Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The best of 2014

Time again for this year's most-viewed pieces in our, ahem, glittering Hall of Fame at the Centre Left. A year of interesting resurgence of the anti-politics brigade, whether nationalists, independents or on the far left, as reflected in the top posts:

5. Venezuela on the edge While the trials of the long-suffering citizens of Nicolás Maduro's dystopia have long been a feature of this blog, this year rather took the biscuit. As I write, inflation has risen to a dizzying 63% (although the regime stopped keeping records in August, as they have long stopped producing any statistic that might make them look bad) and the country stands on the verge of debt default as we start 2015.

Well done, all those on the British left (I'm looking at you, Diane Abbott and Owen Jones) who travelled out to Caracas to support the Chavistas in the 2012 elections. I'm sure you'll soon be admitting how wrong you called this one.

4. As the Tower Hamlets disaster enters a new phase, it remains an object lesson to Labour
Mayor Lutfur Rahman was re-elected in May, in probably the most controversial British election in years. While the outcome is still being investigated and the election may yet be re-run, reports of intimidation and sharp practice were rife. But Labour cannot escape the fact that it created this monster, and only a complete change in its approach will prevent recurrences of this kind of politics.

3. Jim Murphy hatchet jobs: a short series to cut out and keep

As Jim Murphy's campaign to be Scottish leader gathered pace, there came a flurry of negative pieces from the usual suspects on how his election would immediately cause an SNP surge, electoral meltdown next May, plagues of locusts, etc. Oddly enough, his subsequent win caused none of the above so far, and this blog's place similarly seems secure at no. 3 in the charts. Although I am hoping for an unexpected late entry from the lizards.

2. Why Lutfur Rahman must go – an alternative argument 

In April, I argued that the deeply flawed Mayor of Tower Hamlets must go. Whilst he might well have done, had the election been free of any hint that it was not executed freely and fairly, this was not the case. However, what flawed democracy was unable to achieve, the auditors PwC were thankfully later able to, in lambasting the mayor over his method of allocating grant funding, something that was undoubtedly something neither free nor fair.

And finally, the most-read piece this year was, fittingly, on arguably the most historic event of this parliament, the Scottish independence referendum:

1. SNP and Gaza: why Salmond is not a statesman 

In the run up to the referendum, this piece about Alex Salmond managed to attract the most bonkers group of trolls - the cyberNats - who I have ever had the misfortune to engage with on Twitter. For days, I was flamed by an indefatigable group who ranged from those who thought I merely had no right to opine on such a matter (being English, of course), to a number who questioned my parentage. Simultaneously both revealing about the nature of nationalism, and bonkers.

So that's it. We'll continue to be here for all your general election coverage in 2015 and a very happy New Year to all.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Murphy’s push on party rebuilding should not stop at the Tweed

Jim Murphy is the new leader of Labour in Scotland. It is hard to see this as other than good news; irrespective of political leanings, he is an experienced, Cabinet-level politician, with the kind of clout and vision that the Scottish party urgently needs. The SNP is sneering as best it can, but it is nervous laughter.

Murphy has, of course, a huge challenge on his hands: to turn around disastrous polling and an inward-looking party; left to its own devices through its hegemonic days under Blair and Brown and the early days of devolution; and later, seemingly taken by surprise by the rise of the SNP.

It was certainly high time that Scottish Labour took a long, hard look in the mirror, rather than give in to the temptation of huffily declaring that it was treated as a “branch office”, as its last leader, Johann Lamont, did. And it has: it has realised both that it needs a radical change and that it does not need to dance to the Nats’ own tune of “
only MSPs allowed”.

It has realised that, far from attracting support, trying to compete with the SNP to see who can be the most insular is a game Labour can only lose.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Murphy wins. Sky fails to fall in. Three cheers.

Jim Murphy is, thankfully, the new leader of Scottish Labour.

If you were to believe Tom Watson MP or Len McCluskey, leader of Britain's largest trade union, you would be convinced that this is a major disaster, the beginning of the end for Scottish Labour. But it is not. The sky is still up there, stubbornly refusing to fall in.

There was a straight left-right fight for the first time in quite a while within the party: and Scottish Labour chose, as the 2005 general election campaign called it, "the future, not the past".

It is more likely, as we observed here a few weeks ago, to mean the beginning of the end of Scottish Labour as we know it. To mean the end of Unite's stranglehold on parts of Scottish Labour (see Centre Lefts passim). And, just as importantly, a more outward-looking party, which actually reaches out to the Scottish electorate as the SNP has done, rather than treating them as an inconvenience to be endured. This is the first piece of good news.

The second cheer is that this is exactly the kind of party, in fact, which might do a good job in repelling the SNP's advances in May and avert the kind of meltdown in the Scottish section of the Parliamentary Labour Party which many have been predicting, based on its awful current polling. Murphy should be judged on how the polling improves over the next five months, not the number of seats Labour wins.

And the third is this: that there is finally a centrist politician back in a position of real power within the Labour Party. There is now a little hope for all of us that a bridgehead has been established, an influence which can help steer the party back towards common sense and to where the voters are.

Finally, and satisfyingly, we might note that Unite's ham-fisted attempt to fix things in favour of their preferred candidate, Neil Findlay, clearly backfired: Murphy ended up with nearly 40% of the affiliates section, which is dominated by the big unions, to Findlay's 52%. Not a bad result, given that all the major union leaders nominated Findlay over Murphy, bar two.

Murphy has not got an easy job on his hands; Scottish Labour has been slowly atrophying for decades and his victory can scarcely hope to achieve much before the election in May. 

But it may well after; not just in the 2016 Scottish general election, but in the health of the national party as well.

STOP PRESS: I was reminded, checking an old Guardian piece from the time of the Falkirk disaster, that the good members of Scottish Labour have not just rejected the preferred candidate of the Unite leadership

They have selected one who actively set himself against that leadership, who stood up to it. That, alone, is a hugely significant change.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Could this be the beginning of the end for London Labour's Stockholm Syndrome?

