My initial thoughts on the shadow cabinet

October 10, 2010

I’ve been at my parents’ house this weekend and went to two wonderful gigs (for more see the upcoming Musical Mondays). As usual, a brief break from blogging has meant I’ve now got lots of new blog posts I want to write.

For now, I’ll give my initial thoughts on Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet (as promised, we will be doing a thorough postmortem of the leadership election now all the posts are filled).

The appointments are a bit naff to be honest, aren’t they? They all seem to be more about strategy rather than who is actually best for the position, as Seph Brown has said. Alan Johnson is a David-ite and a good communicator, but isn’t necessarily the best candidate for shadow chancellor. He has said that his first act will be to buy a basic primer on economics. You can bet that will be quoted by the Tories every time he tries to attack their economic policy. The Shadow Chancellor position should go to someone who actually knows stuff about economics – which means either Ed Balls, or preferably Yvette Cooper, seeing as she topped the MPs’ poll. Instead, both the latter two have been put in positions where their talents won’t be of best use.

Also, Andy Burnham in charge of the general election campaign? The man who led the worst leadership campaign, if you discount Diane Abbot, and who seems to think that Labour lost the last election because they didn’t spend enough time bashing immigrants. I thought Ed Miliband didn’t want to outflank the coalition from the right on this issue? And as for appointing Phil Woolas as a junior minister, well, words cannot describe the irritation I feel, so I won’t bother.

I’ll doubtless post on this a little more in the weeks ahead. For now (I want to post this before midnight) I want to finish by saying that these appointments are those of someone trying to be too clever by half. There’s a lot of square pegs in round holes. Ed Miliband, see me after class. You can do better.

Our Labour Leadership Predictions

September 16, 2010

This is Cory and Hannah’s first collaborative post, as they start to morph into the Lennon and McCartney of political blogging. We jest of course: there’s no room at Paperback Rioter for that sort of hubris. Yet. Anyway, here are our predictions for the Labour Leadership contest, in reverse order:

5) Andy Burnham

Burnham’s campaign has undoubtedly been mediocre. His campaign theme of “aspirational socialism” is comically vague. The one substantive idea Burnham has had is a National Care Service, and to his credit he has produced a reasonably sensible plan for funding it via an estate tax.  This is certainly not a trivial policy; unfortunately it’s not original either.

Burnham’s main problem is that he lacks a natural base. He’s coming fourth in the MP recommendations, is unlikely to pick up many subsequent preferences in the other two electoral colleges (party members and affiliated societies) and seems to have little appeal outside the North-West. It’s laudable to position yourself as neither a Brownite nor a Blairite, but just being northern isn’t enough to be Labour leader.

Like Diane Abbott he has pitched himself in a very tokenistic way as the authentic working class voice; but unlike Diane, Burnham has emphasised his unreserved loyalty to whichever government he serves in. These two attributes of “working class voice” and “loyalty” could see him become a John Prescott figure, if you like, alongside one of the Milibands (preferably Ed). He reaches the demographics that they don’t, and is New Labour-ish enough to counterbalance Ed Miliband, if he becomes leader, without bringing any damaging right-wing policies. Depending on what happens to Harriet Harman, he could be a reasonable deputy leader, but chances are he will continue as Shadow Health Secretary, where he has been adequate enough.

4) Ed Balls

Paperback Rioter would like to put on record they have been, genuinely, very impressed by Ed Balls in this leadership campaign.  He has comes across as very straightforward and being very strong policy-wise, particularly on the economy, where he’s done a very good job on challenging the coalition’s narrative on spending cuts. As Hopi Sen wrote in his wonderful series “The Case Against…”:

Here’s an odd thing. When I ask Labour members who they’ve been most impressed with during the leadership campaign, who’s done most to improve how they’re seen, the answer is almost always – Ed Balls.

Again, when I ask people whose performance at husting most impressed them, the answer is again – Ed Balls. When I ask who’s done best in opposition? Ed Balls.

 In fact, Paperback Rioter would go as far to say that they would be happy to see him as Leader and thence Prime Minister (stop laughing at the back). Unfortunately, neither of those things is likely to happen.  

For a start, he’s very divisive even inside his own party. His role as Gordon Brown’s bruiser made him a lot of enemies in the Labour party. For every person who says that he has come across as personable in the hustings, you can generally find another who says he’s an arrogant so and so. He’s coming comfortably in third for the MP section, but is trailing with the members and affiliates, and is even in danger of being knocked out first. (This could, paradoxically, give his second preferences a decisive role in the outcome.)

