Wednesday, September 30, 2015 

Syria: hell on earth, and made worse by each successive intervention.

When it comes to the great worst place in the world to live debate, there are many favourites that immediately come to mind.  Your North Koreas, Saudi Arabias, Eritreas, Irans, etc.  All with highly oppressive authoritarian governments, all set on either outright killing their own people, or just making life as miserable as possible.  Then you have the places where plain old insecurity and crime are the main problem: countries like Honduras and El Salvador, currently battling over which has the highest murder rate per capita of population, while one of the BRICS, South Africa, is also averaging 49 murders a day.

Few though are likely to disagree (Islamic State supporting cretins excepted) that right now Syria is the closest equivalent to hell on earth.  Beyond argument is the root cause of the civil war was the reaction of the Assad regime to the protests that broke out as part of the wider Arab spring; less widely accepted is that the regime's almost immediate resort to violence was not wholly surprising considering events in Egypt.  There the Mubarak government pretty much surrendered without a fight.  It has since resurfaced in the form of the Sisi government, but whether the Ba'ath party would have been able to come back to power in the same way had Assad also quickly left the scene is dubious.

Besides, let's not indulge the view that had the initial uprising succeeded Syria would now be rivalling Tunisia in the Arab spring stakes.  That so many extreme Islamist groupings emerged as quickly as they did to fight the regime, not including either the al-Nusra Front or Islamic State, suggests there would have soon been a battle on the hands of the secularists and liberals to maintain their revolution.

In any case, the peaceful uprising quickly became an armed one.  These groups were soon funded by the usual suspects: the Saudis, the Qataris, Kuwaitis, etc.  Whether any Arab governments directly funded the most notorious jihadist groups is uncertain, but certainly the usual benefactors in their countries did.  At the same time, the Syrian government turned to its own allies, the Iranians and the Russians, both of whom have helped it to survive through direct aid, weaponry and in the case of Iran, fighters from Hezbollah.  Also helping out have been our good selves in the West: we quickly declared that Assad must go, his government was entirely illegitimate, and that the Syrian opposition, whichever group we've decided that is this week, are the only de facto representatives of the Syrian peopleAs well as helping to equip the "moderate" armed groups, it's fairly apparent that our approach throughout was to let the Arab states get on with doing whatever they felt like, even if that meant funding and arming jihadists, at the same time ironically enough as the Saudis and Emirate nations were helping with the overthrow of the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Confused yet?  We're only just getting started.  Ever since Islamic State took advantage of the Sunni uprising in Iraq against what they saw as the sectarian central government to take over vast swaths of the country, enabling it to also grab a massive part of western Syria, such was the collapse of government authority there, a veritable smorgasbord of nations have decided the best way to defeat them is to drop bombs from a great height on their general position.  This roll call of countries includes the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and France.  Technically we are yet to join in ourselves, but when you remember that British servicemen have taken part in sorties over the country and we felt the only way to protect ourselves from attacks on events that had already passed was to splatter some Islamic State morons across the Syrian desert via drone, you can basically include us also.

And now the Russians have joined in, only they are quite clearly intervening directly on the side of Assad.  For a few moments it looked as though the way was clearing for the sort of precursor to a peace initiative a few of us have long called for: to recognise that however terrible the crimes Assad has committed are, the only way to deal with Islamic State is to work with him and his forces, at least in the short term.  In exchange, Assad would be required to give up power once Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, but be allowed to remain a free man.  With Assad gone, a peace deal would hopefully then be easier to broker with the other rebel groups.  Free elections would follow, and so forth.  Yes, it's a plan with myriad problems that almost certainly wouldn't work, but it's a far more realistic one than all the others offered so far.  It seemed as if the arrival of new Russian weaponry and forces was to help purely with a renewed offensive against Islamic State, as suggested by the Syrians bombing targets they previously felt unable to.  That the Americans appeared to be acquiescing to this rather than complaining about it in the usual incredibly hypocritical style looked a good sign.

That today's first attacks by Russian planes seem to have targeted rebels other than IS rather undermines any lingering hopes on that score.  It could of course have been faulty intelligence, might have been merely an opening salvo designed to minimise any potential threat to the bases where the Russians are operating from, or it may be those on the ground are lying; any statement by rebel groups has to be treated with great caution, so often have they resorted to falsehoods.  More likely however is that this is just the start of a wider Russian offensive against all opposition to Assad.  Considering very few of the remaining rebel groups are "moderate" in the true sense of the word, this isn't the greatest tragedy.  What is a tragedy is the Russians have the same sense of compunction towards civilian casualties as everyone else, i.e. none.

Putin's motives are fairly transparent, as are the arguments being deployed.  All his forces are doing is going the extra mile the Americans and the rest haven't: attacking Islamic State from the air hasn't worked, so the next step has to be to coordinate with forces on the ground.  The Americans have effectively betrayed the Kurds who were playing that role, leaving only the Syrian army.  It's been apparent ever since the US airstrikes began that there is low-level plausibly deniable cooperation between the Syrians and the Americans, hence why there have been no unfortunate incidents in over a year of missions.  Why not simply make this formal, the Russians ask.

They have a point. Of course, these motives are far from pure: as much as the Russians do have more to fear from Islamic State than the Americans do, their intervention has the exact same downsides as ours in the region have.  It will likely increase the terrorist threat rather than decrease it, while the presence of Russians in the country will provide a further rallying cry for the jihadi recruiters.  Putin hopes an intervention that brings the end of the war closer will somewhat make up for the on-going conflict in Ukraine, raising the possibility of an early lifting of sanctions.  It also re-establishes Russia's influence in the region, building on the role played in the Iran nuclear programme negotiations.

Were Russia merely stepping up in this way, there would be little to protest about.  Clearly the hope of the Americans was the Russians were going to do what they weren't prepared to.  Instead, it looks as though there is no plan beyond propping up Assad indefinitely.  If there are to be joint operations with the Syrian military, there is no indication of them starting any time soon.  For a long time the harsh reality has been that we and our allies have been happy with a murderous stalemate in Syria.  Even now, as the refugee crisis is not really directly affecting us as it is the rest of Europe, we're still not especially bothered.  The only logic behind joining in with the bombing is for the sake of appearance; there's certainly no military necessity behind it.

With the Russians deciding to join the list of nationalities determined to make Syria even less liveable, the case for our getting involved becomes ever weaker.  Rarely has there been a case of a country already going through hell being fucked over so utterly by so many others.  The argument that only more war will solve the conflict applies only if that war targets Islamic State exclusively.  Russia's intervention seems likely only to result in yet more suffering.  And sadly, our hands are just as dirty as theirs.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015 

Now comes the hard bit.

Much as it pains me to say it, Jeremy Corbyn's first conference speech as Labour leader was without doubt worse than Ed Miliband's own debut effort 5 years ago.  Looking back at it now, Miliband's speech was pretty much the template of what it was thought a mass appeal political address should be: saying not too much but just enough about the speaker himself, acknowledging the public's concerns through the device of an ordinary voter whom the speaker had met, and attempting to deal with the worries of the audience in the hall and those of viewers at home.  Despite all this or rather because of it, as Miliband was never going to be able to pull off the Blair/Cameron bullshit act with the same panache, it just didn't work.  What at least read fine on the page failed in the delivery, which was nervous and stultifying.

Corbyn's speech also reads fine.  It's disjointed, there's no real overall theme, but it's solid.  There are some great passages, which we've since learned were borrowed from Richard Heller with his permission, and there's very little in it to disagree with.  Sadly, as haltingly delivered by Corbyn, with the same tripping over of words seen at PMQs and the other speeches since he was elected leader, it came across in much the same way, one level above shambolic.  Allowances can only go so far: it was apparently the first time Corbyn has used an autocue, the not being a consummate politician is part of his appeal, it won't matter as it'll be cut up for a 3-minute report on the news, and no one really pays attention to conference speeches in any case.

This is all true up to a point.  Cameron's conference speeches as prime minister have all been godawful and it hasn't done him the slightest harm.  Ed Miliband's subsequent speeches, especially his 2012 and 2013 efforts, were massively improved, and the price cap on energy prices policy subsequently set the political agenda.  Did it make a scrap of difference, and conversely did his "forgetting" about the deficit in 2014 have any great impact?  Again, probably not.  Minds were likely already made up by that point.

