The façade of fairness

September 23, 2008 at 10:29 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | Leave a comment
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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?’

*Shrugs*

I can hardly wait.

Image by Flickr user Judepics (Creative Commons)

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Waiting for defeat

July 29, 2008 at 8:07 am | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Cartoon by Martin Rowson

I guess the main point in Nigel Wilmott’s CiF piece – that only by adopting a more progressive platform can Labour slowly claw back some for the activists & voters who’ve jumped ship – is a good one. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening before the next general election are pretty remote.

For one, who is around to kick-start this new progressive future? It’s highly unlikely that Jack Straw would reverse the government’s policy on 42 days detention or ID cards, that Alan Johnson would put an end to the encroachment of private companies in health provision, that David Miliband would perform a mea culpa on Iraq or advocate dismantling Trident, that Ed would have the Balls to slash the taxes of the low-paid by asking the super-rich to start paying more, or that James Purnell would abandon his own ghastly-sounding welfare reforms. At present, these men are the only plausible candidates for Labour leader and each one of them is tasked with executing policies which are only ‘progressive’ if you accept the Conservatives’ definition of the word.

Secondly, as I wrote earlier, none of these policies are particularly important to ordinary voters, and whilst I accept the logic that Labour’s first task should be to rally its own electoral base, you’re unlikely to stave off electoral armageddon without having been seen to take measures to put more money in people’s pockets. Then the next problem is that some of the ideas of doing this would upset the progressive elements you’re trying to win back. For example, many progressives care about green issues, and yet maintaining or even increasing fuel duty to encourage us to choose greener forms of transport would be nothing short of suicidal.

Labour’s ability to change is hamstrung by the fact they’re in government. The party can rebuild itself, it can become more progressive and it can win back many of those who’ve deserted since ’97. But I think the only way this’ll happen is from the opposition benches.

Replacing Brown – with what?

July 27, 2008 at 9:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | 6 Comments
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Gordon Brown taken by Flickr user fotologic (Creative Commons)

Gordon Brown taken by Flickr user fotologic (Creative Commons)

Regular readers will be shocked by this, but I’m going to break my longstanding policy of forgetting to comment on Major! Breaking! News! and offer a few semi-lucid thoughts on whether Brown should be replaced as Labour leader.

The first comes via Luke Akehurst, who I once jokingly compared to Karl Rove, but is really nowhere near as evil:

What’s striking about the policy reactions to Glasgow East, such as the statement yesterday from Compass, is that many of them are just recitations of the writers’ pet hates, not attempts to address voters’ actual concerns. Voters are angry about the credit crunch, knife crime, unaffordable housing, fuel prices and fuel tax, and food prices. The Labour left are talking about hostility to ID cards, Trident, 42 day detention and public services reform and PFI, issues where the public support the Government or just don’t care.

I think this is probably true. From my own super-scientific research (sample size: my parents, plus assorted passers-by), I know that financial matters are the only thing that people who don’t have much money care about right now. Their mortgage is up for renewal and they face paying up to £200 a month more than they were. Their electricity & gas bills keep rising. It costs more and more to make the same car journeys. They’ve taken to shopping at Aldi or buying the brandless ‘economy’ goods at supermarkets. The pay increases they were offered by the council were so derisory their union took strike action.

These are not conditions that foster a contented electorate, and whilst they know their financial burden isn’t entirely the fault of the government, they also suspect that there’s nothing the government can do to make their lives better. Having realised this, it’s not surprising that people are wondering whether a change of government might improve things.

But the futility of removing Gordon Brown as Labour’s leader is that there’s not one thing his successors could do to put more money in people’s pockets without abandoning their spending commitments. Does anyone really think that if there was some magic sponge for the economy, this former Chancellor with a decade of experience wouldn’t have applied it by now? Of course not. So at this point we’re simply talking about a change of presentation, which is a little self-defeating when one of Labour’s main attacks against David Cameron is that he’s little more than a shallow & showy salesman.

I realise that Labour backbenchers are now more worried about losing their jobs than losing power, but considering there’s little his successor could change policy-wise, I can’t see how many net positives there are by replacing Brown with an Alan Johnson, a Jack Straw or a David Miliband.

To explain, let’s play a little game of ‘what if?’ Since no action seems possible over the summer recess, let’s imagine that Labour MPs force a leadership challenge soon after Parliament returns. Whilst the respective campaigns might get a fair amount of coverage, the Tories would incessantly repeat the accusation that at a time of economic turmoil which is hurting ordinary voters, the Labour party is ‘in disarray’, ‘turning on itself’, ‘fiddling whilst the country burns’ etc etc. Having finally chosen a new leader, that accusation wouldn’t go away, but it would be joined by a demand for a general election. Since we would have had two unelected Prime Ministers, his successor would be forced to agree, and probably before he had the chance to impose his or her ‘new vision’. Would this potential future help Labour hold any seats that weren’t already lost?

