Thursday, February 04, 2016 

"An extraordinarily nice man to work with" redux.

As an addendum to the recent post on Cecil Parkinson, worth sharing is Private Eye's tribute to the great man.  Which you'll probably have to click on to not strain your eyes.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016 

Cameron's gamble with everyone else's chips.

David Cameron, Matthew d'Anconservative wrote only yesterday, is "like almost every Tory of his generation, a Eurosceptic to his fingertips".  This Eurosceptic to his fingertips, a leader who has at every turn given in to the demands of his backbenchers, has now been served up what can at best be described as very thin gruel in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk's proposed deal on renegotiation.  "Hand on heart", Dave insisted, the deal fulfils the promises made in the Conservative party manifesto.  Presumably with hand still on heart, he also said that if Britain wasn't an EU member and these were the terms on offer to join, he would do so.

Cameron is not and has never been a Eurosceptic.  Above everything else, Cameron has always been an opportunist.  Combined with his belief that through the sheer force of his will and combined animal magnetism he can achieve practically anything, he has made every appearance of being a Eurosceptic while never for a second believing the nonsense spouted by the more virulent within his party.  His move to leave the EPP grouping in the European parliament?  Utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to anyone outside the Tory party, but it helped convinced those uncertain about him that he was truly one of them.  Likewise, his much garlanded wielding of the veto back in 2011 achieved precisely nothing, other than help soothe the tendency within the Tories that regarded his failure to win the 2010 election and necessary coalition with the Lib Dems as little short of treachery.

And yet, each time he refused to call the bluff of his restive MPs, it encouraged them to push for something else.  Finally, in 2013, Cameron gave them what they had long demanded, a referendum on our membership of the EU.  As has been comprehensively proved since, Cameron has never thought for one second that Britain would be better off out.  Cameron is many things, but he's not an idiot.  For every negative, there is a positive. More than anything else, the idea that Britain will somehow manage to get a better deal on exit than either Norway or Switzerland managed having never been members is just as fanciful as the SNP's claim that once independence was won, the rUK would delight in the necessary negotiations on how to share the pound and split oil revenue etc etc.

Whether Cameron honestly believed he would win the majority necessary to hold the referendum we don't know.  Still, once achieved he had to push on, knowing full well that short of bringing back the head of Jean-Claude Juncker on a silver platter the Eurosceptics in his party would moan incessantly about how feeble his renegotiation was.  He did so also knowing full well that the the rest of the EU, dealing with a refugee crisis Cameron refuses to lift a finger to help with over, was not for so much as a second going to offer anything like the concessions on immigration and benefits that have become the proxy for public debate on the EU.

To give Cameron some credit, he has got something that didn't look to be on offer until very recently.  The emergency brake, allowing for the restricting of in-work benefits to EU migrants is roughly analogous to the ban promised in the Tory manifesto.  No one thought for a minute that Cameron would get four years, and while he hasn't quite got that, he's got something similar, albeit tempered by how migrants will get "gradual" access to in-work benefits once they've been paying into the system, probably after a couple of years.  Likewise, on the sending of child benefit to children back in their home countries, he hasn't got an outright prohibition but has won a concession that will mean the benefit will be paid most likely at the same rate as it would be if the claimant was doing so back home.  On fairness if nothing else that passes muster.

Except, of course, this has been a phony war from the beginning.  Cameron and the Tories know that benefits are not a draw for migrants; they come for the jobs and the wages, not to claim.  Every possible effort has been made to prove that benefits are a pull factor for migrants both legal and illegal, and not once has anything approaching conclusive evidence been turned up.  Cameron knew the rest of the EU would never agree to a "brake" on the free movement of labour, and so was reduced to instead attempting to convince the public into believing that rather than it being down to how we were one of only three EU nations that opened our borders in 2005 without restrictions, or to how the British economy has recovered faster than most other EU states post-2008, it's all been about tax credits.  This went alongside the attempt to restrict tax credits overall, since abandoned, meant to be made up for part by the increase in the minimum wage.  Evidence for the minimum wage being a draw is far higher than it is for benefits, so if the aim has partly been to reduce net levels of migration, it's a far bet Cameron's renegotiation will achieve little other than saving the relatively slight amounts currently claimed back in tax credits.

Most of the other concessions, including the "red card" national parliaments could wield against proposed new EU laws if 55% vote against, are relatively minor or were always going to happen when the rest of the EU undoubtedly wants Britain to stay.  Judged against the letter sent to Tusk that started this process, Cameron has got most of what he wanted.  Then again, what he wanted has no connection whatsoever with the "full-on treaty change" or fundamental reworking of our relationship with the EU once promised, and which the more naive Tory backbenchers thought they might get.  The others, those who were always going to treat whatever was served up as not good enough, have a deal they can be justifiably dismissive of.

As for the public, excepting the relative few who go along with the UKIP narrative on loss of sovereignty and the eleventy trillion pounds sent to Brussels every day, most will care only about the impact it has on migration.  Which will be next to none.  To judge by the response to the deal, which has been tepid to say the least, most quite rightly don't give a stuff about the EU.  It's there, it does things, it occasionally impacts on us, but for most it means little other than open borders and free movement of labour, for better, for worse, and that itself is threatened by the aforementioned refugee crisis.  Trying to get people who weren't bothered enough to vote in the general election to interest themselves in a referendum on something relatively arcane and on a day in high summer, should it take place on the "preferred" date of 23rd of June, is going to prove far more challenging than many seem to think.

Which only reinforces the view that Cameron and his relatively slight band of fellow Tories who don't like the EU much but prefer it to the alternative have backed themselves into a corner out of pitiful weakness, and now have to sell their gruel to the country.  Perhaps the thinking is that the engaged, the pro-Europeans versus the Eurosceptics will balance themselves out, leaving Project Fear 2.0 to work its magic on those undecided and who can be bothered to interest themselves.  Perhaps, as Lord Ashcroft's polling and research suggests, Cameron himself can win enough people over by his leading the remain campaign.  Perhaps the fact that the leave campaigners themselves seem to accept they cannot win on immigration alone, and so will have to put their otherwise easily countered and pretty feeble arguments out for public consumption, made by politicians and business leaders no one has much affection for, will count against them.

From this remove, with no solution in sight to the refugee crisis, much that can happen between now and June, and with the voter coalition he formed to win the election liable to be against him on this occasion, Cameron's great gamble looks just as mad and as hostage to fortune as it did three years.  The only real advantage he has, as then, is himself.  If it proves to not be enough, with all it will set in motion, a likely second Scottish independence referendum, inevitable resignation and a country ever more uncertain of its true place in the world, will it have been worth it?

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016 

A bunch of cunts, long to reign over us.

"A bunch of migrants".  According to Anna Soubry, David Cameron's choice of language was nothing more than a unintended, understandable descent into slang.  He clearly meant "a group".  There's one very good reason to believe it wasn't a unscripted sort of gaffe, which we'll come to, but there's also another.  How often exactly does anyone use "a bunch" as a collective noun, other than in a bunch of grapes or bananas, or at the opposite extreme, a bunch of cunts?  More widely used, at least 'round my way, would be "a load".  It smacks of the kind of line written with the intention of sounding like something that an ordinary person would say, except it doesn't, because the prime minister's advisory clique doesn't have the slightest clue what us proles talk like.

Not that it really matters.  The reasoning behind using the line is, sadly, completely sound, which is precisely why it was a scripted attack line.  "A bunch of migrants" is pretty neutral compared to a lot of the discourse around the refugee crisis.  One solution I heard in passing was that they should be forced back into their boats, pushed out to sea, and then sank.  Or shot.  Or sank and shot.  Either way, they were not meant to survive.  Of course, this isn't to be pretend there aren't plenty of bleeding hearts out there as well, or indeed that the man who offered his opinion truly meant it.  When however you have the Road Hauliers Association demanding that the French army be sent to Calais because 50 migrants living in utterly desperate conditions had the temerity to storm a ship, and when you consider that whatever spin the government puts on it, our response to the crisis has been derisory, the equivalent of a middle finger salute to the rest of Europe, regardless of the merits or otherwise of the policies pursued by other states, the level of rhetoric has always been way out of line with the numbers we've taken.