With Corbyn, they are very much yet to be.  Along with his first PMQs, this speech will be the beginning of voters making up their minds.  By no means will it be all bad: the difference between Corbyn and the political leaders of the other major parties could not be more stark.  An unspun man of experience who calls not just for a more caring society, but also for a kinder politics, demanding that the personal attacks cease.  A leader who laughs and makes bad jokes about press attacks on him.  A politician who doesn't want to impose his own view on the party, instead wanting debate to flourish and for advice to be given freely.  All are highly commendable and endearing qualities, likely to appeal.

The problem is the speech as a whole was directed at the hall itself, rather than anyone outside it.  Conference itself lapped it up, as they were always likely to; Tony Blair's shtick was to pick a different fight every year with his own party, and how different this was from those days.  Even Ed Miliband in his first speech recognised however that the battle was to win support not in the hall, but out in the country.  We lost 5 million votes he said, asking how the party could win them back.  He didn't have the answers, but at least he posed the question.  To be sure, Corbyn didn't hold back in taking the fight to the Tories, denouncing their cuts to tax credits, contrasting it with their choice to all but abolish inheritance tax, and throwing straight back at them their line on Corbyn and Labour being a threat to national and economic security.  Of the few new policies on offer, the pledge to look at making the self-employed eligible for maternity and paternity pay will no doubt be popular.

For those who stayed with the Tories or went to UKIP though, there was very little here to make them think again.  The politics of the last 5 years will almost certainly end up being defined by the Tory strategy of being as nasty as they could get away with being to the unemployed, immigrants, those on benefits and the poorest in society in general.  Rather than be embarrassed by the growth in food banks or the rise in zero hours contracts, Cameron shrugged it all off.  Moreover, so too did the voters: they might not have been voting for the Tory manifesto or for the UKIP policy of being arseholes to everyone specifically when they put their cross on the ballot, but do so they did.  They preferred the hateful, envious, kicking down politics of the right enough to give UKIP 4 million votes and for the Tories to win an overall majority.  For Corbyn to appeal for a kinder politics is certainly noble and welcome, but for it to actually happen?  At this point it would be almost to go against the very nature of the country we've become.  Sporadic outbursts of humanity aside, the default is nearly always to say no when the request for help comes.

As strong as Heller's lines then were about the Tories expecting the people of Britain to accept what they're given, the sad fact is that's precisely what they did.  Given the choice between what they saw as economic competence, regardless of the reality, and a Labour party they didn't trust, they opted for Osborne's self-defeating austerity and everything that goes with it.  In this respect, yesterday's speech by John McDonnell was far more successful, especially when all it really did was reheat Ed Balls' policies and announce a host of reviews.  Despite this it came across as credible, with all the steel that Balls' pronouncements had lacked.

Perhaps Corbyn felt McDonnell had covered those bases.  He might well have felt that he still needs to consolidate his power within the parliamentary party, extending his hand before he addresses how Labour goes about winning the next election.  He could be of the mind that first he needs to unite the left, drawing back Green defectors and any SNPers having second thoughts by making clear it's time to come home to a Labour party which shares their values.  Viewed on that basis alone, the speech was a success.

To give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt, it could be he simply doesn't yet have a strategy to win over undecided voters.  There's nothing wrong with that for the moment, not least when the only alternatives offered thus far have been to emulate the Tories more.  It does however only encourage the dullards who keep on repeating that Corbyn's supporters aren't interested in winning, not that they need any encouragement (I do nonetheless fear there is more than a smidgen of truth to Janan Ganesh's view that some of Corbyn's supporters are "comfortable").  To not so much as mention the defeat though, to recognise that the party was rejected and to examine the reasons as to why was an unforced mistake.

Corbyn has done the "easy" part.  He now needs to convince he can appeal beyond his natural constituency.  Not doing the bare minimum when he has so much goodwill is a failure he may live to regret.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015 

Three ring circus sideshow of freaks.

People on social media, aren't they all a bunch of whining, quick to take offence charlatans totally unrepresentative of the wider public?  You'd be forgiven for thinking so, considering the number of thinkpieces as well as the occasional news article that consist almost entirely of "look at what these bastards said about my last missive advocating the drowning of the first born".  

At the weekend even the normally wonderful Marina Hyde dedicated her Graun column to mockery of the angry, vocal self-righteous shits in our midst, the people who are so enamoured with their chosen outsider they'll go so far as to get Alex Salmond or Nigel Farage inked on their skin.  Fairly easy targets, you might have thought.  That she did this just a week after writing one of the best responses to the Charlotte Proudman affair, comparing the creepiness of Proudman's flatterer describing his own daughter in sexualised terms with Donald Trump's repeated remarks that if his daughter wasn't his maybe he'd be dating her, was all the more surprising.

It does seem odd then that of all the people the Graun could have got to respond to Lord Sumption's worryingly complacent remarks on the representation of women in the judiciary, they decided on... Charlotte Proudman.  This is not to say there is anything much wrong with her article.  There isn't.   Nor was much wrong with her piece the previous week on the furore following her shaming of Alexander Carter-Silk for messaging her on Linked In to express his non-politically correct admiration for her "stunning" photo.  Generally, if you realise the message you're about to send isn't in the best taste, or wouldn't be acceptable as a part of saying hello in like, real life, you are deserving of the kind of response Proudman gave.

This said, and this is part of the reason I will probably never properly understand social media or the battle of egos and narcissisms that go hand in hand, there was no compelling reason to name Carter-Silk on Twitter as she did.  Her point about sexism, as well as her question about whether other women had received similarly objectionable messages regarding their physical appearance on the professional social network would have remained just as powerful with his identity blanked out.  Indeed, if anything it would have further highlighted her withering response to Carter-Silk, especially the cutting reference to his being twice her age.  It would also have helped to prevent the likes of the Mail then deriding Proudman and others like her who dare to object to unwanted advances as "feminazis", and everything else that followed on.

The media as ever wants to have its cake and eat it.  This week, columnist Lindy West encouraged women to #ShoutYourAbortion.  Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, I side completely with West when she says abortion needs to be safe, legal and accessible to everyone.  In her previous piece though, she took issue with an unfunny viral video titled Dear Fat People.  Again, more than fair enough.  Nicole Arbour's past work is characterised as slut-shaming, the video itself is fat-shaming, and so on.   West's response to this is simple: she is a far better person than Arbour because she fights for her regardless of what she thinks or says.  West's argument is nothing more than I'm brilliant and certain of my righteousness, and that's why you're wrong and in time will appreciate just how right I am.  West doesn't seem to have any problem with how Arbour's YouTube channel was temporarily removed after complaints, as she doesn't so much as mention it; perhaps this is because she realises that when discourse becomes reduced to characterising criticism or mockery as always being about shaming, demands for censorship are bound to follow.  Or it might be that West thinks that "shaming" is a perfectly appropriate response, so long as the shaming was started by the person being targeted.

When the usual cretins then reflect that however unpleasant it might be to be the centre of attention for a few days, to receive death threats and all the rest, if it gets you a regular gig in the media it can't be all bad, it's more and more difficult to argue against them.  Fact is that the "mainstream" media and social media have become interdependent; increasingly neither can operate without the other.  For all the complaints about trolls, people being zoomers and monomaniacs, the media wants more rather than fewer Katie Hopkins and Charlotte Proudmans.  The circle might be vicious, but it keeps on turning.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015 

The collapse of trust: Operation Midland and Exaro News.

As is becoming ever clearer, a substantial number of people in this country and across the American-speaking world in general have reached the point where they don't believe a single thing the old authority figures say.  They actively dislike traditional politicians, they don't believe the newspapers, they turn their noses up at mainstream broadcasters, and so on.  There are a number of reasons for this, the major one being that some politicians and some newspapers have got away with telling lies and half-truths for a very long time.  While the same can't necessarily be said of the BBC, what it most certainly can be accused of is status quo bias: while if anything it helped with the rise of UKIP thanks to the televisual quality of bar room Nige, its sniffier attitude towards Scottish independence and more recently Jeremy Corbyn has been noticeable.

Quite why this is happening now, and why it is happening to both left and right, whether it be with UKIP, Corbyn, Trump or Podemos is difficult to pin down precisely.  What is apparent is that it has its roots both in the economic crash, and in the transformation in the way we consume information: the collapse in faith in politicians who insisted they had all the answers, that there was no alternative, combined with the rise of social media where those very alternative voices have been able to cut through where they couldn't previously.  The same forces are behind very contrasting movements: on the right, where the belief is that an unaccountable liberal elite has been forcing its values onto the majority, resulting in a resurgence in patriotism and nationalism; and on the left, where what are seen as the failed compromises of the past are being rejected in favour of those who will at least fight for what they believe in.

