Friday, June 30, 2006
Denying Rights Provides no Defence against Terror
My view on this crucially important issue is that:
i)Curbing rights in one area is no way to defend them in another. During the Second World War, even though the foe showed no respect for them civil rights were mostly protected by Churchill's government.
ii) Attempts by Bush and Blair to ignore legal limits on treatment of suspects and substitute their own expedient versions of the law, has provided a shameful episode in which the 'civilized values' we are defending have seemed worryingly close the uncivilized ones ranged against us. It is reassuring to those of us who feel Bush has been betraying the best traditions of American government that its judiciary has proved such a robust repository of the liberal legal values on which western civilization is based. Similar things could be said about Blair and the UK's response.
iii) If these alleged highly dangerous al Quaeda agents at the heart of the British control orders dispute could be brought to court the issue would be pre-empted. We are told there is not sufficient evidence to make charges stick but that the surveillance recordings which might effect convictions cannot be used. Why not? We're told it's not for a civil rights reason(well we can believe that at least) but for operational reasons to do with the security service. Well, how important do such unspecified reasons have to be before the security of the country takes precedence?
I fully accept that my defence of 'civilized values' might belong to an era that has now been made obsolete by Bin Laden and his proxies, but if so, like many others, I'd like to be persuaded that this is now the case.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
The Myth of 'New Labour's' Coup
"Your New Labour was a closed conspiracy of a few very clever individuals who in the glum shadow cast by Thatcherism seized a traumatised and disorientated party without breaking with the central tenants of that neo-liberal hegemony." This sentence, from the Compass website, was quoted by Mike Ion in his post this morning(I assume it should read 'tenets'). This represents a view of Labour history on the centre left-shared by Roy Hattersley I seem to recall- which is really nonsensical. 'New Labour' was the PR gloss added to a gradual movement back to social democratic revisionism which had been in train since the 1983 election defeat when Kinnock famously said 'never again'.
He it was who set up the policy groups which wrenched the party away from the leftward lurch which had helped forge the catastrophic defeat. During the eighties Labour slowly began to accept: NATO and the EU; the validity of an unfettered free enterprise economy as the motor of prosperity; and the fait accompli of privatization. After the 1992 defeat and Smith's death, Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell(alleged 'guilty men' pictured) worked to move policy into safer electoral territory. I agree Labour was 'taumatised and disorientated' but I don't recall anyone complaining as our poll ratings began to climb. The fact is that with the decline of the working class vote in the latter part of the 20th century, Blair had to attract middle-class votes to have any hope of winning. Remember that after 1992 quite a few highly respected voting experts spoke of Britain having become a 'one party' system.
Steven Fielding, a Salford academic has written a well argued book (The Labour Party, Palgrave, 2003) in which he denies the 'coup' theory and concludes that:
'The party at the start of the twenty first century may be a highly cautious social democratic organization; but recognizably social democratic it remains. If the state has advanced modestly and in novel ways since 1997, Labour's purpose in office is the same as it ever was: to reform capitalism so that it may better serve the interests of the majority(p.217).'
Whilst I'm not sure I'm happy about all of these 'novel ways', I fundamentally agree with Fielding's analysis. Lawson, the force behind Compass, is an interesting thinker(see his piece today) but this 'coup' part of his analysis is flawed.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Blair's Defence Fails to Convince
'I will not be leading New Labour into the next election but I will be doing everything I can to ensure we win it. That means renewing New Labour, not dumping it. If there's a better idea, let's hear it.' Thus did Tony Blair(yes, pictures on left are chosen at random) upraid we party members and supporters in yesterday's Guardian.
It seems he has no regrets about his period in power and wants to continue ploughing on in the same direction: 'taking further what we've done'. In addition he makes clear he is not short of new ideas, wishing to adapt 'Our model of public service reform....to new areas like criminal justice'. I didn't think I'd ever join the same camp as Peter Kilfoyle- the somewhat embittered former Merseyside junior minister who has been lambasting Blair from the backbenches for as long as I can remember- but it seems I have.
My reaction to his defence of his own record is to:
1. Accept wholeheartedly that his government has done an immense amount that has been both welcome and necessary: the minimum wage, tax credits, redistributive budgets, devolved assemblies abolishing hereditary peers from the Lords, reinvesting in public services and, most importantly, sustaining a strong economy for nine years. None of these things are likely to have been done by a Conservative government and together they provide more than sufficient legacy as well as justification for being in power.
2. Be very sceptical about an 'interventionist foreign policy'. This high risk policy worked in Kosovo and Sierra Leone but came tragically unstuck in Iraq and, now it seems, Afghanistan as well. Generally speaking I think 'masterful inactivity' is preferable to attempts to change the world but that there are rare specific occasions, when judicious intervention can be for the good. But Tony's article seems to offer justification for the Iraq debacle with no suggestion of any disengagement in the near future or disinclination to embark on other such escapades .
3. Worry that Blair will never realise, as did Bagehot, that 'dullness in the matter of government is a good sign' and that consequently efficient government is infinitely superior to his frenetic 'initiative a day' approach. As his government has matured we have seen why Sir Richard Wilson, former Cabinet Secretary-quoted by Simon Jenkins on Sunday, cried in despair, 'No-one in Number 10 has ever managed anything!'.
4. Worry also that Jenkins was right to conclude that: 'From the moment Blair became Labour leader he was memerised by the media and hung onto their every word. His closest associates were Alastair Campbell, his press secretary and Peter Mandelson, his media adviser. He was more fascinated by glamour, perks and surface presentation than policy.' The recent kowtowing of Blair and Reid to the cynical tabloid campaign on paedophiles was yet another shameful demonstration of the extent to which New Labour is in thrall to this section of the media.
5. Wonder why Blair invites us to come up with new ideas when it is now crystal clear he takes no notice of what we say. Upwards of a million and a half demonstrated against the Iraq adventure, to no effect whatsoever and in every other aspect of his premiership it is obvoius he sees public opinion as something to be managed rather than heeded.
