Saturday, June 30, 2007


Labour Under Brown Will Take Some Beating

Mired in the familiar contempt which Blair induced over the past few years, and despairing of any genuine chance of a renaissance for the party I support, I have tended to regard Brown as possibly a second best even to the shop soiled goods Tony had come to represent. But I am beginning to change my mind, as I'm sure other party members may be starting to do so as well.

This dour 'Stalinist' has manufactured a set of poll results to die for after ten years in power and allowing for the natural(I'd call it unnatural actually) bias in the electoral system to Labour. And so far, it's been done without any obvious limelight hogging pirouetting of the kind associated with his predecessor. Crucially, the new list of names for the Cabinet and junior levels has been handled without hic-cup and the 'all talents' people parachuted in have gone down well. Martin Kettle perceives a return to proper cabinet government with Jacqui Smith making the announcement outside Number 10 on the terror scare and not the PM as would have likely happened under Blair.

And those poll results really are mouth watering. Not only is the overall lead up to four points-more than just before the 2005 election-but on virtually all the key policy issues Labour now enjoys healthy leads: health 9%; education 11%; Economy 19%; fight against terrorism 15%; law and order 3%. Cameron and his advisers must be biting their nails in anguish as they watch their advantage being washed away under Brown's relentless accumulation of correct judgements. I'm aware, as I'm sure all party members are, that this is only a honeymoon period, that events and squabbles are bound to intervene and that Cameron is a resourceful and talented opponent.

But Brown has shown already that any Conservative assumptions of an easy progress to victory over a disillusioned and morally defeated Labour Party can be set aside: he's going to be a tough nut to crack. Who knows, Paul Dacre, editor of the quintessentially Conservative Daily Mail, which so excoriated Tony and Cherie, might be right in (according to someone who knows Dacre and Brown), seeing the new PM as 'a genuinely special politician... who is touched by the mantle of greatness'

Friday, June 29, 2007


Brown's Administration Full of Symbols

Appointments as well as pictures can say those 'thousand words'. Brown is sending out so many signals with his new government line-up I thought I'd try to identify the most obvious:

1. Continuity with Blair: Only Des Browne stays in post from the previous Cabinet but more than half survive with new portfolios. 'I'm capable of magnaminity' says Brown with these retentions, especially of John Hutton who is believed to be the Cabinet member who said Brown would be a 'fucking terrible prime minister'.
2 Women: Numbers reduced from 8 to 5 but of them Jacqui Smith becomes the first ever female Home Secretary and Harriet Harmon Leader of the House and Party chair. I suspect arch Blairites Blears and Jowell survived partly to keep up the numbers of women.
3. Education: to emphasize his commitment to education, we have two ministers in the Cabinet- Ed Balls(Schools) and John Denham (Universities).
4. Sooth feelings in NHS: after the haphazard stewardship of Hewitt, the emollient Alan Johnson takes over at Health.
5. Iraq: Rebel resigner Denham is welcomed into the Cabinet; anti war Miliband made Foreign Secretary and strongly anti-war Mark Malloch Brown as 'Africa, Asia and UN minister. Gordon wants to indicate his distaste for the whole wretched mess of Iraq.
6. Rewarding Loyalists: These include Darling as Chancellor of course, plus Hoon as Chief Whip and Ed Balls at Schools. Maybe Nick Brown, the loyalest of the loyal might be a bit miffed with only Deputy Chief Whip as he held the senior position back in 1997.
7. Youthful energy: Andy Burnham, the two Milibands, not forgetting Ruth kelly are decidedly young for Cabninet rank the average age of which has fallen from 54 to 49.
8. 'All Talents': this motif is reflected in the inclusion of(see pictures) Malloch Brown, Shirley Williams as an adviser and the former Tory Digby Jones. But the most spectacular appointment must be the much derided on both sides of the House, super rich Shaun Woodward at Northern Ireland(so rich he won't take a salary). This will not please office seeking Labour backbenchers but suggests British politics might conceivably be shifting away from its tribal tendencies towards a more bipartisan approach as in USA or France.

All in all a clever and well planned reshuffle, contrasting favourably with Blair's chaotic efforts. My only reservation was the exclusion of Charles Clarke, a genuine heavyweight whom Brown had hinted might be offered a job. Clearly Brown could not overcome the grudge he must have felt after Clarke's savage attack on him in the autumn of 2006. But so far Gordon has not really put a foot wrong.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Brown Intent on Establishing 'Newness'

Poor old Margaret Beckett has been an early victim of Brown's purge of the Blairite order, along with many more including Charlie Falconer and Patricia Hewitt. But Gordon's government building is not just about rewarding his people, it's also constructing an impression of a completely new regime. For this reason he mentioned 'change' eight times in his little speech outside Number 10 and concluded, as he turned to enter the hallowed portals, 'Let the change begin'.

His first act was to rescind the order in council passed by Blair in 1997 which gave Campbell and Jonathan Powell authority to give orders to civil servants. This had long rankled with hierarchy-obsessed top mandarins and was part of Blair's virtual dismantling of Whitehall procedure in favour of his 'can-do' informality. I wonder if Gordon will retain Tony's 'first names' style in Cabinet or go back to the more formal procedure of addressing colleagues by their office('Chancellor', 'Secretary for Education' etc)?

At the time of my writing we don't know of the cabinet or junior ministerial changes but it's clear Brown wants to establish a 'new' kind of inclusive administration. Firstly there were the approaches to the Lib Dems; rebuffed by Ming and Paddy but I wonder what that meeting with Shirley Williams was all about. Secondly we learn that Brown is setting up a panel of top business men to advise him, including private equity chief Damon Buffini, Sir Terry Leahy and Alan 'Your'e Fired' Sugar. Thirdly, after hearing Alistair Darling on Today this morning, I expect other people from outside the political establishment to be drawn into Gordon's big tent. Fourthly I expect him to distance himself rapidly from that point of haemorrhaging support: Iraq. David Milliband, tipped to be Foreign Secretary, is known to be a strong opponent of the decision to invade.

