising on where he should push for expansion to the single market. No surprises then that the CBI warmly welcomed Labour's stance, preferring the known regardless of its complaints about certain EU regulations, whereas the Institute of Directors was far more sniffy. With business otherwise predictably unimpressed by Miliband's positioning, it remains to be seen whether this one policy might make the difference. It's also exactly the same position as the Lib Dems', which should make things easier in case of another hung parliament.

The real point is that today changes nothing, the only caveat being if there really are legions of Labour supporters crying out for a referendum or reform as John Mann insists then it wasn't the wisest move. More likely is it just reinforces what we already knew: Labour and Lib Dems say they want a vote, but only on their terms; Cameron remains beholden to the whims of his backbenchers, and his ability to win a majority looks as dubious as ever; and the UKIPs are the UKIPs. At some point there will have to be a referendum, just not right now.  When that will be remains anyone's guess.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014 

The more things change, the more tiresome this line staying the same becomes.

You wait ages for a frontbench politician to so much as address the continuing Snowden files saga, and then two do (almost) at once.  Oddly, the Cleggster (who he?) and Yvette Cooper both came up with proposals that were almost identical.  Both said the Intelligence and Security Committee needed to be further beefed up, and while Cooper prevaricated somewhat, raising the possibility of emulating the Australian system of oversight, Clegg made clear he and his party are committed to the creation of an Inspector General.

Clegg's speech especially made all the right noises, with Cooper predictably saying national security had been damaged in an attempt to be even-handed, it was just there was a lack of reality about both.  Ed Miliband's Labour has become a different party in some ways, but really hasn't in plenty of others.  It takes a lot of chutzpah for instance for a party which has shown no sign whatsoever of regretting trying to foist ID cards on the country to criticise the government over the botched introduction of the new NHS care.data database, even more so when Labour introduced its also controversial predecessor, Spine.  Up until now Labour had been almost as silent as the government itself on the Snowden revelations, with if anything less backbenchers speaking out.  The party has made the odd attempt to suggest it understands partially why it became so loathed for its disregard for civil liberties while in power, yet is no nearer now to modifying its approach than it was in 2010, as the response to the TPIMs absconders showed.

As for the Lib Dems, it's the same old story.  In power, and yet so clearly not at the same time.  In a position to do something about how the intelligence services, GCHQ especially, have been operating, and there isn't even the slightest signal that they've put any sort of pressure on their coalition partners to do anything about it.   Then again, this isn't surprising when Clegg himself seems caught in two minds, defending the arrest of David Miranda in almost exactly the same style as the Conservatives did, then saying err, actually, maybe we do need the sort of journalism Miranda was helping with after all.

It was always instructive how William Hague's first resort was the old "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" line, something brought into sharp relief by the Yahoo Webcam revelations, and there has not been the slightest indication since that anything has changed in either the minds of the securocrats or that of the government.  Nor is there any reason to believe Yvette Cooper would follow through on her fine words were Labour to return to power in just over a year's time.  Even as the technology and threats change, the spooks have an eerie way of preserving themselves.  Anyone would think they might have a few files on people.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014 

Both the Mail and Harman have PIE on their faces.

(This is 1,705 words.  Just so you know.)

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  It isn't the Daily Mail's motto, unofficial or otherwise, but it easily could be.  Perhaps though, in line with the Mail's sudden shock finding that paedophilia wasn't universally viewed with the same disgust as it is now back in the 70s, when the National Council for Civil Liberties had an extremely ill-advised sort of affiliation with the Paedophile Information Exchange, it could just as well be a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

That the NCCL, now Liberty, had links with PIE has been known since, err, it had links with them.  It is not a startling new discovery.  Indeed, not a single aspect of the Mail's investigation and its corresponding attacks on Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey (husband of Harman) and Patricia Hewitt, all leading members of the NCCL during the period when PIE was affiliated, is based on new information.  I'm certain that there have been newspaper articles pointing this out on occasion in the past, pieces which have attracted a slight amount of attention and then been forgotten about.  It's not a proud period in Liberty's history by any means, and it's one which current head Shami Chakrabarti has apologised for.

This said, and despite how it sounds like an excuse and a cop out, it has to be remembered that it was a different era.  As the proposed changes to the law that Harriet Harman lobbied on make clear, up until this point it had not been a specific offence to take or make indecent images of children, although to an extent this would have been covered under other laws, such as the Obscene Publications Act.  As we've been rather forced to acknowledge over the past couple of years, the 70s was the in-between decade, a period where the new freedoms and excesses of the 60s continued to an extent, not least in those few European nations which legalised possession of all types of pornography, even if the production remained unlawful, just not necessarily cracked down upon.  It also wasn't unusual for "mainstream" European adult magazines of the period to feature post-pubescent girls under the age of 16, not surprising when the age of consent in the country of origin often was (and in some cases remains) under 16.  By contrast, and as Harman in her paper quotes, the judge in the Oz trial defined indecent as a woman taking her clothes off on the beach in front of someone else's children, or athletes wearing clothing which didn't fit properly.  Harman was writing only 17 years on from the Lady Chatterley trial, and a year and six months after the Sex Pistols and Bill Grundy had their tete-a-tete.  Views on what was and wasn't filth were polarised far beyond what they are today, even by the Daily Mail's maiden aunt standards.