I conclude, sadly, as I have been a loyal and convinced supporter for so long, that Blair's time is up. He's made his contribution but now, as Kilfoyle advises: 'Please, Tony, go gently into that political night'.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Charles still Very Angry
I've just listened to Charles Clarke in On the Ropes and it seems obvious to me that he's still seething. Seething at being sacked and seething at being rubbished by John Reid; I'd guess he'd ideally like to point those guns he's holding in the picture at the Glaswegian hardman. I've always been impressed by Clark, ever since I saw him at a conference at Salford University, when president of the NUS. Though not quite the Fergus the Bogeyman in appearance back then, he was still a heavily built young man. This is perhaps the smallest of indications but he suddenly stopped talking to the bevy of eager faces who had been lionizing him and led them, like the Pied Piper, to the dance floor where he surprisingly threw his ample form into pretty convincing boogie moves. That requires quite a bit of confidence I'd say.
And Clark has always been blessed with loads of it. Son of a quite famous Whitehall mandarin, Sir Otto Clark, and educated privately at Highgate School, he was destined to do well if not pride himself on his administrative abilities. Entering the House in 1997, in no time at all Kinnock's former Chief of Staff was given junior office in the Home Office and by 2001 was in the Cabinet. There is no reason at all to doubt he considered contesting the leadership when Tony steps down. Then came, for such a proud and able man, the angst making allegations of incompetence over the foreign prisoners, agonisingly compounded as they were, by his successor's jibe about a Home Office being 'not fit for purpose'. Rubbishing one's predecessor is a well used ploy by incoming politicians as the 'what a mess they've left' provides an alibi if things do not go so well early on. Blunkett did the same thing in relation to Jack Straw remember. But sitting uncharacteristically on the backbench fringes Clark has been boiling and has decided to let Reid feel some of his pent up ire.
Naturally, his interviews have been conducted in well modulated tones- this is a class politician- but the hurt sustained seeps through the affectations of loyalty and friendship. He believes he was engaged in sorting out the Home Office and that Tony was wrong to move him; the fact that he was apparently destined for the Foreign Office before the prisoner scandal, must make things so much worse. Reid received more serious treatment than Tony though even he was told he must 'recover leadership and authority' and cast doubt as to whether this was possible. I noticed he avoided any direct endorsement of Gordon Brown, let alone expression of warmth, so maybe his only hope of returning to office lies in Blair (who allegedly was in tears when sacking his Home Secretary) 'playing it long' until 2008 and bringing him back for a spell before Gordon inherits the mantle and creates a cabinet in his own image. Politics can be a merciless activity but, for me at least, more entertaining as a spectator sport than most of the soccer we've seen so far.
Monday, June 26, 2006
'Kens' to rule City Regions?
I've always been a fan of devolving power from the centre and not just to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. The evils of centralisation, amongst other things, were graphically described by Simon Jenkins yesterday and I well remember a Swedish friend, a local councillor in Uppsala, extolling the exciting benefits of their recent devolution to localities. So I'm pleased to read of Ruth Kelly's anticipated speech today (foreshadowing a white paper in the autumn) in which she envisages mayors running 'city regions of England with powers matching those of the Mayor of London'.
The eight centres of such mayoral control are slated to be Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpoool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield and possible powers would include: transport(which would make a lot of sense), employment, innovation, creativity and culture(whatever that means) plus sustainable and cohesive communities (ditto). Such a development would bring us alongside most European countries in terms of devolved power where 'strong accountable leaders are a powerful tool if areas are to create strong economic growth'. If nothing else, such an idea reveals that the desperate control freakery exhibited by Blair in trying to frustrate Livingstone's candidacy for the mayoralty, has now been completely abandoned. Ken seems to have traversed the distance between pariah and future role model with remarkable consistency and aplomb.
However, to further reorganise the vexed area of sub-national government is not going to be easy. The hurdles Mrs Kelly will have to clear include:
i) the vested interests of existing authorities- all with their strong connections to national parties.
ii) the fact that only a handful of cities decided to hold referendums on elected city mayors with even fewer deciding to adopt such a system.
iii) the dubious degree of support for such change, witness the sad, wholly defeated proposal for a regional assembly in the north-east.
Finally, so time consuming is the process of changing the rules of the game that it could be Ruth Kelly is not the minister managing such changes... nor, even, Labour the party initiating them.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
British Muslims worryingly hostile to non Muslims
The piece by Julian Borger in Friday's Guardian on Muslim attitudes to the west was worrying. A poll by the Washington based Pew Global Attitudes Project reported that British Muslims were a 'notable exception' in Europe in holding 'far more negative views of westerners than Islamic minorities elsewhere on the continent.' 63 per cent of Britons were found to have a favourable opinion of Muslims and a lower percentage than most other European countries viewed them as violent. A 'significant majority', however, of British Muslims, saw westerners as 'selfish, arrogant, greedy and immoral'; in addition only a third had favourable attitudes towards the Jews, compareed with 71 per cent of French Muslims. They are also more likely to accept conspiracy theories; astonishingly only 17 per cent of their number believed arabs were involved in the 9-11 attacks.
The book by Arshad Kahn(see picture) provides analysis as to why this clash of civilizations is occurring and a fascinating in-depth article in The Economist investigates why Muslims seem to fit in so much better into America than Europe. Its conclusions are that US 'political culture places huge importance on the right to religious difference, including the right to displays of faith'. Futhermore, the freer public debate on religiosity enables differences to be aired and tolerated by both sides. It also points out that the radical but non violent Hizb ut Tahrir movement which rejects 'principles of liberal democracy and secular justice' would be 'unlikely to happen in America.'
'Nor would it be possible in any American context' continues the journal, 'to argue the superiority of sharia-Islamic law- over laws passed by elected law makers. On this last point, Iain Dale's excellent blog reports the reaction of Australian Treasurer, Peter Costello, to those Muslims in Australia who want to live under Sharia law:'If you can't agree with parliamentary law, independent courts, democracy and would prefer Sharia law and have the opportunity to go to another country which practices it, perhaps, then, that's a better option.'