This is obviously to simplify massively, not least as there is also a third constituency.  This consists of individuals who aren't necessarily politically inclined one way or the other, but who are convinced they have been and are being lied to by everyone.  Again, this group is also well catered for, increasingly by ever more professional outlets.  That they are often backed and funded by authoritarian states doesn't seem to matter; Press TV and RT's ability to offer an alternative is enough by itself.

Then you have the likes of Exaro News, where the clash between the establishment and those professing to be against it looks to be coming to a head.  Funded by Jerome Booth and headed by Mark Watts, formerly of Press TV, with ex-Guardian reporters David Hencke and David Pallister also on the staff, the agency is at the very centre of the intensifying row over the Met's Operation Midland.  Approaching a year after the investigation was launched into claims made by a witness known only as Nick, no arrests have been made and evidence to back up the allegations of murder and organised child abuse by a Westminster paedophile ring remains elusive.

Following continued criticism of the decision by Midland's lead officer Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald to call a press conference following interviews with Nick, at which he told the media that the account related was both "credible and true", the Met on Monday released a lengthy statement defending the investigation up to now.  While accepting that the use of the words "credible and true" suggested they were pre-empting the outcome of the investigation, they insist they were doing nothing of the sort.  Would everyone rather have a return to the mistakes of the past, the statement all but asks, where "the first instinct of investigators appeared to be to disbelieve those making the allegations"?

Obviously not, but the resort to a false dichotomy is unhelpful to say the least.  The difficulty for the police once a statement such as McDonald's is made, which does seem to be almost unprecedented, regardless of how they now want to present it, is that it gives the impression of then looking for evidence to confirm their initial belief was the correct one, rather than "investigating without fear or favour, in a thorough, professional and impartial fashion" as they claim to have done.  The Met further doesn't help its cause when the rest of the statement is essentially a complaint about how the media other than Exaro has been operating, asking them to consider the vulnerability of those making the allegations, and all but calling out James Hanning of the Independent for putting Nick's real name to Harvey Proctor amid a list to see if it produced any response.

Adding insult to injury, the statement goes on to insist that the Met "does not name or confirm names of those arrested or interviewed".  What the Met has been doing however is informing either Nick or Exaro when it has carried out raids of those accused, as Exaro was first with the news of the interviewing of Proctor and the initial raid of his home.  Proctor has not been as much as arrested, it should be remembered, nor was Lord Bramall, who as the Mail reported on Saturday also saw his home searched by a number of officers.  Equally apparent as evidenced by a previous report in the Mail and by pieces elsewhere since is that officers, either on Operation Midland itself or within the Met, are split on whether or not there is any truth to Nick's claims. 

A somewhat corroborating account, given by another witness who first went to Exaro News, has since been dismissed.  The Sunday Telegraph reported that while "Darren" was abused by a foster carer, his claims of being abused by a paedophile ring led by Peter Righton were not backed up by the available evidence, and that he had a history of making unsubstantiated allegations.  Exaro claimed at the start of September that Darren had himself withdrawn cooperation from Sussex police after they had referred his son to social services, which does not seem to be an entirely truthful account.  Despite describing the reports as "smears", Exaro in a number of tweets made no attempt to dispute the Telegraph account, beyond insisting that it has not sat in on interviews between the police and witnesses.  Exaro staff have apparently attended preliminary meetings between the police and witnesses, however.

Exaro's approach has been criticised from the outset.  As the Mail's report on Saturday makes clear, Exaro has not made any mention of previous accounts of the abuse Nick suffered which he shared online, none of which made reference to the allegations against VIPs he subsequently made to them.  Exaro has also as Richard Bartholomew notes not featured the most lurid parts of Nick's testimony, that it was Ted Heath who prevented Proctor from castrating him with a penknife, and also that he was abused by soldiers who humiliated him further by pinning a poppy to his bare chest.  This could be perfectly innocent: they may not have wanted to go into such detail, despite reporting in the case of Darren that a boy with Down's syndrome was tied between two cars which then reversed away from each other or it may have been that Nick only informed the police of these specific aspects of the abuse.  It could also be that Exaro felt these parts of his account to be so incredible as to cast doubt on the whole.

This isn't to pretend there aren't problems with the reports by both the Mail and Sunday Telegraph.  While not naming Nick, the former article gives more than enough detail from which anyone who really wanted to could identify him.  Doing so is completely irresponsible, and only makes it all the easier for supporters of Exaro and Nick to dismiss the rest of the story.  It also attempts to make it into an issue for both Labour and about political correctness, as the Mail is so often insistent on doing.  While there are criticisms that can be directed at Tom Watson and other Labour MPs Simon Danczuk and John Mann, Watson has had zero input on the actual police handling and investigation of Nick's allegations.  Nor does he seem to have influenced the investigation into Darren's claims, despite having according to the Telegraph been copied into some of the emails between Darren and the police.

Exaro's response to the criticism so far has been to either not engage, cry smear, in the case of Darren to blame Sussex police while at the same time when it comes to Nick repeating ad nauseum how the Met believes his allegations to "be credible", or to list what it claims its reporting as a whole has achieved.  If as seems increasingly likely the Met does slowly wind down Operation Midland, Exaro might be able in the same way to move on with little in the way of fanfare from its all but ownership of the establishment paedophile claims.  Nothing was proved, nothing was disproved, and so the claims will go on.  Those who want to believe always will.  The question is whether the numbers of "believers" is increasing, or whether they're simply more visible than before.  And if the likes of Exaro fail to satisfy them, will there be another new media organisation along to take its place?

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015 

Where's the... oh, you get the idea.

A few years back I started to read Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, on the back of its Booker win and the surrounding hype.  After reaching a few dozen pages in, I chucked it aside, never to touch it again.  Not because it was unreadable, quite the opposite; I just despised every single character in it, including Nick, the middle class interloper in an upper class world.

I was reminded of this reading the latest extract from Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott's David Cameron biog, the source of yesterday's hilarity.  It's little wonder the Mail paid an enormous sum to serialise it, as the book seems to have written by the pair in the same breathless, isn't this horrifying and yet don't you wish you were there style the paper adopts when describing the activities of the landed gentry.  Everything about it screams Mail - from how you have to take it on trust that any thing of things described actually happened, as nothing is sourced, to the definitively tabloid quoting of an anonymous former newspaper exec, used to scenes of excess but apparently scandalised by this particular non-orgy to the point of foresight, telling a friend that "this will all end in tears".

Essentially all Ashcroft has on Dave, failing a further spectacular revelation that the Mail has oddly decided to hold back, is a third-hand story of dead pig fellatio, that the soon to be PM knew about Ashcroft's continued non-dom status earlier than was thought, and he might have been in the vicinity of drug-taking hoorays while leader of the opposition.  The Sun has already managed to one-up Ashcroft on that score by claiming both Dave 'n' Sam were at a party where drugs were being taken openly back in 2011.  Oh, and the army and the Americans respectively think that Dave's a dilettante berk and completely useless.  Neither of which is a revelation if you'd been paying attention.

Oddly, the reaction or rather lack of to the hog bonking rather proves a point.  YouGov wants us all to know that the public couldn't care less what animal our PM straddled while at uni, except plenty of them probably won't know precisely because much of the media, if not the social variety, were so coy or vague about the whole thing.  A media which only a few weeks ago couldn't get enough of the incredible allegations about mostly dead ex-politicians seemed embarrassed to broach the whole "PM fucked a dead pig's mouth" palaver, with even the Sun relegating it beneath the accusations about drugs.  The Graun itself has not commented on the book as yet, but its columnists have mainly gone with the snotty "who cares" line, preferring to concentrate on the non-dom issue.  Make sordid, questionable claims about current frontline politicians and the media will mostly belittle them; make them about plausible wrong'uns from the past and fairness goes out the window.

