Wednesday, July 30, 2008


How Political Methods Change

Shortly after King Canute had defeated the forces of Edmund Ironside at Ashingdon in 1016 (for a contemporary comparison, refer to events at Edgbaston today), he married Edmund's mother, former wife of Ethelred the Unready, Emma of Normandy who was nine years his senior. The idea was to legitimise his future heirs in case of a contested succession. His son with Emma, Harthacanute, did, in fact, inherit the throne but held on for only two years before dying after collapsing with a drink in his hand. Cnut also promptly killed Ethelred's eldest son and caused other possible claimants to flee for their lives to Normandy and Hungary. But it was nothing personal; just the 'business' of early medieval kingship.

I relate the above merely to illustrate how we have learnt to handle transfers of power differently; today we do it with articles in The Guardian it would seem. The Evening Standard this afternoon referred to Miliband's 'ferocious onslaught'. What did he say? Well, er, he didn't mention Gordon Brown once.

Young David denies his article was a shrewd piece of positioning and a covert bid for the leadership. But it was. Oh yes, it was. Every word had been carefully chosen to provide a subtext which said: 'Gordon has failed and I am the man to take over if you want me'. To add weight to his bid, he sketched out the policies he would pursue as prime minister. And David cannot say he had no idea it would be misunderstood. As the brightest member of Blair's former aides(and they mostly were very bright), he has been immersed in politics for over a decade and knew perfectly well how it would be interpreted.

Does it change much? Well, it will infuriate Gordon as well as his Cabinet colleagues who also nurtured homicidal thoughts regarding their Great Leader but have not had the bottle to make a move. Given Miliband's disinclination to stand last June, this represents an impressive strengthening of his political nerve. Will it lead to a leadership contest? It just might, as conference season approaches. Is David the saviour of his party? I don't think he can save a defeat at the next election and he would have, I think, to accede to Cameron's demand today that an election be held if a new leader emerges before 2010. Three leaders without an election and Labour would lose all credibility with the political class and huge slices of the electorate too.

Would he do better than Gordon in such an election? Again, I'm doubtful but on balance, I think he would, This is not because the ultra Blairite, Miliband, has much of his former leader's charisma, but he is articulate, young and has a good smile. Given those advantages plus that of not being Gordon, I'd reckon a few score Labour backbench MPs with majorities under 5-8,000 might be prepared to take a punt on him. Mind you, if we were back in the 11th century I reckon the Scottish king would be planning something exquisitively nasty for Young David, for when he got back from his holidays.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Not so Fast My Dear Mr Salmond...

Robert Hazell does well to puncture the premature euphoria of the SNP and gloom of the unionists with his piece today. To those who assume secession is the inevitable eventual corollary to the Glasgow East SNP victory, he points out that four, by no means superable hurdles have first to be cleared:

1.The has to be a legislative authorisation of a referendum and this would require the SNP to win a clear majority in the Scottish parliament as their 49 seats are currently outnumbered by the 79 who support the union.

2. There has to be a majority in the referendum itself. Given that the polls show less than a third of Scots have favoured such a course throughout the past decade, this is by means assured.

3. The terms of secession would have to be negotiated with Westminster. It could be that some of the terms eventually agreed would not be so acceptable to the Scots. For example, they would have to re-apply for membership of the EU and some countries with secessionist movements, especially Spain, might wish to use their veto. Hazell reminds us that the Czech-Slovak 'divorce' in 1992 required 32 treaties and over 2000separate agreements. Moreover, secession would entail the loss of the disproportioonate Treasury funding whereby Scots receive 25% more per head than English recipients.

4. Finally, there would have to be a final referendum on the terms of the deal agreed. This is when Scots would have to consider whether the proosed terms of secession were to their liking and whether the link established in 1625 when James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain should be sundered.

I reckon, it'll take quite a few additional Glasgow East type events before the spectre of secession, currently on the far horizon, becomes anything approaching a reality.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Still no Alternative to Gordon in Sight

As a hard nosed spin doctor cum Number 10 political strategist, Lance Price, is worth listening to. In his piece yesterday he posits:

1) That under a different leader Labour would not have lost the Glasgow East by-election; 2) That a man or a woman with different personal qualities would be much better placed to expose the weakness of both the Conservative and SNP alternatives; 3) That a change of leader would significantly improve Labour’s chances at the next general election and avoid the prospect of a defeat so severe that most of today’s ministers would never hold office again.

It's impossible to say much about 1) though the vote did seem to be highly personal. 2) would seem to go without saying: virtually any senior Labour figure, right now, would do better than Brown at exposing Cameron. 3) is vitally important if you are a Labour backbencher and if I were one, I'd not argue with this point. The problem is, as we have all been realising in the past few weeks, getting rid of Gordon is fraught with highly risky difficulties.

Price suggests that if half the Cabinet told him to go he would have no choice. Would he not? Obsessives like Brown do not give up on their dream so easily, if ever, and what if he tells them to piss off? He knows that shifting him against his will runs the risk of a bloodletting so severe it might even produce the (currently ruling) Canadian Conservative Party 1993 scenario which ended up replacing an overall majority with only two MPs. That was only two.

