Friday, April 17, 2015 

What might have been.

Last night's debate was superior in every way to the first.  This was primarily for the reason there weren't as many leaders on the stage; who could have known that less would mean more?  Certainly not the broadcasters, who haven't been criticised anywhere near enough for the botching of the format.  That the BBC last night allowed the parties that claimed they hadn't been invited to be in the bullshit room afterwards was a disgrace in itself, albeit a request they probably had to accede to under Ofcom rules on impartiality.

David Cameron's refusal to as Ed Miliband put it turn up for the interview did at least finally become as much of a theme of the debate as the questions asked.  Miliband's decision to take part was also a major risk; it could so easily have turned into an hour and a half of Ed being assailed from both left and right, without either of the governing parties there to take a share of the flak.

Despite a rough first half hour where Nicola Sturgeon was as confident and comfortable as before, by the end the relative weakness of the SNP bargaining position regardless of however many seats they take off Labour in Scotland was much clearer.  If she means what she says about not letting the Tories in come what may, then her only option is to do a Polly Toynbee and get out a nosepeg.  She doesn't want a coalition, Labour doesn't want a coalition, leaving only a confidence and supply deal, which inevitably means even less will be on offer than otherwise would.

Rather than looking the establishment figure surrounded by insurgents, the opposite ended up being the case for Ed.  He gave straight answers to straight questions repeatedly, flummoxing Nigel Farage over his gotcha attempt on an EU army, and dare it be said, was prime ministerial.  As he was the only leader on the platform with a chance of being prime minister that wasn't difficult admittedly, but such was the opportunity he was presented with by Cameron deciding to spend the evening washing his hair.

Farage by contrast had a nightmare, although when 27% still think he won a debate any objective person would conclude he flunked he won't be too upset.  It has to be remembered everything Farage does is calibrated towards the UKIP base, such as it is.  Claiming the audience is biased when it's been put together by an independent pollster might go down badly in the hall itself and with everyone who isn't a UKIP, but will have likely struck a chord with the "real audience" at home cheering on the blaming of everything on immigrants and the EU, disgusted their leader wasn't being clapped along.  Such is the problem UKIP faces come May the 8th, whether Farage wins in Thanet South or not.  Their manifesto, based on fantasy figures as it is, espouses a respectable hard-right platform designed to appeal to wavering Tories.  The message however remains completely one note and simply won't maintain appeal indefinitely, especially if Cameron somehow manages to conjure together another coalition and holds the EU referendum promised.

After failing to make any impact in the first debate, Natalie Bennett had a much better night.  She repeatedly tried to steer the debate onto Green territory to her credit, whether she was wholly successful in doing so or not, and will probably have won a few more over.  Leanne Wood was once again a complete waste of a podium, only really getting a hit in when she called Nigel on claiming UKIP was being abused after he himself had insulted the audience.  Again though, when all she has to do is turn up and be vaguely plausible it's hardly going to make a major difference to Plaid's support.

The feeling I was left with was what might have been had this been the 5-way debate originally envisioned, with the Greens and UKIP alongside the main three.  Miliband is clearly gaining in confidence and building momentum, and yet hasn't been allowed the opportunity to face off against the main two in a format that allows for more detail.  All that remains now is the Question Time special, where the leaders will appear separately.  Ed could still shine, but any real danger for the Tories of a major re-evaluation of the Labour leader has passed.

If nothing else, the debate this time did offer a vision of a different politics.  In stark contrast, on Newsnight a couple of hours later the Northern Ireland leaders faced off against one another.  6 old white men in a room has never looked quite so out of date.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto.

For the second day in the row, the Liberal Democrat "battlebus" broke down.  As metaphors go, they don't come much more obvious and yet all but impossible to avoid using.

Only it's probably too kind to how the party has gone about the campaign thus far to say it's merely having a few mechanical problems and will be up and running again shortly.  In actuality the Lib Dem campaign hasn't so much as got started.  The party has been all but invisible, and when it has succeeded in getting coverage it's been possibly to its detriment.  Clegg was anonymous during the leaders' debate, the party's reliance on their desperately unpopular leader baffling.  It's not as though the party doesn't have other communicators it could push to the fore when they have Vince Cable, Tim Farron or Jo Swinson to name but three they could choose from, and yet it's Calamity Clegg every time in front of the cameras.

The campaign's biggest misstep isn't the reliance on Clegg so much as the patently false, confused and deeply negative message they've decided can't be reiterated enough.  You see, the Tories, the party they've propped up for the past 5 years are heartless bastards, whereas Labour are economically incontinent.  Only the moderating influence of the Lib Dems can ensure the Tories won't bring back the workhouse, while if the numbers go in the opposite direction only the mellow yellows can ensure Labour won't immediately increase the deficit by eleventy trillion pounds.  This assumes firstly that everyone accepts there's going to be another hung parliament, which despite being highly likely isn't a certainty, and secondly that the past five years have been such a wonderful experience everyone will vote for the party that wants to do it all over again.  Precisely who this is meant to appeal to beyond past Lib Dem voters isn't clear.

It also assumes it's accepted the Liberal Democrats have been that moderating influence, when this is a view held almost only by right-wing Tories.  Yes, they did prevent the very worst instincts of the Conservatives from becoming reality, stopping the snoopers' charter, the repeal of the Human Rights Act, further cuts to welfare, but this has to be offset against their support for the immediate austerity that stalled the recovery, the imposition of the bedroom tax, the hardening of attitudes to those on benefits, the welfare sanctions that hundreds of thousands have suffered for the merest of infractions if that, and every other destructive policy the coalition has pursued.

This knowledge makes the party's claims that either the SNP or UKIP will hold their prospective partners to ransom all the more risible.  The UKIPs aren't going to win enough seats to be able to govern alone with the Tories full stop, while the SNP would have to extract a far better deal from Labour than the Lib Dems did the Tories, and they would be making demands not so much for a coalition as a confidence and supply arrangement.  It simply isn't credible, and that the party hasn't realised its pitch has failed to hit home and switched tactics strikes as being in denial.

Nor would it matter as much if the manifesto (PDF) had been written with the intention of being genuinely open to coalition with either Labour or the Tories.  Instead the policies on the front cover, declared by Clegg to be all but non-negotiable are almost a mirror image of the ones announced by their coalition partner yesterday, right down to the £12,500 personal tax allowance.  The only real sticking point would be Clegg's one other declared "red line", the further £12bn in welfare cuts, and that isn't too massive a stumbling block when few realistically expect the Conservatives would even as a majority government eliminate the deficit wholly through reductions in spending as they claim.  Dropping opposition to the Tory pledge of holding a referendum on EU membership all but gives the game away.

Which leads directly on to the other obvious problem: you therefore can't take seriously a single other policy set out in what is by far the most extensive but by the same token least enlightening manifesto of the main three.  Those who like me will cheer the promise to take the very first steps towards reforming our drug laws will at the same time know it'll be one of the first proposals to go.  Then there are the sections that are just embarrassing: the party that as Ian Dunt says went along with the disgraceful ban on sending books into prisons still claims it will put an emphasis on rehabilitation and reducing the prison population.  There isn't so much as a hint of the crisis inside as a direct result of the cuts and overcrowding the Liberal Democrats have to take ownership of, while the spare room subsidy, aka the bedroom tax, which the party belatedly discovered was cruel and unfair is relegated to the very last point on the unbelievably patronising "improving support for the hardest to help" page.