Realise also that if anyone is still getting the blame over immigration/migration, it's Labour.  It doesn't matter that the Conservatives failed utterly with their ridiculous tens of thousands target, nor that in further desperate attempts to keep the numbers down non-EU students are being arrested with the apparent intention of dissuading others from coming to the UK at all, when it comes to the focus groups, they still point the finger at the opposition.  In fact, as that whole Deborah Mattinson report makes clear, the Tories can blame Labour for anything and everything and a distinct group will nod their heads and go along with it.  A tax probe into Google started under Labour in 2009 but which wasn't finalised for 7 years and when it is amounts to the company paying a rate of 3%?  Labour's fault, because Blair, Brown and Darling now all work for banks.  At least we're trying, says Cameron, and can you imagine Chas and Dave over there getting more when they're craven to the trade unions, want to hand over the Falklands and say you're welcome, come on over, to a bunch of illegals?

Scripted as it was, it probably wasn't written with the intention of distracting attention from the Google tax difficulty, when the Italians, the Italians of all people have apparently persuaded them to hand over proportionately more.  Yes, every so often Cameron's mask slips, and yes, it is an utterly callous way to describe people literally living in filth, the vast majority of whom will have escaped war, oppression, or grinding poverty, but it's not one that's going to affect his ratings one iota.  No one who hasn't already reached the conclusion that this government are a bunch of heartless bastards at best and a bunch of utter cunts at worst is going to be swung by Cameron's use of words; no one who hasn't already been moved by the plight of the migrants across Europe, in the Middle East, is going to be now.

If anything, attitudes are only going to harden further as an apparently unending wave of refugees struggle to make their way to safety on the continent.  The only real solution, to bring an end to the wars in both Syria and Iraq, is either too difficult, thought impossible or not so much as on the agenda.  And indeed, how do you put an end to conflicts that are as much as anything about centuries' old sectarian and tribal enmities when it is in the interests of the two major regional powers for them to carry on?  How can we pose as honest brokers when we have funded one side by proxy, and when we are resolutely behind the state the UN accuses of breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen, just as we accuse the Russians of doing in Syria?

The only real way to get a hit in on the Tories is to draw all these various strands together.  We have a government that reaches derisory deals on tax with major corporations, and so in order to claw back whatever it can from elsewhere, it deducts money from victims of domestic violence and the seriously disabled for having "spare rooms".  We have a government that, personally responsible or not for the Iraq disaster, is bombing both it and Syria, and so is directly contributing to the immediate plight of civilians, even if the overall aim has the best of intentions.  This same government claims, hilariously and disgracefully, to be doing more than any other nation to help refugees, even while it refuses to do the bare minimum in alliance with the rest of the EU.  Whatever it does, the government favours the rich and the strong over the poor and the weak.  At the same time, it denies as much responsibility as it possibly can for its actions, and where possible, blames the victims.  The challenge for Labour is to make this argument about the government's heartless irresponsibility without further convincing the voters it needs to win back over that it's only for the "down and outs".

And there lies the reason we seem to have many long years of Tory rule ahead.

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Monday, January 25, 2016 

Cecil Parkinson - "An extraordinarily nice man to work with".

Sex, power and politics have always made for a potent mix.  50 years down the line, the Profumo scandal is still written about, has plays dedicated to it, and become as much a cultural signifier for Britain in the 60s as the Beatles, the pill or swinging London.  The Profumo scandal is also at heart a tragedy - for both John Profumo, whose real offence was to lie to parliament about something that a few decades later would be considered far more sympathetically, and which he would spend the rest of his life trying to make amends for  - and Stephen Ward, who killed himself days before he would have been found guilty of the laughable charge of living off immoral earnings.

Also a tragedy, but for only the one side was the downfall of Cecil Parkinson, cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, who died today aged 84.  Parkinson, unlike say Alan Clark, who made up for his repeated infidelity and hard right views by being gregarious and leaving behind his gloriously indiscreet diaries, was an extremely unpleasant man who deserves to be known for the details of his affair far more than he does the political career ruined by it.

Like how, in a detail that appears in neither the FT's (written by Iain Dale) or the Telegraph's obituary, Parkinson successfully took out an injunction that meant Flora, the child he fathered with his secretary Sara Keays, could not be identified by the media in any way until she turned 18 - meaning that she could not so much as appear in school photographs, or take part in many school activities.  Meant supposedly to protect her, it had very much the opposite effect.  Then again, it's not wholly surprising when you consider that Parkinson had urged his mistress of 12 years to get an abortion, despite predictably opposing abortion as a politician.  In spite of repeatedly promising that he would leave his wife and marry her prior to the pregnancy, Parkinson kept the promise he made to Keays the night she broke the news of her pregnancy to him, that he would never have anything to do with her again and never wanted to see the child.

Indeed, Parkinson had to be dragged to court repeatedly by Keays to get the support she and Flora were entitled to.  As well as being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, Flora was left disabled after an operation on a brain tumour at 4 years old.  Keays claims that Parkinson said at one point during their legal battles that Flora should be sent to an institution, something he denied.  On the expiration of the injunction Flora gave an interview to Channel 4 in which she commented, with understatement, that "I think my father has behaved very badly towards me".

This is the man paid tribute to today by our current Conservative masters of the universe, such as Andrew Feldman, chair of the party and caught up in the bullying scandal involving Mark Clarke, who said Parkinson made "an enormous contribution to the Conservative Party and to public life".  David Cameron described him as "part of a great political generation that did great things for our country", i.e. helping the only government worse than the current one to carry on winning.  William Hague said he was "an exceptional talent and an extraordinarily nice man to work with", which he probably was, at least until he found out you were pregnant with his child.  George Osborne, finally, tweeted of how Parkinson was "there in our hour of greatest need", after the Tory defeat in 1997.  How indicative of the man, how fitting an epitaph, that he was there when his party "needed" him but not when the lover he abandoned did.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015 

Of all the bright ideas...

If there was just the one lesson to take from the past year, and bearing in mind how obsessed our politicos tend to be with the antics of our American brethren, it's not exactly a stretch for them, it would be that giving the police even greater freedom to shoot people is not the best of ideas.  Not that our police are instantly comparable to their American colleagues, nor do they face a public with such easy access to deadly weaponry.  

Where there is a connection is in the rarity of an officer being charged with causing the death of a member of the public, let alone being convicted.   The trial this year of the officer who shot and killed Azelle Rodney ended in acquittal, as did the officer charged with the manslaughter and murder of James Ashley, while in the other most egregious cases of recent times, those of Harry Stanley and Jean Charles de Menezes, no charges were ever brought.

In precisely which fantasy version of the United Kingdom then do the police need further reassurance they won't face sanction if they shoot dead a gun wielding terrorist?  This apparently is the backdrop to the prime minister ordering a review of the current regulations governing the police use of firearms, ostensibly we are told to ensure the police won't be worrying about repercussions should they face a Paris-style attack.  If it's merely unfortunate timing rather than something more sinister that the announcement came in the week when an officer has been suspended and arrested over the shooting dead of Jermaine Baker, with rumours circulating he was asleep when he was shot, rather than about to spring a prisoner as was first reported, then no embarrassment was discernible.  Then again, it always helps when it's a newspaper does the announcing.

