Thursday, October 23, 2014 

Extremely loud and incredibly close.

John Harris is without a doubt one of the best political commentators we have.  Unlike many of the others with a column and their name in a large font, he bothers to respond to the keyboard hammerers below the line, and he really does go beyond, indeed anywhere but Westminster.  Just though as not getting out enough leads to losing touch, so too can travelling to wherever the next by-election is being held make you think the hot topic of the moment is the most important issue in politics outright.  Add in a straw man, and you pretty much have his piece for the Graun today.

To say I'm bored out of my mind by the immigration debate in general doesn't really cover it.  It's taken the place of the Iraq war in being constantly talked about without anyone ever making an original point or changing their position.  These are the facts: despite claims to the contrary, we've been having a debate about immigration for over half a century now.  Yes, there have always been some people who've shouted racist whenever the topic is broached, mainly for the good reason that up till relatively recently the majority of complaints about immigration, rather than being couched in economic or social terms, were based around skin colour or culture.  This is to simplify massively, but Steve Bell captured how far we've come in his cartoon from last week: we've moved on from the days of "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour" to "if you want a fruit picker from Romania for a neighbour, vote Labour".

Next, Labour did not try and transform the country into a truly multicultural society through immigration, as those who can remember back to the times when it was asylum seekers rather than eastern European migrants who were regarded as the biggest problem facing the country will know.  The mistake in 2004 was not realising the effect opening the borders to A8 states would have, especially when only Sweden and Ireland similarly didn't impose further restrictions.  Even fewer Poles speak Swedish than English, hence why so many journeyed here instead of to Stockholm.  Lastly, as it bears repeating, it's now almost been a decade since the Conservatives under Michael Howard used "it's not racist to impose limits on immigration" as a slogan.  Ever tighter limits have since been imposed, except of course when it comes to the EU.

Harris's piece could have almost been in response to my post on Tuesday.  He was though most likely thinking of the works of either Polly Toynbee or Richard Seymour, aka Lenin from the Tomb.  Without referring directly to Harris, Seymour has since tweeted this poll finding, which does rather underline his point.  No, people's worries and fears about migration writ large aren't racist, bigoted or down to prejudice; are however some of those fears at their most base down to as, Seymour puts it, entitlement and chauvinism?  Well, yes.

That topsy-turvy poll finding by ComRes does in its own way sum up the immigration, even the Europe debate in microcosm.  Do we still want the undoubted benefits of being in the EU, that past waves of immigration have brought here?  Certainly.  Are we as keen on the impact on public services, on how towns like Wisbech, Peterborough and Boston have been altered, and just how swift the pace of change has been?  Not so much.  At the same time, the poll makes clear those most concerned about immigration are extremely noisy, as a solid 36% still accept freedom of movement within the EU.  As Flying Rodent has argued, concern about immigration is one of the relatively few areas of public opinion which is pandered to.

And it hasn't worked, for the reason it hasn't addressed the fundamental right of freedom of movement, as politicians haven't had the guts to make the argument for why it's one of the few areas of EU policy they ought to be able to agree has been a success.  Chris answers Harris's question of whether free movement has been of most benefit to capital or labour, but that obviously isn't going to convince the people he's been listening to.  What might, and is something Westminster politicians have shied away from as it would reduce their control is, as we now know to a fair extent where the most pressures have been put on public services and housing, the targeting of extra funding to those areas.  This, finally, does seem to be where Labour is moving towards, with Ed Miliband today setting out 5 points around which an immigration bill from his government would be based.  We can quibble about the rights and wrongs of preventing migrants from sending child benefit and child tax credits back to their home nation when Brits working abroad can do the same, but if it helps to staunch public concern then so be it.

If some of the left has been blasé about migration, as Harris puts it, the reason is precisely because of the way we've arrived at this point.  Yes, public concern about immigration has been high in the past, and is high now.  Where though did the current mood have its roots, and is it all about migration or rather migration becoming the rallying point for a whole other myriad of concerns?  Easily forgotten is the way panic was whipped up last year over the looming ending of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians coming here, with the media all but joining UKIP in predicting a movement similar to that of post-2005.  It didn't happen.  What did happen is the economy continuing to recovery, albeit without a similar recovery in living standards, the former leading to workers in western rather than eastern Europe looking for jobs further afield.  The fault is not with the migrants, but with the joint failings of late capitalism and politicians both here and in Europe.

For all the insults and asking of what the "modern left" would do, Harris himself doesn't offer a solution other than restricting free movement, despite how this both isn't going to and shouldn't happen.  We could start with being straight with the public rather than continuing to lie to them.  Who knows, it might just begin to have an effect.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 

Farage's face, staring out - forever.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell through O'Brien offered as a picture of the future a boot stamping on a human face - forever.  It's a visceral, shocking image you want to turn away from, yet it's not as horrifying as the current vision of the future we are presented with.  It still involves a human face, only rather than it being stamped on, there's a rictus grin across its mug, the eyes bright, teeth being flashed for all their worth.  The face, all but needless to add, belongs to Nigel.

