A Duel Will Settle This!: In defence of policy blogging

May 31, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging, British Politics | 3 Comments

(I have no idea why this post became as long as it did. Sorry)

Well, the weather may be glorious, but if there’s ever a chance to spurn the sun’s come-hither allure and hunch over a keyboard, clattering caffeinated musings about The Future Of The Left!, it seems I’ll always bite. The latest addition to a debate that has all the cool kids talking comes courtesy of Charlotte Gore, who has a few things to say about Liberal Conspiracy, Britain’s left-liberal blogging behemoth and an occasional host for my overwrought rambling. Now, as a libertarian, Ms Gore has more than one criticism to make of LC, but in this case she suggests that the site can’t grow any more influence whilst it remains a place for lots of policy discussion:

All that fretting and worrying about policy is such a complete waste of time. I’ve heard it over and over on Labour Home, I’ve heard it over and over on Labour List and it’s been done to death on Liberal Conspiracy. All of them looking for the new idea, the new brilliant policy that’s going to somehow going to reinvent the left, bringing together the benefits of redistribution and a monolithic public sector without economic stagnation, unemployment, crushing of innovation, a welfare subculture, Government enabled Monopoly corporations and all this without the authoritarianism and ‘unfortunate’ need to take as much wealth as possible from as many sources as possible to pay for all these adventures and ideas.

Charlotte concludes that instead of wringing our worried hands over policy, LC should take a leaf out of DailyKos’ book and start scouring the country for some charismatic charmer who’ll make our daft ideas sound sensible and lead us to that far-off promised land of equality, fairness and cheap beer.

The whole thing’s a quite provocative read and I must admit to sometimes doubting the utility of all these ‘where do we go from here’ thinkpieces which have sprouted up under Labour’s rotten corpse. That said, I think she’s taking the wrong lessons from the Daily Kos example.

It’s certainly true that the Netroots movement wasn’t particularly interested in policy. Sure, there were things the Democratic left was against (war, torture, the collected wrongdoings of George W. Bush) and things they were for (peace, healthcare, impeachment), but the Netroots never had a laundry list of specific policy demands and never had the ideological unity to even attempt a manifesto.

This isn’t to say that you couldn’t find any good policy analysis & debate; the past few years have also seen the rise in profile of such exceptional young commentators as Ezra Klein & Matthew Yglesias, and the lack of a comparable British version of what those two do is a problem. But by and large, the Netroots was for organising, proselytising and flaming the Republicans out of existence. Online organising was the means and electoral success was the end.

This was all incredibly successful for a while, particularly in the ’06 midterms: activists managed to kick Senator Lieberman out of the party, get James Webb elected in Virginia and score countless smaller victories in Congressional districts, state houses & city councils. Then there was the election of a certain shiny, smooth-talking speech-maker who, thanks to the donations, hard work & votes of millions, went to the White House & bought a comedy dog.

But it’s in the election of President Obama where the flaws & limits of the netroots are starting to show. As he undertakes the complicated task of governing, Obama has inevitably disappointed some of his supporters, and there have been plenty of quarrels over his cabinet picks, his fiercely-rebuffed attempts at bipartisanship, his economic policy, his approach to the Bush administration’s torture regime & his continuation of the war on drugs. In each of these areas there’s been disappointment for Obama’s liberal activists, but because the Netroots wasn’t established on the foundations of policy, the response to these disappointments has been as disparate & varied as they were unified & disciplined in opposition. Had there been a more widespread & lengthy discussion about what policies Democrats expected when in power, they might’ve been able to use their formidable organisation as leverage to pull the Obama administration closer to their idea of progressivism.

Right, let’s try to shift this back to the malaise of the British left. As a libertarian, Charlotte’s bound to interpret much of the policy discussion on Liberal Conspiracy as the equivalent of saying ‘oooh, what else can the state buy with other people’s money? What other excuses can we come up with for making folk more poor & less free?’ That’s a logical reaction from someone of her political leanings, and she certainly has a point that it’s all futile without (a) the ability to organise effectively, and (b) some skilled communicator who’ll have the nation taking out subscriptions to ‘Marxist Bollocks Monthly’.

But let’s say that in a decade’s time we have that organisation in place and we have an Obamaesque orator who could sell even the Poll Tax, and let’s say (s)he wins a 100+ majority in the House of Commons. Then what? Are we simply doomed to repeating the same policies of the past twelve years? Will we ever have the opportunity to try something new? Or will we have just helped to elect some Blair-lite blank canvas without ever subjecting their positions to the scrutiny & criticism they deserve? For those of us who don’t want to repeat the mistakes made during the Blair era, that’s pretty critical.

Beyond that, the downside of being silent about policy is that it would keep people with very different ideologies at arms-length from each other and turn the blogosphere into a partisan battleground rather than a talking shop. I doubt that a left-wing/liberal-left/progressive (delete as appropriate) commentator would have much agreement with Tories or libertarians on something like tax or welfare, but there are plenty of areas which don’t fall anywhere on the left-right spectrum. The questions of how you reform a broken criminal justice system, how you move the country away from drug prohibition or how you can move power away from Whitehall all fall on the liberal-authoritarian scale, and talking about them at somewhere like Liberal Conspiracy provides the opportunity to build consensus across political divides which might otherwise have proved insurmountable. Surely we can all benefit from that?

Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie, and if you can have the 3rd highest-ranked blog in the country by having a substantial number of posts on policy, then there must be some appetite for it. Policy is the substance of politics, but it’s also an area where people are more inclined and better-equipped to debate ideas in good faith. If the site can remain a facilitator for that in years to come, then online politics should be in pretty decent shape.

*Yeah, I nicked the post title from a Mates of State song. It’s a good job I don’t get paid for this blog; God knows how much I’d have to pay indie bands for stealing their words.

“Tough on crime” and other bad jokes

May 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Prison Reform, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I wasn’t planning on writing anything tonight, but I’d just like to highlight an excellent – if disturbing – piece of journalism which aired on BBC’s Look North earlier this evening.

Towards the end of last year, it became apparent that the National Probation Service – the folks whose job it is to ensure that people who commit crimes don’t reoffend – would have to join just about every other branch of the public sector in having their budgets slashed. The cuts, estimated to be as much as £30 million, would have to be made in each area the country and the probation union NAPO warned that this would reduce the service’s already limited capacity to reform offenders, placing the public at greater risk of crime.

Anyway, Look North filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained the Ministry of Justice’s risk assessment document, which looked into the potential impact of any cuts. The document apparently gives ratings from one (negligible) to twenty-five (critical); in West Yorkshire, where £7m is expected to be cut, the impact was rated at twenty four. In other words, the public will be put at greater risk and criminals won’t have the same guidance to help them mend their ways.

Has there ever been a worse time to make cuts in the probation service? A time of deep recession, a time when prisons are so over-crowded that inmates are being released early or not sent to jail at all and a time when the reoffending rate already stands at 62%. Is this really the time to cut the budget of a service which is sometimes the only thing which stands in the way of offenders taking the easy route back to a life of crime?

As one anonymous probation officer told Look North: “We all came into this role to protect the public. We all feel strongly about the value the probation service has had for 100 years. We’re in the scenario now where our very existence seems to be getting stamped out by a government who seem more inclined to run the service like a McDonalds franchise.”

Quite. Of all the strategies this government’s followed in recent years, the notion that it can run the criminal justice system on the cheap has been the most baffling and will, over the long term, prove disastrous. The only irony is that they’ll only notice it when they’re languishing in opposition.

Grasping the nettle of social care

May 28, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | 1 Comment

About 15 years ago, my mother decided that her parents had grown too frail to live on their own: her dad was so crippled by arthritis that he was barely able to leave his armchair, and her mother’s eyesight had all but vanished. The most basic things – cooking, washing, cleaning – were a daily struggle, and though there was some nominal, infrequent care provided by the local authority, it wasn’t enough to assuage mum’s fears that her parents were too vulnerable.

Fuelled by a sense of love, duty & tradition (she’d cared for her own ailing grandmother when growing up), she persuaded her husband to let them move in with us; we built an extension to the house, converted a garage into a bedroom and fixed-up a disabled bathroom. Though they only stayed for about a year before passing away, for mum there was at least some solace in knowing that they lived their last days in comfort & dignity.

Comfort and dignity; that’s the most we really want out of old age and the least that any of us deserves. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years that we’re ill-equipped, both as a country and as individuals, to meet those modest standards.

In 2006, a report by Derek Wanless found serious shortfalls in the social care system: there’s a lack of joined-up service provision, delivery throughout the country was patchy and care providers are hampered by a lack of resources due to stretched council budgets. On top of that, the system of arbitrary means-testing is bitterly resented and many who fail that test are forced to sell their homes & move into nursing accommodation.

With an ageing population and rising life expectancy, Wanless warned that spending on social care would have to treble to about £30bn by 2026 just to meet the needs of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. That’s money we don’t have at present, and without it there’ll be millions of older people becoming wholly dependent on the care & charity of their families. That’s providing those families even have the ability to provide that care, of course; not everyone can afford to build extensions of the side of their bungalows.

In response to this mounting long-term crisis, the government’s in the midst of devising a Green Paper aimed at reforming the system. In anticipation of this, the IPPR has done a little research into the public attitudes to social care, what they expect from it and who they expect to pay for it. The results are a little muddled, conflicted and raise far more questions than they answer.

The first thing to take out of this report is that the public isn’t entirely sure what social care is; whilst a large majority of people can identify services like ‘meals on wheels’ or home visits, less than half were aware of the (fairly meagre) financial support for carers, and barely a third knew of the direct payments given to people needing care. This is important because the survey also found that care is an everyday part of many people’s lives, with just under a quarter of respondants claiming to offer help or support to someone close to them. Clearly, their lives could be made easier if they were more aware of the types of help available.

