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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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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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 

Judge actions, not just words.

It's another of those days when you look down the headlines and think, is there really nothing else going on in the world than outrages about who said what to whom, and arguments over whether the threats of one side are more reprehensible than their opponents'?  Well, admittedly, there is, it's just the other big story continues to be Ebola, which is still failing miserably to gain a foothold in the West, whereas it continues to ravage West Africa, killing poor black people, who aren't quite as important.  Also we already seem bored about the siege of Kobani, for similar reasons.

We come then to Lord Freud's comments about disabled people and the minimum wage at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference.  If you completely ignore the context in which he was speaking, then yes, they really are as bad as they look on the surface.  Minister says some disabled people aren't worth the minimum wage!  He must resign forthwith!  Look closer however, and it becomes apparent he was responding to a question from a Tory councillor who related an anecdote about a person who wanted to work but at the same time found it difficult to do so and keep the same entitlement to benefits.  The solution David Scott found was to set him up as a company director, meaning he could do some gardening, get paid for it and not be penalised for doing so.

The conversation is admittedly not conducted in language which everyone would use: Scott talks of the "mentally damaged" not "being worth the minimum wage" and goes on to speak of "them" in a more than slightly patronising, if not outright offensive way.  He is though describing the contradiction between wanting to help the sick and disabled either back into work or to be able to work, and how the system currently immediately ends support once it's deemed someone's capable of holding down a job.  Freud in response mentions universal credit, which to a certain extent is meant to be able to adapt to fluctuations in the number of hours someone works, then agrees with Scott on "there is a small, there is a group ... where actually they're not worth the full wage".

How far Freud is agreeing with Scott on his overall point and just repeating his words is obviously open to interpretation.  He has since apologised on precisely these grounds, saying he shouldn't have accepted the "premise of the question", while making clear the disabled should "without exception" receive the minimum wage.  Certainly, if Freud really does believe a group, however small isn't worth the full wage he can't remain in his position.

Always you should consider a person, or in this instance government's deeds alongside their words.  David Cameron, reasonably enough, said he would take no lectures on looking after disabled people; perhaps though he should take some responsibility for the coalition's woeful record on the work capability assessment and how Iain Duncan Smith insisted everyone needed to go through the system again regardless.  That's not to forget the botched introduction of the personal independence payment system, still causing misery, the closing of more of the Reemploy factories or the impact the "spare room subsidy" has had on the vulnerable.  Also needing to be factored in is how many disabled people have reported feeling under suspicion, such has been the change in mood towards anyone who might be claiming benefits.  The coalition can't take the blame for all the anti-scrounger rhetoric, not least as Labour first encouraged it while in power, but it picked up where they left off.  On your works ye shall be judged, and the Tories and indeed the nice, caring Lib Dems must be.  Harshly.

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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 08, 2014 

The chronicles of Glasgow.

And so to Narnia (surely Glasgow? Ed.) for the Liberal Democrat conference.  For the second year in a row the yellow peril have decamped north of the border, opting not to go somewhere different every 12 months as the other parties tend to, presumably as booking the hall 2 years in a row was the cheaper option.  Never let it be said the Lib Dems don't know how to save money.  Indeed, such has been their dedication to making the most out of old material, at times you could be forgiven for wondering if they weren't just giving last year's speeches again, hoping no one would notice.  Certainly the media wouldn't have done, and with reports of plenty of delegates leaving before Clegg's main speech, the hall apparently less populated than it was for Vince Cable's annual bash-the-Tories-let's-hope-everyone-forgets-we're-propping-them-up oration, neither would most of the party's members.

Give the delegates their due: they've continued to oppose the leadership's worst instincts, defeating the party on airport expansion, much to Clegg's chagrin.  If anything can save the party from being all but wiped out come the election, their sacrifices and dedication just might.  What certainly won't is the strategy, or rather lack thereof emanating from the party's advisers.  They just can't work out why it is Nick is so disliked, especially when Cleggmania reigned for a couple of weeks, and when he's so personable, honest, prepared to apologise for broken promises and all the rest of it.  He's the political leader all the focus groups and people in the street when asked the qualities they most admire are effectively describing, and yet he remains less popular than Ebola.

