Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Decline of Blogging

Blogging has been light recently, I know, but I haven't yet given up on the unforgiving task. Unlike web fixture Iain Dale, who has finally pulled the curtain down on his blog, while he now concentrates on being a radio host. I've commented here about what this means, if anything, about the direction of the blogosphere; and I've commented here about Tim Montgomerie's call for a new, mainstream conservatism of the right. There was a Conservative Mainstream once - of the left. What goes around, comes around, I guess - and with lines like that, maybe I should give up blogging after all.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

England's Failure

I suspect if it hadn't been another 'snow day' I'd have been a lot less enlightened about the England 2018 World Cup football bid. As it is, that and the snow have indeed been the only two stories that either of the main news networks have bothered to invest in.

I guess it's disappointing that the World Cup isn't 'coming home' just yet, all the more so given that England's late run has been so impressive. But I can clearly see the advantages of the Russian bid, and the Qatar 2022 bid as well. Football hasn't been just a game for years, and Sepp Blatter is not just some simple football chairman. His political ambitions are to see international football extend its roots into places that might have hitherto been seen as unreal. England didn't offer the chance to break through in Eastern Europe for the first time, and despite the Football United scheme that was associated with the bid, the economic and social gains for Russia of their bid are considerable. As for Qatar, their scheme to send their new stadia to different parts of the undeveloped world after the tournament is audacious and ambitious. That said, neither country is exactly a shining light in terms of their human rights approaches. Journalists who have the temerity to challenge the authorities in Russia have an alarming tendency to get beaten up to within an inch of their resultingly crippled lives, whilst Qatar follows a less than enlightened equal opportunities policy, based on a traditional reading of the Koran. Perhaps the searchlight of western media will lead to some changes...perhaps people just won't bother going.

The BBC investigations into FIFA may or may not have affected the voting, but if they did then it merely exemplifies the problems that FIFA have; perhaps instead it is time for England to try and reignite the little legions of footballers across the country, rather than fencing with the corporate international organisation. And maybe that means a re-visit of the policy to cut the School Sports Partnership too - if the government do that, they will make a more direct impact on English football than any World Cup hosting success.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Defending Obama

'American exceptionalism' - the firm belief in America's unique position and positive virtues in world society - is a clearly dear to the heart of most Americans, even if they might sometimes struggle to articulate it. Barack Obama identified it clearly in a recent speech at the G20 summit, but his comments have been ripped out of their context and subjected to severe criticism by numerous conservative commentators in the US. They have attempted to deny that he believes in any sort of American exceptionalism. It is a lethal charge in a country whose political centre of gravity is still firmly to the right, and we in Europe perhaps find it difficult to understand just how much the vilification of Obama as an entrenched leftist is gaining ground in the US. Andrew Sullivan, the libertarian ex-Brit who now lives in America and has been a consistent supporter of Obama, provides an illuminating comment about the 'Big Lie' being levied against the president. His defence of Obama's political achievements since taking office is worth noting, but his post includes a fascinating unpicking of how a host of conservative commentators have happily colluded in using an out of context quote to perpetuate a mythical image of the president that serves their purposes only too well. The damning indictment is that they are happily perpetuating a lie - didn't journalists once try and do the opposite?

What Students Could Have Protested About But Didn't

I must confess I'm not always on the same page as the 'Spectator' these days, but editor Fraser Nelson's blog-post about what students haven't protested about over the past thirteen years is pointed, and perhaps makes today's protests seem just a little more self-serving.

Quote of the Day

"This is what happens when they oppress students for so long", from an over-excited and distinctly unoppressed looking sixth former on his day out to view the violence. Next lesson - what oppression really means, with reference to North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Russia...........

Palin and Our 'North Korean Allies'

Sarah Palin is the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012. A few nay-sayers keep trying to suggest that she just doesn't have the political nous or intelligence to be a credible candidate, but honestly, anyone could mistake South Korea for North Korea couldn't they?

Revolting Students - Again

Having managed to retard their case with the ludicrously and violently mismanaged protest of two weeks ago, it is entirely typical of the student mentality that they should consider another expression of student nihilism to be appropriate today. This time, the protest is not London based but designed to be across a range of university campuses, and even schools. Students striking in protest would not, of course, have any impact at all given that the majority steer sedulously clear of lecture theatres for most of their university careers. So protests it has to be, and given the motley collection of organizers, the chances of these simply being peaceful protests is limited.

I have an innate sympathy with the opposition to student fees, which is what makes the opposition enhancing protests all the more frustrating. I have a sympathy because I, in common with the rest of my generation, benefited not just from free university education but also, where needed, government assistance towards living costs too in the form of the student grant. Of course, given that there were significantly fewer students then it was more affordable as a government cost, but the irony is that the non-economic argument against funding university students now was, if anything, even stronger then. In a nutshell, the argument is that it is wrong and wholly elitist to expect the majority of the non-university educated public to fund the elitist educational ambitions of the minority who do go. Of course, one of the successes of the last Labour government was its increasing of the numbers who head to university overall, making it a far less elitist exercise today than it was in the 80s, and all credit to them for that. But the argument that those who benefit from degree education - in terms of their employment prospects and likely earnings - should also be prepared to contribute still remains, and the Coalition’s proposed system actually removes the upfront cost that makes it all look so burdensome to students contemplating applying to university in the U6th.

When Labour introduced tuition fees (breaking their own manifesto promise in the process) they were accepting the economic impossibility of funding university education for all. As cuts in the overall budget of state expenditure go ahead, the defence that students should have their privileged fees ring-fenced looks less and less tenable. It is made virtually ridiculous by the antics of the student protests, which all too often seem to showcase the under-employed nature of student life, and the underwhelming nature of their political acumen. The violence that accompanies such protests – nearly always a given in student ones – seems to be so firmly antithetical to all that higher education is meant to represent that you could not devise a better argument for removing student funding from the average taxpayer’s contribution. Once again, a majority of committed students are ill-served by their would-be representatives on the streets.

The protestors also called for protests in schools, one of their more useless ideas given that the schools are hardly responsible for university funding. But it did give pupils up and down the country the opportunity to engage in a bit of pointless protesting – at SGS, this involved the Year 10s sitting down in the playground during break! A much more amenable protest all round, inconveniencing no-one. Just a pity they didn’t really know what they were protesting about.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Did AV Deliver a Worthless Leader?

Churchill's jibe that the Alternative Vote delivered the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidate must be ringing a bit louder in the ears of Labour MPs. Their leader, Ed Miliband, is back on the job after his paternity leave, but a mere eight weeks in and there are already mutterings on the Labour benches about his lack of impact. MPs voted, of course, for his brother by a greater margin, and David won the first vote overall, but the the AV miracle stepped in and delivered Ed Miliband to the Labour Party. It can't be any great comfort, either, that the last party political leader to succeed to the job without gaining the majority support of his party's MPs was, er, Iain Duncan Smith.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Liberal Defence on Tuition Fees - It's all about the Mandate.

Or not, in this case, as the Lib Dem defence, which we first heard articulated by Nick Clegg last Tuesday at Portcullis House, is that they didn't win the election and thus didn't have a mandate to carry out their pledge to remove tuition fees. Clegg's articulation of this played well at the Hansard Society meeting, so much so that it has now, finally, become Lib Dem orthodoxy. Tom Brake used it at a local meeting on Thursday evening, and now Vince Cable has used it in a BBC television interview. Looks as if there is some co-ordination going on behind the Lib Dem message after all.

Palin and Putin - A Match Made In......

The two putative runners for the presidencies of America and Russia in 2012 are so similar it's uncanny - the First Post shows a collection of pics that underscore the spiritual partnership of these two cuddly candidates for supreme office.

