Monday, February 08, 2016 

The fundamental lack of imagination remains.

If there's one thing worse than telling the son of a deceased political figure how ashamed or upset they would be with the decisions they've made, as clearly the likes of Alex Salmond know better than Hillary Benn how his father would have reacted, then it's squabbling over which side a passed on political behemoth would have chosen.  

Yep, in case you missed it, the big debate in the Tory press over the past couple of days has been whether Margaret Thatcher would have been on the side of staying in or leaving the EU.  Charles Powell is convinced she would have been for in, with much the same reservations as David Cameron; Norman Tebbit and assorted others regard that as heresy.  That Thatcher had gone as crazy as a coot by the end of her time in Downing Street seems to have passed them all by, as does the fact they got rid of her for precisely that reason.  You could argue the Tory worship of Thatcher is more healthy politically than Labour's attitude towards Tony Blair, and it probably is.  It doesn't alter how unutterably creepy it is, not to mention unanswerable: failing Boris Gypsy Rose Johnson managing to channel the spirit of Thatch from the other side, we're never going to be any the wiser.  Which in a way, is the point.

Quite how miserable the next few months are going to be is summed up by the big politics story of the day, the claim from Downing Street that should the referendum result in our leaving, the migrants camped out in Calais and Dunkirk will instead be setting up tent cities in Dover.  The idea is so absurd many have claimed it's another "dead cat", designed to move the debate on, and judging by the coverage of the ensuing argument compared to that of the speech Cameron gave today, it seems to have worked.  Apart from anything else, the obvious point is that if those camped in Calais and Dunkirk make it to Britain they wouldn't then be sitting around waiting to do anything; they'd be claiming asylum or moving on to find work.  The French might be less cooperative than they are now, it's true, but why would you trouble yourselves overly with people who don't want to stay in your country anyway?

We can then only ready ourselves for weeks of claims and counter-claims, all on a subject that few are truly interested in and even fewer know anything about.  If, on the other hand, there is something approaching truth in the rumours today's speech by Cameron on prison reform is part of the move to guarantee justice secretary Michael Gove's support for the remain campaign, there might be the very slightest of silver linings.

That's a silver lining dependent on first, some of Cameron's proposed measures being implemented, and two, their working.  When you then consider that Cameron himself claimed today's speech was the first in 20 years by a prime minister focusing exclusively on prison reform, when it soon turned out Dave had forgotten he gave a speech promising a rehabilitation revolution back in 2012, the omens are far from good.  It's true, as various commentators have noted, that simply hearing a prime minister saying things like prisons are "often miserable, painful environments", "full of damaged individuals" and that "being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime" is novel, and welcome.  Referring to prisoners as potential diamonds in the rough, and turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning is language of the sort politicians rarely use, often for good reason as it sounds hollow and fatuous.  That it didn't coming from Cameron today is itself something to cheer.

This said, the problems of the prison estate are obvious, and there's little to suggest that Cameron or the Tories are willing to recognise them.  The first is plain and simple, funding: the cuts to the Ministry of Justice have been some of the most swingeing, and prisons are expensive.  Part of the reason there is so little chance of rehabilitation in prison and so much idleness is lack of staff, and the amount being spent on overtime for those remaining is astronomical.  Second is overcrowding.  While it is true as Cameron says that very few, only 7% he quotes, are imprisoned for a first offence, and over 70% of prisoners have 7 or more convictions to their name, most of those will be minor, or non-violent.  As he goes on to say, almost half will have an identifiable mental health problem, while others will have an addiction of one variety or another.  Reducing the prison population by say 20% would be perfectly achievable and help massively if there were alternatives available, either in the form of expanded secure accommodation for those with mental health problems or monitoring in the community for those guilty of non-violent offences, women in particular.  This might have been possible prior to austerity: now it seems laughable, despite Cameron asking Gove and Jeremy Hunt to look for alternative provision for the most severely mentally ill.

As Frances Crook writes, it doesn't matter how much independence or autonomy you give a prison governor if they don't have the staff, the resources, or the space for their ideas to take root.  More promising is the idea of "secure academies" as an alternative to young offender institutions, although the obstacles frankly look overwhelming; it's all well and good saying you want to make it "aspirational" to work in a prison and attract the best, but again why would you when there is very little here to suggest this is anything other than rhetoric?  Similar schemes in schools themselves have fell by the wayside.  Indeed, at worst, Cameron's plans smack of introducing further privatisation where the true aim undoubtedly will be on achieving savings, at the expense of the very rehabilitation and reforms he claims to want.

Great as it is to hear a prime minister saying he wants prisons to be places of care, not just punishment, the one metric we have to judge Cameron and the Tories by so far is as he apparently accepts, the reports of the chief inspector of prisons.  By that measure prisons have got worse in the last 5 years, not better, with the reasons why staring the government in the face.  Closing the worst of the Victorian jails and building replacements will do no good if they are to be just as overcrowded and short-staffed.

Last weekend Nick Hardwick criticised the "lack of imagination and failure of empathy" of policymakers.  Today's speech by Cameron showed that when pushed, politicians can be compassionate and point towards innovations that could help.  Fundamentally however, that lack of imagination or refusal to question the failed shibboleths of old remains: prisons cannot work when they are the equivalent of warehouses for the sick, the damaged and the dangerous.  For all his fine, often empathetic words, David Cameron still refuses to recognise this.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016 

Cameron's gamble with everyone else's chips.

David Cameron, Matthew d'Anconservative wrote only yesterday, is "like almost every Tory of his generation, a Eurosceptic to his fingertips".  This Eurosceptic to his fingertips, a leader who has at every turn given in to the demands of his backbenchers, has now been served up what can at best be described as very thin gruel in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk's proposed deal on renegotiation.  "Hand on heart", Dave insisted, the deal fulfils the promises made in the Conservative party manifesto.  Presumably with hand still on heart, he also said that if Britain wasn't an EU member and these were the terms on offer to join, he would do so.

Cameron is not and has never been a Eurosceptic.  Above everything else, Cameron has always been an opportunist.  Combined with his belief that through the sheer force of his will and combined animal magnetism he can achieve practically anything, he has made every appearance of being a Eurosceptic while never for a second believing the nonsense spouted by the more virulent within his party.  His move to leave the EPP grouping in the European parliament?  Utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to anyone outside the Tory party, but it helped convinced those uncertain about him that he was truly one of them.  Likewise, his much garlanded wielding of the veto back in 2011 achieved precisely nothing, other than help soothe the tendency within the Tories that regarded his failure to win the 2010 election and necessary coalition with the Lib Dems as little short of treachery.

And yet, each time he refused to call the bluff of his restive MPs, it encouraged them to push for something else.  Finally, in 2013, Cameron gave them what they had long demanded, a referendum on our membership of the EU.  As has been comprehensively proved since, Cameron has never thought for one second that Britain would be better off out.  Cameron is many things, but he's not an idiot.  For every negative, there is a positive. More than anything else, the idea that Britain will somehow manage to get a better deal on exit than either Norway or Switzerland managed having never been members is just as fanciful as the SNP's claim that once independence was won, the rUK would delight in the necessary negotiations on how to share the pound and split oil revenue etc etc.

Whether Cameron honestly believed he would win the majority necessary to hold the referendum we don't know.  Still, once achieved he had to push on, knowing full well that short of bringing back the head of Jean-Claude Juncker on a silver platter the Eurosceptics in his party would moan incessantly about how feeble his renegotiation was.  He did so also knowing full well that the the rest of the EU, dealing with a refugee crisis Cameron refuses to lift a finger to help with over, was not for so much as a second going to offer anything like the concessions on immigration and benefits that have become the proxy for public debate on the EU.

