Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Skipper off to Montreal
I may get to post something on Canadian politics or life in general but it won't be a top priority.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Polls Puncture Plotters' Plans?
Today in The Guardian, their poll shows figures of 44-29-19: a slightly lower lead for Cameron but scarcely less depressing for Gordon who must be returning from his hols more miserable- and boy, does he do miserable- than when he left for Suffolk, a few weeks back. However, if his chief obsession is power and hanging onto it- and I'm fairly sure it is- he must be cheered by some other aspects of these polls.
Most obviously, he must be pleased that in the ST poll, when respondents were asked 'Would David Miliband make a better prime minister than Gordon Brown?' they answered, 21% for David and 38% for Gordon, with a bigger proportion opting for the latter among Labour voters. The Guardian poll also shows the public have not yet warmed to Miliband. He edges Gordon on 'wider appeal'and 'looks to the future' but is well beaten in turn on 'more likely to spin' and 'more style than substance'. However, in all six questions asked the sum of the 'don't knows' and the 'neithers' exceeds half of the sample.
So Brown might gain some marginal comfort from such results but it's clear, voters find Miliband an unknown quantity. But Brown's broader comfort must be derived from the fact that, unlike the situation inn August 2006 when Gordon was pulling the strings behind Tom Watson and others, there is no clear successor to him. This fact will percolate through the ranks of delegates to the Manchester conference during the next week or so. The plotters may decide to show their hands but, more likely, I'd guess, is that they'll heave one more weary sigh and realise, in the absence of an obvious Dauphin who can command popular support, they are stuck with Gordon till 2010, meltdown or no meltdown.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Cameron Fills Vacuum Left By Gordon
According to some reports, senior US officers and the Iraqi government have now lost faith in British forces.
Maybe Brown's current virtual invisibility encouraged Cameron to make the bold ploy for an Oppostion leader of making his own visit: in Brown's absence, he provided a substitute NATO prime minister for Mikheil to chat to. But, following on from my post yesterday, Dave's suggestion that we embrace Georgia into NATO, Russian ire notwithstanding, is singularly ill-advised rubbish. Article 5 of the treaty obliges us to come to the aid of any member suffering an attack.
Is it really conceivable that we in the UK, will go to war- with all the concomitant nuclear danger- over Georgia? What kind of forces can we put in the field, given our already overloaded commitments elsewhere? If Russia, say, absorbs Georgia, are we really prepared to go to war? And if we are tested and desist, what price a NATO guarantee in the future? Dave really should be listening to wiser counsels on foreign policy issues.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Russia Shows How World Balance of Power is Shifting
Most importantly, although Mr Saakashvili’s foolishness makes admitting Georgia harder, Russia’s incursion should not delay plans to let Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.
There can be no doubting that Russia, in recent years has been using its oil and gas wealth to pursue a more robust foreign policy and in recent weeks has not acted so very differently from its former incarnation as the USSR. Supporting satellite countries, so recently freed from the Stalinist yoke, is properly a role for democratic countries, but there are many reasons for caution regarding the extent of the support given.
1. The major reason is the decline in the power of the USA. It is still by far the most powerful military country in the world but no longer scares smaller countries to any degree. The war in Iraq and the lese majesty of Iran have proved to the world that the US cannot enforce its will, or that of the western world, away from home.
2. Fololowing from the above, Russia's virtual invasion of Georgia has further exposed American weakness. Bush and Rice have been able only to issue vacuous denunciations which have probably had the effect merely of raising smiles on the faces of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. America's total inability to respond militarily has been cruelly exposed.
3. Russia's threat to pre-empt planned anti-missile defences in Poland, with a mailed fist only too evident, suggests Russia is quite prepared to follow a much more adventurous foreign policy over the next few years.
4. Russia has historically been paranoid about being surrounded by hostile forces and allowing US and NATO influence to intrude as far as its southern borders was bound to provoke displeasure in Moscow.
5. Displeasure is one thing but if Georgia or the Ukraine is part of NATO all members will be obliged by formal treaty to come to their military aid in the event of a war with Russia.
