Sunday, 21 October 2012

From threat to farce in a tweet

Does anybody remember Nick Griffin? For a while there the BNP supremo was, almost, a big shot. He scandalised the chattering classes by appearing on Question Time and even managed to win a seat in the European Parliament.

It didn’t last though, the media rapidly lost interest in his peculiar brand of sweaty belligerence, his party performed badly in the 2010 elections and has been haemorrhaging members and councillors ever since. Like many people who used to be someone and now have too much time on their hands Mr Griffin has found a home for himself on Twitter.

This week his antics brought him back into the public eye when he used the social networking site to publicise the address of Michael Black and John Morgan, the gay couple who have had the ruling that they were treated unfairly by the Christian owners of a B&B who refused to rent them a double room upheld by a court of law. Mr Griffin tweeted ominously that a ‘British Justice team’ would be visiting the couple to ‘give them a bit of drama’ and encouraged supporters to protest outside their house.

To their credit the nation’s Twitter users either ignored Griffin completely or condemned his comments. As Michael Black told the public reaction seemed to be ‘overwhelmingly in support of our stand against discrimination’, he added that the ‘vast majority’ of people in the UK had long since seen ‘what an idiot Nick Griffin is and reject his views.’

Quite so, the country has moved on and embraced difference as a positive thing; everyone apart from Nick Griffin and his kind that is. Whatever they were doing though it certainly wasn’t protesting in the streets, maybe there was something good on television.

The only protest was on Twitter against the crass comments made by Nick Griffin, his account was, all too briefly, suspended and Cambridgeshire police are launching an investigation. I doubt he has done himself many favours in the light of this by tweeting ‘if you get burgled and police don’t want to know, just tweet something Peter Tatchell can claim to be offensive. Plod will be round in minutes.’ Indeed he will, hopefully to feel your collar Nick.

It is more than a little ironic that this self appointed spokesman for the silent majority has chosen to comment on British justice because that is just what this issue shows in action. Both sides had the opportunity to put their case, the evidence was weighed against the law and a decision reached, some people aren’t very happy about that decision, but that’s just how it goes; you can’t win em all.

Personally I think the court got it right, the owners of the B&B are, of course, perfectly free to live by their religious values, but they have no right to impose those values on other people who either don’t share their faith or interpret its teachings differently. If they struggled so much with the idea that people live valid lives that are different to their own maybe they shouldn’t have gone into a different line of business.

Nick Griffin and the Christian B&B owners, who are I imagine not all that pleased to have attracted his support, may not like it but public attitudes towards sexuality have changed dramatically over that past couple of decades and that is a good thing. We don’t live in a utopia of acceptance and equality, but these days it is the bigots who feel like outcasts.

Bigots like Nick Griffin who want to inhabit a world where everyone is a stereotype and anything new or different is something to be feared. That sort of thinking is an invitation to live a monochrome life; most people these days prefer to embrace the rainbow of possibility that comes with accepting that we are all, as the song says, what we are and that life is better and more fulfilling if we try to get along.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Citizen Dave and the ‘hour of reckoning’

You get the impression that David Cameron is the only one of the three party leaders who really enjoys making his party conference speech. What to the others is a dreary task surrounded by potential pitfalls is, to him, an opportunity to connect with his inner ham actor.

There was certainly a spring in his step this week as he took to the podium in Birmingham to tell a, not very, breathless nation that the UK faces serious economic challenges that only his party can solve. We face, he said, an ‘hour of reckoning’ as countries like China and Brazil that are ‘lean, fit, obsessed with enterprise’ rise up to usurp a Europe that is ‘fat, sclerotic, over regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems.’

Phew! It’s a good job we’ve got a hero like Citizen Dave in our corner, a man who is committed to preventing the UK from ‘joining the slide’ into the economic doldrums. He and George Osborne mean to do so, of course, by slashing our own, allegedly, unaffordable welfare system to the bone.

Anyone thinking this was a reversion to the harsh Tory tactics of the 1980’s would be quite wrong though. Mr Cameron said that his shiny new party isn’t ‘the same old Tories who want to help the rich’. They’re not the party of the ‘better off’ as much as the party of the ‘want to be better off’; on the side of the ‘people who want to get on in life, the doers, the risk takers,’ and their leader is personally committed not to defending privilege but to ‘spreading it.’

Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? Maybe a few people believed him too, but I’d bet most were inside the warm champagne bubble of the conference centre.

The speech was, as ever, smoothly delivered, David Cameron knows how to play to the gallery in the same way Tony Blair did, a little schmaltz here, some tub thumping patriotism there; it all helps to sugar the pill.

The unfortunate thing for him is that, as prime minister, he is judged on what the government he leads does, not what he says or how well he says it; by that standard things haven’t been going well. This has been the year of the pasty tax, the botched budget and the nasty, sneering antics of Andrew Mitchell, try as he might Mr Cameron has a hard time persuading we ‘plebs’ that his isn’t a government composed of public schoolboys so out of touch with reality they’d ask to see the wine list when eating at a soup kitchen.