The Mail's fundamental problem with its claims, especially against Harman, is that they've produced the evidence against her in full and it doesn't stack up. Her paper's main suggestion is that images of naked children should not be held to be indecent unless it can either be proved or inferred from the photograph that harm to the child has taken place as a result. This sounds potentially outrageous, but in actuality this isn't far off from the test the authorities now have to apply when prosecuting those who have the lowest category of child abuse images in their possession, I.e. those where the child is naked and is posing in a manner considered to be erotic (see the controversy over Klara and Eddy Belly Dancing for instance). Harman's proposed amendment would have clearly left it up to the police and CPS and in turn judge and jury to decide whether or not a specific image or images were indecent. Her main justification was that parents could be prosecuted for taking such pictures when they had no malign intentions, something it was felt was possible under a new law. About the worst allegation that can be thrown at her is she was being naive, and that paedophiles would quickly exploit such grey areas. There is no evidence she was influenced in any way by NCCL's association with PIE, and the lobbying did not lead to the law being changed in the way she proposed.

Far more questionable is the NCCL's submission to the government on the age of consent, not signed but sent when both Dromey and Hewitt were with the organisation in 1976. While the Mail seems almost as upset about the proposal that it should be 14 instead of 16 (the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 in 1885, so has never been set in stone, and while 16 seems a good middle ground between 14 and 18 to me, other Europeans nations continue to think differently), the real problem is that while it suggests that those under 10 cannot consent in any circumstances, in cases where those between 10 and 14 have sex with an older partner it should be considered that consent "was not present, unless it is demonstrated that it was genuinely given and that the child understood the nature of the act".  The law as it currently stands holds that children under 13 cannot consent in any circumstances, and if the other person involved is over 18, then the act is defined in law as rape regardless of what the child felt.  The NCCL's suggestion might not have quite been a licence for abuse, as the onus would still have fell on the older partner to prove the child understood and had given consent, but it most certainly would be a substantial dilution of the protection we have in force today.

Again though, the NCCL's submission did not win government support, and there is no evidence suggesting it was influenced by PIE.  The other claims against the three Labour grandees is that the NCCL's association with PIE amounted to apologia or validation, in 1975 complaining to the Press Council about coverage of the group, describing it in their annual report as a "campaigning/counselling group for adults sexually attracted to children", which seems to be before the NCCL was properly aware that PIE was more than that; and that as late as 1982 the NCCL's newsletter carried a missive from a self-confessed paedophile defending himself.  Clearly, newspapers and magazines have never published letters from those whose views they vehemently disagree with.  One of the founders of PIE, Tom O'Carroll, was subsequently jailed for "conspiring to corrupt public morals" (and continues to promote sexual relationships between children and adults as being entirely normal), with Hewitt later writing that "[C]onspiring to corrupt public morals is an offence incapable of definition or precise proof", the Mail finding this especially damning.  Except as Harriet Harman's paper makes clear, this is almost a direct lift from Roy Jenkins, who said something remarkably similar about defining "indecency".  The other allegations the Mail makes, that the NCCL's submission to the Criminal Law Commission called for the decriminalisation of incest and also claimed that "[C]hildhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage", don't seem as yet to be supported by posted documents.

What though does any of this matter nearly 40 years on, and when so much has been known for so long?  The obvious reason is that paedophilia is so despicable and beyond the pale that regardless of the passage of time, just the connection with a group like PIE is still to be regretted and apologised for.  That the NCCL allowed anyone to affiliate and didn't at the time have a mechanism for expelling such groups isn't an adequate explanation, and indeed, it does seem as though there was a certain amount of sympathy within the NCCL towards PIE if only briefly, and then due to its stated mission as being to counsel those who found themselves sexually attracted to children.  Some within the NCCL may have been more involved, as the Telegraph has reported. In part however it also seems to be about simple revenge and glee at finding three well known politically correct right-on Labour figures didn't condemn paedophiles on sight, regardless of how long ago it was, especially when the left has been so quick to pounce on the past allegiances of Tories or horror of horrors, the Mail's own history.  Add in the typical Mail rage at how the BBC didn't address the topic until Ed Miliband did, and it all seems wearingly familiar.  That perhaps they didn't cover it immediately as a direct consequence of being so badly burnt over Lord McAlpine doesn't seem to have entered their thinking.