The decision to hug the Tories close, understandable as it is considering most of the former Labour-Lib Dem marginals have been written off as a lost cause with a couple of exceptions, has some especially perverse consequences.  The effective choice in the south-west for instance, likely to be the party's one remaining stronghold come May the 8th, is between the Tories and the Lib Dems.  Following today's manifesto launch that choice has effectively become a Hobson's choice, with all that entails for disenchantment and resentment.  Nick Clegg talks of being the alternative to a coalition of grievance, yet the Lib Dem decision to move to the centre-right when 5 years ago there seemed for the first time to be a real third party alternative is a manoeuvre guaranteed to create very legitimate grievances, with so many of those voting for a change left feeling abandoned and unrepresented.

Nick Clegg opens his introduction to the manifesto with the line "few people expected that many of the policies it [the 2010 manifesto] contained would be implemented by the next Government".  Least of all, the statement begs, the party itself.  We could also quibble on just how many of its policies have been implemented also (three quarters, Clegg claims, hardly any, the Graun answers back) but frankly my will to live is ebbing just thinking about it.  On this day back in 2010 I concluded my post by saying what was holding the party back was knowing when to go further and "most pertinently, their leader himself".  In 2015 the only thing motivating the party is holding on to the vestige of power, and that self-same leader is in a position where he could oversee the loss of half of his MPs and still remain deputy prime minister.  Funny thing, politics.  And by funny I mean hateful.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015 

The Conservative manifesto.

Some days, I don't have the slightest idea how to open these posts.  I doubt this is much of a revelation.  This isn't one of those days.  I thought for instance of something along the lines of today saw the publication of a manifesto written by people safe in the knowledge they'll never have to implement it, and it accordingly reads like the deranged wishlist of crazed fanatics.  And the other is from the Green party.  I could have gone with the more than faintly sinister overtones contained within the Tory manifesto, from the "plan" for every stage of your life, far more Stalinist than anything Labour have come up with in decades, a theme it carries on with through the centrepiece of selling off at a discount houses the government doesn't so much as own.  Then I could have made something out of "the good life" the manifesto is meant to usher in, so long as your vision of the good life is one that is so beige as to not be worth living at all.

We'll settle though for the sheer one-eyed monomania the manifesto confirms prevails within today's Conservative party.  Apart from the Thatcherite true believers, nearly everyone now recognises that right to buy has been one of the most destructive policies of the last 30 years.  The social housing stock has never been replaced, it kick-started the runaway price inflation we've seen since, and rather than creating the home owning democracy initially promised has instead overwhelmingly contributed to the situation we have now where only with the help of said home-owning parents can most of those looking to buy afford to do so.

A sensible party, rather than promising to sell off more would be pledging to empower councils to replenish the stock they've lost.  Raiding housing associations whether they like it or not is an act of wanton vandalism, utterly self-defeating and for the briefest short-term gain.  Indeed, it's not even remotely clear if there are votes in this latest cloth-eared Tory venture.  Many housing association tenants are the same people who've suffered the most under the coalition so far, unlikely to be able to get together the heavily discounted amounts mooted.  This might well be the point of the policy: meant to hark back to those glorious days when the party could win a majority, enthusing those who still believe the word aspiration means something, while at the same time not expecting it to be much used.  The reaction from those at the sharp end has been little short of brutal, for good reason.  Taken alongside the raising of the inheritance tax threshold, it speaks of just how narrow and stuck in the past the Conservative vision of what motivates the average person has become.

Apart possibly from the pledge to double the number of hours of childcare available to parents of 3 and 4-year-olds, there is absolutely nothing in the manifesto itself (PDF) that was unexpected.  By necessity, it's a very different document to the one of 5 years ago, which hilariously offered "an invitation to join the government", RVSPed only by a group of people no one is paying the slightest attention this time round as a result.  Gone is even a whiff of the experimentation of the early Cameron years, before the "green crap" was all cleared out, replaced with various shades of blue.  The cover, complete with its angled photo of the Tory "team", George Osborne's fizzog obscured to protect the young and innocent, Nicky Morgan on the far left struggling to remain in focus and with the usual expression of apparent shock on her face, is navy blue, while the fonts inside alternate seemingly at random from light to dark.  The photographs used are all but identical to the ones featured in Labour's manifesto yesterday, the portraits of Cameron the only shots of a politician, then the various images of Brits at work.  At least Labour named them; the Tories leave them anonymous.  Perhaps it was to hide their shame.

Certainly you couldn't pay many people enough to feature alongside such utter lies as are featured in the text.  I honestly don't think I've read a more mendacious official publication from a party in the entire time I've been writing this blog.  Apparently the UK was the fastest growing of all the major advanced economies last year, which must mean neither China or India fit such a description; the national debt was rising out of control 5 years ago, which is why it has gone up even further under the coalition; living standards will be higher this year than in 2010; those with the "broadest shoulders have contributed the most to deficit reduction", which is true only so far as the richest have contributed the most in cash terms, not as a percentage of their actual wealth, with the poorest having been hammered on that score; "International evidence and Treasury analysis shows that the only way to keep our economy secure for the future is to eliminate the deficit entirely and start running a surplus", the manifesto claims, a statement so patently absurd and false that no further comment is necessary; and, just to limit this to a single paragraph of semi-colons, "Under Labour, road and rail were starved of resources".  Yes, really.

The Great Recession then has given way to a Great Revival.  Our friends and competitors overseas look at Britain and see a country on the rise, perhaps even about to make a Great Leap Forward.  Except this Great Revival is fragile, and the slightest deviation from the Plan will result in things going Backwards.  This is why every single thing Labour did in power is blamed for why things still aren't Good Enough now.  Almost every individual part of the manifesto begins by outlining The Evil That Labour Did, even when it jars completely.  Labour for instance forgot that government is the servant of the British people, not their master, goes the introduction to making government work better for you section; it always knew best.  The current government of course doesn't, which is why one part of it has gone to such lengths to demonise its supposedly weak and useless opponent and seems fixated as much on how terrible things were and still are rather than on how it's going to fix them.

Some things go strangely unmentioned.  You won't for instance find any reference to either the bedroom tax or the spare room subsidy, a policy it seems the Tories are completely ashamed of but still won't do the decent thing and admit they got wrong.  You won't discover just where the proposed £12bn in cuts to welfare will fall, nor is there any detail on where the axe will be wielded outside of the protected areas of spending.  There's no detail on how the proposed rise in the personal allowance to £12,500 will be paid for, estimated to cost an eye-watering £3.2bn by the IFS, which again despite the spin of taking those earning the minimum wage out of tax (for those working 30 hours at least) benefits middle earners the most.  The higher rate threshold will also rise to £50,000, again paid for who knows how.  There'll be no increases in VAT, national insurance or income tax, but certainly not guaranteed is there won't be a further cut in the top rate of income tax.  There is, unexpectedly, a mention of food banks, not to promise a desire to reduce the need of such institutions in a country experiencing a Great Revival, but obviously as an example of the role played by the voluntary sector in the country's social fabric.  Absent is a promise to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, but Labour's Human Rights Act will be repealed and replaced with a British Bill of Rights codifying exactly the same things.

In so many places reality is completely absent, none more so than the hysterical Britain standing tall in the world section.  Labour's Great Recession apparently weakened Britain on the world stage, whereas the Conservatives have strengthened our influence.  Quite where our influence has been strengthened is a mystery; certainly not in Europe, not in the Middle East, where we remain beholden to authoritarian Arab regimes that Cameron spent much time fawning over in an effort to sell weapons to, nor in America, where the refusal to sign up to spending 2% of GDP on defence per NATO agreements and the various cuts to the military have been complained about.  We intervened to stop a massacre in Libya, which turned out absolutely splendidly, saw William Hague team up with Angelina Jolie to end sexual violence in conflict once and for all, and helped women and children who have fled violence in Syria.  That last claim is so egregious as to impress with the sheer chutzpah it must have taken to write it.

