Browned off

September 16, 2008 at 8:32 am | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment
Tags: , ,

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.

Advertisements

Waiting for defeat

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

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
Tags: , , , ,
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’.

Labour MP in ‘earning his keep’ shock!

July 15, 2008 at 9:14 pm | Posted in British Politics, Immigration | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,

My local MP, Michael Clapham, is retiring from Parliament at the next election. They’re abolishing his seat, y’see, and I like to think that he’s too principled to campaign in the new, more Conservative constituency they’ve erected in its place. But before he leaves to cash in on his Parliamentary pension, Mick’s not quite finished trying to legislate from the back benches. His latest quest: providing better protection for migrant workers:

The Barnsley West and Penistone MP has tabled a hard-hitting Commons motion after it was claimed a foreign builder working at an NHS hospital was paid a paltry £8.80 for a 39-hour week.

Mr Clapham wants the Government to extend its flagship Gangmasters Act to the construction industry – and his Early Day Motion has already won the backing of 35 other MPs.

Introduced in October 2006, the Act makes it an offence to operate as a gangmaster and provide labour without a licence in the agriculture, horticulture and processing and packaging sectors.

If the campaign succeeds it will mean migrant workers in the building industry will similarly be protected, and employment agencies and subcontractors will have to pass minimum standards before they can supply labour.

Clapham was spurred into action after it was revealed that one immigrant working on the £600 million NHS King’s Mill Hospital in Mansfield was paid just £79.20 for a 63-hour week after rent, tool hire and utility bills had been deducted from his wages. Since this incident isn’t uncommon – the TUC has a lot of information about the exploitation of immigrant workers – I’d say it was about time the government gave Labour supporters a little good cheer and made the necessary reforms, particularly since the John Redwood wing of the Tory Party would like nothing more than to gut employees’ rights legislation. Bravo, Mr Clapham.

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
Tags: , , , , ,

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)

Prison: Labour’s low ambitions

June 8, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Wandsworth prison by Flickr user bargebaggers (Creative Commons)

You’ll have to forgive my wooly-mindedness, but I’d always assumed that prison should be for two types of people: the murders, molesters and rapists whose acts of violence renders them unfit to live in a free society, and the muggers, thieves and fraudsters who come into prison encumbered by undereducation, drug addiction, and psychiatric disorders. Sure, I’d always known that there’s very little you can do about the psycho brigade – just give ’em enough bread and water to keep living until the callous little hearts cease beating – but I’d always naively assumed there was great potential to rehabilitate those in the latter group.

Alas, for all the government might grudgingly share this belief and boasts ‘get tough’ rhetoric on practically every aspect of public life, it still hasn’t found the resolve in all its 11 misspent years to truly ‘get tough’ on the causes of crime. We’ve seen prison populations rise to eye-watering levels, seen suicides and self-harming rise accordingly and seen the reoffending rate remain defiantly high, whilst all the while our venal right-wing press insist on misleading the country into believing that inmates enjoy a ‘cushy life‘.

So when todays Observer reports on the extraordiary scale of the drug problems in our nation’s prisons, the stock response isn’t to get angry or depressed or even feel anything at all; merely to sigh and turn the page.

But if there was ever an aspect of government policy where we needed someone to ‘turn the page’, it’s this one. Hussain Djemil, a drug addict and ex-inmate who has since become an expert on the myriad crises in the prison system, publishes a report through the Centre for Policy Studies tomorrow. Here is a heavily-abridged and thoroughly depressing summary of his allegations and those uncovered by the Observer:

  1. “Drugs are widespread in British prisons, undermining any attempt to clean up prisoners from pre-existing addictions, greatly increasing the chances of recidivism and corrupting staff.”
  2. There have been occasions when approaching 100 per cent of the prisoners in Cornton Vale [a women’s prison in Stirling] have a drug problem
  3. Even many ‘drug-free’ prison wings – supposed sanctuaries for inmates to escape drugs – are now beset with dealing.
  4. “In a survey of 20 category B and C prisons conducted for The Observer last week, the probation union, Napo, was told that inmates belonging to organised gangs were controlling the distribution of drugs both inside and outside their jails.”
  5. “The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) estimates that about 30 major drug dealers continue to control distribution networks across the UK from within the confines of their cells.”
  6. “With the new-found desire to control the drugs trade in Britain’s prisons come fears that weapons are being smuggled in to mete out punishments to those who can’t pay their drug debts. Last Christmas the segregation cells at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire were full as prisoners sought refuge from dealers to whom they owed money.”
  7. The methods used to smuggle drugs into jails can be as crude as throwing them over prison walls and mailing them into prisoners, or as sinister as drug dealers paying-off prison guards to turn a blind eye to dealing.
  8. “The use of mandatory drug testing is actually encouraging greater use of class A drugs in prison. This is because prisoners being treated for heroin addiction on a detoxification programme using either methadone or its more expensive alternative, Subutex, can blame any positive result on the substitute drug.”
  9. “In 1997 just under 14,000 prisoners were on detoxification programmes. Today the number is over 51,000.”
  10. “Studies show that addicted prisoners will go on to commit further crimes to fuel their habits, which in turn fuels reoffending rates and leads to offenders being recycled through the system, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds.”

