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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Tuesday, April 14, 2015 

The Conservative manifesto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, February 26, 2015 

The immigration monster strikes again.

You can't help but admire the Tories' hugely successful efforts to increase net migration.  There was the campaign abroad stressing just how wonderful the United Kingdom is, the repeated loosening of the rules on claiming benefits, despite there not being the slightest evidence a country's welfare system was a pull factor, and, not unrelated, we've also seen the rise in the polls of the single issue EU-OK! party.  The government hasn't quite reached its ultimate target of 300,000, no ifs, no buts, it must be noted.  Still, 298,000 couldn't be much closer.  Considering the miserable failure to double the deficit in a single term, to all but achieve his aim on immigration is a major fillip going into the election for David Cameron.

Yep, we are once again in bizarro world.  There was never the slightest chance of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands as Cameron so foolishly promised, but it looked for a time at least as though the numbers would come down enough for some sort of progress to be claimed.  For the figure going into the election to be 50,000 above the number which prompted Cameron to make his pledge is little short of fantastic.  Indeed, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh, if it wasn't for how immigration has long since just become another issue to beat politicians as a whole over, transforming unpopular populist bores into salt of the earth sages who can be trusted to mean what they say.

As plenty of Tory sympathisers have been quick to say, what the increase really shows is that compared to much of Europe the UK economy has recovered faster, except they naturally included the words long, term and plan, when there has never been any such thing.  And had the main parties and most commentators not decided that it was better to indulge the tabloids and public opinion by saying it was no longer enough to make the case for continued immigration on economic grounds, instead of doing so while promising to deal more effectively with the pressures on local services in the areas most affected, with the impact of the cuts naturally having the exact opposite effect, they might now not be in a mess entirely of their own making.

Those with memories longer than your proverbial goldfish might recall much of the immigration panic of 2013 was centred around our Romanian and Bulgarian friends, whom on 1st of January 2014 would have unfettered access to our glorious shores.  Estimates varied from every single person currently in the two countries emigrating to Britain to slightly more sensible guesses.  To give the doommongers some credit, the numbers from the two countries have indeed gone up on the 2013 figures, after the first estimate suggested there might have been a fall.  37,000 came, which isn't a number to be sniffed at considering the 298,000 overall net figure.  This is however an increase of only 13,000 on the previous year, when those wishing to work here had to apply for work permits.  A statistically significant one, as the ONS says, but hardly the end of the UK as we know it.  Nigel Farage can rest assured he's unlikely to be getting any new and unwelcome neighbours.

Let's not kid ourselves here, though.  There's just the one stat that will be seen and it's the headline figure.  How much it really matters is open to question, considering poll after poll suggests people tend to see things in their local area as having not been majorly affected, if at all, as most haven't, while by contrast elsewhere no one speaks English and something has to be done.  Draw a line in the sand, the Sun says, and the fact the Tories didn't have immigration in their 6 key election themes was proof Cameron didn't want to win the election.  If we're to believe Matthew d'Ancona the reason the prime minister's so frit of the debates is he doesn't want to give Farage a platform.  Someone with just a bit more courage ought to take it upon themselves to inform Dave that the very moment he came up with his ridiculous pledge he gave UKIP the kind of platform they had dreamed of for years.  You can't control immigration while you're in the EU, Nige repeats, and it's true, you can't put a cap on the numbers.

What you can do is make a case for exactly why a cap isn't necessary provided the resources are in place to deal with any problems unexpected surges will have temporarily.  What you can do is try and provide enough housing for everyone, enough jobs, introduce regulations that stop the unscrupulous from exploiting casual labour and enforce the payment of a living, as opposed to poverty wage.  You can make the point that a real sign of strength, both economically and culturally is the number of people from outside who want to live in a particular country.  What you don't is encourage the belief that it's all about an over generous welfare system when it's not, that despite previous waves of migrants being welcomed and celebrated for their achievements it's now time to say sorry, we're full when you can't, and then, finally facing that reality, decide it's time to make immigration the key factor in the debate about the EU when that's precisely what the headbangers in your party and the antediluvians in UKIP want to make it.