Cameron Bows to Media Pressure Again

David Cameron has decided not to go on holiday to his old Eton pal's holiday home in Thailand (the Eton pal in question being the Prime Minister of Thailand of course). The media had already homed in on this, and he was worried about exacerbating a controversy by going. He engineered the resignation of Lord Young last week because Young's comments played badly in the media. And he has removed his personal photographer from the Downing Street pay roll in response to media criticism. There are certainly occasions to head off undue media criticism. But there is a danger that so many u-turns raise questions about his initial judgement, given his unwillingness to defend any of his decisions to a ravenous media, and that he simply becomes a push-over on any would-be critical media story. Neither of them great conclusions, alas.

Soundbite Interviews

Iain Dale increasingly uses his blog as a vehicle to promote his LBC show or publishing ventures, but there are some occasional nuggets and his piece attacking the soundbite nature of radio interviews is pretty on the button.

Radio Beats Television and Grammar Schools Win the Day

Was at Any Questions on Friday night - a rare night out and change from my usual Friday night routine of selecting a new book to read. It was at Wallington Girls and Jonathan Dimbleby chaired Simon Heffer, John Denham, Philip Hammond and Viv Groskop (she's a Guardian journalist). Any Questions is, of course, a far more venerable programme than the more recent Question Time, which nicked the format for television and now adds an extra panellist just to ensure a lack of proper discussion. Question Time has the advantage of offering televisual political theatre, but falls down in the area of interesting political debate, and this is surely where the radio version scores. Shorn of the nuisances of television broadcasting it was a much easier, more straightforward production, with audience participation thankfully limited to the asking of initial questions and providing applause or expressions of disapproval, leaving the main discussion to the usually well chosen panellists. Dimbleby minor interrupts rather less, the audience seems more civilised, and the discussion genuinely interesting to listen to. There were no blinding insights on Friday, but that wasn't really the point - the reasoned airing of differing viewpoints provided insight enough.

Simon Heffer - a perpetually grumpy columnist in person and on page - came into his own with his full throated support for grammar schools, in answer to a leading question from the Wallington Girls Head of Sixth Form. The majority of the audience in this selective school, and from this selective borough, gave him strong support, but then there isn't really a strong educational case against educating students according to their abilities, which is what the grammar school system does. Even Viv Grsokop, wanting from her independently educated standpoint to oppose selective state education, simply had to sit on the fence for that one (although Denham, to be fair, exalted the values of comprehensive schooling).

Kim Il Gove

Michael Gove has just received the Dunford 'Sporting Glory' treatment (sorry, SGS in joke) as an exciteable Andrew Marr refers to him as Kim Il Gove. Gove busily denied being more centralising but he shouldn't defend himself too hard - all Education Secretaries want to decide what is taught and how, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, given that there are almost as many different ideas about what is right for schools as there are teachers and education bureaucrats working for them. A bit of centralised decision making brings order, and decisions to remove GCSE modules, tighten up grammar and spelling, and even teach history sequentially (which many schools do as a matter of practice anyway) are likely to receive much support. There will be less support for the extraordinary decision to apparently cut back school sports spending, but we should hold back before becoming too hysterical. What Gove has done is remove the ring-fencing from a particular approach to providing sports - the School Sports Partnership. He thinks this is too bureaucratic and says schools are better off being given the freedom to provide their own competitive sports. More difficult, of course, if you're one of those schools with limited PE staff provision and a lack of playing fields as a result of the great playing fields sell-off scandal of a few years ago. But we'll see. Perhaps schools might be able to use a sports budget more effectively themselves - there are still plenty (well done SGS) who operate a range of competitive sports from their own resources after all. It just needs a will and a hefty degree of time commitment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Commons in Action

Still flush from the excitement of the Nick Clegg meeting, the SGS team then headed over to see what was going on at the House of Commons. Unusually for an evening sitting, the hallowed green benches had a few elected posteriors sitting on them to debate the issue of fixed-term parliaments. When we joined the party - although admittedly in the second class seats behind a mammoth glass partition that serves to remind us of our inferior, unelected status - two rather lonely government bench figures were being forced to listen to a succession of Scottish MPs ask why they weren't taking more notice of the Scottish experience. Thomas Docherty MP gave us a helpful lecture about the intentions of the American founding fathers. Sheila Gilmore, of Edinburgh East, rambled through a series of Scottish based points that faced regular intervention from those Tory MPs still casting half an ear to the debate, and which usually required one or two members of her own side to counter-intervene and re-interpret the honourable lady's meaning. Given all this intervening, it ended up being quite a lengthy speech, which front bench spokesman Mark Harper whiled pleasantly away by having a catch up conversation with government whip Mark Francois, who seemed sublimely uninterested in Mrs. Gilmour's views. Ed Balls popped in to have a chat behind the Speaker's chair with his old ally Tom Watson, and Chris Grayling popped his head into the chamber, only to quickly withdraw again - perhaps when he realised what the debate was on. It always seems a shame that Scottish MPs at Westminster, deprived of any real authority by having another parliament in Scotland to deal with their constituents' interests, should still have to put themselves through the hollow activity of speaking at Westminster, and there were few enough people to hear them. There was the occasional call for the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister, but possibly they weren't aware that he'd already done his bit of constitutional explaining over the road at the Hansard Society meeting.

Thus far, the debate had been interesting enough, but not noteworthy for any flights of rhetorical excellence. Then, the ebullient figure of Stephen Pound MP arose, and delivered a comic turn that must surely have been developed in an earlier career in stand-up. He electrified a moribund debate through the simple expedient of being moderately entertaining. I can't wait to go back and hear more.

Clegg at the Attlee

The Deputy Prime Minister himself, Nick Clegg, spoke at the joint Hansard Society, Political Studies Association meeting last night in the Attlee Suite at Portcullis House. But not until he - or, rather, the Political Studies Association - had been properly introduced by its chairman. Professor Vicky Randall proudly informed us that the Political Studies Association exists to promote.....political studies; a helpful clarification. Nick Clegg, by contrast, got the most cursory of introductions, and then spent some of his time laboriously commending former Times political editor Peter Riddell on his recently acquired Privy Council membership. The distinctly un-Privy Councilled Michael Crick, Newsnight's unruly political editor, sat with pursed lips at this evidence of a fellow journo entering the hallowed realms of the establishment. Anyway, commendation over, the Deputy PM got down to the brass tacks of giving us a fluent account of the Constitutional Reform Bill which we all know so well by now.

Nick is going to 're-wire' the British political system, as he twice informed us. It is currently "closed, remote and elite", so perhaps a good thing that the lads from Eton and Westminster are here to open it up a bit. Mr. Clegg saw his proposed reforms in the light of earlier great liberal achievements, although whether changing the size of constituency boundaries really is as big a deal as giving people the vote is at least moderately debatable. Of course the Bill contains other measures - a referendum on AV as a new Westminster voting system; Lords reform; fixed-term parliaments; re-wiring; decentralising some local government funding; more re-wiring; dealing with party funding; individual electoral registration in schools; another bit of re-wiring - this is all heady stuff, and some of it is necessary, but it is also in danger of looking like a collection of nice ideas devoid of an overarching theme. Clegg, to be fair, tried his best to give us that, but is telling that his finest moment - in the impeccable judgement of Dan, JJ and Jamie, the three L6th students in attendance - was his defence of his tuition fee decision. This wasn't about constitutional reform, but about hard political reality, and Clegg's rationale that he didn't win the election, and had no mandate for all, or any, of his election pledges, coupled with a clear and convincing explanation of the new loan policy, suggested that he actually has a story to tell, but needs to tell it more clearly and distinctly.

Oh, and it was a loss to us all that Michael Crick, who switched between looking either disdainful, or peering disappointingly into his empty wine glass, was never called on by the Hansard Society chairman to ask his question. These academic types - no respect really.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Students Are Revolting

You've got to admire the genius political acumen of the student movement leaders, honed as it has been by the best that a university education can give. There had been a creeping sympathy for the plight of students faced with soaring fees. After today's violent protests, however, the story can quickly move back to the hoary old one of hooliganistic students who don't deserve a penny of taxpayers' money. Lucky old government. Unlucky decent students.