I am a little late to this and I also fear I may just have asked one of my friend John Rentoul's fabled "Questions To Which The Answer Is No" (that is, a headline question to which the writer wants to imply the answer is yes, but it is not). However, I have seen an encouraging sign for Labour, in times when such are few and far between.

The long-suffering local activists of Tower Hamlets Labour Party not only had to put up with Ken Livingstone campaigning for then independent mayoral candidate Lutfur Rahman in 2010. Having won, the latter has since made a disaster of his mayoralty and has had the borough's finances taken over by central government inspectors, not to mention a number of other ongoing investigations, including one questioning the 2014 election result (see Centre Lefts passim).

To add insult to injury, in light of these investigations Livingstone has continued to support the unedifying Rahman against his own party, accusing local councillors of "smears and innuendo" in a shining example of , er, smear and innuendo.

About ten days ago, according to the Evening Standard, the good members of Tower Hamlets Labour - hardly a hotbed of die-hard Blairism, I might add, should you think this might be purely factional in-fighting - finally got sick of Livingstone's antics and passed a motion suggesting that it would be better if he left the party altogether.

Their request went even further than the disciplining I was arguing for here, but not without good reason. And it is good news: it is the first time I can remember that London Labour members have broken from their habitual Stockholm Syndrome regarding the man, as I wrote here two years ago. Normally, no matter how awful the latest revelation, they have shrugged and said, "Ken is Ken", knowing that the party will never act.

But when merely campaigning for a non-Labour candidate is an expulsion offence in the party's rulebook, we do not need to accept this kind of behaviour from a member of the party's National Executive Committee Constituency Section. 

They work for us, not the other way round.

I don't know about you, but I'd be delighted if other constituency parties would follow Tower Hamlets and ask for his resignation. A precedent of untouchability is rarely good for any political party.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Unite has learned nothing from the Falkirk debacle

Last week, we started to see just how much some quarters of the Labour Party do not want Jim Murphy to become their leader in Scotland. It was not so much the carefully-crafted hatchet job from Tom Watson, which followed that of old flat-mate Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, from a few weeks earlier.

No, it was the landing on Scottish Unite members’ doormats of ballot packs from their union.

Of course, under the One Member, One Vote system which has been in place for two decades, union leaders no longer allocate millions of their members’ votes; the members decide freely for themselves, under a ballot organised by the union.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Jim Murphy hatchet jobs: a short series to cut out and keep

And so to the surprise of, well, no-one, we last week learned that Tom Watson MP had decided to stick the boot into Jim Murphy as the bookies' favourite to be Scottish leader. Just as his former flat-mate, Len McCluskey did a couple of weeks before, as we reported here, and seemingly by pretending, somewhat disingenuously, to admire him:
"Don't get me wrong, I like Jim Murphy's aggressive, lead-from-the-front approach. And he can win marathons for political endurance."
Yeah, right. 
"Yet he will be the first to know that his association with the leadership of the Better Together campaign is disastrous positioning."
Ah, so that will be the Better Together campaign that won the votes of the majority of the Scottish electorate. Yes, what a disaster for him.

Also, judging by past performance, expect more of these kind of pieces over the next couple of weeks, as we lead up to the Scottish leadership election finale in December; it would not be going out too much on a limb to predict a further piece from Owen Jones, say. Or the Guardian's Seumas Milne. Familiar, friendly faces to the Unite boss.

Happily, I suspect that Scottish Labour members may just have become a little fed up of being told what to think by Unite.

Especially after what happened in Falkirk.

STOP PRESS: I just found this further hatchet job at the Huffington Post by a chap called John Wight. However, I'm not sure if it really counts for my collection, as (a) he is not either a "proper" journalist or a key party figure, and (b) the bonkers Wight is also a fan of genocidal dictator Bashar Assad, as my good friends at Harry's Place helpfully point out.

STOP PRESS (II): I underestimated Owen Jones (see above), who actually got there first. In this wonderfully apocalyptic piece entitled "The grim reaper is knocking for Scottish Labour", Jones explains the evil Blairites' cunning plan to spoil everything:
So who is being lined up as Lamont’s successor? The arch-Blairite, staunchly pro-war Westminster machine politician, Jim Murphy.
To be fair, though, this is not a proper hatchet job, as the whole piece is not dedicated to Murphy. It's more of, say, a drive-by shooting.

STOP PRESS (III): on a related topic, thanks to Paul Hutcheon for pointing out to me his piece in today's Scottish Sunday Herald, on how the unions are using the ballot packs they send out to members to "help" them to vote in their preferred way (despite the fact that the ballot is One Member, One Vote and therefore members choose, not union leaders).

The GMB have repeated the stunt they pulled in the UK leadership election of 2010 in including only campaign literature from their preferred candidate (and not the other two). The most shameless was, predictably, Unite, who included a "mock" ballot paper along with the real one, with a cross in Neil Findlay's name. As a "senior party source" said, it's "desperate stuff".

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The case for party discipline

Last week, a member of the party’s governing body, the NEC, encouraged a crowd of people to go round to the homes of public servants (£) and “peacefully” demonstrate outside.

Presumably as Unite “peacefully”
demonstrated at the homes of Grangemouth oil refinery managers, during last summer’s botched industrial dispute. It is a technique latterly championed by the union, known as “leveraging” (in fact, so excited is it by its novel idea that the union now has created a merged Organising and Leverage Department, to help promote it further).

The reality: when someone’s child dare not go outside to play, or has to ask its parents who the angry crowd of people shouting outside their garden gate are, or it is an unacceptable crossing of the line between legitimate and non-legitimate targets.

