Monday, 30 June 2008

Climate change- the issue of our time

96% of respondents disagreed with the statement, "my home energy bill needs to rise to help combat climate change," in a Yougov poll reported in The Independent today. The same piece reports an Ernst and Young estimate that bills will have to rise by an average £213 to meet the Government's targets (though, given that it's bad news, the E&Y report says 'the EU's'- that's just the formula I'm afraid.)

There is no further political advantage to be gained from being green for either of the two main parties. Green politics played a central role in the de-toxification and re-brand of Cameron's Conservatives. It wasn't the issues in and of themselves. It was that they served a semiotic function. This was a new party that could talk about new politics- specifically the environment- in a refreshing way. Job done. No further advantage to be had.

Similarly, the Government's renewable energy policy announced last week will not secure it political advantage. It simply neutralises the Tory surge in this area. It is the right policy and it has rightly received a positive reaction in the liberal press. That's it. No further advantage to be had.

It is ultimately going to be one or both of these parties that has to confront that 96% figure. So why try to grab minuscule political gains in this area when there is bigger prize on offer? What is the bigger prize? Doing the right thing. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition need to say in clear terms, perhaps on the same platform (gosh, aren't we grown up!):

"Climate change is deadly serious, we know that you are hurting from increased energy prices, we have different ideas about how to make it easier for you, but let's be clear, we are stood in absolute unity on this, we have a stark choice that is no-one's fault, it's just that the earth's resources can't keep pace with the current rate of economic expansion. That choice is to make the adjustment now and see energy prices increase, or don't and they will rise anyway to unimaginably high levels AND we will continue to trash the environment which will lead to millions of deaths, disease, starvation, who knows what it will do to our climate, and will lead to wars and untold human suffering. That's the choice, we all need to do our bit. There are some things that are beyond politics and this is one of them. It's not all bad though. If we make the adjustment we'll create lots of jobs in green technologies and that will make us a more prosperous nation. We stand united on this issue. Thank you."

This may all seem crazy but that 96% figure is terrifying. It can only be confronted on the basis of a genuine, cross-party, political consensus. Unless we enter into a proper national dialogue politicians of all different colours will have to bear the periodic and volatile consequences. The need for national and international consensus has scarcely been more important than it is on this issue. Climate change is the issue of our time.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Michael Ballack's unique treble

Premier League runners-up medal, Champions League runners-up medal, European Championship runners-up medal. Well done Michael. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Just because I can't resist, here is the post I wrote at the beginning of the tournament predicting that Spain would win (and making fun of the Guardian's prediction of the Netherlands):

Viva Espagna!

Player of the tournament? It was Senna for me.

Post script: Did anyone else enjoy Marcel Desailly's analysis at half-time on the BBC? He suggested that a Spanish side that had almost completely dominated the first half with a superbly accomplished footballing display weren't playing with personality and that Aragones should take off a midfielder and bring on another forward. It was insane. I hope for the sake of my licence fee that he is on a very short-term contract. Another (former) Chelsea player you will note.

Crying wolf over Obama's 'betrayals'

Another piece, in The Observer this time, draws attention to Obama's apparent political re-positioning. A similar argument is made in the LA Times. The liberal left often seems at its most comfortable when screaming betrayal at one of their own and so it will be with Barack Obama.

As I argued a couple of days ago, these accusations do not have much depth to them. What the argument amounts to is that his language on issues like Iran, Nafta, and Iraq has become 'more moderate' and his attitude towards recent Supreme Court judgements is not conventionally liberal. Michael Crowley's piece in the The Observer makes reference to a recent Rolling Stone interview of the presumed presidential nominee where he reveals his eclectic taste in music. Strange then that in the same interview Barack Obama is asked how to judge him at the end of his first term and he said:
Obama: "If I haven't gotten combat troops out of Iraq, passed universal health care and a new energy policy that speaks to our dependence on foreign oil and deals seriously with global warming, then we've missed the boat."
Seems pretty explicit on Iraq. Some will make much of the 'combat' qualifier on troops but this is consistent with where he's been positioned previously.

Michael Crowley sees Obama's alleged political re-positioning (as opposed to a rhetorical re-positioning) as a direct pitch to independent voters amongst whom McCain is in the lead. Firstly, it is worth saying that a lot of these 'independent' are actually Republican. There is currently a shift from Republican identification to independent identification as a result of the disastrous performance of the Bush administration.

More importantly, it would be crazy not to have the construction of a winning coalition in mind in all this but, given 22 debates with Senator Clinton, goodness knows how many hours of speeches, press and TV interviews, any substantive shifting of his positions will be walloped by the McCaincampaign and the media. He's anchored and that's it.

He is doing the right things and he is running a highly professional but principled political campaign. Let's just be careful about throwing around accusations of betrayal that don't have much behind them. If he did fundamentally shift by, for example, capriciously reversing his commitment to engage in dialogue with America's adversaries, then criticism would be justified. In the meantime, let's not cry wolf. All that does is prick up the ears of the Republican wolf in the forest.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The alternative

Just in case you want to juxtapose the opposition, here's John McCain. This man can inspire (in a sarcastic tone- don't know how to convey that in text!)

Hillary, you MEGAstar

Unity in Unity, New Hampshire.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Political enthusiasm

Democrats always start off well so Barack Obama's early lead could evaporate quickly. But a very interesting stat in the latest LA Times poll:

Are you enthusiastic towards your candidate?

