Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cause and effect in Iraq

I'm intrigued by this line of argument that, by revealing the shocking details of the cavalier attitude to human life over the course of the war, WikiLeaks have put service personnel and Iraqis at risk. It could equally be argued that, by withholding shedloads of information that is so clearly in the public interest to reveal, the Americans have forced WikiLeaks' hand, and thus any negative consequences that follow should be considered the Americans' responsibility alone.

Does that sound a bit contrived? Well, yes, frankly it does. But no more, I'd suggest, than the evasions of responsibility we've seen from the US and UK about civilian casualties throughout the conflict. No matter how avoidable or senseless a death was, it seemed, the blame could somehow always be traced back to Saddam Hussein "defying the international community" - either that or to the "turrrst bombers", few of whom actually seemed to be in Iraq until the invasion. Those who have repeatedly run away from the direct and devastating consequences of their own actions are hardly in a position to sanctimoniously lecture others on the same subject.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The test for the decent Lib Dem rank-and-file : at what point do they say 'up with this we will not put'?

Probably all of us who hold (to one degree or another) a partisan political stance are sometimes guilty of making mischief at another party's expense when we know that the true position is at least marginally more nuanced than we care to let on. But my conscience is clear on that score over the last 36 hours or so - I've been genuinely dumbfounded not only by the extent of devastation that is being wreaked on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, but more particularly by the Orwellian attempts to pretend that black is white and that "those with the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden". I had a rare chat about politics with my mother this evening, and her final comment to me was this - "the truly frightening thing is that they're in for the next five years". Well, perhaps - but that isn't a future that's yet set in stone. And this time the people who ultimately get to choose whether it comes to pass aren't the headbanger No Turning Back brigade of the Tory right, but a group of people who for the most part actually care about social justice - the Lib Dem rank-and-file. So, knowing what they now know, why wouldn't they seize the opportunity to put a stop to the horrors that lie in wait?

We've heard all the rationalisations by now. "Coalition is about compromise, not about getting everything you believe in" - OK, but what if the Liberal Democrats could have delivered more of their principles through a cooperative and hardheaded approach to politics outside this government? A more limited confidence-and-supply deal with the Tories would have left them free to join a principled ad hoc alliance with Labour, the nationalist parties and the Greens to vote down the most gratuitously vicious of the welfare cuts announced on Wednesday. As for "we don't want to do this, but we had no choice", that argument is always the last resort of the political scoundrel. Just because the government had to do something about the deficit, it doesn't somehow follow that singling out the very poorest as the group to be squeezed until the pips squeak was unavoidable. That was a choice, and to pretend otherwise not only insults the intelligence of the electorate, it insults the intelligence of those otherwise decent Lib Dems who are frantically pretending to themselves. If they look at this CSR at it truly is, and not the Hollywood version in which glossy graphics are always at hand to magically prove it's all very progressive, can they honestly say that this is what they entered politics to achieve? More pertinently, can they say that it doesn't in many senses represent the polar opposite of what they entered politics to achieve?

And if Scottish Lib Dem members were looking for reassurance last night as their consciences and opinion poll ratings started to prick, they certainly wouldn't have found it in Michael Moore's excruciating appearance on Newsnight Scotland. His remarkable ignorance about (and disinterest in) the impact of the welfare cuts in his designated patch has of course been well-documented, but something else also leapt out at me. When Gordon Brewer asked him if someone on Employment and Support Allowance in a deprived part of Glasgow would have their money cut off if they'd failed to get back into work after one year in spite of their most genuine endeavours, Moore said this -

"we are not going to allow a situation where people get trapped on benefit for year after year"

Bearing in mind the context in which he gave that answer, the only possible inference to draw is that Moore's curious idea of "liberating" people from being trapped on benefit is simply to remove their benefit regardless of whether they have work or not (or indeed any means of properly supporting themselves at all). Of course, there are some on the right of politics who genuinely believe in the brutal logic that if you leave people to sink or swim, many will find a way of swimming. There may even be a grain of truth in that - but inherent in that logic is that if some are bound to sink rather than swim, that's a price worth paying. Again, is that really typical of the values that most Lib Dems came into politics to further? For the Orange Book tendency now at the apex of the party the answer may well be yes, but what about the rest?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Do the media actually own College Green?

