Thursday, April 17, 2014 

Russian imperalism triumphs over US/NATO imperialism.

The "de-escalation" agreement reached at the Geneva meeting between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US is, obviously, to be welcomed.  It does however signify just how quickly Ukraine and in turn the West have adjusted, first to the Russian annexation of Crimea and now it seems to the loss of major parts of the country's east, something that less than two weeks ago the Americans and many commentators were denouncing as being an effective Russian forced break-up of a sovereign state.

It must be all the more painful as that remains precisely what the occupation of buildings and declarations of autonomous regions has been.  Regardless of the involvement of some pro-Russians on the ground, we've seen practically a carbon copy of the operation in Crimea.  Armed men without insignia seized government offices and police stations, somewhat supported by civilians, while the Ukrainians simply let them get on with it, apparently powerless to do anything, in spite of the police themselves having weapons.  All this despite there being far less support in the east of the country for alliance with Russia than there was in Crimea.  Whether out of fear or feeling no real allegiance to Ukraine as a state, the numbers of those objecting to the seizures seems relatively slight, not withstanding an apparently well-attended pro-Kiev protest in Donetsk today.

The most obvious illustration of this ambiguous relationship with Ukraine as a sovereign entity was the seizure yesterday of the 6 APCs in KramatorskAs Jamie says, those in charge were from the 25th Airborne Division, meant to be some of the most capable in the Ukrainian army, and yet they surrendered it seems with little more than a shrug, not willing to countenance getting into a situation where they might have to shoot their fellow citizens.  The unit has since been disbanded by the interim president, although whether other divisions will be more willing to put up a fight should it come to it remains in question.  Admirable in one way as it is that they stood down, can you imagine our very own heroes letting protesters, armed or otherwise, take any sort of vehicle off them in a similar situation?

A state doesn't fall apart as quickly as Ukraine has without grievances and discontent being allowed to fester for a long time.  The much exaggerated involvement of Svoboda and others on the far-right first in the Maidan protests and now the interim government has just been an handy excuse for those who have long wanted increased autonomy, with the Russians taking full advantage.  The aim it seems is not full annexation as in Crimea, instead something more akin to that in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the country pulls the strings with figureheads in nominal power.  The Geneva agreement therefore suits Putin down to the ground: if those who have seized government buildings do pull back, it removes the threat of increased sanctions, while the promise of a new constitutional process will be open to all kinds of manipulation once attention has switched elsewhere.

As much as this is a triumph for Russian imperialism, and it really can't be described as anything else, it's also a tale of imperial overreach, mainly of the US and NATO, but also the EU.  Just as secretary of state Victoria Nuland seemed to believe the Maidan protests were there to be manipulated to the advantage of the US, deciding for Ukrainians whom their new political leaders should be, so have the Russians, just far more effectively and aggressively.  For all the posturing of NATO, including yesterday with the announcement of further deployments meant to "reassure" member states, it has been powerless to do anything to prevent Putin and friends from doing anything they feel like.  As for the EU, it can't even agree on the most basic of sanctions, such are the barriers when Russian business interests are so intertwined with those of our own top companies.

When it came down to it, we just didn't care enough about Ukraine.  Others looking to the West for hope will have to remember this hypocrisy.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 

The conspiracy theories return.

Only on Monday were we mentioning in passing Sir Peter Gibson's truncated inquiry into alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition by our glorious security services and government. His final report sat waiting to be published for almost 18 months as arguments over which secret documents could and couldn't be included in full raged, regardless of how meek and mild Gibson's actual conclusions were. One of the key claims from all involved was this time the security services had cooperated fully, making the "vast majority" of requested documents available, except for those that couldn't be released without US permission.

Strange then that as Craig Murray posted on Monday, a source in the Foreign Office had told him our own government was lobbying the Americans over the similarly delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report into the rendition and wider torture programme operated by the CIA. Their worry was, even redacted, the release of the report's executive summary could damage the case currently being put before the courts blocking the attempt by Abdul Hakim Belhaj to seek compensation over his rendition. Despite the judge accepting the evidence for Belhaj's rendition via Hong Kong was all but established, to go any further would risk damage to the "national interest", i.e., the UK's relationship with the US.

Now via al-Jazeera America (and Yorkshire Ranter) comes another reason why both this government and the one previous would like the report's summary to remain sitting on President Obama's desk for a while yet. According to two US officials who have had access to parts of the 6,000 page report, it confirms for the first time that despite repeated denials from ministers back then and the Gibson inquiry not receiving any documents (PDF) that said otherwise, Diego Garcia was indeed used not only as a stopover point for rendition flights as was admitted in 2008, but also as a "black site".  This was with the full permission of the government, despite the likes of Jack Straw and David Miliband time after time telling parliament the exact opposite was the case.

If confirmed, it not only means ministers lied to both houses of parliament to protect the United States and its torture programme, it's also the first time the mistreatment of detainees has been found to have occurred on UK territory.  As all the reports up till now have also cleared the government of complicity in actual extraordinary rendition, having not considered the cases of Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi while downgrading the transfers of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna to Guantanamo as "renditions to detention", it would also for the first time leave the government with no wiggle room on that charge, potentially opening the way for more compensation claims, or even prosecution for those who gave the Americans permission to use their base on Diego Garcia as they saw fit.

Once again then we can be glad the eventual follow-up to the Gibson inquiry has been handed to the fearlessly independent Intelligence and Security Committee, the same one which let the intelligence chiefs know the questions they were going to be asked beforehand (although, it must be noted, they probably would have known anyway such are GCHQ's abilities).  It must also be a relief to Baroness Amos and David Miliband that they have since moved on from the Lords and the Commons respectively, as both insisted the government knew nothing about the use of Diego Garcia to host detainees, although there's a certain irony in how both are now involved in humanitarian work, Amoss at the UN and Miliband at International Rescue.  As for Jack Straw, he's set to leave parliament at the next election, probably before any subsequent inquiry reaches its conclusion.  While the chances of Inspector Knacker coming to call are unlikely, to judge by their past involvement in similar cases, it hopefully won't come too late to further tarnish what deserves to be regarded as one of the most ignominious political careers of recent times.  It might not be the equivalent of having your penis slashed with a scalpel, being deprived of sleep for over 11 days, forced into a pet carrier for two weeks or shackled to the ceiling of a cell by your wrists, but it's something.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014 

Anonymity in the criminal justice system must not be undermined.

Regardless of the natural empathy you must have for Nigel Evans, it's difficult not to feel a little discomfort at how his acquittal was responded to by some of his fellow MPs. Evans had it seemed been hung out to dry, no one seemingly willing to speak up for him prior to the trial, not even the usual "friends of" who so often brief the papers and are correspondingly often the person themselves. Come last Thursday and suddenly it was as though none of his contemporaries had doubted his innocence for a second. Much as one suspects the reaction is somewhat to do with general dislike for John Bercow and the role he played in the arrest of his deputy, as well as continuing disgruntlement over Plebgate, you can't help but detect something else just below the surface.

