Saturday, May 23, 2009

Half Term Thoughts

Well, here's hoping that the AS on Friday went well, and that paper 2 next week is a further success. There's certainly no shortage of material on parliament to think about, and it is well worth accessing some of the recent news stories to consider again what sort of ideas have been put forward about parliamentary reform. The expenses scandal has turned the ire of a nation on its MPs, but the long-term fall-out will surely be focused on the reform of an institution which needs to provide more stringent accountability to the executive.

One personal insight into the difficulties faced by MPs comes from Andrew MacKay's meeting in his constituency of Bracknell last night. A Lib Dem blogger was there, and provides an account of a difficult meeting for Mr. MacKay, as well as a link to the BBC news video that shows MacKay being heckled by a constituent on camera. Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams comments interestingly on the damage to our democracy of a humiliated parliament. Meanwhile, I'm off for a few days, but will be back from Friday morning to deal with any revision requests etc.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Fall-Out, Part 1

With Westminster in an enjoyable turmoil, discussing what it most enjoys - its own affairs - there is still the hanging question of how on earth will the elections go. Not, of course, the distinctly pointless elections for the European Parliament, which will allow everyone to vote for a minority party without worrying about the consequences. No, the world of Westminster is worried about what might happen at the next General Election.

First, they might face challenges from celebrity independents, although if they remain of the calibre of Esther Rantzen most MPs will not need to worry. Roy Hattersley, an old Labour dinosaur, launched a broadside against celebrity candidates in his 'Times' column today. In fact, there was a section there which is ideal for AS students. Pointing out that Independent MPs are not able to achieve anything beyond the ousting of an MP, he defends the party system - Decisions are only made or changed when significant numbers of MPs come together in common cause. It is called the party system and enables voters to choose between rival programmes of government rather than which “personality” they prefer.

Meanwhile, one celebrity with some political achievement to her credit, the fabulous Joanna Lumley, has already announced that she has moved on to support the Green Party. So, after her victory, a quick retreat to the fringes of serious political activity. Never mind, the power was good while it lasted.

Finally, David Cameron and the Tory leadership are apparently concerned that for all their tough talk, the Tory constituency parties are not going to prove willing to deselect their MPs. If the local party of Andrew McKay isn't willing to drop him, what hope is there for the lesser offenders to be quietly removed? As ever, moderniser Cameron's task is made no easier by the relentlessly prehistoric nature of is determinedly out of touch party activists. These, after all, were the people who once thought Iain Duncan Smith might be a vote winner!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Meaninglessness of Esther.....and Martin Bell

While I try and recover some dignity from having penned phrases this morning which declared that yes, absolutely, Michael Martin would stay on as Speaker and anyone who said otherwise could shove it, I thought I would at least refer people to an excellent article on the 'First Post' website, about why Esther Rantzen is hardly the solution to the problems of political corruption. Since, along the way, the article's author, Peter Briffa, has a pop at the saintly Martin Bell, it is well worth a read.

Speaker to Resign?

Paul Waugh on the Evening Standard blog, and the BBC, are reporting an imminent statement that Michael Martin is about to announce he will stand down. Hmph. Just as I'd bothered to go and defend him staying in my previous, very ill-timed post! Bloody man.

Coming Up Later for AS Level Students.....

Parties, the expenses crisis and Democracy. And how should you use the current events in exam answers?

Sympathy for the Speaker

I'm beginning to have a bit of an about-turn as regards Michael Martin, the embattled Commons Speaker. True, he is pretty abysmal at his job, and always has been. His tenure in that high office has suffered from comparison with his distingished predecessors - not just the legendary Betty Boothroyd, but Bernard Weatherill and George Thomas before her, all stamped an indelible authority on the House of Commons, across all party benches. Martin has never really been much more than an over-promoted Labour stooge.