He’s also very unpopular with the general public; most of which is manufactured by the Conservatives and the conservative press. Ultimately, like Brown, he’s not a leader for the 21st century celebrity-media era.  The vilification of Ed Balls seems to be driven by fear: as Sunny Hundal puts it he likes to punch Tories in the face.  The Tory Press will demonise whoever the next Labour Leader is, particularly if they start trying to propose any recognisably left-wing policies (ie any of them other than maybe David Miliband) but with Ed Balls they have a fatal head start. 

Assuming Ed Balls will not become leader, his strong performance in the contest, along with his economic background and hatred of Tories, could be enough to propel him to the role of Shadow Chancellor.  

3) Diane Abbott

Her campaign has been disappointing. In person she can make some very interesting, nuanced points, but her pitching has been awful, and she hasn’t gone beyond portraying herself as the token non-white, non-male candidate.  This is a shame because the contest could have benefitted from a truly radical left-wing voice contributing to the debate. John McDonnell would have been an infinitely preferable choice of candidate to Abbott, and would undoubtedly have performed better at hustings and debates. As Hopi Sen has set out in this quiet demolition, Abbot is not the ideal candidate to be head of the Labour left.

Abbott has no hope of winning this election. She only made it onto the ballot paper because of the interventions of David Miliband and Harriet Harman. At present she is coming a distant fifth amongst MP votes, but because she is the “left wing option” Abbott could do surprisingly well in the first preferences in the members and affiliates sections. She will probably pick up a significant minority of first preferences that should see her rise above Burnham, and by our reckoning probably even Balls, in the contest. This could potentially be bad news for Ed Miliband supporters, if she comes third and the result is in before she’s eliminated.

Still, Diane Abbott will soon be back on the This Week sofa, and all will be well with Thursday nights again.

2) David Miliband

The elder Miliband is the “obvious” choice in terms of experience. He held a major portfolio as Foreign Secretary, and has the head start with name-recognition. On the other hand, this also means he is tainted with the worst errors of New Labour.

David Miliband is also the most mercurial candidate; very difficult to pin down. He has backed a number of left-leaning policies, but has also been backed by the New Labour Core that he has tried so hard to distance himself from: Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and even David Blunkett.

In the hustings he has tried to square this circle by portraying himself as the unity candidate, capable of uniting both wings of the party. He has the support of Jon Cruddas, for instance, who we had previously thought better of. They co-authored this article. In it, there are platitudes drawn from the New Labour toolbox, aiming to have the maximum breadth of appeal but minimum commitment, however, there’s some left-wing platitudes in there as well.

His election as Labour Leader would hardly be a disaster for the party. Nevertheless, we don’t think he’ll win the race, and our prediction for Labour leader is:

1) Ed Miliband

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).

So far, the polls say that David has the better chance of winning, but it’s hard to know how seriously to take them [NB – we wrote this last week before the latest polls that suggest Ed could win by a whisker. It’s still far too close to say for certain, but we’ve stuck our neck out]. A poll of Labour councillors, for instance, is unrepresentative of Labour members as a whole. Also, because of Labour’s, er, questionable electoral system, individuals can have as many as five or six votes, depending on how many affiliated societies they are a member of. The only trend that we can be sure of is that Ed Miliband has been steadily gaining ground on David throughout this contest.

There is an element of opportunism in Ed Miliband’s campaign: such as his late conversion to full gay marriage after it became clear that his hesitancy over the issue was costing him support. He has the potential to be a very good communicator, and is telegenic, but there is an appearance of timidity in his interviews at the moment.

Ed Miliband does seem to have an underlying hint of steel, though.   Not every politician would have challenged his own brother, certainly not at such an early stage in his career, and his platform marks a radical break from Labour’s recent history which, contrary to many commentators’ views, is neither an easy nor certain strategy.  This boldness, though not without a hint of tactical positioning, bodes well for his potential as leader, certainly when compared to David Miliband’s dithering.

We think, and hope, Ed Miliband will win but it’s far from certain. An Ed Miliband leadership wouldn’t be perfect but we’d certainly be comfortable with it. His policies have been very promising, and he has shaped the debate more than any other candidate. Perhaps most importantly, a victory for him would be a symbolic break from New Labour. Although he seeks to distance himself from Blair’s patronage, a victory for David Miliband would be seen as a vindication of “The Project” and a mandate for continuity.  A win for the upstart, though it would hardly herald a Socialist Utopia, would indicate a desire for change and a fundamental re-evaluation of the direction of the Labour Party.

