Thursday, July 30, 2015 

Send in the clowns.

Amid the continuing delays at the Channel Tunnel, MPs and media alike today demanded that the military be deployed to help stem the crisis.

"The army must be sent to Dover," said MP Davide Davies.  "Every year this problem gets worse.  Swarms of disgusting British tourists force their way into France, disrespecting our culture, our women and our language.  They sing songs asking where were we during WW2, get drunk, urinate in the streets and dare each other to have sex with goats.  Any benefit from the money they spend is outweighed by the carnage that follows in their wake, which we then have to pay to put right.  It's a completely false economy."

The extreme right-wing newspaper Le Courrier meanwhile had its own take on the factors behind the tourist surge.  "It's the benefits, stupid.  The British government pays so much to feckless layabouts that they feel entitled to come over here with all their friends.  Not that it is just the evil poor.  The problem is exactly the same at the other end of the scale: villages in the south have been bought wholesale by the dreaded "champagne socialists", leaving nowhere for our children to live.  When exactly will we start looking after our own?"


More sanguine voices have been at pains to point out France in fact plays host to relatively few British tourists, and that they mainly head through the country to other destinations.  "Spain is by far the worst affected, with Marbella, Benidorm and Ibiza swamped by a mixture of social classes," commented TV host Antoine de Caunes.  "We get off lightly compared to places like San Antonio, where braying trustafarians party alongside your common garden permissives, who are more than willing to give dozens of blowjobs in exchange for a single shot of Sambuca.  Back in the old days we would have made a highly amusing little short film about that, complete with silly accents."

The reaction in Britain has so far been muted.  Premier David Cameron declined to comment, while the Sun refused to be drawn into a slanging match. "It's the silly season, so the French media is just indulging in its only sure sellers: bigotry, xenophobia and casual racism," commented a spokesman.  "We're above that sort of thing."

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015 

Calais: solvable, if we really wanted to.

The continuing chaos in Calais is one of those problems that could, should have been solved years ago.  It still could be now if only there was the political will.  The main culprit is the EU's Dublin regulations, whereby an asylum seeker is usually the responsibility of the first member state they lodge a claim in, or where their fingerprints are first taken, and which have long outlived any usefulness they once had.  They weren't designed to be able to deal with the two crises of 2015: the economic turmoil in both Italy and Greece, the two main entry points into the EU for migrants; and the unprecedented number of refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Even if Italy and Greece could cope with the numbers arriving on their shores, many would soon be moving on anyway, never having had any intention of making a new life in either state.  As it is, there are plentiful reports of the Italian authorities helping migrants on their way, dropping them off close to the border with France.  If you think this hands-on approach might be related to the apparent lack of action from the French police to the numbers who do manage to get to Calais, one step away from this country, you'd be right.  Why waste time, money and effort on dealing with migrants who only want to stay temporarily when to get involved increases the chances of having them stay permanently due to the vagaries of EU policy?  If Scotland had become independent and gained a reputation for being more welcoming to asylum seekers than the rest of UK, difficult as that is to imagine, you can guarantee before long there would be a similar situation in Berwick or the edge of Gretna.  Such is the way we try to pass our problems onto someone else.

An obvious solution would be to do away with the Dublin regulations entirely.  Regardless of where the claim is made, the only way to deal with the numbers coming fairly is to distribute them evenly between EU member states on the basis of a country's wealth, size and number of those already settled of the same heritage, to identify just three possible factors to be taken into consideration.  This approach would have some major problems: the resettling would have to be done almost immediately after the application is made, to ensure a family or person isn't then wrenched away from somewhere they've come to call home a second time.  It would almost certainly have to happen before an application is either approved or rejected, with all the difficulties that entails for cross-border information sharing and language barriers.  It would also mean countries that have previously experienced mainly emigration rather than immigration needing to accept some newcomers.  As has been shown by both the deal forced on the Greeks and the abortive attempt to do something similar to this earlier in the year, such solidarity is already in extremely short supply.

None of these problems ought to be insurmountable.  It's no more fair for Italy and Greece to be the front line in both rescuing and providing for migrants in the immediate aftermath of their reaching Europe than it is for Sweden and Germany to bear by far the most asylum applications (if not in Germany's case by head of population).  The main reason Britain would oppose any such change to the regulations is that despite the Calais situation, we would almost certainly end up taking in more asylum seekers than we do now.  For all the wailing, Cobra meetings, cost to the economy of Operation Stack and the closure of the tunnel, it's seen as preferable to any further increase in the immigration figures, especially when the situation has in the past only been this acute for short periods.  The chaos this time has been exacerbated just as much by the ferry strikes as it has marauding bands of refugees.  The irony of borders being wide open for everyone except those most desperately in need is still yet to properly sink in.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015 

Preventing "bad boys" from becoming dead boys.

Last week's horrific suicide bombing in Suruc, near to the Turkish-Syria border, looks to have been the last straw for both the Kurds and Turkey alike.  Blamed on Islamic State, although for once the group has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the bomber, believed to have been a 20-year-old Kurd, targeted a press conference being held by the Socialist Party of the Oppressed's youth wing.  The conference had been meant to publicise a trip by some of the group's members to help in the rebuilding of Kobani, the Syrian city Islamic State failed to capture despite it at one point seeming to have been abandoned to its fate by everyone other than the Kurds themselves.

As with the civil war in Syria as a whole, conspiracy theories and grievances about the Turkish authorities' seeming connivance with jihadists fighting in Syria have long circled among the Kurds, embittered by how Ankara has continued to see them as more of a threat than Islamic State.  Whether there was any kind of collusion with the Suruc bomber, or more likely a simple failure of intelligence, the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group, responded to the bombing by killing 2 police officers.  In turn, Turkey has launched bombing raids in both Syria and Iraq, attacking both Islamic State targets and those of the Kurds who just happen to be fighting IS.  A deal between Turkey and the Americans for the use of two military bases close to the Syrian border, long previously resisted, has also been struck.  Whether this amounts to an abandonment of the Kurds in favour of more active Turkish involvement as yet remains to be seen.  It does however underline the double games being played by so many of the actors involved, almost always to the detriment of either civilians or the very few groups that have relatively clean hands.

Much comment here has predictably focused on the news that of the five men who travelled together from Portsmouth in October 2013 to fight in Syria, only Mashudur Choudhury, who returned shortly afterwards, unable to adjust to life in a war zone, remains alive.  Just how ideologically inclined the men were really were remains difficult to properly ascertain; Choudhury certainly was less a committed jihadi and more a pathetic man with delusions of religious grandeur, soon brought back down to earth by the reality.  That the rest did stay, and one at least contacted the ubiquitous researcher Shiraz Maher, telling him of the mundane duties required of a lowly fighter with the Islamic State, while still believing in the group's cause, would suggest not just a belief in defending fellow Sunni Muslims, but also in the rest of the IS system.  When you then also think of how such men would have probably delighted in the slaughter in Suruc, where a group that believes in everything Islamic State detests was cut down for wanting to help their victims, it's difficult not to reach the simple conclusion that the only good jihadi is a dead jihadi. 

Except I also can't help but see the tragedy, the utter waste of life, the contradictions contained within those five men, the "Pompey Lads", the "al-Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys".  Identity and the search for it is rightly pinpointed as being key to understanding why some British-born Muslims have gone to fight in Syria, and yet these men didn't want to dispense with their identity, they also embraced it.  They didn't call themselves lions, or apply any other self-aggrandising Islamic labels to themselves, but identified as being from a small town, from Britain and as having Bangladeshi heritage.  The "Bad Boys" part meanwhile speaks of their immaturity, as does how apart from Choudhury, who ironically despite being the oldest was the most immature, none of the other four had any real responsibilities.  All they had was either university to come or apparent dead end jobs to exist through.  It's less surprising to learn one craved martyrdom when the only other identifier he had was as a supervisor at Primark.

What they also had was each other, and it's well known how group dynamics and peer pressure play a major role in the reinforcing of thinking that would otherwise be questioned and challenged.  What also has to be remembered is that in October 2013 the myth of a moderate opposition was still being espoused, as was support for the rebels against Assad in general.  Whether the two who were killed in the fighting for Kobani believed in that cause as fervently as the one they travelled for we don't know; what we do know is the longer someone stays, the harder it is to return, especially when they must have known that Choudhury had been prosecuted and jailed for not much more than merely going to Syria.  If the family of Muhammad Mehdi Hassan are to be believed, the youngest of the group at 19 had wanted to come home when he was killed.