To give Cameron some credit, he has got something that didn't look to be on offer until very recently.  The emergency brake, allowing for the restricting of in-work benefits to EU migrants is roughly analogous to the ban promised in the Tory manifesto.  No one thought for a minute that Cameron would get four years, and while he hasn't quite got that, he's got something similar, albeit tempered by how migrants will get "gradual" access to in-work benefits once they've been paying into the system, probably after a couple of years.  Likewise, on the sending of child benefit to children back in their home countries, he hasn't got an outright prohibition but has won a concession that will mean the benefit will be paid most likely at the same rate as it would be if the claimant was doing so back home.  On fairness if nothing else that passes muster.

Except, of course, this has been a phony war from the beginning.  Cameron and the Tories know that benefits are not a draw for migrants; they come for the jobs and the wages, not to claim.  Every possible effort has been made to prove that benefits are a pull factor for migrants both legal and illegal, and not once has anything approaching conclusive evidence been turned up.  Cameron knew the rest of the EU would never agree to a "brake" on the free movement of labour, and so was reduced to instead attempting to convince the public into believing that rather than it being down to how we were one of only three EU nations that opened our borders in 2005 without restrictions, or to how the British economy has recovered faster than most other EU states post-2008, it's all been about tax credits.  This went alongside the attempt to restrict tax credits overall, since abandoned, meant to be made up for part by the increase in the minimum wage.  Evidence for the minimum wage being a draw is far higher than it is for benefits, so if the aim has partly been to reduce net levels of migration, it's a far bet Cameron's renegotiation will achieve little other than saving the relatively slight amounts currently claimed back in tax credits.

Most of the other concessions, including the "red card" national parliaments could wield against proposed new EU laws if 55% vote against, are relatively minor or were always going to happen when the rest of the EU undoubtedly wants Britain to stay.  Judged against the letter sent to Tusk that started this process, Cameron has got most of what he wanted.  Then again, what he wanted has no connection whatsoever with the "full-on treaty change" or fundamental reworking of our relationship with the EU once promised, and which the more naive Tory backbenchers thought they might get.  The others, those who were always going to treat whatever was served up as not good enough, have a deal they can be justifiably dismissive of.

As for the public, excepting the relative few who go along with the UKIP narrative on loss of sovereignty and the eleventy trillion pounds sent to Brussels every day, most will care only about the impact it has on migration.  Which will be next to none.  To judge by the response to the deal, which has been tepid to say the least, most quite rightly don't give a stuff about the EU.  It's there, it does things, it occasionally impacts on us, but for most it means little other than open borders and free movement of labour, for better, for worse, and that itself is threatened by the aforementioned refugee crisis.  Trying to get people who weren't bothered enough to vote in the general election to interest themselves in a referendum on something relatively arcane and on a day in high summer, should it take place on the "preferred" date of 23rd of June, is going to prove far more challenging than many seem to think.

Which only reinforces the view that Cameron and his relatively slight band of fellow Tories who don't like the EU much but prefer it to the alternative have backed themselves into a corner out of pitiful weakness, and now have to sell their gruel to the country.  Perhaps the thinking is that the engaged, the pro-Europeans versus the Eurosceptics will balance themselves out, leaving Project Fear 2.0 to work its magic on those undecided and who can be bothered to interest themselves.  Perhaps, as Lord Ashcroft's polling and research suggests, Cameron himself can win enough people over by his leading the remain campaign.  Perhaps the fact that the leave campaigners themselves seem to accept they cannot win on immigration alone, and so will have to put their otherwise easily countered and pretty feeble arguments out for public consumption, made by politicians and business leaders no one has much affection for, will count against them.

From this remove, with no solution in sight to the refugee crisis, much that can happen between now and June, and with the voter coalition he formed to win the election liable to be against him on this occasion, Cameron's great gamble looks just as mad and as hostage to fortune as it did three years.  The only real advantage he has, as then, is himself.  If it proves to not be enough, with all it will set in motion, a likely second Scottish independence referendum, inevitable resignation and a country ever more uncertain of its true place in the world, will it have been worth it?

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Monday, February 01, 2016 

A fundamental lack of imagination.

At the weekend, out-going chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick gave a blistering interview to the Graun.  All but told his services were no longer wanted after he proved to be one of the most critical of inspectors in what has often been a post filled by those of an independent bent, he made clear he was in fact glad to be leaving, fearing that he was at the point of becoming desensitised to the problems of the prison estate.  Levels of self-harm and suicide are at record levels in a system that Hardwick declares has deteriorated further in the 5 years since the coalition government promised a "rehabilitation revolution".  

The only bright spot is Chris Grayling, who Hardwick relates attempted to interfere with his annual report, has since been moved on from his role as justice secretary, replaced by Michael Gove.  Amazingly considering his record as education secretary, Gove is now without doubt the best minister of a very bad lot, if only because he has spent almost the entirety of his time cleaning up the mess left by Grayling.  In little more than six months Gove has lifted the ban on sending parcels to prisoners, scrapped the criminal courts charge, reversed further planned cuts to legal aid, and persuaded David Cameron to put an end to the proposed link up with the Saudi Arabian prison system.

As Hardwick outlines in his interview, there are manifold things wrong with the prison system, but one of the most obvious is that there are still far too many people in jail who either shouldn't be or who would be far better cared for elsewhere.  Policymakers, he says, have two major failings: "lack of imagination and failure of empathy".  This could be expanded from just policymakers to be a criticism of the justice system as a whole, afflicting not just politicians and those who put pressure on them, but also the police, prosecutors and judges.  It affects not just those being processed through the system, but victims too: witness how 20 years after her death the family of Cheryl James have only now managed to obtain a second inquest, thanks to the Human Rights Act the government wants to repeal.

The absurdity of the system as it stands is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of consistency in decisions made by prosecutors.  Approaching a year after they left, the four school girls from Bethnal Green academy who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State will still apparently be treated as victims should they return to the UK, despite it would seem having no intention whatsoever of doing so.  As I've pointed out on a number of occasions, it seems doubly perverse to prosecute the sad sacks who do return home after quickly discovering they are not cut out for life in a war zone, the Mashudr Choudarys, the Nawazses, and now most notably of all, Tareena Shakil, the 26-year-old who travelled to the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, only to make her escape less than 3 months later.

Shakil it's safe to say is also the most perplexing character of all the jihadis so far charged on their return.  She apparently loved shows like The Only Way is Essex, seems to not always worn the hijab, let alone the full veil that she would have been required to in Raqqa, and it's not disputed that her brief flirtation with the jihadi cause came after the breakdown of her marriage.  Whether she genuinely was radicalised online by contact with individuals who told her she would go to hell if she didn't live under Sharia law, as well as by other notorious online figures Aqsa Mahmood and Sally Anne Jones we can't know, but it seems more realistic a claim than in many similar instances where families have insisted their loved ones were preyed upon.

Also not in dispute is that whatever the reality of how she managed to make it out of Raqqa, bribing a tax driver and then slipping past Islamic State fighters on the border as she told the court after first telling police she had been kidnapped, she did so because she had become disillusioned with life in Syria.  The claim made by the police that she posed a threat to this country has not been substantiated in the slightest by the evidence heard in court, nor by her conviction for being a member of IS and sending messages inciting terrorism.  She genuinely was escaping, not attempting to return without being noticed with the aim of either proselytising for IS once back in the country, or worse, launching an attack.  Some of the case presented against her was downright laughable: a "senior security analyst" insisted that women in Raqqa were only allowed access to weapons if they were members of an IS police unit, as clearly Shakil couldn't of borrowed a gun for the pictures she posed for from one of the other 30 women she was living with.

