Sunday, 29 December 2013

The best of 2013

So, it's that time of year again when we pick out the most viewed pieces at The Centre Left. 

This year, what's been encouraging to see is that, where in the past my most viewed pieces have often been at group blogs such as LabourList, Labour Uncut or elsewhere, in 2013 this little blog has come into its own with regard to traffic and Twitter retweets. For example, the this year's no. 1 post has had two-and-a-half times the traffic of last year's (hooray!) 

So thank you, everyone, and counting down from number 5:

5. Tramping the dirt down: why we should never be like Galloway
As with last year, one of the most popular posts has been about dear old George, surely soon-to-be-ex MP for Bradford West. This one was written after his ugly tweet on the death of Margaret Thatcher. Which would have rather revealed his true colours, if, of course, there were anything left to reveal.

4. A Falkirk coda: who leaked?A little speculation on how earth the press got hold of the Falkirk investigation report. Since I wrote it, a summary of the report has been published by the Sunday Times, so it seems all the secrecy was largely for nothing.

3. Twitter, jokes and Lutfur RahmanA salutary lesson in two things: (i) the malice that lingers in some corners of the political spectrum and (ii) why we should always think before we tweet.

2. My God, what have I done?After Parliament's shameful "Pontius Pilate" Syria vote, it seems that the outcome was not really what anyone expected, and Ed Miliband was no exception.

1. Woolwich, Islamism and the West
And, at Number One, following the foul and violent murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in broad daylight, we saw how this horrific event brought out the best in many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, two notable exceptions were our old friend Ken Livingstone and the notably unpleasant preacher Anjem Choudary, as ably demonstrated in their comments afterwards.

Anyway, hope you've enjoyed The Centre Left in 2013 as much as I have making it; the goal is merely to try and inform, make you think, perhaps annoy, hopefully entertain and keep the flame alive for some kind of moderate centre-left politics, in an age when things seem to be getting rather polarised on both left and right.

All the best to all of you for the coming year, one which is surely gearing up to be a pretty momentous one for my beloved Labour Party. I'll keep on writing as long as you keep on reading.

Friday, 27 December 2013

It’s a wonderful Labour life - a Christmas special

Jimmy Stewart as Bailey in the original "It's A Wonderful Life"
(With apologies to the late Frank Capra)

Christmas Eve, 2013: snow was falling fast in the small town of Leftford Falls, the stores were packing up for Christmas and Edward Bailey – known to his friends as Ed, and his detractors as “Red Ed” – had finished work for the day at his little family savings-and-loan business.

It had been a very difficult year: the business had been established a hundred years before, to provide help to “the many not the few”, as its slogan ran. This Christmas, it was just about keeping its head above water, in troubled economic times.

Meanwhile Lennie M. Potter, the power-hungry boss who owned half of Leftford Falls, was cooking up a plan to secure the one piece of the town he had never yet managed to get hold of – Bailey’s company.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Letter from Moscow: declining human rights, drifting economy and the return of “spheres of influence”

Moscow, I have recently discovered, has a decent daily English-language newspaper, the Moscow Times. Among the dull things which interest Western businesspeople (“Leasing Commercial Property: A New Approach To An Old Problem” - zzzzz), it has a lively Opinion section which is well worth a read.

Now, while its attitude to the Putin government tends to be a fairly balanced criticism rather than either cosying up it or vitriol against it, neither is it afraid to criticise, unlike a seemingly increasing number of other Russian media outlets. And the picture that it paints is that of a country in a state of transition; not so much to a bright new future, but one of slipping back into some rather bad habits of the past.

Some example headlines, with my own comments, below:

  • The New State Media Behemoth – The dismantling of the one state media agency, RIA Novosti, which had a reputation for objective reporting, and its replacement by one headed by a violently homophobic, pro-Putin TV host does not exactly bode well for a free Russian press.
  • Amnesty Bill Passes 2nd Duma Reading – Recently, President Putin has graciously agreed to the release of 20,000 prisoners (who probably should never have been locked up in the first place). These may include, potentially, three members of imprisoned punk band Pussy Riot, which is welcome news. On the other hand, it is difficult to see even this apparent concession to human rights as anything other than a transparent ploy to get Western commentators off Russia’s back in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which various foreign politicians and dignitaries have already agreed to boycott in protest of his government’s current stance on homosexuality and human rights.
  • Putin’s Conservative State Capitalism – the current parallels with the Soviet era are not only tied up with civil liberties; the government is increasingly leaning towards state-owned companies with monopoly power, and central planning. Not a very sensible strategy in a country which has recently gone from a powerhouse BRICs economy to a net under-performer of world GDP.
  • Putin Wins Over Ukraine With Gas Deal and $15Bln Bailout – Not to put too fine a point on it, the Russian government has this week bought the loyalty of the Ukraine government with hard cash. A country whose population is split down the middle between its Russian-leaning east and EU-leaning west has had to choose which side of the fence to jump, and it is towards Moscow. Thousands of Ukrainians who understand the enormity of this decision have taken to the streets to protest it and, somewhat chillingly, it was reported that various Russian secret service agents had been despatched to Kyiv to help deal with the reaction. Putin, meanwhile, would like the Ukraine to join the deathly embrace customs union Russia currently enjoys with Belarus, affectionately known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Any freedom-loving Ukrainian should be worried.
  • Moscow's Largest Gay Club Comes Under Attack, Director Says – Not surprisingly, when the government legalises anti-gay discrimination and turns a blind eye to anti-gay attacks, such attacks start to become something of a free-for-all (something similar happened with Jews in the 1930s, after attacking them was given the nod by a certain government). And if – horror of horrors – you happen to be a gay parent in Russia, well, you had really better leave the country right away, if you want to hang on to your kids.
All of this points to a country whose creeping authoritarianism is slowly but surely becoming a danger to the wellbeing of its own citizens. But perhaps the most disturbing news item of the last few days was about it potentially becoming a danger to that of other countries’ citizens, and one which many citizens of both Russia and the West may still be blissfully unaware:
  • Missiles in Western Russia Are Legitimate, Defense Ministry Says – As a response to NATO’s European missile shield, the Russian government has decided to put nuclear-capable missiles in its little outpost of Kaliningrad, a piece of Russian soil snuggled between Lithuania and Poland. The Lithuanians, just like the Ukrainians over the bailout deal, are nervous of what looks like the early signs of a future programme involving naked expansionism. 
They’re right to be. We should all be, because we’ve seen this movie before. It’s what we used to call “spheres of influence”, behind the old Iron Curtain.

