Friday, December 30, 2005
Geldof 'PR coup' could backfire
He makes his pitch, his 'client' politiely says 'thanks, but no thanks'. Bob then goes public, says what reasonable things he wanted and then the miserable amount he was offered and PR coup becomes PR disaster . By taking on Geldof for the sake of a few headlines aimed at improving credibility with the under 25s, the Tories have placed part of their policymaking in hock to the Irish rock and roller. He holds them hostage and if he's politically as clever as I think he is, he'll demand an unacceptable ransom. It's the sort of mistake Tony Blair used to make when he was settingout to woo the heart of the nation. He's too smart to risk such a thing now.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Democracy in UK Threatened
The Guardian today points out that our turnout figure of 62% last May compares badly with the 65% Portugese, 77% Norwegians and 85% Danes. What makes the British situation even more worrying is the fact that it is the young who are not participating. Political Scientist Edward Phelps, in the current Political Quarterly, has produced an important yet depressing analysis.
He shows that in 1964 87% of under 25s voted while 88% of over 64s did the same. In 2005 the figures were 86% for the older group but only 44% for the under 25s. Even more depressing is the fact that nonvoting is habit-forming. Turnout was 52% in the 18-21 group in 2001 but down to 43% four years later.
a) What happened to turn young people off 1992-2005? And
b) what can be done about it?
On the first question, it is very hard to find a single explanation. It is probably connected to a number of factors:
i) the picture of untrustworthy sleazy politicians in the mid nineties
ii) the excessive use of spin by New Labour
iii) the ignoring of public protests over a number of issues but most importantly Iraq.
iv) The fact that both major parties have been fairly close on issues like the economy and, since 1997, the public services. Wider choice encourages more votes.
v) The weakness of the main opposition party since the early nineties. Elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 have seemed like foregone conclusions.
vi) The competition which politics faces for the attention of younger people. There is so much by way of entertainment and activity to make politics seem like the boring obsession of losers.
On the second question, I have wracked my brains ever since 2001 and not come up with anything world shattering. It is also not possible to point at a single answer but nothing short of a cultural renaissance is required to re-engage government with the governed. To achieve this it will be necessary for politicians to eschew spin, to become more direct and honest and for young people to feel the political system does respond to what people are expressing. But it is no use pretending this is anything other than an intractable yet vital question to which we have to find some answers if our democracy is to survive in the long term.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Not a Bad Old Life?
Reading about the lives my peer group of retirees are living-cruises, frequent holidays abroad, activity breaks and various other forms of ‘skiing(that’s ‘spending the kids’ inheritance’ to you) re-inforces my view that the Western European ‘baby boomer’ generation which arrived after the second world war, is probably the most favoured in the history of the world. Why so?
1. We haven’t had to fight a war. Our parents’ generation heroically did that, in some cases twice, and saved us from what would have been a pretty dismal life under a tyranny.
2. We’ve benefited from relatively full employment- no desperate thirties style privations for us.
3. Longevity has increased astonishingly so that we can expect- touch wood- to live for 20% longer than our parents did.
4. Pensions are due to decline over the next twenty years but the boomers, with luck, will just about make the cut. It’s our children and grandchildren who will face the colder winds of declining pensions. And the best of luck to them.
5. We have benefited from the extraordinary material plenty which has characterized the postwar world. Very little starvation in the affluent west. We have filled our boots with cars, household electrical goods, computers and related IT wizardry plus cheap flights just when restrictions are beginning to be envisaged. And we have enjoyed the benefits of pollution producing industries just as greenhouse gases are being restricted and many ‘high carbon footprint’ goods are going up in price.
6. We have avoided the dangers of terrorism for the most part and it is future generations who will have to grapple with the further jihad of militant Islam.
7. Finally, and I'm not sure why I've waited so long to make this point, all of us- males and females, have enjoyed a liberation from over a century's sexual and emotional repression. Beginning in the sixties a huge number of taboos have been destroyed with the result that we have enjoyed, in an experiential way, a kind of cultural renaissance. If there is a backlash we will probably have shuffled on from this world when it strikes.
Sounds about right? I think so. But we should not be too smug. Growing old –we know from our parents if not from general observation- is no joke at all. And nothing can take the place of the years we have behind us rather than in front of us. But on balance we’ve had a pretty good old life and should be exceeding grateful to fate or whatever arranges these things.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
Blair has passionately argued for bringing public services up to a much higher level of efficiency and delivery to the public. His insistence on hammering away on education, health and benefits suggests that this is the major remaining legacy activity area.
This has been the political 'black hole' of his time in power, sucking down political capital and threathening, as an issue, to linger like a black toxic cloud over his historical reputation. Some American players, and even commentators, believe the invaded country can achieve democratic stability within a few years. But the chances of constant bloodshed and incipient civil war being converted to peace before Blair goes-probably before the end of 2008- are almost zero.
Blair has always wanted to cement Britain into the frameworks of the EU: the euro and the inner counsels of the leading members. Perhaps it has been the endemic contradictions of the euro which has kept us out of the eurozone but for most observers it has been the staunch opposition of Gordon Brown which has been the key factor. As for the inner counsels bit, it has been the disaster of Iraq, yet again, which has scorched his chances of writing his name in bold in future EU history books.
The British economy has succeeded in maintaining growth for the whole of the time Blair has been prime Minister and it upon that which any success which has been achieved, has been based. The problem is, from the legacy side, is that it is Brown's which seems to have been the presiding genius here. Blair has been frozen out of much economic and even domestic spending departmental policy, by the man whom he himself appointed as his Chancellor.
