Guest post by God: His resignation statement over phone hacking

July 18, 2011

God called a Press Conference in Heaven today, in which he resigned over his role in the phone hacking scandal. Paperback Rioter reproduces the full text of the statement below. You can read more from God here.

It is with deep regret and a heavy heart that I resign from my position as God and Supreme Being over life on Earth.

I am very proud of my achievements in my role, which I have held for about 5000 years (but who’s counting?). I created the universe. Saw it through some tough times (like the Bodyline controversy). There are many things I will look back proudly on.

However, I must accept responsibility for the phone hacking scandal that happened on my watch.

I can honestly say, though, that I had no idea of the scale of the phone hacking that was going on at News International.

I know I am meant to be an omnipotent being, all-seeing and all-knowing, and therefore it is right to ask me why I had no knowledge of the scale of the abuses at the News of the World and other newspapers. The fact is that the Metropolitan police conducted an investigation and concluded that the phone hacking was merely the work of one rogue reporter. There was no reason for me to disregard their professional opinion.

What I find particularly distressing is the link between myself and Andy Coulson. People keep saying that I should have done more to warn David Cameron about appointing Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications.

Yet I am not sure what more I was supposed to do. I sent three wise men to warn him of the dangers of hiring Coulson. Nick Clegg, Alan Rusbridger and Paddy Ashdown.

All of whom were sent by Me to warn Cameron. But he took no heed of My warnings. I accept My responsibility, but it seems that Cameron does not accept his.

Nevertheless, I must accept my role in this affair and must therefore reluctantly resign. I do not wish to comment on the rumours that a News International paper hacked into my voicemail.


The epic AV Referendum post-mortem blog: Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits

May 10, 2011

This is a lengthy and cathartic postmortem of the AV Referendum campaign. Parts of it (especially the bits about how the Yes campaign could have won) are based on the insights of staff and fellow volunteers in our marvellous Birmingham group. If you don’t fancy reading  all 3000 words of this, a couple of pithy quotes sum up nicely my attitudes to both campaigns:

First, the Yes campaign:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain” – Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech.

Next, the No campaign:

“There’s a bright future for all you professional liars” – Elvis Costello, How to be Dumb.

Now, on with the catharsis:

Oh dear.

A crushing defeat of 69% to 31% demands a lengthy post-mortem. It’s an absolute thumping, and surely puts electoral reform off the agenda for a generation at least.

A defeat like this has prompted a variety of reactions amongst Yes campaign activists. First, that this must mean the British people are stupid. Second, that it proves that our opponents had too much money, power and influence that there was nothing we could do. The Yes campaign was “doomed from the start” because powerful forces in the media and politics were opposed to a Yes vote. This seems to be the view of this chap/chappess:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

To understand why this view is misguided, let’s have a look at the polling data and at the actual votes cast for Yes.

You can see a history of polling data for the AV Referendum here. Around the turn of the year, Yes were continually on early 40s/late 30s, and often enjoyed a narrow lead over No. Yes lost support slowly over April, then rapidly over the last couple of weeks of the campaign. For the last ten days or so of the campaign, the figures were something like Yes 32%, No 68% in most polls, which is remarkably similar to the referendum results.

The trend, then, is the No campaign winning over the Don’t Knows, and Yes losing support. Part of this can be attributed to the hardening of the Tory vote once Cameron started campaigning, but not all of it. What the overall polling suggests, from way back in 2010, is that the Yes campaign had a base of around 30% of voters, but failed to convince any Don’t Knows whatsoever. Indeed, the total Yes vote was lower than the total Lib Dem vote in May 2010.

That’s a remarkable figure, and one that cannot simply be explained by Nick Clegg, or the EVUL NO CAMPAIGN!?, as some would have us believe.

Let’s put things straight first. This referendum was winnable. It goes without saying that the Yes campaign was dealt a difficult hand. People wanted to kick Nick Clegg. The pro-reform vote was split three ways. Elderly voters and Tory voters were likely to vote No, and more likely to vote than Yes voters (often the younger voters). These factors could explain a small Yes defeat, but not one on this scale.

To say that a No vote was inevitable is wrong for a few reasons, and I want to try and outline why below. First I shall explain the main reason why a No vote happened. It’s because the Yes campaign was shockingly appalling:

1) The Yes campaign was run by people who had never run a national election campaign.

It was led by two kinds of people. The first was the Electoral Reform Society/Take Back Parliament people, who were members of a pressure group and had never run a political national campaign of any sort. The other kind of people were Liberal Democrats. As a rule, Lib Dems don’t run national campaigns: they run a series of targeted, local campaigns and do not operate anything on this scale.

The mass incompetency of the Yes campaign ran through it like a stick of rock. For instance:

2) Its central message was very poor.

The Yes campaign’s main message was “Make your MP work harder”. To which MPs could, and did, plausibly claim that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The yes campaign were trying to get the anti-politics vote, but they weren’t turned on by this message. I spent a lot of time giving out the “Make Your MP Work Harder” leaflets in town. I had many replies to the effect that “We don’t want MPs to work harder, we want them shot”. One said “they should work harder making their own gallows”. Our main message, then, was rubbish. It fell between two stools, and didn’t capture either the anti-politics vote, or the pro-politics vote.

The Yes campaign’s other message – about axing jobs for life and ending safe seats – also didn’t work because AV doesn’t help end these problems.

