Saturday, February 26, 2011


Expect a Bumpy Spring and Summer

The table on the left shows how the cuts will bite after April this year. So far it's been only a bit noisy- students, lecturers, a few trade unionists- but soon thousands of public sector jobs will go and unemployment will soar. Given the recent rapid rise in inflation and, (despite coalition promises to ringfence the NHS, £20bn cuts in its budget, child benefit frozen for three years and public sector salaries frozen for two years- I expect things to get much, much nastier.

The last quarter of 2010 registered a decline in GDP and the signs for this quarter are not good either. Usually revised figures reveal and upward direction but on this occasion the 0.5% shrinkage was increased to 0.6%. I notice that Gaddafi's awful ranting speech suggested the protest insurgency sweeping the Arab world, will spread north to European countries. It's hard to think what form this contagion might take as all these countries have democratic systems. The most that can happen, I would have thought, is that ordinary citizens, especially the young, might feel less inhibited from displaying discontent on the streets. Which would not please the Cameron-Clegg government overmuch.

The question those of us on the worried left of centre asks, however, is 'why is the Labour Party not making any impact with its critique? I will seek to address this topic in my next post.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Blair Doctrine on Intervention Rightly Defended

Shadow Defence Spokesman Jim Murphy has spoken out in favour of Blair's policy of humanitarian intervention, despite the debacle of Iraq. He hopes such disasters have not extinguished the altruism which informed the decision to intervene to save Kosovo.

Murphy says: "How do you stop one-and-a-half unpopular wars – with Iraq certainly being unpopular and Afghanistan at least partly there – creating an unpopular concept? The unpopular concept is that you have a responsibility beyond your own borders. We sat and watched what happened in Rwanda as an international community. Everyone said 'never again' after the previous genocide. How do you prevent people's genuine fury about Iraq stopping us from ever exercising force in the future without appearing like the 'more war' party. I don't want to let the anger about Iraq trump the shame of Rwanda."

In his speech in Chicago in 1999, Blair spelled out the conditions which needed to apply before intervention was justified:

"So how do we decide when and whether to intervene. I think we need to bear
in mind five major considerations[:]
First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting
humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing
with dictators.
Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give
peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.
Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military
operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of
exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away
once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than
return for repeat performances with large numbers.
And finally, do we have national interests involved? The mass expulsion of
ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world."

Certainly the repercussions of Iraq and Afghanistan have made any overseas action less likely but when something awful happens as in Rwanda or Darfur, it surely behoves the world to do more than stand by wringing its collective hands? Like Murphy, I just hope there is just some residue of credibility left in the hopes underlying that speech of 12 years ago.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


AV Referendum Dilemma for Cameron

So the AV Referendum campaign is off and running. Counter-intuitively perhaps, it's a bit hard for us left of centre reformers to get our heads around. Like The Times leader yesterday, I'm in favour of radical reform to our creaking political system and feel AV is just not radical enough (mind you, I suspect the right-leaning Thunderer of being disingenuous on this one). And even the leader of the case for AV, less than a year ago, dismissed it as a 'miserable little compromise'. Ideally I'd like to see a proportional system to match votes to seats, so that smaller parties can get a seat at the top tables and the real will of the national community can be reflected in our governments- our simple majority system is just not sufficiently democratic.

AV of course, is not a proportional system: it's chief merit is to remove the shortcoming of first past the post whereby two thirds of seats to the House are won on minorities of the constituency vote. By allowing each candidate to be ranked in preference, every one is judged by each voter. Otherwise hundreds of MPs are elected who do not command the majority support of voters in their home constituencies. So whilst I do not think AV is anywhere near good enough I support it for the improvements it offers and the hope it will be the first step along the road to 'proper' reform.

I rather suspect Cameron has mixed feelings about this too. He is being enjoined by his right wing to oppose it whole-heartedly but he knows that if the measure on which Clegg signed the coalition deal goes against him, he may well walk away from government or be forced to by his party. So Cameron is against AV but not, one feels, at full throttle. His arguments at least were not convincing. Comparing AV to giving the Olympic Gold Medal, not to Usain Bolt but to the runner who came second or third is specious indeed; a sprint final is very far from an election in a representative democracy.