It is, needless to say, intimidation, by any other name. It is bullying.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Two thoughts for Remembrance Sunday in Europe

Two thoughts for this day, on which Europe commemorates the sacrifices of millions during the first half of the last century, to defend the continent from the oppression of dictators.

As luck would have it, today is also a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Last night Germany celebrated the most important moment in its postwar history, what Angela Merkel called the "miracle" which signalled the end of Communism and Russian's hitherto-unquestioned domination of Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, the Russian tanks rumble into Ukraine's Luhansk province, unhindered by any meaningful sanction by a Europe and America hobbled by their own isolationism; tanks put there by a leader who now claims the partition of Poland between the Soviets and the Nazis was justified.

How short our memories.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Unite’s reaction to Jim Murphy’s candidacy tells us all we need to know about why it’s important

Last Saturday, after some days of deliberation, Jim Murphy announced his candidacy for the Scottish Labour leadership.

Within hours, Unite had put out a statement:

“Unite’s representative members will soon decide who to nominate on behalf of our union. On the basis of this speech, it is extremely difficult for them to find much to find hope that Jim Murphy is offering the genuine, positive change in Scottish Labour they seek.”
Notice first how Unite members are being given a completely free choice of candidate, and that its leadership is not trying to influence them at all (there's a little irony in there if you look for it). In fact, this effect of denying a level playing-field to leadership candidates in the union vote – that is, trying to distort the One Member, One Vote (OMOV) process – was one of the main reasons for the Collins reforms.

By Monday they had announced the results of a poll claiming that “working people” (i.e. Unite members: the union sees no irony in considering the two identical) wanted an MSP in the role and not an MP. Oh, wait a minute, which of the declared candidates is not an MSP…?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Ring out the church bells...

...Lutfur Rahman is finally banged to rights and central government has taken control of council finances. I cannot imagine that his position will be tenable for much longer.

For those not familiar with the reasons for my joy, I invite you to read these pieces.

UPDATE 06NOV: It is also worth - for the humour value - reading Rahman's own response in the linked Telegraph piece, on quite possibly one of the biggest abuses of power and public funds in my lifetime:
“The report highlights flaws in processes. These are regrettable. We will learn from this report and strengthen our procedures accordingly,” he said.
"Flaws in our processes", indeed.

I suppose that Derek Hatton must have said something similar in the dying days of Liverpool City Council.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Labour now has a northern discomfort to add to its southern discomfort

For some time, people have spoken about Labour’s “southern discomfort”: its seeming difficulty in making any headway in the critical marginals of the South-East.

As the dust settled after the by-elections two weeks ago, it became clear that the net results were as bad, if not worse, for Labour as they were for the Tories, who had never really expected to hold onto Clacton anyway. But in Heywood and Middleton, Labour only narrowly held on to a seat in its northern, industrial heartlands.

Labour’s conclusion seems to have been a vague realisation that “we need to do something about immigration”. We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.

But it is also tempting to apply a nationally-uniform explanation for UKIP’s electoral success, where it does not fit. That is, it is important to look at the North and the South separately.

The caricature of UKIP is that it is gaining votes from Little Englanders, who traditionally have a mistrust of foreigners and Europe dating back, quite probably, to 1066. And there is a lot of truth in that: in the South.

In Clacton, where UKIP won its first by-election, the percentage of the population which is
92.8% “White British”. While one imagines that enough of its voters might have sufficient mistrust of immigrants from outside Europe, as well as inside it, to vote UKIP, the “outside Europe” part signals a mistrust largely born of ignorance. By definition: there is clearly not a great variety of skin colour to be seen on Clacton’s Victorian sea-front.

However, in the old mill, steel and coal towns of the M62 corridor, the story is different, many have large Asian populations. Voters in different communities form opinions of others not through ignorance, but through the knowledge of living side-by-side, in what have sometimes become parallel, rather than integrated, societies.

Labour has correctly clocked that UKIP has changed tack from “Europe” to “Europe and immigration”. But that message has resonated in the North for reasons that it has still not fully understood, to which we now turn.

Heywood and Middleton, it was little remarked over recent weeks, forms part of the Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale.

Now, if we are to get to fully understand the Heywood result, we need to think about how Rochdale has appeared in the national news over the last two years.

Last week, further evidence emerged regarding the abuse carried out by former MP Cyril Smith, and others, at Knowl View special school between forty and twenty years ago. Smith had abused in various locations “all in the Greater Manchester area”. As John Mann, tweeted last Thursday: “it is becoming clear that the child sex abuse cover up is much, much bigger than anyone could ever realise”.

Rochdale, it is clear, has had a poor history with regard to protecting children. As it seems many councils have had in that area, Rotherham being another recent example. However, there are two aspects to this effect, both of which affect Labour.

The first is that when “the authorities” let you down as a citizen, your natural reaction is to want to punish them at the ballot box. The Establishment in these Northern towns is almost exclusively Labour, so it is natural that they might bear the brunt of such feeling. However, there are mitigating factors: Smith was a Liberal and the abuse happened a long time ago. In the case of Rochdale, its current Labour MP Simon Danczuk has commendably left no stone unturned in surfacing abuse cases, no matter how awkward this might prove for today’s politicians. These things help.

But the second is a much more pernicious effect, and one open to manipulation by Labour’s opponents. It is undeniable that the most important contemporary manifestation of child abuse across those same Northern towns is from gangs of almost exclusively Pakistani-heritage men. In 2011, Rochdale was pretty much the first town to see this issue brought to public attention.

This year, Rotherham showed there was a
pattern. Even before the child abuse investigation was published, Lewis Baston noted in Progress magazine that the only council by-election UKIP had so far won in the metropolitan boroughs since May 2013 was Rawmarsh ward in Rotherham, in June 2013. A coincidence? It seems unlikely.