It could be that such an alliance would deter Russia from bullying its neighbours, but given America's involvements in the Middle East and Asian sub continent, it could be that Russia would feel the geopolitical balance has shifted to the extent that subversion and eventual takeover of its former Warsaw Pact empire is not just an atavistic dream. A war by proxy is bad enough; a full out war between two nuclear powers is a danger that has to be handled with great care indeed.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Nothing Seems Likely to Save Labour from a Second Byelection Defeat in Scotland
Kettle suggests a late poll, and it could be as late as December, might interfere with or subvert his relaunch. He thinks an early date- 11th September is the earliest possible- would get the pain over quickly and leave him free to try his reshuffle and whatever else. It's significant that Kettle thinks there is no way Gordon can win the contest, whenever it is held. I'm sure he's right on this.
But if he can reduce the losing swing to below Glasgow East's he might be able to argue a recovery of sorts is not only possible but actually in progress. One has to say that such a strategy summons up words like 'drowning man', 'straws' and 'isn't it time you stood down in favour of someone who has a genuine chance of limiting the damage?'.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Georgian War and Liberal Interventionism
In his column today Simon Jenkins blames the liberal interventionism of Bush and Blair for reinvigorating 'separatism across the world'. I can see that troubles in the Caucasus- where history is a fissiparious weave of brutally hostile nationalities- make it an unpromising area for any kind of intervention but I wonder if Jenkins' magisterial dismissal of the approach is wholly justified:
'liberal interventionism, especially when it leads to military and economic aggression, means one costly adventure after another - and usually failure.'
The present situation is complex. Georgia intervened against two 'statelets' within its own territory to fulfill its president's political promises. To invent such objectives now seem the height of folly as they merely encouraged reciprocal intervention by Russia, ostensibly on behalf of the statelets but in reality to punish Saakashvilli and the west for daring to encourage Georgia to join NATO. The result is a dangerous mess but I'm not sure it invalidates liberal interventionism across the board.
When formulating his approach to the topic in his 1999 Chicago speech, Tony Blair cited five conditions before action could be justified, of which one was:
Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
According to Blair's guidelines any entry into South Ossetia would have been ruled out on grounds of prudence and good sense. This is important because there are horrific situations which regularly occur where some intervention is indeed necessary and justified. I'm thinking of the Safe Havens idea for the Kurds, the Rwandan massacres where tragically, no action was taken, or Srebrenica when UN forces held back while 8000 were killed, or currently, indeed, Darfur. Unfortunately there are vicious rulers and ethnic groups prepared to inlfict genocidal violence on their fellows which the world just should not stand by and idly accept. Occasionally, if something can be done military, intervention is the lesser evil.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Goodbye Cuddly Dave: Welcome Back Mr Nasty
'Our goal is clear: to move beyond a belief in the Protestant work ethic alone to a modern vision of ethical work' [That was Dave two years ago.]
Those of us who survived Thatcher and Major were sceptical but I remember welcoming the Tories' apparent move to the centre as a sign they had finally seen sense and were more qualified to govern- something which, given our politics, they seemed likely to do again at some stage in the future. Kampfner suggests today that our simultaneous suspicions that all this was merely a feint, are now being proved correct:
Fast forward two years, to the verge of a recession and the fears of knife crime, and what do we hear? Society is broken; more prisons should be built; more people should be denied bail. While the Tories are nowhere near the point of Michael Howard's dog-whistle anti-immigrant pitch of 2005, they are slipping back into their political comfort zone. That is a shame for the country, and a lost opportunity for them.
Kampfner goes on to show how Camneron's liberal zeal has cooled, not just on law and order, but on civil liberties and green matters. Why has this happened? It has to be obvious. Cameron and his aides have concluded that vicory is in the bag, that Labour is now so far behind that he can dispense with all that cenrtrist twaddle and return to the core messages of his creed.
When so much was being made of Cameron back then, Peter Hitchens fronted a Despatches special revealing how Camereon had never been on the liberal Conservative wing but was a typical posh Thatcherite; Hitchens claimed he was merely flirting with this 'Blairite' stuff to win the leadership. This was the man, after all, who had written the Tory's 2005 election manifesto complete with its dog whistle messages on immigration and the rest.
