Saturday, 29 December 2012

The best of 2012

As is traditional at this time of year (well, we did it last year and thought, what the hey), the top five best-read posts from the year at the Centre Left:

Even before her now-notorious tweet asserting that "white people love to play divide and rule", her disturbing views on race were clear: that somehow she had a deep insight into the mind of a Bradford Bengali Muslim voter because of the fact that she is also from a (completely different) ethnic minority. Almost as good as Lee Jasper's "black people can't be racist".
When the dear old Guardian decided, astonishingly, that it would celebrate Holocaust Memorial Day by publishing an op-ed by a known anti-Semite. Nice.

3. Me, Galloway and the appreciation of irony

After my Independent piece about George Galloway's Respect Party, he took to the Internet and was granted a response piece by the good offices of IndyVoices. Although more of an incoherent rant than a considered defence, it required a response.

2. Livingstone logic 
As Livingstone's mayoral campaign slowly imploded, he had tried everyone's patience to the limit, especially London's Jewish community, who he managed to successfully alienate by suggesting that, being rich, they were not really his target demographic. No offensive Jews-as-usurers trope implied, of course.

And, at Number One: after the polls closed in London, this was written after wrestling with my own conscience. For the first time ever in almost twenty years' party membership, I felt unable to support the Labour candidate in an election, something I hope I will never need to do again (I was not, I should add, the only one).

That's it, folks - thanks so much for all your support in 2012, and hope you keep enjoying the blog in 2013.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Labour Christmas carol

It was Christmas eve, 2012, and Ebenezer Miliband lay in his bed, thinking of how his little hardware shop was faring in the middle of this perniciously cold winter. Business had been difficult, and here was a man generous to a fault. Perhaps too generous, some said. Debt was high everywhere in London that year, and no-one wanted to make promises to anyone, about anything. But Miliband, a decent and honourable man, was always good to his creditors.

He lay and fretted about his little business, and the harsh economic climate, unable to sleep. And, as he lay there, suddenly something very strange happened: it seemed like the bells on all the clocks in the house were sounding, madly, at the same time. Miliband looked around him, startled. What on earth was happening?

And then suddenly, after a few long seconds, they stopped ringing, as abruptly as they had begun, and silence reigned again. As he turned back towards his bed, who should have quietly appeared meanwhile, but the ghost of his mentor and former business partner: Jacob Brown, esq.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Stop the War Coalition’s comments about Newtown reveal a burning hatred of America

Friday, 14 December 2012

Osborne lays the trap. Enter Labour, not walking but running

The weekend before last, I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the classic kids’ film of my own childhood, with my five year-old for the first time. When the famous “child catcher” scene came on, and the children were being tempted into the evil Kiddy Catcher’s van with sweets and lollipops, it ended with genuine, heartfelt cries of “no, noooooooo…!” as she vainly urged Jeremy and Jemima to see the danger. The bright colours and bunting suddenly fall from the van to reveal a cage, inside which the children are helplessly trapped (the point at which, as I remember, I was usually to be found hiding behind the sofa).

This last weekend, then, on seeing the media coverage of a mooted Miliband “war” on benefit cuts, the cage metaphor already seemed like déjà vu. And the Commons statement by Ed Balls on Tuesday, confirming that Labour will vote against the welfare bill, seemed to be accompanied by the clunk of a big door closing.

Labour does not, of course, really think that people should be allowed to “scrounge”, and there is a genuine, balanced debate to be had on how to prevent abuses and dependency while continuing to protect the vulnerable. But there is also a realpolitik argument of ensuring that your argument can be painted in primary colours. Shades of grey can and will be twisted.

Friday, 7 December 2012

We might as well get used to the Royals – they’re not going anywhere, any time soon

If you’ve been living on the moon for the last four days, you may just not know about the royal baby. The news has predictably sand-blasted UK news schedules and obscured the traditional staples of murders, celebs and, quite possibly, a third World War (I didn’t catch the later bulletins).

And, at these times, we in the Labour party tend to separate into two camps: the die-hard republicans on the one side, scowling from the sidelines at those gushing over the happy couple; and the royalists, including practically any politician with any kind of career aspiration, on the other.

Why is that? Because it is pretty well-understood that you could hardly be a republican and become Prime Minister (not to mention that your chances of becoming a Privy Councillor, that title reserved for senior politicians, are really not very good at all). You either bite your tongue against your republican instincts, or say goodbye to serious political advancement. That is the realpolitik.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

This short conflict has shone a light in Labour’s dark corners

The attacks on both sides have ceased in Gaza and southern Israel and the death tolls have ceased to mount – a sure-fire way to get the issue off the news bulletins again – and an uneasy ceasefire holds. For now.

But, during those eight days, the focus of popular attention briefly fell on what is probably, for the vast majority of its citizens, an issue at the very margins of their daily thinking. Even many of those interested in international affairs have simply given up trying to understand the complex debate on the territorial and governmental rights of Israel and Palestine, or simply feel “a plague on all your houses”. And that is for those who think about it at all.

Except one group of citizens, of course. The political class: not necessarily politicians, but that odd and strangely passionate group, those actively involved in politics. If you are reading this, you are very likely one of them. Everyone has an opinion.