Future historians looking back on the coalition government will have plenty to examine and debate over.  They will wonder how a government which insisted it was dealing with a national emergency, the size of the budget deficit, could first choke off the recovery left by the previous government by cutting back capital spending and then conjure to provide a recovery of their own in which the deficit fails to fall.  They will try to reach conclusions over whether it was the emphasis on cuts to the welfare budget by this government that led inexorably to the dismantling of the system of social security as the country had known it post-Beveridge.  Most significantly, they will be forced to consider how despite presenting himself as a strong leader, David Cameron was in fact the embodiment of a weak prime minister, at every step giving in to the worst instincts of his party rather than pursuing what was right for the country.

The evidence for just such a finding is there in abundance.  Most fundamental will be the colossal error Cameron made in January 2013, announcing in a speech that if returned to power in 2015, his government would hold an in/out referendum on remaining in the European Union by 2017, after a successful "renegotiation" with the other member states.  Designed to win over backbenchers complaining about his leadership and the party's standing in the polls, it does for a matter of days.  Having succeeded in pressurising a leader they have never taken to and never will into making one promise, they quickly demanded he move sooner.  They make clear their displeasure at legislation not being present in the Queen's speech preparing for the referendum, and again, Downing Street soon gives in.

Not that it was only backbenchers taking the credit for Cameron's shift.  In another example of Cameron's reckless promises coming back to bite him, prior to the 2010 election he set out how a Conservative government would bring immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the "tens of thousands".  At first it looked as though he might achieve his aim, only for the continuing economic woes in the Eurozone to result in a surge of migrants from the western European states most affected by austerity coming to the country.  Immigration duly becomes second only to fears over the NHS in people's concerns, not because of it having a personal impact on most, but as a catch-all complaint over the sense of drift, the general feeling of powerlessness most are experiencing as real wages fall and politicians refuse to offer anything resembling a vision of where the country is heading.

So desperate are the public they look anywhere for an alternative.  In any other circumstances Nigel Farage would be an incongruous figure, a deeply boring, petty man who covers up for his party's lack of policies and rigour with an overarching narrative: things ain't what they used to be, and it's all the fault of the European Union.  Nigel smokes tabs, drinks beer, and so delights a media starved by the blandness and sterility of the focus grouped out of existence political elite.  They can't get enough of him, and the publicity combined with the mood of hopelessness leads to his UK Independence Party winning hundreds of council seats, before it comes out on top in 2014's European parliament elections.  Rather than bother to submit Farage himself to anything resembling proper scrutiny, with a very few select exceptions, the media instead focus on those lower down the party structure.  All the while the personality cult of Farage continues to build, to the point where a former DJ imagines the UKIP leader at Number 10 in a calypso inspired song.  It seems and is completely absurd, and yet the main topic of debate is whether Mike Read's appropriation is racist.

Absurd is the word.  Cameron's weakness knows no apparent bounds.  Only a few weeks ago he offered to his party and by proxy the country the promise he would put freedom of movement at the heart of his renegotiation strategy.  He said he wouldn't take no for an answer.  The outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, points out the answer could only be no when the rest of the EU, imposing its own restrictions on benefits or not, has not the slightest intention of curtailing one of the EEC's founding principles and biggest successes.  Panicked further by the prospect of losing the Rochester by-election, and apparently fearing a leadership challenge in the aftermath, we now learn Cameron is set to announce some form of unilateral restriction on low-skilled eastern European migrants, most likely by refusing to issue them with national insurance numbers.  How this will affect the economy he cares not; nor does he worry over the legal implications.

Cameron's gambit has failed on all fronts.  His backbenchers, meant to be sated by his giving them what they want, now realise they have pushed to the point at which they are closer than ever to reaching their goal of getting Britain out of Europe.  Why on earth would they stop now?  UKIP, meanwhile, has had its every argument validated, continues to gain support and still can point out that the only way to truly control the borders is to leave.  All this, and the Conservatives remain behind Labour in the polls.  The only reason Cameron hasn't been called on this disaster is due to the majority of the press sharing the backbenchers' opinion on the EU, and how they can't imagine anything as terrible as Red Ed in Number 10.  I can.  It's another 5 years of Farage's fizzog staring out from every screen, every alternate sheet of newsprint, every billboard, the same silent laugh emanating from his gob.  You're the one he's laughing at, Dave.

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Monday, October 13, 2014 

The UKIPs are coming!

Last week's by-election results told us precisely nothing we didn't already know.  In Clacton, a popular local MP won back his own seat after resigning it as part of a marketing campaigning designed to keep the Nigel Farage beerwagon rolling.  In Heywood and Middleton Labour won back their safe seat, the party's share of the vote holding up.  Only of slight interest is how the party's majority was cut to just over 600 votes, as it shows how people vote differently in by-elections: the Tory, Lib Dem and BNP vote collapsed (the BNP, still in turmoil, didn't stand) and UKIP profited as a result.  Some Labour supporters no doubt switched to UKIP as a protest, with former Lib Dem voters going back to Labour making up the difference.  Moreover, apathy, non-interest or the pox on you all mentality were the real winners, with a turnout of just 36%.

And yet, and yet, because the former meant the UKIPs finally have a seat at Westminster, which hopefully means everyone can now shut up about it, and the latter obviously means the UKIPs could possibly, maybe, have a major impact on the outcome of next year's general election, even if they don't win more than a handful of seats, if that, all we've heard since has been the equivalent of the UKIPs are coming!  The UKIPs are coming!

