30 May 2011

Cutting the rug from under Sepp Blatter's feet

Been trying to take a break from politics the last couple of days... but of course all that happens when I do that is that I end up running into politics, just in a different form. Currently the Guardian headline is Sepp Blatter of FIFA doing a Jim Callaghan.

(Or at least, if you believe the popular mythology as put about by the Murdoch Press. Callaghan never actually said "Crisis? What Crisis?" - it was actually a Supertramp album title from 1975 (good album, thoroughly recommended, by the way). He flew back from some kind of economic summit in the Carribean in January 1979, appeared a bit clueless about the mounting industrial disruption at the time, and that was that. But I digress...)

Any interview with Sepp Blatter simply reinforces the guy's aloofness and his overwhelming feeling that he is untouchable. FIFA appears to be drowning in corruption allegations, and yet to quote one of my favourite Super Furry Animals songs, "The Man Don't Give A F***". David Conn of the Guardian sums the situation up succintly and accurately:

When repeating his overarching argument, that he regards Fifa as untouchable even by governments, accountable only to its own "family within", Blatter even came close to using the phrase "Crisis? What crisis?"

Asked if this is indeed a crisis for Fifa, with two executive committee members suspended and one, Jack Warner, threatening to unleash a "tsunami" against Fifa which began on Sunday night with allegations of impropriety against Blatter himself, the president said: "Crisis? What is a crisis? Football is not in a crisis. We are only in some difficulties, and the difficulties will be solved within the football family."

Blatter's smug arrogance is typical of tax exiles operating international organisations - Switzerland and Dubai tend to be the most favoured bases of operations for these kind of rackets. And he's right that - as football's governing body is currently constituted - he's untouchable. FIFA has deliberately set itself up as outside national jurisdiction.

BUT... the operative clause here is "as football's governing body is currently constituted." FIFA may have a monopoly on organising association football at the moment, but there's no innate reason why that should be the case. If national football associations decided to disaffiliate from FIFA and establish a new, non-corrupt international governing body, Sepp Blatter would pretty soon find himself out of a job.

At the end of the day it's the national governing bodies who have the power. Simple as that. All they have to do is use it.

To that end, I will be continuing my sometime campaign, launched last year, for an alternative governing body to FIFA... and this is very relevant to current political situations more generally, as I do feel revolution could sort out a lot of our problems right now. It was the solution in Egypt; it's the solution in Greece (and I'll be responding to Van Patten's interesting, but wrongheaded, post soon); it's the solution in the USA; and it's the solution here. And maybe - just maybe - it all starts with FIFA.

Blatter is the sporting equivalent of the bankers in the real economy. And like the bankers, he desperately needs to be taken down several pegs, or maybe just taken down, period/full stop.

A tale of two cities..

Football journalists (arguably on a par with politicians in my esteem) have been falling over themselves to heap praise on Barcelona for their performance and victory in the 'Champions League' final which took place whilst I had a very enjoyable wedding in France to attend on Saturday. No prizes for guessing whether I watched this 'classic encounter', the second final featuring these two teams in the last three years. However much I can admire (and I do admire them when wearing the Red and Gold of the European and World champions Spain)the skilss of Xavi and Iniesta and the talents of Lionel Messi, the entire experience leaves me (and I would guess most people who aren't fans of the 'Big four' clubs) pretty cold. Around 14 years ago I was introduced to a website by a then college friend of mine, who had printed out an article entitled 'The New Season' on a Watford fanzine then in its infancy which encapsulated in words far more passionate and germane than I could ever hope to achieve, just why the 'Champions League' is effectively a wholly fraudulent charade: It's worth quoting from directly:

I saw on the news last week that UEFA is to open up the European CHAMPIONS Cup to the runners-up of the eight most successful leagues in Europe. This is as a direct result of pressure from the likes of David Dein (Arsenal's vile vice-chairman).

Big deal, eh? Well, yes, actually. It's a very big deal indeed. Not only is this the final nail in the coffin for one of the world's most prestigious tournaments (the Champions League had pretty much finished it off already) since the actual premise of the thing (a competition between the champions of Europe) is now to be abandoned, it also represents the total capitulation of UEFA to the demands of the rich few.

UEFA is, in case it gets forgotten, supposed to represent the interests of all its members. Yeah, and I'm Elvis Presley. After the farce of Blackburn entering straight into the Champions League (apparently due to their outstanding record in European competition and not, for instance, the large amount of money being paid for coverage by British TV), we now have this abomination. A level playing field? Don't make me laugh...

As with almost all of the past ten finals (barring the one in 2004 where I was genuinely interested in what might happen) one of the participants should not have been on the field, as they were not the Champions of anything! Nevertheless, the situation since the article above, bemoaning the allowing of two teams from a country in, will as any football follower knows, has deteriorated still further with some countries getting four teams.

Which is an unedifying contrast with a belated tribute to the English football League's newest entrants, AFC Wimbledon who have within 9 years of their formation defeated the significantly larger and better supported Luton Town to make their way into the Football League. More than that single fixture, they have used a sense of powerful injustice at being (in the eyes of everyone it would seem bar the Football Association) the victims of what was effectively grand larceny to overcome the odds and bounce back. Their victory recalled that 1996 article well, and the sentiments once more would be appropriate today.

I hope every single English club in Europe gets utterly and totally bloody humiliated, just as I hope that Newcastle finish 10th in the Premiership (behind Wimbledon - who are complete heroes, for obvious reasons)

As with a number of Dons fans, I'm dreading to think that they might inject some life into the otherwise moribund 'Johnstone's Paint trophy' by pairing the new boys with this lot but that'll await the draw. In the meantime, I know which of the two matches mentioned above gives me more satisfaction, however ludicrous the hyperbole shown here , for example. COME ON YOU DONS!!!!!

I've seen Ed Miliband's vision of the future...and it's Greece

This post is somewhat late in arriving , so it does lose some of its impact. It was provoked by the ongoing issues with the Eurozones self confessed 'Achilles heel' , Greece, facing what is, by common consent, a very difficult adjustment, and this article in the Guardian

Obviously my erstwhile host here, Giroscoper has decided to retire from 'Cif' (not the detergent spray but the Guardian's forum) for the foreseeable future. However, the germane response from this poster, which seemed so apposite for the 'Anti cuts lobby' in the UK is worth quoting from at length.

"• I live in Greece and ...... I think Hara Kouki is an example of a generation that has grown up thinking that the "state" or their parents are going to give them everything so they don't need to do very much. They complain there are no jobs when they also support a system and a political ideology that prevents jobs from being created. Not to mention, one wonders what jobs many of this generation could actually do. Too many of the "young generation" (not that Hara is that young, she is 32 and presumably has been a "student" for most of her life and intends to be one for the several next few years) actually have very few skills to do a job properly, aside from "delivery" or working in shops. In order to create jobs Greece needs to allow its private sector to function properly but the protests in Athens yesterday were actually about preventing that. The unions and the left thus wanted to show the visiting troika that, No! they will accept no sale or lease of public assets (although there is no register of public assets so no one knows what they actually are in order to be able to utilise them) or privatisation of completely useless state "enterprises" that are totally unproductive and lose millions of euros a month. Despite the fact that such sales or leases or privatisation could bring in tens of billions of euros that Greece desperately needs right now. The purpose of yesterday's riots and Hara's "threat" that may one day be a "mass reaction here in Greece, one that may be violent" were to say: No! No reforms! Do not privatise, do not sell off unproductive state-owned industries! Do not reform the public service! Make no changes, we want things to carry on as they are! We want to protect our vested interests, especially the unions and the syndicates that have brought Greece to its knees.
And, Germany isn't doing better because of the crisis. Germany is doing better because it has a thriving private sector, has companies and citizens who actually make things instead of expect to be given things, and is highly innovative and willing to change and reform when that is needed. This is the opposite of Greece.

The EU doesn't give loans, and certainly not to governments to build houses. Unless you mean the bailout, but that's gone to keep the country from collapsing in return for the government implementing reform. Unfortunately, there has been very little reform, either because the government is being prevented from implementing it by the vested interests that organise the protests, or because the state infrastructure is so weak and civil servants so incompetent they are unable to put the reforms into practice. And, no the people have not been starving because the government has stolen all the "EU loans", whatever they may be. What has happened is that the EU has literally given billions and billions of euros to Greece over the past 30 years for all sorts of projects, large and small, and much of these billions have been misused and wasted, not by the politicians but by the projects they have gone to fund. The EU is definitely to blame for creating a sense of "the EU will give us the money to do this completely useless project so we don't actually have to be productive or effective or even have a necessary product". This has also helped to strangle the development of a mentality where people actually innovate and create and realise the need to work properly, to take some responsibility for themselves and not expect that the state (and their parents, in the case of the 20-30 and even 30plus generation) will sort everything out for them. Hopefully, such EU funding will be better thought out in future.
And...if you're worried that
all governments have destroyed everything the state owns then perhaps the state shouldn't own so much or be involved in such micro-details of daily life. But, I bet you'd be one of the first to go and shout in the streets if such state ownership and state control was challenged.

