Sunday, 29 January 2012

Cameron’s Tories ARE complacent; but can Labour be courageous?

This week the UK came a little closer to falling off the economic cliff into a double dip recession.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed that our gross domestic product slowed by 0.2% over the last quarter of 2011, over the same period manufacturing shrank by 1.2%, productivity in the construction sector by 0.5% and in utilities by 4.1%. The bad times are back and they’re getting ready to roll.

Chancellor George Osborne said the figures were ‘disappointing’ but not ‘entirely unexpected because of what’s happening in the world.’ Just one of those things then eh George?, nothing at all to do with, as TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber put it, the government’s economic strategy having gone ‘horribly wrong’ and as a result ‘failing to tackle the deficit, causing unemployment to spiral out of control’ and potentially ‘dragging the country back into recession.’

At Prime Ministers Question in the commons this week Labour leader Ed Milliband accused David Cameron of showing ‘total arrogance’ in his handling of the economy and asked just what would it take to shake government out of its ‘complacency’ over the situation we find ourselves in. In reply the prime minister recited his usual litany about Labour’s reckless spending being a recipe for wrecking the economy, driving up interest rates and making things ‘much worse.’

So is David Cameron complacent about the economic pain being experienced by individuals and families across the land? You bet he is; and so are the rest of his party.

The complacency can be seen in Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith blithely saying that families who have their housing benefit taken away ‘may have to move somewhere else’, as if social housing wasn’t just a little more rare than powdered unicorn’s horn. It can be seen in the fatuous (pun very much intended) Eric Pickles telling local authorities they have a ‘moral duty’ to keep council tax down even though vital public services are under threat due to savage cuts in government funding.

Most of all though the complacency of this government can be seen in the elegantly self satisfied person of David Cameron himself standing at the despatch box batting away any suggestion that it might be time to think again about how far and how fast the cuts are being made like the captain of the Eton first XI. Granted he has known his share of misfortune, but this Oxbridge educated scion of inherited wealth has no idea of what it feels like to lie awake wondering how to pay the bills and it shows in his every word and deed.

I’m not sure identifying this fact at PMQ’s means all that much though. Ed Milliband might have started turning better performances there of late but his weekly squabble with the PM is pretty much divorced from the experience of most Britons. Anyway denouncing the government’s cuts rings a little hollow when you have committed to following their spending plans if you win the next election; more cynical triangulation than principled opposition.

The uncomfortable truth is that on a straight fight over economics Labour has little chance of beating the Tories. What Labour need to do is to start talking seriously about an alternative to the dreary status quo of British politics.

They need to make common cause with the growing number of people who are looking for another and fairer way of organising society. The communities who are clubbing together to buy their village pub or using derelict land to grow organic vegetables; the young people who were so energised by the ‘occupy’ movement because for the first time in their lives it treated them like engaged partners rather than passive consumers.

Doing so won’t be easy; Ed Milliband or his successor will have to match the complacency of the government and the cynicism of the media with genuine political courage and an understanding that to bring about meaningful you have to be prepared to play the long game. If this doesn’t happen and instead Labour continues looking for a way of delivering kinder cuts that those on offer from the government then identifying the complacency of its leadership is meaningless.

A bulldog amongst butterflies

Andy Murray has gone back to being a ‘surly Scot’ as opposed to a ‘plucky Brit’ after his defeat in the semi-final of the Australian Open at the hands of Novak Jockovic.

For some reason the public have never warmed to Andy Murray, perhaps his aggression, ambition and the fact that he plays tennis like an Australian or an American; meaning to win, rubs us up the wrong way. We seem to prefer our tennis stars to be well spoken suburban social butterflies rather than snarling British bulldogs.

The things that seem to annoy us most about Andy Murray though probably give him the best chance of winning Wimbledon, better certainly than those of the other British player who all fluttered out to the competition on day one.

It’s never too late to learn Harry.

Spurs manager Harry Redknapp told the court trying him for tax evasion this week that he couldn’t spell and that he writes like a two year old. This isn’t, of course, in itself an excuse for committing what is a serious offence, but, perhaps, it should make us look upon him a little more kindly.