Yes, just when you thought the why-oh-whying had withered slightly, the number of here's why UKIP is getting so much support articles and think pieces reaches 9,000 againThe same old points are made over and over: it's immigration stoopid; it's because the political elite are all professionals, never had a real job in their lives; they don't communicate in plain English, can't get their message across with descending into slogans and wonk-speak; they're all the same; and so interminably on.

The fact is there are clearly different explanations for why UKIP has gained support in some areas, hasn't in others and will most likely fall back substantially come next May.  I think John Harris has overstated at times the UKIP "surge", but his piece on Clacton last week nailed why Douglas Carswell was always likely to retain his seat, albeit for a different party.  Telling people just how right-wing Carswell was, the response was one of not caring.  UKIP has become a "safe" protest, an anti-immigration party that isn't racist, merely xenophobic, albeit one fronted by a former metals trader with a German wife.  Carswell's more out there politics were counteracted by his being a good constituency MP, while most former Tory voters were more than happy to support his shifting slightly further to the right.  If there was anger or doubts about the use of public money to stage an unnecessary by-election, those unimpressed stayed at home.  Clacton also fits, as John B has noted, the pissed off at the march of progress demographic as first identified by Lord Ashcroft's polling, and perhaps exemplified by Tilbury.  People who don't properly know why they're angry, who are opposed to change yet also don't want things to remain as they are.

Apart from opposition to immigration there's not much that unites them apart from contempt and a sense of being abandoned.  Hence the desperate search for just why it is they feel this way, with some of the reasons alighted upon saying more about the insecurities of politicians and journalists than getting to the heart.  Voters saying politicians don't understand their lives doesn't mean they want them all to talk like Farage, nor have they've developed an instant aversion to PPE graduates, as Owen Jones seems to believe.  An amalgam of the crash, the resulting austerity, continued anger over the expenses scandal, the belief that London and the surrounding area dominate everything, a "popular" media that focuses on the negative, while the "serious" puts undue emphasis on ephemera and identity politics as opposed to that of the everyday, along with just good old general alienation and the lack of difference between the big three parties is largely how the majority have reached this point.  They've been further encouraged by a media that is enthralled as much as some of it is appalled by UKIP, to the point where certain sections view the party almost as their creation.  The emergence of a fourth party is also exciting, or at least is in comparison with much else of politics, and so the hype feeds itself.

There's danger in both over and under-reacting to all this by the parties.  The Conservative response has been a mixture of not understanding it combined with appeasement: freezing in work benefits at the same time as promising a giveaway to the upper middle is almost precisely how not to win back working class UKIP defectors, while the moves on Europe merely demonstrate how there's little point in voting for a party that only goes halfway towards the exit and has encouraged the Carswells and Recklesses to make their move.  Labour doesn't really want to talk about immigration full stop, whereas it should recognise it made a mistake in 2004 while arguing in reality it's the least of our problems.  The Lib Dems meanwhile have just gone the complete anti-populist route, and it's not exactly won them many friends.

Should Mark Reckless manage to win in Rochester and Strood then it might be worth getting concerned.  The Tories are set to throw everything at it, while in normal circumstances it's a seat Labour should be taking in a by-election.  Even if Reckless fails, the announcement today that Farage has been invited to one of the leader's debates underlines how the media certainly doesn't want to let their little engine that could run out of puff.  If UKIP have won enough support to be represented, then surely the Greens and SNP should be too, especially when either or both genuinely would bring a different perspective to proceedings.  The Graun, lastly, also sounds an ominous note: taxes are going to have to rise after the election, and yet none of the parties have begun to so much as broach the subject.  Should UKIP fall back as some of us believe it will, it or something like it could soon be resurrected when it again turns out a harsh truth wasn't communicated.

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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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Wednesday, September 24, 2014 

See, you know, here's the thing, we're better together.

Ed Miliband's conference speech was dismal.  Not because he "forgot" to mention how Labour would tackle the deficit, or deal with immigration, as a media no longer bothering to hide its bias has focused on relentlessly for the past 24 hours.  David Cameron and George Osborne went through two conferences where the word "recession" never so much as passed their lips, where everything was Labour's fault, all without the BBC so much as picking them up on their sins of omission.  No, it was awful because it was completely tone deaf, written and delivered not to be a cohesive whole but with the intention of the important bits sounding good when edited down for the news bulletins.  Even they blanched at Miliband repeating together over and over, in a spectacularly ill-judged attempt to throw the abandoned all in it Tory slogan back in their faces.  All activists could talk of was the energy they had encountered in Scotland, whichever side they were on, and here in front of them was one reason why the Yes campaign nearly triumphed.

This isn't to be entirely fair to Miliband, but then whoever was advising on the speech wasn't fair to him either.  If there's one thing Miliband isn't, it's Tony Blair.  The messiah himself barely got away with his "you knows" and desperate attempts to speak like, you know, the common people do, and yet still they decided it was a good idea to pepper the speech with sentences starting with "so", "see" and "here's the thing" among other verbal crimes.  Then we had the what threatened to be endless personal anecdotes, mocked without mercy since.  All of them seem to have been actual occurrences of Ed talking to real people, which is at least something, it just doesn't alter how with the exception of Beatrice Bazell, who remarked to Ed on how her "generation is falling into a black hole" they didn't add anything.  It gave a speech already lacking in content yet long in delivery a too earnest, too needy air, like a clingy boyfriend resorting to the same old self-deprecating tricks in a doomed effort to stop a lover from moving on. 


