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)

Browned off

September 16, 2008 at 8:32 am | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment
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It’s unlikely that anyone’s going to escape from the scrap over Brown’s leadership with too much dignity. Not the dozen-or-so conspirators who, for reasons passing understanding, believe that a time of unprecedented economic turmoil is the perfect occasion to worry who could best apply the lipstick to the pig that is the Labour Party.* Perhaps it is just an unfortunate coincidence of conference season, but in the unlikely event that these insurgents were to get their way, Britain would remember the cravenness of backbenchers who put their constituency seats before the stablity of the country, and would be right to punish them for it. Nor will Gordon Brown emerge from this with much respectability – what little he has left. As others have noted, he seems to have spent the past week doing as much bullying, posturing and briefing as he has governing, and the brutishness with which he’s trying to bolt the door shut on intraparty debate makes a mockery of all his past promises (barely a year ago!) for a new style of leadership. A plague on both their houses if ever there was one.

Maybe there will be a day when all those ‘Proud to be Labour’ emails I keep receiving will stop ringing quite so hollow, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I was ashamed of the party over Iraq, over the way they treated David Kelly, over the abolition of the 10p rate. Now, there’s not much left but deep, deep embarrassment.

*In case you were wondering, no, this wasn’t a sexist jibe against Sarah Palin.

Want to oust Gordon? Must be that time of the month!

September 14, 2008 at 8:28 pm | Posted in British Politics, Feminisms, Gordon Brown | Leave a comment
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Via Jess McCabe at The F-Word, those intrepid terriers at The Telegraph delve into the real reasons for rebellion against Gordon Brown and discover that it’s just a cabal led by a bunch of women who are emotional, irrational, and probably having their periods. Here’s their expert analysis of Siobhain McDonagh:

She sounded like a woman facing an emotional crisis, not a government minister in the midst of knifing the Prime Minister.

Classy. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, conservatives are the new progressives….

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’.

Brown the soap opera villain

July 10, 2008 at 9:50 am | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment
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Gordon Brown finds an unexpected sympathiser… in Peter Hitchens:

Also, I dispute the assertion by Mr “Demetriou” that Mr Cameron is popular. I think he is still greatly mistrusted by many of his own natural supporters, and not much loved by the middle ground. His only asset is Gordon Brown’s descent (much aided by the BBC)  into unreasoning anti-popularity. This isn’t even properly-earned unpopularity, from which there might be some chance of escape (Some of you will remember how Princess Anne was transformed from despised royal grump into stalwart, serious worker for charity).

It is a sort of negative craze, in which people blame Mr Brown if their train is late, or they drop their coffee on the floor, or their shoelaces snap while they are tying them, or it rains. This isn’t politics. It’s too fickle and shallow and actually has no direct connection with facts or logic.

It’s much more like a soap opera in which a character, previously scripted as reasonably likeable and popular, is suddenly re-written as hateful, scheming and cowardly.  Just look at the cartoons in the conservative unpopular newspapers. Every single day Mr Brown is the villain of some contrived visual pun. He has no more control over his fate than a soap actor has, who is being prepared for the day when he will be written out of the series.

Very true, though comparing yourself to Heathcliffe isn’t really going to help matters.

On poverty and terror

June 11, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Gordon Brown, New Labour, Terrorism, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
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Taken by Flickr user davepattern (Creative Commons)

So you know this plan to threaten a school with closure if it fails to meet its targets? I was wondering; any chance we can apply it to governments, too?

For those who still care about that nebulous concept called social justice, it’s been a pretty wretched week: health inequalities are becoming sharper, the number of children in poverty has increased by 100,000 and the number of poor pensioners by three times that amount.

Since the poverty rate also increased last year, we can no longer view it as an aberration, but as the beginnings of worrying trend. Given the increases in food and fuel prices and the unlikelihood that Darling’s 10p tax ‘compensation package’ will reimburse everyone who lost out, it’s likely to rise next year as well. Thanks to the financial straightjacket Brown has imposed on his government, we face the very real prospect that by 2010 – the target Blair set to halve child poverty – the figure will continue to creep back towards pre-Labour levels.