This is not to overlook how utterly irresponsible it was of Shakil to take her young son with her, nor how shocking and perverse it was to allow him to be photographed by the side of an AK-47, or wearing a hat with IS insignia.  We can't know for certain how much of a choice she had in much of what she did once in Raqqa, especially when like most radical organisations IS is paranoid in the extreme about spies, where refusing to do what is asked of you can soon result in suspicion and potential execution.  Nonetheless, after admitting the truth of her decision to travel to Raqqa, she has also said she doesn't want sympathy.  Nor does she deserve any for that decision.

What she does deserve sympathy for is realising the terrible mistake she made.  While it doesn't seem to have been reported what has happened since to her child, one would presume he is either now with his father or in care.  Precisely what benefit the public receives from imprisoning her for six years, of which she will likely serve three, is not immediately obvious.  Is it meant to send a message of deterrence to others in a similar position, thinking of travelling to Syria, when we know full well that such thoughts are often furthest from their minds?  Is it meant to make clear you can't "join" a terrorist organisation and then come back as though nothing has happened, regardless of regrets?  


Would it not make far more sense to let individuals like Shakil tell their story, once it has been confirmed they pose no threat, when the only people those at risk of radicalisation are likely to listen to are those whom for whatever reason felt the same way they did?  Wouldn't it be a far better use of police time and court resources to ensure that those who do pose a threat, like Siddhartha Dhar, aka Abu Rumaysah, the man thought to be in the IS video directly addressing the UK are not able to skip bail?  Shouldn't we have learned at least a few lessons by now about the way Islamic State operates, and that while we must be suspicious about anyone attempting to return, the IS view in general is that to leave is to disassociate yourself, to go back to the land of unbelievers?

Indeed, the other message the sentence sends to others who've travelled to Syria is that there is no escape.  You can leave, try and repudiate what you've done, but you'll still likely go to prison for years.  Life after prison is hard enough for most offenders, let alone those branded for life as a terrorist, needing to report to the police for years afterwards as Shakil will.  Knowing that awaits, it's hardly surprising that few whether still believing in the cause or not have made the journey home.  As Hardwick identified, fundamentally it comes down to a lack of imagination.  Shakil could have been an asset in the fight against IS.  Now she'll rot in a cell.  Terrorism aside, her fate is the same as many others who could have been helped previously, who could still be helped, but won't be until our criminal justice policy is completely re-evaluated.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016 

The commentariat is always wrong. Probably.

Steve Richards is very good in the Political Quarterly on the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, but this part on the commentariat is worth reflecting on also:

Here is one other general observation before I explore why Corbyn rose to the top of his party and reflect on what might happen next. I find in British politics that what we think is happening is almost always the reverse of what is actually happening. That is my polite way of suggesting that the media consensus at any given time is nearly always wrong. So, for example, at the moment the orthodoxy in the media is that Cameron and Osborne are commanding and the Conservatives have already won the next election, while the rise of Corbyn is an unqualified catastrophe. My instinct is to assume these assumptions must be wrong, partly because the commentariat is always wrong.

To judge by the polls, which themselves are tarnished by last year's failure, the commentariat in this instance seem to be right: Corbyn is not doing well, and the Tories are doing far better than a party with a majority of 12, 5 years into government and with so many potential problems on the horizon should be. Point is, when the commentariat are so focused on Corbyn being a disaster, it's incredibly hard not to be drawn into thinking the same, as while there are "good" columnists and "bad" columnists they invariably reach the same conclusions. Besides, as we know, there is wisdom in crowds.

This is only multiplied when said commentariat is now asking whether Labour might split, with the no longer Pollyanna Toynbee urging it not to, Pol being older and wiser for having helped Thatcher into power in 83 with the SDP, although of course she doesn't put it like that. The New Statesman meanwhile, which seems to have decided to be critical of Labour at all times whether in government or not, poses the question on its front page, even if its conclusion is ultimately the same as Pol's.

Labour it barely needs saying isn't going to split.  You only need to look at the utter state of the Lib Dems to see that there is barely any room at the moment for a centrist party, let alone for two competing parties of the centre left.  Whom is going to lead this split anyway?  As Richards goes on to say, part of the reason Labour is in this mess is down to how Blair and Brown commanded the party for so long, without ordaining successors as either Thatcher tried to or as Cameron is now attempting with Osborne.  Say what you like about Burnham, Cooper or Kendall, all are tribally Labour.  Nor are any of the great white hopes, again whoever they are now, Dan Jarvis seeming the only name with the slightest lustre, going to do a Gang of Four, let alone take others in the party with them.

Things then we should also assume are wrong due to how they are being pushed, or probably wrong: firstly, that Labour will lose seats in the local elections.  I doubt it, and even if they do, Sadiq Khan is going to be the next London mayor, which despite the commentariat also assuming is a done deal, could be the exception that proves the rule.

Second: that whatever EU renegotiation Cameron comes up with, the remain campaign will win.  This seems to assume that the sheer rhetorical force of Dave and friends will win the day, and completely ignores that the same coalition the Tories put together that won the election, of older people, former Lib Dem voters outside of the cities and those put off/unconvinced by Miliband/Labour's record on the economy/not hating immigrants/benefit claimants enough are those most likely to be unfavourable towards the EU also.  Cameron would seem to be counting on the very people who haven't and will never vote for him to effectively do so on this occasion to take him over the edge.  Now it could happen, we might see a UK wide reprise of Project Fear from the Scottish independence referendum that convinces just enough people the risks of leaving aren't worth it, and there's the fact the most notable people involved with the leave campaigns are unpopular populists in an age when populism done properly is very popular.  Or we could end up in the worst of all worlds, outside the EU without any say in anything but with much the same obligations, and with Cameron having to resign, plus Osborne supremely damaged in turn.


Which would leave Corbyn and Labour where?  Not in quite as bad a place, if nothing else.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016 

A bunch of cunts, long to reign over us.

"A bunch of migrants".  According to Anna Soubry, David Cameron's choice of language was nothing more than a unintended, understandable descent into slang.  He clearly meant "a group".  There's one very good reason to believe it wasn't a unscripted sort of gaffe, which we'll come to, but there's also another.  How often exactly does anyone use "a bunch" as a collective noun, other than in a bunch of grapes or bananas, or at the opposite extreme, a bunch of cunts?  More widely used, at least 'round my way, would be "a load".  It smacks of the kind of line written with the intention of sounding like something that an ordinary person would say, except it doesn't, because the prime minister's advisory clique doesn't have the slightest clue what us proles talk like.

Not that it really matters.  The reasoning behind using the line is, sadly, completely sound, which is precisely why it was a scripted attack line.  "A bunch of migrants" is pretty neutral compared to a lot of the discourse around the refugee crisis.  One solution I heard in passing was that they should be forced back into their boats, pushed out to sea, and then sank.  Or shot.  Or sank and shot.  Either way, they were not meant to survive.  Of course, this isn't to be pretend there aren't plenty of bleeding hearts out there as well, or indeed that the man who offered his opinion truly meant it.  When however you have the Road Hauliers Association demanding that the French army be sent to Calais because 50 migrants living in utterly desperate conditions had the temerity to storm a ship, and when you consider that whatever spin the government puts on it, our response to the crisis has been derisory, the equivalent of a middle finger salute to the rest of Europe, regardless of the merits or otherwise of the policies pursued by other states, the level of rhetoric has always been way out of line with the numbers we've taken.

Realise also that if anyone is still getting the blame over immigration/migration, it's Labour.  It doesn't matter that the Conservatives failed utterly with their ridiculous tens of thousands target, nor that in further desperate attempts to keep the numbers down non-EU students are being arrested with the apparent intention of dissuading others from coming to the UK at all, when it comes to the focus groups, they still point the finger at the opposition.  In fact, as that whole Deborah Mattinson report makes clear, the Tories can blame Labour for anything and everything and a distinct group will nod their heads and go along with it.  A tax probe into Google started under Labour in 2009 but which wasn't finalised for 7 years and when it is amounts to the company paying a rate of 3%?  Labour's fault, because Blair, Brown and Darling now all work for banks.  At least we're trying, says Cameron, and can you imagine Chas and Dave over there getting more when they're craven to the trade unions, want to hand over the Falklands and say you're welcome, come on over, to a bunch of illegals?