What has happened on the British left during this short period, therefore, is that the somewhat strange, yet long-held, views of some of its members have suddenly had a public airing, where no-one would normally even listen. Often all the complexity of the Israel-Palestine situation, with respectable arguments on both sides for ends if not means, has been reduced to the infantile football-terrace chanting of “my side’s right, your side’s wrong”; and oh, what a revealing set of quotes it has provided.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Labour and Gaza: Hamas is not Palestine

In recent days, bombs have been dropping on Gaza while rockets have continued to rain on southern Israel, as they have been for months. As usual, there is a premium on accurate information and a discount on propaganda. As usual, people stick to instinctive positions.
So, instead of trying to argue the rights and wrongs of a centuries-old conflict, we might note one thing. The events which have dominated the last week’s news do not relate to a dispute between Israel and Palestine, because a large part Palestine is not involved – at least, not yet. Currently this is a conflict, specifically, between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, a regime with which Labour has some prior history, to which we will later turn.
Hamas is not the Palestinian people, just as the Likud party is not Israel; in fact, it does not even govern most of the Palestinian people, at least in a de facto sense, only the small area of Gaza. And the self-determination of Palestine is a manifestly just cause which few on the left or right can reasonably disagree with. Unemployment is high in Gaza and living conditions can be grim, even when its citizens are not being subjected to bombing. Ordinary Gazans deserve to live in freedom, in prosperity and free from attack. They do not.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Rotherham is the most important election of all

It seems that, over the next two weeks, we are now suffering a plague of elections: six by-elections, plus the rather-important PCC elections.

But the one which has the most compressed timescales of all – where candidate Sarah Champion was selected yesterday, with a mere two weeks until polling day and after a walkout at the selection meeting – is going to be the toughest, nastiest and arguably the most important of all. Why?

Denis MacShane’s resignation a fortnight ago, over the falsification of invoices, was a tragic, shabby end to what was an otherwise rather admirable and productive career, including three years as minister for Europe and some brave work fighting anti-semitism. And whilst there was never any question of personal gain resulting from his actions, it was also clear that his behaviour was inexcusable and that he had to go, to avoid dragging out the pain for him, Labour and his constituents over a further half-parliament.

What has not yet been focused on, however, is the considerable headache that his departure gives Labour.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Me, Galloway and the appreciation of irony

Imagine my surprise when, after my debut piece at the Independent on Thursday, a critique of the Respect Party, yesterday appeared a rebuttal-cum-personal-attack on me from none other than the Honourable (that’s his official title) George Galloway MP. I suppose I should find it flattering, that a British Member of Parliament should take time out of their busy schedule appearing on obscure Middle Eastern TV stations to do a hatchet job on li’l ol’ me.

So, I suppose it is now incumbent on me, for my sins, to at least set the record straight. Now, let’s be fair: he did make one – just one – valid criticism in the whole piece. There was a mistake in the original piece, up for all of two hours on Thursday night before it was noticed and rectified, where I said he was being paid by a Syrian TV station. Al-Mayadeen is in fact Lebanese, although, with the recent history of Lebanon as a virtual client state of Syria, it is fair to say that the difference is 
probably, in the eyes of most people, fairly academic. But it was fair to point out the error, and we fixed it.

We removed the whole paragraph, just to be on the safe side, in the process removing the important point that Galloway’s recent visit to Lebanon, to meet a key ally of Assad, ex-President Emile Lahoud, was reported in the Syrian press as him expressing support for Assad. I should stress that this is, by the way, something which Galloway denies: rather than being pro-Assad, he claims to be “against the enemies of Syria”. Whatever that means. And then the Independent generously allowed him the right to reply.

That said, the piece was the usual victimism, bluster and bombast: the obsessive hatred of Blair; the wild accusations of Labour changing its policy because of unnamed big donors; the inevitable raising of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, like they were big everyday concerns for most citizens struggling to pay the bills; and the phrase “pack of lies”, when there was not a single criticism of the original piece – for example, the video of Tower Hamlets Respect chair Carole Swords shouting “go back to Russia” at a Jewish man – which he had an answer for.

Oh, and the words “foully Zionist”. The worst insult in the Galloway lexicon: someone who dares to think that Israel might have a right to exist. It is perhaps interesting to note that, according to a widely-accepted definition of anti-Semitism, denying that Israel has a right to exist is considered plainly anti-Semitic. But hey.

Then, in the process of a somewhat laboured ad hominem, he makes various accusations about that excellent website for freedom and democracy, Harry’s Place (their own rebuttal is here): one of which was that they have criticised “John Pilger, the two Kens, Livingstone and Loach, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War…”. Well, apart from Amnesty and HRW, who occasionally merit criticism and often do not, that entire list is pretty much united in obsessive anti-Americanism and support for some pretty awful and repressive regimes. Why would any reasonable person not want to criticise them?

“Now Marchant isn't going to let facts get in the way of a bilious rant” – hmm. I’m not quite sure where the “rant” became “bilious”, or where he thinks there is an absence of facts; every point I made was meticulously linked to evidence – something noticeably absent in his response. In fact, the only link in his entire piece was to my own article. A remarkable lack of evidence for a man so sure of himself.

Then, there was the pitiful defence of the indefensible: his comments on rape, which have all but done for the Respect Party as it was, and was swiftly followed by the resignation of party leader Salma Yaqoob. And in doing so, he chose to question the motives of the two Swedish claimants against Assange (“Assange was set up”), rather than accepting what to most of us is obvious: that, well-founded or not their claims might be, they had a right to a hearing before a judge.
“So I can live with his cheap jibes. What I can't live with is his deliberate misrepresentation of my election victory and Respect's programme and ideology.” 
Honestly, what ideology, George? Apart from, arguably, a rabid hatred of America and the West, and a propensity to stir up ethnic and religious tensions? 

Then we are blown off at a tangent into Galloway and Bradford. Except he doesn't seem to have done anything noticeable for Bradford: he is seemingly limited to attacking the Labour council. Now, its members may or may not be at fault in their management of Bradford – I don’t really know, to be honest – but whatever they do, they do not spend their time appearing on dubious foreign propaganda TV stations, reality TV, or making trips to the Middle East which have precisely zero to do with the lives of their constituents. They are, at least, actually in Bradford most of the time.

Oh, and as for my “despicable” attack on Lee Jasper: well, the comment is bizarre. I’m also not sure how stating someone was “cleared” qualifies as an “attack”: in fact, I was being generous to Jasper, and specifically acknowledging that this scandal was not the biggest thing in the world – although it did not leave Jasper without criticism – but that his later public statements are more disturbing. I am not quite sure where the thirty-seven inquiries came from that were supposed to have found in his favour, but I’ll take Galloway’s word for it.

