Thursday, March 20, 2014 

The return of the stupid party.


There is only one thing to draw from the Tories' BINGO! ad, as tweeted by Michael Green Grant Shapps, and it's not that the party itself has a pretty dim view of those it's attempting to appeal to, as we already knew that. It's rather that the party's advisers and advertising partners seem to be similarly crass and thoughtless. Is this really the same party that, regardless of what you thought of it, could at least be relied on in the past to commission effective, even iconic campaigns? Compare it to the viral video released by Labour a few weeks back, which used the template of Facebook's otherwise deeply creepy auto-generated history videos to look back on the coalition's four years in an both amusing and critical manner.  Forget patronising, Shapps' tweet was downright stupid, the only surprise being it hasn't been deleted.

Thankfully, we don't just have to rely on the Tories' own chairman to show up the coalition, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has once again cast their eye over the budget. As last year, they condemn George Osborne in wonderfully understated language, as he continues to find money for tax cuts and spending without it being made clear where the money's going to come from.  "A Chancellor focussed on sound management of the public finances over the long tern would not make a habit of repeating these sort of manoeuvres," Paul Johnson said (PDF), but then it's been clear for some time that Osborne is no more focussed on the future beyond the next election than Gordon Brown ever was. The IFS notes there was again not even the slightest reflection on whether the scale of cuts required from non-protected departments are achievable, as they and many others doubt. Such shocks, whether they be tax rises, further cuts or both are to be left until after 2015.

Nor were the more widely praised changes to pensions spared. Despite the best efforts of the coalition and their supporters in the press to say so, it is not patronising to ask whether some will underestimate the amount they'll need to live on come retirement, nor whether the result will be a rise in the cost of annuities for those who do want them.  As Paul Johnson also pointed out, the Treasury expects the amount brought in from allowing people to cash out their pension pots if they so wish to increase in the short term, then reduce over time.  The real worry is not that those approaching retirement age will run out and buy Lamborghinis and then rely on the topped up state pension to live on, but as Tode says, it will spark a further round of buying to let, further limiting the opportunity of those on low incomes to purchase their own home.  Having already made it almost a right for parents to pass their homes on to their children, now it seems they'll be able to bequest their property portfolio as well.

Not that everything is entirely rosy for the comfortably off.  The additional 2 million who have found themselves dragged into the 40p tax band since 2010 have but one person to blame: the chancellor who has slashed corporation tax and abolished the 50p rate for the mega rich, meaning the shortfall has had to be made up somewhere.  Even so, the IFS makes clear whom has suffered the most under the coalition, and it sure isn't middle earners: with the exception of the top decile, who can more than shoulder their share, the poorest have been hit hardest.  It's worth remembering that this was Alistair Darling's plan for closing the deficit, almost the model of progression.  The coalition by contrast has assaulted the poor and got away with it, helped along by those who've focused on Benefits Street rather than the Square Mile.  Still, "they" can be bought off with beer and bingo, right?

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Monday, December 23, 2013 

Thing of the year: the immigration monster.

Hasn't it been a fantastic year?  After the miserable period of darkness that was 2012, brightened only by the Olympics, 2013 has been a 12 months without parallel.  We've had twerking, the fourth wave of feminism, selfies, people disappearing even further up their own arseholes on Twitter and, and, and, yeah, I can't keep this up.  2013 hasn't been as bad as 2012, for the reason 2012 would have been improved markedly had the world ended on the 21st of December. We were then starting from just about as low a point as was possible.

All the same, it's still been fairly catastrophic.  We've moved from having a flatlining economy to one where growth is being driven almost entirely by the housing market and consumer spending, without so much as a indication that the rebalancing the coalition supposedly wanted is beginning to happen.  And does this worry George Osborne?  Of course not.  The man who had the audacity to criticise Labour for not fixing the roof while the sun was shining (the only reason public services have held up so well during the first few years of austerity is thanks to the billions pumped in during the good times) is so desperate for any sort of growth that he's not bothered where it's coming from.  His plan for eliminating the deficit and running a surplus by the end of the decade we now know is based on two eventualities: first, that the Conservatives will be back in opposition and so the problem will be his successor's, or second, failing that, he'll have to massively put up taxes, as it simply won't be possible to cut everyday government spending back to the same share of national income as in 1948 without something, or rather many things breaking.

The real clusterfuck of the year has however been, yet again, on immigration.  Almost as soon as Jools Holland brought in the new year the tabloids picked up on the fact that in 12 short months hordes of marauding Romanians and Bulgarians would be free to come to this green and pleasant land and despoil it by working for a pittance picking the vegetables their readers are currently shovelling into their trolleys.  Within the month the government had decided on the perfect solution: they would fund advertisements informing all the gypsies, mafia types and other assorted stereotypes that far from being a welcoming, tolerant place, life in Britain is pretty damn terrible, especially if you're a for'n and don't speak the lingo.  Incredibly, this didn't placate our famously agreeable press, and for the rest of the year the scaremongering has just kept building.  Little things like how there isn't going to be anything approaching a repeat of the '05 cock-up, when only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden opened their borders immediately while the rest of the EU put in controls on the A8 states have either gone unexplained or been ignored.

Rather than attempt to counter this by calling out the tabloids and UKIP on their nonsense, the Conservatives have just gone with the flow.  Each month seems to have seen a re-announced crackdown on migrants' benefits, with by my reckoning the restriction on claiming before 3 months set out, eerily enough, 3 times.  We have in fact reached such a point that the Tories now seemingly want new states joining the EU to have to wait far longer before their citizens gain the right to free movement, their economies needing to have caught up further before any Albanians or Serbs would be allowed to come to Blighty.  That it will be at least a decade before Albania might be able to join, meaning under the current rules it would then be a further 6 years before EU states would have to open their borders doesn't seem to matter; we need these changes in place now, damn it.  To that end, a potential yearly cap of 75,000 migrants has been mooted by the Tories, again despite how such a policy would be illegal and would almost certainly lead to other EU nations putting limits on the number of Brits they would allow in each year, as both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have pointed out.

Such is the way things have gone that we now have the Telegraph and Tory MPs outraged that Cable should so much as mention Enoch Powell and "rivers of blood" in the same breath as talking about immigration panics.  Anyone who isn't a complete idiot will have realised Cable wasn't suggesting the Tory rhetoric was comparable to Powell's, rather bringing up past examples of panics as evidence of what happens when we don't have a sensible debate or politicians acting responsibly. Whether Cable is a hypocrite for being so critical while remaining a minister in the government that's presiding over such self-defeating policies is worth considering, but it's a separate issue.

As John Harris writes, of course it isn't racist to be worried or anxious about large-scale immigration. It's also the case that the A8 accession did transform life in a number of towns, such as Peterborough and Boston. The point is surely though that the eastern European migration was a one-off due to the aforementioned factors, and won't be repeated again. For reasons known only to themselves, rather than calm the debate, the Tories have spent much of the year stoking it.  If the idea was to then claim their changes have stopped tens of thousands coming, then any credit they might receive will be outweighed massively in the long-term by the whole situation repeating. The immigration monster isn't going to go away when you keep on feeding it. And if you think you're going to gorge yourself over Christmas period, just wait until you see it tuck into the headlines over the new year.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013 

The cycle continues.