What’s slightly more concerning given the funding gap is the response to the question of what plans folk are making for their future care needs. Given the fact that around half of us aren’t putting anything towards a private pension, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that a large majority of us either haven’t thought about it or haven’t done anything to plan for it. In a way, this is understandable; after all, we could all be hit by a bus tomorrow, right? Sure, but the problem is that lots of us aren’t getting hit by busses, and if we all live a lot longer without planning for how we’ll be looked after when we reach old age, then we’re going to have a bit of a problem.

plansforfuturecare copy

So if we’re not doing anything to plan for our own old age, who should be responsible for it? How about our kids? After all, think of all the money parents spend on them; a little TLC wouldn’t be too much to expect in return, would it? Well, apparently it would. The chart below shows that most people from 35-70+ don’t believe that their future care should be paid for by their offspring, most likely out of a wish not to be a burden on their future success & happiness. On top of that, a large majority believe that care should be provided by health/social care professionals, rather than family members.


And as for how this social care could be funded… well, it’s enough to give a libertarian a heart attack:


As you can see, the current method of means testing isn’t very popular, and the alternative proposed by Derek Wanless of having free basic care for all, but additional services paid for, doesn’t fare much better. The large preference seems to be for free, universal care based solely on the level of help needed, similar to the NHS. This obviously poses a huge headache for policy-makers because you’re talking about a massive amount of money (certainly more than Wanless’ £30bn estimate), a significant expansion in services and an increase in the size of the public sector.

The main conclusion made in the IPPR’s report is that the government should establish an independent panel to establish the possible courses of action for improving social care and then beginning a national debate about how to proceed. I think this is certainly needed. The public needs to become better informed about the choices facing us and there needs to be open discussion about what role local & national government can play, what role the private sector can play, and what our own responsibilities are as citizens. That discussion is probably the only way to better long-term policy.

Just returning to the anecdote at the top for a moment: whenever a loved one’s birthday rolls around, I find myself reminded of the extraordinary & selfless care my mother gave to her parents, and wondering whether I’d be able to give the same level of devotion she showed to them and her two sons. Right now, I’m not sure I could, and I’m equally unconvinced that they could pay for it themselves or that the state could provide it for them. This nagging fear that my own parents – and millions like them – might one day be robbed of the right to age in comfort & dignity is why we need to discuss the options open to us, and, because each of us is someone’s son or daughter, I’d hope we could have that discussion in good faith.

Selected reading

May 27, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
  • Leftoutside has an excellent take on the situation in North Korea.
  • Intelligence analyst John McCreary notes that the state’s behaving with a recklessness which is unusual even for them.
  • From Wired’s Danger Room, America isn’t going to stage an attack on North Korea, but if they did, it’d go something like this.
  • And d’you want to see what the country (possibly) looks like? Go on, be a devil.
  • Back in Blighty, Chris Dillow returns to ponder the implications of David Cameron’s big speech.
  • Nick Griffin admits that he’s an embarrassment.
  • A quick request: could we please make sure that we don’t send asylum seekers back to torture? Thanks.
  • And if you haven’t already seen it, Andy Worthington’s piece on the outsourcing of torture is a must-read.

Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

May 26, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment


Whenever it comes to writing blogposts in memoriam, there’s always the risk of slipping into cliche or mawkishness. This is especially true of artists, because it’s often hard to separate the cherished works they left behind from the singular, imperfect being who created it. I didn’t know Jay Bennett; like most people, my only exposure to him as a person was in a documentary that many feel didn’t reflect his better self. Nor do I know enough of his work to give a full assessment of all the music he produced in those tragically curtailed 45 years.

No, like a thousand sniffling indie kids who’re now rummaging through their record collection or penning their own tiny tributes, the reason I write this is to acknowledge his role in producing three of my favourite albums. When Bennett joined Wilco in 1994, he’d become part of a band which, for all its tuneful alt. country racket, lacked any real musical depth. In the years that followed, this prodigious multi-instrumentalist struck up a songwriting partnership with singer Jeff Tweedy which represents some of the band’s best material and led to greater critical & commercial success with each succeeding album. This all culminated in the quite magnificent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a superb melding of traditional American songcraft with experimental production: shortwave radio samples, bursts of noise, subtle flashes of feedback & dischord. From the songs he helped write to the wide range of instruments he played, Bennett’s fingerprints are all over that record, and regardless of the break-ups, lawsuits & health problems which followed, it stands as one of the great albums of the decade & a piece of work any musician would be proud of.

At this point, there’s not a great deal more that needs to be said, so I’ll leave you with three videos catching the band at their best. The first is a clip from the documentary which detailed Bennett’s departure from Wilco, but catches them here in less conflicted times. The second is the video to Jesus Etc, which Bennett co-wrote and stands as one of their best tunes, and another catches him on the keyboards during a live performance.

Still Crazy After All These Years: what next for North Korea?

May 26, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment

2004 team america 053

It’s not something I write often, but… thank god for Kim Jong-il. We’ve spent so much of the past month in an orgy of outrage over how much we’ve been paying to clean honourable members’ moats that some of us were starting to forget that politics can occasionally be about stuff that matters. Enter one cartoon villain with a habit of wasting what’s left of his starving country’s GDP on stupid nuclear experiments, and it’s suddenly okay to stop dribbling about dry rot and start writing about actual matters of life & death. It’ll never last.