Call me naive, but I was actually quite shocked to see this amateur footage of Nick Robinson grabbing and then stamping repeatedly on an anti-war placard that had been held up behind him as he was speaking to camera. Now, if the protester had invaded a news studio, it would have been reasonable enough to confiscate his placard (although even then I'm not sure what the law would say about gratuitous attempts to vandalise or destroy it), but the incident happened on College Green, which to the best of my knowledge is a public space. Just what extra-judicial powers do the media really imagine they have to act against someone who is doing something perfectly legal that they happen to find a bit irritating?

What made Robinson's actions even more unwise, of course, is that by stamping on the placard, he gave the impression to some of expressing a view about the anti-war message itself. That almost certainly wasn't his intention, but as Sunny Hundal points out, would he have dared to risk even the perception of bias had the protest been about a subject that newspapers really care about, like immigration? A bit like the Frankie Boyle incident earlier in the year, the heartening thing here is that the internet now empowers the person who feels they have been wronged by a public figure to bypass the mainstream media, get their side of the story out unmediated, and then allow the public to make up their own minds. I think the protester's mistake in the video, though, was to confront Robinson about expressing pro-war views, which let him off the hook as it hadn't been established that this is what he'd been doing. A charge of 'stamping on the public's right to free expression' would have been a lot trickier to answer.

YouGov : SNP trim Labour's list vote lead by five points

At long last, there is a new full-scale Scottish opinion poll out. It was conducted by YouGov for the Scotsman, and makes slightly more encouraging reading for the SNP than the figures from early September, when Labour enjoyed a comfortable ten-point lead on both ballots. Here are the full figures -

Constituency vote :

Labour 40% (+1)
SNP 34% (+5)
Conservatives 14% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-3)

List vote :

Labour 36% (-)
SNP 31% (+5)
Conservatives 15% (-)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-4)
Greens 6% (-)

The Scotsman's reporting of the story focuses on two points - that Labour is "maintaining" its "solid" lead over the SNP, and that the Lib Dems are finally taking the long-anticipated hit for going into coalition with the Tories. But this seems to me to miss an obvious point - not only have the SNP eaten into Labour's lead somewhat, but on the face of it that extra support seems to have come directly from the Westminster coalition parties, while Labour have remained roughly static. That may be a wholly misleading impression, but equally it could offer some grounds for optimism about what might happen if the coalition's (and especially the Liberal Democrats') support is squeezed yet further. Either way, I'm sure most SNP supporters will just be relieved to note that this poll shows them still very much in the game.

Another concern facing enthusiasts for the nascent Iain "the Snarl" Gray/Tavish Scott Dream Team is that, on these figures for the Liberal Democrats, such a coalition may quite simply not be arithmetically viable - even if Labour emerge as the largest party. A second consecutive minority government (of one colour or another) is looking somewhat more likely tonight.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wizard Osborne heals the sick and keeps people younger for longer

After the Budget speech or other important government announcements, there's always an irritating period of spin and Chinese whispers during which it's impossibly hard to nail down what the changes really mean. That applies a million times over today following the Bullingdon Boys' gleeful torching of civilisation as we know it. But, just to be getting on with, a couple of things leap out -

1) The removal of 'contributory Employment and Support Allowance' (ie. incapacity benefit) after someone has claimed for one year. Now, if Osborne thinks he can legislate to limit sickness or certain forms of disability to a duration of one-year, perhaps he can also put his powers of sorcery to further use by legislating to reduce the UK's annual rate of rainfall. Alternatively, he's just sacrificed any credibility this government ever had as a "progressive" administration, by decoupling the eligibility for lifeline benefits from people's true needs.

2) The limiting of housing benefit for single people under the age of 35. Discrimination against people on the basis of their youth always carries the suspicion of injustice, but if it's going to be justified at all it surely has to be restricted to a very narrow age range in which overwhelming numbers can objectively be seen to fall into a special category, ie. full-time education or training. As the BBC puts it, everyone up to the age of 35 has suddenly become a student in Osborne's eyes.

Moray's punishment for voting SNP?

I'm starting to wonder if my old sparring-partner, Aberdeenshire Tory activist ChristinaD, is finally losing what little there was left of the plot. A few hours ago, she launched this astonishing attack on the SNP and the people of Moray for daring to take issue with the likely closures of RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth -

"The lying littel toe rag!! [She means Alex Salmond.] You have a constituency with not one, but two airbases. You demand a commitment from the UNITED KINGDOM MOD to fund and keep open both bases. You have an economic meltdown and the Nimrods grounded. And you even have someone launch an inquiry into the economic importance of these airbases.