Considering the number of mistakes Cameron and the Tories have made, and when you factor in Andy Coulson, Libya, Syria, the bedroom tax and continuing to humour Iain Duncan Smith amongst others there's plenty to go round, the immigration target has to be the biggest.  It's not as though it's his only broken promise, that little one about eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament also jutting out.  As a major cause of cynicism and anger it must be right up there, and yet rather than even at this late moment decide it's time to put a stop to such idiocy and level with a public that could still respect them for doing so, politicians look set to put in place further targets making them a hostage to fortune.  It seems they'd rather see the rise of blowhards and buffoons than make a case for the national interest, something they're more than prepared to fall back on when it comes to taking part in crazy foreign adventures.  Politics at times just doesn't make any damn sense.

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Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014 

The Tory cult of insincerity.

At the very first opportunity, the language of modern warfare descends into euphemism.  It has to, such is the mundane, horrific reality it hides.  Places where fighters might be sheltering become "command and control centres"; "a heavy weapon position", which could mean a tank or more likely, some form of artillery, is "engaged"; reports that civilians may have been caught up in the bombing are always "being looked into", while raids are invariably "intelligence led", as opposed to being carried out on the off chance.  War is a business, and since 9/11 business has been extremely good: how can it not be when a single Brimstone missile, used yesterday by the RAF to destroy an "Isis armed pickup truck" costs over £100,000?

War all the time, all of the time.  Our enemy is always intractable, impossible to negotiate with.  Always we try every possible step first, always we go into combat with a heavy heart.  Always those who rightly become ever more indignant with each new conflict are mocked, shouted down, asked what their solution is, have their arguments misrepresented.  It takes a lot for me to agree with George Galloway these days, but every single thing he said in the Commons on Friday was right.  Islamic State could not have established itself in either Syria or Iraq without the support of some of those it operates alongside; he wasn't claiming for a moment the Yazidis, Christians or Kurds were quiescent in the face of their onslaught.  The Obama strategy, our strategy, offers no solution except a fantasy one where a mythical "moderate" force in Syria overcomes IS while the Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militas that are now the de facto Iraqi "army" make nice over the border.  The one realistic option, a truce between the Syrian rebels and Assad, is off the table, such is the Syrian president's lack of "legitimacy".  As compared to what, exactly?

As for matters closer to home, the threat will once again be used to justify otherwise unthinkable restrictions on free speech and liberty.  Give credit to Theresa May: she coated her speech to the Tory conference yesterday with so many platitudes and doths of the cap to liberalism you could have almost missed she was proposing the equivalent of 19th century controls on activists and political campaigners.  If necessary she would legislate to enforce the limiting of stop and search; she quoted from the Quran in an effort to prove that the Islamic State is not Islamic (which is a completely baffling line of argument: no, IS is not in any way representative of Muslims, but to claim it has no connection whatsoever to Islam is just as ludicrous, and seems as much as anything a way of distracting from how our friends in Saudi Arabia are most responsible for spreading the Wahhabism IS and al-Qaida are indebted to); and even at times seemed to be coming near to criticising her party's own foreign policy.  "We can't just remove dictators and assume liberal democracy will follow," she said, to which you almost felt she was dying to add, like we did in Libya.

Only later did it emerge quite what her "banning orders" and "extremism disruption orders" would amount to in practice.  Banning orders the Tories have banged on about for years, constantly threatening to outlaw the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir without ever going through with it.  May's extremism disruption orders by contrast seem to have been designed to deal with the Anjem Choudary "problem": i.e. the gobshites who just about stay on the right side of the law and whom the media love to quote for their own purposes.  The police, suitably empowered, will able to apply for an order against someone judged to be a "threat to the functioning of democracy" or as little as "causing alarm or distress", almost exactly the standard currently in place that has resulted in evangelical Christians being arrested under section 5 of the public order act.  If granted, those sanctioned would then have to submit any online communications to the police in advance, and would also be barred from taking part in protests.

Ostensibly targeted against the far-right as well as Islamists, so broadly drawn are the plans they're an authoritarian wet dream, capable of being used against protesters of almost every conceivable hue.  Rather than being out of character, the proposals are of a piece with the Lobbying Act's crackdown on charities daring to poke their noses into politics, epitomised by Brooks Newmark's comments on how they should concentrate on their knitting.  Little wonder the Conservatives are set on repealing the Human Rights Act, knowing full well the orders would be judged to breach it.

