26 October 2010

US midterms: a dysfunctional and unworkable political system enters the terminal phase

As the US midterm election campaign grinds towards what looks like a heavy kicking for the Democrats and a breakthrough for the "Tea Party" (whatever that actually is: - I'll come back to that in a moment), I'm somewhat depressed that the Republicans are so resurgent, but not actually that surprised.

In retrospect the euphoria that accompanied the Obama victory two years ago was overdone. I can understand why people (including myself) went over the top like that: after the stealing of the 2000 election by the election thief and war criminal George W Bush, and then the major league disappointment of 2004 when the likeable John Kerry went down to a narrow defeat, there was so much worry that those f***ing Republicans would pull it off again. And indeed in early September 2008 I remember being very worried; Obama's campaign against McCain (rather than against Hilary Clinton) took ages to get going because the Democratic primaries were so protracted, he was behind in the polls and he wasn't getting traction. Then the banking system collapsed, McCain gave the impression of being a senile lunatic, and Obama romped home.

Or did he? Not really. He won by 6 percentage points - the US electoral college system makes that LOOK like a big margin of victory but it isn't really. There have been huge electoral victories in US presidential victories before - for example Reagan vs Mondale in 1984, or Nixon vs McGovern in 1972. By contrast, 2008 was a respectable win but it wasn't a wipeout. And it was largely driven by the economy imploding at just the right time for the Democrats.

This meant that there was still a sizeable body of opinion marshalled against Obama. The economic stimulus plan which got through Congress in 2009 stopped the economy imploding completely but was too small and not enough focused on infrastructure investment to get unemployment down below 10 percent - which has created an impression that the stimulus in some way caused the slump. This is economically and historically incoherent but it is the message that has been pumped out by Fox News and the other right wing outlets that control huge swathes of the US media.

This has been compounded by Obama's failure to get anything through the Senate bar the most brutally compromised healthcare bill - still an impressive achievement compared with anything his predecessors managed, but the bill is a largely inadequate measure which stops short of full healthcare coverage for the population, let alone the establishment of a publicly funded US Health Service (which would be the optimal solution). The need for a 60-40 "supermajority" to overcome filibusters in the Senate has meant that from January 2009 onwards, when the Democrats had precisely 60 senators, Obama was dependent on every single one of those playing ball - or on help from the Republicans. Neither of those happened. The right-wing of the Democrat party has obstructed him on many issues and his efforts to reach out for a bipartisan approach to problems have failed because the Republicans would rather be completely obstructionist and refuse to cooperate on anything.

I would wager that very few Democrat voters put their cross in the box in November 2008 for this - another holding pattern presidency a la Carter or Clinton. The problem of getting elected on a "change" ticket is that there is a danger people might actually expect you to provide some change. And overall, Obama hasn't.

There is also the small matter of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars going to the banking sector, which brought the economy to the brink of destruction in 2008. Voters see high unemployment and mortgage foreclosures for the ordinary working person and an unreformed government-sponsored casino in the financial sector. A complete betrayal of any 'progressive' political perspective, in other words.

In these circumstances, is it any wonder that voters turn to the Tea Party - which is really just a more intense version of the anti-Washington, anti-big government rhetoric used by Sarah Palin in 2008? I'm not going to try to defend the Tea Party's ideology as it isn't really coherent. There are a few libertarians in the movement with a genuinely worked out policy platform (Rand Paul, who is the Republican candidate for the Senate in Kentucky), is a good example): I don't agree with Paul on pretty much any issue but he does have a coherent ideological stance. But most of the Tea Party candidates are pretty much incoherent on most policy issues - Christine O'Donnell, for instance. And there is an essential incoherence about the whole policy position, which claims to be anti-big government but is largely financed by wealthy individuals and corporations who are the major beneficiaries of the way the US government is currently run to favour big corporate interests.

Intellectually speaking, the whole Tea Party shtick collapses after a moment's thought about who really runs America. But it is an obvious consequence of the complete dysfunctionality of a system which claims to be one of the world's strongest and best run democracies but is actually one of its weakest and most corrupt. The Tea Party may be the start of the final phase of the American experiment, ushering in a period of genuine totalitarianism. I would say that is not the most likely outcome however. I think that it is more likely to be absorbed into the mainstream Republican party pushing it even further to the Right, and making the prospects of a successful Republican challenge to Obama in 2012 pretty remote.