Suffice to say, I think the party’s going to lose with or without a change in leadership, but there’s a more damaging long-term consequence of having someone other than Brown lead the party to that defeat. If Brown’s kicked out of Downing Street in May 2010, it’ll give Labour a chance to rebuild and reconsider its direction without too much of a negative perception from the electorate. On the other hand, if they change leaders yet again, it’ll imply that Labour MPs were happy to forsake stability for turmoil at a time when they were supposed to be leading the country. If that’s the impression Labour leaves after three terms in office, it won’t be the Conservatives any more who talk at length about ‘decontaminating the brand’.

We shouldn’t be forced to vote

July 25, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 2 Comments
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If only he hadn’t mentioned the C word.

There’s much in Kevin Penton’s Compass article which is totally agreeable. For a start, he’s right that there are measures Parliament can enact to try and increase the public’s participation in democracy, and he’s right to dismiss weekend voting as a stupid solution which would infringe upon our free time and send us to the ballot box in a foul mood. Of the alternatives he discusses, I’m happy to support fixed-term parliaments, making Election Day a public holiday, ditching first past the post and introducing individual voter registration. In fact, had he only mentioned these measures, he might have sent me skipping through a meadow with delight (well, figuratively speaking – I’m lacking access to a meadow at the moment).

But, as the song goes, then he went and spoiled it all by saying somethin’ stupid like… compulsory voting. Sure, if you want to guarantee high turnout in an election, the easiest way is to make it illegal not to vote, but let’s not pretend that it’s anything other than democracy by force. The main problem I have with advocates of compulsory voting is this: within their arguments is an implication that the problem lies with the voters, and therefore all we need do is introduce a law to shock them from their stupors and do their democratic duty. But this argument completely ignores the possibility that it’s our politicians who are the problem. For nearly over a decade the major parties have squabbled over the same centre ground, spoken to the country in the same stilted managerial speak and bickered over issues which don’t relate to ordinary people. Over the same period of time, we’ve seen turnout plummet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

As contemptuous as I am of first past the post, the current system at least shows that for large swathes of people, politics is broken. Compulsory voting would achieve little more than papering-over the cracks, masking the discontent felt among the electorate and allowing the political status quo to remain unchallenged and unchanged. As libertarian blogger Ian_QT notes:

Compulsory voting provides a smoke-screen for the real reasons for antipathy towards the electoral process, reasons I have gone over many times before – specifically, that the political class is rightfully seen by so many as self-serving, corrupt and contemptuous of the people who elected them.

When there are other, more liberal reforms available to us, couldn’t we try those first, rather than trying to bring people to the ballot box by using a lasso?

Welfare as work

July 21, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 4 Comments
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It’s worth noting, I suppose, that the welfare reforms announced by James Purnell are not quite as brutal as some of the ideas floated in the past; at least Caroline Flint‘s threat to throw the jobless out onto the street was too brutal even for the Department of Work & Pensions. Indeed, I’m sure the proposals offered by Purnell really are the most decent and humane this arch-Blairite could think of – it’s just that Blairites have slightly lower standards of decency than the rest of us.

The most newsworthy proposal in the green paper involves forcing the long-term unemployed to do some kind of community service to ‘earn’ their benefits – have them clearing litter, cleaning graffiti, tidying public spaces etc. For a right-on lefty, I guess there are a number of ways of responding this: ‘what a shabby way to treat the poor’, ‘welcome to the modern-day workhouse’ or ‘why are we treating the unemployed as criminals?’ etc etc. My first response wasn’t any of these. Instead, I just thought ‘hey, that’s the job my uncle does.’

As I wrote earlier, my Uncle Paul has been in low-paid, unskilled manual jobs for his entire working life and currently earns a living doing exactly the kind of ‘community service’ that’s been suggested by the government: clearing litter, cleaning graffiti and tidying public spaces. Thanks to James Purnell, this arduous, thankless, glamour-less job might soon be valued at the level of the Job-Seeker’s Allowance – roughly £60. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who sees a problem with this, so I’ll let Gregor Gall explain:

Bonded labour of the prison or workhouse sort has always been sold at a cheaper rate than free labour so the likelihood is that this cheap claimant labour will be used by unscrupulous private companies to undermine the terms and conditions of others. You could easily imagine a situation of undercutting existing service providers on the wages and conditions front to win the contract to clean the streets or tend the gardens. This would be the ultimate competitive contract tendering (CCT). You could also imagine existing, free workers feeling compelled to take wage cuts and work longer hours to fend off the claimant labour in order to keep their jobs.