Andy yet......one can't keep being subject to the relentless attacks of press pundits and commentators, and the cyclical motion of a small group of media-pleasing MPs in front of the cameras, without starting to think that there may be something more to Martin. It is something of an achievement in the modern, 24-hr news age, for a politician to be able to resist the onward march of calls for his resignation. Yesterday morning, few commentators and journalists were in any doubt that by the end of the day, the Speaker would have to go. But here we are this morning, and not only is he still there, he shows no sign whatsoever of falling on his sword. It is in a bizarre way a fantastic reminder that journalists do not, in fact, have any authority in the House of Commons; that for all the furore outside it is those inside who determine the course of action. We are full of comments - I hold my hands up as one small voice - but we know little of what is actually going on in the Commons day to day. Even the papers who parade their experts spend precious few resources on actually reporting the ordinary business of the Commons. And Martin, though he may be a bit shaky on elements of Commons procedure, clearly sees no reason to let an unelected and unaccountable media determine his future. Whilst only 15 to 20 MPs are prepared to sign a no confidence motion (in the wrong Orders), Martin can carry on in his role at the head of a House of 646 MPs. Let the Daily Mail shriek as it will, or the effortlessly arrogant John Gaunt shout till he's hoarse on Sky News, Martin doesn't need to listen. And in a few weeks, when interest has passed, and the Daily Telegraph has to return to proper reporting with its drastically cut-back journalistic staff, Michael martin will still be in place - a little chastened perhaps, more willing now to consider reform, but definitely still there.

His refusal to budge might usefully also remind us that few reforms are carried out adequately when they are carried out in haste, and at the behest of a charging media behemoth frantically chasing circulation figures and ratings. Thus, Harriet Harman's rapid set of proposals bears more than the whiff of gimmick and people-pleasing, rather than careful thought. For all the discredit that has been heaped on it, I would still rather have a Commons able to conduct its business independent of the media, with time for reflection and the opportunity for careful amendment of the legislation before it. Certainly, they should deal with their bad eggs - although that might more usefully be the task of local party bodies and electorates - but they should not forget their core task of representing the interests of the people through their immersal in the minutiae of politics. There was no better indication of that role than in a small item on the 'Today' programme this morning, reporting that the commons Public Accounts Committee was questioning the availability of low-cost rail fares only over the internet. Chairman Edward Leigh was concerned that this excluded the large numbers of people who either had no access to the web, or had not the time to spend searching for such low-cost fares, and would rather buy them from ticket offices where they are currently not available. Small beer perhaps, but important to the legion of rail travellers spending too much on high cost tickets, and an indication of why we do not want an emasculated House of Commons, whatever their expenses problems.

So after all this trouble, I think I rather hope Michael Martin will survive - at least until the election.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Speaker Doesn't Resign Shock

No-one who has watched Speaker Martin over the years can be terribly surprised that he has confounded the political chattering classes by not actually resigning today. Unless forced out, this is not a man who is going to go of his own volition, and the ability to actually force him out is very difficult. Even Douglas Carswell's motion of no confidence turns out to be the wrong sort of motion, although Martin, a man who has spent the last 9 years as Speaker, presiding over Commons procedure, still needed to check that little detail with a clerk.

The First Post's Mole has a concise report of this afternoon's chaos. And while you're at the First Post, you might care to glance at Quentin Letts' diverting article about the importance of public speaking, and the shame that our leaders do not seem able to do it!

AS Revision Notice

I will add a link to the sidebar for ease of reference, but AS students might wish to know that that they can now access the exam materials from January 09, including the question paper, mark scheme and examiners' report, by going to the relevant SGS Politics web-page here.

These are well worth looking through, although they are only Unit 1 materials. Note especially the Examiners' 'General Comments' on the January sitting, where they note:

The questions on pressure groups arose as the most popular, but at the same time this was an area where underperformance and lack of attention to detail cost many candidates dearly. The question on political parties now showing an emphasis on ideas and policies saw a more focused approach and candidates performed relatively well, though as noted here there are still areas to develop.

It is worth emphasising the pressure group point about lack of attention to detail costing candidates dearly - so it may be worth checking the 'Politics Review' article about Pressure Groups, and going over to the tutor2u politics blog for the recent post about pressure groups and democracy, focusing on Fathers For Justice.

