Well, not really, but there’s a good chance I won’t be able to post anything for the majority of the week. Since the financial crisis is only deepening, I’ve decided to retreat into South Yorkshire Forest to form my own band of medieval bandits, bent on the redistribution of wealth and reclaiming the right to wear tights.* With my exceptional prowess with a bow & arrow and proven track-record at leading armed militias, I suspect I’ll be done by around teatime on Friday. In the meantime, my blogroll contains many sage commentators, most of whom are supremely well qualified to tell you how much you need to panic.
*Yes, I am kidding.
Since so many ‘known unknowns’ have been created in the past two days, it’s difficult to determine precisely what’s happening in the race for the next American president. We know that John McCain is losing, that his choice of Sarah Palin has proved embarrassing, that his attempts to tear down Obama’s character have failed and that he’s now hinging his entire campaign on an audacious stunt to parachute himself into the middle of the banking crisis. Aside from that, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty.
To say his intervention has been unhelpful is putting it mildly. McCain’s aim wasn’t to humbly contribute any help he could towards cutting a deal on the Wall St bailout; he had to be seen – and by as many cameras as possible – to have been the one to broker that deal. The sole reason for the stunt was to cement his own narrative of being a maverick, bi-partisan reformer who’ll put his campaign to one side in the interests of his country. At the time of writing, there remains no way of knowing how or when this’ll be resolved, except to say that McCain has invested so much of his credibility in the past 48 hours that it’s unlikely he’ll want to begin tonight’s debate without having being able claim some kind of a personal victory. If he does achieve that, then all bets are off.
And so the race has yet again become consumed with talk about process, maneuverings, tactics, and has very little to do with directly addressing the issues. I can’t help but sympathise with this lament by conservative writer Ross Douthat on how excruciating the past few months have been to watch:
McCain’s gamble may be politically smart, or it may be politically stupid, but like almost everything that’s happened in this campaign since the two candidates locked up their respective nominations, it’s primarily interesting on a tactical level; its substantive import is close to nil. Both McCain and Obama are almost certain, at this point, to end up supporting whatever bailout compromise is hashed out in Congress, which means that we’ll be able to add the current economic crisis to the list of issues where the two candidates have managed to avoid anything like a sustained argument about policy. It’s the Russo-Georgian War all over again: McCain responds boldly/impulsively, Obama responds carefully/overcautiously, but they both end up saying roughly the same thing, and the pundit class goes back to obsessing about whatever shocking poll or web ad has been released that day.
So Barack Obama, who once claimed to embody sweeping, once-in-a-generation change, has ended up running a cautious, negative, and deeply generic Democratic campaign, while John McCain, who’s supposedly all about honor and service and aching nobility, has offered a mix of snark, stunts, and manufactured controversies week in and week out. And the pundit class, deeply invested in the notion that the stakes in this election are stunningly, awesomely high, has responded to the fundamental dullness of the race itself with wild hyperventilation, unable to accept that this campaign just hasn’t lived up to their round-the-clock hype – and that it may not even turn out to be the most important election of this decade, let alone of a generation or a lifetime.
What you have, right here, is a laughing stock:
EXCLUSIVE: LETTERMAN MOCKS MCCAIN CANCELLATION
Earlier in the show, Dave kept saying, “You don’t suspend your campaign. This doesn’t smell right. This isn’t the way a tested hero behaves.” And he joked: “I think someone’s putting something in his metamucil.”
“He can’t run the campaign because the economy is cratering? Fine, put in your second string quarterback, Sara Palin. Where is she?”
“What are you going to do if you’re elected and things get tough? Suspend being president? We’ve got a guy like that now!”
Tags: We're number one!
The scores are in: Yorkshire 1 – London 0. ‘Twas ever thus:
Visitors get a warmer welcome in Yorkshire than any other region of the UK, a poll has revealed.
Some 15% of people questioned by Best Western Hotels said the region was the most hospitable.
Meanwhile, London was seen as being by far and away the region with the least helpful people. Some 49% of people said those living in the UK capital were the least helpful.