I think Gregor’s right to warn of the potential consequences of this policy. For companies given the opportunity to run the programme, the profits could be enormous; they’d be able to employ a (literally) captive workforce for next-to-nothing and my uncle would have to compete with millions of other unskilled, manual workers who would be mandated to do pretty much the same job but for a fraction of the price. What the government is essentially proposing here is a distortion of the jobs market that threatens the employment prospects of millions of those low-paid and unskilled Britons luckily enough to be in a job. Understandably, the TUC isn’t happy about the prospect.

I also worry about whether this would substantially reduce welfare dependency, or just alter the nature of that dependency. Sure, there are some people who are can work but won’t and I suspect they’d find the of motivation to get a ‘proper job’ when faced with the alternative of sweeping streets for £60 a week. But for a great number of those with little education and few skills, being forced to sweep streets will only give you the skills & experience required to be a professional street-sweeper. As I said in an earlier post, “having a job – any job – won’t by itself solve the problem of long-term unemployment; they need to develop their skills and knowledge, too, and that’s difficult to achieve when you’re picking up litter for 8 hours a day.”

Now, I’d be a hypocrite not to accept that all of this could be melodramatic doom-mongering and that the delivery of the policy might drastically reduce long-term welfare dependency with relatively minor negative side-effects. But when the policy is promoted as a headline-grabbing ‘blitz on dole scroungers’, it does rather fill you with dread that the intended beneficiaries aren’t the long-term unemployed, but the tax-payers who don’t wish to fund their existence. Either way, James Purnell has the Labour Party at his mercy. He knows that many of Labour’s supporters will grudgingly accept this, either in hope that it brings a brief round of good press or out of fear that Cameron’s Tories want to do something even more drastic. For someone who quite clearly harbours ambitions of leading the party, he had better hope this works.

Breaking the status quo on crime

June 24, 2008 at 11:53 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform | Leave a comment
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It’s rare when I find myself nodding enthusiastically to a George Monbiot column, but today’s piece on our bloody awful prisons policy is certainly one of ’em, restating the lunacy in our fetish for incarceration that I’ve been annoying people with for a while. But for all that’s agreeable in the article, it still retains those now-familiar flaws of making liberal arguments to a liberal audience without pausing to consider the response of the other side. Here’s the paragraph where this is most obvious:

So why, when the number of crimes – especially serious violent crimes – is falling, are both the government and the courts imposing longer sentences? Why does the UK consistently rank in the top two places for imprisonment in western Europe? Why, as this country becomes more peaceable, does it become more punitive?

Well, I’m no mind reader, but I suppose the answer the ‘hang em & flog em’ brigade would give is that our country is more peaceable because it is more punitive. They’d argue that those convicted of violent crime are locked up for longer than ever, and anyone who even thinks about committing violence might bear in mind the long sentence that awaits them. Therefore the sentences are prohibitive and our prisons are simply full of people who would do us harm. No great loss.

This line of argument is effective because those making it can maintain they are in the right no matter what the circumstances. If any kind of crime is on the rise, they can demand a crackdown, tougher sentences, more vigilant policing. If crime is declining they can argue that the status quo must be maintained or else risk anarchy. With the nation’s best-selling newspapers at their disposal, their ability to stick to the same argument whatever the facts – and often regardless of the facts – has been influential in maintaining this rotten status quo that has us incarcerating more than anyone else in Europe.

So whilst it’s fine for Monbiot to talk about how those with the greatest wealth have the greatest say in determining sentencing, this isn’t necessarily going to change anyone’s mind. Rather than speaking to us in our own special language, it would’ve been more effective to conclude that we need to break the consensus that crime is best solved by incarceration and repeat the belief that our current system won’t make us much safer in the long term. Unless we manage to disprove the arguments upon which the status quo is formed, we wouldn’t be surprised if this rotten policy endures for many governments to come.

Performance-related pay

June 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
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This is a delicious proposal:

Labour MPs will face “performance-related testing” from one of Britain’s largest unions or risk having their funds cut.

The GMB, which is meeting in Plymouth for its annual conference, is threatening to withdraw funding from a third of Labour MPs because they are not doing enough to support union policies.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Paul Kenny, the union’s general secretary, said that money would be diverted to those MPs who were promoting its policies.

