Food for thought

October 7, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Celebrity, NHS, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
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I haven’t found the time to sit down and watch Ministry of Food yet, so I have no idea whether I’d be repulsed by Jamie Oliver’s supposed ‘patronising’ of the working classes or impressed by his idealism. I do agree with this comment that for all the cynicism about a wealthy celeb ‘slumming it with the chavs’, his intentions seem good and his approach – however meddlesome, intrusive & embarrassing it might be for the show’s subjects – seems considerably more effective than the hand-wringing warnings of health ministers. On the question of whether it’s freak-show TV, I think it’s wise to consider someone’s past record, and on that basis I think Oliver deserves a pass: his Fifteen restaurant chain, which sprang from a show where he hired 15 kids from deprived backgrounds and taught them how to work in hospitality, was an impressive achievement. Very few people in his industries have made a fortune for themselves whilst trying to persue some measure of positive social change, and for that he deserves credit.

I’m writing solely from favourable reviews here, but the show’s concept appears to be as much of a social documentary as ‘Breadline Britain’ ever was, and by occasionally panning away from the core focus on unhealthy diets, you’re made aware of the kinds of connected issues about education & deprivation that simply don’t get the kind of serious discussion they deserve. Going even further, it also raises more esoteric issues about the role of the state in tackling obesity, the future of the NHS, and whether the progressive left has the answers for any of the above.

Continue Reading Food for thought…

How to lose an election

August 24, 2008 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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With Bush on his way out, Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and soon (touch wood) the White House, Michael Moore struggles to remain relevant by producing a six point guide for Democrats who just can’t quit their losing habits. Overbearing narcissist that he is, point no. 6 is all about… Michael Moore:

Obama, at some point, might be asked this question: “Michael Moore has endorsed you. But he recently said (fill in the blank with some outrageously offensive line taken out of context). Will you still accept his endorsement, or do you denounce him?”

And he better denounce me, or they will tear him to shreds. He had better back away not only from me but from anyone and everyone who veers a bit too far to the left of where his advisers have told him is the sweet spot for all those red-state voters. I won’t take it personally. After all, I’m not the guy who married him or baptized his kids. I’m just the idiot who went to the same terrorist, Muslim school of flag-pin desecrators he went to.

I remember poor John Kerry not even being able to admit, when asked by Larry King, if he had seen Fahrenheit 9/11. “No,” he said, “I haven’t. . . . I don’t plan to, right now.” But he had indeed seen it. I sat there watching him say this, and I just felt sorry for him and for the election he was about to lose.

We can’t take four more years of this madness, Barack. We need you to be a candidate who will fight back every time they attack you. Actually, don’t even wait till you have to fight back. Fight first! Show some vision and courage and smoke them out. Keep asking why these lobbyists are McCain’s best friends. Let’s finally have a Democrat who’s got the balls to fire first.

So Barack, by denouncing me, you can help McCain get elected. Because when you denounce me, it’s not really me you’re distancing yourself from — it’s the millions upon millions of people who feel the same way about things as I do. And many of them are the kind of crazy voters who have no problem voting for a Nader just to prove a point.

Actually, I don’t think Moore goes far enough. If Barack Obama denounces Michael Moore, he’ll not just lose the election – he’ll have single-handedly destroyed FDR’s legacy, ensured the Yankees never win another world series, killed John Lennon and ended all human progress for a generation.

</snark.>

What an egocentric prat.

Ray Lewis’ resignation – another Boris blunder

July 4, 2008 at 9:42 pm | Posted in British Politics | 3 Comments
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This evening Ray Lewis resigned as Deputy Mayor after the recent allegations about financial irregularities, deception and sexual harassment. As is the vogue these days, he couched his statement in a language of martyrdom – only stepping down so the Mayoralty wouldn’t be distracted from its important  work – intended to maintain the veneer of innocence. What we all know, of course, is that completely innocent men rarely have to make such statements.

But regardless of whether he jumped or was pushed, or even whether or not all the allegations are true, there is one person who has the ultimate responsibility for this mess – the Mayor of London. Lewis was appointed amid great fanfare and glowing testimonials for his previous role working with disadvantaged kids in London’s roughest estates. As he was not a politician, nor a figure who had previously attracted much public scrutiny, you would think he’d been fully vetted by Boris Johnson’s staff to ensure they were hiring a man of integrity and ability. Apparently not. Today the Evening Standard reported that Lewis was never even subject to the most basic criminal records check.

The Evening Standard has learned his employment status at City Hall meant he was eligible for a criminal records bureau check – but one was not carried out because officials accepted that he had already been cleared for earlier employment.

