Saturday, 29 October 2011

Anti-Semitism is the new black

My second piece for the New Statesman is here. It's also the no. 2 post over the last couple of days appearing in the Most Popular section on the NS site.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Competition for the Reagan Defence Award, 2011

For those who followed the wonderful story of Chris Huhne's extraordinary inability to remember important events about his wife's driving offence - the "Reagan Defence", in honour of the ex-President who miraculously forgot all details of the Iran-Contra affair - today's news is that he's got competition.

Simon Hoggart delightfully recounts the appearance of
Les Hinton, the former executive chairman of News International, who could not answer a question seven times during his appearance before the House of Commons culture committee regarding phone hacking. But, as Tom Watson MP gleefully pointed out, this was an improvement: during his previous appearance, his memory had failed a total of thirty-two times.

Watch it, Chris: your crown's not safe yet.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Polling, polling, polling. Raw hide?

Image: CBS
(With profuse apologies to the late Frankie Laine, or the Blues Brothers, depending on your generation. Sorry about that.)

Just in case anyone is still feeling a bit too upbeat after Mark Ferguson's piece yesterday at LabourList, a question: is our polling taking a turn for the better, or giving us a good kicking?

Five months ago we took a look, here at the Centre Left, at whether Labour's poll lead was soft or hard, and concluded the former. However, a year into the new leadership, it behoves us to take another look, to see whether the picture has improved or declined since then. In particular, a Populus poll for the Times at the weekend has sent many Labour pulses racing by showing an 8-point lead over the Tories.

It's also notable that, during conference week, there was a marked split between left-leaning commentators on how things had gone, especially that Leader's Speech. Few had a nuanced view on it: people either thought it had finally encapsulated Ed Miliband's vision and made it connect with people, or thought it fuzzy, vague and windy. The really important thing, of course, is simple: did the public engage with the vision or not? If it did, it should surely be reflecting in the polls.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

ETA: really the beginning of the end?

In recent days, rather extraordinary news has been breaking about the last remaining home-grown terrorist group in Europe. Yesterday a conference in San Sebastian, involving no lesser figures than Kofi Annan, Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams, reached out to ETA and it is strongly felt that a positive response is likely. Other notable figures such as Tony Blair have been involved with the consultations. However, although it may seem strange, no national Spanish politicians attended, for reasons we shall now explore. This begs a few important questions:

1. Why is it happening now?
It seems to have resulted from two things: a growing popular movement for peace (the conference was organised by the “social collective” Lokarri) and positive indications on the part of ETA itself.

While ETA has clearly been in slow decline ever since the “decapitation” of its leadership in 1992, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the timing has everything to do with the impending general election on 2o November, which the conservative PP seem very likely to win: a recent poll gave them a whopping 18% lead over the socialist PSOE. While both parties refused to attend the meeting, they have different reasons.

The PSOE got its fingers burned in 2006: Prime Minister Zapatero agreed for contacts to be made, then was made to look foolish and naïve when the ceasefire collapsed. The PP, on the other hand, has historically been strongly against any kind of contact with ETA and pursued a very hard-line policy when in power under the Aznar administration. It has also, on occasion, played populist politics with the issue by siding with terrorist victims’ organisations, who have a powerful voice and who have also taken a hard-line position. For this reason, when ETA announced a further ceasefire in January, both main parties treated it with scepticism, and neither now want to take a big risk in the middle of an election campaign. That does not mean they do not see possibilities. However, ETA know very well that if the PP win, this may all become very difficult unless an unstoppable momentum is built up beforehand.

2. Are they serious? 
It seems so. They actually announced the ceasefire in January this year: problem was, they had cried wolf in 2006 and no-one believed them. Having thus squandered nearly eight years of Socialist government, an environment which obviously made for a better chance of peace, ETA must also, if they have any seriousness at all about disarmament, realise that the involvement of these international figures, as well as the timing, gives them the best possible chance they are likely to get to negotiate for at least another four, or even eight, years. That said, others are accusing ETA and the organisers of “theatricising” the process.

3. What’s the reaction so far?
According to El Pais, the PP leader and likely next Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has been dismissive in public, while instructing his political lieutenants to play the subject down while he formulates his own strategy, so as not to convert it into a major campaign issue. In fact, he “just happened” to visit the Basque country yesterday himself to meet business leaders, deliberately giving the impression of nonchalance about the peace conference nearby. But, privately, he knows ETA is on the way out – it’s just a question of when. And they are banking on the fact that the Socialists won’t have time to make political capital out of it before the election.

As for the Socialists, their prime ministerial candidate, Rubalcaba, has been quiet and cautious: he does not want to rock the election boat, for now at least. Others have been more forthright: the Basque Socialist regional president, Patxi López, called it “magnificent news”. And the still-influential Spanish ex-president, Felipe Gonzalez, criticised the PP for their public dismissal of the conference: “every time we approach the end of ETA, there are certain people who try and distance themselves from it, and deny that it’s true”.

