Friday, November 30, 2007


Polls Provide Dark Skies for Brown as November Ends

It's hard to resist the conclusion's drawn by Tony King in today's Daily Telegraph, that 'Brown's government is in freefall'
One has to go back to the last days of the late-1970s Callaghan administration or the late-1990s Major administration to find any parallel. Seldom, if ever, can a Government's reputation have fallen so far so fast. As recently as last July, the first full month of Gordon Brown's premiership, Labour enjoyed a nine-point lead over the Tories. Two months ago Labour's lead was still 11 points. Now it is the Conservatives who are 11 points ahead. The Tories now have their largest lead over Labour since Margaret Thatcher's heyday in 1988.

And the devil really is in the detail. Brown's personal rating is only 23%, lower than Blair's ever was. 60% of respondents say the government 'gives the impression of being sleazy and disreputable'-evidence that the recent donation scandal is having a serious effect. As for the senior ministers, the figures show a breath-taking loss of confidence in the likes of Darling and Browne and support for Miliband and Jacqui Smith is at best lukewarm.

In just about every major area of government- including the NHS, defence, criminal justice and immigration and asylum - voters in this poll give the government a massive thumbs down. And on the economy, 64% are either 'very worried' or 'somewhat worried' that we are in for a recession with a further big majority having little or no confidence in the government to deal with it. There's time enough still for Gordon to climb out of this hole and his majority is sound enough, but it's proving to be a monster hole and, on current trends, Labour has not yet even stopped digging.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Impressive Political use of Internet by US Democrats

In 2004 I was so incensed by the thought of George Bush returning to the White House that I logged onto a Democrat site and paid in $100 to Kerry's campaign fund. I'm not sure if it was legal for the party to accept it but they had no way of knowing I live in Northwest UK rather than Northwest USA. Well, my hundred bucks were wasted of course, but worse than that has been the constant stream of emails from Democrat HQ, urging me to deploy more dollars their way as well as banging the party drum. These have all been vaguely irritating apart from this morning's offering which is of a different and original character, revealing how fundamentally the web is infiltrating into US political processes.

The communication I received is basically a series of videos of Republican candidates quarrelling with each other before, I guess, invited, partisan audiences. So we see, for example, Rudi Giuliani accusing a fellow candidate of hiring illegal immigrant labour. It seems Democrat 'trackers' are secretly filming such events by the score and then uploading them onto the web so that the juicy bits can be used to discredit them out of their own mouths. This is part of the text I received from Mike Gehrke, the party's Research Director:

As soon as a tracker leaves an event in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or wherever they're taping a Republican candidate, they'll head to a computer and upload it directly to a special section of called FlipperTV. That means you'll have a chance to go through the latest video the same time we do.

Nobody has ever done anything quite like this before, but with the Internet giving ordinary Americans like you access to the tools you need to change an election with the click of a mouse, we need to make sure you have everything you need to do just that. The video is yours -- you can just let us know what you find, or you can take it, re-mix it, add music, and make your very own ad out of it. It's up to you.

If you are interested enough to sample what is on offer take a look here and click on the candidate's head you prefer. Then the (supposedly) incriminating footage will run for you. It certainly is an new departure and, in the usual manner of things, will probably start to make an appearance on this side of the Atlantic any time soon.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Oxford Union Debate Not Really Such a Big Deal

The President of the Oxford Union, Luke Tryl, seems to be a silly young man, bleating to the media about 'my members' and their rights. Almost certainly, he is after publicity for himself and for his debating society. And he's managed to get it- securing the speaking services of Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP and David Irving, the Holocaust Denier- though at expense of other speakers pulling out.

Some have condemned the debate about free speech on the grounds that the object of Irving's admiration, the Third Reich, snuffed out this feeble flower in Germany, without a shrug of remorse, while Griffin would probably do the same if he had the chance, no matter what casuistries he might currently employ to conceal his real aims. Quite possibly a mistake has been made and if things get really ugly between BNP supporters and the legion of antis likely to turn up, then Mr Tryl might find more than a little egg on his face. I'm currently reading David Winder's marvellous book, Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain.

In it he explains how immigration has been part of the woof and warp of British history ever since the first of our ancestors landed on these shores. It seems that we are all descended from immigrants; no doubt Messers Irving and Griffin too have some foreign blood in them which it would seem illogical of them to condemn as impure. I don't often find myself agreeing with Max Hastings, but on this issue I think he writes good sense, if at the cost of sounding rather more patronising than usual.

