Tuesday, July 21, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 13, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 09, 2015 

All hail the new Tories.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

All hail the new Tories.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015 

The rat and the rabbit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 06, 2015 

The beginning of the end.

Deals made in secret are always bad deals.  It's not always instantly apparent which side has come out the loser, but in the instance of the BBC versus a Conservative government, anyone betting on the side of the public service broadcaster is on a hiding to nothing.

Those with long memories might recall this is almost precisely what happened 5 years ago.  Back then, at least Mark Thompson talked a good game ahead of conceding pretty much everything: a pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of the UK creative economy, he said in his MacTaggart lecture.  Lecture delivered, the then director general accepted a freeze on the licence fee right up until 2016/17 without anyone else being consulted.  In retrospect, thanks more than anything to the world finally noticing that phone hacking had been a thing, kiboshing News Corporation's dreams of swallowing Sky wholesale, it wasn't the worst of deals.  Yes, there have been cuts, but the BBC is pretty much doing what it did in 2010, if not frankly better.

To repeat the process, as DG Tony Hall now has, was asking for it.  Rather than beating his chest ala Thompson, he instead decided he would show the Tories the wounds on his back.  Look how I've already been flagellating myself, he said, thinking that making clear how another 1,000 jobs will have to go thanks to the loophole allowing those who only use the iPlayer to watch catch-up TV don't have to pay the licence fee, a shortfall estimated to be costing £150m, would go some way to sate the Tory lust for blood.  Schoolboy error.

In some ways, to be sure, the deal Hall has struck doesn't look too bad for the BBC.  It obviously secures the licence fee itself, although no one was seriously imagining the Tories would destroy the BBC in one fall swoop.  The fee will also rise in line with inflation from 2017, although if inflation remains around zero as it is currently then it won't count for much.  Hall's biggest coup, the one he's going to be boasting about, is reaching an agreement to close the above loophole, although how this will be done in practice remains to be seen.  Hall has decided to describe this as "modernising" the licence fee, which seems an odd way of telling people to cough up, like it or not, but he obviously knows what he's doing.

Otherwise he wouldn't have apparently, if we're to believe the reporting so far, suggested to the government that the BBC pick up the tab for free licence fees for the over-75s.  This at present costs a mindboggling £650m.  The licence fee brings in £3.72bn.  Moving BBC Three online only, as approved by the BBC Trust, is meant to save just £30m.  Yes, there are a few other sweeteners in the deal, such as how the licence fee will no longer be "top-sliced" to pay for the roll-out of super fast broadband, that the cost will be phased in so the BBC doesn't lose £650m in one go, and how the corporation will effectively take control of the policy once its pays for it fully, leaving open the possibility Auntie will swiftly say that in fact the over-75s get a pretty good deal all told and either abolish the subsidy entirely, means test it or say only cover half, but you don't have to be Martin Lewis to think the sums aren't going to add up.  Not least when the way is still open for the decriminalising of non-payment, leaving it as only a civil offence, estimated at potentially costing the BBC a further £200m.

Let's start with the assumption that the deal leaves the BBC down by "only" £100m.  Radio 4, according to the BBC, costs £91m a year (the Graun says £121m), while the BBC's online services writ large cost £174m.  Whichever way the BBC tries to save that £100m, services are going to have to close.  BBC Three might be shut down entirely, BBC Four could join BBC Three online only, some if not most of the BBC's local radio stations would go, and the digital radio offerings like 6 Music would almost certainly have to be looked at again.  That's just on the assumption it costs £100m, when it could easily be far higher, especially if once fully phased in the BBC doesn't feel able to dump or cut the subsidy, a move the likes of George Osborne know full well will be opposed with the utmost vehemence by the rest of the media.

According to Steve Hewlett, usually well informed, having to take on the cost of licence fees for the over-75s would have "heralded a catastrophe".  Tony Hall presumably believes the concessions he wrangled from both Osborne and new culture secretary John Whittingdale have avoided such a scenario.  Again, let's take his word for it and accept in the circumstances he couldn't have done much better.  That doesn't alter the fact this is the second time the BBC has been forced into cutting a deal without so much as the slightest input from the people whom actually pay for the damn thing.  We apparently have no say whatsoever, unless the Tory majority is taken as being an affirmation for their manifesto promises of keeping the over-75s subsidy and err, a continuing freeze in the licence fee.

It's difficult, if not impossible to separate this fait accompli from the behaviour of both the Tories and the majority of the press at large both during and since the election.  David Cameron was almost certainly joking when he said about closing the BBC down, but the claims of bias made against the corporation during the campaign, utterly laughable considering how day after day the bulletins ran with the SNP-Labour pact scaremongering, were deadly serious.  The Murdoch press, no longer cowed as memory of phone hacking fades and attention turns to the Mirror, has been making its voice heard again.  Osborne's ridiculous comments yesterday that the BBC was somehow crowding out not just local, but national newspapers, Mail Online being such a woeful failure, just underlined how the motive seems to be to cut the BBC down to size for daring to hold government, regardless of stripe, to account.  The Tories' real ire is directed at pieces on the BBC News website like Mark Mardell's from last week, pointing out Cameron has no clothes when it comes to his "full spectrum response" to the attack in Tunisia and instead chose to focus on the inanity of what the BBC calls Islamic State for a reason.  Such articles carry far more weight when the BBC so rarely dabbles in outright analysis, even if Mardell was clearly remaining objective.  The leak to the Sunday Times framed the passing over of the over-75s subsidy as almost a direct response to the BBC daring to cover the reality of cuts to welfare, cuts which are about to fall far wider than previously.