Miliband's strength, as proved by his three previous conference speeches was in focusing on a central, overriding theme with the odd eye-catching policy announcement tacked on.  We had predator capitalism, one nation Labour and then last year the cost of living/energy price freeze gambit, all of which succeeded in capturing the attention of the media, the latter setting the agenda for the rest of the year.  Rather than follow the same template this time he instead spread the message far too thinly: his ten year plan, a formulation which just invites comparison with Stalinist edicts on tractor production, was a clear attempt to revive the pledges made by Labour prior to the 97 election.  Laudable certainly, but May 2015 is too distant to concentrate minds, not least when the Scottish referendum is still exciting thought.  Nor was the announcement on a £2.5bn "time to care" fund for the NHS anything like a surprise, or close to as radical as the price freeze.


There were nonetheless sections that sparkled, albeit all too briefly.  The "on your own" motif if further developed could have formed a powerful indictment of the coalition's way of governing, with Miliband's attack on the auction that saw a Russian oligarch's wife bid £160,000 to play tennis with the prime minister one of the few cutting attacks on the Tories.  He was so enamoured with this swipe he repeated it moments later, alongside urging the conference to ensure Cameron has more time to surf and play Angry Birds (yes, really) by defeating his party at the election.  The hall, struck by quite how pitiful this call to arms was, barely shifted.


Some of this failure to connect with the audience in Manchester, let alone the rest of us, has to be put down to Miliband's baffling insistence on giving the address without notes.  The wandering around the platform, arm waving, look how in touch with you I am act was a novelty for a couple of years; now it's the political equivalent of riding a bike without holding the handlebars.  Anyone can do it with practice, but you look an even bigger fool than normal if you fall off.  It's not just the whole deficit non-story could have been avoided, it's how it encourages brush strokes rather than painting a full picture.  One of the most fundamental changes in recent years has been the rise of zero hour contracts, enforced self-employment and job insecurity, something not solved by raising the minimum wage.  All earned mentions, without Miliband offering anything resembling a plan for how a Labour government will improve things or tackle the short-term business culture behind the shift.  Apparently the 21st century will be about "co-operation, everybody playing their part, sharing the rewards, the talents of all", but how this will become the norm wasn't explained.


Most commentators have interpreted the speech as Labour resorting to a core vote strategy, and it's difficult to demur from that conclusion.  Those same commentators haven't noted however both the Tories and Lib Dems made clear long ago they were going to do the same thing, if that is the Lib Dems still have a core.  Nor is there much else Labour can do: while retaining their lead in the polls, Miliband's personal ratings are worse than ever, as is public confidence in their economic competence.  The real change since 2010 is while the Tories have shifted noticeably to the right, Labour has despite claims to the contrary stayed dead centre, emphasis on the dead.  Labour clearly believes voters have nowhere else to go; the sad thing is unless you fancy another 5 years of Con-Dem benevolence, they're probably right.  As for inspiration, aspiration, a politics beyond the fear and loathing of austerity, we'll have to wait a while longer.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014 

David Cameron will find you.

It's Tuesday, it's the dog days of July, so it must be time for a reprise of the who can be the most reprehensible cunt to immigrants act. You might recall last year around this time the Home Office sent round their "go home" vans, a move we're now informed wasn't the brainchild of Lynton Crosby, will wonders never cease. It wasn't a complete success, truth be told, but a majority didn't think it was racist and those that way inclined probably quite liked the message.

Facts you see don't enter this equation.  According to our fabulous prime minister Labour operated a "no questions asked" approach to benefits and this acted as a "magnetic pull" to migrants, or presumably at least those with an iron constitution.  This contradicts just about every piece of evidence we have about why those from the accession 8 countries came here, with the Migration Advisory Committee most recently finding little to support such claims, but no matter.

As well as announcing a further limitation on the time those from EU countries can claim Jobseeker's Allowance, a change it's estimated will affect around a whole 5,000 people, Cameron was also channelling his inner Liam Neeson.  Apparently if you're an illegal immigrant, he will find you and he will kill you.  To make clear just how serious he is, he went along on a raid, and was filmed by the BBC chillaxing in the victim's alleged criminal's kitchen with Theresa May.  It's probably worth noting as this point how Mark Harper, who had to resign as a minister earlier in the year after he was found to be employing an illegal immigrant as a cleaner, got a job back in the reshuffle, while Isabella Acevedo is waiting to be deported, separated from her teenage daughter.  Ah, justice.

It doesn't matter all this is self-defeating in the extreme.  Politicians simply aren't listened to on immigration any longer, and haven't been for quite some time now, the reason being they took their cue from the tabloids, made all these foolish promises about limiting it, and haven't done so because they can't.  Rather than start admitting they can't and return to making the argument immigration is positive overall, while the negatives can be tackled through careful targeting of the areas which have seen the most change, like reckless gamblers they keep doubling down.  Cameron is still, still, insisting his beyond idiotic target of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands can be achieved, while Labour continues trying to one up the Tories.  Adding illegal immigration to the mix is just asking for it; the days of the Liberal Democrats calling for an amnesty, the only even remotely workable solution, and one which would bring the exchequer hundreds of millions (at least) in extra revenue, are long gone.  Instead they must all be found and sent home.  Just like Lucan, Shergar and Madeleine McCann will be (apologies).