He finds it in his heart to praise Irving's scholarship and the contacts from which he had benefited:

But I could endure Irving's possessing the most embarrassingly malodorous breath in London, because he provided access to people and material of historical importance.

He also suggests that Oxford students are unlikely to come to much harm:

Members of the Union Society must be a sorry lot indeed if they are likely to catch the plague of intolerance and racism from a single evening's exposure to Griffin.

The key question though is whether the danger of legitimising repellent views by providing a respectable platform for them, outweighs the need to ventilate such views and subject them to scrutiny and criticism. On balance I think the latter case has it and that, as Hastings points out, Oxford students:

need to know what sort of extraordinary and sometimes dangerous people are out there.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


'Black November' maybe, but not yet 'Black Wednesday'

Quite a few commentators are trying to stick the label of Black Wednesday on Labour's recent travails. The Economist, as always takes a more subtle approach. Discussing if Brown has experienced a 'Major moment', Bagehot points out that:

a)'Mr Brown has not presided over any cast-iron disasters or lethal scandals. This was a dark week, but it was no Black Wednesday.'

b)'Mr Cameron is not yet the inevitable prime minister that Mr Blair seemed soon after he became Labour leader in 1994'

c)'compared with Sir John, Mr Brown has a big parliamentary majority and a relatively united party behind him.'

Bagehot concludes, without indicating that pigs might fly, that 'Mr Brown could still turn out to be a good prime minister'. At present the chances seem ever so slightly against such an outcome. I note however, that at least some remedial action is in hand. Nicholas Watt tells us that Gordon will widen his coterie of intimate advisers from Balls, Miliband and Alexander, to include the wise old 'greybeards', Straw and Hoon. He'll need their advice, as Rawnsley points out today, by becoming such a dominant PM he has nobody to deflect the flak. Cameron is not wasting his time going for the monkey, Darling, he's going for the Organ grinder's jugular.

All those years bending every fibre of his being to become prime minister- manipulating, neutralising, feuding, plotting- and now he's finding out he no longer has the luxury of blaming Blair. Rawnsley is not the only commentator to note that Gordon just hates criticism- that's why his hand was shaking on the Despatch Box- this prodigious alpha plus student was only used to fielding bouquets, not brickbats. So far, the Blairites- and I understand many are gleeful, despite their party's plight- can conclude Gordon has not been a patch at handling the pressure of the job compared with his predecessor.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Ken or Roy: Who is Right About Gordon?

I listened to Ken Clarke and Roy Hattersley this morning, debating on the Today Programme. Ken said Gordon was like a 'wounded bull' whose 'trembling hand' incompetence had been revealed. He was now almost inevitably headed for the 'John Major' exit from the political stage. You could tell Ken was not displeased about any of this.

Roy disagreed stridently, claiming the most recent mistakes could in no way be placed at the door of Number 10. Gordon, was no wounded bull but a person completely dedicated to serving the nation and aggrieved that things had gone wrong. There was plenty of time for him to recover and win the next election. As for the 'trembling hand'? Further evidence of how much he cared and that Nick Robinson, who had focused on this feature of Gordon's appearance at the Despatch Box, was 'more pleased with himself than anyone should be allowed to be.'

Well, who is right? The Guardian poll today, revealing that Labour was back down to its rating before Blair left at a mere 31 points, meaning that the whole of the Brown Bounce effect has been dissipated. On the other hand, the Conservatives have managed to lose three points-down from 40%- only one point less than Labour, so they had not exploited Labour's mistakes as they perhaps should have done.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are three points up at 23, suggesting that if they had as much press coverage as the big parties, they would possibly equal their ratings or get close to it. And as for Roy's comment about Nick, anyone with the vanity required to appear in the dreadful Radio 4 'Personality Test', should be vary wary indeed of accusing anyone of excessive hubris.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Surely the 56 Day Detention Limit is dead in the Water?

I'm sure I wasn't the only one to yawn in disbelief when hearing in the Queen's Speech that, after all that rouble with Charles Clarke, the detention limit was to be doubled from 28 days to 56. We already know that: we have the longest period of pre charge detention limits of any of the world's developed nations(e.g. Canada, 1 day, USA 2 days, Germany 2 days) and that so far we have not had occasion to use even the 28 day limit.

