Friday, December 04, 2015

Will Oldham change the Labour narrative?

Until yesterday, the media narrative for the Labour party since the general election has been one of unparalleled disaster.  This only increased with the election of the very left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, a man whose main political work was as a serial rebel and protest march speaker.  Wholly unelectable, rejoiced the largely right-wing media in mock-sepulchral tones.  And he didn't do the things that politicians should do, like pander to the media march - this is a leader who committed the cardinal sin of failing to turn up to an Andrew Marr interview.  Honestly, where were his priorities?

Corbyn hasn't been much of a hit in the Commons, the place where the Westminster village gathers, and has rather annoyed regular Westminster watchers by taking the sting out of Prime Minister's Questions.   He doesn't even seem very interested in Westminster occasions, as if somehow they don't really impact upon his own supporters and voters in the constituencies.

Then, of course, there came the disaster of the Syrian air strikes debate - or more accurately ISIS air strikes debate (or Daesh, or IS, or whatever acronym we choose in the fond belief that they're really very interested in what we call them).  Corbyn, a man of principle even if he does look eternally miserable on television, remained opposed to strikes and wanted his parliamentary party to join him.  An undeniably inexperienced leader, he failed to properly bring his colleagues on side by largely ignoring them, and his media management remains atrocious. He gave a poor if honest speech in the debate, was eclipsed by his own shadow Foreign Secretary but helped by David Cameron's ludicrous mis-step in having spoken about terrorism's fellow travellers.

Yet while the largely hostile media revelled in Mr. Benn's fine speech (most OTT love letter was probably that of Labour refusenik Dan Hodges in the Telegraph) the voters in Oldham West were preparing to deliver a more significant verdict - that of Labour's heartland voters.

Oldham is an early test of Mr. Corbyn's electoral potency.  This may be a man who won a huge grassroots majority in his election as Labour leader, but the depreciation of his image and apparently hopeless attributes as leader have been consistently trumpeted by a hostile media.  Even yesterday, there were serious hopes that Labour would be cuckolded by UKIP in Oldham - take this piece by the Spectator's Sebastian Payne (soon to move to the FT).  Payne even visited Oldham, escaping the Westminster bubble for a day, and his finely tuned village antenna revealed these truths.  That "Corbyn's leadership appears to be dragging the party towards electoral oblivion", that there were signs on the ground that "all is not well for Labour", that UKIP's John Bickley could be the party's second MP and believes "he has struck gold with Jeremy Corbyn".  On it went.  Despite visiting Labour headquarters in Oldham young Mr. Payne still reported that UKIP could win the seat, Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep, every time John McDonnell spoke he turned more voters towards UKIP.

But who can blame the Spectator's correspondent?  He was hardly alone in his assessment or in his Westminster assumptions that Corbyn was simply not proving up to the task, and a single visit north was not going to alter that.

Then the voters had their say.  It wasn't a big turnout, but at around 40% it was not disastrously small either.  Labour won, and won handily with a 10,000 majority.  And Labour's share of the vote actually increased.  So Jeremy Corbyn, the man who won the Labour leadership with the largest popular vote ever granted a party leader, can actually win parliamentary elections too it seems.  It's almost as if he might actually be in tune with the thinking of supporters of a left-wing party.

The vote on air strikes, too, was instructive.  While there were some headline Labour figures opposing their leader's stance, and much of the media narratvie has been about a wretchedly divided party, only 8 of Labour's 53 new MPs supported air strikes.  The vast majority agreed with Corbyn.

Labour is undoubtedly a party in turmoil.  But their new leader's key attribute is that he reaches well beyond the confines of an insular Westminster village, and the civil war on his parliamentary benches may well be more of an indication of how out of touch the more traditional, or mainstream, MPs are than any suggestion of Corbyn's own isolation.  A Corbyn led party has won a by-election that the common narrative said would be very close or potentially a disastrous loss.  He has won it well.  He keeps the loyalty of his newly elected MPs - and the majority of his shadow cabinet, and the majority of his other MPS - in a highly divisive vote.  When we next read about Jeremy Corbyn in the press, if the narrative doesn't change as a result of Oldham we should at least be highly sceptical of any stories projecting him as an inevitably election losing catastrophe.

And the Tories should sit up and take notice.  While their party gets deeper into revelations of bullying leading to suicide in their retrograde youth movement, they cannot take any comfort from the complacently driven canard that the next general election is theirs for the taking.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

As Paris faces terror again, has liberalism failed?

The western world is full of the distractions that our prosperity and liberal values allow.  So much so, that for the most part we forget that we are at war.  Then along comes a tragedy like the Paris attacks yesterday night, and for a few days – sometimes even weeks – we remember again about our war.

It is a war like no others before it.  It doesn’t often come onto our soil, but it pervades our governments’ and security forces’ actions almost in total. Our military forces are nearly exclusively engaged in military action in the middle east; our security services dedicate the majority of their attention to threats from that same middle east. 

But this isn’t just a one-sided military war.  It is a culture war too.  It is a war of liberalism versus fundamentalism, and the hinterland of this cultural dimension is at the heart of fears about the refugee crisis dominating Europe.

There is no clear resolution.  Well, there is no clear resolution that commands political support.  On our own domestic front – thrown into stark relief once again by the killing of over 120 innocent Parisians doing nothing more warlike than enjoying the leisure offered by a liberal society – it is an obvious misnomer to equate the killers with a single religion.  Their creed is a more nihilistic brand of fundamentalism, and that exists across all religions.  These particular fundamentalists are more militarised because their immediate counterparts in the middle east are militarised, but their core opposition to the values of liberalism are not much different from the opposition of any fundamentalist to the values of an individualist, free-thinking society.

So how did liberalism get here?  How has a western society, drawing its guiding principles from an ideology which elevates tolerance and individual freedom get to a point where it is in a terrible, almost underground war on its own soil against those who want to dismantle it?

Perhaps the problem originated with the inability of western governments to divorce themselves from an interventionism that has also been part of liberalism.  Liberalism shouldn’t be interventionist – or expansionist – but the foreign policies of liberal governments have never quite subscribed to that view.  Inevitably perhaps, since governments are the least able to protect themselves against a corruption of power which demands your aggressive defence against known and unknown enemies.

Thus, in the name of defending liberal values, western governments have found themselves at war. And they are finding what true liberals could have told them all along – war is fundamentally destructive of liberal values, both internally and externally.

Externally, in the ways we have seen.  The enemies the war has created do come after you, and if they themselves are weak then they come after your weakest element too.  IS are a brutal, murderous group governed by an abominable fundamentalist mentality, but compared to the military complexes of the liberal nations they are weak.  They win on the ground because our governments have started to hesitate in their use of their own military power.  Hesitated too late, alas.  So IS attacks in a way that their weakness finds most effective.  By taking aim at the ‘soft underbelly’ of western society. 

Internally, the threat to liberalism exists because each time an attack takes place, more credibility is given to the idea that governments and their forces should increase their own domestic power.

So has liberalism failed?  How do we escape this desperate cycle?  There will not be wanting voices to call for greater action in Syria; more bombings of sometimes military and sometimes civilian targets.  More boots on the ground.  More action in Iraq too perhaps.  Maybe Afghanistan.  But consider this.  The only real path for military success is to engage in a full, total and continuous war until we have utterly decimated and destroyed all the forces arraigned against us; and then to maintain a full military presence to suppress any resurgence of that fundamentalism which militates against us for as long as such feelings might exist.

Read that last bit again and see if it has any likelihood to it whatsoever.  Of course it doesn’t.  Not even war-based empires like Rome succeeded in such a path for any length of time.  But it is the only way of operating if you want to go down the path of military success.

Alternatively, we could try and rescue liberalism and the societies which embrace it by beginning the slow, painful retreat from interventionism.  It won’t be easy.  The seeds of terrorist opposition that have already been sown are still growing and being harvested, and will be a long time before that soil can finally dry up.  There is still a long slog ahead for governments and security services as they seek to protect their societies without reducing them to illiberal states.  But if we really want to escape from the cycle of mindless, fundamentalist, random attacks on the innocent of our societies, then we have understand where it has come from.  And it came from the failure of liberal governments to fully embrace an ideology that should never have allowed them to send half-hearted military forces into areas they barely understood.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

President Rubio?