I’d also like to point out that the beer is cheaper. Oh, and the region’s full of swingers, if that’s your cup of tea.
Forever fond of its grandiose targets, the government announced some time ago that it was going to rid the homeless from Britain’s streets by 2012, presumably so that when London becomes filled with Olympic tourists, the only shabby, downtrodden drunks they’ll encounter will be our nation’s pop stars. In order to attain the frankly unattainable, the City of London Corporation has taken to sending outreach workers into homeless hotspots to persuade them to either enter a hostel or a drink/drug rehabillitation programme. If that doesn’t work, a council crew will turn up some time later to spray where they might’ve been sleeping with the odd gallon of water.
As cruel as this sounds, we should probably curb our self-righteousness; homelessness remains a deep-rooted social problem and it’s clear that whilst the provision of shelters has improved in the past decade, it’s still dependent on the homeless population to seek refuge inside them. So if this policy has the consequence of providing a few rough sleepers with such a shock that they feel they’ve no other option than to seek help, then it’s possible to see some benefit.
That shouldn’t, however, detract from the problems. Firstly, as this report points out, Eastern European immigrants are ineligible for state-funded assistance, which greatly reduces their options for seeking refuge. As a result, this policy might only be successful in dislodging them from where they might’ve felt settled & safe to somewhere unknown and more dangerous, potentially making them even more vulnerable than before. Secondly, even if this were to be applied city-wide and was such a resounding success that every single rough sleeper in London sought help, would there be enough room to house them all? The fact that a recent study by the charity Housing Justice found the government had under-estimated the number of rough sleepers suggests this might not be the case, and if you underestimate the scale of the problem, your efforts towards tackling it are compromised before you even begin.
Lastly, when push comes to shove, isn’t there some truth to the critique that all this amounts to is an attempt by a local government agency to meet a far-fetched central government target on the cheap? Can this quick fix of hosing homeless hotspots ever be as effective as committing time and money to an increase in trained outreach workers who take time to build strong, trust-based relationships with rough sleepers so they’re no longer apprehensive of the help on offer?
I’ll happily accept that it’s difficult to put an end to all homelessness and that it’s equally hard to formulate a policy which strikes the balance between what’s effective and what’s humane. It’s just that when you weigh the positives of this approach against the negatives, this practice doesn’t really seem much of either.
Tags: British Politics, Gordon Brown, Labour Party Conference
It’d be churlish to deny that when judged solely as a political performance, Brown’s speech was reasonably effective. With all the competing demands and expectations placed upon him, the PM needed to strike the kind of balance that would’ve challenged the average tightrope walker, let alone a modestly gifted orator. He had to appear humbled by the leadership speculation & the opinion poll hammering, yet still emit the gravitas of a world statesman. He needed to admit to & apologise for the diabolical errors he’s made in both policy and presentation, yet still persuade people that he remains the right man for the job. Lastly, he needed to deflect responsibility for the country’s economic woe but insist that only he can help lead the country through it.
He achieved all these aims to some degree, and whilst the speech was at least 2,000 words too long, it demonstrated that there’s still some life in the old clunking fist yet. If Labour doesn’t end the week with at least a two point gain in their approval, then it’ll prove conclusively that the rest of the country has just stopped listening.
But it was just a speech. As others have noted, anyone on the left who’d naively hoped Brown might add some red meat to the rhetoric was once again left looking like a kid on a council estate who prays she gets a pony for Christmas. Whatever may or may not change in the political landscape in the weeks ahead, Brown’s vision remains fundamentally the same. In this new state of ‘fairness’, his welfare reforms are still drafted by a former investment banker, the working class still endure a tax hike so the middle class can enjoy a tax cut, law & order policy is still dictated by Paul Dacre and the gap between the richest & poorest remains eye-wateringly high. On top of this, prisoners still can’t vote, asylum seekers still can’t work, the people he praised for providing public services still can’t get a pay rise that matches inflation and hospital porters still give a greater proportion of their income to the taxman than hedge fund managers. At best, Brown’s is a conveniently incomplete view of fairness. At worst, it’s a complete disfigurement.