Anyway, as you might expect for a country shrouded in secrecy and fuelled by isolationism and irrational behaviour, identifying the motives behind the North Koreans’ latest attempt to freak us out requires a PHD in Kremlinology. Many are taking it as a sign that the ailing Kim Jong-il has started the transition of power to some lucky successor; according to WSJ, the frontrunner was long thought to be eldest son Kim Jong Nam, but then he got arrested for trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport, and that didn’t go down too well with Daddy. The new favourite might be Kim Jong Un, which would be great because he’s reported to be a fan of western popstars, and the thought of sending Madonna & Bono there on a permanent peace mission is the kind of thing which gives me reason to live.

Others speculate that it might be a deliberate test of President Obama’s fortitude, an attempt to strengthen their hand for when multilateral negotiations finally recommence or just that the deteriorating ‘dear leader’ has grown impatient for the kind of trembling deference that all true tyrants crave. But whatever the intent behind these latest provocations, the episode further demonstrates the limits of what the Obama administration can achieve on its own. As David Sangar points out in the New York Times, the courses of action open to the Americans are limited to helping shape a unified international response and pursuing sanctions through the United Nations, and it’s not entirely clear that either of those things will curb the North Koreans’ aggression.

At the same time, the clamour for hawkishness will grow increasingly frenzied from those domestic commentators who’ve refused to learn anything from the misadventures in Iraq & Afghanistan. As Steve Clemons predicts, it won’t be long before Obama’s natural instincts of restraint, patience & dialogue become mangled by the neo-con noise machine as the excuses of a callow coward.

But whilst this incident rightly begs us to ask questions about the utility of American power in the 21st century, it should also make us ask questions about China. Clemons also reports that whilst the Chinese government has traditionally fed the North Korean people and played a key role in cooling international pressure on their nuclear programme, even they have had no joy in reigning-in their neighbours’ antagonistic behaviour. If the United States can’t pacify them, and China can’t control them, then what does that mean for efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles? Could Japan finally build its own deterrent? Might Taiwan? Would China then want to add to its own deadly arsenal? It would be a deeply tragic irony if the era of a President who only last month made a very public overture on non-proliferation actually resulted in greater proliferation than during the time of his predecessor.

Of course, given the erratic, unpredictable nature of that country, this whole thing could blow over in a few months with Kim Jong-il’s government tempted back to the negotiating table by the offer of more goodies. But whichever way this thing develops it’s important to remember, as Rory Medcalf does, that the real victims of this mess are that wretched state’s repressed people. The nuclear card is the political establishment’s primary means of self-preservation: domestically, they’re able to paint the outside world as a place filled with violent aggressors who’re only kept at bay by fear of the Dear Leader’s military might, and internationally, they’re able to use those weapons to extort more aid, fuel and food from an international community worried that the guy’s just crazy enough to blow something up. Whether the situation escalates further or soon finds some short-term resolution, there’ll still be no respite for this malnourished, mistreated people.

Depressing, isn’t it? Perhaps we should just stick to writing about moat-cleaning, after all.

Selected reading

May 22, 2009 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Misc. | 3 Comments

This will be an intermission of sorts. I’m visiting a friend in Edinburgh tomorrow, so you probably won’t hear anything from me ’til Tuesday. Well, either that or I’ll be blogging to stave-off the boredom of the train journey, but I really should spend that time reading things with pages, rather than hyperlinks. Anyway, speaking of hyperlinks:

  • If you’re a teacher, it’s probably not the smartest thing to do to badmouth your colleagues and pupils on Twitter.
  • Mike McNabb highlights some quite dreadful comments by Phil Woolas on asylum/immigration, while Frances Webber savages Labour’s recod to immigration.
  • The headline tells you everything: Disabled prisoners unable to shower or bathe for months.
  • Michael Keating ponders Benjamin Netanyahu’s dilemma.
  • Andrew Sullivan pens a superbly-written response to Barack Obama’s national security speech.
  • Over at Hagley Road to Ladywood, Claude wishes Morrissey a happy birthday.
  • Guardian readers recommend songs about the future.
  • Popmatters takes a highbrow look at the new Star Trek film.
  • And a third Ghostbusters movie is one haunted footstep (sorry!) closer to being a reality. Let’s hope they don’t spook us (yeah, I now) by making it really bad.

And after that punning car-crash, you’re probably glad to see the back of me. Catch you later.

Photo by Extra Medium (Creative Commons)

Burning down the house? What could ‘a new politics’ look like?

May 20, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in British Politics | 13 Comments

When tens of thousands of concerned citizens converged in London for the G20 protests, their dreams, motivations & irritations were as diverse as the city itself. Some came to cause a ruck; others to plea for peace. Some were driven by the dire state of the economy; others by a feeling of peril for the planet. Some came to claim their right to the most modest hopes – a decent job, decent pay, safe communities to live in – whilst others proselytised for whichever radical ideology would make Thomas More proud.