In addition, note their comment that the parties questions focuses more on ideas and policies - so a useful steer about where to guide your revision on parties.

Finally, as well as the exam materials, this page also contains some of the power-point presentations used during the year.

The Speaker's Flaws

"If the Speaker and his advisers had not fought in the courts, [MPs] would not now be reading their expense details in public."

So says Nick Robinson on this morning's 'Today' programme, in what is possibly the most damning comment yet made about the Speaker's inadequacy and culpability. Had he not been so determined to act as a shop steward; had he the ability and foresight to head off this issue, it is possible that the Commons could have avoided one of the worst times in its recent history. Had he been such a Speaker, of course, he would also have been able to initiate a proper reform of the expenses issue without waiting for a media witch-hunt to initiate it for him. The Speaker, and successive Commons Leaders, are responsible for the conduct of the Commons. Whilst it is true that party leaders have shown no good judgement or foresight in this matter, it is reasonable to suggest that their sights have been busily fixed elsewhere in the body politic. No, the rising tide against the Speaker is down to his own blind refusal to acknowledge what has been going on, and his inability to treat the job as anything other than another shop steward role.

Listening to Jim Sheridan, a fellow Glaswegian and Labour MP, trying to defend Martin on the same 'Today' discussion, was to hear a tribalist get annoyed because some of the tribe won't kow-tow to blind loyalty. Sheridan took MPs like Douglas Carswell to task for not going to see the Speaker about their concerns privately. Really? Has he read the recent comments of the Speaker's former communications director, John Stonhouse? It is a devastating critique of Michael Martin, but also shows all too palpably why a 'private' approach could never have worked with this deliberately blind, bad tempered man:

On the July 1, 2003, I had one of my regular private meetings with the Speaker in his study overlooking the river. It was a friendly encounter, just the two of us, and I decided to mention this business of claiming for his second home. I think I had mentioned it once previously. I should not have needed to do this, but few Commons officials had the guts to voice their concerns to him. I did.

The Speaker went puce. He told me to stay where I was and summoned the Clerk of the House, Roger Sands, and made me repeat my “allegation” in front of him. I wrote to the Speaker afterwards saying I thought he had been a bit rough on me. Being an adviser is not a popularity contest. The Speaker never spoke to me again and like others before and after me I was cast out.

I don't know how much of a day of reckoning today will prove for Mr. Martin. I do know that history will judge him harshly for his failures, and MPs may have cause sooner than they would like to rue the day they elected him, at the behest of Tony Blair's whips, to the job he has so signally failed to lift himself up for.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Never Mind Expenses, What About The Main Job?

Amidst the plethora of Sunday comment - uniformly damning - about the current state of parliament, Henry Porter in the Observer looks convincingly at the need for wider parliamentary reform, to enable the wretched place to actually do its primary job a little better.

In the current session, Parliament will spend 143 days in recess. MPs took 24 days holiday at Christmas, 10 days in February, 17 at Easter and now they have the prospect of 10 days at Whitsun plus a summer break of 82 days. Not bad for basic pay and allowances of £180,000 a year.

Set against this is the time allowed by the insufferable leader of the house, Harriet Harman, for the debate of yet another criminal justice bill - the Policing and Crime Bill 2008-09. The Lib Dem MP Evan Harris pointed out at the Manifesto Club last week that the bill has been given just six-and-a-half hours for debate. During that time, MPs will be expected to scrutinise measures that will create a new offence of paying for sex, modify the law on soliciting, tighten regulations on lap-dancing clubs, introduce powers to allow police to deal with young people drinking in public, introduce new codes for the sale of alcohol, amend criminal asset recovery schemes and change airport security and policing laws.

