Would AV help the BNP?

March 31, 2011

With only five weeks to go until the AV Referendum, Yes2AV have unveiled their secret weapon: Baroness Warsi.

Warsi is the chair of the Conservative Party, and judging by her recent comments she is a Yes2Av double agent masquerading as a patron of the No2AV campaign:

Speaking in London’s East End, near where anti-fascists fought a march by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in 1936, Lady Warsi argued that a switch to AV would bring “a real risk that candidates would pander to extremists”, with “more inflammatory campaigns, and more policies which appeal to people’s worst instincts rather that to the values of the mainstream”.

Supporters of AV were “backing a system which rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups”, she claimed. It could also give parties like the BNP more legitimacy and “more power to those people – fringe voters, Monster Raving Loonies, and yes, fascists – who are voting for precisely the kind of extreme policies most people want to marginalise”. Lady Warsi added: “It means that bigots will be given more power in our politics and extremists will look to gain more influence over mainstream parties.”

Anyone would think that under our current system no parties pander to the BNP whatsoever. If only that were true. As Immigration Minister, Devil Incarnate and unofficial nemesis of Paperback Rioter Phil Woolas pandered to the far-right on an almost daily basis. And does anyone remember “British Jobs for British Workers”? It’s not as if Warsi herself is immune from this treatment: she said in an interview back in 2007 that people voting BNP had “legitimate concerns”. I can’t see AV making this situation any worse.

If this were a debate over a proportional system, such as STV or AV+, then there would be a chance that BNP MPs would be elected and sit in the House of Commons. If that were the debate we were having, then the following points could be made:

a) If people vote for fascists, than fascists have the right to sit in Parliament. That’s the point of democracy, after all.
b) The BNP’s views are repugnant, but as I’ve argued before the best way to challenge the BNP is to defeat their arguments in open debate and not to shirk from the challenge.

However, that is not the debate and AV is not a proportional system. It’s a system of electing MPs to a constituency. And it would make the prospect of a BNP MP much more unlikely because of the need for MPs to reach a threshold of 50% +1 of votes.

Take a look at this House of Commons briefing note on the BNP. The three BNP councillors elected for the first time in Burnley in 2002 had an average vote share of 28.1%. This means that 71.9% of voters voted against these councillors, yet they were still elected. If you look at the vote share of BNP councillors elected in 2008 (p7), you’ll see that only one of the fifteen candidates was elected with more than 40% of the vote, and one, in Maltby, was elected with just 23.1% of the vote.

Under AV the only way the BNP could have won these elections is to have picked up a sizable number of second preference votes. This is extremely unlikely, because, to quote this excellent guide to AV, “generally voters either support a party like the BNP, or hate it, so such parties gain very few second and third preferences.”

We do actually have some data on second preference votes for the BNP, for the London Assembly elections in 2008. You can find it on p8 of the House of Commons briefing notes. By my calculations, across the fourteen constituencies we have data for, an average of 4.93% of voters put the BNP down as a second preference. This would have been insufficient to win any of the council seats I mentioned above, even in seats where they polled 40% of votes in the first round.

Warsi is therefore plain wrong. AV would not help the BNP: if anything it would make them almost impossible to win any seats. Indeed, that’s why the BNP are supporting the No campaign.

There is another strand to Warsi’s criticism, about whether AV would give more influence to voters of extremist parties, but I will address that in a later blog post.


Marching for the Alternative: A protest of two halves

March 28, 2011

The first thing to say about the march: it was a helluva lot of people.

In the small world of parochial politics, getting fifteen people to a meeting is great, and getting 35-40 for a talk on campus is impressive. Estimates vary from 250,000 to 500,000. Either way, that’s a huge amount of people.

For that reason, my abiding memory of the day will be crossing over a bridge over the River Thames and seeing the march for the first time. There were, as Michael Caine would have said, “thousands of them!”, snaking along the roads as far as you could see, both left and right. There were so many people that it was more of a shuffle than a march at times.