Today, one suspects, we might not have won the Rotherham parliamentary by-election so convincingly, and there is certainly good anecdotal evidence suggesting that UKIP might be deliberately targeting seats where such gangs are an issue.

Most importantly, it is inconceivable that this subject will not still loom large in the minds of Rochdale’s parents and yet, apart from the tireless Danczuk and a couple of others, it is still practically a taboo subject for Labour, as we saw during the Heywood campaign. Jack Straw was practically crucified when he first
raised it three years ago.

It was not taboo, of course, for UKIP, as their election leaflets

In fact, we left them an open goal. It could paint Labour not only as the party of incompetence, or even cover-up, with regard to child abuse. It could paint them as the out-of-touch local hegemonists; the blindly politically-correct governing party, so tight with the local Pakistani
clans that it would never do anything to upset the applecart.

In short, Labour failed even to mention the one subject uppermost in many voters’ minds. As an anonymous Labour MP delicately put it to the

“Ukip has been making inroads because our party is unwilling to address difficult issues. In Heywood & Middleton we have been unwilling to talk about the child abuse scandal, which has given Nigel Farage’s party a clear opportunity. The party needs to give candidates freedom to discuss local issues, no matter how difficult. We have to let go of the reins.”

It is not difficult to extrapolate across the North – even to the Midlands, where the Trojan Horse scandal is creating a comparable opportunity for UKIP to paint Labour as deaf and blind – and see that we need to look to our laurels with regard to the core vote in many of these industrial towns. Add in reasonable concerns about strain on public services caused by immigration, and you have the recipe for a backlash against Labour.

This does not, of course, mean that Labour needs to get into debates about limiting numbers of migrants which our economy needs, or hinting that we “understand” UKIP’s lowest-common-denominator responses. That way lies madness.

But neither must it ignore realities. It is easy to see how speeches like
Miliband’s to the PLP do not remotely address the concerns of Rochdale voters:

“Mr Miliband did not set out any new immigration policies, but spoke about the “need to take action against the undercutting of wages, the need to take action to make sure people integrate more, the need to make sure people learn English, the need to make sure there are not unfair recruitment practices.”

This just will not cut it when people perceive – quite wrongly in most cases, but in good faith – that the very lives of their children might be put at risk by a Labour council, or a Labour government, sitting on its hands out of political correctness.

No, Labour needs to lose its dangerous paralysis when discussing touchy subjects, especially those which affect different ethnic communities asymmetrically. It seems that identity politics, that corrosive force which drives us to categorise people according to the characteristics which divide, rather than unite us, always gets in the way.

Yes, there are a number of reasons why we might have alienated our core vote. But this is surely one of the most powerful in those northern towns. And, in conclusion, there is something which one finds it strange even to have to say about the Labour Party, the party of equality.

It needs, simply, to demonstrate convincingly to voters that it treats all people equally, regardless of their religion or the colour of their skin. No better and no worse. No special treatment for anyone. The same.

At the moment, it seems clear that a number of our prospective voters don’t feel that’s the case.

This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for What We're Reading by Progress Online

Friday, 10 October 2014

Leadership challenges: a coda

The other day my friend John Rentoul helpfully pointed out an Australian counter-example to my last piece on leadership challenges: that Bob Hawke had won on the back of a usurpation (and, I now realise, was later usurped himself by Paul Keating), and it hadn’t done him any harm, in fact he went on to win four elections.

In fact, I had been talking about Kevin Rudd’s last-minute unseating of Julia Gillard last year, but it was an interesting thought nonetheless (I had never realised so much rampant usurping went on in Australia, for a start).

So, successful last-minute bids do happen, if infrequently. I would also argue, though, that Australia’s ALP has a more highly-developed tradition of back-stabbing, I mean, er, rough-and-tumble politics than exists in our mostly-cuddly British Labour Party. And that tradition also makes it more acceptable; I am not sure that British voters (not to mention party members) would react in the same positive way to such goings-on on this side of the world.

The other point to note is that Hawke’s win was under highly unusual circumstances: the incumbent PM had disastrously called a snap election thinking that the previous opposition leader, Bill Hayden, would be running and not the more popular Hawke. He was then, I presume, gobsmacked to find that in the intervening hours, Hawke had taken the crown from Hayden. Not all, but part of Hawke’s success story was to ride that fluke wave into office.

Finally, a second thought: when in power (as were Hawke and Gillard when ousted, not to mention Thatcher, although later) it is surely easier to make a transition, in the case that the public broadly likes your party running the country but is a bit sick of the leader.

It’s not the same as opposition, where the leader is largely untested and unknown - aspiring candidates have not had the benefit of years in a heavyweight job in the public eye, or at least not recently. So in the current situation a last-minute leadership bid is even less likely to be successful, because we're in opposition rather than government.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Leadership challenge? You can’t be serious

It is always a little unwise to make predictions, as us bloggers occasionally find some time later, to our shame and embarrassment.

But perhaps we can venture one now. If there is a silly season within conference season, it is surely within Lib Dem conference. And this year, a few MPs and journalists have used its abject pointlessness as an excuse to take a break from serious politics.

And, indeed, from reality altogether: they have convinced themselves that a Labour leadership challenge is in the air, as these pieces from the
Telegraph and the Mail show.

Only it’s not. Or, at least, it’s incredibly unlikely.

Oh, that’s not to say that some aren’t thinking about it, some even vaguely seriously. It’s always good to check where one’s political stock is, and a dip in the polls is an attractive time to do so.

But there are a lot of good reasons why it is merely fanciful thinking – more a crying into one’s beer in a Manchester hotel bar than a serious, credible campaign briefing.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Human rights? Nah. I've got a party to placate.

While it seems Labour are busy doing all we can to leave the centre ground to the Tories, as the FT's Janan Ganesh pointed out yesterday, they seem to be doing the same to us, in a bizarre "after you, Claude, no, after you, Cecil" stylee. 