You don't then have to be an arch cynic to detect more than a hint of politics behind this.  Rightly or otherwise, and Jeremy Corbyn did himself no favours with his unclear response to the gotcha questioning of Laura Kuenssberg, one of the major hits on the Labour leader has been over his seemingly equivocal response to whether or not the police should shoot dead running amok jihadists.  It ought to be patently obvious to everyone that in such a situation the police will respond in whatever way they feel is necessary; the very last thing on their minds is going to be what the leader of the opposition thinks.  Nonetheless, and not helped by the shameful response of some sitting behind him, the Tories know full well there is mileage in painting Corbyn as being so milquetoast, pacifist or even better, "terrorist sympathising", that he won't countenance "shoot to kill" in any capacity.  Merely setting up a review allows the Tories and their friends in the press to remind everyone of how Corbyn and by extension Labour can't be trusted to keep them safe.

It also works in the same sense as the "bash a burglar" nonsense that gets dredged up every alternate year just in time for the party conference season.  Each time it's suggested the law will either be changed or reviewed to make sure that homeowners can do whatever they like to anyone they catch breaking in, up to shooting them in the back as they run away or beating them to the point where they suffer brain damage, and each time invariably nothing comes of it or the review finds that the law, which allows for "reasonable force", is perfectly adequate.  The point as much as any is to make clear where the dividing lines on law 'n' order remain, and it sets up a trap for the opposition to either agree that an Englishman in his castle should be allowed to kill intruders in any way they see fit, or out themselves as hand-wringing criminal sympathising scum.

Where we get into even more questionable territory is in the suggestion the review is partially motivated out of preventing a repeat of the Jean Charles de Menezes process, should the police mistakenly kill a bystander in the process of dealing with the threat from armed gunmen.  One almost has to wonder if this is more out of the Met being concerned about officers not having the necessary training to deal with a Paris/Mumbai type attack, unlike the French police who acted quickly and decisively, both back in January and at the Bataclan.  If the Met isn't confident in its firearms officers, then why should the rest of us be? 

It might well be that as the Met also have insisted, a spree killing style attack is less likely here as it's more difficult to get hold of the weapons than on the continent (although those in the know suggest it's more a matter of lack of ammunition, rather than the guns themselves), yet surely if they do have these concerns, their priority should be on updating that training.  It would certainly be more worthwhile than moaning to the government about how the current law should be made more flexible, or releasing statement of the obvious videos which engender fear as much as they do inform.  Then again, they could hardly have a more willing partner in a Tory party always looking for new ways to further crush an already supine opposition.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015 

That all new, all improved Westminster Christmas tradition.

Don't you just love Christmas traditions?  Kisses under the mistletoe, roasting chestnuts in the microwave, the EastEnders Queen Vic fight, the Boxing Day ripping apart of defenceless animals by braying hoorays, the opening up of wrists by people with no one to share all these magic moments with?  To which we have a relatively new innovation to add: the annual mass dumping of ministerial statements and other government business on the very last day of parliament before the Christmas recess.  Think of it as the polar opposite of spending the last day of school before the holidays playing games or watching Cool Runnings.

The aim fairly transparently is to bury any unpleasantness contained therein, leaving already put upon hacks with an impossible choice as to what to feature and what to leave out.  Add in how newspaper sales always plummet in December, when concerns are traditionally far from the news, especially at this point in month, and the chances of getting away with putting out a release authorising the slaughter of the first born increases exponentially.  They couldn't have counted on our tame Russian asset stripper deciding to get rid of Maureen today, but it could have hardly worked out better with Cameron also off at his latest EU masochism summit.

Almost certainly best or rather, worst or the bunch is an official DWP study into the bedroom tax, or as only the government calls it, the spare room subsidy.  The study finds that it works, as long as by works you mean impoverishes those subject to it to the point where they either go hungry or take out loans, therefore robbing Peter to pay Paul, and has also failed in regard to incentivising those penalised to move to smaller properties.  Seeing as punishing moochers for daring to claim anything seemed to be pretty much the point from the outset, Iain Duncan Smith must be delighted.

Coming in a very close second must be publication of the list of ministerial special advisers in post as of today (PDF).  This reveals David Cameron has a quite astonishing 32 SpAds, 31 of whom dish out their advice (call leader of opposition terrorist sympathiser, start war with Russia, don't fuck that pig) on a full time basis.  As the government doesn't need to make clear how much any SpAd paid under £63,000 is earning, we can only be certain that of those whose salaries have been disclosed, the total cost to the taxpayer for telling Dave to do his flies up is a mere £2,164,000 a year.  George Osborne by contrast gets by with just the 6 SpAds, with James Chapman, Thea Rogers and Sue Beeby sharing £296,000 a year between the three of them.  They'll presumably get by on such a pittance, unlike say those who were due to be getting the letters right about now telling them how much they would be getting cut from their tax credits, a wheeze that his 6 advisers presumably also thought was a terrific plan.

Which brings us neatly onto the Lord Strathclyde "rapid" review into what to do about the Lords daring to vote down the statutory instrument needed to push through the cuts to tax credits.  That the Lords' refusal to countenance the slashing of the benefit that helps make work pay was subsequently accepted as unnecessary by the err, chancellor himself, albeit with the cuts instead worked into the universal credit system makes no odds.  Strathclyde's recommendation is that the Lords still be allowed to reject a statutory instrument, but only the once.  If the Commons then overturns that vote, its decision would be final.  Whether this would amount to the effective curtailment of the Lords' ability to block secondary legislation obviously depends on the government of the day's majority: probably not in the case of the Tories now, as theirs is so slight, with the Lords' veto likely to make MPs think again and increase the determination of the opposition.  If there was to be a return to the days of the majority of the coalition or the 2005 Labour government though, let alone the 1997/2001 varieties, it would clearly amount to a power grab by the Commons, something there is not the slightest evidence it needs.  As plenty of others have pointed out, this is a mess of Cameron's own making: he had the opportunity to reform the Lords, and he declined to go along with it.  The government also has a majority of only 12 for a reason: the electorate declined to endorse the Conservatives more fully.  They should act like it and listen accordingly, not attempt to govern as though they have a majority of 100.  A bit like telling a toddler it has to share, I realise.

Lastly, and most amusingly, there's the long-awaited, much delayed report into how the Muslim Brotherhood are a bunch of extremist bastards.  Or at least that's what the likes of the Saudis and the Emirate states demanded of the government in one of their periodical hissy fits after being called out for being extremist bastards themselves.  Not that we still have the report itself, as that's for Dave's eyes only, us proles only being provided with the main findings (PDF) .  Suffice it to say, the Muslim Brotherhood is amazingly, a religious organisation that has at times not always been down with democracy, and has also never fully renounced the teachings of either its founder, Hassan el Banna, or most (in)famous ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, he of inspiring various jihadists groups and helping to popularise takfirism, i.e. the practice of declaring anyone who doesn't share your exact same brand of Islamism to be an infidel notoriety.  It also, shock, has at times defended Hamas, unsurprisingly considering Hamas is its sister organisation.

The report doesn't tell anyone a single damn thing they didn't already know, and while Dave in his usual authoritarian style declares that membership or association with the Brotherhood should be considered as a Possible Indicator of Extremism, the ban our allies in the Middle East so wanted does not seem to be on the cards.  Bearing in mind Cameron has repeatedly stated his wish to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and still hasn't managed it despite now being PM for coming up on 6 years, the chance of the MB being subject to such treatment was laughable in the first place.

As is the bulk of the report itself.  Leaving aside the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia's criticisms of the MB's brief period in power in Egypt, brought to an end in a military coup, with al-Sisi recently invited to Downing Street for tea and cakes despite his overall responsibility for massacres of MB supporters and other protesters, not a mention of Syria is made.  If the MB is such a vile organisation, why then are we working with its Syrian branch?  Why if the Muslim Brotherhood is so terrible are we in effect allying with al-Qaida, as the Saudis and Qataris have done?  If the MB is bad, then surely Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest opposition group/militia invited to the Saudi talks, with its determination to create an Islamic state in Syria, is doubly so?  At least the MB has attempted to present a veneer of respect for democracy; the Saudis, Qataris and Emirate nations have no intention of allowing their people to vote for them in anything other than sham elections.