We can't of course know what went on in the back and forth between Hall and the government.  It was probably made clear in the most certain of terms that if he refused the deal on the table or dared to suggest consulting on it that it would not be on offer in the future.  Again, it could turn out that the deal is better than it seems.  It could force the BBC to finally sort out its problems of management, which have not improved in the slightest even as journalists and others with years of service have been let go.  It might lead to some hard choices that should have been taken years ago: there is no reason why Radio 1, 1 Xtra, even Radio 2 couldn't be privatised, as they without a doubt have long stifled commercial alternatives, almost all of which are laughably terrible.  

From the other side though, this really does look like the beginning of the end of the BBC, forced into cutting services which are popular and in turn undermining the esteem in which the corporation continues to be held, leaving the licence fee ever more precarious as the media landscape continues evolving at speed.  The beneficiaries will just happen to be those whom already have far too much power, whether they be the government of the day or the corporate media that overwhelmingly backed said government.  The losers?  Everyone else.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015 

Oh for an incompetent government.

Government, we tend to think, is at its worst when it's either incompetent, or obtuse.  Well, excepting those who really do believe, as the Gipper put it, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help"Philip Hammond wringing his hands about how the Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui was likely trained in the "ungoverned spaces" of Libya and then in his next breath defending the intervention that led to that very space being ungoverned is pretty much par for the course.  We expect government to defend itself despite knowing full well it had more than a hand in how the current situation came about.  It's just how it works.

The same goes for the foisting of the legal requirement on schools, hospitals and prisons to prevent extremism, and the ridiculous official definition of what constitutes "extremism" ("the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs").  The path to radicalisation is different in almost every case, and the idea that a teacher reporting up the chain that one child has an exceptionally negative view of homosexuality could ever prevent something further down the line is completely absurd; the government knows this.  Nonetheless, Nicky Morgan, forever looking as though she's just put a hot chip in her mouth seconds before being dazzled by studio lights, must go on television to insist that black is in fact white, as government has to be seen to be doing something.  It isn't simple coincidence this has the effect of putting more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers, transforming them yet further into social workers, as it couldn't be clearer the Tories hate the entire profession with a passion, but it's a happy side effect.  The government approach to radicalisation seems to be that so much as discussing what might lead to it in schools is tantamount to a betrayal of British values, and if you don't talk about it, clearly it doesn't exist.  Job sorted, now we can get back to putting the blame wholly on Muslims as though they're a homogeneous entity?

No, government is most definitely at its worst when completely and utterly open about what it's doing, and yet still lies about it.  George Osborne's second budget of the year, now only a week away, should finally start to set out precisely where the £12bn in welfare cuts are going to be found.  As has been apparent for quite some time, if you're going to protect pensioners, the disabled and not cut child benefit, the only possible way to get close to that figure is to do something very drastic indeed to both tax credits and housing benefit, both of which are mainly claimed by those in-work.  David Cameron started the softening up process last week with his deeply disingenuous speech about putting an end to the "merry-go-round" of those on low incomes being taxed only to then be handed the money straight back.  It didn't seem to matter that's how the tax system in general works: you are taxed, and services are there as and when you need them.

The obvious problem with cutting child tax credits back to the level they were introduced at back in 2003, one of the most efficient ways of clawing back £5bn, as identified by the IFS, is that you're not hitting the nasty undeserving poor, the scummy mummies and the perpetually drunk, but the strivers at the heart of the "one nation" the Tories have suddenly discovered they stand for.  Even worse, there is or rather was the small problem of the 2020 child poverty target that Gordon Brown managed to get enshrined in law in the dying days of the last Labour government.  One of the targets, long criticised by Iain Duncan Smith, was the aim to reduce relative child poverty, defined as family income 60% below the median, to less than 10%.

What to do?  Even at this point rethink the cuts?  Perhaps not sell off RBS until the share price means the taxpayer won't lose the equivalent of £13bn, as Osborne wants to?  Don't be silly.  No, you just scrap the target entirely, as IDS has today done.  You see, the aim of reducing relative child poverty has led to "unintended consequences for good reasons", namely the increase in tax credits.  And this hasn't really had the effect of dealing with poverty; after all, if you're only £1 better off than the 60% below benchmark, you're still damn poor, aren't you?  Besides, there are the perverse side effects of the target, such as how when everyone is worse off, such as after a recession, it means there are supposedly fewer paupers than there were before.  Or if the government puts pensions up, the opposite becomes true.