But to some extent this move has been Labour's fault. It is only because Labour has dug such a huge hole for itself that the Tories can afford to return to their traditional turf. Maybe it is now too late but awareness of what has happened should at least bring Labour activists back into genuine activity.
Monday, August 11, 2008
'Obama Fatigue' Plays into McCain's Hands
With the Democratic Convention coming up on 25th August in Denver, Obama strategists must be getting just a little worried. Their man has beeen basking in adulation for much of the last seven months, moving into overdrive when he visited Europe and did that 200,000 audience gig in Berlin. But whilst euphoric coverage for other kinds of celebrities, like rock stars and Hollywood A listers, seems to build with impunity, it seems there is a limit for politicians. A Pew survey discovered that over half of non aligned voters felt they had been 'hearing too much' about Obama. McCain has weighed in cleverly by comparing Ombama to Paris Hilton and Moses and exploiting xenophobic US anti-European feelings. 22% in the same survey said they had been forming a less favourable view of him recently.
The result has been a narrowing of the opinion poll gap to an average of just one per cent in Obama's favour. While some Democrats, not to mention European liberals have him more or less elected already, US voters have been finding it not so easy to digest the daily helpings of the Illinois Senator dished up by their love-struck media. Oddly, perhaps, for a child brought up by a single mother, Obama has been characterised as elitist and arrogant and the smart late-night chat show hosts are finding resonance for their jibes that he is too self obsessed.
The Economist's columnist,Lexington, suggests the Democrats have erred in not focusing on Bush's record rather than rooting like cheer leaders for their man. Obama has everything going for him in theory: 80% of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction; the economy is causing much concern; Obama's campaign is much slicker than McCain's; and the younger man has more campaign funds. Yet in practice the race is not currently going his way. Lexington concludes:
The Obama machine also remains formidable: it is impossible to wander around American cities these days without coming across enthusiastic young canvassers. But Mr Obama needs to reframe the election so that it is less about him and more about the issues. And he needs to abandon the rhetorical high ground for the nitty-gritty of policy. Otherwise the general election could prove to be the second coronation in a row, after Hillary’s implosion, that has ended with a surprise.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
Georgia's Troublesome Devolution Problem Explodes
Georgia's extended flirtation with the idea of joining NATO has compounded Russian dislike of the country which, between 1922 and 91 was part of the USSR. Neither region, however, has de jure status in terms of wider recognition and the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvilli had reintegration of these areas as a longstanding political goal. For this reason it is thought that the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was well planned, coinciding with the Olympic Games when Putin would be away representing Russia.
But if Mikheil expected a painless readjustment of national territory he has already been disappointed. Volunteers from North Ossetia have surged down to assist their cousins and Russia has bombed the town of Gori, incidentally, birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Georgia's population of 4.6 million and army of 11,000 is no match for Russia's 141 million and army of 395,000 equipped accordingly.
The fact that Russia has spent years pounding Chechyna for daring to do what Ossetia has done, will not deter a harsh response in what it regards as its legitimate zone of influence. Georgia's best hope is that NATO and the west will support its actions- something which has already happened- but the dangers here, in the historically fissiparous and violent Caucasus, are either a replay of Chechyna, or a war by proxy between the west and Russia which is about to escalate out of control.
Friday, August 08, 2008
More Reasons Against that Early Election Argument
'But whoever wins the party contest would surely have to give a public commitment to hold an early general election.
So here again, we see evidence of the belief that any product of a Labour contest to unseat Brown would be 'honour bound by democracy' to hold an election pretty damn soon. As I tried to explain yesterday, that would be a thoroughly honest and proper argument to adduce, as some have chosen to in the recent past. However, I also pointed out that that doyen of readers of British political runes, Peter Riddell, had emphasised that no Brown replacement would or should face such an obligation. Today we find that another influential columnist, Martin Kettle, argues the same, in the process mining a little more of the relevant history.
He points out that Anthony Eden(pictured) is the only modern example of a 'new leader calling an election after succeeding a PM of his own party'.