In short, the essence of all this is that Cold War: The Sequel looks like it might be coming soon, to a country near you.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Tories who failed to support Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” were not bad, merely wrong

With the thousands of pieces being written around the world about the death of a political giant, this is not about the great man himself – there are plenty of people better-qualified to write that one.

But it’s worth pausing to think about Mandela’s relationship with Labour.

Like many, I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s constantly hearing about some or other horrific injustice from apartheid South Africa on the 6 o’clock news. We were too young for the Sharpeville massacre or the imprisonment of Mandela himself, but not too young to learn of the death of Steve Biko in police custody. In fact, you had only to listen to switch on Radio One – Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, Little Steven’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” or The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela”* – to be aware of what was going on.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The real reason why the Co-op saga is bad news for Labour

First, let’s get a few things straight. The Co-op Bank is not the Co-op Group, and is not the Co-op Party, a separate political party which sponsors MPs, among other things. Problems for one does not necessarily mean disaster for all three.

And there are two further stories currently being bandied around, both fallacies. And a third story, which no-one seems to be telling, which is the truth.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Unite's foolishness could undo the reforms we worked so hard for

Yesterday published my tenth piece for the Independent, on how Len McCluskey's current manoeuvres could now have reverberations on the whole union movement for years to come.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Livingstone: still there, still up to his old tricks

Now, I have never been a fan of Gordon Brown’s decision to leave the “Golden Rule” behind and stop balancing the books over the economic cycle. He borrowed more than he should have, with the result that Britain was rather caught with its trousers around its ankles when the global financial crisis came.

But it takes a certain kind of front for a politician on his own side to
call the former prime minister a coward (although marginally better, one supposes, than asking for him to be tried as war criminal).

Especially if that politician (a) still holds office at national level (albeit on Labour’s NEC and not an office elected by the general public); and (b) wouldn’t know fiscal responsibility if it jumped up and slapped him in the face with a wet kipper.

Monday, 11 November 2013

So Len, just run this by me again, I'm confused...

I provide only the information:

On Sunday Politics with Andrew Neil, McCluskey denies (8:07) Unite legal chief, Howard Beckett, said in an email that his Communications team should prepare "nasty stuff" on Labour figures .

"That's not true!" exclaims a hurt-sounding McCluskey. It is all a dastardly plot by the Tories and the Tory media. "What emails?" he says, when asked by Neil about Stevie Deans' email cache, now in the posession of the Sunday Times.

But, oh look, the Sunday Times yesterday published an email here from said cache by Beckett  (£):
"Comms will prepare the nasty stuff we know of individuals in the labour party but this will not be used".

Whether or not it is used immediately seems quite irrelevant but, call me old-fashioned, either the Sunday Times has fabricated this evidence, or it looks like Len McCluskey has said something on national television which has now been directly contradicted by written evidence. Although I would be delighted to hear from anyone at Unite who can explain this contradiction.

Doubtless it is another sinister "media witch-hunt" by the Tories and their friends in the media, etc. etc.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The web we have woven in Falkirk

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive.”

            - Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
Ah, Falkirk. We drew a line under it, didn’t we? Only we didn’t.

A couple of months ago Uncut noted that the Falkirk debacle was unfinished business. But even we didn’t expect there to be quite such a spectacular unravelling, as happened last weekend.

For the uninitiated, the story went like this: the Falkirk West selection process was suspended amidst accusations that Unite were fixing the selection process for Karie Murphy, Tom Watson’s office manager and friend of Len McCluskey. Unite cried “foul” and hinted that Labour had exaggerated on purpose for their own ends; local witnesses suddenly, fortuitously, withdrew testimonies; and by party conference an uneasy truce was in place between Labour and Unite, both saying “move along, nothing to see”.