Instead the government will focus entirely on getting social mobility going.  Measured will be worklessness and family breakdown, as well as debt and drug dependency.  IDS has long been obsessed with worklessness, and for good reason: as Rick pointed out, and recent studies by the Resolution Foundation have found, worklessness, let alone the long-term worklessness the Tories have so often identified as being the root of all evil in the benefits system, barely exists any more.  There are more people in work in poverty than not, for the reason that work has become that much more insecure and low paid.  Tax credits have duly gone up to compensate.  As commentators pointed out after David Cameron's speech last week, it was Ed Miliband who tried to flesh out an alternative with his clumsy predistribution.  Now the Tories have their majority they don't need to bother to find that alternative: they can just cut tax credits as a whole, say you voted for this, and argue their great economic plan will see everyone's wages go up.  Eventually.  IDS getting rid of the child poverty target was simply the final hurdle.  He's been completely open about why he's done it, while still putting in place a diversion.

Next week the government will announce that the poorest are about to get poorer.  It won't of course be presented like that, and no doubt another rise in the income tax threshold will come alongside it, which will mainly benefit those on middle incomes but will look as though it's helping those on low wages.  The blame will be put not on those who caused the crash, who might in fact be rewarded with another cut in the top rate of income tax, but the Labour party.  Labour in turn might find the remaining fire in its belly, but the leadership contest so far has revolved around accepting the narrative set by the Tories and the right-wing press, so it's unlikely to last long.  Besides, summer's here, parliament's about to go into recess, and by the time it returns it's practically time for the conferences.  Osborne and Cameron some say aren't ideological, that the cock-up version of history is always more convincing the conspiratorial one.  Even if true, it doesn't alter the fact the Tories are doing this because they want to, not because it's the best, let alone fairest way to reduce the deficit.  Give me incompetent government over this any day.

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Monday, June 29, 2015 

Terrorism and victimhood.

The family of Dr Sarandev Bhambra had a point last week.  If the murder of Lee Rigby was a terrorist attack, despite it failing to terrorise anyone other than those who wanted to be, then surely the attempted murder of Bhambra by Zackery Davies, which he claimed to be an attempt to avenge Rigby's death, was also.  Davies was almost your stereotype white supremacist: a loner who had the obligatory copy of the Turner Diaries alongside all the usual Nazi paraphernalia, that masturbatory genocidal fantasy which concludes with a suicide attack on the Pentagon, he also as now tends to be the custom admired the barbarism of Islamic State, despite the obvious contradictions.  He may though also be mentally ill, and the judge has requested psychiatric reports before he sentences him.  One of the killers of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebowale, has also since been transferred to Broadmoor for treatment, and is appealing against the length of his 45-year sentence on those grounds.

Branding the murderous actions of individuals without any links to specific terrorist groups, and in some instances even those who do have such links is to give in to precisely the self-aggrandisement and narcissism that motivated them in the first place.  Davies posing in front of swastikas and the flag of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement is of a piece with the suspected Charleston church murderer Dylann Roof burning the Star and Stripes, waving the Confederate flag and as with so many previous mass killers leaving behind a "manifesto" attempting to justify the unjustifiable.  One line, and one line only is worth dignifying: "We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet," he wrote. "Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."  The exact same line of thinking is now espoused by the successors to the mantle of al-Qaida, the same one grasped by Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo.

Murder/suicide rarely excites any more.  How could it when the TV news in recent years has often seemed to be one long parade of atrocities?  If you're going to go down in a blaze of ignominy, the thinking seems to be, you might as well make it look good for the 24 hour news networks.  A case in point was the first of Friday's reported terrorist attacks, the apparent attempt by Yassin Salhi to cause a major incident at the Air Products chemical factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier.  The French president Francois Hollande instantly branded it a terrorist incident only for the situation to become more confused once it emerged that despite beheading his boss and the use of a flag with the Islamic profession of faith on it, Salhi told the police his motivations were personal more than political.  He might have been or still be a fundamentalist, having previously been on the police's radar, but the use of jihadi iconography and methods seems the excuse rather than the reason.  Nor have foreign connections been discovered as yet, pouring scorn on the media's grasping for a link between France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

Last week at times this country seemed to have descended into a self-pitying wreck, feeling sorry for itself as all around it burned.  The strike at Calais which gave hundreds of desperate migrants a better chance than usual of stowing away for the journey across the channel once again electrified the media at large, with the same old why-oh-whying about why do they come here rather than stay on the continent rearing its head for the umpteenth time.  I waited and waited in vain for someone to point out that the numbers in Calais wanting to come to Britain are tiny compared to the over 100,000 that have made it to Europe so far this year, most of whom have either stayed in Italy or Greece or tried to get to Germany or Sweden, the two main destinations for Syrian refugees in particular.  There was however no shortage of people convinced it was all down to how generous our benefit system is, the myth that refuses to die and never will so long as broadcasters and the press either push it themselves or don't bother to challenge it.

And there right in the centre was David Cameron.  While the big boys round the EU summit table tried and failed to agree on both sharing out said number of migrants more fairly and keeping Greece in the Euro, there he was pushing his pathetic little renegotiation agenda, to much sighing and eye-rolling from everyone else.  Britain has often stood out on its own, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, but rarely has it looked so self-absorbed and obtuse as of late.