All of which is stating the stark-nakedly obvious, of course. What we don’t know, what we can’t yet know, is whether any of this is enough to cling to those seats like Crewe & Nantwich which never should’ve been lost in the first place. Is Brown’s piecemeal, haphazardly-packaged vision enough to stop the bleeding everywhere from the middle-class marginals to former strongholds like Sunderland? And if not, would the imagined advantages of removing Brown outweigh the very real risks?
I haven’t a clue, but I’m at least comforted by the fact that no one in the illustrious commentariat is any the wiser, either. For the moment, all we can do is wait until the moment the Queen bequeaths us another election and the parties once again beg us into the voting booth to choose between the lesser of ‘who cares?’
I can hardly wait.
Image by Flickr user Judepics (Creative Commons)
Over at Next Left, which is blogging prodigiously from the Labour conference this week, there’s an excellent takedown of James Purnell’s bizarre insistence that his welfare reform holds true to Labour’s values, despite the fact he’ll need the Tories’ support to get it through Parliament:
Central to Labour’s welfare reform is the idea of ‘conditionality': making benefits conditional on efforts to find a job or make oneself more employable. Many argue that this is inherently ‘unLabour’. They are wrong. Purnell is right to stress the emphasis which early Labour thinkers placed on welfare as a support to enable people to work for a living, not as a replacement for work. The Labour ethic was that everyone ought to ‘do their bit’ for the community rather than living off the labour of others.
But Purnell’s history is too selective. Early Labour thinkers, such as R.H. Tawney, certainly criticised the separation of income from work. But the main target of their criticism was not the welfare state. It was capitalism – or, at least, specific forms of private property. Tawney’s great book, The Acquisitive Society, is a critique of landlords who enjoy big gains in land values without lifting a finger, those able to live off inherited wealth, and so on. It is not an essay about the unemployed poor.
What Tawney saw was the inconsistency and unfairness of applying the work principle to the asset poor and not to the asset rich.
In general, there are four key characteristics which distinguish a professional conservative commentator from some third-rate Tory blogger. They should posses an independent mind, have a sufficient grasp of political history, be able to state their party’s principles without simply spewing their party’s spin, and write to a higher standard than the average commenter on ConservativeHome. Yet despite failing to exhibit any of these qualities, The Guardian still allows Tory parliamentary candidate Charlotte Leslie to write for its Politics Blog, and apparently without supervision.
As is the case with most of her posts, Charlotte sings the same yawnsome song about how New Labour is only slightly less left-wing than Lenin and that only ‘hard-headed’ centre-right leadership can save the country from the statist malaise they’ve imposed on us. This is too predictable to get riled up about. She believes the power of state should be limited and so do I; we just disagree profoundly on what those limits are. No, it’s only when she starts asserting things as ‘facts’ to prove her case that things get messy. Here’s her assessment of where Labour went wrong:
Many of those genuinely good centre-ground ideas (such as academies, for example, resurrecting the idea of Conservatives’ city technology colleges) were being implemented off the back of old-left mechanisms. They are more bureaucratic and expensive than they need be. Funded by ever-increasing taxes, administered by a burgeoning civil service. (emphasis mine)
The civil service is ‘burgeoning’, eh? So if I was to look at a chart showing civil service employment, I’d be able to see a sustained and rapid growth over the past few years, right? In that case… how would she explain this?
For those who, like Charlotte, may be averse to graphs, what this link reveals is that Civil Service employment has fallen every year since 2003, and is now only 20,000 bodies greater than the number of Civil Servants (PDF, page 3) Labour inherited from the Tories. Considering the population’s grown by a good two million in that time, that’s not particularly bad going. So rather than ‘burgeoning’, the Civil Service is, in fact, dwindling.