It would matter more if there was even the slightest indication the three held such views at the time, which again there is no evidence that they did, let alone if they had then carried such opinions with them into the Labour party and then parliament.  The fact is that they didn't, as Nick Cohen points out.  While Harriet Harman has been right to express regret today, something she didn't do in her Newsnight interview last night, she has been right not to apologise, as she has nothing to apologise for.  Whether perhaps Dromey or Hewitt do is more nuanced, considering their potential involvement with the age of consent submission and more besides, but again it needs to be stated that there are plenty of political figures who held opinions or which they even acted upon years ago they would now regret.  Bringing Jimmy Savile into it, as the Mail attempted to, is a nonsense.  They didn't validate Savile, just as the Mail and the rest of the media do not bear responsibility for failing to expose him while he was alive.  Despite the criticism of the lack of response, if anything it's Patricia Hewitt's silence that seems vindicated.  Reacting to the Mail just encourages it and convinces Paul Dacre that he was right.  The real reason the rest of the media ignored the reports at first is there simply isn't any evidence of anything other than naivety.  And if there's one thing that the Mail can't be accused of, it's precisely that.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014 

A street called deceit.

Call me the cynical sort, but it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that TV production companies can tell lies on the scale of our very finest tabloids.  That prior to going with Channel 4 Love Productions had approached the BBC and pitched "The Benefit Street", a series which would look at a certain James Turner Street in Birmingham rather underlines the contempt shown to those featured who weren't informed of the likely end title of the programme they were taking part in, only it was likely to be something along the lines of "Community Spirit".

The whole farrago reminds of one of the most depressing pieces of television I've witnessed in recent years, another Channel 4 "documentary" (I can't recall the title), which compared and contrasted a British and a Polish building firm, as well as the families they were working for.  The British builder, was, naturally, a lazy and incompetent white van man, while the Polish were, naturally, professional, courteous and motivated.  Despite this, the British couple the Polish were doing the extension for weren't satisfied with the work and complained at every turn, finally succeeding in getting a major discount, the Pole filmed driving back home saddened by the experience.  The whole thing was representative of absolutely nothing, except that at times TV producers seem to like nothing better than showing this country in the worst possible light.

Exactly the same is true of Benefits Street.  It's been put together with just enough panache that it confirms the prejudices of those watching it: Charlie Brooker felt it sympathetic rather than exploitative, while to Fraser Nelson and plenty of others it's just the latest piece of anecdotal evidence proving welfare reform hasn't gone anywhere near far enough.  Taken as a whole it's only slightly less fictional than Made in Chelsea or The Only Way is Essex, but as it's a "documentary" rather than a "reality" show it's deemed a worthy topic of political discussion.

Factor in the non-arrival of our friends from Bulgaria and Romania and the opening month of the year has been little more than one long announcement of new restrictions on who can and can't claim social security.  Yesterday saw not just Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith jointly make clear that jobless EU migrants aren't entitled to housing benefit, without of course providing any figures as to how many in such a position are claiming it, our old friend Rachel Reeves also popped up to explain how those who lose their jobs will have to jump through another new hoop before they can claim Jobseeker's Allowance under Labour.  They'll need to take a test in basic numeracy and literacy and agree to go on courses to improve both if necessary before they can get their princely sum of £72 a week.  Whether there'll be enough places available on such courses or not we'll of course worry about once yet another potential sanction is in place.

It doesn't take much to excite certain sections of the commentariat, and with Reeves also setting out how Labour might attempt to reintroduce a further contributory aspect to JSA, her speech was greeted with praise for how it could start to change the debate around welfare.  As laughable as that notion might seem, it did show just how difficult it is to suggest changes to social security which aren't punitive: Reeves set out how those who've made national insurance contributions for either 4 or 5 years could receive an additional £20 on top of their JSA for the first six weeks.  You don't need to pass even the most rudimentary numeracy course to realise that getting less than the equivalent of two weeks' JSA after having paid in for that period of time or longer doesn't strike as being especially generous.  It would be different if it was for three months if six months would be far too expensive, but just six weeks?  It doesn't even begin to re-establish the contributory principle, if such a thing was an unalloyed good idea in the first place.

The problem, as so often, is that Labour is approaching the issue from the wrong perspective. The  Institute for Public Policy Research, having been appointed to give Labour's plans the once over, says "[I]t is vital that those of us committed to a resilient and effective welfare system advance feasible reforms that can chime with popular values".  Popular values and popular views are not the same thing, it's true, yet values are influenced by views.  When the public believes £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is lost to fraud, and 29% think more is spent on JSA than pensions, gearing reforms towards popular values doesn't strike as going together with "defending against the worst attacks on vulnerable people".  The more Labour tries to triangulate with the Tories on welfare cuts, the more they're encouraged to go even further.  Trying to introduce facts into the debate could backfire further, but it would at least make for a novel enterprise in what otherwise seems a time of universal deceit.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013 

The Paul Flowers pops.

At times, political machinations utterly perplex me.  Take the case this week of Paul Flowers, the former chairman of the Co-op Bank, who was pictured on the front page of the Mail on Sunday allegedly buying an assortment of Class As.  The secretly recorded video was incidentally "provided" (i.e. sold) to the paper by a "friend" (a 26-year-old Flowers met via the Grindr app) disgusted at Flowers' "hypocrisy".  Don't we all wish for friends like that?

