Sunday, 27 May 2012

Democracy isn’t about easy answers- that’s why we should give prisoners the right to vote.

Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs this week that he will resist calls from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to give prisoners in UK jails the right to vote. The issue was, he said, one that should be decided by ‘parliament and not a foreign court.’

He was responding to a question from Democratic Unionist Party leader Nigel Dodds asking if he would ‘succumb to the diktat of the ECHR?’ The diktat in question was a ruling handed down by the ECHR giving the UK six months in which to outline its plans for changing the law to give prisoners the vote.

In reply the prime minister said that people who have been sent to prison ‘should lose certain rights’, including the right to vote, parliament had, he said, ‘made its decision’ not to give prisoners the vote and he was fully in agreement with that position. The opposition are also in agreement with the present position, Labour shadow cabinet member Andy Burnham said the ECHR had ‘crossed the line with this one and we need to take a stand. It is an unacceptable intrusion into domestic policy.’

Labour will support any government challenge to the ECHR ruling in the belief that, as Mr Burnham put it, there is ‘ a very important principle’ at stake and that parliament needs to sent a ‘clear message to Strasbourg’ over who calls the shots.

The solitary voice of sense, well almost, in what was a turgid and overly emotional debate came from Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, who said that when working to rehabilitate prisoners ‘ maintaining links with society, such as the right to vote’ is an important part of the process. He then rather blotted his progressive copybook by adding that prisoners guilty of really awful crimes like rape, murder or terrorism shouldn’t be given the vote.

There are, I think, two distinct issues here, on one of which I am in full agreement with the line taken by the government.

David Cameron is quite correct in challenging the high handed actions of the ECHR, it is for parliament and nobody else to debate and if necessary amend the laws of the UK. The fact that it has seen fit to issue an ultimatum from on high only adds further fuel to the fires of suspicion raging in most of the tabloid press about all things European.

Where David Cameron is both wrong and demonstrably cynical is in using the debate on whether or not we give prisoners the vote to play shamelessly to the tabloids and his own back benchers. There is a certain type of Tory for whom sticking two fingers up to the EU evokes sub Agincourt fantasies of crying god for ‘Harry, England and St George’ as they gallop off to bash the French and the Huns.

Cameron, like all cynical politicians, knows a dog whistle issue when he sees one; and when he does see one he plays it like Charlie Parker. After all if the Turnip Taliban, as he once described his party’s traditionalist grassroots members are busy foaming at the mouth about the ECHR they aren’t sniping at him for being a modernizer who consorts with Liberal Democrats.

For the record I believe that the UK should give prisoners the vote, not because someone in Strasbourg has told us to; but because it is the right thing to do.

Like Stephen Williams I believe that if the prison system is going to seek to rehabilitate its inmates, rather than just warehouse them between crime sprees, then they need to stay connected to society. I also believe that whatever the nature of their crime a criminal is still a citizen, it is the job of parliament to protect his or her rights just as it protects mine, not to conspire towards their removal.

Dictatorship is built on the idea that there is a simple answer to every question, if you march in time salute the beloved leader everything will be fine, the state will even find you a convenient scapegoat to blame when things go wrong. Democracy, by contrast, is about asking awkward questions and accepting that at some stage we will all have to sacrifice something that it is in our material or ideological self interest to maintain for the greater good.

That is why even the most loathsome criminals deserve the right to cast their vote, cherry picking those ‘we’ think are ‘nice’ (meaning redeemable) enough to be given it isn’t a liberal compromise, it is the first step along the stony road to a place where the franchise is something handed out as a reward for obedience.

It is better that a small number of people who have committed heinous crimes to be given the vote, than for us all to be complicit in the greater crime of making the right to vote into a gift to be handed out by a remote elite to those people they think can be relied on to do as they are told.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

What exactly do YOU do all day Mr Duncan Smith?

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has refused to apologise for saying the 1518 Remploy workers facing the threat of redundancy spend much of their time making cups of coffee.

In an exchange of views with campaigners who handed in a petition against the closure of Remploy factories at his office Mr Duncan Smith reportedly said, ‘is it a kindness to stick people in some factory where they are not doing any work at all? Just making cups of coffee?’

He went on to say that his decision to close the factories was based on striking a ‘balance between how much do I want to spend keeping a number of people in Remploy factories not producing stuff verses getting people into proper jobs.’

When challenged by one of the campaigners over whether or not disabled people had the right to chose between a mainstream workplace or a segregated one that might be better suited to their needs Mr Duncan Smith retorted ‘How far do you want to go with the idea that you can choose to do exactly what you want?’ Honestly the nerve of these people, wanting to make choices about their own lives; they’ll want the vote next the ungrateful blighters!