Barack Obama Yes=81%, No=17%
John McCain Yes=45%, No=51%

Here's the analysis:

Love in the fight against crime

If Danny Kruger is an intellectual driving force behind Cameronism, things could get quite interesting. As the author of Cameron's notorious 'hug-a-hoodie' speech, Kruger has put his money where his mouth is and now works with his wife in a charity that rehabilitates offenders using the performing arts to engage them. The charity is called Only Connect and its work sounds inspiring and successful.

In an article in this week's Spectator, Kruger stands by his 'a little love' argument and actually develops it further. Perhaps 'love' was the wrong way to describe it and trivialised the broader point that we shouldn't pursue only punitive measures against young people who are finding themselves in educational, personal, or legal difficulty. Perhaps if he had called for 'more personal care and attention' it might have got a fairer hearing. His expansion of the argument in The Spectator gives us a better insight into where he is coming from.

He criticises, rightly, the middle class who are happy to provide the market for drugs locking the less fortunate in this illicit and illegal trade. He argues that we should not condemn a whole generation of the disenfranchised young to large scale state institutions, whether they be prisons or impersonal inner city comprehensives. Overall, he argues that we somehow have to wean the powerless off the welfare and drug dependency that imprisons them. We do not do this by punishing them (which they are almost happy to see as a legitimisation of their active failure) but by engaging them.

It's an interesting and powerful argument. It is also an idea that could create a new climate in British politics on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. We can not simply allow whole groups of young people to remain on the outside of society. For our sake sure. More importantly, for their sakes as well.

Good policy!

Two good policy announcements in two days. Good.

1. Equal rights

Disclosure of pay scales, legally protecting employers who seek to balance their workforce by favouring female or ethnic minority candidates in otherwise equal circumstances, and outlawing age discrimination in goods and services, is an incredibly radical and visionary set of policies. They will be introduced in an Equalities Bill.

It is barmy to suggest that the gender pay gap is only because of child bearing and rearing (it is in large part but it is not the whole story.) Just take the City of London for example- there is a constant flow of cases to Employment Tribunals where women have consistently been passed over for promotion or rewarded less favourably than their male colleagues despite being brilliantly talented and postponing the start of their families. Tougher action and public shaming are needed.

2. Renewable energy

It is an EU policy driven commitment to raise the renewable share of our energy consumption to 15% by 2020. The Government is straight on the case with a forthright response. We have a lot of catching up to do but hopefully the conducive environment envisioned in the renewable energy policy will create a greener Britain and place us in the vanguard of global green technology. Britain as the green workshop of the world? I like that thought.

Obama's 'betrayals'....

Liberals are getting to stuck into Barack Obama for a series of positions that he has adopted that could be interpreted as political manoeuvring. Michael Tomasky takes issue with this, arguing that winning is a principle in itself.

I have already argued that refusing public funding was the right thing for Obama to do: it engages people in his campaign in huge numbers and, more expediently (but this is politics ladies and gentleman) could enable enable him to protect and build a more secure Democratic position in Congress, and lay the foundations for Democratic domination of US politics for some time.

His condemnation of the Supreme Courts decision to oppose the death penalty for child rapists is consistent with previous positions that he has adopted on the issue. Even the support for the 'clarification' provided by the Supreme Court yesterday, which outlawed Washington DC's ban on handguns is consistent with his previous positions. Ultimately, he is a constitutionalist and Amendment 2 of the US constitution is at best ambiguous, a seemingly qualified right to bear arms as it is. It can be read either way, and Obama respects the Supreme Court as a constitutional authority on this.

There is, however, a contradiction between the two positions he has adopted on these two Supreme Court judgements that can't be ignored: going with the Supreme Court on one and against on another. My suspicion is that there is some politics in his condemnation of the Supreme Court on the death penalty for child rapists. He can be forgiven for that- remember the Willie Horton ads which brought Michael Dukakis crashing down in 1988?

I wouldn't go quite as far as Michael Tomasky in arguing that winning is a political 'principle.' However, Obama can be forgiven for the position he has adopted on this. Anything else would not change a single thing, would have no chance of changing a single thing even if he were President (it's a Supreme Court judgement.......!), and could potentially cause major harm to his bid for the Presidency. Do we really want it to be John McCain who replaces the elderly Justices who currently occupy the Supreme Court? Absolutely not.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Looking for gold in a coal mine

Why on earth is Jeremy Heywood trawling the Civil Service for a good speechwriter? I doubt there's a single Civil Servant who can write decent political prose. It's rather like looking for gold in a coal mine.

If you want a good speechwriter, look no further than Phil Collins, Blair's man with the golden pen. See the wonders that he did in a brilliant speech he wrote with James Purnell last week. Blair's final conference speech is one of the best political speeches I can remember in recent years if not the best.

Yes, I know he stuck the boot in a few times in a recent article in Prospect. But if Labour is still a Government of all the talents, then Phil is the guy. Carter, get Collins.

Cameron Conservatives?

A poll released by Conservative Home about the political attitudes of Conservative party candidates demonstrates the unfinished nature of the Cameron revolution. It is quite clear that there has been a process of creeping Cameronisation but it seems less than wholehearted. This poll is important because, should the Conservative party make large gains at the next election, this cadre of candidates will be MPs in the next Parliament.

