Chris Huhne has got a terrible lion up his end

May 15, 2011

Chris Huhne briefing lobby journalists

Chris Huhne is right in it, if reports in the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday are to be believed. This is from the Staggers blog on the New Statesman:

Following last week’s story that Huhne asked an associate to accept penalty points he incurred for a speeding offence in 2003, the papers have followed up with the fresh claim that Huhne recently called the person involved to warn them not to talk to the media about it.

In what the MoS grandly dubs a “conspiracy of silence”, Huhne is said to have told the person: “The story they are trying to stand up is that ‘Cabinet Minister persuaded XXX to take points’. The only way they can stand that up is by getting you to talk to them. There is simply no other person who could possibly tell them whether it is true or not.”

The rest of the blog is rather interesting stuff. There’s also a section in which Chris Huhne gives advice to the other party on what to do if they are contacted by journalists:

If called by journalists, Huhne says, you should “Just say, oooh, terribly bad line, terribly sorry, bad reception, I’ll talk to you later — and hang up”.

An excellent idea, and a completely original one, too.

As luck would have it, Paperback Rioter has received a transcript of a secret phone call made from a Sunday Times journalist to Chris Huhne. I have posted the audio onto Youtube here, and below, for the first time, is the full transcript, exclusively on Paperback Rioter:

*Phone is ringing. Chris Huhne answers*

Chris Huhne: Chris Huhne speaking.

Sunday Times Journalist: Hello Chris. I’m just calling about the story that you asked an associate to accept penalty points which you incurred for a speeding offence…

Huhne: No I’m afraid the line’s very clllkkkkkk ppppprrrrrr…

Journalist: Chris Huhne? Chris Huhne, hello?

Huhne: *Scrunches bits of newspaper by the telephone. Then bashes phone on table four times* Schnell schnell kartoffelnkopf!

Journalist: I said there’s a terrible line at my end. Please call me back at once.

Chris Huhne: *blows raspberries down the phone* *Sings* A wandering minstrel wandering reeeeeleeelium. Gale Force Eight. 

*Chris Huhne puts the phone down*

Nick Clegg: Come on, Chris! What was the message? I’m on tenterhooks! Do tell!

Chris Huhne: Well, as far as I could tell, the message was: he’s got a terrible lion up his end, so there’s an advantage to an enema at once.

With such skillful evasion tactics, I remain confident that Chris Huhne will remain in his cabinet post.


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 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.


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.


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.


No2AV plays the Nick Clegg card

March 3, 2011

It was obvious that No2AV were going to play the Nick Clegg card at some point. Seeing as he’s now one of the most unpopular men in Britain, tying him to the AV campaign was going to be something they would do, in the absence of any coherent arguments about why we should keep First Past the Post.

Nick Clegg’s approval ratings, which were higher than Winston Churchill before the general election, have been falling steadily ever since. The latest polling suggests that Clegg’s approval rating stands at -34, with 28% thinking he’s performing well and 62% thinking he’s doing badly.

Most importantly from the referendum campaign’s point of view is that Nick Clegg is immensely unpopular with Labour voters.

In my view, the result of the referendum will be decided by the proportion of Labour voters that decide to vote Yes or No. Most Tories are going to vote No, most Lib Dems will vote yes, with Labour being split on the issue. How their members vote will therefore probably decide the result.

Clegg’s approval ratings amongst Labour voters is a comically bad -87, with only 5% thinking he’s performing well and 92% badly. No wonder Ed Miliband has asked Nick Clegg to take a step back from the Yes campaign and avoid being its poster boy.

This makes good sense, though the thought of Ed Miliband being Yes2AV’s poster boy instead doesn’t exactly fill me with joy and happiness.

So, now to No2AV’s advert:

A Labour-supporting friend I showed the advert to said, “This is REAL?! I thought it was a parody.” That tells you all you need to know about it, I think.

It does seem like a parody, mainly because its claims are wild bollocks hyperbolic nonsense.

Duncan Stott has already written about a few of them, but I’ll expand with a bit of detail below.

1) Nick Clegg won’t be Lib Dem leader forever

At the rate things are going, he might not even be an MP in 2015. He’s MP for Sheffield Hallam, the only seat in South Yorkshire not held by Labour, and was elected courtesy of a large student vote. Something tells me that students and young people aren’t going to be so keen to vote for the Cleggmeister in the next election.

2) AV doesn’t mean the Lib Dems will get more seats

The advert indicates that the Lib Dems will automatically benefit from AV. To explode that myth you only need to look at the polling data. The latest Yougov poll puts the Lib Dems on 10%. And that’s a surge in the polls, by their standards.

The Lib Dems have consistently been the second preferences of many voters, particularly Labour voters, but I cannot see that remaining the case now. Also, as the Yougov polling data I linked to indicates, they have lost more than half of their first preference voters. Only 45% of people who voted Lib Dem in May still support them now, according to those latest figures.

I cannot believe that the No campaign have overlooked what ought to be a rather simple principle: that AV will only benefit the Lib Dems if people vote for them.

3) AV does not lead to more hung parliaments

As discussed before on this blog, there’s no evidence that AV leads to an increase in the number of hung parliaments.

Indeed, it might have escaped the No camp’s attention, but we have a hung parliament at the moment, under First Past the Post. And it’s not the only one in living memory: take 1974 for example.

4) Nick Clegg does not decide who forms a government: we do

In May, when the polls were increasingly predicting a hung parliament, Nick Clegg said that he would enter coalition talks first with the party that had the biggest mandate. And he kept his word on that (again, not something you’ll read often these days). As I’ve written before, there was no way that the Lib Dems could have entered a coalition with Labour, because the numbers just weren’t there.

So even if we had a situation, as in May, where a hung parliament looked likely, it wouldn’t be Nick Clegg who decides whether there is a hung parliament, or who decides who enters into a coalition: it would be you. Me. Us. The voters.

If anyone is reading this from No2AV: well done. This latest advert is nowhere near as morally repugnant as the baby one. However, it’s preferable if campaign adverts:

a) Are not morally abhorrent.
b) Contain some facts that are, you know, true (yes I’m looking at YOU, the bogus £25om figure still included on the advert).
c) Contain a clear, principled argument.

I suppose 1 out of 3 is an improvement from 0 out of 3.

If anyone is reading this from Yes2AV: can we have some billboards of our own, please? Ones that conform to the three points I just listed would be even better.


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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