Why else would there continue to be calls for those accused of sexual assault and rape to have the same right to anonymity as those making the allegations when no one believes the same protection should be given to those charged with murder or manslaughter? The character of the accused is often traduced in the same way, and the stigma that follows can if anything be worse regardless of acquittal: Colin Stagg is just one such example. While there is no anonymity for murder victims for obvious reasons so there isn't a direct parallel, anonymity doesn't make giving evidence any easier for those often then aggressively interrogated by the defence: the suicide of Frances Andrade makes that clear.  In the past I've been suspicious of calls to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, and I don't think Keir Starmer's suggestion to consider a move away from the adversarial system is workable, but his helming of a review for Labour is certainly a step beyond Blair era tabloid pleasing efforts.

It certainly doesn't help the message to listen to those who come forward saying they were abused when MPs make it clear to one of their own that she should be examining her conscience.  Sarah Wollaston did absolutely nothing wrong in first making an appointment for two of the men accusing Evans to see John Bercow, and if anyone doubts that despite the failings of the wider prosecution case there were questions for Evans to answer, they should see the interview Newsnight conducted with one of them.

None of this is to deny that the CPS and the police do have questions to answer over its handling of the wider evidence.  Most of the men approached believed their brushes with Evans had not been abusive, and maintained that from the outset.  In this instance the attempt to create a picture of a wider pattern of abuse than just one or two alleged incidents completely undermined rather than strengthened the case.  Much the same has been apparent in the other recent trials of high profile figures, where defences have picked apart faded memories and juries have taken the word of the celebrity rather than their sometimes confused and uncertain accusers.  As Wollaston argues in her piece for the Telegraph though, there is a danger both in politicians criticising the CPS and in the wider emphasis on the questions surrounding anonymity.  In the case of Stuart Hall it was other victims coming forward after he was first arrested that almost certainly led to him pleading guilty.  As I also noted on Thursday, while Evans was understandably exciting much opinion at Westminster, the even more farcical evidence presented by the prosecution in the Nicky Jacobs trial went almost entirely ignored.

Coming after the Maria Miller storm, the last thing MPs ought to be seen as doing is special pleading.  Some never seem to get truly exercised about anything until it hits them personally, such as during the Damian Green case, or Plebgate, only then it occurring that if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone.  The fact is Evans' case is not unique, and the real irony is it's a change to legal aid by his government that looks set to mean the CPS won't be paying his costs.  Much as you don't want it to be the case, at times politicians give the impression some victims are more deserving than others.

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Monday, April 14, 2014 

How long before we need an inquiry into the inquiry?

Governments change, ministers come and go, but if there's something that doesn't alter in our modern political culture, it's there's always one inquiry or another stuck in the mire.  For a long time it was the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which took 12 years to report on the events of a single, if extraordinary, confused and controversial day.  More recently we had Sir Peter Gibson's cancelled inquiry into extraordinary rendition and the British state's alleged complicity in it.  Gibson's short report sat waiting to be published for 18 months, as arguments raged about whether a single, if crucial strand of correspondence within MI6 concerning the mistreatment at Bagraim air base could be declassified.  Not fully, it was decided, Gibson giving in.  Another inquiry now waits in the wings, due to conducted by those thoroughly decent chaps at the Intelligence and Security Committee.

We are though forgetting the Chilcot inquiry, aka the umpteenth attempt to have a definitive inquiry into how we went to war with Iraq, which started hearing public evidence in November of 2009.  Almost five years on, and three years since it finished its public hearings, we're still waiting for the report to published.  First the suggestion was the "Maxwellisation" process of writing to those criticised was likely to begin by the middle of last year; then came the news there were disagreements between Chilcot and the Cabinet Office over the publication of documents and memorandums between Tony Blair and George Bush.  It wasn't clear and still isn't clear now whether this the result of complaints by Blair or the state refusing to declassify this higher level material, or whether the US may also have objected.  The Graun reported at the end of last year that a compromise had been reached and the inquiry was likely to reach a conclusion by mid-year; now the Independent says those stories were "mere optimism" and the negotiations are still deadlocked.  With the "Maxwellisation" process still to start, and indeed with the very conclusions apparently yet to be written, even if there's a deal during the summer recess it seems unlikely the report will be published until this time next year.

Complaining that this is ridiculous seems to miss the point.  Every inquiry dealing with "sensitive material" is always caught up in seemingly endless discussion about what can and can't be safely made public lest national security be affected.  After all, when the MoD decides to block publication of a book it first commissioned, it doesn't seem quite as ludicrous more care is taken over personal communications between world leaders.  It does however suggest delay is built into these inquiries, governments always believing the more time passes between a controversy and its final resolution the less chance that something beyond criticism of those responsible is taken. 

This remains the case regardless of changes in government, as exemplified by the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.  Without letting Blair or Gordon Brown for that matter off the hook, the delay seems to rest with the refusal of the Cabinet Office to countenance releasing anything in the wider public interest that is also secret.  Hence Heywood's visit to the Guardian to demand the return of the Snowden files, where he made clear the government will decide when debates on such subjects begin and end.  This would also tally with the news from Craig Murray that the government has lobbied the Americans on the release of the Senate Intelligence Report on rendition, lest it undermine their efforts to block legal action by Abdul Hakim Belhaj over his rendition to Libya.  It was after all the release by an American court of far more damning evidence of the torture of Binyam Mohamed that led the High Court here to release the "seven paragraphs".

The very least we deserve is to know precisely why publication continues to be delayed and by whom.  It's all very well for Nick Clegg to say the report should be published now, without giving any suggestion as to whether he has done anything practical to smooth or speed the process, but we need more.  With Blair continuing to defend the war, it's difficult to see how he could be trying to delay the inevitable: he is more than ready to brazen out whatever Chilcot chooses to throw at him.  Instead it once again seems to be the secret state acting as a block, always wanting to be in control, while refusing to take responsibility.  Once Clegg and his party would have promised to try and do something about that.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014 

PC Keith Blakelock: a question of conscience.

As they are wont to do when it comes to their own, various MPs have questioned the decision to prosecute former deputy speaker Nigel Evans following his acquittal today on charges of sexual abuse.  As the latest in a series of high profile figures to be found not guilty, it certainly does merit asking whether a jury is ever likely to favour the word of a member of the public over that of a celebrity when the alleged offence happened years previous, there were no other witnesses and also no forensic evidence.

Apart from local Tottenham MP David Lammy though, it seems no other politician commented on the acquittal yesterday of Nicky Jacobs on the charge of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the riots on Broadwater Farm in 1985.  This was despite the case against Jacobs being even more farcical and ridiculous than any so far brought against a figure in the public eye.