How would you describe them? It's a bit of a mixed and sometimes contradictory bag. On issues of family, they are socially conservative: strongly support lowering of the abortion limit, support the tax system recognising marriage, and support the right of Catholic abortion agencies to refuse same-sex partners (this last one was based on a slightly smaller sample.) On issues of security and justice, they face a number of ways: oppose capital punishment even in the case of the murder of a police officer and strongly oppose the extension of the pre-charge detention limit. In all of this, there is nothing that fundamental differentiates them from Cameron is positioned.

Interestingly though, they care much more about terrorism than the environment.

This last point demonstrates the one area where Cameronism has not caught the imagination of his party, even amongst those who want to represent it in Parliament. On the environment the candidates would refuse to tax cars and airlines more even if it means reducing taxes on lower income families.

When you see that 85% of the candidates believe that the party should become the champion of the lower-paid worker by reducing their tax bill, you have to take it with a slight pinch of salt. They would not be willing to do that on the basis of an increase in taxes on cars and airlines. So is this concern for the least well-off just political positioning rather than deeply held conviction?

If I was David Cameron looking at these results, I would be quite concerned actually. My message is clearly getting across and my candidates seem to be going along with it. However, the conviction seems in many critical areas- the environment, welfare- to have a very soft under-belly. When the going gets tough, as it inevitably will, I will face some difficulty here and the welfare/ environmental aspects of my agenda, i.e. the stuff that has returned me to the mainstream, is going to be difficult to sustain. Oh, and that David Davis seems to have struck a cord as well.

To refrain a Labour mantra of a few years ago, a lot done, Mr Cameron, a lot to do.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Obama's all-out attack

There has been much controversy about Barack Obama's refusal of public funds for his campaign. Public funds come with Federal spending limits of $84million and Obama's phenomenal fundraising power dictates that he would be foregoing serious campaign capital if he accepted them. Obama's campaign had raised $265million by the end of April from a mind-blowing 1.4million donors.

Many see Obama's refusal as a betrayal. That is an overly harsh assessment. The point about Obama's fundraising is that it is fuelled by millions of small donations rather than heavy fundraising from a limited number of sources. What this means in practice is that his campaign finance doesn't come with a political price tag unlike a candidate who is heavily financed by lobbyists, corporate interests, wealthy donors, and Political Action Committees. The more than 1million donors to his primary campaign are engaging in an active and constructive way with the democratic process and that is ultimately very different to the corrosive chicken dinner and K Street deal mode of raising campaign finance of the past.

John McCain will accept public finding and the $84million spending limit. He is no angel on this either. He declined Federal matched funds for his primary campaign (which come with a $50million or so spending limit) having said that he would apply for them. Expediency cuts across the political spectrum. Moreover, the $84million spending limit only applies once he is officially the candidate come September. He can raise and spend money with impunity until then and he will.

Now, what is Senator Obama going to use this massive pool of campaign cash for? This is where things get really interesting. An interview with Obama's Deputy Campaign Manager, Steve Hildebrand, reported on, reveals that the strategy is to focus resources on fourteen states that George Bush won in 2004. He will defend the previous blue (Democratic) states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Alongside that, he will make a play for fourteen of 2004's red states: Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Georgia and Alaska. He will also try to pick up some votes in Nebraska where electoral votes are distributed in accordance with congressional district votes. At the very least, this focus of resources will turn John McCain on his heels- they can't afford to suppose that all this is just an elaborate Obama bluff.

Even more interestingly, Obama is going to target certain congressional districts in the hope of shoring up Democratic dominance in the House of Representatives by winning seats in places such as Wyoming. He will also look to win the Texas state Legislature ahead of congressional re-districting in 2010.

Essentially, the Obama campaign strategy is tremendously ambitious and well-resourced. It is worth contemplating when feeling a bit squeamish about his eschewing of public funds that this is built on the largest pool of donors ever amassed which enable the most ambitious electoral strategy ever. If it works, this strategy will secure the Presidency, Congress, and build the foundations of a Democratic epoch.

The dangers of social mobility

Here is a piece I had on The Indy's Open House yesterday about 'social mobility':

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


An absolutely ripper of a comment by Danny Finkelstein at The Times yesterday. He gives us a glimpse of his planet-sized brain and explains the five hot trends in political thinking. But something links them all. They are not really political, philosophical or economic philosophies at all. They are all grounded in social psychology.

It's a fascinating place for politics to start. Rather than propose grand world views and all-encompassing ideologies, why not actually start from analysing what people are really like then design public policy around that? If only I'd taken the psychology option at university rather than political economy then I could really get stuck into this. Instead, I've got a mountain of reading to do....On second thoughts, I'll just keep my eye on Mr Finkelstein.

Work kills

As you finish off your cornflakes and dash for the bus for work this morning, you may not want to dwell on a report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies about the hazards of working. You are more likely to die in an occupational accident than be murdered and you are more likely to be seriously injured at work than you are as a victim of crime. There were over 1,000 deaths at work in 2005-06 while 765 people were murdered in the same year. Horrific when you think about it.

The report goes on the criticise the performance of the Health and Safety Executive. It is obvious to see why corporate manslaughter legislation was needed but it is clear that the HSE needs to raise its game as well. Deregulation or self-regulation is fine. When there are so many deaths resulting from slack corporate enforcement, however, it is time to re-regulate....and fast.