All of which essentially means, says Porter, that ministers like Harman hate scrutiny, and parliament is too inadequate in trying to provide any.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Circus Rolls On

I am starting to wonder how long this story can keep running. The Telegraph are certainly squeezing every last penny from the presumably rather costly information they have bought about MPs' expenses. And they've now secured a couple of scalps - nicely balanced too, with one Labour (Elliot Morley suspended by Brown) and one Conservative, Andrew MacKay (told to resign as an aide by Cameron). MacKay may have further problems, though, as grassroots Tory members overwhelmingly voted in an online Conservative Home poll for his de-selection as an MP. It would not be surprising if some of the worst offenders didn't face a backlash in their constituencies, either from their own grassroots members desperate to de-select the albatross now occupying their seat, or later from the voters who will choose to vote for an opponent to register their disgust. That's if they all remember this a year from now, mind you.

The cheque-book waving isn't necessarily a good thing either, as the Economist's Bagehot also observes. I don't know many people who could readily stump up six or seven thousand pounds, never mind the thirteen thousand being merrily waved by Hazel Blears yesterday. Does rather add to the impression that public service has given quite a few MPs quite a lot of disposable income!

But, to cut to the quick, we've surely done about as much hand-wringing as we can, with Parliament apparently becoming a much grimmer, depressing place at present. Jeremy Paxman interviewed some would-be MPs on Newsnight last night, and couldn't quite remove from his face the look of cynical bemusement that they still want to go into politics. For all their attempted freshness, of course, they are all political hacks who have been at the political game in a voluntary capacity for years, whatever they will trumpet now about being new brooms. Paxman rather neatly trumped the Labour candidate by comparing her high-blown words about a change, a new morality etc. with an almost identical set uttered by, er, Hazel Blears when she was elected for the first time.

The time has come now, I think, for a bit of a rest from the hysteria - which the media are going to struggle to sustain, for all their expertise at this - and some reflection about how we might best alter the body politic such that it does not produce this sort of endemic amorality and lack of judgement. We as electors cannot, after all, take much pleasure from the sight of such a demeaned collection of representatives, whose judgement and legislative capacity we still need. Let the media beasts take a rest, and allow parliament and democracy to resume their fractious relationship over the course of the next year. Oh, and please let the Speaker go. Now.

Meanwhile, in other news, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's long-suffering opposition leader, is once again in police custody as the ferocious generals look to presumably extend her house arrest. There indeed is a story of grit and heroism in the face of one of the most morally decrepit regimes in the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Public Pressure or Media Witch Hunt?

David Cameron certainly appeared to have stolen a march on Gordon Brown yesterday. With his firm grasp of what is now expected, and a very public instruction to his shadow cabinet to pay back their most glaring expense abuses, Cameron looked and sounded like a prime minister. The actual PM was left playing catch-up, with a series of tortured interviews at the end of the day which were then challenged by political correspondents (Brown announced all party agreement on a solution which is still under discussion on the relevant Commons committee). When Nick Robinson kept pressing him about whether he was not in fact merely apeing the Tory leader's ideas, Brown became increasingly frustrated, and was unable to make a response that didn't simply sound petulant.

Nevertheless, as the saga continues, and MPs now start to fall over themselves to pay back ever spiralling sums of ill-gotten expenses, the question could justly arise as to how far this is a good, democratic response to the power of the people, and how far it is a supine reaction to a media conducted witch-hunt. There are signs that some MPs are starting to fight back. The Liberals' Andrew George has described the 'Telegraph' story of his expenses as a mendacious and vindictive fabrication, and other targeted MPs have similarly started to point out the errors in some of the reporting. For the most part, though, the expenses speak for themselves, and the glory of a democracy is that each MP will need to make restitution. Nowhere is this clearer than in the junior minister Phil Hope's decision to pay back some £41,000, on the grounds that he cannot bear the perception people now have of him.

As the furore over individual expenses dies down, there are definitely some interesting thoughts to be aired about the health of our democratic system, and the nature of our representative institution and those who sit in it. No matter how painful to MPs themselves, that can only be a positive development.