Why the big emphasis on 'newness'? Clearly, he wants to differentiate himself from the Blair era which held him in his ten year purgatory of waiting but most important of all, he wants to persuade people that this is a completely new government, completely unconnected with the faults and errors of the past. The same trick was accomplished by John Major after 1990 when the government did not change but seemed to do so. Gordon is desperate voters will receive the impression that this is not the Labour government with which they have become so disillusioned but something new and bright and full of hope. So it's all part of a 'spin' operation? Of course.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Round One Emphatically to Gordon

There is are some lovely ironies about the events of the past 24 hours. A Conservative MP departs his own party on the grounds that it is driven by superficiality and PR for a party which established itself via this very means. In doing so he gives the new prime minister a major PR coup. Davies accused Cameron, damagingly, of 'superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions', accusations which will resonate with critics, on the right as well as the left within the Conservative Party.

This could not have been a better gift to Brown as he seeks to establish a momentum which might well culminate in an early general election. Some predict a date in the middle of next year; Iain Dale suggests that even this coming October might be the chosen month.

I doubt this very much for the simple reason that Labour is currently broke and can hardly refill coffers via the expedient of donations let alone loans. Maybe Gordon could tap the unions for a few million but they are likely to ask a price which embarrass him and his attempt to gain that (to him) all important fourth term. I have to say it's nice to see Tories doing what they do so love doing: savaging each other.

Dale(see link above) provides a link to the Newsnight debate between apostate Quentin Davies('he hasn't got a socialist bone in his body') and cutesey little Alan Duncan, which Iain thinks Duncan won hands down- I thought that, as usual, Paxo was the real winner. I tend to agree Davies is not the kind of person I would welcome: Michael White gives chapter and verse on the floor-crossing. Interestingly Dale reports Ed Balls has hinted there is at least one more Tory to make the make transition. Hold your breath.

Finally, I have just seen a very puffy eyed Tony Blair's final PMQs and was astonished to see both sides of the chamber give him an unprecedented standing ovation after heartfelt tributes from Ian Paisley and the Father of the House, the often rebellious Welshman, Alan Williams. Some send-off; flawed certainly, but some politician.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


A Mission Too Far for Blair?

Blair's new mission is one which we can understand he'll relish. Michael Cockerell's valedictory biography last February gave us testimony from enough people for us to realise he's always going to be a 'mission' person, who seeks to 'make a difference'. And while solving Northern Ireland was a biggie, how much more so is Israel-Palestine, the possible crucible, as we are often told, for the third world war? If he pulls it off the next time he visits the Pope will be to receive his canonisation while still alive... that would be a first too.

But maybe he's bitten off too much this time?

a) his charm may not travel as well as he would wish- he failed, recall, to assemble that UN resolution which would have made Iraq legal, despite hundreds od thousands of air miles.

b) his role in Iraq makes him a bogey figure, along with Bush in the Middle East.

c) If Clinton couldn't do it, can Blair expect to do better?

d) With the Palestinians already split between the West Bank and Gaza, he is faced with an even more complex problem than hitherto.

I'd be interested to see what odds Mike Smithson of Political Betting would offer on a successful outcome, but I'd only offer way outsider odds. And, here's another thing, I've always had a strange premonition that this brilliant, glamorous shooting star of a politician will meet a tragic end: the Middle East, as Alan Johnson and a few million others can attest, is a very dangerous place.

Monday, June 25, 2007


Is Cameron Wobble Beginning of the End?

Michael Portillo always has an interesting angle, especially on his own party, and his article yesterday was no exception. He suggests that we may be witnessing the beginning of yet another collapse of the Tories; Cameron's strategy was that Brown would be uncharismatic, would veer to the left and would be perceived as both personally resistible and, fatally, too left-wing for Middle England. Against this Portillo points out that:

i)Brown will not veer to the left- as joint architect of New Labour this was never likely anyway.

ii)Brown is profoundly uncharismatic, as I suggested in my post yesterday, but maybe 'dour but competent' fits the current mood. It could just be that the Conservatives would have been better off with someone who does not spend all his life trying to emulate Tony Blair- maybe David Davis would have been the better bet after all?

In addition to these points one might add the poll results reported in The Observer yesterday, which registered a 3 point Labour lead and showed Brown beating Cameron 40-22 as 'the most capable prime minister'.

Portillo thinks these results are possibly evidence of 'Plan A' failing, with not much sign of a 'Plan B' ready in the wings. He points out that, thanks to the 1992 withdrawal from ERM debacle, Blair enjoyed the luxury of a steep poll lead while he repositioned his party: this kept Old Labour quiet. By contrast Old Conservativism has had no such reassurance and is chafing against a switch of direction by Cameron which they feel is analogous to The Church of England converting to Satanism.

All his predecessors- Hague, IDS, Howard- tried to persuade their recalcitrant party that 'Compassionate Conservatism' was the way to go but scurried back into their Thatcherite comfort zones once the Tebbitt faithful refused to digest something so indigestible. Portillo comments:

If Cameron really has surrendered, the party is doomed. I had concluded, when I left politics, that the Tories were ungovernable and had a death wish. But Cameron is clever and charismatic; I believed he could succeed where I had failed, especially since even the Conservatives might learn something after three landslide defeats. Now I am not so sure. Cameron has wobbled. Unless he regains control of his party at once, the project will be lost.

Maybe Brown's accession to power will be the catalyst to Cameron being toppled from leading the Opposition? We have an interesting few months ahead of us.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Competent but Dull Gordon Turns Down Volume

I'm not sure if you were impressed by Gordon's first speech as leader but I wasn't especially. The likes of Blunkett praised it but only about as half-heartedly as the audience listened. The content was the usual mix of rhetoric and promises to deliver across the social gamut but the delivery was so lack lustre I could only conclude it was deliberate: no smiles except at the end and barely any humour to leaven the heavy drone of Labourspeak.