It must have taken courage to admit to his literacy problems in a court of law knowing every word he said would be reported by the media. If the verdict goes the way the evidence revealed so far suggests Mr Redknapp’s reputation and chances of managing England will be wrecked. He might though be able to go some way towards rebuilding the former by fronting a campaign to encourage other men of his age to get help with their literacy problems.

Isles of piffle

I made a new year’s resolution not to write a single word about the Olympics, January isn’t over and I’ve broken it already.

When it was announced this week that the theme for the opening ceremony it to be the ‘Isles of Wonder’ and will feature a parade of NHS nurses, the world’s largest bell and probably a London bus too my heart sank faster than an elevator with its cable cut. The whole farrago will doubtless be embarrassing, pretentious and utterly forgettable. Just like the opening ceremony of every other Olympic games in fact.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Don’t let ‘Sir Humphrey’ scupper the right to recall dud MPs.

Perhaps the most difficult argument you will ever have is the one where you try to persuade people that politicians aren’t a pack of self serving crooks.

However earnestly you opine that for every Duck House fiddling shyster there are at least two hard working men and women who really did enter parliament to serve their country and community; a sort of conscientious yin balancing off the presence of the irredeemable yang it just doesn’t wash. Prejudice born of the expenses scandal and all too often the actions of parliament itself conspire to bring the reputation of the institution crashing down rather as the shifting sands upon which it is built could, allegedly, do for the Palace of Westminster itself.

All of which brings me rather neatly to the awful hash parliament is making of giving constituents the right to ‘recall’ MPs who prove to be corrupt or just not up to the job. During the 2010 general election all three parties backed ‘recall’ and it even made it into the coalition agreement; sadly the reality of the proposals put forward this week leave much to be desired.

As Zac Goldsmith, one of two Tory rebels who stood up against the proposals put it ‘recall’ could ‘electrify politics and end the concept of safe seats’, but, sadly, the version of offer at the moment is ‘deeply flawed.’ That’s putting it mildly; it’s a total travesty.

Under the proposals an MP will be subject to recall if 10% of his or her constituents sign a petition, however it will be up to a committee of ‘parliamentary grandees’ to decide which offences merit recall. If you believe members of parliament are able to police their own behaviour in such a manner you were obviously living in a tree during the scandal over expenses.

As Zac Goldsmith put it since the offences likely to be considered as meriting recall would mostly relate to financial matters you could be ‘the worst ever MP’ in other respects and survive. If, however you were considered to be an ‘unpleasant character and unpopular in the house’ then the smallest of misdemeanours could see you out on your ear. I don’t think there are enough mathematicians alive to work out the smallness of the gap between such a skewed version of ‘recall’ being accepted and the whips offices of the three main parties deciding it was a splendid tool to use for battering their respective awkward squads into submission.

This as Douglas Carswell, the other Tory rebel put it the sort of system that ‘Sir Humphrey would perhaps like,’ designed to ‘keep the people at bay.’ It would, he said do ‘what recall should do which is make us all more outwardly accountable to the people. I think it will make us inwardly accountable to Westminster grandees.’

It has to be said that both Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith hold safe seats of the sort that ‘recall’ would make more rare and in Goldsmith’s case the sort of vast inherited wealth that make being a rebel easy; but on this issue they are very much on the side of the angels. Too many MPs are too safe in their seats, the system combined with public inertia encourage them to coast along when they should be rocking the boat.

The most disappointing thing though is the absence of any comment by the Labour leadership on the attempt to scupper an important and much needed reform of parliament. Standing up against a craven attempt to preserve a flawed status quo along with fighting against the government’s plans to allow people to ‘opt out’ to the franchise their ancestors fought and died to win through individual electoral registration and working to create a strong grassroots political movement could help the party to create a new and more inclusive political narrative.

Doing so has to be a more effective way of being in opposition than tying themselves in knots by saying they oppose the government’s spending cuts but would carry them out anyway if returned to office. A move that has alienated the unions and baffled everyone else, in the long term it might also form the foundation for a new and better way of doing the business of politics.