I didn’t have space in the original article to mention that, although Jasper was cleared of wrongdoing by an inquiry, it’s a bit more subtle than that. Ken Livingstone first insisted on a police investigation. The police then said, rightly, that they were not responsible for investigating misconduct, only criminal activity, so it was dropped. The District Auditor found that Jasper did “fail to declare interests”, and there were serious failures of governance in general, especially with regard to showing value for money from projects commissioned, but no evidence of fraud. It’s all in this report.

Finally, there was one point at which, I confess, I laughed out loud: where he accuses, we assume, the British government:

“We've put in place and supported corrupt kings and sheikhs all over the Middle East and we continue to do.”
Of course. You see, the man who saluted the “indefatigability” of Saddam Hussein, who works for the Iranian government’s TV channel, and who praised Assad as “the last Arab ruler” has never really quite understood irony. It requires a certain level of self-awareness which he appears simply not to possess.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Respect: is anyone still listening?

Delighted to announce the publication of my first-ever piece for the Independent's online comment section, Independent Voices, here. It's about the lovely George Galloway and the Respect Party, a misnomer if ever there was one.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

News International – the gift to Labour that just keeps on giving

As David Cameron ponders the deeper strategic meaning of Romney’s defeat for his fractious party, in the back of his mind I suspect there is something a little more prosaic distracting him disproportionately from this and the everyday great affairs of state.

So, this weekend has revealed a few silly texts between the Prime Minister and a newspaper editor – so what? Is it anything more than that staple of good, old-fashioned tabloid reporting, to spread innuendo about impropriety (preferably sexual, if possible), for the titillation of the Great British Public?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Labour: juggling with Occam's razor

As any economist will tell you, we live in a world of incomplete information. A change in information can serve as a shock, and change the economic landscape all by itself.

But this is also true of politics. Changes in information can also change the political landscape, and Labour has just experienced one of what ought to be seismic proportions: it now knows which voters it has lost.

However, surprisingly, this fact went almost unreported in the press: in fact, in the broadsheet press it was initially only reported by the Telegraph; on the left, barely a whisper.

So there are two stories here: the event itself; and the lack of attention it has received.

Why is this event so important? Well, during the last half-parliament, conventional wisdoms as to why Labour lost the last election have built up, fallen and built up again. On the left and on the right of the party, we have all had our theories but, as so often in politics, based more on intuition than hard facts. A rigorous post-mortem has been noticeable by its absence.

Until now.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

“Miliband booed.” How many more times do we want to see that headline?

Yesterday Mark Ferguson suggested that it might be the time to bring Alastair Campbell back to Labour. He’s right that we need someone with Campbell’s skills, but perhaps not to guide Labour’s social media strategy, as Mark suggests; rather, someone who will reliably raise their hand and get involved, whenever there is a potential media disaster to be avoided.

Campbell’s great strengths were always his instinct for good and bad press; and his willingness to challenge his boss. To say: don’t do that, they will kill you. And perhaps, just perhaps, Miliband could use someone with similar antennae.

One clear problem with Saturday’s TUC march, like the previous one in March last year, was the lack of clarity of the objective. Many were there for different reasons. While “cuts, but not so far, so fast” is Labour’s official, defensible, position, “No Cuts” banners predictably dominated the march.

It is a respectable position: but it is not Labour’s official position. So Miliband, if he went, was always going to be forced to defend a distinct position in front of 100,000 marchers. It was never going to end well.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

On Islam, free speech, and, er...demonstrating against Google?

Image from the really rather dreadful film "The Innocence Of Muslims"
 (the Centre Left ventures to opine that it is frankly more offensive to good
 taste than anything else)
On Monday, the Telegraph reported an attendance of over ten thousand at a demonstration outside the UK headquarters of Google, over the controversial film “The Innocence of Muslims”.

The first point to note is that these are only a small handful of the 1.6 million Muslims who live in Britain, and who care passionately enough about the subject to get up and do something, in this case to try to ban it. Yes, we can and should respect the fact that some of our population are annoyed at the negative portrayal of their religion, and that they have the right to demonstrate (the vast majority of Muslims very likely see this news and merely shrug, or are possibly even irritated by the counter-productivity of the protests themselves).

But perhaps it is important is that those other thousands of sensible, free-speech-loving Muslims do not merely shrug, and that they can engage with the idea that, however irritating, banning is not the answer. In particular, it is important that their religious leaders, and so-called “community leaders”, do not merely shrug, or worse, indulge this silliness.

In part, it’s about free speech, but in part, it’s also about the long-term health of this religion: because there seems to be an existential crisis developing within it, a polarisation between moderate and extremist which has been slowly brewing for decades over the twentieth century which is making for an explosive collision with progressive, humanitarian values in the twenty-first.

To condone, in short, is to
encourage the sense of grievance which is insinuating itself into the minds of a small proportion of Muslims, and which demonstrably feeds extremism. And there is something else: that controlling impulse, to prevent criticism, smears millions of decent adherents to that historic religion with that same unhelpful image of illiberalism which dogs it in parts of the middle east and beyond.

Given that no other religion is seriously attempting to limit the right to free speech, in Britain at least, Islam is setting itself apart from the rest. And the extreme manifestation of this is a real and present danger for it: those whom the gods wish to destroy, as the old Roman quote goes, they first make ridiculous.

What do we mean? Well, the same Telegraph report that is hyperlinked above quotes the imam Sheikh Fayez al-Aqtab Siddiqui:
“…terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.”
Kill human “feelings”? “Terrorise” 1.6 billion people by making a film, probably only a tiny fraction of which will ever see it? What terrible rubbish.

Hearing this quote, it is difficult not to have not so much one’s sense of the ridiculous touched, as to be transported into the realm of outright satire. As if making a film, however obnoxious, can be compared with terrorising, killing or maiming people.