A main reason why huge protests such as the March for the Alternative are brilliant is because it’s not just “the usual suspects” who are attending. There were many families on the march, and people from all backgrounds and ages. I saw banners from the Crown Prosecution Service, student nurses, teachers, Equity, even “Gleeks Against the Cuts”.

Paul Mason has written a very good piece on the protest, and this is what he had to say:

Unison – a union which has a reputation in the trade union movement for passivity – had mobilised very large numbers of council workers, health workers and others: many from Scotland and Wales; many from the north of England. Unite likewise, and the PCS seemed capable of mobilising very large numbers.

What this means, to be absolutely clear, is people who have never been on a demo in their lives and in no way count themselves to be political.

I also saw many small self-selected groups not mobilised by unions: family groups, school groups, speech therapy groups.

There were even people protesting about the closure of their day centre. It’s a very moving image:

The march itself was astonishingly peaceful. On the coach going back, one of our number was checking their blackberry and said there had only been nine arrests. Out of about half a million marching, that’s very impressive.

There was also some good humour amongst the protestors. My favourite placards that I saw were “Charlie Sheen wouldn’t take this shit” and “Stop being naughty you lying meanies”, carried by a young child.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I got back home around midnight, checked Twitter and found that goodness knows what had broken out in Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square. When we passed Trafalgar Square around 4-4.15 it was very peaceful. There was music, singing, dancing and someone giving out leaflets for Republic. And not a kettle in sight.

Some of that seems down to some heavy-handed policing. Dave Osler has a balanced blog on the Trafalgar Square kettle for Liberal Conspiracy:

I’ll admit that the activists were hardly angels. But the policing was ridiculously heavy handed for much of the time.

The ugliest thing that came to my notice occurred in Craven Street, where the boys in blue wanted to push the demonstrators back and shoved their riot shields into some girls of about fifteen or sixteen. I won’t forget the look of fear on those poor kids’ faces in a hurry.

We were passing by Fortnum and Mason between 3.30 and 4pm, soon after the shop had been occupied. This was because it had taken us 20 minutes to go to the toilet in a Costa Coffee House. The atmosphere had completely changed. We could see red flares had been set off further down the road. There were anarchists there from the “Black Bloc” who had covered their faces; that’s never a promising sign. A group, I think from UK Uncut, had started singing outside the shop “They’re selling chocolate eggs for forty pounds”, to the tune of “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain”.

The mood was beginning to get a bit dicey. What’s more, the line of police had their riot helmets down, and our group of five had split into two. The three of us at the back of the group managed to push through the collection of anarchists, UK Uncut people and other marchers who had stopped to watch, and gratefully joined the other two members of our group who had joined the back end of the march.

I’m inclined to agree with the views of Paul Sagar and Anthony Painter that not only was the violence daft, it was also a strategic error from UK Uncut to host protests on the same day as the TUC march. (See also Mehdi Hasan and this on Next Left as well).

As I’ve made clear before, I do not condone any violent protests whatsoever, even if I can understand the sentiments that made them happen. A democratic solution to protecting public services has failed. A majority of the public voted for parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) who had less draconian spending cuts planned than the Conservatives. Yet, just as with the tuition fees issue, we have Lib Dem MPs voting for measures that are directly contradictory to their manifesto. It’s no surprise, then, you’ll get some angry people trying to effect change “by other means”.

I also don’t have much time for anarchists. This isn’t just because they throw bricks through windows, which does the cause of the protestors more harm than good and detracts from the much larger, peaceful protest.

At some point I’ll hopefully get round to writing a more detailed blog post on the subject, but basically my main problem with anarchism is that it’s a rubbish, unworkable political philosophy. I never understand why there are people who consider themselves left-wing who are anarchists, since there’s no real difference between anarchism and libertarian free-market fundamentalism Milton-Friedman-style.