This complete lack of apparent wider awareness has manifested itself just as it has in the past in the reaction to the massacre in Sousse.  Cameron promises a "full spectrum" response to the "existentialist" threat posed by Islamic State.  No one has the slightest idea what a full spectrum response entails, and Cameron apparently doesn't know what existentialist means or otherwise he wouldn't make such an utterly ridiculous statement, but that's the least of our worries.  How much of a role Islamic State truly played in the attack doesn't really matter; that they claimed it whereas they didn't the incident in France is evidence enough they pulled the strings.  Nor does it matter that there's very little you can do to prevent one fanatic from gunning down Western tourists on the beach when north Africa has been thrown into flux by the absence of effective government in Libya.  If anything, that's it taken this long for jihadists to realise that far too much can go wrong with bombings when a trained lone attacker armed with an automatic weapon and grenades can kill just as many if not more people is proof in itself of just how non-existentialist the threat is.

The point is our foreign policy, such as it is, seems deliberately designed to increase rather than decrease the threat.  Cameron isn't wrong when he says there would be a threat regardless of whether or not we were personally involved in bombing Islamic State in Iraq.  Theresa May was almost certainly right in saying Brits weren't deliberately targeted in Sousse; westerners as a whole were.  Nor does Islamic State care one jot about the effect the massacre will have on tourism in Tunisia.  All its cadres are interested in is the number of decadent westerners slaughtered for daring to feel safe in an Arab country.  Indeed, little is more likely to excite the always priapic IS devotees than white women in bikinis lying dead in pools of blood, as potent a mixture of the paradoxical motivations of your average teenage jihadi as it's possible to imagine.

I apologise for making this argument for what seems the thousandth time, as even I'm tired of it.  IS nevertheless only exists in its current form because of Syria, and owes some of its success to our refusal to, as the Times put it when demanding that we pal up with Sisi in Egypt "work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as [we] wish it to be".  Regardless of how and why, the west as a whole came to the conclusion that Assad was doomed, that it was only a matter of time before he fell or fled.  It hasn't happened.  Rather than reassess the situation four years down the line, accept that regardless of his being a chemical weapon using killer of his own people that he's not going anywhere and that his army is the only reliable force on the ground other than the Kurdish militias, we'd still rather pretend to be achieving something by attacking IS from the air even as more westerners travel to join them and others launch attacks in their name.  IS exploited the vacuum in Syria, as well as the support from both the west and the other Arab countries that flowed to the "opposition" to undermine Iraq and make its comeback there.

Here in short is just how fucked western policy in the Middle East currently is.  In Yemen we're supporting Saudi Arabia's brutal and ineffective air war against the Houthis, backed indirectly by the Iranians.  In Iraq we're in effective league with Shia militias backed by Iran against IS, which is backed by the Sunnis who prefer the brutal regime of the caliphate to the discrimination they faced under the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.  In Syria we are variously backing the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, assorted other "moderates" and the Kurdish militias against both the Assad regime and Islamic State.  In reality this means we are in alliance with the Sunni states of Saudia Arabia and Qatar, who have gone back and forth between funding and supporting outright jihadi and very slightly more moderate Islamic opposition groups, against Assad, supported by Iran and helped by Hezbollah, also backed by Iran.  Despite claims of both IS and Assad being pushed back and so on, in truth we're in pretty much the same position as this time last year.  Libya meanwhile remains in turmoil and has turned into the conduit through which the refugees from these conflicts, along also with others from Eritrea and Somalia and your common garden economic migrants are making the trip across the Mediterranean.  We don't need to reiterate what went on in Libya, do we?  Good.

Cameron is thus reduced to the platitude of a "full-spectrum response" and the ludicrous claim that a rag-tag army of nihilist throwbacks threaten our very existence because he either can't do anything or won't do anything.  Further western intervention is precisely what IS wants and the Americans failed in any case to destroy al-Qaida in Iraq when boots were on the ground.  We refuse to accept that IS is more of a threat to regional stability than Assad, and so won't ally with the only army in either Iraq or Syria that somewhat functions.  We continue to ignore how Saudi Arabia funds the mosques and preachers that spread the Wahhabi precursor to Islamic State's takfiri jihadism.  Cameron talks of the struggle of our generation when western policy up to now has either targeted individuals rather than the ideology itself and where it springs from, or has made things worse through either incompetence, as in Iraq, or by choice, as in Libya.  We are apparently to be intolerant of intolerance, only without a countervailing narrative to rival that which appeals to a distinct minority, some of whom might as Roof put it "take it to the real world".  The vast majority won't.  That won't however stop ministers from reaching to the law, further restricting free speech in the name of protecting British values.  Anything other than admit our mistakes and change course, and think of ourselves as anything other than victims.

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Monday, June 15, 2015 

Magna Carta and all that.