“The intention is not to cut funding overall, it’s to divert it to areas where frankly people are doing a job of work. The government is very keen on testing for everybody – performance-related pay – and we’ve applied in the GMB over the last 12 months the exactly the same principle.” (emphasis mine)

I can imagine a smirk stretching across his face as he said that.

It’s about time: the money the GMB donates to politicians comes from hardworking men & women who earn considerably less than the £60,000 + expenses our MPs currently enjoy, and if they’re not going to attempt to justify their donations by campaigning, advocating and governing on their behalf, then there are many more worthy people and more worthy causes to spend it on.

Repeat offenders

May 22, 2008 at 10:53 am | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Tokenistic and superficial – Richard Garside’s withering appraisal of Labour’s attempts to deal with the causes of crime, as opposed to just banging people up in prison. Why, after 11 years and significant investment by the government, hasn’t there been any measurable impact on the level of youth crime? Garside argues that Labour’s obsession with trying to achieve it through the criminal justice system (and in so doing drawing money away from social programmes that could prove more effective) is a prime culprit:

But the most striking fact, given all the time and money spent by Labour on youth justice in the past decade, is that there has been no measurable impact on the level of reported youth offending. Since 2001 the same proportion of children – a quarter – year on year admit to having committed one offence or more. Looking further back in time the picture remains roughly the same since at least the early 1990s. Put simply, the government has spent 10 years reforming the youth justice system, spending several billion pounds, to no noticeable effect.

The lesson of the last 10 years is that seeking to solve the problem of youth crime through the criminal justice system, however tough, is unlikely to be effective. A feature of Labour’s youth justice reforms of the past decade is that money that previously would have been available to spend on social programmes has been diverted into youth justice spend. Some 15% of funding for Youth Offending Teams, for instance, is drawn from social services budgets. The youth justice system has, in effect, become a de facto social service designed to provide a range of social support services to some of the most troubled, troublesome and needy of young people.

For the more time-rich among you, he’s produced a report for the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies on what Labour has done over the 10 years and how it should change its approach.

Knife crime: our kids need more than ‘get tough’ policing

May 13, 2008 at 9:33 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment
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It won’t be much comfort to the parents of Lylle Tulloch or Jimmy Mizen – the two teenagers whose tragic deaths brought knife crime back in the news – but for the rest of us it’s reassuring that statistics don’t yet substantiate the perception that such crimes are ‘spiralling out of control’. From The Guardian:

According to the British Crime Survey, knife-enabled crime (any crime involving a knife) over the past decade has remained stable at around 6-7% of all crime, comprising 30% of all homicides.

In fact, the most recent crime survey by the Metropolitan police showed that knife crime has actually dropped by 15.7% over the past two years, from 12,122 to 10,220 incidents.

Nonetheless, that still amounts to a knife-related incident every 52 minutes –  a figure that cannot be ignored by anyone who wants to see safer streets and an end to the stabbing of innocent kids.

From his public statements so far, it’s clear that Mayor Johson intends to pursue a law & order approach modelled on Rudolph Giuliani*: high-profile crackdowns coated in get-tough rhetoric and designed to reassure a frightened public that his office is at least being seen to do something. But whilst the muted introduction of metal detectors at school gates and mobile metal detectors for police officers might pull a few knives off the streets, there’s no certainty that it’ll produce the dramatic reduction in knife crime that we need, as Enver Solomon of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies explains:

“If someone has been a victim of crime, they might carry a weapon because they feel unsafe. They don’t inherently want to stab someone; it’s just that the knife in the pocket makes them feel secure. The majority of children are carrying pen-knives, not machetes,”

[…]

“If you examine the conditions in these wards, these are areas of high social deprivation, social exclusion and lack of opportunities for young people,” he explained. “The focus should not be on enforcement, but rather on opportunities for kids, through youth support services, peer mentoring schemes and employment opportunities for school-leavers.”

If Boris wants to prove that he’s serious about reducing knife crime in London, he can issue all the metal detectors he wants. But unless he matches this with an equal commitment to those already-established youth support groups, charities, volunteer workers and campaign organisations who are trying with all their might to do good and would do even more if they had the financial backing, his words will come across as little more than the tubthumping of an unimaginative opportunist.

*It’s worth noting, however, that many of the reforms made in New York City’s policing were begun by Giuliani’s predecessor, David Dinkins. It’s just that Rudi’s never been shy of claiming credit for anything, whether he deserved it or not.

Update: Of course, the problem of knife crime is certainly not isolated to London, but I think it’s interesting to keep an eye on how Mayor Johnson (yeah, I’m still not used to writing that yet) performs on this issue – it might well teach us something about how the new ‘hoodie-hugging’ Tories would approach crime if elected nationally.