Saturday, June 24, 2006
Jonathan Ross really is beyond the Pale
Cameron, to be fair to him, handled it with the aplomb one might expect of someone who attended the school he was at during his early teens: he smiled a trifle uneasily; said he now understood why politicians had not appeared on the show before; and no, he had admired her as a Prime Minister but nothing more as at 13 such things did not loom large in his life. Later on Ross asked him another gratuitously silly question: had he ever peed in a telephone box? Answer, unsurprisingly, no. In an earlier interview with Martina Navratilova he had done something similar by asking her if she eschewed sexual activity in the period before playing a big match, the aim, presumably, being to sidle seedily up to the topic of her sexuality. The tennis player, clearly a little put out, was embarrassed. Was I alone in feeling ashamed that the puerile question had been put to a guest in the first place?
I know the answer to to my problem is just not to watch the show- my usual default state as it happens; last night was just an exception. Ross is a sparky personality with a very quick brain and an excellent wit, so why does he demean himself and his guests with such pathetic laddish ploys? But maybe the public generally enjoy the 'edge' he brings to his work and laps up his smutty schoolboy schtick. The BBC obviously thinks so otherwise it wouldn't pay him the £7 odd million quid a year, they do of our money to retain his services. But for this Victor Meldrew, his programme, from now on, is forever not switched on.
Friday, June 23, 2006
Blair a Busted Flush on Crime and Much Else
I'm not saying the problems of law and order in many communities are not acute and need to be tackled but Blair is making two mega mistakes right now.
Firstly, he is piling initiative on initiative in an attempt to appear tough and in control. Some of the major authorities on criminology today line up to condemn this frenetic tendency to capture the favourable spotlight of 'headline grabbing legislation'.
Secondly, he just doesn't get it. His ability to influence public opinion let alone events, has long since past. I write as a member of the party, but even audiences of supporters no longer credit or listen seriously to what he says. He has so degraded the currency of truth during his nine years of premiership that his ability to function as an effective politician has been over for some time.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Trident will be a Waste of our Money
The key questions to ask are:
i) Who will it defend us against? Once it was the USSR and even that argument was a bit dodgy; now the old Stalinist edifice has collapsed there seems even less reason. As that huge loss to the party,Robin Cook pointed out last July,'No other nuclear threat has stepped forward to replace the Soviet Union as a rationale for the British nuclear weapons system.'
ii) Would we ever use them? The answer to this has three parts: a)It is inconceivable we would use such weapons against a non nuclear power. By the same token, during our most recent and most important conflict back in 1983, Argentina was in no way deterred by our nuclear status from initiating force against us. b) It is inceivable we would ever use these missiles- available to us 'on lease' from the US- without the full approval of that country. And as Cook points out, policies binding us closer to the US are just not what the British public wants right now. c) The big priority at present is the war on terror and nuclear weapons are useless against such threat.
iii)Is it Value for Money? The cost is likely to be £25bn(the annual cost of the whole defence budget) over an extended period. Cook pointed out that such expenditure would force cuts in our 'the conventional capacity of our armed forces' which would detract from our ability to meet present commitments and be at variance with the views of 'a clear majority of the oficer corps'.
iv) Would our security be weakened without them? Cook points out that a number of nations have abandoned nuclear weapons in recent years- Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and South Africa- none of which regard themselves 'as any less secure than before'.
It will be a great shame if Prime Minister Brown as one of his first policy commitments, makes a decision to waste ever more huge sums of taxpayers money to no effective end. For a powerful defence ot retaining the missile system, see this article.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Aristocrats, not Liberalism Should Rule says Sir Perry
Peregrine Worsthorne has always rather intrigued me. An impeccably dressed camp voiced dandy who featured on chat shows in the sixties, I was amazed at his defence of the ministerial office given to the Duke of Devonshire, the Prime Minister's relation by marriage, as preferable to alternatives as, or so he claimed, the aristocracy's committment to serving the country was both pure and unrivalled [the duke later described his appointment as 'pure nepotism'] For an amused review of his recent defence of aristocracy see this. This half Belgian fan of the British upper classes and alleged conquest of George Melly(who has always denied the schoolboy seduction) today addresses the subject of 'liberalism' which he describes as 'the only ism backed by a world superpower'; I rather think Perry would find now the word associated by the ruling Republicans as synonymous with very UnAmerican ideas. The thrust of his piece is that in its 19th century incarnation liberalism used to express doubt about the state but now is endeavouring hugely to strenghten it.
If it had appeared in an undergraduate essay I would have underlined this section in red and added an exclamation mark. As most A level politics students know, there are at least three kinds of liberalism discernible in British political history: the 'basic values' liberalism of Locke amd Mill which encouraged the birth and then underpinned our democratic institutions and political culture; the classical 'Manchester' liberalism of Cobden and Bright which did indeed favour a minimal state at a distance from the economy; and the 'New' Liberalism of people like TH Green, Marshall, Hobhouse, Beveridge and Keynes which argued the state could help individuals become more genuinely free by redressing chronic inequality.
I note that his article is a version of something delivered to the Athenaeum Club, which reinforces the impression that this is a voice from a bygone age, mystically wistful for an age even more bygone. At least Sir Perry had the grace to admit that it is only The Guardian which seeks to give 'voters the necessary information on which to vote intelligently'. But it is warmly nostalgical and reassuring to note that there are still some old fashioned Tories still (just) breathing, who still believe in such arrant nonsense. As long as they continue the Labour Party retains a chance. Duke of Devonshire as your Shadow Chancellor Dave?
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Even Brown's Achievements now discounted by voters
My inbox has just received a Labour Party email on '40 Labour Achievements' but I have sat down to post on the latest dire news affecting the party. Polly Toynbee today reviews some of the latest ICM poll's daunting statistics on public support: Blair now as hated as Thatcher was at her lowest point; only 64 per cent of Labour voters now want their party to win the next election; and only 38 per cent think government policies 'will improve the state of Britain's economy'. And this of a government whose policies, via Gordon Brown, have produced a period of unparalled economic prosperity.
It seems the point has already been reached previously occupied by the Tories only a few months ago when even policies respondents supported were disavowed when it was discovered such policies were those of the Conservatives. Toynbee laments the fact that so much of what the government has achieved is either discounted or frankly disbelieved. The leader column of The Guardian, often seen as the daily biblical text of Labour supporters, seems to conclude Blair must stand down forthwith: 'It is hard to see how its[the party's] morale and political fortunes will impprove significantly while Mr Blair remains leader... The longer Mr Blair remains, therefore, the greater the danger that demoralisation and political alienation will deepen'.