Blogging the Labour Leadership Contest Part 3 – The Sky News Hustings

September 7, 2010

The Labour Leadership Hustings on Sky News was rather interesting. I have seen so few campaign events this summer, because I thought that would be the best way to preserve my sanity, but I’m guessing that the slogans that the candidates used were identical to those at the other 7,284,357 hustings thus far. “Slogans” being the operative word – Adam Boulton only allowed each candidate to speak for thirty seconds. This barely gave them enough time to give a soundbite, let alone time to engage in meaningful debate.

Here’s my summary on how each candidate did, starting with who I found most impressive:

1) David Miliband

He’s articulate and animated, rather than passionate. There’s still an air of the Blairite about him and his policies, which he’ll probably never shake off. His definition of socialism (“we can achieve more together than we can apart”) sounds like something Blair would have said. Come to think of it, it could just as easily be a quotation from Glee or High School Musical. But his criticism of New Labour – that it was too top-down – was the most acute of all five candidates.

Another point of his that stuck out is his point on New Labour’s record: “If we trash our record, nobody will believe us in the future”, and listed some of the positive things Labour had done as a government, such as introducing the minimum wage and rebuilding schools.

It’s amusing that David Miliband still defends this record so staunchly when Tony Blair has already begun to trash it. If you were going to list ten Labour achievements, you’d be hard-pressed, but along with the minimum wage and Sure Start centres you would surely have the ban on fox hunting and the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. Odd, then, that Blair should list these as his two biggest regrets as Prime Minister.

All in all, David Miliband performed best in the debate, and is probably Labour’s best chance for a win in a 2015 election. Although that begs the question of whether a Labour party led by David Miliband is worth electing. We’ll have to wait and see.

2) Ed Balls

He continues to impress in this leadership campaign. He answered questions well, wasn’t starey-eyed, showed a sense of humour and was good on the economy. One thing he said that surprised me: he relayed a conversation he’d had with Tony Blair while he was PM, in which Blair said he thought the average income in Britain was between £40,000-60,000 a year. Which is an astonishing anecdote if true.

However, the debate showed the problems Labour will have when they make points on the economy. When Balls and Diane Abbott spoke of the need not to cut your way out of recession, the Labour supporters on one side of the debating hall were applauding. On the other side of the room, made up of independent voters, but there were lots of crossed arms and silence. Labour’s biggest problem is on the economy, and one this blog will be returning to.

3) Andy Burnham

He is perhaps lucky that I was in the kitchen whilst the immigration debate was going on, because some of the things he has said on the issue have been immensely irritating. Nonetheless, he is a good communicator who spoke of his passion for the NHS and dislike of the 10p tax abolition, both of which are laudable.

“ELITES” is what’s written in my notebook from his closing speech. Labour needs to breakdown the London based elites and stop pandering to rich elites. Metropolitan elites were also mentioned by Burnham. Instead, Burnham reckons they should give the job to a Northerner. They won’t stop pandering to elites or make a Northerner Labour leader, but someone needs to say these things.

4) Diane Abbott

Ah, Diane. The token lefty. Not surprisingly, on this Unlock Democracy quiz, I matched up with her views overwhelmingly. But as a debater and potential leader she doesn’t cut it. I stopped listening to her eventually, and just watched her gesticulating with her pen, jabbing it towards the person she was making her point to like it was the world’s worst taser.

Before I stopped listening she got applause for mentioning she voted against Iraq and said she could appeal to Middle England because of her appearances on This Week (which makes you wonder what type of mushrooms she’d eaten that morning).

5) Ed Miliband

I’ve not just put Ed Miliband bottom because he’s a poor communicator. He comes across as a very intelligent man who struggles to put his points forward in clear, straightforward language – like Gordon Brown in that respect.

I also got sick of him constantly repeating himself. The others had a number of points they wanted to make, and generally answered the question directly. Ed Miliband twisted every answer into trashing New Labour’s record. “Courage to Change” was his mantra, and I wrote it in my notebook in LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS. It’s now etched into my brain. He not only came across as one-dimensional, but this line of attack from Ed is not credible, as I’ve pointed out.

