Friday, 30 May 2008

Negotiate with Al-Qaeda?

Sir Hugh Orde, The Head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland has suggested that we should. This, of course, is absolutely bonkers. Who would you negotiate with? What are you negotiating about? I'm not sure Al-Qaeda has any definable objectives that could be realistically discussed. The annihilation of the Western World? What would we offer them instead? The annihilation of only California or Vienna?

Readers of this blog will know that I am a strong advocate of engagement and negotiation where possible and constructive. This one though is just so far off the scale that it is not worth even discussing. Thank you Sir Hugh for a Friday chuckle. Perhaps better to concentrate on defeating gang violence in Northern Ireland?

Credit to Steve McCabe

Steve McCabe MP, who ran Labour's campaign in Crewe and Nantwich, has written a very straightforward and very honest article for this week's Tribune. Credit to him for not hiding and, instead, taking it on the chin.

Reading between the lines, McCabe actually describes a pretty fundamental challenge for Labour. He describes a really tough environment where defence of the Government's record is a blunt instrument and 'don't risk a Tory Government' no longer works as a rallying cry. The ideological debate that is raging is all well and good. But what is the recovery strategy?

Steve's job was mighty tough and you have to respect the fact that he stood up to be counted.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Cut fuel tax?

Alice Miles argues in the Times that the scheduled 2p increase in fuel tax should be deferred this Autumn. I'm not so sure this would have much impact. If petrol companies can profit from selling it at this price, may they just pocket any tax deferral or reduction? There would have to be a solid way of ensuring that any tax change finds its way to the end consumer and I'm not sure that can be guaranteed. It is bad enough having belt bursting price rises without just contributing more to petrol profits. So it's not the right way to go.

Besides, if we are now seeing the start of a response to global conditions of expanding demand as countries such as China rapidly develop meeting limited supply then we are just slightly mitigating the inevitable. Let's leave OPEC out of the argument for now as I'm sure that its impact is to accelerate or slow price changes but they can't fundamentally alter market conditions which suggest a step increase in the price of oil over time. Diplomatic pressure will either work or it won't but best not to factor it into the equation. If it does work, then it's a short term bonus, that's all.

A note of caution. We can't throw the environmental argument completely out of the window though it does carry less weight in circumstances such as these. Alongside whatever policy is pursued on petrol prices, there needs to be a greater consideration about how the state can better support market-driven environmental technologies so that their introduction and dissemination is accelerated.

Of course, petrol price rises are a (severe) short term hit and the volatility of the price, i.e. rapid price rises currently, hit the consumer hard. So is a better approach not to give the cash directly to people in the form of enhanced tax credits for the least well-off or a one off tax rebate? Mexico is currently doing a similar thing to offset food price rises.

Such a policy could make counter-cyclical economic sense as economic conditions harden. The impact on interest rates will need to be carefully considered- there's no point giving more cash with one hand if the response is going to be interest rate rises or rates falling more slowly (though as we've discovered the relationship between interest rates and mortgage rates are uncertain at the moment for many if not most mortgages.) Then there's the fiscal rules....we are dangerously close to the 40% national debt ceiling. This limitation, it should be said, applies to both fuel tax cuts or increased tax credits. Who'd be Chancellor?

The calls to reduce fuel tax and/ or excise duty will rise to a cacophony over coming months. There are better ways of reducing the pain of price rises. If we go for the tax credits/ tax rebate route for goodness sake say why it is being done that way. Then explain and communicate why time and time again. There is no point having the right policies if they are matched with duff communication.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Clinton beats Obama in the electoral college

I've just seen an absolutely fascinating analysis about the US Presidential race. The site has done an analysis of who is better placed to beat McCain this Autumn based on the available polling evidence. There needs to be an enormous health warning attached to this: polls now do not necessarily indicate how things will go come November. Actually, 'not necessarily' is not strong enough. They do not.

But what it shows, hold your breath Obama supporters, is that Hillary Clinton would win the electoral college by 327 to 194 as polls stand. Obama's lead would be only 266 to 248. That is four short of a majority.

In addition to the health warning, I would also make the comment that Hillary currently secures more of the lower income, white Democratic base than Obama and they are not moving over to him quite yet. I believe they will but he has a hell of a job to do to convince them. He has all but sealed the nomination but he hasn't sealed the deal with the voters. Far from it.