Scripted as it was, it probably wasn't written with the intention of distracting attention from the Google tax difficulty, when the Italians, the Italians of all people have apparently persuaded them to hand over proportionately more.  Yes, every so often Cameron's mask slips, and yes, it is an utterly callous way to describe people literally living in filth, the vast majority of whom will have escaped war, oppression, or grinding poverty, but it's not one that's going to affect his ratings one iota.  No one who hasn't already reached the conclusion that this government are a bunch of heartless bastards at best and a bunch of utter cunts at worst is going to be swung by Cameron's use of words; no one who hasn't already been moved by the plight of the migrants across Europe, in the Middle East, is going to be now.

If anything, attitudes are only going to harden further as an apparently unending wave of refugees struggle to make their way to safety on the continent.  The only real solution, to bring an end to the wars in both Syria and Iraq, is either too difficult, thought impossible or not so much as on the agenda.  And indeed, how do you put an end to conflicts that are as much as anything about centuries' old sectarian and tribal enmities when it is in the interests of the two major regional powers for them to carry on?  How can we pose as honest brokers when we have funded one side by proxy, and when we are resolutely behind the state the UN accuses of breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen, just as we accuse the Russians of doing in Syria?

The only real way to get a hit in on the Tories is to draw all these various strands together.  We have a government that reaches derisory deals on tax with major corporations, and so in order to claw back whatever it can from elsewhere, it deducts money from victims of domestic violence and the seriously disabled for having "spare rooms".  We have a government that, personally responsible or not for the Iraq disaster, is bombing both it and Syria, and so is directly contributing to the immediate plight of civilians, even if the overall aim has the best of intentions.  This same government claims, hilariously and disgracefully, to be doing more than any other nation to help refugees, even while it refuses to do the bare minimum in alliance with the rest of the EU.  Whatever it does, the government favours the rich and the strong over the poor and the weak.  At the same time, it denies as much responsibility as it possibly can for its actions, and where possible, blames the victims.  The challenge for Labour is to make this argument about the government's heartless irresponsibility without further convincing the voters it needs to win back over that it's only for the "down and outs".

And there lies the reason we seem to have many long years of Tory rule ahead.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016 

36 Quotes From Davos That Prove How Fucking Shallow Our Leaders Are.

And so to Davos, the highly agreeable Swiss resort where every January the great and good gather at the World Economic Forum to discuss Uganda, hit the slopes and in their downtime, submit bromides and clichés to the hacks tasked with following them.  The ostensible theme of this year's junket was The Fourth Industrial Revolution, each word capitalised just in case any of you should doubt that the arrival of the Internet Of Things, Automation and 3D Printing really does herald a fourth industrial revolution.  Instead of say, exacerbating inequality, with skilled middle earners the next in line to discover themselves out of a job while the top 10% carry on accumulating more and more wealth.

Still, it won't do to be cynical when in the presence of so many masters of the universe, leaders of men and the occasional actor/musician/philanthropist hopefully invited along to make the aforementioned despise themselves even more.  Besides, how could you be when what we really need to do, in the words of one of our foremost innovators and style icons is

 

It's not clear whether those are will.i.am's optimism goggles, or if he's instead been sold an old pair of NHS glasses of the kind I wore back in the 90s by an enterprising sort who knows a sucker when he sees one.  Either way, you have to suspect that worn by anyone else the goggles would do nothing, for will.i.am is without doubt one of life's natural optimists.  How else could you go through life knowing that you had any sort of involvement with the Black Eyed Peas, let alone wrote songs like Shut Up, My Humps or I Gotta Feeling?  As Mark Kermode said of Guy Ritchie, regardless of the terrible things most of us have done, we can wake up in the morning and reassure ourselves that at least we didn't direct Revolver.  Ritchie can't, and nor can will.i.am repudiate Boom Boom Pow.

Will.i.am you can't help but assume was invited along in the spirit of Dinner for Schmucks, where a dinner guest imagines they've made it but has in fact been asked to attend so they can be mercifully mocked for being, err, a schmuck.  To quote Kermode again, it's plain that we in fact are the schmucks here, but will.i.am is a veritable Oscar Wilde compared to most of the other speakers at Davos, with the WEF helpfully providing us with the "36 best quotes" from the summit in easily consumable Buzzfeed-style image form.  5 individuals are judged to have captured the zeitgeist well enough to appear twice, with Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, Marc R. Beinoff, Sharan Burrow and new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau clearly the most likely to inspire the next generation of politicians and business leaders.  And with Sandberg expressing thoughts like these, who could possibly disagree?



It's not clear whether this is a barely guarded shot across the bows of Mark Zuckerberg from his direct underling, and it's almost certainly not a reference to how Zuckerberg Zuckerberged the Winklevosses and Divya Narenda, but it is of a piece with how Sandberg has marketed herself as this great spokesperson for women, a role which the broadsheets have fallen for completely.  Facebook itself often gets a much freer pass from the press than say, either Google or Amazon, despite being just as rapacious, just as indulgent of libertarians as the rest of Silicon Valley, and just as resistant to paying tax.  Compared to her other quote mind, it's a penetrating insight:



Considering this can be disproved by reading almost any Facebook thread, it makes you wonder just how often Sandberg spends on her own site.

Then again, Davos would not appear to be the place to go should you want to hear anything other than the consensus, at least until it stops being the consensus and it becomes clear There Is No Alternative to whatever the new consensus is.  Hence



and



which even by Cameron's usual standards is top draw meaningless bullshit.  What is competitiveness?  How do you "hardwire" it into the EU?  Does he believe or understand any of the words coming out of his mouth?  Exactly how banal and dreary must the rest of the summit have been for this to be chosen as one of the top quotes?

Oh.



And as we also know, you can't hug your children with nuclear arms.

It's best to leave the last words to Benjamin Netanyahu, as his is one of the few quotes that genuinely does mean something:


Most people would argue that the exact opposite is the case, that one of the keys to tackling extremism is offering an alternative, providing hope where there seems to be none, presenting a future where what and who you are no longer affect your chances in life.  Netanyahu though means precisely what he says: he and Likud rely on despair prevailing indefinitely, that the "wild fantasy" of a viable Palestinian state is impossible to realise thanks to the policies he pursues, and which the international community continues to wring its hands over.  Even at a crap talking festival, the Israeli prime minister is far too fatheaded to do anything other than say what he means.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 

The desperately awful case of Poppi Worthington.


The perpetrators of sexual abuse are inadequate individuals who control weaker people, often children, for their own gratification. Their behaviour is always an abuse of power and usually a breach of trust. They destroy families and blight childhoods. They create dread in their victims by convincing them that the consequences of speaking out will be worse than the consequences of silence. They create guilt in their victims by persuading them that they have somehow willingly participated in their own abuse. They burden their victims with secrets. They poison normal relationships, trade on feelings of affection, drive a wedge between their victims and others, and make family and friends take sides. They count on the failure or inability of responsible adults, both relatives and professionals, to protect and support the victims. Faced with exposure, they commonly turn on their victims, try to assassinate their characters, and get others to do the same. Most often, their selfishness is so deep-rooted that they ignore other people's feelings and are only capable of feeling pity for themselves.