Monday, 23 June 2008

How to be successful in life

I don't know how I'm going to get a book deal for this but it's very simple: start off every Monday with a double espresso and read Charlie Brooker's column. There will be no stopping you. Already my rage and fury at key parts of my B&Q gas burner BBQ being missing has been forgotten. I am writing a paper on european policy and it already reads like a cross between J.G.Ballard at his most psychedelic and Metal Gear Solid 4 on heat. European policy!

Now for another 100,000 words to get that book deal sorted.

Why free trade agreements don't work

A constant refrain of euro-sceptics is that the Europe we signed up for was just basically a glorified free trade area. Well, that is just historically inaccurate but what underlies it, and is also an under-current in Conservative thinking about Europe is that a free trade agreement would be preferable to the EU that we have. Without the encumbrance of political union, free trade would benefit all the nations of Europe without them having to cede any political 'sovereignty.'

Such a Europe could never work and here's why. Senators Joe Biden (for Obama) and Lindsey Graham (for McCain) debated NAFTA in the context of the US Presidential election on Meet the Press yesterday. Biden's point was that NAFTA should be re-negotiated with the threat of a US pull-out if Canada and Mexico refused. The failing of NAFTA for Biden and Obama is that it permits free trade with no requirement for Canada and Mexico to raise their environmental and labour standards to US levels. Not only that but the new standards would require some form of enforcement. The transcript and video are available below.


So its interesting after only a decade or so of NAFTA, US liberals are now calling for a fair market with enforcement. Well, they are behind the times. The founders of the European Economic Community understood the politics of international trade acutely and that is why they built a free trade area with a political and legal dimension.

The experience of the US with NAFTA is exactly why the European Commission and the European Court of Justice exist and have legal authority. If anyone argues that these things are just petty bureaucratic interfering or even worse, a challenge to our national interest and sovereignty then it is worth just pointing them in the direction of NAFTA and they will see their necessity.

Much like the founding fathers of the US republic, the founders of the EEC got it pretty much right. They left the EU with a democratic deficit that it has been struggling with ever since and is still struggling with. On building a Europe that had a chance of effectiveness and political survival, however, they were spot on. Europe goes beyond environmental and labour standards into consumer protection, competition regulation, employment equality, and work-life balance. It is a free and fair trade area.

If it's to have a long term chance of success NAFTA will have to head in the same direction. Instead of NAFTA being held up as an exemplar for Europe. It is the EU that should be held up as an exemplar for NAFTA.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Silly season comes early

There is something surreal about Shami Chakrabarti's faux outrage at Andy Burnham'scomments regarding her dealings with David Davis. Some of the reaction is a tad over-the-top also. Alix Mortimer over at Liberal Conspiracy is one who is taking this all a bit seriously and the Tory and Lib Dem spokespeople are joining in with the faux outrage.

Of course, Shami Chakrabarti is just using Andy Burnham's rather unfunny comments (I'm amazed if people see them as anything other than that) to gain a few newspaper columns and airtime for herself and her cause. Fair enough, that's the game.

Anyway, she has certainly given the comments a good airing. Everyone would have read this edition of Progress magazine eventually because everyone does. Good then that the comments were so powerfully rebutted or what might people have thought?

This is all rather silly.

Thursday, 19 June 2008


What a great word. I have to say that I've never heard it before but I was very quickly reaching for my dictionary on reading Timothy Garton Ash's comment piece in the Guardian this morning.

I am now going to use it at every possible opportunity over the next few days before it bores me immensely. It will then join the list of other words that I have over-enthused over, used, and then dumped. Gallimaufry will join the ranks of scintilla, cornucopia, ostensible and so on. In fact, I'm a bit bored of it already- it might not last to the third date.

Anyway, back to Garton Ash's piece. His argument is that the EU is basically going to have wing it following the Irish 'no.' Well, I'm sure that's the case. But why not argue the case rather than simply going into institutional deal-making? Why don't pro-Europeans get out there and say, 'no, this is not a conspiracy, this is not about centralisation, this is a good Treaty that will make the EU more effective and democratic. That means that it will be in a better position to make us all more prosperous and more secure AND give us more of a say over our societies. It puts power back into our own hands.'

Let's do what is necessary to reassure people about what may be substantive concerns (in fact, why on earth wasn't it done before the referendum?) Beyond that, let's not get all defensive. Let's argue the case in a language that people can relate to. The EU is too important for it simply to become a lightning rod for political discontent.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Mr Cameron, are EU for real?

Today's Prime Minister's Question Time was one of Gordon Brown's strongest performances and one of David Cameron's weakest, if not his weakest to date. It is clear that David Cameron has got himself into a complete mess over his European policy- a mess that is difficult to see getting anything other than worse. The clip is below:

The major weakness in David Cameron's position, populist Europe-baiting to one side, is that on so many issues it is impossible to devise effective solutions without genuine and enforceable EU cooperation and commitment. On climate change, crime prevention, justice, counter-terrorism, jobs, investment, and growth, as well as migration, equality, and quality of life, it is hard to imagine truly effective domestic policies without the binding strength of an effective European Union. These issues are all things David Cameron claims to care about. Yet his European policy has been a calamity from the moment he put his name forward for the leadership of the Conservative party.

As Patrick Hennessy argues in his Telegraph blog today, David Cameron's approach to Europe and his pandering to the euro-sceptic wing of his party demonstrates that his modernisation project falls woefully short.

In the Tory leadership campaign, David Davis had the courage to stand up to the euro-loonies by refusing to countenance severing the party's ties with the moderate European People's Party. David Cameron showed no such conviction or good political sense and capitulated.