Then again, the whole manifesto is defined by such chutzpah.  The party that claims to be the new vanguard of the workers is determined to push forward with 40% turnout thresholds on strike ballots, a move which if applied elsewhere would see nearly every local election result declared null and void.  If you want to live in the most vibrant and dynamic country in the world, which is seemingly this one, a decent job is the best weapon against poverty.  The Conservative definition of decent is any job, regardless of the conditions, zero hours contracts meriting a single mention.  The principal reason immigration has not fallen to the tens of thousands is because of how wonderful the economy's been doing, and yet at the same time rather than being attracted to all these jobs the real reason migrants from Europe have been coming is to claim benefits.  Finally, we measure our success not just in how we show our strength abroad, but in how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable at home.

I could just leave it there.  I probably should.  There is though something exceptionally depressing, at least to me about just how limited and limiting the Conservative view of life set out by their "plan" is.  Be born.  Grow up.  Get a job.  Raise a family.  Retire.  Die.  Is that all there is?  Is that all we're meant to aspire to?  Nothing else?  What if I don't have, don't want a family?  What if I'm a hopeless loser?  Where do I fit into this?  I don't.  But then I was never going to. 

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Monday, April 13, 2015 

The Labour manifesto.

"It's about values," said George Osborne yesterday, as David Cameron outlined his dream.  Even by the standards of other people's dreams usually being extraordinarily tedious, Cameron's was stupendously dull.  One of the most basic human desires is to take care of your children, and this instinct remains whether they're 5 months or 50.  Why then should the taxman demand a cut when it's completely natural to want to leave your home to your kids?  What difference should it make if they've already got a home of their own, or if the house is worth £374,000 or £999,999?  To object to this intensely natural order is the politics of envy, plain and simple.

George Osborne was right, of course.  It is all about values.  Alan Clark wrote in his diaries of how "the trouble with Michael [Heseltine] is that he had to buy his own furniture," the kind of attitude that was once so prevalent in the Tories.  Most though at the same time would never have dreamed of suggesting that death duties or inheritance tax as it has become should be all but abolished, for the reason being there is moral virtue in taxing unearned wealth.  Clark might have sneered at someone needing to buy their own furniture, but would have equally sneered at someone in his position not going out into the world and making their own money.  As far as the modern Conservatives are concerned, home ownership is an end in itself.  The how and why doesn't enter into it; so long as the home was acquired somehow and it's worth less than a million it should be able to be passed on.  The effect this will have on the housing market is completely immaterial, or rather is absolutely integral: almost every Tory policy post-2010 has been to boost house prices and to hell with the consequences.  What's good for those lucky enough to have got on the housing ladder is good for the country.  There could not be more difference between a party making such a promise and the others pledging to introduce a yearly tax on properties worth over £2 million.

Which brings us to today's Labour manifesto launch.  Little remembered now is a certain Ed Miliband was the principal author of the last Labour manifesto, not so much the longest suicide note in history as it was an immensely elongated acceptance of fate.  Where that manifesto promised a "future fair for all", illustrated by a family burning out their retinas by staring into the sun, today's instead informs us all that "Britain can be better".  Well, quite.  Britain also only succeeds when working people succeed, which doesn't instantly follow; bleeding working people to the bone might well give the impression of the country succeeding also, but maybe we shouldn't be splitting hairs.  Where the last manifesto's cover was garish, this time the entire document is austere (PDF), the cover simply white with red text, while inside apart from the single full page photo of Ed and multiple images of said hard-working Britons, the design is remarkably minimalistic, or if you prefer, plain.

And that, frankly, is what the manifesto is.  It almost reminds of the semi-witty advert Labour ran at the time of the changeover of power: not flash, just Gordon.  There is very little flash contained herein, and that presumably is exactly the point.  It doesn't so much say there's still no money as it does suggest any there is we're not going to splash on frivolities.  Indeed, everything has been costed, or so it says on the second page, and locked in also.  Not a single commitment requires additional borrowing, and in future Labour will legislate to require all manifestos be audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility.  The deficit will be cut every year, the national debt will fall, dogs and cats will live together, but there won't be mass hysteria.

From not mentioning the deficit Labour has decided it can't be talked about enough.  It's difficult to judge precisely why the party has decided at the last minute to invent this budget responsibility lock, or for that matter what the point of it is.  As the IFS has been pointing out for some time now, Labour's economic plan is broad enough to allow for no further cuts whatsoever after 2016, which would still allow for a surplus come 2020.  The manifesto doesn't enlighten us as to what cuts there will be, beyond the fact there will be cuts outside of the protected spending areas of the NHS, education and international development.  We can obviously expect them not to be as severe as the ones promised by the Conservatives, yet at the same time the areas designated for cuts are those already slashed hardest.  How much more in the way of savings can be found from the Home Office budget, the local government budget, the welfare budget?  The manifesto also restates the commitment not to mess with the taxes that raise the most revenue, beyond putting up the top rate of income tax back up to 50p, further reducing room for manoeuvre if such promises are to be kept.

If this is meant to reassure those convinced it was Labour's profligacy in the first place that resulted in the crash and the deficit (pro-tip: it wasn't) it's both far too late and just not airtight enough.  The Tories might have spent the last few weeks throwing money around, but you can promise ridiculous things like the all but abolition of inheritance tax when, regardless of whether it's deserved or not, the Conservatives are trusted on the economy.  More than anything else the emphasis on the deficit and the triple lock has distracted away from what is the manifesto's greatest strength: not the policies, which are for the most part underwhelming, but the message that work isn't paying.  While not specifically stating there's a crisis of productivity, it sets out how it's the quality, not the quantity of jobs that really matters, and the party will not accept Britain becoming a low-wage economy as the Conservatives are prepared to.

Naturally, saying this when so many are ready to accept secular stagnation as the new normal and doing something about it are two separate things.  All the manifesto really pledges to do to improve productivity is via "a long-term investment culture", while "encouraging small businesses to grow".  An National Infrastructure Committee will apparently achieve this, making recommendations and holding government to account.  Short-termism in business is also fingered, but how much of a difference will really be made by giving additional rights to long-term investors when takeover bids are mounted and by requiring remuneration committees to have worker representation is open to question.

Still, there is radicalism or something approaching it hiding beneath the utilitarian wrapping.  The big six energy companies will be separated into generation and supply businesses, required to open their books and sell their electricity through an open exchange, while the water companies will have to sign up to a national affordability scheme.  The rail franchising system will be reviewed, a public sector operator will be allowed to take on lines and challenge the private firms and city and country regions will be given more power over the bus operators.  Less immediately helpful will is the proposed repealing of the Health and Social Care bill, which will surely necessitate another NHS reorganisation, and the new "Directors of School Standards", which sounds remarkably like a way of allowing free schools just under a different guise.

The one thing more than anything else that seems absent, despite there being few policies to violent disagree with (it's hopefully indicative that I gave the biggest snort of derision to a throwaway line on building resilience in young people through the use of mindfulness) is anger.  Or even a general sense of real concern for what the next five years could bring should we again have a Conservative-led government.  It's not as though the Conservatives are hiding their intentions, as they did last time: they want to spending two years banging on about Europe, and could possibly even lead us out by mistake; they want to cut everyday spending to 1960s levels; they want to all but deny benefits to the young, while feather-bedding the old; they want to repeal the Human Rights Act and leave the European Convention on Human Rights; they want to make life as unpleasant as possible not just for those on benefits, but also those on low wages via universal credit.  The list could go on.

Despite all this, you don't get the sense from Labour or the manifesto that 5 more years of the Tories will be that bad.  We are it's true in this new territory where another coalition or some variety of moderating influence on the Conservatives seems all but a certainty, and with that in mind we've had pithy remarks about the launches of the manifestos being about the beginning of the bartering as anything else.  5 more years could mean the breaking of the public services as we know them.  Britain can be better, but Labour doesn't seem to believe in itself, let alone the country.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015 

Stabbing a dead horse in the back.