Also, these anarchists who were part of the UK Uncut protests seem to be in favour of businesses paying more tax. What kind of crazy off-shoot of anarchism is that?!

The strategic errors made by UK Uncut were put very trenchantly by Mehdi Hasan. I can’t help but quote it at length because I agree with every word of this:

But I’m entitled to my views – and I’m annoyed with the violent “protesters” (thugs?) who tried to wreck an important and historic march by rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved. Then again, what else does one expect from a bunch of outraged kids who prefer to gesticulate for the sake of the Murdoch-owned television cameras? For whom “solidarity” is merely a word to daub on the side of TopShop, rather than a lived act of joining fellow citizens on a mass scale? In my view, solidarity isn’t about smashing windows in a coordinated manner. (Oh, and I refuse to refer to those louts as “anarchists” until I see any evidence that the disgruntled youth I saw kindling that pointless bonfire in the middle of Oxford Street has read even a page of Kropotkin.)

Here’s my rather simple and old-fashioned view: the trade union movement persuaded 500,000 people to turn out on Saturday to protest against the coalition’s spending cuts and “march for the alternative” – the Robin Hood Tax, green investment in education and jobs, reform of the banks and a crackdown on tax justice. 500,000 people. That’s half a million people for those of you who can’t count.

There were dozens of speakers at the Hyde Park rally – from the Leader of the Opposition to elected general secretaries of Britain’s biggest and smallest unions, from the National Pensioners Convention to Operation Black Vote, from poets to freeminers. There was a call-centre worker who’d walked all the way from Cardiff to make his voice heard. And, no, I didn’t spot a pot of hummus in his hand.

So why was there a need for an “alternative” protest, away from the main march in London and the rally in Hyde Park? Why did UKUncut – a group, incidentally, whose aims, principles and even tactics I have wholeheartedly supported since its creation last year – decide to stage a sit-in at a posh shop no one’s ever heard of on Saturday afternoon? Don’t get me wrong: UKUncut had nothing to do with the violence at the weekend, and have since been wrongly maligned by much of the mainstream media, but why consciously opt out of a march involving – one more time – 500,000 of your fellow citizens? Couldn’t the well-heeled shoppers in Piccadilly have been rudely interrupted on Sunday instead? Or Friday? Or Monday? Any day other than the day of the TUC march? This scene from the Life of Brian comes to mind…

Put simply, the March for the Alternative was not UK Uncut’s parade to rain on. Instead, the march’s message has been urinated on from a great height.


The Budget: it’ll take more than deregulation to stimulate growth

March 24, 2011

George Osborne made it clear very early on in his Budget speech that it would be “fiscally neutral”. This meant there were no large-scale tax cuts or any rises in public spending.

You see the key points here. I don’t really want to concentrate on the details: wading through the nitty-gritty can be left to the professionals, thank you very much. Instead, I’d rather focus on the tone of this budget.

As you’d expect from this coalition government, it’s dedicated to a free-market, neo-liberal economic model. Following up from Cameron’s “Enemies of Enterprise” speech, which talked of wanting to cut red tape, plans were laid out to cut taxes and regulation for businesses. Sadly, such an approach is misguided.

Labour keep on saying that the Tories are taking us “back to the 1980s”. One way in which they are doing this is in creating 21 new “Enterprise Zones”. This announcement was no big shock – such a plan was leaked to the Evening Standard as far back as January, and Osborne talked about creating these zones in a speech made only a few weeks ago.

Essentially, Enterprise Zones are specific areas which “will include tax breaks, deregulation and relaxing of planning rules to ten areas across the UK, costing the government £100m over four years”. Margaret Thatcher and John Major created 38 of these areas in the 1980s and early 1990s. Cutting red tape to stimulate growth sounds very sensible, but these schemes have not been very successful in practice.