Simon Hoggart was fond of saying that Michael Heseltine was excellent at finding the clitoris of the Conservative Party. Ed Miliband has spent his whole leadership campaign trying to find the Labour Party’s clitoris. If I may be allowed to persevere with this extremely inadvisable sexual metaphor, it seems to me that he is whispering sweet nothings into Labour members’ ears, about Iraq, civil liberties and everything else, not because he really means them, but because Ed thinks that this way he can get into the Labour Party’s knickers. Once that has been achieved, he will abandon his left-wing admirers, making them feel angry, hurt and betrayed.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Voting began last week, and the Labour leader will be unveiled on the 25th. At some point this week Hannah and I will be sitting down in our smoking jackets, drinking brandy and smoking cigars, and making our predictions on the Labour leadership race. Watch this space…

My open reply to Ed Miliband’s letter

September 2, 2010

Dear Ed Miliband,

I feel that your letter to me last week deserves a reply. After all, it was very civil of you to write.

Let me first introduce myself. I voted Lib Dem on May 6th, and am profoundly unsure whether I will do so in the future, for various reasons that you can probably guess. Three-and-a-half years ago, for my sins, I joined Labour. Some people go to university, get drunk and have one-night stands. I got drunk at university and joined the Labour Party.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship Labour ever since. For all its faults, which were considerable, it seemed the place to be if you were on “the left”.  Eventually, after about two years I felt that I could not defend Labour’s record in government. There was no specific incident that led me not to renew my Labour membership. Like any breakup, there were a myriad of factors. These included: calling off a corruption inquiry into selling arms to  Saudi Arabia, ID cards, Hazel Blears, the Private Finance Initiative, Tony McNulty, 42 days without trial…and I haven’t even mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan yet. As you say in your letter, “Leaving your party is the most honourable course when your party leadership leaves you.” I did, and haven’t been given a good reason to return yet.

You’ve probably realised now that I am a member of the lefty middle class “intelligensia”, and the type of person you are trying to woo with your leadership campaign. You have said some sensible things about Labour’s civil liberties record, criticised the decision to invade Iraq, and been attacked by Peter Mandelson. All of these things are in your favour. In her excellent posts on the Labour leadership contest, fellow Paperback Rioter Hannah has hinted that you would be her preferred candidate.

I also have more sympathy with your strategy of wooing left-wing Lib Dem voters, than with your brother’s tactic, which is to appeal to Tory voters by forming a movement of the centre. As has been pointed out  – and no doubt you are aware already – Labour has lost 5 million votes since 1997, only 1 million of them left to vote Tory.

Despite all this, I have not found you sufficiently inspiring in order to pay £1, rejoin Labour and vote for you as leader.

The first reason for this is that I have not been encouraged by Labour’s actions since the election. After some truly half-hearted attempts to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they have attacked the government from the right on prison and immigration reform, and are now engaged – you probably have noticed this – in a leadership election. This contest has been soporific and overly long. A real debate on the party’s record in government and what it should do now was needed, so in principle a long leadership contest was necessary. In practice, this sort of debate has not really happened, because all serious contenders of the leadership (this includes yourself) agree too much with each other for there to be a real debate.

However, my main problem with your campaign is that you have repudiated too much of Labour’s time in government. This may sound paradoxical, because I have said above that I left Labour because I think its role in government was, on the whole, unsatisfactory. However, your voting record looks especially egregious on certain issues:

  • Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
  • Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.
  • Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
  • Voted a mixture of for and against laws to stop climate change.
  • To vote for the vast majority of Labour’s appalling civil liberties measures then to remain a cabinet minister, and disown them in opposition to win the leadership now, smacks of opportunism to me. Your remarks on Iraq also seem opportunistic now, seeing as you did not speak publicly against the war at the time. You may reply that you were agitating against these policies in private whilst supporting them in public, as befits collective responsibility among cabinet ministers. For instance, in the Five Live leadership hustings you were asked by Victoria Derbyshire why you did not make more noise about some issue or other – I think it was social housing – and you replied, “I remember a conversation with Gordon Brown in 2006 on this issue…”

    I can remember very few conversations I had in 2006. Granted, I’d be more likely to remember a conversation I had with Gordon Brown four years ago, but I’m guessing a talk with him is a more common occurrence for you. So I’m not quite sure that one conversation four years ago, when Brown wasn’t even Prime Minister, really counts as doing something you’re meant to be passionate about. Instead, there is a sort of honesty and integrity in the position of David Miliband and Andy Burnham defending Labour’s record in government that I can applaud, however much I disagree with what they’re defending.

    Perhaps you think that I am being unkind, and trying to have it both ways. If you defended New Labour’s record in government, I would not vote for you because you are defending something I think is flawed; if you disown it than I accuse you of being an opportunist. You are certainly entitled to think that, but for future reference: such a thing as a “principled resignation” exists (like Robin Cook, for instance) and perhaps Cabinet Ministers should think about using it more often.