And, what is even dafter, we are not even talking about the people who made the film, who presumably have now long gone into hiding for their sins. We are talking about people several removes away: the company which allows people to access it through the internet, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps next we will see demonstrating outside the offices of BT, who provide the internet infrastructure. Or whoever supplies their offices with milk and biscuits. It’s madness.

If this kind of foolishness came from a TV evangelist, most Christians would probably shrug. Then again, there are not so many TV evangelists, in the UK at least, who might be open to encourage one of their flock go off to a training camp and learn how to carry out terrorist acts. In contrast, the
evidence of radicalisation, leading directly to terrorism,that has taken place at British mosques is all too abundant.

Also, again in contrast, if this kind of intolerance were indulged by the British government, the entire Monty Python team would have been locked up long ago, for having done something far more damaging to Christianity:
made a film that laughed at a religion, and used that humour to deadly effect in getting people to examine it with a critical eye. But no, Cleese, Palin and co. are still happily walking around as free men, although they were also, in their day, subject to death threats; an idea that now seems faintly ridiculous, and yet we almost accept it as an expected result of criticising Islam, thirty years on.

And, on that note, there’s more from the same Telegraph piece:
“Self-employed businessman Ahmed Nasar said he was worried the video could lead to violence in Britain in the same way as it had abroad. ‘If you push people too far,’ he said, ‘You will turn the peaceful elements into violence.’ ”
That is not what it might appear at first glance, a benign expression of peaceful protest, that we should all be civil to each other. It is rather a veiled threat: do what I say or there will be violence. It is passive aggression, writ large.

A couple of weeks ago, journalists
Mehdi Hasan and David Aaronovitch debated “the right to offend” at the LSE. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Hasan was on the side of Hasan was on the side of self-restraint tantamount to onerous levels of self-censorship although, to be fair, he has also criticised British Muslims (it is something of a sign of the times we live in that the only liberals who seem to be able to get away with this are Muslims themselves). But there is a vital point here about the right to be offended: as Aaronovitch said, we “simply cannot afford to be offended every time someone retweets something obnoxious”.

And this is especially true in the age of the internet. Banning is futile: on the internet things will find a way, especially if controversial or funny, regardless of your efforts to suppress them.

But there is not even the need to be absolutist about this, as are many journalists and commentators. Free speech, for many of us on the left at least, does not have to include allowing the BNP to march into your neighbourhood and spit at people. It is for that that we have the crime of incitement to racial and religious hatred, for all its faults. And this particular issue is miles from
this definition (in fact, a Lords amendment specifically excluded “abusive and insulting” texts from the Act, precisely because the concept is too vague and subjective).

As the New York Times’
Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted on Monday, referring to the astonishingly brave 14 year-old Pakistani girl, shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out about girls’ education:

“If only British Muslims would hold a mass rally against Malala’s would-be assassins, rather than against Google.”

It’s a good point. Let us not on the left, please, licence this idiocy through our support, tacit or otherwise. Free speech, even when caveated by the law to avoid true extremes, still includes this silly film. And even if it were right to try to ban the film, which it is not: to lobby Google is about as relevant and effective as lobbying Tim Berners-Lee for having invented the worldwide web.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

Friday, 12 October 2012

Julia Gillard. You rock.

Ok, I know many of you have probably seen it, but just in case...surely one of the best parliamentary speeches of recent years. Perhaps not a naturally gifted speaker, but with the passion of righteous rage, the Australian Labor Prime Minister brilliantly takes down the obnoxious Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, with a deadly attack on his barely-disguised sexism. My favourite:
If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn't need a motion in the house of Representatives. He needs a mirror.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Why One Nation is a great attack strategy for Labour, and why that is not enough

Between Miliband’s speech last week and Cameron’s imminent one, there have been many pieces on Labour’s audacious, and slightly unexpected, pitch for the centre ground. It still has drawbacks: it does not deal with the state of the party organisation, and it does not deal with the deficit. But it is a good strategy, and there seems broad agreement that it is the right one. Barring an extraordinary conference comeback by Cameron which leaves it on the floor, it has put Labour back in the game.

Few, it seems though, have commented why it works so well in terms of putting Cameron on the back foot.

It is not just the fact that jumping into the centre of the political squash court forces Cameron either to fight for it, or abandon it. Or the way it correctly identifies that the way to hit the current Cabinet’s Achilles heel, its connection with privilege, is not to play a clumsy class war tactic, but simply to remind everyone of the obvious, that they are not like us, the great majority, and therefore struggle to understand us. Or simply that it is Labour landing a punch on Cameron, almost for the first time, which is down to the party itself and not some screw-up of the government.

No, the real secret lies in the words, “One Nation”. It cleverly plays on the fact that Cameron cannot easily have the Tories try to take it back, because the whole One Nation concept is anathema to them. I know, I know: they invented it. But, if truth be known, they are words which nowadays make most of the back benches squirm with discomfort.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Labour, Venezuela, and the strange tale of “official observation”

This morning, news came in of Hugo Chávez’s not entirely unexpected win in Venezuela’s presidential election. Now, today is not the time to review the man’s record in office on areas such as the economy, human rights or foreign policy, although these things are important – but, from this election result hangs an illuminating tale of the British left.

Despite Chávez’s regular use of state TV for campaign broadcasts, and concerns about voter intimidation, he has always gone out of his way to preserve at least an appearance of democratic choice to his electorate. The problem was, that with its hi-tech thumbprint identification, many voters were frightened away from using it, worrying their details might be used to find out how they voted (by the way, just think about how civil liberties groups would react to a national database of thumbprints in the UK).

This time, though, Chávez didn’t even try that hard to keep up appearances.

For the first time this election, there was no official, institutional election observation (EU, UN, and so on) other than the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a relatively new organisation rather dominated by Chávez and his friends among South American leaders. His supporters have recently become fond of quoting President Jimmy Carter of the Carter Centre, who praised their voting process. They fail to say other vital things outside the technical voting mechanism, such as media access, were criticised and remain unaddressed.