For Natalie Hanman, where did you find Hara? I note she's a student at Birkbeck, so perhaps you found her through your pal Costas Douzinas. You know, the one that supports that fossilised, backwards hard-leftist ideology that has helped to destroy Greece. (It's not just the hard-left, this kind of garbage ideology also permeates right-wing populism in Greece.) You keep thanking them for supposedly giving insight into what's going on in Greece, when what they're actually doing is giving a distorted picture that only represents about 5% of what's actually going on and misrepresents most of the rest."

Several other papers have written some rather saddening articles about what is happening in Greece. According to the headlines and leftist commentators austerity measures imposed by both the EU (which is an irony given its profligacy) and the IMF have caused a contraction in their economy of an estimated 7% over the past two years. Whilst there is a shade of truth in this, in that the Greeks are the first people paying a very high price for the EU to try and keep the train wreck and vanity project that is the euro going, it ignores the underlying issues afflicting Greece's (and indeed almost every Western European) economy.

As the excellent commentator here points out, the phenomenon known as 'crowding out' is endemic in the Greek economy. The retirement age is 'tiered' between 57 and 61 and a substantial state sector (accounting for around 40% of the workforce) has reasonably generous pensions vis a vis the cost of living. Furthermore, the trend for young people is to avoid going down the route of entrepeneurship and either accept employment within the Public sector or else join the extremes of both sides (and he rightly mentions the economic illiteracy of the Greek ultra nationalists as well as their leftist counterparts) and prootest against any change in the status quo.

What struck me about the Greek protests was the significant similarity between those and the TUC supported 'March for the alternative'which attracted such favourable attention in the Guardian ,Independent and BBC (funded by a £145.50 stipend on every TV watching household in the country) In both cases a large coterie of people, most of whom were advocates or direct beneficiaries of state largesse were marching in support of economic ideas that they, in their heart of hearts, know go against the grain of almost every economic commentator in the mainstream press, (barring the curious Paul Krugman of the New York Times, of whom more in a later post) advocating that the way to solve the economic woes affecting the country was to raise a budget which had already been increased by more than 200% over the past 13 years. As this Greek gentleman seems to realise, sooner or later a reckoning has to come. As several have pointed out,Britain is not Greece, but floundering under the weight of our accumulated debt, at the moment (and as Giroscoper points out I need to see the Labour Party policy review before passing full judgement) the Leader of the Oppositions policy seems to be to reject every area of the budget being cut save Defence. One of my common statements when commenting on the disastrous Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 was that the road to Harare or Pyongyang was shorter than one might expect, and as 'Red Two' and Voller' point out that kind of exaggeration does a significant disservice to people enduring hardships that most in the UK would find unimaginable at the hands of this man and his comrade in arms . However, having travelled to Athens , it's less than three hours, and unless the economy recovers, the figurative road there could be a great deal shorter than both the Leader of HM opposition, and to a degree , the current Prime Minister think.

25 May 2011

At Last The 1996 Show: deconstructing Labour's hard right

It's now 8 months since Ed Miliband's knife-edge victory in the Labour leadership contest. I still can't quite believe he did it - and neither can the hard right of the Labour party. I define Labour's hard right as a strip of LINO (Labour In Name Only) hacks who, still unwilling to accept that their preferred candidate (Ed's older brother) lost, have taken it upon themselves to attempt to undermine Ed's leadership at every turn, with the eventual objective of replacing him with a clone of Tony Blair.

Note that we're not talking about the right wing of the Labour party here - which presumably comprises several tens of thousands of people, at least (given that most, though by no means all, of the right-wing votes in the Labour leadership contest went to David Miliband.) Many of the Labour right were unhappy with the leadership result - apparently the Progress (main right-wing Labour faction) "rally" at the party conference two days after the result was announced was more like a wake - but most of them have accepted it and are working with it. No, I'm talking about a small number of bloggers and journalists who are doing their best to whip up anti-Ed feelings and a sense of crisis so that he may be deposed at some point before the next election.

The most high profile print journalist in the hard right camp is Phil Collins - not the ex-Genesis singer/drummer and 1980s solo music criminal, but an ex-speech writer for Tony Blair of the same name. Which is a pity in many ways because the ex-Genesis Phil, for all his faults, is a far more likeable character and would probably have more insight on the future direction of the Labour party than ex-Blair Phil. He could hardly have less. I can't link to any of Phil Collins's Times pieces because they are behind a paywall. But you can get an approximation by reading any blogger or political commentator on the Telegraph website (Mary Riddell excepted). Now the Telegraph is of course a Tory paper. And that's why you can get an ersatz Phil Collins experience by reading the Telegraph - because Collins is a Tory as well! Which is of course WHY he was Tony Blair's speechwriter - because Blair was also a Tory. He started out in politics as a conservative and ended up as a Conservative.

If anyone disagrees with this assessment of Phil Collins, feel free to point me to something in his previous writings which contradicts it. I know that Collins now describes himself as a "liberal", not a conservative, but so does Nick Clegg, and we've seen what that means in practice - propping up a Tory government. Very appropriate. I find Collins more contemptible than even the Guardian's Julian Glover. Glover is one of the most odious columnists in British journalism, delighting in making poor people better off, smashing the state, and generally advocating a policy of making people's lives a misery by withdrawing essential public services from them so that they are "more free". But at least he doesn't make the pretence of supporting the Labour party while being viscerally opposed to all its policies. He's a bastard, but an honest bastard. Phil is a duplicitous bastard.

However, Mr Collins's efforts, funded by the Murdoch press as they are, are strict amateurism compared to the professional Ed Miliband sabotage operation being conducted by Dan Hodges of the New Statesman and Labour Uncut blogs.

Dan has emerged on the blogosphere over the last 12 months as Ed Miliband's leading self-appointed critic, with a simple modus operandi which involves cutting and repasting the same basic article with very minor cosmetic alterations and references to recent events, again and again and presumably being paid full whack for these minor alterations. The article template is always a desperate exercise in Blairite trolling, summarisable in a few bullet points, as follows:

  • Ed is performing badly.
  • An unnamed shadow cabinet member has recently told Dan that Ed will be finished unless his performance improves soon.
  • The party is demoralised.
  • (if there has been a recent election result) the results were awful. Labour was unable to capture any swing voters from the Tories.
  • Ed needs to drop all this "progressive majority" bullshit, stop chasing ex-Liberal Democrat voters, and start courting Tory voters - preferably by adopting policy positions that are indistinguishable from the Tories.
  • Tony Blair is pissed off with Ed trashing New Labour's record.
  • Tony Blair is the blueprint for future Labour success.

Now, I'm not going to say that Ed Miliband's performance as Labour leader has been extraordinary, or brilliant. But it is good - and it's improving. For what it's worth (not much in my opinion,but some of us set great store by set-pieces), Ed regularly gives Cameron a verbal kicking at PMQs. His set-piece speeches are excellent, if a little light on specifics at the moment (more on that later). He's set a policy review process in motion that encompasses 23 policy areas and will run for the next 18 months - which at this stage in the parliament is eminently sensible. He's got good people in most of the top shadow cabinet positions (after some hiccups at the start). What else would people like Dan have Ed doing?

The answer, of course, is that this has nothing to do with Ed's performance in the job per se, and everything to do with the fact that the Labour hard right can't accept that their man lost. As it happens, I think David Miliband's pitch for the Labour leadership, while to the right of Ed's, was not a neo-Blairite hard right platform. For example he showed an interest in active industrial policy which was completely alien to the Labour hard right, who are still in thrall to neoliberalism and still don't quite believe the economic crisis happened. This explains why David attracted considerable support from the soft left of the Labour party as well as the right.

But at the end of the day, David Miliband should have been a shoo-in for Labour leader, and he blew it with poor campaigning. It wasn't all his fault; the unsolicited endorsement by Peter Mandelson was deeply damaging. But David had every opportunity to distance himself from Mandelson - and indeed Blair - but chose not to, and paid the price for keeping the wrong friends. By contrast, Ed fought a brilliant guerilla insurgency campaign - so brilliant, in fact, that even he couldn't believe he'd actually won the contest. To me, that says something positive about Ed's qualities as a campaigner - and something negative about David Miliband's qualities as a campaigner - that has been largely ignored, and shouldn't have been.

But to the neo-Blairite hard right, all this is evidence that Ed is, in some way, a usurper - Labour's Richard III figure, complete with hunchback and funny walk. And so they won't be happy until he's been deposed and presumably shuffled off to some trade union convalescent home at Eastbourne, or something.

Of course, it's not going to happen. For one thing, as Hodges himself has pointed out, the Labour hard right has no obvious challenger. With David Miliband showing no appetite for the rematch, Jimmy Purnell retired, and other neo-Blairites laughably insubstantial figures (e.g. Jim Murphy, Pat McFadden) there simply is no-one out there to carry the flame. And even if someone did emerge, Labour has no tradition of knifing leaders before elections, by contrast to the Tories, for whom it's bread and butter (Thatcher, IDS). If the Blairites couldn't get rid of Gordon Brown before an election they stand sweet F.A. chance of toppling Ed, no matter what his poll ratings are.

