Tuesday, January 19, 2010 

The depressing political fight over binge drinking.

There's little that's more depressing than politicians attempting to outdo each other when it comes to the latest social evil to have been sporadically identified. We went through it on gun crime, on knife crime, and now as we approach the election it seems we've decided on binge drinking as the next thing to be cracked down upon, at least until the new and even deadlier scare comes along, which looks at the moment to be shaping up to be mephedrone.

While it's often been the moralising tabloid press that has screamed loudest and longest about the damage being down to the centres of our towns and cities at weekends in the usual hyperbolic fashion, alongside the health workers who find themselves at the sharp end, it's been the Scottish National Party that started the arms race and which is attempting to legislating a minimum price for a unit of alcohol sold off-licence. It goes without saying that this is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, penalising everyone regardless of how little or how much they drink, a flat tax on booze if you will.

It is though the kind of policy that ensures you know where you stand. The same can't be said for either the government's changes to the current licensing conditions or to the Tories' counter proposals. Labour seems to be completely ignoring the fact that it isn't the pubs or clubs which are overwhelming flogging cheap alcohol to the masses, as anyone who visits either even casually will notice, but the supermarkets with their offers on cases of the stuff, usually with either 2 for a £10 or a similar slightly higher sum. The Tories admittedly have recognised this, with their new policy being to ensure that supermarkets can't sell booze at below cost price, but their other proposals are even more draconian than Labour's, and typically stupid. The idea that imposing extra tax only on strong lagers and ciders, as well as alcopops, which those drinking to get drunk rarely imbibe will have any effect when they can downgrade to the only slightly less strong "ordinary" beers is ludicrous, and seems more designed to sneer at those who drink them than anything else.

As always, the real reason why there's something approaching a drinking problem in this country is not mentioned. When quality of life is so poor that the one thing to look forward to is getting smashed at the weekend, or indeed every night to take away from the everyday nightmare of living and working, the problem is not with individuals or with the opiate, but with the entire philosophy of a nation and the modern nature of capitalism itself. We then further promote an immature attitude towards drink by denying it to teenagers as a matter of politics, while families across the countries connive in breaking the law to give it them. When politicians are not prepared to so much as consider the first as a factor, while continuing to regard alcohol as a terrible thing until we reach a certain arbitrary age, we're always going to be reduced to a political auction where everyone asks how much without considering why we're bidding in the first place.

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Friday, November 07, 2008 

A blip?

What a difference a couple of months can make: back then we were seriously discussing the possibility that Glenrothes could be Gordon Brown's last stand as Labour leader, where a defeat to the Scottish National Party would mean his cabinet colleagues would move against him, with David Miliband the most likely successor. Harold Macmillian said that it was events that were most likely to blow a government off course, but it was the apparently imminent collapse of the banking system which has turned out to be Gordon Brown's saving grace. Having bailed out them and by his own spin, having led the world at large to decide upon a similar policy, he's almost certain now to lead Labour into the next election.

The circumstances of the win in Glenrothes are enough to make you question whether there was a cock-up or conspiracy in Labour's apparent acceptance that were going to lose yesterday's vote. Use of Occam's razor would suggest the former, but how on earth do you go from the apparent doom expressed to the media by Nick Palmer, who said that he didn't know any Labour MPs who expected to win, to what looks like a remarkable in the circumstances 6,000+ majority? The betting was all on the SNP to win, with Paul Routledge alleging there was a conspiracy amongst SNP supporters to lay bets around the country in order to get the odds back in their favour, and the pundits all agreed that the SNP were likely to take it, but how do you not apparently manage to realise that you've got a more than healthy majority in the bag?

Labour's share of the vote in actual fact increased, despite their majority dropping by around 4,000, something which has not happened to a government fighting a by-election since 1982. The vote for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats collapsed, possibly because of their failure to campaign in what was seen as a straight fight between the SNP and Labour, but it's hardly encouraging for the leadership of either party, especially David Cameron, whose hopes for the next election were on the SNP taking Labour's Scottish seats in the areas where his party is not close to being in the running.

Most impressive is perhaps not the result, but the way in which Labour so successfully, at least for now, turned the onus onto Alex Salmond. Despite the fact that it's Gordon Brown himself who's primarily responsible for the bursting of the biggest economic bubble of recent times, the attack on Salmond's plans for independence was pointed and damning. An independent Scotland would not have been able to bail out the likes of Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS in the way that Westminster had, went the argument, whilst the television networks happily played along, repeating and replaying Salmond's in hindsight naive rhetoric about how Scotland, along with Iceland, Ireland and the Scandanivan nations could form an arc of prosperity if only it was freed from the union.