Our government doesn't have quite as much contempt for us as that, it must be said.  Nor though are they going to chance us properly holding them to account either, as days like today demonstrate.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015 

Cameron has always been the PR man. Osborne isn't.

The much commented on, if not as widely reported exchange of letters between David Cameron and Oxfordshire council leader Ian Hudspeth is unquestionably brilliant.  It's not often a prime minister is treated like an especially boneheaded teenager might be by an exasperated teacher, with Hudspeth having to explain one more time exactly why it is that he cannot follow the "best practice" of other Conservative councils as Dave suggests.  Oxfordshire has already made back office savings, dispensed with "surplus assets", cut everything other than social care.  Spending has not increased, Hudspeth makes clear, and the council has not cut only a mere £242m so far.  £242m was not a cumulative figure, as Dave wrote, the cumulative figure in fact being £626m.

As Rick says, the prime minister's advice is the equivalent of a quack applying more leeches to a dying patient.  He seems to believe the same solutions as were proposed back in 2010 are still valid now.  He's far from alone in this of course, with Theresa May crowing about how the cuts to the police have proved once and for all that more can be done with less, at the same time as forces consider sponsorship deals to bring in cash and as residents in rural areas are employing private security to patrol.  Just today the sports minister Tracey Crouch advised people having difficulties making ends meet to cancel their Sky subscriptions.  Some doubtless would regard giving up Sky as a breach of their fundamental human rights, but the idea many living on the breadline, relying on food banks or worrying about cuts to their tax credits are paying their dues to Rupert Murdoch doesn't fly.  Many of those people would be in an even worse position if they couldn't access the internet, something satellite and cable providers also happen to provide.

While some in the government might be oblivious or ignorant as to exactly what it is they're asking of both their colleagues at the local level and of the very people they've been elected to represent, there's also those who are very much aware.  George Osborne for instance, who earlier in the week celebrated those departments that have already outlined the amount they can save two weeks ahead of his comprehensive spending review.  Should his attempt to cut tax credits be scuppered or the amount due to be saved fall in the effort to soften the blow, that money will have to be found elsewhere.  With the triple-lock on pensions, all the ring-fenced departments and tax rises verboten, although not as a result of the public being opposed as Ken Clarke claims, rather due to politicians refusing to make the political case for doing so, the only areas left to target are those cut to the bone already.

Indeed, the "impossible constraints" Clarke talked about are entirely of Osborne's own devising.  Running a surplus is a choice, rather than an imperative central to our economic security as the chancellor claims.  As the Guardian's leader today argues, it's true Osborne is not the crude neo-Thatcherite as he is sometimes painted.  He has been more flexible than that, and has stolen Labour and Liberal Democrat policies when it's suited him.  He has also though presided over a hollowing out of the state, to the point where it looks to be perilously close to collapsing in on itself.  Hudspeth is far from the only council leader worrying about where it is he's going to make further savings from, not least when raising council tax above 2% requires a local referendum to be held.  Asking for cuts of 30% on top of a reduction in funding which has amounted to 37% so far, according to the National Audit Office, can mean the only place left to make savings is by cutting the frontline.  So far, in part thanks to how Labour did "fix the roof while the sun was shining", most services have held together.  You wouldn't bet on the same being the case come 2020.

Rest assured however that as the NAO report also found, the Department for Communities and Local Government is on the case.  The DCLG in their words has a "a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure" and also "does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way."  Like the prime minister, they haven't got a clue.  Still, by 2020 all things going well Osborne will be our new overlord, primed and ready to explain why absolutely nothing is his or the Tories' fault.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015 

Cameron's reckless game of EU poker.

Reading David Cameron's Chatham House speech on Europe, and his thankfully much shorter letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everything about Britain is great, that Britain and Europe are great together, and that Europe itself is delighted about the Tories' weird obsession with renegotiating our very membership of the union.  It's generally very positive, bouncy stuff, optimistic with the occasional flash of steel, just to underline how serious this all is.

That the only reason Cameron has done to do any of this is because the rest of Europe was fed up to the backteeth with the coquettish act, the PM continually attending EU summits where the adults were discussing immediate, real problems, e.g. the continuing refugee crisis, refusing to help and yet still demanding that they all listen to his whinges about renegotiation while not setting out as much as the basics of what he wants to negotiate has been rather lost in the spin.  Truth is that for all the eye-rolling and harrumphing, of which there has been plenty, the rest of Europe has come to the conclusion it needs Britain.  Paradoxically, the Germans want us to stay because if we left it would leave them picking up the bill for the southern EU states to an even greater degree, while the the rest of Europe wants us to stay in order to stand up to Germany, although in reality we have far more in common with the Germans than the rest of Europe.  Confused yet?

When you then remember that Cameron's whole grand renegotiation gambit started out as a sop to his restive backbenchers, peeved he hadn't won't the election outright and were having to share power with the Lib Dems, it becomes all the more convoluted.  Their immediate response was to praise Dave to the skies: the longer-term one being to keep on pushing for renegotiation to take place now right now, for the referendum to be held the day after; and now finally, to act as though they have been betrayed once again.

For if they hadn't already got an inkling from Cameron's previous speech deriding the idea we could adopt either the Norwegian or Swiss model of not being in the EU and retaining the same influence we currently have, today's follow-up made clear Dave is committed to arguing to stay in regardless of how the renegotiation goes.  After a couple of half-hearted sentences deriding the case for staying in come what may, he then dedicates a a much longer section on how leaving would affect both our economic and national security.  He challenges his opposite numbers in Europe to meet him half-way, and for those calling for the exit to engage fully, to decide what they believe in, as the vote leave and then have a second renegotiation option isn't on the table.

Like with the Bloomberg speech, today's effort was Cameron at his best.  You can quibble with a fair amount of the content, with how jarring it is compared with the usual Tory practice of being antagonistic towards Europe for the sake of it, with precisely what he intends to renegotiate, but thought and care rather than what we normally get went into this, as it had to.  It obviously helps that Cameron is pushing at an open door, as for the most part his four areas of concern are shared by other leaders.  There's little to disagree with on his asking for there to be further protections for the member states outside the Eurozone, his request for there to be a further rolling back of regulation and increase in competitiveness was to be expected and the exemption from the "ever closer union of peoples" is there purely in an attempt to appease the paranoia of those who want the Brexit.  Not quite as achievable is the demand for something to be done about freedom of movement, but even here Cameron has accepted that his asking for there to be a four year period before EU migrants can claim benefits is not a red line.  If he gets 2 years he will probably be happy.  This doesn't alter the fact such a policy is openly discriminatory,  likely to be struck down by the courts and that even the new highly questionable statistics released to back Cameron up don't come anywhere near to proving our benefits system is a pull factor, yet it's not as though it's a surprise.

None of it is, which for many will be the problem.  Government sources have been playing down for months the renegotiations, when previously it seemed as though nothing would be ruled out for discussion.  Indeed, the encouraging of the belief this would be a fundamental reworking of our relationship with Europe, when the end result is clearly nothing of the sort has already gone down badly with the headbangers on the Tory benches.   It was always going to, but what exactly the response will be from the similarly EU-loathing press remains to be seen.

Here laid bare has been the danger of Cameron's strategy all along.  Leave aside whether this is a debate that needed to be had, and there certainly is an argument for having a referendum on our relationship with Europe to answer a question that hasn't been asked directly in 40 years, and instead look at what the Tories' route to power has been.  Their approach, one of soaking the retiring boomers, focusing on those most likely to vote, and not aggravating a media that is overwhelming predisposed towards them anyway has paid dividends.  This is obviously to simplify greatly exactly how they won in May, but that's the bedrock.  All three of these groups are, unsurprisingly, likely to share the Tories' general antipathy towards the EU.