UPDATE: Paul Waugh's tweet is on the money - predicts that student protests will be a thing of the past once students are paying high fees and needing to get their money's worth out of their education!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Phil Woolas

He was an unimpressive minister, outgunned by Joanna Lumley on the Gurkha issue amongst other political failings, and he has ended ignominously, by being declared to have lied about his opponent in his election literature. Phil Woolas represents a sorry episode for Labour all round. but does the new hard line, enunciated by Harriet Harman this morning, really ring true? She says that Labour will not have him back even if he wins his appeal agains the election ruling. This is, she says, because Labour will not tolerate lying in order to get elected. Is she really saying that up to this point the Labour party, which had Woolas back as a shadow spokesman until last week, had no inkling until now about the tendentious nature of his election literature? It beggars belief.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Oborne's Punts

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne has stuck his neck out again this week. He dares to suggest that the Coalition is one of the most revolutionary governments Britain has seen, comparable to Asquith, Attlee and Thatcher - potentially. And he thinks the Tories' civil war on Europe has been laid to rest, citing the extraordinary events of this week -

Last weekend, David Cameron opened the way for a sharp increase in our budget contributions to Brussels, while giving the green light for a new treaty to save the eurozone. On Monday, he announced a new era of defence co-operation with France. The Prime Minister has developed an easy, relaxed and mature relationship with both President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel. Until very recently indeed, there would have been uproar had a Tory leader countenanced any of this. Last week, there was scarcely any reaction on Conservative benches. The spectre of Europe, which has engulfed the Tories since the assassination of Margaret Thatcher exactly 20 years ago, may have been laid to rest.

He may be right on his first punt, but given the grumblings of the Tory right about the European issue, I'm not sure he's read those runes correctly at all. Never mind the predictable over the top outrage of his Telegraph stablemate, Lord Tebbit (who called Cameron's negotiation to reduce a 6% spending increase to something like 2.5% a 'Vichy like betrayal'). His own former employers at the Spectator have been determined to remind us of the Eurosceptic make-up of the Conservative parliamentary party - see James Forsyth's blog post here. That war is going on I think.

The Right Nation Again?

There remains a lot of excitement amongst British conservatives over the Tea Party victories in America, and the house journal of the right, the Spectator, has no less than three admiring articles on the subject in this week's edition. Most prominent amongst them is Andrew Neill's turning of an extra buck by translating his BBC programme into a second salary piece about the 'New Republicans'. He suggests that America has returned to the embrace of the right, but he may be as premature in that assertion as other commentators were two years ago when they spoke then of the dawn of a new liberalism heralded by Obama's historic victory.

The American electorate is as fickle as any other, and veers from liberalism to conservatism on a regular basis. The liberal Woodrow Wilson was succeeded by a forgettable trio of small government Republicans who were caught short by the Wall Street Crash and gave way in turn to the uber-liberal Franklin D Roosevelt. In the 60s, the liberal Johnson was succeeded by the rather less liberal Nixon, while the illiberal Reagan-Bush years were followed by the would-be liberal Clinton. Two years does admittedly seem a rather short outing for the most recent liberal incursion of Barack Obama, but it isn't over yet. American voters have simply shown that they like voting against their government, and they don't like unemployment. More than that, it's impossible to say.

The People's Contradictory Voice

The people may have spoken in the US mid-terms, but hardly with one voice, and not terribly clearly. The Tea Party may be celebrating the arrival of some of its key people in Congress, but I doubt the vote on Tuesday was a particularly significant endorsement of them. The exit polls are interesting - as they left the polling stations, 37% of voters said they wanted a stimulus to create jobs, while 37% said they wanted the budget to be reined in. They weren't necessarily different people in each group either. The Tea Party and their imprisoned leader, John Boehner, may be talking of dismantling the Obama reforms, too, but health care was not the priority issue for those questioned in the exit polls, and when they did express a view they appear to have been evenly split in favour of further expansion and taking apart.

Lessons, therefore? Not exactly new - a government presiding over unemployment, even when they are not responsible for the economic conditions which produced it, will be punished by the voters. Voters feel no loyalty to leaders if they have no jobs. And the Republicans, lacking a clear vision themselves other than the negative one of undoing Obamaism, should realise that they will have been a share-holder in the government in two years time.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tea Party Prisoner

Will new House Speaker John Boehner really be his own man? He's told the Tea Partiers that "I will never let you down", and has probably just closed the prison door on himself. Republican intransigence was the reason for the difficulties faced by Obama in passing his radical bills, but so too was the way in which the whole project was undertaken - the BBC's Mark Mardell has it on the button:

It didn't help that the bail-outs of the banks and the car industry were disliked by left and right. To the left, they were helping the rich and powerful corporations which helped create the mess. To the right this was a Big Government takeover of the economy.

There was some terrible politics. Regardless of its merits or otherwise, health care reform looked like a muddle, badly sold, badly explained - and the eventual bill was the mangled result of the sort of horse trading people thought they were voting against.

The Republicans Are Back

The new House Speaker, John Boehner, announced that he hoped President Obama would now respect the wishes of the American people. Just a pity that the Republicans in Congress didn't do that for the past two years.

Obama's had a set-back, and the very active 111th Congress will now give way to a 112th Congress controlled by people who want to undo most of the Obama-Pelosi legislation. The message for Obama is to be as good a politician in office as he was campaigner out of it, and to sell his remarkable agenda more effectively to the American people. As for the Republicans, who still lack a positive agenda and who have been in thrall to the radical, eccentric Tea Party movement, they could reflect on the fact that but for the Tea Party's more fringe candidates, they might now also be the majority party on the Senate as well.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

One Nation Tories Should Want Obama’s Democrats to Triumph Tonight

They won’t of course. Caught in the midst of a recession that isn’t of their making, they will still receive much of the blame from disillusioned voters, and the Republicans should cruise to a victory in at least the House of Representatives. A Gallup poll is estimating an unprecedented Republican gain tonight , enough to give them the Senate as well, and the Republicos at Conservative Home are already cooling the champagne. Tim Montgomerie has triumphantly recorded Conservative support for the Democrats at a limping 17%. Where, he smugly asks, have the former Tory Obamacons gone?

If the Obamacons were genuine One Nation Tories they should still be standing at his side. The witches’ brew of Republicanism and Tea Partyism offers up such a lethal cocktail of xenophobia, state minimalism, fear, religious fundamentalism and rampant, crush the poor libertarianism that it should inspire nothing but horror amongst all decent, modernising One Nation Tories. The idea that anyone in the Tory Party should feel an allegiance with Sarah Palin or Christine O’Donnell should be anathema. They should recognise instead that Obama and the Democrats have forged ahead over the past two years with an extraordinary legislative programme that, but for its conservative timidity, would bear proud comparison with the aims of One Nation Tories.

The health care bill could put the number of insured Americans over 95% - impressive and praiseworthy, even if still short of the 100% achieved by an NHS which David Cameron rightly placed at the heart of his campaign. The regulation of out of control capital markets fits well with David Cameron’s own calls before the election in Britain for more effective regulation. Which of us, after all, would argue with the need for a systemic regulator, such as is envisaged by Obama’s financial regulation bill? As for the stimulus, it may seem to be radically different to the Coalition’s austerity budget, but in George Osborne’s ring-fencing of education costs, his rescuing of defence contracts, and his careful focusing of the cuts that were made, he achieved a measurable triumph on behalf of the Coalition in balancing the need for continued fiscal stimulus with the aim of reducing the worst excesses of the budget deficit. What it clearly wasn’t was the Friedmanite slashing beloved of the Republicans and the Tory right, a result that should have relieved us all.