I'd like to think we can all agree it takes a special kind of cretin to use the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the document that established all are equal under the law, to argue in fact only they can "restore the reputation of human rights".  Considering the chief argument being made for a British Bill of Rights is it would prevent criminals, terrorists and other unworthy sorts from invoking Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, that of the right to a private and family life in order to avoid deportation, although how this would be accomplished without also leaving said convention at the same time as ripping up the Human Rights Act has never been answered, it does put in a whole new perspective David Cameron's decision to say it was "ironic" that "the good name of human rights has sometimes become distorted and devalued".  Call me a stuffy pedant, but I'd say it was beyond ironic, in fact an example of a politician without the slightest sense of shame to use Magna Carta as a backdrop to say some will be more equal than others under the law if and when he gets his way.

Then again, Magna Carta has always been a symbol rather than anything real in any case.  Everything you think you know about it is almost certainly wrong, and as Jack of Kent so admirably argues, there is no contradiction in politicians and other worthies celebrating a document that cannot be relied on in court while wanting to repeal one on which you can.  Rights in the view of so many are things you can expect to be given to you as hard and fast as you can take them, and if you can't, well hard cheese.  It's also noticeable historians chuckle and roll their eyes at all this nonsense, knowing full well that Magna Carta sure didn't stop King after King from doing whatever the hell they liked, while politicians, often in the main law or PPE graduates, go into raptures over it.  Not all of them, obviously, but a fair number.

Cameron's dedication to destroying an act that does work, frankly all too well for the government and establishment's liking, is of a piece with the fondness of the spooks for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.  Described by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation last week as "undemocratic" and "intolerable", with the situation in which we are currently in deemed "unnecessary", I wondered if the intelligence agencies wouldn't finally see sense and embrace David Anderson's recommendations, couched as they were in language and arguments that mollified libertarians like me while still providing the agencies with the powers they say they need.

Yesterday's front page piece in the Sunday Times rather answered such thinking.  According to a number of anonymous sources, the cache of files taken by Edward Snowden has been successfully cracked by both the Chinese and Russians, leading to MI6 needing to extract a number of agents for fear they could have been killed as a result.  The entire report, without needing to read the responses from those in the know, such as Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher and the Graun, is bollocks of the hairiest, most obvious kind.  Snowden apparently has blood on his hands, and yet there is no evidence of anyone being harmed.  Que?

You don't have to question how the Russians and Chinese could have gained access to the files when the only people in possession of them are journalists, Snowden himself having destroyed his copies after he handed them over, something not previously questioned by anyone.  Nor does another howler, like the precise figure of 1.7m documents accessed by our enemies when the NSA previously admitted it simply didn't and couldn't know how many files Snowden had taken give the game away.  It's how crude and transparent the sourcing is: when Seymour Hersh questions the official version of events in the killing of bin Laden, his reliance on unnamed intelligence sources is ridiculed.  Hersh's recent exposes may be nonsense, but they are no less believable than a supposed newspaper of record (stop sniggering) noting down everything briefed to it by a government and then reprinting it verbatim.

The "exclusive" given to the Sunday Times is revenge, plain and simple.  David Anderson confirmed in his report that without Snowden, absolutely nothing would have changed.  The Intelligence and Security Committee had never asked precisely how GCHQ monitored the internet, so it hadn't thought it necessary to keep them up to date with things like Tempora or their relationship with the NSA.  Anderson's recommendation that judges review and authorise warrants rather than politicians raises the possibility they might be slightly more critical in their appraisal than ministers have previously, and that would never do.

There's also the simple spite factor, that and letting everyone know how they might react in the future.  The smashing up of the Guardian's copy in this country of the Snowden files was utterly pointless when it came to "ending the debate", but it carried with it the message of acting because they could.  Smearing Snowden further and claiming those dastardly Rushkies and Chinese have got their hands on the locations of our brave spies is meant to reinforce how so much as talking about things we're not supposed to know is to damage our security.  You might think you've won this round, it says, with the Anderson report, but just you wait.  When all else fails, appeal to the court of public opinion, with its memories of Bletchley Park and hagiographies of Alan Turing.

It's utterly pitiful behaviour, and yet it shows how worried the government and the securocrats are.  They've done everything they can to deny there is any need for a debate or to worry about what those in the shadows are up to, when even the American authorities have in the main accepted the powers they had went too far in some areas.  Instead of going down the same path, the Anderson report having given them the chance to back down without losing much in the way of face, the age old tactic of anonymous briefing to a trusted hack and newspaper is the response.  When you can't make the perfectly reasonable argument that we can't foresee the future, can't know what the next threat might be, and so have to be ready for every eventuality without resorting to outright lies, there is clearly a problem with accountability.  They saw back in 1215 that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  800 years on some still need to learn that lesson.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015 

When maintaining the status quo feels like something to celebrate.

David Anderson QC's review of the various laws authorising and regulating the interception of data by the state is as good as we possibly could have hoped for.  Compared to the work of parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, well, there's no comparison.  Not a single redaction for a start, very little in the way of obfuscation or outright distraction, regardless of how transparent those attempts to muddy the debate have been, and outright recognition that if it had not been for the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden, we would still know almost nothing about the way GCHQ hoovers up our data with the very minimum of oversight.  Anderson still, contradictorily, criticises Snowden, but that is to be expected.  The independent reviewer of terrorism clearly does not swallow the bluster from the security services that major damage has been done to them, despite accepting "national security" has been affected.  When national security is defined so widely, and presumably in this instance includes damage to the reputation of said security services, it could hardly be otherwise.