These maps also show that his superior national lead over McCain when compared to Hillary does not translate into a superior performance in the electoral college.

I'll keep an eye on this website as it will graphically demonstrate how the Obama campaign is going state by state. But the campaign has a long way to go. He has time to do it.

I have put a permanent counter on the site (top left) which I will update periodically.

Labour's new dividing line

Two articles are published simultaneously that map out two alternative directions for Labour. My guess is that the short term will be about dealing with events, particularly those thrown up by economic difficulties. However, the intellectual debate will rage in the background. I hope so because this is the exactly the philosophical and ideological discussion that needs to occur for Labour to have purpose after the next election, win or lose.

The first is by Phil Collins with Richard Reeves. Phil is Tony Blair's former speechwriter. I haven't had a chance to read it as yet but a flight to Amsterdam to see my sister should provide the opportunity (if the magazine is out.) From the article in the Guardian reporting Collins' piece, he seems to be arguing for a post-state liberal social democracy and asserts that Labour is heading for 'tragedy' if it doesn't accept this new post-Blair agenda.

Jon Cruddas' viewpoint is more established. And he puts some flesh on the bones in The Independent today. His perspective is more of a post neo-liberal interventionist government providing enhanced social insurance. On one point he is absolutely, 100% right: Labour is just not resonating at the moment. There needs to be something urgent and clear to dislodge that.

On the surface, the two visions are very different but we'll have to see more detail. What is certain, is that given that Phil has just started working for James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary and putative leadership contender (once there is a vacancy!), the discussion will broaden and deepen over the coming months. Behind closed doors lads, please.

Iran still playing games

Oliver Kamm posts on the IAEA report that concludes that Iran is still not being transparent about its nuclear programme. This is foolhardy in the the extreme. UN Security Council resolutions, most recently NSC 1803, have called for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment programme and for Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA.

I agree with Oliver Kamm that now is the time for international pressure as past experience has shown (as evidenced in the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran) that Iran does bow to pressure when it is exerted. Some of Oliver's language grates a bit (such as the notion that the UK and US have to 'deal with' Iran...not in the negotiating sense!) and he repeats one or two assertions that I have rebutted elsewhere but his conclusions are broadly right.

Now is the time for cool heads, clever diplomacy, multilateral unity, and for Iran's friends to counsel caution and compliance. It is also necessary to offer Iran a vision of what its place in the region and the world could be. Rather than playing the silly politics of verbal aggression, now is the time to be resolute but generous. Let's coax Iran back into legitimacy rather than provoke it into disastrous and ever more petulant isolation.

Resolving Iran's nuclear programme, whether it is truly civil or otherwise, is a test of whether the world can enter a post neo-conservative era. And Mr Bush, keep your finger well and truly away from the trigger.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Torres to Chelsea for £50million?

£50million is what Chelsea are willing to pay says the Daily Mail today. If it's true the whole edifice will crumble- Rafa, Steve Gerrard, the fans could all bail. So Tom Hicks, go for it and trash your investment.

Hopefully, Share Liverpool FC are developing their plans rapidly. I'm not too hopeful- I keep getting emails from them but it's just this or that former player has backed them. Perhaps David Moores should open the swag bag that he got when he sold the club to give it a boost? He certainly has central responsibility for the current mess and a moral duty to help sort it out.

Freedom of the Underdog

Great piece this morning by Johann Hari in The Indy. I agree- now is the time for Gordon Brown to free himself from electoral concerns and do all the things he's wanted to do in politics. Underdog status could be the making of Gordon Brown. Clear the diary and spend the next few days writing a list of ten things you've ever wanted to achieve and spend two years trying to achieve them.

It's a wonderful position. American Presidents have a recalcitrant Congress to deal with in their second terms when they could be at their boldest. But in the UK there is no such constitutional check. Ironic, given that constitutional reform is one example of New Labour's unfinished business that could be tackled in the next two years.

And what's more, this freedom could be really enjoyable. You can have an idea on Saturday and within a few days you can be doing it without lengthy political naval-gazing. Leave the business of administering the British state to your colleagues. Remove them if they are incompetent but otherwise just leave them to get on with it. Don't save the British economy, leave that to Alistair Darling.