There's a reason why, up until today, we hadn't heard the old Ed stabbed his own brother in the back therefore he can't be trusted line in a while.  Quite apart from how it implies the Labour leadership was David's birthright, which it most certainly wasn't, there's the obvious problem of how Ed's decision to stand was hardly the action of the weak, pusillanimous loser of Tory and right-wing media construct.  Instead it speaks rather of a ruthless streak, even if that doesn't necessarily instantly translate from being a personal quality into one of leadership.

Just the two weeks into the "short" campaign then, and the Conservatives are panicked enough to have gone nuclear.  Yesterday's pledge from Labour to abolish non-domicile status was apparently judged by Lynton Crosby to be damaging enough to justify bringing out the first "dead cat" of the battle so far.  This is when a politician does something daft enough to completely distract attention from everything else, akin to chucking a dead cat into the middle of the dinner table.  It doesn't matter how stupid the intervention is, so long as it serves its purpose in the short-term.

Grudging credit duly must go to Crosby and pals, as they came up with an absolute doozy, so magnificently idiotic that everyone has been temporarily blindsided by it.  Poor old Michael Fallon was tasked with taking one for the team, and what better outlet than the Times for an article so inherently contradictory and confused?  You see, if Ed Miliband was prepared to stab his brother in the back, why wouldn't he also stab the country in the back?  And because he's so unutterably weak, able only to lead a government with the support of the SNP, the very first thing he'll sacrifice is our independent nuclear deterrent, the one so loathed by the irrational nationalists.  Nicola Sturgeon has said we'd better believe it's a red line, so who wouldn't take her word for it?

Describing it as contemptible purely on that basis doesn't properly do it justice.  Rarely does a politician dare make an argument based on such a bizarre mixture of interpretations of their opponent's qualities, as while journalists can swallow extremely hefty amounts of bullshit in the right circumstances, to expect the average punter to do so also is to stretch credulity.  When even Fallon seems unsure whether Miliband is weak or ruthless, the obvious question is which is it?  Either he's so spineless yet power hungry he'll put our national security at risk, or he's so without scruple he'll do anything to get into Downing Street.

The whole thing is complete and utter bollocks.  Quite apart from how Miliband gave a straight no to the question of whether he would barter away Trident when asked by Paxman, Sturgeon herself has all but said any confidence and supply agreement with Labour would not fail due to disagreement on Trident.  The SNP would just vote against any renewal bill, and any such bill would get through the Commons regardless because of Tory support, whatever the make up of the next government.  Besides, as Andrew Sparrow points out, the Tories themselves delayed the decision on replacing Trident in the face of Lib Dem pressure.  Getting into the hair-splitting over whether or not Labour would support a like-for-like replacement of four submarines rather than the Lib Dem policy of dispensing with one and not always having the "deterrent" at sea is to be transported to a country where, as Fallon insisted, the replacement of Trident really is the most important issue facing the nation.

This is after all one of the few SNP policies grounded in something approaching reality.  Trident isn't independent, nor is it a deterrent, or at least isn't to any of threats we currently face.  You could almost make a case for renewing it at great expense vis-a-vis the uncertainty surrounding Russian foreign policy, but it's difficult to believe a complete return to the days of the cold war is on the horizon, as it's not in anyone's interests.  There's no reason whatsoever why we couldn't move to the same policy as Japan, so called nuclear latency, retaining the ability to produce a nuclear weapon quickly if the world situation changes.  Only to do so would obviously be to reduce ourselves further on the world stage and further annoy the Americans, neither of which can possibly be countenanced.

I have though been thoroughly distracted, as was the point.  Thus far, the Conservative strategy of campaigning almost solely on Miliband being a joke and on their economic record just isn't cutting through, unsurprisingly it might be said considering they've been doing so since the turn of the year.  Rather than shift to the themes suggested by say, Tim Montgomerie (also behind the Times's paywall), the response from Crosby and friends has instead been to double down.  It could quite possibly still work; we remain just two weeks in, with a month to go.  Getting excited over polls today either showing Labour regaining the lead or narrowing the gap is then more than a little premature.  It might be the start of something, or it could just be sampling errors.  A better guide is probably Lord Ashcroft's latest marginals poll, that shows in the main a consolidation of support for the party in the lead at the turn of the year, and a fall in UKIP support. 

What is apparent is the Tories are on the backfoot, and with the latest rabbit from the hat being the promise of a freeze on rail fares, rather undermining all the arguments we heard against Labour's energy price freeze, they still seem more concerned on shoring up their vote rather than trying to win over the undecideds.  Whether throwing the dead cat onto the table will have had the desired effect, as opposed to just showing the Tories up as running a one note campaign we'll need this weekend's polls to confirm.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015 

Upon this tidal wave of internet sleaze.

If there's been any real underlying theme of the "short" campaign so far, beyond the obvious dividing lines established by Labour and the Tories, it's in how the smaller parties are still trying to deny they might be involved in anything as puerile as politics.  "I told you they were all the same," insisted the most boring man alive last Thursday (other than myself, natch), in spite of how he makes even hip to be square David Cameron seem positively alternative just by standing alongside him.  The Greens have just released their party political broadcast, depicting the big four as One Dimension and most likely blowing their entire campaign budget in one go, while last night Nicola Sturgeon was insistent she would help Ed Miliband into Downing Street, at the same time as ensuring the break up of the Westminster old boys' network.  Purists might suggest the best way to get Miliband as PM is to vote Labour, but that could be a little too obvious for these times.

You do of course understand.  Politics, like crevice, is a dirty word.  Westminster is even filthier, conjuring up images of snouts in the trough, flipped duck houses, not so old men in grey suits not being in touch with hard-working Brits who revel in their own ignorance, feculence and I'm already losing the will to live just by relaying the nonsense that has become the default setting for so much of our discourse.  What baffles is why, instead of fighting against this attitude, which isn't cynicism because authentic cynicism requires thought and so much of the "they're all the same" bullshit is just sheer laziness, politicians instead do their very best to fuel it.  The first campaign missive from my Labour candidate has arrived, and in the posting she insists she has no intention of becoming a "Westminster politician".  Forgive me if I'm being deliberately obtuse, but if she's elected she doesn't have any choice in the matter, unless she intends to not take up her seat ala Sinn Fein.  Yes, I know what she means; she isn't going to become that sort of politician, as though it's ignoble to want to be more than just a constituency MP, as though you can't be both.

I'd much rather if we're going to snort and shake our heads at the very mention of Westminster we do it for something approaching a decent reason.  Take for instance the mindbogglingly stupid pledge made by the Conservatives at the weekend that hasn't really had the attention it properly deserves.  "TIDE OF INTERNET SLEAZE TO BE HALTED" shrieked the Mail, the headline currently alongside an image of Kate Upton in her underwear.  Yes, after successfully dealing with the entire problem of kids being able to explore the wonders of fisting if they so wish by requiring ISPs to have online filtering turned on by default, the Conservatives now say that kiddiwinks are still having their lives ruined by catching a glimpse of a Japanese bukkake party.  Why, according to a totally legit survey conducted by the NSPCC and ChildLine, a tenth of 12-year-olds are "addicted" to online porn.  They're campaigning against it with, and I'm not making this up, Fight Against Porn Zombies viral videos.  Fapz.  Fapz.  Someone thought that was funny, clever and unlikely to be understood by the people who commissioned it.