Too bad, you might think, and it is hard to have any sympathy for those who fought alongside or may themselves have taken part in mass killings or the almost beyond imaginable abuse of Yazidi women.  At the same time, there has to be some way for those who have gone to Syria and either want to return or have returned to reintegrate into society.  This is in everyone's best interests: not only are returnees potentially the best weapon against the radicalisers, able to argue that the reality is far different from the propaganda, but to exclude, jail and write off only entrenches the problem.  Identifying 3-year-olds as potential terrorists, as is now happening, while either simply monitoring or prosecuting returnees is the anti-extremism of fools, guaranteed to fail.  There has to be an alternative, however much it offends in the short term.

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Monday, July 27, 2015 

Too sensible by half.

Something politicians often fail to understand, as is being demonstrated all too well by the Labour leadership election, is that the public doesn't expect them to be serious all the time all of the time.  Indeed, as demonstrated by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to name but two, not always being serious can often work spectacularly in their favour.  It probably won't lead to Downing Street, all things considered, but you might as well have some fun failing to get there.  It's certainly better than being permanently on message, permanently miserable as a result, and still failing.

When a member of the House of Lords is then caught in flagrante, snorting cocaine off the breast of a lady whose services he has procured for the evening, someone they have never heard of from an institution they don't care about, the immediate reaction is not to descend into bilious outrage, but to laugh.  And for damn good reason: regardless of what you think about drugs, prostitution, politicians, privacy, newspaper hypocrisy and all the rest, to see an old fart wearing a red bra and being wonderfully indiscreet, not realising he has been absolutely gloriously stitched up by the women he's paid a miserly £200 to essentially own for a couple of hours is hilarious.  Of course, the justification for exposing him isn't just that he's breaking the law while being in a position to alter said laws, it's also that he brings shame on parliament as a whole by acting in such a fashion, but most people aren't bothered in the slightest by such considerations.  The assumption, like it or not, is the majority if not all politicians are hypocrites and adulterers and moochers, and someone being confirmed as such in fact does relatively little to alter perceptions.  Acting like a maiden aunt after the fact is pointless: those disgusted were disgusted and disgusting anyway.

Which brings us back to said leadership contest, I'm afraid.  As evidenced by Tristram Hunt's article for the Torygraph at the weekend, the Blairite tendency's solution to everything is to be serious and sensible at all times.  One of a friend's most withering criticisms of someone we knew at school, one that has always stayed with me, was this person was too sensible by half.  They went through life not so much living it as doing what was expected of them at every turn.  This person is no doubt more successful than either of us, and we couldn't give a rat's cock.  Perhaps that just confirms we're both idiots.  Or, it might be there's more to life and also to politics than permanently doing what the serious people recommend you do, especially when it ought to have become self-evident that carrying on in such a fashion has not resulted in the benefits you were told it would.

Jeremy Corbyn's lead in nominations from constituency parties is not then because Ed Miliband, on whom everything and anything is being blamed, brought in a load of leftards convinced that if he won he'd immediately create a socialist utopia.  It's because they look at Corbyn, then they look at Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, and realise that if that's the best the supposed sensible, moderate, election winning centre of the party can come up with, they can keep them.  The reason that Diane Abbott got only 20 nominations from constituency parties 5 years ago and came dead last is because the alternatives were far, far more attractive.  The Blairites never forgave Ed for being just that little bit to the left of his brother and appealing to the heart as well as the head, and spent the rest of the parliament simmering with bitter resentment, convinced they were right and everyone else was wrong.  The defeat in their minds proved they were 100% right.

For them to be confronted now with Corbyn apparently in the lead, destined to win, only increases their rage and their determination to carry on, unwilling to consider if they might be wrong or if another approach is needed.  Not all of this is out of sheer bloodymindedness: the Graun for instance is not running all the anti-Corbyn pieces it has because it's a den of Blairites.  If it was it wouldn't have so strongly supported Ed.  When new recruit Matthew d'Anconservative writes saying he doesn't think a Corbyn win would be the disaster everyone thinks and would move the Tories back towards the centre, clearly there is mischief afoot.  For Corbyn to win the leadership and then the election in 2020 is A Very British Coup territory.

The odd thing is Labour knows full well the Burnham, Cooper, Kendall platform looks awful.  This hasn't led to the soul searching it should have done, Hunt's call for a "summer of hard truths" being about only what the serious and sensible people in the party declare to be "hard truths", but rather a simple increase in the factions insulting each other.  It doesn't matter that Burnham appears to suffer from the same problem as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, that Cooper has even less personality than a wet sock and Kendall's strategy of telling anyone minded to vote for her they are idiots results only in the same back with bells on ("Fuck Kendall" is about the most effusive endorsement she has received thus far), the problem is everyone else, not them.

Like Atul Hatwal, I don't think Corbyn will win the leadership.  This won't however be a result of the serious and sensible people realising they've screwed up spectacularly and that they can't go on treating the party's membership like dirt, while regarding the electorate as always being right however contradictory their urges.  They've gone so far down that route now it would be far too jarring to do an about turn.  It will be because the idiots and morons at the grassroots will do the rethinking instead.  Sadly, this almost certainly means that the serious and sensible people will conclude they were right and everyone else was wrong.  Even worse, it means the party will be saddled with either Burnham or Cooper.  Plus ça change.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015 

"It's not difficult, Manuel. This is not a proposition from Wittgenstein."

"It should not have been complicated to oppose the bill."  No, it shouldn't.  Absolutely nothing about Labour's meltdown this week has been complicated.  Jeremy Corbyn, who said those words about the welfare act, is not complicated.  Nor is his appeal.  He's a left-winger daring to say left-wing things to a left-wing party.

Remarkably, this has been enough to expose Labour for what it has become.  Mary Creagh on Newsnight last night said it was "nostalgic, narcissistic" that a few MPs donated their nominations to Corbyn to get him on the ballot in the interests of a wider debate.  Chuka Umunna says some are acting like "petulant children" for even considering supporting Corbyn.  John McTernan said the MPs who got Corbyn on the ballot are morons.  Tony Blair says anyone whose heart leads them to support Corbyn should get a heart transplant.

A left of centre party that finds itself this discombobulated, this angry, this self-righteous about a socialist deigning to broaden its leadership contest is in danger of digging its own grave.  It seems absolutely nothing has been learned from the party's all but demise in Scotland.  There an upstart party that is on most measures to the right of Labour stole its clothes, struck a left-wing pose and swept the board.  Rather than consider why the country came so close to voting for independence or understand that not distancing itself from the Tories had been an incredible error, the response was to do the equivalent of say no you can't, and vote in a right-winger as the new party leader.

You can't go on saying no you can't and keep expecting everyone to demur.  Labour's membership has been told no you can't for over 20 years now.  In 2007 it didn't even get a choice.  In 2010 it wouldn't have made the slightest difference if the vote had swung David rather than Ed Miliband's way.  The end result would have almost certainly been the same.  Maybe there would still be a Tory-Lib Dem coalition or a Tory minority government rather than a small Tory majority, but Labour would not have won.  In 2015, a membership once again told by the Very Serious People at the top of the party that they are idiots, morons, children for even thinking of taking the party back to the 80s by making a left-winger the leader are saying fuck you, yes we can.

The lack of self-awareness, the lack of self-doubt, the lack of the slightest consideration of whether they might be in the wrong rather than it being everyone else is staggering.  I could understand it more if rather than just abusing Corbyn, repeating the back to the 80s non-argument and insulting all and sundry who think Labour should be better than this (hah), the rest of the leadership candidates were making a distinctive case for themselves.  I could respect the ridicule if at the same time they were admitting the party needs to think long and hard about where it has gone wrong, to listen and learn from both the grassroots and voters in general, to realise that the only way to recover from this position is to have as wide-ranging a debate as possible.  Instead, what's happened has proved John Harris exactly right: a week after the defeat he wrote that he doubted the Labour elite had "the wit or the humility" to accept it needed to do precisely that.

This is in fact to be unfair to Liz Kendall.  She and Corbyn both have a position.  She would make the best leader out of the four, and almost certainly feels compelled by the vacuum on offer from both Burnham and Cooper to play further to the right than she really is.  She too though won't take Corbyn on directly, won't argue her case on her terms, and instead mouths the "disaster" mantra.