And the best thing? People will see you enjoying yourself. People will see what you stand for. Your opponents would be placed on the back foot- have a little giggle at them. And who knows, your underdog status might just win you the game.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Political escapism

I could give you a long post on my thoughts on Crewe based on my experience on the doorstep but there's lots of that and the result is the result at the end of the day. I could pontificate about political scenarios, urge caution, demand action, be optimistic, pessimistic, frustrated, resolute or reckless. I could recommend going into political hibernation for a while. But I'm  not going to do that.

If British politics is just too painful and you still need your political fix why not try something different? Become an honorary US citizen for while. Start off at then watch Meet the Press on MSNBC later. You're off. It's fun, uplifting, unpredictable. There's stats, personality, scandal, laughter, tears, pain and joy. Try it- it will be good for your health and well-being.

Alternatively, kick the habit altogether. Pick up a book. Meet some friends. Get off the internet. Go down to the pub. Do the garden. Don't go to the park- the weather is horrible (glad I'm not a Hay-on-Wye trendy, lefty drowned rat.)

Whatever you do. Relax and take it easy for a while.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Clegg riding the tax waltzer

Nick Clegg describes the tax regime under Labour as a 'tombola tax system.' Good line. But the tax system he proposes is akin to a waltzer tax system, just as you think it's spun one way, it spins back again. The whole thing ends up in a dizzying mess.

Let's leave aside his claim that some people on low incomes are paying 'effective' tax rates of 90% (did he mean 'marginal' rather than 'effective' by any chance? Are you telling me that someone on £10,000 pa could be taking home just £1,000 pa? Nonsense.) The mishmash of proposals will have all sorts of bewildering effects. Let's just take those on low incomes:

- Basic tax down to 16%. Good.
- Tax shifted to pollution (the poorer you are the higher proportion of your incomes in consumed by energy costs and the like). Bad.
- Reducing taxes further after tax avoidance clamp-down. Goodish. If tax avoidance was so easy to cease someone else would have done it by now so probably won't happen. Remember the non-doms saga?
- Scale back tax credits. Bad- Clegg is right that it would be simpler to take people out of tax altogether. Simpler but I'm afraid more costly and less targeted.
- Introduce a local income tax system. Good or bad. If you are single and working could be good depending on the rate. If you are a working couple would be bad. If you are on a fixed income, undeniably good.

So overall, if you are on a low income I think you would rightly be concerned about the overall Lib Dem tax package. The most amazing thing is that having castigated Gordon Brown for the complexity of the current tax system, it would be just as difficult if not more so to calculate whether you were better or worse off under the Lib Dem proposals.

The one thing that the Lib Dem tax waltzer isn't is simple. Dizzying, quite fun, politically opaque, yes but simple, no.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Obama and McCain spat continues

The war of words between Senators Obama and McCain has continued into today. John McCain accused Senator Obama of 'inexperience and reckless' judgement.

I find two elements of the McCain position confusing:

i) President Ahmadinejad is in power and it really is irrelevant whether the US hands him a 'propaganda victory' by meeting up with him if that is indeed all it would be. A meeting doesn't change things with regard to Ahmadinejad's position in Iran in the slightest either way. The bellicose approach has failed so what exactly is there to lose?

ii) What is McCain proposing instead? Do what we say or else? What if Iran doesn't comply? Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran (as McCain once hilariously sang to the tune of Barbara Anne by the Beach Boys)?

In no way am I suggesting that any recourse should be taken off the table or under-estimating the threat posed by Iran (in the Middle East at least) but I just don't see how the McCain strategy leads to anything other than embarrassment for the US, an uneasy and probably unsustainable deadlock, or a military strike on Iran. If stand-off diplomacy is the way we are going to continue, then the options and outcomes are narrowed drastically.

The only amazing thing about this spat, is that Senator Obama's position is portrayed as so extreme. It has its risks but there really is very little to lose and everything to gain.

Will 80,000 people be watching the Champions League final live?

Maybe, just about. Well 80,000 people spent their Sunday afternoon going to listen to Barack Obama.

I'm not sure at times whether he is still a politician or he has become U2. Well, I guess that Bono has tried to make the opposite journey...