Despite the fact voters have totally, irrevocably lost faith with him, Brown can safely survive on the reality of such 'meltdown' fears. I'm sure this provides his present bottom line assumption. And to get to where Price wants the Labour Party to go involves a highwire walk with no guarantee of success. I don't need the bromide words of Straw, Prescott or Blunkett to make me think Labour will 'hang on to nurse for fear of worse'. Whether we like it or not- and my sense is we don't- we are stuck with this dysfunctional Caledonian depressive until we slide down the slope to inevitable defeat. Conservatives everywhere must be made up. I do so wish I were wrong-but if you read Jackie Ashley today you'll see how even a former Brown loyalist has changed her views.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


So What Now Then Gordon?

When I was a postgraduate student attending interviews for academic jobs, we had member of our coffee room group who used to question us eagerly as to how each interview had gone. When he heard it had not been successful, he used to pause and then ask the one question one did not want to hear in the wake of such a disappointment: 'So....what now then?' No doubt the ramifications of the same question are resounding around Gordon's mind right now, as indeed, they are for all members of the Labour Party. The options, however, are none too welcoming:

1. Carry on as we are and hope things will improve This is the option Brown urges, together with sustained loyalty, belief and patience. But the assurances Brown made yesterday at the Warwick policy forum about being 'fully focused on the job' and doing 'whatever is necessary to over the next few months to help hardworking families through these difficult times', sound so empty as to cut no ice whatsoever with either voters or supporters. This approach seems to offer a meandering progress to electoral wipeout.

2. 'Delegation of Greybeards' tell Brown he has to go. This is an attractive idea but is predicated on i) Gordon being prepared to walk and ii) a believable substitute being available. As I see it neither condition is present at the moment. Gordon is one of those limptet-like political obsessives, convinced he has what it takes, whatever the situation and will not walk unless pretty shoved pretty vigorously. And of the credible younger candidates- Miliband, Balls, Johnson, Purnell- there may not not be one who wants to squander the better chances which the future might hold for a brief interlude before defeat crashes through. The 'Greybeard' solution whereby an older, senior figure might stand in until the election is a possibility and Straw the most likely candidate but he seems to have dismissed this idea for the present at least.

3. A revolt by Labour MPs to get rid of Brown, possibly at the conference in September The Manchester MP Graham Stringer has called for this as well as one or two union leaders but it might prove difficult to organise such a coup during the holiday season and the consequent blood-letting and extended leadership contest might make a bad situation even worse.

So, which option is most liklely to be taken? I think option 2 is the most likely to happen as marginal MPs consider the fact that only 20 Labour MPs would survive a Glasgow swing repeated nationwide. A new leader might limit the damage and save many seats so it will be eagerly explored by the more marginal MPs. A voluntary standing down by Brown, followed by an uncontested lection would miminise the damage and it could be that a united group of seniors might convince Gordon the game is up.

However, both options 2. and 3. would involve installing a new PM unelected by voters as a whole and this would not go down well. At the moment, faux de mieux, option 1. looks the most likely and this is the really depressing aspect of the present situation. Labour is stuck with their 'loser' as getting rid of him will be even more harmful than sticking with him. Perhaps I should have indicated a 'Micawber option': something might(just) turn-up.

Friday, July 25, 2008


To Think He Plotted Ten Years For This!

One has to feel sorry for Gordon's tragic life situation this morning. All that self belief, all that marginalising of rivals on the way up, the brutal bargaining at the Granita, the resentful, petulance of ten years' playing up, plotting and being egged on by his clan of acolytes; all of it to be dashed from his grip in such cruel, summary fashion.

Starting with the false election debacle last October it's been a tale of incompetence and misjudgement and bumbling incoherence. All this followed by electoral wipe-out in the local elections, the London mayoralty, Crewe and Nantwich and now, unthinkably, in his own back yard, Glasgow East.

The SNP exploited disaffection with Labour in Scotland brilliantly to overturn a 13,000 majority with a 22% swing. This upset ranks with Winnie Ewing's in Hamilton 1967, Margot Macdonald's at Govan in 1973 and Jim Sillars' at Govan again in 1988. On top of these recent defeats Brown faces an immediate future in which he has to cope with: an economy sliding into certain recession; diminishing tax revenues in consequence and ballooning public debt; and a credit crunch which has not yet fully run its course.

The Guardian quotes a once loyal Scottish Labour MP as saying 'We all know that Gordon will go in October or November.' Whoever would want to fight so hard and long for a job carrying so much grief and stress? I can already detect those trees of Birnham wood moving apace towards the Dunsiname of the party conference 21st September in Manchester.

The summer recess works in his favour, as does the lack of an obvious successor but Sky News speculates that the end could come via: a top level 'coup'; a backbench rebellion; or the kind of sniping and resignations which nearly did for Blair when Gordon made his 'coup' attempt in 2006.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Hattersley's Recipe is Thin Gruel Indeed

One wishes Roy Hattersley's prophecy skills were the equal of his literary abilities. His article today is headed: 'Don't Give up-Labour Can Still Win in 2010 Here's How'. While I still- but see below- can just about accept the first premise, I'm not impressed by his 'here's how' bit.

Much of his piece is concerned with the Hattersley critique of New Labour and boils down to two suggestions: a windfall tax on oil profits and social justice. The former would not be too bitterly opposed by most voters so might be a runner but his second sounds less realistic:

If Brown could convince the public that, within the next two years, he would reduce the gap between rich and poor, his opinion-poll rating would dramatically improve. Labour's hope lies with the compassionate majority - the people who will not be impressed by the unemployed being required to pick up litter.