It really is as simple as this: if you can't convince the party's own membership that you have a better chance of winning than a socialist stuck in a time warp, as the Blairites are so insistent on portraying Corbyn as, how on earth do you expect to convince the wider electorate?  If you're this scared of debate, this averse to so much as accepting a socialist should be on the ballot on 2015, you should be asking yourself not just what you're doing in the Labour party, but doing in politics at all.  When Frank Field, Frank Field of all people, while still not accepting Corbyn has widened the debate by being on the ballot, says that he hopes one of the other candidates "has actually got both the physical courage and the intellectual clout to start that debate", you know the party is in trouble.  Kendall, and I hope it is Kendall despite everything, still has 7 weeks in which to actually do something other than carp and indulge in ad hominem attacks.  It might just be an idea to get started right away.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015 

Much like pulling teeth.

For the last two days I have had raging, agonising toothache.  You might have thought that by age 30 I would have reached the stage where my gnashers are all present and correct, and the only way from here is down in numbers rather than up, but no.  One bastard wisdom tooth is still determined to burrow its way up through the gum, only it's coming through with a massive hole in the centre.  Whether it's the pain from its continuing journey, as I've been suffering from pangs on and off for a few months now, or it's finally decided to get infected, as the previous one also did, I don't know.  What I do know is that it's coming through in such a position on the lower left side of my mouth that it has to be removed at the hospital, rather than my dentist being able to do so.  This will most likely mean a wait of around 6 months.

You can hopefully appreciate then just how little my mood has been improved by Labour's progress through the 5 stages of political ineptitude.  Different individuals within the party are at different stage, with some still being stuck in the denial phase, while others are as far along as depression.  John McTernan is most definitely in anger, while relatively few have so much as considered bargaining.  Acceptance, well, no one's got as far as that yet.

This would all be very much easier to take if the analysis of political journalists wasn't also so skewed, or just dead wrong.  Rafael Behr in a generally not that bad piece in the Graun turns once again to that old canard about the left preferring purity to governance, regarding victory as being only one step away from betrayal.  Bollocks.  Yes, there are a tiny number on the left that would rather be holier than thou than in a position to effect change, but they are most certainly not within Labour itself, nor are they for the most part out and out Labour supporters.  Sympathisers, definitely, but just as likely to vote for another party when it comes to it.  It's also complete nonsense to say that Ed Miliband's legacy will be to have rehabilitated this tendency after Blair turned Labour into a party that won elections.  The idea that Labour under Miliband was not serious about winning, that it didn't try its damnedest to win is laughable.  The reason the shock was so great, remains so great is that everyone, the media, the other parties, also believed the polls to be accurate.  As we've seen before, once the facts change most people then claim they were always against something now seen to be a disaster, or in this instance never believed Labour could win.

Behr's other mistake is to again repeat the argument that Labour regard those who voted Tory as not being good people, or not having good motives.  This is absurd.  As he himself sets out in his intro, the main reason the Tories won is they had a strong message well communicated by someone regarded as a plausible leader.  They also however relied heavily on the scare tactic of a Labour-SNP coalition/minority government, which while not necessarily the game changer many think, definitely had an impact.  The real problem, as evidenced by this week's scarcely believable stupidity over the welfare bill, is that the "realists" are convinced the Tory win is proof voters are overwhelmingly supportive of Osborne's "new settlement", or at least large parts of it.  The evidence for this is sketchy at best.  In any case, as pointed out by Dean Burnett, to think a vote in parliament now is going to affect how those good people vote in 2020 is ludicrous.  It has though driven traditional Labour supporters who are paying attention into paroxysms of despair, as well as delighting the other opposition parties who can't quite believe their luck.

We must then come to the latest sighting of our Tone.  No one knows quite where he descends from, or quite where it is he goes once he's put in an appearance, but whenever there's a situation to be made even more disagreeable, up he turns.  You might remember that just before the election campaign proper got going he told the Economist he believed that in a battle between a traditional left-wing party and a traditional right-wing party there could only be the traditional result.  This was an incredibly incisive piece of analysis, just slightly undermined by how describing Ed Miliband's Labour party as traditionally left-wing is to make clear you are an utter nincompoop.

Which has always been the problem with Blair.  He's often right, but when he's wrong, he's wrong to the power of eleventy stupid.  Labour lost in 2010 not because it had been exhausted by power, as all parties are eventually, but because Gordon Brown in Tone's eyes had stepped back from the modernising agenda.  Ed Miliband rowed even further back, although Tone kindly says he came to have "great admiration" for Miliband's refusal to back down.  Miliband thought the centre ground had shifted to the left, whereas Tone doesn't believe "it shifts in that way".

Blair is in many ways just like the rest of us.  We don't like to admit when we're wrong, so we often double down instead.  Only when convinced of our righteousness do we in fact put up a fight.  Blair therefore doesn't think the centre ground can ever move to the left, when the reality is it can only ever be shifted left or right through argument, winning debates and the majority accepting the case made.  Blair is explicit that he thinks nationalism is retrograde, the politics of the caveman, just as he also thinks to be against immigration is foolish, stupid.  Both stances should therefore be fought for regardless of whether or not doing so is a winner strategy.  The many things Miliband fought for by contrast were a rejection of the modernising zeal he thought he had inculcated in the party, and therefore bad regardless of whether they won votes.  Indeed, even if he did think "an old fashioned leftist platform" was the route to victory, Tone wouldn't stand on it.

Anyone detecting something of a similarity between the supposed attitudes of the lefties who prefer purity to power and the Blairites at the opposite end of the scale are of course barking up the wrong tree.  Tone doesn't really mean it; if the politics of Jeremy Corbyn were the route back to power, he'd be all over them.  Blair was always, has always been less of a Blairite than the Blairites themselves, as shown by his five pieces of advice for the party.  These are in actual fact rather good, if somewhat obvious.  Embrace technological change he says; do not accept the argument that Labour caused the crash, even if it could have done things better; learn lessons from Labour councils; develop a dialogue with business, especially on productivity and skills; and lastly, reform how the party itself operates, taking cues from organisations abroad.

Regardless of its merits, we've long passed the point at which an intervention from Blair is a welcome one.  For all the sniping at Corbyn, Blair like the others in the party doesn't seem to realise the reason he's doing is well is not because he's the answer.  Barely anyone truly thinks he is.  He's doing well because the rest are so shockingly awful and because their arguments, when they bother to make them, are neither one thing nor the other.  Even Blair recognises that Corbyn is "Labour through and through".  Liz Kendall isn't doing badly because she really is a crypto-Tory, it's because she and the others have failed to convince so far that their answers are better, or any more likely to lead to victory.  When given the choice between someone who is Labour, and three others who don't have the courage of their convictions, what choice is there?

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015 

Violent sexual imagery: the only way to respond to that abstention.

There's an episode of The Thick of It where, enraged by that day's disasters, Malcolm informs Nicola and Terri that he will be using an awful lot of "violent sexual imagery" in order to make them fully understand the level of his unhappiness.

Labour at the moment needs a Malcolm.  It needs someone to set out in the most uncompromising terms just how suicidal yesterday's decision to abstain on the welfare bill was, and how incredibly, mindblowingly fucking stupid it is being in general.  Some at the very top of the party have been so mindfucked by the combination of losing the election, the glee of the right-wing press at that loss and their analysis as to why, and George Osborne's frankly pitiful efforts to "trap" them that they seem to have forgotten the very reason the party came into existence.  If Labour does not stand up for the interests of the ordinary working man, it may as well announce its dissolution.

The party leadership has no excuse then for its failure to vote against the welfare bill.  The act explicitly redistributes money from the working poor to the wealthy in order to pay for the all but abolition of inheritance tax.  It paves the way for the social cleansing of not just London but whole areas of the country, as the new lower cap on benefits makes those places unaffordable for the low paid and temporarily out of work.  It breaks Cameron's twin promises not to cut the benefits of the disabled and sick, as it reduces the payments of those in the work related activity group of ESA to the same as JSA, and to not touch child tax credits.  It makes clear that the end result of these changes will be a rise in child poverty, as the government is at the same time abandoning the target to reduce it by 2020.  It demands sacrifices only from those of working age, rather than asking any from those whom most of the social security budget is spent on, pensioners.  It makes clear the Conservatives don't wish only to play divide and rule between the unemployed and those in work, but between the working poor whom have their wages topped up by tax credits, and those in work who are lucky enough not to need to claim anything.  It says some families are worth less than others, that having a third child is always an active choice, and so it's perfectly acceptable for that child to be denied the same support their siblings received.  It is one of the most regressive, most reprehensible pieces of legislation to go through parliament in a very long time.

