What can we learn from Liam Fox’s letter?

September 30, 2010

It’s time to shift focus from the Opposition to our coalition government. The Conservatives have their conference in Birmingham this week, and it’s likely that there’ll be much debate over spending cuts. The problems the government are having on this issue were put under the spotlight when a letter from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to the Prime Minister was leaked to the Daily Telegraph. Fox is lucky that the letter was leked on a “good day to bury bad news”, in Jo Moore’s infamous phrase, given that the British media was fixated on the Miliband saga. In the letter, Fox complains that:

Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years.

Many have commented on the many leaks we’ve had under this government. However, I’m not convinced that this administration is a particuarly “leaky” one compared to others of recent times, and what I find most interesting is the amount of tension there is between the Treasury and other departments. See, for instance, the lengthy row between Ian Duncan-Smith at Work and Pensions and George Osborne. In this context it’s significant that Fox wrote the letter to the PM and not the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Then again, there’s likely to be any unease between a government department and a mad axeman who wants to slash their budget by a quarter.

It’s understandable that Liam Fox is worried about the potential impact of MoD cuts. Defence was a department that did not benefit from the increase of public spending under New Labour. From 2002 to 2008, at a time when Britain was fighting two wars simultaneously, the MoD budget ‘only’ rose by £3.5bn in seven years (from £35.4bn to £39bn). [Fantasy Island, p171] This increase of 10% in seven years was a cut in real terms. As Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson say in Fantasy Island, Labour was trying to run a wartime army on a peacetime budget. As British troops are in Afghanistan, there’s a limit to how much you can cut. Also, Tory members tend to be enthusiastic about spending money on defence, certainly more so than Labour supporters, and any significant cut to the defence budget will anger the Tory grassroots.

In Opposition, Fox claimed that 25% could be cut from the MoD budget, mainly from reducing the amount of civil servants (via Alex Massie). Now he’s finding that it’s much harder to actually find that scale of “efficiency savings” in practice, which is hardly surprising: it’s not as if the MoD is employing 20,000 civil servants to burn turnips, so any cuts that happen will impact on services.

The coalition has consistently attacked Labour for not specifying what cuts they would make themselves, but it is clear that this question still torments the government as well. Fox’s hope that there is a “credible narrative” for the Defence cuts seems to stem from the fact that the government can’t just cut willy nilly. The debate over what gets cut and which department suffers most will continue into the Conservative Party Conference until the results of the spending review are produced in October, and will doubtless carry on after that.

And the elder shall serve the younger…

September 30, 2010

As Cory wrote on Sunday, Ed Miliband has been declared leader of the Labour Party, winning the Party’s leadership contest by the slimmest possible of margins. It was the result that we had hoped for and predicted (although now is probably the time to confess that any impression of confidence in our predictions was entirely illusory, up until the declaration it really was to close to call). Watching the result announced at the Labour Party Conference, on Saturday, was, to even a vaguely interested party, a supreme test of nerves. The announcement was choreographed to produce the maximum suspense. The candidates were lead into the hall and seated, already aware of the result, although no one else was, all eyes on them trying to discern a hint as to the outcome. In fact, their faces completely belied the reality: David Miliband strode in, grinning and glancing at the people around him; Ed, on the other hand, looked like a man who wanted to go off and have a good cry. Immediately, Twitter exploded with tweets declaring the contest for the elder brother, even Andrew Sparrow in the Guardian, and the BBC’s Nick Robinson were fooled. There then proceeded an exercise in suspense that beat X-Factor, or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? into the ground. The announcer went through the vote distribution of each section of the electoral college, for each round in turn, and for each of those rounds David came out in front until the very last round when Ed pulled ahead with 50.35% of the vote, compared to David’s 49.65%.