But if you could identify one thing which united this cast of thousands, it would be the feeling that democratic politics just isn’t working. In only 10 years, we’ve been visited by three era-defining crises: 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror, the escalating threat posed by climate change, and the global financial meltdown. In each of these crises there were multiple warnings several years before they became emergencies, yet our nations’ governments either responded when it was too late or have still to produce an adequate response.

Taken together, these issues have combined to undermine the traditional argument for the state’s legitimacy; to protect its citizens from harm. Without being able to satisfy that most basic of requirements, politics is in real trouble.

The expenses scandal has superceded all of this, of course; turning the discussion away from politics’ structural malaise and towards the self-serving, insular & arrogant habits of our politicians. It’s in this context of disgust and despair that The Guardian has launched a series of opinion pieces on how best to conduct root and branch reform of Westminster to ensure that not only can politicians no longer claim expenses for non-existent mortgages, but to repair the damaged marriage between the public and its servants.

A very noble cause, of course, and there are several suggestions there which deserve further debate. My own take on this question offers fewer specifics than those from writers who know the workings of Westminster. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how it could be possible to strike a better balance between the state’s ability to anticipate and reduce threats to public safety, and the need for the public to become much closer & more involved in politics.

The first thing that needs to be said is that whilst the expenses scandal should be used as an opportunity to demand reform, it shouldn’t be seen as the sole reason why reform is needed. As I’ve already noted, public perception of politics and its practitioners was low even before the expenses scandal, and simply fixing the system so that an MP’s can’t live quite as luxuriously won’t do anything to resolve those structural flaws discussed earlier.

So what will? Well, there are some good proposals like reform of the House of Lords, proportional representation or the need to enshrine our liberties in law, but overall I think we need to talk about Westminster’s power can be squeezed. There needs to be more effective early-warning systems to spot long-term dangers to our economy & society, whether in the form of oversight committees or regulatory agencies. They need to be everything Westminster currently isn’t: independent of party politics, rigorous, forensic and capable of making unpopular recommendations to the government of the day. Our establishment should have been able to see the dangers of the credit economy far sooner than it did, should have been able to see the dangers of our overseas wars sooner than it did, and should’ve begun implementing steps to reduce our carbon footprints far sooner than it did. To regain public trust, the state must respond quicker to problems on the horizon, and that might require the reduction of Parliament and the state’s primacy as the auditors of our national health.

But whilst responding quicker and better to incoming crises would restore the public’s faith in the state’s basic functions, it’s not enough to increase their engagement in politics. For that, we will have to look again at ways of substantially increasing localisation. If more of our public services – everything from education & health to prisons and welfare – were not just delivered locally, but administered locally and became more accountable to local people, I think you’d see not only greater public interest & activism, but also better, more efficient ways of seeing those services delivered.

Obviously, the ideas expressed here are a little vague and deserve far more than what’s been sketched out in a meagre blogpost. All I would say to conclude is that if our poltics is to enter an age of reform, we should have the capacity to imagine far more than a few new Parliamentary procedures. If not, that long-delayed reconciliation with the public may remain some way in the distance.

Selected reading

May 19, 2009 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Won’t be much use to anyone this evening, so here’s some hyperlinks:

  • Speaking of which, Aaron questions the wisdom of blogging every day.
  • You think our MPs expenses scandal is bad? Spare a thought for the Indian public.
  • Chris Hedges warns of the consequences of Western societies being in a state of permanent war.
  • David Cay Johnstone has a novel idea: the U.S. must invade the Cayman Islands!
  • Juan Cole & Marc Lynch offer reactions to the Obama/Netanyahu meeting.
  • Matt Yglesias points out that whilst Obama & John Kerry are right to criticise Israel’s settlements, they now have to do something to stop them.
  • Brad Plumer discusses how bad climate change might be for the developing world.
  • Brandon Keim highlights an interesting study on nature vs nurture in at-risk teens.
  • And there’s big news for fans of the komodo dragon: researchers reckon they’ve worked out how it kills its prey.

A glimpse at Tory drug policy?

May 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs | 5 Comments

If you want to see what a future Tory government’s approach to drug policy might be, you could do worse than having a peek at a new report that’s just been published by The Centre for Policy Studies. Entitled ‘The Phoney War on Drugs’, author Kathy Gyngell essentially argues that the reason Labour’s attempts to curb drug use have failed is because they’re just not trying hard enough.

The report takes aim at the government’s long-standing policy of harm reduction, which works on the presumption that whilst there isn’t the public will for full decriminalisation, there’s also a limit to what a state can do to prevent people from putting poison in their bodies. With this in mind, the most prudent course of action is to reduce the social, economic, crime & health costs of drug addiction, and this inevitably leads to a greater emphasis on treatment and prescribing drug substitutes like methodone.

Gyngell argues that this focus on harm reduction has distracted from the state’s more pressing concern of stopping drugs from entering the country in the first place, being more dilligent in prosecuting dealers/users and promoting a culture of abstinence (a words she uses 30 times, fact fans) and zero tolerance. Naturally,the solution to this drug problem – as with every problem ever – can be found in the evergreen utopia that is Sweden (seriously, doesn’t that country do anything wrong?!)