The evidence against Jacobs, if it can even be described as such, amounted to accounts by witnesses known to have lied in the past, and two pieces of circumstantial.  Dealing with the latter first, it was found Jacobs had written a poem/rap which celebrated Blakelock's murder at the time he was serving a prison sentence for affray.  While providing an insight into the fact Jacobs was not the most pleasant of men at the time, there is nothing in it to suggest he had any insider knowledge of the killing; indeed, it refers to "chop[ping] him on the leg" and "chopping him all over".  While Blakelock's injuries were extensive and the result of a frenzied, brutal attack by multiple individuals, he was not stabbed all over his body, as his uniform with applied tape showing the puncture wounds proves.  Similarly desperate was the evidence given by a police officer who told the court Jacobs had said on being arrested in 2000, "fuck off, I was one of them who killed PC Blakelock".  The officer did not at the time report this to any superior, only coming forward in 2012.

Absurd as the above is, it somehow gets even more so.  The irony in the case was that two of the witnesses, given the false names John Brown and Rhodes Levin, have both admitted they took part in the attack on Blakelock.  The Met however made the decision to only go after the "stabbers" rather than the "kickers", enlisting the latter and ensuring they had immunity from prosecution.  As understandable as this is, it brings into sharp relief the continued use of joint enterprise to prosecute those who were present at the time of a murder but otherwise had no involvement.  Their accounts were further undermined by how they were paid lump sums of £5,000 and £2,500 back in the 90s despite their evidence not being tested at the time.  As Stafford Scott also points out, in July of last year Levin was found to have 63 bags of cocaine and heroin in his possession.  Rather than a custodial sentence, he received 12 months community service.  Brown also did himself no favours when he said to police in 93 that he couldn't tell the difference between black men, a view he told the court he "more or less" still held.

Remarkably, it got still worse for the prosecution.  Brown's cousin, a man known only as Q, also gave evidence that Jacobs was one of those who stabbed Blakelock.  While none of the three could agree on the weapon used, the others at least gave a plausible version of events.  Q by comparison claimed that earlier on the day of Blakelock's murder there had been two Rolls-Royces on the estate, from which black men had passed what looked sawn-off shotguns, and also got the location of the murder wrong.  The jury were so flummoxed they asked the judge if Q could have Korsakoff's syndrome, a condition brought on by chronic alcohol abuse where sufferers invent false memories to fill the gaps.  A long term heroin addict as well as an alcoholic, it didn't seem any less plausible than Q's own evidence.

To no one's surprise, the jury took just four hours to find Jacobs not guilty.  He wasn't released yesterday however, as almost all those acquitted of the most serious offences are on the same day; the officers needed to fill out the paperwork had already gone home.  Cock-up or conspiracy, it just underlines how it seems different standards were in operation for this case.  The Crown Prosecution Service has given the OK to flimsy trials in the past, but this must rank as one of the weakest in recent times, such was the obvious unreliability of the witnesses and the clutching at straws of the rap/poem.  Often it can be said in the CPS's defence that there was just enough evidence for the case to be put before a jury and to let them decide, as there was for instance in the case of Ian Tomlinson, despite the CPS at first deciding not to prosecute PC Simon Harwood. In this instance it seems more likely that the pressure from the police to find someone, anyone guilty of a murder that has cast such a long shadow over both the Met and Tottenham was too great for them to refuse and say there just wasn't a reasonable chance of a jury convicting.

Failing new witnesses coming forward who aren't tainted by having lied in the past, it seems increasingly unlikely that Blakelock's murderers will now be brought to justice.  As relations between the Met and the community in Tottenham never fully recovered and have since been further damaged by the shooting of Mark Duggan, any chance of such a development must also be extremely low.  Quite apart from giving Keith Blakelock's family justice, the obvious reason as to why it would benefit all sides if new witnesses were found is it would help to put a traumatic event firmly in the past.  Blakelock's murder still hangs over Broadwater Farm, tainting the estate and the men who were caught up in the police investigation.  The only way to lift that stigma is for the real killer(s) to be found.  The Met won't manage it, so it's up to those with a conscience to do the right thing.  The sooner, the better. 

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014 

Miller in the Floss.

Off then goes Maria Miller, to spend more time with her converted barn in the paradise that is Basingstoke.  Often when politicians are forced to resign it can be written that events conspired against them; not in Miller's case it can't.  Miller clearly could have survived had she made a more fulsome apology than the now infamous non-sorry which only just managed to escape her lips, the kind of basic mistake a more adroit individual would have avoided.  If there's one thing you can't do enough of in modern politics, it's apologising, regardless of whether you mean it or not.  Do it, get it out of the way, reach for an onion if necessary, just don't give the impression you don't care about any mistakes in your expenses whatsoever.

We can't though divorce Miller's forced resignation from the coverage she's received since last week.  This might be one of the first examples of newspapers not claiming to have been responsible for getting a minister sacked, such is the level of embarrassment at knowing full well much of this has been about Leveson and to a lesser extent gay marriage, a whole swathe of hacks pretending their work has been motivated by the levels of public outrage still with us since the expenses scandal was first uncovered.  Have voters really been jamming the phone lines on call-ins as they were back then, all but demanding heads on pikes and the immediate destruction of all duck houses?  If they have, I must have missed it.  True, it doesn't usually take a personal animus for newspapers to splash day after day on a certain minister's problems in an attempt to claim a scalp, as it's something that comes naturally; this though has been something else.  Why after all would Tory papers otherwise fairly happy with their party of late be the ones leading the way, instead of making excuses or saying nothing to see here as they so often have in the past?

Not that it was anything approaching a good idea for Miller's loyal to the end parliamentary private secretary to send a text to presumably sympathetic backbenchers making just this point.  If there was a defend Miller campaign being ran by Number 10, it must rank as one of the understated and incompetent of recent times.  No one seemed to be willing to stand up for her in public other than spokesmen and Boris Johnson, and that was in his usual not entirely serious manner.  Indeed, Esther McVey said she wouldn't have gone about it the way Miller had.  Again though, was no one from Downing Street advising Miller on how to deal with the standards commissioner?  Wasn't it obvious from when the Telegraph suddenly discovered in December of 2012 that there were questions marks over her expenses this was going to be a campaign?  Why then wasn't she told to be completely open, instead of threatening the commissioner and all but telling the Torygraph to leave it?  It suggests a lack of attention to detail, David Cameron not willing to let his sort-of supporters in Fleet Street determine his cabinet, while apparently not caring enough to tell his loyalists to get out there and make clear Miller wasn't going anywhere.