All porn sites will then be required to have some sort of age verification system, beyond the you can only enter if you're over 18 yadda yadda warning most paid sites currently have, although the porn tube sites for the most part forgo even that.  This will apply whether or not they're based in the UK, the implication being that if they refuse to take part, as they will, as porn is not the guaranteed revenue generator it once was, those refusing to take part will be blocked.  Again, it's not clear how this will work, the suggestion being that ISPs will be required to block access to the sites in the same way they currently do the torrent and sports live stream sites that have a court order against them.

Why though stop there?  Why just require sites that define themselves as being pornographic to verify the age of their users?  Why shouldn't Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr have the same system in place when the first two serve as the main referrers to such material, while Tumblr is a veritable cornucopia of every fetish known to man, and plenty of others not yet identified by science?  Surely Xbox Live, Steam and Amazon should have a proper system in place to verify that 18-rated games and movies aren't being bought by children using their parents' details, or indeed to prevent the parents from irresponsibly giving in to the demands of little Johnny.  How many of our kids are watching videos on YouTube that are completely unsuitable for them, and shouldn't something be done about that?  Isn't it time the smut masquerading as news served up by the Mail, Sun and Star was put behind a not suitable for human consumption warning in all newsagents?

And so on.  As Gilad Rosner writes, such a system is technically feasible, except it would still be so full of holes as to be completely useless.  Unless the porn tube owners cooperated, and there's not the slightest indication they would, we'd just see the same thing that's happened with the "blocked" torrent sites: the springing up of mirrors that are not blocked.  This in itself wouldn't stop said torrent sites from being another major source of the sleaze polluting the minds of children, nor would it online lockers, let alone how we're also informed most 9-year-olds are playing I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours on Snapchat in any case.  Even if ISPs were required to be more proactive than they have been in blocking the proxies giving access to torrent sites, it still wouldn't stop anyone downloading Tor and getting around the whole shebang that way.  For the umpteenth time in history, what seems to be Conservative policy is denying adults the right to make their own decisions about what they watch on the completely spurious basis of protecting children.  It would be slightly more acceptable if the policy was workable; it isn't.

How lovely it would be then if prospective MPs, rather than feeling the need to make excuses for themselves from the very beginning, instead outlined how they be different from their predecessors.  Instead of sucking up to tabloid newspapers with a commercial interest in going after the full-on sleaze provided by their rivals, they could promise to vote on the basis of what is known to work.  They could make clear it is the responsibility of the parents to monitor what their beloved sprogs are watching online, their responsibility to ensure filters are in place, and most importantly, they are there to talk about something they've seen that may have upset them.  They could also set out the argument that it's the maiden aunts at the Mail and in the Conservative party that are preventing the desperately needed changes to sex education in schools, which is stuck back in the 20th century while the 21st roars by.  Or they could just stick to the party line and keep their heads down.  Which is what most of those currently pledging to not be "Westminster politicians" will almost certainly do once there.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015 

An election campaign broadside on behalf of all lazy Brits.

If you're me (and if you are, why is it you haven't killed yourself yet?), then on an almost weekly basis events will occur that make you declare you don't want to live on this planet anymore.  Kardashian hair colour changes treated like the second coming of Christ, Wayne Rooney goals celebrated in the same way as parents do a child taking its first solid dump, newspapers still focusing on the way politicians eat, as we just can't forget how Ed Miliband failed to take sustenance from a bacon sandwich in the approved fashion, all result in the survival instinct dithering just that little bit more.

And then something like yesterday's Sun front page comes along.  There are times when every single piece of information on a front page can be wrong, and yet it can still be completely unobjectionable, or you just roll your eyes and look away.  There are times when every single piece of information on a front page can be wrong, and it's so objectionable that more than 25 years later those affected by it complain if the editor responsible is given any sort of platform.  Then there are times when a front page has apparently been put together by someone who has been home-schooled by parents who have only ever communicated with their child through the nexus that is Google Translate.  The process of translating English to Albanian and then back again results in the child learning something vaguely resembling English, so they pick up the rudiments, but not much more.  To everyone else their work is completely indecipherable, and yet despite all the obstacles in their way they managed to get a job working for the country's leading tabloid newspaper.

At some point in the future, most likely in thousands of millennia, when Earth is discovered by an incredibly advanced race of creatures that have managed to overcome all the barriers in the way of intergalactic space travel, only then is it likely will there exist life on this planet that can explain just what was going through the minds of the Sun journalists behind yesterday's the REEM TICKET splash.  Every single thing about it is wrong.  The paper that objected so strongly to Emily Thornberry "sneering" at white van man declares that two reality TV stars speak for "hard-working Brits".  The headline, that no one, not even the people who claim to know what "reem" means, will be able to say makes sense.  The introduction to the article, that declares Joey and Amy to be TOWIE stars, except both left the show a while ago.  The photographs, that show two individuals not so much wearing make-up as the make-up wearing them.  And, of course, their "broadside" itself, which amounts to Joey, who just so happens to be making a programme on the election and so has been going behind the story to get to the real heart of our democracy (he's already met Nick Clegg) declaring that MPs need to like, grow up, and Amy, who thinks benefit scroungers need to have their mansions bombed.

It was though a long weekend that went from the ridiculous to the ridiculous.  On Saturday the Telegraph reported the contents of a "Foreign Office" memo that detailed how Nicola Sturgeon had supposedly told the French ambassador she'd "rather see Cameron remain as PM".  Immediately Sturgeon responded she had done nothing of the sort, and demanded an inquiry into how this forgery had escaped into the wild.  We've since learned it likely came from the Scotland Office, leaked by a civil servant, but not before various people claimed with all seriousness this was a conspiracy by the security services to damage the SNP.

Predictably, the reality is almost certainly far more prosaic.  It's highly unlikely Sturgeon was so loose-lipped, as indeed the full memo itself says.  The memo records what the French Consul-General says he was told by the ambassador, so it's the account based on what someone said to someone else to someone else about a conversation conducted via interpreters.  Something almost certainly was lost in translation.  Sturgeon may well have said she didn't think Miliband was prime ministerial, and probably said she expected David Cameron to remain as PM; as for whether she expressed a preference, probably not.  When you then take into consideration that the Telegraph has, as Private Eye has reported, thrown its lot in fully with the Tories for the duration, it makes even less sense for it to have reported something so helpful to Labour and damaging to both the SNP and the Tories, unless this was a leak not from the Tories but a civil servant with other sympathies.

We'll have to wait for the inquiry to report to see if it does shed any night, but it has nonetheless shown both the credulousness of some who've recently aligned with the SNP and the cynicism of the older warriors.  Of course Sturgeon and most within the SNP would prefer David Cameron to remain as PM, as they've prospered like never before under his tenure.  For a party that has been in power in Scotland for 8 years to still be presenting itself as the outsiders and managing to pull it off is frankly alchemical.  Sturgeon and Salmond's new line is about breaking up "the Westminster old boys' network", as if they're somehow new brooms rather than seasoned campaigners, while the rhetoric about "locking out the Tories" is calculated to the nth degree, designed to appeal to those still zooming while scaring the likes of the Mail.  The last thing they want is any kind of arrangement with Labour, with all the unquantifiables that would entail, no longer able to claim to be protecting Scotland when cuts are inevitable.  What's truly hysterical and must delight the SNP leadership are useful idiots like Adam Ramsay, who claims it'll be all the fault of the "selfish" behaviour of Jim Murphy and Scottish Labour when the Mail and Telegraph "rewrite the constitution" and install Cameron in Number 10 regardless of the election result.