When that simple Jolly Jack Tar, Admiral West of Spithead, said he 'remained to be convinced' on the Today Programme and then appeared 'convinced' after a chat with His Masters' Voice shortly afterwards, I must be in the majority who believed him first time around.

But now we see other senior voices lining up against the idea. Both the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland and the Solicitor General, Vera Baird, have made it known they are not in favour. And yesterday the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald QC,(and 'he should know' is the phrase which comes to mind) told the Home Affairs Committee that he was 'satisfied with the position as it stands at the moment'.

It needs hardly adding that the select committee itself is 'unconvinced' also. And to cap it all, the man who approved the war on Iraq, Lord Peter Goldsmith, the former AG, came out 'strongly against an extension', having 'seen no evidence to justify going beyond 28 days'. For Gordon to persist along a path which tripped up his predecessor so embarrassingly when the only major voice in favour of the move, seems to be Sir Ian Blair, the Met Commissioner who is under such a large cloud, then he ought to realise he is keeping the wrong company and set to with damage limitation measures. Otherwise we observers from the terraces will have to conclude he has a death wish as compelling as the English soccer team.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Brown's Future in Government Beyond 2009 on a Knife Edge

'There May be Trouble Ahead' sang the guy in the bank advert a short time ago and I just wonder if a new version ought to be put out featuring Alistair Darling or Gordon Brown. Gordon started off with a leap in the polls which promised either immediate or longer term reflection in an election victory. Then he lost the lead, lost his bottle and has been kicked the length of the Commons chamber by Cameron ever since. That was bad enough but 'events' have conspired to make it even worse and to suggest, at least to me that after the next election, Gordon won't be presiding in the room pictured above.

The further 'trouble' has come crowding in , first in the form of Northern Rock- where the £23 bn baling out seemed good politics at the time but much less so now that persistent questions are being asked about what guarantees there might be that this taxpayers' money is going to be repaid and when. The Chancellor has seemed so far unable to offer a satisfactory answer. Then came the loss of bank details relating to 25 million people and very soon the damning NAO report on the selling off of QuinitiQ, the former defence research division, sold off, apparently at Brown's behest, to a private equity firm for a song and which has made fortunes for its former civil servant directors.

You may say that none of these disasters is of Darling's doing, especially the loss of data, but, as Nick Robinson, pointed out on last night's news, the public tend to blame the government for such blunders. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem's acting leader showed once again why he should perhaps have been in the bag for his party's leadership, age notwithstanding, when he suggested that it was now the Treasury and not the Home Office which was 'not fit for purpose'.

Brown was holed beneath the waterline by his election miscalculation but had time to recover and prevent his mistake leading to a "Dog Days' of John Major" type decline when everything begins to go pear shaped. But if he loses his Chancellor- and his position already looks insecure- I'd say his goose was cooked regarding chances of re-election.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Do We Have to be America's 'client state'?

Watching 'The Blair Years' last night I was struck by how close he became to being a really good, if not great prime minister. His policies on public services- utilising the dynamism of the private sector- seemed sensible to this former frustrated manager in the public sector but the Exocet into his reputation was his grovelling to Bush over Iraq, and much else besides. Which brings me to the article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft today in which discusses the assumption in Washington's Neocon political class that Britain is a 'client state' of the USA.

I found this assumption hard to take. Especially irritating were the quoted views of Irwin Stelzer, an overweight US economist who has edited a book on Neoconservatism ands is dubbed by Andrew Neil as 'Rupert Murdoch's representative on earth' and thought to be the person who threatened Murdoch's withdrawal of support unless Blair promised a referendum on the EU constitution. He was recently on Radio 4 lambasting Brown for seeking to distance himself from the excessively close relationship Blair had with Washington. 'First prize for appalling' he had written earlier in his column, 'goes to Mark Balloch Brown.' He had other words of reprimand for the speech by Douglas Alexander in the US capital which was interpreted as critical of Bush.

My reaction is 'So what?'; why shouldn't Brown- whatever, the failings of MMB- appoint whoever he pleases to his government? How can the US Neo-cons dare to censure an internal government appointment? Wheatcroft commends Stelzer's 'candour':

Whenever he talks about the Anglo-American relationship there's never any namby-pamby pretence that the United Kingdom is in any useful sense of the words a sovereign country. You're a client state and don't you forget it, says the doctor.