The last few days, in contrast, really should have been horrendously damaging for Gordon Brown and New Labour: first the European commission reported that the UK would face the deepest recession among the EU's mature economies, then the IMF issued a similar verdict, which also said the UK would be the worst hit of the world's developed economies. For a man and a spin machine which had boasted repeatedly that we were well-placed to deal with the economic downturn, if not among the best-placed, this should have been enough to puncture any sign of personal political recovery. Instead, with the election of Barack Obama helping to distract attention away from events here, the story has been the exact opposite.

To draw much else from the victory in Glenrothes would be wrong. It's almost as if the whole by-election was conducted in a vacuum: the opinion polls show at best that the Brown bounce has been fairly negligible, at least in personal terms. Labour has clawed itself back up from 20% behind the Tories to between 8 and 9% behind, which in a general election would deliver either a hung parliament or a very slight majority for David Cameron, which for a government in the middle of a third term in a soon to be recession isn't bad, but certainly isn't going to save it. As the downturn starts to really bite and unemployment rises further, it's then the resentment against Labour will likely start to really affect things. The odds are most certainly still on for a Conservative victory, and Labour's hopes in the long-term still look fleeting at best, Gordon Brown saviour of the world economy or not.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008 

The SNP: even more socially illiberal than New Labour.

If you thought that New Labour was socially illiberal, spare a thought for those above Berwick:

Scotland is considering a ban on alcohol sales to under-21s in a bid to make "the streets safer and communities better", Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said today.

The SNP is considering the ban on alcohol sales outside pubs and clubs as part of its legislative programme for the year ahead.

This idea is the absolute worst of all worlds. It not only discriminates against those who are above the legal drinking age but don't especially want to go out of an evening, it also instantly means that those who are even over 21 have their legal right to buy alcohol potentially curtailed if they don't bother to carry ID around with them the entire time.

In any event, most stores already operate a scheme where those who look under 21 are required to take ID with them. This on its own prevents those who are borderline-18 from being able to drink, and it's much the same in pubs and clubs. The problem with underage drinking has not been with them buying it - but with their older friends and family, including their parents buying it for them. Additionally, now these schemes are being extended even further as the moral panic about binge drinking and general youth crime continues apace - some stores are now requiring all alcohol transactions, including by those who are clearly above the age limit, to be confirmed by ID. Others have raised the age limit to those who look younger than 25 requiring ID, and not because a distinct minority of those who drink are causing trouble, but due to the cravenness of politicians to the idea that something has to be done.

Which is exactly what this is. It's ludicrous because it still means that those under 21 can go and get smashed in a pub or a club and cause potentially just as much trouble either in the venue or outside of it on the way home, but that's somehow regarded as being less bothersome than a group of teenagers daring to drink either in suburban areas or somewhere where they might be seen other than in a town centre. The obvious unfairness in this is palpable, and it's because the young are partially regarded as an easy target that this can even be considered. As someone has already said, this means that a 20-year-old who wants to buy a bottle of wine to have with his girlfriend at home while they watch a film isn't able to, but that those who go out with the intention of getting paralytic are in no way hindered. It regards all those under 21 who buy from off-licences as morons who are potentially a danger to both themselves and others, while putting no imposition on happy hour promotions or other special drinks offers which encourage people to drink more.

Similarly daft is another potential policy also still in the bill - minimum price setting by unit of alcohol. You don't need to be a polymath to realise that this means drastically increasing the price of bottles of spirits, often drank in moderation and over time, if of course you're not now too young to be able to buy one from a supermarket or off-licence. The high-strength lagers and ciders are affected, but only slightly, and as a news article pointed out, it also doesn't affect the price of Buckfast, the tonic wine which like the so-called "alcopops" has been singled out for special attention by politicians that ought to know better.

To complete the trifecta of idiotic, ineffective and illiberal social policy, the SNP also want cigarettes to be taken off general display, lest anyone see the highly seductive sight of packets of fags with "YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THIS" in huge bold lettering on them and think it'd be a pretty wizard idea to take up the habit. This really is almost beyond parody - it does nothing whatsoever to help those who already have the habit, except to make life more difficult for both the shop-keeper/assistant in getting the brand which you want and making it take longer while they dive under the counter as if they were selling you the latest animal porn shot in Bavaria featuring blonde German maidens swallowing horse cock. What it does do however is further stigmatise the smoker, as if they weren't already demonised and isolated enough due to their filthy habit. Rather than suggest to them that they really ought to give up, all this does is promote victim status, and quite rightly too, with the person even less likely to kick the habit.

While things have not got as bad for the drinker as the smoker and are unlikely ever to, it is the senseless drip-drip of measures, always attempting to out-do the last cure-all which deeply rankles with the average person who just wants to be left alone and treated like an adult when they dare to want to imbibe intoxicating liquor. If the SNP were serious and wanted to be something approaching fair, they would raise the age limit across the board on alcohol to 21. This though is already shown to be a complete joke in America, where it is completely unenforceable, just as it would be here, ostracising the under-21s from clubs and pubs where the majority tend to drink more sensibly, and instead pushing them towards house parties where the opposite is usually the case, where the alcohol has been purchased by those old enough or those who can get away with it.