Monday, June 19, 2006
Every Day Blair Remains is a Gift to Cameron
This is rather a unflattering image of our Prime Minister, but it does seem to describe his attitude towards the rest of us, especially members of the party which put him where he is. Like so many Labour party members I'm aware of my schizoid attitude to Tony Blair. He it was who cast out the awful discredited Conservatives after a painful 18 years in the wilderness. He it was who offered so much in those early years: different style, different policies, a species of hope we perhaps had never known. The disillusion has been desperately painful. I felt he should have resigned once Iraq went pear-shaped early on and certainly once Hutton and Butler revealed Number 10's fingerprints on dossiers which had clearly been 'sexed up'. But he stayed and tried to draw the sting of his critics by saying he'd not contest in 2009. Whilst he ought to have gone then, I came to realise that he wouldn't go until the very last minute. And it seems this is still the case; indeed with knobs on as the picture suggests.
But he must now know that the game is up and that continuation in power is blighting the prospects of his successor, whoever that person may be. Jackie Ashley reflects on the situation today and you can feel something of her despair, shared as it is by the majority of party members. The Compass poll of party members taken for last Saturday's conference revealed that 71 per cent wanted him to go before September 2007 with over a third wanting him to go within the next three months. Why? Over half identified the Iraq invasion as the biggest mistake made by the government. But so far Blair ignores negative feedback totally; as Michael Meacher commented at the conference: 'Even when the Government does consult, it gives no indication whatsoever that it listens to what is said or modifies its policies.'
Jackie Ashley thinks that since the demise of Prezza, there are few people now available to knock on Tony's door with the proverbial revolver and bottle of whisky, though Neil Kinnock gets a possible mention. More persuasive might be those MPs with slim majorities who are now agonising over their chances; or maybe those young ministers who are blanching at the far from impossible idea- mooted by the Brownite MP, Michael Wills- that Labour will lose the next election and be out of power for 15 years. For the sake of the party and all the hope it still stands for, he should go as soon as possible.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Atrophied social mobility II
Hot on the heels of my post yesterday comes a piece by Will Hutton in today's Observer
which mentions, in passing, the 2004 book, Mind the Gap, by veteran liberal Tory, Ferdinand Mount (see review here). Hutton makes a number of points which add more substance to my remarks of yesterday:
i) inequality of opportunity is getting worse: 'while the proportion of children from the bottom 20 per cent gaining degrees has only increased fractionally since the 1970s, at the same time the proportion from the top 20 per cent achieving degrees has more than doubled.'
ii) with so many degrees chasing jobs a 'higher premium has been placed non formal means of selecting candidates; the subtle accoutrements of class matter more.' So we see advantages won by the middle-class children in the job market in terms of their public school induced confidence; their superior network of parent related contacts; and the superior financial help they receive from parents during the low earning early years.
iii)the hypocrisy of the media in hurling criticism at suggestions that universities might weight admissions in favour of candidates from less advantaged backgrounds, 'while showing no interest in the collapse of Britain's apprenticeship system.'
Ferdinand Mount's pre Cameron book is cited for mourning the loss of agencies of social mobility through the 'disintegration' of working class institutions over the last half century-like effective modern trade unions and the mutual building societies. Mount identifies, as the root of the problem, the huge ghettos of social housing created after the second world war. Locked into these crime and drug blighted zones, with their no-hope schools compounded by surrounding poverty of material condition as well as ambition, it is hardly surprising that the young of such places become locked in for life, thus leaving the wholly unlevel playing field to be dominated by the middle classes. Hutton concludes that while class differences are probably impossible to eliminate, a fairer more pluralist society, offering more genuine opportunity is not unachievable.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Public school educated footballers and glamour models: what next?
Yesterday the Guardian published lists of well known people educated respectively in the state and private sectors. Today Peter Wilbycontributes an interesting article on social mobility. He uses the fact that over half of our nation's leading columnists were educated at public schools to highlight the fact that social mobility-which boomed after the war- has virtually dried up. The reasons for this are that: the explosion of middle-class jobs made more berths available to potential arrivals from the lower tiers; inequalities narrowed up to the point Thatcher tore everything up in the eighties; and public schools were slow to realise that they needed to improve their A level scores.
Once these conditions were removed it was game over: the 7 per cent of the privately educated easily beat the over 90 per cent of state educated children in pursuit of life's glittering prizes. Most of the powerful professions- the civil service, the law, company directors, the military, MPs, the judiciary and now, we learn journalists, have enjoyed the massive benefits of a superior private education. What is worse, says Wilby, is that this meritocratic elite is unrepentant about their disproportionate degree of success, see nothing wrong in accepting hugely disproportionate rewards; and is intent on securing future positions in the various elites for their own children. What I find surprising is the number of privately educated people in professions one would not have imagined ever requiring such provenances. For example: Frank Lampard(pictured-he even has a GCSE in Latin I understand), soccer player, Lawrence Dallaglio, rugby player, Chris Martin, pop singer, Noel Edmonds, downmarket TV presenter(together with Davina McCall and Johnny Vaughn) and Jodie Marsh(OK, all this was just an excuse to post her picture), the glamour model (who improbably turns out to have three A levels from her private school).
Wilby mentions how important confidence is in achieving success and this strikes me as a key factor. Alan Johnson went to a grammar school but left without going further- though he made up for it later as some, though always a small percentage, do. I recall from my rural upbringing in Shropshire that six of us passed the 11 plus to go to the grammar school yet I was the only one who went on to university. I remember competing hard with the very clever boy who sat next to me in primary school who also passed but who returned to farming when aged 16. From what I recall he made a very good farmer but of his possible potential as say, an engineer,we'll never know. Maybe it was my teacher mother-who had ben to training college in the thirties- gave me the idea that further study was something worthwhile aiming at. But there is a serious social problem here: despite increasing numbers at university, there are huge reserves of ability being wasted, languishing untapped in the state sector; while the vital arteries of social mobility and renewal are hardening into sclerosis. For an interesting view of inequality in USA see here.