Friday, 18 October 2013

To Norm

I didn’t know Norman Geras, or “Norm”, as he was known by the blogging fraternity, that well – we certainly never spoke, although I had a number of exchanges with him – but I feel strangely like I have lost someone important today.

As well as a blogger, I am aware he has been a highly-respected professor of politics and whom I also cite as one of the important signatories of the 2006
Euston Manifesto, which helped me re-examine the way I think about a few things. It challenged the sloppy, lazy way that sections of the left had got into thinking.

I mark him out, essentially, as one of the few people both rational and brave enough to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the left on such subjects as its relationship with non-democracies, racism, Islamism and other religious intolerance. I have often found myself checking
normblog to see what a super-rational, forensic view might be on a particular subject or, as my friend Nick Cohen writes today:
Whenever I faced a difficult moral question, I would at some point think “ah, what is Norm saying about this,” go to his blog and see that Norm had found a way through.
His pieces were always short, forensically focused and argued, but with a fundamental basis in humanity rather than cold ideology. I have never managed to edit myself so ruthlessly as his exemplary nuggets, though I should certainly one day like to learn how. If you have never yet visited the blog, I would strongly suggest you dip into its extensive archives here.

My own story with Norm is a short and rather uninteresting one: he contacted me about being one of his comprehensive series of blogger profiles, a
link to which I have proudly displayed here in the right-hand bar of my little blog ever since (no. 389, since you ask).

But you gave me that little push and encouragement into writing, Norm, and made me think that I might possibly be creating something of some small value to someone, somewhere. Most importantly, you reminded me that there were clever people out there, who were true comrades of mine and were not afraid to challenge the mental straightjacket that the left, my political home, sometimes works itself into.

For both these things I am profoundly grateful.

As Nick says, “rest in peace, comrade”.

This blog has been cross-posted at Normfest, a site set up today by Damian Counsell to celebrate Norm's life and writings. 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

With Labour’s lead narrowing, the next election is now too close to call

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Westminster lobby seems to be yet to clock the political turmoil in store for Labour over the next six months as it approaches its special conference, there is another issue to which Labour must pay attention if it is serious about winning: its polling.

As we start to edge towards the home strait of the electoral cycle, new polling tells us some interesting things.

The conventional wisdom has become, owing to its consistent poll lead since early 2012, that “Labour is on course to win”. Meaning that, even if it means winning as part of a coalition, it would be hard for it to lose the election from here.

This is rather dangerous thinking, for two reasons.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Syria: no, we are not better off now

With the infiltration of jihadist groups into Syrian rebel forces, it was only a matter of time before they responded to Assad's massacres in kind, as it now appears they did during August in some Alawite villages.

Back in our own country and the US, depressingly, rebel killings will now be taken as retrospective justification for, rather than consequence of, Western inaction.

Phew, everyone says. That just shows we were right not to "rush to war", eh? They're all as bad as each other.

But the flaws in this reasoning are obvious: first, because the message now sent to everyone, the rebels included, has been that crimes against humanity are perfectly ok, because they will result in no meaningful sanction. 

That lack of sanction is obviously going to have affected the thinking of the rebels. The UN's nascent doctrine of Responsibility To Protect, which includes war crimes and genocide prevention, lies in tatters.

For those of you who think that "meaningful sanction" includes a hopelessly flawed decommissioning process, which will inevitably involve negotiation about which sites may or may not be inspected (not to mention some being in combat zones, remember Iraq's "presidential palace" no-go areas?) and which many observers think will probably merely result in pushing the weapons over the border into Lebanon: good luck to you.

No, given that it is impossible to say how large Syria's CW stocks are, we can never know when they have all been decommissioned. Unless full cooperation is given, there can be no realistic possibility of preventing further use.

In a somewhat bitterly ironic example of the West slapping itself on the back, Norway's Nobel Committee has now moved to award the Peace Prize to OPCW, the organisation responsible for "decommissioning" said weapons. Which has not, for the record, even carried out any decommissioning as yet. One is not sure whether to laugh or cry.

The second reason is simply that the longer we go on with our "hands-off" approach to Syria and allow jihadists to gain the upper hand within the rebel forces, the more we create a fertile breeding-ground for forces who will inevitably turn hostile eyes towards the West if they win.

When will we learn that, where Islamism is involved, we have to get involved early and not late? That jihadists will naturally flock to any kind of flashpoint, in order to make hay while the sun shines?

We may well look back in years to come and ask ourselves why it was that we managed to lose on two fronts; not only that we let thousands of civilians be massacred, but also created the ideal conditions for a new generation of terrorists to boot.

If you think the latter statement alarmist or that it does not concern us in our "safe European homes", I suggest you read what MI5 chief Andrew Parker has to say: that increasing amounts of Five's casework concerns radicalised Britons who have gone to Syria to fight.

And that's if we can avoid being dragged into the conflict at some point anyway, far too late to do anything but damage limitation.

One post script: all this is notwithstanding massacres that can conveniently take place using conventional weapons. For the last few days, the Assad regime has been shelling a refugee camp full of civilians.