Responding to the comments shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne said they were ‘appalling’ and that ‘Remploy workers work hard for a living and they deserve to be treated with respect, not contempt particularly by the man who is sacking them.’

To say the comments made by Iain Duncan Smith were similar to those you might expect from a saloon bar bigot is an insult to saloon bar bigots. They at least try to cover their cruelty with humour and cringe with embarrassment when challenged, he though, speaks with the authentic voice of witless prejudice and doesn’t feel obliged to apologise for anything.

His comments prompt one important question; just what is it that Iain Duncan Smith does as a minister that makes him such a paragon of productivity?

As a minister he has a legion of civil servants to keep the wheels of bureaucracy turning and a squad of ambitious special advisors to write his speeches and laugh at his jokes. Needless to say nobody in either of these groups ever tells him he’s wrong, the polite civil service code for ministerial idiocy is call something ‘brave’; even when as in the case of these comments, it is misinformed, unfair and downright offensive.

What about his role as an MP then, aren’t they obliged to work long into the night and to spend three weekends out of four in their constituency? Quite so, however the House of Commons is one of the more convivial places in which to work what with its excellent restaurant and subsidized bars. There is also the small matter of the generous holidays; the commons goes into recess for weeks at a time because it still operates as if members have to journey back to their constituencies on horseback rather than by train.

Then again perhaps the real work of a minister is to produce policies not tangible products. If so then Iain Duncan Smith has been a serious disappointment. His attempts to reform the welfare system on the principle of giving people a hand up instead of a hand out have, so far, been utterly counterproductive.

His comments are made all the more offensive by the fact that Iain Duncan Smith is supposed to be a different sort of Tory. After a disastrous spell as party leader he re-invented himself as a social campaigner doing much to highlight the growing inequalities in British society and persuading his party that it needed to talk to people struggling at the bottom of society as much as its traditional core supporters.

Which is what makes it so disappointing that after two years in government he has gone feral and reverted to Tory type (or stereotype), surely his serious studies of inequality must have taught him that the one thing that does most damage to individuals and communities is a lack of work. Even a short spell of unemployment can cause people to lose their sense of purpose and become prey to serious physical and mental health problems.

In what is a very tough labour market disabled people will struggle more than most to find work, not least because employers are unwilling to hire staff who may need to, quite legitimately, take a considerable amount of time off to manage their ongoing health needs. Remploy, on the other hand, was set up for no other purpose than to provide employment for disabled people and to be responsive to their needs in a way that other employers cannot be, closing it down will create more problems than it solves.

That Iain Duncan Smith cannot see this is a serious failure of political understanding; that he can’t speak to the people fighting to keep their jobs with the respect they deserve shows a lack of basic empathy. Maybe it isn’t just his position on the future of Remploy that he should reconsider.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Pomp, circumstance and business as usual

This week the Queen clattered off to Westminster in her gilded coach to open parliament and deliver a speech setting out a legislative programme that Prime Minister David Cameron said would ‘build Britain.’ The subtext, of course, was that it would re-launch the flagging fortunes of the coalition; to which the only appropriate response it good luck with that.

The bills announced include one to set up a Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure supermarkets treat their suppliers fairly; measures to allow parents to share maternity leave; a Banking Reform Bill to force banks to separate their retail and investment arms; and proposals to set up a Green Investment Bank. All of which sounds like good progressive stuff, at least it does until you consider little matters like the government’s shameful track record when it comes to standing up to the banking lobby.

Other aspects of the Queen’s speech give greater cause for concern, the government intends to push ahead with the draft Communications Bill, otherwise known as the ‘snoopers charter’ allowing the security services to access the phone calls and emails of private citizens and the introduction of individual electoral registration. That one is a shameful infringement of civil liberties and the other risks disenfranchising thousands of voters in disadvantaged areas has simply failed to register with a government that when it finds itself in a hole tends to start drawing up plans to dig a tunnel.

David Cameron told the commons this week that the government’s legislative plans as set out in the Queen’s speech were all about ‘taking tough long term decisions to restore our country to strength.’ The reality may be a little different, it is reliably rumoured that the speech was rapidly rewritten following the drubbing the coalition parties received in the local elections and frankly it shows.

BBC political correspondent Norman Smith described it as a ‘hotchpotch’ of a speech with ‘no over-arching theme’, it certainly fails to address adequately the concerns over the economy that were the cause of so many voters rejecting Tory and Lib Dem candidates.

In perhaps one of his most assured performances at the despatch box Labour leader Ed Milliband launched a savage attack on the government saying the bills they were putting forward offered ‘no change, no hope’ to people struggling through hard times. He went on to say ‘the electorate have spoken and they are not listening’, accusing David Cameron and George Osborne of believing that ‘people are turning against them because they have not understood the government’s economic policy. The truth is people have turned against them because they have understood it only too well.’