Friday, June 16, 2006
Language and Politics
Lakoff argues that language is the key entry-point politicians use to infiltrate our minds and that the right have tended to be more resourceful in locating the appropriate codes. Each word is freighted with myriad connotations which spread meanings through the recipients mind. Some have 'good' resonances and persuade; other have negative ones and do not. Words, in other words, in politics become shorthand for networks of linked ideas. Lakoff argues the rightwing in the US have invested heavily into think- tanks and policy institutes which search for the right policies and the right language while the left have ignored the problem and lost out as a result.
The right's 'worldview', according to Lakoff, is that of the 'strict father': the world is a dangerous place and children have to 'made' to be good through discipline, punishment where necessary, self reliance and the acceptance of moral authority. People who have achieved self reliance through wealth are seen as having achieved virtue; meanwhile government programmes 'spoil' people by making them dependent. The right choose words which resonate with the architecture of this model. The War on Terror, for example, frames the idea of a legitimate national assault on the wholly unacceptable enemies of he motherland. Swarzenegger arrived with the huge advantage of a language embodied in his screen personna: he's going to take discipline to those lacking in virtue whether they like it or not.
The worldview of the left, on the other hand, is that of the 'nurturant parent' which assumes, fundamentally, that people are born good and that with empathy and love they can be formed into decent members of society. A key element is that people should care not just for themselves but for others too. Lakoff argues the left have been out-thought and out spent in the US and that the Democrats seem not to have yet pulled out of the trough into which Bush has cast them. It occurs to me, however, that the right's worldview is easier to sell as it is simple, contains drama and the emotional satisfaction of vilifying others- the poor - while the left's is more complex and harder to grasp.
In the UK, Blair has shown that a gifted politician of the left can find the language; the letter to Michael Foot, written by Blair in 1982, reveals how his mind was feeling for such an articulation even then. But now we see the desperate need for renewal as Blair's language-through his own overuse and abuse of it- has lost its power to move and is forced to give ground to a leader who seems to be finding the right words, embodying the right ideas for the current state of UK politics.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Do the Media Subvert Democratic Politics?
Lloyd spoke of a 'parallel universe' in which his journalist colleagues lived and described but which bore little relation to the real world in which the key actors- politicians, corporate executives, trade union leaders, NGO heads and so forth- live and seek to do their jobs. Searching through my newspaper cuttings I found the Guardian's G2 of 10th October 2005 in which the late Anthony Sampson found many of the said actors, when asked, agreed with Lloyd's analysis, including Tony Wright MP and, former Permanent Secretary, Michael Bichard: 'Most respondents think' he concluded, 'that Lloyd is right and there can be no doubt about the genuine anguish of many distinguished people who feel aggrieved or simply resigned to the misrepresentations of the press.'
But for their part, many journalists rubbished Lloyd's critique. Writing in the same issue David Leigh wrote that: '...when a journalist asks members of British institutions uncomfortable questions about what is going on, they respond with more or less polished evasions or with downright lies. They employ expensive PR teams to paint pictures that drift artistically away from reality. They try to intimidate with their lawyers. They conceal what they can and what they can't conceal, they distort.' He argues for 'free speech coupled with a network of civic agencies which are truculent and unfettered. It's important that the various media behave as countervailing powers in a democracy; in fact it's absolutely necessary.' 'In a society like ours', he adds waspishly, 'those who have to fight their way to the top of the political heap often have unusual psychologies...some of them are quite deranged.'
Given the apparently inevitable tendencies for democratic governments to manage the media in order to win and keep power, I tend to conclude the weight of the argument lies on the side of a an alert and robust media which constantly puts the government and its spokespeople on the rack. I'm very aware of the abuses of this role but think that on balance it's better to absorb them than lose those benign tensions of suspicion and distrust between media and politicians. The only real safeguard, however, is for us humble voters to refine own own 'falsification detectors' when either listening to politicians trying to mystify us or journalists trying to over- demystify what they have said.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Haughey, Blair and the dangers of compromise in politics
The death yesterday of Charles Haughey, aged 80, prompts reflection on a critical problem in democratic politics: the need for elected representatives to be free from the sin of avarice. Haughey, the son of a soldier, was apparently devoid of ideological values as he assiduously climbed the Irish political ladder, determined to charm and woo the Fianna Fail party. His granite profile communicated strength and honesty but while the former quality was there in abundance the latter was not. Over a 17 year period he took £8.5 million from businessmen, to fund a millionaire lifestyle.
But his problems were those of many of us. Wanting to live well is a natural, understandable desire and the temptation to exchange favours for discreet payments is omnipresent in politics and must be hard to resist. Yet if it is not, the whole purpose of democracy is confounded. If we were all saints there would be no need for politics of any kind; it is because we are so woefully short of saintliness that democracy is required. Which leads on to the present leader of the Labour Party. Like his wife Blair seems to enjoy the good things of life- especially those freebie holidays in the homes of the mega-rich- but no-one has suggested he is personally on the take as was the former Taoiseach. His problem is closer to that of Hamer Shawcross, the poor boy from Manchester in Howard Spring's wonderful Fame is the Spur who advanced politically but at the expense of once firmly held principles.
The problem with principles in politics is that they have to be compromised on a daily basis so that they can eventually become so eroded they almost cease to be regarded. Labour's fundamental ideological mission has been to be on the side of-to mix my metaphors- the underdog against the fat cats. Blair did not start out with the rich lifetime's stock of Labour principles of a Kinnock or a Brown but derived his from the possibly less fertile soil of his religious beliefs. Blair compromised with capitalism- and it was a necessary one if wealth was to be created and redistributed- but once that fox is let into the chicken coop it is hard to limit the damage. The problem now is that the principles with which New Labour embarked on its journey are too compromised after nearly a decade and need urgently to be re-examined and renewed.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Conservatives plan to take us forward to 19th century welfarism
The authors will have to forgive Toynbee and many others of us on the left of centre for being highly sceptical. I have always found the idea of rich people being relied upon to be charitable problematic. My reading of Conservative thinking is that it has a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature; hence the need for strong law and order arrangements and networks of socially binding institutions like family, school and the rest. Now if we cannot rely on people to be socially responsible, how can we expect them to take that even more difficult step to become socially altruistic?