What a mess.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Beneath the gloss of conference, storm clouds were gathering

I wrote this conference conclusion piece a week ago for Labour Uncut and forgot to repost it here, but I think it still applies perfectly.

Bottom line is that the next six months look set to be fairly momentous in the party's history.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Last Blairite standing: watch out for the sharks

A few days on from the reshuffle of all three parties’ ministerial or Shadow teams, a little perspective on Labour's, or what seems to have universally become known as the “Blairite cull”.

Jim Murphy, who was merely moved on from Defence to a rather less important department, DFID, is now clearly the only remaining outrider in the Shadow Cabinet for any kind of centrist politics, if you accept that the decent Douglas Alexander will continue to do what he has done for the previous decade-and-a-half during the Blair-Brown wars: keep his head down, accommodate the views of the major power players and avoid making enemies. 

As always, there is the story; and the story behind the story.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The indefatigable Daily Mail

Thanks to the Daily Mail's rather unpleasant and ill-conceived trashing ("The Man Who Hated Britain") of Ed Miliband's Marxist father, Ralph Miliband, Tory party conference seems to have been rather eclipsed by the fallout from the piece, which has led to overwhelming support for Miliband.

What is most amusing is the "glass houses" element that they obviously never thought about: while Ralph Miliband, whose patriotism they question, served in the Royal Navy and fought for his country against the Nazis, the first Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, was famously friendly towards Hitler. So today some lovely Rothermere history surfaced.

Compare and contrast the following (thanks to @ivanwhite48 for the first):

Telegram from Daily Mail owner, Lord Rothermere, to Hitler, 1938:
"I salute your Excellency’s star, which rises higher and higher."
George Galloway to Saddam Hussein, 1994: 
"I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability"
I would not suggest that the modern Daily Mail holds the extremist views of its founder. But in the end, the meeting of far right and far left, or "Molotov-Ribbentrop" as my friend John Rentoul calls it, after the brief wartime pact between the Nazis and the Communists, is almost an inevitability.

They never can resist a good dictator.

Labour Uncut book now available for download

Think I've probably already mentioned this but, just in case, I have authored Chapter Two of this fine tome, Labour manifesto: uncut, now available for download here.

Called Leadership and party, it's an essay on how, tricky though the whole party reform agenda is, it's thoroughly worth doing, should be extended to other areas and could even be the making of Miliband.

We launched it last Monday, in book form, at the Pragmatic Radicalism fringe at party conference. There are other chapters by my blogging friends Jonathan Todd, Kevin Meagher and Atul Hatwal.

Any problems accessing, tweet or email me and I'll send you the PDF.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Curate's egg conference, but the real one's in six months' time

The political commentariat is confused about Miliband's speech, not to mention the conference itself. Opinions seem to range from triumph to disaster, although the “disaster” ones seem to be mostly of the Daily Mail's “red menace in our society” variety.

And that’s not surprising, as both speech and conference were good in parts. But that's not the whole story, as we shall see.

The conference, for a start, did at least start naming some policies and Ed Balls did start to recognise – up to a point – that Labour would need to be ruthless on spending and therefore each pledge was meticulously costed. And there is the understanding that Labour will need to stick to Tory spending limits, if only for one year rather than the three that Labour stuck to from 1997.

But this is all without mentioning the elephant in the room: that the economy is, albeit agonisingly slowly, starting to recover where Balls has spent almost three years suggesting (if not actually saying) that this might never happen, so disastrous was Osborne’s handing of the economy. It is recovering, and if there is a major barrier between Miliband and Number Ten, it surely lies in Balls’ department.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Leadership and party: how Ed can use one to revitalise the other

Where it all started
I wrote this piece last weekend, before Tuesday's party conference speech, explaining why Ed Miliband both really needs to make party reform work and why it could actually help his leadership ratings to deliver on it. I'll post what I thought of the speech later.

The next few days will be pretty decisive for the Labour leadership. While this is the kind of refrain you often hear from breathless journalists around conference time, on this occasion it has really a ring of truth about it. He has a project he firmly needs to make work.

Ed Miliband is no longer the new boy: indeed, he is now Labour’s second longest-serving leader of the last two decades. He is consolidated as leader of his party, with no serious challengers for the leadership; and currently presides over – just – a lead for that party in the opinion polls which has held for most of his tenure.

But, over the three years of his leadership, he has been criticised for a number of things: slowness to define party policy; a failure to reform his party; and poor personal leadership ratings.

Our new Labour Uncut book, titled Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why, looks principally to give answers to the first of these three, through concrete policy proposals backed up by painstaking polling on what will and will not appeal to the public.

But we also anticipated that Miliband might also, by addressing the second, address the third; that is, a well-executed party reform programme could help revitalise his leadership. We will come to why that is in a moment.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Centre Left goes to…Brighton!

An occasional Centre Left series which tends to happen whenever I get the chance to go anywhere. I don’t get out much, y’see.

It’s been a while, Brighton. As my grandparents' home for the first twenty years or so of my life, it’s a bit like coming back to see an old friend, who you don’t see very often but it’s always a pleasure.

If I remember well, my last conference here was 2000, my clearest memory being of myself and various other reprobate comrades at about 3am singing "Roll Out The Barrel" (or similar) in an upstairs lobby of one of the larger hotels, which happened to have a grand piano.