Crucially, officials also declined to take the opportunity to request an “enhanced” check. That would have revealed details of his arrest over an allegation of deception. It would have potentially given the Mayor information about other concerns relating to Mr Lewis’s previous conduct.

Now, you could probably get away with appointing a career politician to such a role without needing a thorough vetting procedure. It’s risky, but possible. But to blindly appoint someone with a low public profile to one of the most senior roles in the country’s capital without ever doing the most bog-standard checking can only be classed as either arrogance or incompetence.

This isn’t the first controversy to have emerged during Mayor Johnson’s two months in office, but it is the most damaging and fits into a pre-existing narrative that Boris isn’t in full control of the city he’s elected to serve. Whilst he’s not yet a marked man in the media, from now on he will certainly face greater scrutiny of his performance. To prevent a Gordon Brown-like decline, he’s going to have to perform impeccably over the next few months.

Judging by the last two months, what are the chances that’s going to happen?

Ignorance isn’t bliss

June 23, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 1 Comment
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Since I only heard the name yesterday, I’m happy to recuse myself from the argument over whether James McGrath is a racist. Regarding the comment he made, it’s true that there’s an unfortunate similarity with the kind of sewerage spewed by the far-right, but it’s still a bit of a stretch to ascribe a real racial malice to what he said. Rather, what the comment does reveal – which is perhaps even more damaging to Mayor Johnson – is a flippant dismissal of the serious concerns behind the question he was asked. It’s probably useful at this point to put his words in context:

I brought along to the meeting copies of the Black community Voice and New Nation weekly newspapers covering the fortnight since Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London, and pointed out that Johnson was getting a bad press in these publications. I put this down to a ‘problem of perception’.

McGrath was far from politically correct, David-Cameron-new- cuddly-Conservative Party, when I pointed out to him a critical comment of Voice columnist Darcus Howe that the election of “Boris Johnson, a right-wing Conservative, might just trigger off a mass exodus of older Caribbean migrants back to our homelands”.

He retorted: “Well, let them go if they don’t like it here.” McGrath dismissed influential race commentator Howe as ‘shrill’.

He scoffed at the New Nation front page “Stabbings or stop and search? The choice is yours. Will new tough policing really stop the tragic murders or simply take community-police relations back 30 years?”

McGrath might well have said that City Hall’s new administration is not into this politically correct race relations stuff. He stated firmly: “Boris’s main priority is fighting crime.”

So the entire point behind the interviewer’s questioning was to make McGrath address the fear within minority communities that Mayor Johson has cloth ears when it comes to their concerns and only a half-hearted commitment to diversity, community and equality that his predecessor claimed to strive for. But instead of addressing this issue, McGrath just bulldozed over it with an insensitivity that’s hardly a positive attribute in an advisor to the Mayor of such a diverse city.

As much as his defenders on the right might hate that this is so, the man who reintroduced the word ‘picaninny‘ into political discourse has to take greater care than anyone to be seen as championing diversity and addressing minority issues. With that in mind, stopping the Rise festival from being branded as ‘anti-racist’ probably wasn’t a great idea, and with McGrath’s belligerent ‘we’re going to do what we want and don’t much  care what anyone else thinks’, a narrative is forming around Boris that could be electorally disastrous.

If he wants to get re-elected in four years time, Mayor Johnson simply cannot risk alienating ethnic minority groups, and in his apparent ignorance of their concerns, sacking McGrath was just about the only action Boris could’ve taken.

Barack Obama & the tragedy of the Muslim ‘smear’

June 19, 2008 at 6:11 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 6 Comments
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The art of speechmaking has a deeply symbolic role in American poltics. For each era you’ll find a speech that either speaks to the national mood or offers a portent of things to come: Roosevelt’s ‘fear istelf‘, Johnson’s ‘great society‘, King’s ‘dream’ or Kennedy’s call to public service. In the eloquent visions they offer, the idealism they inspire and the unity & resolve they provoke, the great political speeches are wedded to American history almost as much as events themselves, and serve as a point of reference for those who choose the path of public service.

Because of this, the podium from which these political speeches are made has taken on a symbolism of its own. In this image-obsessed media age, great care is taken to ensure the slogans are bold and visionary, that the stage is showered with symbols of patriotism and that the audience reflects the rich diversity of the country. Though it is a cynical and manufactured process, nothing reflects the breadth and depth of the coalition Barack Obama’s campaign has built than the crowds who attend his speeches: young and old, black, white and hispanic all sat side-by-side to insist on a change in the way the country is governed.

But there is one face, quite depressingly, that’s seldom seen at the rallies, in the campaign literature or on the television commercials to support his candidacy. On Wednesday the Politico reported that two Muslim women dressed in hijabs had been barred from sitting behind the podium at an Obama rally in Detroit, Michigan.