Meanwhile, the video below strings three of the more memorable news items of the last couple of days together, beginning with Stephen Fry's apparent defence of MPs and attack on journalists. He later commented that he wished he'd kept his mouth shut - make up your own mind!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tebbit Thuggery

Norman Tebbit was known as the Chingford Skinhead back in the days of his Tory prominence, as a result of his rather knee-jerk form of political engagement. He was back at it today, in an interview on the BBC 'Today' programme, where he was virtually urging voters to consider other parties than the Tories. Nick Robinson, commenting on this, said that Tebbit was almost going so far as to tell voters to vote UKIP. Robinson gave a very prescient commentary on the expenses scandal, worth listening to here - his comment is towards the end of the 10 minute segment.

Meanwhile, today's Telegraph revelations do rather reinforce the old class distinctions of Tory and Labour. Where their Labour colleagues claim for bath plugs and carrier bags, the Tories are busy claiming for their horse manure and moat cleaning. But it's the Speaker who's under fire today, as Tory MP Douglas Carswell continues to gather support for his motion of No Confidence. Without support from party leaders - who may prefer to avoid a damaging battle over the Speakership - Carswell may be unlikely to gain sufficient support to actually oust Mr. Martin, but his point has been made loud and clear, and Martin is damaged goods (again - listen to Robinson's comment about how Martin sees his duties). Whatever happens, Parliament in the short term is under scrutiny as never before.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is the Speaker Now Vulnerable?

Andrew Rawnsley on Politics Home reports that the view of Westminster insiders suggests Hazel Blears and Barbara Follett face the most serious questioning for their expenses follies. Can't believe Margaret Moran is not on that list, but that may be because she is simply not important enough. In fact, though, the man towards whom attention is now focusing after a frankly disastrous performance in the Commons today is the ever inarticulate Speaker, Michael Martin. He gave a firm slap down to Labour's Kate Hoey for daring to suggest that calling the police in to deal with the leak of members' expenses might be, erm, a waste of time and money?

Hoey was right, and Martin, once you understood his garbled but undeniably angry response, couldn't have given a clearer indication that he is unsuited to holding the job of umpire of the Commons. His judgement is flawed, he himself is well up on the expenses gravy train, and there is no chance that he is going to be able to lead the Commons towards necessary - and public pacifying - reforms. The Telegraph's Iain Martin reports that one Tory MP is now casting around for signatures to a motion to depose the Speaker. Incidentally, it is worth remembering that traditionally, the Speaker faces election in his constituency unopposed.

AS Revision Sessions

There are not that many available times where students are not sitting AS-level exams, but I propose to run the following sessions for those who want them:

Thursday May 14th.: 1.30 - 2.30pm - Democracy and Referendums
Monday May 18th.: 4pm - 5pm - Elections and Electoral Systems, followed by 5pm - 6pm Pressure Groups (but please note that timings for these sessions may slip a little.)

The format will be to review the content, with examples, and then consider sample questions and answers. Given time constraints (1 hour for each session) the aim will be to consider key points and facts to illuminate the topic as a whole, rather than comprehensive coverage.

If there is demand for a session on parties, I will fix a time with students who contact me direct, or leave a note on this blog.

History sessions are posted on the history blog.

Students are of course more than welcome to fix a time to see me with revision essays or other aspects of the course they may wish to go through. Please email or phone.

Revision Classes

I will publish a timetable of AS revision classes this evening.

Defending Gordon

Gordon Brown's sister-in-law has written a revealing article in the Guardian today, putting their side of the PM's Cleaning Expenses Story. A useful reminder of the often distorted nature of media stories. Not that, in this instance, it excuses a range of other MPs' abuses which seem rather less justifiable, but I also note that both Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley have provided explanations for their shift in primary residence, both related to family circumstances rather than the desire to make a quick buck. I have, on this blog, been as fulsome as any in criticising a venal and money-grubbing culture at Westminster, but am also happy to accept that there may be proper explanations for some. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that too few 'honest' MPs are prepared to admit that too many of their colleagues have demeaned the calling of political public service in the way that they have.