When Marco Rubio scored his attack hit against former mentor Jeb Bush in the recent Republican debate, he may have been signalling that he was running against the old families of both parties.  For a long time observers and commentators have worried that the presidential election of the world's first democracy might end up being a slug-fest between two names who have come up before - Bush v Clinton.  What would it say about the nature of the American democracy if its two parties' best options were to produce the wife and son/brother of former presidents?  Well, Hillary may be sleeping easier at the moment as she continues to sail through the Democratic campaign, but Jeb Bush has never been a front-runner in the Republican one and the hot money is already gathering around Marco Rubio.

Rubio does well in debates, and his put-down of Jeb Bush - "someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you" - was further evidence that, unlike the senior politico, he can actually do politics and is an articulate candidate to boot.  Yes, the Republican race at the moment remains dominated by the extraordinary - as in extraordinarily ridiculous - Donald Trump, with retired neuro-surgeon Ben Carson in second place.  But there still exists a sense that when the votes start being cast, Trump might flounder, while Carson's lack of political experience is already causing him problems.  Then the Republicans will start looking for their serious, Hilalry-beating candidate. And at the moment that is looking like the senator from Florida.

Rubio is young, fresh, runs to the Republican conservative base without sounding or appearing overly wacky, and as the son of Cuban immigrants has a Latin appeal that is electorally powerful.

The Bushes deride him as a "GOP Obama", but that might seem to those outside the Republican bubble as a positively good thing.  Just as the fresh young senator from Illinois dispatched a member of his party's political aristocracy, it looks as if Rubio might just do the same.  If he does, Hillary really should be worried.  After all, her track record against dynamic incomers is hardly encouraging.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Lessons for Cameron from Denis Healey's "Greatness"

David Cameron could be forgiven if he enters the Tory Conference week thinking about his place in history.  This, after all, is a man who doesn’t have to win another election, since he’s given himself a final term firewall against any future electoral catastrophes.  Not only that, but he’s been able to witness Big Bad Jezza Corbyn’s utter catastrophe of a party conference over the past week, with possibly only a few hours off to mull over the deteriorating quality of western foreign policy (currently sub-contracted out to the country formerly known as the Soviet Union).

Corbyn is a delight in many ways.  He’s not quite as different as a party leader as some hopefuls are suggesting, admittedly.  George Lansbury and Michael Foot were also bizarre lefty true-believers with a lofty disdain for practical politics, and both proved electorally disastrous for the Labour party, albeit from a better intellectual vantage point than the fuzzy minded Corbyn.  But Corbyn is the first of that mould to appear in the age of constant media, and his disdain for the “media commentariat”, coupled with his notoriously badly structured, dull black holes of speeches have all gone to contribute to the carefully spun image of a man who is “authentic”. 

Corbyn’s conference was a sheer joy for David Cameron.  The Labour leader’s select-a-policy style, and his refusal – or inability – to have his shadow cabinet speaking from anything like a single song-sheet, must all be making the current leasee of No. 10 Downing Street giddy with the prospects of his future greatness.  And Cameron has to think about his future greatness as he has no more general elections to win.

What he does have, though, is a referendum to win and if he is to finally rest on the front bench of Great Tory Leaders (Andrew Roberts examines the competition in this piece for the Spectator this week) he will need to ensure that he persuades the country – and much of his own party – to stay in Europe.  Whatever the Euro-sceptics say, Cameron doesn’t see leaving Europe as much of a triumph for his avowedly internationalist approach.

Musing on possible future greatness might have led Cameron to read more carefully the obituaries of Denis Healey this weekend.  Whether great or not – there is plenty of scope for debate – Healey was one of the best known politicians of his era.  He was an early example of the “celebrity” politician who could probably be recognised by the average don’t-care-about-politics-they’re-all-liars voter in the street.  Bushy eyebrows may have helped, and the fact that he was thus easily caricatured by the greatest performing impressionist of his day, Mike Yarwood, but Healey was also well known because he was trenchant.  He rarely expressed modest views and wasn’t shy about condemning his opponents.  His reference to Geoffrey Howe having all the savagery of a dead sheep in his parliamentary attacks has been well recorded.  Less often noted, and more scathing, was his outraged condemnation of Margaret Thatcher as a prime minister who “gloried in slaughter” during the Falklands War.

The problem for Denis Healey – who has received universally positive obituaries – is that his greatest achievement was born out of disaster.  As Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer during the awful 70s he had to advise a recalcitrant party that the days of ambitious spending were over.  He began – in the teeth of massive Labour opposition – a sharp programme of austerity.  It was forced upon him by the fact that he was the first – and to date the only – Chancellor to ask for a loan from the IMF to tide the tanking British economy over. 

I doubt that, when he entered politics after a heroic military career during World War II, Healey envisaged his claim to greatness resting on such a terrible reversal of fortunes.  He spent the rest of his active political career trying to persuade the Labour lefties of the need for responsible policies and a need to appeal to centrist voters.  He failed in this. 

Perhaps that is the lesson from Denis Healey’s career.   Cameron can muse that even if the worst happens, and the country votes to come out of the Union he thinks we should maintain membership of, if he should live long enough afterwards even his failure might be perversely turned into some sort of triumph.

Monday, July 06, 2015

How the Greek crisis is causing comfort for British euro-sceptics.

I've got a piece in the European online magazine "Vocal International" about the Greek crisis and the comfort that Syriza's unlikely allies on the British right might be gaining from it.  It's certainly been fascinating to see British Tories from both parliament and the commentariat line up alongside the left-wing Syriza to attack the European leaders.  The eurozone crisis links them both by providing a common enemy and for the Brits this really must seem like a justification of their oft stated criticism of the whole euro project.

The crisis will take some time to unfold but the ripples from its wake will surely hit up against Britain's own referendum in 2017.  Eurosceptics will be hoping that a Greek exit will help to sour the whole EU image in the minds of British voters.  Europhiles might be concerned that after one exit, another will seem rather less of a big deal.

The Telegraph and the BBC

The Telegraph seems to have reduced its editorial column; I'm sure it's narrower than it used to be.  Whether that is a commentary on the reducing number of writers and journalists the Telegraph seems to have, or simply a reflection of the fact that it no longer has much to say on its own account I'm not sure.  After all, a couple of weeks ago it devoted its main comment article for two days to extracts from the "Business for Britain" manifesto; much cheaper than getting its own hacks to come up with something original one presumes.

So it was with a certain glee that I read their comment in today's paper, inevitably welcoming the cuts that the government wants to inflict on the BBC.  The comment piece soon cut to the chase with its main complaint.  apparently, government money is being wasted on producing an "imperial" BBC website which competes with those of national newspapers.  Which translated broadly means that it is unfair that a public organisation be allowed to produce better and broader journalism than the increasingly lean newspaper industry.

The Telegraph has been shedding journos and writers in commendable quantities in order to ensure that its Channel Island based owners get a good return on their investment so you can see why they might be miffed that the presence of a solid, newsworthy website still exists to show them up.  Perhaps it won't be long either before the newspaper also demands that the BBC adheres to its own brand of impartial comment by employing some serving Tory MPs as writers.

Incidentally, I noticed as well that the "world class" newspaper journalism represented by the Telegraph had to print a correction to its Nicola Sturgeon story from the election, although they did at least manage to squash it on the bottom of page 2 beneath the glowing spread of hard news reportage on the royal christening.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Donald Rumsfeld's Amnesia

You might have thought that Donald Rumsfeld would at least have the decency to keep quiet.  Having wrought such damage upon the Middle East as the result of his ill-considered and misconceived policies, he could at least have spared us his ongoing thoughts.  Yet here he is again, giving an interview to the Times about the current problems and casting himself as a wise man of the past.