Much as it's been pointed out how ruthless Cameron was to those within his own party over their expenses when he wasn't prime minister, Miller could have been saved, as Hopi Sen argues.  They managed it with Jeremy Hunt, when Number 10 just rode it out and claimed it was all the fault of his PPS Adam Smith that News Corporation was getting information on the Ofcom bid in advance.  It raises the question of why once it was obvious Miller's non-apology hadn't been anything close to adequate she wasn't sent out to try again in front of the cameras, told to accept she had got it badly wrong and apologise for having done so. A clue is perhaps in Cameron's reply to Miller's resignation letter, where he all but agrees with her pleas of innocence, prompting Ed Miliband at PMQ's to ask why she then had to go.

It certainly isn't any clearer tonight. Most likely is a combination of the factors, knowing the press wasn't going to give up, the lack of support from her colleagues and the feared impact on an already tough European campaign. In a way, it's also a case of the Tories reaping what they have sown. This week was meant to be about yet more welfare crackdowns, requiring the unemployed to have a CV and be signed up on the Jobmatch website before they can claim JSA, as well as further restrictions on what EU migrants can claim and when. Instead it's been nothing but Miller and her own outrageous entitlements. Why shouldn't people be angry about MP's expenses when those claiming anything other than middle class benefits are attacked as scroungers, day in, day out?

Cameron as a result has finished up looking weak and indecisive. The only positives to be taken are it will be a passing frenzy, soon forgotten, and that anger over expenses affects politics as a whole rather than any particular party, hence why Ed Miliband prior to today hadn't called for Miller to go. If there is any further embarrassment, it's in how Miller's replacement as minister for women, Nicky Morgan, couldn't also taken on the equalities brief as she voted against gay marriage. It just underlines how few ministers, let alone backbenchers share Cameron's view of both society and the economy. Miller for all her faults did, and he can ill afford to lose many more such supporters.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014 

Scottish independence and "the forces of darkness".

The Better Together campaign against Scottish independence hasn't had a great time of it recently. Ever since the Graun quoted an unnamed minister apparently due to be involved in the negotiations should there be a yes vote as saying a currency union would be possible in exchange for Scotland continuing to host nuclear weapons at Faslane it's seemed more on the backfoot than usual. They must know "Project Fear" isn't working, but as yet they still haven't come up with an alternative. Last week instead saw a step-up in the complaints about online nationalists supposedly abusing their opponents, the internet equivalent of taking your ball and going home.

Lord Robertson wasn't speaking on behalf of Better Together at his Brookings Institution speech, although that won't stop everyone, myself included, from linking his ridiculous scaremongering to the No campaign's overall message.  As a paragon of the substrata of the political and military establishment seemingly unable to address any matter without seeing it through a prism of what's good for NATO is good for the world, he naturally thinks the United Kingdom breaking up would be the second great victory for dictators and annexers of the year. What's more, it will encourage all the other separatists in Europe, could undermine peace in Northern Ireland and also prepare the ground for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. To call it unhinged doesn't quite do it justice; the idea Scottish independence "could ... impact on the stability of the world" is only slightly less absurd than suggesting Colonel Gaddafi could rise from his grave and come back to power in Libya.

It doesn't even begin to make the slightest sense.  You could understand it more if Scotland were, as some would like, not intending to rejoin NATO or the European Union immediately, except that's precisely what the SNP is proposing.  Despite some on the no side comparing the SNP to the UKIPs, the differences couldn't be more stark: the SNP if anything wants to play more of a role in the EU than the UK currently does, and also favours immigration.  They might be similar in the way both insist that any problems with becoming independent/leaving the EU will be overcome as soon as the decision has been made, and in the personality cult surrounding their respective leaders, but that's about as far as it goes.

Robertson's argument is all the more mystifying for coming at the precise moment when such pleading to think about the consequences for everyone else appears to have lost the impact it once had.  Nigel Farage's man love for Putin is revealing for a supposed libertarian, and his claim that the EU has blood on its hands over Ukraine the most specious nonsense, yet one of his most telling blows against Clegg in the second debate was his attack on the deputy prime minister for being "hell-bent" on bombing Syria.  As exemplified by the coalition not crowing about what should be one of its crowning achievements, having now reached the point where 0.7% of gross national income is spent on international aid, going out of our way to "help" other nations is not currently in fashion.  While there's a world of difference between going beyond the bare minimum in helping developing countries and bombing those said countries, or at least there should be, the fact is the political class is no longer trusted when it comes to either.

This poses a problem when so much of the establishment still earnestly believes in interventionism.  We've just had the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, from which the notion of the responsibility to protect emerged, despite how peacekeepers were on the ground both there and in Serbia at the time of Srebrencia.  The same human rights organisations opposed to the Iraq war were practically cheerleading for an attack on Syria last year, with those of my generation who were in favour of removing Saddam Hussein now ensconced in positions of power in both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.  Despite the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there isn't the slightest indication that any lessons have been learned from the mistakes, hardly surprising when the Western media en masse celebrated Afghans "defying" the Taliban to vote last weekend, as though that was their main reason for casting their ballots, nor have any reflected on whether those interventions might just have influenced Russia's annexing of Crimea.  Instead we have Tony Blair (who we shouldn't be calling a war criminal apparently) once again given the time and space to say we will regret not acting on Syria, as though that isn't precisely what we've been covertly doing now for over 2 years.

Much as I loathe the moaning about the metropolitan elite, much of which ironically comes from those who are, err, a part of the metropolitan elite, they've started to have a point when it comes to foreign policy.  If we're to believe Seymour Hersh's latest report for the London Review of Books, the real reason Obama pulled back at the last minute from attacking Syria is it was discovered the sarin supposedly used by Assad's forces in Ghouta didn't match with the batches in Syrian government possession, and was instead part of a false flag attempt to force just such an attack by the Turkish government.  As incredible as that seems, there is evidence of other Turkish skulduggery in Syria, notably the conversation posted on YouTube, prompting the site's shortlived ban in the country, and which seemed to be between government figures discussing staging an attack the Turks could then use to justify intervening more widely themselves.  If the international community can come so close to being so spectacularly fooled, not to mention shown up over Crimea,  it takes a hell of a lot of chutzpah to then lecture ordinary Scots on what they should consider before they cast their vote come the referendum.

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Monday, April 07, 2014 

Miller time.

Ah, Maria Miller.  Every so often a politician does something that just sums up the way an increasing number of people think their elected representatives operate.  Before doubt was thrown on almost the entire altercation, we had Plebgate, which seemed to show the contempt and arrogance of the political class to everyone they saw as below them.  Now we have Maria Miller, with her 34 second non-apology.  You have to presume that Miller simply didn't think the media would pay attention, normally a reasonable assumption considering the current lack of "action" in parliament, and how only the broadsheets bother to so much as have a daily politics blog dealing with Westminster, if that.