Which leaves Cameron's chances of winning a referendum when so little overall is going to change where exactly?  If Cameron and Osborne all along have favoured remaining in the EU, as you would imagine considering negotiating an exit and hoping to get more favourable terms than Norway or Switzerland, two nations who never joined in the first place, is about as stupid a concept as it gets, then the way they have gone about this whole process has been and is so risky it boggles the mind.  It's not clear that a referendum on remaining would be winnable even if there was a fundamental renegotiation which saw exemption from unpopular policies on fisheries and freedom of movement.  Such is the way a campaign on those terms would play out, where all the money is guaranteed to be spent by the leave side and where the remain argument is bland and uninspiring, nothing can be ruled in or out.  Yes, history suggests that it takes a lot for referendum campaigns opposing the status quo to win, but it's not clear whether we can rely on either the AV referendum or the Scottish independence vote as being any guide, the latter especially when it was a debate that concentrated the minds of an entire country.

Whatever you think about the EU, the same will not be able to be said about the referendum when it does come.  Cameron can claim as often as he likes that it will be the most important vote possibly in our lifetimes; it won't be.  Leaving would be an act of self harm, just it won't be as damaging potentially as the last or the next general election.  The prime minister seems to believe that his hold on the nation is so great that he alone will be able to achieve a remain vote, when the coalition that won him his small majority will shatter irrevocably.  Why should those who plumped for anyone but the Tories deign to vote remain when Cameron has made no attempt to unite the nation beyond ludicrous, contradictory addresses to his own party?  What makes him think turnout, the probable saviour of the union in Scotland, will be above 50% on this most arcane and dullest of measures to most people, when turnout in the AV referendum was 42% and it took place on the same day as local elections? A win for leave will as Cameron said be final.  There will be no second renegotiation.  The SNP have made clear a leave vote will be an effective trigger for a second independence referendum, and there's no reason to doubt the probable result.

Perhaps then Cameron knows something we don't.  Perhaps he thinks in a battle where he will face off against the likes of Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the other anti-EU monomaniacs, there will only be one winner.  He could be right.  It is nonetheless a massive gamble, one that started out as a stalling measure.  If Cameron truly believes leaving that EU would be a disaster both economically and in terms of national security, then he has been cavalier, reckless in the extreme.  He's acted like a poker player with two pairs, believing his opponent is bluffing as much as he is and will fold before the stakes get too high.  Those opposed to the EU will never fold.  We'd better hope that two pair is in fact four aces.

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Monday, October 19, 2015 

The doublethink of counter extremism.

For those not aware, weeks, sometimes months in advance the government will set out all known upcoming events on a grid, in order to plan how it intends to sell its message of the day to a sometimes cynical, sometimes laughably supine, sometimes actively cooperating media.  It's not then just an unfortunate coincidence that on the same day as Chinese president Xi Jinping lands in the country to be wined, dined and (steady) fawned over for a couple of days by that other bunch of appalling waxworks, the royals, the government is also launching its counter-extremism strategy.  Said strategy is merely the latest document to extol our "distinct, British values" as David Cameron describes them in his foreword, "the liberty we cherish, the rights we enjoy and the democratic institutions that help protect them" (PDF).

Also among our distinct, British values are of course hypocrisy, humbuggery, obsequiousness to foreign despots so long as they are on our side and doublethink, the ability as Orwell described it to "hold two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accept both of them".  Cameron and the Tories do then believe deeply and sincerely in our distinct British values, while at the same time welcoming with open arms a leader who has further cracked down upon freedom of speech and opposition to one-party rule in both China and Hong Kong.  Our relationship is being hailed as going through a "golden era", and any objections from either human rights blitherers or the Americans, concerned as ever about security rather than our economic well-being, can be dismissed out of hand.  You've got to be a realist about these things, is the message being sent, even if ministers themselves cannot be so blunt.

In a similar way, at the very heart of the government's Counter-Extremism Strategy is a contradiction.  According to David Cameron we have built something truly extraordinary in this green and pleasant land: "a successful multi-racial, multi-faith democracy ... more vibrant, buoyant and diverse than ever before in our history."  And yet this successful, vibrant and diverse democracy is threatened more than it has ever been not by a foreign nation state, but by extremism.  Extremism which according to Theresa May is "operating at an unprecedented pace and scale".  Not at such an unprecedented pace and scale that either May or Cameron can point to events in this country itself as proof, as they remain lacking.  Instead, flagged up is Islamic State in Syria, the attacks in Paris in January and the attack in Tunisia in June.

Don't however take my word for it.  Included as evidence to just how popular and pervasive extremist material is are a few stats.  Quoted is a neo-Nazi group which we're told has 1,500 followers on Twitter, and the video of a Syria-based UK terrorist viewed over 55,000 times.  Videos (note the plural) by both far-right groups and Islamist preachers have been viewed more than 5,000 and 59,000 times respectively.  Not included is just how many of these viewers or followers are actually from the UK, but you get the point, or rather don't.  Hate crime since 2010 has risen as overall crime has fallen, but it's not clear whether this is down to better recording and people being more willing to come forward or if there has been a true increase in intolerance, which is not the same thing as extremism in any case.

By historical standards, the idea that either violent Islamism or the few remaining knuckledraggers on the extreme right pose any sort of threat to the life of the nation is laughable.  If anything, it's an insult to the people who lived through the age of totalitarianisms that are still with us to suggest these are more dangerous times, or that our new enemies are operating at an "unprecedented pace and scale".  Adherents to the "ideology" of extremist Islamism, as though there are a coherent set of beliefs behind the working of Islamic State (to be clear, there very much is a coherent ideology behind al-Qaida style Islamism, just as there is behind the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas Islamism, whereas Islamic State makes it up as it goes along) as opposed instead to what Mao described as all "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun", may be operating at such a scale, but that is not by any means the same thing.

This is not to suggest that extremism, racism or other kinds of discrimination are not serious problems.  They are, and will without doubt remain so.  We are however far more resilient than governments and the media almost ever give us credit for.  While there is much to potentially take issue with in the introduction to the document on how we became this successful democracy, the fact is that while true representative parliamentary democracy is a relatively new innovation, it has often been thanks to the people themselves rather than governments that we have arrived at where we are now.  Incidentally, the introduction also states that our values are not exclusive to Britain, which rather puts the whole kibosh on the entire "British values" the government is so determined to bang on about.

Not that such chauvinism is surprising when so many of the proposed solutions to the problem of extremism are to in fact either limit liberty or restrict freedom of speech.  Interestingly, freedom of speech is not mentioned as one of our fundamental values, probably because we have long rejected the wacky Americans and their wacky interpretation of the concept.  Considering also that David Cameron was so keen to flag up in particular the continuing discrimination that Muslims face in his conference speech, it seems somewhat odd that one of the recommendations is a full review of the potential for "entryism" in state institutions.  The "Trojan Horse" affair, where any evidence for pupils being moulded into extremists, let alone radicalised is still lacking, is the justification.  It's not clear why extremists would want to infiltrate the NHS, to pick up on just one other possible example, but we can no doubt rest assured this will not turn into a search for jihadists under the hospital bed.  Also confirmed is that the government will attempt to ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism but do not break the law, introduce orders on known individual extremists who act similarly and close down premises which are used to support extremism.  It's not explained how any of this will be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, just that it will most certainly not curtail the right to protest or close down debate.  The law will also be subject to a high level of judicial scrutiny, just in case that doesn't convince you.