Meanwhile, Obama will struggle on, almost certainly securing re-election in 2012 but delivering pretty much nothing in his remaining 6 years in office. Why? Because the current US political system makes it impossible to deliver anything unless you are prepared to work with the grain of what entrenched big business interests, and particularly the financial sector, want. That is why George W Bush was so comfortable in the job. And that is why the next Republican president won't be Rand Paul, but will be a corporate-friendly mogul.

21 October 2010

Spending Review: Pick Up The Pieces

If I were Alan Johnson (who I know likes a bit of rock'n'roll) I'd be whistling "Pick Up the Pieces" by the Average White Band a lot in my office.

George Osborne's Spending Review - combining a bludgeoning withdrawal of demand from an already weak economy with a raid on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society - has made it much more likely that Labour will win the next election, and by a long way. This is quite simply a blueprint for austerity and economic depression (or if you prefer, a blue-yellow print, although Danny Alexander's blue tie on the front bench yesterday said it all) and the numbers produced for the fiscal deficit going forward are straight out of a fairytale. It is most likely that Osborne will be returning to the despatch box in a year or two outlining another round of cuts, with not just the easy options for spending cuts gone but many of the harder options gone too.

And yet Labour will face huge problems when it does get in in 2015 because the economy will have been so wrecked by these crazy policies that it will be extremely hard to deliver any package combining social justice with economic prosperity.

With huge numbers of unemployed and people plunged into poverty by the cuts, Labour will be picking up the pieces of what is left of British democracy and the welfare state during its first term... perhaps paving the way for Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Conservative) in 2020.

Utter insanity, on every level.

14 October 2010


Encouraging media reaction to Prime Ministers' Questions yesterday, where the consensus was that Ed Miliband did better than DaveCam... estimates of the magnitude of his superiority on Twitter ranged from "a points victory" (Andrew Rawnsley) to "Ed Mili beat Cameron by a mile" (the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan). Even some of the right-wing blogs (e.g. Spectator) reckoned Ed did better than Dave.

The amazing thing seems to be the level of surprise about this: did they really think Ed was that bad, or Dave that good? Anyone who saw any of Ed's speeches on the (interminable) Labour leadership campaign, or any public speech or interview he gave between 2005 and 2010, will know that the guy is no duffer when it comes to making a point. For example I remember a Newsnight interview in the summer of 2005 - just after Ed had become the MP for Doncaster - where he destroyed Philip Hammond (then Shadow Chief Sec to the Treasury) on the flat tax (George Osborne's first big idea - expect to see it pulled out of the bag again if the Tories win in 2020). I actually thought Ed was good without being spectacular: he's still pretty nervous at this stage, but I think that's just inexperience. It'll be good to see how he's doing 6 months into this job.

Meanwhile, I always thought Dave was a smooth and slick operator at PMQs but not as brilliant as many others seem to think. He's had a relatively easy ride at the despatch box since becoming Tory leader. First he had 18 months of the fag-end of Tony Blair, who was getting mighty bored of proceedings by then (to be fair to Blair, in his early days as leader he was a brilliant at PMQs), followed by one of the easiest targets in Labour history in the shape of Gordon Brown. Brown can be a brilliant set-piece speaker (any Labour conference speech before about 2004, or his London Citizens speech on the last weekend of the election campaign for example) but working interactively in a format like PMQs, he's mostly appalling. Again I'd say that Cameron is good, but not great, as a speaker. So really they are pretty evenly matched - and given the amount of shit that is going to hit the fan as the spending review leads to the near-collapse of many public services, Ed is gonna have better material to work with.

I must confess that I don't always watch PMQs as - like Question Time - I find it a little knockabout for my tastes. But despite its flaws it is a useful piece of the parliamentary calendar - I'm always struck by the number of political commentators from the US who wish they could have a weekly "President's Questions", although of course one unusual feature of the US political system is that there is no "leader of the opposition" except for about 3 months every 4 years during the presidential campaign. So they would have to do it slightly differently. But anyway, nice to see Ed doing well, and hopefully he will only improve from here.

13 October 2010

How is Ed Miliband doing?

Well it's been a couple of weeks now since Ed Miliband's spectacular come-from-behind win in the Labour leadership contest. After a few days of consternation, David's gone quiet, and Ed's been allowed to get on with the job. So how is he doing?