Last month The Work Foundation planning published a report on Enterprise Zones. It found that their success across various countries had been “ambiguous at best”, and often had a “resoundingly negative” impact. (p6)

In Britain, Enterprise Zones had created 63, 300 jobs by 1987, but only 13, 000 were “new jobs”. The other 80% of these jobs were merely displaced from other areas. A government report put the cost at £45, 000 per new job created in the Enterprise Zone.

All this deregulation also didn’t seem to attract companies to the Enterprise Zone. Surveys suggested that only one-quarter of new jobs could be seen to have arisen from this deregulation, with site characteristics and market access seen as being more important reasons for them to invest. (pp5-6)

The one main success story of the Enterprise Zones was the emergence of Canary Wharf as a thriving employment hub. However, that can be attributed to the government investment in the Dockland Light Railway, rather than the deregulation present in the Enterprise Zone. Most jobs were created in the area after the area lost its “Enterprise Zone” status. (p7)

The whole ethos behind this budget and the creation of the Enterprise Zones is to create a “flexible labour market”. David Cameron has been banging on about this since the start of this year: in January he talked about plans to make it easier to sack workers who had worked for a company for less than two years.

That implies that it’s good to have a lightly-regulated, flexible labour market. However, such a market can have just as much inefficiencies as a labour market which has buckets of regulation. Ha-Joon Chang writes about one illuminating example in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.

South Korea has one of the most lightly-regulated labour markets in the world, with the result that many South Koreans end up in very insecure, temporary jobs. Around 60% of workers are on a temporary contract. Workers in their 40s and 50s are often “shunted out” to make way for younger workers: a chilling prospect given Korea’s meagre welfare state. Because of this, most young South Koreans are trying to become doctors if they have a science degree, or lawyers if they are humanities-inclined, because there is (slightly) more job security in these areas than in engineering, say.

80% of top-performing graduates say they want to study medicine. It is harder to get into South Korea’s 27th-best medical school than the country’s top engineering department. All this is despite the fact that now doctors’ wages are falling, in relative terms, because of the over-supply in doctors in South Korea. Summing up, Chang concludes that “one of the freest labour markets in the rich world…is spectacularly failing to allocate talent in the most efficient manner. The reason? Heightened job insecurity.” (pp222-224, at p224)

There are a couple of elephants in the room with the Coalition’s attack on regulations on business. The first is that some regulation is necessary. Very lightly-regulated economies that sought to encourage business (especially financial businesses) such as Iceland, Ireland and Britain are amongst those who were hit hardest by the crash: an unsustainable boom caused a long and gloomy period of economic insecurity afterwards.

Regulations might impinge on short-term growth, but they can then lay the foundations for longer-term, stable growth. Back to 23 Things again (p197):

(R)egulating the intensity of fish farming may reduce the profits of individual fish farms but help the fish-farming industry as a whole by preserving the quality of water that all the fish farms have to use.

It’s not as if regulation is incompatible with economic growth. Per capita income growth in the developing world was 3% per annum in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1980-2009, after the free-market reforms were introduced, the rate of growth fell to 2.6%. That figure is inflated by the fact that it includes the performance of India and China, neither of whom embraced neo-liberal policies. (23 Things, p73)

Going back to South Korea again, businessmen in the early 1990s needed to collect 299 different permits from a number of different government agencies in order to set up a factory. Despite this, its economy had grown at 6% in per capita terms since 1960. (p196)

The important thing is not to have no regulation, but the right regulation.

That’s what Osborne’s budget misses. Instead, we have indiscriminate deregulation and lowering of corporation tax. This benefits wealthy businessmen whilst stripping workers of basic rights, such as maternity leave and health and safety laws which could protect them. It’s only going to perpetuate inequality.

Also, and oddly for a budget meant to deliver growth by stripping red tape, the rate of growth was downgraded. The Office for Budget Responsibility revised its growth forecasts for 2011 and 2012 (1.7% and 2.5%, down from 2.1% and 2.6% in November). What’s more, these figures seem optimistic compared to other forecasts (see the Blanchflower article I linked to for these).