On this area more than any other, we are getting a glimpse of what a Cameron Prime Ministership could be like: ineffective, vacillating, unprincipled, doused in gesture, and doomed to collapse under the weight of its own rhetoric. His inability to properly address the European issue highlights the shallowness of the entire enterprise. It is modernisation without purpose and that will ultimately harm the nation's interests. The stakes are rising.

How should Obama play it?

A really interesting poll appeared in the Washington Post yesterday on the Obama-McCain head-to-head. Two features particularly stood out: (i) Independent support for Obama and McCain is split evenly between the two candidates; (ii) Eight out of ten Democrats support Obama but nine out of ten Republicans support McCain. So there seems to be a challenge for Obama: shore up the base, pitch for the centre-ground or can he pull off both?

Actually, from the detailed poll data there is evidence that Senator Obama is very well placed: leads on the economy (the most significant issue by a 14-point margin), gas prices, age is more significant that race according to these poll findings, levels Iraq War policy (though underlying attitudes seem to be more in his favour), ties leadership, crucifies McCain on change in an election where voters want change and a massive number believe the country is headed in the wrong direction (85% or so.) In fact, if one were to induce Obama's poll rating from the these factors, you would expect a much greater lead than the 6% lead that he has.

So there is something holding back Senator Obama. Something which is not revealed in these polls. It could be the overhang of Hillary support from the primary campaign which he hasn't yet been able to dislodge. Maybe voters just like John McCain despite their ratings of him when its broken down into sub-issues. Maybe they just haven't quite taken to Senator Obama yet. The one area where Senator McCain enjoys a significant lead over Senator Obama is on counter-terrorism. Perhaps, despite misgivings about his economic policy, they just feel a bit safer with John McCain.

Looking at these polling data, Obama may be able to pitch both left and centre by driving home his advantage on economic and gas price policy. This feels like an economy election with the normal caveat of 'events, dear boy, events.' He will have to accept a score draw on foreign policy I suspect (which given where John Kerry was is a monumental achievement if he can pull it off.) On the economy, that is where he can build a real coalition of support. Given it is area of self-confessed weakness for John McCain also, the sun could well be shining on such a strategy.

Post script: I have changed the Electoral College counter to Real Clear Politics data. The data seemed to be too generous to Senator Obama and I'd rather go with the cautious assessment. Nothing scientific, just a hunch.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Personality goes a long way

Compass is setting the terms of the internal debate within the Labour party about 'where next?' In a hermetically sealed Institute of Education yesterday, the Compass conference laid the path for the democratic left over the next few years. The statistic that was quoted ad nauseam was the fact that there are 15million Labour identifiers in the UK but only 9.8million of them vote. On this basis, Compass advocates a re-assertion of centre-left principles and policies.

They are on to something. A huge note of caution has be sounded however. Something that struck me yesterday is that while many of the policies and principles that were advocated will resonate, much of the language will not. Most outsiders would have been completely bewildered at much of yesterday's discussion.

But surely, politics is a battle of ideas? Well, yes, on one level. Modern politics is so much more as well. The left in the USA has been continually outflanked by the Republicans finding an emotionally connected language that tapped into people's concerns and motivations. Intellectually, the left has been ahead but politically the right have been out of sight. Read the analysis of the Bush-Gore debate on healthcare in the 2000 presidential election in Drew Westen's, The Political Brain, to see what I mean.

It was utterly dismaying to hear Douglas Alexander dismiss Barack Obama's presidential bid as the 'politics of celebrity.' In this, he is completely and utterly wrong. Obama has celebrity, he is overflowing personality, but he also has deeply considered policy positions and a first class and genuinely ground-breaking campaign organisation.

Alexander went on to say, "Politics is a collective endeavour, it is team sport rather than a spectator sport." He is right in part. Only in part though. This analysis completely misses an important aspect of politics in the modern age. Personality does matter, who delivers the message forms part of the message itself. People in this new media age relate to people. Politics is not just a dialectic battle of opposing political ideologies. It is a battle of communication also. We may not like it but do not misunderstand this for one moment or the consequences will be fatal.

This does not mean that only young, photogenic people can get elected. The Liberal Democrats completely misunderstood this aspect of modern politics when they elected Nick Clegg over Vince Cable. The latter is a far more effective communicator and far better in the modern media environment that his party leader. He is also considerably older and less good-looking I'm afraid.

In the words of Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction, 'personality goes a long way' (admittedly he was talking about relative merits of dogs and pigs at the time but let's leave that to one side...)

The message is part of the medium. So is personality.

Massive Attack at the Royal Festival Hall

Fantastic show last night at the Royal Festival Hall. A morphing, messaging, organic, light show mediated the entire thing. It instructed us, mesmerised us, counselled us and shocked us in turn. Massive Attack's music features in films like Pi and The Matrix. They provide the mood music and take the visual concepts back in exchange. Information is both liberation and intoxication in this concept, the weapon of resistance and the instrument of authority.

The highlight of the evening was a performance of 'Angel' that was seductive and menacing in equal measure.

However, the real star of the show was the Royal Festival Hall itself. I've heard classical music in the new Hall but its acoustics provide a sonic bubble for trip hop just as well! It's a stunning venue in every way and an utter pleasure to spend time there. Get a membership- it will be the best £40 you'll ever spend.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Vote 'yes' to Europe

Well the Irish voted 'no' to the Lisbon Treaty but outside of politics it has to be a resounding 'yes' to Europe. Well, to the European Championships at least. I can not remember an international tournament of this quality. Both European Championships and World Cups have been a bit of a let down for some time now in terms of footballing quality. The class of 2008 is not disappointing, however. There must be ten players of transcendent quality in this tournament. About four of them play for the Netherlands.