This is nothing that new (in fact, I wrote about it a couple of years back) but, this close to an election, it just reinforces the impossibility of calling which way it will go.

The example of vacating the centre ground given by Cameron's speech this week is on the imbecilic dumping of the Human Rights Act, to replace it with some kind of Bill of Rights (it remains to be seen whether that will be the same, or weaker, than the existing European Convention). 

The main point being, he is positioning this as a precursor to "reform" of the ECHR (or rather, pulling out of it, although he dare not say so). If Britain can't cherry-pick which rulings it follows, then the explicit threat is that it will pull out altogether.

In other words: unless you other forty-six signatories do just as I say, I'm taking my bat and ball home. Assuming that the rest of Europe will tell Britain where to stick it and not allow it to destroy the Convention altogether through such a precedent being set, we are out.

Now Cameron gave a decent speech, has had a good week and may yet have secured a post-conference bounce in the polls. But this is a move, for short-term political considerations, which may yet reverberate down the years as a particularly foolish one.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

ISIL: can we just get this straight, please?

I am pleased to report that the Mother of all Parliaments has finally decided that, although it was perfectly prepared for two hundred thousand Syrians to die over the last three years, a great many of whom have died since its vote on the matter last year, it has finally relented on military action in the Middle East, in order to try to stop ISIL and, quite probably, the disintegration of the entire region. 

However, in order for the West not to be seen to back down on its earlier decision against intervention in Syria, it is only intervening in Iraq (where there are some ISIL fighters) rather than Syria (where there are a lot of ISIL fighters and is their main stronghold). 

We shall see if it is not too little, too late, but what is certain is that a stitch in time would have saved nine. Our last brush with Syria

As a sideshow, we are also being treated now-familiar symptoms of the current political malaise of neo-isolationism, i.e. the onset of chronic logical contortions. In this case, the argument is that we are defending a sovereign, democratic state and that therefore this all perfectly fine where it wasn't before in Syria, a case of mere genocide.

That is not to say, of course, that we do not have good reason to act.

I realise this is churlish of me, and that I should be happy that we are doing anything at all but I can't help but be disappointed at the consistency of my own party on the issue.

Compare and contrast Tuesday's Leader's Speech:
We support the overnight action against Isil, what needs to happen now is that the UN needs to play its part. A UN Security Council resolution to win the international support to counter that threat of Isil.
With yesterday's statement in the Commons debate:
"Third, there must be a clear legal base to provide legitimacy and legal force to our actions. We support this motion today because we would be responding to the request of a democratic state in Iraq fighting for its own survival. This is recognised in the UN Charter."
In other words, in the space of three days our insistence on UN backing we has gone from requesting a Security Council resolution to saying, er, it's in the Charter, so this is all fine.

It is not, I hasten to add, that we need either. We do not even need a Commons debate; that is a very recent convention, introduced by one T. Blair. Our last brush with a vote related to Syria, which faltered over a similar quibble regarding legitimacy, ended disastrously.

But, whether you agree with military action or not, why insist on something in a Leader's Speech which - as I pointed out in my review of the speech here - is not remotely on the table, because the Russians (and quite probably the Chinese as well) will veto? And so you will then have to back down on it and look silly?

Because, I'm afraid, one did not think carefully enough about the realpolitik before opening one's mouth.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ed’s speech needed to change the political weather. It didn’t

23 September, 2014: the culmination of four years as leader. Milliband’s last major pitch to lead the country, for this parliament at least.

From now, time can only tell whether it has been the gateway to a whole new vista of politics for Miliband and the keys to No. 10; an attempt to convince his party that he would be still the best option after a narrow defeat; or some kind of a swansong.

Now, the central message of the speech is one which resonates – with the Tories, you’re on your own. The many not the few. We all believe in that, it’s what makes us Labour. And Miliband rightly points up the transparent makeover that David Cameron made of his party, in order to get elected, only to be swiftly ditched shortly thereafter. Good attack lines.

The question is, of course, with eight months to a general election, whether we are perceived as offering a credible, viable alternative. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Cameron's big gamble pays off

Last time a part of Britain wanted to become independent, we sent in the Black and Tans. This referendum really hasn't gone that badly.

My sixteenth piece for the Independent, making that point, is here.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Rotherham abuse is merely yet another facet of the disastrous biraderi politics Labour has nurtured

While Westminster’s attention is distracted by Scotland, it is gradually becoming abundantly clear that the grooming of young, white girls by Pakistani-heritage men goes way beyond Rotherham. Last week Uncut’s Kevin Meagher highlighted the next few likely police targets in Greater Manchester and this Left Foot Forward piece gives a first-hand account of grooming in a town in the South.

The true shock for many was not so much the crimes, horrific though they were. The true shock was the conspiracy of silence around them, both inside the Pakistani community and outside it.

And that is not, one likes to think, because we are intrinsically a nation of racists casting around for a reason to heap abuse on British Pakistanis among us, but mostly for the opposite reason: we didn’t want to believe that there could be a clear link between a particular culture and a particularly nasty crime.

There is a link, of course, but it is not a simplistic one: clearly a small number of Rotherham’s population have not become rapists because of the colour of their skin, or where they worship.

What, then, is that link and why should it be anything to do with Labour?

It’s an uncomfortable question, but it’s also one which we really need to ask.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The Stop the War Coalition should do us all a favour and disband

My fifteenth piece for the Independent, on the perennially dreadful Stoppers, is here.

In this latest episode, they rather unpleasantly pretended that the IS threat to the Yazidis was "a false story". When the male population of a whole village was decimated, this text magically disappeared from their website.

Seems they struggle to criticise even a sect consisting entirely of genocidal freaks.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

This government has tacitly acknowledged its failure on anti-extremism. But Labour should examine its own conscience

Last week in Iraq, American journalist James Foley was murdered by Islamic State.