That’s not the only forecast that’s more grim than was predicted:

The deficit increase of £11.8bn in February was almost double the £6.9bn expected by the market. Also unexpected was the increase in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rate of inflation to 4.4 per cent, with core inflation jumping to 3.4 per cent. This has increased the pressure on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to raise rates, which would be disastrous for growth.

I can think of no better way to round off this blog than to paraphrase Paul Krugman from a few months ago: George Osborne’s plan is bold, but he’s boldly going in the wrong direction.


The impact of the spending cuts: an e-interview with Kate Belgrave

March 23, 2011

In the run-up to today’s Budget and the March for the Alternative this Saturday I’m writing a few bits and pieces on the impending spending cuts. Below is an e-interview conducted with Kate Belgrave. Kate has been travelling the country interviewing people who rely on council services. She publishes articles of these interviews here and tweets as @hangbitch.

You’ve been travelling the country interviewing people about the impact spending cuts would have on their area. Could you talk a little bit about that? Where have you been, what have you seen, etc?

I spent December in the Northwest and January-Feb in the Northeast. My aim is to talk to council service users over a year to see how council cuts really play out with people who rely on those services.

I’ve been writing about council for a long time and it occurred to me that not everyone knew what sorts of services councils provided – people know about rubbish collection and so on, but councils also provide care services, carehomes, daycentres for people with physical disabilities and learning disabilities, community centres (which
sometimes provide cheap meals, etc), respite care services, meals on wheels, housing maintenance, advice services, and a lot of complex care packages which are provided between themselves and the NHS.

They also often provide and/or support drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and fund voluntary groups that support people with serious mental health problems and so on. I felt that the major political parties were glossing over all of this. The focus was on libraries, forests and the NHS (which are all important – it’s just that there’s
more).

So, I saved up for about six months and then headed out in December. I talked to people using housing and care services in Manchester, disabled daycentre users in Shropshire, parents of severely disabled children in Lancashire, council housing tenants in Skelmersdale, drug, alcohol and mental health support service users in Newcastle, community centre users in Middlesbrough, parents of kids at a special needs unit in Cambridgeshire and also a lot of people in London, which is where I’m based.

I’ve been pretty shocked by what I’ve seen – the cutting of that special needs unit in Cambridgeshire, Lancashire county council’s tightening of care eligibility criteria, those severely physically disabled people in Shropshire losing their daycentre and so on. Those cuts decisions will affect lives adversely and it seems unacceptable in this day and age.

At the very least, you want to know that if you have a debilitating stroke at the age of 38, you’ll get decent care
and have a place to go during the day where you can rehabilitate and spend time with other people. You also want to live in a society which provides those services for people. That’s why you pay tax.

What do you think the impact of these cuts will be?

I think for a lot of people, they’ll be truly devastating. Those people in Shropshire say that without their daycentre, they’ll be stuck at home “staring at the four walls.” Lancashire county council is planning to close care respite homes for children with disabilities. Those families rely on that respite care.

Without respite care, you just never get a break. Disabled people who are reassessed and found to have only ‘moderate’ needs will lose their care packages. Others will be charged for care services and if they can’t afford to pay, they just won’t get those services.

One man I’ve been speaking to in Lancashire is extremely concerned that the nursing care his severely disabled son receives will be compromised because the groups that provide nurses are facing cuts. The parent is an elderly man, but he and his wife will have to make up any shortfall in care or finance themselves. They also have the added worry that when they’re not longer around (they’re in their 60s), their son won’t have anyone who can provide that backup.

The parents of kids at the special needs unit in Cambridgeshire were terrified – their children (some were on the autism spectrum) had ended up at that unit because they’d had dreadful experiences in mainstream education. The council was planning to send them back to mainstream schools.

If the Middlesbrough community centre I went to closes, so will the daycentre facilities for people with learning and physical disabilities that the centre hosts. It’s extraordinary that people in these groups are being forced to pay for the banking crisis and zero council tax increases.