Extraordinarily, Mr. Rumsfeld has announced that he was never really in favour of imposing democracy upon Iraq.  George W Bush made a terrible mistake, he suggests.  His amnesia is all the more culpable given how much of Iraq's current day trauma stems from errors, mistakes and sheer arrogance on the part of Rumsfeld himself.  It does seem extraordinary that he is now suggesting he was not an ideological fellow traveller in the great crusade to impose western democracy on Iraq.  Indeed, it is worth just recounting just how responsible Rumsfeld was for the disaster that overtook Iraq, not so much from the initial invasion but from the botched aftermath.

The manifold failings of the worst man to hold the office of American Secretary of defence are documented in many places elsewhere.  Suffice it to say here that this was the man who – in pure neo-con fashion – was the strongest advocate of a war against Iraq in the counsels of the Bush presidency, and the strongest advocate of doing so with minimum men on the ground.  Having scythed through Baghdad, Rumsfeld’s forces were then confronted with a horrendous security operation, and faced with the Secretary’s unyielding demand that this too be undertaken with the most underwhelming force possible.  Rumsfeld, indeed, even stopped one division from going to Baghdad at all, in the belief that it was an unnecessary expenditure. 

The man in the Pentagon thus hamstrung the very forces he had sent into Iraq right from the start. There was worse to come, though, in the form of his sweeping aside of the cautious but politically aware team of American reconstructionists who were in Baghdad and headed by Jay Garner, in favour of the brash, arrogant and wholly unsuited Paul Bremer.  Bremer, a man of supreme egoism who likened himself to General MacArthur, insisted on complete authority to run Iraq.  It couldn’t have gone to a less qualified individual.  Bremer had no knowledge whatever of the Middle East – unlike Garner and his team, or the Iraqi originally slated to be a co-leader, Zalmay Khalilzad.  His foreign experience had been as a chief of staff to Henry Kissinger, and an ambassador to the Netherlands.  It was this lack of any prior involvement in Mid East affairs that endeared him to the ever cretinous Rumsfeld. 

Bremer arrived in May 2003 to an urgent need to establish some sort of authority in Baghdad. His predecessors, Garner and Khalilzad, had been making some useful moves to incorporate previous Iraqi civil servants and military commanders into a new governing authority.  Bremer swept this aside, since he had arrived determined to stamp his authority on Baghdad by dismissing the whole of Saddam Hussein’s political and military structure.  His first order was thus to bar the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government office.  As the CIA station chief in Baghdad noted, Bremer had just disenfranchised 30,000 people.

Bremer’s Order No 2 was even more catastrophic.  Despite the talks that had been going on between Garner and Khalilzad and potentially sympathetic Iraqi army commanders, Bremer’s order – drafted by former Clinton aide Walter Slocombe – removed the entire military structure that had existed under Saddam.  The reaction in Iraq was furious, with angry demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities; sixteen US soldiers were wounded by violent protests in Mosul, a matter of particular annoyance to General Petraeus whose forces had up to that point been making some headway in winning over the city’s population.  And if Order No 1 had sent 30,000 officials to unexpected unemployment, Order No 2 did the same for 300,000 well armed soldiers.  It is no surprise to discover that many of those soldiers formed the nucleus of the Islamic Army of Iraq and Syria that is causing so much grief today.

Bremer’s orders, confirmed by Rumsfeld, were ill considered and destructive, but even the logic on which they were based was flawed, not least because Bremer failed to make even the most cursory investigation of the country he had come to rule.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Iraqi army’s top ranks had far fewer Baathists than he had thought.  A mere half of the generals,  and only 8,000 of the 140,000 officers and NCO’s were committed Baath Party members.  The Iraqi officers who had been in discussions with Garner and Khalilzad knew this, but Bremer had dismissed their contribution out of hand.  He ended up pursuing de-Baathification of a military that hadn’t needed it. 

There is a final indication – and perhaps an appropriate one – of Paul Bremer’s mendacious ignorance of Iraq and Arab culture.  He and Slocombe had devised a scheme to replace the Iraqi military with a ‘New Iraqi Corps’.  NIC, when pronounced in Arabic, sounds very much like “fuck”.  It is a fitting commentary on a man who has retired into a peaceful life of painting and lecturing in the bucolic countryside of Vermont while the reverberations of his ill-thought out and gung-ho policies continue to condemn thousands of Iraqis to death, torture, or – often at best – a wretched existence carved out in the midst of slaughter, and fear of the ISIL monster which has filled the vacuum he created.   Mr. Rumsfled may not have been in favour of imposing democracy.  The trouble is, he doesn't appear to have been in favour of imposing anything at all.

The book “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (chapter 24) provides much of the narrative detail referred to above.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Education is failing poor, white, working class boys

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan hasn't yet explained why she thinks Academies are the answer to failing schools.  In fact, of course, they are an ideological expedient with very little educational thinking behind them.  the ones we have vary hugely in type, quality and success.

The reason this is important is because there is a crisis in education and the political fixes so far designed aren't dealing with it.  The Sutton Trust have produced their report "Missing Talent" - the high achievers (top 10%) at primary school who, after five years of secondary education, rank outside the top 25% of pupils in achievement terms.  That is some 7,000 pupils each year according to the Sutton Trust, and the largest proportion of these are white, working class boys.

There is more to mull on and consider in this important report, and the New Statesman gives an early commentary.  There are no easy or pat solutions, but in an age which has so vigorously set itself against formal academic selection, it is worth considering the words of the left-wing writer Iris Murdoch, in her contribution to the 1975 Black Papers:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

There's an open goal still waiting to be scored in by the party with some credible answers to raising educational attainment amongst bright pupils in secondary schools.

#the56 SNP MPs - could they be Commons reformers?

The problem for the well-publicised SNP #56 is that they actually have very little to do for their constituents in the Westminster parliament.  The meaty stuff, the legislation that affects the people who voted for them, actually goes through the Scottish Parliament, and will do so in even greater form after the increased devolved powers are given.  So what to do in Westminster?

Well one thing they could have a significant impact on is a change in the way parliament - and especially the House of Commons - actually does things.  In a sense, the SNP MPs have arrived as rather good-natured insurrectionists.  They have been sent to parliament by voters who see Westminster as the enemy.  Many of these new MPs share that view.  They've arrived in the hallowed halls of Britain's finest active museum as bewildered outsiders wondering what the hell is going on.  And they've lost little time expressing their frustration, being arguably the best group of politicians to co-ordinate a message on social media to date.

Too many MPs use social media as a tool for utterly dull, mind-blowingly tedious tweets; or else they make a careless slip when pressing the camera button which ruins them forever.  The SNP, on the other hand, seem to have been able to use their twitter feeds not just to create a unitary image - #the56 has become a great way of generating trend traffic - and to quickly communicate with the voters back home.

Take their views of yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions.  As the session veered into its usual melee of noise and unillumination, SNP MPs were quick to express the sort of outsider's contempt that has long been the view of those who are not MPs.  The Huffington Post recorded a number of the tweets here, but the general theme was the same - how is this noise a proper method of debate and accountability?

Now of course the SNP could just be being mischievous, playing to their outsiders' image for political gain.  They did after all start their 5-year pilgrimage to the mother of parliaments with selfies, seat-napping and provocative applause (although maybe applause is better than shouting?).  But if they wanted to find something genuinely positive to do, this group of fresh-air breathing Scots iconoclasts could do everyone a favour if they chose to push for a more appropriate, representative and effective modus operandi in the House of Commons.  SNP as constitutional reformers?  Who'd have guessed.


Philip Cowley gives his assessment of the SNP here.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

School history at GCSE is about to be wrecked. Should we care?

Education change is both a vast area and a small one.  Macro change concerns the very nature of our schools, their funding and their set-up.  Micro change concerns those small things that go on within a curriculum or inside the school.  Much political attention focuses on the macro – it’s easier and everyone tends to have a view.  But bear with me for a little as I try and explain why one of the less noticed micro changes – the complete overhaul of the GCSE history syllabus – is such a regrettable action of education vandalism.  Of course, my concern stems from the fact that I am a history teacher and clearly believe that history should be a strong and coherent aspect of any healthy curriculum.  Sometimes, though, these micro changes throw a much more illuminating light on the flux and turmoil within education than any of the macro items.  I've written a piece for the TES on this very topic, so here it is; why we should be opposing the changes to the history GCSE.