Perhaps the contempt for Clegg and the Lib Dems in general might just be linked to how the party that once tried to be all things to all people has become disliked for that very reason.  If you're a right-wing Tory then Clegg's mob have prevented the coalition from being truly radical, while if you're a Labour supporter or even vaguely left-of-centre then by the same token they've enabled and supported a right-wing administration that's cut the public sector to the bone, privatised Royal Mail, put in place a Health and Social Care act that opens up the NHS to privatisation as never before, froze benefits and introduced the bedroom tax.  Most pertinent of all, if you were a floating voter last time around and plumped for Clegg, loathing Brown and not trusting Cameron, believing Clegg when he promised a new politics, no more broken promises and all the rest, you really have been taken for a ride.  It isn't just tuition fees, although most will point to it as the most glaring betrayal; it's the whole damn package.

Nor does it help when at the same time as they condemn the Tories as evil for proposing to slash the benefits of the working poor to pay for tax cuts for the well-off and poor old Ed Miliband for his never to be forgotten or forgiven failure to mention the deficit, everyone knows they're actively reaching out to both should there be another hung parliament, as the party itself believes.  It takes some almighty chutzpah for Clegg one moment to be going on alarming about an us vs them mentality, the tribalism of right vs left, swinging at both the other main parties, and then once again making the case for how wonderful coalition is with one of those tribes, as though his party's mere presence makes it all better, "undermining the soulless pendulum".

The voting system, for all its faults, does after all protect the Lib Dems to a certain extent.  While the party seems destined to lose most of the seats where Labour is its main opponent, in the constituencies where it faces off against the Conservatives the choice for those on the left is either the Libs or bust.  With the Tories bound to lose a uncertain percentage of support to the UKIPs, they can afford to be quietly confident about hanging on to around 30 or so seats.  It'll mean the party seeing its number of MPs cut in half sure, but the way polling continues to suggest either a dead heat or slight Labour lead it will likely still mean they hold the balance of power.  The nightmare scenario, outlined somewhat by Norman Lamb, is Labour winning the most seats but coming second in the popular vote to the Tories, while UKIP picks up a token number of seats if that but manages to come third in the popular vote ahead of the Libs.  The right-wing press would duly howl about the illegitimacy of a Lib-Lab coalition, something preventable had they err, supported the alternative vote, and the likely outcome would be a second election sooner rather than later.

This assumes of course enough former Lib Dem voters return to the fold, something not guaranteed by Clegg's address.  While Miliband spoke for over an hour and yet managed to say very little, Clegg had everyone heading for home in 52 minutes, racing through all the reasons why the party has much to be proud about and so should return to their constituencies to await their doom.  Again we heard how the Tories couldn't have stalled the recovery for 2 years without the help of Clegg and Danny Alexander, although he might have phrased it slightly differently, how the raising of the income tax threshold is the greatest single tax initiative of all time, despite how it helps the better off more than it does the poorest, and how the pupil premium has saved the lives of thousands of school children, with teachers and parents coming up to Clegg in the street to thank him.  In spite of the drubbing their anti-populist strategy took in the European elections, Clegg and his party will be resolute in standing up for liberal values, a position less brave than it seems when there's not really that much further their support can fall.

To give Clegg some credit, his speech was probably the best of an extremely poor vintage.  He's spent the week acting like someone who can go no lower, coming across happier and more content with his lot.  There were some exceptionally dodgy parts, mostly the guff about opportunity all but required by diktat and the parts about "vested interests" where he seemed to be channelling Tony Blair, but this was outweighed to a point by the announcement on mental health services, which if followed through on has the potential to be something resembling a legacy for him.  Sure, his portrayal of the Liberals as the only people who can possibly be fair to society while also strengthening the economy is completely putrid when his proposal is for the same 80/20 ratio of cuts to tax rises as the coalition has been pushing through, still leaving the country in the dark to just how savage the next round of cuts will have to be, but at least it's a start.  His and his party's chief problem is most people made their minds up long ago.  And as the rise of the UKIPs has demonstrated, something akin to realism and shallow decency aren't the sellers they once were.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014 

It's about Farage, not Carswell.

Quirky is one way of describing Douglas Carswell.  Giving a bad name to all the perfectly respectable swivel-eyed loons out there is another, rather more accurate one.  He was certainly far closer to Dan Hannan than Boris Johnson on the libertarian scale of just how out there you can be and still stay in the Tories, and duly, despite a "few sleepless nights", he's off to join the good ship UKIP.