4. And the impact on national politics? 
Conceivably, it could be big, but the real answer is “it depends”. The question is this: in an election where Rubalcaba is in serious danger of being crushed, will he risk diverting his campaign and aligning himself more strongly with the peace process, in order that he can both help support it – being in the party of government – and, of no little importance, win support for his own re-election so he can see it through? One could argue that he hasn’t much to lose but, whatever happens, he must tread carefully and look like a prime-minister-in-waiting putting the country’s interest first, not a desperate politician clutching at straws. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s yet another false start.

On the other hand, if this were to become the defining issue of the campaign, and the PP were to come down on the wrong side of it, it is conceivable that the PP could yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, just as their fatal misjudgement in wrongly attributing the Madrid bombing to ETA (in the face of clear evidence to the contrary) cost them the 2004 election. Although perhaps still highly unlikely, it would be an extraordinary irony for a party to lose two out of three elections for the same reason: ETA. But such is the persistent influence of the conflict in this little region on Spanish politics.

Two things, though, are pretty much certain: first, that ETA is weak and, sooner or later, will disarm. And second, that this rather lacklustre and predictable general election campaign just got interesting.

This post first published at Left Foot Forward

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Tell people to eat less? Yes, that’ll sort out obesity

Delighted to announce my first-ever guest piece at the New Statesman: see it here.

STOP PRESS 29/10/2011:

My fine fellow blogger Emma Burnell, whose piece on personal experiences is linked in the article, has recorded this short film for Andrew Neil's Daily Politics.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

We can’t spend another 50 years like this

As I meander through Hugo Young’s outstanding A Blessed Plot, a highly readable history of Britain’s vexed relationship with Europe, the theme of head-in-the-sand denial of the inevitable is a constant one.

One particularly striking thing is that the fundamental arguments have not really changed, and that Britain’s attitude has usually been one of fatal underestimation of the capacity of "the Continentals" to pull the project off and go ahead without them. Again and again, Britain thinks that further integration will not happen. Again and again, it is flummoxed and irritated when it does.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

To boldly go... Ed's relationship with enterprise

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks. So, the ship has now set a course and we’ve done the crew changeover. It may be a course that not everyone’s happy with, but let’s face it: they never are, are they? And at least there is a course. The Tory conference wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t exactly a runaway success, either: what with Teresa May’s cats and Cameron’s dogs, it seemed sometimes that it was raining very hard indeed last week. And the mess now being caused by Liam Fox has helped us. So let’s be thankful for small mercies and look to the future.

In a year’s time, we’ll be looking to the completion of the policy review. We will be practically at the electoral midpoint, and will know for sure whether regaining the London mayoralty was a real possibility or a pipe-dream (the tea-leaves, admittedly, do not look good on this one). We will then be able to start setting broad policy lines in serious, and start long-term planning for the next election. Things aren’t so bad, right?

This, at least, seems to be more or less what conventional wisdom in the party is saying right now. Full speed ahead, we’re on our way. The question is, of course: is this a realistic assessment of where we are? Casting an eye over the three major political developments over the last two weeks – not forgetting the euro crisis, which is likely to have a further, substantial impact on everything – it doesn’t look it. We know that a deliberate step-change has been made as regards the riskiness of the strategy; but it’s useful to look at just how much.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Where the Tories are weak

While we are still in the throes of reforming our Party (although that debate is pretty much over, it seems) and defining our policies, we are in some ways a little hamstrung. However, there still is one thing that we can do well on an everyday basis: be a good opposition and attack the government. As they are the senior partner in the coalition, and while we are in Tory conference week, it seems appropriate to focus on the Tories. And, after all, their junior partner may well not even be around to worry about after 2015, at least as part of the government.

This requires a certain looking at our opponents with calm and rational eyes, rather than seeing them as the evil Tories, bent on destroying our country (although they might do a good impression of the latter). While on the one hand, we accept that all Shadow portfolios need to spend their lives bashing their counterparts, there are some which are more likely to bear fruit than others. And, to get maximum impact, we need to understand where they are stronger as well as where they are weaker, so as not to spend our time banging our heads against a brick wall. Or rather as Sun Tzu put it in The Art Of War:
"Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoid the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”
It may sound obvious, but we sometimes waste much time and energy trying to argue the toss on arguments we are losing.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Vision and denial

“The system has failed”, ran the original headline for the speech write-up chosen by the BBC, though they later changed it. But it has not. Britain has problems, yes. But it is not, in Cameron’s words, broken, however politically convenient it might be for either party to use that as a basis for change. And this was by no means a terrible speech; but its fundamental premise of moral decline was flawed, and it became a disappointing, and slightly alarming one.

In fact, in the wonderfully reassuring and welcoming bubble of a party conference, it is rather difficult to give a truly bad speech. The trick is not to sink into the soft, comfy armchair of audience acclaim and be drowned in its melting, enveloping embrace, like in some bad horror movie. Crowd pleasing is easy but, as Ed is only too aware, the real audience is outside.

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