Except, err, Miller is the goddamn culture secretary, in charge of the hated royal charter on the regulation of the press.  It doesn't matter that the majority of the old media has completely ignored the charter and instead got on with setting up yet another "independent" regulator, did she really not think the Telegraph at least would take an interest?  As it turns out, her "statement" wasn't so much the equivalent of a red rag to a bull as Miller covering herself from head to toe in crimson body paint, whispering in the animal's ear that its mother was of easy virtue and then for good measure grabbing hold of its ball sack and yanking, hard.

After all, in the I don't give two figs for your rules stakes, no one can quite match Nadine Dorries, who managed to "apologise" to the Commons in even less time than it took Miller after her decision to go and eat dingo anus to increase her bank balance.  It's just no one took any notice, and well, Dorries is Dorries.  Miller is a mere amateur compared, but then no one would trust Dorries with an office of state, unless the office in question was the one for Narnia.

Some of the coverage has then been over-the-top and in contradiction of the findings by the parliamentary standards commissioner, precisely you suspect because of the Leveson/press charter situation.  The reason the amount Miller was ordered to pay back was wrote down from £45,000 to £5,300 is she produced documentation proving she hadn't overclaimed by the amount first estimated by the commissioner.  Indeed, it seems she probably overclaimed by less than the amount she's paid back, and the commissioner herself is happy with the £5,300 arrived at.  Also nonsense is the Telegraph claiming Miller's adviser Jo Hindley threatened the paper with Leveson if they kept up their investigation. As the Telegraph's own transcript of the conversation shows, and hamfisted as it was, Hindley was complaining more about the Torygraph intruding on Miller's father when he had just had an operation than really laying out something serious, and the journalist takes it that way rather than as something more menacing.

This isn't to let Miller off the hook by any means.  When compared though say to David Laws, who did claim over £40,000 he wasn't entitled to and was welcomed back into the cabinet with open arms, while other MPs went to prison for less egregious breaches of the rules, it's almost small time.  It's more that Miller has almost no discernible talents whatsoever, beyond being loyal to Dave and helping him combat the allegation he has a problem with those of the non-male gender.  The Tory backbenches have moved so far to the right it's getting increasingly difficult to find anyone who's ready for elevation to something approaching a position of influence who won't then embarrass the leadership or speak out of turn.  Miller knows absolutely nothing about the arts except she knows what she likes, as demonstrated by her speech urging the chattering classes to sell Britain to the world, which is precisely what Cameron wants in a culture secretary.  Replacing her would be a pain, and besides, sacking her when he didn't sack Jeremy Hunt for trying his darnedest to get the News Corp takeover of Sky past Ofcom would look really bad.

One suspects then Miller will survive, if only because as bad as it is, it could still be worse.  Treating people like idiots, threatening an independent investigator for daring to do their job and wrongly claiming an amount that would get those on benefits into very serious trouble with the law isn't good for the public perception of politics and politicians, it's true, but giving another scalp to the Cameron disliking if still Tory press just can't be countenanced, especially over expenses which have now been thoroughly reformed.  Us proles can but dream of such leniency.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014 

The right doesn't own the future.

As putting shotgun inside mouth and pulling the trigger inducing as it is to recognise, there's still over a year to go until the general election. Not that this matters much, as some are already convinced the Conservatives have it in the bag. John Harris, not usually a defeatist, talks of how history suggests as much as a 5 point deficit for the party has turned into a 7 point lead come election day. This ignores how no governing party has increased its share of the vote at the following election since 1974, as the Tories must if they want an overall majority. Lord Ashcroft certainly isn't convinced his party can do it, as his polls attest, while the sheer fact they will have failed to win a general election in 23 years by May 2015 has to count against them.

Harris's counsel of despair doesn't end there, oh no. The reason it feels like the Tories are on the up is they have come up with a solid vision of the future, whereas the left and by extension Labour are still fighting the battles of the past. We might not like their version of what's to come, where those who can cope with globalisation are divided from those who can't and rewarded accordingly, but it seems to be working.

This appears to me a classic example of someone over-analysing what is in fact a much simpler, and cruder move by the Tories.  They're not dividing people according to whether or not they're up to playing their in the "global race", it's rather that they're throwing a few scraps to those they believe share their values while concentrating most on those who do turn out to vote.  Hence the pensions and savings reforms and the promise to keep free TV licences and other perks, while the more apathetic young can look forward to being denied access to housing benefit until they turn 25.  Meanwhile, Russell Brand is telling the young not to vote as politicians are all the same, and plenty of commentators either nod sagely or call him a demagogue.  Such open bribery combined with the economic recovery ought to be translating into far better polling results for the Tories, and yet after the narrowing post-Budget, the gap to Labour seems to be opening up again.

Where Harris does have a point is in the left wanting to fight yesterday's battles again.  Talk of the spirit of 45 is rose-tinted romanticism of the highest order, but it is very much a minority pursuit.  Labour itself clearly isn't reaching for such nostalgia, nor is it even remotely likely that the party is going to promise the renationalising of the railways in the manifesto.  Looking back to a supposedly better past is hardly a solely left-wing thing though; the entire UKIP and traditional right-wing Tory view of where we're going wrong and what needs to change is refracted through the belief that the metropolitan elite has a stranglehold on power.  What's more, it's a powerful message, and not one that can be proved wrong with insults, as Nick Clegg found out last night.

Which is where Harris's analysis of why the Tories are in the ascendant falls down.  He says the left is failing to realise that the world of work has changed fundamentally, hasn't begun to adjust to the dawning of an ageing society, and doesn't know what to do about the overbearing state in an age where anyone with an opinion can make themselves heard.  On the first point Harris seems to be confusing the views of some on the right with that of the Tories themselves: if there's one politician who can be described as a work fetishist despite it being ever more apparent that work alone is not the way out of poverty, then surely Iain Duncan Smith fits the bill.  Moreover, it's the left that's long realised the impact of job insecurity and has urged the minimum wage to become a living wage.  This territory has since been grasped somewhat by the right, but when they are so supportive of zero hour contracts and workfare it's impossible not to see through it, as was George Osborne's laughable promise of full employment.  Ed Miliband's emphasis on the cost of living hasn't focused in on pay as much as it could have done, yet you can't argue it hasn't had an impact.

Harris is on surer ground on ageing, where as yet no party has got a firm grasp.  He says self-sustaining social networks will be vital and says government won't be a part of it, to which the only response seems to be to say: when was it?  As for the state itself, Harris is betting that the right's answer of cutting back and urging the third sector to move in is sustainable.  As yet few have noticed services getting worse; the crunch is still to come, as Rick has continued to set out.  Nor do we know how the party that wins the next election will aim to close the still yawning deficit, as Osborne's slashing of the non-protected government departments simply doesn't look achievable.