The first obvious criticism to make when that rare thing, an MP resigning only to stand again in the subsequent by-election on a different platform or principle happens, is self-indulgence.  This was thrown at David Davis when he stood down over 42 days detention, and clearly annoyed the Tory leadership despite Cameron just about managing to swallow his pride and campaign for the man he challenged for the leadership.  To give Carswell some credit, he has long campaigned for political reform and the public recall of MPs, a perfectly reasonable measure but one I've always felt could be triggered too easily by single issue campaigners under the system proposed by those pushing for it.

All the same, to stand down and trigger a by-election now, when we are only about 8 months away from the general election doesn't exactly speak of concern for the public purse.  Had he wanted to, Carswell could still have defected and hung on in his seat until the general election, then stand for UKIP.  Indeed, it would probably give him the best possible chance of remaining the MP, seeing as he will now face two votes within the space of 8 months.  He could easily win the by-election, only to lose his Clacton seat next year once the Tories have had time to build their candidate up in the constituency.

This isn't about Carswell though, it's about UKIP, Farage and keeping the party in the headlines right up until the election.  Give the party's adviser Patrick O'Flynn his due, the former Express hack knows both how to time their announcements and how to keep the illusion of pressure up on the Tories.  If making it the same day as the latest immigration figures were published wasn't coincidence, the rise of net migration to 243,000, just the 143,000 above the Tories' target, it couldn't have put their raison d'etre back on the agenda better.  With the media still more than happy to fluff Farage, despite his anointment as candidate for South Thanet guaranteed weeks ago, you can't help but wonder whether the Liberal Democrats are going to be left struggling with the Greens for attention, at least until everyone remembers at best UKIP might, emphasis on the might, pick up 1 or 2 seats next May.

Nor should Carswell get re-elected will he be the first UKIP MP, considering Bob Spink's defection to the party in 2008.  More important is proving Farage right in his prediction the party will pick up seats, or can win at least once, not having managed to do so in all the previous by-elections.  The party must be fairly confident he can take his support with him, as losing would be a humiliation; recoverable from certainly, but the kind of setback Farage has previously said could "puncture their bubble".

The other motive presumably is to put the same idea in the heads of other Eurosceptic Tory MPs, suggesting they too could defect and still keep their seats, being as right-wing as in their dreams, supporting their former party on a case-by-case basis.  It's why the Tories will throw as much at the campaign as they can, hoping they can make the best of a bad situation.  As for Labour, it's a dream: the Tories tearing themselves apart over an issue the public are only exercised about by proxy.  It will also split the vote in Clacton: unlikely as it is they could pick the seat up as a result, it will put under scrutiny the claim from both academics and UKIP alike that they pose as much of a threat to Labour.  Interesting times, at least for us politics nerds, are ahead.

(P.S. There's a simple reason I'm not on Twitter, or Facebook for that matter.  They're not for me.  I really appreciate the kind words about yesterday's post nonetheless.)

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014 

Run for the hills.

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014 

When presenting failure as success works.

You furnish decay with innocent hands.  You furnish decay with polymer down.

Politics is a strange, constantly changing, always the same business.  There are times when you can present failure as success and get away with it, and there are times when you can claim failure when you've succeeded and get pilloried for it.  You can travel across Europe, get the signature of a world leader that condemns an entire country and be feted for ensuring peace (at least for a few months), or you can go to Brussels, be completely humiliated, shown up as having precisely no influence over anything, and yet be cheered to the rafters by your backbenchers and most of the media as though you didn't just stop someone unsuitable from becoming EU commission president, but put a lance through their bowel in the bargain.

This is the really odd thing about David Cameron: for all the insults liberally thrown at Ed Miliband, about being weak, a loser, a nerd, weird, by rights the two former jibes should have stuck to our glorious prime minister.  Ever since he went to the Eurozone summit back at the tail end of 2011 and wielded the veto, achieving precisely zilch other than further isolating Britain in Europe, his policy on the EU has been one flub after another, yielding to his backbenchers in a way that would have seen his predecessors condemned as vacillating pygmies.

Pressured by growing discontent at his leadership, he promised an in/out referendum in 2017 following a successful re-negotiation of our role in the EU, believing giving a set in stone pledge would buy off his more intransigent critics.  Instead, as was wholly predictable, they've kept on pushing, trying repeatedly to hold the next government to account by forcing the referendum on to the statute book despite it being utterly futile.  Nor did it have the other desired effect of showing UKIP voters the only way to be sure of a vote is to support the Tories; again, if anything, it's just pushed those already disposed to wanting out to plump for Farage.  Cameron insists he wants us to stay in, after all.  Why would they be bought off with half measures?  To complete the trifecta, it hasn't trapped Labour either, Miliband refusing to promise a referendum when there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with, and when staying in is so obviously in our interests.