At times, you just have to sit back and admire the sheer cant of some of our elected representatives.  Take David Blunkett, who's rather cross that his giving an interview to BBC Radio Sheffield resulted in headlines claiming he predicted riots, something he denies so much as saying.  Whether he did or not, the national media piled into the Page Hall area of the city and came away with the distinct impression that something had to give, such was the local anger at the Roma who had moved into the community daring to stand around in groups outside at night.  They even found a bloke at Halal Fisheries who said a Romanian couple had tried to sell him their baby, as those wacky gypsies are so often trying to do.  While he might not have expressly talked about riots, the Graun does quote Blunkett talking about "explosions", "implosions" and the three northern towns that saw race rioting back in 2001.  All he wants you see is a calm debate, such as the one he instigated previously when he said the children of asylum seekers were "swamping" schools, not to mention the time he gave an interview to the Sun agreeing with them that all these asylum seekers should be sent back, guv.

You can't really blame people for being cynical though when it's become clear just what the government was up to in suddenly announcing yet another benefits crackdown for those supposedly coming here just to leech off our fantastically generous welfare state.  Rather than net migration falling towards the desired tens of thousands, as Cameron and pals pledged, it instead went up in the year to June 2013, rising by 15,000 to 182,000, mainly thanks to a fall in emigration.  Considering Dave has been chastised in the past for apparently pre-empting releases by the Office of National Statistics, it's not that big a stretch to think this might be another example of the coalition acting on information only it has seen.

We are then once again seeing the destruction wrought by the immigration monster.  No amount of facts or pleading can stop the tabloids from claiming come the 1st of January Bulgaria and Romania are going to empty out, the whole population of the two countries upping sticks and coming to sponge off our soft touch welfare system.  It doesn't matter how many Bulgarian ambassadors we hear from who point out that most applications for work permits are already accepted, and that it was 2007 when the two countries actually joined the EU that the largest number decided to start a new life in the UK, clearly the migrant horde is going to be snaking its way through Dover on New Year's Day.  Nor does it have it any impact pointing out that unlike in 2004, when the citizens of the accession 8 states had only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden to choose should they want to look for work elsewhere, this time all the states that haven't yet allowed free movement have to open their borders.  Why would Romanians and Bulgarians come here rather than chance their arm in Germany, say, or somewhere slightly more receptive?

It perhaps does bear repeating that we aren't the only country where sentiment against immigration has turned decisively.  There is also a certain amount of truth in the government claiming that the Germans and French are taking action themselves ahead of January 1st, although again this seems mainly in an attempt to placate public opinion rather than out of there being any hard evidence of benefit tourism.  Putting further restrictions on when migrants can gain access to certain benefits only encourages rather than refutes the narrative that migrants aren't here to work.  Indeed, Cameron didn't so much as attempt to argue that the concern might be misplaced, instead yet again blaming Labour for getting it wrong in 2005.  The opposition meanwhile continues to up the rhetoric, criticising the government for "panicking" at the last minute, while former ministers dig themselves further into the mire by continuously apologising for the mistake they made in thinking other countries would be opening their borders in 05 as well.  The estimate now ritually criticised was made on that assumption, which was why it was so out of line with the reality.

The latest immigration figures in fact suggest politicians are fighting the last battle; rather than it being workers from eastern Europe making the journey, there have been large increases in those arriving from the countries hardest hit by the crash.  Free movement of labour goes both ways: wanting to put an end to it might please the UKIP tendency the Conservatives are still trying to win back, but it isn't going to appeal much to businesses who are already complaining about the government's approach.

Such has been the shift from defending immigration or singing its praises to saying it must now cease while not being able to do much about it, combined with the lack of political will to confront the hysteria from the tabloids, we've reached the point where the public doesn't believe any of it.  More to the point, only a fifth were able to pick out the "tens of thousands" pledge as being government policy.  Why not then be brutally honest with everyone: whether we remain in the EU or not, freedom of movement is highly unlikely to go away when the economic benefits are fairly well established.  We could raise the drawbridge entirely, like say Israel or Australia, but is that the type of country we want to become?  Acceptance of migrants excepting the unskilled is in fact fairly high.  Besides, regardless of whether most know the tens of thousands pledge now, they will come 2015 when UKIP and Labour will doubtless make great play of the coalition's failure.  Only then might it occur to some of our politicians to break out of this self-defeating cycle.

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Thursday, October 31, 2013 

The immigration monster and the "go home" vans.

If anything, it's a bit of a surprise that as many as 11 people decided to "go home" rather than face the rather distant possibility of arrest after learning of the Home Office van campaign. This raises the obvious question of just how desperate a situation they must have been in to want to take their chances back in their home country, but such concerns are clearly irrelevant. These people shouldn't be here and they should go.

Only, as the reporting of Mark Harper's written answer makes clear, it costs more to enforce a deportation (£15,000) than the average illegal immigrant costs the taxpayer a year (just shy of £5,000). The latter figure seems difficult to believe, in any case: most illegal migrants won't/can't access public services, and so will use hardly any resources at all.  The motivation behind the campaign is then somewhat financially sound: paying for a flight for someone is hell of a lot cheaper than doling out money to our friends at G4S or Serco to "Mubenga" someone.

The problem was in the execution, but then that was clearly the point. This was a stunt straight out of the Lynton Crosby playbook. Wait until news was slow, then launch a campaign using a borderline racist slogan designed to attract both condemnation and attention in equal measure. If some people did take up the kind offer, all the better. The Tories could portray themselves as tough as well as practical, and Labour would be caught in the trap of either condemning sending illegal immigrants home, or condoning a 70s style National Front demand.  They didn't however factor in that this being the social networking age, a thousand people would prank the phone and text line, or indeed that even Nigel Farage would denounce the campaign as being too nasty, designed purely to win back some of those who had defected to his party.

Without figures for voluntary deportations for a similar period prior to "Operation Vaken", we clearly can't make a comparison as to how successful the whole charade really was.  It might well be that a similar number to the 125 total claimed to have been motivated by the operation would have submitted themselves anyway without prompting.  This is the thing: there is absolutely nothing wrong with ensuring those here illegally know they can return to their country of origin if they so wish, with the government picking up the tab.  It's how you go about doing so, and telling people to go home or face arrest is manifestly not the right way, not least when it's clearly a political campaign designed to look tough and win votes.  It probably does save money, although the idea the Vaken might have saved the taxpayer £830,000 is ridiculous.

Something that wouldn't just save money but actually benefit both the taxpayer and the economy would be an amnesty, bringing those working cash in hand out of the shadows and onto the path towards citizenship.  That however would go completely against the rhetoric and policies of the past few years, where politicians have followed public opinion rather than attempt to lead it.  Too bad that as Sunny wrote previously, it's now probably too late: the monster is loose.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013 

Land of misopportunity and Tory.

If there's just one thing to be taken from this year's Tory conference, it's that the supposed natural party of government is stuck in a quandary.  Far from the predictions this week would see one half of the coalition in a buoyant mood, the economy finally growing in what looks to be a sustainable manner, if anything the Lib Dems had a more enjoyable week up in Glasgow, which is really saying something.  Having installed Lynton Crosby as pedlar of lowest common denominator Conservatism and statements of the bleeding obvious, for which see the highly questionable "achievements" plastered all over the walls in Manchester, the more thoughtful are quite rightly wondering how resorting to a core vote strategy this early in the electoral cycle is going to win the party the increased share of the vote they need to form a majority government in 2015.  It didn't work in 2005, exactly the reason why Cameron tried to shift his party towards the centre in 2010.