Achievments so Far
Blair can look back with satisfaction at:
a) the minimum wage which has rubbished Consrvative preedictions of disastrous unemployment and raised 2 million low paid workers out of poverty;
b) over a million children have been taken out of the poverty bracket by adjustments to benefits;
c) pensioner poverty has reduced from 40% in 1997 to 17% now;
d) Sure Start centres to bolster the early upbringing of children in problem areas has had a mixed record so far but, if the experience of countries like Sweden are repeated over here- this could prove a valuable legacy too.
Spending on education and health has soared but public satisfaction with such services has not been commensurate: over half of recent poll respondents do not believe basic services have improved hardly at all. It could be that individuals- who report favourable experiences of their own treatment- are influenced by media criticisms of services as a whole but the results make grim reading from the value for money angle. Blair has followed reform routes- internal markets, private enterprise involvement-which are essentially those favoured by Conservative predecessors. It could be that there are more cost-effective strategies which he could have adopted, or it could be- as Max Hastings suggested in The Guardian 5th December 2005, that New Labour 'has failed to master the art of tanslating aspiration into achievement through effective administration'. Certainly the dire record of transport policy would seem to suggest Hastings' analysis is close to the truth.
Even if Brown has done the spadework, Blair deserves some credit for appointing the man and supporting him. Team leaders should receive a degree of credit for what team members have achieved, though how much is admittedly debatable.
Since 1997 indictable crime has fallen by some 40% yet polls exhibit little awareness it has declined at all, suggesting either statistical failings or an inability of the public to discen improvement even when it occurs.
Here Blair has invested a huge amount of effort, like Major before him, and the results have been, if not wholly successful, then commendably partially so. No doubt hundreds of people would have died but for Blair's attempts to solve the problems of the province; in 2004 a mere 4 people died.
Blair may be expecting too much from a 'legacy portfolio'. To ask virtually for his own chapter in history books smacks perhaps a little too much of hubris. To have presided over such a huge increase in the wealth of his country, funded public services up to EU levels in the case of health and have brought an albeit brittle peace to Ulster, is surely legacy enough for most Prime Ministers who often have only the wreckage of failure to look back on. Not to say there aren't a few pieces of wreckage for Blair to contemplate, one of them, of course, looming monstrously large. As Hastings put it: 'Blair is left today struggling, with increasingly clumsy haste to create achievements that will outlast his tenancy in Downing St. Yet events in Baghdad negate them all and are beyond his control. The Blair legacy is sealed and witnessed beyond amendement or codicil, and a tragically ugly one it is.'
Friday, December 23, 2005
School Reform, Prescott and Selection
Education is more personal to those under 60- as I just am- as they ex-perience it through their children; it is only later on that the NHS becomes crucial as frailty begins to invade. My own recent experience of education is via my son- still at university- and my own work as a teacher of undergraduates. I generally think my son has been well taught at Keele and is now contributing his bit to- I hope- end up with a decent degree. No real complaints here; he would have done better if educated privately- as most beneficiaries of that system tend to - but not being able to afford £15K plus a year was one hurdle; a disinclination to support a system which is manifestly and fundamentally unfair, was another.
My own teaching suggests to me that standards of literacy are somewhat in decline. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are legion in essays and awkward, stilted style seems to be the norm for far too many students. By the time they get to university it's far too late to correct and remove such lacunae so I can only conclude that literacy levels now are not as good as when I was lucky enough to attend a good grammar school. It's hard to make generalised judgements but probably education is in need of further reform. Will giving schools more freedom do the trick? Critics- and there are many more than just the Deputy Prime Minister- believe schools once given their freedom will use it to select the more able pupils.
Given that middle class homes are the nursery of positive attitudes towards education, it is a reasonable fear that selection will increase inequality and take us lurching back to the time when the stream of children, facing the future, bifurcated at age eleven with 'success' written above the route taken by those who passed the 11 plus and 'failure' over the other. Incidentally I was interested to read that as well as Precott, Polly Toynbee also failed her 11 plus as well as a friend of mine who is now one of the leading political scientists in the country.
The worry is obvious but not necessarily concomitant with more freedom. The education bill can entrench non selection by statute or schools be given incentives to maintain it. The problem for Blair is that the leftwing of his party are so convinced of his perfidy that many now believe he is a secret dedicated elitist who favours advantaging the rich in the same way as he was advantaged. He will face a huge task to disabuse them of such beliefs and this difficulty will be- to an extent, his own fault for exhausting his capital by following Bush's lead over Iraq.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Voter as Teenager?
A colleague of the same analyst suggested voters were like teenagers: 'unwilling to be governed by their elders, but not yet possessing the capacities, processes or institutions to take responsibilities for their own lives.' Consquently Britons are 'a conflicted population getting richer but not happier, with more money to spend, but not sure what to spend it on, or how to make themselves happy with that expenditure.' So we are all like silly teenagers? According to this article, yes.
The analyst sees the politician as a therapist, seeking to explain this complex world of finite resources and limited choices but then the media steps in and champions the cause of having one's cake and eating it. I think there is a bit of truth in this;but feel it's more to do with fellow citizens programming out information they do not like and absorbing only that which they do. So global warming is doubted as this makes so much of modern living uncomfortable. At the very basic level, people want to pay less tax yet still have world class public services. It can't be done but for three elections voters put in a party which claimed it could be.