And, whether or not Carter was right, this time he was unwisely making a statement on Venezuela’s fairness without actually having sent observers; the Carter Centre, the only other 2012 invitee, rejected its invitation, sent only two months before the election, and no other institution was even invited.

It was also the first important election which he had a chance of losing (the only other which came close was a referendum about abolishing presidential term limits in 2007, but Chávez just kept right on going, until he got the answer he wanted two years later); no, this time it was UNASUR alone, and Chávez was left with a conundrum: how to lend credibility to elections in which it was sorely lacking?

Step forward, a few hundred helpful individuals from abroad, invited to “observe”. Now, we do not know whether people leaning towards Capriles balanced out in number those leaning towards Chávez. But the idea a few hundred individuals, however they might be chosen, can substitute for bona fide, independent electoral observation by a respected institution is absurd.

Think: why would a democrat want to abolish term limits on a presidency, if not to cling to power? Why would a democrat decline to invite election observers from the EU or the UN, after previously inviting them? Why would a democrat use the advantage of state TV over their opponent? Can you imagine the outcry if Obama were to do any one of these things?

And for the really hard questions, you cannot hope to know the answers: you have to use your gut from what you already know about the man.

Do we honestly believe this man would have gone quietly, had he lost? And that, with a government machine stuffed full of his own party members, he would not simply have supplied a different voting figure, had his state-of-the-art computer system produced an unpalatable one? The answers to these last two questions we will probably never know, but the fact that we cannot reasonably give a negative to them in all conscience leaves a highly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

And then there is the British connection. Labour MPs Grahame Morris and Diane Abbott, long-time Chávez supporters, have been out in Venezuela for the elections along with such reputable figures as, er, George Galloway and Jody McIntyre.

More interestingly, with no trace of irony, Abbott and Morris are going in the capacity of “official election observers”. Official observation, naturally, implies unquestionable neutrality. Diane Abbott even went to the trouble of tweeting me from Caracas that she “made a point of saying I wasn’t supporting a particular candidate”. But let’s look at that a little closer, shall we?

Abbott is patron of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign an organisation which claims to be a friend to Venezuelan democracy but, strangely, does not seem to contain a single supporter of Chávez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles. One of its stated aims is “To defend the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution”, i.e. Chávez’s political movement.

In any event, the state apparatus is so stuffed full of Chávez’s party members, and the vital democratic dividing lines between party and state so faint, that anything which supports the Venezuelan government effectively supports the party of Chávez and the man himself. In short, the organisation might as well be called the Chávez Solidarity Campaign.

It is also difficult to imagine, had Capriles won, that the VSC would not have immediately challenged the result and campaigned for his ousting. But that last part, of course, is merely speculation.

Even in the cognitive-dissonance-soaked world of the far left, it is difficult to countenance the idea these MPs can reasonably claim to be honest brokers, neutral to both candidates. At least Galloway is honest about his love for Chávez; “Chavez fears no-one but God” and “Viva Comandante!”, he tweeted this morning.

Finally, Capriles has accepted the election result because, frankly, he has no choice. You cannot choose to stand and then decry the process when you lose. He made his bed, and he has to lie in it, for the good of his country. But that does not mean the election has been free and fair.

Neither can we really even know if Capriles would have been a better president than Chávez. But he certainly deserved the opportunity for Venezuelans to find out.

The simple truth is you are either fully democratic or you are not democratic at all. There are no in-betweens. You cannot be “almost democratic”.

But even if, against all odds, you believe Venezuela have just had free and fair elections, it is simply astounding to find our own Members of Parliament expecting us to accept the story they were acting as observers of unquestionable neutrality.

This post first published at Left Foot Forward, with comments added by Diane Abbott MP and Owen Jones from Caracas

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A pretty good conference Ed, but neglect your party at your peril

It’s been a pretty good conference. It started on Sunday with both Miliband and Balls saying sensible, pleasingly non-contradictory things on splitting the banks and a bottom-up spending review (if only Harriet Harman had got the memo).

If we merely smile patiently at Len McCluskey’s “throw out the Blairites” sabre-rattling, and nod appreciatively at Miliband’s firmness in rebutting them, there was really only one cloud on Sunday’s horizon: the mad decision – for it is difficult to describe it as anything else – by the party to extend the quotas in its already-contorted selection processes for MPs. A bewildered delegate might have been forgiven for having missed the part where it was proven beyond doubt that their usually painfully right-on party was systematically trying to block gay, disabled and working class people from being candidates. But more of that later.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Scottish independence - still looking like a no

A bit of late news: a couple of weeks ago the Centre Left reported that 1.5 million Catalans had decided to march for independence, in a region/nation (what you call it ususally depends on your politics) which contains 7.5 million. I said it could mean that  a rethink of my view on Scotland - that it was highly unlikely to secede - might be needed at some point.

However, as a confirmed Unionist, I am pleased to report that last Saturday's independence demo in Edinburgh, according to the BBC, reached the heady figure of only 5,000 participants. While this is an entirely unscientific study, it seems reasonable to conclude that pro-independence feeling there is clearly several orders of magnitude smaller. Even if you allow for differences in organisational competence, weather, geography and the usual inaccuracies in demo turnout figures, that is a singularly unimpressive turnout, relatively speaking.

While the jury's still out on Catalonia, no independence referendum there is currently even planned, unlike Scotland. But, on the basis of this, Scottish independence ain't happening any time soon.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Britain’s unions can be relevant again, but not by espousing fringe politics

As Peter Watt pointed out at the time of the TUC conference, its influence is declining for a number of reasons: the concentration of power in the hands of the leaders of three super-unions, declining membership in general and a political shift to the left. Together, this seems to have led to a focus on politicking, rather than fighting realistic battles to improve the lot of their members, and an ever-increasing difficulty to catch the attention of the general public sufficiently to convert them into members.