There are two measures that will help with the attitude towards alcohol which the young increasingly are characterised as having: stop perpetuating the idea that all youngsters should abstain entirely until they are 18 and instead encourage families to introduce them to alcohol as they are growing up, and that includes not going over the top when the latest figures lead the tabloids into a frenzy over the increasing numbers of the young drinking however many units a week; or, alternatively, increase the tax on alcohol as a whole across the board proportionally according to market fluctuations, i.e. increase it when it's falling and reduce it when it's rising so that the price is stable but high, while discouraging the discounting and offers in both supermarkets and pubs/clubs. If it isn't obvious, my preferred option is the former. Fundamentally though, what also needs to be examined is exactly why so many in this country drink to get drunk or similar every weekend, which can't just be put down to our attitude towards alcohol and how it differs to on the continent. That might however involve the unpleasantness of examining the daily grind for the average person and how little there is that is otherwise offered in the way of pleasure, something which no politician can ever pretend to solve with the waving of a magical, populist, but completely draconian policy.

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Friday, July 25, 2008 

To oblivion or half-way there.

The response by Gordon Brown and the top of New Labour to the catastrophic by-election result in Glasgow East would be comical if it wasn't so deeply sad. It truly is a purest example of the clichéd deer in the headlights - a party that simply has no idea what to do except to keep on doing what it's currently doing. Witness Brown yet again inform us all of how he feels our pain. Witness Des Browne laughably suggest that everyone unite around Brown, as if that wasn't they've been doing, or to suggest that no one votes for disunited parties; they're not voting for you at the moment either though, are they?

The loss of Glasgow East is a terrifying prospect for New Labour because it indicates that the perfect storm which can irrevocably destroy the party is potentially gathering momentum. In Wales and Scotland, Labour is not to any great extent being pressured by the Conservatives; the Tory vote was actually down half a percent last night on the general election. Instead, they're fighting against either the nationalist parties, which are undoubtedly to the party's left, even if their nationalism is parochial and self-serving, and the Liberal Democrats, who despite their apparent recent shift to the right, are still far preferable on most factors to Labour. In England however, the party faces the prospect that despite everything, it isn't right-wing enough. It has to be remembered that the Tories won the popular vote in England in 2005. It was hardly likely to improve upon that next time round, and indeed, it's now staring disaster in the face.

We can take the idea that Labour faces collapse too far, especially when just dwelling on by-election results which are never going to be indicative of what's going to happen two years down the line, and Brown today dropped a huge hint that he will be waiting possibly the full 24 months before having to call the election. At the moment though the picture is utterly bleak: even in the worst of times, Labour should have managed to hold on to seats such as Crewe and Nantwich and Glasgow East. They are overwhelming Labour's rock. For them to be giving Labour such a kicking is a warning that the party, unless it changes its way dramatically, is facing utter oblivion.

The party however has absolutely no idea where to go from here. In fact, it seems to be perversely enjoying the hammering it's receiving. Why else would the party have let James Purnell stand up on Monday and deliver his kicking to the "undeserving poor"? This was a constituency in which a significant percentage of its voters are either dirt poor and in work or dirt poor and out of work. Both, potentially, face becoming the guinea pigs of Purnell's plans. Meanwhile, they can see that despite the regeneration that has occurred in their area under Labour, it's the SNP that are actually in government in the devolved parliament, and what's more, they've abolished prescription charges, they've abolished tuition fees, they haven't introduced the vagaries of the market into the health system, and they haven't tried to appease the very worst imaginings of the right-wing press at every available instance. Come now, who would you have voted for? The only real surprise is that the margin of victory was just 365 votes: that is undoubtedly down not to the national party, but to the efforts of the local party and also Margaret Curran herself. The blow has been so much the harder because Labour had been playing up so much the fact that they were certain they had it in the bag. Not for the first time, it seems that someone can't count.

Perhaps the reality is finally hitting home: it doesn't matter how many relaunches you have, however many times you feebly suggest that you feel pain for the people who you have continuously either kicked in the teeth or not done enough for, or however many changes in policy the unions or Neal Lawson suggest, Labour is simply not going to win the next election. The mood of the country, and that includes the different perspectives in Wales/Scotland and in England, has changed. Again, this isn't by any means all Brown's fault, he's simply picked up the poisoned chalice, however much you can blame him for not putting something aside for the inevitable downturn. He also can't do anything about the so-called "credit crunch", or the rising prices of fuel or food, which the SNP so opportunistically but understandably focused on. Getting rid of him will do nothing to save the Labour brand. The only thing he can do now is what News International is over Max Mosley: limit the damage. It doesn't matter now how much he potentially pisses off the right-wing press, what does is that he makes certain that Labour are not destroyed for a generation because of both his and Blair's mistakes. That does involve listening to the unions, to stopping the attacks on those that can least defend themselves and even, as Tony Woodley suggests, evicting the Blairites. Make clear to everyone that if you're going to go down, you're not going to take everyone with you. That now, apart from ensuring that the slowdown doesn't turn into a deep recession, should be Brown's priority.