The Republicans operate to the right of a political centre of gravity that is already considerably rightwards of our own. The addition of the Tea Party, for all the honeyed words of Dan Hannan in his eloquent calls for a ‘repatriation’ of the Tea Party revolution, sends elements of them even further into a stratosphere that is thoroughly alien to European centrists. If the Republicans win big tonight, One Nation Tories should be weeping with the Democrats, and then working flat out to defend their own remarkable coalition from the ravages of libertarian pillaging that have caught out their friends amongst the Obamaites.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Public Sector Virtue

Jackie Ashley (private sector journalist) defends the public sector from the right-wing perception that it's all simply comprised of a bunch of parasitic, unproductive leeches, in the Guardian today. Looking forward to reading a defence of the bankers as genuinely upright, wealth creating men and women of corporate virtue, but am not holding my breath!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Politics of Spin - in the Commons

Great story in, of all places, the Mail on Sunday this morning, showing how Danny Alexander had to move along the Commons bench to make room for Nick Clegg to hove into camera shot during the Chancellor's Spending Review. All so that the Commons cameras could then project the trio of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, without Alexander getting in the way. The story has given Alan Johnson his first good line as shadow chancellor, when he commented that Danny Alexander 'disappeared faster than a family's child benefit'.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tower Hamlets and Labour's Misery

The election of an Islamic fundamentalist mayor for Tower Hamlets may have poor repercussions for Ken Livingstone. Lutfur Rahman was Labour leader of the Council before being removed, and was dropped as Labour's candidate for the new post of executive mayor of Tower Hamlets. The national Labour party appears to have had very good reasons for its actions, and did at least manage to distance itself from a man who, had they kept him on their lists, would have become an even more serious embarrassment. Somehow, the eternal maverick Ken Livingstone failed to get the message, but then, show him an extremist and he's right there. He campaigned for Rahman, standing as an independent, rather than the official Labour candidate for mayor.

This may be bad for Livingstone, but there are serious downsides for Tower Hamlets as a whole from Rahman's election. The Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan reports on the affair here, as does Labour member Luke Akehurst on his blog here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Headline Agreement

The Spending Review was so clear that there can be absolute agreement on who the cuts are hitting........er, not.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

US Politics

With the mid-term elections approaching, and a likely harsh verdict on President Obama's first two years,the BBC's Mark Mardell reflects on Obama's apparent fall from grace, and asks why things have gone wrong for the reforming president. He refers to an article in the New York Times which uses an interview with the president to offer further reflections.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Schools Question Time

For politics set members, the information about Schools Question Time is here, with the application form questions here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

PMQs and Ed Miliband's Debut

David Cameron made a storming start when he was a novice Leader of the Opposition facing Tony Blair at his first Prime Minister's Questions, pointing at a clearly weary Blair and exclaiming that "You were the future once!" Well, now it was Cameron's turn to face a new Opposition Leader, although he has himself barely got his feet behind the Prime Ministerial Despatch Box yet, so weariness wasn't an option!

Several commentators called the exchange for Miliband - the BBC's Nick Robinson, the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh and the Spectator's James Forsyth for example. Certainly Miliband was considered, understated even, and rightly eschewed flashy statements or corny one liners. He came across as a man genuinely trying to get the truth out of the Prime Minister, and rightly focused on the child benefit policy, still one whose weakness doens't appear to have been properly explained or corrected by the government. Although there was a nervousness to his performance initially - or at any rate an apparent nervousness - he came across with sincerity. This is certainly not a leader to be under-estimated by the Tories. But whether or not he 'won' PMQs I'm not so sure. Cameron remained commanding and fluent, and appeared for the most part to be dominating the exchange. It's possible that expectations may have played a part in some observers' enthusiasm for Miliband, but you can always make up your ownm ind and go to the broadcast of the exchange here - it's near the beginning.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

St Vince Loses His Halo

Pity poor Vince Cable. An intelligent man, once able to command universal respect for authoritative economic pronouncements that could never expect to be tested in the cold light of real decision making, he now faces the nightmare of any politician in danger of wielding real power - the need to row back from rash promises. It must have seemed a great idea for the Liberal Democrats, in opposition, to demand the removal of university tuition fees. After all, it not only differentiated them neatly - and positively - from both main parties, but their pre-election expectations would hardly have indicated that they might ever need to actually deliver on such a generous promise. Alas, the turn of events that has given Clegg and Cable ministerial cars has also given them the thorny economic realities of higher education funding.

At least Vince is not alone in his need to retract an unthinkingly generous promise. I seem to remember a buoyant Labour Party under Tony Blair declaring their opposition to tuition fees. The Tory governments of Thatcher and Major never dared to introduce them, fearing the opprobrium that would be heaped upon them if they did so. Blair, on the other hand, had no problem as a new Labour Prime Minister in finally breaking the protective barrier between university students and tuition fees. Vince Cable should thus at least disregard current Labour criticisms of his actions - he is only carrying on where they left off.

The New Ruling Class

For a long time we had the aristocracy. Then came the distinctly lower middle class leaders (Heath, Thatcher), interspersed with the odd scion of the genuine working class (Callaghan). Now, who are our masters? Simon Head in the Guardian considers the new ruling class represented by the wealthy products of top public schools that are Cameron and Clegg. For class watchers amongst you, an entertaining read (and due thanks to blogger Skipper for noting this article).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bloggers - Inadequate, Pimpled and Single

Oh dear. That description above is the [abbreviated] one applied by the BBCs Andrew Marr to bloggers, and all I can say in response is that I'm not pimpled. Actually, Marr described bloggers as "socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting." I don't think he likes us, but when you take away the range of adjectival epithets he applies to us, at heart is an issue about online debate, and just how helpful it is, or indeed how informed. Whether anyone likes it - even an anyone as esteemed as Andrew Marr - is irrelevant, since it is certainly here to stay.

The quality of online debate is undoubtedly variable, and Marr's point that too much of it is simply angry and abusive can be verified from a look at any one of hundreds of political blogs and, even more, the comments attending most of their posts. Marr's successor as political editor of the BBC, Nick Robinson, has also gone on record to suggest that new media comment fails in the crucial area of reflectivity. It simply provides a new forum for uninformed, knee-jerk reactions, few of which genuinely widen the scope of our political knowledge.

I have some sympathy with the view of the two beeb people, despite my own incursion into this much abused field. But they miss the fact that online political engagement is crucial in enlarging the sphere of both political activists and interested observers in a way that remains important to the health of a liberal democracy. Sometimes, the 'blogosphere' can have an impact. The most prominent of the political blogs is probably that of the pseudonymous Guido Fawkes, and while I detest his witch-hunt against former Hague adviser Chris Myers, there is no doubting that he has a right to question how public money is being spent or to raise up issues of hypocrisy (as with his current campaign to reveal how many shadow cabinet members are millionaires) or pose awkward questions to newly elevated MPs like Ed Miliband's campaign manager, and now shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan. Other blogs, such as those run by politics lecturer Bill Jones (Skipper), or former lobby correspondent Paul Linford, clearly provide the informed comment of seasoned political observers, comment that is every bit as acute as that available from print or broadcast journalists.

The problem with the blogosphere is, however, not just that it can be seen as hysterical and vindictive (and in that respect hardly any different from the tabloid press), but that it can also take itself too seriously. The recent election for the chairmanship of the Conservative Party youth organisation Conservative Future drew a flurry of online activity that kept officials at Conservative Central Office engaged for many, many man hours. The online debate about the election was described to me as vehement, malicious, even slanderous at times. And the net result of all this online hot air? A mere 200 votes cast, out of a putative membership of 18,000. On a larger canvas, the Political Studies Association's magazine 'Political Insight' carried an article putting the online political sphere in its place, when it looked at the internet election that never was. The authors note that despite the huge sums devoted to digital engagement, very few votes were shifted as a result. The Tories' more traditional telephone canvassing effort proved far more significant, at a fraction of the cost, while Jack Straw's Blackburn campaign, devoid of digital engagement but very firmly focused on local activity, saw his vote increase by 5.7%.