There are other issues, of course. An important one is that thousands of people will be made redundant in areas where there really are few other employment options. It seems very likely that people will lose their homes and that we’ll end up seeing a lot more of the social problems that accompany large-scale unemployment.

The other important point is that other nations will take the UK’s lead. Neoliberal politicians in New Zealand (where I’m originally from), Australia and Europe especially will be watching these cuts with interest and will feel inspired if Osborne manages to pull any of this programme off. We’re some way ahead of the UK in dismantling the welfare state in places in NZ, but that doesn’t mean our own Conservative government won’t be taking considerable interest in the UK government’s attempt to sell this “the deficit justifies an attack on the state” rhetoric.

You’ve written a little bit on the difficulties bloggers and citizen journalists have had when trying to report on the activities of local councils. Is this an attitude common to all councils, and what role do bloggers have in holding these officials to account?

I wrote in some detail on this subject recently for Open Democracy.

I have generally found councils obstructive and difficult. It’s not only that they won’t let journalists into council meetings, or try to ban filming and recording. They also actively try to stop you talking to service users, and refuse to take your calls, or provide you with information.

It’s my view that some of the best journalists of this era are bloggers covering local rounds – they’re the people who read agendas, attend meetings, comb reports, talk to people and work up big contact books and readerships. That’s what journalism is. There’s a great deal of professionalism there.

I think the term “citizen journalist” is no longer appropriate for a lot of these people. They’re fully-fledged reporters – real “nose for news” types who don’t suffer politicians at all. They refuse to be pressured. A number of us are trained journalists and NUJ members and are regularly contacted by the mainstream for content and contacts. Local councils are shit-scared of us as well – Roger T at the BarnetEye has put the wind up Brian Coleman on several occasions and councils have tried to throw me out and ban me from talking to people.

Union members have even told me they can no longer access my blog on Hammersmith and Fulham servers.

I’d make the point also that some of us have mixed feelings about participating in the mainstream press. I like getting published there from time to time for obvious reasons and I think there are some excellent people working at some papers, but I tend to feel that generally, the mainstream press is part of today’s political problem.

It’s about opinion, ego, exaggeration and party alignment, rather than good old shoe-leather, grassroots journalism. I really don’t think it’s about talent any more, by and large, and hasn’t been for a while. If you schmooze and push yourself forward and write about “controversial” things like stripping, sex and boozing, etc, you’re probably going to make some – well, headway. If you don’t have the stomach for that sort of “look at me” writing, you won’t.

I think as you get older, you lose interest in that kind of writing as well – I did more of it when I was younger and working in the mainstream. I can’t see that any big paper would pay me a salary to do the work that I do now. Talking about daycentres in small councils, or community centres in Middlesbrough is just not exciting enough and/or likely to shift product in the way that big media is desperate to. They’re important stories, but they’re not “big” stories that will generate advertising.

We’re talking about a mainstream press that will send literally hundreds of people to cover the Chilean miners’ rescue, or the Japan earthquake disaster, but nobody to cover the fallout from, say, a carehome privatisation, or massive funding cuts. That’s not to say major world events shouldn’t be covered – just that some of us passionately believe there are other priorities and are prepared to put a lot of time and money into covering those priorities.

I do think a lot of people in the mainstream feel that way as well – a hell of a lot of them follow respected bloggers on twitter and are regularly in contact and talk as equals. I feel that senior mainstream people like Andrew Marr are dismissive of good bloggers, but a lot of good mainstream people are not. They can see that good work is being done and respect it.

Are you going on the March for the Alternative on Saturday? And if so, what is your alternatve to the coalition’s spending plans?

Yes, I’ll be going. I think a show of numbers will be extremely important.

As for alternatives – depends on how granular you want to get. Possibilities vary from council to council – I (and a number of union branches which presented councils with alternatives) think much more effort could have been made to consider small council tax increases at councils, utilise reserves to buy time, jettisoning consultants (some councils brought in expensive consultants to advise on cuts) and charging works to capital accounts, rather than revenue accounts where that was possible.