At this point, it’s difficult to know to respond without reaching for clichés: sure, we can say Labour’s been subservient to big business & the super-rich, too obsessed with their middle class marginals to bother with sane social policy and so petrified of tongue-lashings from the Tory press that they’re happy to adopt any authoritarian measure that’ll keep them quiet. We can say all of this, but it won’t really get us anywhere.

Instead, we need to look at Brown’s actions since becoming PM and try to deduce whether his government has either the ability or the resolve to correct its mistakes and pursue the new ideas needed to close the gap between rich and poor. The evidence is… well, what do you expect?!

Where to start? We’ve seen him brutishly declare British Jobs For British Workers, shamelessly announce troop withdrawals during the Tory conference, sign the Lisbon treaty when he thought no one would be watching, give inheritance tax away, abolish the 10p tax band to pay for a middle class tax cut and reclassify cannabis despite there being no evidence it’s required.

But perhaps most reflective of Brown’s approach to politics can be seen in the awful, unnecessary, and ghastly authoritarianism displayed in passing 42 days detention. As has been noted elsewhere, there have been no coherent arguments about why the bill is required now, nor why 28 days was so dangerously insufficient; there have been a paltry number of cases that’ve even gone close to original limit and a Home Office Minister suggested the new power might never even be used – arguing, laughably, that it will just be a benign safeguard in case counter-terrorism officers encounter a villain who could evade even Jack Bauer.

No, the prime motivation behind this bill, just like so many other actions he’s taken as Prime Minister, is a craven brand of politics. Faced with worse polls ratings than Michael Foot, Brown’s spent weeks scrabbling around for an issue with which to begin his ‘comeback’, and since the opinion polls are in favour and both the Tories and Liberals are opposed, he gets to ‘fight courageously’ for Britain’s security against the ‘hug-a-terrorist’ brigade who bleat about human rights.

Yeats once wrote “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” This isn’t always true. In fact, when looking at Brown I’d argue the worst all lack conviction. Since becoming Prime Minister, Brown’s modus operandi has been calculation and triangulation, surrendering key policies for short-term gain & scoring cheap points on trivial issues. Above all, his Premiership has been defined not by a desire to govern well but by a desire to win. He has been successful in neither.

You don’t go into government to beat the Conservatives; you go into government to help those who most need it. And when your desire to beat the Tories and save your own skin prevents you from helping those your party represents, then you really must question whether you’re fit to lead Labour into next week, let alone the next election.

Change quickly, Gordon, or resign – there are millions still living in poverty and they just can’t afford you.

Photo by Flickr user davepattern (Creative Commons)

Put the Penn away

June 2, 2008 at 9:43 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
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By now, you won’t need me to tell you that poor Gordon’s political future is as precarious as an icecube in an ocean. Every day we see stories about the New Scandal!, the latest Poll Shock! or a rumoured Cabinet Coup! and every day we see our nation’s blessed punditocracy bashing their heads against their keyboards and submitting the results under the title of What Gordon Must Do Now.

Run to the left! they cry. No, run to the right! Let’s reconnect with out heartlands! No, don’t forget about our precious marginals! After reading only a handful of these articles, you’re forgiven if your ears start ringing with white noise.

So what’s really needed in a time like this is a political guru who can (cliche alert!) sort the wheat from the chaff; an experienced strategist who can distill the best of New Labour whilst drawing up a plan to reconnect with the party’s roots and drag the party towards victory in 2010.

Unfortunately, that knight in shining armour is unavailable, so we’ll have to settle for this guy:

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the controversial pollster Mark Penn – until recently Clinton’s chief strategist – insists Brown has “plenty of time” to address the government’s slide in the polls, and says setbacks such as last month’s defeat in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection can sometimes turn out to be just what a troubled leader needs.