There’s a lot to unpack here, and certainly far more than my blogging time allows, but there are a few observations I’d want to make.

First, the solutions offered here seem to be heavily reliant on greater statism. To improve our ability to stop drugs from entering the country will probably require more legislative action, increased use of police surveillance and escalating the state’s border patrols – all of which will pose profound questions for people concerned about individual liberty, the power of government and the potential misuse of anti-terror legislation to catch drug smugglers.

On top of that, it’s not likely to be cheap. Even if enforcing prohibition more effectively were to prove successful (by no means a certainty), you’d probably still see short to medium-term increases in state spending to improve our police’s ability to stop drugs and build new prisons. With all that in mind, you’re left wondering – as Pete Guither does – how this could ever be reconciled with CPS’ supposed mission statement of encouraging freedom, responsibility and limited government.

Second, I feel like Gyngell picks a soft target by simply attacking government policy. Even those on the opposite side of the drugs argument can see that current policy is mostly just an exercise in timorous, incrementalist bullshit, so attacking it from either left or right would’ve been pretty easy even for the most mediocre of researchers. No, the true test of her piece would’ve been how well it stands up to the counter-argument from anti-prohibitionists that you could reduce crime, health & other social costs currently associated with drug use/addiction by legalising, taxing and regulating those substances. Gyngell shies away from having that fight, which is a little bit of a missed opportunity for all concerned.

The reason I suggested that this report may one day inform the Conservatives’ approach to drugs is that I can only see this area going one of three ways. Once in power, Cameron’s government can either continue a Labour policy which not too many people on either side think has been a resounding success, decide that prohibition has been a costly folly, or decide that the state still hasn’t been tough enough on drug users/dealers. Out of all three, I suspect the latter conclusion will be the most convenient to reach, and if they do, god only knows what happens next.

Women’s prisons: a system crying out for change

May 17, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 1 Comment


As some of you might remember, a few months ago I wrote a post on prison policy which mentioned the short, troubled life and eventual suicide of Sarah Campbell. What I neglected to mention in that post was that whilst her death was a preventable tragedy, the greater outrage for prison reformers was that it was just one of six suicides to occur at Styal prison in the space of 12 months.

Spooked by the amount of self-harm among women prisoners, the government commissioned Baroness Jean Corston to conduct a review and suggest ways that our criminal justice system might be changed to stop creating more casualties.

For Corston, the fundamental flaw with the penal system is that it was designed by and for men. At the time, this might’ve seemed perfectly logical; even today, women only make up about 5% of the total prison population, so when you’re designing a system to house inmates, your planning is inevitably skewed towards men. But the women in prison often possess very different needs and vulnerabilities: they’re more likely to have been the victims of domestic or sexual abuse, are more likely to be lone parents and are more likely to self-harm.

Corston concluded that today’s prisons are systemically incapable of providing the kinds of help these women need and that all 15 jails should be phased-out within 10 years. In their place should be a series of smaller custodial units which would be closer to an inmate’s home and better equipped to help them with any drug or alcohol addictions, mental or physical health problems they may be harbouring.

But Corston went far further than simply asking for a radical change in the way we incarcerate female offenders; she also critiqued the frequency with which the criminal justice system resorts to imprisonment. The majority of the women in our prisons serve short sentences for non-violent, acquisitive crime; as they pose no danger to the law-abiding majority, there really isn’t any need to lock them up, particularly since nothing positive seems to come out of it. So for those women whose crimes were relatively minor, Corston argued that there should be a greater breadth of non-custodial sentences aimed at offenders repaying their debt to society in a more productive manner.

When it was published, the government was reasonably receptive and promised to look at ways of reducing the female prison population. But a little over two years since the Baroness’ call for change, the Fawcett Society has looked again at the circumstances for women in the criminal justice system and there’s little evidence of substantive change.

At present, the number of women in prison is a little over 4,200 – a 60% increase on ten years ago. Of that number, more than half have been victims of domestic violence in their lives, a third have suffered sexual abuse and a quarter were in care as children. 63% of these inmates serve a fruitless, pointless sentence of 6 months or less, two thirds are mothers of dependent children and 18,000 of those children are separated from their mums each year. Most startlingly, women make up just 5% of the total prison population, but commit half of the total number of incidents of self-harm.

Prison isn’t working. It isn’t working for the inmates or their familes, it’s not working for the victims of crime, it’s not working for a government which is meant to be reducing crime and it’s not working for the taxpayers who have to shell out every year for policies which yield few results. In any other area of governing, seeing the public’s money being wasted in such a way would make the major parties desperate to find alternatives. In the Corston report, we already have an alternative to the self-defeating status quo; all we need now is a government with the political bravery needed to make it a reality. Any takers?