I remember too a leader in the Economist shortly after Nigel Lawson slashed the higher rate of income tax to 40p in the £. The economically 'dry' journal welcomed the move but added the rather schoolmasterish proviso that it now expected the rich-as in the USA- to give far more generously to charity. I've yet to see evidence that charitable donations surged forward in the wake of the tax cuts. Rich people, according to my view of them, tend to take increases in their income as deserved, as of right and to spend it on themselves. I'm not sure how these voluntary bodies are going to stand in for welfare agencies- my copy of the book, ordered from Iain Dale's online Politicos bookshop, has still not arrived- but to rely on the dubious largesse of the rich rather than the assured support of the state, seems a poor exchange for the disadvantaged.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Has Ming's lack of Charisma already sunk him?
His question to Blair last Wednesday regarding prisoner 'renditions' was delivered confidently and caught the Despatch Box Master just a shade off balance. Then came his major new initiative presented as a tax cutting idea. The Sunday Times in its leader today offers a guarded welcome: it would not reduce the overall burden of taxation; it suggests new green taxes on pollution to pay for the proposed 2p reduction in the standard rate of income tax; and while ending the 50 pence in £ tax rate for those earning over £100K, it threatens to hit 'the very wealthy in an as yet unspecified way.' Th ST thinks the mega rich will fly like startled birds to tax havens at the merest rustle of predatory tax moves but thinks the 'green taxes' idea, quarantined since the Fuel tax crisis of Septmeber 2000, might now be more acceptable to voters.
Writing opposite the leader page, Michael Portillo, reckons paying for tax cuts via a green levy is 'wholly incredible, of course' and rather pours cold water on Ming's relaunch by stating that 'Charisma is the currency of politics today. A leader who lacks it cannot be redeemed by a clever manifesto.' Nor does he think mere policies impress the public as they are now so sceptical they don't believe 'what they are promised'.
This is perhaps an overly cynical view: voters do listen to policy proposals I feel sure, and what parties offer up in the political marketplace of policy ideas do swing votes I also feel sure. However, the most charismatic Conservative politician of his day- until Cameron arrived- is probably right on his other point. Ming just does not cut it in the present state of British politics. I personally thought and hoped he would- he is a decent and thoughtful man- but his appearance as someone much older than his own 65 years and his dramatic loss of confidence in the wake of his accession to the leadership, suggest he will struggle in the years leading up to 2009 along with his party's fortunes.
Which is a pity as I agree with the ST that green levies are now virtually practical politics. People will moan and lament when faced with extra costs to fly abroad but their awareness of the danger the planet is now in is such that they will pay up without blockading either airports or the Treasury. I also suspect that while Ming's initiative will quickly fade away, either the Tories or the government will eventually leap upon it and make it their own.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
World Cup from a US Viewpoint.
I've not been a fan of football since the Heysell Stadium thing and I was sure I was not going to post on the World Cup but then I saw the post by Shelley the Republican and felt it so illustrated the huge gulf which exists between ourselves and a fair wedge of our American cousins(thouigh they are not like any I know), that I could not resist posting it, so here it is. Read it, laugh and, just a little, (not too much), despair.
Friday, June 09, 2006
The Crime Wave: why it happened and why it's in decline
Polly Toynbee in her excellent column this morning, discusses the 'epidemic' of knife crime, pointing out that it has actually stayed about the same over the last decade. Indeed the 'crime wave' which most people feel we are still experiencing, is not happening according to official figures. Which is a problem for governments trying to convince us that their efforts have not been in vain. The British Crime Survey, which is based upon regular surveys of crimes suffered by some 40,000 people, is generally reckoned to be the best index of crime trends. And according to the BCS there has been a 43 per cent reduction in indictable offences since 1995. But it's not just us, in the USA- for most of us the perceived HQ of criminal activity in the western world- there has been a similar decline in serious crime of about a third. Why is this?
Our (probably) foremost criminologist, LSE's Professor Robert Reiner, argues that the increases in crime suffered by western nations in the late 20th century was a consequence of 'tougher capitalist neo-liberalism' replacing welfarism and causing hardship aggravated by the erosion social values suffered in the sixties. This explanation seems believable to this Guardian reader, but why the subsequent decline? Reiner dismisses ‘zero tolerance’ as other cities in the US experienced similar falls to the home of this approach: New York. He also dismisses the ‘enormous expansion of punitiveness, above all the staggering and gross levels of imprisonment’ as a major cause.
Numbers of US citizens in jail are indeed horrendous- a higher percentage than any other country. 2 million are in jail with nearly a half of them drawn from the 12 per cent of the population which is black. More likely an explanation for the downturn, he thinks was the upturn in the economies of these nations which reduced the need for property crime but he has, perhaps disappointingly, to conclude in a forthcoming publication: ‘The crime drop remains something of a mystery, defying any simple account.’
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Might it be Better for Labour to Lose the Next Election?
But in a democracy we should appreciate that similar feelings are found on both sides of the divide and so Conservatives, incandescent at what they see as Blair's shortcomings must be delighted to hear professor John Curtice, the foremost psephologist of the day, say that if the Conservatives can 'maintain their lead through June and into the summer,' then 'Labour's 14 year-long dominance of the electoral scene will clearly be finally over.' My heart sinks at the awfulness of the idea, but we have to accept the swing of the pendulum. A few thoughts are provoked however:
a) Will Gordon's expected accession deliver a 'Major Effect' and give the appearance of freshness? I'm not sure it will actually as the gloomy Scot seems a much less talented vote gatherer than his more histrionically talented rival and neighbour.
b) Can Tony somehow engineer another rally and recover much of his former position? This remarkable political magician should never be written off but this time the Houdini act seems unlikely.
c) John Biffen, not to mention several others, claimed 1992 was the election the Tories should have lost as the rot, well advanced by that year, was allowed to fester and deepen during John Major's hapless five years. As result the Tories flatlined at a third of the vote for over ten years. Has Labour reached a similar position? I'm not stating it, or being defeatist, but merely tentatively enquiring: given the self inflicted wounds incurred over the last decade, might it not be better, in the long term, for Labour to lose the next election the better to rebuild its credibility and morale?