You might have thought yesterday's op/ed by George Osborne in the Graun would have concentrated a few minds.  Rarely is there a piece by a government minister that is quite so brazen in the number of outright lies, distortions and misleading statistics it contains.  Cutting an "unsustainable" welfare system is according to the chancellor a progressive measure, and welfare reform is not just about saving money, but transforming lives and social justice.  Let's be clear: this isn't a trap, this is one step up from the very lowest grade of trolling.  You don't respond to trolling, you ignore it.  If you must respond to it, what you most certainly don't do is accept the troll is making a legitimate argument.

And yet somehow, unconscionably, only 48 Labour MPs went through the no lobby last night.  Whatever it was Harriet Harman tried to achieve by saying Labour couldn't afford to ignore what she claimed was the will of the public in both giving the Conservatives a majority and twice rejecting her party, to act in such a cowardly, incoherent way is near to being unforgivable.  The Democratic Unionists, yes, some of the most unpleasant and antediluvian of all the MPs in the Commons, voted against it.  The SNP voted against it.  The Liberal Democrats, fresh from propping up the Tories for five years, voted against it.

Abstaining when you know precisely what a bill will do to those you were supposedly sent to Westminster to represent is a betrayal.  That's what it is.  Not only is it a betrayal of those who will suffer as a result, it's a betrayal of everyone who argued that a vote for Labour still meant something.  That Labour was a vote for a fairer, more equal society, in spite of all the snide remarks, disbelief and cynicism.  It's a betrayal of those who faced down the SNP, with all its claims of being the true progressive, radical force, or who criticised the luvvies who say Labour left them, not the other way around, and did so right at the moment the party needed them the most.

If anything was ever going to legitimise the SNP's claims of being the official opposition, prove Mhairi Black right, or drive those who have long flirted with the Greens fully into their arms, this was it.  Those currently leading the party, or rather not leading it have convinced themselves that only they have the answers, that only they are the responsible ones, and that to merely oppose for the sake of opposing is to not listen to "the very strong message sent by the electorate".  They have convinced themselves that elections are not won or lost during the last year of a parliament, but by how the opposition responds in the immediate aftermath of a defeat.  This is to completely misread what happened in the summer of 2010, as the coalition set out to prove the size of the deficit and the state of the economy were entirely the fault of Labour, rather than a global economic crisis.  This was achieved not through acts of parliament, but by how the message dominated everything the coalition did.  Labour's failure was to not respond ferociously, to fight the accusation, to debunk the lie.  Instead they accepted it.  The party leadership is repeating the mistake.

Only this time it's far more serious.  Labour has never seemed more divided between the "realists", epitomised by Chuka Umunna describing those disagreeing with his and the "modernisers" analysis as the equivalent of petulant children, and those daring to believe that Labour has to be, must be more than just the Conservatives with a kinder face.  The view that nothing can be achieved without power is spineless rubbish.  Rare is it that a government just falls apart, and even when they do it's not certain the opposition will automatically benefit: nothing more affects a government's authority than a failure to be able to pass legislation.  To give up even the pretence of opposing a government's worst excesses this early is an astonishing act of capitulation, a failure of belief that demands those responsible be held accountable.  That no one has said Harriet Harman has clearly lost the confidence of her own MPs in a matter of weeks is equally surprising.

It's not as though any of this is difficult.  The welfare bill is about making the poorest poorer, the working poor poorer, and the sick and disabled poorer.  Indeed, it's about making anyone who claims tax credits poorer.  This is not in dispute: Osborne is painting it as being fair and fixing a broken system but not denying the end result, whatever the claims made about the increase in the minimum wage.  Labour has somehow managed through sheer incompetence and the beyond moronic idea that being "sensible" at this stage will win dividends later to make the story not about the Tories doing what the Tories do, but about Labour being split over the most basic of issues.  As Flying Rodent has it, Labour is more afraid of not being shitty and vindictive enough, so convinced has it become that you only gain respect and win back votes through being "tough", than it is of going too far.  The leadership still seems to believe that it can ignore the wishes of its supporters and core voters as they have nowhere else to go.  The election results, the same ones that have apparently convinced them of the wisdom of this masochism strategy, prove the opposite is the case.

So yes, Labour needs a Malcolm to get through the otherwise most impenetrable of skulls just where such an approach will lead, and it most certainly isn't to victory.  It also though needs someone to soothe it, to reinforce that its heart is in the right place, and that it hasn't lost its values.  It needs someone like, oh, Alan Johnson, to play more of a role, to argue against the more out there ideas some on the left do have, like how an EU exit wouldn't be all that bad really.  Failing that, it's difficult to see where the party goes from here.  Under siege from all sides, some prefer surrender to carrying on the fight.

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Monday, July 20, 2015 

The strategy remains that there is no strategy.

In his speech on extremism today (speech in full), David Cameron said "Our freedom comes from our parliamentary democracy".  He's right.  Parliament can also dilute that freedom, and has within its power the means by which to end it all together.  Parliament can only maintain freedom as long as it is challenged through protest, and held to account by the courts and the press, to name but two institutions that play such a role.

When the will of parliament is then ignored by the government of the day, as it clearly has been in the case of British servicemen embedded with allied military forces carrying out air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, it does rather put into perspective the Tories' continuing obsession with promoting our supposedly indivisible British values as a counterweight against Islamic extremism.  Prime ministers have of course long wielded the royal prerogative, enabling them to make war without bothering to seek the will of parliament, but it's clearly bad form to engage in semantics when there has not been just one, but two votes directly related to Syria.  The first was defeated, while the second did not come close to providing authorisation to attack Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq.  In truth, it's likely that British special forces have long been operating in Syria, but such are the activities of the secret state: for ordinary soldiers to be taking part in military operations in the country is something else.

One of the best, or at least most inventive defences of the government's fuck you, we bomb what we want attitude came from perennial fan of liberal interventionism James Bloodworth.  Apparently those upset at parliament being ignored are "clinging to the outdated idea that Syria still exists as a state".  Bloodworth might have more of a point if the government wasn't itself clinging to that "outdated idea"; lest we forget, according to David Cameron, Islamic State is neither "Islamic nor a state".  The reality probably is that the rise of Islamic State has torn up Sykes-Picot, and that neither Syria or Iraq can return to their borders as previously recognised.  That is however the intention of all the state actors involved, with the exception of the Kurds, if anyone's counting them.  If we're going to ignore state borders because IS ignores them, it needs to be voted on.  It's not a hard concept to get your head round, unless of course you're being wilfully obtuse, something liberal interventionists can never be accused of being.

It might also be an idea to have a strategy for dealing with Islamic State that runs alongside the one for dealing with homegrown extremism, as the two things while not inextricably linkedcould just have a connection.  Launching Hellfire missiles at Toyota Land Cruisers, whether in Iraq or Syria, is not a strategy.  One such strategy worth noting was set out on Left Foot Forward (edited by Bloodworth), Kyle Orton arguing the only way forward was to commit to regime change in Syria, which would convince all the non-ISIS rebel forces just how serial we are, and therefore result in an uprising against IS in both Syria and Iraq.  This naturally wouldn't lead to the other jihadist rebels gaining power, or Syria descending even further into the abyss, just as regime change in Iraq and Libya didn't.  There are times when describing something as insane doesn't quite cut it, although in fairness to Orton he is at least proposing something other than maintaining a murderous, bloody stalemate.  It would be a murderous, bloody victory for the very forces behind the ideology of Islamic State, and result in years more of bloody insecurity in the most dangerous region in the world, but hey, you've got to start somewhere.