France were blown away 4-1 by the Netherlands and I can not remember a better 45 minutes of international football than the second half last night.

The highlights are available here.

The move that led to Van Persie's strike was mesmerising. Van Nistelrooy has become a complete player since joining Real Madrid and his quite stunning swivel and flick that set up the attack demands to be watched again and again. Then to top it off Robben and Sneijder's strikes were two of the best goals you will see.

Admittedly, the French side does seem to be well past its sell-by date, with Makelele and Thuram in particular struggling to keep pace, but they were annihilated by the quality of the orange attack.

I'm sticking with my original prediction of Spain for now but, at the top of their game, the Netherlands are going to take some stopping.

If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press- Tim Russert RIP

The best political programme in the world is MSNBC's Meet the Press. There is not a political programme in the UK that is fit to polish the shoes of Meet the Press. Tim Russert, the presenter and moderator, died yesterday of a sudden heart attack. May he rest in peace.

Russert combined a lightness of touch with an exhilarating joy of politics, a depth of understanding with a resolute toughness, quick wit with with an unerring ability to get to the core of any issue. He was a giant of journalism, a titan of politics. Under Tim Russert, Meet the Press, from its stunning opening sequence to the soaring quality of its analysis, has set the standard for modern, serious political programming. Below is Russert's final Meet the Press.

This year's Presidential election will be scintillating. We will find it infinitely more difficult to navigate our way through the political thicket without Tim Russert.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

David Davis- he's got balls and they are in the air.

Politics is patient game, incremental in many ways, painstaking, about subtle positioning and differentiation. Just occasionally, someone takes a chance, tries to change the game, takes a gamble. Wise old heads shake and sometimes tut, the media has to try to decide whether to give the gambler a line or let them go over the top alone, supporters have to decide whether to go with it or turn their backs.

We'll see what happens in the case of David Davis. I suspect, judging from the initial reaction, he is going to fall flat on his face. The Labour party may not even field a candidate. Deprived of oxygen, David Davis's political career could just quietly expire.

The Telegraph is even sceptical. Adam Boulton is saying that the pressure has just been taken off Gordon Brown and now the focus is on the Tories. If that is the case and the Tories can not withstand the pressure, this could be the most spectacular political gamble in living memory.

David Cameron must feel very frustrated that David Davis is gambling with his chips as well. Game on.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Telegraph advocates joining the Euro.


Stuart Wheeler's democratic confusion

I have to say that it sticks in my gullet to be lectured about 'democracy' by a multi-millionaire whose main involvement in British politics has been to shovel millions of pounds into Tory party coffers and waste god knows how many days of FCO time in a pointless court case, again using his personal fortune as fuel. He has every right to donate money, take HM Government to court, of course, and I have every right to call him deluded when he pontificates about 'democracy.'

Of course, there is a history of this type of character on the euro-sceptic right. James Goldsmith used his hoard of cash to lecture us about 'democracy' as well so Stuart Wheeler is following a well-trodden path.

His court case will fail I'm sure. The Lisbon Treaty is a completely different concept to the draft constitution and similar in form to other such post-Treay of Rome treaties. In fact, Maastricht and the Single European Act were of far greater constitutional significance and there was almost no discussion about the need for a referendum on those treaties. The now defunct Constitutional Treaty basically established an entirely new European Union. When Vernon Bogdanor, one of the UK's foremost constitutional expert dismisses the notion that the Lisbon Treaty is of major constitutional importance, most people take note. Mr Wheeler knows better of course.

We are a democracy despite the neuroses of the Right. Stuart Wheeler is welcome to spend his money as he likes. What is worrying is that the Wheelers of this world have such a loose grip on the meaning of 'democracy.' For them, it is inconceivable that they could lose the argument unless Britain had ceased to be a democracy. That's just an attitude of 'I'm right and no-one else can be.' I can't imagine anything more anti-democratic.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Team of Rivals- what Obama intends for Clinton

There is much speculation about Barack Obama's plans for Hillary Clinton with the main focus on whether she will be his Vice Presidential nominee. Personally, I see speculation about Hillary as VP nominee as wide of the mark. It just doesn't work as I argued a few weeks ago. That doesn't mean that she won't have a major role to play in an Obama administration.

Senator Obama has made reference on a number of occasions to a book called Team of Rivals by Doris Earns Goodwin. Its basic thesis is that Lincoln demonstrated the political genius and leadership that would define him right at the beginning of his Presidency. He appointed his main presidential rivals to his Cabinet. William H Seward became Secretary of State, Salmon P Chase, Treasury Secretary, and Edward Bates, Attorney General.

In appointing his main and more established rivals to these key Cabinet positions he unified the Republican party, creating a strong administration, and demonstrated that he was a man of character.

The almost spooky echoes of Lincoln's rise to the Presidency in Obama's campaign have been commented on before. These two gangly outsiders from Illinois share more than just one biographical detail.

They are about to share another. Some are predicting that Clinton will become Senate Majority Leader but I'm sure that Obama would rather keep her closer than that (I'm not sure the pissing in/ out of the tent analogy works when you are talking about female politicians.....?) I would have thought that he will be tempted to offer her Secretary of State in his administration. Her congressional experience in this field is strong and it is a major position of importance.