He was murdered savagely and painfully, and he was not even murdered in supposed punishment for a crime; it was merely to send a message to the West. If that were not enough, they then put a video of the whole killing on YouTube.

It is difficult to find words for the psychotic nature of both the killer and the twisted ideology which drove him, not just to kill, but to kill a quite innocent victim in such a way.

Above all, we should be disturbed to know that the perpetrator, from his accent, is thought to be almost certainly British.

How did we end up here? It is dispiriting enough that you can grow your own terrorists to bomb you, as happened in the London bombings of 2005. But to export your terrorists is, well, a bit careless.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Jihadism – four wrong responses

As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, foreign policy is not something that tends decide one’s electoral success as a British politician. But it is surely a test of one’s statesmanship.

And if that is true, it pains me to say it but the only British political leader so far with a remotely statesmanlike response to current troubles in either Gaza or Iraq has been one David Cameron, who wrote yesterday – correctly – of the pressing need to confront the “poisonous ideology” of ISIS. And you can count on very few fingers the number of times that has been said on this blog. A comprehensive policy statement it is not, but at least it has not left him looking entirely foolish.

It is shame we cannot say that for the other party leaders. It is as if, rather than asking themselves "what can we do to resolve this major problem for the world?" the question becomes "what is my own narrow political interest, and how can I interpret the facts on the ground to defend that position?" Or rather, as we paraphrase below:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

How much Obama really cares about Ukraine

As Russia's tanks approach the Ukrainian border - and a different group of tanks have apparently already crossed it - in a supposed "aid convoy", I was struck yesterday by this fine piece by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, dissecting Obama's foreign policy failures (well, I suppose it's easier than trying to count his successes). The overriding point being the complete absence of strategic thinking. He notes, correctly, that:
To this day, Obama seems not to understand the damage he did to American credibility everywhere by slinking away from his own self-proclaimed red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons.
Quite. It's not just the shabby treatment of the Syrian people: it's the wider impact on the world.

As we have noted here before, the one thing you do not do as leader of the free world is to make a threat and then not carry it out. Because the next time your enemies will push harder, expecting you not to carry out your next threat. It's Geopolitics 101.

But the standout passage from Krauthammer is this one:
Vladimir Putin has 45,000 troops on the Ukraine border. A convoy of 262 unwanted, unrequested, uninspected Russian trucks allegedly with humanitarian aid is headed to Ukraine to relieve the pro-Russian separatists now reduced to the encircled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine threatens to stop it.
Obama’s concern? He blithely tells the New York Times that Putin “could invade” Ukraine at any time. And if he does, says Obama, “trying to find our way back to a cooperative functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term will be much more difficult.”
Is this what Obama worries about? A Russian invasion would be a singular violation of the post-Cold War order, a humiliating demonstration of American helplessness and a shock to the Baltic republics, Poland and other vulnerable U.S. allies. And Obama is concerned about his post-invasion relations with Putin?
It is difficult to fully comprehend the depth of Obama's failure here, to grasp the danger to world order posed by Putin's manoeuvres. Or the fact that, until he gets a reaction from Obama, he will keep on pushing.

I may be wrong but I suspect that Obama is not a great reader of 20th century European history. If he were, he would be aware that his actions more than a little recall Chamberlain, struggling to repair relations with "Herr Hitler" in 1938. While we may reasonably hope that Putin is not as insane as Hitler, it is clear that he has learned something from his and Stalin's totalitarian playbooks. 

Putin, unlike Obama, does not want for strategy.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Labour risks being on the wrong side of history over Islamism

No-one could exactly accuse President Obama of rushing into military action to deal with the resurgent Islamists of ISIS in Iraq, currently massacring local Christians and Yazidis. No, if there were a perfect illustration for the phrase “dragged kicking and screaming”, this would surely be it.

But Iraq’s apparent political and military meltdown is, ironically, drawing the “troops out” Obama administration – and could yet conceivably draw our own – into some kind of ring-fenced, belated rear-guard action in the Middle East. Whatever the rights and wrongs of any such action might be, the cause is, again, the phenomenon which has dominated the first decade-and-a-half of this century’s foreign policy and may yet come to dominate the rest of it: jihadism, the extreme version of political Islam.

As the years have worn on from 9/11 and 7/7, it has been easy for the world to retreat into the comfortable delusion that the threat has gone. It has not. Taking a bit longer in the airport security queue has not made everyone safe. Islamist terrorism is still happening, just not on our shores. And the fundamental problem is not Islam per se, of course; it is Islam as the basis for an illiberal form of politics and government.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Labour is tying itself in knots over Gaza

Britain, it is regularly noted, is an island nation and often behaves accordingly.

It is a feature of modern British politics that, unlike some other countries whose very existence depends on their relations with larger, closer neighbours with whom they share a land border, foreign policy counts for little in the calculations of Westminster life. Elections are certainly not won or lost on it, mainly because polling shows that it features so low on the list of voters’ priorities.

So, a strange phenomenon occurs: since a governing party is chosen to govern based on everything but their foreign policy, one can find that, as the new tenants arrive at No. 10 and the FCO, what results in practice is a bit of a lucky dip. One can equally find the shrill nationalism of a Thatcher; the shameful isolationism of a Major; the strident interventionism of a Blair; or the “I want to, but I can’t” of a Cameron.

It’s a shame, because the world is clearly undergoing one of its most dangerously unstable periods since the Cold War. Syria, Ukraine, Iraq and now Gaza underline how the West is facing two serious threats simultaneously: the rearrangement of geo-political powers into a multi-polar world, its most notable feature the re-emergence of Russia as a foe rather than a friend; and the seemingly ineradicable virus of jihadism.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Tower Hamlets: the net tightens

Regular readers will know that I appear to be slightly obsessed with this small corner of English local government.