Leslie also dredges up the age-old issue of our armed forces and claims that Labour has overseen a steady decline in numbers from 238,550 in 1978 to 73,290 today. Now, she’s not wrong to point out the decline, but I do find it curious that there’s no mention of one rather significant development which made that reduction possible, nor any recognition that the number of service personnel also declined under both Margaret Thatcher & John Major’s governments. (PDF, page 23).
As I said earlier, the question about the size and purpose of the state is one of the most important & relevant debates in politics, but you’re not going to advance that debate if all you’re doing is blithely repeating trite Cameronisms you’ve been emailed from Tory HQ, linking to some failed 90’s pop band and trotting out some statements which are, at best, erroneous or misleading. Seriously, if the standard of the Tory party’s parliamentary candidates is no better than the average blogger, what hope should we have about how well they’d run the country?
Tags: Prison Reform, UN
For anyone keeping score, there are nine European countries which ban all prisoners from voting in elections. These are: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Romania, Russia and the United Kingdom. For those of us who believe this to be a pretty embarrassing deficit in our democracy, being in the company of seven countries whose democratic processes are younger than I am really drives the point home.
For many years prison reform charities campaigned, with little success, for this law to be overturned, until the court in Strasbourg finally ruled that it was against a prisoner’s human rights to deny them the vote. Trouble is, that ruling was over four years ago, and since then the franchise hasn’t been extended to a single inmate. In fact, the only concrete step the government has taken to meet their legal obligation was the launch of a ‘consultation process’ in 2006, but this was apparently so insufficient that Jack Straw’s still insisting they need a “more detailed public consultation on how voting rights might be granted to serving prisoners”. No date for this ‘second consultation’ has been set, of course. Anyone would think they were dragging their feet.
So the recent call by the UN to extend the vote to prisoners is a very welcome intervention. In their report on the state of British civil liberties, the UNHCR states that “the general deprivation of the right to vote for convicted prisoners may not meet the requirements” of the UN’s own human rights covenant. But whilst the UN’s statement is useful for being another source of pressure for the government to act, the reason to give inmates the vote isn’t because of any wooly-minded abstraction about human rights. No, for the prisoners themselves, the reasons are all too practical.
As I’ve detailed over & over & over again, the prisons service is in a grim place right now. Jails are at record capacity. Inmates are killing themselves, self-harming or becoming hooked on drugs, and our efforts towards reducing reoffending have stalled. With the proposed new ‘Titan Prisons’ having been roundly condemned by penal reform advocates, there’s really no knowing when the situation will improve, nor how many lives will have been ruined before it does.
There is so much that is badly broken with our prison system, but because prisoners don’t have a vote, they don’t have a voice. If it wasn’t for groups like the Prison Reform Trust and a handful of MPs of good conscience, there wouldn’t be anyone to publicise the need for penal reform at all, let alone do something about it. By extending the franchise you have the potential to turn inmates into active constituents, and become a voting block that MPs and Parliamentary candidates would be forced to sit up and listen to. As John Hirst, the ex-inmate who brought the landmark case against the government, said in 2004: “Until now there have been no votes in jails and so MPs did nothing about penal reform.”
But four years have passed and time is quickly running out. By most objective estimates, we’ll be under a Tory government within two years at the latest, and if you think Labour’s been bad on this issue, just wait until you hear how Dominic Greive, the then Shadow Attorney General, reacted to the idea back in 05:
“Giving prisoners the vote would be ludicrous. If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice.”
We can’t let this window of opportunity pass; by giving prisoners the vote, Labour could begin to make amends for the mess it’s made, but it if it doesn’t move quickly, it could all be too late.
Tags: Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg
I know this is sacrilege in some circles, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lib Dems. I voted for them in the first two elections I was eligible for, once helped a friend deliver their fliers around our college (though I seem to remember him promising to buy me a pint afterwards), and was even a party member from the ages of 16-17 (my membership fee came out of my McDonalds wages, and there was only so long I was going to stick at that). So I think I’m just about capable of approaching their leader not Charles Kennedy Nick Clegg’s speech without the usual spoonfuls of leftwing prejudice.