Still the greatest

Mohammed Ali turned seventy this week. Sporting legend, cultural icon and all round force of nature even though he has been laid low by illness in recent years Ali is still an inspirational, if controversial, figure.

How very unlike the current crop of heavyweight boxing champs, who seem to be nothing more than a mob of interchangeable preening non-entities scrabbling to make a fast buck out of a discredited and fragmented sport.

The chances of any of that crowd being remembered next year, let alone decades after they hang up their gloves are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

One small victory in a long, long fight

Well done to shop workers union USDAW for winning compensation totalling £67 million for former Woolworth’s staff thrown out of work in 2008.

It is though only a small victory in a long, long campaign to bring help and hope to the staff of retailers such as Peacocks, Blacks, Past Times and others who have been left floundering in the backwash of an economic tsunami.

Taxing times for Tommy Atkins

Members of the armed forces serving overseas face a fine of £100 if they file their self assessment tax return late, even though they might be dodging bullets in Afghanistan of crewing a sub under the polar ice cap.

Tax, like death, is an inevitable part of life and you would have to be one of the sillier Tory backwoodsmen not to believe we should all pay our fair share. That said does the Inland Revenue always have to be so stupidly inflexible?

Service personnel on active service are often stationed in locations where it is impossible to communicate easily with the outside world. There is also the small matter of treating the men and women who risk their lives for our country with an appropriate level of respect. Taxation, like policing, works best when it is done by consent.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A working class MP is something to be.

More working class people would stand for parliament if the selection system was more favourable to them says Labour MP Dame Anne Begg in an interview for

Even though, in her opinion, this is the most representative parliament ever there is still a noticeable ‘narrowing of the people who can afford to be an MP’ and encouraging more people from lower socioeconomic groups into professional politics is the next big battle facing diversity campaigners.

The big stumbling block for potential candidates is the cost involved; Anne Begg cites the case of one prospective MP who had to spend £60,000 just to get selected by his local party. Even if this is an extreme case it is evident that many prospective MPs have to spend thousands of pounds on moving into the constituency they wish to represent. This, as Anne Begg rightly points out, is ‘just too expensive for anyone who doesn’t have a reasonable income from work or money behind them.’

Amongst the measures she advocates for levelling the playing field for less wealthy candidates is capping the amount they can spend at £10,000 and using something similar to Labour’s ‘all women shortlists’ to bring people in form lower socioeconomic groups. This last enthusiasm has already attracted criticism from the likes of Davis Cameron who said of Labour’s all women shortlists that they allowed the party to ‘practice oppression and call it equality.’

If you leave aside her silliness in calling a parliament where the cabinet is stuffed with millionaires and there are more lawyers than lorry drivers on the Labour benches the most representative parliament ever Anne Begg is unquestionably on the right track. We certainly do need to encourage people with a wider range of life experiences into parliament, unfortunately as is so often the case her good intentions founder on the rocks of cynical reality.

For example, closing shortlists to everyone apart from candidates from one particular social group is not the panacea it at first seems. Quite the reverse in fact, it can easily be abused by unelected party officials as a means of getting rid of awkward candidates and trampling wholesale on the wishes of grassroots party members.

If we are serious about making parliament more representative serves then a concerted effort has to be made to revive grassroots democracy within political parties and in the communities of which they are part. A common characteristic of the most effective and independent minded MPs, whatever background they come from, is that they learnt the trade of politics through serving an apprenticeship in local government and community activism.

Actually we need to go back even further, to before prospective members of parliament are even old enough to cast their vote. It is a matter of shame that the teaching of ‘civics’ in the British education system is at best patchy and more often non existent.

The problem is all these things will take time and parliament is filled to the rafters with thrusting young men and women who are all in a hurry. They want quick solutions or quick means by which an issue can be kicked into the long grass and bringing about the sort of profound political change necessary to make parliament more representative of the wider population requires the playing of a long game they don’t understand.

Pigs in trouble

Cartoon character Peppa Pig is, allegedly, to blame for making children naughty, rude and demanding; worse still she is guilty of encouraging them to splash in muddy puddles.

