Sunday, 29 May 2011

Unacceptable Force

Remarkable as it may seem to anyone but the people delivering the judgement officers of the Metropolitan Police have been declared justified in forcibly removing tuition fees protestor Jody McIntyre from his wheelchair during last December’s protests in London. Mr McIntyre was also ‘inadvertently’ struck with a baton and this too has been judged acceptable.

In a statement reported by the BBC the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards said the actions of officers were ‘justifiable and lawful given the volatile and dangerous situation’ on the streets of the capital during the protests and that the forcible removal of Mr McIntyre from his wheelchair was ‘justifiable given the officer’s perceived risk to Jody McIntyre.’

In response Mr McIntyre, also reported by the BBC, asked ‘Does that make sense to you, that the police attacked a man in a wheelchair and then they investigate themselves?’ To which the only answer is no it does not; not least because it is a recipe for exactly the sort of whitewash that has been delivered.

He went on to say, with good reason, that the version of events put forward by the officers involved has been accepted unquestioningly by the authorities, something that if true should make even the most bureaucratic of minds boggle. Surely the idea that the best way to safeguard a man in a wheelchair exercising his legitimate right to protest is to throw him to the ground and hit him with a lump of wood belongs to the same school of logic that sees the best way of protecting a village from being occupied by the enemy is to burn it to the ground.

Whatever might have been going on in the heads of the officers involved or their superiors Mr McIntyre was left to conclude, he said, that their view was that ‘the fact someone has a disability renders them incapable of determining their own best interest or to act with autonomy.’ If you are the sort of person who thinks the Daily Mail is right and the police have become too soft and politically correct consider the experience of Jody McIntyre and shudder; prejudice is alive and well amongst the forces of law and order and that shames us all be we liberals or reactionaries.

Following the investigation the Met plans to draw up ‘internal guidelines’ to prevent such an incident from happening again, if you believe that is going to make any difference you might need a stiff drink when you find out what bears really get up to in the woods.

All week the fuss over super-injunctions and the wicked, wicked celebrities who take them out has been the only news story in town, I’m afraid it is something about which I can’t work up much in the way of righteous indignation. If you add wealth to a sense of entitlement and then subtract self restraint bad behaviour of the sort the people involved are willing to pay to keep quiet will always be the result, that we are all going to be allowed to read about it in the press thanks to ancient parliamentary privilege and the whiz bang world to Twitter is less of a victory for liberty than it at first seems.

It pales into insignificance certainly when compared to the continuing erosion of civil liberties and the steady politicisation of the police.

I am on record as being critical of the way the tuition fees protests and those against the government’s spending cuts have been organised, too much stone throwing and not enough reasoned argument. What I have always supported and always will is the inalienable right of people to take to the streets in protest.

This is a right that is in danger of being severely compromised by the ‘kettling’ tactics employed by the police and, as in the cases of Jody McIntyre and newspaper vendor Stewart Tomlinson, by the behaviour and attitudes of individual officers. The latter case ended in an unnecessary death for which the punishment of the officer responsible hardly compensates.

One of the things that set Britain apart from much of Europe and the wider world was always the fact that even though they wore uniforms and had the power of arrest the police were still ordinary citizens; not hired muscle in the pay of the government used to biff the citizenry over the head for getting ideas above their station. The brutal and stupid handling of the protests over tuition fees, spending cuts and against the G8 meeting in London a couple of years ago has highlighted how rapidly that sensible dispensation is falling apart.

To work effectively the sort of policing by consent we have always enjoyed in the UK depends on the police maintaining the trust and respect of the public. You don’t do either of those things by preventing people from exercising their right to protest or by allowing individual officers to escape unpunished for exhibiting thuggish and disrespectful behaviour towards the public.

Home Secretary Theresa May claims to be intent on reforming the police, if she doesn’t realise quickly that that means not just trimming the budget but making sure that no protester, whatever their cause; whether that are disabled or able bodied, is treated in the way Jody McIntyre was without the people responsible being held to account the streets could be more dangerous for all of us in future.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Lords reform needs to be more radical than this miserable little compromise.

To make one miserable little compromise in a political career is regrettable but to make two though in the space of a year looks like carelessness. Nevertheless Nick Clegg, who has form in this area, has stepped up to the plate to lead the campaign for reform of the House of Lords.

On Tuesday with David Cameron sitting at his side he stood up in the Commons to announce a package of proposed reforms that would give the second chamber ‘greater democratic legitimacy’ and make it ‘more accountable’ to the voting public. Remarkably he managed to keep a straight face throughout, suggesting he either believed every word he was saying or has an almost Zen like ability to control his facial muscles.

