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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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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