Notts County, for instance, had some building works charged to the revenue account. Unison thought there was an argument to be made for charging those works to the relevant capital reserves, which would have freed up revenue. There were probably plenty of examples of that sort of possibility in capital and revenue budgets across the country.

The problem is that nobody wants to hear that sort of suggestion if their reasons for cutting services are ideological. What we’re seeing at the moment is a wholesale attack on the notion of state provision and welfare. I don’t particularly think it is about fiscal realities.

Hardline Tory councils like Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet have been pursuing the cuts ideology for some years – long before the deficit “justified” cuts and charging. They don’t want to hear arguments in favour of preserving services. That argument is at odds with their whole thesis. Tory councils like Lancashire have built up enormous reserves, which they have done instead of spending money on services. Those people are about road improvements, apartment-building and city development. They’re not about carehomes, hostels for people with mental health needs, or sheltered housing wardens.

That’s why, on another level, I want to hear a new, alternative political rhetoric about fair distribution. UKUncut has started to do this and is making an important point in a beautifully simple way – “big corporations need to make a fair contribution.” It’s simple, but it makes the point perfectly. I’ve heard people in non-political circles talking about it.

There’s also a discussion to be had about political priorities – should we be spending a massive amount attacking in Libya while people in wheelchairs here are being thrown onto the street? Have bankers adequately compensated taxpayers for throwing the economy into recession and for bailouts?

This is not a good time in human history, but it’s an important time. Too many people are suffering when they shouldn’t be. We must redefine our world.


“But there’s no danger. It’s a professional career” – Humanitarian intervention in Libya

March 22, 2011

“Doing precisely what we’ve done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time.” – General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth.

The debates over whether we should intervene in Libya have been another opportunity for those supporters of the Iraq war such as Christopher Hitchens, Norman Geras and David Aaronovitch, not mentioning any names, to don their tinfoil hats and argue for military intervention in Libya.

I, and most people I speak to, seem to be of the opinion that the Rebels are Good, Gaddafi is Bad, and that Something Must Be Done. The problem is that by saying that we are falling into what Sir Humphrey called “Politician’s Logic”:

We must do something
This is something
Therefore we must do this.

In contrast, the two questions that need to be asked, and are conspicuous by their absence in being answered by those arguing for military action, are:

1) What are we going into Libya to achieve?
2) What do we do once we’ve achieved that?

Take the seemingly basic, first question of “Is the aim to remove Gadaffi?”. Here’s Alex Massie in the Spectator:

For instance, here’s Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisting, again, that the operation is strictly limited“The goals are limited. It’s not about seeing him go.” And here’s National Journal’s Marc Ambinder, quoting an administration official who says “We have multiple scenarios but none of them end with Gaddafi in power.”

However, based on information from here and here, Liam Fox and William Hague have been repeatedly saying that  targeting Gaddafi could “potentially be a possibility”. The Press Association quoted a “a senior No 10 source [saying] that under the UN mandate it was ‘legal to target those killing civilians’.”

In contrast, Obama and Cameron have said that the aim is to protect the Libyan people, not necessarily to get rid of Gadaffi. In Parliament’s debate yesterday, David Cameron said that the UN resolution was “limited in scope”. Furthermore, both American and British generals have said that Gadaffi is not a target. Head of the US Africa Command Gen Carter F Ham said attacking the dictator was not his aim, as did the head of the British armed forces General Sir David Richards.

This was tweeted on BBC Breaking News some minutes ago:

If #Libya‘s Colonel #Gaddafi implemented ceasefire and met demands, including those made by UN, ‘our job would be over': US Admiral Locklear

To quote a different Spectator blog:

The collective response to the idea that Gaddafi might remain after the bombs have fallen appears to be: a-wha?