Let's put some of the really silly things she said about foreign policy during the campaign to one side. In political terms, Secretary of State feels right for Hillary. Not too close for comfort, tempting to Hillary herself, and not too distant either.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Referenda and plumbers

The Irish referendum reveals precisely what would happen should the UK decide to ever hold referendum of its own. There is a very good argument against referenda in a representative democracy.

We send our representatives to Parliament to consider, debate and legislate on issues where we would otherwise have to devote an enormous amount of time ourselves. Most people would like someone to do that on their behalf and then get the opportunity to sack them if they don't think that they have performed.

This is not as some pro-referendum advocates suggest a lack of trust in the people. Quite the opposite. It is though an acknowledgement that the majority of people would rather spend their time doing something else other than reading European treaties, say. We could all become plumbers, but surely it's better to employ someone else to do it? Life's just too short.

Now, taking the plumbing analogy a bit further, what if you hire a succession of plumbers and none of them can competently fix your leak? Perhaps you'd be tempted to train yourself in plumbing- after all the professionals can't do the job properly so why not give it a go yourself?

This is basically the more sophisticated Euro-sceptic position. Representative democracy is fine but in the case of European issues it's dysfunctional and the leak needs fixing so let's do it ourselves. Quite why representative democracy is only dysfunctional in this policy area- why we only have a leak in this particular pipe- is not clear so the argument feels a tad instrumental but let's gloss over that.

So you've got your leak (or so you think), you've given up on plumbers, and you're ready to go for it. Ah, but now you need training or let's call it information. You look for a book with the answers or to enlist on a course at a local community college but something starts to concern you. Instead of handy professional help you get all sorts of confusing answers and it's impossible to know what to believe.

Just say you decided to use the web. Let's look at some of the information provided in the case of Irish Lisbon Treaty Referendum. For example, take the following post on a popular Irish website:

Any trained plumber can tell you that the arguments in the link above are misleading, specious, scare-mongering, outdated, or just plain deceitful. My personal favourite is the assertion that the Lisbon Treaty shock, horror enshrines EU law as superior to Irish law. This has been true since the Irish joined the EEC and the whole thing couldn't work without it- what is the point of making agreements in Europe that are not enforceable?

We could dismiss the '8 reasons to vote no' as just poor and inaccurate argument. The problem is that our inveterate trainee plumber actually confronts this type of argument from a whole group of people so the arguments, preying on the information gap that exists about EU affairs, completely skew understanding about the issues at hand. Euroscepticism is a coordinated and deliberate attempt to deceive. It makes the type of genuine public debate needed for a referendum almost impossible.

So I'm afraid Euro-sceptics undermine their own argument for a referendum. By acting in a way that is designed create a atmosphere of hostility based on mis-information they make holding a referendum very difficult indeed.

What's our guy with a leak to do? Well, there's no easy answers unfortunately. Probably best to make sure that he really does have a leak, assess how serious it really is, get a bit of basic information, ask around for a plumber he can trust, keep a watchful eye on the plumber, and hope that does the trick.

Post script: For more delusional ramblings on the issue, I'd recommend this article in the Sunday Business Post. The journalist clearly feels the need to dust down his law degree. But I really do enjoy his 'how dare they ask me a question of this importance' argument. He's pro-European in the same sense you meet 'lifelong Labour voters' who tell you election after election why they are not voting Labour this time!!!!

Saturday, 7 June 2008

A pointless but fun prediction

OK, it's adopt a team time. The Guardian has adopted the Netherlands. Personally I think they are mad. They look dodgy defensively to me notwithstanding Edwin Van Der Sar. Mario Melchiot is in their squad for goodness sake!

There are so many good sides, many of whom we don't know: both Czech Republic and Poland were outstanding in qualifiers as were, to England's detriment, Croatia. France are France, Italy are Italy (but old), and Germany are, well....Germany. Some favour Portugal and in Quaresma and Ronaldo there are a couple of players who could between the two of them turn a tournament.

But for me, I agree with Kevin McCarra, Spain are the strongest team on paper. I don't see an obvious weakness. Casillas, Puyol, Alonso, Xavi, Fabregas, Villa, Iniesta, and Torres. Ah, Fernando Torres. A little sunshine has just come into this gloomy London day.

Of course, Spain always disappoint. As Senator Obama's victory in the US shows, this is a year of change. Perhaps Spain will finally shed their reputation as the perennial underperformers. Worth £20 I reckon.

Irish 'no' vote not the end of the road

Following an opinion poll showing that the 'no' vote has overtaken 'yes' ahead of the Irish referendum on Thursday, Europe is bracing itself for a very large spanner in the works.

There is no 'plan B' it is said but that is not actually true. The institutions are still working, legislation is still passing, the EU goes on without the Lisbon Treaty. The status quo is a 'plan B' but that is not good enough.

A 'no' vote matters because it puts a good treaty in jeopardy. It will make the EU more effective, both internally and externally, and more democratic, giving more powers to the European Parliament and domestic parliaments also. Why does this matter? It matters because the EU is critically important in a globalising world to fighting crime and terrorism, reversing the harmful impact of climate change, securing more investment, better managing the economy, creating jobs, and making a telling contribution to international development and global peace and security.

An effective and democratic EU is necessary precisely because of what it enables us to do to protect our national security, prosperity, and promote international peace and development.