The untimely death of an under-estimated politician

It was shocking to hear of Charles Kennedy's death this morning.  There was no warning, no expectation, and the man was only 55.  How could he suddenly not be here?  If we who merely know him from the outside think that,  how so much more shocking must it be for his family.  A suddenly bereaved wife, and a young son who also lost a grandfather not very long ago.  It is a sign of the affection in which Kennedy was held, and the largeness of the man's presence in our political consciousness, that so many have leapt to record their shock, sadness and regard for him.

Reflecting on his life and career, I suspect we have all been guilty of under-estimating him as a politician and leader.  Yes, he was widely liked.  Yes, we all knew that he could carry a chat show as well as anyone, especially if it was "Have I Got News For You?"  But were we really fully aware of his sharp political mind and the impressive principle which made him so effective at articulating a vision for modern liberalism.  Did we look beneath that "chat show" veneer, that likeability, and note that here truly was a politician who could do things differently, speak to us all with a fresh voice, without ever sacrificing his keen and principled political judgement?  Strange thing is, despite his regular media appearances, he never came across as a gimic merchant, a slightly fraudulent politician seeking cheap celebrity.  He was always authentic.  A politician to his fingertips who enjoyed communicating with people, and could do so naturally and easily.

I was struck when reading a 2002 interview that Peter Oborne did with him, republished on the Spectator blog today, at how unwilling he was to spin things.  He was after those soft Tory seats, but had no intention of either reducing the volume of his support for Europe, or backing off from identifying closely with public sector workers and unions.  And he won those seats.  Perhaps not as game-changingly as Oborne suggested in the article then, but certainly on a larger scale than the Liberals had managed in nearly a century.  What would they give for that sort of success now.

Kennedy as a leader was undone by drink, the curse of many men and one perhaps exacerbated by the hot-house atmosphere of Westminster, where he worked and lived from a really very young age.  The plotting against him then was unseemly, and maybe he railed against it in private but I never remember anything other than a quiet, sad dignity when he spoke in public.

Do all political careers end in failure?  Kennedy's was certainly cut short at a singularly inopportune moment.  He had just lost his seat in the SNP landslide, after a term when he was at odds with his party's decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.  On that, as well as on his opposition to the Iraq war, history will judge him to have been on the right side of the argument.  But even he couldn't withstand the shocking tremors of the SNP win. If anyone could have had an incumbency strength it must surely have been him.  And yet his colleague Malcolm Bruce commented this morning that Kennedy had been bemused by the reaction in his constituency.  He would be greeted by voters who said they liked him, wished him well and believed he would win, but were going to vote for the SNP.   Go figure.

Charles Kennedy showed that you could certainly do politics differently, but perhaps also showed that if you do there is a danger that you may well be sold short in terms of political weight.  The most electorally successful Liberal leader in a century was never actually regarded as a political superstar in his lifetime.  Tragically it's taken his early death for that to start being fully understood.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The One Nation PM

David Cameron announced that he would be a "One Nation" prime minister, and in both outlook and practice he would appear to be fulfilling the role he has set out for himself.

Although he has indeed appointed a more Thatcherite cabinet than his predecessors, this has largely been through the pragmatic necessity of getting the right people into the right jobs.  The Cameron style of governance in any case favours continuity - a significant and, many would argue, welcome distinction from the almost constantly moving BLair/Brown years - and this obviously saw a number of committed Thatcherites retain Cabinet office (Gove, Grayling, Javid, Hammond to name a few).  They were joined by rising stars such as Priti Patel (attending, rather than a full-on member of cabinet) and Andrea Leadsom, while Thatcherite old-stager John Whittingdale got his place in the sun, not least because he happens to be the best-qualified person to hold his role.  The cabinet selection, in fact, was a triumph of pragmatism over ideology, with the arch-strategist George Osborne increasing his own authority as part of the harmonious duopoly that he and David Cameron seem able to run.

The Queen's Speech, too, carried some right-wing headlining.  The promise on a European referendum, the proposed welfare cuts and the right to buy bill; all these could have come straight out of the Thatcher playbook.  But they were all also manifesto pledges.  The European referendum is Cameron's attempt to lance the boil in his own party and give membership of the EU a genuinely popular mandate.  Putting it straight in to his first Queen's Speech was a matter of necessary management.  The other headlining issues reflected promises made during the campaign.

Look, however, at what wasn't there.  No British Bill of Rights yet, nor a vote to repeal the fox-hunting ban.  And under the wire, look at what else is happening.  Childcare allowances to be doubled, apprenticeships to be increased, and of course Cameron's own well publicised commitment to actually extend NHS provision in a 24/7 direction.  There is definitely an issue of costing of these expensive commitments to be identified, but they form part of a One Nation commitment to social mobility and "caring for the poor" that is certainly redolent of One Nation PMs of old, as Anne McElvoy persuasively notes in her Observer piece.

It's not just in policy commitments that David Cameron appears to be showing his One Nation colours.  His practice too reminds us of the methods of government of the most prominent of his One Nation predecessors.

The originator of the One Nation brand (though he would hardly have used that term) was of course Disraeli.  But Disraeli reached the top office at a point when he was almost too tired to pursue any active measures himself.   He left the radical reforming to his ministers, most notably his Home Secretary Richard Cross who has as much claim as anyone to be the original executor of One Nation Toryism.  Cameron is certainly not a tired man in office, but like Disraeli it is possible that foreign affairs (in his case the necessary negotiations over EU membership) will consume more of his time.  Thus, the practical measures required to put his vision onto the statute books will lie in the hands of his ministers.  That's why Iain Duncan Smith stays at Work and Pensions, and Jeremy Hunt at Health.

Mr. Cameron also understands the art of steady rule.  The Spectator blog suggests that the greatest reforms of the Cameron administration come from his ministers.  True, but it is the PM who must both give the political freedom to pursue this, and the steady leadership to stop it being overly divisive. This is a classic Stanley Baldwin approach, another notable One Nation leader.  Baldwin presided comfortably over a potentially divisive inter-war Britain, ensuring Labour had its chance to govern, making sure that the General Strike didn't become a class war, and giving radical reformers such as Neville Chamberlain their head.

The most potentially divisive issue facing Mr. Cameron is the European Convention on Human Rights. He has apparently decided that Britain will not in fact pull out from this, believing that the production of a British Bill of Rights should satisfy most of the calls for a greater prominence of British rulings in such issues.  The Telegraph reports that this has put him at odds with Michael Gove and Theresa May, but the fact is that this is Cameron the arbiter in action.

David Cameron clearly does not see power as something to hold on to for its own sake, and has a refreshingly detached view of holding office - hence his off the cuff comment to James Lansdale of the BBC about not running for a third term.  He is a leader who sets the agenda, and understands that very often he has to find en effective middle way between the competing ideologies of colleagues and party supporters, as well as position the Tories as an effective whole nation party once again.  The early indications are that he has the temperament and commitment to achieve this.  Any One Nation Conservative should be cheering him on enthusiastically as he re-sets the party for a generation or more.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Votes for 16 in EU Referendum?

Huh.  What do I know?  Having been dismissive of the idea that votes for 16 year olds is on the agenda at the moment (see post below), I caught this story in the Guardian.  Apparently Labour and the SNP may make common cause to at least secure the reduced voting age for the EU referendum.  In this instance such a move, if successful, could be a boost for the Yes camp, although generalising about the capricious young is always a bad idea.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Young Voters make a difference

There continues to be debate amongst politics students, political scientists and crowd-pleasing politicians at student conferences over the voting age.  Should it be reduced to 16?