Regardless of the show they put on for the cameras, the party is also clearly worried about Ed Miliband and Labour.  After the party's wretched summer, they didn't expect Miliband to pull the energy prize freeze policy out from seemingly nowhere.  Nor was the party helped when the big six then spat their dummies out, their pathetically petulant outbursts threatening blackouts persuading no one, while the fact the markets fell due to the potential for a cut in their profits made clear they regard a Labour victory in less than 2 years a very real possibility.  Whether or not the policy would work in practice doesn't matter for now, just as it didn't matter when Osborne pulled his inheritance tax stunt back in 2007 as Gordon Brown dithered over calling a snap election.  Thanks to the Mail's startlingly cackhanded attempts to do the Tories' dirty work for them, Miliband's battle with the paper has also overshadowed their big week, leading bulletins while their turgid mastications have been well down the running order.

Just how many of the continuous attacks on Labour emanating from the platform were written well in advance and how many were hastily pasted in after the opposition's successful week in Brighton is difficult to tell.  The vicious and entirely partisan nature of the relentless assaults have though taken even me by surprise: every single main speaker has either peppered their entire address with screeds of blame, or dedicated at least one section to doing so.  According to Jeremy Hunt, everything that went wrong with the NHS during Labour's last term was the fault of Andy Burnham, even as the coalition kept on the NHS chief executive who actually was in charge during the crisis in care at Mid Staffs hospital.  Eric Pickles found it hilarious to create a parallel universe in which Labour had gone into coalition with the Lib Dems, except instead of the "land of opportunity" we're now entering, in this opposite dimension the country was, naturally, in rack and ruin.  George Osborne meanwhile, when not setting out how he'd run a budget surplus despite failing to succeed in eliminating the deficit in the timescale Alistair Darling initially planned to, was blaming Labour entirely for the crash, not mentioning how he and his party pledged to match the government's spending plans they now maintain caused it in the first place.

The prime minister's speechwriters however saved the worst for last.  No one quite seems to want to say it, but regardless of how incongruous it sounds (and is, considering his £139 bread maker), Cameron's conference addresses mark him out as the poor man's Tony Blair.  Blair's great skill was in making in either a mediocre or dreary speech sound good; everyone had forgotten everything in it the next day, but it worked at the time.  Cameron can't even reach those levels, as his speeches are erased from the memory within minutes; I had to look up what he said last year to recall any of it.  Compare that with Miliband, who has improved his delivery and message year on year, while you can actually remember what he said (predatory capitalism; one nation; Britain can do better than this) and it rather shows the prime minister up.
 

Indeed, it's as if he wasn't even trying.  Two thirds of the speech can be summed up as "The Evil That Labour Did", which three and a half years in is really getting tiresome.  The other third was boilerplate Thatcherism, Britain is booming, land of hope and Tory, very well alone self-improvement aspirational heard it all before claptrap.  Cameron doesn't come across so much as a prime minister as Bob the Builder crossed with Tom Cruise's character from Magnolia.  Can we build a land of opportunity? Well, it'll be tough, but together we can tame the cunt!

A case in point is how for the second time Cameron felt he needed to respond to a Russian minister describing Britain "as a small island that no-one pays any attention to." Anyone truly comfortable with our position in the world would ignore such petty cat-calling from an authoritarian state; Cameron by contrast reeled off a point by point rebuttal, and as per spouted bullshit back, seeming to suggest we were the first to introduce women's suffrage (we weren't) and that we offered "blood, toil, tears and sweat" when "freedom was in peril".  The Russians may not have been fighting for their own freedom, but they sacrificed more than any other nation state to destroy the Nazi war machine.

His real failure though was that he had no answer to Miliband. The leader of the one time party of small business misrepresented his opponent's espousal of cutting their tax by putting up corporation tax on large corporations by a whole one percent, claiming it would make them look elsewhere, while he didn't so much as attempt to defend the "spare room subsidy" or that his global race is one straight to the bottom. There was nothing for those struggling to make ends meet in his glorious land of opportunity other than the same empty aspiration he's resorted to before.  That he then pretty much abandoned the under-25 vote by presenting further conditions and an end to housing benefit as "tough love, learn or earn" exemplifies how far removed his party has become from the young.

For all the talk of Miliband shifting Labour to the left, which is extremely questionable when he's signed up to the coalition's spending plans for the first two years after the election, the real story ought to be how far the Tories have attempted to take the country to the right, and certainly would given the opportunity.  Despite their denials, the only way to get a surplus would be either further cuts or tax rises. While the latter can hardly be ruled out when the IFS suggests the deficit can't be reduced without either lifting the ring fences or doing just that, the lie was given today with the announcement on housing benefit.  Combined with the pledge to repeal the human rights act, and presumably withdraw from the ECHR, the use of old racist sentiments on billboards, the commitment to never-ending workfare for the unemployed and the open pursuit of a housing bubble for short-term political gain, the spectre of a Conservative win in 2015 ought to chill the marrow.  Thankfully, and precisely because of the strategy the party is pursuing, that looks just as unlikely as before.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013 

Political dog-whistling: still not working in 2013.

It took a while, but by the end of last week the government's billboard campaign telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest" had attracted the wider press attention it deserved from the outset.  One of the old chestnuts we often hear when it comes to debating immigration is that politicians of old shut down debate by calling people racist.  Accurate or not, we now have the opposite problem: politicians are afraid to say that some of those opposed to immigration are racist, as one thing racists don't like being told is that they are racist.  Hence despite criticism of the campaign coming from the Lib Dems, a few Labour MPs (although not the leadership, again presumably because they fear it being used as "evidence" of their weakness) and even Nigel Farage for goodness sake, who in the next breath scaremongers about a Romanian crime wave, none have called a spade a spade.

It's therefore only lunatics on the left and the "pro-immigration industry" that believe such a straightforward message is racist, says Mark Harper, the immigration minister described by Nick Clegg as "a very good guy", given space in the Mail. He doesn't expand on just which organisations make up the pro-immigration industry, but perhaps he means the Office for Budget Responsibility, set-up by the coalition, which only last week published research on the continuing benefits. Harper for his part doesn't even bother to engage with the argument as to why the billboards are racist, which is that they reprise the old NF slogan and play on the most obvious of racist sentiments, he instead uses attack as defence, saying that those critical are encouraging the breaking of the law. To call this a non sequitur doesn't quite cover it; a billboard threatening illegal immigrants with arrest if they don't leave voluntarily is hardly the most striking example of the law being enforced. Rather, it only underlines the reality: it's completely unfeasible to deport every person here illegally.  Continuing to claim it is only raises unrealistic expectations which then feed further discontent.