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Thursday, June 19, 2014 

It's a condition all right.

One thing always guaranteed to brighten the day is politicians repeating the most lazy, clichéd myths as though they were unquestionable laws of nature. Earlier in the week the British Social Attitudes survey found views on migrants hardening, with a quarter believing they principally came here to claim benefits.  Their take is of course nothing to do with the coalition repeatedly tightening the rules on when EU migrants are entitled to access the welfare system, despite having failed to present the slightest evidence of benefit tourism, and when studies have repeatedly showed migrants overwhelmingly paying more in than they take out.

Thank goodness we have Ed Miliband to make the case for social security then, eh? He wouldn't do something like claim we encourage 18-year-olds who don't go to university to pile straight onto benefits rather than carry on in training or learning, would he? Oh. Still, he wouldn't then try and get back into a triangulation battle with the Tories by restricting a benefit to the young, as the wicked Conservatives want to with housing benefit, right? Ah.

This isn't entirely fair, as Declan Gaffney valiantly while still expressing major reservations best sets out.  Those training for more than 16 hours a week can't currently claim Jobseeker's Allowance, so for them the change will obviously make a major difference.  Away from that, the problems quickly mount.  More than anything, Miliband seems to be suggesting training to A-level standard is a means to an end at a time when countless graduates are stuck in low-skilled work.  Sure, it undoubtedly will help some, but as Chris argues this is pure manageralism.  In part it's blaming young people for not being able to find work when the fundamental difficulty outside of the usual areas is there aren't enough jobs, regardless of the skills those unemployed have.  Once you've added on the extremely dubious further means test, meaning those with parents earning over £42,000 will be entitled to precisely zip, as clearly they should be reliant on them rather than the state, it gets worse.

Gaffney is nonetheless far too kind to Miliband, as it's transparent why this policy was picked out from the 28 recommendations made by the IPPR report.  Labour couldn't possibly announce they were intending to increase JSA payments to those who've been in work for 5 years, regardless of the welcome reintroduction of the contributory principle, without at the same time taking away from somewhere else.  Hence the young predictably get it straight in the neck, for the exact reasons we've gone over countless times beforeThe spin to the Graun and the rest of the press gave the game away, making a policy which isn't quite as draconian as it seems once you look into it out to be Labour getting tough on the supposed "something for nothing" culture.

Such is the way the debate on welfare must now be conducted.  It doesn't matter how many contradictions there are when it comes to the public's view on welfare, with so many ignorant of the actual rates and amount of fraud, making it wholly unsurprisingly 72% take the view it doesn't reward those who've paid in adequately (which JSA doesn't, it must be said), or how those on one particular benefit are often convinced those on a separate scheme are playing the system, it seems the only way to propose a positive change is to at the same time make a negative one.

We shouldn't forget either this comes at a time when the welfare system is in utter chaos, with Labour doing next to nothing to pin Iain Duncan Smith down for his spectacular failings.  As the memo leaked to the BBC makes clear, the JSA system of sanctioning and various workfare schemes has reached such proportions many are being driven onto Employment and Support Allowance as a result.  ESA correspondingly is costing more than expected, and the backlog of cases keeps on growing, with the same problems affecting the new personal independence payment scheme.  Universal credit is a complete joke, having been "reset" and "recast" as an entirely new project, while the work programme remains one which simply doesn't.

The shame here is most of the other recommendations from the IPPR's Condition of Britain report are worthy (PDF), if we gloss over the national citizen service target and yet further attempts to get back to work schemes on track.  Especially important would be devolving powers over housing benefit to councils, and while "neighbourhood justice panels" sound ominous, promoting restorative justice locally could help bring back some faith in the system.  Miliband for his part again spoke of the reality of low skilled work not giving a sense of fulfilment, let alone managing to pay the bills, exactly the sort of message which could, should resonate.  Still though we then get other shadow ministers, like Chuka Umunna on Newsnight, saying this was really about "plugging people in to the global economy", which sounds like something a more deranged George Osborne would like to do to disobliging paups.  When they can't seem to decide what the narrative (ugh) is, and when they're so convinced they have to follow the Tory lead, why should anyone so much as slightly sympathetic to Labour take their apparently good motives at face value?

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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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Tuesday, June 03, 2014 

For real?

If, like me, you've found yourself wondering at some point if everyone else has suddenly gone completely and utterly batshit crazy, only to discover that in fact you're the one foaming at the mouth while singing Reach for the Stars by S Club 7 to yourself in the style of Marlene Dietrich, it ought to be reassuring to know politics is currently going through one of those moments.

You see, they've reached that sad, lonely place where they realise it's not them, it's us. Thank heavens for progress. Only they haven't figured out why it is they can't quite capture that UKIP/Farage sparkle, and the advice they're getting isn't up to much either. Is it policies? Is it general anger at the political class? Is it a protest? Is it because we ain't like the common people? Is it some of us are a bit weird? Is it we can't eat bacon sandwiches without being photographed getting in a mess? Is it lack of authenticity, whatever that is? Is it some of us are just a bit, well crap?