Given that we have behaved like a client state for some time past, I wonder if we really have to or need to? Sure it's desirable to sing from the same hymn sheet as the world's strongest power as long as a) we get something out of it and b) we are not forced to support things of which we do not approve. Seems to me on a) we have received virtually nothing from the 'special relationship' under Bush and under b) we have been dragged into the awful morass of the Middle East and forced to support Ariel Sharon to boot.

If you make your support automatic, as Blair did, it ceases to be influential. If you with-hold support when you judge you should, your continuing support will be sought and worked for. Witness the recent success of Sarkozy, basking in the warmth of a US keen to win back a former ally. Bush's allies have not criticised any appointments made by France, nor Germany to my knowledge. These are independent countries which probably exert more pull in the US than our sycophantic efforts have delivered. I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing to see Gordon respond occasionally to the humiliating put-downs of Selzer and his ilk and show he is more independent on foreign policy than his predecessor.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Is the Problem Balls not Brown?

Yesterday I chaired a conference for A level students addressed, in an excellent lecture, by Professor Mick Moran(Manchester) on the 'PM and the Core Executive'. The Core Executive is a new explanatory concept used by political scientists to describe the pool of people-Cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, Number 10 aides and so forth- who make the key decisions. They may drop in and out of key decision-making but have this as one of their roles; maybe this group represents up to a thousand in all.

I think the concept is useful as it removes the distinction made between 'policy' and 'administration', or the notion that civil servants merely carry out ministerial wishes; in reality they contribute to decisions as much as ministers do. However, it fails to embrace fully, I think, the fact that prime ministers always have a coterie of personal advisers, who often help him reach his most important conclusions. Blair had Anji Hunter, Sally Morgan, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell- the 'quartet' as Anthony Seldon calls them. Brown has Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, picked out from the bevy of cronies he acquired at the Treasury as detailed in Tom Bower's biography of Brown.

Martin Kettle in The Guardian today writes of the 'present dismayed state of the Labour government' in the wake of the 'election that wasn't', focusing on the fatalism amongst Labour MPs that 'we've had our innings'; their feeling that no-one quite knows where the government is headed; the fact that Brown's mood, exacerbated by early mornings and late nights makes his temper heated and unpredictable; and the poor morale of Brown's inner cabal who may have pesuaded Brown to call off the election but 'in their heads ... are still positioning not governing'. Kettle reports a widespread consensus that Brown should 'widen the circle soon':

Good people feel excluded. The animus against Balls in particular is very great. He should concentrate on being a better minister, they say.

Bower's evidence suggested Balls was easily up to Mandelsonian standards of manipulation, briefing and dissembling. Personally, I have not been impressed by his communication skills which I think are little better than Ruth Kelly's who was abysmal at selling policy ideas. And those eyes of his.. don't you think they look... just a little.... scarily manic?

Thursday, November 15, 2007


'Supreme Leader' Satire Becomes Worryingly Accurate

Private Eye used its 'Dear Bill' column to have a humorous go at Thatcher and then The Vicar of Albion to do the same for Blair; I was not the only one wondering how they would react to premier Gordon. Well, they invented the cult of The Supreme Leader, taking their cue from Lord Turnbull who described Brown as 'Stalinist' in his approach to politics.

I was unimpressed initially but the writers on the mag are resourceful and have raised their game. Evidence of their success appeared yesterday in The Guardian when Michael White used the term in an article. The piece by Sue Cameron in yesterday's FT did little to dissuade us that this is an appropriate satirical soubriquet. She reports, after lunch with a 'Whitehall knight', that Gordon has reverted to type according to the Tom Bower biography which, depressingly for Labour supporters, holds the centre ground for analysing the PM's character. We learn that Brown:

has been in Number 10 less than six months but, to the horror of civil servants, he has already hunkered down and cut most communication with the rest of government. Insiders say that no papers, no ideas and no decisions are getting through the barbed wire - only announcements from the leader that have been discussed with no one outside Mr Brown's inner circle.

Cabinet ministers has been denied consultation and information on issues like: the date of the Budget, troop withdrawals from Iraq and the cancelling of the General Election. Such behaviour was commonplace when Blair was in Number 10, but there had been hope 'nasty' Gordon would give way to 'nice' Gordon once he got the thing he had always hankered after. Civil servants too are angry at being left 'out of the loop' and have begun to see Gus O'Donnell as too close to the PM, something which badly damaged the reputation of Sir William Armstrong when he held the office under Edward Heath. Oh dear, it seems as if 'nice' Dr Jekyll Gordon is to be merely a fleeting memory and that 'nasty' Mr Hyde Gordon has moved back in to take control. Do hope I'm wrong.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Another Mega Misjudgement By Gordon?