Quite why the story was deemed front page material is still unclear.  Flowers left his position at the Co-op Bank back in June; he was only brought back into something resembling the limelight after he appeared before the Treasury select committee at the beginning of the month, around the time it's claimed he was exchanging texts with and buying drugs in the presence of Stuart Davies.  As yet, there hasn't been any suggestion Flowers was taking drugs during his time as chairman of the bank, although obviously that's the implication.  Flowers was however also a Bradford councillor up until 2011, when he resigned after his computer was found to have "inappropriate material" (i.e. porn) on it when handed in for a service.  Again, quite why accessing material that's perfectly legal, even on a computer provided by the state, should be a resignation issue escapes me (we're not seriously suggesting such devices should be solely for professional rather than personal use, are we?) but this misdemeanour apparently should have tipped off both the Co-op and the Labour party as to the fact he was a bit of a wrong'un, or at least should have done had they been informed.

The nub of the issue clearly has relatively little to do with how Flowers was clearly not suited to his role as bank chairman, and instead much to do with Flowers' and the Co-op group's involvement with Labour.  There is the matter of how Flowers was given the OK to become chairman despite having an extremely rudimentary knowledge of banking, with the defunct Financial Services Authority ticking the relevant boxes, Robert Peston pointing out that Graeme Hardie, now a non-executive director on the Co-op board was one of those who interviewed Flowers back then, but it's not exactly a surprise that the FSA wasn't onerous in asking questions, even after the crash.  No, this is as David Cameron made clear at prime minister's questions, all about Flowers' relationship with Labour, his position on the party's finance and industry board, and the various loans and arrangements the Co-op has in place with the party, both through the bank and the business proper.  Flowers "broke the bank", and he was on one of Labour's policy boards.  Who wouldn't shoot towards such an open goal?

There are then to be two separate independent inquiries into the near collapse of the bank, neither of which it seems would have happened without the MoS discovering Flowers was/is a drug hoover (allegedly).  To row back on the cynicism for just a minute, it most likely will be useful to see if any individual's behaviour was more responsible than that of the others, or if there are any wider lessons to be learned from the bank having to raise funds via hedge funds to stay afloat, but let's not kid ourselves here.  The Tories are attacking Labour on every possible front just now, such is the apparent desperation at the failure to make any great headway into the opposition's poll lead.  The economy finally recovering was meant to lead to a feel good factor and a Tory bounce. Despite the lead narrowing over the summer and in the period up to the party conferences, Labour is now once again ahead by an average of 6 to 8 points.

Hence the constant bringing up of Unite, Len McCluskey and Miliband's supposed weakness, while everyone else yawns, knowing full well the biggest trade union's real influence on the leadership is negligible.  The continuing fallout from Falkirk could develop into something major, but for now it's just another talking point for those disenchanted with Miliband's leadership.  Going after Labour over Flowers perplexes as there is so obviously no scandal, unless businesses paying for party researchers becomes the issue it ought to be due to the potential for conflicts of interest.  As much as the coalition adores blaming the crash entirely on Labour and Gordon Brown, going over further FSA failures isn't going to achieve much.  Nor is flagging up Labour's relationship with Flowers particularly wise when he made clear at the Treasury select committee just how encouraging the former minister Mark Hoban had been of the bank's doomed attempt to take on 630 branches of Lloyds.

It's more that you can't really believe the chutzpah from Cameron in pointing the figure elsewhere when his former director of communications is on trial, in a case where three of those he worked alongside have already pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages.  Miliband himself alluded to the trial in his response when he said "and they're just the people I can talk about in this house".  If crying scandal is meant to be a distraction, it isn't working.  More to the point, doing so just further encourages those who want to portray politics as being entirely venal and corrupt.  It takes something on the scale of the expenses scandal to really change minds.  Whatever was or wasn't known about Flowers, it doesn't so much as amount to a single "flipped" property.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013 

Let the shitstorm commence.

Paul Dacre, then, has broken cover.  It's interesting that like so many tabloid editors before him he won't actually be interviewed and instead leaves that to his underlings, only prepared to engage with critics on his own terms, but such is the way of those who demand accountability from everyone else and accept none themselves.

A few points:

1. Dacre's obsession with the BBC is a wonderful projection of how he seems to imagine the left is obsessed with his paper (although it must be said, some are).  It would be nice to get an audit on just how many hours of programming were devoted to discussing the Mail's attack on Ralph Miliband, but I'm willing to wager right now that it doesn't amount to hundreds.  Dacre and the Mail also wouldn't attract quite as much hostility if they didn't resort to hyperbole at the first opportunity; it was obvious by Thursday that some within Labour were trying to exploit the issue shamelessly, and the use of Alastair Campbell was questionable.  The point remains however that the BBC was entitled to cover the issue when it wasn't just Labour or the "Twitterati" but politicians on all sides who raised concerns.