Andrew Marr may be sounding a little too defensive, as a well known broadcast journalist whose own private life was exposed on the internet not long ago. He raises some legitimate points, but he is ironically in danger of over-stating the impact of the internet, whilst ignoring the areas where it is a healthy complement to the existing media.

Tory Teacher Trouble

Katharine Birbalsingh returns to work today after a rather turbulent week. The blogger Cranmer has an update on the somewhat murky political circumstances surrounding her suspension here.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Argument of the Right

At the Conservative Party Conference last week, Daniel Hannan MEP was a hugely popular speaker at the right-wing fringe events. A cogent, articulate and personable man, he is the current hero of the recidivist Tory right. Although he is a British representative in the European Parliament, his real ideological home is America, and he has just written "The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America", in which he urges them not to follow the European route towards statism and welfare. To mark its publication, he has been interviewed by the right-wing National Review, and the interview makes for genuinely fascinating reading. He correctly marks the historical beginning of America's move towards greater federal state action with the two Roosevelts, especially FDR. He rightly sees FDR as in some ways a model for Obama, although draws, naturally enough, rather different conclusions to those of liberal sympathisers from this comparison.

Since he covers American politics and the broader themes of relevant ideological trends, and always in a very cogent form, this interview is a must-read for A2 students, but it is illuminating for any observer of politics to read one of the more articulate assessments of right-wing Toryism around, and straight from the horse's mouth in a sense. I hate the fact, as a One Nation Tory, that I sometimes listen to Hannan and agree with him! Happily, this was less of a problem in reading the interview.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Teacher In Trouble For Speaking At Tory Conference

The nature of the modern Conservative Party Conference is that its main arena is a bland speech-fest for senior party figures. The days of delegate debate have gone, and in its place is a parade of established statements from ministers or shadow ministers that occasionally inspire but more often induce somnolism. Thus, it was good to see that in the Conservatives' Education debate, some figures from the real world of teaching were put up to talk of their experiences. One of the best received of these was an inner city primary school deputy head, Katharine Birbalsingh. One of my colleagues who attended the debate was enthusiastic in his praise of Ms. Birbalsingh's forthright assessment of the school system and why, in her view, it is failing poor kids. Certainly she received an extremely warm reception. Her analysis may not be to everyone's taste, but there is no doubt that in claiming that education ideology now inhibits schools from really pushing the brightest of their pupils, and that over-concern of politically 'correct' doctrines now makes discipline even more difficult, she hit a nerve. Alas, poor Katharine. She has hit such a nerve that her school has asked her to work from home until it decides whether to discipline her or not.

Her school is, of course, entitled to take whatever action it sees fit if it believes she has in some way harmed their reputation, and Ms. Birbalsingh might have been advised to at least inform her head teacher of what she was planning on saying. But it would be a pity if ultra sensitivity to criticisms of the education system from within lead to disciplinary action against this teacher, thus inihibiting other teachers around the country from voicing their own thoughts. Education should thrive on open debate, and if Ms. Birbalsingh is continuing to do a good job at her new school, her desire to contribute to the wider national debate should not be a matter for rebuke. Otherwise we will find that the contributions of 'real people' become as bland and uninformative as those we already get from the politicians.

You can see Ms. Birbalsingh's speech here (scroll in to 1hr. 5mins), and read the predictable outrage of the Daily Mail at her treatment here.

UPDATE: The blogger 'Dizzy' has uncovered an interesting point about the 'executive head teacher' who is responsible for telling Ms. Birbalsingh to 'work from home' prior to possible discipline measures. The head is one Dr. Irene Bishop, who in her previous headship allowed Labour to launch their general election campaign from her then school. Seems like this might not be such a clear cut case of educational principles after all.....

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

How Tory Conferences Work

Internet access here is ridiculously limited if you've forgotten to bring your own laptop, so a short reflection from the Tory Conference for the moment. Liam Fox, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt have been this morning's keynote speakers, and each has managed to demonstrate the facility of gaining ready applause by recycling some old tabloid fears or pushing the Tory crowd pleasing buttons. Thus, Liam Fox and William Hague both get decent responses to the "We will always support our brave forces" line, and Liam Fox managed to regurgitate some of the stories about men in uniform being refused service or harassed at shops, to rising anger from the few delegates still awake. I think there may have been one incident of that type a few years ago, but it goes down well here to remind us all that we are the party of "Our Boys" (rendering the conference a bit like a reality tabloid).

William Hague draws the prize for emptiest gesture receiving most applause yet. He announced a 'sovereignty clause' in any piece of EU legislation to pass through parliament henceforth. An utterly meaningless clause, since the the sovereignty of parliament stands as one of the few genuinely unquestioned aspects of our famously uncodified constitution. But it drew massive applause because (a) it involved an attack on Tory hate institution, the EU, and (b) he used the words "our ancient parliament" which always goes down well with this patriotic, history loving audience. Mind you, if they think parliament's current liberties and rights are ancient they may need a crash course from new History Tsar Simon Schama.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt employed the speech tactic beloved of David Cameron, by standing centre stage with no notes. Clearly his first bid for the leadership succession. He also drew applause by praising competitive sports. The ageing and rather somnolent audience clearly likes the idea of other, younger people competing hard. Hunt threw in a few button pushing phrases that seemed to suggest failure in competition really led to success, and then produced a tabloid-esque story about a primary school cancelling sports day because they were afraid children would fall down. Cue collective horror from outraged audience, whose most active role this morning was to squeeze into the seats.

We may have a new, fresh-faced coalition government, but tory delegates have merely emerged from a long state of suspended animation to carry on where they left off in the 90s.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Paxman's Nadir

There are undoubtedly better things to be doing on a Friday night - one friend has updated her facebook status to note that she will be drinking jager bombs in Piccadilly this evening, and that's one option. As it happens, I ended up half-heartedly watching Newsnight in between social reading sessions ("Team of Rivals" still). Half-heartedly, until I saw the neutering of that once fearsome interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Quite why a significant section of the BBC's premier news show was devoted to the essentially frivolous (when he's not being essentially offensive) character of Russell Brand is unclear. Maybe it's a slow news day, this day when Rahm Emanuel decided to leave the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago, and Pervez Musharaff looked as if he might be getting back into Pakistani politics. Whatever the reason, we got a ludicrously light interview with a man whose celebrity (Brand) remains both inexplicable and bizarre. Paxman grinned away at the motormouth before him, failing completely to ask any sort of challenging question, reverting really to the sort of deference his ilk once reserved for politicians - "Tell us, Mr. Brand [cue disastrous grin], have you anything more to tell the nation?" Brand talks quickly to disguise the superficiality of his views, and Paxman, the feared interrogator of wimpish politicians, drinks it all up. This is really just a little media love-fest. Paxman and Brand are united in their contempt for the BBC management that pays or paid them so much, and had a cute 20 minutes or so to chuckle together about it. Paxman offered Brand the current BBC compliance forms for him to mock, and bought wholesale Brand's considerable re-vamping of his pathetic phone call to Andrew Sachs. From a politician such revisionism would have provoked his utmost ire and contempt - from Brand, it provoked nothing but nodding agreement.

If this really is the best that Friday night Newsnight can come up with, they could save a lot of money by replacing the well-paid Paxman with a cheaper low-budget variety show. Or they could leave characters like Brand in the celebrity bubble they inhabit and venture out into the real world for some hard news instead.

The Impact of AV

The use of the Alternative Vote delivered the Labour Party a leader who was not their first choice. They're stuck with Ed Miliband now - and he may yet prove more impressive than his over-rated brother (see below) - but the impact of AV on General Elections has now been given a more in depth academic study in Parliamentary Affairs magazine. Tory blogger Iain Dale has referenced the new article with the gloss that AV would reward the Lib Dems with almost permanent king-maker status. This certainly seems to be the conclusion of the research done using the 2010 election data by the article's authors. However, voters are nothing if not unpredictable, and as the German experience shows, king-making parties too can suffer the wrath of the voters, who may choose to reject them completely. AV is a flawed system certainly, and it is a poor PR alternative to offer the voters in the proposed referendum, but Mr. Dale's concerns may be a bit presumptuous even so. The full article is here (requires pdf to read), and while it is a thorough study of the various ways AV would have affected the 2010 election, it does admittedly require a bit of fortitude to get through all of the statistical peregrinations.