Oh dear! This kind of talk makes me realise how deep into 'defeatism' I have fallen. My heart would love to agree that we can still pull it back even from the present parlous position but my head, informed by all that I see and hear and read about opinion polls say this is not going to happen. After presiding over an expanding gap between rich and poor ever since 1997, how on earth can Gordon somehow reverse that tide during two years of what is almost certainly be a recession? And after the 10p tax band debacle, has Brown any credibility left even with core Labour voters? I'm sorry, Roy, but pigs really will be flying before your solution shows any sign of working.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Even a By-election Victory Won't Begin to Solve Labour's Devolution Dilemma

Saying that I think Labour will edge tomorrow's byelection is dangerously like Mike Atherton commentating that Strauss was at the 'top of his game' while batting at Headingley. He was out next ball. But the thoughtful piece by Tristram Hunt today explores its wider impications. He muses upon the 1707 union between Scotland and England, noting that Adam Smith, like his fellow product of Kirkaldy, was an enthusiast for the economic advantages of Anglo-Scottish cohabitation.

He notes that while Cameron pays lip service to the Union, the rank and file of his party seem quite sanguine about Scotland hiving off to become another Norway or Finland. Indeed, he reckons that the tide of history is moving away from Brown's position :

From Slovakia to Kosovo to the nation formerly known as Belgium, the trend is for smaller, ethnically codified national entities at the expense of broader civic federations.

This raises the scary sceptre for Labour of a truncated Britain- Wales to follow in fullness of time?- without those 39 Scottish Labour MPs who have so helpfully established Labour in power election after election since 1997. In the circumstances he suggests Labour could be more enterprising, for example basing party conferences in Scotland for once. He concludes:

But whatever its failings, it is the Labour party alone that will have to do the heavy lifting for the Act of Union. As the only cross-border party capable of forming a UK government, its lonely calling is to make the case for the economic, diplomatic and cultural benefits that still accrue from 1707. And, yes, with 39 Westminster MPs sitting for Scottish constituencies, the argument is based on crude political calculation. But so was the Act of Union.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Purnell Sets Out his Stall

On this day fourteen years ago, a young new Labour leader promised a 'crusade for national change'. Today the press discusses a 'welfare revolution' proposed by a young Blairite, tipped by some to be a future Labour leader. James Purnell(pictured), does not lack for confidence or presentational chutzpah but his green paper will not endear him to many upon his leadership ambitions depend. Many voters perceive 'deserving' and 'undeserving poor' and unfairly tend to apply the contempt they feel for the latter upon the former as well. That is why being tough on 'welfare scroungers' is guaranteed to win plaudits from rightwing tabloids at the very least.

According to Purnell, his aim is to: simplify four benefits into two; introduce sterner medical tests for the 'Employment Support Allowance' which replaces incapacity benefit; dislodge a million from incapacity benefit by 2015; persuade single parents to train for jobs even before their children are of school age; oblige those unemployed for a year to do a month's community work and those umemployed for two years to do so full-time. Drug addicts, moreover, of which there are 200,000 on benefit, will have to undertake treatment to become eligible for benefit.

Will all this work? I doubt it but politically, as Polly Toynbee observes today, it 'neutralizes' welfare reform in reflecting the Conservative inclination and, maybe, 'shoots their fox' to use the old expression. She also makes the point that placing the 'marginal cases' back to work is not easy. Purnell is confident the animus against the 'underserving poor' will win support(damagingly for his leadership ambitioons, he already has it from the Conservative's front bench) but, as Toynbee points out, these marginal cases are often:

the odd, the indefinably helpless, the non-communicators, the traumatised, the great array of human hard luck cases whom employers run a mile from. See those who queue outside urban post offices on benefit days - is that where you would go to recruit for staff? The government should help them into mainstream life for their own sake as well as for taxpayers'. But if not Labour, then who will remind voters that any society always has fallers who need picking up: the shirkers who need a push are bit-part players.

In addition I see three other problems:

1. The timing is not propitious as the imminent recession will make jobs hard to come by, if not impossible in some parts of the country.

2. The minimum wage, likely to be the level at which any likely jobs will be offered, is scarcely any inducement to benefit recipients. Raising a family on such a wage is virtually impossible.

3. Organising 'community work' is not easy. Hedged around with health and safety rules and resented by some unions it can cost almost as much as it contributes and, allowing for absenteeism, sometimes more.

4. Labour's left-leaning wing will not be likely to offer enthusiastic support to a fresh faced youngster who reminds them too much of Tony Blair.

Blair made his name by promising to be 'tough on crime etc'; he was but never ever looked like removing our concerns. James Purnell, may not solve the intractable problems of 'welfare to work' either. The strategy of appealing to 'Middle England' votes, moreover, won't win over the swathes of his own party required to put his ideas into practice. But I'm fairly sure, after following his progress and listening to him on the Today programme, that, along with one David Cameron, youing Mr Purnell is using Tony Blair as his template for success.

Monday, July 21, 2008


'Blairism' not Necessarily Finished Brown must Tell Unions

Among the many problems facing Gordon Brown right now is the £20m debt owed by his party. As they are embarrassingly broke, the 90% of finance provided by the unions acquires an ominous significance. It seems the unions have compiled a list of 130 demands they wish to make of the Labour Party in a soon- to - be - convened forum and I'm not sure this won't spawn a whole host of additional problems.