So opens the judgement of Mr Justice Peter Jackson in the case of Wigan Council and M, Mr C, Mr P, GM, G, B and CC.  The rest of the ruling continues in a similar vein of perspicacity, acute in its legal reasoning, angry at what G and B, abused for years by their stepfather Mr C, put them through, and the failure of the authorities to do anything about it.  Indeed, despite Jackson's judgement, no criminal proceedings have been brought against Mr C.  It is essentially a case of the word of G and B, whom Jackson describes as "impressive witnesses", giving "compelling" accounts with "no hint of malice", against that of their self-admitted "habitual, deliberate" liar step-father, who made a "thoroughly unimpressive witness".

If there was any coverage of the case beyond the local area, I failed to notice it.  There almost certainly wasn't.  Media coverage requires names, known names preferably.  Some cases are so terrible, or treated as such that they do make waves: Victoria Climbie, Baby P, perhaps the exception the proves the rule.  At other times, pure chance seems to come into play.

Such as seems to be the case with Poppi Worthington.  The true reason as to why the case of her death suddenly made the headlines yesterday is as much to do with the media itself as the facts involved.  Following the issuing of new guidelines on transparency in family courts back in January 2014, a consortium of media organisations challenged Cumbria County Council's request for strict reporting restrictions.  Yesterday's judgement marks the conclusion of the court process, following Poppi's father's challenge to the initial ruling.

That the Worthington case is especially upsetting and distressing does not seem to be the reason for the coverage.  If anything, and quite understandably considering the exact details involved, most of the reporting has skirted around precisely what happened to her.  Most reports only mention a "sexual assault", and leave it at that, with some also hinting towards bleeding.  Along with how it seemed odd that I hadn't heard anything about this case before, it was the mention of how three medical experts apparently disagreed that Poppi had been sexually assaulted, and yet the judge had still ruled that she was, that made me look up on the judgement on Bailii.

Which is of course something anyone can do, and yet also seems to have not been done by some of those who have commented publicly on the case.  Sir Simon Hughes for instance, and Yvette Cooper, to judge by their remarks, in Cooper's case in the House of Commons.  Anyone who has read Mr Justice Peter Jackson's judgement will soon see why there is not the slightest chance of a second police investigation into the circumstances of Poppi Worthington's death, and also why there would be no point in such an investigation.

The details of failings and mistakes in the immediate aftermath of Poppi's sudden death are sadly all too familiar.  On the balance of probabilities, as is the legal standard in the family court, Jackson finds that Poppi was the victim of a penetrative anal assault by her father, Paul Worthington.  While almost everything else in the case is either disputed or would be unable to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, the legal standard in the criminal court, it is uncontested that Poppi was bleeding from the bottom when she was found unconscious.  No one, including Poppi's father legal team, has been able to come up with an alternative explanation as to how she came to be bleeding from the bottom, even while disputing that the injuries themselves were caused by sexual assault.

The inability to prove Worthington definitively assaulted his daughter is in part down to said failings.  The gloves the answering paramedic was wearing when he carried Poppi to the ambulance were thrown away.  The sheet Poppi was laid on in the ambulance, which the paramedic noticed had blood and faeces on after she was taken into the hospital, was discarded.  The nappy Poppi had been wearing at the time she stopped breathing was thrown away by a relative and unable to be found, something done in front of a police officer and after the injuries to Poppi were known about.  Paul Worthington was not questioned and did not have his penis swabbed until at least 5 hours after the details of Poppi's injuries had become clear, by which time he had urinated at least once.  Before she carried out the post-mortem, referring to fractures already found in Poppi's right leg, the pathologist Dr Armour suggested to the police officers who were briefing her that she believed this was a case of child abuse.  This it seems was taken to be a "rash statement", and when Dr Armour subsequently phoned their superior officer DCI F with her initial findings, he refused to authorise forensic tests of the samples or items taken, with the exception of the father's blood.  Dr Armour did not complete a final report until 6 months after the post-mortem, with the reasoning in a case of this seriousness she wanted to have all the histology results before committing herself.  It was a further two months until the police instructed for the forensic tests to go ahead.  While DNA from Poppi was found to have been on the shaft of her father's penis, there was none on the glans or where the tip and the shaft join.  Nor was any blood or faecal matter found, as would be expected, if not inevitable.  Nor was any semen found on or in Poppi, or on the sheet from her cot.  Dr Armour's conclusions on the injuries caused to Poppi's rectum were and are heavily disputed: while all the doctors and experts involved in both the first and second hearing see what the other is describing, they disagree significantly on how to interpret the findings, and on whether they are a result of penetration.

Failing the second inquest reaching radically different conclusions to the first, unlikely when there is further dispute over the injuries to Poppi's pharynx/oesophagus and nasal bleeding, the chances of Worthington facing any sort of trial are basically nil.  The evidence needed to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt simply isn't there.  Put it this way: if Simon Harwood was found not guilty when there was video evidence of him pushing over Ian Tomlinson, in a case where the medical evidence was similarly disputed, in a case where there is nothing other than that disputed medical evidence there is no case.  Mr Justice Peter Jackson accepts as much in his ruling, referring to his previous cases such as the one related in the opening, where criminal charges have either not been brought, or have and dismissed by a jury as to the differences between family and criminal court.

On occasion the CPS gets decisions wrong.  It operates on the margins, as Matthew Scott notes in his piece on the Henriques Report into what were reported as the missed opportunities to prosecute Lord Janner.  Evidence that was regarded as weak can in hindsight look to have been worth testing in court.  When the evidence (or lack of it) is available for anyone who wants to see it though, and still politicians pontificate, they should be called on it.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016 

The Hotel Cameronia.

Deja-vu pervades the headlines on a dead, ice cold January day.  Reasons for failures thought to have long since been established are repeated, as if for emphasis, as if to drum in how crap we are, you are, we all are.  The polls were wrong because the samples were wrong; the wrong young people were recruited; the right older people weren't recruited; and no one has the slightest idea if it's fixable, except online polling is the solution, not the problem.  Online is always the solution, not the problem.

Labour lost because it was just that little bit crapper than the Conservatives.  David Cameron's crap, but Ed Miliband would have been worse.  He didn't convince, the public didn't trust the party on the economy because it had been too busy obsessing over itself to fight back against the coalition's everything's Labour's fault line, and they also didn't believe the party would be nasty enough on welfare or to immigrants.  Considering voters preferred the Tories on that particular issue, David Cameron having presided over the highest ever net migration figure after promising to get the numbers down to the tens of thousands, that's quite the achievement.  Yes, it's true the public no longer trust any politician to get immigration down and the monster is completely out of the bag, but that doesn't alter the humiliation.

Janan Ganesh in the FT expands on the crap motif, only he mistakes it for apathy.  David Cameron is the apathy prime minister.  He's like Tony Blair, only not messianic.  He's a plausible prime minister, just like he's plausible as a human being.  He looks like one, talks like one, but never truly convinces on any level whatsoever.  And yet it's enough.  He goes to summits, gives a soundbite, walks off, manages to sound engaged for a couple of hours in the Commons, then it's on to the next thing.  He's pushed through and will still be pushing through brutal cuts to public services and benefits, but all the hard work, strategising and thinking is done by other people or behind the scenes, as evidenced by his blithe or ignorant letter to his own council.  He faces scrutiny, or seems to, and yet he doesn't.  On occasion he gives the most fatuous, embarrassing, even downright stupid answers to questions imaginable, like last week when he said with a straight face that he couldn't tell us who any of those 70,000 moderately extreme Islamists we're backing in Syria are as he didn't want Assad or Islamic State to know who to target.  Or yesterday when he insisted that our help to the Saudis in Yemen is to make sure they don't carry on bombing eye hospitals, rather than to help them carry on bombing eye hospitals.