2. Even now Dacre is repeating his and Geoffrey Levy's lies about Ralph Miliband.  He did not give "unqualified support" to Russian totalitarianism until the mid-50s, and besides there is nothing in Levy's article to back up that claim.  As Chris and a myriad others pointed out, being a Marxist does not make you a Stalinist or a Leninist, which is something that either the pair cannot get their heads round, or as you have to suspect, are being willfully misleading about.  If we want to get into how political beliefs have resulted in "evil", then we have to discuss both right and left, as well as how governments both Labour and Tory have supported authoritarians and dictators when it's suited them.  If hating Britain is not liking its institutions, as Dacre has repeatedly argued, then he clearly loathes modern Britain.  Now that is a paradox.

3. Dacre, again like numerous tabloid editors before him, justifies his paper's viewpoints on the basis that he's reflecting his readers' interests, which just so happen to also be his.  Regardless of the political party in power, in Dacre world Britain is constantly ruled over by the liberal left, and all Daily Mail readers object most strongly to this elite and their contempt for ordinary people.  In Dacre world the politicians don't fight like rats in a sack for the support of the middle classes and the centre ground, they only represent the "metropolitan classes" and sneer at decent working Britons.  Only the Mail stands up and protects these salt of the earth victims from having their interests ignored, and thank goodness it does.

4.  Gosh, Labour really is a ghastly party, isn't it?  No other political party has engaged in "corruption" like that of Damian McBride, except all of them (nor has any journalist ever facilitated the exchange of smears).  The Mail only focused on Ralph Miliband because his son wants to reintroduce price fixing, an unacceptable form of state intervention quite unlike Help to Buy, or the Stalinist seizing of land, quite unlike the compulsory purchase order legislation that has been on the statute book for decades.  They even covered up unnecessary and horrific deaths in NHS hospitals, except the Care Quality Commission disagrees entirely with that interpretation.

5. When everything else has failed, resort to a straw man argument.  Who suggested that the Ralph Miliband article necessitated statutory regulation?  Precisely no one, but that didn't stop Tory politicians from acting as though that's what the criticism implied, nor does it stop Dacre now.  Dacre would have a point in saying politicians can't be trusted with the freedom of the press after this week's assault on the Graun, if err, his paper hadn't led the charge after friendly briefings from those same politicians and indeed MI5 itself.  Amazingly, he attacks the BBC more than he does the Graun for "ignoring" the story, as though leading on it repeatedly over the last couple of days was trying to push it down the news agenda.  Apparently they should have focused more on Jack Straw's criticisms of the paper.  After all, who better than the foreign secretary who called the initial reports on the rendition programme "conspiracy theories" at the same time as he signed off on the rendition of two Libyan men back to Gaddafi's torture chambers to lecture the Guardian on the importance of such things remaining secret?

6. Which says everything about what this has really been about.  After accusing the Graun of treachery, he now of course wants to get the paper on side in rejecting the newly agreed press charter.  While I think the last couple of days has made clear both the press and government charter are untenable, the idea that you suddenly forget both sides have said you're helping terrorists and choose one over the other is hilarious.

7. Dacre says if you dish it out, you take it.  Except as is obvious, he doesn't take it, he throws even more shit back in return.  To quote Glenn, it's time to throw so much shit back at him that he can't pick up shit, he can't throw shit, he can't do shit.  On your marks everyone.

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Monday, October 07, 2013 

Reshuffling for the sake of it. Mainly.

If there's one thing in politics that enthuses the lobby hacks and those within the Westminster bubble like little else, while leaving everyone else bored stupid, it has to be the yearly festival of inanity which is the reshuffle.  The only real function it serves is, that in the fashion of politics being showbizness for ugly people, it lets us know who's hot and err, who's not.  Or, as it's properly known, who's been doing the most brown nosing and who's been mouthing off.  Talent and ability only rarely enter into proceedings, such is the way our glorious party-based democracy works.

This is even more the case when the prime minister has deigned not to switch around his cabinet ministers.  It would be lovely to think this is the result of common sense: only in politics is it thought a great idea for someone to be (nominally) in charge of say, defence and then the next day find that they've been moved to health, having only a year earlier been at the helm in the Home Office, but one suspects it's more down to how Cameron genuinely believes he had the best possible team in place, or at least can't dispense with the services of a Theresa May or Michael Gove lest they become a rallying point on the backbenches.  You could then attempt to decipher what it means that such names to conjure with as Esther McVey and Sajid Javid have climbed slightly further up the ministerial greasy pole while Mark Hoban and Chloe Smith have been defenestrated, or you could do something more useful, like teach a pig to sing. The idea that anyone's going to notice this glorified game of musical chairs has made the Tory front bench very slightly more female, northern and working class is a touching one.