The plans would see the number of peers cut to three hundred eighty percent of whom would be elected using proportional representation to sit for a single fifteen year term, with, if all goes to plan, the first elections taking place in 2015. Mindful of the lower case conservatism of his fellow parliamentarians Mr Clegg promised that the changes would be brought about through ‘evolution not revolution’, but affirmed that ‘in a modern democracy it is important that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom the laws apply.’

Noble sentiments put, as ever with Cleggy, in the turgid prose of a middle manager addressing an audience of bored sales reps. Even though they are far from revolutionary the proposals have attracted strong opposition from across the political spectrum.

Labour, who support a fully elected second chamber criticised the plans to retain a small, but not insignificantly so, number of appointed members. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Kahn suggested that reforming the Lords would fail unless the government avoided the ‘rushed and piece-meal approach that has characterised their constitutional reforms so far.’

Several Tory back benchers also trained their fire on the reform plans with Andrew Turner accusing the Deputy Prime Minister of pursuing a ‘private obsession’ when the country faced far more serious problems; Bernard Jenkins said the plans to reform the Lords were ‘yet another tatty road show brought to us by the same people who thought the British people wanted AV.’

Baroness Boothroyd, a former speaker of the House of Commons struck a more reasoned note, questioning whether the Commons could maintain its traditional primacy if both houses were to be elected and whether an elected second chamber would be as effective in scrutinising legislation put before it.

Speaking for the Electoral Reform Society Kate Ghose said that it would take considerable strength of will to finally push through reforms that politicians have been talking about for more than a century without ever turning talk into meaningful action. It was, she said, possible to ‘break the deadlock, but it will require concerted action from all parties to bring this medieval chamber up to date.’

As one of those people who thinks the British people really do want AV, but were frightened out of voting for it by the hysterical scaremongering of the ‘No’ campaign I should be jumping for joy that the Lords are going to be reformed, not least because if the new chamber can be elected using PR without the sky falling in it might reopen the debate about wider electoral reform; but I’m not.

This is largely because I fear that this plan is being set up to fail, and not just because poor unpopular ‘nobody agrees with Nick’ Clegg has been put in charge. The details of the proposals simply fail to add up to anything like meaningful reform.

Why, for example, will the new peers (or Senators maybe) sit for a single fifteen year term. Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics, which must make fifteen years an eternity; seriously, the only thing that keeps lazy or inept MPs keen is the fear of losing their seats. Electing someone for a single term the length of a respectable parliamentary career is hardly going to encourage diligence.

There is also the small matter of just who will be selected to stand for election to the new second chamber. Leave it to the three main political parties and you can expect to see the same parade of place puddings adept at attracting political patronage but ignorant about life outside the bubble on the red benches as you currently find on the green. The Lords as it stands may be too large and decidedly anachronistic, but many of its members have shown themselves to be independent minded and unwilling to be cowed by the Whips Office.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect though is the plan to continue appointing twenty percent of the second chamber. This goes way beyond the well meaning but muddle headed idea of giving faith leaders a free pass into the legislature and smacks unpleasantly of manipulation. The creation of enough compliant servants of the establishment to if not swing awkward votes than at least cause enough of a delay to frustrate any kind of rebellion.

The way Westminster works needs to change and to do so rapidly, compared to the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff the House of Commons looks increasingly like a cosy, complacent gentleman’s club mired in corruption and arcane rituals. The nation’s parliament has to be representative of the people it governs, the way they look, meaning fewer middle aged white men who went to public school and more women and members of the BME community. It has to represent how the people think and feel too; meaning we need more people in parliament for whom politics is the second act of a full and engaged life.

None of these much needed changes will, I fear, be brought about by the slate of timid reforms on offer here. To be meaningful reform has to be radical and what is being offered at the moment just isn’t.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

RIP Cup Final Saturday- and with it much of working class culture.

This week I had better start by apologising for departing, partly, from political concerns and writing instead about the cup final, in which my team, Stoke City, played yesterday afternoon.

It had taken them one hundred and forty eight years of if not hurt then certainly considerable frustration to get there, but it was more than worth it on the day. Even if, as things turned out the millionaires of Manchester City took the trophy home and the nation’s sports writers set about trying to ring the changes on the ‘plucky Stoke fall at the final hurdle’ line they’ve been running for years.

The pleasure of getting to star in the big set piece event of British football was dampened down more than a little though by the realisation that these days the cup final is less of a big deal than it used to be. For a start the game had been moved from its usual date to accommodate the Champions League final due to be played at Wembley in a couple of weeks time and crushed into the fixture list along with eight Premier League games.

