Wednesday, 24 April 2013

If we are serious about government, we need to learn to play the expectations game better than this

Last weekend an Independent exclusive reported that Labour had made an in-principle decision not to stick to Tory spending limits post-2015. It quoted the Fabian General Secretary, Andrew Harrop, who had suggested an alternative strategy, although to be fair he states, in his recent piece here at LabourList, that he believes no decision has been taken.

Finally, Ed Balls denied the story to the New Statesman, saying it was
“total rubbish”; a denial that, on the other hand, the Independent on Sunday labelled “unconvincing”.

Whoever you think is right or wrong, whether you think this is all a storm in a teacup, or a sizeable political disaster, will probably depend upon the extent to which you see the size of Labour’s spending plans as crucial to its chances at the next election. And, whether you think this should be higher or lower, it’s obvious that getting the positioning right is rather important.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Syria: what on earth did we expect?

US Army chemical weapons symbol
Surprise is surely the last thing we should feel at Foreign Secretary William Hague, reporting on Monday that there was increasing evidence that President Assad was using chemical weapons on his own people.

It’s not as if it hasn’t been entirely predictable. For the last 18 months, the UN and governments of liberal democracies the world over have admonished and tut-tutted over the massacres which have taken place in Syria. But they have done precious little. The Obama administration, in particular, has made their lack of enthusiasm for intervention to stop the killing abundantly clear. A weighty UN resolution is clearly impossible without the support of Russia, a support which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

But geopolitics is a game which depends not just upon the actions you take. It depends also on the signals you send. These signals tell others what you will and will not do – the celebrated “red lines”. And the signal that governments the world over have sent is this: you can kill as many of your citizens as you like, President Assad – we’re not getting involved.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Venezuela, where video evidence magically disappears from YouTube

Yes, I know it's a kind of sickness to be so horribly fascinated by the machinations of a bunch of pseudo-democrats, but I can't help myself. I think it's just the thought that there are a bunch of decent Venezuelans who are quite close to having a real democracy, if they could just grasp it.

Firstly, Chávez' anointed son Nicolás Maduro "won", to the extent that the result has been counted correctly, no "adjustments" made, no irregularities at the count, and that media coverage was a level playing field (which it never is in Venezuela, where state TV is a propaganda channel).

But he won by a much smaller margin than expected (a mere 1.8% of the vote).

Capriles demanded a recount, a pretty reasonable request on that kind of margin. Maduro accepted the recount on Monday, then had changed his mind by today, when he realised he might just lose, and rejected it.

Capriles has organised protests against the refusal to recount. Maduro has duly banned them.

Yes, a huge respect for democracy all round.

Finally, today I saw a Venezuelan correspondent tweeted a link to a video of Maduro saying on live TV on Monday that he would accept a recount (hat-tip: @DavidButler100)

Funnily enough, you can't see that video any more, it's been taken down. I wonder why that would be...

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

North Korea is a timely reminder that the world is still dangerous

It is a measure of the sometimes spectacular insularity of British politics that the world can be at the brink of nuclear war, and the Westminster bubble carries on pretty much as if nothing has happened. With the death yesterday of Margaret Thatcher occupying the news pages, it seems highly likely that no-one in Britain would even notice until bombs started to rain down on the Korean pensinsula.

After all, it’s only east Asia, the place where the world’s economic and political future is being created (that said, let’s be fair: we probably have more important things to get worked up about, such as George Osborne’s use of a
disabled parking space).

So, with Saddam Hussein gone, it has been clear for some time that North Korea is a serious contender for the title of “maddest and scariest country on the planet” (Iran, the other remaining member of Bush’s famed
Axis of Evil, seems practically sane in comparison). It is not a pleasant regime, needless to say, and has systematically abused human rights with a sufficient degree and regularity that the UN has taken the unusual step of setting up a commission of inquiry to examine them.

With the death of his father, new premier Kim Jong-un seems to be pushing the boundaries of everyone’s patience, firstly by his nuclear test in February, and now by directly threatening not only his long-standing rival and neighbour, South Korea but the United States for good measure.

It is probably true, that they are making, as former US Defence Secretary William Cohen
put it, “empty threats” to the US. One doesn’t, well, fancy their chances.