Such a lament is understandable- the voter is a fickle thing and nothing can please him or her for very long. But by attributing such a volatile and irresponsible character to the voter, politicians might be seeking to do as they please while ignoring any cries of dissent as over Iraq, Education or whatever. If 'leadership' consists of ignoring public opinion the Tony Blair is some leader. This analysis sounds muddled and a rationalization of how dissent is ignored. I'd like to see the data, if any, on which it is based.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Tory poll lead sign of a sea change?
In September 2000 the Fuel Crisis prompted a brief and unheady spike in the graph but since then the life support machine has been bleeping fuiously. Then along came Dave. Now we see an ICM poll in The Guardian registering a one per cent lead for the party led by the young Etonian. Just as intriguing is the response to the question about PM -in- Waiting Brown; then the Tories would have a five per cent lead and the Lib Dem's figure reduce from 21 to 18. Are we present at yet another sea change moment? As in 1992 we will have to wait; it is too early to conclude anything and factors to weigh include:
a) Blair's resilience: he is now a hardened old professional who has weathered many a storm. He faces huge internal oppostion over his reform package, especially over education, but he still has room for manoeuvre through making concessions or changing tack.
b) the IMF currently predict economic recovery to former growth rates by 2007 which, if it happens, should help Gordon Brown's chances of overhauling any Conservative lead opening up.
c) don't even rule out the possibility that Blair might be seen as the better candidate to take on Cameron and be persuaded to stay on for another charge into the electoral fray.
d)An alternative to Brown mightr also be a possibility. George Osborne, in that Q and A I chaired on 24th November reckoned he'd rather face Brown than the youthful David Miliband and don't rule out someone like him emerging as a rival to a Brown who is closer to Blair than many realise and who lacks Blair's gift for optimism and popular communication
e) Cameron has had a dream debut as leader but is still young and raw; a major slip can never be ruled out and both Hague and IDS faced real problems once six months into their leadership tenures.
The one per cent lead we see today could easily turn out to be a blip. I was struck last Saturday morning, listening to the Week in Westminster, how Jackie Ashley, Malcolm Rifkind and David Steel all predicted that by next Christmas Tony Blair would still be in Downing St. But as for the state of the polls- they did not hazard a guess. My money would still be on Labour to win next time; the best the Tories can hope for is a hung parliament.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Charles Continues to Sweat
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Lib Dem Dilemma
First Peter Kelner on Breakfast television yesterday put his finger on Kennedy's problem. He is the ideal leader for the 'safety valve' party whereby Lib Dems provide an alternative. Charles is relaxed, friendly and reassuring: not like those agressive professional politicians who lead the main contending groups. But this is not enough for a party which won 62 MPs and six million votes last May. A large wedge of the party's MPs and membership see ownership of Downing St as their proper prize. They want to sup at the 'Top Table' says Kelner and for this goal, Kennedy does not seem to be the appropriate leader. The nation seems to agree. The Observer ICM poll today shows only 13% think Kennedy would make the best Prime Minister; admittedly no different from thoise during last May's election but scarcely credible Top Table ratings.
Second, Andrew Rawnsley points out in today's Observer that there are two factions among Lib Dem expanded bunch of MPs; a group of 'tax and spend' public sector supporters who could easily be sitting on the Labour benches and another increasingly 'market forces' faction which could easily sit with the Conservative. Ashdown was able to disguise this (in his time not so pronounced) tendency by sheer force of personality but Charles- who recently expressed his leadership role as being more that of a 'chairman'- is conspicuously not able to ride both horses at once.
Kennedy, despite being the most successful leader his party has had in terms of gains, is being crushed between these two factions. He would love to lead the party into the next election when a hung parliament seems increasingly possible and the Lib Dems are likely to be in a controlling position. But it seems the skids are already under him. A pertinent question is 'who would do the job better?' Simon Hughes springs to mind- but he has his enemies; Campbell is a credible Cabinet member or even Prime Minister- but he is too old; Mark Oaten is bright and young- but is too inexperienced. As I suggested in an earlier post, a short term leadership spell from Ming Campbell would appear to be the answer; his inability warmly to endorse Kennedy suggests he thinks this way too. The arrival of a Blair clone as Conservative leader seems to have sent out a call in the Lib Dems for a similar transforming tyro. It is the party's problem that no such clone appears to be sitting on its benches at present.
Friday, December 16, 2005
Liberal Democrats and their Leader
Meanwhile Kennedy has tried to play it tough against his enemies suggesting he was 'keeping positions under review' and that 'We have plenty of talent around these days more than capable of filling vacancies.' This sounds an empty threat as most of the real talent in the Lib Dems that I'm aware of, is already in a shadow line-up which is indulging in the very acts of disatisfaction which are causing such grief to the leader. And if they were all fired that would send such a major signal of dissent that Kennedy's position would be untenable. I suspect there is a long way to go and at the end of it the Lib Dems will have a new leader. Piling on the agony, David Cameron has invited Lib Dem voters to join him in creating a vibrant reforming opposition to Tony Blair. I'd give Charlie till Easter, if not before.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Liberal Democrats leadership and Charles Kennedy
It's not just that Charles has not said much, he has not done much either that anyone can point to. Being opposed to Iraq can only take you so far. Lib Dems need a bit of drama, a few teling blows delivered on the government's left flank maybe. And there was that debate on the Queen's Speech which Charlie did not attend, some said because of a mammouth drinking session the day before. Being laid back plays well during election time- he can appear to be normal and sensible in contrast to the high pitched rhetoric of the big parties- but during normal 'peace-time' conditions a little more intensity is required. He just has not seemed to cut it while the part of the centre ground occupied by his party now faces a brash newcomer in the form of Cameron who outpoints Kennedy on youth-once his key asset- and apparent dynamism.