Worth a smidgen more attention is Nick Clegg getting rid of Jeremy Browne, who the Tories liked as he was further to the right than some of them, and the promotion of Norman Baker, although mainly as that's alarmed the more easily bewildered, due to his previously espoused view that Dr David Kelly was murdered. The idea that he's suddenly going to turn the Home Office into a habitat for tinfoil hat wearers when Clegg is clearly set on the coalition staying in one piece till the bitter end just doesn't stand up to scrutiny, amusing as it would be.

The real "action", if you could really describe it as such, happened across the Commons. Not before time both Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg were demoted, having been such successes in their shadow posts for work and pensions and education. It was Byrne's idea that the party shouldn't oppose the government's refusal to repay benefits to those illegally sanctioned, disgusting many, while Twigg didn't so much as oppose Michael Gove's education reforms as support them in his own constituency. Twigg's impact was so great that I have absolutely no idea what Labour's education policy is, and if I don't, what hope does the casual observer?

Not that their replacements are necessarily any better. Rachel Reeves takes up Byrne's post, fresh from her Newsnight "humiliation", so we can look forward to more interviews where nothing of interest whatsoever is said. Not that this is the final purge of Blairites the Tories bizarrely want to paint it as; giving Douglas Alexander and Charles Falconer, both Blair fans,  responsibility for the election is hardly the Red Ed Terror. As for bringing Len McCluskey into it yet again, the vast majority of the public will once more say who?

Nor are there 10 lessons to take from the reshuffling.  All it does in reinforce where we were after the party conferences: the leaders are all secure, the Lib Dems are in a world of their own imagining, the Tories are shifting to the right, while Ed Miliband is feeling out policies and imposing his authority fully on the party.  What's really going to be interesting this parliamentary session is how far Osborne is willing to turn the recovery into a mini-boom via Help to Buy, with all the potential implications inflating the housing bubble still further will have.  Nothing that happened today is going to affect that.

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Thursday, October 03, 2013 

No one to blame but himself.

When the Mail gets it wrong, it tends to get it spectacularly, boneheadedly, irredeemably wrong. Ever since Geoffrey Levy and (presumably) Paul Dacre decided it was a great idea to portray the deceased father of the Labour leader as a man who hated the country that gave him refuge and which he had to request to serve in the navy for, it has just kept on digging. Mocked for claiming a juvenile diary entry proved his loathing, it shifted to claiming his Marxism is why he hated our freedom. Except, as scholars and those who were taught by him have pointed out, his Marxism never extended to apologia for the Soviet Union or any other communist state. His socialism was democratic, just to the left of that offered by Labour. All they can point to is that his home played host to other thinkers on the left, not all of whom entirely rejected communism. By the same yardstick countless of those on the right could be equally condemned for their cosying up to authoritarians and dictators.  That his son is now the leader of the party he wrote would always betray the working class also gives the lie to the idea that he is a "dangerous" influence.

Quite what the executives who sent the reporter to the memorial service for Miliband's uncle possibly thought they would achieve is therefore difficult to ascertain. Did they seriously imagine those there would tell them something they could use? Or was this simply classic tabloid behaviour, deliberately pestering them simply because Ed had dared to respond in kind?  The PCC code (which is still in operation, fact fans) forbids journalists from entering private sections of hospitals unless there is a public interest in doing so, which while Paul Dacre would inevitably claim there was, is quite apparently not there.

It's Dacre's role since the beginning which is major point in all this.  Was he the one who decided upon the "man who hated Britain" headline?  Was he the executive who sent the Mail on Sunday hack to Professor Harry Keen's memorial?  And was he also responsible for deciding this morning that the paper shouldn't apologise, the MoS editor Geordie Greig, who was apparently unaware of the doorstepping, having told Miliband one would be issued this morning?  If so, then he seems to have made miscalculation after miscalculation, not expecting that Miliband would go to Rothermere himself with his complaint.

One thing people shouldn't be getting however is carried away.  While this has been classic Mail behaviour, it pales in comparison to the kind those who aren't leaders of the opposition have gone through.  For now at least, Miliband and the Labour leadership have judged their response just about right, but the letter to Rothermere almost crosses the boundary between justified complaint and the suggestion that they should think twice before writing anything.  Miliband might be dead right in saying that this entire episode is indicative of the Mail's culture and practices, or at least is of Paul Dacre's, as that's clearly the sentiment being expressed, but there's an extremely fine line between criticising newspapers for going beyond what's acceptable and politicians being seen to be potentially intimidating their critics.

That, frankly, is what some either within Labour or now outside have been attempting to do.  We can all agree that Alastair Campbell's lambasting of the Mail's Jon Steafel on Newsnight made for great television, yet Campbell is the absolute last person to be taking the moral high ground when it comes to smear stories.  One aspect of the Damian McBride book serialisation which was undeveloped was that neither he nor Campbell, or those in the Blair camp after Campbell left could have run their operations without the help of journalists willing to write up their attacks on each other.  Politics is only as dirty as the media that facilitate such briefings.  Nor is this a Milly Dowler moment, and for the likes of John Prescott to be trying to make it into one by suggesting to advertisers that they should stop doing business with the Mail is absurd.