But the threats to South Korea are very clearly not empty. And the last time such bellicose statements were exchanged involving nuclear powers were probably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a half-century ago.

Don’t take it from me, by the way: take it from
Fidel Castro, who has some pretty first-hand knowledge. And hell, when even Castro gives you a stern warning, you know you’re on the verge of doing something truly bonkers.

Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander are, rightly, following the cross-party consensus that the aggression is entirely unwarranted. Everyone, everyone in British politics is on the side of the South Koreans.

Ah, no, wait…there is one organisation, of course. Step forward, the reliably totalitarian-friendly
Stop the War Coalition, who call on the US to “stop stoking the tension” and “seek dialogue”, after North Korea threatened it with a nuclear strike. But then again, if this were 1938, it seems likely that they would be calling on Czechoslovakia to “stop stoking the tension” and “seek dialogue” on the Sudetenland.

The world’s main hope of averting disaster must be that China, historically supremely unhelpful on the subject of North Korea, is finally losing patience with its annoying little brother. There are
signs of this: thankfully, it is not the nation it was in the Cold War and has much more to lose in terms of international trade, and therefore affluence, by alienating the West.

This said, Kim Jong-un is someone we know very little about: until 2010, there was not even an officially-confirmed
photograph of him after the age of eleven. And there is clearly little knowing what could happen when nuclear weapons are in the hands of someone with all the worldly experience of a late-twentysomething and who has grown up, a reportedly “spoiled child” isolated from the outside world, inside of one of the world’s craziest, and nastiest, regimes.

What all this does not do, obviously, is provide an explicit rationale for Labour to keep Trident, a linkage David Cameron attempted to make and which is, as former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo helpfully pointed out,

But it does provide a timely reminder that the world is still a pretty dangerous place. This problem, along with that of Iran, seem unlikely to go away any time soon; a conclusion probably not lost on the British public.

In spite of people sometimes
appearing warm to the idea of scrapping nuclear weapons, retaining them has nevertheless been a remarkable constant across the two main parties since the war, with only a couple of relatively short-lived exceptions. And that is because cannier politicians realise that such polls do not necessarily reflect voters’ gut reactions on a touchstone issue come polling day.

As we consider revising Labour’s quarter-century-old
position, we might just reflect on that.

This post first published at LabourList

Monday, 8 April 2013

Tramping the dirt down: why we should never be like Galloway

“Tramp the dirt down” might have been a fitting phrase for a Liverpudlian musician to use about a prime minister in 1989. It is not for a Member of Parliament a quarter-century later

I grew up in the 1980s. I understand why people despised Margaret Thatcher, because I did too. I was an angry teenager.

I despised the way she perpetuated the simple snobbery of those who came from a privileged background for a few more years before the class system finally started to disintegrate under Labour. The divisiveness of her policies. I understood, especially, why the people of Liverpool came to hate her so much, even before the Hillsborough disaster, that they brought to power the despicable Liverpool City Council of Derek Hatton, immortalised in the speech of Neil Kinnock’s life:

“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers".
And so, I understood what drove Elvis Costello to write his clever and articulate but hate-filled rant, “Tramp The Dirt Down”. Many people today probably didn't recognise the reference, but I did.
Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live
Long enough to savour
That's when they finally put you in the ground
Ill stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down
I love Costello for many historical reasons, but I can’t empathise any more, I’m afraid. I just don’t hate people. Hate is a destructive, negative emotion that never does anyone any good. Sorry.

It’s not so much that my politics have changed, although they have. It’s more that I realise that my political opponents are just that, not sinister evildoers. While at times unashamedly tribal, I have made friends with Tories and Lib Dems as well as the vast majority who are still Labourites. I challenge myself to see things from their viewpoint so I can argue my own.

I still do not think Margaret Thatcher was the great Prime Minister her own party does, self-evidently. She was divisive and dogmatic, and went too far in many of her reforms. But I can admire her guts and determination. And I do not believe that any of us on the left have the right to disrespect her on her death. Do as you would be done by.