The Shallowness of the 'New Politics'

Peter Oborne shows once again why he is a must-read, in today's column for the Daily Telegraph, comparing David Miliband's rapid and undignified exit after losing to the fortitude and reslience of earlier politicians.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

David Miliband Finally Exits

David Miliband may well be looking at his last headlines tomorrow, as he shuffles off his political coil and finally exits the front-line political scene he has occupied for so relatively short a time. He has managed to upstage his leadership winning brother for much of this week, but now he's accepted the logic of his position - and implicitly acknowledged the bitterness of his defeat - and made the first steps away from politics. If he lasts as an MP to the next election I'll be surprised. If his reputation lasts any longer I'll be even more surprised.

The meteoric rise and rapid fall of David Miliband have been an instructive tale on the conduct of modern politics. He was one of that increasing group of advisers who were making their name before they even hit parliament. Ushered into a safe seat, David didn't have to waste much time on the backbenches before oozing smoothly into the cabinet, where he was almost instantaneously spoken of as the obvious Blairite successor. His three years as Foreign Secretary represent the high point of his political climb, and although he served competently, and even struck up an odd chemistry with Hillary Clinton, it isn't immediately obvious what lasting achievement he obtained while in that exalted position. To be fair, it isn't immediately obvious what lasting impression he has made at all in politics. Such has been the rapidity of his career it seems to have left little time for anything as solid as a concrete monument. He didn't even manage to decide whether to challenge for the leadership of his party in more trying times, when he might actually have managed to be its saviour - but then, so wet behind the ears was he as a politician that he was still a novice in the hard arts of political activity.

Enoch Powell argued - actually, I think he stated, brooking no argument - that all political careers end in failure. He was thinking of careers that had many years of hard work and graft behind them, making their ultimate failure all the more tragic. The failure of a career that has barely spanned a decade seems so much more ephemeral, and barely registers on the political richter scale. This, perhaps, is the true representation of the new career politics that Philip Cowley was talking about; indeterminate flashes across a darkening sky that seems bereft of the bright lights of more lasting stars. David Miliband departs as if he is some triumphant, weary general who has finally hung up his sword. Actually, he barely unsheathed it, and now disappears not so much into the dustbin of history, as to be consumed by its vacuum.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Press and Miliband

The line being taken by Critics of Miliband includes, of course, the fact that he was only elected by dint of union support, and was clearly not the first choice of members or MPs. One thing calculated to quickly bring the Labour membership into line behind him will be the front pages of today's newspapers. With two exceptions, they subject Ed M. to a critical firestorm - just the sort of thing to persuade ordinary Labourites to swing in behind their new leader.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Miliband Dilemma

They really don't know what to make of him. The pundits, that is. So much so that Blairite John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday basically seems to want to write Cameron's PMQ attack lines for him, while the conservative James Forsyth on the Spectator blog explains why Ed is a far more formidable figure than the Conservatives are allowing.

More on Miliband

Quite a bit is being made of the role that Derek Simpson's Unite union played in Ed Miliband's victory. Certainly the union did all it could to swing its members votes for Ed, but not all is what it seems! One very Conservative friend of mine happens to have joined Unite in the last year or so to protect his position, and used his opportunity as a union member and devoted Conservative to vote for the man he thinks will keep the Tories in power. Chalk up another one to Ed M.

Cameron, Clegg, Miliband - The Triumph of the Political Professionals

Ed Miliband’s victory as Labour leader tells us virtually nothing about the possible direction of the Labour Party, as witness the acres of disparate punditry occupying today’s press. Is he ‘Red Ed’, or is he the pragmatist leader of a new generation? Is he Iain Duncan Smith or Tony Blair made anew? Other than the fact that the unions appear to have voted for him in order to reject his more obviously Blairite brother – one in the eye for a historically failing Blair there – what, really, does Ed Miliband stand for? We don’t really know. We don’t really know because he has been in front line politics for such a short length of time, and it is this fact as much as anything else that may be the most telling aspect of Ed Miliband’s election, as the renowned political scientist Philip Cowley comments today.

Read more here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Miliband of Brothers"

The night before one of them becomes the Labour Party leader, More 4’s tongue in cheek docu-drama, “Miliband of Brothers” didn’t do either of them any favours, but was an entertaining and illuminating watch. Yes, they were both portrayed as the nerdy middle-class sons of a comfortably off, radical professor who quailed when faced with real rebellion. Yes, it was entertaining to watch the clashes between their well-meaning, utterly divorced socialism and the real world of conflict (there’s not a lot of conflict going on in the left-wing parlours of North London and the glorious isolation of Oxford colleges after all). In terms of character, I suspect the programme makers rather favoured Ed Miliband over his even nerdier brother, giving him a more entertainingly subversive personality with a slightly stronger relationship to planet Earth than that enjoyed by his brother. David’s inability to party or act like “a normal teenager” was played up for a bit of cheap humour, but partying is over-rated and what is a “normal teenager” anyway? Heaven help us if such a boringly homogenous species ever does emerge.

We were reminded of the real political dramas of the polarised 80s, when Margaret Thatcher radicalised the nation and Scargill, Draper, Heffer, Benn and co split the Labour Party and made it ungovernable, waging a continuous war with leader Neil Kinnock. Then along came Blair, and the Milibands’ firm commitment to his final abandonment of anything even approaching socialism. I had forgotten the genuinely fantastic sight of Kinnock, Mandelson and Prescott lip-synching along to “Things Can Only Get Better”. I hadn’t forgotten, because Andrew Rawnsley, one of the programme’s contributors, has always been around to remind us, that the Labour leadership was an utterly poisonous concoction between Blair and Brown. But out of this has arisen the Miliband v Miliband fight for leadership, and tomorrow one of these two slightly bizarre characters will be entrusted with trying to return Labour to power after a rather shorter interval in opposition than the last one. “Miliband of Brothers” may have just served to remind us how strange most of our political leaders are, whether they went to Haverstock comp or Eton. Or, possibly, one day – Sutton Grammar?!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vince's Masterly Hatchet Job

When Nick Clegg was merely an inexperienced neophyte who had rather surprisingly been elected to the leadership of a third party few people really cared about, he was very often in the shadow of a far greater, altogether more majestic figure. Vince Cable had shown, during his temporary leadership of the Lib Dems, that age didn't have to be a bar to effective leadership. He had combined well aimed comedy - his jibe about Gordon Brown transforming from Stalin to Mr. Bean was one of the most wounding to be aimed at the former PM - with a reputation as the country's greatest political seer. Never mind Cardinal Newman, it was Vince that everyone thought should be sainted.

Even as the election campaign began, the Lib Dems seemed to think that St. Vince, as he was commonly becoming known, should always be seen at Mr. Clegg's side in order to give the younger man more gravitas. Well the rest is, as everyone rather unoriginally says, history. Nick Clegg delivered a passable performance in his first television debate, in contrast to flawed performances from both of the other leaders, and became a political figure in his own right. Not only was there no more need for Vince, but the older man was quietly consigned to the sidelines while Cleggmania took effect. Vince only re-emerged as a rather reluctant member of Nick Clegg's readily agreed coalition with Mr. Cameron. His famous impression of a dying duck in a thunderstorm became a regular feature on political shows. But Vince Cable didn't become one of the Lib Dems' biggest figures by accident - although in that party, to be fair, such a thing is not improbable. No, Dr. Vince Cable is as capable of a political hatchet job as the next man, and that is what he has managed to deliver today.