Andrew Rawnsley today, offers his own explanation for the poor arguments. Cameron's insistence that AV will entrench coalitions (but isn't his own a 'wonderful' thing, one asks?) ignores the fact that in the last 38 elections in Australia, the major country using this system, has produced just one hung parliament. First Past the Post, in contrast, has produced six (and arguably eight) hung parliaments over the same period. Cameron also tried to argue that AV is understood only by 'a handful of elites'. This argument astonishes me. My daughter lives in Donegal and she tells me the complexities of the single transferable vote over there are all fully understood by voters we enjoy stereotyping as more than a bit dim.

Rawnsley reckons this thing about understanding is the key. It seems Tory polling has revealed that those most likely to support AV are the AVs; those most likely to oppose, the DEs. So he's pitching his arguments accordingly:

The no campaign will probably not put it so indelicately themselves, but they are calculating that their best hope of preserving first past the post is to mobilise what you could crudely call the Thicko Vote.

Rawnsley goes on to suggest that the reason why Tories no longer argue against holding the referendum on the same day as the May local government elections is that they now think bigger turnout will assist the no vote cause:

If the turn-out is low, the DEs will be the ones staying at home. So the no campaign now believe it suits their cause that the referendum will be on the same day as the May elections because that ought to boost turn-out.

A final point to mention is that very many people are now familiar with AV from club committee and charity votes. It might even be mentioned that Cameron himself was elected by the AV system back in 2005; if it was good enough for him and his party, surely it's good enough for the rest of the country...?

Friday, February 18, 2011


Skipper in Wales for a few days

Am writing this from Wales, hence lighter than usual blogging. However, have to metnion two items from The Times today which interested me.

1. Phiip Collins observes, in a well written piece, that the dearth of Labour seats in the south and Tory ones in the north, plus the clear favouritism of an othewise miserly public expenmditure regime to the south, is recreating the grim divide so characteristic of the 1980s.

2. Hugo Rifkind picks out the astonishingly brazen autioning at the fund raising Conservative Black and White Ball of City internships which went for £3500 a throw. Why has such a gift for the left been spurned by the Labour leadership? Well, simple really, Ed Miliband got his first beak in politics by serving as an inteern for Tony Benn.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Cameron Embraces Albatross of Big Society

After all the flak the Big Society has attracted recently, I thought Cameron would have the good sense to distance himself from it. But no. He's sticking to it as his piece in the Observer underlined. He is 'puzzled' why so many on the left have attacked it it would seem:

"This is my absolute passion. The big society is about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with friends, neighbours and colleagues to improve things around you."

I discussed this with my students today and the points made were quite fair I thought, so let me summarize the way the discussion went:

BS is a much needed concept which requires as much of a fair wind as possible. Greater citizen involvement in public affairs is palpably a public good. However, Cameron's approach seems to be wholly exhortatory; there is no detailed strategy to bring it about. Further, despite a widespread resistance to top down management, there is no evidence that people are leaping forward to 'seize control of their own government'. On the contrary, there is more evidence of people being less willing to step up to the plate and volunteer. Few people I know would give up their nights watching footie on TV to run a local park or whatever.

Moreover, those most likely to volunteer their efforts, in the voluntary sector, are being cut. This thing will not happen just because Big Dave says it should. Community development- because, this is what this proposal is- requires resources, months of nurturing and careful piloting. By starving the professionals in this field Cameron is destroying the tools he needs to build his vision into reality.

I saw Nicholas Hurd, son of Douglas, who is now Minister for Civil Society, being interviewed by Sian Williams on BBC Breakfast yesterday. She asked him what would the government do if she and her friends wanted to run their local library.

'We'd be very encouraging and give it the green light' says the ex Etonian, Bullingdon Club member personal mate of the PM.