In contrast, not enough time was spent explaining why our current electoral system was not fit for purpose. The two main unquestionable benefits that AV would have brought are that it eradicates the huge amount of tactical voting under FPTP, and MPs would need a majority of support from their constituents. These are the main messages that worked when talking to voters in the street or on the doorstep, and yet were almost totally ignored by the Yes campaign. The only mention of the latter was a slogan on some Yes leaflets called “Make it 50″ which was so awful and obscure it took our office and local activists a couple of minutes to work out what central office were going on about.

As one of our activists commented on Facebook, when I mentioned I was writing a postmortem blog:

The more I think about it, the more the disconnect between the message we found actually worked on the ground and what the national campaign concentrated on, drives me nuts.

This lack of a decent message was a symptom of the fact that our campaign was not led by political campaigners.

3) Too many rubbish gimmicks

See this source from the Yes campaign, quoted in the Guardian:

We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.

I’m assuming this is the same person who posted toilet seats, pond cleaner and rubber ducks to us in the Birmingham group (for a street stall linking AV to the expenses scandal) and inflatable axes (“axe jobs for life”). Part of me wants to dedicate the rest of my career in politics to ensuring that people like this advertising man, and a fair few of those high up in the Yes campaign, never work in politics again. Thankfully for them (and me) I’ve got better things to do.

4) Very little was made of our main strength – the breadth of cross-party support

Nigel Farage was our secret weapon, and yet was hardly ever used by the Yes campaign. He’s a good communicator, would have appealed to older voters (Yes’s weakest demographic) and would have been a great answer to the people who said “This should be a referendum on leaving the EU”. But he wasn’t, because the Yes campaign was run by incompetents. It was trying to be a lefty-love in, forgetting that we needed to appeal to all sections of political opinion, and that we couldn’t rely on the support of all left-wing voters.

5) Squandering what money it had

The Yes campaign had less money than the No campaign. Although published figures put the funding for both parties at about the same, that ignores the large amounts of money put into the No camp from Tory central office. However, the Yes campaign still had lots of money – millions of pounds. Therefore a lack of money was not the issue. The problem was that it misspent lots of money.

It spent too much on phonebank co-ordinators, when no political party now uses phonebanking as a way to engage with voters. The Electoral Commission would have paid for the postage of one targeted mailshot to every person on the electoral roll. The No campaign took advantage of this, we didn’t. There was only one mailshot, sent out to a few targeted voters, and even that was a bit rubbish. It was full of celebrity endorsements, didn’t explain why our system was broken and how AV would change that. What’s more, it managed to cause a race row, as well as as demonstration of how not to run your official twitter account.

The truth was that Zephaniah was added, not omitted, to the Yes leaflets after one member of staff commented that it’d be odd if a leaflet featuring no BME faces was delivered to houses in London. However, they were added to leaflets in London, but not to those letters sent to residents in Birmingham (including myself) which is also very ethnically diverse, and also Zephaniah’s home city! It was a bad leaflet, badly targeted, with an awful reaction to the media furore that surrounded it. Utter, utter incompetence.

The simple fact is that some people voted No because they received a No leaflet and not a Yes leaflet. When there was a chance to send out a targeted mailshot to every house in Britain, with the postage paid for. This was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence.

I don’t think Katie Ghose gets that though. In her speech she said the public had been “shut out” of the debate on AV. What nonsense. If anything, they were shut out by her campaign refusing to print proper mailshots, and by the last fortnight of the campaign taken up with Chris Huhne calling the No campaign Nazis.

If you really want to hear more about the naffness of the Yes campaign, please read this very entertaining piece on Socialist Unity.

So, how could the Yes campaign have won?

If I, and a few of the people in the Birmingham office, had run the campaign, this is what we’d have done differently:

a) Changed the name

“Yes to AV” is far catchier and to the point than “Yes to Fairer Votes”. “Fairer” is reminiscent of new-politics-coalition-newspeak-fluffy-bullshit.

b) Got a professional politician to run the campaign

Perhaps someone like Paddy Ashdown or Jack Straw. Someone who has plenty of experience of running lots of national campaigns.

c) Spent more time lobbying Labour MPs to vote Yes

This from Tim Montgomerie is an absolute must-read. It’s clear that the No campaign spent a lot of time lobbying Labour MPs:

The hard slog of ‘winning the Labour party’ first so that Labour voters could be won later was carried out by former Labour MPs Jane Kennedy (who took on Militant in the 1980s)  and Joan Ryan. For weeks on end they almost lived in the atrium of Portcullis House – the place in the parliamentary estate where MPs, journalists and researchers mingle. The campaign that resulted in a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposing AV was won over cappuccino and chocolate muffins. The campaign was also fought in the country. “Whilst Joan Ryan was setting up Labour No to AV and building the national campaign as the deputy campaign director – particularly working out the core vote/swing vote strategy – Jane Kennedy spoke at about two hundred meetings of constituency Labour parties.

It was obvious that Labour voters were going to be the swing voters. Why didn’t Yes do the same and lobby Labour MPs? If Labour “big beasts” such as Jack Straw, Ed Miliband, Ben Bradshaw etc etc had lobbied MPs more to vote Yes, especially the No2AV Yes2PR ones, perhaps the result would have been very different.

This is what I mean when I say that a defeat for Yes was not inevitable. People point to the split of the Labour party on the issue as a reason why a No vote was inevitable. What it actually shows is how effective the No vote were at lobbying Labour, which is something Yes should have been doing as well.

d) Ditch the anti-politics message

It was rubbish and didn’t work.

e) Use Nigel Farage more and take advantage of a mailshot with post paid for.