[…]

“There’s plenty of time … People are not in a good mood about the economy … so it’s going to take time, definition, persistence to turn it around. But it can be done.”

Phew! When the architect behind one of the most catastrophic campaigns in modern politics tells you not to worry, that really puts your mind at rest, right?!

Barely two months ago there were rumours that Gordon might hire this obsequious loser high-achieving pollster, and I recall being somewhat, errm, sceptical. Still, you shouldn’t take my biased word for it, and so in the interests of thoroughness, I bring you a collection of testimonials to the political ‘genius’ of Mark Penn.

Hillary advisor Harold Ickes:

“Mark Penn has run this campaign,” said Ickes in a brief phone interview this morning. “Besides Hillary Clinton, he is the single most responsible person for this campaign.

[…]

When asked if Penn was therefore responsible for the campaign’s strategy, Ickes said, “It’s pretty plain for anyone to see that he has shaped the strategy of the campaign. He has called the shots.”
“Mark Penn,” he said, “has dominated the message in this campaign. Dominated it.”

Former Clinton aide Paul Begala:

“I have nothing but contempt for Mr. Penn,” said Begala at a New York City breakfast sponsored by the non-profit group Public Agenda. “And for those of us who wanted to see him out from the beginning, it became almost a Rumsfeldian thing”

The normally genial Josh Marshall:

The last couple days have shown very clearly I think that Clinton could do nothing better for her campaign than to throttle this clown and let her get down to the business of making a case to voters for her candidacy

[…]

Clinton is ultimately responsible for putting her political fate in this fool’s hands. But this is a guy who has basically one big political win under his belt and whose record in seriously contested races, particularly Democratic primary races is one of almost constant defeats.

Karen Tumulty:

As aides looked over the campaign calendar, chief strategist Mark Penn confidently predicted that an early win in California would put her over the top because she would pick up all the state’s 370 delegates. It sounded smart, but as every high school civics student now knows, Penn was wrong: Democrats, unlike the Republicans, apportion their delegates according to vote totals, rather than allowing any state to award them winner-take-all. Sitting nearby, veteran Democratic insider Harold M. Ickes, who had helped write those rules, was horrified — and let Penn know it. “How can it possibly be,” Ickes asked, “that the much vaunted chief strategist doesn’t understand proportional allocation?”

Finally, just for fun, here’s Penn’s laser-sharp demographic analysis in action:

I first flipped through Microtrends while at the YearlyKos convention, and Penn, astonishingly, seemed to comprehend the importance of the loosely connected, grassroots-driven, progressive movement’s flowering. “I suspect the lefty boom will bring a surge in the promotion of sheer creative energy,” Penn writes, “driven by an idea that is at the heart of this book—that small groups of people, sharing common experiences, can increasingly be drawn together to rally for their interests.” I was shocked—Penn was speaking admirably of “lefties,” not trying to recast them as moderates, not trying to write them out of the party? He was endorsing open-source politics, rather than a top-down structure? I had misjudged the man!

I read on. Penn was talking about actual lefties—people who are born left-handed.

I don’t suppose there’s any chance that persuing the left-handed vote could’ve ve helped Labour win Crewe and Nantwich, is there? Nah, thought not.

Free advice Gordon: when Mark Penn is saying something, you should think the exact opposite. So when he tells you not to worry about 2010, you should be very, very afraid.

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)

Slender majorities, greater democracy

April 23, 2008 at 8:30 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform, New Labour | 2 Comments
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Photo by Flickr user Adam Tinworth (Creative Commons)

For those of us who believe that the current economic climate is exactly the worst time to consider raising the taxes of those on meagre incomes, today’s u-turn compromise by the Chancellor is a victory of sorts. There were no certainties or specifics, and suspicion surely remains that this ‘compensation package’ will be aimed at the more politically-appealing pensioners and families rather than any single people and under-25s who’ll lose out. Nonetheless, the Government finally heeded the howls of its own backbenchers, showed some contrition and came up with something that allows everyone to retreat from this fortnight-long fight, no matter how bruising the encounter has been.