Futile Fox

I almost thought David Cameron had started to nail the issue of MPs expenses yesterday. He seemed, at any rate, to understand the need for the 'S' word. Then, this morning, on BBC Breakfast, his Defence Spokesman, Liam Fox - presumably being wheeled out because his expenses are ok - ruined it all, with a pathetic, rambling performance in which he was no better than the bleating Blears yesterday. The system is what's wrong. It must be changed. That was Fox's futile mantra. Has he really no ability to understand how deep this runs? He had a golden opportunity to develop Cameron's line, and show that he too was made of leadership fibre - and he fell flat on his face.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Contempt and Loathing

It is possible that we haven't seen such a wide-scale level of loathing towards the elected members of the House of Commons for several generations. Matthew D'Ancona, in his Telegraph piece, references Lewis Namier's great work - but he was exposing the hypocrisy and place seeking of George III's MPs!

There really isn't anywhere for an MP to turn today. The comments of over 400 people on Nick Robinson's blog are almost uniformly hostile. The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley and Nick Cohen are scathing, while the attempted defence of the wretchedly venal Luton MP, Margaret Moran - who must wish her career had remained in deserved obscurity - are published for all to mock on the Times' blog by Sam Coates. Could we really be witnessing the beginnings of a whole-sale political clear-out? Or will we just all forget this ever happened and return the same amoral, tax-dodging, money-grabbing shirkers to parliament next time?

Better Pick a Pocket.....

Saw this youtube gem on the Guido Fawkes site:

A Contaminated Moral Environment

There was nothing more pathetic this morning than watching Hazel Blears bleat on about how "the system is wrong" and "must be changed". Confronted by her own gerrymandering of the Commons expenses system, she was falling over herself to tell us that she understood that the public hated all of this, and that what we need is a committee of ordinary people to look at it all. She, of course, has done nothing wrong. It is the system that is so utterly wrong.

What utter bilge. Systems are inanimate. They are theoretical constructs. They do not operate themselves. They have no means to do so, being essentially written frameworks. There is nothing 'wrong' with the system. It offers, perfectly reasonably, an opportunity for deserving MPs to ensure that hey are not out of pocket in the conduct of their not inconsiderable duties. What is profoundly, glaringly, fantastically wrong, is the venal-mindedness of a number of MPs who have sought to deliberately abuse the 'system' to enrich themselves over and over again. This may be small beer compared to other political sleaze scandals, but it speaks volumes of the moral leadership of those who have sought and gained election and, with it, the right to legislate for our country. If Hazel Blears and her colleagues cannot see that there is nothing wrong with the system, but everything wrong with the morality of making claims that have no bearing to the principle of the system, then we are in a sorry state indeed. You cannot possibly claim that you ever thought it was absolutely fine to be shifting your nominal second home for allowance purposes, selling it for profit, and then failing to give the same story to the Commons Expenses office and the Inland Revenue. This isn't a 'system' fault. This is the moral contamination of the claimant. A claimant who understands the system is flexible and glories in it.

Hazel Blears used to strike me as a pretty straightforward MP and minister. If even she is unable to see her actions as wrongdoing; if even she is unable to exercise any level of moral judgement over her own activities, do we really have any right to believe that this parliamentary assembly has the capacity to rule and legislate in anything other than a morally flawed manner.

And it is about judgement and morality. These MPs are not ordinary employees. They make judgements that affect and influence our lives. They take us to war, and commit soldiers to fatal actions. They govern the expenditures of our health, welfare and education systems. If they cannot even identify the small-minded immorality of their own actions - and not one has come forward to suggest it is MPs actions, not an inanimate system, that is at fault - then they cannot possibly exercise the huge responsibility of government in a proper and moral fashion. Their judgement is too seriously flawed.

But a democracy gets the government it deserves. It is unique amongst societies in this. And the fascinating, awesome question that looms over the electorate in a year's time is whether, contaminated as the MPs' own morality may be, it is merely a mirror of the society from which it draws its mandate.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Leadership Challenge?