This, as cynics and sports writers, sometimes its hard to tell which is which, will tell you is just a consequence of how football has changed over recent years. Far from being the stuff of fan’s dreams the ‘magic’ of the cup, they say, resides these days in its ability to make crowds disappear.

While I defer to their superior knowledge of the mechanics of the game I don’t agree with their view that the FA Cup is largely superfluous. You don’t have to be a ‘jumpers for goalposts’ traditionalist who wants to see every team made up of local lads and run by a chairman who mows the pitch on Saturday mornings to feel saddened by the cup’s decline or to see it as symptomatic of a wider societal malaise.

The real ‘magic’ of the FA Cup was, and still is, that it is open to everyone from unpaid amateurs playing in the outer reaches of the football galaxy up to millionaire superstars with a different Bentley for each day of the week. There was always the enticing prospect that the former would beat the latter in the third round and be local heroes for a week or so; even if they didn’t everyone had a great day out and came away with something to tell their grandchildren about.

In recent years all that had been largely usurped by the behemoth that is the Champions League, which has no magic about it whatsoever but does rake in millions upon millions in revenue for the biggest and richest clubs. Paying supporters, the people who turn out rain or shine are relegated to the status of wallets on legs to be herded through the turnstiles, of, better still, kept out of sight watching the match at home on pay-per-view TV allowing even more of the ground to be tuned over to executive boxes for the ‘prawn sandwich brigade.’

It is not hard to see similarities in what is happening to the FA Cup and the problems stalking wider society; unrestrained corporate greed at one end of the spectrum and belligerent impotence at the other with a vast majority trapped in the middle feeling exploited by one group and intimidated by the other. Look a little further and you can see the same approach shown in plans to move next year’s final to quarter past five in the evening in the closure of pubs and post offices, boarded up high streets and the widespread feeling that a way of living on a human scale is being trampled underfoot by the rush to make a fast buck.

Politicians, particularly Labour politicians, should take and avid interest in the demise of Cup Final Saturday, not in the patronising way that Tony Blair et al embraced football in the 1990’s as a way of showing they were at one with the little people, but as a symptom of the way unrestrained market forces are destroying working class culture; and that of much of the middle classes they spend so much time trying to woo too.

The sight of ‘Red Ed’ Milliband done up in a football scarf bought for him by his aides waving a rattle and calling for the cup final to be moved back to its traditional day and time would look both clumsily populist and utterly absurd, but he does need to take his party back to fighting the corner of ordinary people. Intellectuals close to the party seem to be trying to steer policy making in this direction, although you do tend to get the impression that they look at any culture that exists outside a university common room as if it had been spread on a slide under a microscope.

Much about working class and lower middle class culture can be troubling; both are decidedly conservative about social change; but their core values regarding self reliance, strong communities and fairness are worth defending. They are also the values on which the Labour movement was founded and are what it must return to if the party truly wants to be ‘up for the cup’ at the next election.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

AV may be a lost cause- but reforming politics needn’t be.

The Alternative Vote (AV) offered to the public in a referendum this week as an alternative way of electing MPs to Westminster is dead in the water. Out of nineteen million people who voted thirteen million reacted to the prospect of minor constitutional change in the way a seven year old does when presented with a plate of broccoli risotto; meaning they screwed their collective face into an exaggerated expression of disgust before pushing it away.

Nick Clegg, some time Deputy Prime Minister and full time poster boy for everything the ‘NO to AV’ campaign hates about change described the result as ‘a bitter blow for all those people who believe in the need for electoral reform.’ He remains, he told the BBC on Friday ‘a passionate supporter of electoral reform,’ but was also one who accepted that ‘you ask someone a question and get an overwhelming answer; you just have to move on.’

Ed Milliband, also a supporter of AV said the public had ‘delivered a clear verdict which I accept’, he went on to say that elections in the UK have to change to make ‘people feel more included in our politics.’ Since then he has called on those Liberal Democrats who support electoral reform to withdraw from the coalition which was meant with total earnestness but is unlikely to provoke a meaningful response. A few Lib Dems, Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne for one, might jump ship, but faced with the certainty of electoral annihilation now most will plump for clinging to the Tories in the hope that an improved economic picture in four years time will save their bacon.

David Cameron has played down the result, describing it as a ‘difficult moment’ for the coalition; difficult but not fatal. In the longer term the nagging worry that his coalition partners might one day pull out could spoil things; but for now there is only one alpha male around the cabinet table and he’s called Dave.

The gloating was left to Matthew Elliot of the ‘No to AV’ campaign who smugly declared that Friday’s result would ‘settle the debate about changing our electoral system for the next generation.’ It was left to Kate Ghose of ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ to point out that the ‘debate’ on AV hadn’t been centred on the ‘issues of democracy’ that really concern people and that even though they lost this round of the contest ‘over five million people voted for change.’