I have had a soft spot for Peppa Pig ever since she snubbed New Labour during the 2010 general election and don’t like to see her traduced in this way. If children are naughty, rude and demanding it has everything to do with their being subjected to parenting that is inconsistent and sometimes neglectful and nothing whatsoever to do with the antics of a cartoon pig.

As for the splashing in muddy puddles, in moderation at least, that isn’t naughty; it’s called being a kid.

A train down the drain

The government has given the go-ahead to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project, this, so we’re told, is a good thing. It is going to create jobs, revive the economy of whole regions and there has even been some excitable talk that it might carry ambitious Transport Secretary Justine Greening all the way to Downing Street.

It all sounds very grand but as is the way of such things it is a total fantasy. Between now and the completion date some time in the 2020’s the already eye watering costs of the project will have ballooned just as those of the Olympics have and technology might well have made the whole thing unnecessary anyway. Far from making Ms Greening’s career being associated with HS2 could shunt it permanently into the sidings.

One thing is clear though, when it hacks its way through the Chilterns HS2 will also cut through nine currently Tory constituencies; which is probably how many MPs UKIP will return at the next election.

And finally, worrying rumours have emerged that thanks to Disney children’s classic Winnie the Pooh has been overwhelmed by Americanisms, making the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood all sound like characters from The Wire. Asked about the claims this week Christopher Robin told the BBC that ‘the whole thing is a goddam dirty lie.’

So nothing to worry about there then.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The last thing Labour needs to do is replace Red Ed with Blair 2.0.

Ed Milliband has shown himself to have ‘no strategy and little energy’ in his role as leader of the Labour Party. A par for the course insult if thrown at him by a Tory hack; a pretty hard punch below the belt if thrown by someone who is supposed to be on his side; the comments were made in an article written for the New Statesman by Maurice Glasman one of his former advisors.

Among the criticisms aimed at Ed Milliband by Lord Glasman are that too many ‘old faces from the Brown era still dominate the shadow cabinet and they seem to be stuck in defending Labour’s record in all the wrong ways.’ As a result the party ‘has not won and shows no signs of winning the economic argument’ and in general Labour have failed to ‘articulate a constructive narrative’ about its policies that takes ‘the argument to the coalition.’

The party, Lord Glasman says, show ‘no relish for reconfiguring the relationship, between the market and society. The world is on the turn, yet we do not seem equal to the challenge.’

He concedes that Ed Milliband has done well when it comes to holding the party together after a crushing defeat in the 2010 general election, but that as leader of the opposition he has failed to ‘break through’ and has ‘flickered rather than shone and nudged not led’; Red Ed has, he concludes ‘not exerted his power. It is time that he did so.’

There are a number of ways to interpret Lord Glasman’s comments all of which are, to some extent correct.

This could, for example, be one of those acts of staggering ingratitude that are such a prominent feature of political life. Ed Milliband elevated an obscure academic to the lords on his election as parry leader only for the peer formerly known as Maurice Glasman to turn on his benefactor when he was at his lowest political ebb and, having first covered him with BBQ sauce, begin waving his arms to alert the vultures circling over his leadership that a free buffet has just opened in their neighbourhood.

There is also the small matter of Lord Glasman having a ‘theory’ to peddle; he is the leading light of the annoyingly named ‘Blue Labour’ movement. A project that seeks to revive the party’s flagging fortunes by returning it to a sepia toned, and not at all accurate I should think, version of the past when a quiescent membership allowed an intellectual elite to decide what sort of Jerusalem should be built on England’s green and pleasant land. His star waned more than a little when he made some ill thought out comments on immigration and all of a sudden the guru started to sound more like just another saloon bar grump. Attacking an already damaged party leader might then present an opportunity to move the debate on to less embarrassing territory.

The sad, but unavoidable, truth is that Ed Milliband has proved to be a dud as party leader. He landed a few good punches over the phone hacking scandal and Labour have won by-elections under his leadership, but overall he has presented himself as out of touch, hesitant and not up to the challenge.