If Tony Blair was 9 out of ten as a communicator then Gordon, on this showing, merits about four and a half. Shots of the audience showed them staring gamely into the middle distance, occasionally forcing a feeble flap of applause. I do hope he'll improve but this effort merely reminded us how Blair could make the words sing and the hearts lift. Maybe Gordon was brooding on the Independent's story that Blair planned to sack Brown immediately after the 2005 election. This would have removed Brown from the 'heir-apparent' role of Chancellor and ended his grip on domestic policy. But it was not to be:

Labour slipped in the polls, Gordon Brown did a deal not only to keep his job, but to have a say in the post-election reshuffle, in effect anointing him as Mr Blair's successor.

It's easy to forget how crucial Brown's initial refusal to campaign and then his eventual agreement was to Labour's victory back then. If Blair had been able to sustain the fight on his own, he might well have still been at the helm. But recall it was voters' desire to see them together which drew him back in. Brown on his own is still an unknown quantity electorally but if today's speech is anything to go by, he needs to sharpen up his act.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


It's Not Just About Free Speech and No Violent Reprisals

Salman Rushdie's knighthood has unleashed a rerun of the freedom of speech arguments between the liberal west and the less than liberal Muslim world. Writing in The Guardian today Timothy Garton Ash reprises his very clear line on what should and should not be allowed. In essence TGA argues that while Rushdie should be allowed to be offensive to Muslims, they should be allowed reciprocal liberties but never to make violent threats to life and limb:

The toleration of widely differing opinions and beliefs is precisely what distinguishes a free society from the ideological regimes of the Middle East. Rushdie wrote a fiction that was deeply offensive to many Muslims. Muslims have the right to be deeply offensive back. All that a free society requires of them - as of every citizen - is that they conduct this argument peacefully and obey the law of the land.

This is admirably clear and if followed by both sides much suffering and injury would be pre-empted. But, whilst I admire the clarity and wholly support the cause of free expression against coercive censorship, I do have some objections to TGA which are more than mere quibbles. What worries me is the green light it appears to give to mutual vilification and abuse. Some elements on both sides are only too willing to take up the verbal cudgels and set to with a will. I worry that such exchanges are unwelcome: do we need to communicate with a relatively unknown culture at such an abusive pitch? Is there not something totally negative about such conduct?

I would defend anyone's right to satirize or even ridicule any religion but should we encourage such dysfunctional and aggressive communication? I think not. Moreover, anyone who has ever been involved in a fight will know that they invariably begin with exchanges of insults and abuse and the violence breaks out once this has progressed beyond a point of no return. By endorsing the 'abuse', be it satirical novels or cartoons, are we not opening the door to a spiral of exchanges which is highly likely to culminate in the violence TGA so opposes? Much better, I'd say, to be aware of the dangers and to cultivate the virtues of understanding and good old fashioned courtesy.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


The Wooing of the Lib Dems is now Under Way

The stories being run by The Guardian regarding alleged talks between Brown and Ming Campbell are interesting and possibly significant. Not because any Lib Dems are likely to serve in a Brown Cabinet but for what it suggests about the positioning currently taking place. Lib-Lab cooperation has a chequered history; the ridiculed Pact 1977-79 when Denis Healey supposedly listened to a Liberal Treasury spokesman; and then the still born 'realignment' attempt by Blair to draw the Lib Dems on side and condemn the Tories to indefinite opposition politics. It sounded good in principle but in practice events and personalities always seem to intervene.

But the recent stories have served to tick a box or two:

1. They remind us all that the Lib Dems are likely to hold ther balance of power in 2009 should voting intentions remain roughly split between the two main parties.

2. They make clear that the wooing of the Lib Dems has already started; maybe they don't want to share government right now but come the next election they can expect to. They should begin to work out their priorities in terms of the political price they can reasonably extract for their cooperation.

3. By appearing to make an offer Brown might have set the ball rolling. Lord Lester has already indicated he is interested and many other Lib Dems might also be scenting power and office the air. Maybe Gordon has even managed to make it appear that the Lib Dems are more likely to tesm up with himn rather than Cameron and if this is the case the Tories have a problem to solve.

4. It could even be the case that Brown has decided to readopt the Blaiur strategy to haul the third party on board as a hedge against a poor result in the general election. It could even be that he is prepared to concede PR to them as the price he is prepared to pay; he has, after all, spoken generally about constitutional reform.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Brown's 'Bounce' Could be Undermined by his Curmudgeonly Personality

Received opinion in some quarters that the Tories are a shoo-in for the next election has received something of a blow recently. The Sunday Times poll showed Labour narrowing the Tory lead to only two points: 37-35. David Smith commented:

Asked about how they rated Brown and Cameron on a range of qualities, the Conservative leader came off second best on most. Brown was easily ahead on “sticking to his principles” (49%-19%); being strong (44%-11%); and being decisive (38%-12%). He also had a small lead on honesty (23%-18%). Cameron, in contrast, stood out only on being charismatic; 30% said he was, against only 4% for Brown.

In addition it's becoming increasingly clear that Dave Cameron has not yet reinforced the gains made during his first year's leadership, as this editorial suggests. His mistake over grammar schools has highlighted the gulf which still exists between his sunny liberal version of Conservatism and the darker, more selfish realities of what party members actually believe and want.

However, his travails might be lessened by the gradual revelation of our new prime minister's true colours as the personal testimony of those who have worked with him enters the public domain. Andrew Rawnsley's forthcoming Channel 4 documentary contains some highly damaging material. We have confirmed the fact that Cherie Blair passionately resented the way in which Brown treated her husband by constantly demanding he hand over the top job. She responded by urging her husband to sack the Chancellor. In addition:

Staff at No 10 felt like "they were children in a dysfunctional relationship".
["You'd be sitting waiting for a decision and all that you could hear was the crockery being thrown around the kitchen," said Downing St aide Matthew Taylor.]

· Treasury officials believed it was "the kiss of death" to cooperate with No 10.
[Stephen Wall, a senior civil servant adviser highlighted the Treasury's refusal to give Downing Street details of the next budget. "It was a constant battle," he said. "For people in the Treasury to have contact with Downing Street was regarded as a kiss of death for their careers."]