Surely Gaddafi’s position is now untenable, once military intervention has started? One of the best arguments for intervening in Libya is on Hagley Road to Ladywood, who wrote:

Gaddafi is winning. What is currently looking like a massacre will turn into genocide the moment the entire Libyan territory returns under his complete control. That is possibly the only thing we can be sure of. The man is a sanguinary madman and he’s already promised “a bloodbath“.

In that circumstance, are we really going to believe Gaddafi when he says that he’ll impose a ceasefire and everything can go back to being hunky-dory? After all, the justification for the UN Resolution is that Gaddafi has reneged on his promise of imposing a cease-fire.

I repeat again: what exactly are we aiming to do? Does anyone know?

To come to our second question, of what happens when the military intervention has achieved its aim (whatever that is). The nearest we have to an explanation from Cameron is what he said in the House of Commons yesterday:

Cameron says it is for the Libyan people to decide their future. But his view is clear; there will be no decent future for Libya with Gaddafi in charge.

So do you want to get rid of Gaddafi or not then, David? Oh, never mind.

Letting the Libyan people decide their future sounds very sensible. I wonder if those agitating for an intervention are aware of the different tribal makeups present in Libya. Robert Fisk, as you’d expect, is against a military intervention. What he has to say is very interesting:

We talk now about the need to protect “the Libyan people”, no longer registering the Senoussi, the most powerful group of tribal families in Benghazi, whose men have been doing much of the fighting. King Idris, overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969, was a Senoussi… Now let’s suppose they get to Tripoli (the point of the whole exercise, is it not?), are they going to be welcomed there? Yes, there were protests in the capital. But many of those brave demonstrators themselves originally came from Benghazi. What will Gaddafi’s supporters do? “Melt away”? Suddenly find that they hated Gaddafi after all and join the revolution? Or continue the civil war?

And what if the “rebels” enter Tripoli and decide Gaddafi and his crazed son Saif al-Islam should meet their just rewards, along with their henchmen? Are we going to close our eyes to revenge killings, public hangings, the kind of treatment Gaddafi’s criminals have meted out for many a long year? I wonder.

I don’t know the answer to the questions Fisk poses, or the sensible ones asked by arabist. I don’t expect you do as well. What really concerns me is that I’m not sure Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy have thought through the answers to those questions either.

It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. It was eight years ago this month that another ill-planned military intervention began. 1 million people died because of a lack of post-war planning. British troops are still fighting, and being killed, in Afghanistan because of “mission creep” and the lack of a clearly defined exit strategy.

You would have thought that, next time we thought about intervening in a foreign country, we would have been clearer about what exactly the aims were, and what happens when they are achieved. This is why I began this post with that quote from General Melchett.

That attitude is encapsulated in the fact that British troops were sent into action on Sunday, whilst MPs debated whether they should be deployed on Monday.

Dear House of Commons: Stable Door. Horse. Bolted. Yours etc.

It is impossible for me to be in favour of this military intervention in Libya, because I am not sure exactly what it is I would be supporting. Are we aiming to remove a murderous dictator? Possibly, but possibly not. If we talk about wanting to reclaim “Libya for the Libyans”, what sort of Libya are we talking about, and which Libyans? I have no idea. Nobody does. And that’s the problem.


Yes to Fairer Votes Blog

March 15, 2011

You can read my blog on the Youth Says Yes event we organised at the University of Birmingham at the Yes to Fairer Votes website.

I’m in the TV footage at about two minutes in – I’m the chap in the red coat holding the banner in the middle.


I do my David Dimbleby impression again…

March 14, 2011

If you’re in Birmingham and have nothing to do this evening, why not come to the University of Birmingham’s Yes to Fairer Votes Society’s Question Time-style discussion on “The Coalition Government: Ten Months On”

The Facebook link to the event is here.

There will be questions on the spending cuts, university reforms, the big society, green issues and, of course, AV.

Bring popcorn. It should be fun.


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