“I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to,” said Hebba Aref, a 25-year-old lawyer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. “The message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.”

Now, I should point out that the Obama campaign has apologised personally to the women involved; they insist the actions were taken independently by over-zealous staffers and are anaethema to the type of campaign the Illinois Senator wants to run. I happen to believe them, but that doesn’t make the news any less distressing.

For one, it’s just a missed opportunity. In the city with the largest Arab population in the US, there was an  opportunity for two Muslim women in traditional dress to share a stage with a Democrat who is committed to women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom and equality of opportunity. The symbolism would’ve been huge – sending a statement to folks at home that Muslim American are Americans too, and showing the rest of the world that for all its faults, there are few places as diverse, inclusive and, yes, tolerant, as the United States of America.

Secondly, this incident puts a human face on an unease with the Obama campaign that’s lingered for some time: namely, the aggressiveness it exerts in refuting the ‘smear’ that the Senator is a Muslim. Now, running for President is difficult enough when you’re a white, middle-aged war hero, let alone a black man whose middle name is Hussein, and it’s only right that his campaign pushes back against rumours being peddled by racists. But, as Naomi Klein argues, “what is disturbing about the campaign’s response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire “Muslim smear”: that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame.”

As difficult as it may be, Obama needs to find a way to address this tension or else risk alienating a religious and ethnic group that has been demonised for far too long. He needs to state plainly that whilst he is a devout Christian, there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, and that those spreading these lies do so not simply to demonise him, but every other American who practices Islam. Ezra Klein has a sensible suggestion:

The bigger move would be to invite them to the sit-down, and then make a speech forthrightly addressing not only the rumors, but the ugly undertone of the rumors, which implies that the religion of millions of Americans and over a billion people worldwide somehow renders them dangerously “other.”

Sure, it would be safer politically just to keep batting the rumours away with the same aggressiveness  shown so far, but – as we’ve seen with the Reverend Wright scandal and on many other occasions – Obama is at his best when taking those risks inherent in doing the right thing.

If nothing else, it might stop a few of his anxious staffers from freaking out at the sight of a Muslim woman who merely wants to watch him take to the podium and speak of the next great moment in American history.

Photo #1 taken by Flickr user (ahem!) Barack Obama (Creative Commons)

Photo #2 taken by Flickr user jetheriot (Creative Commons)

MacKenzie wusses out

June 16, 2008 at 6:51 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | 5 Comments
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Guess we won’t have Kelvin MacKenzie to kick around for the next few weeks:

The Sun columnist Kelvin MacKenzie is now not expected to stand against David Davis in next month’s byelection over the issue of 42-day terror suspect detention, with News International executives understood to be wary of such a move.

[…]

In today’s Sun, the assistant editor, Trevor Kavanagh, moderated the paper’s criticism of Davis, the Conservative MP who has resigned in protest at the government’s proposed introduction of 42-day detention for terror suspects.

“David Davis is an ego-driven maverick,” said Kavanagh, the Sun’s former political editor, wrote on the paper’s op-ed pages. “But he has struck a nerve with voters of all parties who are fed up with acting as bit-part players in a real-life Big Brother.”

News International executives are understood to be wary of fielding a candidate against the Conservative party, which could interfere with the Sun’s policy to always back the winner of election campaigns.

Wow, Murdoch really does hate to back a loser, doesn’t he? So much for crusading on behalf of a noble cause…

David Davis & fixed terms

June 12, 2008 at 9:57 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment
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Okay, it’s late and perhaps I’m just too tired for my brain to function properly, but this is something I’m really struggling to get my head around:

How do bloggers who support the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments square that with their support for Davis’ decision to trigger a by-election in protest at a single issue that’s already been passed through the Commons?

If you believe the date we hold elections shouldn’t be determined by political circumstances (which I agree with, by the way), it seems inconsistent to support someone’s desire to call an election when it is motivated entirely by political circumstances.

Answers on a postcard, etc etc.

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)

Sexism at work in the Spelman scandal?

June 9, 2008 at 11:57 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | Leave a comment
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An interesting catch from The Guardian:

Friends of Spelman say the unusual arrangements, which will be investigated by the parliamentary standards commissioner, John Lyon, were caused in part by what they describe as the “sexist” demand when she was selected as the Tory candidate in Meriden. Spelman was asked to give an undertaking that she would live in Meriden and educate her children there.

One friend said: “All aspiring MPs are asked if they will live in the constituency. Everyone says yes, they buy a property there and the matter is dealt with. To expect Caroline to educate her kids there as well was the sort of sexist demand women candidates faced in the 1990s.”

Spelman and her husband, Mark, an energy expert, found the requirement burdensome because their lives were centred in London. It is understood that they complied with the demand when their children were young. But they then moved to bigger schools outside Meriden.