    I think it was Tony Blair who said that Labour needed to be “radical and credible”. Broadly speaking, I find your brother credible but not radical. You, on the other hand, are radical but not credible. It is for this reason that I will have to respectfully decline your offer of rejoining Labour and voting for you as leader. I hope you appreciate the reasons why, and wish you all the best in the contest.

    Yours etc

    Cory Hazlehurst

    Blogging the Labour Leadership Contest, part 2 (the webchats)

    July 24, 2010

    By Hannah

    Last week I looked at the leadership candidates’ performance at a live hustings.  Now I’m going to look at their wider agendas as reported through the media, and in particular the live webchats they gave at the Guardian’s website. 

    Ed Balls was the first of the Labour Leadership candidates to face Guardian CIF commenters, on 15 June.  He was the third candidate, and the first non-Miliband, to receive the required 33 nominations and has been endorsed by Ken Livingston, but has, thus far, received the weakest support from the wider party, with supporting nominations from only 10 Constituency Labour Parties (CLP), and the union CWU.  He is perhaps the most aggressively partisan of the candidates, as well being heavily implicated in the factionalism that beset the party throughout its time in office. As I wrote last week, however, he comes across as very genial, in a way that belies his reputation. 

    He answered a wide range of questions from Guardian commenters.  He made a few strong bids to the left, as you would expect, defending continued deficit spending and refuting the suggestion that public sector pensions are excessive compared to the private sector, describing it as a “complete fiction”. 

    When asked to list Labour’s top five failings while in government, he gave immigration, Iraq (capitalizing on his not being in Parliament at the time of the invasion), tuition fees, the scrapping of the 10p tax rate and rates.  However, he made a couple of incursions into more traditionally conservative territory- defending the use of PFI to fund hospital and school rebuilds and arguing for a renegotiation of unlimited migration within the EU as outlined in this article. 

    He tackled personal criticisms head on, answering the charge that he had been a member of the Conservative Association while at Oxford (he had, but only so he could see their speakers). Interestingly when asked whether the Conservatives would be comfortable with him as Labour Leader, he answered no, in spite of Tory pronouncements to the contrary, recounting that the then Labour Leadership had tried to pull the same trick in the Conservative leadership contests, with Ken Clarke and David Cameron, succeeding in the first instance.  A more natural politician might not have been so candid.  He also directly accused other candidates’ teams of hostile briefing but denied that he had been, in any way, involved in this tactic.

    The next candidate to face questions was Ed Miliband on 16 June.  Ed Miliband is currently the second favourite after his brother David, but is fast gaining momentum and currently holds nominations from: 63 MPs, 6MEPs, including the leader of the Labour Group in the European Parliament, 106 CLPs, and 4 Trade Unions, including the large and influential GMB and Unison.  He has also won the backing of the affiliated Socialist Health Association and a number of Old Labour grandees, including Neil and Glenys Kinnock and the wife of the late John Smith.  He was responsible for writing the 2010 Labour Manifesto which took a more progressive tone than New Labour had previously, while in government, and, since putting himself forward as Leader, has continued to tack to the left, launching campaigns for a living wage, a shorter working week and, in the statement that won over the SHA, called for better Mental Health provision and a National Care Service.  I felt that his webchat was the most disappointing: focusing on the broad principles on which he was campaigning, without giving much in the way of detail.  He reiterated his emphasis on “values” and commitment to a living wage and a high wage commission, and defended Labour’s record while in office and his own achievements as Climate Change Secretary. 

    There were a couple of interesting points though.  He came out against exclusive means-tested social security, in favour of votes at sixteen and, when asked for his position on Israel, said that the UK should be a “critical friend” of Israel, naming the Gaza blockade and the Flotilla attack as particular areas of concern.  In my view, it is problematic to have particular friendships with other countries, in particular in the context of complex international disputes, however, it is encouraging that Israel won’t be given a free ride by a Miliband leadership.

     Andy Burnham followed on the 17th.  He has positioned himself as the most consistently loyal to the governments in which he served throughout his time in office, distancing himself from the factions and personality disputes.  Seeking to position himself as the figurehead for Labour’s heartlands, Burnham has made much of his working class, non-Oxbridge background. Despite this, he only just managed to gather the required number of nominations in time, but has now received the support of 30 CLPs, 1 MEP and the National Union of Labour and Socialist Clubs. 