Almost crimes

May 14, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

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There’s an episode of The West Wing where an Air Force One filled with figures from a fictitious past flies to the funeral of a former President. In the background is a Middle East which is once more a powder keg of political turmoil, and in the lulls between each earnest, highly-charged debate, Jed Bartlett’s staff glance at the Kissingeresque ex-statesmen around them and rue the role they played in shaping the ruinous, explosive politics of the region.

Meanwhile, Bartlett has a difficult decision to make: he can either opt for a radical, risky change in foreign policy which carries countless unknown consequences, or he can stick to convention and opt for a safe, formulaic retread of the Presidents who preceded him. He opts for the latter, and in a moment tinged with as much resignation as honesty, tells Toby Ziegler: “when we were elected, I really thought we were going to own the place — do it differently, better. Now I realize the men on this plane are the only others who have been there before — who really know.”

The present-day relevance of that scene shouldn’t be lost on Democrats who, throughout the powerlessness of the Bush era, saw in The West Wing a dream of how they could do things differently; how they might do things better. Like his fictional counterpart, Barack Obama embodied the highest hopes of his liberal supporters, distilled their idealism into bumper sticker slogans and sold a rhetoric of change which promised a clean break with the failures of the past. But barely 100 days in to his term in office, a growing number of his supporters are seeing a President so straightjacketed by the actions of his predecessor that he’s even continuing those policies he once renounced.

On its own, the decision to reverse a promise to release photographic evidence of detainee abuse could’ve been seen as just a mild mis-step on America’s road to accounting for the crimes of the Bush era. But when taken in the context of his administration’s mimicry of Bush’s line on secrecy, the revival of military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the promise of immunity for torturers and the flagrant bullying of the British state over Binyam Mohamed, we see not a few isolated incidents, but a concerted effort by the White House to control and restrict what the public is permitted to know about the torture committed in their name.

There are, of course, rational explanations for all of these decisions: the wish to avoid seeing the CIA descend into acrimony & recriminations; the desire to avoid inflaming anti-Americanism when the country is trying to rebuild its image; the need to protect the troops from having the same torture inflicted upon them that we know was inflicted on America’s detainees; the desire to insulate Obama’s Presidency from the warfare which would erupt if it was to investigate and prosecute figures from the Bush administration.

However reasonable these excuses may sound when they’re made by Democrats, and however much we might understand that pragmatism is often necessary, it remains true that each of these excuses could’ve been (and were) made during the eight inglorious years of Republican rule. Put another way; had it been a President McCain making these decisions, Democratic activists would already be demanding impeachment.

None of this is to detract from the good progress being made in his adminstration’s domestic policy, nor the promising – if patchy – beginnings of his general foreign policy. We also should refrain from seeing these incidents as proof that Obama will spend his term obstructing the pursuit of justice; given the scale of the furore and the fact that his administration has allowed some openness, it’s still quite possible that proper public investigations will be carried out during the next 3 1/2 years.


But what these obstructions do show is that opponents of torture – especially among those who supported him – can no longer afford to give his administration the benefit of the doubt. They must decry every attempt at secrecy, denounce every delay and immerse the White House in such a sustained wall of sound that full accountability becomes the only politically sensible course of action.

For a demonstration of why it’s so important to hound the administration, one only need glance at the snarling figure of Dick Cheney. The former Vice President – whose office is strongly implicated in allowing the abuses we know about – has granted a startling number of interviews since his supposed retirement, and all have been in staunch support of his administration’s actions. At the simplest, most superficial level, Cheney is trying to save himself from prosecution by mounting an early and public defense, but he is also up to something with far greater long-term consequences. By continuing to proclaim the advantages of ‘harsh interrogation’, Cheney is trying to frame torture not as a matter of Right & Wrong, but as a policy argument where the choice isn’t between what is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, but what what works to secure America’s safety.

If President Obama’s term ends without a full public inquiry, without a single investigation of war crimes or prosecution for acts of torture, Cheney will have won the argument & given his successors a precedent to allow future abuses. For if he leaves office without successfully pursuing justice, Obama will have helped relegate torture to an ‘almost crime’; a breach of decorum which is too ugly to be admitted to, but not serious enough to prevent. And something which won’t ever be prosecuted again.

And if any of that ever came to pass, Cheney’s last act in public life would’ve been one final, lasting victory over the President who promised change and the public who voted for it. For the sake of America’s values, its future and its traditions, he cannot be allowed to win.

Selected reading

May 12, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Sigh. So much for the whole ‘I’m going to write lots & lots this week’ thing; you should just never believe a word I say. Well, except when I say that you should click these links:

  • The Times runs a piece on the BNP’s presence in Barnsley. No mention of flat caps & whippets, thankfully, but I don’t suppose we’ll be using it to attract tourists.
  • Laurie Penny takes on PETA’s woeful advertising campaign.
  • Sunder Katwala ponders Gordon Brown’s keynote speech on crime.
  • Adult learning has dropped to its lowest level since Labour came to power.
  • Glenn Greenwald savages the Obama Administration’s conduct over the Binyam Mohamed affair. Andrew Sullivan despairs.
  • Marc Lynch has some notes on how the administration should approach Israel-Palestine. Rami G Khouri reminds us that Obama’s stance is still unclear.
  • Mexican legislators have voted to decriminalise drug possession, but all isn’t as it seems.
  • And as a reward for producing this thin sliver of a blogpost, I’m now going to subject you to some whispery, folky, beardy balladeering. Really, I’m a good host.