He does it though on things that don't matter, that no one is truly interested in or which don't decide votes.  When you think about it, despite being prime minister for nigh on 6 years, not once has Dave faced a real, full-on crisis.  Some of it is luck, some of it judgement, but not once has he truly, properly come unstuck, with the exception, possibly, of the Syria vote.  Yes, he went through the riots, Milly Dowler/Leveson, floods, the Scottish independence referendum, at times seeming to react to events rather than leading them, and yet each time he pulled through without being damaged.  The Syria vote more than anything was an example of misreading his own party, something he has done repeatedly, but that hasn't as yet come back to truly bite him.  It could yet on his biggest gamble, the EU referendum, only it doesn't seem to bother him as still the casual, laid-back, apathy man approach is continuing, as the Graun laments.

Then again, we are apathy nation, or if you prefer, mild Britain.  Arguments and denunciations might fly across the internet, seething rage might be broiling underneath the surface, inequality might be worse than ever, we could be at the dawn of the era where the bottom is pulled from underneath middle earners just as it has been from the low, and yet nothing seems to change.  We are not being buffeted by a refugee crisis, as mainland Europe is.  We don't have a Bundy Bunch taking over government buildings and waving firearms in the face of the state.  We are not at war with terrorists, as France's president insists his is.  Even our alleged equivalent seems quaint in comparison to the Paris attackers; shooting a soldier, a police officer or a civilian, as the prosecution/the accused are confused over which it was, from a scooter with a silenced pistol?  It doesn't seem worth dignifying by describing it as terrorism.

The truth is, there isn't an alternative being articulated.  You can tell there isn't when the Times' opinion pages are taken up by columns on variously, students banning things, the police over Operation Midland, "Putin-loving Corbynistas", and anti-consumerism.  Polls being useless taken as point, Labour has not made the slightest in-roads into the Tories since the election.  More are exercised over Labour itself than the government, while elsewhere pompous arses make twats of themselves, act as martyrs for "saying the unsayable" and get rewarded for it.  Margaret Beckett in the Labour report might say the future isn't bleak, there are reasons to be positive, and there are in the sense apathy man doesn't have a replacement, the EU vote will divide the Tories like nothing else, and their majority remains tiny, but in which sense exactly does Corbyn look like an answer when Miliband wasn't?

Welcome to the Hotel Cameronia.  You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

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Monday, January 18, 2016 

Even when it seems to be a fuck-up, it isn't.

For anyone who missed it, last week saw the release of a video from the Metropolitan police that showed the authorities still don't have the slightest clue about challenging the propaganda narrative from Islamic State.  Aimed at young mothers tempted to travel to Syria, it featured three female refugees from the country telling them to, essentially, stop being so silly.  Why would anyone take babies to a war zone, they essentially ask.  Why indeed?  None of the women show any emotion, it's shot without any flair, as though to allow the message to be the focus, except the message is completely lacking.  If the women are meant to be speaking from experience, none relate for instance what they had to go through in order to leave, friends they left behind or others who might have died.

To be realistic, knowing how to counter-act Islamic State propaganda is really difficult.  One of the few ways that could work is to, sadly, sink to their level.  Respond to their images of death and destruction with images of their dead, especially if the footage showcases a band of apparently confident fighters one day only for the frame to update to the reality of the next, with bodies strewn across the dusty ground.  This approach obviously won't work with those whose whole aim is to give their lives cheaply, but might make others with a few more braincells think again.  Nor is it going to work well with the average female potential recruit, who is far more likely to be drawn to Islamic State by questions of identity, belonging, religion and rebellion than out of simply wanting to die for something, anything, coupled with knowing there will be little better on offer at home.

Of all the things that do not point towards potential extremism, being unable to speak English is pretty much right at the top of the list.  If anything, not being able to speak English is more likely to make someone less susceptible to becoming radicalised, precisely because that individual will inevitably be more reliant on those around them and less liable to venture further outside of what they already know.  Most of the tension around identity and belonging concerns dealing with the contradictions of feeling, being different in a society that treats you as though you are while saying that you're not; speaking English, being English, but not seeing yourself as English, or not feeling English, all are absent when you can't and so your experience is far more narrow.  Integration and extremism can be connected, but they are not interconnected.

David Cameron knows this.  He said as much.  He recognises there is no "casual connection" between not speaking English and radicalisation.  In his article for the Times he was more precise in saying it could be a problem, if say, a teenage boy from Bradford can't communicate with his mother as she came from Pakistan and can't speak English, and doesn't understand his life as she rarely leaves the house.  Leave aside quite how daft this notion is, as he would almost certainly be as fluent in Urdu or Punjabi or whichever language his mother speaks as he would in English, and it's a truth universal that parents just don't understand regardless of where they're from or what they do, and look instead for the announcement rather than the row surrounding it.  £20 million in funding for women who cannot speak English and who are "isolated" to be helped to learn.  In effect, it's the government making a u-turn on the cuts they've made to speaking English as a second language, as everyone has been pointing at.

Why are they doing so?  One would hope for the reasons that Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West pointed out.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with radicalisation, or the potential for extremism, and everything to do with integration.  However, it seems impossible for government to function, at least without also getting press attention for such a measure to be announced without also making reference to extremism.  Integration on its own is no longer enough.  At the same time, you can't announce a sum, even one as meagre as £20 million to help foreigns learn English without at the same time riling the exact same people who moan precisely because they can't speak English.  So, to placate them you say in fact it's about radicalisation, which shuts them up to an extent but then pisses off everyone else who quite rightly points out how clumsy the whole exercise has been and how it's idiotic that no English = radicalisation.  The whole thing also functions as a dog-whistle - isn't it about time these layabouts learned how to speak English, and why can't they speak English anyway, and why can't they be deported anyway, and aren't Labour to blame for all this anyway?

The positives for the Tories of making such an announcement in such terms have to outweigh the potential negatives.  Yes, they look as though they haven't a clue and are quite nasty with it, but the policy itself suggests they do have a clue and being nasty about it seems to work.  That the sum is £20m suggests, as the 2011 census did, that really very few people can't speak English whatsoever.  It won't help in the slightest with extremism, but then the government and frankly very few have the slightest clue about how to tackle extremism anyway.  For anyone that does, answers on a postcard.

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Monday, January 11, 2016 

The intrinsic irony of Labour's infighting.

There are a whole number of ways someone could respond to the resignation of shadow attorney general Catharine McKinnell.  You could for instance just say "sorry, who?" and leave it at that.  Kevan Jones is practically a household name in comparison to McKinnell.  Alternatively, you could cluck, point out that Corbyn's critics seem incapable of so much as synchronising their resignations, remark about piss-ups and breweries, and note how bad as Corbyn and his team are, the organisational skills of his deeply concerned and dignified opponents turn out to be worse.  Then there's a third way: giggling at the incongruous nature of McKinnell's resignation letter, where she records her distress at "the direction and internal conflict" within the party and her fears about the "increasingly negative path" it appears to be taken.  By resigning she obviously isn't adding to either of these problems, and is returning to the backbenches purely out of concern for her constituents.

In truth it's getting rather tiresome.  Had all those who've now resigned done so en masse, it might have had more impact, but doing so separately has also ensured there is not the slightest possibility the media will focus on anything else.  Admittedly, this has not been helped by the silliness of Seumas Milne complaining to the BBC about the co-opting of Stephen Doughty's resignation by Laura Kuenssberg and the Daily Politics.  Yes, it was on the brink of heading into outright bias, and had the BBC done similar with a government minister you can guarantee there would be screams of outrage from the Tories, yet it's not worth getting into a slanging match with one of the few media outlets that doesn't hate the Labour party for atavistic reasons over it.  Better time would be spent focusing on what it says about Doughty, Jonathan Reynolds and their politics.  The same applies to Alison McGovern, who announced her resignation from a review that hasn't even started yet on the Sunday Politics.  Objecting to John McDonnell daring to describe Progress as a "hard right" force within Labour, McGovern stated how she had been backed "into a corner" by a such a calumny and didn't want to be on TV but had been forced into making such a gesture.