Should the Irish say 'no' there are two options. The first option is to carry on with the status quo. It works but not as effectively or democratically as it would do should the Treaty be ratified. This is a possibility but not the best option. The second and better option would be to renegotiate the Treaty as it applies to Ireland and then have another referendum.

There does come a point, however, when the will of a million or so voters in Ireland who would vote 'no' can not drive the agenda of the remainder of the EU and the will of 26 other national Parliaments. So a 'no' vote is messy, Eurosceptics will bray and sneer, but it is by no means the end of the road for a good and necessary Treaty.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Vince Cable changes his tune on Obama...

Clearly, Vince Cable's really silly comments about Barack Obama a few weeks ago on The Politics Show and his misguided and ill-informed praise for John McCain has drawn some heavy private criticism- rightly. He now describes Obama as 'brilliant' and a 'statesman' and said he would make a great President.

On Question Time tonight, the silliest comment of all came from Douglas Hurd who came up with the potty suggestion that Obama should be President and McCain Secretary of State. Has he bothered to read their foreign policy stances?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Obama- time to seize your advantage

My latest piece on the American race, related to David Cameron this time is on The Independent website:

What on earth are John McCain and Barack Obama so happy about?

So asks David Brooks of the New York Times. Obama has yet to define himself in a way that captures the imagination of working-class voters. John McCain has not yet been able to demonstrate that he is a clear break with the past. Tactical differences with George W Bush such as on climate change and immigration are all well and good but on the big issues: the economy and foreign policy, where are the great divides with Bush?

It's interesting because underlying the analysis is the position that John McCain is the personality candidate and Barack Obama is the policy candidate. If you read most of the press, certainly in the UK, you get a very different perspective.

Tories and the Voluntary sector

David Cameron has a habit of praising the voluntary sector in order to undermine state provision. His proposals today to promote the delivery of public services by the voluntary sector are very interesting indeed. Labour's welfare reform proposals move in that direction also.

There are a number of dangers the Tories should be aware of. Most particularly, state-commissioned services are still state services. There will have to be monitoring, contracts, conditions, even where front-line delivery is contracted out. So even if Age Concern run care homes, Barnado's run social services, or Eton runs state schools, and I'm not dismissing any of this at all (OK, maybe I'd dismiss the idea of Eton running state schools....) there will have to state direction as well as democratic accountability.

The worry for charities themselves, and some international aid agencies have experienced this, is that they become an extended arm of the state. Donations collapse (people pay their taxes, why should they pay twice? Also, what incentive is there to fundraise when you can meet all your resource requirements and make a healthy surplus from state cash?) The voluntary sector could well lose its distinctive character and ethos. That doesn't matter to the private sector as long as they make a buck. But it should be a concern for charities.

So more voluntary agency provision sounds like a nice idea and it is certainly worth pursuing but the Tories evade a lot of the tough questions about how it would work in practice. Low accountability and high risk or high accountability and lower risk?

Monday, 2 June 2008

Clinton to suspend campaign tomorrow.....

....says the Huffington Post. Major donors and backers have been summoned to New York to hear her speech tomorrow night.

Politico is reporting that Clinton staffers have been told that their roles are over and they are to get their expenses in by the end of the week.

In a separate development, 17 Senate super-delegates are about to back Senator Obama.

And so it ends. Or, more accurately, it begins....

So long, farewell and thanks for all the fun Mrs Clinton

A few weeks ago I argued that Hillary Clinton shouldn't quit the race quite yet and instead continue in the campaign but do so in a more magnanimous fashion. It seems that magnanimity is a bit too much for Ms Clinton just yet. Her surrogate Harold Ickes has been all over the news channels this weekend raging about 4 delegates taken from her tally in Michigan in opposition to the will of 600,000 voters.

Four things: 

(i) Barack Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan as the ruling at the time was that NONE of Michigan's delegates would be seated. The Obama campaign consequently didn't compete the seat following the DNC's ruling. 

(ii) It is clear that turnout was completely suppressed in Michigan so it is not at all clear that it can be counted as a proper primary in any sense. Compare Ohio, which has a similar population to Michigan and had a turnout of 2.2million. 600,000 or so voted in the Michigan primary in a more Democratic state. It is also a state in a geographic region where Obama has done well.

(iii) The decision was made by the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee on the basis of a proposal by the Michigan Democratic Party. 

(iv) We are talking about FOUR delegates. Perhaps the Clinton campaign, in a characteristic act of denial, has not noticed that it is in deficit by over 150 delegates! Is it really worth ratcheting up the rhetoric to such a degree when the potential gain is so little?

So this is all a bit silly now. At a time when the rhetoric should be dampened, Clinton surrogates are still trying to stoke up resentment. What can they possibly gain? Nothing. The Democrats could pay a heavy price, however. Even the Clinton loyalist concludes that her chances are 'near to nothing' as she now has to win 82% of the remaining delegates.

A few weeks ago, 'not yet' was my conclusion about whether Hillary Clinton should quit (with the important 'be nice' caveat which has been broken.) The final primaries take place in Montana and South Dakota tomorrow. The minute those polls close provides a great opportunity for Hillary Clinton to show her political courage and deep commitment to the party. 

Yes, Hillary, the time to quit has come. So long and thanks for all the fun.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Obama now projected majority

I've updated the latest electoral counter (to the left) as I'll do every few days. Obama's projected electoral vote is now over 270. Just a bit of fun but it is a key indicator.