Bush's neo-McCarthyism is now failing

I have a contribution on The Independent's Open House today on Bush's failing neo-McCarthyism that I alluded to in the post below.

The article is here.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Neo-con history

Chris Matthews of MSNBC is quickly becoming a hero. He stood up to a dotty neo-con, right wing talk show host a couple of days ago on his Hardball show. Kevin James, his clueless guest, made a historically inept reference to Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler and Barack Obama's approach of constructive engagement with Iran.

Watch the clip, and it is worth watching, believe me:

It was great to see one these characters finally called to task. Kevin James is a pretty weak example of how to play the neo-con straw man game. You know, the one there where you escalate risk assessment, mis-quote and misuse history, define anyone who is a sliver to your left as some form of innocent, appeaser, or traitor, you define your international adversaries as pure evil, and then demand the most aggressive response imaginable. But the basic game plan is the same no matter how skillfully it's played.

There can only be hope that Chris Matthews has shown the way to stand up to this and that will allow the debate to breathe in this critically important Presidential election.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The British Obama?

Fraser Nelson is a very talented commentator. I don't think that this line, good though it is as a journalistic construction, will be seen as his finest hour:

"Cameron has plenty heavyweight ideas, he just needs a good slogan. Obama has the reverse problem."

Hmmm. Let's compare. Here is the Conservatives' policy page:

Three pages, three basic areas, not many actual policies and certainly very few costed policies.

Now compare Barack Obama's policy-rich agenda:

There is no comparison. Just take one critical area, both America and Britain are both facing difficult economic times. Barack Obama's economic plan (notice the link), whatever you may think of its merits, is clearly something that is thought through and actionable. The Tories' economic plan (notice the absence of a link)? Do they have one apart from the usual platitudes? It's certainly not any of the 'policies' listed on their website.

It's interesting watching the US elections- the early attacks on Obama for lacking substance have completely disappeared from the terrain. Experience is now the dividing line. Clearly the collective conclusion of media commentators, political opponents and friends alike is that Obama is a candidate of substance.

The off-the-mark attacks on Obama's lack of substance of a few months ago still ricochet around the UK political landscape. It's time that the bullet hit the ground- how on earth could anyone get through the most gruelling political process in the world without having solid and defensible policies? It just doesn't make sense.

The suggestion that David Cameron has the substance where Barack Obama just has rhetoric is just a tad fanciful. OK, it's utterly ridiculous. David Cameron's challenge is to find the slogan AND the heavyweight ideas. We'll wait with bated breath.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Scruffy McDuffy

"Who do we want? We want Scruffy. When do we want him? NOW!" Ah, a seminal moment of my childhood where 'Scruffy McDuffy' a Grange Hill teacher is fired for....being scruffy (dressing like Lofty Holloway in Eastenders.)

It seems that it also had a deep impact on Michael Gove, the Tory Education Spokesman. OK, a bit of respect, the Shadow Education Secretary. His latest eye-catching and profound policy is to support schools that crack down on scruffy teachers. Well done Michael, keep getting your homework in on time.

As it happens, a few days after the 'Scruffy Mcduffy' episode aired, I found myself caught up in a march to restore football to the school playground after it was banned slightly over-zealously by a dinner lady. 'What do we want? Football. When do we want it? NOW!" The march included all the girls who had the chance of liberation from macho 8 to 11-year olds taking over their entire play space but gallantly marched with us because they had a broader understanding that if you deny one kid of their liberty, you deny all.

The Headmaster soon had the entire march in the school. Put it this way, it was dealt with (quite brilliantly as it happens.) I'm sure that Michael Gove would have sat the whole thing out, maybe grassing up one or two ring-leaders. But it's quite clear that the march happened because of the scruffiness of the teachers of the school. I hope they were all disciplined.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008


As will be obvious from my half-hearted and rather superficial post about Frank Field on Monday, I am currently enjoying a break. Though I had good intentions to maintain a daily blog and could easily do so given that I have wi-fi access in my hotel, I just haven't been able to motivate myself to do it.