This is not going to be an article to discuss the policy implications of Ed Miliband, as leader, or his current performance, except to say that I broadly support Cory’s analysis of what he needs to do next, and that those who elected him were aware of his relative inexperience and we can expect him to grow into the performance side of the role. Don’t forget that David Cameron was in a very similar position at the start of his tenure as Conservative Party Leader. Instead I am going to look at the response to Ed Miliband’s election. The notion of two brothers fighting for the leadership has captured the public imagination and arguably this has worked in his favour over and above Ed Balls and Andy Burnham. His victory, as well, touches on some very visceral emotions: he followed his older brother, almost exactly, at every stage in his career before finally supplanting him, at what could have been the moment of his greatest triumph- it’s almost an archetype. David Miliband has now stepped down, his defeat apparently total. Both Paperback Rioter writers are older siblings and we can appreciate the emotional impact. Ed Miliband’s victory doesn’t just have an emotional significance, though. David was often viewed as the natural successor to Gordon Brown, not just because of his seniority, but because he seemed to have been anointed even before Brown stepped down in May. Ed’s victory marked, therefore, a defeat not only for primogeniture, but also for the media and political establishment that had placed its weight behind his brother. The fact that this contest has not gone their way could not be more apparent from the subsequent reaction. To the “left,” John Rentoul penned an extraordinarily petulant article in the independent backed by angry twitter responses from David Aaronovitch and friend of Paperback Rioter, Darrell Goodliffe, makes a very good case for replacing the electoral college with one person one vote, comprising of all MPs, members and affiliates. This is an excellent suggestion- provided that affiliate organizations were allowed to maintain an independent identity- but it must be emphasised that Ed Miliband’s majority would have been greater under such a system, as it would reduce the weight given to the parliamentary section that favoured his brother. It is also worth remembering that David had the advantage of greater name recognition and overwhelming media support with endorsements from multiple tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. These endorsements, pushed for the days and weeks prior to the ballot, would have far greater potential to influence Union members than an endorsement from the union hierarchies delivered with the ballot. All talk of a “stolen victory” is hot air.

The tactics used to undermine Ed Miliband’s leadership represent an unwelcome importation of American style politics. Baroness Warsi, an emerging Sarah Palin figure, was given multiple platforms to air her facile analysis of the result and to implore Miliband to flagellate himself for not being a Conservative and the personal attacks have already begun (it’s always with the birth certificates!). Conversely, the virulence of the media response is in some ways encouraging, suggesting genuine fear on the right, of his potential to win an election and the direction he could move the country in. The Labour Party and its new leader need to hold firm against these attacks and start to actively take charge of the agenda. Make no mistake, Ed Miliband, is no messiah, but his election is a very hopeful development for British politics.

Red Ed Redemption

September 28, 2010

Ed Miliband gave a damned good speech today, and he needed to. After his brother’s excellent speech yesterday, many who had voted for Ed Miliband were probably wondering if they had made the right decision. This speech would have assured those who did vote Ed that they hadn’t necessarily backed the wrong horse. I’m not sure whether it would have convinced many ultra-Blairites of Ed Miliband’s merits, though there is very little Ed Miliband can do to appease the likes of John Rentoul and Oliver Kamm, short of advocating the bombing of Iran.

The speech tackled all the touchy subjects that he needed to address – his brother, Trade Unions, the “Red Ed” label, the deficit – and did so very well. It was really pleasing to hear a Labour leader talking about inequality (“What does it say about the values of our society, what have we become, that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year?”), saying that Labour had to become the party of civil liberties, and hear him support AV and an elected House of Lords. 

The Tories will complain there’s little of substance in his speech on the deficit – no specific cuts were talked about  but this was a leader’s speech, not a budget report. His position is a reasonable, realistic compromise – Labour won’t oppose all cuts, cuts would still have to be made under a Labour government, but the coalition’s position on the cuts is silly:

You (Cameron) were the optimist once but now all you offer is a miserable, pessimistic view of what we can achieve. And you hide behind the deficit to justify it.

A very good line, playing on Cameron’s “You were the Future once” quip to Blair. Hopefully we will see some substance soon, but this was good mood music for now.

Here comes the “but”

One of Ed Miliband’s team when talking to the Observer described him as “pragmatic”. I’d be nastier than that, and call him an opportunist. This is most apparent in his positioning on civil liberties: he voted FOR the introduction of 90 days without trial, which he used as the ultimate example of New Labour’s failings on civil liberties. Perhaps Ed Miliband only cares about personal ambition? He voted for 90 days without trial to ensure he could remain a loyal Labour MP and get into the Cabinet, and then rubbished it so that he could become Labour leader at the expense of his elder brother. That is an exceptionally cynical view of what he has done, but I am an exceptionally cynical person.

He also isn’t a natural communicator. The speech started poorly. Ed entered the room to an abominable indie song (I’m not sure which one, because I’m not that cool) and opened with an appalling joke of how David Miliband had “nationalised his train set” when they were kids. Ed’s speech got better and better after a stuttering start, and the potential is there to be a decent orator, but he can’t do jokes. He has the comic timing of a man falling into a well.