· Mr Blair regretted making a compromise with Mr Brown over foundation hospitals in November, 2003.
[Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary, contributes:"I would categorise Tony's approach to social entrepreneurship ... that is to say to give schools, hospitals, universities the resource to get on with it and do it. Whereas Gordon's view is much more traditional Labour view. Which means that you can pass a law or make an administrative decision in central government and that will change behaviour."]

· The prime minister did not know on the day of the vote on tuition fees in 2004 if Mr Brown's supporters would back him.
[On the morning of the vote on education top-up fees in January, 2004, Mr Wall recalls Sally Morgan, Mr Blair's chief political adviser, saying the prime minister did not know if the government would get its legislation through the Commons "because we don't yet know whether Gordon is going to instruct his supporters to vote for the measure or not".]

Not many people will watch the programme but influential opinion formers will and this version of a curmudgeonly, obsessive non-collegiate person will form the template for how he is going to be perceived. If Brown's performance in government substantially reinforce this highly negative image voters could turn off Gordon big time and he will have to kiss goodbye his hopes for a further term after 2009.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Immigration a Danger to Society says Putnam

I've always been fascinated by social research which succeeds in opening up the box and seeing how it genuinely works. Robert Putnam is such a researcher- as his ground breaking Bowling Alone study of US society was called and which warned of a reduction of 'social capital'-those voluntary bodies and other connections which bind society together- as people withdrew from the 'public sphere' into more private and isolated places. Now he's done something similar to the impact of immigration upon US society.

Madeleine Bunting in today's Guardian summarizes his main conclusions which suggest, dangerously for race relations, that the influence is a malign one:

a) connections between communities-'bridging capital'- are damaged;
b) connections within social groups-'bonding capital' are also damaged;
c) people tend to withdraw and 'hunker down', severing connections within their communities.
d) a corollary of this is a loss of confidence in local institutions and personnel, fewer friends and more telly watching.

Putnam fears his research might be hi-jacked by the right as ammunition against liberal immigration policies. He accepts that immigration is both inevitable and desirable, not least economically. It seems obvious too that immigration is likely to increase world-wide as globalisation intensifies and climate change forces some to move to different climes. The argument which springs most readily to mind is that the USA itself is an example of how immigration from all over the world can be blended into nationhood(early immigrants pictured). If this happened once, why not again?

The answer seems to be that once immigrants pass though a couple of generations, integration begins to develop and move forward, often founded on the basis of a strongly developed ethnic community with strong ties to 'home' overseas. So the damage is short term until a sense of national solidarity emerges. The worry is that this necessary hiatus represents a time of great danger when the fabric of society is strained, possibly to breaking point; it could be that neither side of the immigration divide are prepared to wait for the healing balm of time.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Does Rawnsley Documentary Reduce Blair's Iraq Culpability?

The 'Blair's Legacy' industry continues to grind out analyses, the latest being Andrew Rawnsley's three -parter beginning next Saturday on Channel 4. The article by Rawnsley today suggests the series will be well worth watching; it sums up his thoughts on Iraq and, some might say, offers arguments to plead in mitigation against the verdict that it was all Blair's fault. We discover that:

i) Blair was very worried about US lack of preparedness from well before the invasion took place. Sir David Manning, his foreign policy adviser was despatched to Washington in 2002 to press the need for post invasion planning. Manning attests that Blair "was deeply concerned that the American plans 'had not been thoroughly thought through'".

ii) Blair told Peter Mandelson that 'Look, you know, I can't do everything, That's chiefly America's responsibility not ours.'

iii) Sir Jeremmy Greenstock, sent as special envoy to Bagdhad, tells the programme that:

Blair would cry 'What on earth are the Americans up to?' There were moments of throwing his hands in the air: "What can we do?" He was tearing his hair over some of the deficiencies.' The failure to prepare meant that Iraq quickly fell apart. Greenstock adds: 'I just felt it was slipping away from us really, from the beginning. There was no security force controlling the streets. There was no police force to speak of.'

We see that Blair was awake to the dangers and warned repeatedly in exactly the areas which could have prevented the Armageddon which is consuming the country. So is his culpability thereby reduced? A little maybe. But from a longer perspective he:

i) should have been much more wary of making his and the UK's future hostage to another leader to the extent that he did.

ii) he was blinded by Bush's aura of power as the leader of the world's hyper-power and trusted the most dysfunctional US administration ever to have the necessary competence to lead the invasion and secure the peace.

iii) leading on from the above, he should surely have divined that the locus of power and authority had shifted, soon after the invasion, to Cheney and Rumsfeld, the true incompetents behind the disaster?

We hear that Blair so profoundly despaired of the situation in Spring 2004 that, according to Mandelson, he was 'ready to walk away it all'. My view has always been that he should have resigned as soon as WMD proved a chimera, but a resignation a year later would certainly have helped his reputation, if not, ultimately, the fate of the benighted country which has become the victim of his several misjudgements.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Media's Relentless Negativity bad for Democracy

One of the regular tricks I use with students when teaching the role of the media is to ask them to identify the values underlying news story selection in the media. They soon identify things like: revelations, disasters, scandals and personality/celebrity news. They also soon conclude that these values are insufficient for the proper working of a mature democracy where some reasonable familiarity with policy issues is required to cast one's vote as the system intends and requires. Not a good situation we usually gloomily conclude at the end of the session. But maybe it's much worse than that...? According to Polly Toynbee, there is, these days a more detailed and more cynical set of requirements for items to make it onto the page or into the news broadcast. She contends that:

'The newspaper agenda, slavishly followed by the BBC, reflects a profoundly dystopic image of a society where nothing works, everything gets worse, public officials are inept, public services fail, tax is wasted, lethal dangers proliferate, and everyone conspires to lie about it. News editors spike stories that do not fit that simple template.

She goes o to suggest that even when subject specialists file stories editors look to 'exaggerate some minor failing or setback' as a peg on which to hang the story, 'leaving the bulk of an essentially favourable report as an afterthought'.

Good crime, health or education figures are distorted by reporting of the one indicator that has turned downwards. Charities now add to the clamour, all vying for this same news space, knowing only shock-horror reports will rattle their tins...unless there's a crisis, it won't make the cut'.