'it does not seem to have occurred to Eden that he had any kind of moral obligation - of the sort that floats in and out of many discussions on this subject today - to go to the country. Quite the reverse. "His instinct is for going on, as the bolder and more honourable course," [my italics] wrote Harold Macmillan in his diary after a private conversation with Eden on April 3 1955. "What AE would like to do wd be to go to the broadcast and the TV and announce 'No election this year'."
Apparently he thought going early would be seen as 'opportunistic' , though this was eventually what he chose to do. It's a bit hard to see that term being applied to any Labour leader when their poll ratings are at present levels. The only other time two replacements have occured during one parliamentary session was in 1940 when Churchill took over from Chamberlain: clearly not normal conditions. Kettle admits any newcomer would have to answer the expected clamour for an early election. He(or she) could do so by citing: the partisan provenance of some of these calls; the need to allow a decent time for voters to judge if the newcomer had a reasonable programme to offer; and that a stable period was needed to cope with international turbulences. Finally:
He would have to defend the current system as being the right parliamentary way of doing things. Above all, he must not lightly give up the card that gives him discretion over election timing.
However, all this conjecture is dependent on a contest taking place, and that is by no means even a short-odds bet. Indeed if Labour's Austin Mitchell is to be believed: "We're so incompetent we wouldn't know how to carry out a coup". Maybe we'd need the nasty party to demonstrate that.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Why Brown's Possible Sucessor Doesn't Need to Call a Quick Election
The sole requirement is that a prime minister can command a majority in the House of Commons. Who that leader is, or whether he or she changes, is irrelevant in constitutional terms. That is why the often-heard argument that Gordon Brown’s premiership is illegitimate because he was unelected is baloney. We live in a parliamentary, not a presidential, system. Mr Brown was elected an MP, just as Tony Blair, or any future Labour leader was, in May 2005 by voters in their constituencies. No one was asked who should be prime minister.
He is quite right of course and there is nothing in the rules of what passes for our constitution that David Miliband, let us say, should not repalce Brown and serve until the very last day in 2010 before he has to call an election, five years after the last one, 5th May, 2005. But constitutional rules do not recognise political realities. One replacement without public endorsement might be accepted by voters without cavill but two is unknown territory. Riddell must know that any call for a quick election would receive a degree of public support.
How much support is the key question. If two million voters marched through Whitehall demanding an election, I suspect the constitution might well be made a purely academic consideration. But would there be such an emphatic reaction? Buggered if I know, but I would guess not.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Judge Judge 'Firm but Fair' or Something less than the Latter?
Given that barristers are merely 'taxis for hire' as Rumpole used to say, this might be seen as merly criticising someone for doing their job. But his sentencing of Gwen Tucker for six months for receiving £67 a week when on benefit even though she was a mother of three whose husband had left her, seemed a tad wide of the 'firm but fair' enconium, one has to say. The Eye often picks up stories which fall below the mainstream radar until they suddenly break forth, as in the case of John Bourn and his royal level expenses. It remains to be seen if their typically acidic review of a publicfigure is based on more than knee-jerk anti-establishmentism.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Why Don't Tories Support PR?
Suffice it to say that Labour made such representations to much greater effect than the others. Not to put too fine a point on it, much of England is now gerrymandered in Labour's favour.
This is a bit of an oversimplication in that Labour's ability to win seats on small turnouts in inner cities, also explains some of the disproportionate relationships between votes cast and seats won: Labour needs fewer votes to win seats than the Tories. But he is right that Labour pulled off an opportunistic coup with its skilled lobbying ihn the nineties and right also that the results in 2005 were indeed anomalous.
Labour won 286 out of 529 English seats on 35.5% of the vote while Conservatives won 194 on 35.7% and Lib Dems 47 on 22.9%. In Scotland the situation was worse: they won 40 out of 59-that's 68%- on only 39% of the vote. Overall Labour won 54% of the seats on 35% of the votes. If proportional to votes cast, seats in 2005 should have gone 189 Tory, 187 Labour and 121 Lib Dem. That would have enabled them to lead at the very least, a mionority government as Alex Salmond has successfully done in Scotland over the past year.
As Wheatcroft concludes on this topic:
If the Tories had their wits about them, they would now be demanding not necessarily pure PR, but at least a new reform bill.