    Firstly, what was good about his answers?  He supports the idea of a national care service, and gave a reasonable account of how it would be funded, suggesting a 10% estate tax capped at £50,000 per couple.  He also accepted that the Labour Government had made a mistake in allowing house prices to grow so high while failing to build more social housing, and reaffirmed workers’ “inalienable” right to take industrial action, proposing reform legislation to prevent industrial action being overruled by the courts over technicalities. 

    On the other hand, he showed major weaknesses, the most glaring being his response to questions over the war in Iraq.  He stood by the decision to invade Iraq; recalling a meeting with an Iraqi Kurdish leader in the lead up to the war, who had supported the war, and suggested that to have not gone ahead with military action “would have resulted in a bloody civil war, with many more lives lost and possibly even further fragmentation of the middle east.”  All of which begs the question, what does he imagine is happening now?  All in all, he gave a reasonably impressive response to a wide range of questions, but lacks the political muscle, or inclination, to really renew the party and provide strong leadership.

     Finally, David Miliband gave his webchat, on the 21st June, but had to cut it short to see a government statement on the European Council.  He started off by, rather disingenuously, responding to a question on Iraq by stating that he would not have supported the invasion of Iraq, if he had known there were no WMD “not least because there would have been no UN resolutions.”  This highlights the extent to which he is implicated with New Labour’s foreign policy blunders, particularly after the recent revelations over British complicity with the torture of terrorist suspects.  On a more positive note, he backed “multilateral disarmament – down to zero,” although it’s unclear how this squares with the proposed trident replacement.  He also offered to pay for 1000 community organizers to be trained, using money from his campaign fund.  Overall he seemed most assured- if misguided- when covering foreign policy, his old stomping ground.  He is, of the candidates, the most bound up with the New Labour establishment, and was a key member of Tony Blair’s camp within the party.  He is currently the frontrunner, with 81 MP, 6 MEP, 126 CLP and 2 Trade Union nominations, and the bookie’s favourite.

    Diane Abbott did not participate in a webchat.

     Overall, I think that Ed Balls gave the strongest responses and has had a good overall campaign.  Unfortunately, his unpopularity means that he is unlikely to win, and the popular press would, likely, make him unelectable, if he did become leader.  It is interesting how the support seemed to converge on the Milibands, as I’ve said before the most archetypical politicians, fairly early on.  Of the two I still prefer Ed, even though he gave the weakest webchat, he has had a strong campaign proposing some impressively radical policies.  Labour’s last manifesto, which was his baby, was well thought out, although, sadly, that couldn’t overcome the fact that prevailing attitude had turned against Labour. 

    It’s still all to play for in the Labour Leadership contest, which doesn’t conclude until September. 

    Anyone wanting to follow the progress of nominations can do so at Labour List.

    The hunt for Raoul Moat did not take place

    July 17, 2010

    I apologise for another post highlighting my libertarian side in the same week, but how can I resist when censorship has been in the news again?

    Obviously the Facebook group glorifying Raoul Moat is disgusting, but can we force Facebook to remove it? On “Question Time” we had that strident advocate of “aspirational socialism” Andy Burnham, who uttered the immortal phrase:

    I’m not in favour of censorship, but…

    I’m afraid I missed the rest of Burnham’s utterance because I spent the next couple of minutes crying into my copy of On Liberty.

    Why did so many people join this Facebook group? The numbers might not be as high as the 18,000 reported to have joined, because many seem to have joined in order to criticise others who have actually joined to glorify Moat. In any case, it’s a big enough number – somewhere in the thousands – to be concerned.

    A common view seems to be that they’re just stupid. “This shows there’s a lot of thickos in Britain today”, railed Kelvin McKenzie on “This Week”, blissfully unaware of the part the newspaper he used to edit probably played in that process.

    But did these people really join just because they were stupid? The quintessentially stupid person, certainly by the definitions on, is Dougal McGuire from Father Ted.

    There isn’t a bad bone in Dougal’s body, but there can be no doubt that he’s stupid. He has this childlike misunderstanding and dunderheaded view of the world. You’d think he was being deliberately obtuse, but he’s not – he’s just stupid.

    But here’s the rub – Dougal McGuire would never join a Facebook group praising a murderer. Because that’s just not on. The people joining the Facebook group have failed the “Father Dougal test”. It’s not simply stupidity that is causing this small outpouring of support for Raoul Moat. In fact, it’s more insidious than that.

    What could it be then? Perhaps George Galloway had a point on “Question Time”, when he talked about it being part of a groundswell of white, working-class rage. But let’s go straight to the horse’s mouth. This is what Siobhan O’Dowd, the ‘founder’ of the group, said in a radio interview (as reported by the Daily Telegraph):

    Just hours before the page was withdrawn, Ms O’Dowd had launched a rambling defence of her views.