As re-launches go this one has proves, so far, to be the dampest of damp squibs. It shows a government that manages to combine a few good intentions with a tin ear for the concerns of hard pressed voters.

By far the biggest problem faced by the coalition isn’t the bills it plans to put through parliament so much as the man at its head; David Cameron. In his salad days he styled himself as the ‘heir to Blair’ and as such stamped his own personality all over his project to detoxify the Conservative Party.

In opposition this worked well enough, hugging huskies softened the party’s image, but it failed to deliver a conclusive result at the 2010 election because after more than a decade of Blair’s antics the public were growing weary politicians trying to present themselves as being a ‘pretty straight kinda guy’ and suspected, rightly, that there was no substance under the spin.

Two years in government have shown David Cameron in his true colours, not as ‘Dave’ the modernising man of the people, but as a member of the metropolitan elite who wanted to be prime minister not because the thought he could change the world, rather he just felt he might be quite good at the job. In fact he’s been a disaster, stupidly inflexible over economic policy, misguided in his relations with other European leaders and dangerously out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.

Where does all this leave Ed Milliband? Since the budget there has been a decided spring in his step and his performances at PMQ’s no longer resemble those of a British tennis player in the first week at Wimbledon. However, to keep the sporting analogy going for a moment, he now needs to make sure he doesn’t emulate everyone’s favourite nearly man Andy Murray.

The awkward earnestness that until recently made him into a national joke now looks rather more appealing when opposed to the shallow posturing of David Cameron. The challenge now for Milliband and Labour is to find something original to say, promising to deliver a watered down version of austerity won’t cut it; they need to talk about how a Labour government would build a fairer society and to rebuild the party’s links with their core vote they so shamefully neglected during the Balir/Brown years.

Predictions of the imminent demise of the coalition are probably exaggerated because there will always be an incentive for the Liberal Democrats to prop it up in the hope that by doing so they will forestall their own brush with electoral annihilation. Three years is a long trek for an opposition party to keep up the pressure and keep its own message fresh, but it can be done if the message itself is a sufficiently compelling one.

One thing it for certain more and more people are starting to agree with the slogan on the poster showing an air-brushed photo (is there any other kind?) of David Cameron toted at demonstrations by members of the Socialist Workers Party; it reads: ‘He’s got to go.’

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Shiny new buildings mask an NHS stretched to breaking point.

Early last week a close family member was taken suddenly and seriously ill, meaning that he had to be rushed to hospital. The hospital in question was the University Hospital of North Staffordshire (UHNS), a shiny new institution built on the site of the old City General using PFI cash.

At this point I would like to say that I have nothing but admiration for the calm professionalism under extreme pressure displayed by the staff and none of what follows is in any way a criticism of their behaviour. However anyone who experiences the NHS at the sharp end cannot do so without coming face to face with some uncomfortable truths about how it operates.

The UHNS looks more like a mid range motorway hotel than a hospital with its pastel painted corridors, coffee bar and soft lighting. Look a little closer, something you have more time to do so than you would ever want if you’re waiting for a loved one to have treatment, and you soon realise that within this modern shell operates a system that has changed little since the 1940’s.

Here, just as in the decade of bombs, rationing and blackouts life is a slow progress from one queue to another; moments of frantic activity punctuated by interminable stretches when nothing happens. That patients so often bear such a situation with such, well, patience says much about the inherent stoicism of the British character, even so it contributes to make an already difficult time that little bit more traumatic than it needs to be.

This is more to do with the huge cuts imposed on the NHS than the Spanish practices the tabloids love to accuse its staff of engaging in, as the PFI investors start to claw back their money I see little chance of things improving soon. Not while investment bankers have private healthcare anyway.

For decades politicians of both the left and the right have lavished the NHS with syrupy and hypocritical praise whilst basing their attitudes towards it on outmoded and self serving misconceptions. The left treat any suggestion that the Britain of 2012 needs a heath service very different to the one it did in 1948 as a potential existential threat; the right mask creeping privatisation with airy talk about efficiency.

I have yet to meet anyone who wants Britain to have the sort of health service where the first piece of equipment brought to a patient’s bedside is the credit card reader, but we may end up with one if the debate surrounding the NHS is stifled by sentiment and self interest.

Hospitals are the twenty first century equivalent of a medieval cathedral, a vast open space into which all human life inevitably pours. We need an honest debate about how they can be made to serve our needs in a way that keeps the NHS financially viable without making compromising on the principles that make it unique as the one institution all sections of the public respect and value.