The other thing about the pork allegation is the rest of the book as serialised so far is remarkably dull, making up for what it lacks in rigour with Hello! style hackery.  Didja you know that Dave once got so drunk at a party he lost his phone, and that Sam can be gloriously indiscreet too?  Why, she let slip that she and Dave once got so sloshed while on holiday in Morocco that they both vommed! Crazy, mad people!  Oakeshott duly tured up on Newsnight, insisting less than convincingly that the not quite spit roast was a perfectly legitimate story to tell, while at the same time pleading for the book to be considered as a whole.  Whether it was what she signed up for or not, the incident of the PM and the sow is now the book.  Even if making Dave a laughing stock wasn't Ashcroft's main aim, apparently believing he wasn't going to be PM come publication, he knew full well what the Mail and everyone else would home in on.

Stripped of the initiation rite tale, there isn't much meat left on the skull.  Damian McBride is probably just making mischief with his own piece on how Downing Street hasn't properly denied any of it, suggesting perhaps that it could be true, but then as said, it doesn't truly matter.  Ashcroft seems to have got his revenge, the Mail has declared open season on Dave, and we've all had a giggle.  Cameron won't live it down for a while, but it's hardly wounded him fatally.

The only thing it's truly brought home is that no one cares in the slightest about politicians' use of drugs while juveniles, nor are they bothered by either their own or their representatives' hypocrisy over continuing prohibition.  Hence why the Sun pursued that line rather than join in the nation's laughter as it ordinarily would.  As for the Chipping Snorton set, if anyone was that bothered by the circles our PM moved in, they would have protested about it back in May.  Much as I might despise every single one of them, there are plenty of others who don't care in the slightest, or in fact would really like to be pals with some of the most boring and yet powerful people in the land.

Pity poor Michael Ashcroft, with all the money in the world, and yet apparently bitter about being excluded from all those amazing parties in the Cotswolds.  Still, at least he didn't acquaint himself with the front end of some ham, right?

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Monday, September 21, 2015 

But you fuck one pig...

Whenever a sex scandal turns up, you tend to get two responses (well, actually three, but give me a chance here).  The first is to be pompous, po-faced, ever so serious and lecture all and sundry on how there are far more serious concerns than one person placing a "private part of their anatomy" into another person.  To be fair, often this is the right response: the private lives of politicians are no business of ours unless it affects their ability to do their job.  Whatever someone else gets up to in their bedroom, arseless chaps, fur suit or dungeon is their affair, so long as the others involved are able to consent and have consented.

The second is to laugh, mock, carp and then laugh some more.  In this instance, having been informed that David Cameron may have merely shoved his ding-dong into the agape mouth of a decapitated suckling porcine as part of a initiation ceremony at Oxford to join the "debauched" Piers Gaveston club, it is the only appropriate response.  Our prime minister fucked a pig.  Not since it was revealed that John Major had been enjoying copious amounts of sexual activity with Edwina Currie has an entire country been so amused by such an improbable coming together of politician and err, inanimate object.  It doesn't matter whether it's true or not, it's that it's been reported at all, and that Cameron's team has had to deny that he ever had sexual relations with that sow.  Even in these days when Twitter is capable of sucking the joy out of the funniest joke ever told within hours, nothing is going to come close for a very long time to the sheer hilarity of learning that our leader, the man who considers himself the equal of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and so on, porked a porker.  Ed Miliband was abused endlessly, is still being mocked by the most dull of dullards for eating a bacon sandwich in an non-approved manner; if Ed's face in those photographs is the opposite of someone enjoying themselves, you can but imagine the expression fixed on Dave's fizzog as the flash went off all those years ago.

If nothing else, this might just cause Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett to update her seminal article on why sex education must be compulsory and updated, as "seagulling", i.e., a bunch of lads yanking it in an cupboard and then leaping out and ejaculating in unison on their unfortunate victim had become a "thing" at universities.  Both, you have to suspect, are equally fictitious.  Both sound plausible enough for you to believe they might have, could have taken place.  I don't doubt there are people who have pleasured themselves with the severed heads of barnyard animals; mainly deranged farmers, but the odd yahoo and chinless wonder wouldn't surprise.  It could well have happened, but for photographic evidence also to exist?  Come now.  Dave and pals were embarrassed enough about the Bullingdon photos to persuade the owner to revoke the rights to their use, so you can imagine the lengths (ho ho) they would have gone to ensure that images of Cameron sticking it to a stuck pig were destroyed, never to be seen again.

You don't then need to read Toby Young declaring the entire thing to be nonsense to know in your heart of hearts it's not true.  Nonetheless, the third response to sex scandals is for those on the same side to rush around shouting "nothing to see here", when such a response is beyond self-defeating.  The Spectator has not one, not two, but three articles up either making light of the whole thing or saying it's crap, with Brendan O'Neill declaring that banging the corpses of dead animals is top bantz and anyone who disagrees is a killjoy moralist prude, Young asking if this is the best Ashcroft could do, as though the whole shagging a pig's head thing is an entirely normal student prank, and Ian Kirby, somehow most hilariously of all, claiming the story would have never got in the News of the World.  If anything it would have been too tasteful and well founded to have got in the World, where making things up about already incredible revelations, i.e. Max Mosley didn't just host S&M sex parties, they were Nazi S&M sex parties, was par for the course.

The protesting and chucking of toys out the pram at how it's not fair are too delicious.  It's as though we haven't just gone through a period where anything was fair game so long as it was directed at Labour as opposed to Tory politicians.  Ed Miliband's old man hated the country that gave him refuge and which he fought for despite not having to?  Fine and dandy.  Ed Miliband would stab the country in the back just like he did his own brother?  That's an entirely acceptable and by no means out of order accusation.  Jeremy Corbyn is a danger to our national security, economic security and the very security of your family?  How could he not be?  Corbyn's an anti-semite, pals around with terrorists, sympathises with Nazis and quite possibly wants to nationalise your cat?  Yeah, why not?  Just as a further example, Matthew d'Ancona amid his column in the Graun today on the Lib Dems describes Corbyn as "Khmer Beige".  Apart from not being funny, can Corbyn's politics be traced back even remotely to a Maoist sect that seized power and killed millions?  They can't, can they?

No, it's just won't do for accusations of hypocrisy to be thrown around on this occasion.  Of course the left is going to delight in this story, precisely because of all the shit that has been chucked at Labour and will continue to be.  Too bad, this time the boot's on the other foot.  If say this story had come from a lesser figure than Lord Ashcroft, from a muck-raking biographer known for his leftist political sympathies, then maybe there would just about be a point.  Nor does it make the slightest difference that this is clearly is about revenge on the part of Ashcroft.  Sorry Dave and everyone else, you've made your bed, now you must lie in it.  Along with the assorted heads of dead creatures if you like.

Of course, the real story isn't that Cameron shoved his however many inches of shrivelled love into the unwilling gob of a slaughtered oinker.  It's that once again his rich chums have dropped him in it.  Ashcroft is being obtuse to the nth degree with his claims that he was expecting to be hamsomely rewarded following the 2010 victory in return for his donations of millions and co-chairmanship of the party (PDF).  Giving him any sort of job in government just wasn't going to happen after it emerged that he hadn't, despite himself promising and William Hague doing the same, dispensed with his non-dom status.  If that is truly what all this is about, then Ashcroft has proved himself to be one of pettiest and most unpleasant people you'd ever have the misfortune of meeting.  All the money and respect in the world means nothing to such individuals without a further title or role.  Janice Turner of the Times tweeted to say "the most obscene bit of the pig-fuckery is this is what a billionaire non dom does to democracy when denied political power".  Well, yes and no.  This is nothing compared to the obscenity that was taking Andy Coulson into Downing Street, or the email and texts between Rebekah Brooks and Cameron, with Brooks declaring that "professionally we're definitely in this together".  Rupert Murdoch is not so much as a British citizen, and yet no prime minister until the hacking scandal could risk snubbing him.

For reasons known only to themselves, both the Mail and Ashcroft have declared war on Cameron.  Whether their aim is to get George Osborne into Downing Street as soon as, despite how the chancellor surely doesn't want the job until at least Dave has succeeded in keeping us in Europe, or that it's Paul Dacre has gotten bored with the sycophancy of recent times, it doesn't matter at this precise moment.  What does matter is everyone right now is laughing at Dave and the Tories, and that it makes clear what comes after the "renegotiation" is going to be nothing compared to this.  Anyone confidently predicting years of Tory power when the biggest reckoning in the party's recent history is fast approaching needs to think again.  Pig loving is just the beginning.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015 

I bring you the future.