Cable's hard nosed political acumen was clearly seen in the releasing of incendiary excerpts from his 'anti-business' speech as Business Secretary; then his careful placing of such rhetoric in a slightly less inflamed final speech whilst still enthusing the dying Lib Dem conference crowd, was a masterpiece of political spin (see Paul Waugh's take on it here). And the hatchet job he has delivered is certainly not aimed at British business, but at the man whose views he has been busy contradicting all week - Nick Clegg. Vince Cable is an uncommonly good politician, and when Nick Clegg finally moves on to become the next leader of the Tory Party, it will be Vince, and not the earnest Simon Hughes, whol will succeed him as the popular new leader of the opposition Lib Dems. Masterly.

Brown Damned Again

With one academic book about the 2010 election already out (the Hansard Society one, launched last week at Portcullis House), another one is due soon. Edited by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh, it contains more lurid descriptions of the inability of Gordon Brown's No. 10 office to function properly. We have heard much of this before from Andrew Rawnsley, but Iain Dale has a flavour of what else is to come to haunt Brown on his blog here. Little wonder David Cameron has been greeted with relief for being just more - well, normal.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Unites Lib Dem 'Progressives' and Tory rightists?

Utter dislike of the Coalition of course. The Lib Dems may have greeted Nick Clegg triumphantly enough today, but the tenor of many questions to him yesterday was far from triumphal. Even today's set piece speech seemed, to the BBC's Nick Robinson, just a little defensive.

If you want a clear idea of just what problems beat against the coalition from the Lib Dem left and the Tory right, have a read of the following two articles. Evan Harris in the Guardian explains why the Lib Dems need to distance themselves from policies which they feel have been imposed on them by the Tory part of the coalition. Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home bemoans the fact that the Lib Dem part of the coalition has become too powerful, and identifies three more policy changes which concern Tory right-wingers.

The leadership of the two parties may be pretty well in synch, and former Tory turned Lib Dem Baroness Nicholson might exult that we now have a properly One Nation government, but this is a Janus faced coalition, and it will keep wondering exactly which face to put before the British public throughout its career.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Tea Party, a masturbation socialist and Palin's Presidential Run in 2012

The Tea Party movement in America is admired and venerated by some of those right-wing Tories, like Dan Hannan MEP, who distrust David Cameron's leadership. As a movement dedicated to the classical liberal philosophies of less government and low tax, it is the most successful recent incarnation of the New Right. It has also managed to create waves with the selection of a range of Republican candidates for the forthcoming mid-terms who are sympathetic to its aims. For the most part, such candidates have not caused much comment outside of being Tea-Partiers, and one positive account of the current Republican situation can be found in the Weekly Standard here.

However, the selection of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware (Joe Biden's home state) has caused waves. She was well supported by Sarah Palin, and is considered by many to be on the extreme fringe of the Republican Party, and even the Tea Party movement (Slate magazine exposes her as a 'masturbation socialist' here). Democrats have been breathing sighs of relief, claiming she is unelectable and that the Republicans, by selecting her, have at least saved the Delaware senate seat for the Democrats. Even mainstream Republicans seem to be running scared, although some commentators see her victory as a nemesis resulting from the party's own long-term tactics against Obama. But consider for a moment if she wins, or even comes close. O'Donnell might be seen as a dry run for a Palin presidential bid in 2012, and an Obama White House that currently views Palin as unelectable may not be so sanguine if the economy continues to dive, and especially not if O'Donnell, Palin's Delaware soul-mate, does well in her election.

That Palin is indeed running for president is now considered a fact by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, as it has long been so considered by the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan. The alarm for anyone who thinks Palin is a certifiable nutter is that nothing can be taken for granted in democratic politics, and no-one, given the right circumstances, is unelectable.

Clegg - A Tory Favourite (But not a Liberal One!)

The Evening Standard reports a poll which shows Nick Clegg having a far higher popularity rating amongst Tories than amongst his own Lib Dems. The Lib Dems, indeed, have had a battering as a result of their coalition decision, currently languishing at 15% in the polls. This is in part to do with a problem of identity - are they an indistinguishable part of a Tory government, or are they a distinctive party of the liberal-left? One Labour insider put it to me, rather gleefully I thought, that Clegg's real problem was that he had embraced the coalition, and his partnership with Cameron, much too enthusiastically. From the moment he appeared like a love-struck courtesan in the garden of Number 10 he was doomed. Had he suggested that it was only with real difficulty that he entered into coalition, and kept on showing real regret, perhaps even occasionally emulating Vince Cable's all too frequent look of utter despair, then anti-Tory voters and Lib Dems might have been prepared to accept he was sacrificing himself for the good of the nation. Unfortunately, he is enjoying power much too much to make a convincing martyr. Perhaps Clegg will in time see his future with the Tories, lead his coalition Liberals into a formal electoral pact, and eventually succeed Cameron as the next Tory leader?

While David Cameron's own position with Tory voters seems pretty solid - a 91% approval rating - it is hardly good news for his party that they are now level pegging with a Labour Party that is still essentially leaderless. Time for them to start praying for an Ed Balls victory.

A Coalition Electoral Pact?

There was some agreement at yesterday's Hansard Society meeting that the Conservatives were still drawing the poison of the Thatcher years in terms of their electoral appeal. No-one doubts that the Coalition has the happy effect of moderating some Conservative positions, and there is the persistent rumour that David Cameron prefers being in coalition to governing alone, when he would be even more subject to the raucous calls of his right-wing without the defensive buffer provided by the Lib Dems. Inevitably, there is going to be talk of whether it might help for the Conservatives to enter a formal electoral pact with the Liberals as well. This issue has received a little more attention as the result of an article by influential Tory MP Nick Boles in the Times. One moderate Tory reaction, very much favouring Boles' proposal, is here. However, as we were also reminded by yesterday's assembled academics, the round of party conferences is going to show us both Lib Dem and Conservative activists in tooth and claw, and they're unlikely to be welcoming the prospect of stronger ties with each other, whatever their leaders may want.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lessons for Education from TV

Michael Gove apparently wants schools to start emulating Gareth Malone, whose "Extraordinary School for Boys' series started last week on BBC1. Malone could become the Jamie Oliver of lessons, so I finally got round to watching the first episode of his programme. It's difficult to say what was most annoying about this tedious tv enterprise. It could be Malone himself, who combines his ridiculous keenness with an incredibly annoying adoption of a naive/'little boy lost in big world' persona that was wearing thin after the first five minutes. It could be that the programme is based upon the nonsensical premise that educating and playing are essentially the same thing. Or it could be the programme's desire to keep focusing in on the class 'characters' - who of course are the really annoying kids with loud, inarticulate opinions who would be better advised to go and re-read the school's Healthy Eating guidelines.

The programme had an annoying habit of being utterly repetitive, perhaps believing that its entire audience was comprised of Attention Deficit Disorder sufferers who needed to be constantly reminded of the purpose of the project. Cue lots of shots of Gareth telling us that the problem is that boys are disengaged from school, with voice-over man regularly telling us that Gareth had to increase the boys' literacy standard in eight weeks. Yawn.

In Gareth Malone's school you don't have to stick to a curriculum, you can invite a whole team of previously invisible council workers to help clear a wood patch, and you can treat every day like a day off school so that you can do games instead. And since Gareth is only actually in school for three days a week, it is the regular teachers who pick up the pieces when the class returns to normal lessons in actual classrooms (Gareth doesn't use classrooms as they disengage the boys).

What we learnt from all this is that boys prefer activities to learning (and Gareth's risky stuff wasn't actually as risky as he made out, with his helmets while clearing wood and staid rules for British Bulldog). Sherlockian stuff, really. After watching this pap, I wasn't sure whether my problem is that I hate kids, hate schools, or just hate wise-guy TV presenters with crap ideas about education. What's worse is that Michael Gove thinks this is the way forward for education. In despair, I turned to the Inbetweeners for a more realistic look at education instead.