For such a short piece, Harper makes up for it by packing in as many distortions as he can. He conflates perfectly legal migration with the illegal by going into the standard riff on Labour's supposed "open borders" policy, says there is evidence that migration has pushed down wages when there's plenty (PDF) that contradicts the claim, that some areas have faced "intolerable" pressure due to migration, despite services continuing to function, then tops it off by saying the government is controlling immigration, if failing to meet their target of bringing net migration down to 100,000 by 53,000 can possibly be considered controlling.

He ends by saying that if the poster campaign helps tackle illegal immigration, who could oppose it? Considering a poll for the Sun suggests that there's almost an even split between those in favour of and those opposed, a remarkable result when there's such a prevailing sentiment against immigration, it suggests plenty don't like such "stupid and offensive" campaigns, even if they don't regard them as racist.  Seeing as Harper doesn't even repeat the actual wording used on the billboards, perhaps he secretly feels the same.  Either way, someone ought to explain to Lynton Crosby that if dog-whistling didn't work in 2005, it isn't going to now.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 

Silly racism season.

The silly season is descending, although frankly it's getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the dog days of late July and August, and well, almost any other time of year.  Apparently, "bitchy resting face ... makes Gangnam Style look like a slow burner", at least according to Hadley Freeman, and yet somehow I had avoided encountering this cultural phenomenon until she elected to write about it. Beards have also reached their fashionable peak, doncha know, and in what seems to be an extraordinarily late April 1st joke, Kerry Katona is to be Marilyn Monroe.  Presumably alongside Peter Andre as JFK.  Oh, and Guido Fawkes, he of repeatedly declaring he can't be sued fame, threatens to sue Claire Perry.  Perry we've already established is a dangerous nincompoop, while Paul Staines is just a hypocritical tool.

Is there anything even vaguely serious going on then?  Well, sort of.  Coming from the same great minds behind the idea of putting up "adverts" pointing out how shit Britain is in Bulgaria and Romania (while at the same time declaring how great we are everywhere else), one of those billboard vans is being sent round six London boroughs telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest".  Why, we'll even be kind enough to help you with your travel documents, and we'll tell the immigration officers not to "Mubenga" you, as long as you come along quietly, of course.  Who wouldn't have their head turned by such a tempting offer?

Understandably, quite a few people are suggesting this is just a teensy bit racist.  On its own, it isn't.  There aren't that many pithy formulations you could put together that are simple to understand and carry the same message.  I mean, they could have gone with "In the UK illegally and want to leave?", but that doesn't carry the same element of menace all rhetoric on immigration must now have.  "Go home" though carries decades of baggage with it; it wasn't just a National Front slogan as Sunny says, go home (or words to the same effect)  is still one of the first resorts for racists, regardless of who it's used against.  "Go back to where you came from", even if you were born here and so were your parents; your skin colour doesn't fit.

When a government is reduced to such, err, dog-whistling, it ought to be apparent that it's in trouble.  One thing the Tories remain terrified by is the likely failure to keep their promise to get immigration down to the "tens of thousands" by the time of the next election.  Almost all the decline we've seen under the coalition has come as a result of the crackdown on overseas students, those grasping, scrounging bastards who come here, take almost nothing out and put hell of a lot in (is this right? Ed.).  Hence this year, as well as being partially in response to the rise of UKIP, we've seen further punitive policy proposals, including the ridiculous prospect of landlords being asked to do the job of the UK Border Force, as though making illegal immigrants homeless is something approaching a solution.  Sarah Teather made clear just how far the Tories would like to go when she revealed the "Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants' Access to Benefits and Public Services" was first known as the "Hostile Environment Working Group".

As pointed out before, this is a great example of how the new politics works.  Politicians say they're listening to concerns, they talk tough and tighten the rules ever further, and then act surprised and chastened when the mood against immigrants hardens as the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall precisely because freedom of movement is clearly here to stay.  Rather than confront voters with a few facts and ask them if they like being able to move freely around Europe even if they don't want to at this precise moment, we just get ever more discriminatory rhetoric.  Once, that the government was paying for adverts which contained allusions to the racist slogans of years gone by would have caused a storm.  That it hasn't shows both how the Tories have succeeded and why they will also end up being hoist by that petard.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013 

Failure as success.

Very, very occasionally, the BBC doesn't just report the news, it also provides analysis that is all the more hard-hitting because of its rarity.  Of all the comment on today's spending review, Stephanie Flanders' verdict is the most acute. The coalition was formed to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament; today George Osborne set out the cuts to come in 2015-16, and there will be more right up until 2018. By any measure, the coalition has failed abysmally. Except, as Flanders points out, this is also a great success for the Tory right. No one voted for the scale of cuts that have already been made, and yet there has been almost no real protest at the slashing back of the state. Moreover, Labour under the shadow chancellorship of supposed arch deficit denier Ed Balls has signed up to Osborne's overall spending plans, if not the exact details. What was it that Margaret Thatcher described as her greatest achievement? New Labour, wasn't it?

It isn't really worth dealing with much of Osborne's speech then, as we'd heard almost all of it before. We're all in this together, we're moving from intensive care to recovery, despite Osborne having told us we were out of the danger zone two years ago, the most broad shouldered bearing the greatest burden, which is only true when you include the changes Osborne inherited from Alistair Darling. As ever, those who demand responsibility took none themselves: it's not because of austerity or the prospect of austerity that the economy has barely grew since the coalition was formed, oh no, it's all the fault of the banking crisis, the euro crisis and the oil crisis, which is a new one on me.  It doesn't matter that even the IMF has said it's time to loosen austerity, or that they've admitted they underestimated the effect cutting spending would have, Osborne knows better and just plows on.

The same familiar targets are then those to be squeezed.  Another 140,000 jobs to go in the public sector, an end to automatic "progression pay", although many claim they haven't had any increase in years, and another year of 1% pay increases for everyone else.  Then there's "skivers", half of whom will now be required to sign on every week, they won't be able to claim JSA until 7 days after losing a job instead of the current 3, and they'll also have to have a CV.  It doesn't matter if they've just lost a long-term position and so may need help putting together a new one, until they've done that they're to be left penniless.  The obvious beneficiaries?  Those lovely pay day loan companies, about the only growth industry we have under Osborne's glorious stewardship.

As for the much hyped cap on social security spending, it's not clear what it's going to amount to in practice.  There aren't going to be any consequences if it's breached, merely the chancellor will be required to explain why it has.  Presumably the intention is to put pressure on officials to limit benefits, but how this is going to work when housing benefit and tax credits keep increasing exponentially precisely because millions of people in work aren't paid enough to live on isn't explained.

If you're rather perturbed to say the least about how very different this country is going to look come 2015 as a direct result of these failures, then your options for dissent are now rather limited.  What exactly is the point of an opposition that doesn't oppose but agrees?  For months we heard of how Osborne was setting Labour a trap through the spending review, demanding whether or not they would sign up to the overall spending package.  The answer from the two Eds was to walk straight into it, the equivalent of shooting yourself in the head when someone's threatening you with a machete.  It was meant to show that Labour could again be trusted with the economy, but has it had any impact or will it make any difference when the election is still two years away?  Has it heck as like.