As I’ve said above.

f) Try and turn it into a referendum on David Cameron

It’s clear that Nick Clegg was a complete liability for the Yes campaign. I don’t have the exact statistics to hand, but I reckon that every time he spoke, Yes lost 5000 votes. What we had to do was turn the referendum on Cameron instead. To quote Eddie Izzard, “If No wins than Clegg gets a bloody nose, if Yes win than David Cameron gets a bloody head”. Tory blogs were making it quite clear what dire consequences Cameron would face if there was a Yes vote. Would Labour voters have needed much persuading to inflict these dire consequences on him?

Instead, our campaign said nothing. Because, you’ve guessed it, it was incompetent. Only Labour Yes did so, and we could easily have tailored adverts like these for “ordinary” voters as well.

g) Focus on bread-and-butter issues

We all know that the No campaign adverts were despicable. However, the creator of the “dead-baby” advert, Dan Hodges, is more right than wrong here in this post. He also argues that the Yes campaign lost this referendum rather than the No campaign winning it. This is his logic for the baby advert:

When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.

Now I find the advert, as I’m sure many of you do, morally abhorrent. Yet there is surely a way for the Yes campaign to have framed the referendum in those terms too: “Do you care about the NHS? Do you want to have more say in how it’s run? You should have some more say in how you elect your MP then.” We are a Parliamentary democracy. We need electoral reform for better representation, so we can decide who cuts, and how much they cut, better. After all, much more than 50% of people in May 2010 voted for parties who promised slower cuts to those happening right now, but that is in no way reflected in the Parliamentary arithmetic.

Why on earth did the Yes campaign not attempt to do that? I’m sure you can guess by now…

h) Kicked the local Lib Dems’ arses into gear

The Conservatives put their mighty party machine behind a No vote. It would have been nice for the Lib Dems to do the same, as opposed to gently encourage a few activists to give out Yes leaflets and hope for the best. I’m sure it would have been less resourced than the one run by the Tory’s but the fact that not all those who voted Lib Dem last year voted Yes last Thursday shows that not enough was done to win over all the Lib Dem support.

What about the lies of the No campaign?

All this means that, although it would be nice to blame everything on the lies and misinformation put out by the No campaign, and the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, that doesn’t seem wash for me. We had money, but it was spent badly. Labour was split so badly because little effort was made to lobby them (and Labour MPs were put off voting Yes because of our central message). Our message wasn’t getting through, because it was rubbish. Nick Clegg is unpopular, but so is David Cameron. The No campaign was terrible, but as many people were put off by their tactics as voted No because of their lies. You can’t blame a defeat of this scale on one horrible poster, and ignore all the other stupidity that went on with our campaign, even if it is very frustrating that there’s no way of sanctioning the No campaign for putting a figure on posters all around the country that even they have admitted was made up.

The fact is that we cannot say there was a big conspiracy against us that stopped us winning. If you blame the press, or the No campaign’s money, or the “structures in society” for a No vote, you’re basically saying there’s nothing we could have done. You might as well blame the lizard people, or the Jews, for us losing. Whereas we have agency. That’s the crucial thing. We could have run a much better campaign and won. To say otherwise is foolhardy and risks not learning the lessons that I’ve spelled out in this blog post. Worst, it would be an abdication of responsibility.

The future of electoral reform

Even if we’d’ve had a much-improved Yes campaign, it may still have lost. As I wrote above, it was dealt a very difficult hand, and played it badly. Even if it still lost narrowly, A defeat of 55-45, could have been spun credibly as “Well, this motion only failed because more would prefer PR to AV”, since the pro-reform vote would have split three ways: Yes, No and Meh. A loss on this scale buries the prospect of reform of the House of Commons until about 2040 at least, surely?

I assume so. There are two main possible scenarios here that I can think of.

The first is that a No vote means the two-party system is entrenched. The Lib Dem vote shrinks, or the party splits, and its votes are redistributed between the Conservatives and Labour. First Past the Post is kept, and although electoral reformers won’t be happy, it won’t be another 30-35 years before anyone even dares to speak of reform again.

The second is that the trends we’ve seen since the mid-1970s continue. More people vote for parties other than Labour or Conservative. A sizable minority (say 10-15%) still vote for the Lib Dems, whilst UKIP and the Greens gather more and more votes. This means we see more coalitions, or parties winning parliamentary majorities on yet-smaller minorities of the vote. If that happens, the calls for some form of PR could come around quicker than you think. However, I’m not sure any government would actually change an electoral system that had served them so well (c.f. Labour 1997).

There are other short-term consequences that I’ll hopefully write about later this week. This post is long enough as it is.

If anyone still wants to read more on the AV referendum, as well as those pieces already linked to this, by No2AV’s press officer, is well worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope anyone reading this from Central Office (if they do read this) isn’t too offended by this post. I’ve tried to be as constructive as possible. What I want people to take away from this is the fact that the result wasn’t out of our hands. This referendum was winnable, if we’d done things slightly better. That, surely, should cheer us. Even if AV passed, it was going to be the first step of a long journey. Sadly, the journey for political reformers seems a lot longer now than it did on May 4th.

What’s most important is that we learn our lessons from this referendum and remember that we do have the power to change things. We do have agency, and there’s no big conspiracy stopping us from changing things. As FDR might have said, had he been involved with the Yes campaign, the only thing we have to fear is our incompetence.