Seems to me Gordon has deemed himself to have made another pretty major misjudgement.. and who are we to argue? When he came to power in June, he did a number of things which were well received: those democratic things about the constitution, a low key approach to problems and those spectacular 'goats' appointments(that's 'government of all talents' to you). Foremost among the latter was that of Mark Malloch Brown, a former senior UN official well known for his derisive views on the Bush administration.

At the time many of us(me included) took this as a signal that Brown wished to create a distance between himself, his predecessor and a UK-USA relationship which most Brits thought uncomfortably close. Malloch Brown, along with Douglas Alexander, made speeches which were interpreted as criticisms of US foreign policy. These too were welcomed as necessary readjustments. Until now, that is. On the World at One a feature was devoted to Gordon's speech this evening on foreign policy which is predicted to 'correct' his earlier, misjudged 'anti-US' signals. Malloch Brown predicted Brown would not be 'joined at the hip' to the US as Blair had been, nor would the Trans-Atlantic relationship have the same 'emotional intensity' as it had under Tony.

Now it seems that Gordon is regretting his sideways shuffle away from the US and deems the relationship in need of repair. We also learn that in addition to the appointment and the speeches, Brown's studied coolness was not appreciated by the denizen of the White House during Brown's recent visit. So Gordon is going to make up for it tonight with copious declarations of love. And I should think Malloch Brown had better abandon his attempts to find a permanent home as he's unlikely to stay long in post. [It would also seem as if his singular lack of modesty has also served to pick up a bevy of enemies along his way in life to date.]

I'm more than a bit disappointed by all this. I was happy to see a few indications that the British government had a bit of backbone, could risk a little criticism, but now it's Gordon who plans to roll over on his back and ask George to tickle his stomach. Another question springs to mind as well. If, as appears to be the case, Gordon is going to continue Blairite reforms of the public services, with more reliance than ever on the private sector and pick up Blair's arse-licking habits in relation to Bush, what difference between himself and Blair is there left to notice?

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Lazarus Act by Jonathan Aitken?

We were expecting an arrogant ex-Tory minister who felt hard done-by and who was going to be a complete pain in the arse,'

Aguda told The Observer in 2005.

'But it was the opposite straight away. He was one of the chaps.'

While this enconium to Aitken's clubbability, even when the club was called Belmarsh, is impressive, David Cameron ought perhaps reflect on the fact that the person praising the former Conservative high flying Tory Cabinet minister was one Micky Aguda, a career bank robber. Some wag suggested that Aitken survived his time in the slammer so comfortably because Eton had provided him with an earlier experience of not so dissimilar incarceration. However, Jonathan had the sense- having heard improvised songs noisily sung about his imminent anal rape on his first night- to make friends with some of the toughest guys on the block. Politics must teach you this survival skill at the very least.

Is his new position as chair of a working group on prison reform a good idea? On balance I think it is. Willie Whitelaw, when Home Secretary in the eighties, described our prison system as 'an affront to civilised values', with appalling living conditions and the highest rate of re-offending in Europe. Since then overcrowding has become even more acute and re-offending no better, while educational provision has if anything withered on the vine. Prison most definitely does not work.

Aitken claims his spell in chokey has transformed his life and his many interviewers since then testify to his humility and 'born again' interest in religion. He certainly knows much more about prison than any Home Secretary who has ever presided over our penal system and potentially can help produce a very useful report. Will it be a political 'comeback'? Of sorts maybe- given that the attempt by his former constituency, Thanet South, to reacquire the great nephew of Max Beaverbrook as their Conservative candidate was squashed by Michael Howard- but aged 65, there cannot be much time for him to rescale any political heights.

Peter Preston, editor of The Guardian when Aitken brandished his 'cardboard' 'sword of truth' and sued the newspaper for claiming his stay at the Paris Ritz was paid for by a Saudi arms dealer, makes an interesting point, however. Reviewing the case, which revealed Aitken had induced his family to lie on his behalf in his attempt to win his libel case, Preston asks why he was meeting the arms dealer in the first place:

Finding God and a renewed public role is one thing; finding out the whole truth rather another.