Unlikely though it is to happen, it becomes a prescient question in the light of two recent referendums.  The 2014 Scottish referendum allowed 16 and 17 year olds to join the vote, and saw a huge proportion of that age group give momentum to the Yes vote, for full devolution.  Then came yesterday's vote on gay marriage in Ireland.  Passing by a 62% vote, few doubt that young Irish voters felt particularly mobilised to join the referendum, even travelling from hideouts abroad to do so.  Now the youth vote alone did not give Ireland a constitutional amendment which introduced gay marriage equality.  In Scotland, the reduction in the vote to 16 did not ultimately produce devolution either.  But in both cases, a radical change to the status quo was given momentum, and the possibility of popular consent, by the presence of a motivated youth vote.

Votes for 16 may not be on the agenda, but an enfranchised and mobilised youth vote would change the political landscape in future landscapes, almost certainly away from the traditional party structures.  Perhaps that's one reason for them to steer clear.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

UKIP and the politics of Mao

My A-level students are sitting their exam on twentieth century Chinese history this afternoon.  It is an extraordinary topic, dominated by the figure of Mao Zedong.  Mao may have started with great ambition and ideals for his country, but most remember him now as the power-crazed lunatic who led China into the Great Leap Forward (deaths 40 million, though many estimate higher) and the Cultural Revolution (deaths around 1 million, and a devastated Chinese educational and cultural landscape).

One of the incidents I hope my students will recall is Mao's reaction to some criticism levelled against him by an old and trusted colleague. When Peng Dehuai, then the defence minister and head of the army, dared to broach some criticisms of Mao's plans for what proved to be the disastrous Great Leap Forward, he was greeted by a storm of abuse.  Mao took him to task in front of the Communist elite, gathered at a conference in Lushan, blasted him for his temerity in launching such obviously unjustified and personal attacks, and had him removed from all his party jobs and sent into internal exile.  But then, Mao had become the Commmunist Party's only big cheese by this time and was tempted to see any criticism of him or his policies as a bid for power.  Although he had stood down from the presidency, he decided the party needed him to stay on as leader.  Paranoia would later drive him to creating the bizarre and costly Cultural Revolution.  But at least he stayed in office as Communist leader until his death.

On a separate issue, I'm hoping my politics students are noting the shenanigans within UKIP.  Nigel Farage has shown that a determined leader can really hold on to power, although it's a shame that two of his most senior allies, who broached some criticism last week, have now 'resigned' their posts. Farage reigns triumphant it seems.

Don't know why those two unrelated issues crept into my mind.  Must be the exam season effect.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Skinner 1, SNP 0

Perhaps Scottish Labour could requisition the services of Dennis Skinner, the "Beast of Bolsover".  The parliamentary veteran and plain speaker has defeated them in their first attempt to remove him from the seat he's been occupying for 45 years or so.  These SNP types, for all of their bread and chip suppers on the terrace and their take-over of Labour's favourite bar, are wimps after all.

Of course this is all rather arcane and of no significance to the average voter whatsoever.  But the increasing issue of the 56 SNP MPs is this.  What will all these MPs actually do, given that most of the issues affecting their constituents are dealt with now by the MSPs of the Scottish Parliament?  What is the British taxpayer awarding them £67,000 for?

Time to move on with devolution and save at least £3,752,000 a year straight off.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Those who can, organise; those who can't, commentate

Lynton Crosby is certainly entitled to a bit of triumphalism.  Getting Boris to London City Hall is one thing, but getting David Cameron back to Downing Street with a majority against all the odds certainly ranks as one of the great Lazarus tricks of modern politics.  So well done Mr. Crosby.  If you weren't already in the super-league of international political consultants, I guess you must be not only in it but near the top of it now.

He's left us with a bit of a gift too.  Not a big speaker to the press (no good campaign manager wants to be the story during a campaign, as Alastair Campbell should have realised) he has now given a departing interview to the Daily Telegraph.  Amongst all the post-election ink flow, this one provides some of the more interesting and controversial analyses, coming as it does from the man who won.

As I read his interview, I warmed to the man, far more than I might have expected.  It was two points in particular that produced that feeling of positivity towards an undoubted political rottweiler of the right.  First, apropos of a more significant point, he quoted that well worn canard that "Those who can do, those who can't teach".  I sighed internally for a brief instinctive moment as I read that one.  No teacher in this country has gone through their lives without having that one quoted incessantly at them by hilarious friends heading off to their long lunches in the city, or gobby students who have just been told off for yet another tedious infraction.  But my sigh quickly turned to a gasp of surprise.  Crosby was quoting this to do it down.  His wife, it turns out, was a teacher and "I don't really agree with that" he said.   Well, well.  Here was a human side I hadn't realised before.  And a possible explanation for one of his earliest influences on the Conservatives' election campaign - the removal of toxic Michael Gove from the Department of Education to the hidden (until the fiasco of the attempt to unseat the Speaker) realms of Chief Whip.

But the second reason for warming to Mr. Crosby was his second, more significant point.  He claims that it is not only pollsters who should be hanging their heads for failing to misread the nation.  He has a very vigorous, and heartfelt it seems, pop at the world of the political commentariat.  He adapts his teacher comment for the world of politics to read "Those who can do, those who can't commentate."  It was a feeling I'd had myself.  Not, I hastily add, the insight that the commentators had it all wrong.  That was a Crosbian intuition based on extensive internal polling.  My feeling was an increasing level of irritation at the apparently all knowingness of commentators who hadn't stepped out of the metropolitan bubble.  I blogged about it here, getting particularly irate at the desire of the commentators to keep knocking the campaign for its dullness instead of perhaps trying to enagage a little more deeply with the actual issues.  Andrew Marr was an annoying example of one who praised the wonderful brilliance of the commentariat but thought the actual campaign being waged by, you know, actual politicians on the ground, was just "tooth-grindingly awful".

Well, Crosby has launched his mighty artillery at them, and is firing a shot in defence of those who have bothered to participate.  The street pounders, canvassers, representatives and their agents, all seeking to do something a bit more than carp from the sidelines.

We need good commentators.  At their best they provide a much needed guide to the often treacherous paths of political discourse.  Divorced from the need to please an electorate they can bring some objective perceptions that illuminate the world that should so fascinate all of us.  But Crosby rightly condemns those who seem to see politics more as entertainment.  Better paid than many of the ordinaries whose vote is the warp and weft of the active politicians' work and voice, they have become too comfortable in their carping sanctimony.  I don't agree with his picking out of Tim Montgomerie necessarily, who has after all been engaged with the political world of both policy and voters rather more directly than many writers, but I do laud his broader principle.

We get the politics we deserve, but very often it is the media not the politicians themselves who too often frame our polity.  Yes, they should start taking some responsibility for that.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Chuka's withdrawal

Chuka Umunna was never considered to lack ambition, and had long been talked of as a future leader.  His unexpected withdrawal from the leadership race raises questions that reflect poorly on the current state of our political and media relations.

Mr. Umunna states that he thought he was ready for the pressure that being a leadership candidate would bring but had under-estimated the level of coverage and intrusion that it actually brought.  This does not appear to be a candidate running away from a potential scandal.  This seems to be a man who has looked over the parapet and decided he wants to have a life rather than run into the no man's land of leadership coverage.  In this, he follows another Labour MP who looked like a good bet for a party seeking able and empathetic figures to lead it, Dan Jarvis.  Mr. Jarvis decided not to enter the race because of the potential impact on his young family.

Chuka Umunna has done his soul-searching and reached a pretty rapid conclusion.  But I wonder if his withdrawal shouldn't precipitate soul-searching on the part of those who report on such things.  If overly intrusive and hurtful media coverage really does form part of the reason for his decision not to go any further, then we need to reflect on whether our hugely judgmental and often savage coverage of politicians needs better restraint.

Alan Johnson, another able and potentially effective quondam leadership candidate, once decided he wanted nothing to do with the top job.  Chuka has followed suit.  Are we really happy that we have created a media circus which actively turns able people away, and rewards only the monumentally egoistic and exhibitionist?

The hell keeps on coming for Labour

There was an outpouring of Blairite angst over the Miliband election campaign last week, but the hell isn't over yet for the "Hell, yeah" leader.  Today's "Times" sees political columnist Philip Collins provide one of the most seering condemnations of the Miliband experiment that I've read.  It makes Peter Mandelson sound like Bagpuss.