Can anyone honestly see him impressing in the TV debates? He seemed to preempt that in his speech by criticising X-Factor politics. The main problem with Ed Miliband’s style when he speaks to an audience is that it comes across as being far too formulaic. There were far too many examples of “I’ve met a normal person, lol!!!” in his speech, which was reminiscent of the first leaders’ debate. Maybe Ed has been playing around with the David Cameron random anecdote generator? Also, whenever he was asked a question by a “normal person, lol!!!” in hustings, he asked for their name before replying, which again feels formulaic. Just because it worked for Nick Clegg in the debates doesn’t necessarily mean it works every time.

Whatever substance there was in Ed’s speech will doubtless be overshadowed by David Miliband’s gaffe:

Despite describing Ed’s speech as “very strong” and “nerveless” after leaving the conference hall, ITV News claimed to have caught him on tape making a barbed comment to Harman, the deputy Labour leader, while his younger brother was still speaking on the stage.

David Miliband, who has stood by the Blair government’s decision to go to war against Iraq, looked tense and showed his displeasure as Harman applauded a key section of his younger brother’s speech in which he urged the party to follow America in drawing a line on Iraq.

With his own hands kept firmly apart, he turned to Harman and told her: “You voted for it. Why are you clapping?”

Now this really is a gaffe, as Michael Kinsey defined it (“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth”). David Miliband does have a bit of a point here, but has expressed it in an extremely tactless and unhelpful way. I can’t see him being in the shadow cabinet now. Defeat in the leadership election obviously hurts, and a break from front bench politics would seem to be the best way forward now, both for him and Labour.

Musical Mondays (5) – Review of Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby Live

September 27, 2010

On my holiday in London last week I had this conversation about twice a day, on average:

Them: What are you doing later this week?
Me: Well, I’m seeing Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby on Friday.
Them: Oh. (Pause) Never heard of them.

So I’ll assume for the purposes of this review that you know nothing about either artist. Wreckless Eric was one of the original signings of Stiff Records and is the dictionary definition of a cult artist. His most famous song is Whole Wide World, a great pop song that was used in the film Stranger than Fiction. Amy Rigby is my favourite female songwriter, having produced a string of cracking albums that you can find on Spotify (start with the compilation 18 Again). Now the pair are married, have made one album of originals and one of covers that has just been released, and live in France when they are not touring.

The bulk of their live show at the Lexington in London mainly consisted of songs from the two albums they made together. Songs like Here Comes My Ship, Another Drive-in Saturday, Bobblehead Doll and their cover of I Still Miss Someone made me listen to Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby again yesterday (check it out on Spotify). Having never really got into it, seeing the songs live made me want to listen to their album again, and I really enjoyed it. Their voices gel surprisingly well, considering they are very different: I love Amy Rigby’s voice, which is powerful but with a hint of frailty, whereas Wreckless Eric sounds like Billy Bragg has been gargling with broken glass. The drum loops take some getting used to, but they are used well. One problem in the live show was that Eric sings much louder than Amy Rigby, and sometimes overshadowed her when they sang together, but this is one minor gripe in an excellent show.

Both seemed happy to be in London rather than in Hyde, where they had been earlier in the week. Neither went into much detail, but this is what Amy wrote on her blog about it:

The promoter called and said the pub had been broken into the night before. He jokingly said maybe that would bring more people out, so they could get a look at the crime scene. We should have known right there it was going to be a tough night. From the barbed wire and old tires around the junkyard entrance next door, to the dogshit scattered across the astro-turfed pub “garden”, to the load-in up a wet metal fire escape because the police were busy dusting the inside stairs for fingerprints, to the leftover scraps of astroturf covering the surface of the stage, to the panicky soundman, to the greasy yet sticky surface of everything in the place – it was hard not to feel depressed. You know you’re in trouble when you look to the resident heckler for affirmation.

The upstairs room at the Lexington was packed, and – naturally –  I was the youngest in the room by about twenty years. The woman in front of me had obviously been dragged their by her husband, who kept shooting her nervous glances to see if she was enjoying it. I’m not sure she was: she only applauded three times, during three of Amy Rigby’s songs (interestingly enough). They were Are We Ever Going to Have Sex Again, Don’t Ever Change and the opening track to Amy’s last solo album, Like Rasputin. All are wonderful songs in very different ways, so perhaps we should just admire her taste. Here’s them both playing Don’t Ever Change:

I knew very little of Wreckless Eric’s solo stuff – he’s one of the few major artists on Stiff Records whose stuff I haven’t got. On the strength of the show, I bought his albums from Stiff. No doubt the others will be accumulated soon. Reconnez Cherie has been in my head since he played it on Friday. This is their version, and posted here is the original:

The pair seem happy, relaxed and obviously have a good chemistry on stage – thankfully, or you’d fear for their marriage. This was two of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of playing together in a relaxed, joyful atmosphere. What more could you ask for?