The answers to which are, yes, yes, yes, no, no, no, no and yes.  Without wanting to pick on John Harris again, as he is one of the few commentators who does go out into the real world, this sudden focus on why it is UKIP are seemingly being listened to while all the rest are derided and insulted is to miss the point by about the same distance England will miss winning the World Cup.  No one seriously looks at Nige and says, "Blimey guv, I'd really like it if that Nick Farage was prime minister, he'd sort this country out and no mistake," not least because no one talks like that outside of Private Eye parodies, but also down to how it's the message not the person that's key.  Farage says the only way to control immigration is to get out of the EU; the rest of the parties umm and arr and sort of defend and sort of don't or worst of all, set down ridiculous, completely unrealistic targets they knew could never be kept and then act surprised when voters show their displeasure at the ballot box.

Talking straight isn't a new thing, believe it or not.  It's also something impossible for a politician to always do for a whole myriad of reasons, not least because there are some things voters just don't want to hear and can only come to accept over time.  That's a normal human trait, for all you subscribers to the authenticity trope.  Farage and UKIP knew they couldn't manage it if they strayed beyond immigration and Europe in general, which is precisely why they talked of absolutely nothing else for the past couple of months.  What's more, the media let them get away with it, enjoying the novelty of this otherwise pompous man, pint invariably in hand, getting more support than the rest of the dessicated suit wearing piles of flesh.  Sure, they went after the bedroom ragers, and a fat lot of good that did.

Outside of this comfort zone Farage's "emotional, instinctive politics" quickly becomes exceedingly boring, as those who forever bang on about the same subject in exactly the same style invariably do (thanks to you know who you are, to whom this will no doubt sound familiar).  Yet for some bizarre reason, and on this John Harris is dead right, the supposedly smart people who often act as if they are unbelievably thick think the way to get some of the UKIP fairy dust is to suddenly hitch up in a pub and pull a few pints for the cameras.  It's David Cameron, jacket off in a room of factory workers, asked the same planted questions over and over again.  It's Ed Miliband, pilloried for not remembering the name of the local Labour leader in Swindon by the same media which has tried its darnedest to paint him as a geek.

If anything, rather than it being snobbery there's more than a smidge of the inverse variety in some of the criticism.  We can all rally against the inanity and stark emptiness of slogans like "hard-working Britain better off" or the Tories' egregiously similar "for people who want to work hard and get on", but this suggestion people are turned off because politicians don't talk in the exact way they do is ridiculous.  Of far more concern is that they're still not being listened to, despite everything. In his Buzzfeed (proof if any more was needed the internet does make you stupid) interview Ed Miliband relates an anecdote about a man who was so desperate at not being able to make ends meet he had thought about killing himself; as Hopi says, without it necessarily reflecting badly on either Miliband or the interviewer, that's all we're told.  We don't know what happened to the man, whether he managed to increase his hours, whether Miliband told him to seek help, or how Ed responded at all.  Telling someone you've thought of ending it all takes courage, and yet it's treated almost as a throwaway line rather than a real human interest story.

This more than anything gets to the heart of why Miliband has failed to connect, and also why politicians at times seem alien.  Without doubt Miliband responded with the utmost compassion to the man's plight, and yet we didn't learn anything more about it.  We hear diatribes against scroungers regularly, the attempt to draw dividing lines between "workers and the shirkers", while we hear next to nothing about those who have suffered and those who still are.  When the only cases made for immigration are cold, economic ones, or based around those who came here in the decades past, we ignore those settling here now who are fleeing oppression and are unbelievably thankful we remain an open, welcoming society.  It's not therefore surprising when someone who says what he believes and tackles apparently "unsayable" subjects gets support, as so few others are prepared to set out in personal terms why government policy or the current economic situation is intolerable.  No one wants politicians to be exactly like them, all they want is for them to do more than go through the motions.  Even if that's unfair, and it probably is, that's the perception.  The good thing is this means the problem is far easier to fix than is being suggested by those panicking.  Considering the crap we have to work with though, it's anyone's guess whether it happens.

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Monday, May 26, 2014 

About as informative as Eurovision.

Taking the results of the European elections too seriously, in this country at least, is about as worthwhile as looking for deeper meaning in the corresponding voting in the Eurovision song contest.  Did the continent vote for Conchita Wurst because his was the best song, or because he's a drag artist with a luxuriant beard? Was his victory in fact a strike against Russia, for tolerance and peace, or simply down to how there's nothing quite like a novelty act?

Who knows, and who cares.  As for our own verdict, it was revealed the day after Wurst only came out on top due to the jury vote, as those calling in overwhelmingly favoured the Polish entry, notable only for its pneumatic butter churners. Either the Polish population voted e nmasse, or a whole lot of British men are truly that led by their dicks. Sadly, the latter seems the more likely explanation.

We have then been duly shaken by the UKIP earthquake, with some stirred up a hell of a lot more than others. I'm having problems getting too worked up, first as the results tell us even less than the locals did, and second as it was all too predictable. Labour always does poorly; the right always does well; and if they're lucky a fourth party makes something that looks approximate to a breakthrough. This time we haven't so much as had that, not even the not shock of the Lib Dem collapse telling us anything we didn't know already.