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Friday, May 04, 2007 

The post election comedown.

No alarms and no surprises from my modern day rotten borough. The Labour candidate did slightly better than last time, if my memory serves me correctly - grabbing second place with a whopping 262 votes. The Tory got 1,218, while all his opponents combined managed only 488 between them.

For some reason known only to myself, I spent the best part of the night/morning watching the BBC coverage of the results as they came in. There's little more painful than witnessing in succession, John Reid, Hillary Armstrong, John Hutton and finally, Hazel Blears try and fail to put a gloss on the massive Labour losses. It wasn't the wipeout that had been predicted by some, but 485 lost seats is still impossible to put a positive spin on. This was Labour being cut down to its core vote that will always turnout, previous supporters staying at home or returning to the Tories, especially in the south. The party simply has no one to blame except itself; this isn't the fault of the individual councillors, it's down to the party being prepared to indulge Blair's vanity for far too long.

This couldn't have been more exemplified by Blears and her eternal loyalty to her master. As some of the poor results came in from Wales, she had the audacity to suggest that this was down to there not being enough public service reform, that Welsh Labour with its policy of "clear red water" between it and Westminster was part of the problem. In fact, as anyone apart from Blears could have pointed out, the only overall losses Labour have suffered were to Plaid Cymru, who had campaigned on a nakedly socialist platform, the exception being Cardiff North which fell to the Tories who had targeted it relentlessly. The reason that the losses weren't heavier was that Labour in Wales still maintains some of its principles which it has long since abandoned in England.

A similar story has emerged in Scotland. While England has moved to the right, Scotland and Wales have shifted back towards the left. The SNP victory is "historic", but they must be secretly disappointed that their major opinion poll leads were cut back to in the end a win of just a single seat more than Labour. The SNP profited in particular from the implosion of the Scottish Socialists, and despite the opposition of the Scottish Sun to independence, running scare stories, they have Murdoch to thank for destroying Tommy Sheridan, who failed to win a seat with his new party, Solidarity. Just how much the SNP mean what they say is open to question: their opposition to the renewal of Trident and to the Iraq war is not going to mean much when they can't do anything about either, while support for independence itself is probably more popular in England than it is north of the border.

Probably worthy of more comment than the actual SNP win is the monumental cock-up of trying to run different elections on the same day with little apparent input on how people were supposed to vote correctly. While it's unlikely that any results might have been different if the spoiled ballots had been counted, the actual disenfranchising of up to 100,000 voters is something we thought was more associated with stripping the rolls of black voters in Florida than in the Western Isles. It doesn't augur well for the SNP's attempt to ram through a referendum on independence only with "additional questions"; it seems plenty of people found it difficult enough to fill in ballots where you had to either mark an x or put your choice in order of 1, 2, 3.

Best news of all was the comprehensive failure of the fascists. This was meant to be their big year, with immigration high up the agenda, and with their largest field of candidates in years, yet they made a net gain of a single seat. Such a result is bound to lead to an implosion within the party, when discontent is at such a high but they can't make a breakthrough. The local activists and councillors across the country deserve major credit for their efforts in stopping them.

As for the biggest and most unexpected losers on the night, they were undoubtedly the Liberal Democrats. They made no progress whatsoever in Scotland or Wales, and lost over 240 council seats. Whether this is down to a poor campaign, the switching of voters back to the Tories after playing coyly with the Libs, the end of the bounce their opposition to Iraq gave them, or the blandness of Ming Campbell is hard to tell, with all probably playing a factor. The most punishing thing for Campbell may not be the losses, but the appearance of Charles Kennedy on Question Time, coming across as well as ever. It's still not beyond the imagination that Campbell could yet be deposed, although Kennedy is an unlikely candidate.

David Cameron's claim that the Tories showing was "stunning" is by the same measures a little hollow. They're still nowhere in Scotland and Wales and in the big cities in the North West, even if they've made slight progress in places like Sunderland. If Gordon Brown were to call a snap election, which he certainly isn't, there's nothing to suggest they'd grab a majority, with a minority government being the most likely outcome. In fact, this is possibly the best possible outcome. Such a result would mean either Labour or the Tories having to call on the Lib Dems to help them form a government, which might finally mean getting PR at Westminster, even if yesterday's ballot wasn't exactly the greatest advertisement for it. Wales and Scotland shows that the left or left policies can still get a result: it's just that Labour has abandoned it.

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