Derek Simpson of Unite says 'Blairism has run its course and has clearly lost touch with millions of core Labour voters.' Well, I think Blair has run his course but as for his trademark ideas- no favours to the unions and use private sector where more efficient to deliver public servies- I think they are still well in the mix. Naturally, the unions will wish to resist policies which have imposed employment disadvantages on public sector workers but my reading of the zeitgeist is that if voters had to choose between 'Blairism' and any return to Old Unionism, they would not opt for the latter. Why else has Cameron's party soared so high in the polls? The mood is volatile and confused during a time of flux but it must be obvious to all what voters do not want in terms of union power.

Gordon has to negotiate the Glasgow east by-election and if he loses, will be in an even worse position to resist union demands. But if he gives in to them -even though their calls for the extension of the minimum wage and bringing health service cleaning back in-house are unexceptional- the press will spin a damaging story of Brown 'being in the pocket of the unions'. Brown must explain that 'Blairism', as Simpson calls it, is by means wholly irrelevant to voter concerns.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Richest Country in World only 12th in Human Development

This morning I heard an item on radio 4 on Brunei. Everyone knows this tiny country is fabulously rich; fewer will know its welfare provision is so generous, providing excellent free medical care to all its citizens. By contrast, the richest country in the world, does not shape up at all. The American Human Development Report has recently reported:

Americans live shorter lives than citizens of almost every other developed nation, according to a report from several US charities. The report found that the US ranked 42nd in the world for life expectancy despite spending more on health care per person than any other country. Overall, the American Human Development Report ranked the world's richest country 12th for human development.

Of course these figures are skewed by economic class, race and geography: people living in the north-east live much longer lives than people in poorer areas; Asian males live on average 14 years longer than African-American males.

"Some Americans are living anywhere from 30 to 50 years behind others when it comes to issues we all care about: health, education and standard of living. For example, the state human development index shows that people in last-ranked Mississippi are living 30 years behind those in first-ranked Connecticut"

Clearly one of the major aspects of this problem is the fact that 47m Americans are not covered by health insurance. The US infant mortality rate is equal to those of Croatia, Cuba and Poland. Further, 15% of US children live in families with incomes less than $1,500 a month(£750); 14% of people lack the literacy required to read newspapers or instruction manuals; and only 50% of children attend pre-school compared with 75% in Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia. The richest 20% of Americans earn $168,170p.a.; the poorest 20% make do with $11,352.

These figures, however, show it is not just 'capitalism' which is responsible for such 'winners' and 'losers'. If Western Europe, let alone Brunei can preside over systems which provide basic care for the majority of citizens, it must be aspects of the US experience which explain things. It is a political culture several degrees to the right and an irrational fear of anything vaguely liberal is the thin end of a communist wedge which go some of trhe way to clarifying these anomalies. It is to be hoped Obama, if elected, will be able to shift his country at least a few notches up the world's Human Development table.

Friday, July 18, 2008


No State Funeral but Thatcher Deserves a Great Send-Off

My reading of Simon Jenkins today was preceded last night by a viewing (thanks to Sky+)of The Long Walk to Finchley, the dramatisation of the Iron Lady's early life and entry into Parliament. Jenkins lambasts those Guardianistas who spit hate at her memory and at the very contemplation of the idea of a state funeral. Allowing for the fact that it is a bit distasteful to talk about someone's funeral while they are still alive, the topic is now 'out there' and being discussed, so here goes.

My own attitudes to Thatcher, as a Labour supporting public sector employed person during the 1980s were almost manically hate-filled. I could not bear to see her picture in the papers or her face on the television. I was furious at her divisive style and imperious belief that she alone had the answers. That small, town precious conformity to the values of the fifties also made my blood boil even more ferociously, as did her condescending preachy voice. And don't ask me to recall my lunges for the sick bag, when I heard some senior Tories had taken to calling her 'Mother'. She got me out there leafleting and letter stuffing for Labour at local and Westminster levels. Oh boy, I hated her.

I daresay the above paragraph would describe the feelings of a pretty broad band of voters. But how do we feel now? Well, I can only speak for myself but I have mellowed quite a bit.

i)Even as a Labour supporter I was not at all happy about the unions who strutted though the seventies far too destructively for the health of our economy or our political system. Thatcher took them on and, even though her methods were brutally uncaring and her tone nauseatingly triumphalist, she did correct an imbalance from which the economy and millions of ordinary folk have benefitted. Maybe, in retrospect, we needed that harsh, ice-cold shower and it has to be said, she delivered.

ii)One has also to grudgingly admit also that, allowing for policy mistakes and some apalling fatcattery, privatisation, on balance has done more good than harm, given the corrupt inefficiency of the nationalised industries at the end of the 1970s.

iii) It also has to be said that the Falklands War was, on balance, a just war and she did prosecute it with a resolution which one cannot imagine being matched by Labour's then leader, Michael Foot.

iv) Finally, life is just too short to cling on to one's hatreds. My feelings towards her are still far from warm, but seeing Andrea Riseborough's inspired depiction of Maggie in trhat TV drama, one could only admire in retrospect her fight against the bitter, crushing misogyny within her own party. Her main failing has been, perhaps, a complete lack of empathy with people outside her own narrow social orbit. But as a politician fighting against cruel odds, she proved a superb performer; just as a cricket fan, Ricky Ponting arouses feelings in me of great negativity, I have to admit in all honesty: 'What a player!'