If another aim was to make it clear to the rest of Europe we could leave, causing concern leading to  continental leaders becoming more amenable to to Tory demands, that's gone for the birds as well.  And no wonder, as the only way most Eurosceptics know how to communicate is through abuse.  Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker is, he's not the most dangerous man in Europe, that old formulation given life yet again by the Sun.  When the Germans, otherwise sympathetic to Cameron and desperate to ensure we don't leave do a volte face and support Juncker, it's not just down to Angela Merkel coming under domestic pressure, it's also in part due to our counter-productive attempts at lobbying, or more accurately described, that odd mixture of threatening and pleading.

We are then according even to Cameron one step closer to the exit.  Juncker's presidency of the Commission will make the re-negotiation more difficult.  Understandably, the likes of Bill Cash and Edward Leigh lap it up, unconcerned at how the exit happens so long as it does.  Nor does the obvious weakness of a British prime minister concern those it would normally excise deeply.  It also doesn't bother them how the increasing likelihood of leaving the EU could affect the Scottish independence referendum, when the SNP have been campaigning on the basis of being a welcoming country, wanting to be an active member of the EU, calling for more immigration rather than less.  The dismay of the vast majority of the business community is something else that can be shrugged off, especially when Labour is seen with such suspicion.

On almost any other issue Cameron would have been filleted had he talked so big and ended up achieving so little.  When the level of debate about the EU is so wonderfully summed up by the classlessness of UKIP MEPs turning their backs in parliament though, the kind of political gesture that would make fifth-formers look like idiots, it just doesn't get through the dissonance.  A man who supposedly wants us to remain in a reformed Europe gave into the demands of his want out MPs at the first sign of trouble, and on every occasion since has multiplied the magnitude of his original error.  If the Tories win in 2015, a huge if, he faces the nightmarish prospect of having to bargain and cajole those he and other members of the cabinet have insulted, knowing it could end up in a choice between putting either the interests of the country or himself as Tory party leader first.  Going by his past decisions, it's not difficult to ascertain which option he'd go for.

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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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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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Thursday, November 21, 2013 

Vote blue, get crap!

You can somewhat see the logic behind "a senior Tory source" being given the OK to brief the Sun and the Mail that our dear PM said it's time to "get rid of all this green crap." Forced into a corner by Ed Miliband's conference speech, and apparently unprepared to go after the big six energy companies for putting up energy prices year after year, the quick fix appeared obvious: dump the subsidies for green energy and the vulnerable which appear on the bill and instead fund them out of general taxation. You'll still pay, you just won't have it pointed out in black and white every quarter. As the source said, it's no longer vote blue, go green, it's vote blue, get real!

Choosing to brief the Sun, which has long since lost its short-lived enthusiasm for all things green due to the sad defenestration of James Murdoch, with Keith never missing an opportunity to tweet about how wonderful fracking is, and the equally antediluvian Mail with Dave's new creed was just bound to lead to positive coverage. Right? Well yes, except for how it pretty much represents the final renunciation of everything he and his supposedly changed party were meant to be for prior to the 2010 election. You can make a case that the coalition's welfare reforms are at least partially about fixing the "broken society" we heard so much about before the election and almost nothing about since, but no one can argue with a straight face the big society has amounted to anything. It was always hysterical that the Tories, plenty of whom are unconvinced climate change is man-made would be the "greenest government ever", yet Cameron went as far as to change the party's damn logo to a tree, not to mention put a mini wind turbine on his house. To abandon it all leaves the equivalent of a gaping hole in the middle of his head.

Little wonder then even ConservativeHome is wondering exactly what Dave is for.  We should perhaps mention Downing Street are denying Dave specifically said the words attributed him by both the Mail and the Sun, but seeing as Cameron and friends have been touting reducing the green levies for a good few weeks now, it hardly seems the source made up the colourful line for exaggerated effect.  Rather, it reflects both the strategy we're told Lynton Crosby has advised, the scraping of "the barnacles off the boat", getting rid of extraneous policies that distract from all those marvellous things the coalition has achieved, such as reducing the deficit (currently £53bn higher than Osborne had planned it to be by this point), welfare reform (don't mention universal credit), immigration controls (net migration nowhere near the promised reduction to under 100,000 a year) and better schools (so long as you want your children to go somewhere that resembles a prison), and Cameron's gambit of saying the smaller state is a good thing, and that you really can do more with less.