The most fundamental problem with the strategy though is the politicians behind it.  Theresa May in her conference speech argued the exact opposite of the document she now seeks to sell: that far from it being our very diversity that is behind our success, too much in fact prevents our society from being cohesive.  The document speaks of "our belief in equality", as though the Conservatives or indeed we as a people have always believed in such things.  The same government that wants to make landlords check the passports of renters on pain of fines in a bid to make the country a hostile environment for illegal immigrants, a move guaranteed to lead to discrimination, wants "everyone" to "enforce our values right across the spectrum".  Extremist groups and individuals, while a threat, if not an unprecedented one, have nothing like the impact that elected politicians and the mainstream media can have on community relations and levels of hate and fear, as Xi Jinping could perhaps attest to.   Being concerned that our values are threatened is one thing; regarding them as so flimsy they can be destroyed by such pitifully weak opponents, at the same time as maintaining they are so universal and strong is quite another.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015 

Trying to out bonehead each other.

Why in the name of all that is fucking holy is the Labour party holding leadership hustings, not only when parliament is sitting, but when a bill as important as the EU referendum act is being debated and voted on?  Why are so many hustings taking place at all when the vote does not take place for another 9 weeks?  Why can the party seemingly not make up its mind as to whether it should have a short or a long contest, and instead apparently wants to have both?  Is it down to how it's far too obvious and therefore far too silly a concept for the opposition party to um, act as an opposition when the government shows just how laughably split it is over Europe?

All these questions and frankly dozens more pass through my head as the two main political parties in this country try to out bonehead each other.  The most sensible time for Labour to conduct its leadership election would be during the parliamentary recess.  Let everyone go on holiday for two weeks and then spend the next month debating, husting, rutting and all the rest of it to their little hearts' content.  The leader will be ready for when parliament returns, giving them time to work on their first conference speech, a conference vital for the party in all sorts of ways.  It needs to be about what the new leader, whoever he or she turns out to be stands for, and what the Labour party under their leadership will represent.  It needs to be about how the party rebuilds itself and how it can win back the support of those it has lost in every corner of the country.  It needs to be about how the party can once again learn to listen rather than just waiting for its chance to speak.

Why the hustings can't then wait till the recess don't ask me.  Apparently it was necessary for the 5 contenders, who might shortly become 3 should neither Mary Creagh or Jeremy Corbyn manage to win the ludicrous 35 nominations needed from MPs to be able to stand to journey to Dublin for the GMB conference on a Tuesday in June, just to deliver mostly the same answers as they've given since the mauling the party received at the ballot box just over a month ago.  The differences between Burnham, Cooper, Kendall and Creagh are almost entirely cosmetic when it comes down to it, it's just Kendall has been branded the "moderniser", and you don't want to be against modernity do you, while Burnham and Cooper are more the "continuity" candidates.

At least today all 5 agreed the manifesto wasn't too left-wing.  Only Burnham and Corbyn had anything positive to say about it, mind.  Not that any of the 3 who can win have as yet given the slightest indication they understand just how massive the challenges facing the party are, even if they have moved away from the more out there reasons they at first gave for why the party lost.  If I have any sort of preference, it's for Kendall, and for entirely personal and spiteful reasons.  Should Kendall win, I'll no longer have to feel as though I should practice what I preach, as the party will have abandoned me just as other luvvies have said when decamping.  It'll also be quite something to see how those on the right of the party explain it when Labour loses just as miserably, if not more so in 5 years.

Labour's various problems with reality are nonetheless as nothing when it comes to the Tories and their inexorable delusions over Europe.  Here we are, barely a month after Cameron's "sweetest victory", and he already can't so much as rely on the support of his own cabinet ministers when it comes to his ability to negotiate a "better" deal for us in the EU.  There he was, imagining he could bounce those who owe him for still having their jobs into supporting a yes to stay in vote come what may, only for a mutiny to break out within minutes.  No, no, no said Dave, you idiots in the press got the wrong end of the stick; I only meant ministers would be expected to support me during the negotiation process.  Which is why a minister was put up on the Today programme to defend the principle of his colleagues needing to supporting the government line come the referendum, obviously.

Arguing for the exit is then to be the equivalent of an issue of conscience, a dispensation only usually extended to ministers when it comes to votes where the influence of religious faith rears its head.  To your "Conservatives for Britain" and those within the cabinet who will ally with the no lobby when the time comes, to get out of the EU is a question of morals, to which to transgress against is to deny theological teaching.  Brussels may as well be the antichrist, the whore of Babylon, Jezebel herself.  To the more deranged, like Bill Cash, nothing less than a rewriting of history is necessary, nor will do.  We fought and died in two world wars for our parliament, our democracy, not their parliament, not their democracy.  We saved Europe from itself.  Churchill was one of the first to come up with this mad little idea called a United States of Europe, but he never imagined Britain as being a part of it, let alone drawn into "ever closer union".

Just as with Tory objections to the European Convention on Human Rights/the Human Rights Act, so much of the argument is not with the institutions themselves as the way the statutes are interpreted.  We are clearly not going to be any part of an ever closer union when we are outside of the Eurozone and have no intention of joining it, and yet we must have "explicit recognition" of our opposition and "explicit protection" of our interests.  The rest of Europe meanwhile sighs and snorts at the haughtiness and self-importance on display, but will most likely agree to something that will allow Cameron to claim his renegotiation has been successful.  He clearly won't get any change on free movement, but probably will get something on the payment of in-work benefits to migrants, and something he can say does mean we're exempt from the "ever closer union".  Germany could of course drive a hard bargain if it wanted, asking for something in return like the removal of the veto.  The veto is worthless in any case, as Cameron's previous wielding of it showed, but then so many of the complaints about the EU are imaginary that it doesn't really matter.

Essentially, what the out right this instant people care about the most, beyond the tiny few who really are convinced we've sold away our sovereignty, are things like the working time directive, which helps ensure student doctors who would otherwise work 72 hour shifts don't kill more patients than they save.  I exaggerate, but only slightly.  They seem to imagine we'd have all the benefits of the single market with none of the drawbacks, only we'd need to negotiate a better deal than either Norway or Switzerland, as both are subject to the same free movement of people rules as members; indeed, both are also signed up to the Schengen agreement we opted out of.  That we'd be Norway without the oil and Switzerland without the banking secrecy and skiing seems of little concern, unless the point is to turn London fully into an offshore city state where the rich and famous can hide their loot and come and go as they please.

Cameron it has to be remembered gave in to these monomaniacs in the hope of fending off UKIP and buying himself some time.  As it was he was saved by the collapse of the Lib Dems, not UKIP defectors returning home.  All it's done is encouraged the headbangers, as it was always going to; already we've seen in the debate today the excuses being made should the vote not go their way, with the complaints about the usual period of purdah prior to elections not applying.  This is despite EU residents being denied a vote, as apparently what they think of all this is irrelevant.  Now sacrificed has been unity within the cabinet itself, a sign as sure as any of a government destined to be torn apart by the obsessions of the few rather than the many.

According to Philip Hammond in the Commons, "an entire generation" has been denied the chance to express their view on our relationship with Europe.  Merely voting for parties that are pro-EU doesn't count.  Should said entire generation come the plebiscite decide by a 55 to 45% margin we're better off in, there's no reason to think we won't be voting again come 2022, 2027, just as the Scottish referendum has made a repeat more rather than less likely.  Another referendum on electoral reform though, to deal with how the votes of nearly 7.5 million people, the combined total of UKIP, Green and Lib Dem support, added up to 10 MPs, while the 1.5 million votes for the SNP added up to 56?  That truly could be a generation away.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2015 

A campaign of failure.

"All political careers end in failure," we often hear, a slight misquote of a line from Enoch Powell.  These might be exceptions that prove the rule, but few can claim with a straight face that the careers of either Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan ended in failure.  Thatcher was ditched by her party, yes, and arguably the Tories have never recovered from that singular moment of trauma, and yet who can deny that the legacy both she and Reagan left the West has not proved resilient since then?  Not even the great crash of 2008 has led to a break with neoliberalism; if anything, quite the opposite, regardless of the rise of a few opposition movements.

