Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, November 20, 2014 

The speed of stupid.

It's hard to disagree with Chris when he writes of a turn away from politics.  Not in the sense of apathy, but in how so many appear incapable of seeing the wood for the trees.  Never has it been so possible to fully immerse yourself in politics, and yet many of those who chose to do so spend much of it squabbling at the margins.

Take just today's example:  Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweets a picture of a house in Rochester with three England flags adorning the outside.  There's also a white van in the drive.  Image from #Rochester is the message.  Almost instantly she's jumped on for her apparent blatant snobbery, veteran idiot Dan Hodges describes it as "an entire political movement defined by a single tweet", and those whom should know better like Anne Perkins are describing it as Labour's biggest mistake since Ed Miliband stabbed Myleene Klass live on TV (is this right? Ed).

Small things like how Thornberry had already tweeted a photo of a "vote Felix" sign and what ordinary voters had told her under a Tales from #Rochester hashtag obviously don't matter.  Her explanation, that she was surprised by how the flags were blocking a window entirely also makes no odds.  Clearly just a feeble effort from an Islington liberal to deny her own bigotry.  Right on cue, in calls a hopping mad Ed Miliband to reprimand Thornberry for not considering absolutely every possible way her tweet could be interpreted, and the inevitable apology is made.

Which is the key.  Being incredibly loud and not giving in works.  It's why #gamergate is still going on, despite everyone having long since forgotten what it was meant to be about.  It's why Sheffield United have now retracted their training offer to Ched Evans, Julien Blanc was refused a visa, and a real life Nathan Barley received far more attention than his alleged comedy had previously once he became the target for campaigners.  Both left and right can lead a monstering in this brave new world, where tribalism meets narcissism and threats are the most powerful currency.  Forgive me if nihilism seems ever more attractive.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014 

Bringing out the worst.

By-elections in marginal seats always without fail bring out the absolute worst in politicians.  They know full well that in the grand scheme of things i.e., as a guide to what might happen at the general election they're meaningless, and yet still they campaign as though it's the last ballot ever.  Every Conservative MP we're told has been ordered to visit Rochester and Strood 3 times, while cabinet ministers are expected to have made the journey 5 times.  Bizarrely, no one seems to have connected this swamping of the constituency with those lovable rogues from Westminster and the continuing rise in support for UKIP.  Can you imagine just how hellacious it must be to turn one corner and see Michael Gove in all his finery, and then discover Jacob Rees-Mogg further down the road holding forth on the iniquities of EU farming subsidies?  And this has been going on for a month.

24 hours before the vote and the campaign has predictably ended in a battle over whether it's the Tories or UKIP who are going to be nastiest to migrants.  For sure, it's being conducted as though it's truly outrageous Mark Reckless could ever have suggested Poles might be repatriated should the UKIPs' vision of leaving the EU become a reality, while the UKIPs for their part are feigning contempt for Tory candidate Kelly Tolhurst's letter-cum-leaflet which nearly suggests people might not feel safe walking the mean streets of Rochester because of uncontrolled immigration, but let's not kid ourselves here.  The fight over who can move closest to shutting our borders completely without being objectively racist or invoking the old policies of the BNP/National Front has been going on for some time now, and just when you think they've gotten near as damn it, they inch ever nearer.  The "go home" vans were just the start.

Because the by-election is obviously all about immigration, see?  It's all the Tories want to discuss, it's all Labour wants to broach, and err, are the Liberal Democrats bothering to stand a candidate?  Oh, they are.  That's £500 wasted then.  It's also the only topic the media wants to cover, as they can't seem to handle the idea a by-election might be about more than just the one issue, especially when they decided beforehand it was the only thing anyone was interested in.  As Frances Coppola writes, and she's unlucky enough to live in the constituency, even the BBC's local political editor says it's the immigration, stupid, and this in a piece headlined issues beyond immigration and in which she concedes the main topic of discussion on the doorsteps is the local NHS hospital.