Jenkins is right that a state funeral should be kept for the likes of Churchill:

Her mark on history is great and merits due celebration, but it should honour a revolutionary political leader, not a figure of state. Thatcher's legacy deserves an oration, not a gun carriage.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Nudge and Influence: the Shape of Things to Come?

Economics is founded on the notion of the rational consumer, weighing up the pros and cons before committing. Not so, say the new behavioural economists, more particularly Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein whose book is pictured left. According to their view we can all be 'nudged' into making good choices through subtle and benign manipulations of our cultural environment. The idea has already been feted by David Cameron and Barack Obama, not to mention George Osborne too. The latter explains the approach via the Minnesota tax collectors, worried about late tax returns. Instead of issuing exhortations or threats, they merely announced that most Minnesotans had already submitted. The result was a huge self fulfilling upsurge.

This would be, I suppose, the 'peer pressure' nudge but, as Osborne insists, this approach is 'changing the way policymakers think'. The Tories have been in thick with Thaler as well as Robert Cialdini who has written 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion'. Osborne suggests energy bills can be reduced by telling consumers how much energy similar homes consume, thus encouraging them to fall into line. Also incentives like paying people to recycle as in parts of the USA:

Where companies such as RecycleBank pay households in more than 500 cities and towns about £20 a month for recycling. They can afford this because of savings they deliver for local authorities in landfill tax bills. This approach has increased recycling by up to 200%, without additional government spending, and turned poorer communities from the worst recyclers to among the best. He also mentions a cooling off period for people signing up for potentially expensive store cards.

While the last two mentioned seem fairly orthodox approaches to me, the first does sound novel and likely to work as we are influenced hugely by the behaviour of others. A little voice nags away at the back of my mind suggesting this is yet another elaborate form of stating obvious commonsense, but such approaches are not necessarily in common currency among policy-makers so one can only welcome a new approach to solving traditional political problems. In an age when changing behaviour will be vital to saving the planet, such innovative attitudes can only be welcomed, even if they originate in the Conservative Party rather than Labour.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Better to be 'Mad with the Truth than Sane with Lies' on the Economy

It all started with some US banks and mortgage providers lending injudicious sums to people who could not afford to pay them back. It progressed with specialists including such debts in financial packages sold worldwide, thus spreading the virus to the whole body of the international economy. In the UK we hoped we would escape lightly as we were allegedly not 'overexposed'. Northern Rock soon collapsed that idea and it has slowly become clear since then that the gflobal economic crisis has some way to get worse before it gets any better.

One sign was the recent lead article in The Economist on Britain's Sinking Economy. Since then all the quality papers from the Times to the Independent, has forecast that recession is looming ine3vitably. The signs are unmistakable that the fifth largest economy in the world is in the process of shrinking. The shares of homebuilders like Taylor Wimpey are in free-fall and sales of blue-chip retailers Marks and Spencers are fast going backwards, or, rather, downwards.

Growth has to shrink for two successive quarters for a recession to be 'official' but at least one national columnist, Ashley Seager, has announced that it is 'already here'.

i) house prices have slumped by 13% since last August and may shed over 30% overall during the downturn; most lenders gave up handing out mortgages some time ago.

ii) City firms have been shedding thousands of staff over te past few months.

iii) the government, desperate to reduce expenditure is reducing public expenditure thus creating more unemployment.

iv)inflation is rising at the rate of some 4%, a 15 year high- some, like John Major, claim the real figure is double that- and soon the Bank of England will have to push up interest rates to cause the recession which is the only sure fire way of beating this persistent of economic beasts back into its cave.

v) economic growth of 0.8% during the first quarter of 2007 has run throughout subsequent quarters at: 0.9, 0.6, 0.6 and, for 2008's first quarter, 0.3. Seager predicts the next two will deliver the reductions to make recession official. During the early 1990s we suffered six quarters of shrinkage and Seager thinks we might cop for this again.

vi) the giant US mortgage providers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have had to bed baled out by the US government to head off a crash which could have led to a worldwide banking collapse. This suggests the worst may be yet to come and that Gordon's final period in government will be shrouded in economic gloom and other portents of defeat. Gloomy I know, but, as Bertrand Russell said, 'It's better to be mad with the truth than sane with lies'.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Straw's White Paper on Lords Fails to Lighten our Darkness

In March the saga of reforming the Lords seemed to have lurched a step closer to resolution when the Commons voted by some considerable majority for a more or less 100% elected chamber. That was promptly defeated by the upper chyamber itself which voted to maintain a wholly appointed set-up. Well, it was at least symetrical: the elected Commons wanted to see its reflection in the new chamber while the appointed Lords wanted business as usual. But the Lords must know that its anomalous, undemocratic provenance in a democratic system has had time called on it by the 1999 reform which abolished hereditary peers apart from the residual 92 left as a compromise with the die-hards. Now the hoary old question has arisen again with a third white paper in seven years.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary explained the proposals yesterday:

1. the size of the chamber would be reduced from its present 746 members to one of 400-450 or perhaps even less; the 92 hereditary peers would be jettisoned.

2. peers would be elected for a cycle of three terms of 12-15 years.

3. peers would be paid a taxable income of £50-60,000 p.a.