These days I’ll have to make do with the traditional conference karaoke with some old friends (yes, @martinangus, we all know that LAWS is the best karaoke in town and will be on at the New Madeira Hotel on Monday night).

For those who don’t frequent the town much, since my childhood it has developed a markedly hippy, liberal vibe which it's hard not to warm to, as well as transforming itself into surely the unchallenged gay and lesbian capital of the UK. It’s also home to some very sensible and decent Labour people I have met over the years.

Since my last conference here, a fairly solid Labour council here has fallen to the Greens. Despite my politics being of a modestly greenish hue, one wonders about their ability to manage their way out of a paper bag, let alone a multi-milllion pound council budget. I guess we will see how they’ve done at the urns in 3 years’ time. My guess is they won’t stay, and they were there for the same reason as George Galloway in Bradford, because of a general disillusionment with politics. But I could be wrong.

And so to the political content of this conference. Most conferences are labelled “make or break” for some spurious reason or another, and this one is no exception. Although Labour really needs to start breaking its silence on major policy areas, whatever Miliband says about policy will still probably not be listened to by the public – yet.

But it genuinely is make-or-break in one particular area: Miliband’s proposals on party reform need to be accepted, in principle if not outright (that will be at a special conference next Spring).

If they are not, two things will happen: firstly, he will probably not lose the leadership but his own credibility will be shot, and his chances of reaching Number Ten will be seriously diminished, if not destroyed.

Worse, the party will have lost the chance for serious reform for a generation, and what someone once called “the forces of conservatism” will have won a very important victory. 

As the Centre Left has blogged on many occasions, you cannot underestimate the importance of party. Miliband did with the failure of the “damp squib” Refounding Labour programme, and it came back to bite him. We cannot afford to fail this time.

As it so happens, you may have seen from a series of news and comment pieces in the Independent over recent weeks that myself and my good colleagues from Labour Uncut will be launching tonight our first-ever book, entitled Labour manifesto uncut – How to Win in 2015, containing some rather good ideas on how to do just that.

However, it’s about more than just manifesto policy - my own little chapter is different: it’s about party reform and how it could actually be the key to a revival in Miliband’s poll ratings.

The point is that there are still other things still not covered by the Collins Review on party reform – a document I read on the journey and seems pleasingly robust – which Labour still needs to do, like sort out its damaging addiction to identity politics in our ethnic communities.

In other words, we only have one chance in this generation before the window closes again – let’s really sort things out. There are plenty of other things apart from Falkirk-style stitch-ups which the party needs to fix.

And for the'll just have to read the book.

Labour manifesto uncut – How to Win in 2015 will be launched tonight, Monday 23 September at the Pragmatic Radicalism fringe, details here.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Primaries don’t break the bank and a majority of Labour supporters would take part

My ninth piece for the Independent, on the exclusive polling for the Uncut pamphlet we are publishing on Monday in Brighton is here, with the full tables in the Labour Uncut version here.

The story made the Indy's news pages and I even got a namecheck in the newspaper, I think. Gosh.

Bottom line: there's a lot of scaremongering going on, but primaries could recoup the money and they would have a pretty significant level of participation.

At the moment, at least, this really huge reform really does look like it is all going ahead - I haven't had a chance yet to read the Collins Review interim report which came out yesterday, but Chuka Umunna also did an interview today to that effect.


On Monday, dear readers, we launch the Labour Uncut pamphlet with a chapter from yours truly on "leadership and party", so hang onto your hats - the precis of the pamphlet to be published tomorrow in the Indy.

Exciting times.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Miliband at the TUC, a story few seem to be reading correctly

Yesterday Ed Miliband made the first of two rather important speeches (the other due in two weeks at party conference) about the reform of his party's relationship with its affiliated unions, an initiative on whose success his leadership now clearly depends.

There are three - in my view - incorrect points of view which have surfaced about it in the last twenty-four hours.

The first is the far-left view, as exemplified by this piece by the Guardian's Seumas Milne (you may remember his starring role in Unite's news management operation following the Falkirk debacle, as blogged here). Some time ago, as the Centre Left pointed out here and here, McCluskey decided he was going to park his tanks on Miliband's lawn. This argument would leave them there, and probably invite the drivers in for a cup of tea.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Revamping Labour's union ties could help Ed Miliband

Rather chuffed to be able to announce that my teaser piece on the forthcoming pamphlet by the Labour Uncut gang, of which I have written a chapter, yesterday was the subject of the lead front page story in the Independent by Andrew Grice.

You can see the full analysis with data at Labour Uncut here and the pamphlet will be launched in two weeks on the Monday of Party Conference in Brighton.

The thrust of the piece is that we have done a bunch of polling done to support the proposals in this pamphlet, including some on a sample of trade union members.

The rather explosive conclusion is that the majority of members in Labour-affilated unions actually agree with Miliband's proposed reforms to their links with Labour, despite some of their leaders' attempts to argue a diametrically opposed position.

Watch this space over the next couple of weeks for more...