Also the Labour hard right has no policy suggestions whatsoever - NONE - beyond tame capitulation to the Tories. Thus we see that on Labour Uncut (which seems to be the leading internal Labour right blog), ex-party chairman Peter Watt has recently called for Labour to endorse the Tories' cuts strategy lock, stock and barrel. This would be intellectual suicide, instantly allowing George Osborne to claim that he was dictating the terms of the economic debate and making Ed Balls look like an imbecile. Given the mounting evidence that the cuts are exerting a huge toll on the British economy, it's also economically wrong-headed. The real reason Watt is suggesting this is that Tony Blair accepted Tory spending plans in 1996. He didn't need to do it (does ANYONE - even Michael Heseltine - believe that the Tories would have won in 1997 if not for Labour accepting Tory spending plans?), it was a disaster in terms of the performance of public services (the extra 2 years of vicious squeezing of spending from 1997 to 1999 paralysed the NHS and state education for several years and made it much harder for Labour to get any improvements in those services until fairly late into its second term, if that), but hey, Tony Blair did it so it must be the right thing to do, right?

The basic point here is that the Labour hard right is still living in 1996. Their thinking hasn't moved on in 15 years. I'm not saying that Ed Miliband, or the soft left (or indeed soft right) of the Labour party, have all the answers - because they patently haven't - but the possibility exists, however faint, that they will Get It. Whereas the only place that following the advice of people like Hodges, Collins and Watt will get Labour is belly laughs and a walloping from a resurgent - and thankful - Tory party at the next election. The Labour hard right are ersatz Tories, bad losers, cheap punks and imbeciles to a man/woman, and their best course of action would be to shut up shop, think about why the hell they are in the Labour party, and if they can't reconcile their membership with their fundamental conservatism, perhaps best to retreat to the massed ranks of the ConDem coalition - where this sort of bullshit is looked on a good deal more kindly.

17 May 2011

Comment is crap... why I've cut the CiF

After a frantic period of almost totally inconsequential activity when I seemed to be posting comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free (CiF) site almost every day, I've now retired from such activity for the foreseeable future.

Why? Because it's a waste of time.

It's not that the CiF articles are especially bad. They are a true mixed bag, from brilliant to crap and every shade in between.

It's more that I get the impression that almost no-one who isn't either a troll or a counter-troll reads the comments - and hence, why bother commenting?

The comments on CiF split roughly 50%/40%/10% between:

Type 1: the "astroturfing" right wing trolls

These guys (if they are guys) make extreme comments of a liberatarian/fascist/homophobic/racist/sexist nature (sometimes all 5 at once, which is impressive in a frightening way). They do not engage with any alternative points of view except to reiterate their earlier points with more swearwords and venom. They use a variety of aliases but the posting style and phrasing is similar in most cases, which leads me to believe that the CiF right wing presence is a few people posting repeatedly under dozens of different names. This activity gives an impression of a grass roots movement where none really exists - hence the name "astroturfing". George Monbiot started to expose the astroturfing phenomenon in a very good article last December.

Type 2: the left wing countertrolls

These guys (again they mainly seem to be guys) have been emerging more and more over the last year or so, after a long period when CiF comments seemed to be one long loo-roll of right-wing bile. The counter-troll takes on the right-wing astroturf trolls head on, attempting to rebut their arguments. This isn't quite so easy as it seems as they often have no real argument to speak of in the first place and so the counter-troll is pretty much forced to descend to their level.

I speak from experience here - because I'm one of the counter-trolls. My contributions over the last six months have mainly been brain-dead endorsements of Ed Miliband, George Monbiot, Len McCluskey, Caroline Lucas, Yes to AV, the late Captain Beefheart, my friend Tom Clark who writes for the Guardian... pretty much anything except a rational argument. A good example is this piece by Ed Miliband "Yes to AV is yes to a fairer politics", where I actually managed to grab the much-coveted first comment slot with

YES YES YES... Ed tells it like it is. Vote yes people, for the biggest upset in electoral history... ignore the reactionaries, doom-mongers, naysayers, and CiF's "astroturfing" right wing trolls.

Great sentiments, but sadly little in the way of intelligent ideas. So far, 153 people have 'recommended' this inane comment. Did anyone take away anything of value from it - apart from the possible inference that I hang around on the CiF site refreshing every 30 seconds, waiting for new posts to come up? I don't think so. But such is the life of the counter-troll.

Type 3: genuinely interesting comments

These are the needles in a haystack that actually make it worth reading a CiF thread - intelligent pieces of analysis that don't just fall back on cheap political posturing (whether right or left) but make a point that somebody might not have heard before. But in your average CiF column such insights are few and far between. You get a few more like this on subjects that cut across conventional left-right boundaries, such as religious belief (although Andrew Brown, the editor of CiF Belief, is clueless at best, the comment thread on his posts is usually at least slightly interesting). But you also get even more vociferous nutters - both pro- and anti-religion - on any theological topics.

There is also a fourth type of comment - when the article writer visits the thread to comment on their own article. Some writers - George Monbiot for example, and also the wretched Julian Glover - are quite assiduous about this. Others are never to be seen... probably they've just given the whole experience up as a bad job. Which it pretty much is.

Comment is Free is not the only place on the web where blog comment has degenerated into a trollfest - most newspaper websites suffer from it to some extent. I've also occasionally posted on the Telegraph comment site, and that has a lot of right wingers - although due to the readership, it is more a case of boneheaded right-wing dogma interrupted by the occasional left-wing troll rather than the other way round. Surprisingly, I don't find the comment threads on the Telegraph any more unpleasant a read than the Guardian, really.

Political blogs are also handy hangouts for trolls. The leading centre-left blog sites - Sunny Hundal's Liberal Conspiracy, and Shamik Das's Left Foot Forward - are badly infested with them, for example. The Fabian's Next Left blog less so - partly because Next Left tends to get less trolls anyway, perhaps because the posting rate is a lot less per day. I've noticed that the more articles get posted on a blog, the more likely it is to get trolled. I very rarely read right wing blogs like Guido Fawkes or Conservative Home, but when I do, the comment threads there seem to resemble Mos Eisley spaceport on a very bad day... AVOID.

Some left bloggers have the patience to filter out the trolls manually - most obviously Richard Murphy at Tax Research UK. Richard used to get targeted by about half a dozen people who were just frankly a pain in the ass; once he blocked those people the readability of the thread and his overall traffic went up A LOT. But this kind of active filtering is time-consuming; Richard has had to turn off all comments twice in the last eighteen months because he couldn't cope with the sheer volume of shit coming his way if he was going to hold down any kind of day job at the same time. At the end of the day, that's why trolls rule the blogwaves; there are at least a few dozen trolls out there who seem to be doing it full time, and most blogs have only one moderator, doing it in their spare time.

As the web develops into its next phase it's quite possible that a move away from free-for-all comments and something a bit more like a round-table event - with a specific list of invitees for each post, or a meta-list of people cleared to comment on the site - is likely. This would be a shame in many ways as it would make the blogosphere less of a public good. But on the other hand trolls are a public bad, so maybe there's a tradeoff between openness and quality.

All I know for sure is that - for the moment at least - my CiF posting days are over. Hal Berstram's last CiF post occurred last Saturday, on a story about the ridiculously poorly attended "Rally Against Debt" - spoofed very effectively here. Good luck to the left-wingers on CiF - be they counter-trolls or otherwise - who continue to fight the good fight against astroturf, libertarianism and extremism. I just don't know if anyone is there to see your good work - and at the end of the day the marginal benefit from me continuing to write inane pro-Ed Milband propaganda is zero. So Goodbye To All That. You'll still be able to read Hal on Next Left, the Virtual Stoa, and maybe slagging off Dan Hodges on the New Statesman blog (some writers deserve to be trolled)... but not on CiF anymore. We live... and some of us learn.

12 May 2011

J&B Straight and a Corona.......

Worth taking a few minutes to look at the political situation across the Atlantic. Firstly let me explain a little behind the title of this post. For those unfamiliar with either the Bret Easton Ellis novel or the Mary Harron film American Psycho, the book is basically a very dark and at times quite violent satire on Reaganite America. The title of the leading contributors to this blog are both names based on characters from the film, but perhaps the relevance here is that the work's anti-hero, Patrick Bateman is obsessed with and a great admirer of the then property magnate, Donald Trump, perhaps better known now as the man who fronts the US version of the Apprentice.

What relevance has this to the political situation over there? Well, I was quite impressed with an article in today's Guardian which compared the Republican candidates' field for 2012 to the famous scene from Star Wars Episode IV in the Mos Eisley Cantina.
It says much for the paucity of options that currently Trump leads the field. So who are the men and women lining up for a shot at a President who prior to the recent killing of Bin Laden was not exactly lighting up the polls?