Finally then to Tony Blair's flying visit to Airstrip One to declaim on how leaving the EU would be terrible for all those who don't have boltholes in one of the Middle Eastern kleptocracies.  Two things made apparent from his intervention: first, that despite everything the media still absolutely loves Blair, and as proved by his donning of a high-vis jacket, the de rigueur uniform for anyone wanting to rule, he still deeply wishes he was PM.  Quite whom he was meant to be appealing to though remains a mystery: regardless of the strength of his argument, and on the EU and quite possibly the EU alone he remains convincing, the Blair fan club is now so tiny as to be made up almost entirely of said journalists and fellow politicians.  We might have the poor man's Blair as our current PM, but most seem to have agreed to strike that fact from the record.  As for Blair himself, lovely as it would be to conclude that it's down to how he's haunted by his actions that he's slowly melting, you instead suspect his conscience remains clear.  As must those who can still be found to applaud and frot a man with absolutely no shame.

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Friday, April 03, 2015 

A complete waste of everyone's time.

"Thank you ITV for the opportunity to put my case", David Cameron tweeted 35 minutes after last night's debate had finished.  As ITV was the broadcaster so desperate to hold any sort of debate that it effectively forced the BBC, C4 and Sky into all but giving in to the prime minister's wider demands on the format and timing of the events, he did indeed have much to be grateful to them for.  Also worth remembering is the Tories didn't come up with the involvement of either the SNP or Plaid Cymru; that again was the brilliant idea of the broadcasters, which Cameron, not believing his luck, then tried to turn into 8 by saying the DUP should also be on the stage.

All Cameron had to do then last night was turn up, repeat the mantras we've now heard 8 bazillion times, and that would be enough.  The sheer number of people on the stage would ensure there couldn't possibly be a clear winner, the debate itself would be completely unfocused, those already decided would insist their leader won, and the undecided would be left as confused as ever.

And what do you know, it went completely according to the Lynton Crosby plan.  Cameron had been allocated the position on the far right by the drawing of lots, and while he might have preferred to be centre stage it reflected exactly how he played it.  He involved himself as little as possible, and when he did it was to either attack Ed Miliband personally or Labour's time in office.  He briefly came alive when he declared all of the parties except his would ramp up the debt and put up taxes, but otherwise he was content to just let everyone come to the conclusion his opponents were wasters and the entire thing was a waste of everyone's time.

Which it was.  Rarely are there two hours of prime time television where so little of consequence happens, where issues that in a better more disciplined format could have been properly examined were if anything made more obscure.  Absolutely everything about it was wrong, from the number of participants, the questions asked and the answers given right up to the complete pointlessness of there being an audience at all.  Little wonder Victoria Prosser finally lost patience and assailed David Cameron, only in keeping with the debate in general completely ineffectually.  That she was then grabbed by a mere 7 security guards and marched out speaks volumes of the limits of debate at an event supposedly dedicated to it.

Nigel Farage, having realised the format had been similarly designed to drown him out attempted to get round it by being as loud, obnoxious and one note as he could get away with.  Everything can be solved by leaving the EU and imposing a cap on immigration, whether it be housing, the deficit, hospital parking charges or Jodie Marsh.  All these parties are the same he repeatedly intoned, and before declaring that the root cause of the problems with the NHS was all the foreigners with HIV, he played his usual strategy of making clear just how outrageous he was about to be and how his opponents would be mortified.  If a politician has ever been so boring, so predictable, so completely transparent over such a lengthy period of TV before I haven't seen it, and yet as the polling has shown, being a monomaniac, pretending to be an outsider and saying despicable things really impresses a substantial number of voters.

Distinctly unimpressive were both Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood, neither of whom came anywhere near to justifying their presence.  Perhaps Wood's performance will have gone down well in Wales, but I can't now remember anything she said except for her response to Farage's HIV gambit.  Bennett was by some distance the worst of the lot, by the end desperately bringing up climate change in an attempt to get on more comfortable ground, only it was far too late.  Almost as mystifying is just what so many seem to have got out of Nicola Sturgeon's performance, which as ever from the SNP was all big talk with absolutely no substance to back it up.  She was without doubt strongest on tuition fees, but then it's very easy to talk about how it's a betrayal to take away the free education you had from today's students when the money funding it is topped up by the Westminster establishment the SNP so rails against.

With everything stacked against Ed Miliband, that he either came out on top or was there or thereabouts in the various polls is the best he could have hoped for.  Throughout he was assured, spoke to the camera and tried his level best to involve Cameron more than he wanted to be.  None of Cameron's jibes or insults stuck, and his pre-prepared line that Cameron wanted only to talk about the past was one of the few interventions that had an impact, as did his late ad-lib about Cameron and Clegg wanting to blame each other and both being right.

Overall though this was a debate where the result had already been decided, to the point where both the Sun and Telegraph clearly had their front pages finished before it was over.  No one could possibly have emerged as the unqualified winner from such a format, and despite some of the more excited commentary few are going to conclude 5, let alone 7-party politics is the way forward based on what was on offer.  The real story remains the broadcasters in connivance with the Conservatives denied the public the chance to see a true showdown between the only two leaders who can be prime minister, and we're all the worse off for it.

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Thursday, April 02, 2015 

An alternative leaders' debate live blog.

Not Kay Burley: Good evening and welcome to the ITV leaders' debate.  I'm Not Kay Burley, and you're no doubt ecstatic about that.  Tonight we are joined by David Cameron, prime minister and leader of the Stupid party, Edward Miliband, leader of the opposition and the Less Stupid party, Nicholas Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Middle of the Road party, Natalie Gordon-Bennett, leader of the Green Crap party, Nigel Faragista, leader of the Stick Up Your Arse party, Nicola Caviar, leader of the Moon on a Stick party, and finally, Leanne Who, leader of the Party of Wails. 

All: Good evening, Not.

Not Kay Burley: Shall we get the preliminaries out of the way now?

Everyone, except Clegg: We don't agree with Nick.

Not: Excellent. The leaders drew lots beforehand and Natalie gets to start us off with her opening statement.


Gordon-Bennett: The Green party is not an inevitability.  Other parties trade on fear of immigrants: we don't trade on anything.

Faragista: There are six other leaders on this platform this evening that don't monomanically focus on one issue.  I will never ever sink to their level.

Clegg: I won't pretend things are perfect, or that I haven't made mistakes.  I have.

Caviar: This is your opportunity to affect change at Westminster.  Do this by voting for a party that wants to leave it.

Cameron: 5 years ago Britain was on the brink.  I've done my level best to push it over.

Who: I'm from Wales.

Miliband: We can do better than this.  My party could have done better than me.

Not: Our first question is from a politics student.

Cunt: I'm 17 years old.  This is incredibly important.  How can I possibly believe anything you say about anything?

Clegg: You can't.  But rest assured we'll cut the deficit the Liberal Democrat way: by pretending to have not actually done anything at all.

Cameron: It's all Labour's fault.

Who: I'm Welsh.

Faragista: You're right, you can't trust anything I say.  Now watch me try to troll Caviar.

Miliband: We'll do it fairly, just like the other parties.  Who you can't trust to say they will.

Clegg: Balance.

Cameron: Balance.

Miliband: Balance.

Farage: BALANCE.

Cameron: I have here on this piece of paper...

Miliband: The past.  Not the future.


Who: I'm from the valleys.

Farage: There needs to be a rebalancing.  The Scots have to be tipped over.

Gordon-Bennett: Let's talk about employment.  How did I get this job?

Clegg: You have to make the necessary cuts because you have to.  Here, have my neck, I don't need it.

Cameron: A lot more debt and more taxes.  A lot more debt and more taxes.

Faragist: Let's stop spending money on Bongo Bongo land.  And then put our relations with Europe on the same level.

Not: Time for our next question.

Kelly: I worked in the NHS.  How are we going to keep funding it?

Faragista: The NHS is great, and I don't bear any grudges over the loss of my left bollock, that was entirely down to an Indian doctor.

Caviar: The way to save the NHS is to end austerity.  We can do this by simply willing it enough.