Coalition's Narrow Lead Against Leaderless Opposition

The headline polling figures yesterday were about the Labour leadership (see below) the results of which are due in two weeks. Just as interesting were the YouGov daily polling figures which had the Conservatives on 42%, Labour on 38% and the Lib Dems on 14%. Plenty has already been written about the Lib Dems' current precarious state amongst potential voters, and you can see why they will be best advised to get five year fixed term parliaments in as soon as possible. But it isn't that much sunnier for the Tories - with spending cuts yet to bite, and an opposition that has effectively been leaderless since the election, a 4% lead is not exactly an Everest of electoral approval. Whichever Miliband wins, they will surely have the nouse and position to close that narrow gap very quickly. Cameron's honeymoon is already over.

The Miliband Race

With the YouGov polling data now out there is the fascinating conundrum that while Labour members apparently see David Miliband as more electable (55% to 25%) and a potentially better prime minister (45% to 28%), the poll of members, as reported in the Sunday Times over the weekend, gives Ed Miliband a narrow lead (51% to 49%). But, this lead makes an assumption over second preferences, dividing them equally between the two brothers from the other three eliminated candidates. That this is by no means certain is commented on by James Forsyth on the Spectator blog.

On first preferences (and with the other candidates still in the race) David beats Ed 36% to 32%. Whether or not Labour members really will decide to use their second preferences to give the leadership to the man they perceive as both less qualified and less electable remains to be seen, although it will be an interesting commentary not only on how a party membership often rejects electability in favour of ideological comfort, but also how AV might give voters a false sense of security when allocating their second preferences.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Robert Harris Damns Blair

Robert Harris once began his regular Sunday Times column during the dying years of the Thatcher regime with the following words: “It is a sobering thought to realise that we are being governed by someone who is mad”. Hardly surprising that he embraced Tony Blair and New Labour with enthusiasm. However, the man who is now one of Britain’s most popular novelists (“Fatherland”, “Lustrum”) fell out of love with New Labour, and especially its egocentric leader. In his novel “The Ghost” he damned Tony Blair through fiction. Now, in his Sunday Times book review, he has damned Tony Blair via the former premier’s memoirs. If you haven’t read it in the paper (the ‘Culture’ section), it is worth the pound to read it online. Harris is withering about Blair in every possible way. While politics students and teachers will almost certainly want to read the book for themselves, they can get an (obviously partial) sense of it from Harris’s extraordinary critique.

Despite Blair’s merely passing reference to religion as a “passion” greater than politics, there is no doubting Blair’s belief in his divine destiny. “I felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny…I could see the opportunity to take hold of the Labour party…I could see it like…an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius.” Harris goes on to highlight Blair’s rather chilling and bizarrely frank premonitions of John Smith’s impending death from a heart attack, and his brazen opportunism when that event finally happened.

Discussing Blair’s attitude to the September 11th attacks and the wars which followed, Harris concludes that “One cannot rid oneself of the uneasy feeling that Blair enjoys war – its stark simplicity, its historic drama, its emotion.” He suggests that, for all his denials, Blair really was a neo-conservative in the way he saw the war as an opportunity for western imperialist nation-building. Then Harris is at his most damning when quoting Blair’s vision for war – “ ‘It requires above all a willingness to see the battle as existential and to see it through, to take the time, to spend the treasure, to spend the blood’. All this [says Harris] from a man who can’t bring himself to sign copies of his book in central London in case of protests.” Wow. Not much room for doubt there. Blair is a “crazed millennialist who, not content with one pre-emptive war against Iraq, now blithely advocates a second against Iran.”

Harris writes with the zeal of the de-converted. His disillusion with the Blair Project is deep and seering. He explains this in his review, but he also allows Blair’s own words, and the content of his memoirs, to work against him. It is a brilliant piece of writing, paints a wretched picture of the Labour Party’s most successful ever leader, and demands to be checked or assessed in the light of our own reading of Blair’s mawkish manuscript.

There is No Defence of the British Tabloid

The Case Against Andy Coulson continues to be analysed in the less Conservative friendly newspapers - notably the Guardian and Independent. Coulson, Cameron's now press chief and former News of the World editor, is the man currently at the heart of the story - always a bad position for someone whose job should keep them directing rather than starring in the drama - but both the Guardian and Independent (see this piece in today's Independent on Sunday for instance) have widened their investigations to implicate a much broader culture of illegal behaviour at the Murdoch tabloids that places the spotlight much more firmly on Murdoch's direct minions and even Murdoch himself. Since Murdoch controls the most ferocious tabloids in Britain, the story obviously stands as a pretty strong indictment of tabloid behaviour and attitudes, full stop. Now, however, there are starting to appear attempts to defend the appalling culture of the British tabloids.

One such appeared in the Bagehot column of the Economist this week. Bagehot has been taking a keen interest in this story in his online blog, and his appreciation of the awful power of the red-tops in general, and the NoTW in particular, have made some of his analyses compulsive reading. He once again shows, in this week's column, an unerring awareness of just what the red-tops do. After a brilliant description of the NoTW as "combining the cynicism of a brothel madame with the self-righteousness of a lynch mob", he goes on to show how the tabloids use their power over individuals:

British tabloids enjoy political power in several ways. Thanks to weak taboos about privacy, they wield the threat of personal exposure. If the current mood in Parliament, especially in the wake of last year’s expenses scandal, is one of bitterness and fear (because all MPs feel they now live under suspicion that they are “on the take”), the tone of the tabloids is one of undisguised triumphalism. To pick a recent case study, the Sunday Mirror reported on September 5th that the estranged second wife of an obscure Conservative MP was working as a prostitute. The following day, the outwardly respectable Daily Mail carried abject quotes from the MP on his doorstep, saying he knew nothing of his wife’s actions, and could prove that he was separated from her. At this point, the Mail noted coolly, the MP “began sobbing”. The piece concluded by naming his three children.

Cruelly humiliating individuals, creating huge scares over populist issues - these are the methods of the red-top. But, alas, Bagehot then throws all his good analysis away with a scandalously weak conclusion. The raucous British tabloids, he suggests, may be unsightly, and may disgrace politics, but they act as a lightning rod that keeps the baying right-wing populists at bay. He cites the example of Europe's more reasonable press, suggesting that because they do not provide an outlet for such fury they contribute to the rise of the type of right-wing nationalist who gets short shrift in Britain. Sorry Bagehot, but absolutely wrong. Not only does he have the impact of the European media wrong (a much more detailed, thoughtful, if slightly dull book on the subject by academic Antonin Ellinas exists for those who are interested), but his attempt to explain the failure of the British far right falls disastrously short of the mark. Remove this tenuous defence, and the British tabloid is then revealed as a harsh, cruel, malicious and wholly malign influence on the British body politic.

A more hysterical defence appears in the online paper The First Post. Written by Brendan O'Neill, it is in the form of an attack on the Guardian newspaper for daring to devote its precious time to investigating and criticising the Murdoch press. O'Neill's extraordinary attack on the Guardian suggests that by shining a light on the less than savoury methods of the News International papers they threaten to condemn all media to greater censorship. Keeping a bad tabloid press is better than watching it crumble, suggests O'Neill, who manages to take a very laissez-faire view of the NoTW's criminal activities. In fact, the Guardian (and, indeed, the Independent) is carrying out precisely the sort of thorough investigation that should be the meat and drink of the journalistic trade, and is far more likely to maintain a healthy and effective press than the shameful antics of the NoTW. That O'Neill seems to see the future of a free media as being intertwined with the rapacious, reckless and illegal antics of a tawdry newspaper shows just how out of synch with reality he is.

The red-tops are a blight on British society, and the fact that they are such a popular blight is no defence in this instance. David Cameron continued the recent tradition of merging the tabloids into the network of British governance with his appointment of Andy Coulson and his deference to the court of King Rupert. It would be an irony indeed if such a merger ultimately proved so damaging to him that he lost both his press chief and his credibility. In the meantime, Britain still awaits a political class willing to do more than simply bend over in terror when the tabloids come calling.