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
How the political spectrum has shrunk since the eighties
Being of the baby-boomer generation, I can recall the early eighties very well and reading Neal Lawson today on Cameron's wunderkind achievements, I reflected on how wide was the effective political spectrum (ie those ideas which regularly informed political debate) in those days. On the left we had Tony Benn and his redoubtable scouser ally, Eric Heffer, advocating shedloads more democracy at every level of society and yet more government control of the economy, while on the right, was The Lady plus Joseph, Lawson and Tebbitt urging privatisation of public services and maybe the welfare state too as well as a to-the-death attitude to trade unions and the Soviet Union.
Since then the spectrum has shrunk to the point where it has become unrecognisable from the polarised Thatcher decade. It began with Blair cherry picking the Thatcher policy portfolio: a tight monetary policy, a tough attitude to the unions('no return to the seventies'), immigration and law and order plus reforming the public services through targets and internal markets. 'Blairism' ruled 1994-2005 but then arrived his even more toffee-nosed clone and set about picking his own Blairite cherries. Public services come before tax cuts, we have been told, plus Labour spending plans for an initial period are accepted ; as well as the idea that the interests of the 'disadvantaged' should be at the heart of policy making.
But, as Lawson points out, Cameron is not just prepared to tack into the centre, he 'has opted instead to leapfrog New Labour into the acres of space to the left. This is the world the public lives in.' So he now dares to essay thoughts on the idea of 'well-being' and happiness and to question whether the 'consumer society...threatens to undermine the values we hold most dear.' Time will tell whether this line will bear any fruit but, a Lawson points out 'the more Cameron talks himself into new politics, then more he must convince himself it's what he believes.' It's all a bit disorientating for tribal Tory haters and takes a little of the edge off traditional antipathies to Cameron's party. His strategy is to reassure hesitant Blair supporters that the 'nasty' party is no more and that it's safe to vote Tory. There can be little doubt that he is succeeding.
Monday, June 05, 2006
Harman's Interesting Possible Candidacy
The situation regarding the Deputy Leadership reminds me a little of Hugh Trevor Roper's Last Days of Hitler. As the Furhrer imploded manically in his bunker, his acolytes metaphorically scampered around, seeking to assume his mantle once he had gone. Tony Blair, also in the bunker is surrounded by acolytes who also think his shrivelled inheritance is worth fighting over. 'Ah,' you say, 'but this is only for the deputy's job' to which I would reply 'Ah, but don't be deceived, some of these candidates are in reality after the top job'. For example Alan Johnson. And to his candidacy we now have added, it would seem, those of Peter Hain, Jack Straw and even a possibility, I read in a Sunday with disbelief, Tessa Jowell. But perhaps the most interesting is Harriet Harman(pictured) in that she is, no prizes for this, a woman.
Harriet Harman had a slightly uneven early career. Appointed Social Services Secretary she was damaged by the single mother benefit row in the autumn of 1997. Moreover, critics did not feel she had shown any real flair in the job, had rowed a bit too openly with Frank Field and it was not surprising that she was sacked in the first reshuffle. But unlike many, or even most, sacked ministers- and there is a goodly crowd of them now- she busied herself loyally with Maternity Rights and the Childcare Commission and was rewarded for her lack of bitterness with the post of Solitor General(she is a QC)in 2001 and then office in the Constitutional Affairs Department after May 2005. She has survived the hic-cup of her husband Jack Dromey blowing the whistle on the peerages for loans scandal a short while ago, apparently unscathed.
Women, we are told by psephologists and Jackie Ashley, are the key to winning elections now and Cameron has already stretched out a lead with them of the kind Blair had when he too was pirouetting on the national stage to seduce their support back in 1997. Add to this the fact that Gordon is too Scottish, dour and unsmiley to charm middle class Daily Mail reading mums and the logic of choosing Mrs Dromey becomes apparent. She has come up with another reason, which she maybe thinks is a clincher: she is suggesting there should be two deputies, a male and a female one. This might appeal to the substantial female cohort in the PLP as an extra bauble for them and as a safeguard against another sleazy old git like Prezza getting the job. But I have two points to make on this suggestion. First, is it all that sensible to invent another job which most insiders say is pretty useless? Secondly, wouldn't the party's constitution have to be amended for such a post to be contested anyway?
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Modern Media Enthrones the Leader and Demotes Party
I was one of the sceptics who predicted the shine would come off David Cameron's apparently unstoppable success after a month or two when he had to put some policy flesh on the bones of his waffly rhetoric. However, events, as so often, have proved me wrong. Even without credible and coherent policies his party has pulled ahead of Labour on a number of key Labour policy areas including education and, depressing for the founders of the NHS, health too. That doyen of political colummnists Simon Jenkins, sheds some shrewd analytical light on this phenomenon in today's Sunday Times.
Policies, it seems no longer matter this far from an election. 'If there is a Machiavellian moral that Blair taught his party in the mid-1990s', he writes, 'it was that policies are mere vapours without power.' Cameron knows, argues Jenkins, that the major impediment to beating Labour is the negative image most people, according to focus groups, still retain of his party. In the nineties Labour struggled with the the millstone that was the link with the unions with their negative connotations of Old Labour and industrial strife. Breaking this perceived link was New Labour's vital first mission and Blair managed it brilliantly. Philip Gould(pictured), Blair's favourite pollster and strategist, argued that the leader had to 'seem a lofty figure endowed with values, convictions and beliefs untainted by mere policies'. It followed that the party had to be 'demoted, rendered subsidiary and wholly dependent on the leader and his popularity for its return to power.' So it was that Blair 'rose above Labour' which became 'nothing more than a vote-catching machine.'