Like with the interesting decision by Danny Alexander to say the coalition couldn't have achieved economic stagnation for three years without his party's input, it's certainly one strategy.  The problem is, just as there's little evidence for a shift to the left among the wider public, although Miliband's conference speech undoubtedly brought us towards today, the idea that by returning to their traditional core themes the Conservatives are likely to see their decline arrested simply doesn't stand up.  Despite some of the more old school Tory MPs believing they would have won outright in 2010 if Cameron hadn't gone in for hugging huskies and all the rest, the real problem was, as Nick Boles this week admitted, most people don't believe the party has changed.  They still see it as the party of the rich, policies such as getting rid of the 50p top rate of tax at the first possible opportunity hardly doing much to alter the perception.

More prosaically, to go in the space of 3 years from telling people to vote blue to go green to saying that was a load of crap is just ever so slightly taking the electorate for fools. As Zac Goldsmith tweeted, apparently having heard it in a Westminster tea room, if Cameron can drop something that was so central to his image, he can drop anything.  The point surely though is that Cameron enjoys relative popularity despite not really standing for anything.  Newsnight earlier in the week asked whether Miliband would inspire an ism like Thatcher and Blair, skipping over how Cameron has (so far) failed to.  Cameron does resemble Blair, but only in how during Labour's first term our Tone was Teflon Tony, with nothing sticking to him.  By abandoning the last thing we were meant to think he believed in, Cameron really ought to hope events don't conspire to paint him in a far less attractive light.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013 

We all know what happens to people who stand in the middle etc.

To get a sense of the current flights of fancy afflicting some Lib Dems, you only need to see Ed Davey worrying about how the party might need to introduce all-women shortlists after 2015 to increase their miserable number of female MPs. You might have thought they should be more concerned about the number of MPs they'll have in total after the election, but such is the apparent belief that regardless of how bleak the polls look, everything will be all right on the night.

After all, this time round it won't be the other party leaders agreeing with Nick, it'll be him agreeing with him.  Or so went the feeble joke in his truly dismal keynote speech, Nick agreeing that Dave only cares about the rich while Ed is too irresponsible to be trusted with the economy.  Just as Danny Alexander seems to have found an interesting electoral strategy in saying that the Tories couldn't have kept the economy stagnating for three years without them, so it seems Clegg has decided that the voters will come streaming back if he realigns his party as being the ultimate moderating factor.  They'll be dead centre on the political spectrum, preventing Labour from going too far to the left and the Tories to the right!  Why, just look at what they've stopped the Tories from doing so far!

To give them some credit, Clegg's list of 16 policies they've halted isn't entirely without merit.  His putting his foot down probably has meant the Human Rights Act still exists, that Michael Gove hasn't got entirely his own way as education secretary, although frankly the damage is fairly devastating as it is, and Liz Truss hasn't managed to turn the nation's playgroups into the Ayn Rand School for Tots.  It's that what they've gone along with has been far worse: the axing of the 50p top rate of tax, which the party this week endorsed; the outrageous waste of time and money which was the reorganisation of the NHS; the bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy, as only the government calls it) where 50% of those affected are now in arrears; the scraping of the Future Jobs Fund and the support for the spectacularly useless Work programme as its replacement; and most grievous of all, the backing to the hilt of George Osborne's austerity plan, which will now not end until 2018 at the earliest.  Tim Farron, the party's chairman and supposed conscience even has the gall to claim that the recovery wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for them.

Having abandoned all the positions that made them different to the Tories and Labour, most recently deciding that our "independent nuclear deterrent" is worth keeping after all, just with one less submarine to help cut costs and salve previously troubled minds, all Clegg's left to argue is that his party isn't quite as bad as the other two and this is exactly why it deserves to stay in government.  It seems to work, just about, with the Lib Dem faithful, much as telling people how fantastic they are and how brilliant the stuff they've achieved is does in the short term.  As for everyone else, you can't help but think the party is going to soon get an extremely rude awakening.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013 

Is that the sound of gunfire?

There's something almost touching about the general mood prevailing at the Liberal Democrat conference up in Glasgow.  For a party that is still looking electoral oblivion in the face, they seem to have managed to convince themselves that things will be fine. Really. Honestly. Everything will turn out okay in the end. 