Then again, it seems that the vast majority of the public are more than prepared to accept that there is no alternative.  And why wouldn't they?  When the main three parties say there isn't one, and the new fourth one says the answer is to leave the EU, why should we be surprised there's no equivalent mass movement against austerity here as there has been in countries on the continent?  Instead of offering resistance, or failing that, a vision of a better tomorrow, those who formerly advised politicians now suggest that they stop making promises all together.  Why not go the whole way and replace elected representatives with speak your weight machines?  At least they'll never tell lies or make pledges they won't keep or have any intention of keeping.

Nor has there been major opposition from the young precisely because the groups supposedly aligned against the cuts are so woefully led, or rather, aren't led.  Leaders seem to be regarded as 20th century; when absolutely everyone has a voice, or rather a Twitter account, we don't need anything like that, we just need a wi-fi connection.  UK Uncut might have helped changed the debate on tax avoidance, but it was people themselves that shamed Starbucks into paying corporation tax.  As for the other two groups named by John Harris in his piece that notices not all of the young are angry lefties, I'd never even heard of People and Planet before, while UK Feminista are currently campaigning against, err, lads' mags.  In the era of Snapchat and Redtube can you imagine the blow that will be struck against the establishment and the patriarchy if Tesco stops stocking Zoo magazine?  Harris also mentions Owen Jones and Laurie Penny, but to my knowledge Penny hasn't so much as been invited onto Question Time.  Russell Brand has, though.

Unlike I suspect most people my age, I've voted in every election since turned 18.  I spoilt my ballot in the police commissioner elections last year, but I still turned out.  My argument has always been that it doesn't matter who you vote for, as long as you do.  Not voting when on occasion even a single vote can have an impact is to be voiceless.  Come 2015, I'm not sure there now is a point in bothering to put an x in the box.  Regardless of who you vote for, it will be a vote for further austerity, for a state slashed back, for the continued blaming of the unemployed for being out of work even when there aren't enough jobs to go round and for the continued processing of the sick and disabled.  Incidentally, one of the few areas of the state to get an increase in funding rather than a cut is the intelligence agencies.  Not because the terrorist threat has increased, as it hasn't, with not even Woolwich resulting in an increase in the threat level.  No, clearly the government is anticipating an upsurge in activity elsewhere.  It hasn't happened yet, but a few more years of this, and who knows? Something must break.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013 

The cavalcade of idiocy rolls on.

If there's one day a year when it's impossible not to be proud to be British, it has to be on the state opening of parliament.  No other democracy can lay claim to such an awe-inspiring spectacle: the grandeur, the opulence, the incomprehensible and the entirely risible.  We might be behind most other countries when it comes to small things like having a democratically elected second chamber, but who needs a senate when you have a ceremony which involves a gentleman with a black rod entertaining the head of state? And what could be more quintessentially British than asking a 87-year-old woman to put on her finest rags, plonk a regal hat on her head that weighs about the same as a small bag of potatoes and then read out the political equivalent of a ridiculously vague shopping list, only rather than being on paper the list is inscribed on goatskin vellum? The European parliament can't even begin to hold a candle to the mother of them all.

To drop the irritating sarcasm, there can't be a better example of what can only be described as the cretinous decision to carry on with the state opening in its current form regardless of Brenda's advancing age than how even Fergie is deciding to jack it in at the end of the season.  He's 71, for comparison's sake. If we can't just dispense with the entire stupidity, then surely Charles can take the place of his mother, as is happening at the next meeting of the Commonwealth.  He is after all ever so keen to prepare for his kingship; let him announce how his mummy's government "is committed to a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded".

Chaz would doubtless approve of the tone of the speech, if not with some of the policies (it's doubtful he approves of HS2).  If you thought George Osborne had overdone it a bit in the budget with the nonsense about how it was all for those "who want to work hard and get on", then it's probably best to avoid a television tonight, as those responsible for writing Queenie's sermon went off the deep end.  Hard work this and hard work that; those who do will be properly rewarded, not with a living wage of course, or a cut in VAT, or anything that might actually help with the cost of living, but indirectly through the continuing crackdowns on those not doing "the right thing".  Never mind, sheer aspiration and responsibility will get you there in the end.  Look at the example set by Dave's inner circle, all there purely on merit, achievement and hard graft.  What more inspiration do you need?

As for the proposed bills themselves, they're a mixture of the piss weak and the stuff that's been talked about for months already.  There's very little to object to in either the care bill, which introduces the Dilnot proposals, albeit with the cap set higher than he advised, or the pensions reform act, although we can quibble about why those who've never had it so good will be getting a further increase when everyone of working age suffers.  More objectionable are the "offender rehabilitation" bill, which will see the probation service part-privatised and those sentenced to under 12 months coming under supervision for the first time, which isn't necessarily a good thing when it's the likes of G4S and A4E that'll be "helping" them not to reoffend, and the latest in a long line of crime/anti-social behaviour acts, which looks set to further infringe on the rights of teenagers to be seen in a public place, while also holding whole families responsible for the actions of one member.

Then we have the immigration bill.  It's come to something when someone so closely associated with Cameron as Ian Birrell is denouncing this latest piece of nonsense in the most virulent of terms, but such is the point we've reached thanks to the panic over UKIP.  How many times does it need to be said that immigrants pay far more in than they take out, or that you can't make things harsher for those who few who are claiming benefits without doing the same for those born here?  For a government supposedly dedicated to reducing the burden of red tape, it has no qualms about imposing more on private landlords, who will somehow be required to check whether those renting aren't here illegally, without explaining how this will work in practice.  Are landlords meant to be the newest arm of the Home Office? Doesn't making illegal immigrants homeless increase the potential problem rather than reduce it? We can't deport every single one, as the Liberal Democrats said at the last election.  Even more concerning is the potential limit of 6 months JSA for those resident elsewhere in the EU if they can't prove they have a chance of finding a job.  Something so obviously discriminatory can't possibly be legal, unless as mentioned above it was introduced across the board.

Whether it's a good thing or not that neither the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol or requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packets made it in is debatable.  I've long doubted something so easily dodged as making strong booze more expensive would work in practice, although evidence suggests it's had an impact in Canada.  Nor have I ever believed that the packs cigarettes come in somehow persuade people to start smoking, yet if the industry is so vehemently opposed to it then perhaps there's something there after all.  Much as I loathe the hypocrisy behind making smokers pariahs when the government benefits so massively through heavily taxing them, and the cigarette model is the obvious one when it comes to decriminalising drugs, it's exceptionally difficult to feel the pain of those who in the end profit from giving people cancer. Politically, dropping both probably makes sense for Cameron.

Does it though for Clegg? This is an overwhelmingly Tory set of bills, with very little indeed for Nick or the Lib Dems to boast about.  Clegg has also failed to fully kill off the "snooper's charter", which can still be resurrected and doubtless will be considering the lobbying of late from the security services.  As this is also likely to be the last Queen's speech before the election, it provides a dismal summary of just what they've achieved in the coalition.  As for the Tories, today just reinforced how they intend to fight the election: by blaming the continuing dire state of the economy on Labour.  Everything that's still deemed to be wrong or unreformed will be Labour's fault, and all they'll do if you let them back in will be to borrow more.  The party that demands everyone else take responsibility continues to accept none itself.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013 

Attack as defence, the Osborne way.