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Syria: the hangover

If Westminster is often a bubble, at frenzied times like last Thursday's Syria vote it becomes even more so. Everyone is waiting for the latest news. What can easily happen, and what seems to have, is for Parliament to forget about the world outside entirely until it is over.

As the Telegraph
reports, some Labour MPs, as they left the parliamentary lobby giddy with unexpected victory, were rudely jolted back to reality by pictures of Syrian victims of incendiary bombs, as a reminder of what had just collectively been achieved by voting down intervention, without necessarily meaning to. The hangover had begun.

Friday, 30 August 2013

My God, what have I done?

It's been a whirlwind forty-eight hours. First Cameron came up with a motion supporting military intervention in Syria. Then Miliband went in with a softening amendment and said he would not support the government unless the amendment was passed. Cameron softened his motion to accomodate Miliband.

Then, to Cameron's apparent fury, Miliband declined to support it anyway, thus setting the stage for an extraordinary event: the first defeat by a government on a matter of national defence in over 230 years.

I do not, in all honesty, that Miliband was at all confident he would defeat the government. I believe he thought he was acting in good faith to ensure that all the i's were dotted and t's crossed before British troops were sent into action. But that is what happened.

Afterwards Cameron, apparently to the surprise of the Miliband entourage, removed the possibility of intervention from the table.

Miliband, given a way out of his predicament of being seen to have torpedoed the process, took it and said he was not really interested in intervention, either. Tellingly, he said:
Military intervention is now off the agenda for Britain. There would have been nothing worse than intervention without full international support.
Presumably this meant Russia and China in the UN Security Council, because it is clear that US and France are proceeding to some kind of action (interestingly, it was earlier confirmed to me that this was not the case, that he would not be beholden to Russian and Chinese opinions).

It is true, as my good colleague Mark Ferguson noted at LabourList, that there were enough votes in the Commons to still carry intervention, if not through a standard whipping process.

But I think there is a simple reason for Cameron's reaction, and it is not petulance. I believe Cameron would have gone to considerable lengths to embark upon military action. It was that he could not continue to invest his fast-diminishing political capital in a joint venture with a partner he could not trust, after his experience in the earlier vote.

And where does that leave us? In a situation which has been botched with, sadly, the leader of my party at the centre of the botching and now talking about bringing "diplomatic, political and other pressure" to bear on Assad.

Because he's clearly really going to respond to that, right?

When the dust settles from all this, I am afraid that the historians will see this moment with Cameron in rather a positive light, as someone who tried his best in a difficult situation, but failed. And they Miliband as someone who, either through clumsiness or, worse, politicking, squandered the chances of Britain helping a benighted people in their hour of need.

As if to show the House of Commons the full horror of what it had achieved, a children's school was bombed with a napalm-like substance.

I shall probably blog about this at greater length, but for the moment I will leave you with the words of my good comrade, Nick Cohen, from today:

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The next London mayorals are upon us already and strewn with elephant traps for Labour

My eighth piece for the Independent, on Miliband's unappetising road to the next London mayoral elections, is here.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Oh Vladimir, so much to answer for

A couple of things about Russia, following my piece about Putin's recent gay-bashing.

Firstly the pole-vaulter Isinbayeva, who gave the following long and excruciating interview about how she really did not see why gay people should be allowed to go around proselytising their "sick" ways. 

The cynics among us might think it may not be long before Putin snaps her up for a candidate in some parliamentary sinecure, and she becomes a member of his Cabinet (for those of you who might find this preposterous, I invite you to look at Italy under Berlsuconi).

I sincerely hope her (hopefully slightly more prudent) corporate sponsors drop her like a hot brick, which is what she deserves. But the dull, thoughtless and conformist Isinbayeva is not the root cause of this problem; the problem is her obnoxious president, who has created an atmosphere in the country most congenial for the casual homophobe.

The second is, I'm afraid, both preposterous and somewhat sick at the same time.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has, unsurprisingly, been defending its ally Assad, as he rains down chemical weapons on civilian homes, killing thousands including many children. However, they omitted to check in with Syria, who gave an entirely conflicting story.

According to Michael Weiss' brilliant piece on the Syria massacres, Syria said they were not responsible. Russia said the opposite, that they were responsible but - wait for it - it was a deliberate ploy by the rebels to provoke them into action:
The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, first began by calling for a “professional” forensic investigation, then concluded that the rebels were responsible for a “premeditated provocation”. 
Quite why anyone would deliberately provoke a chemical weapons attack on their children is something really beyond the wit of man to comprehend, but that is what the Putin administration expects us to believe.

To paraphrase the Smiths (and all the more poignantly, given the deaths of children), Putin currently has an awful lot to answer for, for supporting the unspeakable regime of Assad. As my friend Julie pointed out, there have already been more deaths in Syria than in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict since 1948.

I have no doubt that Putin sleeps soundly at night, despite all this. But he does not deserve to.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

The farce of the “Bradford Spring” is over, but we should not forget its lesson for Labour

Ah, the excitement of the “the most sensational victory in British political history”, as its author so modestly put it, has all lasted a tragically short time, hasn’t it?