He does nonetheless accept the pleas of GCHQ for the bulk interception of data to be allowed to continue.  He did at least manage to persuade the powers that be to disclose the general outline of the examples previously provided to the ISC for why bulk interception, which if nothing else gives us something of an idea as to what we're giving up in terms of privacy in order to prevent.

This is not to say the examples given are beyond question (they're contained in Annex 9 of the report): most eye-catching is the claim that without bulk data, an airline worker with links to al-Qaida would not have been convicted.  As Joshua Rozenberg writes, this almost certainly refers to the case of Rajib Karim, who was in email contact with the then leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, since killed in a US drone strike.  You would of course expect someone like al-Awlaki to be under surveillance, although how precisely GCHQ identified Karim we can't know.  Nor can we know how exactly "bulk data" is being defined in this instance: yes, Karim might not have been identified if al-Awlaki also hadn't been targeted, presumably under the rules governing bulk interception rather than as a specific target, but that's rather different to how our "external communications", i.e. the use of any website not hosted in the UK are considered by the intelligence agencies to fall under bulk interception as a whole.  Two of the case studies provided do not so much as relate to subsequent law enforcement action in this country at all.  While this is evidence of the efficacy of bulk interception in cases where intelligence or what we would normally consider to be standard surveillance techniques have started off the investigation, it hardly convinces that the ordinary sifting through of the vast amounts of data being collected will ever on its own save lives, or outweigh the potential abuse of such access to personal data.

That aside, the report on the whole is so well argued that if the intelligence agencies had any sense, they would take a good hard look at Anderson's recommendations and five principles, of minimising no-go areas, limited powers, rights compliance, clarity and transparency and a unified approach and adopt them as their own.  Anderson writes of just how co-operative everyone was with him, as you would expect, and yet these are the same agencies that once free of the presence of those reviewing them go back to demanding redactions in reports, that over-the-top levels of secrecy be maintained and the delivering of self-defeating lectures that we're all so familiar with.  There is in essence absolutely nothing in the report they should disagree with, at least if they realise things can no longer go on as they were, but whether organisations which by their very nature have to be paranoid and constantly on the lookout for new ways to break things can handle such concepts remains unclear.

The problem you suspect will in fact be more with the politicians than the agencies themselves.  Ministers will be loth to give away to judges the authorising of interception warrants, not least because it's another power they'll lose.  So too will it affect their direct line into the agencies, and considering the past at times fractious relationship between the spies and politicians, that's not something necessarily to be welcomed.  Anderson also reiterates the past criticisms of the proposed Data Communications Bill, aka the snoopers' charter, essentially saying the case for it has still to be made, despite "compulsory retention of records of user interaction with the internet" being "useful", as he terms it.  Well yes, useful it would certainly be; as for being justifiable, in the same way as bulk interception is justifiable, not without safeguards far beyond what has been outlined so far.  

All things considered though, especially when we think of how with a Tory majority, a Labour party that looks certain to head back to the right and when the only party remotely interested in civil liberties as a whole has been reduced to a rump, this report in different hands could have been the sum of all fears.  Instead it looks set to merely maintain the status quo.  These days, that feels like a victory.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015 

The intoxication of power, via the Simpsons.

You know what we haven't done for a while?  Quoted from the Simpsons, so let's remedy that.  In the New Kid on the Block episode, Bart foolishly asks Homer for advice on the opposite sex.  "A woman is a lot like a beer.  They smell good, they look good, you'd step over your own mother just to get one.  But you can't stop at one, you want to drink another woman!"

Homer could just have easily been talking about the intoxicating effects of power.  Only it wouldn't have been funny or made anything approaching sense, so would have came from a more recent season of the show.  Yes, I just made a the Simpsons ain't what it used to be joke.  Another philosopher, arguably one not quite on the level of Homer but thereabouts, wrote the slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.

Very few once they have tasted power find it within themselves to either give it away or relinquish it, at least not without a fight (The War Nerd in his latest post wonders if the Soviet Union is the only empire to have collapsed without a shot being fired, although that's a questionable version of 1989-91).  Politicians for decades have promised to devolve power to cities and local communities, only to decide not to once they themselves have power, or find those they want to empower in fact don't really like the idea of mayors or regional assemblies much.  London and Scotland are the exceptions that prove the rule, and as we have seen, once given demands for further powers only increase. 

A case in point is the attempt to force a by-election in Orkney and Shetland, under the specious reasoning that Alistair Carmichael lying about not leaking the comments supposedly made by Nicola Sturgeon to the French ambassador means the contest should be rerun.  It's a campaign ran by SNP supporters, but obviously the SNP themselves have nothing to do with it.  56 seats out of 59 just isn't enough when they could they have 57 instead.  Not that it's fair to pick just on the SNP, or the Tories with their legislation on trade unions designed to damage Labour, or the likely at some point boundary review.  All parties are determined to make life as difficult as possible for their opponents, only realising too late that domination builds resentment and the seeds of eventual downfall. 