Update #2: A few of the current campaign groups against violent crime in our inner cities. Their focus is mainly on gun crime, but the two aren’t entirely unrelated:

Blair’s victory

May 13, 2008 at 9:31 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment
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Where’s Tony? wonders one-time courtesan Robert Harris. At a time when his party is in peril and his legacy’s in danger of being plundered by a PR man, why would he be content to watch from the sidelines as the New Labour project he built and sustained (and which quickly collapsed once he’d resigned) faces a hideous battering that could put Labour out of power for a decade?

This existential crisis for the government, which is so much bigger than Brown’s awkward personality, may be flattering to our former prime minister, and awash with the most exquisite schadenfreude. But in the long run the man whose reputation is really going to suffer by the disintegration of the New Labour project is Blair. For despite the great debits racked up under his leadership – the calamity of the Iraq war, the loss of nerve over the Euro – there was always one great historic credit in the account book: his restoration of Labour as a natural party of government.

I’m not so sure about this. I suspect that when Blair looks at his reign abstractly, he’ll consider his domestic legacy to be the combining of free-market Thatcherism with a re-establishment of public services as a national necessity. In this sense his legacy is probably assured: no matter who wins the election two years from now, it’s not going to be achieved by repudiating Thatcherism or by abandoning the NHS. His potential successors would also find it tough to abolish the minimum wage, Surestart, city academies and foundation hospitals. Whilst these reforms might be eroded by the Tories over the long-term, they couldn’t be erased overnight.

So Blair probably thinks he’s been victorious and his domestic agenda will be vindicated. As for the party he once represented, I imagine he just doesn’t really care.

Can he stand the scrutiny?

May 5, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment
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David Cameron by Flickr user Edublogger

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past weekend indulging in everything from despair to deep-seated rage. I’ve started re-reading The Plague and imagining it’s set in London. I’ve considered giving up, selling out and starting a new life in the Socialist Republic of Scotland. I’ve thought about buying a dog just so I can let it shit in the diveway of my newly-minted Tory councillor. Worst of all, my ability to reason has been so heavily-damaged by Labour’s hammering that I’ve even sought solace in the strangest of places, like Peter fucking Hitchens. But as much as Our Dear Prophet tries to reassure me that the local elections were still a resounding victory for Stalinism, Satanism and the state-sponsored stir-frying of foetuses, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single sober mind who’ll agree with him.

Yet in the midst of all this despair, I still managed to find one tiny glimmer of hope to remind me that all isn’t yet lost. Here’s Anthony Browne, director of the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank, on what the Conservatives should do between now and the next election:

They should also worry less about not having major policy differences, ‘wedge issues’, to distinguish them from the government. It is probably not particular policy differences that will decide the next election, but the character and competence of the parties and their leaders.

The implications of what Browne’s saying are pretty obvious: ‘Dave’ is so decent, kind and loving that come the next election millions of Britons will have his name tattooed across their chests. Failing that, the Tories will just have to call Gordon a ‘loser’ a few more times.

Sure, character and competence will be important factors in the next election, and given how increasingly imbecillic our media has become, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the country can’t remember a single policy difference between the parties before heading to the ballot box. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Conservatives will be at an advantage.

Browne’s quote reminded me of something that happened last week. On April 27th David Cameron told the country that he would ‘stand up’ for those low-paid Britons who had been ‘singled out’ by Labour to pay more tax:

“People on low pay, families who struggle often to make ends meet, who have seen the cost of living rising and have seen their tax bill go up under Labour, those people who thought ‘The Labour Party is for me’. I think they feel desperately let down. “What I want to say to people like that is we are there for you.”

The very next day, George Osborne – Cameron’s Cheneyesque shadow Chancellor – announced that the Tories would take a serious look at employment legislation with the aim of curbing the powers of the trade unions. Ah, those ‘compassionate’ conservatives, their problem is they want help everyone – from the low-paid worker at Grangemouth to the company bosses who want to steal their pensions. They just care too much!

In a quieter political climate, this audacious duplicity would’ve been more widely-reported. Were it not for a Brown Derangement Syndrome which apparently makes all other news irrelevant, Osborne might’ve been invited to explain himself to Humphreys or Paxman, Cameron might’ve been asked whether he thought union-busting counted as ‘standing up’ for the poor and more of the country might’ve been alerted to the fact that Cameron’s Conservatives have been talking out of both sides of their mouths for years without ever being held to account.