But does all this matter? 'Millions travel safely to work today' is not news by any accepted yardstick. Things going wrong should maybe receive more prominence than things not going wrong. But only up to a point Lord Copper. Toynbee believes that an 'overwhelming right-wing bias' adds a malign element:

It explains the strange divergence between people's real life experience and what they imagine to be the facts: 65% think their local NHS is good but only 25% think "the NHS" as seen on television is in a good state. There is the same gap in attitudes to crime and education. Bad anecdotes in the media trump the evidence of people's own eyes. That is seriously damaging to the national psyche and it makes anger the default emotion.

So what can be done about it? Polly thinks it's connected to the ownership structure, especially the influence of Murdoch which has dragged British media heavily in the down market direction. She criticizes Blair for toadying to Rupert and does not think Gordon will be much different; yet one has only to read her article to know her analysis is truthfully observed. Blair was lambasted-me included- for his attack on the media because he has been such an inveterate media manipulator himself. But Toynbee's article has convinced me that, despite his poor qualifications for making it, Blair's attack on the media was well directed and justified.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Let's Hear it for the NHS

We British are peculiar lot when it comes to health care. Having set up a(virtually) free at point of use system, we grumble that it is not free enough or not as good as our taxes merit. So it is salutory indeed to read of what it's like to live with a system which is certainly the best in the world but which is most definitely, not free. The recent article by Ed Pilkington provides a chilling glimpse at the insecurities of living in the USA. Its system is ferociously cash oriented, as I recall from an occasion when my former wife was taken into a New Orleans hospital having injured her throat eating some salad roughage.

'Would you like a lozenge to soothe your throat, honey?' asked the nurse kindly while we waited for an X-Ray to be taken. When we got the bill some time later(paid for of course by travel insurance)I noted the item 'lozenge... $1'. Nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance and so have to rely on cut-price bargain basement, Medicare. And even those with insurance find they have to pay thousands of dollars extra in hidden charges. The average costs of medical insurance have doubled over the last seven years: for a family of four it's about £6000 a year.

The article details case-studies of people who have suffered the downside of the best mnedical system in the world. Michael Gray, for example, who broke two neck vertebrae playing five a side football. Because he was only about to apply for insurance through his work at a glass company, but had not yet done so, he was charged £13,700 surgeon's fees plus £16,700 hospital fees. His earnings? only £5 an hour. Other cases are harrowing in the extreme and the clear desire of poorer Americans is to have a free health system, something which every US student I have taught passionately echoes.

Michael Moore's latest broadside, Sicko, criticising this state of affairs in his home country, finds time to praise the NHS fulsomely for the free care and the level at which it is provided. My point is that, whoever is in power, we should reconsider our whinges and appreciate, cherish and care for the wonderful continuing boon to the nation which is the NHS and which Labour has helped renew to a level which is far above its condition in 1997.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Media: 'Feral Beast' or Pussycat?

Yesterday Tony Blair made a somewhat odd speech at a Reuters event about the media. Echoing John Lloyd's 2004 critique, What the Media are Doing to our Politics, he argued that the constant competition for sales in the 24 hour media context had led it into a form of 'impact journalism' in which truth and balance gave way to eye-catching stories to boost sales. In pursuit of this the media often hunted in a pack:

"In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out...something few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today - outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else - is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms."

He went on to suggest that such behaviour sapped national self confidence, destroyed morale in the public services and trust between politicians and the media. Responding on various television channels the Daily Mail's Peter Oborne, spoke up for the media by suggesting that Blair had enjoyed an amazingly good press since 1997 and that the media had mostly acted like a pussy-cat in relation to him(yes, that's my silly cat, Tess, in the picture).

It's true, as Blair admitted in his speech, that New Labour's obsession with the media had encouraged this process as this articleelaborates, and it is scarcely surprising that media sages should politely put the boot in. Matthew D'Ancona sees an attempt to exorcize an obsession- 'New Labour was very happy to tango with the media until it went wrong'; Trevor Kavanagh judged it an 'extraordinarily ill judged speech by a prime minister in the fag end of his tenure'; Nick Robinson reminded him of "the impact of his promise to be 'purer than pure' and of those missing weapons of mass destruction."

It does seem as if Blair has wanted it both ways: he wanted the media to dance to his tune which it initially did but found it overwhelmed him in the end. Just like any celebrity he has learnt that those who live by the media are, in the final analysis, often consumed by it. His talk of further regulation of the media deserves to and will be ignored.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Social Engineering has a Chequered Record

[This image would have been better illustrating yesterday's post but I couldn't resist using it for today's] Social engineering is a curious notion, criticised savagely by the right but used by them(private education?) almost as much as by the more usual suspects on the left. Reading the article by Jessica Shepherd, we learn that Aim Higher, the organization tasked(fairly expensively) with broadening participation in higher education, has not had any notable success to date. We also learn from Polly Toynbee that Sure Start has had a happier effect in cancelling out the effects of inequality.

Many of us have been the objects of social engineering. My father's parents had to pay to send him to Bangor University in the thirties; I went to university, expenses paid, courtesy of the 1944 Butler Act and my local authority. Many of my fellow grammar school mates enjoyed the same good fortune and have prospered as a result. The secondary modern lads from the village in which I grew up did less well and it is the disadvantage of their stratum, a generation on- which New Labour have sought to reduce. But billions can be spent on the quest with precious little outcome: comprehensives, for example, have signally failed in achieving the objectives at which they were aimed.

I suspect that Aim Higher has been less successful because the children targeted were too old to respond sufficiently, too immersed in a culture of non achievement literally, to 'aim higher'. The millennium cohort study of the 15.500 babies born 2000-2 shows that the class divide is apparent after just three years in terms of social and educational development. So Sure Start, which

in every community point the way, catching babies from birth with intensive health visiting to find depressed mothers and families in trouble. Early help with play, talk and parenting works. "Early Talk", "Every Child a Reader" and "Every Child Counts" are excellent programmes that rescue young children who are not talking, reading or counting at the right age.