My Wishlist for Ed Miliband

September 26, 2010

Warning: The start of this blog contains some masturbatory self-congratulation. Please handle with care.

In our predictions for the Labour Leadership Contest, Paperback Rioter wrote:

The race between the Miliband brothers is tighter than Jamie Redknapp’s trousers. However, we predict that Ed will win on the back of second and third preferences (like Harriet Harman in the 2007 Deputy leadership contest).

In the event, Ed Miliband did win on the back of second preferences, and only by 1.3%, which is tight in anybody’s business. So a big pat on the back to us. A more detailed postmortem analysis will hopefully follow this week, but for now I want to pretend that Ed Miliband is Santa Claus and write some wishes for him.

I’m marginally happier that Ed Miliband has emerged victorious rather than David. A Labour Party led by David Miliband would probably not have been worth voting for, whereas Ed Miliband, judging by his words, is a better prospect for anyone vaguely left of centre. Not that he’s “Red Ed”, by any means: he was an integral part of Gordon Brown’s inner circle and wrote Labour’s 2010 Manifesto, which nobody will ever compare to the one written by Marx and Engels.

Still, a Labour Party with Ed Miliband may perhaps be worthy of my vote. So here’s a short wishlist of things I would want from him if I were to contemplate voting Labour again:

1) Don’t be afraid of shifting to the Left

Unelected journalists and media owners are trying to say that Ed Miliband won the election because of the undemocratic support of elected Trade Union leaders and their members. You’ve got to love the irony in that. His campaign is keen to stress that Ed’s election was not a shift to the left, but he should be bolder. There’s no need to redraft Clause 4 or start agitating for a revolution: Ed Miliband  just needs to put the things he has been saying during the election campaign into practise: continue critiquing capitalism and talk about social democracy.

Related to this point is: 

2) Don’t attack the government from the right

One of the most depressing aspects of Labour in opposition is that they have retained the same authoritarian, populist streak that they had in government. Ed Miliband has attacked Labour’s record on civil liberties, and it would be nice to see Labour take a more liberal stance on prison reform and immigration now he is leader. If Labour does not, it could be in danger of turning into a sort-of “BNP-lite”, with leftish economic policies and more right wing policies on home affairs.

3) Advance a credible alternative to the cuts

This does not mean opposing each and every cut. Labout must choose its battles carefully, but they must keep on making the point that a lot of these cuts are counter productive and unnecessary. Essential to this strategy is giving Ed Balls a high-profile shadow cabinet position, preferably shadow Chancellor, who was best in the leadership campaign at challenging the coalition’s economic narrative.

4) Support AV

Every blogger needs his hobby horse, and this is mine. Nonetheless, it is essential that Ed Miliband campaigns in favour of AV in the referendum next year. For a start, it would be silly for him to oppose the system that made him Labour leader, and one that was a manifesto pledge (the manifesto he wrote, of course). New Labour’s record on constitutional change was rubbish, and it is an issue that Ed Miliband could lead on. Also, Labour would be working with the Lib Dems in favour of AV, and this would show they could work together. This would show that a Lib/Lab coalition after a future election is a workable possibility.

I would have included getting Jon Cruddas in the Shadow Cabinet, but sadly he seems to have decided not to run for a Shadow Cabinet Place. These four things should do for now though, and I await the next few weeks with interest.

Late reflections on Coulson-gate

September 25, 2010

This is my first independent post on Paperback Rioter or indeed any blog, so please bear with any formatting hiccups.

Here at Paperback Rioter we’ve had cause to discuss politicians behaving badly, the press behaving badly and the police behaving badly, now we have the ignoble trifecta of politicians, the press and police all behaving badly at the same time.

Some weeks ago the New York Times concluded an investigation into the mass hacking of voicemail messages by News of the World employees. Much of what was revealed wasn’t new to anyone who remembers the original story from 2007. I doubt there are many who believed the then NotW editor Andy Coulson’s claims that he was completely unaware of what his reporters were doing, often whilst incurring substantial expenses for the newspaper. No, I’d imagine that most people who have been paying attention to the affair have worked out by now that some very dubious information-gathering tactics were endemic in at the NotW in particular and, seemingly, British journalism in general.