    In a radio interview she told listeners: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Legends get talked about and he’s being talked about so in my eyes he’s a legend.

    “I think he’s a legend for keeping them [the police] on their toes. I think it’s funny how he hid. It’s not just me who thinks this.”

    These sorts of comments have been echoed elsewhere (see the 8th and 9th paragraphs). Raoul Moat has become a “legend” – the solitary man with a shotgun evading the law, he’s become like Omar Little of “The Wire” to a small section of the white working-class.

    Perhaps another factor in the group’s popularity is that Moat gained notoriety because of his murders. A number of studies have shown that, nowadays, an increasing amount of people are seeking merely “fame” and “celebrity” as opposed to achieving anything good or tangible. By his despicable actions Moat managed to transfix the British media for the best part of a week, which amounts to a great deal of notoriety in anyone’s book.

    Those watching and reading the media coverage of the manhunt for Raoul Moat, right up to that final standoff in Rothbury where he eventually shot himself, could be forgiven for thinking that this was all a game, and not “real” somehow. I’m sure many people reading this were also watching the 24-hour news coverage of that final standoff – I did, for a few minutes. Some wanted to get closer to the action. It wasn’t just Paul Gasgoine who travelled to Rothbury, pint and chicken in tow. Apparently some people took deckchairs and stayed to watch the denouement. Even those people weren’t getting as close to the action as some members of the press. Martin Robbins has collected some of the best examples of this, in an excellent article which should be read in conjunction with a reply by Fleet Street Blues. For the purposes of the point I am making, pay attention to question three. I won’t quote the whole thing, but here’s part of it:

    The picture below shows an officer holding a taser pointed at Raoul Moat while his gaze is distracted towards a photographer. It provides a stark illustration of the profound ways in which the media (and those they incite) can interfere with a police operation. The officers here don’t look pleased, as you would expect, yet this picture has been repeated endlessly through-out the news without a single presenter stopping to pause and wonder just what the hell the photographer thought he was doing in such a sensitive position, putting lives at risk and for what?

    Jean Baudrillard wrote three essays collected in a book entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Without wishing to subject you to lots of postmodernist babble, part of his argument was [and here I’m going to quote Wikipedia, bad scholar that I am]:

    Baudrillard argues that the style of warfare used in the Gulf War was so far removed from previous standards of warfare that it existed more as images on RADAR and TV screens than as actual hand-to-hand combat, that most of the decisions in the war were based on perceived intelligence coming from maps, images, and news, than from actual seen-with-the-eye intelligence (Baudrillard 2001, 29-30).

    Hence the absurd title of this blog post. Did the hunt for Raoul Moat take place? Or was it, to paraphrase Wikipedia, “so far removed from previous manhunts that it existed more as images on newspaper stands and TV screens than as an actual search?” Obviously the hunt did take place, but there seemed a surreal quality to it. It all seemed just a game. The ending was like the culmination of a film, as Barbara Ellen put it, more like “Death Wish” or “Die Hard” than an actual police investigation.

    How the media report incidents such as Raoul Moat’s shooting and investigation needs to be reviewed quickly. This clip from Charlie Brooker’s “Newswipe”, and this article from Johann Hari summarise the problems with how the current style of reporting often spawns copycat attacks and turns protagonists into “nihilistic pin-up boys”. The “Newswipe” video is below:

    In conclusion, what seems to be happening is this:

    People increasingly seeking “fame” over any other tangible achievement + news coverage giving lots of publicity to murders = thousands of people joining a Facebook group in praise of Raoul Moat.

    David Cameron seems too intent on calling for censorship, condemning the Facebook group and sweeping this whole affair under the carpet. Yet the attitudes from the public and the reporting styles of the media that spawned this group cannot, and should not, be so easily forgotten.

    GUEST POST – Blogging the Labour Leadership Contest, part 1

    July 12, 2010

    Cory writes: We have the first ever guest post on Paperback Rioter today! Cue riotous celebrations:

    Hannah has very kindly offered to blog about the Labour leadership contest. Here’s her first post, about a leadership hustings:

    After failing to appease Nick Clegg and secure a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Gordon Brown stepped down. So since May, the Labour party has been without a permanent leader, and by extension, the country has been without a permanent leader of the opposition. Acting leader Harriet Harman has managed to put up a competent fight against David Cameron at PMQs, but Labour needs a strong, stable leader to present a coherent unified stance, and capitalise on the vulnerable position the coalition’s controversial policies has put itself in.  In September Labour MPs, members and affiliates will install a new leader. They can choose from a shortlist of five, consisting of the Miliband brothers – David and Ed, close Brown ally Ed Balls, New Labour Loyalist Andy Burnham, and backbench rebel Diane Abbott. I must admit to initially feeling pessimistic that amongst the careerists and the light-weight New Labour clones could be found a leader of similar standing to the much-maligned Brown.  Having seen the nominees stake their various policy tents across the Internet and mainstream media, I’m beginning to feel cautiously optimistic that this period of opposition will allow Labour to renew itself as a party worthy of Government.