There are but two explanations for George Osborne's emergence from his hole at the Treasury and journey to a business somewhere in the country that would let him on the premises.  First, that it was intended to wind up all those who've dared to suggest that there's something of a disjunct between the government saying to those in social housing who've got an extra bedroom that they either need to move or accept a cut in their benefit, and the tax cut for those earning over £150,000 coming in at the end of the week, and who better to give such a sermon than the man himself?  Osborne is already so widely disliked that he can't possibly get any less popular than he already is, so it saves another minister having to take a battering.  Second, it gives every indication that the coalition is severely rattled at the level of criticism it's come in for over the weekend, having presumably concluded as I had that surely the time for opposition and marches would have been when, err, the legislation making the changes was going through parliament.

As yesterday showed, when ministers are confronted with something approaching the reality for hundreds of thousands rather than the exceptions of one or two, as Osborne again relied upon today, they quickly come unstuck.  In fairness to Iain Duncan Smith, he couldn't possibly answer in any way other than saying, yes he could live on £53 a week if he had to.  He could hardly say anything else: either that it was the exception, when it's not, or that he wouldn't be able to, implying the current rates are too low when they are now being cut in real terms, or that he didn't want to get into "one individual's set of circumstances". That didn't however stop Osborne relying on exactly that tactic, despite having done so when referring to the now non-existent claims of over £100,000 a year on housing benefit.  Cue a petition which urges IDS to prove it, 315,000 having signed so far, remarkable for one set up just over 24 hours ago.

Politicians are of course incredibly comfortable when they can so blithely get away with the assertions made by Osborne today and by dozens of others over the past few years.  It's incredibly easy to characterise those on benefits as a whole as "doing the wrong thing" regardless of those individual circumstances when even the BBC falls into line with the narrative that has been so assiduously driven by the Tories and the tabloids, Labour having started it and since then either actively colluded with or failed to challenge it anywhere near strongly enough.  Presented with the fact that those under 25 on just Jobseeker's Allowance do have to try and get by on £56.25, while those lucky enough to be over that age are treated to an extra £14.75, it becomes much harder to claim that such levels of benefit "trap people in poverty and penalise work".  Yes, there are and have been cases where when both housing benefit and child benefit are taken into account there's not much of a difference with the take home pay on minimum wage, but the system had already been tightened to such an extent before this month and also prior to the coalition coming to power that those trying to play the system soon found themselves either sanctioned or ineligible for JSA altogether.

Osborne's attempt to try to sugar his extremely bitter pill by admitting the Thatcher government put people on incapacity benefit to remove them from the jobless statistics is, while welcome, not much of a difference from what the coalition is doing now.  As we've seen, those on some of the myriad of work experience or mandatory schemes now built into the JSA regime are in fact being counted as in work, despite receiving nothing other than their benefit and expenses.

It really isn't worth getting truly angry about his speech in general, especially as that's just the emotion it was obviously intended to garner, but there is something really morally and intellectually bankrupt about claiming that benefits resemble a "something-for-nothing" culture.  Regardless of whether or not you pay income tax, everyone contributes to the public purse somewhere along the line, whether through VAT, fuel duty or otherwise.  It's also a despicable way to describe a system which is currently failing so many, whether it be those who've successfully appealed against the ruling that they're fit for work, the hundreds of thousands on the so-called Work programme still without a job, those sanctioned to meet internal Jobcentre targets, or most disgracefully of all, those told to work for their benefit indefinitely, apparently written off from ever finding actual paying employment.

It also took chutzpah to go back to that other Thatcherite mainstay, the "vested interests".  Who exactly are the vested interests when it comes to benefits?  The churches?  The charities?  The Labour party, out to keep the poor in their place so they keep voting for them?  Who knows, as Osborne didn't expand on who these wicked people always opposing change are, or even if some have how they could possibly be described as having a vested interest in doing so.

This isn't to doubt that in general terms, ever harsher crackdowns on welfare are popular for the most part.  Touch something that person receives though, and they often quickly explain how they're different or more deserving than anyone else.  Many also simply don't know what the actual rates are: when they find out some are on only slightly more than £53 a week, it doesn't much resemble the easy option of "doing the wrong thing" the likes of Osborne try to claim it is.

Too sweeping as it is to suggest that personal experience of hardship might change some minds, or in the case of politicians make them think twice, not least as IDS spent plenty of time amongst the most disadvantaged when he set-up the Centre for Social Justice (he also says he's been on the breadline twice) in the vast majority of cases it at the very least helps.  The reason the changes to welfare enrage so many is that George Osborne and David Cameron have never experienced economic hardship (Cameron most certainly has experienced personal hardship, of the kind no one can envy), or even had to want for anything, at least within reason.  They decry anything that could be even passably associated with class war, yet they think the way to incentivise those at the top is to cut their tax while the way to reward those doing "the right thing" is to err, freeze the minimum wage.  They deliver lectures on responsibility, yet they take none over the state of the economy.  It's not just that their policies are wrong, it's that they have and will make things worse, all while they attribute the most base motives to their opponents. It shouldn't and doesn't have to be this way.

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Monday, March 25, 2013 

Haven't I heard all this before?

If there's one thing you can say about David Cameron's speech on immigration today, it's that it was clever politics.  It worked on one level, and one level only: that of the tiger repelling rock.  The government knows full well that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians likely to come here next year is going to be nowhere near as high as the numbers that came after the A8 accession states, so setting out a whole range of new "restrictions" makes perfect sense.  We ended the soft touch system we inherited from Labour and look at the results!  It won't matter that the figures overall will still show net migration of hundreds of thousands rather than tens, at least there aren't many of those nasty gyppos or other assorted stereotypes here as we feared, eh?

Other than that, it was just miserable.  It wasn't so much the actual announcements, if you can even call them that, as they were all but identical to those set out by Labour's Yvette Cooper a couple of weeks back with the exception of the requirement for those wanting social housing to have lived locally for at least 2 years.  Even this is undermined by how councils also have a requirement to house those in most need, although naturally Cameron deigned not to mention this.  It was instead that it gave in to every myth, claim and lie we've come to expect from those aiming to profit from scaremongering about immigration: that we're seen as a "soft touch", that the welfare system needs to be reformed alongside immigration itself as it clearly attracts those with no intention of working, and that under Labour immigration was out of control.  All were and are untrue.

It's not that it's wrong to publicise problems with the system, as Cameron said, it's that it's wrong to not challenge the idea that immigrants are here to scrounge rather than work.  Saying that the vast majority are hard workers but then dedicating the remainder of the speech to suggesting there are huge problems rather drowns out the reality.  The emphasis on benefits also spectacularly misses the concerns of most on immigration.  Until very recently, the main concern was not that immigrants from the EU were coming here to claim benefits, it was that they were undercutting wages, stretching the resources of local public services and changing communities beyond recognition.  Cameron today didn't address either the former or the latter, only that there would a renewed emphasis on ensuring employers aren't using illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the major announcement today has been rather buried underneath all the anti-scrounger rhetoric.  The government that ensured ID cards weren't introduced (although they were never going to be after the crash anyway) for us Brits has decided that they're fine and dandy for our friends from the EU should they want to come here, as they'll be the only way of determining just what they're entitled to.  Don't then be surprised if this inevitably leads to the rest of us also needing them at some point in the future.