Donald Trump, the current front runner arguably needs no introduction: A property magnate, TV personality and billionaire 'self-made' man, he is perhaps the embodiment of 'the American Dream' or its nightmarish Reaganite manifestation anyhow. His sole 'qualification' for the presidency appears to be that he could run the country like a business but he has for me completely blotted his copybook(aside from some rather dubious activity during the 1980's) by what can only be considered an idiotic obsession with Obama's origins, taking pride in his 'forcing' the President to reveal his birth certificate. Say what you will about the Royal wedding, at least it would spare us President Trump as 'head of state'. His catchphrase (adopted by his UK apprentice counterpart Lord Sugar) is 'you're fired'. I think it safe to say in the unlikely event he did get the nomination, he'd be the one being fired.

Perhaps the candidate with even more global recognition than 'The Donald' is former VP candidate from 2008, Sarah Palin. Despite always being on the lookout for mentions of arguably the most influential Hard Leftist country, her lauding of the US' 'North Korean Allies' escaped my attention at the time, but whilst she undoubtedly has significant support from the 'Tea Party' side of the Republican Party this and a host of other gaffes (indeed some would argue her autobio 'Going Rogue' handily brought me as a Christmas present is one long gaffe) make her manna from heaven for any Democratic supporters.

Less familar but arguably even more of a wild card is the other female candidate, Minnesota congresswoman, Michele Bachmann. The kind of kook that gives conservatism a bad name, Bachmann's more sensible ideas include responding to Obama's floating the idea of a cap and trade policy to try and limit CO2 emmissions by telling Minnesotans to 'get armed and dangerous on this issue of an energy tax because we need to fight back'. Having never visited Minnesota but always had a soft spot for their American football team due to the kit(and them being one of my brother's favourite team's divisional rivals!) , I'm sure hoping she is somewhat unrepresentative of the state. Further political positions include support for Intelligent design and questioning the theory of evolution within state schools, opposing increases in the minimum wage and repeal of President Obama's healthcare Bill.

Another figure probably unfamiliar to UK readers is former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who feels motivated to run in 2012 because 'we need a new President of the United States' Well, whilst I'd probably agree with you on that Rick, the question is whether you are the man for the job - on that let's examine some of his beliefs. Arguably his most famous (or notorious) foray into the Public arena was when he stated:

"In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."

Thus any homosexual readers may be please to know they're bracketed by this candidate with practitioners of bestiality and necrophilia. However, his lack of public recognition means I probably wouldn't cancel any vacation plans to the States post 2013 just yet.

Rounding out the more eccentric candidates is Ron Paul , the Texas Congressman who also put himself forward in 2008. However, Paul is arguably the best of the five mentioned to this point. (not that the competition is especially stiff admittedly)He adopts a strongly Libertarian policy, and indeed was a Libertarian Party candidate from the presidency against Bush Senior in 1988. A philosophical Conservative, Paul opposed the Iraq war in 2002, and adheres to a non-interventionist US policy which would involve withdrawal from bases in Japan,Germany and Korea. A Free Marketeer in the economic sense and a disciple of the Austro German school of Hayek/Von Mises, he would abolish Income Tax and introduce a National Sales Tax. He is 'Pro-Life' although he does state that decisions should be left to the individual States rather than at a National level. All in all, something of a mixed bag with a few genuinely hardline conservative positions mixed in with an economically Liberal philopsophy. He has a hardcore of committed supporters and is almost as likely to criticise his Republican colleagues as the Democrats.

The more 'mainstream' candidates are arguably an equally uninspiring pool, not as with Palin or Bachmann for their lunacy, more for their somewhat lack of charisma. Arguably the best known is Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and another failed contender from 2008. Excluding Trump he currently leads the race. However, whilst it would probably make very little difference in the UK, his Mormon faith makes it highly problematic for him to actually get the nomination and to be honest, his campaign in 2008 was so unmemorable precisly because of his lack of public recognition. On most issue he seems to be to the left of the Republican Party but when you look at statements from the likes of Bachmann and Palin, that's not really saying much.

Another figure who may be familiar to more seasoned observers of the US political scene, is Newt Gingrich. Formerly Speaker of the House of Representatives during the latter part of the Clinton presidency,Gingrich announced his intention to run for president yesterdayand looking at the exploratory committee's first steps I must admit I would hope that someone in the UK Conservative Party could carry out his strategy of 'replacing the Left'. However, I don't necessarily think his candidacy could succeed if he were in the race against Obama. Nevertheless, his positions on certain areas are somewhat more nuanced than some of the other more 'out there' candidates. On immigration, especially his proposals to instigate some form of guest worker programme place him to the left of the Republican. that said, on an issue like 'climate change' he remains somewhat sceptical on proposals to use fiscal means of limiting pollution. However, along with Romney he remains one of the early front runners for the nomination.

Another person whom people may recall from the 2008 Primaries is Mike Huckabee, one of Clinton's successors as governor of Arkansas. One of my groomsmen quite seriously said that if Huckabee succeeded in winning the presidency, he and his American wife and daughters would almost certainly be headed back across this side of the Atlantic. The man himself does appear regularly on the US Murdoch mouthpiece Fox News, and he does seem somewhat reluctant to give up that quite lucrative number.
However, worryingly for those on the Left(and many on the right), current poll ratings pre bin Laden would put Huckabee ahead of Obama and in the so called 'NASCAR belt' he has strong support. His positions are the standard extreme right of the Republican Party on issues such as abortion (opposed even in the case of rape and incest), foreign policy (a strong defence and 50% increase in military expenditure and homosexuality (against same sex marriages and civil unions)Unlike Palin, Huckabee appears to be somewhat less prone to rhetorical gaffes, but he does remind me at least somewhat of the unsuccessful 1964 candidate Barry Goldwater whose tagline:

'In your heart, you know he's right'

was met with the riposte by then President Johnson's team.

'In your guts , you know he's nuts'

A figure beloved of certain Washington columnists, but who would have almost zero recognition over here is Mitch Daniels, current governor of Indiana. another state arguably relatively unknown and unvisited by UK tourists(Unless you're a fan of the Colts or NBA Pacers, or motorracing's Indy 500), Daniels seems by Republican standards quite moderate, but arguably this would probably cost him support in some of the more eccentric states. He does seem to be relatively moderate by the standards of some of the candidates mentioned here. However, by his own admission, he would probably need to better understand the national policy issues he would need to tackle as President. As with some other substantial candidates who I'll consider later on, he also probably thinks Obama will be difficult to beat in 2012 and is biding his time for a run in 2016.

One man who although not formally in the Race yet is widely believed to be on the verge of declaring his candidacy for the Republican nomination is the former governor of another Northern state, Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. However, in current polls he doesn't get much beyond single figure polling and his general lack of charisma is probably best illustrated by his website , and attempt to build some kind of credibility with younger voters who overwhelmingly voted for Obama last time by using the name 'T-Paw' a ploy that looks eerily similar to William Hague's 'baseball cap' gaffe in 1999. I think for different reasons to Palin, Democratic supporters would be licking their lips in the unlikely event he were to win the nomination.

So, a pretty uninspiring bunch to be sure. The question is - who can the Repuplicans find that might fare better than these guys and girls? This post has already taken arguably too long, and a later post will consider the candidates who would IMHO have a very strong chance of beating Obama. Another may also consider in response to the excellent Mehdi Hasan article, which creature within the Mos Eisley Cantina scene corresponds to which candidate.

11 May 2011

One year on: what could the Lib Dems have done instead?

On the first anniversary of the formation of the "ConDem" coalition government I want to take the opportunity to address an argument which is used by Lib Dems on the left of the party as to why they shouldn't be criticised for going into coalition with the Tories. This is an extremely long post, for which I apologise... just to warn you.

I went to a meeting earlier in the week with Dr Evan Harris - Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon until his very narrow defeat in May 2010 (for reasons brilliantly described by my friend Chris Brooke here.) Evan is probably about as left of centre as Lib Dem MPs get, and a very decent guy. His argument was that there was no alternative to going into coalition with the Tories in May 2010.

I don't believe that and I don't think it was in the best interests of the left of the Lib Dems to go into the coalition, but I want to explore in detail the options that were available to Nick Clegg in the wake of the 2010 result. This is usually skirted over in political discussion but I think it's really important to be clear - as, if it really is true that there was no alternative to this ConDem govt, it would be unfair to blame the Lib Dems for something they couldn't avoid doing. And I've been dishing out a lot of blame over the last 12 months, so I feel I owe it to any Lib Dems reading this blog to offer an explanation for why I feel they have let themselves and the country down.

There were three basic options available to Nick Clegg after the 2010 election results came through:

  1. a coalition with Labour and minor parties (Greens, Plaid Cymru etc) - this has been called the 'rainbow' or 'traffic light' option.
  2. Allowing the Tories to form a minority government.
  3. coalition with the Tories.
Option 3 was followed. I want to look at the viability, and likely results, of option 1 and 2.