Apart from Nick Cohen's resignation from the left, having finally decided with the victory of Jeremy Corbyn that we're all a bunch of clerical fascist appeasers beyond any redemption, this week's Spectator also has a diary from Chris Mullin.  

In the middle of last week he was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write in the region of 3,000 words on the first 100 days of a Jeremy Corbyn premiership, which he duly did.  Strangely, despite commissioning it and the editor being enthusiastic about the first 700 words, Mullin was then told on the Saturday the paper wouldn't be using it after all.  The piece, snapped up instead by the Graun and printed on Tuesday, was presumably just that little bit close to the knuckle for the Sunset Times.  Rather than depicting a disaster, Corbyn proves rather a success, with Rupert Murdoch being called into Downing Street and a deal struck whereby the modern day Methusaleh places his papers into a trust in exchange for full control of Sky.  Even the newly crowned King Charles is rather pleased by his second prime minister, having been secretly corresponding with him for some time.

A fantasy, and yet apparently too much of one for the paper to countenance.  It's with this in mind that the media's wider coverage of Corbyn's first week as Labour leader should be viewed, as it helps explain precisely why regardless of how badly or how well Our Jez did he would have been slaughtered anyway.  Or you could just look at the Sun's front pages from Tuesday and Wednesday.  On Tuesday the paper splashed on how much of a hypocrite Corbyn was for agreeing to join the privy council, the ceremony requiring the ardent republican to kiss Queenie's hand.  The story was complete bollocks, but don't mind that.  On Wednesday, after almost the entire journalistic establishment deemed itself shocked and scandalised by said republican and atheist declining to even mime along to God Save the Queen, the Sun chose to go with "NATIONAL ANTHEM OUTRAGE" as "CORB SNUBS THE QUEEN".

Had Corbyn sang, it's glaringly apparent the same line in alleged hypocrisy would have been pursued for a second day, although perhaps on the inside pages instead.  We're not just dealing with the gutter rags here though, the nonsense was everywhere.  Newsnight invited on George Monbiot and Jenni Russell to debate this important issue, while the Graun has ran at least three pieces on it.  The Times being the Times had Baron Finkelstein of Pinner, ennobled for services to the Conservative party, mentioning the name of just about every terrorist organisation and dictator in recent history alongside Jezza's name.  Opposite Finkelstein's column was Oliver Kamm implying the mere possibility that Corbyn might wear a white poppy as well as or maybe instead of a red one at the Cenotaph in November would be an act of Nazi sympathising.  Tim Stanley of the Torygraph meanwhile, a paper which the day before had described John McDonnell as a "nutjob", tweeted Corbyn to ask if he would be "dressing more respectfully" come then, having failed to do his top button up for the Battle of Britain ceremony.

Even the slightly more sensible, saying it was an obvious trap Corbyn shouldn't have fallen into and that his media strategy so far has been non-existent are missing the point.  If the media had wanted to make this about Corbyn's unsteadiness and poor initial performance, they could have done so.  Instead they leapt immediately on the admittedly cack-handed but understandable releasing of the names of his first few shadow cabinet appointments, all men, as though this proved that "brocialism" was descending.  That all the remaining major offices of state went to women and there was a higher percentage of women overall in the shadow cabinet than even under feminist t-shirt wearer Harriet Harman didn't matter.  The media, as so often, wanted to make this about them.  Pulling out of the Andrew Marr show to attend a mental health gala, without so much as taking a camera or press crew with him?  Sheer idiocy!  Refusing to deal with newspapers that have already called him every name under the sun on the off chance they might one day say something nice about him?  He can't go on like this, refusing to play the game by our rules!

Nor does it matter it says something really quite extraordinary about the media in 2015 that they, if no one else, still believe our social betters must be respected at all times, including by people that have been elected to a position of authority rather than born into it.  But wait, it's not about Liz or royalty, it's actually about honouring the "few".  Wouldn't they have wanted the Labour leader to sing out the anthem of the country they fought for?  Plenty perhaps would, and yet plenty of others might equally have believed they were battling the Luftwaffe for the freedom not to sing the anthem, and in turn for the opportunity to vote for a leader of a political party to represent those views.  If nothing else, it would be nice if Corbyn's silence at least opened up a debate about what a execrable dirge God Save is regardless of its sentiments; would anyone seriously have the same problem with belting out Jerusalem, regardless of religious connotations?

Except Jeremy from now on we're assured will sing the anthem, although as shown by the frankly hilarious interview with Laura Kuenssberg, he's still not keen on going down on bended knee before Brenda.  Who would be, other than those taught almost from the moment they're born to follow protocol at all times and without question?  In supposedly post-deferential Britain, this is what has been blown up to be the major issue, and then often the very same people act as though they can't understand why anyone would vote for a bearded leftie who wants to do things differently.  Except of course most of them understand all too well, they just carry on regardless.

No one can realistically say that Corbyn's first week has been a triumph.  It hasn't by any stretch of the imagination.  At best, you could call it idiosyncratic.  Almost nothing that has gone on can possibly continue in the way it has, from the open differences of opinion with his shadow ministers, the decent but doomed to failure crowdsourcing of questions from the public to ask Cameron, the tripping over his words, rambling for too long, the complete failure to prepare whatsoever for interviews, and so forth.  All of that will inevitably be tightened up, and yet much of it will have been precisely what appealed to some voters more than anything else.  He's not David Cameron, not the other three defeated candidates.  He's not politics as usual, he's a sort of Boris, a sort of Nigel, although whether voters truly warm to him in the same way as plenty have those two remains to be seen.  If not him, then frankly someone like him but without the same politics and past could be the future.  That's something us all, media and piss-takers alike, might have to get used to.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015 

The sensible party, or the stupid party?

Never underestimate the Conservative party's innate stupidity.  If there is only one lesson to be drawn from today's vote on cutting tax credits, it's that the Tories haven't properly grasped the whole party of "working people" thing, despite their laughable rhetoric.  Here they are, presented with an opposition leader they couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams, going to the TUC and praising strikers, attacking them as "poverty deniers", and what do they do?  Err, carry on with a policy which even they accept will take money away from those on low wages, money which will not be made up by either the "national living wage", or by any increases in the income tax threshold.

How many Tories rebelled against this remarkably dense act of hubris, which Labour will now be able to exploit from now until the election, even if voters don't notice immediately and it instead only dawns on them how much the government is fucking them over come next year when the change becomes apparent?  Two.  Yep.  Two Conservative MPs saw this cut for the disaster it is guaranteed to become, of a piece with Gordon Brown's cack-handed removal of the 10p tax band.  David Davis, who despite being a serial rebel and Cameron loather knows an act of idiocy when he sees one, and Stephen McPartland.  There were probably a few more who abstained, but I think we now know what happens to those who abstain.

You can at least somewhat understand George Osborne's line of thinking.  Do something this self-defeating now and it'll be forgotten come 2020, when all anyone will recall is they're getting £9 an hour thanks to him.  The media is currently far more interested in how Jeremy Corbyn refuses to do things their way, like not buttoning his shirt all the way up to the top and declining to sing the national anthem, both crimes against nature and politics that must be eradicated from public life, so there's plenty of distraction from the reality.  He's also gambling the level of antipathy to benefits in general has reached the point where to be claiming anything is a source of shame, and that a small thing like losing £750 a year on average will be reflected on in relation to the apparent desire of voters to reduce the welfare bill overall.

Who knows, perhaps if Corbyn is still Labour leader come 2020 then we'll see a re-run of the last election with knobs on.  Regardless of everything the coalition had done, including their worst instincts being somewhat tempered by the Lib Dems, forced to choose between Miliband and Cameron there turned out to be no choice.  There are therefore two ways the Tories can respond to Corbyn and Labour.  Call them the sensible, and the stupid.  The sensible way would be to let Corbyn get on with taking Labour to the left, not least because this entirely vacates the centre ground.  The Tories won in May not because there was even the slightest real affection for them, but as they were in many people's eyes the least worst option.  Few believed the Tories meant it when they said £12bn in welfare cuts and promised further eye-watering cutbacks, thinking they were bargaining positions in coalition negotiations.  Why then carry on with cuts that look and feel ideological when Labour will oppose them regardless?  Truly be that moderate, one nation party, rather than leaving it as a risible soundbite.