Similar programmes initiated by LBJ in late sixties USA repaid a big dividend in terms of education achievement and crime free lives. Similar programmes in Scandinavia reflect similar results. It is the earliest years when children can be influenced out of the handicaps which poverty and disadvantage confer and it is to be hoped we reap an equal or even greater dividend in the decades to come.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Fat Cats are Just Getting too Fat

An article in The Guardian today poses a question which has long bemused left of centre, liberal public sector types like me: why do rich people want more and more money? I run a Current Affairs class comprising 30 or so adults from all walks of life each autumn, and this question comes up regularly. The rich business men in the group are contemptuous of those of us who argue such huge disparities between rich and poor is a moral outrage, a violation of any kind of social justice. This, they argue, is a purely economic question; we operate in a free market. Business pays for results and those who deliver are entitled to such fabulous rewards. If they don't get them, the argument concludes, they will depart our shores for those that do not refuse to hand over the loot.

It's not difficult to support higher pay for higher achievement but how high must incentives climb before the ceiling is reached? When the boss of mining company Xstrata earns 544 times the average pay of its mineworkers, one feels the limit must have been already reached; in the USA the difference is even greater. How much can one spend before one has everything? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have decided to call it quits and have given away most of their fabulous fortunes. Why? embarrassment? Maybe a touch- what is the point of earning the GDP of a medium sized country when there is not enough time to spend it or desire to consume left?

Hargreaves touches on some of the possible motivations: status- bosses measure self worth in salary zeros; and the massive rewards of private equity have raised the comparison stakes yet again for the super rich. As the roller-coaster continues to swoop and soar I get the feeling that ordinary citizens are well on the way to feeling a sense of revulsion against this degenerate excess. Too much inequality is not healthy for society and Gordon Brown should strengthen opportunities for shareholders to question and control those company remuneration committees. The members of these 'legitimizing' committees approve such huge salaries purely because the similar groups of members will also be likely set their own salaries. David must be given a few sharp objects to put in his slingshot against the might of Goliath.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Ken's Proposals Excellent but will they Reduce Political Apathy?

Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force's proposals come at just the right time to influence both his own party and, arguably, the plans of the incoming PM. I think there are good grounds for thinking, along with Clarke, that parliament needs to be strengthened against a constantly aggrandising executive. Because the UK executive is formed out of the legislature it is easy for the former to dominate parliament; in the USA both arms of government are elected separately and so the legislature cannot be so easily ignored or over-ridden. Blair has ignored parliament(though it should not be forgotten that he did allow a debate before the Iraq War and has been one of the outstanding parliamentarians of his era).

Ken suggests a whole battery of measures to strengthen the institution including: more resources and powers for select committees to make them more like Congressional ones; prior defence of spending decisions; more exposure of the PM to cross examination; and more power for MPs to decide what will be debated. In addition he urges that once a given number sign an online petition, that parliament be obliged to debate and vote on the question. In his thoughtful article today Henry Porter praises the report and urges:

Let's have more private member's bills. Let's see select committee chairmen bring their reports to the chamber for debate. Let's have more debate. More argument. More cross-party groups. More goddam life. Anything is better than the chamber of the living dead that this shallow, unread 'modernising' regime created.

In addition to parliament Ken calls for a renewal of Cabinet government with the No 10 'sofa' thrown on the skip. All good stuff, but I wonder two things. Firstly, will Gordon Brown, despite his nods in the direction of constitutional change, really create a rod for his own back by strengthening parliament? Parties always promise to empower the people and always find implementing their policies more important once in power.

Secondly, Ken's group was set up to 'restore power to the people' and 'restore trust in politics'. Will the alarming falls in election turnout be reversed by such a programme of political change? Some commentators claim apathy will disappear as soon as we have a proper contest between two evenly matched parties fighting about real issues. I'm not so sure and tend to the(depressing) view supported by the work of the US political scientist, Robert Putnam, that apathy is more a characteristic of a modern society which is increasingly withdrawing from the public sphere into a private one surrounded by friends and family, material goods and hours and hours of television.

Friday, June 08, 2007


US U Turn on Global Warming Something to Celebrate

The response to the G8 result on global warming has been a bit muted I'd say. Greenpeace say it's 'hardly worth the paper it's written on'; Friends of the Earth is 'disappointed'; Oxfam regard it as 'profoundly disappointing'; and Phil Jones, Director of Climate research at the University east Anglia judged: 'It's all more talk really'. The Guardian's leader also gives a subdued welcome: 'it is not even the beginning of the end for a global framework to tackle climate change'.

Indeed, Bush's declaration to 'seriously consider' a 50% cut in emissions by 2050 is scarcely a bankable assurance that the biggest polluter of them all is now safely aboard the emissions reducing band wagon. But Merkel and Blair should be allowed some small measure of self congratulation. When he came to power in 2000 Bush set his face firmly against any restrictions in US emissions; hardly surprising considering his backers came largely from the oil industry, which it is surprising to consider, was once happy to employ the hard-living frat-boy.

Since then he has maintained his position, supported by such outriders as the oil industry funded Free Enterprise Institute. At the Gleneagles G8 US officials watered down draft documents on global warming to the level of anodyne meaningless. In the run-up to Heiligendamn, we feared the US might sabotage the whole package- certainly Bush's suggestion of a separate UN subverting initiative seemed to indicate such an intention.

With so many of his own states, with fellow Republican Governor Swarzenegger to the fore, and faced by a solid wall of opposition- including for once our own PM- Bush seems to have begun the process of acceding to the arguments in favour of restricting emissions. There are many more hurdles to cross and some of Bush's words were indeed weasel like, but it will be very hard indeed for him to row back from the moral commitment he has made to the cause and which has been interpreted by the world as just such a commitment. Blair is entitled to add a small trophy to his legacy sideboard for his tireless advocacy of global warming to a habitually unresponsive president.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


Is it Time to Pull Out from Iraq?