But as Gordon Brown retreats to his residence to lick his wounds, add Frank Field to his shit list and suffer the Tory taunts about his leadership repeated endlessly on the nightly news, you could hardly blame him for wistfully reminiscing of those days in ’97 and ’01 when Labour boasted such a battering-ram of a majority that it could force almost any policy, no matter how unpopular and disastrous, through Parliament with votes to spare. The rest of us, however, may be tempted to draw the exact opposite conclusion.

If Brown’s government had enjoyed the same size majority as when Labour first came to power, Brown’s last budget would’ve endured but a fraction of the commotion we’ve seen this past week, and it’s doubtful that the backbenchers’ concerns would’ve been listened-to and addressed. Equally, if we changed our electoral system, Parliament would not be able to function without greater compromise and cross-party consensus and scrapping the 10p rate in the way Brown and Darling proposed might never have gotten this far.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the kinds of benefits that could be brought to our democracy by implementing some form of Proportional Representation. Aside from its biggest attraction as a system of voting that more accurately reflects the number of votes each party receives, I’ve argued that it has the potential to increase voting turn-out by making people in traditionally safe Labour/Conservative seats know that not only will their votes be counted, but their votes will count. Furthermore, I’ve suggested that by wrenching the major parties’ focus away from the fawned-over marginals of middle England, Labour has a chance to reconnect with a working class heartlands it has stopped knowing how to talk to, and in the process perhaps develop a greater knowledge and understanding that would be useful when devising policy.

With the 10p tax revolt we now see a third advantage of PR in the potential it has to reinvigourate our Parliamentary process. Ruling coalitions would only enjoy slender majorities but the rest of us would enjoy greater democracy. Ministers would be forced to consult on legislation, Commons committees would have greater influence as policy scrutinisers and compromise & consensus would be far more prevalent in Parliament than we ever see today. Most appealingly for Gordon, this crisis might never have happened. Surely that reason alone is enough to give it some serious thought…

Related reading:

  • An old Polly Toynbee article during the time of the last election on how insufferably undemocratic our First Past The Post system has become.
  • Johann extols the virtues of PR, slams Jack Straws proposal of an ‘Alternate Vote’ and then proposes a middle way, the sexily-titled ‘AV Plus’
  • Yes, I was lying about the ‘sexily-titled’ part.
  • Make Votes Count – a campaign website for electoral reform

Photo by Flickr user Adam Tinworth (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 

The Brown Stuff

April 21, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, What's left? | 1 Comment
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Gordon Brown by Flickr User Tim Waters (Creative Commons)

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later; Jackie Ashley holds her nose and defends the indefensible.

To those who think the polls could not get worse, I say: just you wait. A leadership battle is just the sort of tempting quick-fix confection that turns out to be honey-coated poison. David Miliband had it right at the weekend when he warned colleagues that they had to rally round the leader and stop fighting one another. Discipline under fire is what is desperately needed.

And it will have to last. For after the 10p vote will be plenty more possible crises, not least the vote over the 42-day detention proposal. On both, I am 100% against the official government view and, with every instinct, on the side of the Labour rebels. But disaster is looming and the real parliamentarians have carefully to weigh in the balance what they now do, and ask how much likelier it will make a Tory landslide a year hence.

And so it has come to this: after over a decade of mixed success in pursuing social justice – a decade where progressives were implored to ‘get real’ and ‘see the bigger picture’ whenever they challenged every rightward lurch – Labour MPs are once again ordered to swallow two heinous pieces of legislation for no other reason than to retain their rather weak grip on power. Yes, Ashley admits, both the 10p tax abolition and the 42-day detention are atrocious policies. In fact, you could call them a mutilation of progressive principles. But you must vote for them anyway. It’s what Nye Bevan would’ve wanted.