We shouldn't ignore how some of the coverage is without question a direct result of Corbyn's questionable decisions and manoeuvres.  He does of course have every right to want to make the party bend his way; doing so over Trident is however asking for it.  Taxpayer's money could be sent on innumerable better things than a replacement for the four Vanguard subs, and there are outright alternatives to Trident that ought to be considered more seriously than has been by the government.  This said, rightly or not, there are reasons as to why adopting an unilateralist position as Corbyn clearly wants to is so opposed by others in the party, and not only by the usual headbanging suspects or those in the constituencies set to be most affected were a replacement not to go ahead.  Making Trident out to be the ultimate insurance policy is an easy sell; convincing voters why we should abandon it in a world where threats, both from state and non-state actors look to be increasing is far more difficult.  When otherwise loyal ministers like Owen Smith make clear how they would have to consider their position if policy is changed, Corbyn and his team ought to look again at the pace at which they are trying to push through their agenda.

McKinnell's resignation nonetheless all but condemns the party to another week of navel-gazing.  Considering Corbyn made a decent impression on this morning's Today programme, surprising some by not ruling out drone strikes like the one that killed Mohammad Emwazi, whether or not that was more Corbyn getting used to answering, or rather not answering "gotcha" questions, it's all the more disappointing.  It also leaves the Tories to carry on pursuing their partisan deconstruction of the country with hardly any real opposition.  David Cameron's announcement on rebuilding "sink estates", where anything up to 100 of these post-war developments will have £140m to share between them would be laughable were it not so transparent: expect repeats across the country of the Heygate estate debacle, where Southwark council sold it to private developers for a pittance, without putting any conditions on the purchasers Lend Lease to provide "affordable" housing themselves.

At the same time as junior doctors are getting smeared by Jeremy Hunt ahead of their first strike tomorrow, and three dates for further tube strikes have been announced, the government is set on making it as difficult as possible to withdraw labour in protest.  By the same token, Labour is also to be prevented from being funded as it has been for decades, as we can't have ordinary people donating to political parties.  Cameron himself meanwhile, unlike McGovern, genuinely has backed himself into a corner on Europe.  Just as only days ago he was making clear cabinet ministers would have to resign to campaign for an out vote in the referendum once he concludes his renegotiation, so now he protests should he lose the vote he will not be on his way.  Yeah, and the three bears.  If the prime minister is worried about how he's going to have to rely on non-Tory voters for an in vote, then he's not showing it.  Likewise, Osborne might be talking a mere six weeks after his autumn statement about an economic "cocktails of threats", and McDonnell might have made a fist of challenging him on it, but much of the rest of the party is more interested in getting rid of him than they are the actual chancellor.

I can't claim to have an answer.  Both sides could do with at least taking a look at Steven Baxter's advice, only the opposition to Corbyn shows no signs of recognising they aren't offering a viable alternative.  When they would counter by saying Corbyn isn't viable either, and it doesn't seem as though the passing of time is going to make them any more accepting of the leader, it's difficult to know how this can end without the party ending up even further from power.  Neither side seems to appreciate that irony.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2016 

Do they have an aim other than MAD?

It apparently takes a Labour reshuffle to fully highlight the deficiencies of the new journalism.  Live blogs, tweeting, rather than add to insight they provide the opposite, keeping hacks from doing what they normally would have done, which is actually talk to the people involved.  We had nigh on two days of no one having the slightest idea what was happening, whether anything even was happening, and not all of that can be blamed on the slowness of Jeremy Corbyn making his decisions.  This piece by Chris Mason rather sums it up: it's not entirely fair to pick solely on him or the BBC for this, but reading it anyone would think we're more interested in his experience of the reshuffle as a reporter rather than what happened and what it means.  Instead it was left to Paul Waugh, of the otherwise execrable Huffington Post, to finally throw some light on proceedings this morning.

Whether Waugh's account can be relied on fully is unclear, as reading between the lines it seems to be informed directly by both Hilary Benn and Corbyn, or at least someone on Corbyn's team.  Contrary to all the speculation, Benn's position was never so much as threatened by Corbyn, nor has there been any grand deal between the two whereby Benn has been "muzzled".  Apparently agreed instead was Benn will not go out of his way to pick any fights, with Corbyn having overall control of foreign policy direction.  The discussions and reshuffle itself took so long as both men wanted to sleep on what they had talked about, only to find themselves tied up most of yesterday by urgent questions in the House.

As said, whether you believe all that is up to you.  Whether it always was the case the likes of Seumas Milne and others by Corbyn's side were arguing for him to dump Benn and briefing that to hacks, while Corbyn himself had not made up his mind or had no intention of doing so, we don't know.  Equally, we don't know whether Corbyn was persuaded against moving Benn by the potential for a mass shadow cabinet walkout, or if it was just another reason as to why he was always going to ignore the advice given him.

Certainly unhelpful to the arguments of the sacked Michael Dugher and others within Labour that this all links back to briefing by Milne or others within the Corbyn team though is Andrew Sparrow's assessment.  He denies he received any lobbying from the Corbyn team about "revenge reshuffles", while acknowledging there was always a plan for some sort of move in the new year.  Indeed, he points to the first major article talking of a "revenge reshuffle" originating in the Observer at the beginning of December, where the sources for the piece were clearly those "fearing" just such a move.

Enough anyway with the surmising.  The end result of the reshuffle is two shadow ministers sacked, and the shadow defence secretary moved sideways to fill the gap left at culture with Dugher gone. In other words, more shadow ministers have resigned over the party leader having the audacity to you know, act like a leader, than were dispensed with by the leader.  No one can decide whether this is weakness, strength, Corbyn attempting to take control of party policy or in fact still being too hapless to do so, or whether it matters in the long term.  We have nonetheless had the usual apocalyptic warnings of how all this means Labour is doomed to defeat, how Dugher, Pat McFadden and Kevan Jones were the finest of their generation, and so on.

What really offends is the disingenuousness, the outright obtuse behaviour of McFadden and his allies.  How could you possibly object to what I said, he wailed, along with Ian Austin, Liz Kendall, et al.  Yes, how could Corbyn possibly have thought McFadden's question to Cameron during the debate on the Paris attacks was directed at him?  After all, McFadden was merely asking the prime minister to reject the view "that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the West do".  He only asked the question despite a certain Ian Austin making almost exactly the same point, despite others on the right of the party also standing up during that session and all but saying Corbyn was a dangerous lunatic, who in the words of Ben Bradshaw wasn't so much as sure if he'd "shoot dead genocidal fascists".

Context is everything, which is precisely what McFadden and the others don't want to consider or discuss.  McFadden is perfectly entitled to criticise Corbyn for his views on foreign policy; when however he did so in the Commons, and at the same time as others in the PLP all but declared open mutiny, then to feign surprise when it finally catches up him with him is facetiousness of the lowest order.  McFadden was making a straw man argument of the kind that led directly to Cameron deciding he could get away with calling Corbyn a "terrorist sympathiser".  It would also matter less if McFadden's rhetorical flourish was as compelling as he thinks it is.  The attacks in Paris were obviously not the West's fault, and the responsibility does solely lie with the terrorists responsible.  It is not to infantilise those responsible however to make the argument, as Corbyn did, that the past 14, soon to be 15 years of war have far from making us safer and the Middle East a better place had the opposite effect.  Agree with it or not, it's an entirely permissible view which is not to blame victims or do any of the other scandalous things those so disgusted by Corbyn's consistent view on foreign policy insist it implies.