Option 1: rainbow coalition

At the time, I rapidly dismissed this as an option because the electoral arithmetic seemed not to work. The way I thought about it was that Labour had 258 MPs, plus 57 Lib Dems, making 315 - short of a majority. Adding in Caroline Lucas, plus 3 Plaid Cymru, plus 4 sympathetic Northern Ireland MPs (3 SDLP and 1 Alliance) made 323 - still short of a majority (just). On this basis, I dismissed the option as unworkable. However, it has since transpired that the 8 DUP MPs had indicated to Andrew Adonis, who was in charge of putting out 'feelers' for a Labour-led coalition, that they would abstain in the event that such a coalition was formed. This would mean that 323 would be a workable majority. It's possible that the 6 SNP MPs would have abstained as well. In the event, Adonis told Andrew Rawnsley in the updated edition of Rawnsley's book The End of the Party that a rainbow coalition could have "an effective majority of around 30" - bigger than John Major's actual majority in 1992.

That being the case, I no longer reject this option on the grounds of parliamentary arithmetic. Instead, I reject it on the grounds of Labour not wanting to do it. On the Monday after the election, when it was announced that the Lib Dems had opened formal negotiations with Labour as well as the Tories, several Labour 'big beasts' (e.g. John Reid, David Blunkett) got themselves onto the news to put the kybosh on the deal. With open mutiny of this sort going on, it's pretty clear that the Lib Dems couldn't commit themselves to any kind of deal with Labour (and in any case it looks in retrospect as if Clegg was using the Labour negotiations as a bargaining chip to get more concessions out of the Tories). So I think we have to concede that the rainbow coalition wasn't a viable option.

Option 2: Tory minority govt

Once the results started coming through, I was sure this was what would actually happen - because I severely underestimated the willingness of the Lib Dems to cut a deal with the Tories. I thought the sticking point would be electoral reform - which the Tories would not countenance in any circumstances. What I hadn't anticipated was that the Lib Dems would agree to a referendum on the Alternative Vote - not their preferred option, and not even proportional representation - so readily.

But was minority Tory government a viable option? Sure; indeed, if the coalition talks had broken down, it would have been the only option. There has to be a UK government, and if coalition talks fail, the convention is that the party leader with the most PMs gets invited by the monarch to form a government.

Minority governments in previous periods in UK history are normally allowed by the opposition parties (or at least those opposition parties that hold the balance of power) under 'confidence and supply' agreements, whereby the opposition agrees not to attempt to bring the government down on a motion of no confidence, and to allow budgets (i.e. the Finance Bill) to pass. However, this is a rather fuzzy area, and the exact shape of arrangements vary. For example, in the "Lib-Lab pact" of 1977-8, the Labour government negotiated a modified programme with David Steel and the Liberal MPs; the Liberals did not formally enter the government but this was a more wide-ranging arrangement than "confidence and supply". On the other hand, Budget measures were not passed through without amendment - basic rate income tax was cut from 35 percent to 33 percent in the 1978 Budget due to an amendment which the Lib Dems and Tories both supported. So in reality, there are a wide range of deals between a minority government and other parties which can be done, stopping short of full coalition while maintaining some influence on govt policy.

I'd argue that this was a viable option - and it's the one the Lib Dems should have taken. Agreeing to support the Tories - perhaps for a defined limited period, of (say) 2 years, rather than the whole 5 year term - on confidence motions, while retaining the right to vote down (with Labour and the other parties) legislation that they thought was not fit for purpose. A "Lib/Con Pact" in other words.

Such a deal would have allowed stable government whilst mitigating the worst excesses of the Tory government far better than what has in fact happened in formal coalition.

Option 3: the assessment

In terms of what has actually happened, for the most part, the Lib Dems have not really managed to make enough changes to Tory manifesto policies to make the last year much different from what a Tory government would look like. To see this, just look at the record:

  • the announced spending cuts are pretty much in line with what the Tories said they were going to do in their manifesto.
  • stealth privatisation of health and education has proceeded apace under Lansley and Gove respectively.
  • Huge cuts to benefits for working age people and reductions in funding for welfare-to-work programmes.
  • Royal Mail is being privatised.
  • Delibaretely starving the BBC of cash to weaken it compared with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.
  • The Lib Dems completely abandoned their pledge to eliminate tuition fees.
  • VAT has gone up 2.5%, at the same time that corporation tax has been cut.
The only specifically Lib Dem policies one could point to, which wouldn't have happened under the Tories, are:
  • The AV referendum (although this wasn't in the Lib Dem manifesto either - ironically it was in the Labour manifesto);
  • (possibly) scrapping ID cards (although the Tories may well have done it anyway to save money);
  • not implementing a few of the more bonkers Tory ideas (e.g. transferable tax allowances for married couples);
  • the above-inflation increase in the personal allowance - although bear in mind that this was considered by the Tories just before the 2005 election and abandoned because it's an extremely badly targeted way of reducing the tax burden for poor people (because most of the gain goes to better off people). In the leader debates before the 2010 election Cameron said that the policy wasn't affordable. This implies that the policy has been funded at the expense of greater spending cuts elsewhere - i.e. the Lib Dems may have shifted coalition policy to the right of what the Tories would have done on their own(!)

This looks like an extremely feeble return for being in formal coalition. The Lib Dems' structural role within the government is also relatively weak. They have only 5 secretaries of state and all the 'big four' are Tory (PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary). The three main public sector reform departments - Health, Education and Work and Pensions are all held by Tories. Clegg's Deputy Prime Minister role is under-resourced and fuzzy in definition, as Andrew Rawnsley's Dispatches documentary this week pointed out. Progressive Lib Dems like Evan Harris point to the activities of the Lib Dems in the government as tempering the Tories' worst excesses, but have they really done this? Vince Cable - supposedly the grand old stager of the Lib Dem left - spends most of his time implementing an employment relations policy which seems to have been cooked up by the Institute of Directors. Danny Alexander sounds like a robot put together in the lab by George Osborne's special advisers. I'm not sure what Chris Huhne has actually done in policy terms. Michael Moore has a good, radical name but I don't believe I've ever seen him do anything, ever. And as for Clegg... he was talking sense on interns but that was about it.

All in all, I find it very hard to believe that a minority Tory government - with the Lib Dems combining with the opposition parties to vote down the most unpleasant Tory proposals - could have been more right-wing than the coalition has been. And the cost to the Lib Dems in terms of electoral prospects has been enormous. According to YouGov they are down to about one-third of their 2010 support levels, while even on ICM, where they poll higher, they've still lost almost half their support. Why? Because they're seen - slightly unfairly, but not completely unfairly - as spineless collaborators. This has been exacerbated by the fact that - until very recently - Lib Dems were deliberately tailoring their rhetoric to ape the Tories. So, for example, any Lib Dem politician making a speech on the economy sounded like the speech had been written by George Osborne. Given this assimilation of the Tory point of view, could anyone be blamed for thinking that the Lib Dems had lost the ability to think for themselves?

To summarise, next time a Lib Dem politician, activist or supporter tries to tell you that there was no alternative to the ConDem arrangement, give them the double whammy. (1) a Tory minority govt, with the worst excesses of the Tories voted down by the opposition parties, was probably a better option in terms of delivering less of the Tory agenda and more of what's sensible for the UK. (2) the coalition option has so far been disastrous for the Lib Dems, and could conceivably end up destroying them as a national party. Don't let them tell you that There Was No Alternative, as there was - and it would have been better for them, and for the country.

Finally, note that this post only really covers the first year of the coalition between May 2010 and May 2011. The second phase - which according to Nick Clegg, will find him carving out a clear and distinctive political position rather than operating as a Tory bag-carrier - is still too recent for reliable comment. But rest assured that I will be following up on that over the summer once the lay of the land is a little clearer.

10 May 2011

The long road back could be coming to a close

Having spent much of the weekend mulling the increasing predictability of what passes for top flight football in the modern era, it's taken me somewhat too long to pay tribute to AFC Wimbledon and an unexpected two goal victory in deepest Lancashire against Fleetwood Town in the semi final of the Conference playoffs. One of the problems with the playoff system since its inception is that the side that finishes third (or second in this case) almost invariably does not get promoted. Having lost out to arguably the least popular team I have ever heard of in Non-League football, the Dons have nevertheless surprised me in most welcom fashiontaken a huge step toward possibly making their way into the League, less than a decade after having to reform due to their team being stolen from them. As the saying goes, 'Many a slip twixt' cup and lip and neither Fleetwood nor likely final opponents Luton Town will be pushovers, but the prospect of the 'Real Wimbledon' returning to the League is nevertheless a refreshing one, and one that many fans of other clubs who have been unstinting in their support for the Dons will also relish.

07 May 2011

Rights and wrongs - could he be right?