The most significant thing is that unlike during the 80s, when tabloid smearing of Labour figures was par for the course, this time politicians of all parties have been explicit in condemning the Mail.  True, Cameron and Boris Johnson claimed not to have read or seen the piece and so only said they would defend their fathers from unfair criticism as well, but others such as Francis Maude have gone far beyond that.  With the Sun clearly in decline, not least thanks to Murdoch's decision to put it behind a paywall, the Mail is without doubt the most powerful newspaper in the country.  If some Tories are now prepared to go against it, it's indicative of just how quickly the influence the media barons once had is declining.  And how delicious that Dacre has no one to blame but himself.

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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, October 01, 2013 

Better living through irony.

It used to be said, by our more patronising commentators, that Americans didn't "get" irony. They always have of course, it's just that different countries have different traditions of comedy. To get things off to an exceptionally meta start, it's highly ironic that some of us seem to have forgotten what irony is.

Like, for instance, referring to the Labour leader as "Red Ed" non-ironically.  As an insult or jibe, it just doesn't work on any level other than it rhyming.  The closest Ed or the party he leads come to being "red" in the old socialist style is that he answered in the affirmative recently when asked whether he would bring socialism back, when he clearly meant social democracy, the same principle part of the coalition continues to profess to adhere to, and that the party laughably continues to sing the "Red Flag" come the end of conference.  It signifies about as much as the way Putin's Russia continues to display the ever deteriorating rubberised corpse of Lenin.  Think of the way the Sun took to calling Heather Mills Lady Mucca, on the basis that she had once posed for some softcore snaps, highly similar to those appearing on the paper's third page every day.  It was and is phenomenally stupid, but seems to please the little minds in charge of the nation's gutter rags.

Then again, part of our media and political class don't seem to like having even an occasional joke, let alone descend into silliness for say, the reason of having fun.  I can't quite believe I'm defending Godfrey Bloom, but the whole "sluts" row at the UKIP conference was mindboggling in its inanity.  I don't care whether he was using "sluts" in either the sexually promiscuous or lazy sense of the word, everyone in attendance laughed.  It wasn't meant seriously, no one in the room was offended, and had it not been for the fact he then went out and smacked Michael Crick with the conference programme, it most likely would have been brushed off just as his "bongo bongo" jibe was, when he should have been held to account then.  That the UKIP programme declared that the "new face of politics" was entirely white, as befits a party that can be summed up as being consumed with first world problems, ought to have been enough rope to hang them in the first place.

Not that we can just point the finger at those who think politics and humour shouldn't mix outside of Yes, Minister, The Thick of It or sketch columns.  Last week also saw Alastair Campbell reaching new levels of sanctimony, touring television studios lecturing Tesco and Asda for the crime of selling Halloween costumes that apparently stigmatised or belittled those with mental health problems, reinforcing prejudices that we should instead be seeking to overcome.  Fine sentiments indeed, but coming from the man who did more than anyone other than bloggers to paint Gordon Brown as "psychologically flawed", to put it in the politest possible terms, and over fucking Halloween costumes that simply reproduced age-old tropes from horror films and would never have been taken seriously by anyone other than those looking to be offended, came uncomfortably close to beggaring belief.  I couldn't give a toss about Halloween, but if for one night a year people want to dress up as figures from history or in other potentially offensive ways in the spirit of enjoying themselves, perhaps the rest of us should, within reason, get over ourselves? Yes?  No. Of course not.

Then we come to the levels of hypocrisy as well as irony in the Daily Mail deciding to smear Red Ed's long deceased old man.  As someone born in the 80s, I don't remember the good old days when the Tory press used to savage the "loony left" time after time, and have only read about it.  When such overbearing Tory bias hits you straight in the face then, as it has since Miliband's speech last week, it's a bit of a shock.  Yes, the Sun was bad during Labour's last term when it declared the country was on the brink of anarchy, even as crime continued to fall, something it believes is happening now the natural party of government is back in charge, but this is something else.  We saw a bit of it after Nick Clegg's performances in the debates, and earlier in the year during the Eastleigh by-election as the Mail splashed on Lord Rennard repeatedly, but to really invoke the hammer and sickle?  If it wasn't so ridiculous and truly meant it would be comical.

The Mail describes Ed's piece in response to Geoffrey Levy's obviously Paul Dacre-approved hatchet job as "tetchy and menacing".  Anyone who reads it can see it is neither.  It is in fact a tender defence of his father, setting out exactly what he owed to this country and how he loved rather than hated it.  You would have thought that Dacre, notoriously sensitive about the bringing up of the Mail's support for the Blackshirts in the 30s, might have realised that questioning the dedication of a man who fought for Britain would lead to critics pointing to the treachery of those who the Mail applauded, but apparently not.  Levy and Dacre in their deliberately obtuse manner can't imagine why a 17-year-old Jewish refugee from the Nazis was suspicious of nationalisms of all varieties.  The only other evidence it has for his hatred for this country is that he attacked the establishment, the self same establishment that Dacre has repeatedly said he rejoices in "tweaking the nose of".