    Last week I got the opportunity to see the candidates speak in person at the Christian Socialist Movement hustings in London.  It’s quite surreal to see people you’ve known for years as abstract figures of Government in flesh and blood.  What’s even more surreal is, having acclimatised yourself to seeing them as ordinary mortals, to suddenly have them behave like politicians, and the Milibands, in particular were quintessential politicians.

    David’s opening speech had obviously been perfectly calibrated (he thought) to the audience – he cited the Sermon on the Mount as his favourite example of the influence of Christianity on left-wing politics, and, while being upfront about his own atheism, was keen to assert his respect for religious communities – and was a study in perfectly measured, centrist inoffensiveness.  His speech and mannerisms were startlingly reminiscent of Tony Blair, and much as he has tried to distance himself from the Prime Minister who first promoted him to ministerial office, it is obvious that he is the heir to this style of politics.

    Ed, on the other hand, aggressively “orated”, in a way that made him look faintly preposterous (see this video for a sample of his speaking style, except where, in the video, he addresses the audience as “conference” he addressed us as “comrades” – in a perfect estuarine accent – I for one found it very hard to keep a straight face).  However, he came into his own in the Q&A setting out what was obviously a very well thought through political strategy, reiterating his commitment to definitively centre-left policies on income equality, flexible working and the greater representation of women in government.

    Ed Balls had a very straightforward speaking style, there was no hint of artifice as there, perhaps, was with the Milibands.  He came across as the most overtly partisan and the most keen to attack the coalition directly, particularly on the budget.  He was very jovial in the run up to the hustings and, in my opinion, didn’t live up at all to the image the media has constructed for him.  He told one very significant story about how, during his time as advisor to the Treasury, they were being lobbied by the Jubilee 2000 Third World debt relief campaign.  Their offices were surrounded by protestors, shouting and tooting horns, and they were inundated with campaign postcards.  At first they were irritated, but they soon came to realise that in fact this direct pressure was helpful to them.  Eventually they approached the leaders and thanked them and asked them to please lobby the German Finance Ministry as well!

    Diane Abbott, was flamboyantly herself, and a very fascinating speaker to listen to.  She made a couple of direct appeals to her “alternative” credentials, to the other, white, male, Oxford educated candidates, which came across as slightly clunking.  Towards the end made the reasonably apt point that men have an expectation of a very stereotyped, macho, display of strength from politicians that can shut women out, however she made this point in her typical, very direct style, whilst the four gentlemen, on the podium, sniggered in the background.  Overall, she made a very engaging speaker and set forth an interesting and nuanced left-wing stance, similar to that that Ed Miliband was trying to stake out for himself, but with a stronger radical position on, for example, immigration and Trident, and more appeals to her impeccable left wing voting credentials thrown in (as well she might).  Also, interestingly, she seemed confident enough in her progressive stance to throw in a little nuance here and there, emphasising the increasing social and cultural dimension of the deprivation, she witnessed in her constituency, on top of the historic, material, poverty that it was known for, with increasing family breakdown and children coming to school lacking very basic life skills. It came across that her political views were born of experience in a way that the younger Miliband’s – though a very well constructed academic and intellectual position- were not.

    Finally, Andy Burnham gave a fairly mediocre performance, very little that was particularly objectionable, but nothing really memorable, or original either.  He engaged the audience, as the only practicing Christian (Roman Catholic) by saying that politicians had much to learn from the Churches but also that the Churches had much to gain from listening to politicians.  He  singled out the Roman Catholic church’s very inflexible lobbying style on  certain moral issues.  While this was a point well made about the Catholic Church’s own peculiar political style it seemed to fundamentally miss the point of direct political action.

    So what can we conclude?  I felt that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, and Diane Abbott came out on top – although it’s hard to give more precise rankings than that – and David Miliband and Andy Burnham were weaker.

    I will blog on the candidates’ platforms, as presented through the media next week, looking particularly closely at the Guardian’s Web chats.


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