What’s new and shocking from the NYT article is the extent to which the police spared the News of the World adequate scrutiny. The investigation was restricted to the eavesdropping of members of the royal family by two private investigators and one journalist, despite evidence of much more extensive criminality, with police withholding vital evidence from prosecutors and failing even to inform potential victims, effectively shielding News International from mass civil action.

Most disturbing is the suggestion that this was a deliberate policy motivated by a desire to maintain a close working relationship with News International. One anonymous investigator even recounts being approached by the Metropolitan Police’s press officer, Chris Webb, asking for restraint. The news of a special relationship between News International and the police, perhaps, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as its papers have a history of publishing leaked information from investigations in order to cover up the police’s latest embarrassment. What I hadn’t previously realised was that News International might gain a quid pro quo from this arrangement in the form of a blind eye turned to its illegal activities. It’s also worth noting that Andy Hayman, who lead the Met’s investigation into the hacking, is now employed by the Times, also a News International, publication, and has used this platform to defend the handling of the investigation. Andy Coulson, of course, is now communications director for the Prime Minister.

That special relationship.

This incestuous relationship between the Government, police and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers raises fundamental questions about the role of the Press in British society. In a representative democracy public opinion has the highest possible value to those who seek political office, and with the news media acting as the gatekeepers to public opinion, it’s no wonder that successive governments have sought to manage and control it. This gives enormous power to those who work for, and particularly those who own or run media outlets. It makes perfect sense that David Cameron would want to bring the representative of the most toxic section of the press into his inner circle as he wants to harness that power rather than risk bringing its full destructive force down on his head.

This isn’t something that has really been deconstructed much by traditional liberalism, which has never really dealt well with non-state power. Government power is frequently critiqued, both by right-wing free-marketeers and left-wing civil libertarians, and the police, who are the shop-front workers of state power, are rarely free from scrutiny. The media, on the other hand is often overlooked. This is partly because the media itself is the main vehicle for public scrutiny of those in power. The public is remarkably pliant in its outrage: some truly despicable government behaviour has gone largely unnoticed, except for by current affairs nerds who read Private Eye, whereas the Telegraph was able to spin out the MPs expense fiddling scandal over several months and harpoon several political careers in the process. Even then the damage to reputations didn’t always correlate with the extent of the bad behaviour, relating more to whom the news organisations chose to shine the spotlight on. Besides being deeply unhealthy for democracy – leaving all but the saintliest of public figures as potential hostages to the media – this leaves the media itself without anything but self-scrutiny.

The fourth estate.

The second reason is that liberal philosophy has traditionally identified power almost entirely with legal authority. Where it is privately owned, the press has not really been seen as an existential threat to personal freedom. The debate with regard to the media has always been how to shield it from government interference. In the USA this is codified in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. In the UK no such formal protection exists, but the concept of the free press still dominates public discussion surrounding, for example, the discussion of the reform of Libel Law, which is often said to be too “plaintiff friendly.”

In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that UK libel laws are overly rich-person friendly, with rich individuals and organisations able to intimidate critics with the threat of costly legal action, and poor and ordinary citizens lacking the means to seek redress and protection from press harassment and defamation. This is the consequence of leaving civil law as the main regulator of the press. It relies on those wronged having the resources to fund civil court cases when, for people without significant financial means, the criminal law, enforced by the State, is the only accessible means of justice.

Recognising that the influence of the media is a source of great power in a democratic society requires that press ownership be regulated to prevent cross-ownership and preserve a plurality of voices. It also requires that publicly-owned media organizations, such as the BBC, are protected, to counterbalance the commercial media outlets, resisting self-serving corporate demands to hand them over to the rule of the free-market. Greater oversight is also needed to prevent the press from violating individuals’ rights to privacy and security.

Whilst I appreciate that it is not desirable to give the government the right to censor the media, we really need a body, independent of government, with real clout to ensure appropriate behaviour from journalistic organisations, and to fund civil cases for ordinary people and groups who suffer libel or press harassment. Unfortunately this is exactly what’s not going to happen with a very delicate balance of power in parliament and all parties very vulnerable to slight sways in public opinion. This might have been possible ten years ago, with a landslide Labour majority, but Blair preferred to indulge the corporate media in order to protect its position, and now we’re in the position of the unelected and often foreign press owners pulling the strings of our elected representatives and apparently unencumbered by the law.

I’m back!

September 25, 2010

After a brilliant week in London, I’m now back and will be blogging again, thesis permitting.

I went around London supported my faithful companion “Wheels”, my wonderful carrying case. Reminds me of this song:


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