This is just a minor quibble, but I really hate the format the speech took. Ever since Cameron delivered his Tory leadership speech ‘without notes!’ there’s been some strange acceptance that wandering around a stage looking a little bit lost makes a politician appear like an ordinary bloke speaking off the cuff about his vision for the future. It doesn’t. Look, he’s still wearing a tailored suit. He’s still speaking words that have been written & re-written to target specific voter blocks. And if he forgets his lines, he can still refer to a teleprompter. There’s nothing this format buys you except maybe a column inch in a newspaper, and it probably loses you a lot of those people who’re able to spot how stage-managed it is.
That said, the content & the delivery were excellent. He didn’t speak in abstractions, didn’t appear to trade in focus-group slogans and spoke directly & emotively about the real hardships (note to Gordon: this sounds better than ‘challenges’) lots of us are facing right now. At various points he seemed genuinely pissed-off by the state of our politics, and when you consider that most of the country shares the same gut disgust, that can only help his ‘shares our values’ rating. Right now, Labour would kill for someone who could present their party as well as Clegg presented the Lib Dems.
As for the whole ‘tacking to the right’/’cuts in tax & spending’ thing, well that’s a little more complicated. There are two competing dynamics at play here: the first being the quite genuine belief that tax cuts on lower-to-middle income earners would be the most effective way of helping us shop for groceries without having panic attacks, and the other being the ever-present concerns about electoral politics, and how to stave-off a conservative resurgence without losing those seats they took off Labour. Personally, this is the kind of thing I’d take with a pinch of salt until election time. The recession creates so much uncertainty about the state’s finances at the moment (how much they’ll take in tax revenue, how much of a burden unemployment will create, etc etc) that even if Clegg/Cable had produced a detailed, fully-costed plan of how they could achieve all they promised, it’d still be obsolete by election time.
But don’t let anyone fool you; the Liberal Democrats are still in pretty good shape, at least compared to the competition.
Sheffield is apparently home to one of the most vibrant swingers scenes in the country:
It’s Friday night in Sheffield and, at the old Robin Hood pub, the conversation is growing lively. “It would be a fantastic experience to see you strip off and see you two play with each other. Then I would join and play with my wife if she lets me,” says Simon, a chubby, middle-aged Yorkshireman with a cheeky grin. His wife Toni, who is slim and curly-haired and looks a decade younger than him, gives me a reassuring smile as I nearly drop my notepad on the floor.
“Don’t worry love, he’s only joking,” she says with a laugh as I try to focus on the blank page instead of the various semi-naked people who are casually walking around nearby.
The Robin Hood is no ordinary pub. Once a watering hole for local steelworkers, it went through a radical makeover nearly a decade ago. The dartboards were replaced with large TVs showing hardcore porn, the pool table made way for pole dancing poles, an S&M dungeon was added, and the Robin Hood acquired an alternative identity as “La Chambre”, one of Britain’s most successful swingers’ club.
Well, it’s nice to see we’re finding innovative solutions to our industrial decline…
Via TPM, Sarah Palin almost had a great idea:
Sarah Palin likes to tell voters around the country about how she “put the government checkbook online” in Alaska. On Thursday, Palin suggested she would take that same proposal to Washington.
“We’re going to do a few new things also,” she said at a rally in Cedar Rapids. “For instance, as Alaska’s governor, I put the government’s checkbook online so that people can see where their money’s going. We’ll bring that kind of transparency, that responsibility, and accountability back. We’re going to bring that back to D.C.”
There’s just one problem with proposing to put the federal checkbook online – somebody’s already done it. His name is Barack Obama.
Well, if he’s going to call her a pig, she’s entitled to steal his policies. Only fair, right?
Tags: Barack Obama, Melanie Phillips
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, let’s go over this one last time. The ‘change’ Barack Obama believes in isn’t just a syrupy by-word for Bambiesque ‘ideals’ like diplomacy, resisting the urge to torture prisoners & restoring Habeas Corpus; rather, it’s a black-powered Marxist death cult determined to enslave ‘whitey’ and hasten the arrival of the End Times. At least, that’s what anyone who’s read Melanie Phillips’ blog over the past few months would be forgiven for believing.