The really sinister message behind “Winnergate”

April 27, 2011

Today was the first PMQs held after the Easter recess. Among the topics discussed were the NHS reforms and the economy. I assume that at some point MPs got close to discussing the issues, but to be honest I couldn’t tell what was being said because of all the shouting and jeering.

The most talked-about part of PMQs occurred when David Cameron told Angela Eagle to “calm down dear, just calm down”.

The wonderful Paul Waugh, as usual, has quickly gotten the inside take on what happened:

It seems that Angela Eagle was the Labour frontbencher who was targeted by Cameron because she was heckling him over his NHS answers.

In particular, Eagle was shouting that the PM had got his facts wrong over ex Labour MP and GP Howard Stoate, a rare left-of-centre supporter of the Coalition’s health reforms.

Cameron had claimed that Stoate had been defeated at the last election, but Eagle pointed out that in fact he had stood down at 2010 general election.

“He stood down! He stood down!” Eagle told the PM.

Clearly irritated, Cameron then issued his now infamous ‘calm down dear!’ edict. Cue uproar.

It was thought for a bit that it was Yvette Cooper, not Eagle, who was told to calm down. That’s demonstrably not the case, because otherwise Ed Balls would have leapt across the chamber, shouted “Don’t you talk to my missus like that”, and eviscerated the entire government front bench. You know that he could if he wanted to.

You can see a clip of the exchange here, on the BBC website. Keep an eye on Nick Clegg’s face after Cameron says “calm down dear” for the first time. Very stoney faced. He looks like he’s trying not to cry, bless him.

And while we’re on the subject of Nick Clegg, doesn’t he look so old now? It’s like his face has melted in a year. Also, all the colour has drained from his face and gone to David Cameron’s, who was looking very red in today’s session. He was redder than a red-breasted Communist robin reading from Das Kapital.

Inevitably, the storm in a teacup has begun. Labour have said that it was sexist, and that Cameron would not have said such a remark to Ed Balls. Too bloody right. Nobody patronises The Balls and gets away with it.

On the other hand, the Tories have been quick to say that it was just a humourous remark, nothing to see here, and that Labour left us with a massive budget deficit. So they have no right to complain about jokes:

I think you will find it is a popular advert. I think you are maybe over-analysing a humorous remark. Labour seem desperate to talk about anything other than the economy after the good news on growth figures and Miliband’s weak performance today.

To be honest, I don’t think this little exchange tells us anything we didn’t already know about Cameron. His default position at PMQs is always “cavalier and patronising”, he loses his temper far too easily and gets really irritated by Ed Balls. We’ll need a bit more than that to get an entry in the Bumper Book of Political Revelations.

What it does mean now is that Cameron will get associated with Michael Winner. That’s not a great feat of political posturing. Also, as David Aaronovitch pointed out, “The next time David Cameron looks flustered at PMQs the whole Opposition bench is going to chorus “calm down dear”. What an own goal.”

Meanwhile, there were no questions on Libya, and the debate on the economy and the health reforms will get ignored as we debate the really serious issues, such as “Who’s cleavage was that behind Ed Miliband?” And we wonder why the public aren’t interested in politics.

Yet all of this would still miss the main story behind Winnergate, which isn’t being covered anywhere. And that is the contracting out of political soundbites.

It seems that this government is so desperate to reduce the deficit that they are putting subliminal advertising messages in their speeches, just to raise a bit of money.

I wonder what will come next? Maybe George Osborne will say “We need these massive cuts to reduce the deficit. Simples.”

Or Michael Gove will say “My free schools programme will mean that Britain gets exceedingly good academies.”

Andrew Lansley’s next speech about NHS Reforms will go, “There are some who have said that my proposed reforms will lead to the privatisation of the NHS and mean that hospitals are subjected to EU Competition law. To them I say this: vorsprung durch technik”.

This is even more evidence that there is nowhere this government will stop the private sector from taking over. Not even in our language.

You heard it here first.


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.


“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.


The Libya fiasco: Continuity New Labour?

March 11, 2011

David Cameron is obviously a fan of Tony Blair. That’s been clear ever since he branded himself the “heir to Blair” months into his stint as Tory leader. The admiration also appears to be reciprocal – Blair said he supported the coalition’s spending cuts in his memoirs.

Cameron is also a keen student of Blair’s administration. This coalition is trying to enact change on many different fronts simultaneously – public spending cuts, health and education reforms, etc. One of the reasons why it’s doing so is because a great failure of New Labour – and Blair has admitted this himself – is that they did not attempt to do much in their first term in office, from 1997 to 2001.

The fact that the coalition might have bitten off more than they can chew by enacting these reforms is a debate to have another day. What I want to write about now is the subject of foreign intervention.

Now, if you have studied New Labour in detail, you might think twice about carrying out a badly-planned, ill-thought out military intervention in a countries ruled by a dictator.

Apparently not.

A British diplomatic effort to reach out to Libyan rebels has ended in humiliation as a team of British special forces and intelligence agents left Benghazi after being briefly detained.

The six SAS troops and two MI6 officers were seized by Libyan rebels in the eastern part of the country after arriving by helicopter four days ago.

It’s still difficult to work out how such a daft plan actually came into being. In situations like this I usually try and think of a glib, amusing analogy that makes my point well. Thankfully Douglas Alexander has already done that for me:

Alexander started by reading out the Mustafa Gheriani question from the Times: “If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done.” Then Alexander said this:

The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the foreign secretary’s street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night.

I’ve been quite taken aback by how ill-thought out this operation obviously has been, and it’s taken me to work out exactly why.