Barring a complete shock, tomorrow's election results will demonstrate there are times when political failure is absolute, whether it ends careers immediately or not.  The last polls all point either to a dead heat between Labour and the Tories, or a lead for the latter well within the margin of error.  6 weeks, or rather nigh on 5 months of campaigning by both has failed to shift opinion in any substantial way.  All they've succeeded in doing is consolidating their support: that might not strictly be a failure in that it's just as important as winning over undecided voters, but it speaks of just how limited the terms of engagement have been.

Nor is it as if the main two haven't tried: the Conservatives have thrown every conceivable bribe at those they consider "their people" possible.  The all but abolition of inheritance tax, the expansion of right to buy to housing associations, the promise of tax cuts to come, paid for by a brutal slashing of the social security budget, none of it has worked.  Labour meanwhile affected to pinch the Tories' clothes on deficit reduction, pledging it would fall every year, guaranteed by a "budget responsibility" lock, the forerunner to the 6 pledge tombstone.  The parties battled over whom could deny themselves the most potential revenue: the Tories would legislate to make raising income tax, national insurance and VAT illegal, while Labour said they would only put the top rate of income tax back to 50p.  If this was meant to make voters believe just how serious they were about sticking to these fine words, it hasn't worked.  Why would it when everyone can plainly see there's going to be a mass bartering session come Friday afternoon when another hung parliament is confirmed?

The failure has not just been political, however.  If the 2015 election becomes known for anything, it will be as the one where newspapers confirmed they are as good as dead.  This is not to say they no longer have any influence, as some risibly claim: quite the opposite.  They might not have a direct impact on how people decide to vote, but they can define perceptions and shift attitudes fundamentally.  Ed Miliband would not have been considered a complete no-hoper little more than a month ago if it had not been for the way he was persistently caricatured as a weird leftie nerd from almost as soon as he won the Labour leadership.

What has changed is the abandoning of all pretence of being the voice of their readers as opposed to the voice of their owners.  The Sun straight up admitted its contempt for Ed Miliband was based around how the fiend hasn't ruled out breaking up Rupert Murdoch's continuing stranglehold on the media, something it would have never done in the past.  Most egregious though has been the Telegraph, once respected by all for the dividing line between its news and comment, reduced by the Barclay brothers to prostituting itself without the slightest shame to the Conservatives, time and again turning its front page over to missives issued directly from CCHQ.  Peter Oborne's exposing of the paper's sycophancy towards advertiser HSBC seems to have led to it straight up throwing in the towel, not so much as bothering to hide its bias.  The Mail meanwhile with its non-dom owner Lord Rothermere savages Miliband as a "class war zealot" who will "destroy the nation", although when the paper has already described his deceased father as "THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN" it's barely possible to go any lower.

It wouldn't matter as much if there was the slightest evidence the monstering of Miliband and Labour was working, or if there was something resembling wit in the constant attacks.  Putting Neil Kinnock's head in a light bulb and asking the last person in the country to turn out the lights if he won at least had the semblance of originality, of being a wounding attack.  Reprinting the photograph of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich in a slightly comical fashion alongside a whole load of puns on pork is pathetic, nowhere near cutting enough and worst of all, obvious.  The Sun of Kelvin MacKenzie's era, of Rebekah Brooks's era for goodness sake would have come up with something better.  If nothing else, the Sun once knew how its readers' minds worked.  As with the rest of the popular and indeed right-wing press, those days are gone and they're not coming back.

That at this point the right-wing media rather than eulogising about Cameron and his party is spending all its time attacking Miliband and questioning his party's legitimacy to govern itself demonstrates their and the Tories' abject failure.  When all they've got is a year-old photograph, a five-year old joke of a letter and the prospect of a party in power that hasn't won an election, after 5 years of precisely that, little could be more pitiful.

Not that Cameron or the rest of the leaders have been held to account by the media as a whole.  All the attempts to trip them up, to get the Tories to say where they'll make their cuts to welfare or how much Labour will borrow have been brushed aside.  The interrogator who has caused politicians the most discomfort, Andrew Neil, has been doing so to an audience of politics nerds and the barely compos mentis, while tinsel tits Evan Davis was given the job of interviewing the leaders in prime time, bringing his brand of less tenacious and less insightful technique along with him.  All the emphasis on trapping the parties in a gaffe has only had the result of making them risk averse above all else.  The campaign as a whole has suffered from that choice.

If anyone's failure has been total, it must though David Cameron's.  He's had every advantage a prime minister could hope for: an utterly servile media; a divided opposition with an unpopular leader; a growing economy; and the collapse of said opposition in its Scottish heartlands.  The threat on the right from UKIP has subsided somewhat, helped by another failure in the shape of the wheels coming off Nigel Farage's bandwagon, and still Cameron hasn't been able to shift the polls in his favour.  From the outset he's displayed every sign of not being interested, from the interview with James Landale where he said he wouldn't serve a third term, instantly starting the Tory leadership contest, to the cringe-inducing showing of "passion".  If any other politician had claimed to be "bloody lively" and "pumped up" the ridicule would have been absolute, as it would if it was Miliband addressing empty cowsheds or dropping in on farmers for a spot of breakfast, or if the Labour leader had made the slip that the election would be "career defining".  Calling him the poor man's Tony Blair doesn't really work any longer; not only did Blair win elections, Blair at least believed in things.  Cameron as the profile by Matthew d'Aconservative in the Graun demonstrates believes in absolutely nothing.

Indeed, the only thing saving Cameron is Labour's collapse in Scotland.  This isn't so much down to the success of Nicola Sturgeon as it is the carry on from the referendum and Scottish Labour's helpless flailing around trying to work out why it is this has happened now.  There is a point to wondering why it is voters who've come to the conclusion they've been abandoned and ignored by the party they previously backed en masse would then transfer their allegiance to one single party en masse and think there'll be a different end result, but only as far as it goes.  The only thing to be done now is to appeal to voters' better instincts: that every seat Labour loses in Scotland helps David Cameron regardless of what the SNP says about "locking the Tories" out.  It also has to be emphasised that just as Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland and the rest of the country will never forgive Labour if it refuses to work with the SNP, it's also the case the SNP will never be forgiven if it refuses to vote for a minority Labour government's Queen speech on the specious grounds it doesn't end austerity.

5 years ago, the British people conspired to ensure no one won the election.  Five years later and they seem all but certain to produce a result that adds up to the same thing, only with bells on.  If this doesn't result in the political class considering just why it is they've become such failures and what to do about it, then they've missed the real message of this campaign.  The same goes for a media that has never seemed more out of touch, talking to itself and only itself.  Regardless of which party wins the most seats or manages to form a government, there's a reckoning coming.  It's not going to be pretty.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015 

We still need a Labour government.

So here we are.  With less than 48 hours until the polls open there is just the one thing that can be said for certain about what's going to happen once the votes start being counted: that absolutely no one has the first fucking idea about what's going to happen once the votes start being counted.

Obviously, we can make a few informed assumptions based on the polling evidence up to now.  The SNP are going to win a lot of seats in Scotland; the Lib Dems will in all likelihood be left with around 30 seats all told; UKIP will be lucky to win 3 seats, but their share of the vote could still wreak havoc on the Tories in the marginals; Caroline Lucas will in all likelihood hold on to her seat in Brighton, but it will take a miracle for the Greens to win anywhere else, with the possibility their share of the vote could also hinder Labour in some seats; and just to keep this somewhat wieldy, tactical voting will almost certainly be more important than ever.

Everything else is cast in doubt.  Without exaggeration, this is the first election in a generation where so much is uncertain.  In 2010 it was fairly apparent there would be a hung parliament and the Conservatives would be the largest party.  While a hung parliament remains all but certain this time, and it's also probable the Tories will end up with the most seats and the most votes, Labour could well be close enough on the former measure at least for the question of "legitimacy" to not rear its head in the way Cameron and friends, including Nick Clegg, imagine it will.  Alternatively, and as some have began to argue, the polls could as in 1992 be wrong.  The Tories might be within touching distance, not of a majority, but enough seats to govern in a coalition with the Lib Dems alongside confidence and supply from the DUP.  Many are also still to make up their minds, or will be doing so now.  Generally, the incumbent gets the benefit of the doubt.