But as Gordon tries to save his beloved tax hike on working class people, he would do well to consider that the death-march of his leadership isn’t just a failure of policy; it’s a failure of the way he practices his politics.

I’ll argue ’til blue red in the face with anyone who insists there are no major differences between Labour and the Conservatives (indeed, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a glance at David Cameron’s record reveals him to be far from a cuddly, common-ground centrist), but you can hardly get angry when people think that. Whatever problems The Left may have had with Blair (and I had plenty), it’s still true that Labour fought the last two elections on a sharp distinction between the parties: Labour will use your tax money to invest in world-class schools and hospitals, safer streets and a vibrant economy; the Conservatives will slash investment in your children’s future in order to give themselves tax cuts that’ll pay for another fortnight in Monaco. It was crude, but it worked.

Now, it’s not entirely Gordon’s fault that events have made this distinction more blurred. For one, an economic downturn and a reliance on borrowing means there isn’t the money to keep expanding public sector investment, particularly when increasing numbers wonder whether we’ve seen value for money. The Conservatives were also wise to insist on imitating Labour’s tax plans for their first few years in power, thus robbing him of the opportunity to tar them as the public sector’s grim reaper.

Nonetheless, where there should’ve been bold thinking and bright new initiatives, we have seen, as Matthew Parris noted, a politician so bound by point-scoring calculation that he now appears before the electorate ans a muzzled, ideologically-neutered animal.

Whilst there’ve been plenty of ‘I told you sos’ in recent weeks, it’s still true that The Left should’ve woken up to this quicker than we did, particularly when some of the danger signs were apparent within the first few weeks of his reign. Sure, the ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ thing was pretty irksome and his meeting with Thatcher – whilst a generous act of social care – was equally brazen, but announcing troop withdrawals from Iraq during last year’s Tory conference was nothing less than a morally-bankrupt act. Over the last few years, I’ve seen plenty of politicians politicise the military to score points off their rivals, but the perpatrators have almost exclusively been Republicans and the victims have been Democrats. It is as wrong for them to do it as it is for us.

And then we get to Brown’s biggest crime – his surrender of inheritance tax to the Tories. What did Gordon gain by giving-away a historically non-negotiable part of Labour Party policy? Well, go check the latest opinion polls (hint: not too much).

Whilst we’re on the subject of selling-out Labour Party principles for absolutely no political gain let’s return to the 10p tax rate and a key paragraph from Toynbee’s last piece:

The 10p rate was a fiddly complexity that needed abolishing. Brown had a right choice and a wrong choice. He could take all 10p payers out of tax altogether, a move that would cost £7bn and cut everyone’s tax a bit, with the lowest-paid gaining most. Instead he used that £7bn to cut 2p off basic income tax, so the better-off gained. (Someone on £30,000 gains more from a 2p cut than someone on £15,000.) Those 10p losers were victims of a deliberate choice to give more to the better-off. People warned Brown before his last budget, but he ignored them. Yet if middle England whooped with gratitude at their tax cut, I somehow missed that moment. As ever, they banked it and forgot it. (emphasis mine)

In other words, on both this and the issue of inheritance tax, Gordon not only failed to do the right thing; he did the wrong thing and achieved no political reward.

This all begs the question of what on earth Brown thought he could gain from this. Did he really think his government would be better-placed if he robbed the electorate, the right-wing press and the Conservative Party of one less issue to complain about? Well, we live in a culture of complaint and it’s impossible for any government to satisfy them all. Even with a rise in the inheritance tax threshold, a 2p cut in income tax, a tougher immigration policy, higher taxes on booze to prevent binge drinking, tougher sentencing for offenders, a distancing of Britain from the United States, a refusal to attend a signing ceremony for the European Treaty, a belated refusal to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the country still has much to complain about.

A good government seeks to solve those complaints when can and engages in robust dialogue when it can’t, but for the rest of the time it merely needs to show momentum and resolve. It needs to show that progress is being made, that new ideas are being hatched, that important matters are being dealt-with decisively by serious minds for whom the political ramifications come secondary to Doing The Right Thing.