With Election Meltdown Time approaching, we will be hearing more and more of a possible leadership challenge in the ruling party. The Spectator's Matthew D'Ancona is leading his magazine with just such a story tomorrow. But leadership challenges are the stuff of fervid, speculative journalism in turbulent times - unless Brown himself decides he's had enough, I really cannot see what would be a near suicidal leadership battle breaking out in the Labour Party. Any putative leader would much rather wait now until after the general election, when they don't have to carry the can for the result. Gordon Brown still has one last duty to perform for his party, I suspect.

Incidentally, just as interesting in D'Ancona's blog piece is his explanation of why he didn't bother to approach Charles Clarke about the rumours of Clarke's possible candidacy for the leadership.

Sense of Humour Failure

Oh dear! Gordon Brown definitely didn't see anything amusing in Tory MP Stephen Crabb's question at PMQs today, asking what he was going to do about reports that a senior Whitehall figure was bullying underlings and throwing mobile phones around. Even Speaker Martin appeared to join in the levity that greeted the question, but the remarkably sour-faced PM gave a quick response and sat down - all too aware, perhaps, of the identity of the 'senior Whitehall figure'.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

How the Telegraph Did Brown's Dirty Work - Again!

Harriet Harman found herself having to deny that she had any leadership ambitions following a front page splash by the Daily Telegraph on Monday, claiming she was ready to stand. The net result of her protestations of loyalty do at least mean that she has firmly ruled herself out of any leadership bid at all. Now, who could this possibly benefit? Well, it's certainly likely that one G. Brown will be quite happy to have quashed at least one potential nuisance, and how grateful he must be to the only newspaper to bother with a story that seems to have itself been firmly founded on the imagination of its writer.

The journalist who so effectively cooked Harman's goose, and carried out a Brown rescue operation, was none other than the Telegraph's political editor Andrew Porter. Porter has been under scrutiny - as has pretty much the whole Telegraph team - for his closeness to the disgraced former Brown hatchet man Damian McBride. Porter, a political leftie, was one of McBride's closest associates. It was the Telegraph, too, which sought to lance the poison of the email scandal by heading quickly into print with an early expose designed to limit the damage to the No. 10 strategy chief. It does rather seem that, even with McBride having gone, the Telegraph is still around to do Brown's bidding for him. Private Eye carried a detailed piece about "McPoison's" lobby associates, with the former Torygraph in pole position as chief muck spreader. Stephen Glover in the Independent has also written a piece lamenting the Teleggraph's lack of political judgement in getting so close to McBride. All of which is a rather sad decline for the one time paper of choice for the Tory Party's reactionary tendency. With its firmly Brownite political staff, and its politically ignorant editor, who will the last remaining broadsheet be rooting for at the next election?

Campbell and Izzard at the Nottingham Roadshow

Away from the Westminster hothouse, with its ever increasing circles of expenses fraud, its 62 seat majority government struggling to win a Commons vote, and its rapturous remembrance of the Thatcherite victory 30 years ago, the politics roadshow across the country still goes on. Last week, Alastair Campbell and Eddie Izzard joined forces with Nottingham's prospective Labour candidate at Nottingham University, and rather fortunately a former SGS politics student was there to capture the essence. His report of an interesting university meeting featuring a comic force, a spent force and would-be force, follows:

Last Tuesday night I attended a ‘University of Nottingham Labour Students’ event that managed to draw probably the largest crowd of students and professors to a political event that Nottingham University has ever seen. Packing out the Coates Auditorium, the audience (many, like myself , whom I doubt were Labour supporters) came to see the comedian Eddie Izzard host a discussion with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous ‘Spin Doctor’, and Lillian Greenwood, Labour's would-be MP. That it was billed as "Talking Politics with Eddie Izzard" may well have been the big draw for many, although it was fun to spot the many excited and amusing looking Young Labour members in their classy white polo tops.