This is patently unfair as Kennedy was: successful initially as a contrast to the hyperactivity of the dynamo Ashdown; won votes and seats in 2001 and in 2005; and had the good sense to oppose Iraq. What more do Lib Dem MPs want? As they read opinion polls showing falling their ratings, they want action, excitement, some barricades to storm now and again and all they have is 'lazy old Charlie' with a rumoured drinking problem. It may be unfair, Kennedy may have won the right to continue until at least the next election but the genie of criticism in the Lib Dems is now out of the bottle and it won't qietly creep back in. Kennedy has faced down his critics once, but, like IDS in 2003, how often must he do it before his authority and credibility have evapourated?
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Swarzenegger does for 'Tookie'
The execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams yesterday brought to mind Dostoyevky’s claim that it is the way a nation treats its criminals which offers the truest measure of its character. Williams, a huge lumbering muscle-bound freak of a man, had been convicted for killing four people in a robbery 25 years ago. He was undoubtedly a hardened criminal and the person responsible for setting up the deadly Crips gang in Los Angeles, that act of creation alone the cause of countless deaths among young people and innocent people of all ages caught in the crossfire.
In prison on Death Row he seemed to undergo a redemptive transformation. He wrote books-assisted by a journalist co-author- seeking to dissuade youngsters from joining gangs and their conflicts and worked for harmony between the Crips and the Bloods. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. But The Terminator put an end to him. Was he justified?
If one believes in the death penalty maybe so. But I’ve never been convinced of the ethical acceptability or the efficacy of the death penalty. Banning it in the UK has not caused any truly dramatic increase in the murder rate and as for the process of execution, even if it’s by the relatively humane means of lethal injection is pretty uncivilized. The powerful film, Dead Man Walking, telling the story of a vicious murderer being killed in this fashion, convinced me that this way of dispatching people is as horrific as any other. Moreover, I refer to the words in a Commons debate on the death penalty of an unusually intelligent and humane Home Secretary: Douglas Hurd. In June 1988, penalty, he said this:
‘Fierce, honorable arguments, immediately after the event is one thing. It is quite another to institute slow, cold processes of justice, with months filled with arguments of lawyers and the hearing of appeals, at the end of which the Home Secretary may decide, long after the event, that the offender should cease to exist. An execution in this way can surely give only fleeting satisfaction, if any, to the public or those who knew the victim.’
Many of those who sat on the Conservative benches that evening had been selected as candidates in part, because they supported the death penalty yet the free vote at the end of that un-whipped debate was 341-218 for maintaining the ban. In 1994 the margin was even wider. I’m sure that if a loved one of mine were murdered I’d initially think the death penalty should be re-introduced-‘he’ll be out after half his term- it’s us who have the life sentence’- is the inevitable and understandable lament of the bereaved. But the morality and the practicality of the arguments urge us to oppose the death penalty. The USA is an ethically poorer and a less civilized nation for thinking otherwise.
Monday, December 12, 2005
Carbon Footprints: reducing them is the challenge
'It has taken more than 12 years to get 36 countries to just cut their emissions by about 5% and worldwide emissions are still rising steeply. The next negotiations will have to consider how to get countries to reduce their emissions ... by 30-50% within a generation.'
So the easy bit has been done; from now on it's a major change in individual lifestyles which has to occur. Most people I know drive cars without thinking of let alone calculating the 'carbon cost'involved. Moreover, they happily fly around the world, seldom stopping to think of the damage to future generations: their children's children, future citizens of the planet. Jackie Ashley's column, also in The Guardian, suggested we all have to face the prospect of 'slightly duller lives'. This means in practice: not so much travel; not so much eating out; not so much driving and flying; but more walking; more exercise in general; higher costs for luxuries; less 'comfy' over-heated houses and more uncomfortable sweating instead of air-conditioned houses and cars. In other words, a life more resembling that of our great-grandparents in the nineteenth century before the outpourings of greenhouse gases became a growing problem.
All this will be very difficult for my generation: the baby boomers. We had it hard early on in the fifties and early sixties when salaries were low and cost of living high. Britain in the years of Macmillan and Wilson was drab and a bit joyless in material terms; we all hoped for and expected things to get better. That they did and that we got so used to an improving lifestyle defines the problem. We have got used to the good life and so have our children. Weaning ourselves and them off it will be one hell of a job.
This is where the political, to paraphrase Germaine Greer, really does become the personal. Can we do it? As a middle-aged old codger I will have less trouble than those of my contemporaries who are richer and more habituated to the expensive things in life. Walking rather than driving is what I do now and eating for the most part inexpensively is not a saving -the- planet directed strategy; more of a simple necessity. Denying themselves ourselves our 'just reward' for earlier privations and subsequent 'hard graft' will not be easy for any of us but unless we, and especially our American cousins, can hack it-and remember now it's official, even the US does not cavil- the world has no future.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Global warming- slightly more cheerful news
Cuts of up to 30% by 2050 have been demanded by the EU but, say the scientists, we need cuts of double that to stabilise climate deterioration by the same year. Also encouraging is that developing countries India and China- both pouring out polluting gases as their economies go exponential- are keen to join in joint measures, even though they have not yet enjoyed the material plenty we accept and regard as our right.