This was far from an isolated incident. When elected leader, Cameron pledged to end the purile ‘Punch & Judy politics’ we see every day in the commons. In the very same month, he sat idly whilst his shadow Chancellor nasty little hatchet man launched two offensive and very personal attacks against Gordon Brown. That Cameron’s now ‘fessed up‘ to failing to live up to his noble aim is laughably disingenuous – Cameron never had any intention of living up to it.

In 2006, Cameron claimed to embrace a better work-life balance, and even took paternity leave as ‘proof’ of his seriousness. But if he was truly serious, why did he also commission John Redwood to craft proposals to scrap health & safety legislation and roll back regulation on how many hours we work?

Then there’s the age-old issue of grammar schools, an eternal Tory supporter shibboleth that Cameron sought to disassociate the party from as further proof that the Conservatives had changed. But people don’t let go of shibboleths too easily and the pro-segregation brigade kicked up enough of a fuss to have him make a humiliating u-turn, revealing the party to be far less tolerant and inclusive than ‘Dave’ insists.

When you add all of this to the evidence that Cameron’s ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ sloganeering is little more than shallow political opportunism (seriously, you can ‘go green’ by building more roads?), it would be relatively easy for Cameron’s opponents to build an assault on his competence and his character that’s reducible to six simple words:

You cannot trust what he says.

As Andrew Rawnsley has noted, Cameron will now be subjected to greater scrutiny than at any point in his political career. If he can navigate safely through questions about the inconsistencies in his leadership, the divisions within his party and the extreme privilege of his past, then there’s a strong chance he’ll be Prime Minister two years from now.

But that outcome is far from certain. Cameron won’t ever enjoy the kind of perfect storm that so damaged Labour on May 1st, and he has yet to face a party that’s now fighting for its political life. For those who believe deeply in the cause of social democracy, there’s still plenty of reason to fight on.

Photo by flickr user Edublogger (Creative Commons)

Preparing for the worst: what the US ‘Netroots’ can teach us about rebuilding a broken movement

April 29, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Posted in British Politics | 4 Comments
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As the gloom continues to grow over Gordon Brown’s stewardship of both the Labour Party and the country, it’s understandable – if a little premature – that some of us see the awful poll numbers, the bleak prospects in the local elections and the complete saturation of negative media coverage and deduce that it’s time to prepare for the prospect of a Tory government. David Semple recently argued that the left must indeed start preparing for opposition, ditch the diminishing returns of Blairism and return to its left-wing activist roots. Writing here, Martin Bright has called for a new manifesto for the liberal left, a restating of principles and a return to advocating policies for a fairer Britain. These are ideas worthy of debate, and whilst I’m not really one for signing up to whole manifestos, anything that inspires new thinking about how we can revitalise our agenda must surely be welcome.

But new manifestos and political rebranding alone won’t be enough to take Labour back to power. The past decade has seen the party’s membership collapse, their share of the vote dwindle almost everywhere and their much-abused allies in the Trade Unions haven’t fared much better, either. For Labour to be in a fit-enough state to return to power, it must work to reverse these trends, and if the current party is anything to go by, they can’t be trusted to do it for themselves.

Thankfully, there’s another political movement that’s endured some hardships in recent years and has only recently begun to enjoy a revival. With that in mind, I wonder whether it’s time we began paying closer attention to the alliance of progressive Americans described as the Democratic Party’s ‘netroots’ and investigate whether there’s anything they’re doing right that we need to learn from.

Continue Reading Preparing for the worst: what the US ‘Netroots’ can teach us about rebuilding a broken movement…

Getting out of jail

April 25, 2008 at 10:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform, Working Class Britain | 3 Comments
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Photo by Flickr user vinduhl (Creative Commons)

The reason I’m writing about ‘Cushygate‘ in two separate posts is that whilst there’s always fun to be had at the expense of the right’s overheated hysteria, our criminal justice system seems so broken, so socially-destructive and so utterly unfit for purpose that we need all the serious words we can muster. But if seriousness was the intention of Glyn Travis as he took to the airwaves on Talk Sport & Radio 4’s Today programme, he failed miserably, merely succeeding in adding fuel to the right’s fire about the Prison Scum who suck on the soft teat of the taxpayer.

Since he made no direct reference to the dozens of more desperate ailments afflicting the prison service, what you’ll find at the core of Travis’ argument is a non-too-subtle demand for more staff, greater resources and higher wages. These are all demands I have sympathy for, which makes it so frustrating that he insists the main problem is those unemployed, undereducated, mentally ill and addiction-addled inmates in its care somehow have it too easy – as if any of them have ever had anything easy.