The problem for Cameron today has turned out that, if anything, he's gone too far even for a press that has always led the way for politicians rather than followed.  The figures we do have suggest that the number of immigrants claiming benefits is low, and that the numbers in social housing are similarly not massively increasing.  On the NHS, ministers simply don't know how much foreign nationals are costing us: it's either £20m or closer to £200m, if we're to believe Jeremy Hunt, which isn't advised.  One suspects it's closer to the £20m figure, but either way it's a drop in the ocean considering the NHS budget is almost £100bn a year, and when as we saw last week George Osborne masterminded an underspend of £2.2bn to help get his borrowing figures in line with the forecasts.

As encouraging as it is that even the Telegraph is calling for politicians to make the case for immigration rather than keep on attempting to woo the UKIP vote (which is, as has been noted, to completely misunderstand UKIP's appeal), we've gone from a situation at the last election where we had at least one party calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, even if they tried to kept it quiet, to that same party fully signing up to the Tories' self-defeating measures.  It seems we are as far away as ever from something approaching an informed debate, let alone an informed policy.

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Monday, March 11, 2013 

The Tory party's doomers.

At the very best of times it's extremely tempting to laugh long, loud and hard at the Conservative party.  There are few political parties that would consider either Jacob Rees-Mogg or Peter Bone to be the best people to defend government or party policy, and yet time after time one or tother turns up on Newsnight, Bone only a week ago making the hilarious claim that it was Labour that had a problem with women, at the same time as there are only four women in the cabinet, to the incredulity of Oona King.

Funnier still, at least for those of us on the outside, is the party's continuing love of fratricide.  It may well be true that the Tories have only successfully ousted two leaders in the past 22 years, the same number as the Liberal Democrats, yet the level of plotting and blood-letting that's been involved in the Tory turmoil puts their swifter acting coalition partners to shame.  John Major may well have been doomed after Black Wednesday, but the leadership challenge by John Redwood was the death knell.  Iain Duncan Smith's defenestration is notable now only for how it led to Michael Howard promoting and pushing both David Cameron and George Osborne; IDS is unlikely to have performed much worse than his successor eventually did with the voters.

And so now we have the increasing murmuring against Cameron, although in truth a fair few MPs never signed up to his windmill loving, husky hugging, letting sunshine win the day Toryism in the first place.  It doesn't matter that in power Cameron has been as John B notes to the right of Major's Tories, despite supposedly being tempered by the presence of the Lib Dems, still at the first real sign of trouble there appears to a substantial minority prepared to overthrow him.  Where they've got the idea from that his replacement would do any better is unclear: he or she would still have to deal with Clegg and friends, which precludes scrapping the Human Rights Act or withdrawing from the ECHR, let alone embarking on the kind of ultra-Thatcherite economic fantasy as outlined today by Liam Fox.  Regardless of what happens between now and the election, it will be fought mainly on the achievements of the coalition, rather than what the party can offer were it given the opportunity to govern alone.  Dumping a leader who's more popular than your party midway through your term of office isn't going to play well.

Moreover, if you are going to launch a coup, your chosen replacement needs to offer both a genuine alternative and have something approaching either gravitas or a status within the party able to win over those disgusted or alienated by your actions.  The Tories are in a position similar to that of Labour five years ago, when there simply wasn't anyone able to mount a challenge to Brown and be taken seriously.  David Miliband hadn't succeeded in building himself up enough, and anyone else briefly talked about were either impossibilities (who, like me, remembers that hilarious Newsnight when a focus group decided John Reid was a leader in waiting?) or quickly pulled back, probably once they realised that Damian McBride had a file on them.

I mean, who frankly is Theresa May? She is to the Tory party what Dobbs and Huple are to Yossarian in Catch-22: perfectly agreeable on the ground, but you'd have to be crazy to get in a plane where they're at the controls. She's not even the cliched safe pair of hands, as has been demonstrated by the way her department keeps cocking up or lying about their attempts to deport Abu Qatada.  She's also been helped as home secretary by Labour's splitting off of much of the Home Office's former responsibilities to the justice secretary. Indeed, the way she's been talked up, both by herself and it seems George Osborne, suggests some of this might well be a put up job designed to winkle out open dissent which can then be picked off.

The unhappy fact for the disenfranchised in the party is that there is only one other person with widespread appeal among their number, and he isn't currently an MP. Even if Boris could pick up a seat either through a by-election or through an early "retirement" in a safe constituency, Johnson is hardly the traditional figure many seem to want, nor is it clear how his act, which just about saw him through in London last year for a second time, will play on the national stage. He also might reflect that his party needs to break a whole series of precedents if it's to get a majority in 2015, and that regardless of how good he is, he might not be able to manage it.

Instead, the wisest move for all concerned might well be to spend the next couple of years either establishing themselves as contenders, or grooming those who have the potential to be. Should Ed Miliband not be the next prime minister, there's now a number in Labour ready to take over from him.  Picking up the pieces after a defeat is surely better than pre-emptively smashing your own chances.

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Monday, March 04, 2013 

The Tory malaise.

There's been something almost touching about the way the Tories have reacted to coming third in Eastleigh.  To begin with, despite all the predictions of the party descending into crisis like a Premier League football team that's lost two games in a row, very little in the way of criticism from backbenchers was heard.  After 24 hours some thought better of this and started blaming the usual things: gay marriage, the "Conservative voice" not "clearly project[ing] Conservative core policies or principles", and the more realistic, the lack of organisation on the ground.

Come Sunday, and the panic had finally spread to the leadership.  There was a piece by the prime minister in the Sunday Telegraph, written in boilerplate about how we are in a  "battle to defeat some of the most dangerous challenges in our history" and the only way to ensure victory is to keep doing what we're doing.  There would be no lurch to the right.  Naturally, this means there was instantly a lurch to the right.  Chris Grayling and Theresa May competed on how we would repeal the Human Rights Act, apparently undecided as to whether we should just scrap it or get out of the European Convention altogether, while from out of nowhere came the idea from William Hague that we need to crack down on benefit tourism.  Not that there's the slightest evidence that EU nationals are indulging in such practices (there are legitimate concerns over whether non-EU foreign national are exploiting the NHS), but it makes for a good soundbite and will doubtless appeal to those currently flirting with UKIP.

The funny thing is that this is all a bit late.  It seems to have passed some Tories by, albeit not those who've been blaming Cameron ever since, but they didn't win the last election.  Looking back now, their best chance of a majority may well have been to try to govern as a minority after the election, then gone to the polls again as soon as they thought possible.  They obviously didn't know when they got the Lib Dems on board that the economy would stagnate for the next two years, although there were plenty who warned them their policies would achieve just that, but it was always going to be a uphill struggle to win a majority when you've spent the past half-decade imposing austerity, let alone when you also decide at the same time to go further and faster than Blair ever dared on welfare, education and NHS reform.

This isn't to say that there's no chance they can't turn it around, or indeed that this might prove a moment of false hope for the Liberal Democrats.  The facts are though that the Tories are in a bind: Michael Fabricant can say all he wants that the party hasn't been projecting core policies or principles, but this is utter nonsense.  Apart from the gay marriage bill which some in the party have made so much of for their own reasons, Cameron has for the most part done everything the right-wingers in the party have asked for: they've got their vote on Europe, he's capped benefits and introduced workfare to an extent Labour never dreamt of, free schools are all but the bringing back of selection, the 50p top rate of tax is gone, nuclear power looks to be the favoured way of keeping the lights on, and this has all been achieved with Lib Dem support! It's true that they would have liked to cut inheritance tax, wanted to alter the boundaries to give them a better chance in urban seats and most would rather defence spending was protected instead of international development, but the achievements are hardly inconsiderable.