Secondly I wrote recently of our 'unconscious guilt' for Iraq, arguing that our unstated but implicit adherence to a high energy lifestyle was impelling US/UK goverments to prosecute a war designed to maintain access to shrinking energy reserves. Such a view was too cynical I now think and this leads on to my third post in which I suggested there were more reasons to be depressed than cheerful when assessing the future of the human race. If even the US and the develoiping nations can rein in their consumption just a little and then agree to talk about more of the same, then there is some hope for us all- but I still think complacency is the last thing in which we we should indulge.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
John Gummer, a former minister dating back to Thatcher is not given a place in the Shadow Cabinet but heads the rethink on environment policy together with Ecologist editor, Zac Goldsmith and Peter Ainsworth who also shadows this portfolio. David Willets is the only 'Thatcher' minister given a job shadowing education, Cameron's former post. Willetts is another politician who had ambitions for the leadership at one time so ability and magnamimity coincide to good effect. Willetts has long been one of the few genuinely articulate and thoughtful Conservatives in the House. Clarke has been kept inside the tent via another long term inquiry meaning that even if Cameron does win in 2009 the jazz loving cigar smoker can forget becoming a minister ever again. Despite his long career and record in office history is likely to place him in the 'underachieved' file.
Not all of the former ministers have heeded the call. Malcom Rifkind clearly felt he had some rights of tenacy on the Foreign Office as he refused to consider anything else and walked off in what appeared to be a huff. As for the others-Letwin, Maude, Lansley, Duncan- they are familiar faces from the Howard and IDS years though I was interested to note Chris Grayling's presence: his reward for robust work in oppostion. But the 'celeb' news is that fellow Etonian, Boris Johnson has given up editing the Spectator- no more hot totties for him during his lunch hour-and has accepted the shadow higher education brief. Maybe now we'll see 'Clever Boris'-you only have to read his articles to recognise his intelligence- as opposed to 'Buffoon Boris' whom we've tended to see to date and which has made the carefully ruffled lothario a TV star.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
Dave still has a Mountain to climb
The meteoric arrival of David Cameron onto the political scene is going to transform a whole host of political equations. It all depends on how he progresses but his PMQ debut was certainly the most impressive since the arrival of Blair himself after winning the leadership contest in 1994.
Will he lead his party to success at the next election? He faces a number of problems:
Barriers to an Election Victory
a) His attempt to deploy a thrust for the centre is undermined by his voting record. Jonathan Freedland, in yesterday’s Guardian listed the rightwing voting record which his ‘compassionate’ aspirations disguises, comparing him to George Bush who emerged as a neo-con wolf from under the sheep’s clothing of similar early ‘compassionate’ rhetoric. His shadow cabinet is also quite a rightwing bunch of politicians. The public might well be repelled by such a realization should it come to pass.
b) So far he has dealt in generalities but as soon as he comes to grips with detail he lays himself open to attack e.g. his promise to support the education plans of Blair will prove embarrassing if spending plans in that area conflict with any of Osborne’s tax cutting plans. Blair and Brown have in their arsenal a constant and disabling question: ‘Are you willing to maintain funding? And if not, where will cuts be made?’ Cameron will find these hard questions to answer in a climate which has long ago accepted the need for more funding of public services.
c) Cameron has to transform his party. All three of predecessors began by pitching for the centre but then found, when no penetration occurred, that they had to swing back to the right to shore up a crumbling core vote. Cameron has about six months to succeed in his attempt to change the ‘nasty’ rightwing party into the ‘nice’ touchy feely, women and ethnic minority friendly set-up he needs as a foundation for his assault on Blair’s still powerful position.
d) Conservatives on Wednesday morning trailed Labour on all but two issues- crime and education- and face huge leads over the economy for example. They also trail Labour in the polls by some six points when- after a disastrous period for Blair, they should be at least level pegging.
e) To win at the next election Cameron needs a 9% swing- a huge requirement by any standards. It can be done but even Maggie never managed that sort of swing.
f) Cameron has only just begun- Hague enjoyed a brief honeymoon but began to strike the wrong poses almost immediately- remember that baseball cap? It is crucial that Cameron and his team do not make wrong choices over the next month. This means Labour can damage him if they can make negative messages about the young old Etonian penetrate the national consciousness.
If Cameron starts to knock spots off Blair Brown might feel strengthened as it will expose a PM too tired to deal with the new kid on the block. But Brown will wish to repulse the new threat too as from now on every threat to Blair is a threat to Brown’s anticipated short period in power between taking over and then facing the electorate. Recent behaviour suggests a renascent Tory party will actually improve Brown-Blair cooperation.
Cameron has tried to separate Blair from his party by offering to support education reforms. This stategy is subtle and potentially devastating as it could make Blair appear to be a modern Ramsay MacDonald- a traitor to his party. If Blair is dependent on Tory votes it will incense Labour loyalists and rebels alike. To remove a sitting Labour PM is difficult. Any faction wishing to remove Blair needs 20% support from the PLP plus a two thirds vote at the annual conference- an unlikely scenario. But the second condition is unlikely to be necessary; if enough Labour MPs sign up to get rid of him, he will have to go, just as Thatcher had to recognize in November 1990 that she had lost the allegiance of too big a slice of her party to carry on.