Farage himself described it as being an opportunity to land a free hit, and for once he couldn't have been more right. Reporting on what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg is all but non-existent, for the very good reason no one's interested. Considering we seem to be turning into a country where disengagement with politics is such many wear their ignorance with pride, the idea most voted on anything other than the broadest of strokes or tribal loyalties simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Some are after all trying to suggest great shifts on the basis of a 36% overall turnout, still less than it was a decade ago. When Blair won a comfortable majority in 2005 with a 35% share of the vote on a 61% turnout plenty went on about the inequities of our electoral system; UKIP winning a 27% share, impressive as it is for a fourth party, is hardly the stuff of nightmares.  Also needing separating out is the places where the surge for UKIP is clearly down to immigration, such as Boston, Great Yarmouth and Thanet South, with the party getting above or close to 50% of the vote, and those areas where it is just lashing out or Tory voters going further right, as they have before.

Lovely as it would be to think a solid proportion of the British public have suddenly come round to the idea of creative destruction, voting for a party not interested in doing much other than collecting expenses and being generally unpleasant, the more prosaic explanation is the one fingered by Flying Rodent. The European elections give those bothered enough the opportunity to show their true colours, and it isn't pretty. For every person voting for the UKIPs because they are worried about immigration and how they've been lied to, concerned at the pace of change and loss of identity, as the more earnest academics and politicos insist, there are another 9 who voted Farage precisely because they think the country's been going downhill since the Windrush docked.  Moreover, we have two newspapers pushing that view day in day out, with another couple sympathetic towards it, regardless of how the Sun last week suddenly decided Farage was just a teensy bit racist.

Clearly, the main parties have to do a fuck of a lot more to persuade that one voter they understand their concerns. They need to stop pretending they can control immigration and make the case for it in terms of benefits it gives our own citizens, while at the same time acknowledging the pressure it has brought on housing and jobs. Labour has tried to do this with its work on zero hour contracts, the minimum wage and rent, something yet to have an impact, mainly because they've shied away from making clear the connection with the I word. They should have also attacked Farage personally at the same time, rather than his party's basement dwellers.

For in spite of the shameless spin from the right-wing press over the weekend, these were encouraging if not outstanding results for Labour. Anything over 300 seats in the local elections was a good result, something they achieved, while coming ahead of the Tories in the Euros wasn't guaranteed. Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll ought to give the party real hope, and Miliband himself can't possibly have as bad a campaign as he did again. The Lib Dems by contrast look doomed, and finally seem to have realised how deep a hole they've got themselves in, just as the Tories have apparently decided to fight the general election on personality rather than policies. UKIP can't be dismissed as a mere distraction, but will fall if/when pushed hard enough. Overreacting is precisely what Farage is betting on. Whether the Tories fall into his trap again remains to be seen.  Everyone else should surely have learned not to by now.

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Friday, May 23, 2014 

12 month warning.

Local elections generally aren't supposed to offer much insight as to what will happen at a general election. This time round that doesn't ring quite as true, while the results also aren't telling us anything we shouldn't already know. Confused?

The media certainly have been. This morning they were frotting the UKIPs more than a Jack Russell with priapism does the nearest leg. Breakthrough! Earthquake! Surge! 12 hours on and it turns out they were a little premature: yes, 155 seats is an impressive result, and clearly the party is taking votes from everyone, not just the Tories or the BNP. Compare it to their result last year though, when they won a 23% share, on a day when there were no other elections to motivate their supporters, and dropping back to 17% doesn't suddenly look so conquering. No doubt their counter argument would be if you strip London out of the equation it would look very different, while becoming the main opposition on a couple of councils is exactly the bedrock they need to challenge for seats as Westminster.


Well, maybe. Problem for the Faragists is these were elections practically made for the party. They've had weeks of publicity, the two debates with Clegg gave him an advantage the other minor party leaders would have killed for, and up until last Friday no one had so much as bothered to call him as opposed to the party's social media pink oboe players on their innate xenophobia/casual racism. If the party fails to win the European elections outright, as now seems more likely than it did before, 2013 could yet turn out to be their peak.

Not that this lets the big three off the hook, or means the UKIPs couldn't play havoc next year without winning a seat. In a campaign dominated by immigration Labour didn't want to so much as mention the word. Yes, the party's probably on a hiding to nothing whether it broaches the subject or not, but to let Farage get away for so long with his Romania-baiting was unbelievably stupid. People are opposed to immigration in general, not to specific groups, unless that is they're in the man's own image. If the Tories are still the nasty party, what on earth does that make the UKIPs?

Equally bizarre have been some of the responses as to why UKIP has succeeded and where the main parties have been going wrong.  From which planet do you have to be for Farage to look and sound more human than the rest of the political class?  Granted, when that class includes Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone and Grant Shapps, who more resembles Edd the Duck minus the intelligibility than he does your average homo sapiens it's not always difficult, but really?  Are some honestly falling for the whole a-fag-and-a-pint, whoops missus look out for that immigrant act, or is it they're voting for a party presented as being a safe protest and who've been hyped as no fourth party has been before?  Also popping out of Tory mouths has been welfare reform, which correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think I've heard a single person so much as mention as being one of the issues urgently needing more work.