I think it’s because this whole cock-up feels like something from the dying days of New Labour, rather than from a new administration that’s been in power less than a year. After all, this was a dysfunctional, ill-planned disaster. It’s got all the hallmarks of something that would have happened during Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister.

Instead, Hague and Cameron looked like a group of shambolic amateurs playing toy soldiers. One of the Libyan rebels referred to it as “James Bond tactics”, and that’s not too far off the mark.

This whole episode feels like “Continuity New Labour” on a few levels, that I’ll sketch out briefly below.

The first, that I’ve touched on, is the desire for foreign intervention. Cameron, like Blair, does seem to have been influenced by some neo-conservatives. Prominent among them in Cameron’s case is Michael Gove.

Just as an aside, it seems that Gove is quite influential in Cameron’s thinking. His fingerprints are all over Cameron’s multiculturalism speech, and his desire to take action in Libya.

Secondly, like New Labour the coalition is trying to run a wartime army on a peacetime budget. I’ve written before about the issue of defence spending, and it still applies now. I never thought I’d quote David Starkey favourably, but he was absolutely right on Question Time: You simply cannot have gunboat diplomacy without gunboats. Similarly, you cannot enforce a no-fly zone if you have no aeroplanes.

All in all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the members of this government, most of whom had never seen the inside of a ministerial box before taking office this year, just aren’t very good at the nuts and bolts of actually governing.

Just like New Labour.


Odds and Sods

March 10, 2011

It’s been a quiet week on the blog. I’m still not over a cold which has transmogrified into an ear infection, and Fairer Votes campaigning is taking up more and more of my time. This weekend I plan a mammoth blog-writing session, but for now here’s a few things I’ve found interesting.

1. I’ve been reading The J-Curve by Ian Bremmer, which is brilliant. More on that at a later date. For now, I want to share with you a fact I found when reading it. 

In 2005 China launched its version of American Idol. It was called the “Mengniu Yoghurt Super Girl Contest”, apparently after the brand of yoghurt that sponsored the show.

What a fantastic name for a show! I don’t know about you, but I feel a much happier, more fulfilled person for knowing that fact.

2. David Cameron was asked on the One Show “how do you sleep at night”?

It’s brilliant telly. The gasp from Alex Jones, and the fact you can see her hands on head reflected behind Cameron, is great entertainment. Her expression clearly distracted Cameron from answering the question too. Marvellous.

3. An MP played air guitar in the Commons this week.

Apparently it’s all the Labour Party’s fault.

“I think this shows Labour’s lack of substance on defence these days, if their only line of attack is about the subconscious finger tapping of a backbench MP,” said Mr Evans.

It was just “subconscious finger tapping” apparently.

4. I’m slightly addicted to this song:

5. Also there is news on what disgraced former MP (gosh it feels good to write that) Phil Woolas is doing now. He’s written a chapter in “The Prime Ministers Who Never Were”, due out soon, about J.R. Clynes.

Secondly, there’s this from Monday:

[L]ast week, Mr Woolas was spotted outside a Westminster pub.

Eagle-eyed Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association and Inside Housing columnist, said: ‘The last time I saw Phil, he was standing outside a bar with a fag hanging out of his mouth and a pint in his hand, and today I saw him with a fag hanging out of his mouth and a pint in his hand and I thought I’d find out what on earth he was up to’.

The answer? Apparently Mr Woolas is selling feed-in tariffs to councils and social landlords. However, no renewable energy firm has seen fit to list him on their website, and he wasn’t contactable to discuss his new job. Odd, that.

So now you know.


Thoughts on Barnsley Central: another Lib Dem disaster

March 5, 2011

Before anyone starts designing “Ed Miliband: Prime Minister in 2015″ mugs, let’s remember that this was an average performance for Labour in Barnsley Central. Yes, they won 60.8% of the vote, but that’s almost exactly the same figure they won in 2005 (61.1%).

Even when Eric Illsey had a massive expenses-shaped cloud hanging over his head in May, for which he ended up being imprisoned, Labour won with a majority of 11,000, which is about the same number as Dan Jarvis’s majority now.

So there really isn’t much point in popping champagne corks in Labour HQ just yet. None of this has anything to do with Ed Miliband. He’s the equivalent of a new football manager who has just beaten two teams in the relegation zone in his first two games.

It is interesting that, as with Oldham East, the misdemeanours of the previous Labour MP simply wasn’t an issue. This is hardly surprising, as I remarked in the Old and Sad post-mortem, people care more about the impending spending cuts than who claimed what on an expenses claim form years ago.

In his acceptance speech Dan Jarvis quoted a lifelong Tory voter, a pensioner, who apparently said to him on the doorstep something to the effect of:

This Tory-led government is cutting spending too far and too fast. It’s bad for jobs.

(I honestly cannot remember the exact quote; I can’t find the full speech online and I saw it at 1.20am so my recollection of it is hazy)

I’d be surprised if the pensioner actually referred to a “Tory-led government”, but I am sure she expressed those sentiments about the spending cuts.

For the Lib Dems, this was an almighty kicking. After narrowly finishing second in May, they finished sixth (yes, sixth!) losing 5000 votes in the process. They were beaten into fifth by an independent, who is an unemployed miner with no party machine, and the BNP finished fourth (but lost one-third of their votes from May, which is a reason to be cheerful).