Alternatively, there is the stupid approach.  Regard Corbyn as such a liability and lightweight that no one could possibly consider voting for him, and just carry on as before.  Remake the British state in the 21st century Tory party image, with trade unions cut even further down to size, the welfare system reduced to not so much a safety net as a half empty bucket of water, and public services deprived of resources to the point where crisis is permanent rather than seasonal.  Favour those who vote over those who don't, featherbed the retiring boomers while actively penalising their children and grandchildren, and hope against hope they'll continue to blame those below them rather than those above.  The Tories might think they'll be able to get away with it, not least when the media is so overwhelmingly on their side.

Forget Corbyn though for a second.  The media eventually tires of letting governments off the hook, whether of the right or left.  When the Tories were going through their useless stage during the first two Blair terms, the press stepped into the breach.  There's no guarantee that if their readers start hurting, as they will, that they won't start to consider themselves the true opposition just as they did previously.  There are only so many times the same brown-nosing served up in response to the last two budgets can be reprinted.

Especially when the Tories seem set on acting with the same level of arrogance as New Labour did at its height.  Apparently parliament cannot be informed of so much as the gist of the legal advice given by the attorney general Jeremy Wright over the killing of Reyaad Khan in Syria, as this would undermine cabinet collective responsibility or possibly deter law officers from giving their "full and frank" opinions.  That this might just be a cover for how the legal advice seems to amount to that briefed last week, that Khan had to be killed because he was the mastermind behind imminent plots against events that had passed without incident is of no apparent concern to a government convinced it can do as it likes.  When it has the nerve to demand that strike ballots must have the support of at least 40%, having won only 37% itself, still intends to criminalise "legal highs" across the board, regardless of whether that has the unfortunate effect of making other drugs similarly prohibited, and continues to cuddle up to and sell weapons to the Saudis, currently trying its best to make Yemen as uninhabitable as Syria, a fall is going to come sooner rather than later.  Underestimating Corbyn is one thing; playing into his hands is another.

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Monday, September 14, 2015 

Strange days indeed.

We live in strange times.  David Cameron, only a matter of weeks ago referring to migrants as a "swarm", now drops in on refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan to make clear just how much he cares.  Not enough to take in more than 4,000 Syrian refugees in a year, obviously, and he had the temerity to call on the rest of the EU to throw more money into the same camps many are desperate to leave having spent years there already, but it's the thought that counts, isn't it?  A 66-year-old embraced by the young appoints a frontbench shadow cabinet team that couldn't look less representative of said people who made him leader, and instead the media (and many already bitter Labour MPs) focus only on the the fact he didn't give any women a "top" job.  A media that has failed just as abysmally as the rest of us to work out how and why things are happening as they are doesn't think that for a moment at least it ought to be humble itself, admit its mistakes and tone down the silliness just a tad.

Except these events aren't strange at all.  They're the old normal masquerading as the new normal.  A prime minister reacting, rather than staying ahead of the curve.  Cameron might in fact already be battling yesterday's moment, as Germany and other EU states withdraw if only temporarily from the Schengen agreement, if partly to try to force their quota system for refugees on the recalcitrant eastern European states.

There are also good arguments for Jeremy Corbyn sticking to his promise to John McDonnell to make him shadow chancellor, not least that as we've learned from Blair and Brown, Brown and Darling, and Miliband and Balls, a leader and chancellor that either don't get along at all or don't trust each other cannot work in the long run.  All the same, it's not so much McDonnell's economic stance that's the problem as it is his reputation for rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way - while Corbyn was at least regarded warmly, with few having bad things to say about him personally as opposed to about his politics, McDonnell was a "shit".  McDonnell could easily have been given another "top" job, with Angela Eagle instead appointed shadow chancellor in an effort to reach out somewhat to the party.  That sadly hasn't happened.

To be fair, Corbyn is in a bind.  Some of those who said they wouldn't serve can happily be dismissed, like your Tristram Hunts and Emma Reynolds, while others will be missed.  It seems odd that Yvette Cooper has agreed to head a taskforce into refugees and yet won't consider being a shadow minister, and it's an especial shame that Chuka Umunna decided he couldn't remain in the cabinet, as Corbyn reportedly wouldn't give a commitment on campaigning to remain in the EU come what may.  There are some surprising names in there as well, Luciana Berger, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, obviously deciding that she can serve in the cabinet of a man smeared as describing Hamas and Hezbollah as "friends" without any problems.  Having shadow ministers for mental health, and young people and voter registration, is also a decent, reforming move, if possibly influenced by the promise to make the cabinet gender balanced.

The claim made from the Corbyn team that it's an 19th century outlook to focus on the "great offices" of state is nonetheless obfuscatory crap, albeit in response to similarly nonsensical complaints.  It was after all the Labour membership that decided three men should be leader, deputy leader and London mayoral candidate, and it would be worth asking precisely who those complaining on Twitter about the lack of women in the top jobs voted for themselves (seeing as my choices ended up being Kendall and Creasy, as neither were redistributed, my conscience is clear here).  It doesn't seem to matter that Corbyn's cabinet, slight cheating on the aforementioned roles aside, is 52% female, whereas Harriet Harman's was 47% (Cameron's is 33%), as there simply must be a woman as either chancellor, home secretary or foreign secretary.  Defence, education, health, all now occupied by women, don't count.  Why, says Glenys Thornton, "In 1980s the ultra left believed feminism was a middle class construct diverting energy from the main class struggle".  And anyone who thinks that's even more absurd now than it was then only needs to read the recent Graun write-up on the meeting between contemporary feminist heroine Roxane Gay and Erica Jong, or rather don't, as it'll make you want to blow your head off.

This said, it doesn't look good, and it remains an open question whether those who voted for Corbyn in such numbers will retain their faith in him if his team doesn't perform better than it looks.  While there is something to be said for having open, friendly disagreements on policy, such is the level of antipathy there has come to be for always on message politicians, it's hardly going to radiate an image of certainty, especially when a vast part of the media, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing is set on doing little other than carrying on as before, only more so.  Corbyn's refusal to answer questions from Sky last night becomes just that teensy more understandable when the same reporter then admits he was eavesdropping outside the room where the shadow cabinet was being put together, asking Corbyn every hour how it was going when he came out.  Having helped to foment the silliness over the "lack" of women, it's not very surprising Corbyn then declined to entertain his questions.  There is little more pathetic than seeing a journalist resort to the age old line of "we'll go away as soon as you answer our questions" when both they and the pursued know full well they have no intention whatsoever of doing so.

Not that this was anything quite on the scale of the claims flooding Twitter yesterday that Jews would be getting their own shadow minister, and perhaps Muslims would also.  This made it as far as the Sun's leader column, and just as Corbyn's failure to include women was evidence of him being an 80s throwback, so too was this proof positive of a return to the good old days of the loony left.  Come today, and strangely, no minister for Jews, Muslims, or black one-armed lesbians.  In any case, considering that according to the Sun's front page Corbyn intends to abolish the army and that in the view of the Conservatives Labour is now a threat to our national security, it quickly becomes apparent that the only way to respond to something quite remarkable happening to Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is to turn up the volume so you can't hear the background noise suggesting this might not just be the left in a generational funk, but something universal.

After all, those 4 million votes for UKIP in May have been forgotten very quickly indeed.  As Chris Bertram points out, Corbyn's astonishing margin of victory is of a piece with the turn to parties both new and old, of both the populist left and right across Europe.  I've been sniffy in the past about politicians criticising themselves for being enveloped in the bubble, on the grounds that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; start believing you're crap and people are hardly going to demur.  My other reasoning was that regardless of how many people are pissed off with the centrist consensus, the election proved there is still a big enough minority that will favour it when it comes to the moment itself.  That there might only be room for one such party, and we have a system that allows that one party to dominate the rest might seem like a counsel of despair, but it doesn't have to be.  If Corbyn can appeal to those 4 million UKIPers, the Greens, the SNPers, then he and Labour have a chance.  It could equally be those Tory voters remain the not so silent majority, and like it or not, remain well catered for regardless of the dramatic shifts since the 2008 crash.  Corbyn has in the region of 100 days in which to define himself to an electorate that up till now wasn't really interested; after then attitudes will be all the more difficult to shift, failing a Tory meltdown.  It hasn't exactly been an auspicious start, expected idiocy and hysterical bias aside.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015 

The road to Jeremy redux.