The overriding message is the same as it has been since the crash, arguably since 2005.  Not just a plague on all your houses, but a veritable Old Testament series of pestilences, one after another.  Overall turnout yesterday looks to have been around the standard 35% mark, suggesting it's the same old people who always vote who are engaged, whether they've swapped parties or not, with the rest either not interested or more realistically, fed up with the whole pantomime.  Labour and the Tories are essentially stuck in stalemate, and when both have similar overall policies, even if the differences would be major for those at the margins, it shouldn't come as a surprise.  The polls have been telling us this now for a good few months, with yesterday's shares just reinforcing it.  Come next year the Lib Dems will no doubt recover somewhat, perhaps swapping positions with UKIP; it still won't be enough to get politics out of the muddle it's fallen into.  Personally, I'll be more than happy with a Labour minority government.  If everyone else isn't, here's the 12-month warning.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014 

Between the doomers and the Milibelievers.

The obvious, arguably only response to two polls showing a Tory lead for the first time in two years is to put your panic trousers on.  To some this is only what they've expected and long predicted. The "Milibelievers" have been living in a dream world, a comforting place now infiltrated by the twin monsters of past economic failure and lack of leadership projection. With the economy growing, even if the recovery isn't being felt much beyond the south east, only for so long could Labour live off the general unpopularity of the coalition and the emphasis on the cost of living. If anything, Labour should be grateful for the rise of the UKIPs: without Farage's party, now regularly polling at around the 15% mark, the Tory lead would likely be even more crushing.

Scarily, even if just this once, Labour's doomers might have something resembling a point.  You can make all the usual, valid points about outlier polls, margins of error, how on Sunday YouGov had the party with a 7 point advantage over the Tories, it just being a blip and so on and so forth, it doesn't alter the fact that the gap has been steadily lessening.  Yes, everyone knew the Conservatives would make up ground as the general election approached, as they always have; that they have done so prior to elections it was thought they would do badly in, and probably still will, all things considered, is a major surprise.  Last month's 6 point lead in the Graun/ICM series was probably boosted a little by the Maria Miller factor, and while the Tories still have to increase their share of the vote on last time to have any hope of getting a majority in parliament, something not achieved since 1974, an outright Labour victory also looks unlikely.

Most of these worries will be played down in precisely these terms, and besides, with a year still to go anything could happen (more on which in a minute).  The one finding that stands out from the Graun poll which can't be so easily explained away is the transformation in attitude towards George Osborne.  Lest we forget, just less than 2 years ago he was being booed by the crowd at the Paralympics, and for long periods since has been about as popular as a musical on the X Factor endorsed by Mr Cowell himself.  With the budget well received, despite not doing much other than bribing those likely to vote with their own money, Osborne is now, incredibly, seen as doing a better job than David Cameron is.  He gets a +5 score, compared to Dave's +2.  Ed Miliband by contrast is now somehow seen as putting in a poorer performance than the Cleggster, at -25 compared to Nick's -21.

Apart from further boosting Osborne's already off the scale opinion of himself, it brings into sharp focus how the problem right now is not policies, which for so long were sketches and for the most part still are, with occasional specific promises like getting a doctor's appointment within 48 hours thrown in to add colour, but Miliband himself.  This isn't due to Miliband not having been seen enough, although both he and most other shadow ministers seem to have a tendency to disappear from view for long periods of time for no discernible reason, it's instead down to how many have made their minds up already.  It's not that Ed's a "metropolitan libural" as the likes of Dan Hodges have it, not understanding the average Labour voter, especially when the charge is now being made against all of the political leaders by the UKIPs, it's that he's not different enough.  When someone as establishment as Nigel Farage can pose as a revolutionary, it really shouldn't take much for Ed to position himself as firmly on the side of the dispossessed, vulnerable and struggling to make ends meet.  That he hasn't is down to how Labour under Ed has never decided what it wants to be: the Tories with a slightly kinder face, a position they so often default to, or an actual opposition, against the coalition's running down and belittling of the NHS, welfare state and much else that so many hold dear.  For all his attempts to be radical, and indeed the corresponding attempts by both the Tories and the right-wing press to paint him as a raving Marxist, he's just another Westminster politician, the same old same old.

This isn't a counsel of despair by any means.  Winning the policy battle shows that, in spite of what John Harris wrote last month.  It does however mean Ed's style of leadership has to change, which is presumably why David Axelrod has been brought in.  The difficulty is it might have been left too late, with perceptions now that much harder to shift.  All may yet depend on just how right-wing the Tories go in the face of the challenge from UKIP, with the potential for centrist voters to be turned off by the attempt to woo back defectors to Farage.

Also needing to be factored into the equation is the increasing possibility of a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  The SNP campaign over the last couple of months has amounted to little more than asking everyone whether they want to be governed by Cameron or someone they've chosen themselves, the hardly surprising response being the latter.  The further Labour slip in the Westminster polls, the more the undecided start wondering whether the only way to get a government even slightly responsive to their concerns is by voting yes.  Scottish independence wouldn't mean perpetual Tory government in England and Wales, but it would render the 2015 vote all but void, almost certainly necessitating another general election once Scotland secedes a year later.  It probably won't happen, yet such has been the volatility since the rise of UKIP post the 2012 local elections you wouldn't completely rule it out either.  All the more reason why Miliband and co have to do better, and if these two polls don't end the complacency that's set in, nothing will.

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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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