Cameron’s best quip during PMQs was ‘You were the future once.’ This mantra of youth we’ll hear being incanted right up to election day. Osborne and Cameron and their Notting –Hillers are convinced their trump card is their youth and vitality compared with Blair and company’s clapped out appearance and growing agenda of intractable political problems. But they should not forget that old lions can still kill; Blair is the most accomplished political communicator in the western world and Brown has a record which no Chancellor or finance minister in the world can match. Like the England tyros against the Aussies, the Ashes victory was always possible but they had to play out of their skins to win and even then nearly didn’t make it.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Young David takes on Goliath Blair
Cameron was able to express support for Blair's education plans and promised to help him vote them through- this aimed, and no doubt succeeded, at enraging Blair opponents on the left. Blair replied that differences still remained: he did not favour changes in the selection regime and he doubted if the Tories would agree to fund the service at the same rate as Labour: cue Labour jeers. This exchange was interesting as it preseages the line probably to be followed in the spring by both sides when this topic is being legislated. Cameron will try to separate Blair from his party while Blair tries to impale him on a promise to give support which he might find conflicts with party spending guidelines. Alex Salmond probably spoke for many Labour critics when he asked with devastating sarcasm whether there were any remaining differences of principle between Mr Blair and the Conservative Party.
All in all though a very promising start for the young old Etonian: bags of confidence and a subtle line in wit. I suspect though that Blair- who was less than fulsome actually in his welcome to the new leader- was merely biding his time. Cameron has so far dealt in generalities- almost as vacuous as Blair was himself when in opposition- he will find life harder once he has to focus and descend into detailed policy-making. And Blair has crushed Cameron's three predecessors over the last eight years with his relentless marshalling of the facts assisted by his scathing, dismissive wit. The shining faced wunderkind will find he's done the easy bit- the real job begins here.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Language and Media
This is a collection of papers given at a conference on 'Language, Media, and International Communication' at Oxford University. The contributions are from academics and journalists, and the best thing about them is that they are interestingly varied in topic and approach.
Issues discussed include the manner in which the norms of communication in the English-speaking world are affecting speakers of other languages. The example given is of an assistant in MacDonald's in Budapest who speaks Hungarian, but employs an Anglo-American 'discourse'. In another chapter Robin Lakoff writes on the 'new incivility' - how swearing, bad manners, and impolite behaviour have risen to the surface of public discourse, from the television chat show to the theatres of government in the UK and the USA.
Sometimes the arguments seem to take a sledgehammer to crack nuts. Martin Conboy's otherwise excellent analysis of the language of hysterical chauvinism in The Sun could have been done without evoking references to Mikhail Bakhtin.
Despite the title of the book, the emphasis is more on media than on language. John Carey looks at the problems of establishing credulity in reportage, and there's a well-informed piece on the BBC's anguish regarding the middlebrow nature of Radio 4.
One of the best pieces in the collection is by co-editor Diana Lewis on the changes brought about to the concept of news and the way it is broadcast as a result of now being simultaneously available in so many different forms. It comes at us in traditional manner via newspapers, radio, and television - but to these are now added instantly updated web sites, news feeds, and personal blogs - all of which can come along with a huge variety of background and contextual materials, available at the click of a hyperlink. Have a look at any page on a Wikipedia entry, and you'll see what she means.
I also enjoyed an amusing piece from the Guardian columnist Malcolm Gluck on the difficulty of describing wines without slipping into Pseud's Corner prose. At a more serious level, there's an excellent piece analysing the duplicitous and rhetorical devices used in White House press briefings, where the official spokespeople try to give away as little as possible, and the press representatives try equally hard to make them admit the truth of what is going on.
There are two good chapters from professional lexicographers. John Ayto looks at the way in which newspapers create neologisms by what's called 'blending' - as in motel comes from a blend of motor + hotel. John Simpson, one of the editors at the Oxford English Dictionary, considers the problem of accepting new media forms such as film, tabloids, and email as the sources for word definitions.
It certainly deals with traditional as well as new media - because there's lots on the press, particularly the tabloids. This will be of interest to students of media, communication skills, politics, and current affairs, as well as anyone who follows trends in current language use.
© Roy Johnson 2005 [other LANGUAGE book reviews]
Jean Aitchison and Diana M. Lewis, New Media Language, Abingdon: Routledge, 2003, pp.209, ISBN 0415283043
I'm not sure that is wholly true; several chats with my older fellow citizens have reflected gratitude for Churchill's heroic role and also for Thatcher's achievements in taming the unions. But the general point is taken: voters tend not to do gratitude; revenge is more in their line. So will anyone be likely to thank Tony Blair and if so, for what? It's a little odd that initial thoughts on this question, fail to produce easy answers. I suppose he has: presided over a sound if not buoyant economy; raised well over a couple of million people- especially chidren and pensioners- out of poverty; introduced sweeping constitutional changes- though he seems not to regard these as especially worthy of note; he's done a huge amount to reduce conflict in Northern Ireland- only four people were killed in 2004; and he's poured money into public services, seeking maybe his most personal legacy: services worthy of a modern social democratic member of the EU.
Oddly,and frustratingly for him, the polls still show more than half of the country feel public services, while they have improved a little, are still not delivering a result commensurate with investment. Hence his somewhat desperate rush to make them acceptable to all before he leaves in the trails of glory for which he clearly hankers. Max Hastings argues, brutally, that Blair will be denied any such satisfactions. Premiers, he suggests are remembered more for their failures than their successes: Eden-Suez; Macmillan-Profumo; Callaghan- winter of discontent; Major- sleaze. Blair, he is sure will be rembered for Iraq:
'a war of choice not necessity... hubris has induced him to commit a folly more damaging to the national interest than any act of Major's. Blair is today struggling with increasingly clumsy haste to create achievements that will outlast his tenancy of Downing St. Yet events in Bagdhad negate them all and are beyond his control.'