We know a powerful faction of voices is calling for UK military withdrawal from Iraq and I wonder if they are right. I note that Sir Christopher Meyer, the less than discreet former ambassador to Washington told the Iraq Commission in London(set up by the Foreign Policy Centre and Channel 4) such action was necessary:

"I personally believe that the presence of American and British and coalition forces is making things worse, not only inside Iraq but the wider region around Iraq. The arguments against staying for any greater length of time themselves strengthen with every day that passes,"

This follows on the recent view of Sir Richard Dannant, head of the British Army, that we should:

"get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems".

We also know that in the USA the Democrats also favour a timed withdrawal- witness Barack Obama's article in The Guardian on Tuesday(sorry, no link). We also know that a body of influential opinion the press, led by Simon Jenkins, thinks the same. But what about Brown? We don't know but received wisdom is that he will continue the planned withdrawal of British troops but do everything in concert with the USA. And what about Blair? Of course he's on his way out but his opinions are still influential and Brown cannot afford to veer away too far or too fast.

Well, we do have a recent version of his views in the current Economist. In it he says that all the trouble in Basra is 'supported, financed and armed by elements of the Iranian regime'- if this and Al Quaeda could be removed things would be 'transformed'. He continues:

The truth is that the conflict in Iraq has mutated into something directly fuelled by the same elements that confront us everywhere. Yet a large, probably the larger, part of Western opinion would prefer us to withdraw. That is the extraordinary dulling of our senses that the terrorism has achieved. In the Palestinian question who gets the blame for lack of progress? The West. In Lebanon—a crisis deliberately provoked by, again, the same forces—who is held responsible? Israel.

So while many argue for withdrawal, Blair seems to be limbering up for having a further go, this time at Iran. Such a course would pile disaster upon disaster but the argument for staying in Iraq is more persuasive. Withdrawal is a seductively attractive option but it might well leave a vacuum of power in Iraq which others will rush to fill; certainly Al Quaeda, Iran and the militias. Such an influx might cause a spread of the war to the wider region and stoke up even more cohorts of terrorists seeking to infiltrate and inflict even greater slaughter on the home front. Staying in Iraq is, to say the least, better than tangling with Iran.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Brown Should Clear Up This Daylight Robbery by Private Equity Companies

Not being an economist, I've not really caught up with 'private equity companies' until recently when my businessman brother explained how they operate. The impression I gathered from his informed explanation was that they play fast and loose with the rules in order to make squillions of dosh. Yesterday Polly Toynbee provided yet more clarity through the fog for the ranks of the unenlightened.

Basically it seems these swashbuckling new players buy out public companies, which are subject to some common regulation and then use their new private status to inflict fairly blatant forms of exploitation. Boards allow private equity to take over often at the expense of workers' pension funds; 96 pension schemes have collapsed in consequence. The device is to take the company into liquidation, maybe for only 24 hours, to shed liabilities; pensioners thus robbed become a call on tax funded government compensation schemes. On average 20% of jobs are cut after such a takeover and workers receive £231 a year less than in equivalent public companies. Toynbee observes:

Mega money is made by the dealmakers but it is a weakened company which limps back to the market.'

and concludes

'Never mind the hard-won laws devoted to making public companies responsible: private equity is a return to primitive, unregulated capitalism'

But it is the tax breaks such companies exploit which cause the most anger:

Current tax breaks let private investors charge the interest from huge borrowings against profits. On capital gains they are not charged the usual 40% that applies to everyone else, but after owning the company for just two years their rate is cut to 10%. The two-year rule introduced in 2004, designed to help new ventures, puts ordinary public companies at a disadvantage , having to wait 10 years to pay so little.

It is this anomaly which led Nicholas Ferguson, chairman of SVG Capital private equity to remark recently that executives in his line of work 'pay less tax than a cleaning lady', a remark which won a headline for its author in The Financial Times. One has to applaud his honesty but when one of the robbers themselves complains his gang are receiving too much loot, there must be something seriously wrong.

So it is some slight(only 'slight', so great is one's cynicism regarding New Labour) relief to read today that Gordon Brown- previously a defender of this new branch of the finance industry- intends a 'crackdown' on such tax breaks once Ed Balls' review reports at the end of the month. Three candidates for the Deputy Leadership- Cruddas, Hain and Johnson, have also signalled their determination to remove unfair tax advantages.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


National Day Idea Likely to end up a Turkey

So two ministers, one in Cabinet, the other destined for it, favour a 'National British Day' to help integrate migrants and, presumably, reinforce patriotic feeling for the notion of Britishness, whatever that might mean these days. It's been known for a while that Gordon Brown, as a 'migrant' from the north, feels keen to strengthen such bonds and that he worries why American Muslims do not show any disaffection to rank with those British equivalents who blew themselves and many others up on 7/7.

So a national day, along the lines of Australia Day (see picture) is suggested. Will the idea fly? I can see the rationale and support the underlying sentiments of promoting integration but all I can think of at the moment is reasons why it won't work:

1. The idea of Britishness is currently threatening to disintegrate as a result of nationalism in Scotland and Wales, not to mention the ever more emergent English variety.

2. Most countries with national days use them to celebrate some signal moment in their history, for example Norway's May 14th national day, celebrates its constitution drawn up in 1814 when it split from Denmark; in the same way, the 4th July marks American independence from Britain in 1776. Because Britain now has a longish history of unity such celebrations seem much less appropriate.

3.'Nationalism' is not a sentiment that comes naturally to the British; our history gives us a sense of identity which is quite secure and, often in a somewhat superior fashion, we tend to deprecate those younger nations- especially the USA- which we feel indulge in slightly vulgar displays of over the top nationalism(eg 'USA!, USA!').

4. British people are anything if not perverse. Tell us to feel something we are not inclined to feel- like visiting the Millennium Dome for example- and we'll titter and sneer and the laugh the idea into oblivion.

I suspect that achieving the ends of integrating immigrants and bolstering a national sense of Britishness will have be pursued along more promising lines than this turkey of an idea.

Monday, June 04, 2007


Will the Real Tony Blair Stand up at Last?

The upcoming G8 meeting in Heiligendamn- focusing on global warming- offers Tony Blair a golden opportunity to display genuine independence from his putative soul mate, George Bush. How fitting for his swansong to forswear this longstanding shaming deference and prove that on this, an issue on which he feels passionately, he is his own man? I think so, and maybe you too, but is it likely?