Populist sops such as promising householders the right to ‘bash’ burglars without fear of being arrested and blood curdling warnings that austerity alone will protect us from sharing the sad fate of Greece may please the party hacks; but they cut no ice with the wider public. Not least because no parliamentary time has been set aside to amend the laws governing how much force householders can use to defend their property and the IMF and the markets the government has been so keen to appease are rapidly losing faith in the ability of George Osborne to stimulate our moribund economy.

Perhaps the real fault doesn’t, entirely, lie with David Cameron and his slick but lifeless speech; maybe it is the whole business of holding party conferences that is tired and fraudulent. Their role as a forum for internal party democracy has long since been sidelined, grassroots members of all three parties stay away in droves meaning the hall is filled with paid officials and hangers on more interested in having a week long bun fight than forming policies that connect with sceptical voters.

All three party leaders, even Ed Milliband who gave what was probably the best speech of his career in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, seem uncomfortably like silent movie stars emoting for the camera when all we want is for them to actually say something. David Cameron, as the most accomplished of the three, looks the most out of step. A political Norma Desmond tottering along in a deluded haze and telling Mr De Mille he’s ready for his close-up. When it eventually comes in 2015 it is likely the electorate will find him wanting.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Just what will the ‘one nation’ Ed Milliband wants to lead look like?

Something remarkable happened to Labour leader Ed Milliband at the party’s conference in Manchester this week; people started to take him seriously. Following his big speech on Tuesday he looked less like the earnest captain of the sixth form debating society and, perhaps, a little more like a prime minister in waiting.

In the course of his speech Mr Milliband invoked the ‘spirit of the Olympics’ and sought to establish Labour as the real ‘one nation’ party. He poured scorn on David Cameron calling his government a ‘u-turning shower’, then added ‘When David Cameron says to you ‘lets just carry on as we are and wait for something to turn up’, don’t believe him. If the medicine isn’t working, change the medicine.’

The medicine in question being austerity and while Ed Milliband also suggested that the UK should ‘change the doctor too’, it is likely that whoever stands at the nation’s bedside the prescription will be much the same.

There was a huge policy shaped hole in the centre of the speech, one that Mr Milliband filled with a stirring call to arms against the ‘two nations’ Britain has become, ‘the bankers and the rest of the country.’ As in his 2011 conference speech the leader of the opposition is keen to weed out ‘predatory’ capitalism from the more helpful version, he’s just still rather vague as to how this might be done.

He also made a big play of his back-story as the son of Jewish refugees and his, relatively, modest origins, saying ‘I was born in my local NHS hospital where my two sons were born. And I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds.’ Through this experience the future leader of the opposition learnt ‘a lot more than just how to pass exams; it taught people how to get on with each other, whoever they are and wherever they were from.’

While Ed is certainly no old Etonian toff raised amidst the splendours of some Downton style country house he’s not exactly a horny handed son of toil either. His parents were both respected left wing intellectuals and though the school he went to was a comprehensive it was also located in a leafy suburb.

The policy element of the speech, such as it was, focussed largely on Labour’s plans to help the ‘forgotten fifty percent’ who don’t go to university by reforming vocational education, bringing in a single ‘gold standard’ exam and involving employers more in deciding what is taught on vocational courses. This is a much needed and long overdue reform of a vital part of the education system, how effective it might be after two more years, or longer, of Michael Gove’s peculiar meddling though remains to be seen. A lot of needless damage will have to be repaired before any good can be done.

As conference speeches go this was perhaps Ed Milliband’s best to date, the delivery was slick, he prowled the stage speaking ‘off the cuff’ rather than standing rigidly behind a lectern and even occasionally had in his eyes that gleam of messianic certainty Tony Blair used to have when he was really in the zone. He looked more like someone who, maybe, could be PM one day than he has before; but that maybe is so large he might not be able to scramble over it.

For a start the lack of discernable policies is a serious handicap, an incoming Labour government would be bound by strict fiscal restraints, meaning that it would have to talk in the ‘language of priorities’. Unfortunately without setting out a clear slate of policies voters will have no idea what those priorities are and so may opt to hold their noses and stick with what they know.

Then there is the whole issue of his attempt to lead his party in a charge to capture the centre ground. Pledging to govern for all of Britain is like saying he holds motherhood in high esteem and favours apple pie over all other dessert options, effective leadership requires taking a position somewhere other than in the middle of the road and then sticking to it.

Anyway a position on the ‘centre ground’ isn’t worth nearly so much as he and his aides think. Rather than being connected to the pulse of some mythical ‘middle England’ it really means being forever engaged in a flat footed chase after yesterday’s Daily Mail editorial. New Labour tried that and look where it got them.

This hasn’t been a bad week either for Labour or Ed Milliband. There were no embarrassing disputes and Ed’s position as party leader is safe for now. Last week I wrote that the image Nick Clegg’s speech gave me was one of the Deputy PM walking alone along the Brighton seafront at dusk, a forgotten and rather sad figure. This week I tried to summon up one of Ed Milliband standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street waving to the cheering crowds and grinning from ear to ear; but I just couldn’t do it, not yet anyway.