Partly, I freely admit, is purely personal: last year its mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ably demonstrated his unfitness to hold public office by wasting the time of his local police in pursuing someone who disagreed with him (i.e. me). Neither was it the first time this had happened - he has also spent over £100,000 of public money pursuing a whistleblower through the courts (a case he lost) and more in trying to stop the current petition against him in the High Court.

But partly it’s because this is important. One of the great things about Britain is that it is remarkably free – relatively speaking – of the widespread graft, fraud and misuse of public funds which infects much democratic politics, even in the developed world. Such a case as Tower Hamlets has probably not been seen since the dark days of Liverpool’s Militant council under Derek Hatton in the 1980s.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Oh, Russia.

"We touched nothing" - Donetsk press conference. Photo: RT
How long did we in the West really think it would be before the Ukraine crisis actually affected our own countries and we had to take our heads out of the sand? 

That moment definitively came last Thursday, with the crash of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH17, apparently shot down by pro-Russian forces. As the Atlantic's David Frum put it, in a magisterial piece:
"Through the past eight months of escalating Russian violence against Ukraine, too many European governments have treated the Ukraine issue as remote and marginal: regrettable, yes, but not a threat to the peace of the continent. It was more important, they felt, to sustain a normal relationship with Russia. That illusion died yesterday along with the murdered passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17."
Whether this was a deliberate, cynical ploy or mere ineptitude, it seems unlikely that such an attack could have been directly sanctioned by Moscow.That said, the blame for initiating and then inflaming the current crisis in Ukraine, to the point where three hundred civilians who had nothing to do with the conflict are needlessly killed, lies squarely at the door of one man: Vladimir Putin. 

And it is not just the fact of the tragedy itself; what makes it somehow incalculably worse is the way the aftermath is being dealt with. 

Putin is not only attempting his usual trick of propaganda war, pretending it was the Ukrainian army and not the pro-Russians. It is what Neil Kinnock might have called the "grotesque spectacle" of access to the crash site by international inspectors being openly hindered. And that is for the obvious reason that the finding of too much evidence, including the black box, by a neutral party (i.e. not by the pro-Russians, who claim risibly "we touched nothing") would give the lie to Moscow's transparent untruths.

As my Humanitarian Intervention Centre colleague, Julie, puts it:
It is for this reason that at this point it seems highly unlikely that the international community will ever know the contents of the flight recorder.

Neither am I hopeful that, even now, faced with the results of what we might call its "ostrich strategy", the West will finally be moved to take action over Ukraine. The talk this morning is of giving Putin "one last chance" - as if somehow all the other last chances had worked so well - and it seems to me increasingly clear that the only way Putin's rampage will be stopped will be through a change of US president.

Oh, Russia.

UPDATE 21JUL: I spoke a little too soon: the Donetsk People's Republic has agreed to hand over the flight recorder to Malaysia. However, we can not yet prove that: 
(a) it has not been tampered with, and 
(b) Malaysia, which is not an entirely free and democratic state in the first place, will not be bullied or bought off by Russia in the meantime.

Forgive my cynicism but Putin has a history of deliberately doing unexpected things in order to confuse his critics and facilitate plausible deniability; this may well be just another. Even in the happy event that neither of these cases come to pass, the black box may not, of course, prove who downed the plane anyway. Let's see.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

SNP and Gaza: why Salmond is not a statesman

If you needed any justification for the argument that Alex Salmond is merely a clever populist, who is probably a couple of months away from seriously overreaching himself, you have only to look at his position on the Gaza, where the Israeli and Gazan forces are currently racking up casualties at an alarming rate.

The abduction and killing of teenagers on both sides has triggered a new phase of bombardments between Israel and Gaza. The immediate result of the current campaign is that a large number of civilian casualties - including significant numbers of children - are occurring, mostly on the Gazan side, as Israel's "protective shield" stops a large proportion of the rockets. 

It's horrible. Palestinians have a decent case for statehood, but this ain't the way to go about it. Worst of all, Hamas leaders are showing a shocking disregard for lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel should certainly be criticised for many things, not least its pig-headedly stupid attitude to settlements in the occupied areas, but at the end of the day it is a democratic power, defending its citizens which are being bombarded by a hail of rockets from Gaza. 

Which are being fired, again, from civilian areas where the apparently expendable citizens of Gaza are being used by their leaders as human shields; leaders who are, incidentally, considered terrorists across the Western world, are not democratic, who oppress women and minorities and are known not just for rockets but their deliberate targeting of civilians and, formerly, suicide bombing.

One can and should always feel solidarity with ordinary Gazans. But not with their leaders. These are not nice people.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

My Twitter zenith, or A Plague On Both Your Houses

After this morning, I think I can retire from Twitter. Oh yes. I now know what it is like to be a minor celebrity.

Yes, after my most successful-ever tweet (below), I felt indecently pleased and smug, in the way that professional writers who have just coined a phrase or politicians who have minted a fine, populist sound-bite must do. How unutterably sad of me.
But to work. The flippant point was a real one: David Cameron betrays an astonishing lack of self-awareness in criticising Britain’s unions for the lack of democratic legitimacy surrounding today’s strikes. After all, he became Prime Minister on the back of the votes of only 23% of the British electorate* (I’m afraid my earlier calculation of 21% was slightly out).

Thursday, 3 July 2014

8 May, 2015: the day-after scenarios

It’s a rollercoaster ride, this one. On the one hand, we continue to have a recovering economy, a relentlessly-downward-trending poll lead and pretty horrific personal polling for the Labour leader. The head of the policy review says “interesting ideas and remedies are not going to emerge through Labour’s policy review”. A well-meant piece on LabourList tries to argue “Why Miliband still matters”. Senior party figures, sensing a possible future leadership contest, are clearly on manoeuvres. The impression of disarray in Labour ranks is hard to avoid.