To be fair for at least a couple of sentences, their reasoning isn't completely irrational.  Buoyed by the victory in the Eastleigh by-election, which seemingly proved that local organisation and popularity will trump the vote nationally, they're fairly confident that they can hold on in at least their Tory marginal seats.  This appears to be backed up by Lord Ashcroft's latest batch of polls in those constituencies (which also suggests Labour have increased their lead where they need to win, despite Ashcroft saying the results make him slightly more optimistic for his side's chances), and combined with the changing economic weather, those who have always favoured the coalition have something resembling a message to make about all the pain having been worth it.

Except, if you so much as bother to look slightly more broadly, the positives are clearly outweighed by the negatives.  About the only policy contribution the public look positively on is the rise in the personal allowance, and even then less than half think they deserve credit for it.  If I wanted to be completely factitious I'd suggest this is because it's always been a policy that looks good in principle but doesn't work as well in practice, especially when a cut in VAT would be more progressive, but more likely is that people, regardless of their party allegiance, are simply turned off by the party the Lib Dems have become.

For if there's one that goes in their favour, it's that they still talk a good game.  There's something to be said for seeing ordinary delegates speak for their motions (Sure you don't want to rephrase that? Ed.) on the news bulletins, like the Tories and Labour also did prior to their discovery that party democracy means splits and differences of opinion and both are Very Bad Things Indeed.  The problem for them is that having said these things, they promptly do the opposite when it comes down to it.  Having done nothing to stop the secret courts bill from becoming law, they've now decided they're against it.  The same seems certain to happen with the proposed "default on" filtering of internet pornography; they voted it down, but they hardly seem likely to make a stand on it within government.  Now according to a leaked email they want the rich to pay more in tax (although apparently almost double the average wage doesn't make you well off), despite having, err, went along with the ideological decision by George Osborne to cut the 50p rate before it had a chance to prove its potential worth just a year ago.

The veritable king of this approach is the man once referred to as the sage of Twickenham, the oracle himself, Vince Cable.  Like the many who have gone before him, briefly intriguing the media, Vince seems to have began to believe his own hype.  And just as they gradually turned into their adversaries, so Cable is morphing bit by bit into Gordon Brown. Every year dear old Gordie used to go to conference and deliver a speech that gave the impression he could do a better job than our Tone, and so too now does Cable. Nothing was too hypocritical for him yesterday, as he set about reprising the nasty Tories riff, denouncing their approach to immigration, benefits, and the trade unions to name but three.  All true, naturally, but just a bit redundant when you're either facilitating those policies or doing nothing whatsoever to stop or alter them.  Nor does it reflect well on him when he doesn't seem to have the courage of his convictions. Regardless of whether or not Clegg engineered a vote on economic policy to trap him, speaking up for continued intervention then voting with the party rather than staying away as he planned looks pathetic.

It does however make more sense than the actual party line, which is to claim equal credit for the "recovery". Saying the Tories couldn't have done it on their own is certainly one strategy, but it isn't one you'd recommend unless electoral suicide is the ultimate goal. The hope presumably is that by the election most will have forgotten the three years of stagnation and drift and be optimistic for the future instead. This rather forgets that it's thanks to the flatlining economy that austerity will continue well into the next parliament. Cable's warnings about the type of recovery we're seeing would surely be the correct line to take, yet he's been dismissed as talking nonsense by the same man who wants to share the blame with Dave 'n' George.

The same thinking is behind the "compromise" which will see the Lib Dems claim credit for funding free school meals for primary school students while the Tories get their marriage tax allowance. Decent and praiseworthy policy as a free lunch for kids is, it's hardly worth going along with the Tory bung to the middle classes for. The Tories will simply claim they came up with both, while Clegg and friends will be saddled with a backwards looking piece of bourgeois social engineering.

Lib Dem strategy is built around the belief that this sort of compromise, however unpopular, will stand the party in good stead if another hung parliament ends up being the result of the next election.  This rather ignores just how this particular coalition has put people off them, and yet still the rhetoric is that without their influence, either Labour would ruin the "recovery" or the Tories would go off the deep end into out and out social conservatism.  Dislike it as they may, "coalition" is not going to be an option on the ballot paper.  By abandoning all pretence of winning a majority, despite the prospect being unthinkable, the Lib Dems encourage the belief that their manifesto won't be worth the paper it will be printed on (even more so than already).  Three years ago it seemed as though the party was going to make a true electoral breakthrough.  It didn't, but still gained some semblance of power.  We shouldn't be surprised in two years' time if the predicted by some but scorned by others wipeout becomes reality. 

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