The surprising thing is not that George Galloway seems to have tired of Bradford after less than a year and a half in the job as its one of its MPs. It is that his five local Respect councillors, who resigned en masse last Thursday, ever thought that he had the slightest interest in the town; a town which he memorably referred to as “Blackburn” two days after winning the seat.

The reason for their unhappiness is that Galloway is reported to be considering leaving them in the lurch by running for London mayor in 2016; theBBC reports that his shocked colleagues “feel he is using Bradford as a platform for his wider political ambitions”. Having taken sixteen whole months to reach that insightful conclusion, one has to conclude that perhaps his party colleagues are not the sharpest tools in the box.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Gay rights are human rights and we have the right to defend them everywhere. No ifs, no buts

Well, it had to come. Over the last year or two, the far left has shown its tolerance of sexism of the most unpleasant variety, thanks to the treatment of rape allegations about “Comrade Delta” in the SWP, among other things. Similarly the tolerance to anti-Semitism shown by some of those who purport merely to campaign for the respectable cause of a free Palestine.

But for the British left throughout the 1980s, when practically all its other policies were a disaster, one of the few things on which it was a light in the darkness was the rights of those discriminated against because of their sexuality. Alas, it seems, no more.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A Falkirk coda: who leaked?

One last matter on Falkirk, which did not get raised in yesterday's piece yet intrigues me, is the following riddle it leaves behind. 

Who was close enough to Miliband to see the full Falkirk report; disloyal enough to leak something damaging to Labour; and who was far-left enough to have thought of Seumas Milne as the ideal vessel, rather than a more serious mainstream lobby journalist, for the leak?

I have a strong suspicion who this might be, but it is only that.

Friday, 9 August 2013

On Falkirk, and unfinished business

There is a distant rumbling going on within the labour movement, with parliament in recess and the media in silly season, which will surely last until conference. It may, in fact, last until next Spring’s special conference. Or it may even last until the next general election.

Perhaps thanks to the timely intervention of the summer holidays, the media circus seems to have moved on from the Falkirk selection debacle.

But not so fast. This one will continue to rumble, and the reason is simple: we have ended the current chapter with two poles of the Labour party power structure effectively giving diametrically opposing versions of events, and both cannot be right. This uneasy truce is neither sustainable in the long-term – truth will invariably out – nor making for anything like a trusting relationship in the near future.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Politicians - they're all the same. They're not

A common refrain in Britain among journalists, bloggers, tweeters and the general public is that politicians are a weak-minded, venal breed. I sometimes wonder whether they realise that they live in one of the least corrupt and best-tended of all Western democracies. We needn't look very far to see why - a two-hour flight is all it takes.

Exhibit A: Silvio Berlusconi,  until fairly recently one of the longest-serving prime ministers of Italy, yesterday pronounced that he was "the innocent victim of 'an incredible series of accusations and trials that had nothing to do with reality'. 

Yes, the shameless old fraud, knowing that he will probably not do time at his age, is playing out the final act of his long-running tragicomedy crying "foul", that they were all out to get him. A pathetic old man, without a shred of self-respect.

Exhibit B: Mariano Rajoy, serving prime minister of Spain, has been pretty much caught red-handed receiving under-the-counter payments from a series of party donors (mostly construction magnates), yet continues to deny the blindingly obvious. 

But perhaps the most exquisite exploiting of his current discomfort is a video, put together by the opposition Socialist party, interspersing moments from his appearance last Thursday in the Spanish Congreso and remarkably similar statements by Richard Nixon just before resignation. You don't need to understand the language to see how similar the two are.

In particular, both of them claim they have no intention of resigning (Nixon resigned a matter of days later).

All the while, some of us in the UK are still incandescent about MPs overclaiming their expenses, while others claim the incumbent government is "evil". But the wrongdoers over expenses were rightly punished, and proportionately; the government is wrong, not evil.

Personally, I like to think our politicians are mostly decent, with a few who are not. Either way, I would leave you with the thought that perhaps we should recognise that our little island democracy is not so bad, after all.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

This time, Roger picked the wrong Wall. We should avoid the same mistake

We can – and should – criticise Israel’s government for its policy on settlements. We can criticise it for some of its policies towards, and sometimes its statements about, Palestinians. And as with any disputed territory, we can and should debate how that territory should be distributed between its claimants. Even if we might think it counterproductive at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are sitting down to talk for the first time in years, we can recognise the legitimacy of those who choose not to buy goods from a country because they disagree with its government.

I respect Roger Waters’ right to encourage others to boycott Israeli goods, though I disagree with it.

But what is plainly foolish, not to mention an insult to that noble struggle against racism, is to talk as former the Pink Floyd bassist does about “apartheid”.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The gift horse

All hail @GeneralBoles for the oustanding Mr Ed picture
It is difficult to be anything less than delighted at Ed Miliband's announcement on Monday that he will call a special conference next Spring to consider the findings of the Collins Review.

With this move, he has simultaneously done several things: he has, critically, kept the political momentum going on the project which has now been irreversibly framed as the acid test of his leadership; he has surprised his critics by his audacious speed of action, now looking to deliver it in time for the election; he has pacified the moaners by increasing the level of democratic consultation; and, perhaps most importantly of all, largely cloned a successful model for such changes – that of Clause Four in 1995 – to achieve all this.