Flying Rodent has, as so often, expressed it best.  If back in 2006, say around the time that Tony Blair was ignoring widespread calls to help push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, insistent as he was that the IDF be allowed to further "degrade" a wide swathe of Lebanon, someone had said that 9 years later Jeremy Corbyn would be Labour party leader, you would have laughed.  Then laughed some more.  Then after distracting this obviously confused individual by pointing in the opposite direction, you would have ran away as quickly as your legs could carry you.  The Labour party, led by a serial rebel utterly opposed to liberal interventionism and pretty much everything else New Labour had done?  If it wasn't so outlandishly unrealistic as to be almost unimaginable, your first thought would surely be along the lines of what on earth did Labour as a whole do to reach such a position.

Jeremy Corbyn hasn't won yet.  He might not win.  Who knows, perhaps all the reported missing ballots are part of a last ditch conspiracy at the upper echelons of the party to try to swing it in the direction of the "electable" as opposed to the completely "unelectable".  I wouldn't be totally shocked if, despite everything, Andy Burnham manages to grab the leadership on the basis of second or third preferences.

That senior figures seem to be attempting to come to terms with a Corbyn leadership does nonetheless suggest they too expect Corbyn to be declared the winner on Saturday morning.  They presumably have some sort of inkling from both the ballots sent in weeks ago and from the online voting system of how the race has shaken out, and acceptance rather than anger now appears to be the emotion setting in.  Everyone must accept the result and the mandate given to the new leader, said Liz Kendall today, all but admitting her failure to make headway in the contest.

Trying to put yourself back in the mindset of 2006 as a whole is difficult.  I'm sure my 2006 self would have some harsh words for its 2015 version: join the Labour party, even as a registered member?  And worse yet, to end up putting Kendall, the most Blairite candidate of the four as first choice, despite not agreeing with half of what she says?  Never mind what's happened for Corbyn to be the likely winner, what happened to you?

I changed.  I changed because the political surroundings have changed.  Labour, meanwhile, has for the most part stood still.  Ed Miliband did his best, but he wasn't the right man at the right time.  If Miliband served a purpose, it was to paper over the cracks that were there if only more people had wanted to see them.  He was just left enough to keep most Labour sympathisers on board, but wasn't right enough to properly enthuse those within the party who were embittered, rightly or wrongly, by first Blair in their eyes being "forced" out, and then Ed's victory over David.  Liz Kendall in her speech said there wasn't a proper debate in the 2010 leadership contest because of the Ed-David rivalry, and wasn't afterwards because of wanting to be loyal to the new leader.  This is only half true: plenty of those on the right of the party, some overtly, others more stealthily, made clear their antipathy towards Ed and his style repeatedlyThere was a "crisis" nearly every summer.  The party didn't get rid of Ed, because Labour tends not to get rid of its leaders, but it was obvious that some inside it weren't pulling their weight.  Looking back now it's difficult to see how Labour could possibly have won the election, yet if some of those senior figures had made more of an effort, it might not have been such a crushing one.  The Tories could have been denied their majority for a start.

Liz Kendall has been good enough to admit, if a little grudgingly, that she was perhaps a little too "blunt" in the aftermath of the election in her diagnosis of why the party lost.  Nearer the reality is that some on her wing of the party regarded the defeat as a relief, because it proved them right.  Ed Miliband was a loser, his policies were neither one thing nor the other, Labour can only win by triangulating.  Anyone thinking otherwise is an idiot.  They could be, perhaps are, right.  You don't however deal with your upset and bitterly disappointed supporters' depression by crowing about how right you are after such a defeat, by continuing to lecture them on their foolishness, and agreeing wholesale with the analysis of the victorious opponents.  That was the first mistake.

The second was, as now pretty much everyone accepts, the welfare vote.  Refusing to oppose a bill that as the IFS has just confirmed again will mean those currently eligible for tax credits and other benefits will lose on average £750 a year was suicidal.  Forget Osborne's trap, imaginary or not, these are working people having money taken from them to, according to preference, pay to close the deficit caused by the necessity of bailing out the banks, or to allow those with estates worth up to £1 million pass them on entirely tax free.  If Labour will not defend the very people it was brought into existence to represent, then those people will find someone who will.  With no one else on offer, they decided on Jeremy Corbyn.

In truth these were only the catalysts for what's happened over the past two months.  As discussed previously, as long as a political party continues to win and appeal to a big enough slice of the electorate, it can do almost as it feels.  Tony Blair proved that, as have the Tories.  What you can't do is create a fissure as large as the Iraq war did, continue to rub your supporters' nose in it by doing the opposite of their first instincts, such as with academies, NHS privatisation, civil liberties and so on, and then still lose.  To do so once can be forgiven; when it happens again, and the same people carry on with their self-serving, fatuous missives on how right they are and how wrong everyone else has been, you're inviting a rebellion.

Far too late it seems that Liz Kendall and some of the others on the right of the party have partially realised their mistakes.  In her speech she contradicts herself repeatedly, can't quite bring herself to admit that if not she personally then some of her biggest supporters only made things worse, but there's the recognition that for all the complaining of how she was caricatured (unfairly) as a Tory, there are good, decent reasons why many of those who have voted Corbyn believe Labour has abandoned its principles.  If Corbyn wins, the victory needs to be respected, the people who have joined the party must be engaged with and listened to, the debate started by the campaign must continue, and the fight must now be taken to the Tories.

The problem with that is if as expected Corbyn becomes leader, the fight against him by the Tories and the press will begin in earnest.  Thought you'd already seen every piece of dirt that could possibly be used against him?  Don't believe it for a second.  Every prime minister's questions will include reference to Jez's friends in Hamas and Hezbollah, how he wants to nationalise Marks and Spencer, hand our nuclear weapons straight over to Putin, and reanimate the corpse of Bob Crow.  This will only be amplified by just how many within Labour and on the left have denounced Corbyn as a Marxist loon, more pally with Islamists and tyrants than our actual allies.  Kendall and others call for the result to be respected, almost for Corbyn to be supported, and then say they couldn't possibly serve under him.  When Corbyn has rebelled hundreds of times he perhaps can't expect loyalty in return, and yet what chance does he have if the other leadership contenders, think of them what you like, refuse to do the bare minimum?

Deep down, I think we all know that Corbyn cannot possibly win an election.  Everything that was against Ed is against Jeremy doubly so.  Then again, no one and I really do mean no one said he could win, let alone would win.  No one knows anything.  As Janan Ganesh wrote in the FT yesterday, George Osborne might be a strategist, but he has yet to prove he can lead.  Against Osborne, the odds change.  No one knows what's going to happen next week, let alone in 5 years.  Corbyn cannot possibly be as divisive a leader as he has been a candidate; he will reach out across the party, and will appeal in a way that the other three candidates could not.  Nothing is set in stone.

Moreover, this rupture had to happen for the good of the Labour party.  The debates that Kendall talked about in her speech need to take place, and they would not have done if either Burnham or Cooper had walked to victory as expected.  One side, either the left or the right, had to recognise it had things wrong.  I would have rather that Kendall had accepted earlier in the campaign what she has now and adjusted her message accordingly, giving her more of a chance, as I still maintain she is the most electable of all the candidates.  Corbyn will nevertheless do, as he will have much the same effect.  Labour has to decide what it is for in a rapidly changing world, where work seems ever more insecure for ever more people, but also where empathy, solidarity and support for collective policies seems to erode with each passing year.  The challenge is not to return to the failures of the past, whether they be the ones of Labour in the 80s, 90s or 2000s, but to bring forward a politics that maintains the party's values in the face of opposition from all sides.  Whoever is appointed on Saturday, I can't say I envy them.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2015 

Long may she reign.

Tributes were paid today to a woman who has spent the past 63 years on the toilet.

The lady, Bessie Warhammer the IIIrd, 96, from Cleethorpes, was diagnosed with Hopkins' dysentery, an especially virulent and incurable form of the infection in 1952.  Although it is not known at precisely what time Warhammer took to the brick shithouse in her back garden, it is believed her lengthy reign on the porcelain telephone has now broken the record previously set by Lady Victoria Price, who famously suffered so badly from incontinence that she walked around with a convenience strapped to her at all times.