Lets put our cards on the table the ‘Yes’ campaign was fatally flawed from the start, too many self satisfied celebrities and squabbling amongst political egos; too little in the way of meaningful connection with voters. It was also evident from that start that AV was too much of a ‘miserable little compromise’ to satisfy believers in real change; even though many of us voted for it anyway.

Even so five million people voted for AV, more than the membership of all three main political parties put together and then multiplied. Not enough to swing the vote but still a sizeable constituency, add the that the fact that the result of the last general election shows that the public don’t trust any of the main parties sufficiently to let them take power outright and the prospects for the progressives don’t look anywhere near so bleak.

The ‘No’ campaign won the battle over AV because it played on the fear of the new that is an innate part of the British character and they did so with consummate skill and shameless cynicism. Never mind the personal attacks on Nick Clegg that grabbed so much media attention think instead about the assumptions they made about you and me; the voting public. We’re all too stupid and impressionable to be trusted with ranking election candidates in order of preference, what we want instead is to be patted on the head and told what’s good for us by the people who have always done so.

It is troubling to think that a democracy has a defined ‘political class’ at all, but the realisation that this is how they see everyone else is enough to turn your stomach. Last Thursday five million people saw the need for change, not enough to win the day but more than enough to form the foundation for a campaign movement dedicated to bringing political power back to the people of this country. Working together to build such a movement rather than retreating to lick their wounds and nurse their recriminations is what progressives of all parties and none should be doing today.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A coalition of the unwilling

For a while over the weekend it looked like the whole country was loved up following the royal wedding, even David Cameron, in full on ‘Dave’ mode obviously, was caught twittering that it was ‘like a fairytale’ to the BBC .

Thankfully the squabble, sorry debate, over voting reform has brought us all back to earth with a reassuring bump.

Over the weekend Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne raised serious concerns about the attacks on the Liberal Democrats made by the ‘No to AV’ campaign in their leaflets and broadcasts. Just for the record although it’s nominally at least a cross party organisation much of the campaign’s money comes from people who also donate to the Conservative Party.

Speaking the to Guardian Mr Huhne criticised David Cameron for not urging the No campaign to tone down its attacks on the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg , saying he ‘has had the power to stop these leaflets saying Nick Clegg has broken promises and told lies. He has done nothing about it.’

This, he asserts, is no way to treat coalition partners who have made painful compromises to help push through Tory policies. For his part the prime minister claims he has no control over the content of the materiel put out by the No campaign and that he and Nick Clegg would continue to work together in the national interest.

Speaking for the No campaign Lord Boateng, a former Labour cabinet minister, proof if you needed it that the No campaign is a Roman orgy of strange bedfellows, said that if the Liberal Democrats ‘find the Tories so distasteful, you have to ask why they’re in government with them’ before suggesting that if they don’t like how things are playing out they should ‘resign from the coalition.’

At the risk of getting into the sort of trouble Mr Cameron did at PMQ’s last week my first response to Lord Boateng’s comments is ‘calm down dear’; it is seldom difficult these days to spot the difference between a ray of sunshine and a Lib Dem with a grievance but this time they might just have a point.

Read the leaflets put out by ‘No to AV’ and there is something distinctly mean spirited about the way they single out Nick Clegg for attack, it is almost as offensive at the assertion they make that voters are too stupid to rank candidates in order of preference. Has the noble Lord really thought about the attitudes of the people to whom he’s lending his support, come to that have any of the senior Labour figures who have backed the campaign against AV, aren’t they members of a supposedly progressive party; the attitudes of the No campaign are anything but progressive.

The Yes campaign has been lazy and inept from day one, this has translated into a ten point gap between them and the supporters of FPTP, as we’re all learning to call the old way of voting, down from a high of eighteen points but still enough to see them crash and burn come Thursday.

What you might wonder happens then? David Cameron will have got the upper hand in a coalition where the Lib Dems need the Tories more than the Tories need them; at least that’s the theory. The thing about theories is that they often turn out to be nonsense.

Friday night might yet be the last decent nights sleep David Cameron gets between now and the next general election. If, as looks likely, the No campaign win he will spend the next four years shackled to a resentful coalition partner; they probably won’t bring down the government because that would be electoral suicide for Clegg and co; but he will be haunted every day by the possibility that they just might.

Kicking the electoral reform into the long grass for a generation or more, the intention from day one of the No campaign, might seem like a fairytale ending for David Cameron’s Tories. The old way of doing things with all its institutionalised unfairness will roll on as before; the thing about fairytales though is that they don’t always have happy endings.