“Tramp The Dirt Down” was the phrase used today by George Galloway, friend to dictators and despots, the man who said the end of the murderous, repressive Soviet Union was “the saddest day of his life”. The use of the title of Costello’s song signified a wish to dance on Margaret Thatcher’s grave (knowing his penchant for self-promotion I would not be at all surprised to find, one day, a YouTube video featuring the man himself doing just that). It is the language, needless to say, of hate.

I do not want us, the Labour Party, to be like him, for three reasons.

The first is common decency. How would we feel if the Tories did that with Kinnock?

The second is because we aspire to lead the country: at the moment, we have enough difficulties making ourselves look statesmanlike without indulging in shabby behaviour in a time of someone else’s mourning.

And the third is to remember that she won three general election victories. We lost three. No ifs, no buts. The British public made their choice for her, not us. Even if we didn't like her, a lot of Britons did, and a lot still do. Them. The people we aspire to lead.

Those chanting infantile obscenities today, and who are still expecting to return a Labour government, would be wise to reflect on that.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

David Miliband and the big beast famine

The most important news about David Miliband’s departure is, of course, that it is by no means news.

Journalists were last week making all kinds of wild claims, that this would somehow upset the delicate balance between Miliband’s core team and the remaining Blairites in the cabinet, as if the latter’s secret leader had suddenly been whisked away in the midst of plotting revolution.

The truth is more mundane, of course: Miliband senior was hardly, at this point, at least, the ringleader of some turbulent band of plotting Blairites. He was merely decently trying to stay out of everyone’s way and put together an alternative political life, in which he was not constantly examined for signs of fraternal betrayal. In his decision to emigrate, he has merely been a grown-up and recognised his own failure in that most impossible of tasks. What would have been extraordinary news would have been for him to accept a place in his brother’s cabinet. The die was cast in October 2010; this is just the inevitable endgame.

Where it leaves us, let’s be honest, is exactly where we were before: in a world where the big beasts who bestrode earlier generations are all but extinct.

This is ever more tricky in a world where politicians do not have what Denis Healey’s wife, Edna called “hinterland”. As the great man told Rafael Behr in a recent interview:

“None of them have that in either party. In my time, people didn’t start earning money until well into their life in politics. Now people can get a career out of politics as soon as they leave university. They don’t have experience of the real world.”
Indeed, this phenomenon is not just confined to Labour – after all, aside from Ken Clarke, who has Cameron got in the “silverback” category? – but if we want to win and win properly, we need to act with a little more mature wisdom than the prime minister has over the last twelve months.
Miliband has, since his election as leader two-and-a-half years ago, lost all his remaining big beasts. To be fair, it is his largely no fault of his own, but that’s how it is.

David Miliband effectively went at his brother’s election; Alan Johnson went shortly afterwards; Alistair Darling never even started the race; and the departure last year of the party’s only other big figure, Livingstone, while in the end a blessed relief, leaves him with a set of senior frontbenchers whose senior members are in largely in their forties. None has held any of the four great offices of state .

Neither had Blair or Brown before 1997, you might reasonably argue: true. But they had also built up formidable reputations beforehand, reputations subsequently cemented by landslide victories. Ten years later, Brown himself largely won the leadership because no-one considered themselves a big enough beast to run against him, and because he would almost certainly have pulverised anyone who did.

Yesterday Jonathan Todd argued here for the bringing of Johnson and Darling back into the big tent. While it is possible and the sentiment of not wasting precious talent is to be applauded, it also looks unlikely. Darling has already held the no. 2 role in government, and there is surely no chance of moving Balls this side of the election. Would he really want to come back into Cabinet as an odd-job man?

Johnson is not going to Home or Treasury, either, where he has already been. There are so few ways to play these “Tetris strategies”, and most would surely involve firing Douglas Alexander, one of the small number of truly capable players at his disposal (no, Yvette Cooper is not going anywhere, either). And neither can one imagine either Johnson nor Darling being truly at home with the Compass-style “fluffy Labour” approach which Miliband sometimes lapses into.

When you are a political leader – like any other kind of leader – your number one priority is getting top people around you. It is not possible to do very much yourself when you’re the top dog, so your capacity to get others who will, and who are also star performers, is essential.