Leading the messages of encouragement was prime minister David Cameron.  Speaking in the Commons, he described Warhammer's long battle with the sewage system as "truly humbling".  "Bessie has such a sense of selfless service that she thought today should just be an ordinary day.  When so much else has changed, that one woman could have made the sacrifices she has, not seeing her children grow up, witnessing her house burn down and being unable to do anything about it as she was indisposed, refusing to lower the Warhammer standard when Princess Diana died, things we can hardly begin to imagine, on today of all days her honour must be recognised.  Truly, her smallest room struggle has been the brown thread running through three post-war generations."

In one of her final acts as interim Labour leader, Harriet Harman added that it was "no exaggeration" to say Warhammer was "admired by dozens around the world".  "Many of those people are still having to poo in a hole in the ground, and Bessie's story reminds them that they too can aspire to live in a toilet of their very own.  The Labour party will do everything it can to help them achieve those dreams."

Speaking from the specially constructed bathroom in the nursing home where she now lives, Warhammer maintained the understated air she has become known for.  "This was not a title to which I have ever aspired, but I thank everyone for their touching messages of great kindness.  Now will someone please put me out of my fucking misery?"

In other news:

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Monday, September 07, 2015 

Welcome to the Farmer Palmer era of international relations.

One of my better/worst traits (delete according to taste) is I'm naturally suspicious of mass movements, or seeming mass movements, regardless of agenda or politics.  Is it still going to be active in a year's time for instance, will it have burned brightly and then disappear as soon as it emerged, or will it, like the Stop the War coalition, still exist for reasons known only to the handful of individuals that serve on its executive committee?  Is it ever worth jumping on a bandwagon when so many end up crashing minutes later?  Why is it so often the same people, both at the heart of these movements and those in the vanguard of shouting about it, only for them to lose interest so quickly?

It would be easy to look at the groundswell of action for refugees since those pictures were published on Wednesday and be cynical.  There is little in the way of evidence to suggest that anyone opposed to immigration outright or merely suspicious of asylum seekers will have had their minds changed by the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, whether lying dead in the surf or in the arms of the Turkish policeman as he carried the child's body away.  Indeed, I've heard more than a couple of people complain in the same way as they always do about immigrants, almost always with the refrain about how every refugee we admit deprives one of "our people" of a house or a job.  They couldn't of course give a stuff about those deemed "our people" unless they're family members or friends, let alone do anything that might help, nor does it seem to occur that we should be able to accommodate the needs of both "our people" and those in need of sanctuary.   That our leaders lack the political will to do so is a personal failing, but they operate partly on the basis that a large number of people in this country go through life in their own bubbles, insulated from and ignorant of anything that might penetrate their own little safe haven.  Those same people demanding the army be sent to Calais and that dogs be set on those trying desperately to make their way here are just as opposed today to anyone being allowed in as they were then, if not more so.

No, what's happened over the last few days has been that other minority, also noisy but much rarer listened to setting the agenda.  When so much of political discourse of late has been about who can be the nastiest to the lowest, who can best project their own personal vision of the sensible and prudent to an already pampered and spoilt demographic, it's difficult not to be heartened by both the anger at the government's refusal to help with the refugee crisis and the action which that anger has galvanised.  That some of this has been led by newspapers that previously ran front page after front page fulminating against refugees, or comment pieces that dehumanised those on rickety boats to the same level as insects is less evidence of a reverse ferret than just utter hypocrisy.

Far more aggravating though is just how quickly this transitory mood of selflessness has been used to further settle old scores and also reignited the belief that the only way to solve a situation where both sides use tactics that would be considered dirty is to put yet more high explosives into the mix.  George Osborne, fresh from a couple of days back defending Cameron's not one refugee policy to the hilt, was on Andrew Marr, accepting that thousands would now be admitted, but also made clear that the vote in Commons not to intervene in Syria was "one of the worst decisions" parliament had ever made.  Matthew d'Anconservative in the Graun all but blames Ed Miliband for the last two years of the conflict in the country, the Labour leader's "gamesmanship" preventing our noble British bombs from knocking sense into Bashar al-Assad.  Both the Sun and Boris Johnson have pursued similar arguments, with the former also declaring all four Labour leadership candidates to be cowards on the basis they don't think our joining an already failing US mission in the country to be the best of ideas.  When the Sun runs a spread with the headline BLITZ EM TO HELL, where it isn't clear whether it's those fleeing or Islamic State fighters that are to be "blitzed", apparently not seeing the slightest irony or problem with its favoured response, you know the current mood is not going to last long.

David Cameron has nonetheless been forced into making the government look like it's doing something, despite first having sent out Andrew Mitchell to repeat ad nauseum that in fact we've doing more than our fair share by funding the refugee camps in the neighbouring states.  These are the same camps that many have left precisely because conditions have deteriorated to the point where they prefer to take their chances with the traffickers.  That might not be in any way the UK government's fault, but when the scale of the problem is increasing so too must the nature of the response.  The figure of 20,000, much higher than the bandied about 4,000 we heard at the tail end of the last week, turns out to be the number of Syrian refugees to be admitted over the course of the next five years, and so doesn't even match Yvette Cooper's opening offer of 10,000 to be admitted this year.  The 20,000 are also to be plucked entirely from said camps, rather than any from the proposed EU quota system.  Cameron likened the decision to favour orphans and children especially as making the mission the equivalent of a latter day Kindertransport, only for it be made clear in the Lords that all such children are liable to be deported once they reach 18, the kind of self-defeating stupidity that only the last few governments could possibly have come up with.  The 20,000 figure also depends on the already operating scheme that has admitted a mere 216 Syrian refugees so far being rapidly expanded and working as planned, both things to believe only once documented.

The prime minister was at least not so crass as to make any bitter reference to the Syria vote in 2013.  Considering he did have the honour of announcing that the British state is now in the business of killing its own citizens so long as they are deemed to be plotting in a foreign clime whose government either can't or won't intervene this wasn't much comfort.  Extrajudicial assassinations are apparently entirely fine and dandy legally, whereas the Russians poisoning a defected spy now working for MI6 and in the business of propagating conspiracy theories is of course a complete outrage and the sort of action that marks out Russia as a rogue state.  To be clear, I am not for a moment comparing Alexander Litvinenko and Reyaad Khan, not least because Khan barely had two brain cells to rub together.  A terrorist mastermind like all those previous terrorist masterminds, the 21-year-old had to be killed in an entirely justified act of self-defence, lest he be involved in telling another newspaper journalist to bomb a public event.

Yep, apparently Khan was in the background when Juanid Hussain, also since killed by a drone strike, was telling the Sun to bomb the Armed Forces Day parade, an attack that was never going to happen and never could have happened.  He's also being linked to another "foiled" attack, this time aimed at the Queen on VJ Day, and which again was leaked to the press beforehand.  Still, Khan probably was in contact with other people who may not have been spooks or hacks, and who could have gone along with his mate Hussain's advice to spray the shrapnel inside their bombs with rat poison.  Clearly he was a threat, and in this day and age when politicians promise a "full spectrum response" to terrorist attacks only to then do sweet FA, killing a terrorist regardless of their nationality is not an opportunity to be missed.  That another IS fighter from the UK was also killed was merely unfortunate.  No one's going to miss such people or shed any tears over them, not least when they're involved in the latest most evil grouping since the Nazis, so frankly who cares about little things like the law or the precedent such an action sets?

For just as the attack on Syria which parliament refused to authorise was entirely legal because the attorney general said it was, so too was this.  It might be stretching both international and national law to breaking point to suggest the threat posed by Khan was so serious as to invoke the right to self-defence and to act pre-emptively, especially when generally an "armed attack" would need to involve a state rather than non-state actors, but the bar has already been breached.  Cameron went on to say that he would act in the same way in Libya also, so it would seem that we have joined America in all but declaring that we'll kill anyone in a country whose government is unlikely to co-operate, as long as we declare they were a threat after the fact.  We have therefore entered what ought to be known as the Farmer Palmer era of international relations.

Drone strikes on people like Khan are little more than a substitute for Cameron not being able to fully get his war on.  When Paddy Ashdown writes a sane article, pointing out that chucking around a few more bombs is not going to solve anything when he's usually first in line to call for intervention, there ought at least to be a flicker of recognition that something both smarter and more substantial is needed than further military action.  When however the prime minister opened his statement by once again dividing the "economic migrants" from the refugees, the precise distinction that has meant up until very recently we ignored what was happening on the continent, it's hard to believe thinking in Whitehall has significantly changed.  All the more reason why this particular moment's movement has to be kept going, regardless of doubts about fellow travellers.

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