Had he encountered better-prepared interviewers, they might have asked him whether the recent damages awarded to inmates who suffered beatings and racial discrimination at the hands of his fellow prison officers was an example of the ‘cushy’ life they enjoyed. They might have asked whether last year’s 22,000 cases of self-harm was just because inmates were upset they couldn’t get Pay-per-View boxing on Sky. They might have asked why, if his workplace is such a Centre Parks that inmates never wish to leave, was the 2006 suicide rate 33 times higher than the rest of the country, and if the 92 people who killed themselves last year on his members’ watch only did so because they didn’t like the croissants that came with their breakfast in bed. Finally, they might have asked Glyn Travis why he thought it best to ignore these serious problems in favour of playing the Prison Scum card to an eager media. Sadly, we probably know the answer to the last question; it’s in his members’ interests.

So where do we go from here and how do we hope to grapple with the problems caused by decades of ‘get tough’ governing that’s seen the prison population rise to record levels? I’m sure there are countless approaches we can take, not all of them easy nor without their flaws, but we must surely get past the idea that simply locking offenders away is an effective long-term crime prevention strategy. As I wrote earlier this month:

As much as some of us might wish to lock all criminals up for life, the reality is that only the most violent, most dangerous offenders stay incarcerated for that long, and they are a tiny minority of the prison population. Like it or not, the rest of them will one day be released. And if they’ve been released without help finding accomodation or a new job, without help with whatever mental illnesses they may harbour, whatever drug or behavioural problems they may be battling, whatever skills or education they lack to find employment, they are much more likely to offend again.

Sure, stepping-up our efforts to rehabilitate offenders is a fairly standard liberal policy, but these words by criminologist & former prison governor David Wilson got me thinking about a way we could achieve that:

Prison has become the functioning alternative to the welfare state and, as such, the only institution in this country where, as a matter of right, you can get almost immediate access to a doctor, a dentist, a drugs counsellor, a teacher, advice about homelessness, help in applying for jobs, and where these rights are enforceable by the courts.

[…]

Quite simply, there are never going to be enough prison officers to control a jail through sheer weight of numbers, and every jail therefore runs with the consent of those who are being locked up. If prisoners withdraw that consent to be governed – as they did during the lead-up to the riots at HMP Strangeways – then our prison system comes to a grinding, crashing, juddering halt.

The tension apparent in this relationship between prisoner and prison officer – the inmate whose well-being is dependent on the care they receive and the prison officer whose job depends on the co-operation and good behaviour of the inmate – certainly indicates that prison could be a place where productive rehabilitation can be achieved.

If you’ve committed crimes against others then you’ve infringed upon the values of peace and freedom that exist amongst all liberal democracies, and if a court rules the crime to be serious enough to revoke your own freedom, you should serve the sentence given to you. But whilst you have a duty to yourself to make sure you never offend again, the state has a similar duty to those citizens who pay it money to enforce & uphold the law to make sure you never offend again.

To that end, yes, we need more prisons – lots more – but they should also be a fraction of the size of those we currently pay for. And if we had smaller prisons and more prison guards per inmate then maybe we’d reduce the amount of drug smuggling, stop a few suicides and attempts at self-harm. Then, who knows, perhaps if we staffed these smaller, more secure prisons with as many drug therapists, psychiatrists, fitness trainers and educators as there are security guards, there’d be an opportunity for those inside (who, let’s face it, are a bit of a captive audience) to overcome some of the root causes of them being banged-up in the first place.

That couldn’t be the end of the matter, of course; you’d still need to revamp the probation service to ensure that those being released could find both accommodation (for homeless inmates are far more likely to reoffend when released) and an occupation and none of this is an adequate substitute for investing in safer communities, better public housing and education in those areas that most need it.

As I said earlier, no approach is perfect, but there are alternatives to this country’s current Judge Dredd approach to crime that – if framed in the right way – could be sold to the waverers from the ‘hang ’em & flog ’em’ approach as being in the whole country’s self-interest.

Nobody goes to prison for a cushy life, but a lot of people end up in prison believing crime is the only way to get there. Prison might be able to provide proof to the contrary, but only if we work for it.

Photo by Flickr user vinduhl (Creative Commons)

Back in the Brown stuff

April 23, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
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As is inevitably the case with frustrated, impassioned polemics, there’s always someone around with a more measured mind who’ll poke holes, point out flaws and challenge some of the more florid rhetoric you deploy. Unfortunately, a number of these scallywags happen to be good friends and one sent me an email querying some of the things I’d written in my angry dismissal of Gordon Brown. I hope he’ll forgive me for reprinting parts of it here:

Do you think the government should fall? Do you reserve greater condemnation for Brown’s premiership than for the record of New Labour as a whole?