At this early stage I'd say: pretty well. I thought he gave a fairly good conference speech - although next year's will no doubt be a lot better - and most of the shadow cabinet appointments look pretty sensible. (In passing: I don't agree with Peter Mandelson much, but I do agree that shadow cabinet elections are a bit daft. If the Labour Party leader was just elected by the PLP - the pre-1981 system - it would make more sense. But this system runs the risk that a leader with relatively little support in the PLP suddenly gets a load of frontbenchers who don't really agree with him. Ed's shuffled the cards a bit to try to ensure unity, and it's not too bad in general, but I still think it'd be better if he had a free hand to pick people as he sees fit.)

Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor is a bold move - the contrast with Osborne couldn't be greater, and I think that's quite deliberate. Personally I'd have been happiest with Ed Balls given his depth of economic expertise but I can see where Ed M was coming from - he doesn't want a repeat of Blair/Brown wars. Commentators who have claimed Johnson is unsuitable because of lack of knowledge of economics underestimate the guy - he is extremely bright and will be up to speed on the brief v quickly (just as well, with a week to go to the spending review, although of course the full implications of the spending cuts won't unfold for another year or two, so in fact there is plenty of time to build a campaign around opposition to the cuts).

With Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper I'd probably have swapped them round - put Ed in the Shadow Foreign slot but with additional responsibility for international economic policy - banking regulation and the response to currency wars, etc. - leaving Alan to concentrate on the response to the spending review. My worry with Ed B at the Home Office is that he doesn't seem to be particularly liberal and it'll be sickening to watch Labour attacking the ConDems from the right on issues like migration and civil liberties. So there is potential for a Balls-up there. Meanwhile, Shadow Foreign Sec looks a bit like a waste of Yvette Cooper's talents.

Looking down the list of other Shadows, the key departments at the moment seem to me to be Health (John Healey), Education (Andy Burnham), Work and Pensions (Douglas Alexander), CLG (Caroline Flint) and Culture, Media and Sport (Ivan Lewis). This coalition govt is unique in living memory for attempting huge, and generally ill-considered, reforms in a large number of departments (including all of the above) simultaneously (and you'll see, not coincidentally, that all the Secretaries of State in those five departments are Tories - which gives you some clue as to the real ideological centre of gravity in this administration.)

Just look at what we've got: in Health, Andrew Lansley's plans to break up the NHS, unmentioned at the election. In Education, Micky Gove using the academy blueprint set up by Labour to create a two-tier state school system, deliberately increasing inequalities so that working class kids should "know their place". At Work and Pensions, IDS - perhaps well-intentioned, but about to preside over a car-crash of reforms. At Communities and Local Govt, the truly abominable Eric Pickles trying to destroy any semblance of local democracy we have left while encouraging local councils to be run like Ryanair. And at CMS, Jeremy Hunt trying to destroy the BBC while creating a UK version of Fox News.

Is Labour's shadow team up to the job in these five key areas? Healey - probably. Burnham - yes. Douglas Alexander - probably. With Caroline Flint and Ivan Lewis I just don't know enough to say. I hope Ed Miliband does because this is make-or-break stuff: I can't emphasise enough how important it is that Labour wins the next election. Because it's gonna be a hell of a lot harder to reverse the huge damage that the ConDems are doing to Britain in 2020 than it is in 2015. No-one should be under any illusions about this.

More on those five key areas as the current parliamentary session unfolds.

Returning after a long absence: some housekeeping

OK: welcome back to all and sundry. After clearing most of a hideous work backlog, I should now be good for about a post a day all the way to Christmas. We'll see, but that's what I'm aiming for, anyway.

If the absence of posts to giroscope has been unfortunate, the other two blogs posted here - groscope and Brother Typewriter's Golf Ball - haven't seen action in months. With the Golf Ball I think it makes more sense to fold it into this main blog, so expect to see the odd music post (and it will be some pretty odd music, believe you & me) here as well.

With the allotment blog, it feels like more of a stand-alone piece to me. So in the next few days I'll be posting a round-up on this year's crop (outstanding, mostly, although I'm glad I like marrow because we've got A LOT of them), and then setting out plans for next year.

It's good to be back. (at 6am).

07 October 2010

Two criminals who are wrecking the country

One is "CamClegg" and the other one is myself, for chronic dereliction of blogging duties. On holiday for a few days now but I will have more time to do updates next week. For now, I can only say...

Child Benefit row.... ho ho ho.