To give David Cameron some credit also, his anti-extremism strategy for here in the UK is not all bad by any stretch of the imagination.  If anything, it's probably the most enlightened we've had post-7/7, although that's hardly saying much.  Cameron did nonetheless get remarkably confused, if not express outright contradictions in multiple places in the speech.  He again insisted that Islamic State is not Islamic, or rather isn't true Islam, and yet at the same time it cannot be denied that err, the extremists are Muslims, and clearly do follow Islamic practices.  You realise that Cameron is trying his best to not to fall into the trap of either making this a war on Islam, or to give succour to those who try to paint all Muslims as extremists, but this really isn't working.  Islamic State is Islamic, there's no getting away from it, just as jihadists are Muslims; they follow a twisted, perverse interpretation of the Wahhabi-Salafi tradition, which is in fact a relatively modern tradition, but it's still Islam.  Islamism, or political Islam, is not inherently violent, nor is it necessarily incompatible with democracy; the Islamism of Hamas is very different from that of al-Qaida and IS despite descending from the same source.  Recognising the Islamic State is Islamic surely isn't that difficult a step, or too hard to explain.

Within a couple of paragraphs Cameron is then at it again.  It's only the extremists who divide people into good and bad Muslims he says.  Except, err, the whole basis of his strategy is to do just that, as he then says in the next line, as this new approach is designed around isolating the extremists from everyone else.  Either these extremists are Muslims or they're not; can we possibly make up our minds, please?  He then immediately goes on to lecturing broadcasters about recognising the huge power they have in shaping the debate, apparently oblivious, or rather not, to how this speech will have more effect than anything they produce.

All this distracts from the good, which is the section on why people are being attracted to the extremist cause.  You can quibble with Cameron's declaration that extremist voices overwhelm those of other Muslims, which I don't think is true at all, but his follow-up, that it's ridiculous the debate when the young have gone to join IS has turned into whether or not the security services are to blame is sound.  If anything, Cameron doesn't ask the hardest of questions: whether or not some Muslims are in fact in denial of where their interpretation of Islam can lead.  Radicalisation, as Cameron says, has to start somewhere, and for some it can be nothing more than ordinary religious observance.  This is not to say they are to blame, that their interpretation is wrong, or that Islam always lead to extremism; it does not, and all religions and political ideologies have their extremists.  There is however no getting away from how some are more susceptible than others, and the more conservative the interpretation of Islam, the higher the chances tend to be.  It's not a coincidence that converts tend to be over-represented among the extremists, for instance.

The problem then is that Cameron's proposed solutions are so woefully lacking.   There isn't really much point in once again going through why the emphasis on British values is chuckleheaded: suffice to say that when the leader of a party that has still has major problems with sexual equality, having so recently been converted to the cause, repeatedly insists that we all believe in such things and always have, the only reasonable reaction is to reach for the sick bag.  Cameron protests that the new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children, and yet what else is putting that duty on both nurseries and primary schools about if not spying on Muslim children, then spying on their parents and what they might be teaching them by proxy?  It's certainly not seriously about protecting wider society from child jihadists.  He talks about the effect "passive tolerance" could have on young British Muslim girls, when if anything we've now reached the stage where those brought up here are imposing their traditions on their own children.  The "power and liberating force" of our values, and let's not pretend we haven't been debating these questions of identity for decades, don't seem to have had much effect.

Which is rather the point.  Traditions are ingrained in all our little subcultures.  Cameron boasts about the new diverse face of his party, and then within a couple of paragraphs is on to "It cannot be right, for example, that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths".  Well, no, it's not Dave, but then what does the rest of your cabinet of private school attending mates have to do with this?  Perhaps we finally get to where this is all leading when Dave suggests "the government needs to start asking searching questions about social housing" and also ask "how we can move away from segregated schooling in our most divided communities".  One answer might be the new lower benefit cap, which research for the Graun suggests will lead to an exodus from the south and cities in general.  Ah yes, it's all fitting into place.

The biggest hole by far in the strategy is on identity.  The Tories don't truly believe in the nonsense they're spouting about British values, but it's the only thing they can think of in a world where identity is becoming ever more fragmented.  This hardly affects just Muslims; in the face of seeming constant change it's natural to cling on to an ever more exaggerated sense of self, as we're seeing in the debate in the US over the Confederate flag.  Young people brought up in an austere religious environment see the world as it is and react in different ways: some might abandon their faith and rebel against their parents that way; others might go in entirely the opposite direction.  Identity has never been so fluid, exaggerated by mass immigration and access to wider culture unimaginable even 20 years ago.  Little wonder that some people, and I can include myself in this, don't feel like they belong anywhere.  Tackling alienation when individualism, or rather the marketed sense of individualism, is so prevalent is all but impossible.  Harping on about British values while not actually following those values, especially at the same time as preaching myths such as how this is a country "where in one or two generations people can come with nothing and rise as high as their talent allows" and that our "success is achieved not in spite of our diversity, but because of our diversity" is about as idiotic as you can get.  The strategy remains that there is no strategy.  That there probably isn't one anyway doesn't diminish that.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015 

Kendall or Corbyn, either will do.

All of us have at some point needed a friend to tell us to stop being stupid.  Tristram Hunt needs that friend right now.  Not so much to get him to stop his raving about Jeremy Corbyn being "politically and economically bankrupt", but his far more idiotic remarks about Labour in general.  Labour, according to Hunt, is "uneasy" about “the modern landscape of Englishness – of St George’s flags, music festivals, soap operas, Premier League football, shopping, gardening and baking”.  Now, quite apart from how this conflates Englishness with things that are self-evidently not definitively English by any stretch of the imagination, it's also complete tosh. Is it really Labour that's uneasy about all those things, not just perhaps St. George's flags, when the prime minister can't so much as remember what team it is he pretends to support?  Hunt's pal needs to take him to one side and whisper in his ear, "mate, you're talking bollocks, get a grip".

Labour's problems do nonetheless look far deeper than those facing the all but annihilated Liberal Democrats.  For them, the only possible way is up, and whether they had chosen Norman Lamb or Tim Farron it's difficult to see how things could possibly get worse.  Indeed, if the party once again discovers its radicalism, such as by building on the momentum started by Nick Clegg on the liberalisation of our utterly broken drug laws, as Lamb suggested during the campaign, it might just attract those like me.  Those who are frankly utterly bewildered by Labour and its inability to realise that if it's going to keep losing, it might as well lose better.

As such, I'm fairly indifferent as to whether either Liz Kendall or Jeremy Corbyn win the leadership contest, as long as it's one of the two.  I might even persuade myself to sign up as a supporter and do the incredibly daft thing of voting for Kendall as my first preference and Corbyn as my second, just to add to the contradictions.  My politics are fairly obviously far closer to Corbyn's than they are Kendall's, but what both promise is change.  Kendall is not the shy Tory or uber-Blairite of caricature; she's to the right of Ed Miliband certainly, and it would be silly to suggest she wouldn't move the party towards the Conservatives.  She would.  She would also though do much to energise the Labour party, whether it would be through pressurising her to not abandon every policy that was developed under Miliband, or by convincing those still clinging on to to the party more out of sentimentality than conviction that it's finally time to abandon ship.

Corbyn would do much the same.  Again, to see him as the caricatured bearded leftie is foolish: the Tories and the Telegraph can imagine all they like he would doom the party, but the idea he wouldn't be far more centrist as leader than remain the permanent rebel is risible.  A victory for Corbyn would result in pretty much the scenario outlined above, only inverted.  It would electrify the wider left, put the SNP's phony purity into a quandary, and rather than leave the Tories with even more room to move into on the centre, just as likely give them an even bigger false sense of security.  There's little the public enjoys less than a sense of unwarranted triumphalism, and who knows, they might even warm to Corbyn in the same way as Labour supporters have, down to how he says what he thinks.  A novel concept, I know.  Kendall also fits that trait to a certain extent: to go along with Harriet Harman's bungled gambit on not opposing parts of the budget after the response the acting leader got took courage.

Both, in short, would challenge Labour to look at itself and where it has gone wrong.  In that respect, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are the continuity candidates.  You can, as I do, think the Labour manifesto was decent and worth defending as Burnham also does, and at the same time know full well the party must not fall into the one more heave mindset, waiting for the Tories to fuck it all up.  Harriet Harman was right in her motives, as the party must examine why it is has twice been rejected, but remarkably ill-judged in her execution.  Burnham's heart is in the right place, but he hasn't as yet demonstrated what he would do differently; if Ed Miliband wasn't the answer, why go with another safe option?  As for Yvette Cooper, I have absolutely no idea what she stands for.  If I don't, who does?