Gordon-Bennett: The NHS wasn't important in 2010.  It still isn't for me, I've got private insurance.

Clegg: The NHS doesn't need warm words, it needs warm blood.  I'm doing my bit.

Who: We invented the NHS.

Miliband: Here's a ream of the new doctors we'll hire that I hope won't completely wash over you.

Cameron: There's only one group of politicians who cut the NHS over the past 5 years, and that was my party as funding didn't keep pace with inflation.

Farage: Let's discuss something entirely irrelevant.  Romanian vampires are drinking our blood banks dry.

Gordon-Bennett: I think you'll find Romanian vampires are the very backbone of the NHS.

Clegg: No, let's talk about mental health.  Everyone watching this must be suffering very severely.

Caviar: I have set out an entirely sensible plan whereby we can raise funding on the NHS by 100% while not cutting welfare at all.

Faragista: No one is listening to me, so from now on I'm going to keep on talking about irrelevant things that would shame fascists.

Who: You are a despicable human being.

Audience: *Applause*

Cameron: If Labour get back in, their target culture will kill your elderly relatives.

Miliband: You broke your promises.  You failed the country.

Cameron: You bankrupted the country.

Miliband: The people will decide.

Everyone watching at home: We've decided to turn this ghastly spectacle off.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015 

An "unprecedented intervention", and the Incedal denouement.

There are some things we are destined never to understand.  Caitlin Moran's popularity.  How Grant Shapps' resemblance to Edd the Duck isn't remarked upon more often.  Why it is so many people can dish it out but not take it when they eventually face a backlash.  And, integral to this post, that ever present election campaign set piece, the letter from business leaders to a newspaper.

When said letter happens to appear on April the 1st, you also can't help but wonder if the joke isn't on all of us.  Quite what effect an endorsement from a bunch of people the vast majority will have never heard of and never will again is supposed to have is a mystery all of its own.  Presumably the aim, at least this time, is to underline further just how wonderful the coalition's long-term plan has been and will remain, and if you don't believe us then that bloke off that TV programme says so, as does that woman off that other TV programme who is, err, also a Tory peer.

This seems to rather overlook how most people are cynical sods, who will note all 103 wealth creating heroes are not doing a lot more than agreeing they would like to pay less tax and draw their own conclusions.  As it's corporation tax they want to pay less of, the tax plenty of companies try their best not to anyway and which in turn means the shortfall has to be made up elsewhere, mainly through more people going into the higher rate income tax band, it doesn't instantly follow they'll conclude Labour are lunatics for saying they'll put it up a whole penny to support smaller businesses.

Nor has it ever been clear what the businesses themselves get out of their CEOs making such endorsements.  The letter is after all effectively a list of companies those so inclined can from now on avoid if they so wish, which is why most likely why they're attempting to have their cake and eat it, signing the letter in a personal capacity.  Thankfully the Graun has stepped in with some further details on said bosses, and so we learn alongside the Tory donors and usual suspects is one Mark Esiri, good pal of the Camerons and the person who helped coordinate the sale of Smythson, netting Glam Sam Cam a cool £430,000.  Also on the list are such non-fat cats as head of Prudential Tidjane Thiam, who earned a mere £11.4m last year, up from £5.3m in 2010, so clearly another victim of the cost of living crisis.

George Osborne is then surely right to declare the letter an "unprecedented" intervention.  Still, it's odd as Nils Pratley notes that previous Tory letter signers are notable by their absence, including such an obvious name as Lord Wolfson, a Tory peer no less.  Also curious, beyond the stupidity of releasing the letter to the Torygraph on April Fools' Day, is why they've done it this early in the campaign at all: surely it would have served the party better nearer polling day itself, as let's face it, the majority are still barely paying attention even as the nerds among us are fed up to the back teeth of the same old soundbites.  It couldn't be that failure to achieve "crossover", the point at which the Conservative lead consolidates and which Lynton Crosby said would have arrived by now, combined with a solid start by Labour on the campaign front has spooked them, could it?

Something that should spook us all is the denouement to the Erol Incedal trial.  Mr Justice Nicol has ruled the public cannot be allowed to know why it was the jury decided Incedal, despite the apparently highly incriminating evidence against him, was not in fact plotting a terrorist attack.  His defence, that he had a "reasonable excuse" as to why both he and his co-defendant had a manual containing instructions on how to make "viable" explosive device cannot be reported, and yet it was this defence that put enough doubt in the mind of two successive juries, resulting first in a retrial and then in acquittal.  For possession of the manual Incedal was sentenced to 42 months in prison, a term that seems far beyond that ordinarily passed for possession of similar documents, again without any wider explanation.

The whole situation frankly defies description.  You want to call it Kafkaesque, except the point of The Trial is K never knows what he's been arrested and charged with, whereas with Incedal we aren't allowed to know what his defence was.  Moreover, the state attempted to have the entire trial held in secret, which not even the bureaucracies of Kafka's nightmares did.  Then there's the paradoxes at work, whereby the CPS continues to claim the trial could not have been brought if more details were made public, and yet as Incedal has now been cleared the opinion of the jury was the case had never been strong enough anyway.

Mr Justice Nicol's reasoning for why the in camera sessions attended by the accredited journalists must remain secret are also, naturally, far too sensitive to be made public.  His ruling additionally makes said hacks effectively complicit in secret justice, or rather injustice, raising the question of whether if a situation like this occurs again they would go along with it a second time.  Why on earth would anyone?  Their notebooks locked away, crosswords also confiscated lest they be an attempt to smuggle out a record of what was heard, they've just wasted weeks of their time.  Indeed, it makes you wonder if that was the point, until you remember that cock up is nearly always a better explanation than conspiracy.

Precisely how national security could possibly be so drastically affected by the public knowing Incedal's defence you can't even begin to surmise.  It seems of a piece with the literal sledgehammer response to the Guardian's reporting of the Edward Snowden leaks, when the most ridiculous excuses were come up with as to why the copies of the files in London had to be destroyed.  It was utterly pointless in the sense of preventing the reporting from continuing, but it was very much pointed in the message it was sending.  Anything that might prove embarrassing to the intelligence agencies has to stepped upon, and if that means denying an innocent man the right to truly clear his name, as Incedal most certainly has been, the ends justify the means.  That the state on this occasion has so involved the fourth estate in its machinations could yet prove its downfall.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015 

Just who are the domestic extremists?

Back in the 70s, Ted Heath was not exactly complimentary about MI5's way of working. "They talked the most ridiculous nonsense, and their whole philosophy was ridiculous nonsense.  If some of them were on the tube and saw someone reading the Daily Mirror they would say - 'Get after him, that man is dangerous, we must find out where he bought it.'"  Predictably, Christopher Andrew in his official history of MI5 claimed the reality was often the government itself asking MI5 to keep tabs on MPs they had suspicions about, rather than MI5 becoming convinced various left-wingers were serving Soviet and not British interests.

By the 1990s the bad old days of MI5 and Special Branch keeping tabs on any vaguely left-wing group were meant to have passed.  When it's subsequently revealed Special Branch apparently left their files open on such notorious subversives as Harriet Harman, Jack Straw and Peter Hain, by this point all ministers in the Labour government, it does make you wonder just who they deemed to not be worthy of monitoring.  Frank Field, maybe? Gerald Kaufman?  Or were they too secretly meeting behind closed doors to plot and sing the Internationale?  Considering that Jenny Jones, the Green member of the London assembly recently discovered she was on the Met's current database of "domestic extremists" perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised.