Well, there are two hopeful signs. First we have some recognition by the USA that there is a problem and that emissions should be controlled. That's huge progress- a bit like a flat earther accepting that there just might be something over the horizon- but the worry is that the Bush suggestion that the biggest carbon emitters should get together to discuss a voluntary approach is not genuine but a ploy, inspired by the US energy lobby, to subvert the UN led effort to update the 1997 Kyoto Agreement.

Second we have the redoubtable Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's bold rejection of the Bush plan:

"The Brazilian position is clear cut, I cannot accept the idea that we have to build another group to discuss the same issues that were discussed in Kyoto and not fulfilled.

He sees no need to 'develop another institution' let alone eschew 'binding commitments' in exchange for mere 'voluntarism'.

Blair has already declared that it's too late for the 'luxury' of the five year delay it took to agree Kyoto. 'We must now move quickly' he urges, as the sands of own his time in the limelight drift away.

'Climate change poses a huge challenge...Now is the time to act. It is our duty to do so.'

So Blair has taken the lead in calling for urgent progress. The last thing he wants is an alternative sideways move into constructing new machinery, especially when the USA might merely use this to slow down or frustrate progress towards genuine binding agreements. It could be, as Larry Eliott explains, that some caucus of the big economic powers is probably a necessary presage to wider agreement- as this is the 'how the world works'- but it should all be done under the aegis of the UN.

To show his true metal at this late date, he needs to stand firm, forget his welcome of the Bush initiative as 'real progress' and insist the Bush fork in the road is ignored. He's going to find it difficult but he has to free himself from his security blanket relationship with the US president sometime soon, so why not now, when it can do the world, not to mention Blair's reputation, some real good?

Sunday, June 03, 2007


No End of a Lesson For the Tyro Tory Leader

That wise old media manipulator, Sir Bernard Ingham, once said that if a no new developments had occurred in a negative story after nine days, you could consider it over. By this yardstick I fear Cameron's handling of the 'Grammars'item-see my post on Monday 28th May- must go down as a pretty hopeless defeat. It's true that he did not choose the issue and that he and Willetts said no more than than had been said before by the party, but suddenly there the problem was, with three front bench spokesman joining the revolt. He screwed up by fudging, insulting his party critics and then appearing to retreat.

As Andrew Rawnsley says in The Observer today:

there are three useful rules for a leader who wants to take on his party. Commandment number one: do not start a fight unless you know where it is going to lead. Commandment number two: do not start a fight that will turn off the voters. And the most crucial of all, commandment number three: do not start a fight unless you are absolutely confident that you are going to win it. I think it is fair to say that none of these very basic rules of political engagement has been followed by David Cameron in the great Tory quarrel over grammar schools.

It's fairly clear that the muddle and uproar caused by this ancient issue has been badly mishandled. Alone it might have been nodded through, but on top of everything else the party feels it has had to swallow from eschewing tax cuts to hugging hoodies and marrying gays it caused the bubble of Tory intolerance and indignation to explode: on this theme see also Riddell's simply brilliant cartoon opposite the above article. Derek Conway, the former Conservative whip commented that while the party had given Cameron 'huge leeway for what he is doing to modernize the party ... they feel the price does not have be selling their souls.'

I'm fairly sure that some of the fallout from this political ineptitude is reflected in the ICM poll published in The Sunday Telegraph today. This shows that Brown has a 25 point lead over Cameron on 'competence' and he also trails on key issues like the economy, tax and combating terrorism. Cameron could yet take them all on and emerge, bloody, smiling and victorious- you might have bet that Blair would have in similar circumstances- but with MPs furious, constituencies buzzing with anger over being called 'delusional' and newly installed council leaders howling their dissent, you would not risk a punt on Dave pulling off such a stunt right now.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Portents not Good for Survival

Deah me! It's hard not to feel depressed at times. Last night in the pub our trusty group of ageing Victor Meldrews found itself drawn down that road- so familiar to those of our age group- when bodily aches, ailments and anticipated future ones are turned over with a kind of horrified fascination-'Is this really going to happen to us?'- and the illnesses of friends and colleagues together with their hospitalizations and sometimes, sad demise, are ruefully commented upon.

Then I open up The Guardian this morning with my usual pleasure to find that Bush seems to have accepted the need to fight global warming(good) but cunningly proposes to do so in a way which will divert the rest of the world from its efforts hitherto(most definitely not good). Then I turn to the comment pages and find a well argued, painfully honest, but hugely depressing piece by Peter Wilby(pictured). In it he argues that whilst we, humanity that is, survived the Cold War's nuclear threat, this was managed by winning agreement within a relatively small group of leaders who agreed to put fail safe procedures in place. With global warming, however, it's all of us who need to be install the appropriate procedures. But we seem incapable of taking it seriously:

Like children, we prefer £1 today to £2 tomorrow; and, even more, we prefer it to £5 we won't be around to collect a century hence.

Everyone seems intent on talking gloomily and doing bugger all to address the problem, consuming up to the hilt or close to it the while. Some, like Bush, put their faith in technology. Will it save us?

But [this] is the biggest illusion of all. Science and technology haven't delivered on half the promises of the past 50 years. We don't have a cure for cancer. We don't have robots to do the cleaning. We can't take holidays on the moon. And we still haven't found a way to harness high-temperature superconductivity which, we were told 20 years ago, would cut energy waste by half.

Wilby concludes that, like 'everyone else', he's going to live his life as well as he can and that his single carbon footprint won't make a damn bit of difference. His article has the authority of someone who has spotted what is going on in the minds of all of us who recognize the problem but feel we really can't do anything worthwhile to mitigate its dangers. And yet people like us are those most likely to do something- many people I meet still shrug it off as if it's all a bit of a joke and not their problem at all. I refuse to accept the inevitability of the planet's demise in a few generations and hope to keep plugging on believing we can pull through. Especially on a beautiful day like today; however, that it's becoming more and more difficult is undeniable.

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