Eddie Izzard took the stage first. He spoke of his interest in politics, advocating a very populist agenda and a strong pro-European view. He comes across very well and you could easily see him as a politician if you didn’t know about his cross-dressing ways (although because he is so open about it, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, whereas if your local MP was found wearing ladies clothes at the weekend it would become a massive media bloodbath). He is intelligent, well travelled, is at ease in front of large crowds and, coming from a non-political background, he seems to cut across all the political rhetoric that is so commonly found in Westminster.

Next, Izzard introduced the prospective Labour candidate for the Nottingham South seat, which covers the University. Lillian Greenwood, although perhaps she might become the most influential person appearing for those in the crowd, was the small fry this evening. Although it is harsh to compare her to the very experienced crowd-pleasers Izzard and Campbell, she was nowhere near as relaxed in front of the crowd and her political knowledge seemed limited to her Trade Union background and the Labour Party manifesto which she pledged to uphold if elected. But to be fair, she answered he questions well and seemed like an able and interested person who is willing to spend time and effort to try and serve this country as an MP.

The final third of the show was taken up by Alastair Campbell whom I first saw with Giles at an SGS 6th Form Politics trip to London. He is, as he was then, a very good public speaker with great experience as a Westminster insider. After a brief but amusing discussion between Campbell and Izzard in French, where Greenwood looked about as out of place as you would imagine John Prescott would be, he spoke to the audience about his background and experience in politics. Campbell had amazing influence under Tony Blair and he is a sharp and confident political operator. As a West Wing fan I can easily see bits of the Communications Director Toby and Press Secretary CJ in him, it is the way he controls the discussion and sidesteps any landmines whilst portraying a confident facade and a strong belief in his actions. One interesting point was his denunciation of the media for portraying the British National Party as a legitimate political party linked to the concession that he actually believed the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had something to legitimately add to the political discussion. Talking about the benefits of Labour’s opposition probably played well to the student crowd whereas pro-Labour ‘spin’ seemed to fall flat and sounded like it should have been reserved for Prime Minister’s Question Time.

As a finishing question Izzard was asked why he was supporting Labour and not ‘the other progressive party, the Lib Dems’. His response seemed rather naive for a ‘wannabe politician’. He effectively said he was supporting Labour because the Liberal Democrats had no chance of getting into power and that he was a realist, even proposing that perhaps a Lab-Lib coalition might perhaps be a good thing for this country so that the Conservatives would be permanently out in the cold. His ambition to run for ‘some position, on some platform, somewhere in Europe, within the next 10-15 years’ shows that Izzard still has a long way to go before he is seen as a serious political force.

Cash, SGS 1997-2005.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Something Rotten in the Heart of Whitehall?

Left-wing journalist Nick Cohen has long had the New Labour project in his sights (see "Pretty Straight Guys", his searing indictment of Blair's government), but the recent series of shenanigans from the Brown camp has sent him into overdrive. In an article in "Standpoint", entitled "Fear and Filth at Brown's Number 10", Cohen reveals from his own experiences some of the tactics used by Gordon Brown and his associates to intimidate and manipulate their opponents. Resurrecting Robert Harris's comparison of Brown and former US president Nixon, he concludes in this rather stark manner:

For all that I understand the difficulties of my colleagues in Westminster, it remains an indictment of them that until this scandal broke, 99 per cent of the public had never heard of McBride. A full-scale government propaganda operation was under way in plain view of reporters. Partly out of self-interest, but also out of fear of the consequences, most decided that it was prudent to say nothing. Put like this, my argument makes Britain sounds as if it is a police state. The servants of an unscrupulous leader concoct vile libels about opposition politicians and their wives. They plot against the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, spreading smears about them almost for the hell it. Journalists on the left-wing press who speak out know that they may risk their careers.

But Britain isn't a police state or anything like one. In real dictatorships people suffer for their beliefs. The only true suffering Brown has inflicted is on Britain's idea of itself. We think of ourselves as a free, plain-speaking people - "a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit," as Milton said. Yet we accept a PM who achieved power not through the ballot box but by bullying his critics and rivals. As with any other bully, all it would take to stop him is for his opponents to call his bluff. That for years hardly any have, says more about us than it does about him.