In addition, the selection of former Millbank staffer and Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, who was closely involved in the Clause Four campaign, for the campaign team is an inspired choice; and that is because he also understands both the party grassroots and the vital importance of the objective.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The “Blairite conspiracy” narrative has not disappeared: it has just taken a breather

In “Voodoo Histories”, David Aaronovitch’s superb book on the tendency of our age towards conspiracy theories, he asserts that “conspiracy theorists fail to apply the principle of Occam’s razor to their arguments”. In other words, that they opt for a complex and convoluted explanation over a simpler, more obvious (and therefore more likely) one.

During the last few weeks, both leading up to and since Ed Miliband’s momentous decision to reform union involvement in its funding and selection processes, there have been arguments against from two groups.

The first comprises those which sincerely feel that it could harm the party’s future, that it could somehow “lose its soul”, end up with a worse selection process than before or even – and here I believe there is a case to answer – end up broke.

Whilst we might observe that similar arguments were made in 1993 against OMOV and 1995 against the rewording of Clause Four without the sky falling in on either occasion, let debate be joined with those people and may the best argument win.

The second group may be defined as those who perceived that something terrible was happening to their party even before last Tuesday’s announcement and for whom this merely confirms their worst suspicions. The contention seems to be – and I kid you not – that a powerful Blairite cabal has been busy twisting Miliband’s thinking around to their point of view.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

SPECIAL EDITION: Miliband’s moment of truth

The following piece was published on Wednesday at Labour Uncut, following surely the most important event of Ed Miliband's leadership to date, the proposal of radical changes to Labour's relationship with unions.

The last week or so has undoubtedly set the biggest challenge of Miliband’s leadership, in the aftermath of the Falkirk selection fiasco. It is one to which he has risen.

We can dress it up how we like, but it was difficult to interpret Len McCluskey’s defiant denials – flying in the face of all kinds of inconvenient facts – as anything other an open challenge to his authority as leader.

As ever, it’s not so much what people say, it’s the subtext.

When the leader of Britain’s largest union is moved to tell us that Ed Miliband is leader of the Labour Party, you feel like saying “oh, thanks, Len, just as long as you’re sure. We’ll keep him on, then.” The damaging implication of the statement, of course, is that it might ever have been in question.

Much of the left blogosphere opted to play it down, with the best of intentions; but there is nothing that looks more obvious than a “move along, nothing to see” approach when your house is clearly on fire, and the rest of the world saw it.

Miliband, thankfully, if belatedly, also noticed his house was on fire.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

We were not blind-sided. We were not

Since my last piece on the matter, it is clear that the Falkirk selection fiasco has just blown up into what looks to be the biggest crisis of Miliband's leadership to date, with no easy-to-predict solution on the cards.

For the record, this does not make me feel good, it makes me feel angry and frustrated, mainly because this was all so avoidable. The biggest single flaw in Miliband's strategy, with the possible exception of our failure to regain economic credibility, has been the failure to reinvent the party organisation while we had the chance and deal with a decade and a half's neglect.

But the strangest thing is the shock that seems to have come over the leadership that this was a problem. 

The Sun's Kevin Schofield said on Friday: "Ed Miliband's been blind-sided by this." 

Well, we were not blind-sided. We were not. The signs were there and we chose not to act. We chose to suppose they were the paranoid ravings of embittered members of the ancien regime, who merely disagreed with Miliband's political direction, rather than people who cared about their party and saw it in danger.

Aside from a number of articles by my good friend and Labour Uncut colleague Atul Hatwal, Hopi Sen, Anthony Painter, Peter Watt and many others have written about this issue. The Centre Left wrote about the party's basic need for reform here and again here; its desperately dysfunctional selection process here; and the danger from Unite and the far left hereherehereherehere and here.

It may be too late, as John Rentoul suggests today, but the party is clearly in crisis. 

It is not  overstating the case to say that Labour's chances in the next election will probably be decided over the next few weeks and that only radical, decisive action will suffice. By conference, the die will undoubtedly be cast.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Why we should stop trying to stop Page Three

A few days ago a piece on LabourList asked us to support a campaign to end Page Three of the Sun. I must admit, I’d be happy to see the back of the paper, let alone the page.

A bit of background: since the 1980s, I haven’t bought a Murdoch paper (although, full disclosure: I did recently weaken and buy a Times online subscription, as I was fed up of not being able to read four particularly good journalists). Old habits die hard.

I was never quite comfortable with New Labour’s closeness to the Sun and News Of The World – I remember regularly seeing Rebekah Wade (as was) or David Yelland walking past my desk in Millbank – although I understood the realpolitik of it. We can all now see where it ended up: not in a good place. So that realpolitik should not be a reason to oppose this campaign, either.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Len, honestly, what do you take us for?

On Wednesday I posted a piece at Labour Uncut (later posted here at the Centre Left), summarising both developments in the Falkirk selection, where Unite stands accused by the Labour Party of interfering in the selection process, and the involvement of Unite in the People’s Asseembly.
Yesterday the New Statesman printed this piece containing a letter from Unite’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey, to its recently-recruited members, which bears reproducing in full:
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