Neither, frustratingly for them, do unions carry much weight in government: a Tory-led coalition would hardly be conducive to Wilson-style “beer and sandwiches at Number 10” under normal circumstances, but much less so in the middle of a harsh austerity programme where there is clearly no money to fund their pay claims (and where a smarter idea might have been the Balls strategy of focusing on jobs).

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Respect: the case against allowing extremists into the Labour party

Last week there was much speculation about whether or not Salma Yaqoob, the former leader of Respect who understandably resigned rather than share a party with George Galloway, might join the Labour Party, should she so desire. Indeed, local Labour MP Richard Burden on Thursday extended the hand of friendship, saying she would “be an asset”.

Yaqoob is a young, articulate politician about whom we know relatively little, given that she is, in terms of real administrative power, an ex-backbench Birmingham councillor and has had few years of exposure to the national media.

But as a former party leader she still has political weight and, unlike her erstwhile colleague Galloway, she has not had time to make many serious gaffes or enemies although, as Dan Hodges pointed out, describing 7/7 as a “reprisal attack” came pretty close.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

UK Unionists: don't take your eye off the ball

Just to note that 1.5 MILLION people today demonstrated in Barcelona for Catalan independence. I have written before  how I don't think that either that or Scottish independence will happen any time soon, and continue to do so. But if they keep this up, I may have to revise my opinion. 

1.5 million, is, I reckon, about one-fifth of the autonomous region's population. I'm not sure that many would even fit on the streets of Edinburgh. And they, unlike the Scots, have not even a referendum planned as yet.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Eight reasons why Labour should think twice about predistribution

Like many, I read Ed Miliband’s New Statesman interview with interest. Some parts of it pleased me greatly, like the seeming acceptance of not having money to spend. And the corollary to that, which is that we could not redistribute wealth which, well, we didn’t have.

A sigh of relief was breathed, and I thought, “hey, this predistribution sounds like it could be interesting”. For a little, if slightly skeptical, while, I gave strong proponent, Labour Left’s Eoin Clarke, the benefit of the doubt.

So, leaving on one side for a minute the churlish thought, articulated by the good Stefan Stern, that it sounded a bit, well, wonkish – the philistine! – I set to reading. Now, a number of critics, such as Labour Uncut’s Atul Hatwal, have criticised it for its lack of definition, but I disagree: it was in defining it, for me, that it all went wrong.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Aspirational Britain lies waiting to be claimed

Who’d be David Cameron right now? Mired in political treacle, this week he is trying to divert attention away from his problems with a reshuffle, and wrest back the initiative by lots of serious-sounding pronouncements about economic growth which is proving highly elusive. The public doesn’t seem to be very impressed by him or his coalition at the moment but, then again, neither does his increasingly restive party.

David Cameron’s first problem is that, although he tries to entice his backbenchers with some right-wing soundbites and a few reshuffle sops such as the promotions of Chris Grayling and Owen Patterson, he is forced to tread a line between the centrist husky-hugger and the Thatcherite Brussels-basher, with the result that he is believed by neither side. And, as Iain Martin points out, his hardline economic approach is not necessarily even shared by the Tory right.

Next, it is also useful to note that that Tory right is not what it used to be, either: the “squires from the shires” of yore are a lot less representative of the average backbencher than the self-made businessman or the corporate exec who worked his way up. The hinterland of this new breed is meritocratic, not noblesse oblige; and they do not necessarily think that this Etonian deserves his place in history, after a few years in public affairs and a lot more as a Westminster insider.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Comment Is Free: eating the Guardian

Once upon a time, there was a left-wing newspaper. Its founder, C.P. Scott, clearly saw it as less of a paper and more of a social mission. My grandfather, a true Socialist all his life, religiously took the Guardian every day, and I would leaf through it as a teenager, mulling over its worthy appraisals of Neil Kinnock’s latest speech or Billy Bragg’s new album. Compared with other papers, it always seemed a bit more in tune with “yoof”, which I then was, and the good guys, which were Labour.
Last week a controversial new columnist, Josh Treviño, joined that newspaper. As a former advisor to the Bush administration, he was not necessarily a natural choice for the paper, but outside observers might have been pleasantly surprised to see, for once, a little compensating political balance at the newspaper.
Within days, he and the newspaper had agreed to part, officially on the pretext that he had slipped a reference into an article which had broken editorial guidelines – eighteen months previously.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Thank you Julian Assange: you have shown your true colours and got George Galloway to show his

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks currently claiming asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy, is only the last in the long line of distinguished anti-Western campaigners, so adored by the liberal left.

Assange may or may not be guilty of rape, and you may or may not agree with the motivation of Wikileaks as a liberating force for the masses. That said, we might start to smell a rat if we scratch the surface, to find that Wikileaks also includes the rather unpleasant Israel Shamir, whose overt racism and sexism, not to mention connections to the odious regime of Belarus, the great Bob from Brockley exposes here.

But, leaving that on one side, the case is very simple: Assange is on the run from prosecution for a serious alleged crime, in Sweden a country which is hardly well-known either for its unfair legal system, or for its propensity to do what the US tells it to (as one wag commented on Twitter, if it were any less minded to do American bidding, it’d be China).

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Britain outside the EU - an Andorran aside

The lovely town of Encamp, Andorra
This last weekend, the Centre Left took time out on a team-building weekend in Andorra (it was quite a wrench moving all the editorial staff and the IT infrastructure, but all for you, dear reader, all for you…)

Tucked away between France and Spain in the Pyrenees, it’s a little mountain retreat with cheap shopping and no VAT. And I really rather enjoyed it. It’s beautiful, well-kept and has a fascinating, idiosyncratic history. Politically, it is a slightly bonkers, constitutional diarchy (you heard correctly), with two official heads of state, the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia.

