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’.

Welfare as work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Protecting the country or protecting his job?

June 9, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Loathe as I am to praise the words of a Tory politician, this one does have the benefit of being right. Passed on without further comment, a powerful, scathing attack on Brown’s fetish for 42 days and a damning indictment of his priorities as Prime Minister:

First of all, ask yourself this: why is this bill before parliament now at all? Fuel and food prices are rocketing upwards, inflation and interest rates are on the rise, growth has slowed and the economy is faltering in the face of huge budget and trade deficits. Public infrastructure in rural areas such as my own Herefordshire is in desperate need of renewal.

The country is crying out for effective leadership. And what do we get? The unheralded resuscitation of a politically dormant issue by the government on its own initiative, and at the request of neither the police nor MI5. The home secretary marshalling the whips to round up the usual suspects, rather than dealing with prison overcrowding and illegal immigration. The prime minister ignoring the issues of the day to work the phones in order to get this bill through the house. What an embarrassment – to themselves, to the offices they hold, and to us all.

Not a day longer

Repeat offenders

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

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

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

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

Is Labour broke?

May 9, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment
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Now this is would be a successful way of appealing to the country: Vote Labour – We’re As Broke As You!

Lib Deb Voice links to this Tribune article speculating that Labour’s finances are in such a sorry state that it could be on the verge of bankruptcy:

Labour chiefs have until the end of this month to plug a £4 million hole in the party’s finances and avert the possibility of a formal declaration of bankruptcy.

The financial crisis in the wake of the party’s drubbing at the local and London polls comes as Gordon Brown faces another humiliation with a possible defeat by the Tories in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

Auditors are due to sign off the party’s accounts soon after the end of May, but there are fears that they will refuse to do so and instead declare the party insolvent.


One Labour head office worker who has seen the books said: “Whether we sort out the immediate problem or not, we are still going to have to rely on millions of donations. The money is just not coming in.”

A note of caution: the article’s not particularly well-sourced and seems fleshed-out with conjecture. Also, there have been other warnings about Labour’s funding crises/impending bankruptcy in the past, and still the party’s been able to function with some degree of competence. But regardless of the caveats, I can’t image their finances are in any kind of state to fight the next election.

When the party’s lost so much resonance with the public that they aren’t even inclined to vote for you, let alone join your party or donate a penny of their hard-earned money, you’ve got to find funds from somewhere. That either means taking out expensive and ill-advised loans or being funded by wealthy donors who want something in exchange: a knighthood or peerage, or perhaps a package of ‘pro-business reforms’ that end up screwing the very people they went into politics to help.

Seriously, if the party doesn’t find the right message and the right methods to rebuild from the grassroots upwards, the Tories could have a very comfortable decade in power.

Can he stand the scrutiny?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot trust what he says.

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

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

Photo by flickr user Edublogger (Creative Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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.

And now… a flying pig

April 7, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment
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When a Conservative opposition starts attacking a Labour Government for its plans to raise the taxes of working class people, you know there’s something seriously fucking wrong with our politics. (Hat tip)


No kindness for strangers

March 27, 2008 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment
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As someone who believes this country’s ‘Greatness’ depends upon its deeds rather than its outdated symbols, the way we treat asylum seekers makes me pretty ashamed to be British. I didn’t need a report to tell me that our treatment borders on barbaric, but the Independent Asylum Commission’s report (PDF) still makes useful – if incredibly depressing – reading. From the BBC:

The commissioners said policymakers were at times using “indefensible” threats of destitution to try to force some asylum seekers to leave the UK.

Another commission member, Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, told the BBC that officials considering asylum claims often had a poor understanding of an individual’s circumstances. “We are concerned at the level of the treatment of children, the treatment of women, the treatment of those with health needs, particularly mental health needs, torture survivors.”

How about some specifics?

Afshin, who is originally from Iran, spoke to the Independent Asylum Commission about his experiences in the UK, where he has lived for the past 12 years. He says he waited five years for a decision on his case – a refusal. “If someone would tell an Iranian that in a Western country they treat you like this, they wouldn’t believe you – because they think there is so much humanity there because we have such a brutal government.”


Shoherah Muhummad, originally from Somalia, gave evidence to the commission in Leeds. She says she struggled to get adequate legal representation to help her to prepare her case before asylum assessors. “I was running around not knowing where I was going. The only thing that has been going through my head was why did I come to the UK – I made a very big mistake.”

I discovered more horror stories whilst researching the case of gay Iranian Mehdi Kazemi. These are from international human rights organisation the EveryOne Group:

In September 2003, Israfil Shiri, a gay Iranian asylum seeker, died after pouring petrol over himself and setting himself on fire in the offices of Refugee Action in Manchester, after his asylum claim was refused (in the lower and appeal court) and his deportation to Iran, where he would-have-been hanged, had been arranged.


Burhan Namig, born in 1980, was deported on September 5th 2006 from the United Kingdom – where his asylum claim had been refused because “not at sea” – to Kurdistan, despite falling into a deep depression and attempting suicide. On arrival in Kurdistan, Burhan had a heart attack, as a result of the inhuman treatment received in a British detention centre.


In February 2007, at least two Iraqi Kurds were deported in secret from United Kingdom to the North of Iraq on a military plane carrying medicines and other humanitarian supplies, this despite the ongoing violence in Iraq, after American military actions, and despite the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq being subject to continuous terrorist attacks and serious human rights abuses.


The latest case is that of Ama Sumani, a 39-year-old Ghanaian woman, studying in the UK, who was diagnosed with a malignant tumour that couldn’t be treated in Ghanaian hospitals. Her asylum claim was refused by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and the woman was removed, against her will, on January 9th 2008, from University Hospital, Cardiff, in a wheelchair, and repatriated. According to the Home Office, this was all carried out with “politeness and dignity”.

These indignities exist because the Blair & Brown governments surrendered any semblance of a humane asylum policy to the conservative press and their desperate-to-please Parliamentary allies. Beseiged by the hysterical shrieks of the usual suspects, Labour swore to slash the number of asylum seekers and soon deployed the same statistical gimmickry we see in the NHS & education to prove they’d been successful.

But when you treat each applicant as a statistic, the odds are inevitably against them because the person hearing their case is motivated to keep the statistics low. This is how some of these desperate, terrified people end up being deported regardless of fears or even an honest acknowledgement of the kinds of regimes we’re dumping them back in. That’s a lot of suffering just to kill a few bad headlines.

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