Clearly, it seems to me, Hastings' analysis is correct. Having said that, most Prime Ministers having survived the punishing years Blair has, would and should be satisfied with what has so far been achieved. Alleviation of poverty, helping thousands buy their own homes, calming down the Protestants and Catholics- surely that's enough for a left of centre party leader? What does he want- canonisation? I suppose it can never be ruled out.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Prime Minister's Questions-Cameron's First Taste will be a Test
Yes, because the clash illustrates the 'size' of the political talent: whether they can think on their feet; master complex topics; fillet or destroy an opposing argument; present a persuasive case or exploit weakness for political benefit. Probably they matter most for what they do or fail to do for party morale on both sides. A PM who is being bested leaves his troops feeling pretty pig sick and an Opposition leader who does not perform induces even more gloom on the backbenches behind him. Being there in oppostition is one thing, having a loser as leader suggests they are going to stay much longer than they hoped. For this reason, IDS- a leader backed by only one third of Conservatives in their ballots but by party members 2-1 in the final vote- was eventually induced to stand down. Conservative MPs had become totally disillusioned with a leader who could not carry the fight to Tony Blair's government and they wanted him out.
There is another good reason why good performances at PMQs are important- the opinion of lobby correspondents and the media in general. Good performances appear on news bulletins and so escape the anomymity of Parliament but they also impress people like BBC Political editors, formerly Andrew Marr now Nick Robinson or Adam Butler from Sky News. Their views influence others in an important way, both the Westminster insiders and the public at large. Key influencers are also found in the print media like Andrew Rawnsley, Simon Jenkins, Steve Richards and Mathew D'Ancona.
Their columns will reflect their judgement of party leaders' abilities and PMQs are a crucial weekly shop window of those talents. Those people who read their columns will in their turn inlfuence others until eventually some kind of consensus is formed as to the abilities of Blair or Howard or indeed Cameron after Tuesday.
PMQs may epitomise all that is worst of Yaa-boo politics yet they provide compelling political theatre of a kind the USA for example, totally lacks. They also provide a yardstick of how our leaders conduct themselves under extreme pressure. And that, after all, is key criterion of why we elect them in the first place.
How will Cameron perform? It depends on the issues which come up of course, but Cameron will be expertly briefed and rehearsed by a team of very bright people. We saw that at Blackpool he starred when performing live but next Wednesday a few things will be different. Firstly he will not be able to learn his lines but will have to think on his feet-something he did not excell at when debating with David davis on Question Time. Secondly he will be faced, not by a friendly audience of sympathisers but by a baying pack of Labour MPs and the most accomplished exponent of political communication in the western world, who is still at or near to the peak of his powers.
Friday, December 02, 2005
The Human race: Does it have a Future?
1. Climate change and the derogation of the environment threaten to 'cook' the planet within a few hundred years at most. Sea levels are rising, deserts in Africa are expanding, species are being wiped out, rainforests are disappearing. We are destroying the beautiful earth we inherited and seem hell bent on finishing the job with George Bush determined to live in oil industry induced denial.
2. The dangers of avian flu reminds us that the mutation of viruses and microbes is a constant threat to our survival. Plagues have ravaged the world in times past- the Black Death halved the population of medieval Britain- and AIDS came from nowhere to threaten something similar. Who knows if something similar awaits us?
3. As the polaristion between rich nations and poor continue one fears that eventually the poor will rise up and seek to even things out. The rise of Islam is to a degree connected with this and it could be argued that a Samual P Huntingdon's 'Clash of Civilisations' between the west and Islam is already in progress.
4. Genetic engineering- both of plants and humans may produce horriffic outcomes some time in the future. And the danger of biological warfare continues to exist.
5 Terrorism has always been with us as has been the advance of science. When it is possible for a terrorist to make a nuclear weapon in his garden shed, then we might have to number our remaining days as a species.
6. Competitive international conflict for diminishing resources: Maybe Iraq oil is the first symptom of this new characteristic of this tendency: western interests, of course, invaded the site of the world's third largest oil reserves, but water reserves seem likely to become another diminishing resource around which conflict may well centre.
David Mitchell's tour de force of a novel, Cloud Atlas, takes us to some doom laden future scenarios, especially the one where communities have regressed to iron age times with small pockets of advanced technology surviving but in terminal decline. Read it and be intrigued but also be afraid for our future.
On the other hand we can say, just about:
1. Maybe we'll leave it very late but once the calamity is really upon us we might do something drastically remedial about climate change and the exhaustion of the world's finite resources. No guarantee but we did manage to pull back from using nuclear weapons in the sixties and since.
2. Leading on from that last point, we have learned to live with nuclear weapons and maybe we'll do the same with other dangers like terrorism and religious conflict. Such passages of history have occurred by in the past- religious wars in the middle ages, anarchism at the turn of the 20th century and terrorism attending the births of numerous new states. But the steam has eventually expired and a more peaceful aftermath replaced such intensity.
3. Technology is still advancing exponentially and maybe remedies to a whole range of problems will be forthcoming. Disease might well prove to be a bane thus conquered.
4. Health levels and longevity have improved immensely during the last century and might well spread to developing countries.