Unable to get too excited about John McCain (she’s written more about Sarah Palin than the Straight Talkin’ One), Mel decided to focus her blogging prowess on uncovering all there is to know about the slippery Illinois Senator, speculating about Obama’s ‘Muslim roots’, the ‘Muslim roots’ of his ex Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the ‘Muslim roots’ of shamed former associate, Antoin Rezko. Having done the whole ‘the Muslims are coming!’ thing to death, she’s tried a new tack in recent weeks, reminding her readers about his association with the ‘radical’ Saul Alinsky, the ‘radical terrorist’ William Ayers, and now the ‘radical, black Communist’ Frank Marshall Davis. So what’s this black Senator doing with all these radicals then? Well, obviously because he shares their agenda:
the agenda indeed of Gramsci/Alinsky: patron saints of community organisers, apostles of deeply underground mole-like revolutionary Marxism, architects of the wildly successful undermining of western morality and society in America and Britain — and now poised to embed itself in the White House, epicentre of the oppressive global capitalist regime, itself.
Join up the dots.
You can bet she felt very smug writing that part. Progressives don’t have anything to fear from the allegations made in Mel’s mega-series; most are second-hand recitations of long-debunked smears (she insists on citing 9/11 conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi despite the fact his book couldn’t even get the date of Barack & Michelle’s wedding correct), whilst the rest rely on the Guilt by Association fallacy. What does baffle me, however, is why she continues to do it. Does she not know that the sources for her smears are discredited? Is she aware they’re discredited but still believe them to be true? Or, worse, does she just not care whether the information she uses is sound or not? To illustrate, let’s look at the credentials of three men credited with the information in Mel’s last post:
Trevor Loudon: An ex-Vice President of New Zealand’s right-wing ACT Party, Loudon is a student of Zenith Applied Philosophy, a small Scientology spin-off founded by a guy who calls himself ‘John Ultimate’ and believes his home to be the centre of the universe. ZAP has attracted some controversy over its reported links with fascist organisations. When he’s not busy suggesting Obama is a Communist, Loudon can occasionally be found comparing cabinet ministers to Himmler.
Cliff Kincaid: Cliff is president of ‘UN watchdog group’ America’s Survival and editor of Accuracy In Media. Once funded by philanthropist of the far-right, Richard Mellon Scaife, AIM achieved notoriety in 2001 by ‘proving’ Bill Clinton had ordered the murder of Vince Foster, despite three independent investigations (including one by Kenneth Starr) finding no evidence for it. Ever eager to jump on a non-story to slime his enemies, in 07 Kincaid pronounced that the ‘Hillary is a lesbian’ lie was ‘as explosive’ as the lie about Obama being raised as a Muslim. Just for laughs, Kincaid also happens to believe that you can stop being gay as easily as you can quit smoking.
Herbert Romerstein: A lower-profile hatchet man than the others. Romerstein’s life’s work has been smearing people as unpatriotic, from his work investigating Un-American Activities in Congress, through to a line of books on the matter. He smeared the writer I.F. Stone as a Communist despite being the sole source for the accusation, and was described by decorated US attorney Martin Garbus as ‘utterly untrustworthy’.
These are the people Melanie Phillips cites, uncritically, to build her latest case against Barack Obama. Not exactly Woodward & Bernstein, is it? I have no idea whether Phillips’ continually clumsy hatchet job on Obama is due to laziness, naivety, delusion or just plain old partisan cynicism. But the last time I checked, there were still some standards of honesty & accuracy in the journalistic profession, and if Phillips can’t adhere to even the most basic of those standards, then perhaps she’d be better off resigning from her posts, taking up blogging full time, and retiring to the world of the hackneyed hard-right, where every conservative is virtuous, every liberal is evil and where nothing they say or write is ever, ever wrong.