Collins' first targets are the "cavalry of denial" who are lining up to contest the Labour leadership, so Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.  Noting that Labour's electoral problem was as significant in England as in the much reported Scotland, he describes Yvette Cooper's recent article for the "Mirror" as "a platitudinous, intern-drafted press release for the Pontefract and Castleford Express", taking her to task for the blithe belief that the average voter really liked a lot of what Labour was saying.  Er, no they didn't, notes Collins.

On to Andy Burnham, whom he beautifully stilletos for being "close to tears about how much he loves the NHS" during the election campaign, and goes on to lambast for his belief that millions of people need to have an "emotional connection" with the Labour Party.  Responds Collins, "Normal people, in the normal world, have emotional attachments to their families not the Labour Party".  On Burnham's leadership bid, the columnist says that "I don't mind that Mr Burnham is Len McCluskey's candidate but it really worries me that he might be George Osborne's". (There is, by the way, a fantastically vituperative several lines aimed at McCluskey's wretched impact on the Labour Party concluding "belt up and leave the politics to people who know what they're doing.")

But it is Ed Miliband for whom Philip Collins reserves his most scathing ire.  Noting that Mr. Miliband shows little sign of acknowledging that his whole election strategy might have been wrong, based as it was on a misguided belief that the country had somehow moved, or could be persuaded to move, sharp left, Collins takes the former leader to task for his vain and misguided campiagn.  Suggesting that the Miliband strategy was to speak only to the 2% of the rich and 8% of the poor, but not to the unsqueezed middle in between, he writes:

"The Labour party in 2015 became the victim of a ghastly atavistic dispute, the lab rat for Mr Miliband's experiment in proving that his father, who insisted there was no parliamentary road to socialism, was right all along."

It is a tour de force of an article, well worth the price of today's "Times" (it is behind a paywall online, but cough up for a copy; if we don't pay for our journalism we'll end up with only having uninformed free stuff and that's no future for comment or reportage).  Andy Burnham is overdue for a bit of well placed lambasting.  A ghastly, over-emotional head in the sand denier of even his own previous record as Health Secretary, he must indeed be the preferred choice of the Tory Party for next Labour leader.  He's good for another few constituency defections in five years time if anybody is.  But Miliband too, in his absolute conviction that he was the right leader for Labour, a conviction that took him to fratricide and then to five years of sheer bloody torture for his party as they tried to convince themselves that he would come good in the end, is overdue for a bit of effective dousing.

Collins suggests that there could be optimism for the Labour party if they bother to heed the lines of the re-awakened Blairites and go for a next generation leader like Umunna, Kendall or Hunt.  He's almost certainly right.  If the Tories are worried that the next five years will watch them slowly unravel and expose their fractious tensions to the electorate, they will be praying that Len McCluskey remains the most influential player in the choice of the next Labour leader.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A One Nation PM and his Thatcherite Cabinet

David Cameron gave a dignified and well considered speech on hearing of his final victory in the election. Able to lead with a Conservative majority, he described himself as a "One Nation" prime minister, making a clear pitch to position himself in the centre of British politics.  He at least, it seemed, was not taking the erroneous lesson from the election that Britain is a naturally right-wing country.  Instead, he was making a valiant attempt to reclaim the most potent Tory brand in electoral politics.  His cabinet appointments, however, have rather belied his own personal branding, for David Cameron has, on the surface of it, appointed one of the most right-wing Conservative Cabinets ever.  Not even Margaret Thatcher could boast such a Thatcherite cabinet.

Take the early appointments.  Michael Gove at Justice, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Defence's Michael Fallon - all have articulated routinely Thatcherite positions.  Hammond, who favours leaving the EU, is probably the most euro-sceptic of modern Tory foreign secretaries.  Gove is a Thatcherite radical par excellence, delighting in challenging and doing battle with public sector institutions and relishing confrontation over emollience.  Michael Fallon cut his teeth as a Thatcherite junior minister in earlier administrations.  Iain Duncan Smith has been a radical and right-wing reformer of welfare for the past five years, and won the Conservative leadership as a definably Thatcherite candidate who had led backbench rebellions over Europe.

Then we have Chris Grayling.  He may not be running a department any more, but his post as Leader of the Commons owes much to his right-wing credentials and the belief that he is well placed to act as a conduit between the all important right-wing and activist backbench MPs and the government.

Theresa May was once the party chairman who described the Tories as "the nasty party" (or at any rate accurately saw that that was the widely held perception), but she has also been a vigorous Home Secretary taking on the vested interests of the police and pursuing an approach that would have set well in Thatcher's governments - better than the late PMs own largely centrist Home Secretaries.

And then consider the newcomers.  John Whittingdale, whose only previous government role has been as private secretary to Mrs Thatcher herself, and who can be counted the most "BBC sceptic" Culture Secretary to hold the post.  Right-wingers who believe in the virtues of free market foreign ownership - especially Rupert Murdoch's - over home-funded media will be delighting in Mr. Whittingdale's appointment.  Sajid Javid at Business and Priti Patel, who attends cabinet, are also among the more Thatcherite of the Tory Party's MPs, hence their frequent trumpeting by conservative commentators.  (And able as they are, I do wish we could stop hearing about their parents' struggles as if somehow they were the experience of the children).

In contrast, there are no cheerleaders for One Nation Conservatism in the cabinet.  Moderate ministers such as Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd mark a more emollient conservatism than most of their cabinet colleagues, but that in itself hardly stands as a vigorous and articulate proposition for One Nation Conservatism.

Finally, where stands the most important member of the cabinet after Cameron himself?  George Osborne is a strategist of skill, and has been a largely canny Chancellor in his pursuit of austerity, but just enough.  His actual political view is difficult to define.  He's no One Nationer, but he is also no clearly fixed Thatcherite either.  Like his friend the Prime Minister, he is an arch pragmatist, seeking office for a party which prides competence over ideology - a very traditional Conservative approach.

So how seriously should we take Mr. Cameron's One Nation protestations?  To some extent, his Thatcherite cabinet has a degree of inevitability about it.  His new appointments have been made with competence and effectiveness as much in mind as any desire to appeal to a noisy right-wing backbench dominance.  Javid and Patel not only represent a welcome diversity, but more importantly have reached their posts on the basis of their obvious ability and - particularly in Ms Patel's case - appeal as people who can speak human.  Whittingdale has more experience of dealing with and inspecting issues relating to culture, media and sport than any other MP.  To bring his experience into cabinet was a fine move.  Fallon and Hammond are intelligent men who have only been in their offices for a year or so and have been making clear marks in running them - keeping them in place was redolent of Cameron's praise-worthy desire for government to have continuity of ability and experience.

Mr. Cameron's Thatcherite cabinet thus reflects the reality of modern Tory politics.  The Lady's legacy was a whole generation of activists who shared her ideology and who have now matured into the upper ranks of government.  It's not so much that David Cameron wouldn't want to appoint One Nation ministers.  It's just that Ken Clarke's departure marked the end of that particular beast.  If the Prime Minister really is a One Nation Conservative, then we will see the consequences of that in another decade or two.  Just as Thatcher governed with plenty of Tory lefties but still imposed her signature on it, so Mr. Cameron may be able to do so in reverse, whilst still utilising the abilities of a pretty first-rank cabinet.  The Tories, though they don't know it yet, may be in for another gradual transition.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Was it a bad campaign, or are we bad voters?

It's the anniversary of the defeat of Germany in 1945 today.  Many have said that the western countries were fighting to preserve liberty and democracy.  At least in part.  So it might be worth considering the state of the democracy that today's anniversary kept in being.

As commentators use up the last of their "what sort of coalition are we likely to have" scenarios, they've turned to the "what a dreadful campaign it's been" ones.  This has been most eloquently - and perhaps lengthily - illustrated by Michael Deacon's piece in today's Telegraph, but he is not alone.