It also brings into sharper focus the Erol Incedal debacle, the first trial to be heard in such a high degree of secrecy since the war.  Despite being found guilty of possession of a document on bomb-making, the jury at Incedal's retrial (the jury at the original trial failed to reach a verdict) was apparently convinced by his explanation as to why emails the prosecution claimed to refer to the Mumbai attacks and AK-47s were nothing of the kind and so cleared him of plotting some sort of attack.  I say apparently as this was part of the trial held in complete secret, with not even the posse of accredited hacks allowed into some of the behind closed doors sessions ordered out.  Further on the surface incriminating details have emerged as a result of the judge's summing up in the second trial - Incedal apparently met with a British jihadist known only as Ahmed on the Syrian border, who allegedly suggested carrying out an attack.  The bug planted in Incedal's car additionally picked him up praising Islamic State commanders.

Just as intriguing is how Incedal came to the attention of the police in the first place.  Arrested for speeding, the BBC reports he "made demands" the police couldn't accommodate, and they also stopped an interview so they could "digest" a written statement.  Whether it was this which prompted the police to make a thorough search of his car, finding the home address of Tony Blair on a piece of paper hidden in a glasses case we don't know, but it seems to have disquieted them enough to plant the bug in his car.  Incedal maintained at both trials he had a "reasonable excuse" for having the explosives manual, an excuse which caused the jury enough reasonable doubt for them to decide to acquit on the more serious charge.  We can't however know what the excuse was, such is the apparent impact it could have on national security.

Or at least we won't unless the judge decides tomorrow that the reporting restrictions on the sessions when the accredited hacks were allowed in but the public wasn't can now be made public.  Both the Graun and the BBC quote Sean O'Neill, the Times's crime and security editor, known to be the kind of journalist memorably described by EP Thompson as "a kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking", as saying there was a lot heard that should not have been secret.  Surely then we can expect the judge to throw some light on the subject?

Except the fact the security services, ministers, the CPS and the judge himself all initially felt the trial should be held entirely in secret, with Incedal and his co-defendant identified by initials, something only prevented by the media challenging Mr Justice Nicol's ruling at the Court of Appeal, more than suggests that avoiding further embarrassment is likely to be order of the day.  The QC for the media at the Court of Appeal hearing argued that "the orders made involve such a significant departure from the principle of open justice that they are inconsistent with the rule of law and democratic accountability".  As Theresa May reaffirmed on Tuesday, the rule of law is one of those British values that is non-negotiable, and to reject it is one of the definitions of extremism.  The law is though there to be changed, especially if meddling judges decide that letters from a prince preparing to be king to ministers must be revealed, as David Cameron has said.  And when the security services and police are so often a law unto themselves, the rule of law is very much what the government of the day decrees it to be.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015 

What you could of won.

I don't know about you, but I never took David Cameron for a wannabe Frank Carson.  You see, according to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and a whole host of other Tories sequestered to explain the unexplainable, it's all in the way he tells 'em.  Cameron in saying he didn't intend to be around for a third term was just answering a straight question with a straight answer, a highly admirable thing in a politician.  What's more, it's not arrogance to set out where you intend to be in five years time when the public will be deciding your fate in just over a month.  No, it's the exact opposite; it's humility, it's knowing when to get out, being a true public servant rather than wanting power for its own sake.  And if you don't buy any of that, and frankly who would, it was just a statement of the obvious, dismissing the impossible, nothing more.

Being as absurdly presumptuous as the prime minister was for reasons we are no nearer to understanding in turn necessitates equally absurd defences.  All Cameron had to do was say I've got to win this election before I start worrying about the next one, and yet he didn't.  That he then expressly set out the frontrunners to succeed him rather than try and row back makes clear how calculated it was.  You can only guess at what the calculation was, and so too it seems can his allies, but at least we don't have to claim that black is white to incredulous journos.

The aforementioned Gove wasn't scheduled to be on Newsnight, but there he was doing his bit.  Not so long ago he might have hoped to be among the names reeled off by Cameron, and yet now his task was to try and provide some clarity.  He did so by constantly referencing the American system, as though it's worth emulating a model where a two-term president has essentially four years in which to achieve something, the other four years taken up with campaigning for re-election and then as a lame duck.  The introduction of fixed term parliaments has on its own meant we've been anticipating the election now for over a year, a situation which hasn't turned out to be an immediate improvement over the one where it was up to the discretion of the prime minister as to when to dissolve parliament.

That Gove had to be wheeled out in any case was evidence by itself of the Thick of It style panic which must have descended following the Cameron interview, although considering his way of putting it in perspective was to go all West Wing, most likely Crosby and pals wished they hadn't bothered.  By morning the message was at least slightly more coherent, if still utterly transparent.  When the AgeUK conference laughs at the prime minister repeating the I was being a pretty straight kinda guy line, it's fairly apparent just what a self-inflicted wound this has been.

Perhaps the Tories will console themselves that it at least knocked the Afzal Amin disaster down the news agenda.  Dealing as we are with absurdities, the story of the prospective Tory MP for Dudley North making a deal with the EDL whereby they would announce a demonstration then call it off following mediation with Amin, along with an exchange of hard cash to make it worth their while has to rank up there.  As well as Amin claiming that he was drawing on his experience of "dealing with the Taliban", having served in Afghanistan, although whether his claims about counter-insurgency are bullshit or not is anyone's guess, Alex notes that Amin's company succeeded in wrangling a contract out of the Department for Communities and Local Government to giving inspiring talks on Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the world wars.  Whether Amin might perhaps have a case for being stitched up, as he claims, is open to question: we are after all relying on both the Mail on Sunday and Tommy Robinson himself, who secretly recorded and filmed their meetings, as to the veracity of what went on.  Speaking of Robinson, considering he was supposedly meant to have put his EDL days behind him thanks to the work of the Quill.i.am Foundation, that he was negotiating alongside the new EDL chairman with Amin raises the question of just what, if anything, their "deradicalising" of aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon amounted to.  Quilliam hasn't as yet commented on their
protégé's latest attention grabbing exploits, oddly.

They have though welcomed Theresa May's speech on how a majority Conservative government would deal with extremism, which seems to amount in practice to more schemes like those provided by Amin's Curzon firm with a further blurring of the lines between what's considered to be Islamic conservatism as opposed to extremism.  Purists, i.e. people like me will also take issue with how on the one hand we must be robust in our promotion of "British values", those intrinsically British virtues such as participation in and acceptance of democracy (presumably meaning 35% of eligible voters are extremists based on the 2010 turnout) and respect for minorities (no further comment necessary), and at the same time deny extremists who aren't quite extreme enough to fall foul of anti-terrorist legislation their right to freedom of speech by extending banning orders.

Then there's how despite British values being so universal and unquestionable they also need to be promoted by a "positive" campaign.  Like the superb Britain is great one presumably, and not like the one telling Romanians and Bulgarians how awful it is here.  You could also question the commitment of governments past and present to the self-same values now deemed to be non-negotiable, such as respect for the rule of law, not utmost on the agenda of Iain Duncan Smith, or equality, which is so wide a concept as to mean something different to almost everyone.  When British citizens are imprisoned for making offensive jokes or posting riot "events" on Facebook you also have to wonder just which definition of freedom of speech it is we're deeming to be a "British value".  Not the American one, that's for definite, despite this seeming to be the first step towards an American-style drilling into kids of just how exceptional their country and its values are.  Seeing as May also ended the speech with a you're either with us or you're with the extremists flourish, last employed by a certain former president, it's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Not that it makes much odds as there isn't going to be a majority Conservative government, therefore rendering the entire speech all but completely pointless.  Here's what you could of won: a prime minister who doesn't, repeat doesn't believe he was born to rule, a prospective MP who would have got away with it if wasn't for the meddling EDL, and a home secretary who fought against Michael Gove's "draining of the swamp" only to then decide it needed dredging after all.  What fools we all must be.

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