You can at least see where Tristram Hunt and all the other hysterics over Corbyn are coming from (Labour Uncut has been especially amusing over the past few weeks in this regard), even if many do carry the trait of having been radicals in their youth, and now somehow can't understand why anyone would find such a position attractive or worth a go.  Not many, or rather none of Corbyn's supporters will have gone on University Challenge and answered either Marx, Che Guevara or Trotsky to every question, as David Aaronovitch and his University of Manchester team did, for instance.

All the more reason that we put this nonsense to the test once and for all: let's have either Corbyn or Kendall as leader, let's see how well or how badly they do, and then see if it finally brings home to either the left or right of the party how right (or wrong) they are.  It won't of course, not least because I expect despite the mewling about Corbyn possibly being in the lead, Andy Burnham will in the end triumph and nothing will be solved.  If Labour supporters don't want their party to follow the same path as the Liberal Democrats, standing dead in the centre and getting knocked down as a result, they might want to think again before casting their vote.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015 

The Tories' new settlement: much the same, just even more dickish.

Following the budget, George Osborne boasted of what he described as "the new settlement".  A pay rise, but only once the wasteful merry-go-round of tax credits had been curtailed.  A budget for the workers, but only for those the Tories deem to be workers.  If you claim any sort of in work benefits, you're not a worker.  If you work in the public sector, you're not a worker.  And if you're a trade union member, regardless of whether you work in the public or private sector, you're also not a worker.

Sajid Javid could not have made this any clearer in his comments on the Trade Union Bill.  "Trade unions have a constructive role to play in representing their members’ interests but our one-nation government will balance their rights with those of working people and business," he said.  Working people simply cannot be trade unionists.  Trade unions cannot have the same interests as working people.  Such is the Tories' new settlement.  Think you knew divide and rule before?  They haven't even got started yet.

If the motives behind the Tory attempt to define Labour as the party of welfare rather than work and to make striking as difficult as possible are obvious and ever so slightly more calculated.  To start with, if they hadn't been tipped off to it before, the near 4 million votes for UKIP at the election have alerted them to the benefits of acting like an entitled bunch of shits just for the sake of it.  Do things that are utterly pointless, even self-defeating, but which appeal to those who are very much impressed by such things, especially if they involve active cruelty or harm to people they detest.  Why else would the Tories have tried to "reform" the ban on fox hunting, which has never been any such thing?  It's not going to win them any extra votes; they're already more than sown up.

Attacking the trade unions then serves multiple purposes.  It appeals to all those people who complain as though their lives will never be the same as a result of a single day of industrial action, having to cycle to work instead of taking the tube the equivalent of being waterboarded.  All but needless to add, it's also completely unnecessary: the number of working days lost to strike action remains historically low, in spite of the huge amount of job losses in the public sector post-2010, with more still come, not to forget continuing wage restraint.  Trade unions are however one of the few vehicles for opposition to austerity and the government, even if said opposition has not exactly led to a change of policy.  The less effective unions are, the fewer members they will have, and in turn the less money likely to go towards funding the Labour party.  The mooted change to the political levy, asking all members if they want to pay it regardless of whether their union is affiliated to Labour or not is nothing less than a direct attack on the party's existence.  The Tories are not satisfied with Labour's current enfeebled state, without a clue as to where to position itself; they want to destroy it utterly.

Except in its current form the bill is almost certain not to pass.  Having been forced to row back on votes on English votes for English laws (EVEL), the Human Rights Act and yesterday a simple free vote on an amendment to the Hunting Act, the chances of getting it through parliament, let alone the Lords are slim.  A bill as draconian as this is hardly going to sit well with the moderate Tories, nor is it guaranteed the Democratic Unionists will support it, lack of DUP support for EVEL having lead the government to postpone the legislation until at least September.  If the Tories did somehow manage to get it through the Commons without concessions, they might just be able to get away with using the Parliament Act to bypass the Lords as imposing a threshold on participation in strike ballots was in their manifesto, ala the Salisbury convention, but only at a second attempt.

Not that this may matter much in the end, bearing in mind how the vote on fox hunting was abandoned.  In an act of the utmost cynicism and opportunism, the SNP made clear it would vote against the amendment, regardless of how it would all but bring the English law into line with the Scottish one.  Nicola Sturgeon justified the SNP breaking its usual rule of not voting on English only matters on the grounds David Cameron had not shown enough respect to the party on the day of its daughter's wedding "party's mandate".  The only plausible response to this ought to be "aw, diddums", but it's difficult to mock when the SNP and Tories are so clearly set on fracturing the union and stuffing Labour at the same time, such have been the tit for tat manoeuvres on EVEL and now hunting.

It took some chutzpah for Mhairi Black to then "reach out a genuine hand of friendship" to Labour in her unbelievably overrated maiden speech, the reaction to which seems more attributable to the dog walking on its hind legs principle than due to its actual quality.  If that's barnstorming, I sure wouldn't want to see barn-entering.  Black of course knows full well there is no chance whatsoever of a relationship she neither expects nor wants, such are the wounds that have been left by the independence referendum, not so much the election result.  Nor is there any point to opposition for opposition's sake: if she and the SNP want to waste their time trooping through the same lobby as Bill Cash in an attempt to defeat the government on a motion that would have made winning a referendum to stay in the EU that bit harder, that's up them.  Such though is the way otherwise pointless acts have come to mean something to SNP supporters and those who see themselves as ignored and discriminated against alike; such is the way Labour is being squeezed from both sides, unable to find a way to escape from the closing trap.

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Monday, July 13, 2015 

Voters are often wrong. Politicians need to tell them so.

There is, I would argue, an extremely big difference between being exceptionally cynical about almost everything, and just straight up indulging in conspiracy theories.  Would the government really for instance suddenly declare Tunisia to be a no-go area just to distract attention from how the budget was falling apart, especially when it had been received in such raptures from the press?  Would it really decide to wreck the holidays of thousands of people on completely spurious grounds, and not come up with a better explanation than saying intelligence suggested there was a very high chance of another attack, despite there err, being no specific intelligence?  Would it really send the message that in actual fact, terrorism does pay, and that already struggling countries should buck their ideas up, despite it being you know, sort of our fault Libya is now a failed state?

Probably not, but never underestimate a government's propensity for being completely and utterly stupid.  Tunisia it seems should follow our lead: hold a few more training exercises, put a few more bollards in front of buildings to prevent a truck or car bombing, despite jihadists' major problem long having been their failure to obtain explosives in any sort of quantity, and you're laughing.  There's not much you can do to prevent an attack by a lone gunman with an assault rifle and (possibly) some grenades other than putting more armed police and security guards on the streets and increasing surveillance, policies that might in fact cause more problems than they solve, but such measures are not apparently good enough for us Brits.  Fine for the French and Germans, but not us.

Was then Harriet Harman in fact being rather sneaky in her interviews yesterday, saying the party she is temporarily leading could not oppose cuts to child tax credits and the new lower benefit cap, as to do so would be to ignore the voters who have now twice rejected that party?  Again, probably not.  It has though had the twin effects of riling up the usual people on Twitter who spent plenty of time during the election campaign complaining about that mug, and has also redirected attention onto the interminable leadership election, with yet another hustings held today.  The Liberal Democrats, incidentally, are to announce whether Tim Farron or Norman Lamb is to be the party's new leader on Thursday.  The reasoning behind Labour going for a longer contest was supposedly about confronting why the party had taken such a mauling, only for all  the candidates to have concluded why within hours of the defeat.  The "debate" since has focused on repeating those positions, and predictably there's been nastiness happening behind the scenes as a result.

You can of course if you want interpret the Tories' win as being a thumbs-up for their policies as a whole, just as if you like you can believe people voted UKIP because they wanted a referendum on EU membership, or SNP because they thought Nicola Sturgeon was a fresh, inspiring leader.  Except, oh, that last one probably is something approaching the truth.  Equally, you can take Labour's defeat however you want, and if you really want to believe it was because Labour wasn't either left-wing or right-wing enough, that's fine too.  The real lesson of the election was in fact what happened to the aforementioned Lib Dems.  The party that had previously meant all things to all people, acting as both a protest vote that wasn't entirely wasted and as a leftish alternative to Labour collapsed once everyone realised there was little to no difference between them and their coalition partner.  This doesn't mean they wouldn't be making something of a difference if they were still in government, as they almost certainly would.  They wouldn't though alter the overall tenor, just as Osborne stealing the best melodies from Labour's song book can't cover up the discordant screeching of his compositions.