Ah, people stuff. Business guru, Peter Drucker had it right:

“The toughest decisions in organisations are people decisions – hiring, firing, promotion etc. These are the decisions that usually receive the least attention and are the hardest to unmake.”
Clearly, the less choice you have in this critical task, the less effective your team is likely to be.

It is also easy to criticise politicians for not putting party first – as many have Miliband senior in the last week – and say they are honour bound to come to their party’s rescue. But they all have lives, too. It is futile, as well as unreasonable, to expect them to always make selfless, party-centric decisions, although it is nice for us when they do.

No, it seems that Ed Miliband is probably stuck where he is. It is not that there is no talent – there is plenty. What are missing are long years of experience to guide and hone that talent. It is frustrating, but he will have to get by with the team he has, by and large. We are where we are.

All he can do is try and get his big ideas straight – a task on Miliband’s to-do list which is surely well past its due date – and just hope everyone can take on the big jobs, quickly.

If, that is, Labour were to win. Still a very big “if”.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Twitter, jokes and Lutfur Rahman

Bored on a Saturday afternoon last weekend, I indulged in a bit of banter with a few Labour friends on Twitter. The subject of Tower Hamlets mayor, Lutfur Rahman’s possible readmission to the Labour Party came up (you may recall he was forced to leave in 2010 after standing as an independent).

In the spirit of the conversation, I joked that if that readmission were to happen, we would all have to shoot ourselves. This, as you can imagine, is going to turn into one of those “imagine my surprise when” pieces.

Imagine my surprise when, out of the blue on Thursday, I was contacted by Guardian diarist Hugh Muir to tell me that my tweets had been reported to police as a “death threat” (the tweets themselves have now been deleted, but the Guardian piece quotes them, if you're interested).

The interpretation having been taken by the complainant, clearly, that not only (i) I had meant the tweet in the sense of shooting Rahman, rather than ourselves, and (ii) that this, by a part-time blogging father-of-two with a respectable job, was somehow a credible threat by a would-be assassin.

Let’s follow the logic here. Were I a would-be assassin, it seems firstly particularly odd in that I would choose to make such a threat in a publicly accessible way as Twitter.

Secondly, the fact that it was only addressed to my own Twitter followers, meant that anyone wanting to make something of this would have had to actively seek out this tweet. In order to be an even vaguely credible threat, it would, surely, need to have been addressed to Rahman himself. It was not.

My first reaction, I have to confess, was laughter. That would have to be insane, I said to Hugh. I was having a bit of a laugh with some mates, we all knew what we were talking about, and it wasn't this. Hugh was decent about it, and in his diary paragraph, my point was reported by him that the joke was meant in the sense of “self-harm rather than assassination”.

This rather vital point is not mentioned in the subsequent piece in the Evening Standard, who did not call me regarding the piece.

By Saturday this had progressed, predictably, into full-blown “Revolvergate” (I realise this was the headline writers, not you, Hugh).

I then read a frankly shameful piece in Left Futures, an organ not known for its great love of people like myself with centrist political leanings, where I have been quoted alongside some racist comments about Rahman from the below-the-line comments in an entirely unrelated Independent article. The word “hate” is also used. The clear implication being that I not only deliberately threatened Rahman, which I did not, but worse, that I am some kind of racist.

I am not a hater. In fact, for the record, I am an anti-hater: I strongly prefer reasoned argument to emotional outburst. Unlike the Guardian, neither Left Futures nor the Standard had taken the trouble to contact me to ask for my side of the story. And I deeply resent the insinuation of racism from the former, for which I would respectfully request a correction from Keith Wright, who wrote the piece.

I should add, for the record, that I have published pieces critical of Rahman in the past.

But if the reaction of calling the police was one of genuine discomfort due to misunderstanding the nature of the joke, then I regret any such discomfort caused.

This was a joke between friends, and it was on us, not you, Lutfur.

That said, I want to make clear that I shall continue to write about you and Tower Hamlets, and those pieces may well be critical. I shall not support your return to the Labour Party, if that is indeed what you desire, but – to be abundantly clear – there was no malice whatsoever intended.

With regard to these events, it has been confirmed to me that there is no further action which needs to be taken on anyone's part, including mine. The episode has, however, raised some important issues in my own mind, which I will be blogging about over the coming weeks.
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