Alarm bells must be ringing in Nick Clegg’s ears, despite his protestations to the contrary. In the long-term, the fate of the Lib Dems depends on the state of the economy in 2015. For now, however, it’s clear that it’s looking disastrous in the short-term for them. Local elections in May could see them completely obliterated.

The big winners of the night were UKIP, who finished second. I don’t know enough about their campaign in Barnsley to comment on why they more than doubled their vote share (4.7% in May to 12.2% now). Judging from this billboard, they went down the “human rights” angle:

It shows that, strategically, David Cameron is falling between two stools. His attempts to “detoxify” the Tory brand didn’t quite work, as seen by the fact he failed to gain a majority against a morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour Party in May last year.

Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of Andrew Neil’s documentary calling for the return of grammar schools was when he discussed polling data which suggested that C1 and C2 types, the “aspirational working and lower-middle-class” that would have voted Thatcher in the ’80s didn’t vote Tory in constituencies like Birmingham Edgbaston because they were perceived as being “too posh”. It’s voters like these that cost Cameron an overall majority.

However, by his attempts to make the Tories appear “fluffy” he has managed to alienate a great portion of the Tory right.

This was well-illustrated by Norman Tebbit, in the most mind-boggling column I’ve ever seen hosted by a national newspaper site.

After explaining that Arabs “don’t do democracy”, defending the poll tax, taking a sideswipe at Chris Patten and referring to the ECHR as “mad judicial imperialists”, Tebbit goes on to say:

I still do not know where, apart from to a Big Society gay wedding in Westminster Abbey, the Prime Minister really wants to go.

Tebbit went within a gnat’s tadger of backing UKIP in Oldham East, and a few more results like that of Barnsley Central could see him fully jump ship, along with, potentially, a few more right-wing Tories.

I’m not sure I can ever fully understand the motives of people who look at this current administration and say, “You know what the problem is with the coalition? They’re just SO left-wing”. But there is definite discontent within the Tory right, and UKIP is picking up on it.

However, one still should not overplay UKIP’s success. They only won 12% of the votes: less than 3000 in total. It hardly sees them becoming, as Nigel Farage put it “the voice of opposition in British politics” – yet. Also, governments always get kickings in by-elections.

Still, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage will be happy, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg will not. For if David Cameron tries to placate the Tory right with some more “centre-right”-type policies, that can only serve to annoy even more the few remaining Lib Dem voters.

Unlike a few partisan Labourites I know, I can’t take much pleasure from the Lib Dem implosion. It’s like watching a friend you thought you used to know go completely off the rails. I can’t see anything other than oblivion happening in May for them now.


Mehdi Hasan: If I was Ed Miliband…

February 27, 2011

Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman is, without doubt, my favourite political journalist at the moment. He was great on Question Time a few weeks ago, and I quoted him in my blog on multiculturalism.

He also proved why with a barnstorming speech at London’s Progressive Conference.

I meant to post this yesterday, to coincide with the day of UK Uncut action planned, but illness and Yes to Fairer Votes campaigning got in the way.

I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing some of it below, with fuller versions of the articles he quoted.

If I was Ed Miliband, on Monday morning I would hold a Press Conference in Church House in Westminster. I would invite all of the press: broadcasters, TV cameras, lobby journalists. I would flank myself with three men: Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Christopher Pissarides.

And I would then invite Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, to stop forward and address the press. And he would say, as he said to me in an interview in February last year:

I say you’re crazy – economically you clearly have the capacity to pay. The debt situation has been worse in other countries at other times. This is all scaremongering, perhaps linked to politics, perhaps rigged to an economic agenda, but it’s out of touch with reality. One of the advantages that you have is that you have your own central bank that can buy some of these bonds to stabilise their price…[These cuts] would almost certainly lead to higher unemployment.

Then I would invite Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel Prize Winner for economics, to step forward and he would say, as he said last September:

The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits – and so it is.

But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction.

It would cut government employment by 490,000 workers – the equivalent of almost three million layoffs in the United States – at a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment.

It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn’t at all ready to take up the slack.

Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state.

Never mind that British debt as a percentage of national income is actually below its historical average; never mind that British interest rates stayed low even as the nation’s budget deficit soared, reflecting the belief of investors that the country can and will get its finances under control.

Britain, declared Osborne, was on the “brink of bankruptcy”.

What happens now?

Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931.

Then I would invite Christopher Pissarides, 2010 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics, and he would say at this podium, as he said in the Mirror last October:

But no one doubts that the Chancellor is taking risks with the recovery.

These risks were not necessary at this point. He could have outlined a clear deficit-reduction plan over the next five years, postponing more of the cuts, until recovery became less fragile…

And his unwillingness to further tax the well off is inevitably necessitating more cuts to benefits just when the jobless will need them the most.

And once these three men had spoken, I, as Ed Miliband, would then stare down the barrel of the nearest camera and I would say, “Which of these three men, Mr Cameron, are you calling a deficit denier?”

The rest of the speech is worth watching, too. It’s brilliant. Medhi is such a brilliant speaker, and says some great stuff on the coalition’s muddled economic policies.

He also gives three ways that we can resist the cuts:

1) Intellectually
2) Judicially
3) Politically

There is a March for the Alternative on March 26th. I expect to see you all there.


The multiculturalism debate

February 25, 2011

I’ve written this post in response to a couple of comments on my earlier blog on multiculturalism. There were two main criticisms of it. The first was contesting that David Cameron had been pandering to far-right groups. I’ve responded to those claims in the comments, and I don’t intend to address them here.