David Cameron for his part insisted getting rid of the HRA was all about sticking two fingers up at Strasbourg, "the country that wrote Magna Carta" needing no lectures about human rights.  Not that he mentioned leaving the European Convention itself, meaning those not satisfied with the replacement "British" Bill of Rights could presumably still go to the ECHR, just at far greater expense than at present.  Perhaps the family of Trevor Philpott would like to ask if their action against Essex police would still have gone ahead under the replacement act, or indeed which rights it is exactly the HRA provides the replacement won't have, a question left unanswered before.

Considering just how low the bar was set by Ed Miliband, forgetting the deficit aside, it was always likely Cameron's speech would be seen as a success by comparison.  That doesn't however absolve the media from failing to notice Cameron has delivered essentially the same address three years in a row now.  Last year he contrived to answer the sneering of a Russian politician by pointing out how we battled fascism; this year he related his experience in Normandy with a D-Day veteran, "how when people have seen our flag - in some of the most desperate times in history - they have known what it stands for".  Well, quite.  Last year, as he has repeatedly, he built himself up into a fit of faux righteous indignation over some slight from Labour; this year he did it twice, over Labour daring to suggest the NHS isn't safe in his hands and over Labour's plans to deal with the deficit, or lack thereof.

It was nonsense, but it was nonsense decreed acceptable whereas Labour's nonsense is pounced upon.  Cameron's plea for a majority government isn't so much you've had four years of us and hated every minute, it's either me for another 5 or it's Ed Miliband, as it is I'm a bit shit, you're a bit shit, don't put your trust in someone completely shit.  As Larry Elliott points out, Cameron's tax promises today now make them the party without a plan for cutting the deficit: if cuts of £25bn already look next to impossible without certain parts of government shutting down completely, how can a further £7.2bn worth be found to finance cutting taxes for middle earners?  Just as Cameron says he's a relatively simple man, it simply can't be done, unless that is he gives with one hand and takes with the other.  Which is precisely what he's doing by raising the income tax threshold to £12,500 at the same time as freezing tax credits, hoping the lowest paid won't notice his sleight of hand, or how the continuously rising threshold helps middle earners the most.

For all its manifold, myriad faults, Cameron and the Conservatives have a vision.  It's a vision that ignores the inexorable rise of food banks, the penalising of the most vulnerable through a "spare room subsidy", the fact living standards have fallen and show no sign of recovering despite inflation coming in below 2%, and instead emphasises things could be worse.  You can only be sure of continuing mediocrity with the Conservatives, so long as you're upper middle class like they are.  Everyone just needs to work harder, do the right thing, and they'll get the same rewards.  It's the natural order.  Should they win, they'll make life even harder for those whom continue to oppose them.

Labour, meanwhile, doesn't have anything resembling a vision.  Yet still on choice of party if nothing else it retains the edge.  That's how beatable the Tories are, should be, how people want a vision of something better that isn't cod-Thatcherism from a politician who can only remind you of how much better Tony Blair was at insincerity.  You believed Blair's insincerity.  Cameron can't even pull that off.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 

Shorter Theresa May.

We have to destroy the town in order to save it.

(More tomorrow once the nicer effects of an anaesthetic wear off.  Don't ask.)

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Monday, September 29, 2014 

I chose not to choose Osborne.

If his actions hadn't been so unfathomably stupid, you could almost feel sorry for Brooks Newmark.  Chris Bryant is still constantly reminded of his posing in a pair of y-fronts for his Gaydar profile (and I, err, seem to have also just brought it up again), but at least he kept his pants on.  Newmark, being the archetypal Tory rather than a wannabe vicar turned MP, was just a touch more classy in his exposing.  Not by deciding upon a sepia filter or anything though, which might have been trying just a little too hard.  Instead he flopped the old johnson out of his dark blue and red paisley pyjamas, apparently convinced this would ignite fires of passion in his correspondent on Twitter.  Who just happened to be a freelance hack trying his luck with the old honeypot ploy, rather than Sophie Wittams, blonde Tory PR bombshell.

Cue many complaints about entrapment and all the rest of it, moans which were few and far between when Mazher Mahmood finally met his match in Tulisa.  Admittedly, they have a point: rather than a targeted operation against someone known to be liberal in their sending of private images, this seems to have been a fishing expedition, with "Wittams" contacting a number of Tory MPs.  All the same, I can't be the only one thinking it wasn't so long back Lord Rennard was being denounced for his (alleged) threatening sexual behaviour and touching of prospective Lib Dem MPs.  Even if this was a consensual exchange of pictures, should an MP be doing such things in any case, or indeed, shouldn't it be seen as indicative of a lack of judgement?