Other reporters point towards concerns about the Medway as well and, staggeringly, this might just be why Mark Reckless despite being far less popular than UKIP itself seems to be winning.  It's also no doubt helpful the Conservatives haven't learned anything from the Eastleigh by-election, where it was decided their candidate should try and out-UKIP the UKIPs and came third for her trouble.  Tolhurst if elected will apparently "demand something be done" immediately, although seeing as David Cameron is yet to figure out exactly how to temper free movement without angering business and coming off the worst at the European Commission it's not exactly clear what the tactic will achieve.

Then we have the never knowingly unconfused Labour party.  Last week Ed made great play of how Labour wouldn't pander to UKIP, as once you looked "[at their vision] it is not really very attractive".  This week, first up was Yvette Cooper informing the world one more time it's not racist to be concerned about immigration as she announced yet another new border force, this time complete with shiny uniforms, and then yesterday it was Rachel Reeves' turn.  Apart from the heart sinking at the very mention of the name, it's an odd sort of not pandering to all but agree with the greatest myth of them all, that it's the welfare system attracting EU migrants and not the promise of better paid work, or increasingly, a job at all.

In the name of listening to real concerns people have Labour will prevent migrants claiming out of work benefits until they've paid into the system for two years, an arbitrary period of time if there ever was one, and also stop migrants from claiming child tax credits and child benefit for children back in their home countries.  Reeves also intends to look at migrants claiming tax credits in general, as "it is far too easy for employers in Britain to undercut wages and working conditions ... knowing that the benefit system will top up their income".  The inference seems to be it's fine if Brits have their income topped up in such a way as has become the norm, rightly or wrong, while for migrants it's a subsidy too far.

Quite apart from the obvious problem of basic fairness, one the EU isn't likely to peer kindly on, it once again makes you wonder if the logical next step isn't to extend the same restrictions on JSA to everyone. Small things like how claimants are sanctioned for the slightest alleged "infraction" don't matter, nor does the false economy of reducing so many to relying on food banks, a development Labour has never condemned too loudly, presumably as it has no intention of changing the JobCentre regime.

If as expected UKIP win tomorrow it most likely won't result in the reckoning or further defections some predict.  For a start we're getting too close to next May for there to be any point in more by-elections prior to then, especially when UKIP's real aim has always been to keep the Farage bandwagon rolling on.  Second, if more defections are in the offing, delaying them until nearer the election will damage Cameron and the Conservatives that much more.  Third, it'll go some way towards confirming a pattern: as we saw in Clacton, voters who already favoured their MP aren't too bothered if they move slightly more to the right, especially when most Tory voters are sympathetic to UKIP in the first place.  There was some anger locally at Reckless's betrayal, but if anything Tory support will likely hold up thanks to tactical voting.  Lastly, the sensible will point out how by-elections are always fought on local, rather than national politics.  No doubt however the media and parties both come Friday will be crowing on how it proves immigration is set to dominate next May.

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Monday, November 10, 2014 

The worst of it is Dan Hodges could be right.

There are two main factors behind the shadowy manoeuvrings against Ed Miliband.  The first is the party, riven by the competing personalities of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has never attempted something akin to a proper reconciliation since.  In a sense, what we've seen over the past few days are the attempts made against Brown replayed 5 years on.  Sure, then it was far easier to define just who it was trying to get rid of Gordon, not least as first James Purnell and then Geoff "Buff" Hoon and Patricia Hewitt were all incorrigible Blairites.  They also in fairness to them had the courage to come out and say Gordon was leading the party to certain defeat.  The problem was both they had left it too late to change the leader again, and also there was no one willing to take over anyway, the attempts to get David Miliband to stand against Brown having failed.

When the favoured Miliband then lost the leadership contest to his younger brother, it was no surprise there were ructions from the beginning.  Ed wasn't the continuity Brown candidate, Ed Balls having taken on that role, but he wasn't seen as anti-Brown enough either.  More importantly, he hadn't just thwarted the obviously most electable prospective leader, he'd defeated his own brother.  This of course wasn't taken as evidence of Ed's ruthlessness, rather of his treachery.  Although, having now suffered under 4 years of Ed's leadership, ruthless isn't one of the first adjectives you'd choose to describe it.