The danger though lies in the dissatisfaction articulated by Lord Glasman and felt by many Labour MPs with the current leadership translating into a campaign to replace him with the wrong sort of leader. A sort of Blair 2.0, maybe in the shape of Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna with rising star Rachel Reeves thrown into the mix as a wildcard, who will somehow persuade the public that Labour cuts are kinder than Tory ones and that the atomisation of society is nothing to worry about.

It won’t work; in fact it could push Labour even further into the political wilderness. Lord Glasman is right the world has turned and the Labour Party has failed to notice; so, for that matter has almost everyone else in the political mainstream. The public have grown tired of the old top down politics, the stale arguments between parties that have long ago become brands and feel deeply cynical about everything connected to politics.

What they want isn’t a more photogenic person to lead the opposition, they want a new sort of politics where power flows upwards from the grassroots. Where the interdependence of groups with different starting points but shared values matters more than conforming to the ‘vision’ of a remote party hierarchy.

Responding to the criticisms in an interview given to the Guardian Ed Milliband said that he was a ‘man of real steel’ and that he was determined to fight to hold onto his post. I’m not sure that whether he survives as leader or not what the Labour Party needs is someone who shows ‘real steel’. What they need their leader to be is a man or woman with the humility to recognise that having a strong, active and engaged grassroots movement matters more than who holds the top job.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Grow a pair Nick and some other new year’s resolutions for the great and the good.

I was going to write about the New Year’s messages put out by the three party leaders but they were too dull for words; so I’ve put together a few resolutions for the year ahead on behalf of some of the people and institutions who go to make up the great sit-com of life.

David Cameron: To be a bit less smug about things, buying off the dafter Tory back benchers by stomping out of negotiations with the EU and cosying up to the Daily Mail dose not in any way represent good governance; quite the reverse in fact. Britain still faces serious problems for which your government appears not to have any solutions.

Steve Hilton: To go on being the comic gift that just never stops giving. However bleak things get in 2012 you will always be on hand to cheer us all up by coming out with some plan that is brilliant in its sheer lunacy. How about towing the UK out to sea and mooring it off the coast of Miami? It’ll be so much warmer there and we won’t have to spend money on socks.

Nick Clegg: To finally grow a pair, being a good little doormat has brought your party to the brink of electoral oblivion; frankly you’re doomed mate so you might as well enjoy yourself by saying no to Dave now and again.

Ed Milliband: To reconnect with the electorate by following the example of David Beckham and launching your own fragrance; might I suggest ‘Dither’ as a possible name for the resulting pong.

Barack Obama : To spend every day between now and August praying that Newt Gingrich gets the Republican nomination, because, sadly, running against a candidate who is compromised and downright strange looks like your best (perhaps your only) chance of holding on to the White House.

The BBC: To try really hard not to fill up every gap in the Radio 4 schedules with yet another fatuous panel show. Failing that you could at least come up with a festive channel ident that doesn’t make viewers want tot claw their own eyes out. A gaggle of presenters pretending to be having ‘fun’ at a Christmas party even though the whole thing was probably recorded some time in July; yuck!

My bank: To find someone who sounds a little less world weary to record the welcome message on your automated switchboard. The woman doing the job at the moment sounds as overcome with ennui as an existentialist who has carried home some really heavy shopping.

Sally Bercow: To buy herself a really big leather bound dictionary in which she can look up words like ‘dignity’ ‘self-respect’ and ‘decorum’, because after spending the past year appearing on Celebrity Big Brother and being photographed with only the shadow of Big Ben covering her modesty she clearly has no idea what they mean.

The Bank of England: To invest in some really nice note paper to be used for all those letter Governor Mervin King is going to have to write explaining why inflation has risen; again.

The ‘Occupy’ movement: The common sense to realise that the time has come to pack up the tents, have a shower and move on to the next phase. You can’t change the world by preaching self righteously to the converted.

The ‘God Particle’: The humility to realise that when it eventually does get found it will only ever be a supporting player in Brian Cox’s latest TV series.

To everyone who reads this blog I would like to wish you all a happy and safe new year; normal service will be resumed next week.