The most convincing overarching reason for why Labour lost is Ed Miliband was not seen as a realistic prime minister and in turn was not trusted with the economy.  It's as simple as that.  Could Ed Miliband have been seen as a realistic prime minister and trusted with the economy had the party fought harder against the caricature of spending too much, crashing the economy and leaving behind no money?  I think so.  Then again, I still think Miliband would be a better leader than any of the 4 now on offer, and that time will prove him to be another of those best prime ministers we didn't have, so you can safely ignore me.

This is not to deny there is an awful lot of seething, if not outright detestation of benefits claimants.  If there wasn't there wouldn't be those TV shows, there wouldn't be the support for the cap which takes absolutely no account of exceptional, temporary, individual circumstances, or for little things like a family having lived for generations in an area they are now told they can't afford.  All that's seen is that figure of £20,000 or £23,000, rather than how a hefty proportion of that will be going straight to a landlord rather than for the family to spend on huge screen TVs or iPads.  Those women who apparently told Harriet Harman and the others that they didn't think they could afford to have more children while those less careful just had them anyway, which is to put about the nicest possible gloss on it, seemed to be more justifying not having more children to themselves rather than making a realistic case about the state rewarding the feckless instead of the striving.  When the cuts start affecting real people though, as we've seen with the bedroom tax, or when they specifically target children, it doesn't take much for what was once seen as sensible to begin unravelling.

Politicians cannot however tell voters they are wrong, unless it involves bombing yet another Middle Eastern country.  They can tell their own parties they're wrong, but never that the public is.  It doesn't matter how wrong the public is: whether it be the obvious lesson to take from the tube strike, which is that stronger unions and collective bargaining result in higher wages, while moaning and complaining about how because you don't want to waste time with that nonsense no one should results in nothing; or in Greece, where the people want to stay in a currency that condemns them to unending, self-defeating austerity, rather than face the temporary uncertainty of a default and return to the drachma; to argue with the apparent reached consensus is a sign of madness.

Arguing against something that has become an orthodoxy is all the harder when you're faced with a media so unutterably biased against you, it's true.  When the press either swallows its pride about Osborne's further restrictions on non-domiciled status, having denounced it as leftist lunacy when suggested by Labour, or actively welcomes policies it criticised in the harshest terms mere weeks ago, it's always going to be a struggle to win back the initiative.  This doesn't mean it can't be done.  If Labour had any sense, they would be contrasting the manifest unfairness of the raising of the threshold of inheritance tax with the losses of income those on tax credits will face under Osborne's plans.  They should be making clear how companies that already do their best to avoid corporation tax are being rewarded for doing so with a further cut while the working poor are having their benefits raided to fund it.  They should be making short YouTube videos about it, hiring billboards, running poster campaigns.

Instead, the party keeps apologising, or drawing the wrong lessons.  Andy Burnham today accepted the deficit was too high in 2007; it wasn't.  Even if it was, these cuts are being made out of choice, not because they are necessary to reduce the deficit.  Not opposing the harshest budget in a generation out of the belief it's what the public voted for is nonsensical.  Osborne thinks he has Labour trapped; Harman's response is the equivalent of jumping straight into a spiked pit.  The only people who will remember in 2020 whether Labour opposed the cuts are precisely those it cannot afford to lose.  If the party truly is existentially threatened, and the lesson from the continent is traditional centre-left parties are, the worst thing it can possibly do is tell its sympathisers and supporters they're wrong.  Take on the public, not the grassroots.  It might just work.

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Thursday, July 09, 2015 

All hail the new Tories.

If it wasn't for how it demonstrated beyond doubt just how pointless the Labour party has made itself in such a short time, yesterday's cognitive dissonance at George Osborne's theft of large parts of the Labour manifesto would have been hysterical.  The same document only Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have seen fit to defend as everyone else, Blairites especially have all but blamed it for the defeat was used in a (futile) attempt to make up for the use of the very worst parts of the Tory manifesto.  Alistair Darling has said Labour's disarray is a result of the failure to articulate a coherent economic policy, except err, in large part Osborne took Labour's apparently incoherent economic aims and made them his own.  Ed Balls' promise was to balance the budget as soon as possible; voters might not have believed it, but that was the policy.  Osborne accordingly put back by a year his surplus plan, reduced the amount to be raised through cuts in departmental spending and also, most shockingly, is borrowing more.  An Ed Balls budget would have obviously done things much differently overall, but he would have without doubt followed the same basic themes.

Osborne's budget was not of course an even vaguely left-wing one.  Nor, however, was it an out and out Thatcherite one.  How Osborne achieved this hasn't really been acknowledged enough.  Most chancellors after all go into elections promising jam tomorrow and then clobber everyone once re-elected.  Osborne by contrast was completely open about how everyone voting Tory would end up being shafted, not expecting for a moment that he would be delivering the first sole Conservative budget in 19 years less than 4 months later.  Both the March budget and the Tory manifesto were put together in the expectation of another coalition.  They were bargaining chips, as proved by allowing the Liberal Democrats to set out what their priorities would be from the dispatch box.  Amazed to be handed a slight majority, the problem was how to not alienate those who voted Tory but had done so for reasons very much other than the contents of the manifesto.

Most in the circumstances would have blanched at going ahead with the £12bn in welfare cuts.  It was never a serious commitment, until it was decided it was, and for the opportunity it provided.  Despite not thinking it would get them a majority, the Tory electoral plan was simple: ensure those most likely to vote, i.e. pensioners and the boomers coming up to retirement age were overwhelmingly on their side by promising not to touch their perks, emphasise the risk everyone would be taking with a unreconstructed Labour party, and then hope something else would turn up.  It did, in the form of the SNP, and it just about took them over the line, thanks mainly to the utter collapse of the Lib Dems.  This targeting has duly become the party's raison d'etre: for all the talk of blue collar Conservatism, one nation and all the other rot, the Tories seem to have come to believe they can remain in power in perpetuity so long as they keep the upper middle, the wealthy, and the old on side.

Yesterday's budget was put together with this at its core.  Not for Osborne or Cameron's Tories the old Thatcherite belief in social mobility, or at least not without pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, as hardly anyone who made it truly did.  No, instead their aim is for society to remain almost completely in aspic: why else would they as Jonathan Portes notes, removed the very incentives to work and earn more that were there in the tax credit system and were already affected negatively by universal credit?  Why else would they continue to do absolutely nothing about the dire shortage of housing?  If anything, their aim seems to be further inflate the bubble; buy-to-let landlords rightly come in for much criticism, but as the IFS points out, the lack of supply is not going to be helped by reducing their tax incentives while allowing property owners to pass their estates on tax free.  Why else remove the grants for poor students?  Why else generally treat the disadvantaged young disgracefully, whether by removing their access to housing benefit, or capping child tax credit at two children for new applicants?  Potentially helping youth unemployment by not extending the "national living wage" to the under-25s doesn't even begin to make up for it.

Going on alongside this targeting and othering, as that's what it is, are disinterred Victorian notions of morality and poverty.  Tim Montgomerie, now of the Times, tweeted his support for Iain Duncan Smith's "rejection of the Left's materialistic idea of poverty for broader understanding of basis of a good life" last week in response to the moving of the goalposts on child poverty.  Rarely is so much explained about a world view in so short a sentence.  It shouldn't shock then when a close reading of the budget red book shows Treasury officials will allow rape victims made pregnant by their attacker to keep their child tax credits if they decide not to abort the baby and already have two children, as clearly in such an instance the mother is blameless.  Having a third child in any other circumstances when already not well off is clearly a choice, and a choice that has to be punished.  No other factors come into it, not least that the child itself is blameless.  To be on benefits is also a choice; ask not what you can claim, but what it is you can do.  Hence why those who cannot work currently, but might be able to shortly will from now on get the same pittance as those on JSA.  Claiming anything, even being employed by the state, is to be inferior: 1% extra a year is all such people are worth.  Don't argue this isn't still a generous safety net: the same politician yesterday pumping his fists as the rebranded minimum wage was announced says it's so.