This is a high risk strategy though, in that everying is so focused on one person. If that person falters, then the enterprise will soon totter as did Thatcher's and, since the Iraq intervention was revealed as a disaster, Blair's too. This has all happened quite recently and is a product of the massively increased role of the media. Skilled and determined spin doctors can weave their required mystifying webs provided they have the right front man. Attlee's government boasted a formidable line up of heavyweights - Bevin, Morrison, Cripps, Bevan and Dalton- while Wilson's team was not dissimilar- Crosland, Crossman, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey.
Yet if we look at Blair's front bench then apart from Brown, there are no comparable figures and none who realistically challenge him. New Labour was initially a joint creation but soon became predicated upon the ascendancy of one person. It is not so different if we look at Cameron's embryonic set-up. Apart from Dave there are no fellow heavy hitters; by comparison Davis, Maude and their ilk, are pygmies. This seems to me a little worrying. Being over-dependent on one person gives him/her too much power and, should anything happen to the leader, then a dangerous vacuum would ensue. But, unless the media changes radically- which seems unlikely- this is the template for the foreseeable future.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Macbeth's enduring modern message
It's a play about loyalty, betrayal and, most of all,('vaulting') ambition and conscience. Macbeth, and even his persuasive spouse too maybe are not intrinsically evil people but allow themselves to be taken over by it. The fact that they pay such a heavy price in terms of agonised consciences('is this a dagger..' and 'out damned spot') is arguably evidence of their innate goodness. 'Macbeth does murder sleep' he cries when contemplating his murder of Duncan: 'I am afraid to think what I have done.' What a dark play this is! It flirts with evil throughout; consider what must be one of the most frightening speeches ever written in a drama when Lady Macbeth summons up spirits to: 'Unsex me here;/ And fill me, from crown to the toe, top-full/Of direst cruelty'(I.iv)
Of course Macbeth soon adds to corpses on and off stage through bumping off Banquo and Macduff's brood, all in pursuit of achieving the crown and making it secure. But by then he was consumed by his inner dark forces. One wonders how long it took Stalin to graduate from his very first 'legalised' murder of a close comrade to the easy, routine, almost industrial despatch of, to take a random example, 40,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forest in 1941. One has similar thoughts about those other genuine monsters, Hitler, Pol Pot or Idi Amin.
In 1606, when the play was written, witches were not weird figments of the imagination but taken deadly seriously- King James actually wrote a book about them. In Macbeth we see them playing the role of modern, if somewhat eccentrically dressed pollsters. Ambition still drives politics, of course, but when things go pear-shaped, failed politicians don't have to face enraged Macduffs; they merely stop using Dorneywood. All this maybe, is what makes Macbeth still such a modern play, together, of course, with what it has to say about the current plague of knife crime...
Friday, June 02, 2006
How secure now is Prescott's (Deputy) Throne?
What factors will now determine what is left of John Prescott's career?
1. The croquet story was absurd and only became so big because it followed stories about his bonking and Labour's incompetence. Had the wolves not been in full cry behind the sledge the story could easily have been presented as a favourable one; e.g. MPs playing football against, say, a team from the Lobby, could be presented as not representing their constituents rather than indulging in a fun PR event. The media follows no logic except what angle will best sell the story.
2. Prescott has now declared his fate is inseparable from Tony's and that they wil both step down at the same time; clearly the DPM's departure would create too much PM related turbulence. Most MPs, even his enemies now seem to accept that this is now the case.
3. Throwing Dorneywood as a hunk of meat to the howling pack has won some respite while the carcass is being gnawed over. The reponse from the party has been mostly positive but there are some signs dissatisfaction is not confined to the opposition parties who insist Prezza should accept that his role, never up to much, is now finished. Women MPs are still seething that the old sleazball should be retained, and asked to endorse Prescott after giving up his mansion yesterday, Peter Mandelson pointedly refused to do so, which might cause the former to regret calling that crab 'Peter' all those years ago.
4. Prescott is now busy trying to convince us all that he does a worthwhile job: making speeches abroad on climate change and trying to persuade Cabinet committee members not to merely defend depertmental interests but to 'deliver'policies that will win the next election.
5. His likely departure when Blair-it could be later but could still be sooner remember- goes has encouraged a few wolves from his own side to sniff the air in anticipation. We know already that Harriet Harmon and possibly Peter Hain are keen but both have been cleverly upstaged by former postman, Alan Johnson, currently the Education Secretary who has openly declared his interest. This is a tough, adaptable politician who is very popular in the party and has that vital advantage of fulfilling the the classic conditions for a Labour success: a humble background and a former career as a trade union official.
To sum up: Prezza's abandonment of Dorneywood, however painful this has proved for Pauline(God knows, she's had enough pain over the last month but we learn she loved the Dorneywood perk), has won him some valuable time in which to attempt some rehabilitation to his faltering career and likely legacy. Tony must have pondered the question whether he's more damaging inside government or being cast outside and eventually come down in favour of not cutting the rope. Or maybe he just felt charitable after being in the sun away from our recent unseasonable weather.
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Hazel not really on the Wavelength
Hazel, hopes to 'tap into' the well springs of activism in local communities where often women have taken the initiative, but when such activity often occurs in reaction to government failure I'm not sure this attempt to wean back the women who have flooded behind the old Etonian will prove all that successful. She wonders if Labour really means business about being in government: do we merely 'take over from tired Tories' or do we have a "governing gene" in our DNA'? Political geneticists might be more likely to isolate such an elusive item if Labour ministers had not displayed such incompetence in recent months. It is very difficult to defend our party when the ground under our feet is freely eroded by gaffes galore at the likes of the Home Office, Defra, Health Department, and, most recently, the Treasury over tax credits.
The business of ministers is surely to oversee civil servants to ensure they do their jobs properly and to sort things out when they fail. Previous Labour ministers, in the eras of Attlee and Wilson managed it, so why are the current lot not succeeding? The competence of civil servants has been questioned in many parts of the media, and perhaps this has something to do with the shortcomings, but whatever happened to the vaunted 'Rolls Royce' administrative machine about which retired ministers speak and write with awe and gratitude? And, whilst on this subject, where are the representatives of this fabled behemoth, both serving and retired, to defend its activities and traduced honour? Strangely, so far from them, I have observed a big fat nothing.