In common with the originator of the blog, I've not always had a significant amount of time for the current Prime Minister, and whilst thoroughly enjoying the ridiculous overreaction from various humourless feminist prigs to his put down of the appalling Angela Eagle, his performances in the Commons have generally been well below that of even William Hague in the first post landslide Parliament of 1997 to 2001. That combined with his concessions to leftist opinion, attempting to woo the likes of Polly Toynbee had many of us concerned that he wasn't really a Conservative at all. Indeed very few UKIP supporters who have defected from the Tories since 2006 or ex Tories who were eligible then, of my acquaintance didn't vote for David Davis in the Leadership election that brought Cameron to prominence. Nevertheless, despite what appeared to be a disappointing performance in last year's General election, where faced with the worst government in recorded history possibly anywhere in the world, he failed to deliver an overall majority, being forced into a coalition with political opportunists par excellence the Liberal Democrats perhaps it will be the man from the Bullingdon club who has the last laugh. Although with serious misgivings in the end I think most reasonable people probably gave some thanks for his ending 13 years of quite literal hurt at the hands of the Blair/Brown administrations and reinstating a government which comprised at least a majority of Conservative MPs.

However, as some Leftist bloggers pointed out yesterday, he may have played the proverbial blinder, and it would appear to be his critics on the right who have misjudged both him and the public mood. Consider that even with a 400,000 strong march against the cuts(before they diverted to bash in the Local Santander), huge swathes of the populace dependent on state aid (either directly or indirectly), and a massively hostile media (at least the portion of it being funded by a £170 stipend on every household in the land) Cameron's vote has held steady. With the economic clouds worsening, he looks to have come in with 37 per cent of the vote. Given the state of the Tory Party even after Michael Howard's sterling efforts in 2005, this is no mean achievement, and even the most churlish naysayer has to acknowledge that the party probably wouldn't be here with Howard, Duncan Smith or Davis at the helm.

So, the question is, has Cameron's lurch to the left actually been a masterpiece of strategy? By inviting the Liberal Democrats into government he has enasured that they have acted as a lightning rod for much of the criticism from the usual suspects on the hard left. If I had one comment on the wisdom of his strategy, it was that he has spent far too much time trying (at least whilst in opposition) cosying up to the likes of Polly Toynbee and indeed the entire 'democratic left'. As Thatcher learned, basically trying to appease these people from a conservative standpoint is frankly as fruitless as trying to placate a crocodile by offering it your hand. The organisers of the so-called 'march for the alternative' would have us believe that a small group of malcontents were responsible for the violence that seems to accompany every such march in London. However, I think anyone studying Marxism or indeed Leninism as a historical philosophy will know that the use of criminal elements to undermine the existing system is a key aspect of Hard leftist philosophy, especially if the forces opposing the violence are 'reactionary elements'

Anyhow, Ed Miliband's dismal performance in Scotland gives Cameron an opportunity to press ahead with urgent redrawing of the constituencies maps to redress the balance which was skewed massively in favour of Labour over the past 13 years. One of the ironies of the left's portrayal of this government as extreme right is it suggests they see politics through the prism of the 1980 Inner London Education Authority, an organisation so barking that Trotskyites were considered 'the right'. If Cameron looks carefully at trying to limit the franchise, and adopts a more cautious policy towards Europe bringing disaffected UKIP supporters into the fold he might well be able to break the 40% mark, and as the aforementioned Miss Toynbee suggests:'A long period of Conservative hegemony' . One can only hope that this might indeed be the case and that Cameron continues to confound his right wing critics by delivering electoral success in spite of my significant misgivings. With any luck, it could lead Toynbee, the appalling Brian Reade and other members of the 'democratic left' to more amenable shores, perhaps even here if they're feeling the need for some comfort from 'ideological brothers in arms' .

Thanks Nick Clegg - you've united the left for the first time in 30 years

More left bloggers have been drinking the Kool Aid overnight over Labour's performance in the local elections - for example, Adam Lent at the RSA, and Polly Toynbee at the Guardian. It's weird how these memes take hold. Most of what we've been told for the last year from the left commentariat consists of repeated insistence that Dave Cameron is on probation within his own party after failing to secure an overall majority against Brown in 2010, how the government was in a weak position, and so on. Now - after the referendum and local elections - the same people are going around saying that Cameron is some sort of genius, the Tories will be in power forevermore, and the situation is hopeless.

Well I'm sorry people, but I'm just not buying it. Have a look at the voting patterns and a very different story emerges.

The Fib Dem vote collapse was quite amazing... a fall of about 10% from last year's elections, not quite as bad as the 13% fall which recent YouGov polling would suggest, but bad enough. (I'm using figures from Jeremy Vine's election commentary on the BBC yesterday, not the weird figures that came out of Tory central office and have been picked up by most of the press and run as neutral commentary(!?)) Meanwhile the Labour vote went up by about the same - 10%. The Tory share of the vote was more or less unchanged from last year.

So the gainers - in terms of vote share - are Labour. Not the Tories.

I'd argue that what's really happening here is that the Lib Dems have completely changed their electoral strategy and Labour is reaping the rewards. Ever since the formation of the SDP in 1981 (and possibly as far back as the Liberal upsurge of the early 1970s), the Left vote in the UK has been split, with a significant proportion going to a third party - the Alliance (and more recently, the Lib Dems). For sure, the third party took some votes from the Right as well. But not as many, which gives a very good explanation for why the Tories won majority governments in 1983, 1987 and 1992, despite declining vote shares each time - the Left vote was split, and that's fatal under First Past the Post. (I'll admit that if there had been a hung parliament in 1983 a Tory/Alliance coalition was probably more likely than a Labour/Alliance coalition due to Labour '83 being perceived as off-planet Marxists, but in later elections, this wasn't the case). In the 1980s and early 1990s political commentators spent much of their time lamenting the split in the British left.

It wasn't until Tony Blair came along in the mid-1990s that Tony Blair hit on an alternative strategy for victory, despite the split on the left; he made incursions into the Right's vote share by shifting policy so far to the right that by 2005, the Lib Dems were in many ways more left-wing than the Tories. This reaped electoral dividends in 1997 and 2001 (though less so in 2005), but at the expense of creating a political environment where it would be much easier for a future extreme right govt to come along and destroy much of our social fabric (which is what's happening right now). Thus, it wasn't a long-term sustainable strategy.

But following the election of Nick Clegg and the ConDem government deal of 2010, the "Fib Dems" have helpfully reunified the British Left - or started to, at any rate - by exiting stage Right. The Lib Dems, based on their official policy position, are now a right wing libertarian party, to the right of the Tories in some respects. Clegg has made it clear he's not interested in attracting left wing voters from Labour. Thus, he's thrown away a crucial part of the Lib Dem voter base and handed it on a plate to Labour.

And THAT, more than anything, explains yesterday's local election results. And it's good news for Labour. Because for the first time since 1966, there is the potential for a left-wing government in the UK with a substantial majority which doesn't have to pretend to be a Conservative government to get elected.

There is only the POTENTIAL for such a government, mind you, and no guarantees that Labour will actually get elected. That depends on a number of factors, e.g.:

  • the economy getting stuck in a 'lost decade' as Osborne's growth projections fall apart completely (highly likely);
  • Labour's policy review actually providing policy solutions relevant to people's lives in the post-crash world (I really don't know enough about who's involved in the policy review or what options are being considered to know if this is a realistic hope or not);
  • the Labour Party getting behind Ed Miliband as a strong choice for Prime Minister (again, seems a no-brainer to me, but unfortunately a lot of people in the Labour party seem to have less than no brain);
  • the Lib Dems not drastically reversing position - and this is a real worry because it's completely out of Labour's hands. In one way it would be fantastic to see someone like Tim Farron (or even Chris Huhne) wallop Clegg for the party leadership, dissolve the coalition, and go to the country as "the man who beat the Tories"; but that of course puts the Lib Dems squarely back on the Left and could leave the way open for a repeat of the election results of the 1980s, due to our daft electoral system.
  • no alternative Left force emerging to drain votes from Labour. The Green Party could start to emerge in some areas as a serious drain on Labour's FPTP vote share in the same way that UKIP has for the Tories. More serious in the short run for Labour is the huge shift to the SNP in Scotland - it's not clear whether this would be repeated at a general election but if it is, it would make a majority Labour government very difficult.
So, big challenges here for Labour to be sure - but commentators who are arguing that we are looking at a rerun of the 1980s, or even the 1930s, need to cease and desist. The current situation isn't really that much like either of those eras - although it could become so. But only if Labour is especially unlucky, or makes big mistakes. For now, the 2011 local election results represent a real comeback for Labour, and, combined with Nick Clegg's big favour in reunifying the Left, should be a cause for modest celebration rather than despondency.

06 May 2011

Last thoughts on AV: bad question, sad answer

Well, the AV referendum was lost by about 70% to 30%.

My erstwhile friend Tom Clark of the Guardian offers - like a vastly more erudite Jason Donovan - 10 good reasons why Yes lost. I won't duplicate that here because it's a fantastic analysis and I've covered a lot of similar ground in previous posts anyway. Instead I'll offer some thoughts on why AV was the wrong question to ask - and where future efforts at voting reform might go from here.