In our deluded fantasies, Brown was the leader of this good government. Now we can’t be sure he should lead any government at all.

Photo of Gordon Brown by Tim Waters (Creative Commons)

FAO Angela Smith

April 18, 2008 at 5:51 am | Posted in British Politics, Idiot Hall of Fame, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Instead of resigning publicly on a point of principle, you’ll now just be sacked quietly in the next reshuffle for showing such headline-churching disloyalty.

Either way you’re finished, and without so much as a fight. How pathetic.

Gordon Brown’s “sole focus”: the economy

April 14, 2008 at 8:30 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment
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This should be a sign to both disgruntled Labour backbenchers and the opinion-makers penning his obituary that Brown has no intention of stepping aside as Prime Minister. By staking his Premiership on the economy he might buy himself until the next election, but he also lives or dies by how successfully we navigate this ominous economic climate.

If, by the time of the next election, he’s able to show that Britain’s fared reasonably during the ‘credit crunch’, he gets to champion himself as a safe pair of hands; an unflashy achiever who is competent in a crisis.
If not, it will reinforce every negative impression that’s been written about him and will undoubtedly end with David Cameron in Downing Street. Let no one ever say that there are no high-stakes games in politics.

In the intervening months and years, it sounds like a very definite ‘hands-off’ to any would-be challengers. Gordon Brown was one of the most successful Chancellors in modern history and he seems more than willing to play on that record. Only time will tell if he can pull it off.

Why Mark Penn is Gordon’s worst nightmare

April 13, 2008 at 9:41 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment
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Ever wonder why I spend nearly as much time blogging about U.S. politics as I do British politics? Well, for one, that ocean between us isn’t as big as you’d think. In fact, it’s not nearly big enough. From The Guardian:

Gordon Brown’s close political advisers have been in informal talks with the controversial American pollster Mark Penn, seeking advice to improve Labour’s falling poll ratings.

While there appears to be no move to appoint the global chief executive of the public relations and lobbying company Burson-Marsteller to the Downing Street team, the talks seem to confirm feelings in the Brown camp that new ideas are needed about how to promote the prime minister.

Despite pimping policies that make me want to wretch and enduing what seems like a terminal decline, I’d still rather see Gordon Brown as our Prime Minister than that insincere opportunist on the opposite bench, and although I think Brown’s problems stem far more from a lack of good policy than a lack of good PR, anything that improves the image of his government should be embraced.

Which is why Mark Penn should not be allowed within 10 miles of Gordon Brown. Why not? Let’s make a little list:

  1. Mark Penn is not a progressive. As chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, Penn leads a pro-corportate, pro-Republican, pro-union-busting enterprise that willfully stomps all over ‘the little guy’ on behalf of big business.
  2. Mark Penn is not moral. As chief strategist for Hillary 08 (up until his ‘resignation’ – see #3), Penn has overseen a campaign that has deliberately slipped smears about Barack Obama into the mainstream media, be they about his race or his patriotism or his past. He’s even done it in person, live on national TV.
  3. Mark Penn is not ethical. Penn recently had to ‘resign’ from the Clinton campaign after being caught lobbying on behalf of the Columbian government for a trade deal that Clinton herself publicly opposes. I say ‘resign’ because whilst his official role in the campaign has gone, he remains a key adviser.
  4. Mark Penn is not competent. As the chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Penn drove one of the highest-profile politicians in the country from a position of unassailable strength to one that’s now on the brink of collapse. He achieved all this through arrogance, miscalculations and by not understanding the mood of the American people. In political circles, Penn has become a punchline for how not to run a campaign.

If there’s one thing Labour doesn’t need right now, it’s having yet another simpering, say-anything corporatist as a key advisor, and one who’s not even particularly good at his job.

Gordon can do better. For his own sake, he must do better.

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