Personally, as someone who viewed Aitken as someone who epitomised everything I hated about the Tories, I was impressed by the dignity and uncomplaining honesty with which he bore his humiliation. He has earned a second chance. What worries me most, however, about this political Lazarus act is that it might be a prelude to something similar involving Jeffrey Archer....

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Miasma of Sleaze from the Conservatives' Eminence Gris

Michael Ashcroft, Deputy Tory chairman, certainly appeared to know what he was writing about when he penned his book, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times(see tiny picture to right above). As a Labour supporter may I say how nice it is-almost a sense of deja vu- to sniff that familiar old sleaze miasma drifting in the breeze downwind from the Conservatives, this time and not, embarrassingly, from my own party.

Ashcroft seems to have been caught bang to rights. When his original nomination for a peerage was queried, pledges were given by the party that he would return to live in the UK and pay tax here as well:

One promise that he would return was made by the then Tory leader, William Hague, in order to secure the peerage more than seven years ago. A similar assurance had already been given by Lord Ashcroft himself when he settled a libel action with the Times newspaper.

Yet we find Ashcroft's official domicile remains 'uncertain' and his spokes-people are refusing to clarify the matter. If there is no question that he has reneged on his promises, as his people insist, why can't he clear the matter up? Given Ashcroft's dominant position in current Conservative politics, this issue is especially sensitive. His study Smell the Coffee, back in 2005, was instrumental in shifting a reluctant party to realise it had to elect a left of centre leader.

In addition, his bankrolling of candidates in marginal constituencies helped win a number of victories in the 2005 election and is arguably the factor Labour fears most when contemplating the next election, an event in which The Guardian suggests Ashcroft will play a commanding role for the Tories. His role is also a major bone of contention in the stalled talks on party funding chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips. I kind of hope Ashcroft will let this one run and run as the longer it does, the more odium will adhere to the Conservatives. Make no mistake, the longer Ashcroft and Cameron refuse to come clean, the stronger that smell of sleaze will become.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Over a third of East Germans Would Prefer Life in GDR

Nineteen years ago today the Berlin Wall came crashing down, as the picture shows. I recall the euphoria in the west and the joy unconfined in Germany as the human lust for freedom found another dramatic expression. Yet now we find that what was joy then has curdled more than just a little. Unifying east and west Germany cost 1.3 trillion euros and there were many examples of resultant social unrest mainly reflecting western resentment against the pauper east.

Now, a Forsa Survey based on German from both east and west, has produced what I think are astonishing results; they suggest that many Germans would like to see that grim symbol of repression, the Berlin Wall, reconstructed. 73% from the east felt that socialism was a good idea poorly implemented with 90% saying they enjoyed better 'social protection' under the GDR. Most of the Germans interviewed said they would prefer to live in West Germany should the wall still be in place but no less than 36% of former east Germans said they would prefer to live in East Germany. Anyone who has seen that rivetingly grim German film on the Stasi, The Lives of Others, will find this very hard to understand.

One wonders how many Romanians still hanker after the benign political ministrations of Nicolae Ceausescu and his lovely wife or how many Poles yearn for the repressions of Gumulka or Gierek. I suppose one should not be so surprised when we learn that many Russians think Stalin was a good leader and regard Putin as the nearest contemporary substitute for him. Even more depressingly it seems that only 5% of relationships in Germany are between east and west Germans, suggesting that these survey results reflect an ongoing gulf between the former communist part of the country and its bigger western counterpart.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


'Are Political Parties Dying?

In his well argued article on 30th September Simon Jenkins suggested that political parties are dying. In support of this he adduces:
i) their ideologies are all melding into one centrist collection of sameness.
ii) they are having to rely on charismatic leaders to provide their cutting edges rather than ideas that used to move people to support them.
iii) their memberships have plummeted by 70% in the last quarter century, from 4million to half a million or 2% of of adults.
iv) Conservatives receive 6% of their funds from membership subs while Labour receives 13% but both have had to look elsewhere for money: mainly to rich donors though Labour still has the unions.
v) Sir Hayden Phillips' review suggested a cap of £50K on donations but Labour said no to union contributions being so limited as they receive millions in this way though prefer to see them as aggregates of individual member donations.
vi) By insisting on having large basic units of administration, the UK discourages the growth of grass-roots party membership and creates a larger distance between parties and voters.