And yet, and yet, they remain perhaps two further defeats away from wanting rid of the man who remains far more popular than his party. The beginner's mistake being made seems to be to regard UKIP's rise in support as being fundamentally connected with Europe and in turn immigration. In fact if they were to look at Lord Ashcroft's polling it suggests the vast majority of UKIP's recruits are those who've felt disenfranchised for a long time, angry at modern life and change in general rather than newly radicalised by the latest EU outrage. Moreover, they're also irreconcilable, or at least are without at the same time losing the support of almost everyone else.  As the most recent Ashcroft poll also suggested, the vast majority who voted for them in Eastleigh as a protest will return home come the election.  Moving further onto UKIP territory is therefore completely self-defeating, as the result itself suggested.

The real reason for the Tory malaise is far easier to diagnose. Regardless of how there didn't seem to be a protest directly against austerity in Eastleigh, the lack of growth and decline in wages in real-terms is ultimately driving the apathy if not outright hostility towards politics we've become all too accustomed to. Far from offering a solution, Cameron and Osborne tell us all we can do is keep taking the medicine. One thing those apparently ready to challenge Cameron are right about is that this month's budget is crucial.  Osborne is far too like Gordon Brown to not be planning something that will win him and the Tories positive headlines (at least initially) and further tax cuts look the most likely option.

Even if it is enough to stave off those eager to wield the knife, the local elections in May are almost certain to result in a Tory drubbing, as mid-terms invariably do to governing parties.  What Cameron and the Tories need is growth, and there's absolutely nothing to suggest they're going to get it without doing exactly the thing they've said they won't.  And even if they did, they've almost certainly left it too late to reap the benefits if such a change in direction worked.  Then again, what do they have to lose? 

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013 

The Conservatives: still a strange beast.

The Conservative party has long, indeed probably always been a strange beast.  As those determined to make a case for the Tories being the true progressives always point out, it was the first party to have a Jewish leader, the first to have a woman as leader, and likely also to be the first to have a gay leader, although the debate continues over whether the Grocer was closeted or asexual (Ruth Davidson, the Tories' leader in Scotland, is also gay).  Those involved in the laughable skulduggery surrounding Adam Afriyie commented that he had the potential to be the first black leader of one of the big three, although far more probable is that Labour will beat them to it in the shape of either Chuka Umunna or David Lammy.
 
Still, there is no denying that the Tories remain a reasonably broad church.  Just as there has always been a hang 'em and flog 'em and send 'em back wing, so there has also been a socially liberal minority, since suitably expanded.  If anything, those now most threatened with extinction within the party are those with positive views on Europe, such has been the victory for first the Eurosceptic and now the outright Europhobic tendency.  It's all too easily forgotten then that after WW2 and until Thatcher took the helm, the Tories were a solidly one nation party that remained within the social democratic consensus of the time.  Yes, there were the battles with the unions of the 70s, and the slow shift towards neoliberalism, yet the party didn't succeed or for the most part attempt to overturn the liberalising legislation of the 60s that Labour supported and ensured reached the statute book.

I can't then help but be reminded of Peter Mannion in The Thick of It complaining about how he was being regarded as a knuckledragger despite having long been in favour of immigration and not "against gays, most of whom are very well turned out, especially the men."  Cameron's "modernisation" campaign wasn't so much about changing views wholesale within the party as it was altering the public's view of the Tories.  Sure, there are still a few who view the 50s as a halcyon period and everything that's happened since as the country going to hell in a handcart, but it certainly isn't fair to view Cameron's Conservatives as bigoted as a whole.  The nastiness that remains, such as it is, is all to do with their economic policies and determination to portray everyone on benefits as little better than vermin.


All of which only underlines the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of so many of those on the government benches who oppose gay marriage. As David Cameron put it, he supports it because he is a conservative, even if he couldn't be bothered to sit on the front bench as the bill was introduced. As much as anything, it is the ultimate victory for the conservative view of the family: far from monogamous relationships falling out of fashion as was hoped for by some of the first wave of gay rights campaigners, the opposite is now to be recognised by the state. It's instead fallen to the increasingly desperate ResPublica think-tank to suggest that gay marriage should be opposed precisely because difference should be celebrated, to much general amusement.


Most of the other arguments deployed by opponents have been similarly off-kilter, for the precise reason that there are no serious ones against. Religions are protected, much to the annoyance of some within the CoE who'd like to make their own decision as to whether to conduct ceremonies, and the other claims made about a lack of a mandate for the change or the bill being rushed through simply don't stand up.  There was no mandate for the changes to the NHS, and the speed with which the reforms to welfare and schools have been rammed through has worried few Tories up to now.


Clutching at straws still doesn't quite cover some of the other pleas made for why the legislation must not pass. Charles Moore invoked the inability to consummate the marriage and the difficulties this would mean for getting a divorce, then plucked at marriage being about children, ignoring how gay couples have been able to adopt for a decade now.  Nadine Dorries, bless her, brought up adultery, something she has personal knowledge of. Sir Roger Gale suggested one solution was we should do away with civil partnerships and bring in civil unions, allowing brothers and sisters to register their love if they so wished, as that would be "a way forward" while this was not.  That Roger Gale's opinion on the sanctity of marriage as it stands currently didn't stop him divorcing his first, or indeed second wife is clearly irrelevant.  As for Peter Bone, whose hilarious motif is to invoke Mrs Bone at every opportunity, he felt it should go to a referendum at the same time as the vote on Europe, as "[W]hy is my view, or the leader of my party’s, more important than the person in the Dog and Duck?" It's a good question, and presumably Bone will have no objections then to the introduction of a Swiss-style referendum system, with all that entails.


The result of the vote, that more Tory MPs voted against (134) than in favour (126) isn't wholly surprising.  It's been apparent since the rebellion on Europe in 2011 that there are a substantial number of backbench MPs who believe if Cameron wasn't so wet that the party would have won outright in 2010, and the numbers just about reflect that if you strip out those opposed purely on religious grounds.  It also underlines that Cameron's promise of the 2017 referendum has hardly bought off any of his naysayers, who decided not to acquiesce even in the face of making his conference comment on gay marriage look ridiculous.  The tone of the debate may not have been quite as heated or as near the knuckle as it could have been, barring the one or two who simply had to bring polygamy or incest into it, but it shows the party as still riven between outright social conservatism and tentative liberalism.


It also can't be good for inner party relations.  Those who voted against ought to explain to the faces of their colleagues who are gay why it is they think they shouldn't have the same rights they do.  Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, made a very touching speech in which he talked about how he told his parents he was gay, starting the conversation by saying "[Y]ou know, I'm never going to be able to marry".  Should the bill pass through all its hurdles, he soon will.  Those 134 (and those in the other parties who also voted against)  didn't even begin to make the slightest of cases for why he should continue to be denied equality.

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