It's a moot point as to how seriously we should take the journalistic moaning of stagnant campaigns.  Politicians are where they are, and do what they do, largely as a consequence of the way our brave journo have covered previous campaigns, and cover politicians generally.  Douglas Murray has identified this aspect of the state of our democracy most clearly in this piece for the Spectator.

He notes, first, that:

Of course the result is aggravating, in part because we keep trying to enjoy contradictory things. For instance at some point in recent years it was decided that any statement outside a vague centre-left orthodoxy constituted a ‘gaffe’. Such ‘gaffes’ get highlighted by the media who then seek denunciations of the ‘gaffe’ from any member of the public. The result is that politicians now treat words like landmines and try to speak only in the bland language of political orthodoxy. We are obviously not entirely happy with this arrangement because at the same time as having created this type of politics we complain that our politicians are all similar, dull identikit figures.
Or take the striking reluctance of the major party leaders to meet any ordinary voters. There was a time, not long ago, when even a Prime Minister could get up on a stage at election time, address an audience and take the risk that the audience might include doubters, hecklers and even political opponents. But then the cameras began to flock to anyone who challenged the politicians and presented them not as one person with an opinion, but as the authentic voice of the people and a possible game-changer in an election. After several rounds of this, the parties clearly recognised that the negatives associated with meeting the general public vastly outweighed any positives. This isn’t so much the case for the small parties, who have less to lose, but for the main parties, meeting just one angry member of the public can now derail a whole campaign.
And he goes on:

Whose fault is this? Well it is the media’s of course. But it is also the fault of us, the public, for pushing politicians away even as we complain that they are ignoring us. In the same way that it is our fault for wishing for impossible things from our leaders while giving them a pass for failing at possible things.

There is a great deal more in his article, one of the must-reads for anyone wondering how we have got where we are today.  But today of all days, when we get to exercise our right to freely choose the men and women who will represent us and form our government, in a process that we've kept not least because of sacrifices made in a war which concluded 70 years ago, we might like to ask whether there are any, rather smaller, sacrifices we ourselves could make to ensure its health.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Sparing a thought for the poor bloody politicians

I know we shouldn't be too sympathetic towards our would-be leaders.  They're grasping, lying, slippery, power-hungry egoists out for themselves and likely to ruin us all in the process.  Aren't they?

It's not a popular thought, I own, but I do have more than a sneaking sympathy for the plight of our putative representatives, and especially their leaders.  Pounding the streets day after day, meeting inordinate numbers of punters who are all experts in everything, having to be nice to even the most moronic's not exactly an idyllic existence.  One of my friends, soon to be elected if the runes are right, is about to depart a well paid job with some decent off-time, for a relentless, looking-glass existence which will require far more hours of his time and yield a far smaller income.  And yet he's pretty cheerful about it, because at last he's got a chance to engage in public service of the highest level.

They're all expected to take bucket-loads of abuse from we armchair commentators and electors, as we relish our chance to exercise our own power at the ballot box.  Take last night's Question Time.  Nearly all of the commentaries and social media wisdom has claimed that the real winner were the audience.  That great, gritty, hard-hitting and unimpressed audience.  Yes, they offered some good questions occasionally, although none of them showed startling insight or illumination.  And none of them, of course, offered any positive alternatives.  They were there to challenge the leaders, not come up with ideas for the future.  They had the easy bit.  Have a go at the leaders whose job is to take it, and don't take any responsibility for coming up with workable policies.

And not all of the questions were that good.  The guy who asked Nick Clegg - again - about tuition fees.  Seriously?  After five years of hearing nothing but this issue being debated that's still a good question?  But Nick Clegg had to take it and answer politely, as if he'd been gifted some unique and brilliant political insight.  A pity, really, that he couldn't just pull a withering look of contempt, ask the guy where he'd been for the past five years, and then deliver a robust lecture on how our political system actually works.  If the British public's over-riding concern had been the abolition of tuition fees they should have voted Liberal, right?  But they didn't.  So we keep a version - a better one as it turned out - of tuition fees.

That's just one example.  The audience played to type, asked the questions that have been hovering round the politosphere for ages, and sat back to watch their victims smile inanely, tell them that was a great question, and try to come up with something that wouldn't alienate everyone.  They weren't a great audience, they were a standard one, and they were more involved in politics - taking a couple of hours to sit in a television studio - than the average voter.

Commentators are even worse.  Andrew Marr, the doyen of the political commentariat, who gets to pontificate on politics from his well paid perch at the BBC every week, recently wrote in the Spectator, that "We have the most extraordinary array of digital, paper and broadcasting media at our fingertips — excellent political columnists, shrewd and experienced number-crunchers, vivid bloggers and dedicated fact-checkers." Quite.  Let's praise the brilliant commentators and analysts and number-crunchers.  All people who have opted out of the significantly more difficult task of actually representing and governing, to simply talk about it.  If they're all so brilliant and worthy of our respect, why don't they bother standing?  Too much like hard work perhaps?  Not as well paid maybe?  Not nearly as much fun as carping...sorry, commentating brilliantly from the sidelines. 

Marr then when on to bemoan the political parties for not giving enough detail and providing us with a "tooth-grindingly awful election".

He should know that politicians give evasive answers because every time they give the truth they can expect huge amounts of ordure from the very commentariat that Marr represents.  We want to give our politicians a hard time, and we want them to square all of our political circles, and like Mr. Marr we don't want to be bothered with the tooth-grindingly difficult task of coming up with answers ourselves.

So spare a thought for our wannabe politicos.  They are at least the ones who have put their heads above the parapet and offered themselves for service - and a good deal of pain - in the interests of their country.  We'll hate what they do, criticise their attempts to offer us insights, encourage their evasiveness and then blame them for dishonesty.  It's called democracy, and we get the politicians we deserve.  Especially when we abjure the tough job of standing ourselves.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

An Unusual Election - three defining characteristics

Three things mark this election as unusual. 

One is the remarkable paucity of actual policy debate.  Yes, there’s been some to and fro on housing, a modicum of difference on tax generation, but outside of the narrow-cast debate on the economy very little of substance has been thriving. 

Defence?  Michael Fallon wants us to fear the SNP’s bid to get rid of Trident, but offers little in the form of positive defence policy for himself.  Foreign Affairs?  Ed Miliband briefly attended to an area that has never been an interest of his to accuse David Cameron of responsibility for migrant deaths.  But foreign affairs spokesmen have been so low-key as to be rendered unpersons, barely able to stop the traffic in their own constituencies, never mind the rest of the globe around which they potter so un-noticed.    Education?  Once hugely controversial, with Michael Gove’s disappearance from the issue it has sunk into the backwaters of little regarded speeches and rarely referenced manifesto promises that vary imperceptibly.  What about Health?  Well, yes, it’s a big issue, and that one has received coverage, but only in the “we all want more health care but aren’t sure how to pay for it” sense.  Welfare has just hit the headlines because Danny Alexander wants to fire the smoking gun of Tory plans to cut it drastically.  Otherwise, everyone has been keen to keep their plans under wraps.

There has been some notion that this has been a much more localised election instead, although such localisation often extends little further than objections to new housing plans and a desire for more health provision (as was the case in a true blue constituency I was recently canvassing in).

Two is the impending indecisiveness of the final result.  If this election produces the second hung parliament in a row, it will have dealt a decisive blow to the idea that our favoured First Past the Post system of voting essentially secures single-party governments (misleadingly also often seen as “strong”).  Since this has long been one of the main reasons for continuing to uphold a manifestly disproportionate electoral system, it may be reasonable to question what the other virtues of FPTP might be, especially if the other consequence of it materialises – the forming of a government by the second placed party in terms of vote share and possibly seats.   Like the Scottish referendum, the AV one may also be up for re-issue sooner than we could have imagined.