Instead, I’ll mainly concentrate on the point that Roger made:

I don’t believe Cameron was pandering to far right groups but seeking to reassure the enormous silent majority of people like myself who believe that ‘multi-culturalism’ (i.e. the celebration and encouraged recognition of racial or social difference) has indeed been a terrible failure.

I was concious even after writing the blog that I hadn’t really grappled with the concept of multiculturalism in any detail. I want to therefore put that right with this blog.

The problem with trying to answer whether multiculturalism has failed is that it’s hard to define multiculturalism, and even harder to work out how it can be judged successful or not. There’s a few different definitions of multiculturalism here. My favourite is from Ruth Lea, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, who said:

There is another way to define multiculturalism which I would call diversity where people have their own cultural beliefs and they happily coexist – but there is a common thread of Britishness or whatever you want to call it to hold society together.

And that is clearly what I would support because you do accept that people have different cultures and you accept them.

It a positive acceptance not a negative tolerance.

That’s what I imagine multiculturalism to be. I imagine lots of different cultures – Afro-Carribbean, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever – underneath an umbrella term of “Britishness”. I imagine, then, that I could be at odds with Roger on this point, but I wouldn’t want to speak for him on this.

It’s difficult to know what an alternative to this sort of approach would be. As Bob Piper cutely pointed out after Angela Merkel’s speech on multiculturalism:

Merkel says multiculturalism has failed in Germany. Surely she knows the last time they tried monoculturalism it was hardly a major success.

For there have always been different cultures. There is the distinction between popular and elite culture, for instance, which was written about by Richard Hoggart.

This split existed even in the Middle Ages. Take the veneration of a thirteenth-century dog St Guinefort by local peasants, which was a popular cult amongst the laity, even if it was frowned on by the established church. The distinction between different sorts of culture have always been around.

Anyway, back to the present. As pointed out above, multiculturalism could be judged to have succeeded if different cultures united around a common thread. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the different elite and popular cultures had a shared Christian culture. Now, the common theme would appear to be patriotism – a celebration of Britishness (or Englishness) and a feeling of national pride. As Sunder Katwala points out in this excellent article on the successes and failures of multiculturalism, this is something that Britain seems to have got right.

Katwala quotes comments made by Spurs footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto to make his point:

Assou-Ekotto is beginning to look ahead to the World Cup finals with Cameroon. Although he was born in France and has a French mother, there has never been any issue over his allegiance. Like many young people in France born to an immigrant parent or parents, he feels that “the country does not want us to be part of this new France. So we identify ourselves more with our roots.

“Me playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal thing. I have no feeling for the France national team; it just doesn’t exist. When people ask of my generation in France, ‘Where are you from?’, they will reply Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon or wherever. But what has amazed me in England is that when I ask the same question of people like Lennon and Defoe, they’ll say: ‘I’m English.’ That’s one of the things that I love about life here.”

It’s quite clear that multiculturalism has succeeded more in Britain than in either France or Germany, where both their leaders have, like Cameron, declared it to have “failed” in their countries. As Sunder Katwala points out, despite maintaining a strong national identity by having “the Tricolore fluttering from every town hall”, and banning burkas, French society does not seem particularly integrated. Moreover:

[T]he truth is that France’s particularly strident anti-multiculturalism has run so deep that it makes a definitive social comparison difficult. It would famously offend against the Republican philosophy of integration to even collect the information which would be necessary to inform any serious study of the successes and fallures of how integrated (or not) France actually is.

Germany has done a woeful job of integrating its Turkish minority into its society, with over half of German Turks saying they feel unwelcome in the country, and some German-born Turks do not even have full voting rights. Judged by Germany’s standard, the integration of ethnic minorities into Britain has been a rip-roaring success.

The fact is that certain sections of the British media usually ignore any stories about the success of multiculturalism, whilst playing up any examples of a lack of integration amongst minorities. Take two events that happened last November, around the time of Remembrance Day:

Firstly:

About 35 Islamic protesters, dressed in dark clothes and with many masking their faces, carried banners and chanted slogans such as “British soldiers: terrorists”.

They gathered near Hyde Park in London before burning a model of a poppy on the stroke of 11am then marching along Exhibition Road and along an underpass, past the Victoria and Albert and Natural History Museums.

And also:

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association across England has been rallied together to join in fundraising for the Poppy Appeal on behalf of The Royal British Legion in recognition of the valuable role British Armed Forces played during the World Wars.

AMYA collected a total of £20,963.02 for the Royal British Legion over the period of 13 hours, which is a phenomenal achievement. Due to the impressive collections, the Royal British Legion has now asked us to assist in their regional collections also in Midlands, North West and Scotland.

Two very different stories about Muslim groups and their activities to commemorate British soldiers. Now, guess which one the tabloids focussed on?

Of course, it was the first one.

The point here is not that all Muslims raise money for charity, nor that they all burn poppies.

Rather, the question worth asking is why does the media focus on the poppy-burners? Partly because it’s a more interesting and sensationalist story. Another factor seems to be that it the media is falling for the publicity stunts that Muslims against Crusades do.

It’s also possible, however, that there is an agenda at play here. For months, if not years, some of our tabloid newspapers have been focussing on negative stories about a small group of Muslim extremists, which is having serious repercussions on how the British public perceives Muslims and Islam. The Star and the Express, owned by someone not known for having well-thought out views on cultural difference, have been putting forward the myth that an Islamisation of Britain is happening, and that we are being “taken over” by foreigners:

With all this, is it any wonder that 98% of Daily Star readers think that Britain is turning into a Muslim state? See this and this, also.