Besides, McFadden can hardly say he wasn't warned.  Corbyn made clear to the shadow cabinet after Maria Eagle all but agreed with the Tories' tame general on Trident that he wanted an end to the disagreements in public.  In turn, Corbyn has removed the two ministers who most egregiously flouted that request, and shifted the minister who made him issue it in the first place.  Who here is being unreasonable exactly?  Let's remember how brutal Ed Miliband was with Emily Thornberry over her "snobbery" tweet, the kind of over-the-top act of media management which most agree turns ordinary people off from politics.  Few at the time stood up and said hang on, this is ridiculous and downright silly. They went along with it.  Now, when a shadow minister who implied his own leader had to readjust his entire world-view in a question to the prime minister no less is sacked, we have others who resign in protest, calling it "vindictive".

Which poses the question, what exactly do these Jonathan Reynolds, these Stephen Doughtys, these Kevan Joneses and all the rest think they are achieving by resigning to inflict the maximum damage possible, by carrying on the briefings, by making accusations that can't be substantiated, by doing interviews with more than sympathetic hacks, delighted that the feuding continues?  Do they really believe it will help Labour in the long term?  Do they genuinely think it will lead to Corbyn being deposed sooner rather than later?  Do they honestly imagine the Labour membership will realise their mistake and elect someone more to their liking should they succeed?

Let's put it this way.  I joined Labour as a registered member and voted for Liz Kendall.  I don't in my heart of hearts believe Corbyn can possibly win in 2020.  I think his performance in general has been barely adequate so far, and both he and his wider team have been woeful at the times they needed to radiate strength.  I thought I'd reached the point with the stupidity of the McDonnell Little Red Book stunt and the fact the party barely responded at all to the autumn statement/spending review where I couldn't really defend Corbyn and co any more.  The histrionics over the Syria vote, the obsession with Stop the War, which as we've seen today is still going on, the contempt for those daring to lobby Labour MPs over said vote, and now the reaction to what is the most meagre of reshuffles imaginable, it makes me, far from a "Corbynista", want to go on giving him the benefit of the doubt.  Not least when there is still no alternative and those on the opposing side are so petty, so intractable, so fatuous.  If that's what I think, what do the "Corbynistas", what does the wider membership, what does the public?  It's reached the point where some genuinely want their party to fail, imagining that by bringing it down, through the equivalent of mutually assured destruction if necessary, the party will be better off in the long run.  It won't.  Stop believing it will.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2016 

That reshuffle, and "low-level non-violent misogyny".

Are there a more benighted people in this country than the poor, suffering souls of the Birmingham Yardley constituency?  Up until May they were lumbered with the self-promoting Lib Dem John Hemming, who repeatedly made use of parliamentary privilege for his own ends, much to the delight of the press when it came to naming Sir Fred Goodwin for taking out a super-injunction, and much to the distress of others involved in legal proceedings involving Vicky Haigh.  Hemming made a habit of naming individuals who were meant to be protected as court proceedings were ongoing, including doing so on Mumsnet, where he was banned for doing so.  Fortunately, his constituents decided he should also be banned from representing them.

Less fortunately, they decided that Labour's Jess Phillips should replace him.  Phillips seems intent on following the Danczuk pathway to MP super-stardom, where the sufferer believes that constantly spouting what the media wants to hear will be enough to save them should their new friends eventually tire of the act.  As the last few days have proved, going down the Danczuk route only guarantees that eventually the media will turn on you.  They always will, they always do.  One minute you're earning thousands of pounds writing articles for the Sun and Mail outlining how your party leader is an idiot and it'll be when, rather if, you'll be sacked, the next those same newspapers have found a teenager who you sexted, complete with an (alleged) sideline in selling soiled undergarments, natch, and what do you know, that same party leader has found his excuse to get rid of you.  And it's the fault of everything except your being a priapic halfwit, obviously.

For now at least, Phillips gives great copy.  She'll stab Corbyn in the front if she believes he's harming the party's electoral chances.  Don't lecture her on how to vote on Syria, as even though she voted against, "people will die no matter what decision was made", responsibility when it's British pilots, planes and bombs involved apparently not making any difference to her thinking.  And while the rest of us can move on, her "card is marked", as Phillips is never knowingly under-dramatic.  Indeed, in keeping with that theme, she's now upped the criticism of her party leader for not giving a woman one of the four shadow "great offices of state" to being "low-level non-violent misogyny".  No longer is Corbyn merely sexist for his choices, it's proof he hates women.  At a low-level and non-violently, anyway.

It's worth keeping all this in mind when considering the quite believable stupidity of the coverage of the is it or isn't it reshuffle of the past 48 hours or so.  From the beginning some hacks and MPs have labelled it a "revenge reshuffle", which may or may not be attributed to briefings from Corbyn's head of communications Seumas Milne, but which nonetheless has turned out to be nothing of the sort.  First, what supposedly is Corbyn seeking revenge over?  If he really was intent on clearing the decks of everyone critical of him, let alone those who voted the other way on Syria, then it would seemingly require the entire shadow cabinet to go, such has been the leaking and whispers to the press almost since he became leader about how useless and what a liability he is.

Second, his moves so far, regardless of whether it was the intention to begin with or not, have been to move those most serially disloyal and critical.  Michael Dugher has been practically asking for it Danczuk-style for months.  Back in September (!) he was saying how self-indulgent it was to carry on with the navel-gazing, and boy did he not take his own advice.  Maria Eagle meanwhile likely sealed her fate when she practically agreed with General Sir Nicholas Houghton's comments on Trident on the Andrew Marr show.  Disagreeing with the leader on nuclear weapons is one thing; all but backing up a general intervening in party politics to implicitly criticise that leader is another.

If this has nonetheless been an example in how not to carry out a reshuffle, it's also been a case study into how not to report one.  First it was definite Hilary Benn was being sacked, then it wasn't, then it might be back on, now it isn't again, or maybe it is.  Who knows?  Who by the time it happens will care?  If this was meant to be a revenge reshuffle, as they were so convinced, why it hasn't it turned out that way?  Have they been played by Corbyn's team, or have they just believed everything they've been told or picked up as being gospel truth because they can't stop tweeting or updating the live blogs?  As increasingly is the case, it's also become about them: we might have hyped this whole thing up to absurd levels, but why can't it now be over?  What are we still waiting for?  Then, finally, there's the we were right smugness, as displayed last night by Laura Kuenssberg: hyuk hyuk, so much for a new, honest politics, allowing for dissent and openness.

As Owen Jones points out, rightly for once, no other Labour leader has or would have tolerated the level of criticism, of near mutiny as Corbyn has the past 4 months.  Michael Dugher's claims of merely responding to briefing against Benn, Eagle and others, of practising straight, honest politics is absurd, as though this has been a one-sided operation.  Reading all the tributes paid to him for no longer being shadow culture secretary, you would have thought he'd died.  Yes, we all know Jeremy was a inveterate rebel, and so can't expect the level of loyalty past leaders have, but he is perfectly entitled to want his shadow ministers for foreign affairs and defence to back him, if not always agree with him.  As it is, he looks to have come to some sort of agreement with Benn, even if it might only delay the inevitable.  No one can say that he hasn't tried to make allowances, regardless of the way it has and is being spun.

Equally, you can't pretend this is anything other than the worst possible way for Labour to start the new year.  The media are determined for their part to make sure the infighting continues, not least when some are set on causing mischief for their own reasons, but complaining about it is all but pointless.  Today ought to have been solely about how Cameron can't whip his cabinet into supporting him on Europe, a measure of weakness that says much about his position, the manoeuvring of those who want to take over from him, and the impact it could have on our staying in the EU, with all a Brexit would entail for our economic and national security, as the Tory messaging would have it.  Both critics and supporters of Corbyn have repeatedly said it's long past time when the focus should be on the government's failings rather than Labour's own.  Surely now we've reached the point where both must practice what they preach.

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