And it got me to thinking.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Corby is a not just a by-election Labour ought to win: it is one it cannot afford to lose

The average reaction of most Labourites to last Monday’s news from Corby must surely have been: we never really took to you as an MP, but hey, thank you so much, Louise Mensch. To have pulled out of her marginal seat after only two years in the job, forcing an unwanted by-election in the middle of Cameron’s worst political period since becoming Prime Minister is to present Labour with a golden opportunity. This is not a statement of complacency: it is unarguable.

First, Labour is up in the polls and the Coalition has been in a terrible mess for months. And Cameron, in his current position, is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t: if he bows to the current resurgence of the right in his party and fights Corby as a traditional Tory, he could lose those centrist voters he needs. If he fights as a Coalition centrist, he could get hammered by a UKIP protest vote, providing soul food for his critics on the right.

Second, whilst not sharing the visceral dislike of Mensch of some of my colleagues – in a non-partisan sense, perhaps MPs with an “interesting” CV are no bad thing for Parliament – one can see the electors of Corby are unlikely to thank someone for pulling out after such a short time in the job. And, admirable though her desire is to spend more time with her young family – heaven alone knows why anyone with a young family would want to do the job in the first place – it’s not like she didn’t know that when she signed up.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Standard Chartered: these are the real ills of modern banking

Banks, eh? On the British left, we’re often so busy disliking them in general that we don’t always take the time to differentiate between their misdemeanours.

While we’ve been exercising ourselves greatly about irresponsible bankers who have largely been operating within the rules – and where arguably we ought to be looking first to governments, for not having done their jobs in regulating them properly – we miss something else.

And so, much less attention has gone, until recently, on a much more serious problem: those who actively flout the rules. In particular, the illegal transfer and laundering of money.

On Monday the stock of Standard Chartered Bank (SCB), one of Britain’s oldest banking institutions, dive-bombed as it was accused of sanctions-busting with Iran. Accused, because the bank currently denies this. We shall see. If true, it is a sad and ironic tale, which I can perhaps help explain, because I used to work there.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Don't look to François Hollande for inspiration, Ed

My fifth post for the New Statesman, essentially about why I think François Hollande's maths is fundamentally flawed, is here.

UPDATE: I should point out, that the excellent Chris Dillow, who understands these things (he is a professional economist, as well as a very good blogger) agrees with me on the pensions question.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The new Cold War warms up in Iran

One thing I sometimes forget is that people born before, say, 1980, didn’t really grow up, like I did, being aware of the constant background noise of the Cold War. That is, even for people in their early thirties, it’s as distant a memory as the Second World War was for my parents’ generation.

For my own, who came of age in the Eighties, there was always a certain paranoia that, at any moment, we might all be shuffled into hastily-built shelters, our bodies covered in radiation burns. Leaving our fate to politicians seemed doubtful: as Sting put it at the time, “what might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too”. Four years later, President Gorbachev seemed to prove him right, by ending the Cold War. Perhaps, we thought, the Russians were not really that different from us, after all.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Labour has the chance now to reject race politics in Tower Hamlets - it should take it

It was with a heavy heart that Labour Uncut uncovered a little-reported nugget from seasoned east end politics commentator Ted Jeory: the expulsion of five Tower Hamlets councillors from the Labour party.

Actually, no. It was rather with delighted surprise and relief.

At last.

One of the councillors, Shahed Ali, tried to compare their floor-crossing – to join the non-Labour cabinet of independent, Respect-backed mayor Lutfur Rahman – with the failure of Dan Hodges and Alan Sugar (neither of whom are elected politicians, incidentally) to endorse Ken Livingstone.

And where Ali lost all credibility, as Jeory points out, was with his somewhat risible cry of “racism”. Ah yes, it was nothing to do with the councillors’ abject disloyalty: they were being picked on because they happened to be Bengali Muslims. Of course.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Soothing factional politics within Labour: 9/10. Connecting with the public: 2/10

Durham Miners' Gala - view of the platform
I’ll let you into a guilty secret: I’m a sucker for brass bands. As a Yorkshireman who grew up about thirty miles from Durham, and a Labour activist with half my family from South Wales, I am still stirred by the solidarity thing. I probably have as good a nerdy appreciation of the last hundred years of Labour history, of Keir Hardie, Bevan and Bevin as the next member. I have even been known to shed a tear at party conference (I kid you not).

And I heartily agree with Mark Ferguson that Westminster has a real job understanding the North, and it needs to get out more (he’s also right about the closing of the regional development board One North East which, incidentally, I wrote to the Northern Echo about in 2009). These things are important.

My own biggest worry about Ed Miliband attending the Durham Miners’ Gala was a simple one: that, especially in the wake of the GMB-Unison-Aslef-Progress row, it would end up being a similar media car-crash as had been his appearance at the 26th March demo last year. It wasn’t.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Labour approaches a tipping point

“The future is unwritten” said Joe Strummer. He was right. We really can change the future: really. Because politics is driven by people and events.

That said, many of these people and events are in turn, whether we like it or not, driven by power.

It’s significant that even the word tends to bring to mind thoughts of how power corrupts or how the wielding of power is somehow an undesirable act. But power can be good too. We need it. The just wielding of power is a wholly good and desirable act, whether or not we agree with the political outcome. Democracy would be meaningless without it, after all. Power is there to be used for good, even if that is not always the result as we see it.

Those who have it can choose to wield it, or not. And sometimes it can be about perceived, rather than actual, power, as well. The shifting of the political tectonic plates often happens because the balance changes between one side and another, and it is often these events, rather than the froth of the everyday media, which we should be watching.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Paranoia and Progress

It's my last blog for a couple of weeks as the Centre Left is on holiday, but I thought I'd post a quick final thought about the attempts of the GMB and Unison to have the New Labour thinktank, Progress, ejected from the Labour Party.