5. Biological warfare has not proved a viable form as the side using it has to date been as vulnerable to it as the enemy.
6. Finally, selfishnes does seem to reign but it is just about possible to discern the slow march of concern for the less well off and of conscience. Maybe people will slowly become aware of the suffering of others and act accordingly in an altruistic fashion.
Re-reading the above, (maybe it's my cynicism from studying politics) it seems the pessimistic out points the optimistic by some degree. Selfishness, shortsightedness and the acceptance of ruthless political methodologies seem to be immovably written in the DNA of the world's way of doing things. I'm aware, very aware, as I approach my sixtieth birthday next year, that my own life is finite indeed and that I'm likely to miss the nightmare scenarios that potentially loom. But I would hate to think of my lovely grandchildren or their children inheriting a clapped out, smoking, exhausted planet followed by the slow fizzling out of all art, culture, enjoyment and the creativity that makes life such an entrancing privilege. In the end one has to opt for optimism as the alternative is too depressing to contemplate.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Rioting Youth in France and United Kingdom
1. We both have inner cities with 'ghetto' areas housing young people who are unemployed, illeducated, angry at their condition and often involved in criminality and drug taking.
2. These areas often contain high levels of immigrant families, mainly because the residential areas have cheap and hence easy to buy or rent and also because relatives have joined their kin through further immigration.
3. These areas suffer from high crime levels, social tension and poor relations with the police.
4. Because of all these factors the conditions for trouble are all present. All that is needed is a trigger. This can be as negligible as a rumour that one group of ethnic males has assaulted or raped a girl from another group, as happened in Lozells, Birmingham a few weeks ago.
5. Once riots start, criminal elements immmediately have a field day and consequently give the disturbance a misleading appearance of mere illegality.
In the UK we had a binge of rioting in the early 1980s. Michael Heseltine famously descended upon the land of the scouser and, sweeping back his locks, actually listened to what locals were saying. He responded with a paper to the Cabinet entitled 'It Took a Riot', advocating extensive government intervention to improve living conditions. Mrs Thatcher was unimpressed and, while much was done to rennovate and develop, Liverpool remains the kind of place which can produce the recent evil, racist murder of Anthony Walker by those tragically foolish young men. Since the eighties we've also had rioting in London on a few occasions as well as racist riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford.
The French riots began in a suburb of Paris in late October 2005 on the basis of another rumour-also false- surrounding the electrocution of two young Muslims and the throwing of a rear gas grenade in front of a local mosque. From there rioting spread to other suburbs of Paris as well as Rouen, Lyon and Strasbourg. In France, if you are rioting, torching cars seems to be de riguer. Over 10 days 6000 were burned and the count became a weird barometer of unrest. Once the nightly tally dropped below the 200 mark, order was said to be restored. [The average count for Greater Manchester is 20 per week by the way.]
Factors fuelling the French riots were:
i) alienation: immigrant groups flooded into France during the fifties and were housed in high rise suburbs to an extent. Now there are 6 million Muslims in France, many of them second and third generation immigrants. Their alienation problem is that they do not feel French but neither do they feel Algerian or anything associated with the lands of their parents /grand-parents.
ii) unemployment: the advance of the Asian economies has put much of French business out of business and the rate of unemployment is now over 11%. However, for young people the rate is 23% and for immigrant youth often over 40%.
iii) racism: the home of equality, liberty and fraternity is quite racist as the support for Le Pen- who came second in the 2002 presidential elections- makes clear. Anyone with a foreign name, especially a Muslim one, faces a huge disadvantage in getting a job.
iv) few full time jobs: because full -time employees cost so much in terms of pension payments and the like and are so hard to fire because of employment protection laws, many jobs are ephemeral, part-time ones lasting little over a month. The former are usually reserved for native Frenchmen while the latter are competed over by the rest of the disadavantaged.
v) hardline policing: police in France have always had a reputation for being tough and problems with young immigrants has led to government tightening the screw causing much resentment in the rundown 'banlieues'.
vi) presidential politics: rioters have not been impressed or calmed by the sight of Nicolas Sarkozy positioning himself for the support of the right by calling rioters 'louts' and 'scum' but the aristocratic Dominic de Villepin has also done much the same with strategic announcements of improved services like education for the disadvantaged.
But most commentators seem to agree that a major cause of the trouble has been the Fench 'republican model' insistence of treating all citizens as if they were equal. This rules out any affirmative action or special measures to help minorities as officially they do not exist; even the collection of statistics concerning minorities is banned. So, in a sense, the rioters do not exist in France or at least their ethnicity and special problems do not. The insistence that Muslim girls do not wear headscarves indicating their religion did not help race relations but the riots do not appear to be jihadist- at present anyway.
In Britain we have a 'multicultural' approach which freely recognises difference and seeks to do something about it with laws against discrimination and racism plus programmes to assist living standards, education and employment. We have seen how both approaces have fallen way short of what is required to integrate groups of foreigners into our respective societies, but at least the British approach recognises the problem reasonably clearly. Meanwhile in France, the riots seem to have delivered the death blow to this particular aspect of the 'republican model'.
[For more information log onto companion site Politics Considered via link in lefthand margin]
Writing in The Guardian, columnist Gary Younge saw the riots as a cry of anger by young people with nothing to lose against the unfairness of globalised capitalism. Power will never concede anything unless faced by robust demand, he wrote on 9th November. According to this analysis an 'outcast generation' is demanding to be heard and attended to.