This doesn’t explain away the appearance of wrongdoing, but it always seemed peculiar that someone who’d be doing so much work in Westminster wouldn’t have her kids there. There’d be a delicious schadenfreude if it turned out that the constituency party’s overzealous demands had contributed to the mess they now find themselves in.

Prison: Labour’s low ambitions

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

Spelman & scrutiny

June 7, 2008 at 10:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | Leave a comment
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Having had the day to read about it, there’s clearly no way that Caroline Spelman’s nanny problem is of the same seriousness as the allegations made against Messrs Purvis, Dover and Chichester; it’s possible to have a degree of sympathy for the circumstances she found herself in at the time, and if the record can show that there have been no similar conflicts of interest since since ’97, then she should be given the benefit of the doubt. This allegation alone isn’t a resigning matter.

Unfortunately for Ms Spelman, she happens to be Chair of the Conservative Party, whilst the other state spongers who’ve been outed this week merely belong to the European Parliament – a body that’s pretty much banished from public consciousness as a bunch of Britain-hating bruschetta-munchers. It might be unjust that she finds the press parked outside her home whilst the other guys just get followed around Strasbourg/Brussells by a sole spotty graduate, scrutiny is the price of power, and Ms Spelman’s party had better get used to receiving more of it.

At the very least, this mini-scandal will remind those journalists who’ve feasted on Labour’s carcass for the past few months that the party of the red rosette is not the only one filled with flaws, tensions and scandals-in-the-making; nor is it the only party with questionable policies and objectionable politicians. If we are to be believed that the Conservative Party are favourites to become the next government, then it is absolutely crucial that they receive a level of scrutiny which is in proportion to their poll ratings.

As I’ve argued before, the time for such scrutiny is well overdue. If the Big Media ask the questions required and the Tories come up with compelling and convincing answers, they’ll probably be the next government in 2010. But having four party members caught up in expenses scandals in one week is so not the way to go…

Photo of Caroline Spelman by Flickr user SouthbankSteve (Creative Commons)

Boris: Unready on day one

June 5, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | Leave a comment
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by Flickr user roystonford (Creative Commons)

So, you remember when the left’s Guardians of Moral Purity declared Ken Livingstone unfit for office; citing, among other things, his lack of openness and accountability, his lavishing money on unelected hacks and basically running City Hall as his own personal fiefdom? Well, they might have got their wish, but it turns out the man replacing him has decided he’d quite like a bit of that. Via LC, The Tory Troll uncovers the £465,000 Mayor Johnson has spent on a ‘transition team’ of spinners and Team Boris toadies.

Now, we could point out the flagrant hypocrisy of Team Boris mimicking Ken at his worst – the cash wasted on cronies, the lack of openness – but The Bleeding Heart Show abhors the use of clichés. Instead, we’ll just point out that it doesn’t reflect well on a man who tried to portray himself as the epitome of competence to spend half a million pounds of taxpayers money in the hope that someone might teach him how to do the job he applied for. Would quite as many Londoners have put a cross by Boris’ name if they’d known, to invert a well-worn slogan, that he was ‘unready to lead on day one’? I’m not so sure.

Photo by Flickr user Roystonford (Creative Commons)

Clinton to concede tonight?

June 3, 2008 at 3:11 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment
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Hillary Clinton, via Flickr user BHowdy

Insert caption here

That’s what the AP is reporting.

WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton will concede Tuesday night that Barack Obama has the delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, campaign officials said, effectively ending her bid to be the nation’s first female president.

The former first lady will stop short of formally suspending or ending her race in her speech in New York City. She will pledge to continue to speak out on issues like health care. But for all intents and purposes, the two senior officials said, the campaign is over.

Most campaign staff will be let go and will be paid through June 15, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge her plans.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this entire post is just an excuse for me to link to this picture. I have no shame.

Update: Will she effectively concede today? The answers are Yes, No and it doesn’t really matter:

Barack Obama effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday, based on an Associated Press tally of convention delegates, becoming the first black candidate ever to lead his party into a fall campaign for the White House.

Campaigning on an insistent call for change, Obama outlasted former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in a historic race that sparked record turnout in primary after primary, yet exposed deep racial divisions within the party.

The AP tally was based on public commitments from delegates as well as more than a dozen private commitments. It also included a minimum number of delegates Obama was guaranteed even if he lost the final two primaries in South Dakota and Montana later in the day.

The end is blissfully near

Put the Penn away

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Hillary advisor Harold Ickes:

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

[…]

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

Former Clinton aide Paul Begala:

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

The normally genial Josh Marshall:

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

[…]

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

Karen Tumulty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 

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