AV is a piece-of-cack voting system, really, mainly because it's too similar to First Past the Post to get far enough away from the huge problems with that system. Most obviously, it's not proportional. As the main (and justified) complaint of the Lib Dems (and before them, the Alliance, and before them, the Liberal Party) about the British electoral system was that it was not proportional, it's a bit odd that they settled on a referendum on a system that didn't address their main complaint. "Ah", the Lib Dems will tell you, "but the Tories weren't offering that." Fine - they should have said "no deal" then. And then allowed the Tories to go ahead with a minority govt. They would be in a far, far better place now had they done that. It would have been the Tories, not the Lib Dems, who lost 700 local council seats today.

In the event, the main pragmatic argument from the Lib Dems for voting yes to AV was that it was a stepping stone to further reform later on. But that would imply that AV was a more proportional system than FPTP - and there is no strong evidence for that. So therefore, the 'stepping stone' argument was always shaky. As was the argument for voting yes on its own terms. It was a fuzzy, confused campaign, for a "miserable compromise", neither-this-nor-that voting system. And that, coupled with the inept way the campaign was put across and the uniquely catastrophic contribution of Nick Clegg, did for it.

So what next for electoral reform? Unless we get a freak result where a shrunken Lib Dem party can nonetheless hold the balance at the next general election, it's going to be a long while before they're in a position to demand a PR referendum - and even less likely that anyone will agree to it. So it's down to the other smaller parties in that case - particularly the Greens and UKIP. And if we're looking to those guys to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament - it's gonna take a while to happen. Current MP totals: Greens - 1, UKIP - zero. The best chance for PR is that one party becomes so dominant (the Tories for example) that there is an 'anyone-but-Tory' electoral pact across hundreds of constituencies to vote in MPs who will legislate for a PR system, followed by fresh elections. Possible... but hard to pull off.

But if this wretched referendum has had any value, it's the way the "Fib Dems" have become a salutary lesson to any third party that thinks it can sell out principles for quick power, and play fast and lose with its voters. Any third force emerging in the future - and I think the Greens are most likely - will have to act with much more principle than the Fib Dems to be taken seriously. And that, in the end, is a good thing.

Local elections: will Labour bloggers pls refrain from the Kool-Aid...

Well, most local election results, and the Scottish and Welsh results, are in now (but not the AV referendum - that's announced tonight) so time to have a round up. In fact, I'll focus on English local elections and probably follow up about Scotland and Wales separately (if I feel I can contribute anything sensible to what's already been written on those elections).

The first thing is that despondent Labour bloggers thinking of drinking the Kool Aid (the worst example of this I've found so far is on the terminally pessimistic - and misnamed - Labour Uncut) need to take the bottle back to the shop, buy half an aspirin instead, suck on it, and think things over.

Yes, the Tory vote held up at about where it was in last year's election. But the Fib Dem vote has collapsed. We've gone from a 3-party system in local government to 2 parties and a bit player (plus the Greens, who made some tremendous advances).

So what did you expect? Huge decreases in the Tory vote? That would be more likely if Labour and the Lib Dems were knocking spots off the Tories. We'd probably have seen that if this was a minority Tory govt.

But instead we have a Tory-led govt with Fib Dem collaborators - and the collaborators were punished. The net effect of all the switching between different parties was that the Fib Dems were down by about 10% from last year, Tories unchanged, and Labour up 10%.

And that's a great result.

If Labour gets (say) 39% of the vote at the next general election, and the Tories get 36%, it will emerge as the largest single party - and probably win a small overall majority. Even with the boundary changes, and even with the reduction in the number of seats.

What more do Labour supporters want?

Well, plenty more, of course, and it would be foolish to deny that the Labour machine is not firing on all cylinders yet - Sunny Hundal identifies a lot of the problems in this excellent post for Liberal Conspiracy. My own interpretation of why Labour didn't do even better would stress the following:

  • the party is still largely a policy-free zone. The policy review is scheduled to run until autumn 2012, at least. If you haven't got much of substance to put to the electorate, it puts you at a disadvantage.
  • You can win a big protest vote even if you don't have detailed policies - but you need to give people a sense that you're on their side to do that. Huge numbers of people are pissed off about virtually every aspect of this govt. UK Uncut and False Economy have been leading the fight against the ConDems; Labour has dipped a toe in the water, but hasn't really done anything of substance, and indeed has sometimes been openly hostile to the anti-cuts movement. So, not surprisingly, Labour is still part of the problem, not the solution, for many people.
  • Many Labour bigwigs were out campaigning for No2AV - in open opposition to Ed Miliband, and in support of Dave Cameron. Remember the classic game Downfall? "Be careful - you could be helping your opponent as well as yourself!" Probably a couple of percentage points of that Tory result, at least, is due to the hard work of misguided Labour politicians and activists. Well done guys and girls...
  • There is still a huge debate going on within Labour about whether to target the Fib Dems or the Tories as the enemy. I'd like to think that political activists were capable of fighting on 2 fronts at once, but maybe not. So, although the Tories took quite a lot of flak at the time of the VAT rise and the Budget, the crossfire seemed to thin out in the campaign itself. Again No2AV had a lot to do with this because their obvious enemy was Nick Clegg and hence this spilled over into the local election campaign.
Of these points, if the policy review is any good it will put paid to the problem of having no policies(!) And it's in Labour's own hands whether it provides a convincing 'Plan B' alternative to the cuts or not. Neither of these will happen overnight, but the direction of travel needs to be a lot clearer - and I believe, WILL be a lot clearer - by May 2012. The No2AV effect of confusing the campaign and boosting Cameron is a one off, presumably - even the most dunderheaded No2AV activists will now return to the fold.

Which leaves the question of whether to attack the FibDems or Tories. BOTH, obviously (doh!) but bear in mind that the lower the Fib Dems go, the higher the Tory support will be - other things being equal. And of course vice versa. Fib Dems at 15%, Tories at 36, Labour at 40 or so is a little tight for winning a majority at the next general election, but still fine for Labour. Labour at 40 with the Tories on 30 and Fib Dems on 20 would be much better under first past the post (which we're stuck with), of course, but at the moment that Fib Dem vote is the softest vote (so it seems), and better to win by annihilating the Fib Dem vote (even if the Tory core vote is rock solid) than to try to appeal directly to floating Tories, fail miserably, watch the Fib Dem vote creep back up and end up with a rerun of 1992 or something close to it. You take votes from whereever the hell you can get them. It's as simple as that.

So, by no means a perfect night for Labour in England. But a good one, whatever people try to tell you.

05 May 2011

Chris Huhne: Game On or Moron?

There has been considerable speculation over whether Chris Huhne is about to walk out of the ConDem government - and if so, what his next move is.

He's compared Baroness Warsi to Goebbels. He's openly attacked CamOS in cabinet. He's thrown a lot of toys out of the pram. But are some of them packed with explosives?

It's possible that all of this is smoke and mirrors designed to remind voters that the Lib Dems still exist, and increase the Lib Dem core vote (and hey, they're up as high as 11% in the latest YouGov tracker)... certainly there were some premeditated mild spats between Cameron and Clegg in the early stages of the referendum campaign.

I think this has gone more out of control than that, though. I think it's likely that Huhne genuinely can't stand the Tory cabinet and has had enough.

But the question of whether he will still be in the cabinet on Friday, or next month, is irrelevant to the survival of the Coalition; he could just be replaced by Laws or another Lib Dem. The interesting question is: will he challenge Clegg for the leadership?

I should say at this stage that I am no big Chris Huhne fan. I'd met him a few times at various roundtable events in London and found him a rather arrogant guy, difficult to like and I suspect difficult for the public to like as well - the closest comparison would probably be Ed Balls. In the Lib Dem leadership contest of 2007, I was backing Nick Clegg - unbelievably in retrospect, but I'd met him a couple of times as well and he seemed a nice guy - which just shows that you should disregard everything I say from now on about politicians' personalities. Having said that, we've got to the stage where it's Any Means Necessary to stop this ConDem govt destroying our society, and so if it has to be Huhne that's the hero, then so be it.

Could he displace Clegg? In this matter, for the first time ever I turn to advice from former Lib Dem director of communications Olly Grender, who writes the most annoying blog on the New Statesman site (even more annoying than right-wing Labour bruiser Dan Hodges, and that is really saying something). Unlike most hacks out there, Grender actually knows how the Lib Dem leadership rules work. Huhne would need either half the parliamentary Lib Dem party to ask Clegg to stand down, or 75 Lib Dem constituency associations to pass a fully quorate Extraordinary General Meeting to pass a motion saying that Clegg should be removed.