Giving up any semblance of reasonable critique, the paper's editorial in response to Miliband's demand for a right of reply indulges in classic red-baiting, as Martin Kettle writes.  Ralph Miliband was a life-long Marxist, ergo even if he didn't support the Soviet Union, he "validated this most pernicious doctrine", which presumably is the "evil legacy" the editorial is concerned with.  It then lets the cat out of the bag by going straight on to the paper's monomaniacal obsession with the proposed royal charter on press regulation, as though whatever emerges from that tortured process will be anything approximate to actual state control of the press.  Indeed, when press freedom is genuinely threatened, as it has been by the government's response to the Guardian's revelations of surveillance of the internet by GCHQ, the Mail has taken the side of... the government.

Irony, as a rather good band once had it, smothers us.  It infects our speech and actions whether we like it or not.  Some, however, like the Mail, ignore the way it nags and carry on regardless.  Like George Osborne promising to run a budget surplus if the Tories are re-elected when he couldn't even keep his promise to eliminate the deficit in this parliament, thanks to the plan he now lauds as having laid the foundations for the recovery, just the three years later than scheduled.  That level of chutzpah still doesn't come close though to that of the newspaper that pretends, as Miliband scathingly put it, to uphold "the best of British values of decency", even as it has repeatedly attacked and smeared those who can't answer for themselves.  As when the Sun attacked Gordon Brown for his handwriting, the Mail might well find that this time it's gone that one step beyond the pale.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013 

Boring, boring Labour.

Considering the BBC's problems at the moment, it wasn't the best idea for the new Newsnight editor to "accidentally" tweet how boring Rachel Reeves was on the programme last night.  That no one who actually saw the segment featuring the Labour shadow treasury spokesman could possibly disagree doesn't matter when this was quite obviously bias in its most latent form, and the party richly deserved the apology it quickly received.  Little things like objectivity simply don't enter into such proceedings.  True, the fault doesn't so much lie with the person as it does with Katz and his underlings: Reeves has never been anything other than stultifingly dull; expecting her to have suddenly become devastatingly witty and incisive in analysis was asking a bit much.

The problem for Labour is that Reeves is the rule rather than the exception. For all the silliness of the summer and whispering against Ed, the party appears listless.  If it wasn't for Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Chris Bryant, all of whom, love them or loathe, can make an impact, things would be even worse. With the party having to drop the investigation into what did or didn't happen in Falkirk after those accusing Unite of skulduggery withdrew their evidence, it looks increasingly like the response from the party had been drawn up for just such an eventuality. Unable to back down without giving yet more ammunition to the Tories, having pretty much put a "kick me" sign on their own backs already, the media were clearly hoping Miliband was going to be received at the TUC much like a bank note campaigner at a police station.

Predictably enough, the brothers didn't oblige. Not that this was down to Miliband winning over his audience with the sheer force of his argument, as err, he didn't bother to make one.  Listening to Ed you wouldn't think this was about the breaking of the historic link with the unions, the very organisations that created the party in the first place; no, this was about a "change", an "exciting idea" that would lead not to 200,000 Labour members but 500,000, a genuine, living breathing movement!  Who could disagree with that?  How the "change" would work in practice, whether it would mean a funding shortfall for Labour or a loss of influence on either side wasn't up for discussion.

Instead Ed delivered what has become his standard speech.  Yes, the opening was lively enough, with a fairly spirited attack on Cameron for something he might have said, as frankly I can't recall Dave describing the trade union movement as a "threat to our economy", at least in those exact terms, but then it just descended into the One Nation mush that has become the Labour's leader boilerplate message.  We still of course don't know what a One Nation Labour party is, as it looks unbelievably similar to the one we had prior to Ed deciding appropriating the old Tory mantle was a good wheeze.  After all, the policies are the same, the ministers are the same, and the message is the same.  Ed could have delivered his speech today at any point this year or last, and yet the closing section seems like something approaching the sort of pitch Miliband will have to make prior to the election.  It doesn't just come across as that word, weak, it's completely and utterly lacking.

As George Osborne tried to set out yesterday, however risibly, the coalition now has that horrible thing, a narrative.  The recovery is real, Labour wanted us to change course, they can't be trusted.  It might yet become a bit more subtle, and it seems likely there's going to be some movement on living standards, whether through alterations to the minimum wage or otherwise, but that's essentially going to be the message over the next year and a half as long as the economy keeps growing.  It's still going to be an uphill struggle for the Tories to win a majority when the odds are stacked against them, yet stranger things have surely happened.  Miliband could be the next prime minister, but he's starting to leave it late on why he deserves to be and how his party would govern better than the current shower.  A good place to start would be sacking his current speech writer.  And letting Reeves loose on the TV sparingly.

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