At heart, Harris is right.  Few parties have ever won power without offering a positive vision of where they intend to take the country, and the left and Labour certainly don't at the moment have a coherent one.  Ed Miliband has tried to sketch out what One Nation under Labour would look like, and frankly hasn't got very far.  Neither though have the Tories worked out what they want; they know what they don't want, but when it comes to promoting themselves and the country at large they fail miserably.  Are we hard-working or simply going through the motions?  Does anyone believe a word of the global race nonsense, and not instead see it as being about a race to the bottom?  The electorate could well end up favouring the Tories, certainly.  They won't however do so because the right has the won the arguments, but as they're the incumbents and look vaguely more competent.  On such matters are elections won or lost, not on the role of the state.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014 

£750m? Who needs that?

No taxation without representation.  It's one of the most basic tenets of parliamentary democracy, although the cynical, myself included, will point out that when you have what is still in most places a two-party system, plenty of people do go unrepresented.  Still, it's a principle that is as powerful now as it was 250 years ago.  By the same token, when the government of the day is seeking to massively cut spending and is doing so through squeezing the poorest until the pips squeak, the very least you can expect is it will seek the highest possible return on any publicly owned business it sells off.  According to the National Audit Office, at the very top estimate, the privatisation of Royal Mail could have brought in an extra £750m.

The reasons for why the government decided to sell shares at 330p are wearingly familiar.  Seeking the advice of a range of investment banks, most prominently Lazard but also Goldman "vampire squid" Sachs, Barclays and Merrill Lynch as well as other hangers-on, none of their analysts suggested the shares were worth less than 300p.  Despite this, Lazard's advice was that shares should be offered at between 212 to 262p, and when the government wavered at the last moment over whether it should up the price to 350p, having apparently realised how they were likely to be oversubscribed, Lazard advised against.  The government's error, if we're being charitable enough to describe it as such, was compounded further by giving priority access to 16 "long-term" investors, on the proviso that they be just that. Predictably enough most of these pension funds, not quite believing their luck, quickly disposed of their shares and cashed the easiest profit they're ever likely to make. As Chuka Umunna had it, the same spivs and speculators Vince Cable once denounced have made him and his department look like utter fools.

To give the government the benefit of the doubt, we can't know if the shares would have sold had they been priced at the 455p they ended up at after the first day's trading and so provided the extra £750 million the NAO points towards. Even if we halve it though, £375m is hardly an inconsiderable amount. It's also not as if Cable is a dilettante with little in the way of business experience; he was Shell's chief economic adviser for two years, for goodness sake.

Or maybe that's the point. When you seek the advice of asset strippers and tax avoiders extraordinaire, why on earth would they suddenly decide to go against their very nature?  Besides, the entire sale was predicated on the false claim that Royal Mail could only survive if it was able to have access to private capital, despite the government being able to borrow far cheaper than any company.  As the Economist pointed out at the time, listing Royal Mail publicly was asking for exactly the sort of short-termism we've seen.  All Cable was worried about was the sale failing, despite it becoming glaringly obvious it was never going to when the public on their own requested enough shares to buy it outright without the stock market getting a look in.  Cable also insists that the share price is inflated at its current 563p; it might well be, but that's not an excuse for selling on the cheap when market exuberance could have been taken advantage of.

Not that there's anything to suggest Labour would have done a better job.  For those like me just a little tired of those who in hindsight bang on about Gordon Brown selling off our gold reserves, there's the more relevant privatisation of Qinetiq, also criticised by the NAO and defended in almost exactly the same terms by the ministers of the day as flogging Royal Mail has been.  Both we're meant to believe have been great successes, bringing in millions and billions for the taxpayer respectively.  We could have gotten more, but we should be glad it all went smoothly rather than complain of what might have been.  Little things like how £360m is the amount of savings projected from the bedroom tax for instance, a policy causing complete and utter misery, something that could have been covered by the sale won't worry the dunces of Downing Street as it was never about preventing cuts elsewhere.  A publicly owned potential liability has been got rid of, the City was most pleased, and a handy £2bn was brought in.  That's all that mattered.  As for whether the service declines, as already seems to be happening, or whether it could have been done better, that's for a future government to worry about.  Few are going to base their vote on selling the Queen's head.  And thus the orthodoxy of the past 30 years remains unchallenged.

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Monday, March 31, 2014 

50 shades of Grayling.

(I am really, really sorry for the title.)

Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant?  Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks.  Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.

Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material.  Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure.  No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side.  Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general.  Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.

The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved.  Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote.  Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple.  In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm.  In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.

Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content.  This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour.  Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault.  It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.

Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected.  Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters?  Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation?  Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?

You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling.  If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014 

Rocking all over Europe.

I decided to give last night's flyweight tussle between Nick n' Nige a miss (although I've since skipped through it). There are after all only so many times you can hear precisely the same arguments without then wanting to take a long jump off a short cliff. If there's been a week recently when Question Time hasn't discussed immigration, as the Europe debate has transmogrified into, then I can't recall it. Minds have long since been made up, and there's little in the way of middle ground: either you view open borders as an unalloyed good, for both economic and social reasons, with the negatives far outweighed by the positives; or as Farage does, you find the very fact 450 million people could move here tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do as both outrageous and dangerous.

Unsurprisingly then, the YouGov poll conducted after the debate suggested support for withdrawal had gone up by a meagre 2 points, within the margin of error.  The debate wasn't really about such things though; instead it was how the leaders of the third and fourth biggest political parties would come out of it.  While all agree he started well, Farage faded badly towards the end, getting increasingly agitated and sweating heavily, the decision to go for a pint beforehand perhaps not the best idea. Clegg by contrast was fairly consistent throughout, predictably enough considering this was his fourth appearance in such a format.  With the exception of a couple of major slips, such as his opening, where he all but repeated word for word the same message he gave four years ago, and his laughable assertion that three million jobs are dependent on the EU, he gave as good as he got.

Albeit not according to the audience, who fairly convincingly gave the debate to Farage.  Again however, this doesn't really tell us much, especially when the first three questions were pretty much gifts to the UKIPs, being on a referendum, then immigration, then benefits, only after moving onto Europe in the wider sense.  Add on Clegg's deserved unpopularity, and Farage being more popular than his party, and the disparity lessens.  Clegg's approval rating also went up, although frankly it could hardly have gone down much further.