Manufactured outrage

May 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | 4 Comments

You’ve got to feel a bit of sympathy for Labour’s online activists. Although they were already behind the other parties in terms of reach & organisation, many Labourites were doing quiet, conscientious campaigning until some motormouthed celebrity spouse singlehandedly turned the words ‘Labour blogger’ into something pejorative.

Now the skunk’s slunk off to his psychotherapy & left LabourList trying to shake off the stink, much of Labour’s online activism is being driven by John Prescott’s Go Fourth site. The people behind Go Fourth clearly understand online politics far better than Derek Draper did (though, frankly, so does my goldfish), and the strategy of launching single issue campaigns on social networking sites is a smart way of expanding their audience.

But if you’re going to base an online movement around single-issue campaigns, you have to choose your battles wisely, and it’s here where the netizens of Labourland may have a little growing up to do.

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Back in February, Tory backbencher Christopher Chope introduced a 10 minute rule bill which would – among other things – allow companies to pay employees below the minimum wage if those employees consented. John Prescott seized on this as evidence that the Conservatives would tear up Labour’s record on worker rights and swiftly launched the website Wage Concern, which wants the bill defeated when it comes back for a second reading on Friday. To stress what’s at stake, the website carries a helpful banner reminding you how many days are left to ‘save’ the minimum wage from oblivion.

The trouble is, this banner and most the overheated rhetoric which accompanies it is a fabrication. As others have noted, the bill was doomed to failure long before Prescott summoned his cadre of keyboard-clunking comrades and it’s unlikely that even the Tory leadership will give it their official seal of approval. Rather than being on the verge of elimination, the minimum wage is set to increase, and no amount of dishonest doomsaying will prove otherwise.

So what about the substance of the bill? Well, I’m neither an economist nor an expert on industrial relations, so I’m not going to dive into a field where I’d quickly be exposed as a dilettante. All I will say is that I’ve personally benefited from the minimum wage, that now is the worst time to start having a race to the bottom for workers’ wages and that I’d vote against it if I were unfortunate enough to become an MP. That said, Chope does have a point when he explains that even a 15% decrease in a worker’s wages wouldn’t be a decrease in real terms, because they’d fall out of the tax bracket. He’s also right to point out that there are already around a million people working below the minimum wage in the ‘black economy’, and that those people are deprived of all the other rights & safeguards afforded to them in the ‘real economy’.

But what irritates me the most about this campaign is the way it chooses to savage the author, his supporters and his proposals, but completely ignores the bill’s saving grace. I’ll let the member for Christchurch take things from here:

The first group that would be helped would be refugees who have sought refuge in this country by reason of persecution and are waiting for the Home Office to determine their applications for asylum. Why should those people not have the right to take employment opportunities that have not been taken up by British citizens and thereby enjoy the dignity of having a job? Although it might cause some raised eyebrows among colleagues to hear this, I am pleased to report that the Trades Union Congress is of the same view.

Under the party of Labour, asylum seekers cannot work, leaving many destitute and dependent on hand-outs from churches & charities. For those of us who’ve cast a despairing glance over the state of our asylum system, Labour’s failure to rectify this is nothing short of shameful. Even if Mr Chope gets nothing else right in this bill, his proposal to empower the most powerless deserves to be saluted.

I understand, of course, that this fight is extremely useful for those doing the campaigning; the minimum wage is a consolation prize used to reassure disaffected supporters that Labour really is ‘on your side’ and by raising the specter of its abolition, they might bring a few more stray lambs back to the flock. I’ve no problem with supporters spending their energy campaigning against something which is already a lost cause, but by using such highly-strung language whilst conveniently ignoring a proposal which is actually more progressive than the government, it comes across as emotional manipulation. That might not be on the same level as personally smearing your opponents, but it’s still something we can do without.

Selected reading

May 9, 2009 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
  • You’re not going to get anything from me about the MP expenses scandal, so if you can stomach it, here’s Alistair Graham and here’s Polly Toynbee.
  • In the wake of the US’ bombing blunder in Afghanistan, Myra MacDonald writes about the civilians who get caught in the middle
  • Pete Guither on how legalising drugs will diminish the bloody might of the black market.
  • Meanwhile, President Obama isn’t going to lift the federal ban on needle exchange. Scott Morgan explains why it’s a maddening decision.
  • Attention Star Trek fans; cloaking technology is now one step closer to reality! Now all we need is warp drive!
  • Borut Grgic on the importance of Azerbajian.
  • Stephen Walt on whether we should negotiate with the Afghan Taliban.
  • For anyone who’s a fan of Conor Oberst, there’s a pretty nifty-looking documentary up at CauseCast.
  • And just about the only person on Earth left defending Jacqui Smith is a satirist. Make of that what you will.
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