It's a powerful case which Jenkins caps off by calling for for government to refuse them any state aid: parties should regenerate themselves through their own efforts:

Nothing would do more to restore democracy than forcing parties to find more members to give them money and publicly declare it. An active and empowered membership, warts and all, is essential if the British constitution is not to lapse into oligarchy. Party finances will be restored only when parties persuade enough voters that they are worth preserving. Otherwise they will become mere offshoots of the state.

I think Jenkins overstates the case however. Parties have crowded into the centre ground because: Labour has had to court middle class voters once their working class base declined; the Conservatives have had to shift back into the centre after voters felt they were out of touch with a changing society; and all parties, even the Lib Dems, have tended to espouse free market economics as globalization has imposed more severe financial punishments for doing otherwise. And in Jenkins' own words:

Parties remain the golden thread that links voters to their governors both at and between elections. Parties embody the democratic mandate. They can discipline representatives and leaders who stray from what was pledged to the public. They hold MPs’ jobs in their hands.

Jenkins is right to state that parties are in intensive care but in reporting their imminent demise, he was exaggerating, as journalists tend to do.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Review ID Cards Gordon, then Bin the Idea

In May 2005 David Davis asked five questions of Blair's ID Cards proposal: will it achieve its stated goals? is the government capable of introducing such a system? is it cost-effective? can civil liberties be safeguarded? Today we hear of rustlings in the undergrowth that Gordon Brown himself has, at the very least, doubts about question two.

It seems our PM has been struck by the possibility that rolling out a major nationwide IT scheme, likely to cost, according to the LSE team, £24bn., might prove as disastrous as the multi- billion pound NHS scheme or the equally shambolic tax credit scheme which ended up paying claimants much more than they should have received and then sought to claw the money back. Brown wants assurances that the scheme will work. All the internal reviews are being withheld from public scrutiny, despite robust attempts under the FOI to find out whether they are as negative as reports suggest.

A further review of the technology would be an excellent precaution but my feelings have always been that if I cannot give positive answers to any of Davis's questions, based on what I have read about the scheme- and I cannot- the misbegotten plan should be binned as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Blair Must Go

Having just listened to Any Questions on Radio 4, I'm more than ever convinced Ian Blair should resign as Met Commissioner. The farcical absurdity of trying the force under Health and Safety legislation was bad enough but, given the severity of the many mistakes made, combined with the tragic outcome, someone should pick up the tab of responsibility.

No doubt Blair has been a good copper-the arrest of the failed 21-7 bombers was exemplary- but there are plenty of replacements waiting in the sidelines and one of them should be called upon now to take over. Interestingly only Charlie Falconer agreed with the Home Secretary while Huhne, Rifkind and Ann McElvoy wanted him gone. Oddly the London audience on a show of hands was narrowly in favour of keeping him.

I can recall being furious that the policeman's namesake did not, as far as we can tell, even consider resignation after the Hutton and Butler reports revealed the government's guilt beyond much doubt in sexing up that infamous dossier. To renew public trust in the political system ministers and public officials must take responsibility when things go badly wrong. We know Blair was not personally responsible for the death of the Brazilian but as the man in charge of those that were, he should do the honourable thing and stand down. Just as he took the credit for the arrest of the aspirant bombers, so he should take the rap when his boys messed up.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Will Bush Veto Capping of Greenhouse Gases?

What a strange and volatile place the USA is. Recently I received comments on a post on gun control in the USA saying I was 'liberal scum' and an 'f**king Nazi'. And I see the father of a soldier killed in Iraq is suing the organisation that paraded placards at the funeral insisting the war was God's punishment on America for tolerating homosexuality.

Churchill said you could rely on the US to do the right thing in the end, after trying all the wrong things first. Maybe he was right as we now see the possibility of seven years of near criminal inaction on greenhouse emissions being ended.

A Senate subcommittee has voted to cap emissions by 15% by 2020 compared with the proposed 20% in Europe. The bill has bipartisan support having been introduced by John Warner a Republican and Joe Lieberman a Democrat. It should be poised for the presidential approval around December- but will it be delivered?

Bush made conciliatory remarks about the emissions 'problem' but then dashed hopes by revealing a few weeks back that he favoured voluntary controls. Faced with a growing national consensus he will hesitate I suspect before applying his veto but in the end prove correct the second part of Churchill's analysis by actually doing just that.

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