So what do the electorate of Moray do, they could vote for anyone of three various Union/MOD/UK military presence supporters. Or anyone who might actually get voted into government with the accompanying power or influence. But they didn’t, they voted SNP. Yep, they voted for independence. And the very ‘independent’ SNP MP vowed to fight for the Westminster government to retain its presence in his constituency. You cannot buy that kind of hypocrisy."

Rather startled by the implications of this outburst, I asked her if she was really saying that people had been punished by the Tories for voting the 'wrong' way. She was in a hole, but did she stop digging?

"You have to love the Scottish way of life. You can stick two fingers up at the United Kingdom, but if the United Kingdom takes you at your word, they are punishing you."

Now I fully appreciate that Christina is not an official Tory spokeswoman (more's the pity for all the other parties) but even so, if this vindictive attitude towards the electorate is at all typical of their activists, it's little wonder they've got such an enduring problem in Scotland.

Incidentally, implying that the SNP aren't allowed to believe in military bases simply because an independent Scotland wouldn't be part of the British armed forces is approximately as silly as saying that the SNP aren't allowed to believe in postal delivery because an independent Scotland wouldn't be part of the British Royal Mail.

The Harris paradox revisited

For the second night in a row, a post from Tom Harris that vividly (and unwittingly) illustrates the extent of his muddled thinking on the underlying principles of electoral reform -

"RENEWAL of Trident was supported by the 65 per cent of the electorate who voted either Labour or Tory in May.

Ah, but you see, that was before the era of The New Politics of democracy, accountability and transparency...

This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of nuclear weapons, or the cost of Trident. It’s about democracy, or rather, the lack of such in the era of coalition government."

Now, wait just a cotton-pickin' minute here. "Democracy" demands that Trident must be immediately renewed, because the combined vote for two parties that backed the policy was greater than 50%? That is - no ifs, no buts - the logic of proportional representation. Indeed, it's indistinguishable from the argument that it would have been perfectly democratic for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to form a government in May, on the grounds that they had more than 50% of the popular vote between them. And yet Tom had a rather severe problem with that view, as I recall.

Someone needs to urgently take Tom by the hand and remind him how this first-past-the-post malarkey that he's so keen on actually works - the minority is supposed to get its way at all times. I think perhaps he misunderstood the rules, and imagined that they only apply when the minority policy being advanced is right-wing, illiberal or militarist. To be fair to him, that's usually how it pans out, so the confusion is probably understandable.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The loneliest branch of unionism

It's been far too long, but the good news can now ring out - self-styled 'liberal unionist' Northern Ireland blogger Owen Polley (aka Chekov) is firmly back on Broken Record Duty, railing against unionists in the Northern Ireland Executive for making common cause with the Evil Nats in Scotland and Wales against the just and benevolent cuts being handed down by our masters in London -

"Certainly, by a nationalist analysis, the current government draws its strongest endorsement to cut spending from England. Even the most nominal unionist, however, will respect that its mandate to tackle the deficit encompasses the entire United Kingdom...The government has to look at the UK economy as a whole, it cannot sacrifice the greater good to the needs of the periphery.

No-one would seriously suggest that politicians from Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales should not put their regions’ respective cases forcibly. However self-styled unionists should, at the very least, refrain from undermining the very basis of Westminster’s sovereignty over the United Kingdom. Allying with nationalists, against the national interest, is a fundamentally anti-Union act."

Hmmm. I think what Owen is really trying to tell us here is that it's OK for the devolved governments to make their "regions'" case, just so long as they have the decency to do it ineffectively. Heaven forbid that they should come up with a strategy that actually has a chance of making an impact. But small hint - if such a common cause strategy really were so apocalyptic in its potential effects as to "undermine the very basis of Westminster's sovereignty over the United Kingdom", I have a feeling there might just be a law against it or something.

As I've mentioned before, I never cease to be entertained by Owen's apparent belief that he can vanquish the Evil Nats on the linguistic battlefield, by relentlessly putting Scotland in its place as a mere 'region'. His fellow unionists in Scotland gave up the ghost on that one years ago - did no-one send Owen the memo? Ah well, the sheer loneliness of the fight makes it all the more plucky, I suppose. But I'd gently suggest that the logical consistency of some of his terminology still needs a fair bit of work. For instance, how can people called "nationalists" be working against the "national interest"? If what they're doing is working for a regional interest against the national interest, doesn't that instead make them "regionalists"? Come on, Owen, get it sorted - the "nation" is relying on you.