What is a new tactic is the use of legislation to bind a future government to the same path of righteousness as the current one.  It's an innovation of especial vanity, an attempt to retain control when the people who put them there in the first place might well have slung them out.  It's also, as with so much of our politics now, little more than a gesture when the law can so only easily be repealed by that new government, but it remains a gesture designed to trip up the opposing side in the most petty of fashions.

No surprise then that a man as clearly petty as George Osborne is so keen on the mechanism, having pinched it from that other petty man, Gordon Brown.  First he attempted to trap Labour by legislating for the next government to be required to cap spending on social security.  Then during the election campaign the brilliant idea of making it illegal to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance before 2020 was come up with.  Now Osborne has decided it's a wicked wheeze to go one step further with his deficit reduction fetishism and require all future governments to follow his plan to run a budget surplus, or at least so long as the economy's growing, as he's not a complete bastard.

Cynics might think it takes some chutzpah for the chancellor who failed to eliminate the deficit in a single parliamentary term as promised to propose to tie the hands of his successors.  Considering we're still to be informed also of precisely how the sunlit uplands of the surplus is to be arrived at, demanding all do as Osborne says could be thought of as breathtakingly arrogant.  Nothing though is off the table when it comes to continuing to pin the economically incontinent tail on the soiled old Labour donkey, which is of course the real point of Osborne's jape.  With some of the Labour leadership candidates now accepting the utterly risible idea that they overspent when in government, the obvious riposte to which is to ask exactly what they would have spent less on, and if they answer welfare you reply with a baseball bat with a nail through the top, all the better to demand they sign up to Osborne's completely sensible surplus plan.  And if they won't, as the less self-hating ones won't, you carry on lambasting them for not accepting all this austerity is their fault.

Everyone's a winner, except for oh, the people who will suffer as a result of the shrinking of the state necessary to reach such a perpetual surplus.  The otherwise excellent Flip Chart Rick argues that despite the caricature from some on the left, Osborne and Cameron are not ideological state-shrinkers.  When it comes to Cameron he could be right, mainly because there's never been the sense Cameron believes in anything.  With Osborne, it's becoming ever more difficult to think otherwise.  As Rick has pointed out, both the IMF and the OECD have changed their tune of late, advising governments that are not Greece they can dial down the deficit reduction, especially if the proposed cuts have the potential to affect growth.  Coupled with how everyone assumed that the £12bn in cuts to welfare were to be negotiated away in the coalition talks, Osborne if he wanted has had more than enough opportunities to step back from his surplus now and surplus forever mantra.  Instead, he's gone one step beyond that into the realm of the completely gibberingly stupid.  

That £12bn in cuts to welfare looks unachievable is besides the point: Osborne looks set to try and reach for the top regardless.  The difference between playing political games and acting out of ideological purity is a fine one at the best of times.  The chancellor has surely now shown his true, somehow even ghastlier face to the world.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015 

The Queen's speech: the worst is here.

My yearly shtick when it comes to the Queen's speech is to bore on about how fantastically absurd the spectacle is.  People in full possession of their faculties walking backwards; the shutting of doors in faces in reference to something that happened during the reign of Ethelred the Unready; Lords and Ladies done up as though they're going to an especially classy fancy dress keys in the bowl party afterwards; the BBC in full obsequious mode, which still isn't good enough for the Mail and Telegraph; and its heralding, defining, dunderheaded centrepiece is Brenda, in full regalia complete with crown weighing the same as a new born infant, reading out an essay inscribed on goatskin vellum as written by a slightly dim 15-year-old GCSE politics student.  Liz, bless her, is 90 next year.  Surely the time has come for her to tell the idiots who keep insisting she involves herself in this pantomime to fawk off.

Only the point has finally been reached where it's not the pomp and circumstance itself which is most absurd, it's the speech itself.  Queenie has had to read out some nonsense in her time, and has managed somehow to keep her thoughts to herself on just what she thinks about having to say things like "Northern powerhouse".  Never before though has the speech reached such heights of fatuity, been so obviously and deliberately contradictory, to the point where it's obvious that the Tories are rubbing everyone's noses in it, and so aggravatingly obtuse.

It starts in the opening sentence.  "My Government (because it is Her government, just as we serfs are subjects, not citizens) will legislate in the interests of everyone in our country".  No, that's an impossibility; what the writer means is the government will legislate in what it believes to be everyone's best interests, which is a rather different thing altogether.  "It will adopt a one nation approach," which means whatever the government says is a one nation approach, "helping working people get on," meaning absolutely nothing, "supporting aspiration", which means precisely what it says, "giving new opportunities to the most disadvantaged," by saying you're on your own pal, "and bringing different parts of our country together," presumably by uniting them in opposition to the Tories.