So I’d argue a main problem is one of perception. However, another problem is that it’s jolly difficult to have a sensible debate on multiculturalism, because the debate gets closed down very quickly, on both sides.

The first person to come out and say that multiculturalism had failed in Britain was Trevor Phillips in 2004, and he wrote that, for instance:

That is why I disagree with those who say that integration and Britishness are irrelevant to the struggle against racism. There can be no true integration without true equality. But the reverse is also true. The equality of the ghetto is no equality at all.

The responses to Phillips’ continuing critique of multiculturalism as “separateness” are bemusing, to say the least. On the one hand, Ken Livingstone, when he was Mayor of London, said that Phillips was so right-wing that “soon he’ll be joining the BNP”. In contrast, a charming video (with equally charming comments underneath) from a user called “BNPxTRUTH” calls him a “Marxist Thug”. Judging from the comments, that’s one of the nicest things that’s been said about him.

However, there is obviously a common ground with myself, Roger and Trevor Phillips. One cannot indeed just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it. There has to be a common thread that binds us all together. We cannot just say that to be British is simply to be “different”, as then your identity has an identity-shaped hole.

Furthermore, a “ghettoisation” of Britain has been happening, especially in areas outside London, and is something that is entrenched by faith schools.

Yet this is hardly something being said by a “silent majority”. How can it be said that the majority is silent, when you can have articles talking of the “war on the English” in Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers? In 2005 David Davis, then Shadow Home Secretary, called for the scrapping out an “outdated” policy of multiculturalism. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said that multiculturalism had “failed the English”. Another prominent bishop talked of the “newfangled and insecurely founded doctrine of multiculturalism”. This is hardly a deafening silence, rather, it is a deafening clamour.

It’s becoming obvious that a nuanced debate on the successes and failings of multiculturalism, and working out how we proceed, is therefore difficult, but necessary. That’s why it’s even worse that Cameron’s speech didn’t take into account any of multiculturalism’s successes and instead stated that it has failed. By doing this he has played into the hands – willingly or not - of far-right groups by simply stating that multiculturalism had failed, and ignoring its successes.

It isn’t just Cameron who is guilty of this. In an interview last week, attorney-general Dominic Grieve had this to say:

the English Defence League’s anger at what it regards as “appeasement to Islammist [sic - this was quoted from teh Grauniad after all] extremism is something politicians may ignore at their peril”.

Which makes the EDL sound like a group quietly expressing valid views on the nicities of radical Islam, when in fact it’s run by people who think that “the sooner we start killing Muslims, the better”.

I think the time has come to move on from multiculturalism. That doesn’t mean that we should accept it’s failed completely - in many ways it has worked.

As noted above, the integration of ethnic minorities into a British national identity has been largely successful. As Medhi Hasan said on Question Time, his father emigrated to Britain in the 1960s, and lived mainly in a state of poverty. That his son could be on one of Britain’s leading political television programmes and define himself as “British” said a lot about the success of multiculturalism.

 Also, as Sunder Katwala notes:

[The] history of Britain is largely the history of successful integration. Perhaps that’s why we don’t notice it. But just about every one of the institutions of which we tend to be proud has been the product of immigration and integration – not just the NHS, but also the Ashes-winning cricket team, and the Army, and even the German-Greek infusions to the Monarchy. Though the headlines will always stress the flashpoints over the complex, everyday story of how we live together, our history should give us confidence that integration is possible.

We became a much less racist society. As John Redwood generously noted in response to David Cameron’s speech, the political left in Britain did a good deal to delegitimise racism (though this important broad social change was not the achievement of the political left alone).

However, even he says he is open to the need to move away from multiculturalism. However, if we do move from multiculturalism, what do we move towards?

We have to find some shared values and shared institutions. These institutions will include vague, fluffy values like tolerance, as well as other (slightly) more tangible concepts such as our democratic framework and the rule of law, which I think are aspects people both on the left and right can get behind.

As a social democrat, I’d also say that we need a certain level of equality, so people do genuinely feel like “we are all in this together”. Equality generally leads to a certain level of trust, so that people can pay their taxes and not feel cheated by “free-riders”. Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land (what do you mean, you haven’t bought this brilliant book yet?) argued:

If we raise taxes or put up a bond to pay for a school in our home district, the chances are that other people (and other peoples’ children) will be the chief beneficiaries. The same applies to public investment in light rail systems, long-term educational and research projects, medical science, social security contributions and any other collective expenditure whose pay off may lie years away. So why do we go to the trouble of putting up the money? Because others have put up money in the past and, usually without giving the matter too much thought, we see ourselves as part of a civic community transcending generations. (pp64-5)

People are more likely to have the trust to do this if they have a lot in common with each other. This is why we cannot just celebrate “difference” for the sake of it but need some sort of shared common thread binding together the people in a community.

I daresay all of this is sounds like a rather woolly conclusion. But I have news for you: life isn’t simple. Multiculturalism wasn’t a complete success or a complete failure: there were good things and bad things to it. Our job in the years ahead is to keep the good things and toss away the bad things, and remember why they were bad. I’m sure some will disagree that it’s social democracy that can provide the common framework that Britain, as a society, needs to become more prosperous. And that’s also good – I don’t expect you to agree on everything.

However, a nuanced, reasoned debate on the merits of multiculturalism and where we go from here needs to be had. Judging from Cameron’s speech, we ain’t gonna get one any time soon.


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