Nick Cohen writes brilliantly today in the Observer about the cowardice of Wikileaks' Julian Assange, and the bizarre conspiracy theories being propagated by his supporters, that he is being pursued by the US government (which has yet to even issue an extradition request). But I was struck by his final quote, from American commentator Richard Hofstadter, about how such thinking leads to cognitive dissonance of a type by no means unknown on either the left or the right:

"the tendency for the paranoid to emulate the enemy they claim to oppose. His words read as well today: "It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him."
The GMB's original motion fundamentally derives from the perception of a shadowy conspiracy on the part of a perfectly above-board and transparent organisation, with a handful of employees and which only operates within the Labour Party (there is no "outside the party", unlike unions themselves, which is why accusations of entryism are so ridiculous). This is not an opinion, held because I happen to subscribe broadly to Progress' politics: it is fact, easily verified by the most cursory analysis.

In short, it is precisely unions' own weakness for anti-democratic stitch-ups which makes them fear such phenomena in Progress, whether they exist there or not. It is precisely their own factionalist plotting which convinces them that Progress is guilty of the same, even if the truth is that they generally aim for the opposite: to build broad coalitions. It is precisely their own wish to take out their opponents, rather than win the argument against them, which feeds their view that Progress is a dangerous force which will, unchecked, do the same to them.

As we come into a critical conference season where Cameron has surely handed Labour the chance of the whole parliament to get back in the electoral running, surely the last thing we need is to be drifting carelessly into the conspiracy theorising which, in our world, is normally to be found only on the far left.

The Centre Left is now on a brief hiatus until 12 July

Thursday, 21 June 2012

No time for foolishness

The sabre-rattling about cutting donations to Labour Party funds. The attack on those frightening people at Progress who seem hell-bent on doing unspeakable things, like building support in no-hope seats, helping local parties raise funds or debating ideas for getting the party elected. Ah, we must be coming into conference season.

Now, to be fair, during every conference season I can remember, I swear that at least one journalist has used the phrase “limbering up for a fight” to describe the mood of union leaders, only to be followed by their crushing disappointment at the relatively peaceful and harmonious Labour Party conference which usually results.

This time, however, it seems for once that the phrase might just be accurate. The return of the far left during the past couple of years, as evidenced by the Bradford West by-election and the resurgence of unpleasant views on the fringes of the labour movement and of the party, means the possibility of confrontation, although by no means certain, looks higher than it has been for some years.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

We shouldn’t stop at Responsibility To Protect

There have been plenty of column inches in recent weeks dedicated to why the world should intervene in Syria: for most of us the unspeakable pictures of children with their throats cut from the massacre in Houla is enough. It seems undeniable that the world should do something in the face of genocide or likely genocide, but something – especially since Iraq – holds many of us back on the left from saying so.

So perhaps it’s useful to step back and look at a more fundamental, perhaps more philosophical point: how can we on the left not feel obliged to stop genocide in general, and not just its implementation within the constraints of the UN, via its doctrine of Responsibility To Protect (RTP)?

Does it not sometimes feel like people still see human life through a nineteenth century prism, where the nation state is all we care about? When it was simply not possible to make military interventions without mass loss of British life, and our interest in intervention was pure colonialism (as, in Diane Abbott’s parallel universe , it probably still is)?

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Guardian reaches a new low (ii)

Gobsmacked, I think is a fair way to describe my feelings.

Sorry to rant,
but it's hard not to be indignant at this. After Raed Salah, I really thought it wasn't possible for the Guardian to become more idiotic, and more openly tolerant of racism, in its invitations to guest writers. 

Silly old me.

Yes, the Guardian's editorial staff have trumped their Salah op-ed by this piece from a real, live, unashamed terrorist. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of suicide-bombing terrorists Hamas in Gaza, is their latest signing. Read his apologia for his nasty crew here, and do check out the lovely Hamas Charter here, replete with Hamas' progressive views on jihad, the secondary role of women and, Jews, Jews, Jews!

[Hat-tip: Richard Shepherd at The Commentator]

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Labour and anti-semitism: a good start, but not enough

I know this happened a couple of weeks back now, but I just wanted to comment on Ed Miliband’s piece in the New Statesman, where he uses his Jewish heritage to try to rebuild bridges with London’s Jewish community after the disaster of Ken Livingstone’s relationship with them over recent years, which started to go wrong in 2005 with the Oliver Finegold incident.

It is well, good and long overdue that this should happen, as my good colleague Dan Hodges comments at his Telegraph blog. It is, indeed, a tragedy that it should ever have come to this in the first place, in the proud party of anti-apartheid, which has undoubtedly done more than any other in British twentieth-century history to combat racism. But where I think I differ from Dan is that I believe that it is still way too little. Now he has the opportunity, and has established a firm hold on the leadership, Miliband is in a position to go much further.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Why Tories should worry about David Cameron

I don’t hate Tories. I’m sorry if this is a terrible admission for a Labour man, but there it is. I think that their values are different from mine; really, I merely want us to win and them to lose. And there are some things which do, and should, transcend party politics. We should be able to appreciate that, quite apart from their political opinions, many Tory MPs are decent and a few are not; as is the case, if we’re honest, in our own ranks, too.

So, why should Tories worry about Cameron, a man who, after all, largely made them electable and put them into government? I’ll explain.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Without a revival in the south there will be no new Labour government

It is spring, two years into a parliament, and an activist’s mind turns to…elections (well, we are an odd lot).

Candidates start to be chosen and campaigns planned. We have a much clearer idea of what kind of opponents we will be up against in 2015. A new leadership finds its feet and gets to grips with its medium-term political strategy.

The trouble with the end of an era in politics, as in most other branches of human thought, is that in our rush to turn the page, we’re invariably faced with the baby/bathwater problem. And the next election is no exception.

New Labour is dead, and those of us who were part of it need to be sanguine about the need for moving on. But there’s a current fashion in some quarters of the party to go further: to try and convince ourselves that everything which happened after 1994 was somehow a tragic disaster, an aberration from Labour’s true path.

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