'Yes but what practical things would you do to help us achieve our objectives?'

'Well, we'd try to persuade the local authorities to enable you to achieve what you wanted'.

So that was it! You'll have to do better than that Nick, and you too Dave. I'm sorry but the Big Society is so far a worthy idea lost in a sea of official waffle

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Now Genie is out of Bottle, What Changes Await Middle East?

Chris Riddell's fabulous Sunday cartoon once again says so much about the events in Egypt. The wider implications of the toppling of Mubarak also concerns The Economist this week. It's 'shoe-throwers index' (not shown in linked article for some reason) shows that its calculations based on stats like percentage of population who are under 25, longevity of regime and degree of unemployment indicates that the next most likely to revolt Arab countries are Yemen, Libya and Syria with Saudi Arabia- arguably the key country after Egypt, ranked at number 8.

Algeria is at number 9 but, along with Yemen, seems to be the one manifesting the most unrest. Maybe the key factor, not included by The Economist, is the strength of the army and police; protesters in Algeria yesterday were seen off quite easily. In Egypt, the role of the army has been central. It was the foundation on which the regimes of both Mubarak's two predecessor's rested and was crucial in his eventual despatch to his Sharm el Sheikh retirement home. The 82 year old's television address on Wednesday was widely expected- by his armed forces, even the CIA and Obama- to contain his resignation but he had fooled everyone and said he was going to stay until September.

No doubt he would have used such a hiatus to rebuild his power position and continue an apparent contest with Mugabe to establish a new record in corrupt geriatric leadership. The army, which speedily called time after Hosni's bold ploy, will still define the limits to the Egypt's 'revolution' as it's ruling council now has become its official guardian and determinant of what the recent turbulence will eventually deliver. As the army is a major force in the land with huge economic interests no doubt featherbedding its ruling elite, we should not hold our breath too expectantly. And one can hardly expect the young protesters in Thahrir Square to stay there indefinitely.

The USA, as the sponsor of so many Middle East autocracies, will also be crucial, along with its soft and hard power not to mention the $2bn annual 'aid' it has given to Egypt's military. Obama will try hard to defend the brittle alliance in favour of the present status quo, especially regarding Israel but now the democratic insurgency genie is out of the bottle nobody can predict what further changes it will wreak.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Give prisoners the Vote? Yes, Think So, for Minor Offenders

As I write this the Commons is debating a motion proposed by David Davis and Jack Straw to reject moves to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights(ECHR) that with-holding the vote from prisoners is a denial of their human rights. The vote is expected to go heavily in favour of the motion; however, it will not be binding on ministers.

The ECHR judgment was made as long ago as 2005 and there are fears that unless some action is taken there will be cases pursued by prisoners for compensation. If rapists and paedophiles win compensation packages you can just imagine the howls of fevered outrage that will emanate from The Sun, The Mail and all shades of opinion to the right of well left of centre. Why left of centre?

Because many Labour MPs are as exercised over the issue as Tory MPs. The fact is public opinion on law and order is well to the right in this country, MPs of all parties know that, and even if they disagree, they have to recognise the force of such feelings and their electoral implications. Cameron has even opined that the very idea of prisoners voting makes him feel 'physically ill'.

How should wee feel on the issue? I think, on balance,the right to vote should be given to certain categories of prisoners because:

1. I don't think it right that someone's civic rights should be abolished as soon as they walk behind the doors of a prison. I think Rowan Williams got it right when he told the the All Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs – ahead of today’s debate on the matter:

“We’re in danger of perpetuating a penal philosophy and system which actually leaves everybody as victims."

2. Conservatives- well Ken Clarke anyway, have sworn they are in favour of rehabilitating prisoners and making them productive members of society, not to mention their families, who, experience suggests tend to follow in the footsteps of such transgressors as they grow up.

3. The ruling is in line with international law to which the UK is subject. The ECHR is not part of the EU, sceptics should appreciate, but predates it and whose central legal tenets were written by British lawyers, based on British legal thinking and traditions.