And so it goes on.  Apparently the long-term plan was, is to provide economic stability and security at every stage of life, which is a new one on me.  Legislation will be brought forward to help achieve full employment, as will legislation to provide raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, and provide more people with the security of a job.  Not with job security, take note, but the security of a job.  Nor is the referendum on EU membership anything to do with David Cameron's pathetic kowtowing to his backbenchers during the coalition; no, the government will pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all Member States.  What a kind, loving, generous, selfless gesture on the part of the Tories, eh?

On reading the Tory manifesto, it seemed fairly apparent that so bonkers was much of its content it had been put together with the intention of bartering away the more reprehensible parts in the coalition negotiations.  They weren't really going to cut £12bn from welfare, not least as they couldn't begin to explain where they could make such massive savings, and they weren't going to really legislate to make it illegal to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT, that's just unbelievably stupid.  They're not that stupid, are they?  No, David Cameron and George Osborne are sensible chaps underneath the laughable skin suits they wear, and the remaining Lib Dems will see they don't go through with this blazing idiocy.

If the Tories didn't expect to be implementing their manifesto as a whole, as we're told they didn't, then winning a majority put them in a happy conundrum.  Do they now row back from the lunatic bribes they came up with, like selling off houses they don't so much as own on the cheap, or abolishing inheritance tax, breaking promises they never believed in to begin with?  Or do they carry on regardless, as to not do so would be to aggravate the exact people, mainly the backbenchers, who did think the party meant it?

Well, now we have the answer.  The strange thing is all the comment on the decision to "delay" abolishing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a mythical "British" Bill of Rights, which while always a completely stupid idea and utterly pointless without leaving the European Convention is not even close to the barking mad imbecility of the manifesto promises that were in the speech.  That getting rid of the HRA is the one thing that seems to unite the disparate elements in the Commons, important as resisting such an act of vandalism is, says much of just what isn't going to face the same level of opposition.  It has at least shown precisely how the Sun and Mail intend to play matters from here on out: again, not for them concerns about putting moron restrictions on tax, but rage at how they still won't get their way, having been principally responsible for the demonisation of the HRA.  How dare the government they got elected snub them so?

As Rafael Behr wrote this morning, most Tories are taking their unexpected victory as proof both of just how brilliant they are and the uselessness of their opponents.  This is hardly surprising when the SNP, declaring itself the unofficial opposition, isn't content with its 56 seats in Scotland and would rather like to force Alistair Carmichael into resigning for daring to leak something that portrayed poor wee Nicola Sturgeon in a less flattering light.  In such circumstances are bad laws passed, not least when Labour as led by Harriet Harman is in such a supine, self-absorbed mood.  Deciding not to oppose the EU referendum which is now coming like it or not is one thing; to not continue to oppose the cut in the benefit cap to £23,000 is quite another.  Exceptional circumstances don't apparently mean anything to a party hierarchy convinced that it was not being quite harsh enough on those on benefits that did for them.

It's all the more dispiriting when there were quite so many breathtakingly awful laws proposed in the speech, including some that will directly target Labour.  Not given a direct mention was the reintroduction of the redrawing of the constituency boundaries, destined to make a Labour majority even harder, although you can bet it will return at some stage.  Instead the Tories made do with a surprise inserting into the proposed Trade Unions Bill of an opt-in system for the political fund element of union subscriptions, as clearly we can't have ordinary hard-working people funding parties, as opposed to the super-rich.  The obscene hypocrisy of a government legislating to require strike ballots are supported by 40% of those eligible when it won only 36.9% of the vote meanwhile is chutzpah defined.

Then there's the clusterfuck of Home Office bills, including not just the "extremism" bill, introduced by David Cameron saying that no longer would government leave alone those who obey the law and the return of a supercharged communications bill destined to give the intelligence agencies total legal cover to do whatever the hell they like with our data, but also an overarching criminalisation of (il)legal highs.  Only the government obviously can't call them that, and so has decided on "psychoactive substances" instead.  I joked not so long back it would be easier if the government started declaring what was legal as opposed to illegal, and yet this is exactly what they are proposing to do.  Yes, apparently under this new bill "any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect" will be made illegal, except for those it defines are legal.  Older heads might be reminded of the difficulty government lawyers had in giving the police powers to shut down free parties, which led to the Criminal Justice Act of 94 defining in law the music being targeted as consisting of "sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats".  It doesn't seem to have gotten through to our lawmakers the only reason the "legal high" market has flourished is precisely because of the illegality of and restrictions placed on the manufacture of MDMA and the rest, just as it didn't occur to them back in 94 that you'll never stop people from trying to enjoy themselves, but then what else is government for?  Someone, I forget who, once said the Daily Mail owed its existence to the outrage some feel that others are out there having fun, and so the same could be said of so many of our politicians.

There is perhaps one worthwhile bill in the whole lot, and that's the childcare act.  Except doubling the number of hours of free childcare available for three and four-year-olds looks certain to be giving with one hand and taking with the other, as tax credits will most likely be cut in the search for the £12bn from welfare.  Which just reminds us this is only the beginning of 2 years of unrelenting misery, with George Osborne due to deliver his second budget of the year on July the 8th, setting out precisely how hard and fast we're going to be screwed.  As someone I need to thank for yet again putting up with my shit recently said, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

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