This point couldn't have been reached thanks solely to an election victory, naturally.  We've arrived here thanks to what always happens following an economic crash: the public biting downwards, rather than up.  The poor are to be envied for the little they have, asked why it is they get something for nothing, equally fetishised and demonised.  Just this week Channel 4 brought us a new series of How to Get a Council House, where the deserving and undeserving are neatly boxed and delineated, while Channel 5 showed Benefits by the Sea: Jaywick.  The Sun, most of whose readers will be receiving tax credits and duly face losses in the region of hundreds of pounds thanks to yesterday's budget are told this is a "WELL FAIR STATE", while the Mail depicts Osborne as no less a saint than the mythical George himself, slaying dragons.  And again, the fact is a majority, albeit a slim one of those who bothered to vote, signed up for this.  You're not supposed to blame the electorate, but it's not as though the Tories hid their intentions.  Like it or not, they wanted it, they've got it.

 

Contained in the IFS's analysis of the impact of yesterday's budget reforms is the starkest of truths: the only people to gain are those in income decile group one removed from the richest.  Those right there are the people the Conservatives are governing for, the only people they imagine they need to govern for, as everyone else is either stuck with them or written off.  The poor either don't vote or vote Labour or UKIP; public sector workers vote Labour; the young either don't vote or vote Labour or Green; they're all lost causes.  Everyone else, well, why would they vote for a Labour party that only represents those people?  Such is the new Conservative way of thinking.  Such is the space a Labour party that has taken all the wrong lessons from its election defeat has left its opponent to move into.  If they won't defend their manifesto, we'll take it.  Osborne isn't a genius, he's an opportunist and a strategist.  Shrinking the state is secondary to winning.  Ideology helps to explain, but doesn't tell the full story.

All hail the new Tories.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015 

The rat and the rabbit.

After all the leaks, the raid on the BBC, the talk of how this one nation Conservative party would be creating a low tax, low welfare, high wage economy, there was only one real question left to be answered by George Osborne's wholly unnecessary second budget in three months: what's the fucking rabbit going to be?

First though, if on presentation and build-up only, today's budget is difficult to fault.  Almost all the nasty stuff was briefed about in advance, from the swingeing cuts to both tax credits and child tax credits, the reduced benefit cap and the abolition of inheritance tax for all properties under £1m.  There were still some extremely devious measures that weren't announced beforehand, like the abolition of grants for the poorest students, to be replaced with loans, but in the main all the changes to welfare were expected, leaving the way open for Osborne's surprise to dominate the headlines.

This budget was then all about him.  That Osborne is an exceptionally overrated politician, and unlike some of those also lauded by the press and commentators, believes his own hype, matters little.  Despite loathing him, he is more than the heir to Gordon Brown, only unlike Brown he hopes to make a success of taking over from his predecessor.  The difference is that whereas Brown and Osborne are remarkably similar beasts in how they always put personal political advantage ahead of everything else, Brown had the nous to recognise when he had gone too far, and also to act in a crisis.  Osborne by contrast just keeps on pushing ahead regardless, covering up his mistakes as he goes along, hoping no one will notice.

That something would materialise to sugar the pill was then apparent; not even with the backing of the majority of the press, a cowed opposition and a BBC in disarray would Osborne have got away with making the poorest undeniably poorer while cutting inheritance tax and raising the 40% threshold.  That Osborne decided to steal almost directly from Ed Miliband's Labour manifesto, the one that apparently no one can defend such was its rancidity, ought to have surprised no one.  Rather than abolish non-dom status outright though, perhaps the most obvious choice, Osborne opted to filch Miliband's minimum wage rise policy instead.  Only he went even further, promising that whereas Miliband outlined a rise to £8 an hour by 2020, Osborne's new "national living wage" will be £9 an hour by then.

Except, of course, Miliband's proposed rise in the minimum wage was meant to operate alongside the living wage, with sweeteners for businesses that opted to pay the latter.  Osborne's national living wage is nothing of the kind, for a whole host of reasons.  First, the living wage in London is already calculated to be £9.15 an hour.  Second, the living wage has always taken into account tax credits; remove them entirely or cut them viciously, as Osborne has done, and it would need to be even higher.  Third, as the IFS has already pointed out, not all businesses, especially small ones, can afford to pay the living wage, or at least not without raising their prices dramatically.  The further cuts in corporation tax will not help them one jot.  Workers over 25 will either have to be replaced with younger ones still on the lower rate, or another slew of smaller retail businesses are likely to be forced to close, or break the law to survive.

The distributional analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility lays it bare: just as with the continued rises in the personal allowance, those who will gain the most are once again the already comfortably off.  The end result is that regardless of the rise, the cuts to tax credits will mean the vast majority will still be worse off, albeit by perhaps half as much as they otherwise would have been.  The poorest in society are in effect being asked to subsidise what David Cameron described as the "most basic, human and natural instinct", i.e., to pass on what even they themselves may have received entirely tax-free, at a cost estimated at £940m by 2020.  This truly is, as Chris said, the something for nothing culture in action, and as Rick argues, sets the Conservatives out not as defenders of wealth creators, but those who buy a commodity and do nothing with it other than just watch it grow in value.

Much the same thinking is presumably behind the cutting of rents in social housing by 1%.  What looks on the surface to be about helping the low paid is more than counteracted by how the OBR points out this is likely to reduce further the building of social housing.  Combined with the government policy of extending the right to buy to housing associations, this seems destined to further inflate the housing market bubble, and indeed in turn, the housing benefit bill, despite the motive being the opposite.  The new lower benefits cap will also have an effect, and is likely to lead to more landlords rejecting housing benefit claimants outright.  That buy-to-let mortgages will only be able to be offset against the basic rate rather than higher rate of tax is also likely to lead to a race to do so before the measure kicks in in 2017, further overheating the market.

Underneath all the wounding cuts to benefits and the rise in the minimum wage is the fact this was a tax-raising, rather than a tax-cutting budget.  With the major taxes off-limits, as promised and set to be legislated upon so they cannot be touched, Osborne has resorted to the stealth taxes Gordon Brown was so pilloried over.  The big money raisers are the tax on dividends, forecast to be bringing in nearly £2bn a year by the end of this parliament, a rise in the tax on insurance premiums, which should raise £1.5bn a year, and the changes to vehicle excise duty, meant to gain the Treasury by a similar amount.  Some of this though is going straight back out the door thanks to the further, unexpected cut in corporation tax to 18%, estimated to cost almost £2.5bn by 2020.  As Aditya Chakrabortty has been setting out in the Graun, this is in spite of the estimated £93bn a year given out in corporate welfare.

Osborne has then all but abandoned the plans he set out in March, opting instead for a smoother path to his idealised surplus, coming a year later than planned.  The cuts to government departments will not be quite as severe as anticipated, almost certainly down to how there's so little meat left to cut.  £18bn will nonetheless still have to be found, and with the defence budget now also protected, that leaves one area less from where money will be taken.  This has also only been achieved thanks to overall savings in welfare of £34.9bn, the difference made up by the continued freeze on yearly increases to benefits of 1%, and changes to universal benefit before it has even been introduced.  All this is predicated on Osborne's savings and cuts being achieved: when £5bn is again meant to come in from clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, this looks extremely dubious.  The OBR also rates the chances of most of Osborne's tax rises raising what the Treasury says they will as having a "very high" uncertainty.  Should they not, will Osborne again postpone reaching his surplus, raise the taxes he's legislated not to, or cut benefits even further?  Take a wild guess.

George Osborne's task today was relatively simple, despite all the talk of how clever he's been and the boost to his chances of taking over from David Cameron.  All he needed to do was get the pain out of the way, disguise it as best he could and hope that by 2020 what voters remember is not how he picked their pockets, but how their wages have now increased thanks to his living wage.  The fact is Osborne has been a remarkably lucky chancellor: the "omnishambles" budget would have been the downfall of other politicians, as would his abysmal failure to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament, or indeed how he cut too far and fast in the first couple of years and stalled the recovery.  Thanks to a very friendly press, a weak Labour party and the Liberal Democrats covering for him, he's still in place.  Moreover, he's only implementing what the Tory manifesto promised.  Those who voted Tory might not have expressly wanted a crueller, smaller state, where everyone who earns below the 40% threshold can essentially go hang, and the aim is to ensure the moneyed and propertied stay that way, the drawbridge permanently raised up, but that's what they've got.  The only thing that can blow Osborne off course now is another downturn, and the further suffering that would entail hardly bears thinking about.  Such is the position of strength an exceptionally weak government finds itself in.  Such has been the failure of all opposition to austerity.

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