Mention of Scotland brings us, of course, to the third characteristic of this election.   The role of the Scottish National Party, and the future of Scotland itself, has played  a larger part than ever before.  For the first time in over a century, a block of MPs from one part of the United Kingdom have the opportunity to significantly influence the agenda of the rest of the UK in their favour.  Like the Irish Nationalist politicians before them, no-one doubts that, whatever Nicola Sturgeon may be saying for election purposes, the aim of the SNP block in the House of Commons will be to ultimately secure independence for Scotland.  It is true that the party’s extraordinary success this time round has arisen in part from the failure of the three UK-wide parties to maintain the engagement of the Scots in the mundane routine of legislation.  It is also true that the once dominant Labour Party has neglected its fiefdom too much and finally sent it revolting – the failing of one-party systems the world over.  But it is the issue of devolution which has really spurred the SNP rise, keeping the issue of Union firmly on the Scottish agenda despite the rejection of independence last year.

Nonetheless, the eventual impact of the SNP has been exaggerated.  They may become the third largest party in the Commons, but their actual ability to sway the agenda there is far more limited than the campaign paranoia has suggested.  George Eaton makes the point well in the New Statesman.  Nicola Sturgeon’s absolute refusal to countenance a Conservative government has in reality limited her room for manoeuvre with respect to a Labour one.  She cannot act against a Labour government without incurring the significant wrath of those of her supporters who take her anti-Tory commitments at face value.  Ed Miliband has actually got a pretty free space for action without SNP interference.

For all the Scottish noise and fury though, it is still England which is at the heart and centre of the election, and it is English issues – some institutional and long-term – which have moulded its course. England remains an ultra-centralised country which does not have its own dedicated government.  It is a country where localism fails to engender any local support, but scepticism towards the centre also remains endemic.  To have a good understanding of England today requires a strong sense of the country’s history and evolution.  Robert Tombs, the author of the sort of brilliant, sympathetic and perceptive study that England is not often fortunate enough to have, has produced a wonderful distillation of some of the key aspects of England’s past that shed light on our current election.  It is an article that bears further comment, but for now I urge you to read it at the New Statesman’s site.

How the three characteristics above play out after May 7th is part of the fascination of the present contest.  We may know the allocation of seats on May 8th., but I suspect we will still be some way off knowing which party, and which leader, is going to be able to take us through the next few, constitutionally turbulent, years. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Union Under Threat?

The devolution referendum proved a hollow victory in the end for unionists.  Losing the campaign for hearts and minds, the southern party leaders came up with an extraordinary pledge that stretched the idea of union to breaking point.  It also added something into the referendum mix that wasn't actually on the ballot at all.  No-one can say whether or not the final result really was a vote for the Union, or in actuality a vote for the devo-max that English leaders were offering by the end.  Then, as soon as the vote was passed, David Cameron, the quintessentially English leader with the very Scottish name, sought immediate political advantage by demanding English Votes for English Laws.  He has also been happy to put himself forward in this election campaign as an English, rather than British, leader.

Well, the SNP advance in Scotland continues apace it seems, such that polls today suggest they could sweep the board and take all of Scotland's 59 MPs.  What has so signally failed with the Union, we should be asking here in England, that the Scots have turned so wholly towards its nationalist party.  And this despite the distinctly chequered record of that same party in the Scottish government.

Is the Union under threat?  It would certainly be foolish to imagine that it is safe and cosy.  The Spectator's Scottish editor, Alex Massie, has been writing regularly and forcefully about English and Conservative indifference to Scotland, and his piece today strikes an even harder note.  It is quite probable that while the election comes up with an ambivalent result in England and Wales, it produces a very clear result in Scotland.  A result that says the Union as we know it is over.

Election Notes 2 - Brand, Legitimacy and a Defence Fail

Brand meets Miliband....or Vice Versa

Difficult to know who was the most important of the two in yesterday's Miliband versus Brand meeting, but it's certainly caused waves and who knows, that might be what Ed Miliband really wanted.  after all, he was never going to get an intelligible political debate from Russell Brand.

Miliband has been making more, and more interesting, waves this election than David Cameron, and that should worry the Tories.  He has taken them - and his own party - by surprise with a pretty good campaign so far, and while some of his moments have been awful ("Hell, yes" springs to mind), on the whole he's trumped expectations pretty niftily.  That should at any rate be a warning to the Tories who keep insisting on employing negative campaigner Lynton Crosby - do someone down too much and you'll find they merely have to walk unaided to appear triumphant.

Inevitably, the two camps on the Brand interview are the right-wing one, broadly following David Cameron's effective line that Brand may be funny, but the election is not a joke (some might dispute the first part of that statement), and the liberal "Brand has something to say" camp, praising Miliband for reaching to young voters via the Brand network.  Interestingly, the ever wordy Hugo Rifkind of the Spectator is in the latter camp here, while the other newspaper views can be seen here.


The question of whether a prime minister is legitimate if his party is only second is dealt with effectively by prominent politics academic Philip Cowley here.  He reiterates the nature of our system - its the numbers, and that means seats - in a column that should be read by anyone remotely interested in a quick road-check of how our constitution actually works when it comes to passing laws in parliament.

Defence Fail

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has had a pretty awful election, coming up with fear stories about Trident and the SNP effect.  It didn't get any better for him last night with his Daily Politics debate, as the Spectator's Isabel Hardman comments, although she does try and suggest he is simply following someone else's line on this (Lynton Crosby, are you there?)

The Tories used to be pretty solidly the party of defence.  This election they're keeping quiet about it for the most part, knowing that they can't and won't guarantee the 2% of GDP they want other NATO countries to spend on it, and virtually conceding defence as an issue to anyone else who will take it.   It's a shambolic position, entirely in line with what has been an increasingly patched up foreign policy approach all round that is beginning to leave Britain marginalsied.  Voting Conservative for Britain's strong place in the world is not a line anyone could take without a smirk these days.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Tories' constitutional malice

The Conservative party used to be one of rectitude and respect for the constitution.  No longer, if its tactics in this election are anything to go by.  Take its approach to Scotland and the issue of parliamentary legitimacy.

Dave's SNP Card

David Cameron's attempt to corral votes by raising the spectre of SNP power at Westminster is a pretty negative tactic, and of course will do nothing to endear Scottish voters to the Tory party in Scotland one suspects, but it may be paying dividends.  Albeit on the margins.  A poll in the Independent reports that the prospect of a Labour-SNP deal is indeed off-putting to a number of voters - one in four is the number cited. This has not yet, of course, translated into actual votes, or even definite determinations to vote Tory.  The main polls still suggest the Tories are struggling to keep much of a lead, although yesterday's Ashcroft poll showed a 6-point lead for them, the largest yet.

The problem with Cameron's SNP tactic is that it threatens the very Union he believes in, by suggesting it is wrong for Scottish voters to have an impact on Westminster decision making.  It also seeks to exploit English nationalism, a dangerous approach which will be difficult, or impossible, to reverse.

It might have been more effective to try and undermine the SNP on the basis of their policies and their own rule in Scotland.  When Eddie Mair interviewed SNP MP Angus Robertson on PM last week, he had him blustering when challenging him on the failure of the SNP government to reduce A and E waiting times.

There is also a peculiarity in the steamroller impact that the SNP is having in Scotland.  This avowedly independence oriented party is winning all before it in a nation which voted against independence by a margin of 10%.  It is surprising, to say the least, that unionism has not yet managed to find a ready challenge, perhaps via tactical voting.  This is a graphic sign of the failure of the major parties in Scotland, especially the once dominant Labour party.  If the election result forces all of them to review their strategy in Scotland it will be one worthwhile result.


The issue of whether it would be legitimate for Ed Miliband to take office as PM even if he comes second in vote share or seats is still haunting the election.  Theresa May - unworthily - raised it, and a Newsnight ComRes poll suggested that it was something that voters increasingly feel is a post-election issue.  It isn't, and the poll exhibits a general non-understanding of the British constitution amongst voters, but when senior politicians are willing to play around with such nonsense it is hardly surprising that it might gain traction.

The Tories are not, in sum, doing themselves much justice when it comes to constitutional issues.  David Cameron uses scare tactics to gain English support at the expense of the Scottish support his party has recently found it so difficult to pursue.  His Home Secretary produces wilfully wrong-headed and malicious interpretations of basic constitutional assumptions.  If they do return to government, it will be as a severely reduced party in terms of its constitutional integrity, and that serves no-one well.