4. becoming a peer would not carry entitlement to sit in the Lords.

5. the Lords would retain the same powers and functions.
Straw declared:

"With the introduction of elected members into the second chamber, we have to ensure that the mandate of the Commons and the Government it sustains continues to hold sway. The membership of a reformed second chamber should be such that it could not challenge that mandate.''

However these proposals did not please all reformers because:

i) they will not be acted upon until after the next election. In fact, parties will feed proposals into their manifestos and the white paper's function is merely to 'generate further debate'.

ii) the elected proportion remains to be decided. This will be contentious and crucial if only because inclusion of bishops will not be retained in a wholly elected chamber.

iii) the means of election to the Lords also remains to be decided. Again, this will be immensely contentious as it will have a direct bearing on electoral reform for elections to the Commons.

iv) no-one has suggested what will happen to existing peers; will they consigned to the ranks of the rest of us? will they retain their titles but not sit in the legisdlature? We are not enlightened.

Straw's proposals were instantly attacked by a variety of opponents:

a) on behalf of 61 crossbench peers Baroness D'Souza attacked the proposals as likely to challenge the primacy of the Commons:'I believe this is undemocratic, unacceptable and possibly unconstitutional'.

b) Shadow Justice minister Nick Herbert questioned the proposed new size of the Lords, arguing for one of 250-300 as in many European countries.

c) Some big guns are in the opposition camp, including: Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice; Lord(Andrew) Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, and Baroness(Betty) Boothroyd, the former Speaker.

So will this white paper contribute to a resolution of one of our most enduring constitutional problems? No, it will most likely merely add to the confusion and the dissension; as Peter Riddell observes, there is no 'consensus'. But if it becomes an item in manifestos in 2010 a mandate for some kind of cghange- probably by a Conservative government- might just then emerge.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Is Fear of Knife Crime Exaggerated?

We seem to be in the middle of yet another media inspired bout of hysteria- this time over knife crime. I'm not saying there isn't a major problem here, merely that it's being blown out of proportion. Close attention to the figures published in May reveals that the British Crime Survey- based on a 40,000 strong group of respondents- shows knife crime as stable over the last decade at 7% of all crime and 30% of all homicides. Additionally, the Met's most recent crime survey shows a drop of 15.7% over the past two years from 12,122 incidents to 10,220.

That's not to say that there is not an acute problem with some of kind of knife related incident taking place every hour, four times the rate of gun crime. Moreover, knife crime affects young people-those aged 17-20- disproportionately; is often involved in the increased incidence of 15-16 year old crime; while the Youth Justice Board's recent survey revealed a 12% increase in teenagers carrying knives since 2002.

But a few high profile knifing incidents involving celebrity connections, plus our national propensity for hand wringing, have ratcheted up a genuine concern into unnecessary panic. The Times leader today points out that:

The Metropolitan Police recorded 70 knife killings last year: the same as a decade ago.

It also questions Cameron's 'Broken Society' claim:

There has never been a time when our society has been richer, lived longer, been more tolerant, guaranteed women greater opportunities, cared better for the sick and disabled or done more to provide education for all. There are few places in the world that are better to live in than Britain - more law-abiding, more civil and more stable.

When that bastion of the Establishment, The Thunderer, tells us to 'calm down, calm down', perhaps we ought to take note.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Cameron Speech Inspires Major Deja Vu

I noted the press coverage of Cameron's 'fat' speech on 7th July but a little surprised that it didn't attract more attention.

“We talk about people being ‘at risk of obesity’ instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise... We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things — obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction — are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances — where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make — have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make.”

Sound familiar? I seem to recall a certain former prime minister telling us that 'society should condemn a little more and understand a little less.' You might also recall a sorry episode initiated by this same politician's crusade to go 'back to basics'. Mind you, I find I don't really disagree with anything Cameron has said here and I wonder if the zeitgeist might be more receptive now to this 'take personal resonsibility' message? Certainly there is frustration aplenty at anti-social behaviour and not much sympathy for fatties, druggies or alkies.

It seems this switch of emphasis is the work of Dave's guru, Steve Hilton, now resident in California we hear. We'll have to watch the polls and subsequent pronouncements by the Shadow Cabinet but I think there's a fair chance Cameron is expressing what people are feeling: always the trick for anyone looking for electoral success.

But at least one Conservative has urged caution. Mathew Parris in The Times yesterday wrote a splendid article on the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor and who is alllowed to pronounce upon their merits and demerits:

Say everything we can and should about the Cameron Conservatives' social inclusiveness and compassion, but when we've said it, it remains the case that the Tories are seen as representing the achievers, the would-be achievers, and the already achieved in society. There isn't any way someone who has made it can moralise about witholding help from someone who hasn't without striking a displeasing note.

He continues in a brutally honest paragraph:

If you are a Tory restricting health or social benefits, don't give a reason. Or not a moral one. Just say the money's run out. Your own moral sense may urge you to offer a moral justification. Resist it. Passing a beggar, don't stop and tell him you don't think money is what he needs, however decent the impulse to explain. Just walk on with a friendly “Sorry but I can't”. He'll know why. Everyone knows why. Trust the unspoken moral instincts of the people, which remain strong and fairly merciless about the undeserving, but don't articulate. You, Mr, Mrs, Ms, Lord or Lady Tory, are not the person.