Farage and UKIP's problem which as yet they haven't been forced to address is they're the equivalent of a band that can only play two chords.  The first of the chords, being anti-immigration, is a damn good one and it's served them really well.  The second, blaming everything on the European Union, isn't quite as good and only works when played sparingly.  When forced to rely on that second one, as Farage was towards the end last night, it no longer sounds as catchy.  Claiming that 75% of our laws originate in Europe is just completely absurd, and when he then said the EU had blood on its hands over Ukraine it revealed a complete lack of awareness.  Russia's intervention in Crimea is not about the EU, but instead all to do with Ukraine seeking its own path.  It was only when Yanukovych cancelled the agreement with the EU that the Maidan movement came onto the streets; the EU didn't push for it as much as it was ordinary Ukrainians demanding it and until his u-turn, the president favouring their offer of loans.  The idea anyone could want to be a part of the EU is so anathema to Farage and those he surrounds himself with that it blinds him to the easiest and right explanation.

As Clegg showed during the election debates, being the outsider works so long as you can continue playing the part.  Taken out of that comfort zone, as Farage was towards the end, when he whined that no other politician had "worked so many hours and had as little fun as me" after a questioner asked about his wife being on the EU gravy train he so opposes, he started looking remarkably similar to the rest of the political class, precisely because he embodies them just as much as Clegg does.  Besides, isn't his entire image meant to be of the laughing, jolly but still angry man of the people?  He's often photographed appearing to be having fun, pint in one hand, so is it all an act? Well, of course.

Quite how they're going to get another long debate out of the pair of them also perplexes.  There simply isn't that much about the EU to discuss, unless they really get stuck into the common fisheries/agricultural policies, which while important subjects aren't going to keep most audiences tuned in.  More fundamentally, for all the hype around Farage, all these debates are going to do is further cement him as a single issue politician.  Considering UKIP aspires to become the third party, or supposedly does, to actually win seats at Westminster it needs to at least expand its repertoire to a Quo challenging three chords.  There's been so sign of that whatsoever as yet, and you can't survive forever as the party of protest.  The Lib Dems have been there, done that, and part of Clegg's reason for agreeing to these debates was to shore up his own support.  In those terms, he's succeeded.  As for whether it will do the same to his party's vote in the European elections, he'd be advised not to hold his breath.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014 

Stratchclyde Partnership for Transport gives you wings.

It's fair to say that I am yet to be convinced by any of those arguing in favour of Scottish independence. Apart from how I find it extraordinarily difficult to separate narrow nationalism from short-sighted political chauvinism, being constantly reminded of Renton's outburst in Trainspotting, I simply don't follow the case made by the radical independence people.  Should Scotland vote yes it certainly won't mean that the SNP will be in government for perpetuity, but the idea this will open a gap for those further to the left just doesn't tally. The SNP is fundamentally an authoritarian party, albeit one closer to social democracy than Labour has been in two decades. It's made the exact same compromises though, as evidenced by Salmond's sucking up to Murdoch and pledges on corporation tax and air passenger duty.  Imagining that giving them their greatest ever victory will in turn result in a triumph for those opposed to neoliberalism is just wishful thinking.

This said, it's difficult not to be slightly overawed by the efforts of some on the Yes side, as epitomised by Wings Over Scotland. Having already crowdfunded two opinion polls, Stuart Campbell's last appeal for cash to keep up the site's campaigning brought in over £100,000, a sum which astonished everyone. With some of this extra money, Campbell booked an ad to run on the Glasgow subway, a simple yet bold design pointing out that not a single national or daily paper supports independence.

Almost entirely predictably, within hours of the ad appearing it was being pulled.  The reason? It's difficult to tell, as the advertising contractor Primesight and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport have now taken to blaming each other, but it seems as though the justification remains that the ad is "political". Except, as should be clear to anyone even passingly impartial, it's not. While you can quibble over the exact number of papers that are Scottish owned, with Campbell accepting he forgot about the Greenock Telegraph, no Scottish paper does support independence.  The Wings advert is no different from a newspaper declaring what its political affiliation in the same way; how anyone could claim that makes the advert itself political completely escapes me. If anything, it reminds of the Guardian's well known advert from the 80s, which also advocated taking a wider view.

Whether the decision itself was political, and it's difficult to shake the feeling it might well have been, the knock on effect has been just as predictable: news articles on the controversy mean that thousands more people than would ever have seen the ad on the tube are now aware of it and Wings Over Scotland (Wings has also had its money refunded).  It also shows the Tube operators in an extremely poor light, especially when the newspaper distributed on the network today carries an advert attacking, err, the Yes campaign and directs readers to a website. Even if the Yes campaign does fail, and while I suspect the end result will be far closer than most polls suggest you'd have to be a brave man to bet against an No, the Scottish media and their friends in power have been shown up as never before.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014 

This blog is fully in favour of fundamentally disrupting power relations and reframing the debate to make a good society both feasible and desirable.*

Within hours of the budget last week, the Labour Uncut blog had a post up quoting a anonymous backbencher as saying such was Ed Miliband's response to George Osborne's pensions gambit, the way things were going the party would need a Devon Loch scenario to win a majority come the election.  For those under the age of 70 or who aren't much interested in the annual flogging a live horse round a deadly obstacle course soiree at Aintree, Devon Loch did a Bambi while just yards from the finishing post in the Grand National.  This rather strained metaphor ignores that for some time it's been Labour out in the front, not the Tories, but still.

Such is the way some of those on the right of the party have long responded to even the slightest of setbacks, or in this case less than that. Absolutely no one remembers the responses to budgets, and as it seems the coalition declined to provide Labour with the traditional redacted version of Osborne's speech in advance, Miliband would only have been able to respond to the specifics off the cuff.  Instead he went for a general critique, and while it wasn't great, it was nowhere near as poor as has been made out.

Nor is the rise in support for the Tories since the budget anything approaching a surprise. Osborne succeeded in presenting it as a giveaway, albeit "fiscally neutral", and reined in the austerity masochism as far as he could. There were no further painful cuts outlined, although whether they might well be needed when Osborne is spending money he hasn't properly allocated as the IFS pointed out remains to be seen.   Precision geared towards those already more likely to vote Tory, in effect bribing them with their own money, exactly the claim they used to throw at Gordon Brown, add on the changes to pensions and the bounce ought to have been expected.  The real question is whether the uptick remains over time, as it did for Labour long after the omnishambles of 2012.  As yet there's nothing so much as approaching an indication this will turn out to be the case.

For Dan Hodges and his ilk though this is the final proof Miliband is a loser, or rather, "isn't working".  Hodges has been pushing his the only way to win is to out-Tory the Tories shtick for so long now it's stopped being entertaining in the same way as watching a film that's so bad it's good is, and has just become incredibly boring.  Nonetheless, Hodges' line into the soul of the party is John Mann, who urges Ed to speak the language not of a Hampstead academic but of the average resident of Bassetlaw.  These would presumably be the same people telling Mann that what the country desperately needs is a vote on our membership of the European Union, a cause he insisted was top of their agendas just a couple of weeks back.