Newmark being ensnared by the Sunday Mirror would have been bad enough for the Tories on the eve of their conference, only for Mark Reckless to join his compadre Douglas Carswell in defecting to UKIP.  Much as we could just defer to nominative determinism on this one, as many others have, it says much about the state the Conservatives find themselves in that Nigel Farage's merry band has proved more attractive to not just one but two Tory MPs with healthy majorities.  Reckless could no longer stand being in a party apparently doomed to defeat at the next election, so he's joined one that's err, even more doomed to defeat at the next election.  Still, at least he can now be happier in his own skin, no longer forced to defend his party to those in Rochester who believe themselves to be "over taxed" and "over regulated", those key complaints on the doors.  As for the cost to the taxpayer of his decision to resign and seek re-election when he could have waited a few months and done exactly the same thing at the time of the general election, more important is the Farage bandwagon.  Quite how this is championing his constituents' interests rather than his new party's isn't clear, but no doubt he can justify it to himself somehow.

Yesterday in Birmingham then felt more like a conference of a far-left sect than it did that of the main governing party, with Reckless being denounced from the platform for his lies and betrayal.  Not that you could ever imagine Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, aka Sebastian Fox being a leftie agitator, mainly as he comes across as far too dim.  Nothing is too obvious for Shapps, no sentiment too trite, no soundbite too overcooked.  If all else fails he can perhaps look for work at GCHQ, as the Tories now do a sideline in recording phone calls without the other person's knowledge and then playing them to all and sundry.  More the actions of an authoritarian one party state than the Tories of old, but needs apparently must when it comes to exposing the double dealings of those who are Reckless.

It was still preferable to what's become the Monday ritual, the delivering of the George Osborne gospel.  Worth keeping in mind is by some difference Osborne is now the most popular and also the most successful of all the coalition's ministers: that he's been a miserable failure when judged by the goals set by err, George Osborne doesn't matter when the competition is even worse.  By any real measure Michael Gove would rank as most successful such has been his impact on education, only for his charms to be deemed just too offensive to teachers and in turn voters.  Osborne by contrast, who must inspire thoughts of doing a Mantel in many, remains in place and dividing and ruling the same as ever.

Having got off relatively lightly of late, one would hope due to the Tories realising just how unpopular the bedroom tax has become, those on benefits whether in or out of work are due to cop it once again.  Should the Tories get a majority the under 21s will face the equivalent of "community payback" once they've claimed JSA for 6 months, while they also won't be able to get housing benefit.  The benefit cap as a whole will be lowered to £23,000, while only those in the support group of ESA will see their payments rise in line with inflation for a further two years.  Meanwhile, those under 40 who can afford to buy their own home could potentially get a 20% discount whether they need one or not, and another "death tax" will be abolished, with what's left of a pension pot no longer taxed at 55%.  It really couldn't be any more stark: if you're "one of us", aspiring to own your home, wanting to pass on money to your kids, Osborne and pals will be more than glad to help.  If you're struggling to make ends meet, claiming anything from the government whatsoever (with the exception of those able to jump through the hoops of the work capability assessment and everyone lucky enough to be 65+), you're on your own.  We hear that nice Mr Miliband, the same one who couldn't even remember the deficit, instantly disqualifying him from entering the room of the Very Serious People, will be happy to have you.

You could understand Osborne's gambit more if the £3bn estimated to be saved by these changes went a lot of the way to making the savings Osborne claims they will.  The problem is this is just £3bn of the £12bn total from welfare, with another £13bn to come from savings from the non-protected government departments.  Neither figure seems likely to be achieved without extreme pain, nor does it seem realistic taxes won't have to rise in some way, despite all of Osborne's fine words, if that is he means what he says about running a surplus.  It could be just as he's failed miserably to get rid of the deficit in a single term, he could relent once the election has been won.  Equally, he could raise taxes straight away to get it out of the way, even if it was to break his promises.  Or it could be he means what he says, and to hell with the consequences.  Whichever it is, there's no evidence making his stand now will win the support he believes it will from those who favour the Tories on the economy.  Keen as he apparently is on paraphrasing Trainspotting, no doubt to Irvine Welsh's ire, he and the Tories shouldn't be surprised if we decide to choose something else.

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