Strong stuff and I hope the polls show he's right.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Davis Byelection Failed to Strike a National Nerve

Don't know about you but I'm yet to be convinced David Davis acheived anything substantial by his byelection adventure. OK, 35% is 'respectable' and higher than Hilary Benn's 19% garnered in his Leeds Central byelection in 1999, but the turnout at Henley in another wholly predictable contest reached 50%; it seems even his own supporters did not really want to know. The question has to be asked: 'Has Davis changed anything?'

He is back in the Commons but out of the Shadow Cabinet and possibly has just seen his ministerial career go down the toilet. Whilst as Home secretary he might have set about dismantling Brown's 'Big Brother' state, he now faces an indefinite period on the backbenches. Has he raised awareness of civil libderties issues, the main justification for his actions? I would like to say he has succeeded as it was a genuinely brave thing he has done, but if you had to give his awareness raising marks out of ten, what would you give him? I'd give him 3.

And Cameron might give him a job, but Davis's actions were not approved by Cameron in the first place, he has subsequently proved he is not a team player and maybe someone Dave cannot ever trust. He has certainly demonstrated he is prepared to flout Canmeron's authority and I suspect Cameron's mostly old Etonian advisers have been whispering in their leader's ear words along the lines of '... but you can't take the council estate out of the boy'. All in all it's proved to be hugely diverting and not without merit, but most definitely, a resounding flop.

Monday, July 07, 2008


Skipper away in Southampton

Skipper this time is spending a few days in Lymington, close to Southampton visiting a former colleague; so blogging is likely to be light or maybe nonexistent during this period.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Those Byelections Revisited

Revisiting the by elections, I note Rod Liddle, the tousle haired decadent looking ST columnist seems to think most of Davis's voters believe he's wasting their time by resigning and that they agree anyway with the 42 days detention rule. In a curious article reporting from the constituency, he seems to suggest Davis thinks Labour would have had a chance if they had put up a candidate. He also says Davis reckons turnout might even be below 20%; if it does hit such a low point then the exercise will surely have been a washout. Resigning your seat to rouse the nation about its civil rights being strangled and only one in five voters- friendly voters at that- bother to turn out? That's a disaster surely?

As for the other one in Glasgow, there is a typically shrewd article by Rawnsley in the Observer today which, rather like Kettle on Friday, suggests Brown's goose could be cooked if, after the Crewe debacle and the 5th place after the BNP in Henley, he loses a 13K plus majority in his own backyard. Rather like in Crewe and Nantwich, the SNP for indigenous consumption and the Conservatives for UK consumption, Labour's opponets can play a card which, like the 10p tax one, is potentially fatal. After ten years of Labour in power, Glasgow East suffers from standards of living and life expectancy which are the lowest in the Union:

Labour will lambast the SNP for not fulfilling election pledges to increase police numbers, to give cash to first-time buyers and to write off student debts. Labour's opponents will counter that the voters of Glasgow East are the victims of promise-breaking on a much more profound level. They will depict this constituency as symbolic of the way in which Labour has not kept the faith with its own people in the party's heartlands....We will hear a lot about the atrocious levels of unemployment, benefit dependency, crime, drug use, illiteracy and ill-health on the constituency's sink estates. The first exchange of fire between the parties has been provoked by the SNP's claim that life expectancy in Glasgow East is lower than it is in the Gaza Strip.

If Glasgow East does go west for Labour, Goirdon's position will become frail indeed and I would not be surprised if a plot to unseat the dour Son of the Manse from Kirkaldy, is not already being hatched to reach culmination around the conference season, just like Brown's own attempted coup against Blair in 2006.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


By-Elections on Horizon Could be Transforming

On July 10th David Davis faces a severe test in hnius byelection. I have no doubt he'll win against the likes of the Miltant Elvis Party, Mad Cow Girl, the National Front, Eamon 'Fitzy' Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Carrol(is this really the singer once married to Milicent Martin?) and twenty other assorted candidates. With a 5000+ majority and no Labour or Lib Dem opposition, he is bound to win, but he's doing this to make a point on the erosion of civil liberties; if no-one wants to know, it'll be a wash-out. Turnout will consequently be crucial. If it is less than 40% I think it'll be ranked a failure; anything over 50% a kind of success; over 65% a definite victory, a shift in our political culture and look out for your back Posh Dave.

The second byelection is in Glasgow East on 24th July, following the retirement of David Marshall. Martin Kettle points out that this is the seat once held by the famous passionate socialist John Wheatley, on whose era Gordon has written, by all accounts, a rather good history. Labour enjoys a massive majority but as Kettle observes:

To lose such a seat for the first time since 1922 would not just be a spectacular Labour disaster but also an unmissable sign of wider Labour disintegration in Scotland. Not even the very real possibility that the Tories could finish fifth would be any sort of compensation for the loss of such a fortress. Many Glasgow watchers believe for that reason that it won't - quite - happen. They argue that Labour's vote in Scotland is simply more solid than in England. Or they claim that Catholic working-class parts of Glasgow are less volatile than more mixed or Protestant seats like Govan. Or they judge that the 22% swing that the SNP needs - compare the 17.5% swing to the Tories in Crewe and Nantwich - is just too much of an ask.