I just wonder why they have always shied away from such a course.
Monday, August 04, 2008
Labour Leadership: State of Play
I've tried to read as much as I can over the weekend but must have missed acres of space given over to this topic. However, how does the battle look so far?
i)Three Cabinet Ministers came out for Brown in the News of World: Darling, Harmon and Denham. Skills Secretary Mr Denham told BBC One Mr Brown had a "profound understanding of what this country needs". John Hutton later came out for Brown too.
ii)Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks also rallied to his boss's cause, indicating support in the lower levels of goverment as well as Cabinet level.
iii) Whispers are being loudly made that Gordon will reshuffle his Cabinet on his return, suggesting his 'troublesome Foreign Secretary' will thereby be taken care of.
iv) Michael Portillo's article yesterday suggested a third PM in three years 'looks desperate', especially as two would not have been elected. He saw Miliband's article as an act of gross disloyalty.
v) This might not mean much, but the profile of the Milband brothers in the ST made it clear brother Ed is still very much for his boss. The profile also, incidentally, said Ed would make a better PM than David as he has better communication skills.
i) David Miliband has come out against Brown- if you have any lingering doubts check Andrew Rawnsley from yesterday.
ii)Ten junior ministers have declared they are ready to resign to force Gordon to stand down.
iii) Jackie Ashley today makes no retreat from her previously enthusiastic 'Brownism':
New Labour faces the most agonising dilemma in its history. But when you are dangerously ill, refusing the doctor and ridiculing surgery isn't always the sensible option.
So which way is the balance tipping? Right now, I'd say from my necessarily limited reading, listening and viewing, that it is just slightly leaning towards the rebels. But the situation is still recoverable if Gordon returns from holiday and makes some confident retaliatory moves.
The PM has so many weapons in his hands in such circumstances- the arcane Labour rules for leadership changes; the need for a legitimising election for any new leader; the damage the party would incur if civil war broke out; and his abgility to remove rebels from key positions. But I just wonder if Gordon is not feeling a bit like Michael Vaughan after sustained failure: a disinclination to carry on the fight. The next week should make things a lot clearer.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Well Done Ramps!
It is a sporting tragedy that Ramprakash, by common consent the best batsman of his generation, only scored two Test centuries in 52 appearances. I once saw him close up at Old Trafford as he came out to bat in a Test: his face was pale and frozen and he barely made it into double figures before feebly surrendering his wicket. It was obvious he wanted to play for his country more than anything else in the universe, but wanting it that much counts for little unless a player can control the nerves which always accompany such intensity desire. Graham Hick, another prodigious run gatherer at the county level, suffered from similar wobbles when wearing an England cap- he scored only 6 centuries at that level and was responsible for equal industrial amounts of disappointment.
The selectors probably did right by Ramps but in the end could not justify such a prolonged incidence of under-achievement. Mind you, I entertained just a teensy hope they might select him this year when he started with such a flourish; it would have been against the grain of regular selections, but then so was Darren Pattinson's and didn't Tom Graveney have a successful twi-light career recall?
Ramps had to wait 11 innings after reaching 99 back on the 3rd May but has reached his ton of tons reasonably quickly in 676 innings. Geoff Boycott will probably gloat, as is his wont, that he 'didn't beat my 645!'[nor, indeed bradman's sensational 295] but it is a tremendous achievement to put alongside his dancing trophies on the mantel-piece. I see that Vaughan has resigned his captaincy after 5 years at the helm. He did well to come back after injury and will go down as the skipper who regained the Ashes in 2005, but his recent run of poor scores was impossible to reconcile with a place in the team; his jumping before being pushed was probably wise. One wishes Gordon Brown might consider a similar move...?
PS Who do you fancy for his successor? I feel KP might just nick it; Strauss has a case for him but his form has been temperamental. And you might say Flintoff has made a bit of a case for himself during this last Headingly Test when he single-handedly manufactured an England fight-back.
Saturday, August 02, 2008
Yet Another Guardian Article Marks a Watershed has Passed
In her piece today she refers to it being 'all over for the old leader'; that the anticipated Cabinet personnel changes will the 'reshuffle of death'; and on the economic recovery plan asks 'will anyone listen now'? According to her:
Eight or nine cabinet ministers are in theory ready to knock on Brown's door, supported by a fleet of junior ministers and more than enough MPs to trigger a challenge...