It’s an awful state of affairs, and unless the influx of drugs and the problems associated with addiction can be eradicated, there’s little point in trying to invest in more comprehensive rehabilitation programmes. But help is on the way, right? Aren’t we about to be blessed with some shiny new superprisons to incarcerate these dosed-up evil-doers? Trust me, you don’t want to go there:

The new generation of titan “superprisons” are being designed to be overcrowded from the start, the Justice Ministry admitted yesterday. Prison service officials are already looking for a minimum 50-acre brownfield site in the Greater London area to build the first titan jail. But when it opens in 2012 it will only have 2,100 places for its 2,500 inmates. A consultation paper published by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday the sites for the four- or five-storey titans should be suitable for an initial development providing at least 2,100 uncrowded places with the capacity to hold up to 2,500 prisoners “through planned overcrowding“. (emphasis mine)

Well, that’s just brilliant. The deluded plebs among us have long assumed that overcrowding was a Bad Thing. We’ve argued that the more crowded a prison becomes, the harder it is to control. We’ve argued that prisoners are at greater risk of violence, self-harm and suicides, that drugs are more difficult to eradicate, that prisoners’ rehabilitation just wouldn’t happen and that an already overworked, understaffed and underpaid prison service would suffer from even higher staff turnover and demoralisation. We’ve argued that if the government wanted to stop such Bad Things from happening, they’d have to cut overcrowding.

But the only reason overcrowding worries this government is because it limits their ability to lock more people up, and since these new megajails will be able to imprison 2,100 each, they’ve got more room than ever to excercise their fetish for incarceration. When these prisons inevitably reach their capacity, Labour’s policy of ‘planned overcrowding’ will mean they can squeeze criminals in more efficiently than ever. And when even the megajails can’t take any more inmates, they’ll just build more of ’em.

In almost every substantive way, Labour has abandoned its pledge to tackle the causes of crime, and both our society and our economy will be paying the price for years to come.

Image of Wandsworth Prison by Flickr user bargebaggers (Creative Commons)

Put the Penn away

June 2, 2008 at 9:43 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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)

Back in the Brown stuff

April 23, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

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
Tags: , , ,

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)

In praise of Harriet Harman

April 2, 2008 at 9:14 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,

Well, I wouldn’t quite go that far, but I can certainly agree with this:

Suppose that Margaret Thatcher, 20 years ago, had gone out on patrol with the Peckham police wearing a stab-proof vest emblazoned with the Metropolitan police logo. Would she have been rubbished by the Daily Mail and John Humphrys for it the following morning? No, we do not think so either. Associated Newspapers would have lavished the full “Brave Maggie battles the thugs” treatment on her.

So, how to explain the difference between Lady Thatcher and Harriet Harman, who was trashed by the Mail-Humphrys axis yesterday for wearing a police jacket on a tour of her south London constituency? The answer is simple – politics.

A senior Tory female politician supporting the police is an Iron Lady leading from the front. A senior Labour one doing the same thing is a Silly Woman being a wuss.

Obstacles to suicide

March 24, 2008 at 9:40 pm | Posted in Big Brother Britain, Idiot Hall of Fame | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,

Since the government is still wasting our money pimping hilariously impractical ‘solutions’ to stop its citizens smoking (apparently banning smoking in pubs, slapping stark health warnings on cigarette packets and raising tobacco duty in every budget since the dawn of time hasn’t quite done the trick), The Bleeding Heart Show has decided to perform its civic duty and offer some sensible measures of its own, free of charge. They can thank me later:

  1. Taxes on cigarettes should now be renamed ‘council tax’
  2. More cigarettes should be laced with carbon monoxide
  3. Heather Mills should be recruited to front a pro-smoking campaign, ensuring millions give up en masse.
  4. Likewise Fiona MacKeown
  5. All cigarettes must now be fitted with audio devices that emit James Blunt tunes each time someone lights up.
  6. Before buying a pack of cigarettes, each smoker must be ‘Means Tested To Determine Their Need.’ Roughly translated, this means everyone who tries to buy cigarettes must first be subjected to a 10 minute waterboarding session. If they still want their cigarettes after that, they’re welcome to ‘em.
  7. A well-funded Think Tank should be established, issuing chilling reports that claim ‘One In 5 Cigarettes Is Laced With Deadly Islamofascist Semen’
  8. Not only must all smokers register for a ‘smoking license’, but that license should be published in our national newspapers under the heading “A List Of People Who Smoke (And Who Might Also Molest Children)”
  9. All cigarette transactions must be conducted in Mandarin.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.