But given the febrile state of political opinion right now, even the attempt to 'hide' the byelection at the beginning of the school holiday season might not save Labour from yet another disaster. Voters are in a vindictive mood right now with a lot of anger boiling about the economy, fuel prices, inflation, house prices to name only the most obvious, they might choose to express it in an another arse-kicking snub to Gordon Brown. It could be Glasgow will provide the second fascinating by-election upset during the month of July.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Ray of Light on Global Warming Opinion- Or Is It?

I was dismayed a week or so back to see an Ipsos Mori poll which showed the majority of British people did not think global warming was the result of human activity. Like so many liberals I constantly find it hard to believe others do not see the world as I do but a recent poll suggests a more hopeful diagnosis: 52% favour the government tackling environmenatal problems while 44% thought the priority should be economic problems. This suggests the message that global warming is the most acute problem facing the world has finally penetrated and that more selfish concerns have been seen to be secondary.

Well, it would be nice to conclude that but other parts of the poll suggest opinion is confused and contradictory. While 65% support the introduction of green taxes but only 30% think they should be introduced now, irrespective of the economy. This suggests many people are paying lip service to such necessary measures but withdrawing support when it seems they might actually be implemented. Similarily, 19% say they would buy and 'environmentally expensive alternative' but 58% say they would go for a 'cheaper alternative'.

So we are not that far from being back to the gloomy position from which we started. Maybe the message about global warming has reached the mainstream but there is no evidence yet to suggest that the full implications of what is needed to counter cardon emissions has either been understood by most people or accepted.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Ken's Midlothian Answer Poses Yet More Problems

One of the most intractable political problems thrown up by devolution has been the Midlothian Question: why can Scottish MPs vote on English issues while the formation of the Scottish parliament precludes any reciprocation? This is especially vexing for Tories when they have a majority in England, but not in Scotland. The solution of an English parliament- so attractive to those flying the flag of St George- would shove the UK way down the road to disintegration. So the Conservative's Democracy inquiry chaired by Ken Clarke has come up with a sort of 'third-way' solution.

Instead of banning Scottish MPs from voting on English measures, his idea is to allow:

MPs from all parts of the UK to vote on English bills at the beginning and end of their journey through the Commons, known as second and third reading, when they are considered in general terms. Scottish MPs would instead be barred from taking part in the stages in between, the committee and report stages, when the bills are considered line by line.

It seems no less a person than Douglas Hurd favours such a course and it would appeal to those closer to that 'English Nationalist' position. The first thing which occurred to me is that if English MPs can stymie legislation by amending it out of sight in committee stage and Scottish MPs are not allowed to assist any subsequent overuling, then we are effectively presented with another, slightly dilted version of the 'English Parliament'. Scottish Lib Dem MP, Alistair Carmichael, has already called it a 'recipe for constitutional chaos' and others have been quick to flag up their doubts. Peter Riddell points out that:

a)defining what constitutes an 'English Bill' might be awfully difficult.

b) a stalemate would result if a UK-wide majority sought to vote away committee stage amendments it opposed.

c) Welsh MPs would inevitably be involved if anything along these lines was implemented.

In other words, it seems like an awfully complex answer to a question which a reform of the Barnett Formula divisions of public expenditure for the constituent elements of the UK might alleviate. Riddell concludes, wisely:

Yet is this all a sledgehammer to crack a nut? The political problem, a Labour majority in the UK but a Conservative one in England, is very rare: occurring only three times, briefly, since 1945 (in 1950-51, 1964-66, and between the 1974 elections). It is highly unlikely after the next election. The Tories now have an answer to the West Lothian question, but one that a Cameron-led government may be in no hurry to implement.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


African Leaders Share Interest in Ignoring Democracy

Like most Guardian reading left of centre people, I have been infuriated by Mugabe's flagrant and rapacious misrule and hoped that the MDC leader's refusual to stand against the man would shame the African Union into denunciations of an empty and shameful victory. Alas, he seems to have been accepted as a legitimate ruler and Mbeki's pusillanimous appeasement as the correct mode of dealing with a problem which has brought the name of Africa into such disrepute. Why have they not cared about the fate of ordinary Zimbabweans?

To some extent Mugabe's insistence the problems of his country are caused by western colonialists-absurd thought they are- still have some purchase with African leaders. Few bother to strike notes on this outdated drum but they kind of like to hear the old tunes, defiantly hammered out by someone else. There is a valid argument that the regimes in post colonial countries are still relatively new to democracy or even the idea that government should be directed to the betterment of a country's citizens. There is also a powerful argument that western dominated world trade practices discriminate against Africa. But nevertheless too many African nations continue to be ruled by leaders motivated by self rather than society, by personal power rather than democracy.

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been in power for longer than Mugabe; has been regularly returned by unlikely majorities of 90%, and makes life impossible for any political opponent he has not already banned. Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, Sudan and Congo are included in this roll of dishonour. I was intrigued to read in Simon Tisdall's Guardian piece today that the state controlled Herald in Harare, dismissed criticisms of the recent elections 'because some of their countries had a worse record'.

This suggests that democratic standards do matter to such countries, even if adherence to them has to be fabricated for appearance sake. Most of these bad regimes feel democracy is sufficiently important to pay lip service to before they they go on to ignore its strictures in power. Indeed in 2007 the African Union passed its Charter on Democracy which outlawed 'illegal means of maintaining power'. So far the African Union's meeting in Egypt has suggested it is a gathering of people with a collective vested interest in vote-rigging, corruption and btutal repression.

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