Clegg's imperfect choice was for long-term irrelevance

Via Liberal Democrat Voice, I came across this extraordinary defence of the party's conduct in government from Julian Glover in the Guardian -

"Riled, Lib Dems are making a poor job of defending themselves. They are embarrassed to speak confidently – not so much because of the deal they did, better than anyone guessed before the election, but because they never presented themselves as deal-makers. Instead, they presented themselves as tellers of fantastical truths, signing pledges on tuition fees the leadership never thought they’d need to return to. That was the worst of the Lib Dems: indulging an unworkable policy that amounted to an unaffordable middle-class subsidy dressed up as principle.

Some of the voters won over by such things are angry. Many have decided to support Labour instead. Fair enough: many Lib Dem voters – and many members too – were content with the perfection of irrelevance. Clegg, though, is dealing with the imperfection of power."

To translate roughly : if you're caught bang to rights breaking a straightforward and solemn election pledge, the immaturity lies not in the breach of trust, but in having made the pledge in the first place. Reading that, is it any wonder that the public are so cynical about the values of the political class?

As far as the Lib Dems' previous stance on tuition fees being 'unworkable' is concerned, it's only unworkable if you happen to be in coalition with a party that for ideological reasons could never make the tough choices that would make it workable. Moreover, it's a little too convenient to gloss over the crucial distinction here - a compromise on the pledge to abolish tuition fees within six years is the sort of thing the public could easily have accepted as reasonable in the forging of a coalition. But the bit of the pledge that was almost literally signed in blood - and thus should have been regarded as utterly sacred - was the promise to actively vote against any increase in the fees. Whether Glover cares to acknowledge it or not, that was scarcely undoable if the will (not to mention the integrity) had been there.

And what about 'irrelevance'? By signing up for the coalition without a referendum on even the weakest form of proportional representation, Clegg was consciously accepting the likelihood of continued irrelevance for his party in exchange for his own day in the sun. A majoritarian voting system delivered sixty-five years of single-party Labour or Tory rule until this current blip - that ought to give even the most myopic Lib Dems pause for thought about the long-term consequences of having settled for the prospect of another majoritarian voting system.

Second preferences are second preferences - unless you're Tom Harris, obviously...

One thing I find quite amusing about Tom Harris' rabid opposition to even the most trivial electoral reform is that every time he opens his mouth on the subject he reveals just how hopelessly (or perhaps willfully) he misunderstands it. Tonight he's trying to incite the Labour NEC to expel Ken Livingstone for helping the campaign of Lutfur Rahman, who is standing against the official Labour candidate for the mayoralty of Tower Hamlets. (Would it be too cynical of me to suggest that Tom has yet to reconcile himself to the prospect of a non-Blairite Labour candidate for London mayor in 2012, and is desperately scrabbling around for a get-out clause?) The point is that Livingstone was merely campaigning for second preference votes for Rahman, who he felt had been wrongly deselected by Labour after being chosen by party members as the official mayoral candidate. Tom regards this as a self-evidently lame excuse, and goes on to assert that "even in a ballot conducted under the Alternative Vote, Labour Party members should only campaign for the Labour candidate".

This is plainly nonsensical. It was Labour that gave people two preferences - and yet it's supposed to only want them to use one? A second preference vote, regardless of which candidate it is for, cannot possibly harm the official Labour candidate as long as the first preference vote was for him. Does Tom understand this simple principle? I think there are two possibilities - either he doesn't, or he is extremely keen to sow confusion in the minds of others about it. Actually, his post is rather revealing about one of his true reasons for being such a reform-phobe - clearly he cannot stomach any change that undermines the absolutist partisan tribalism he needs for comfort. "I can vote for Labour, and for someone else as well? I feel faint!"

In contrast, I doubt Tower Hamlets voters will have thought any less of Livingstone for being capable of thinking beyond the party line now and again, and indeed, if the party hierarchy are mature enough to accept the perfectly rational justification for his display of free-thinking, the incident might even end up helping Labour's image by extension. Something else that Tom would doubtless find utterly incomprehensible.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Labour's presumption comes unstuck

I was on Twitter for the first time in ages today, and I was intrigued to spot this so-called "top tweet" from the sainted Kezia Dugdale -

"Ha - "Let's stick together" is an unfortunate theme tune for #SNPConf in light of commitment to breaking up Britain!"