She recognises that what is still lacking is the political will as otherwise doomed Labour MPs look for excuses to cling on to their seats 'until the last hour of the last day!' Yet, writes Polly,
'it was exactly that dejected fatalism David Miliband punctured with his adrenaline shot of optimism. Suddenly, winning looked possible.
I share her relief that someone-like Collingwood yesterday my cricket oriented mind interjects- has stood up to the plate and expressed some self belief. But others- like that wise old Labour blogger, Bob Piper, dismisses such talk of a contest as 'garbage' and 'crap'. He is right that there are formidable rational obstacles to such a contest: the summer break which scatters potential plotters; the divisive effect of such a contest; the probable need to hold an election very soon after it; the current bankruptcy of the party; and the untested nature of the emergent candidate.
Reason says Bob is probably right, but, even if it is fuelled by lashings of unreason, the momentum behind such a move is growing and sometimes, as in cricket, unlikely escapes from disaster follow from determined acts of leadership. It remains to be seen if Miliband performed one on 29th July. Bagohot in the Economist points out that Miliband might be thinking it's better to sustain a forgivable defeat now and hope to come back in, say, 2015 rather than carry on to 'Arma-Gordon' as is presently the case. He concludes:
'Mr Brown has only an evens chance of leading Labour into the next election.'
Friday, August 01, 2008
Are 16 year Olds Ready and Qualified to Vote?
The recent Labour Policy Forum at Warwick added to its portfolio of proposals the recommendation that the vote should be given to 16 year olds. Support from the Electoral Reform Society and the Youth Parliament are fairly predictable, I suppose, but in the past month we have also seen the SNP come out for it as well as Oona King, Peter Hain, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harmon. The suggestion is now on the political agenda and therefore deserves to be considered seriously.
The basic dilemma we face is that democracy is not much good if we don't bother to vote and have little or no respect for the system. It might hang on for a fair number of years, but without both requirements, democracy will eventually atrophy and die. Older people still subscribe to the 'civic duty' of voting with good majorities of over 55s turning out but within the 18-24 cohort only a minority vote. Turnout in age groups between 24 and 55 is also in decline, suggesting that not voting is a 'learnt' activity which young people take into later life. With barely 60% turning out in 2005 and even less in 2001, we do have a problem and which starts and ends with young people.
The case in favour adduces a number of arguments. The Youth Parliament says that if a young person can: pay taxes; pay adult transport fares; get married and have children; and join the army, then they are old enough to vote. They add that with falling participation and turnout, youth involvement would breath new life into democratic politics.
The case against has not been articulated all that well or widely as far as I can make out. The 'entitlement' case is persuasive, though soldiers under 18 are not allowed to fight as far as I understand. If adult responsibilities are demanded by one part of the state, then it follows there is a case for for reciprocal privileges to be allowed by another.
But I'm not sure how far this argument goes. Because someone pays taxes, for example, do we say they can enter state funded higher education? They have the entitlement, of course, but can only do so if they meet certain qualifying conditions.
The same argument can be made about voting. If someone knows little or nothing about voting there seems no point in them exercising such a right. If current trends are continued, non voting will merely be 'learnt' at an earlier age and our system will become less well rather then healthier. We have enough apathetic voters at present, goes the counter argument, so we shouild avoid adding millions more. Such approaches often conclude that improved programmes of political education would attack the fundamental problem far more effectively,
Now I'm aware that many 16 year-olds are better well informed and more politically mature than lots of people who are over 18, but such major judgements have to made based on a calculation, not just of right but of suitability across the whole age group. If there were clear survey evidence that 16 year-olds were overwhelmingly keen to vote- straw polls at 6th form conferences I have organised suggest they might well be- and were sufficiently well informed to cast their vote with some kind of discrimination, then I'd support it. However, the 16 year-olds I have encountered outside the ranks of those actually studying politics, suggest that neither condition would be met across the age group as a whole. I'd love to be proved wrong on this but suspect that somehow I won't be.