Olly Grender suggests this is an insurmountable barrier to Clegg's removal. To me, it looks more like a couple of boxes of Tic-Tacs stacked one on top of each other. Particularly the 75 constituency associations part... remember that Huhne only lost to Clegg by 50.6% to 49.4 in 2007 - in fact, as Van Patten has pointed out, if the votes had been properly counted (I thought Lib Dems were supposed to be the "fair votes" party?) he would have won. That means that presumably a good proportion of Lib Dem constituency associations endorsed Huhne for the leadership - and that was when Clegg's stock was reasonably high. It strikes me that Huhne could win a leadership ballot standing on his head - especially as it's a ballot of party members rather than MPs, and the Orange Book libertarian tendency is even less well represented among rank and file Lib Dems than it is among MPs (there has been some turnover of Lib Dem members since the election, but even so, I'd be surprised if Orange Bookers were more than a small clique at best).

So, assuming that Huhne stands for leader and wins - what then? Pulling out of this wretched coalition would seem to be a given. What I'm not clear on is what happens then. If there were a vote of confidence with Labour and the Lib Dems voting against the govt, and other minor parties also voting against or abstaining, the govt would fall. But then, is there an automatic general election or does Ed Miliband get a chance to form a govt with Lib Dem and minor party support? This is pretty crucial. The Lib Dems might not want to chance their arm at an election with only 10% support in the polls (although their polling might change radically if they left the coalition - in which case they might prefer the election option after all). Would Labour be happier to form a coalition with the Lib Dems under Huhne? Experience from the previous coalition negotiations suggests not, but this is an at least partially revitalised Labour party, and Huhne could be easier to deal with than Clegg. Or would Labour prefer an election with a possible shot at forming a majority government, given existing polling trends (which are more favourable to them than 2005?) Are either the Lib Dems or Labour confident that a Lib/Lab coalition with only a small effective majority could achieve much, before Labour has completed its policy review? Is there a danger that the Tories could regroup in opposition and emerge with a full majority next time round?

It's a very complex and fascinating set of considerations. All this is of course premised on the idea that Chris Huhne isn't just having a hissy fit but is actually serious. I have no idea whether that is the case or not. I hope he's serious... or at least I think I hope he's serious. But my opinion of the trustworthiness and reliability of the Lib Dems, never high at the best of times, is now shot to hell, and I wouldn't be surprised if the last few days of "Dirty Huhne" turns out to have been a storm in a teacup.

04 May 2011

Lies, Damned Lies and Chris Huhne

With the referendum only a day away, as per Giroscopers request, the Yes side has come out with various forms of calumnies and gone down low and dirty to try and pull out all the stops for a Yes vote.He launched into an attack on Monday portraying opponents of AV as on a par with Donald Trump and the 'birthers' making such a mockery of Republican pretensions to the presidency .

Whence this notion comes from is hard to explain. However, whilst it might take someone of Giroscoper's somewhat paranoid mindset to elicit the true motives of Nick Clegg's pushing alternative vote, the reason behind Huhne's motives are easy to discern. Perhaps one of the least enthused about the coalition, despite his cabinet position, it isn't much of a stretch to see him positing a leadership challenge, partly because:

A/ He thinks he probably should have been leader anyway. According to the analysis of results of the 2007 election (which he lost to Clegg) which include late delivered postal ballots he would have won by a very narrow margin. Had the Royal Mail been more efficient, could the country have taken a very different turn?

B/ By coming out with public attacks on the Conservatives within the coalition, he is no doubt hoping he can tempt back Libdem voters (who have proven their socialist credentials by defecting en masse to Labour) by some kind of 'John of the Cross' routine, wherein he can say, I tried to disassociate myself from it' and 'it's all Clegg's fault.' . It may not be a bad idea from the Libdem perspective to do this, as they risk suffering the fate of their 19th century predecessors who split over Irish home rule to the extent that the 'Liberal Unionists' were absorbed by the Tories .

However, where Huhne's attack falls down is in its somewhat simplistic portrayal of the Tories as mindless opponents of democratic reform 'throughout the ages'. Even a cursory look at any 19th century or early 20th century summary of British political history will reveal the Leading opponent of democracy (who many would say based on New Labour has been almost completely vindicated)Robert Lowe was actually a Liberal, and the Prime Minister who passed the second Great Reform Act, Benjamin Disraeli was a Conservative!

I'm afraid it's also difficult to take anyone seriously whose attitude to the EU is 'right or wrong, Europe is right'. Someone who supinely stood by whilst the EU took away our fishing industry. Someone who sided immediately with European partners behaving illegally against Commmonwealth nations whose soldiers died to protect this nation's freedom. Someone who doesn't believe in putting important constitutional questions on Europe to the people. So when Huhne picks the pieces out of the probable 'No' vote on Thursday night, he might care to look not at his 'coalition' partners, but perhaps himself, for the main reason as to why that is.

03 May 2011

Why Nick Clegg WANTS to lose the AV referendum

With polls now pointing to either a fairly big or a very big win for No in Thursday's AV referendum, it's a huge pity that Nick Clegg didn't heed the Yes campaign's advice to seal himself inside a box for six weeks during the run-up to polling.

I'm not saying that everything would have been free and easy for the Yes people if Clegg had kept shtum. As explained in a recent post, their campaign has been largely crap. But continual speeches and media appearances on the Yes to AV theme from the UK's least popular frontline politician are, to borrow a vivid expression from US-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a "turd in the punchbowl"... no-one is going to want to drink a fresh cup of AV after Clegg has just taken a dump in it.

Ed Miliband, to his credit, realised this, and has only appeared on stage with members of the Lib Dems who he believes have some public credibility left: e.g. Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, and more questionably, Vince Cable. But the Yes campaign have been powerless to stop Clegg from getting out there and pulling the vote down.

Which raises an interesting political question. Clegg must know that everytime he appears in public to endorse AV, the Yes vote takes another dive. And he's not obviously stupid. A liar and a closet Tory, yes, but not stupid. So why the hell is he out there for the Yes campaign?

It could just be vanity (not in short supply among several senior Lib Dems, to be sure). On the other hand, it could be that Clegg actually wants Yes to lose. On the face of it this would seem somewhat bizarre, but if you think about it some more, it starts to make sense:

  • Clegg described AV as a "miserable little compromise" last year when it was in the Labour 2010 manifesto. He showed no particular enthusiasm for the system at any point before the coalition negotiations. We can conclude, therefore, that he probably thinks it's a fairly poor system.
  • Although much of the research that has been done on AV suggests that it would increase the proportion of Lib Dem MPs (John Curtice at Strathclyde University, Nic Marks at the new economics foundation, the simulations run for the Jenkins Commission in the late 1990s) this is not a universally held view. Peter Kellner of YouGov, for instance, argues that the simulation research is flawed because it doesn't tell you how voters would modify their behaviour if the system changed - and if they did modify their behaviour, the Lib Dems could actually end up worse off. (the link to the Kellner piece is here - kind of: Prospect magazine haven't even managed to provide unique URLs for their election blog posts...) It could well be that Clegg and his advisers also believe that AV won't actually help the Lib Dems, so Clegg is actually deliberately damaging the campaign.
  • It's possible that if the Lib Dems lose AV then Dave Cameron may offer them additional concessions on other policies as a consolation prize - maybe an elected House of Lords, further changes on the NHS bill, etc. So the Lib Dems may get more of an influence on the direction of the govt by losing the AV vote. Conversely, if there is a Yes vote it would result in the Tory right being mightily pissed off and Cameron might well have to legislate for other things that the Lib Dems don't want - tax breaks for marriage, for example - to keep his right wing sweet.

So in short, the arguments for a Yes vote from the Lib Dems' (or at least Clegg's) point of view are far weaker than they seem. Another factor is that defeat on electoral reform is another way of Clegg distancing himself from the old liberal reformist tendencies of the Liberal Democrat rank and file. Clegg has already spent somewhat less time than his predecessors as Lib Dem leader extolling the virtues of electoral reform; it's taken a back seat to extreme right wing 'Orange Book' policies such as public sector privatisation (in the guise of "reform") and "fairer taxes" (meaning that we'll raise the income tax personal allowance while also increasing VAT so that poorer households pay more tax). This could be yet another part of Clegg saying to people he regards as middle class soft-left handwringers: This Is Not The Party For You. Bugger off to Labour or the Greens. We want the right wing libertarians.

The ConDem govt so far has been about as Orange Book in outlook as Clegg could have hoped for: although it has failed to do anything about any of the excesses of the Nu Labor police state (for example, see pre-emptive arrests of "protesters" before the Royal Wedding took place). But then, civil liberties tend to be one of those issues which the opposition gets excited about but then drops as soon as they get into govt. Like electoral reform. On economic policy, this is an Orange Book right-wing Lib-Con administration with hints of Sarkozy-esque populism thrown in (e.g. North sea oil tax grab), thanks to the opportunism of the Osborne/Alexander team. That's where Nick Clegg wants to be, with a transfer to a safe Tory seat at the end of his 5 years if the Fib Dems stay at rock-bottom in the polls. And it's why he's deliberately undermining the Yes vote - because why Rock The Boat when it's moving in the direction you want already?