Now, I'm quite sure Kezia and her Labour retweeters were convinced they had spotted a connection there that would never have occurred to a Nat in a million years - but in fact the very first thing that leapt out at me when I heard the choice of 'theme tune' was that it's near-identical in sentiment to Altogether Now, Labour's pick for the 1999 election when they were attempting to draw a sharp distinction between their own values and the SNP's plans for "divorce" (yawn). Given the care that goes into these decisions, I doubt the similarity is entirely a coincidence, and all I can say is - what a stroke of absolute genius. It boldly colonises campaigning territory that Labour always presumptuously imagined to be its very own - unity, cohesion, solidarity.

The party election broadcasts that accompanied The Farm's ditty in 1999 were, if I recall, somewhat stomach-churning, featuring lots of images of Donald Dewar tugging his forlock (figuratively speaking) in the presence of Tony Blair. The intended message could hardly have been less subtle - "working together" and "cooperation" meant that devolution could only be a cosmetic development, with the old chain of command remaining exactly as it was before. I'd say it was high time that the Scottish electorate were presented with a rather more inspiring vision of national solidarity than an intention to defer to the wisdom of grown-ups in London at every conceivable opportunity.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

'Independence is not everything'

A sentiment which many of the fundamentalists within his own party have of course long suspected Alex Salmond of treacherously harbouring, so it's somewhat ironic that his uttering of those words at the SNP conference heralded a reorienting of the party's strategy towards making a full-blooded case for independence. It's a paradox that in order to do that you really have to start off by declaring that independence is not the be-all-and-end-all, but as the First Minister acknowledged in his speech, it's quite possible that many people are under the false impression that nationalists do merely hanker after the sterile trappings of statehood, such as flags and anthems. In fact, I'd go further - I'd suggest that impression is so deeply entrenched for some voters that they will be extremely resistant when they hear Salmond make a passionate case for independence in economic and social justice terms. They'll instinctively suspect that this is a phoney after-the-fact rationalisation for the nationalist impulse.

So what can the party do in the face of such scepticism? The successful 2007 strategy was to essentially opt-out of the problem - using the prospect of the referendum to 'quarantine' the issue of independence, and instead making the election about what could be achieved within the devolved powers of the parliament as they stood, or possibly as they would be under 'devo plus'. Make no mistake, if today's speech was a declaration of intent, that strategy is now defunct, and the SNP's mission will in future be to tackle head-on the cynicism and apathy encountered in various segments of the electorate about the cause of independence. It's a mammoth task, and perhaps even one that is not wholly achievable in the space between now and the election - but making a start now could pay long-term dividends, regardless of who wins power in May. I'm sure the SNP leadership have been acutely aware for some time that a strategy designed to secure a referendum on independence could be spectacularly counter-productive if the groundwork to win that referendum has not been done in time.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps one thing we can be grateful to Labour for is that in their foolishness of replacing Wendy Alexander's (admittedly chaotic) imagination on the subject of a referendum with Iain "the Snarl" Gray's knee-jerk rejectionism, they may well have bought the SNP more time to make their case. Due to the economic climate, winning a referendum on the planned date this year would have been a long-shot - it looks like Salmond, shrewd gambler that he is, is resolved to ensure that the odds are firmly in the SNP's favour whenever the referendum does finally come.

Firing speaks louder than outrage

I'm slightly bemused to see newspapers still devoting serious analysis to the ramifications for women in the business world of the catfight on last week's episode of The Apprentice. The controversy started with Karren Brady's boardroom outburst at the candidates "letting themselves down" as role models for their gender - but that anger might have seemed a tad less synthetic if Alan Sugar hadn't then gone on to fire just about the only person who hadn't significantly contributed to the stooshie (specifically for remaining too quiet), and had Brady not gone on to back that decision to the hilt. It seemed even more perverse given that the 'project manager' Laura had made a key mistake that was clearly decisive in her team's defeat (refusing to grant exclusivity on their product to Boots), but had been subsequently let off the hook by Sugar solely on the grounds that her team had been unmanageable. How, then, could he possibly justify his decision not to fire someone who had actually been responsible for the arguments?

In truth, if the candidates hadn't been tearing each other's hair out in the boardroom, Sugar would have been goading them to do just that - as we've seen on many, many previous occasions. For all the going-through-the-motions of piously branding the catfight "outrageous", it's clear that as far as actual firing offences in Sugar-world is concerned, being relatively polite and civilised is the far graver sin. There's no mystery as to where the women were taking their cue from.