Miliband hasn't been a weak leader by the most standard definition, just as David Cameron hasn't been a weak prime minister by the same measure.  Taking on Murdoch, Paul Dacre, speaking against "predator capitalism", calling for an energy price freeze, none are things a cowardly or spineless opposition leader would have done.  If anything, it's his luck that's been out: we are living through a time when the public itself doesn't know what it wants, so confused are the various poll findings, the rise of the UKIPs, the Greens, the SNP.  David Cameron is more popular than his party despite his kowtowing to its worst elements; Ed by contrast is less popular than his party despite embodying Labour's values.  Cameron has the advantage of being prime minister: it's easier to be thought of as being up to the job once you're in it.  That he often comes across as incredibly easy to fluster and wind up, exactly the qualities you don't want from the person set to renegotiate our most important trade relationship doesn't then matter so much.

Ed's biggest mistake has been to not attempt to properly unite the party.  Instead, he did the bare minimum, trying with his speech immediately after winning the leadership to dress old wounds.  He might as well have thrust in a salt coated finger for all the good it did.  The old Blairites hate him for not being David; the right-wing of the party hates him for not hugging closer to the Tories, for not copying their spending plans to the letter; Ed Balls and his supporters (are there any?) hate him for standing in his way; and the left-wing of the party, if there is still such a thing, can't work out why, having done the hard part of standing up to the press, he then hasn't pursued the coalition's beastliness to everyone below the middle.

Atul Hatwal's post over on Labour Uncut is fairly representative of why this is happening and now.  As from the beginning, it's the same complaints: Ed isn't seen as a potential prime minister, and the Tories lead on economic competence because Labour hasn't managed to convince the public they won't revert to tax and spend.   If it was one or the other rather than both, it would be different, but it isn't.  Quite what Labour is supposed to do at this point to try and win back trust on the economy, having apologised plenty of times despite the Tories claiming they haven't, and with Ed Balls promising to match the Tories' spending plans, just with some additional leeway on spending on infrastructure isn't explained, for the reason this isn't really about that.  Dan Hodges admits as much in his Torygraph piece: no one believed in Ed as leader from the outset, for their own specific reasons as summarised above.

The other factor then, 700 words later, is the sheer cowardice of all involved.  And I mean all involved, as neither side wants to do anything other than brief journalists.  None of the 20 shadow ministers desperate to get rid of Ed, if we're to believe the Observer, want to be the first to come out wielding the knife.  Nor do those within the shadow cabinet or even the parliamentary party want to visit TV studios and say I'm backing Ed, except for those forced to do so when confronted at camera point.  Moreover, if the strength of feeling has been running at this level for so long, why postpone it until now, when there simply isn't the time for a replacement leader to bed down, not that one has come forward anyway?  Yvette Cooper is a joke, Andy Burnham would be attacked mercilessly by the Tories over Mid-Staffs, Chuka Umunna isn't ready yet, and Alan Johnson, apart from having been a hopeless minister and shadow chancellor in the past, has enough brains to know a poisoned chalice when it's put in front of him.  That Johnson probably is the best alternative is indicative of the intellectual poverty, not to forget the absolute stupidity of doing this now.  Just as some tried to get John Reid to stand against Gordon Brown, so the moron tendency in Labour thinks all you need to do is stick someone certifiably working class into the leader's chair and everything will be awesome.

All that's changed to trigger this has been Labour's slip in the polls.  Ignore the nonsense about the conference speech as it's just that.  It was bad but ever since it's just been used as the excuse.  The same goes for the Heywood and Middleton by-election, where the Labour share of the vote held up.  Yes, Labour does have its own problems with the UKIPs, just not anywhere near to the same extent as the Tories.  UKIP is clearly not going to end up with the 15+% share of the vote the polls suggest come the election, nor is it likely the SNP will all but wipe out Labour MPs north of the border.  Just as the argument goes Labour can't win the election not trusted on the economy and with a useless leader, neither can the Tories when they need to increase their share of the vote to get a majority.  There is not so much as a smidgen of polling evidence to suggest they can.

2010 was meant to be a good election to lose.  Such has been the success of the coalition that 2015 is now being described in the same way.  Perhaps as Dan Hodges says Miliband needs to lose so Labour can move on.  The problem is whether the voters oblige.

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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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