Thankfully for all concerned who should enter the fray at this precise moment other than a horde of think-tankers with their own views on how Labour should fight the 2015 election.  Or, as they describe themselves, "members of the progressive community".  Think my writing is turgid, highfalutin, unnecessarily verbose and arch?  You should try this unholy alliance, who take Birtspeak to extremes.  They want Labour to make all powerful institutions accountable to their "stakeholders", action on the causes of "our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems", something that requires a "holistic" approach, and obviously, the "empowerment of everybody".  Not aiming too high there, are you lads?  Apparently the time of politicians doing things to people are over (or at least prospective Lib Dem candidates must hope this to be the case), while the era of "building the capacity and platforms for people to do things for themselves, together is now upon us".  Translated, this essentially means they are in favour of devolution and localism, and while it all sounds suspiciously like the Big Society all over again, only rebooted for the crowdsourcing Twitter and Wikis can solve like, everything, man age, it isn't meant as a cover for cuts.  Only there's no money to pay for anything, so sisters people doing it for themselves does help matters immensely.

If like me you can recall the times when Luke Akehurst seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the Blairite tendency within Labour, it comes as a deep shock when his is the voice of reason.  He notes how the letter seems to leave room open for another coalition, suggesting everyone should just forget how the Lib Dems have rejoiced in ripping the state to shreds over the past 5 years, and more pertinently, that as much as localism excites a certain section of politicos, it's mostly deeply unpopular or treated with deserved suspicion by the voters.  Unlike the Hodges/Labour Uncut sect, he even suggests 5 policies which aren't the same old triangulation, nor are they obvious pipe dreams fluffed by arcane language.

All this is to rather ignore just how the Tories seem likely to fight the election.  When they tire of the country is saved thanks to us routine, they fall back on policies that are deeply divisive.  See Cameron returning to the theme of cutting inheritance tax, the coalition having wisely not touched it during this parliament.  The Conservatives have become a party that is openly in favour of oligarchy, the passing down of unearned wealth from generation to generation.  The Mail naturally thinks this is a huge vote winner, while anyone with half a brain can see that you simply can't go on saying you're the party of aspiration while doing everything in your power to screw over those who don't have comfortably off parents.  If Cameron couldn't win outright in 2010 on a centre-right ticket against Liability Brown, what makes him think they can do so on a right-wing ticket in 2015?  The obvious answer is that they can't.  Miliband and his ministers do need to flesh out many of their their policies, but to panic at this point or take advice from either extremely dubious faction would be a misstep.  The budget bounce will dissipate.  Everything is still to play for.

*Yes, that really is how the thinktank alliance conclude their letter to the Graun.

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Monday, March 24, 2014 

If hospitals cure...

There's been much comment, understandably, following the blog post from Frances Crook setting out how the new privileges regime in prisons means that the sending in of books, or indeed, almost anything other than a letter or a bought as opposed to homemade card has been banned.

This also covers magazines, and in my view, most outrageously, clothes.  At the discretion of the governor, as the prison service instructions on incentives and earned privileges set out (DOC), prisoners may be allowed to receive a "one-off clothing parcel" after conviction.  Otherwise, that's that.  Unless they're one of the few lucky enough to get a job in the prison and earn money to buy themselves some extra apparel, they'll be stuck wearing prison issue clothes, most likely worn by dozens of inmates before them.  Just how draconian these new restrictions are is made clear by the exception for unconvicted prisoners, who must be allowed to have "sufficient clean clothing sent into them from outside" (page 45).  In other words, those convicted may be stuck wearing the same, dirty clothes for much of their time inside.  As one of the conditions for getting on to even the standard level of privileges is to have "due regard for personal hygiene and health (including appearance, neatness and suitability of clothing)", this seems to have been designed specifically to make life as miserable as possible.

Suitably excised by all the liberal do-gooders demanding that prisoners have the right to read books when most have no intention of doing so, Chris Grayling has duly responded.  Why, the idea prisoners cannot have books is a nonsense!  They are allowed to have up to 12 in their cell at one time, so long that is as they brought them in to start with, as trips to the prison library are infrequent and there's no guarantee they'll have something the inmate will want to read.  Besides, they can also buy books with the money they earn from their job while detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.  Those with a job are guaranteed the princely sum of at least £4.00 per week, meaning that if they don't buy anything else they can afford a paperback every two weeks.  That is if the paperback is £5.99, as those with a television set in their cell have to pay £1.00 a week rent for that privilege.  Those who don't have a job are guaranteed at least £2.50 a week, which with the £1 taken off for TV rent leaves them with £1.50 to spend as they please.  They're also not allowed to watch the TV when they could be working, even if there aren't any jobs or programmes for them to attend.  Grayling also says prisoners were never allowed unlimited parcels, which they certainly weren't.  To completely deny them anything other than letters and cards sent by friends or relatives however is a new and drastic change.

The reasoning behind all this is supposedly to decrease reoffending.  For years we heard of how "cushy" prisons had become, with even certain Sky channels allowed in private sector prisons.  Stop allowing inmates to lounge around watching daytime TV, get them either working or learning, and soon the astronomical recidivism rate will come down.  Except the reality is that even before the cuts made to the prison system there weren't enough jobs to go round, nor can every minute be spent either on specific programmes or in education (spot checks found an average of 25% of a prison's population locked up during the day).  Those not doing either are banged up, and deprived of TV or reading material the obvious result is boredom.  Boredom leading to depression, or alternatively, aggression.  How this is meant to reduce reoffending is not explained, nor does it seem there is any actual evidence suggesting a stricter privileges regime could help.  The PSI certainly doesn't suggest this is an attempt to reduce reoffending; the desired outcome section only sets out that "prisoners will engage with their rehabilitation".  Engaging is meaningless if their circumstances are much the same on release, which for most they will be.

Why then do it, when the risk surely is that even if not directly, the new restrictions might lead to the opposite of what is intended, even to riots?  The answer that it appeals to both the tabloids and to those who believe, more than reasonably, that prison is meant to be harsh and unpleasant doesn't really cover it.  That hardly anyone apart from those affected and their relatives knew is testament to the tiny impact it would have on the overall impression of the government, Grayling, or the prison system.

Instead, it's hard to shake the impression that Grayling gave the OK to such changes precisely because he could.  As with Iain Duncan Smith and his unshakeable belief that he is right and all of his critics are wrong or far worse, Grayling gives the impression of a man who always knows best.  We don't need any trials of probation privatisation, it just needs to be done.  Prisoners have wronged society, therefore allowing them new, clean underwear apart from that bought with their own money is a luxury they have forfeited.  Depriving someone who enjoyed reading outside with the means to keep up their habit is a punishment.  That some will have read to improve their literacy skills is irrelevant.  Posing as tough rarely costs votes, as long as that stance doesn't lead to prisoners on roofs.  And let's hope for Grayling's sake that doesn't happen.

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