4. If the ruling is violated huge compensation sums-'tens of millions'- may be payable to prisoners.

5. It is unlikely that many prisoners will utilize their right to vote. Straw has told the House:

"In 32 years in this House, of the hundreds of complaints from prisoners with which I have dealt, neither I nor my staff can even recall one letter from a real prisoner calling for the right to vote from prison - not one."

6. It seems harsh to rule that shoplifters and petty thieves have 'broken their contract with society', though for more serious offenders, serving longer sentences, this might prove too big a step for the public to accept. Surely such peoiple should not be condemned as 'lost to society'?

7. Ireland lifted its ban in 2006 and in 13 European countries the right to vote depends on the crime committed or the sentence to be served. The map above shows how European countries divide on the issue.

Be true to our liberal traditions is what I say and, like other similar European countries, allow minor offenders to retain the vote.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


'The Big Society' Has Now been Virtually Abandoned

There has been much controversy about the proposals to sell off the nation's forests and the subsequent U turn once the heat got too intense. The Economist however, addresses a singular aspect of the scheme:

But the forestry sell-off also represents something more ambitious: it is supposed to be a flagship example of Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” at work. A government consultation paper on the forestry plans explicitly talks of “shifting the balance of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’”, as the state gives way to a locally responsive patchwork of “civil society, businesses and individuals.” It is here that the real problems start....To be blunt, the government is failing wretchedly to sell the Big Society.

The journal concludes that the government's:

vision for a flourishing society blends localism with the charity sector and business. Alas, just now Britons seem reluctant to accept that the profit motive can co-exist with altruism. That is the real lesson of the row over forests: if the coalition is serious about building a less statist Britain, it cannot dodge that crisis of trust forever.

Personally I was always very sympathetic towards the notion itself- and felt Labour should have seized on it first- but very doubtful that people would voluntarily give up their free time to run things like, well the often cited example was public libraries. Now that 400 odd libraries are set to be abolished I fear that any chance of the idea taking wing has been destroyed.

A more direct attack on Cameron's pet project is offered by Catherine Bennett in the Observer today. Expressing surprise that the notion had survived the election campaign, let alone a year of the Coalition's time in power, she notes that Liverpool, one of four 'vanguard' centres for the application of the idea, has decided to exit the scheme:

The council leader, Joe Anderson, said cuts of more than £100m would threaten existing voluntary organisations. "How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves," he asked, "when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups"

Bennett then notes that the Big Society Tsar, Lord Wei, has decided to reduced his three day week on the project to two because he feels he does not have enough time for it unpaid. She adds a question whether 'Big' government could be neutralised by a 'Big' Society, just one of the many opaque aspects of this amorphous concept.

Finally, the Big Society minister Francis Maude, was asked if he volunteered:

Maude told the BBC's Eddie Mair: "I do… golly, what do I do?

Thursday, February 03, 2011


Tabloidisation of the House?

The picture on the left is of Sally Bercow, wife of Mr Speaker Bercow, and it's part of a longer story to be published in the Standard magazine tomorrow. She will probably reveal even more bedroom secrets than she does in today's paper. Given the fact that Bercow was so unpopular in his own party that it took Labour votes to elect him last year, this is unlikely to assist harmony in the House.

Recall the reaction of Mark Pritchard, Deputy chair of the 1922 Committee, when Bercow ordered him to stand to on one side as they passed in a corridor: 'You're not fucking royalty!'. Bercow hating Tory MPs will be spluttering into the G and Ts over the weekend I predict.

Considering that Mr Speaker would almost certainly have opposed his wife's risque revelations about their revelations let alone her state of undress in the picture- and they certainly subvert the dignity of the House- I wonder what the current atmosphere chez Speaker is? Does Sally want a career in the media? Does Mr Speaker want a career in the media? Mayb this is the first signs that politics is no longer merely 'showbiz for ugly people' as Jan Leno once quipped, but the tabloidisation of the House. Maybe it will come to attract a much higher proportion of people who are merely after fame and celebrity. Do hope not.

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