On the second question, the answer is absolutely; notwithstanding the problems I’ve had with its three terms in office, Labour has a track record of achievements it can be proud of regardless of Gordon’s poor performance as Prime Minister and there is still good work being done every day behind the scenes.

As for whether Brown’s government should fall, I’m not yet sure. I still think it borders on blackmail of the Parliamentary Labour Party to say ‘vote for a bill you oppose or else our Prime Minister will have to resign and we’ll all be doomed’. If that thinking won the day, independence and oversight within the party would be abandoned and Gordon could push through any old measure he wanted to.

He’s still got time to turn it around. Looking at the polls, it’s too early to say whether Brown should be leading the party in the next election. If he can re-establish the reputation for competent governance he once had by the end of the year, maybe he stands a chance. It certainly helps that the electorate’s opinion of Labour hasn’t sufficiently hardened during this period, and likewise helps that Cameron hasn’t proved effectual enough to exploit Brown’s blunders (see yesterday’s Guardian/ICM poll).

What do you make of Toynbee, Bob Piper and others who either accept the 10p band brought in after 1997 was something that was worth reversing, or at least don’t put in in stark terms such as ‘indefensible’ or call it Brown’s ‘beloved tax hike on working class people’?

I understand that there’s an argument to be made in favour of removing the 10p band, but the point is that it must be done in the right way – something Toynbee argues hasn’t happened here. I shall gladly write-off the flippant “Brown’s beloved tax hike on working class people” remark but not my description of it as ‘indefensible’. At a time when fuel costs and food prices are placing an added burded on everyone, I can’t find any way of defending a measure that will take more money from those with least of it to spare.

I noticed that your litany of compromises the government had made included one that could be construed as the most progressive in the list – distancing from the United States.  What exactly do you mean by this?

The list I made wasn’t on the basis of whether they were conservative/progressive; it referred to what seemed like a bunch of short-term crowd-pleasing announcements which had as much to do with robbing the electorate and the tory press of issues to complain about as they had to with actual governing. My point was that this is largely futile since the electorate always has something to complain about.

With reference to the US, I think Brown looked far more confident in the second meeting with Bush about maintaining strong relations. In their first encounter his public distancing act just seemed a bit forced.

How ‘mixed’ is the ‘mixed record’ of the government? What are you thinking of when measuring its success, what are your alternative models or comparators: is it some ideological metric, based your assessment of the practical political constraints, historical examples, continental/North American comparators, etc?

These are three measures I’d cite for justifying my description of the government’s record on social justice as ‘mixed’:

  1. Evidence suggesting the poverty rate has not significantly narrowed under Labour
  2. Evidence suggesting health inequalities have gotten worse under Labour
  3. Evidence suggesting the Labour Party has failed to stop the widening of the income gap

So they’ve done plenty of good, but not nearly enough for my liking, and this is after 10 years of sustained economic growth. Now that we’ve entered a financial downturn, the scope for doing much more is greatly reduced.

As final point, it wasn’t a very well-kept secret that Brown had Ed Milliband drafting a manifesto in the event of him calling a snap election. Let us see some of it now, even if they only come out as ‘trial balloons’ – notions floated by junior ministers. Let us see the kind of policy Brown invisaged for his first full term, let us see the renewed commitment to social justice and let us see the conviction politician that increasing numbers of us are worrying doesn’t exist.

Photo: Gordon Brown at Davos, Switzerland. Copyright World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org)/swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger 

Reform

April 22, 2008 at 10:12 am | Posted in Working Class Britain | Leave a comment
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I wish I had more time to write a more balanced blog post about this new report by the Reform thinktank on the relationship between work and welfare in economically deprived areas, but for now you’ll have to make do with two brief, insulted observations:

  1. Describing their observations as being symptomatic of a “why bother economy” sounds nothing more than a dog-whistle to the right. It wrongly insinuates that the poor are simply lazy and that if only they were to turn off the daytime TV, get off their arses and put in a decent day’s work, all our problems will be solved. It won’t.
  2. I can’t believe I’m still having to say this 50 years after Beveridge, but the thinking behind the welfare state is not and has never been about ‘paying people to be poor and only the most brainless would insist that welfare can act as a tool of social mobility. It only takes a superficial reading of post-war politics to understand why the welfare state exists, but here’s a crude summary: it stops people from dying of poverty.

For what on the surface seems a serious and well-meaning effort to address problems, these are two ghastly errors in framing their argument.

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