On the other, we have
Michael Ashcroft’s analysis which shows that, surprisingly, Labour is still ahead in the marginals, where it counts. Incumbent parties do not generally increase their vote-share, either (although neither have we had a coalition for 70 years, so who knows).

Wiser heads realise that this is because the election really is still too close to call, ten months out. We can but set out the possible scenarios, without any real idea which will prevail. Whatever the result, the one thing we can say with a reasonable probability is that no-one is going to get a landslide. And this one thing that we can say, the relative closeness of it all, brings its own consequences.

So, those scenarios.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Obama, chickens, roost

As if neatly to point up the serial failures of Obama's foreign policy, yesterday the UN announced the highest-ever refugee count of the postwar period.

I know. I am just a lowly blogger and not even one of Obama's electors. But these things matter to all of us. The reality is, we all still depend on the US. It still has a special place and responsibility in the world, and will do for a long time yet.

Now, I am not one of those Labourites who gets into a nerdy lather over US politics (full disclosure: I did make the now-traditional pilgrimage to meet the Democrats in 2000 and learned a lot from that trip). In fact, I am not much given to writing about it at all.

But, as a European leftist on the right of his party, I should surely be one of Obama's natural supporters. We believe in many similar things to the Democrats (equality, public services, importance of business, trade unions and so on). I was a big supporter of Bill Clinton and by no means find much common ground with the Republicans.

So why am I left with the inescapable feeling that he is the least capable president since Carter?

Because my foreign policy is that of the Labour Party of yore, of Ernie Bevin: "to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please". It is of solidarity, it is not standing by and watching as the world burns. And I share this with others, similarly disappointed, across the political spectrum, often in a quite non-partisan sense. It is not the policy of Obama.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A decade has passed and the world is in chaos. For all our sakes, can we all move on from 2003, please?

If recent events in Ukraine were not disturbing enough for those who might occasionally worry about the future for their children and grandchildren, one need only now look towards the Middle East, and a little further.

The aftermath of the Arab Spring. Egypt. Syria. An isolated Israel that seems to have lost all hope of establishing a meaningful alliance against a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, and has now ended up forming
stranger ones. A pernicious and persistent strain of Islamism remaining in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan and Nigeria, to name but a few.

And finally, the coup de grâce: the overspill of ISIS Islamists from Syria into large parts of Iraq, threatening, in a symbolic poke in the eye for the West, to realise a long-held goal. A fanatical and oppressive religious autocracy; a Caliphate.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Trojan Horse: politicians from both sides to blame for mismanaging extremism in schools

The row between Michael Gove and Theresa May has - in Westminster, at least - somewhat overshadowed the immeasurably more important news that extremists are operating in our schools. A report out today is expected to put six schools into special measures

With a weary predictability, an idiot writer for - guess who? - the Guardian tried yesterday to pretend it was all a "witch-hunt". It is so clearly not a witch-hunt that one honestly wonders where they find these people.

The most frustrating thing is that the potential for this has been obvious for some time and yet both Labour and Tory politicians have not only ignored it; they have actively encouraged it.

It is true that these are not faith schools (thanks to Greg Pope for making this point). But the faith schools agenda has legitimised and encouraged a relaxed attitude to cultural segregation. And many of our universities have had the same relaxed attitude to on-campus extremism. Extremism in schools has therefore really been only a matter of time.

Gove himself was responsible, as the Centre Left warned three years ago, for leaving schools vulnerable to extremism by allowing them to recruit all teachers from a particular faith, so that there could be no question of balance across a range of worldviews and religions, in the event that a head teacher wanted it so.

But the politician who may well, I'm afraid to say, bear the most responsibility is Tony Blair (yes, you heard me correctly), as I said in that piece. There are very good reasons not to "do God" in politics and, on one of the few occasions when he did, the heavy encouragement of faith schools was the result. It was then, frankly, exacerbated by a more general tolerance towards extremism under Brown.

We can now see where this has all led. It is not a good place.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Newark. Not good.

If you work for a political party at some point in your life, you soon learn that the results of by-elections, as a rule, should not have too much attention paid to them. They are often special cases, with protest voting, or whatever other topical factor. However, every now and then they can throw up something significant, even if it is merely highlighting a risk.

The Newark result last Thursday, where Labour came third after the Tories and UKIP, on a vote-share nearly 5% lower than in 2010, was one such. At this point in the parliamentary cycle, it is clear that a serious challenger needs to be, at minimum, increasing their vote from the last election.

You can't really blame a politician for spinning a result in the best possible way, but the defence from those unfortunate MPs whose job it was to take to the airwaves on Friday, that this decline was down to "the UKIP effect", was weak in two ways. The argument was that there was a tactical vote from UKIP to Tory, to keep out UKIP, which hurt the Labour vote*.

It was a weak argument, first, because we are defining our result with regard to another party as if "the UKIP effect" were an act of God that we can do nothing about. This is the politics of losing. Whatever effect there is now may well be there in twelve months' time and we need to have a way of beating it, if indeed it is the reason.

Second, that the logic is self-defeating. If there is some kind of effect which transfers votes from UKIP to Tory in a parliamentary by-election, tactical or otherwise, we should be pretty worried. And that is because an alternative explanation to tactical voting is simply that Eurosceptic voters decline to waste their vote in a parliamentary election (as opposed to a Euro or council election, which they do not care about), hold their noses and vote Tory. 

Which highlights the risk of a last-minute swing to the Tories at the end of this parliament, which would also fit historical trend, as we have mentioned here before.

Not good. Not good at all.

*for the record, I also heard on Twitter the argument that it was the other way around, that people wanting to hurt the Tories voted tactically for UKIP instead of Labour. The conclusion being that it was rather a convenient excuse, down to [insert reason I just made up]. The apparent complacency of some of Labour's rank and file at this result is in many ways more worrying than politicians defending it, which is, after all, their job.
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