Or it could be the exact opposite and we might be stuck in a situation come Friday morning where neither Labour or the Tories can make a minority government, let alone a coalition work.  The Conservative strategy should this happen seems to be, with support from their friends in the press, to do absolutely everything in their power to remain in government, right up to the point of defeat on a Queen's speech.  Gordon Brown had the decency it should be remembered to accept the numbers simply weren't in his favour in 2010, and resigned sooner than he perhaps constitutionally had to.  If the Tories fail, Labour will invariably try and govern in a minority relying on SNP, Plaid and Green support as and when it comes, and may well persuade the DUP also to vote in their favour.  Minority government as some have also reminded us is not just about persuading those nominally on your side, but also those on the other side; would the Tories vote down a Labour Queen's speech or budget that didn't give in to SNP demands for instance?  Would the Tories really vote down a bill on replacing Trident as one of their MPs suggested?

One thing that can be said with certainty about the campaign as opposed to the outcome is that it has not once captured the imagination of anyone, let alone the country at large. Nor has the gap between the two main parties, which is also larger than it has been for a generation, been communicated to so many of those struggling as to how to vote.  Labour and Conservative spending plans, while seemingly not that different, with both saying austerity will continue, in fact diverge massively.  Labour's plans allow it to borrow £25bn or more a year to invest; the Tories promise a slashing of the state so big that it's frankly inconceivable they would go through with itAs passed judgement on by the IFS, none of the plans on offer as explained in the manifestos are truly credible, but the Tories' are the most outlandish by far.

With the result so unpredictable, it's slightly premature to pass full verdict on the campaigns.  Nonetheless, to judge the Conservative campaign on how Lynton Crosby kept insisting there would come a "crossover" point, with the Tories taking a decisive lead, both he and David Cameron have clearly failed.  Such has been the dismal fare served up by the Conservatives over the past six weeks, a campaign that was meant to focus on two things, the economy and Ed Miliband has finished up instead focusing on just one, the danger of a Labour government propped up by the SNP.  The personal attacks on Miliband that promised to define the campaign ended within 2 weeks once the party realised they had stopped having an effect; the economy followed suit shortly after.  A party that on the surface has a respected leader with a good story to tell on a growing economy has been reduced to little more than pointing at a "dangerous" Scotswoman to stay in power.  Even more depressing is it might yet work.

The Labour campaign (outside of Scotland, at least) has by contrast made only slight missteps, like the spectacularly ill-judged "Edstone" unveiled at the weekend.  Considering the thin meat of the pledges on that (mill)stone, Miliband has consistently played a weak hand well.  Anyone surprised by how he hasn't been a complete disaster fell into believing the bullshit spread not just by the right-wing media but also from some within his party, convinced Labour can't win if it tacks even slightly to the left.  Labour won't win outright, but anyone who claims with a straight face that his brother, Alan Johnson or someone in the shadow cabinet would have done a better job is lying to themselves.  Labour alone out of the parties has kept campaigning up to the last, has tried to do things (slightly) differently, whether it be Miliband agreeing to be interviewed by Russell Brand or even today appearing on a fashion vlogger's channel, and has at the very least attempted to be positive.  Trying to return to government after a single term out of office is always going to be a struggle, especially when Labour's exhaustion in 2010 was so total, the Tory narrative of the crash and the recession accepted without question by so much of the media and the public.  If Miliband's last 5 years should be judged on anything, it ought to be on whom the high priests of capital have declared for: the FT and the Economist both want a continuation of the coalition, despite the impact an EU referendum could have.  Indeed, in the media at large it seems only the Mirror and Guardian will end up supporting Labour, with the Indie also calling for a coalition: Miliband has scared the right people in precisely the right way.

If plenty of voters are still undecided, they can hardly be blamed for being so.  The campaigns at large have for the most part been ridiculously safe, neither the Conservatives or Labour wanting to be seen to have committed a "gaffe".  This is in spite of the one truly electrifying moment of the campaign being last week's Question Time debate, although contrarily I'd still say the opposition debate was better in quality overall.  All three of the leaders stood up well to a barrage of hostile questioning, precisely the kind they have spent so much of the campaign trying to avoid lest it be judged they screwed up or were secretly recorded insulting their interrogator.  David Cameron's debate avoiding gambit has undoubtedly paid off, but certainly not to the extent the Tories must have hoped; by the same token, Ed Miliband's personal ratings have improved, but not to the extent Labour must have hoped had the one-on-one debate Labour demanded taken place.  Whoever leads the next government, something has to be done to make sure the prime minister of the day is not able to both prevaricate and dictate to the broadcasters over the debates in such a way again.

As I wrote at the end of March, and nothing since has happened to change my mind one iota, in fact quite the opposite, we need a Labour government.  Whether it's a Labour minority government, a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, a Labour government with an extremely slim majority, whatever the outcome, what's on offer from Ed Miliband's Labour party is preferable to that of David Cameron's Conservative party.  This is not always down to Labour's policies being superior, although they nearly always are, so much as the Tories' being destructive, cruel and discriminatory.  When the party can't so much as bring itself to include the "spare room subsidy" in its manifesto, at the same time as it proposes to cut a further £12bn from welfare while refusing to say where, the lack of honesty ought to be causing far more ructions than it has.  Such has been the Conservative way of denying their policies have affected anyone who isn't a scrounger or a work-shy layabout: food banks haven't expanded because of the astronomical rise in benefit sanctions, but as the JobCentre can now refer people to them.  Pensioners have been protected as both the working and unemployed poor are told "we are all in this together".  To the Conservatives a job, any job, is a way out;  Labour under Miliband has recognised that work increasingly doesn't pay.

How we then get to a Labour government is the real question.  To start off with the easy stuff: if, like Chris, you live in either a rock solid Tory or for that matter Labour seat where the nearest challenger has no hope, feel free to vote Green, TUSC or however you feel.  From there on it gets trickier: fairly obviously, if you're in a marginal where Labour has any chance, with the one exception of the sitting MP being an utter cock, vote Labour.  I'm fairly certain the sitting Tory in my constituency will hold on with a reasonably comfortable majority, but I'm voting Labour just in case.  Where the choice is between the Lib Dems and the Tories, it's a far more difficult decision.  The best possible remotely plausible outcome to my mind will be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, but for that to happen both parties need to do better than the polls suggest.  It would almost certainly require in addition for Nick Clegg to lose in Sheffield Hallam.  When Matthew d'Anconservative says Clegg retaining his seat is key to the Tory clinging to power strategy, it's evident removing the Lib Dem leader is vital.  The problem is not knowing if yesterday's ICM poll suggesting Clegg will win fairly comfortably is more reliable than the Ashcroft polling saying it's too close to call.  Those in the Tory-Lib Dem marginals may well have to play it by ear and vote Lib Dem despite every instinct screaming they're boned whichever way it goes.  Much the same goes for those few seats in Scotland where it's either the SNP or the Lib Dems, although we can make an exception for Danny Alexander.  Finally, in Brighton Pavilion a vote for Caroline Lucas so long as you can separate the MP from the underperforming Green council ought to be a gimme.

Lastly, if the UKIP and Green shares of the vote hold up, voting reform will surely have to be looked at again.  If the SNP win 40 or more seats on the back of a 5% share of the vote while UKIP win 3 or less on a percentage that could be double that, something will have to give.  It will hopefully also finally get through to the blockheads in the Tories that the way things are going they might never win a majority under FPTP again; no reason then to continue blocking a system that has the potential to make every vote count.  Until that happens, it's a question of holding our noses and voting for the least worst viable option.  And even if you disagree with everything I've wrote here, voting regardless of who for is always better than the alternative.

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