In fact, I'm going to indulge in this mesmerising city, Istanbul instead of writing about how Hillary Clinton's win in West Virginia changes nothing or how it is fascinating that Obama has moved his campaign to general election footing signalled by his decision to speak in the swing state of Missouri rather than West Virginia last night or how the draft Queen's speech contains some really good measures not least a cheeky little proposal on buying up surplus housing for redistribution or the welfare reform measures and a strong idea on the introduction of an NHS constitution.

The reason I'm here is quite simple. Orhan Pamuk. I've been a fan of his writing for some time (I would particularly recommend 'Snow' and 'My Name is Red') and his 'Istanbul: memories and the city' has been on my bookshelf for a while. Cheesy but what better than to read it in Istanbul?

The threads of Turkey's identity crisis, East and West, Kemalist and Ottoman, flow through Pamuk's literature just as the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara collide and separate in Istanbul. In 'Istanbul', Pamuk becomes curator, poet, archivist, social historian, and autobiographer. Istanbul becomes his history, his canvas, his personality. Like Hugo, Dickens, and Joyce before him he allows himself to be defined by a city and in turn hooks us into accompanying him on an archaeological dig of the soul of place.

Pamuk's personal history and that of his family has an uncanny entanglement with that of his subject. His family's fortunes turn upon the death of his paternal Grandfather, a 'magnificent man', whose fortunes are frittered away by the hopelessness of his father and uncle's business acumen. A decaying family fortune reflects the decaying seat of the Ottoman empire, a city neglected, bellowing up nothing but darkness and painful memories of past greatness.

He never met his Grandfather just as he never saw Sultanate Istanbul, but each is omnipresent in his upbringing. His Grandmother, wise and charismatic, never surfaces until after midday, rarely leaves the family home, waiting for their family greatness to return (she sees omens of this in little Orhan, the 'crow') and Istanbul is gripped by huzun, a kind of collective melancholy induced by dispossessed greatness, power, and wealth.

The embers of this melancholic shabbiness remain in modern Istanbul but this is not the same city that Pamuk grew up in. It had just about reached a population of a million when Pamuk began school, its population now stands at ten million. The old city, Pera, and Bosphorus communities have been swallowed in mass migration and development. Romantic as the crossing from the West to the Asian side sounds, the Asian side is nothing of the sort. Rather it is a sea of modernist medium rise tower blocks. Rather than a bridge from West to East or vice versa, the trip across the Bosphorus is more akin to crossing from 1920 to 1965.

There is much discussion about whether Turkey can ever be part of Europe. Istanbul is not typical, I'm assured, but on the evidence of this city it absolutely can be. It has the feel of a modern, European city with an Islamic hue rather than an Islamic city. Islamic architecture (sometimes subsuming Orthodox Christian architecture as in the spectacular Haghia Sofya) provides the city's best moments. However, much as the Sultans left for the hills and then extinction quite a while ago, Ottoman Istanbul remains as a relic rather than a threat. Even Haghia Sofya is now just a museum (though I can't remember being in a more breathtaking structure.)

So where does Turkey's destiny lie? The Government of Tayyip Erdogan seems to want have its cake and eat it, supporting a fusion of modern economic reform and conservative Islam. It is patently obvious that the only way to combine these two things is hypocrisy- liberalism will leave religious conservatism in its wake. The only question will be if and what kind of backlash this approach will provoke. For now, the EU's most sensible course of action is to continue an engagement with Erdogan. The mono-creed vision of European politicians such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing needs to be challenged just as areas where Turkey falls short, freedom of speech, Cyprus, and the potential entanglement of religious with secular law need to be tested. It should be noted that despite the approach of Erdogan's AKP, Turkey is perhaps more aggressively secularist government than any in Europe with the possible exception of France.

Orhan Pamuk's city of black and white has been replaced by a sparkling city, self-confident in its future, released from its past. It is as Europoean as Napoli, Athens, or Seville. Old Istanbul, the city of Pamuk's youth was given its energy by the Bosphorus. New Istanbul, this city of new train lines, stadiums, affluent housing developments, and high-rise office blocks, has an energy of its own. Ataturk has won- in Istanbul at least. Is the EU to reverse the city back to its history or allow its destiny to be European? On the evidence of Istanbul at least, Turkey is already well on its way to a European destiny.

Postscript: Pamuk collects some newspaper columns that he has read over the years (see what I mean about being a curator?) Two quotes particularly amused me:

From 1946:
"We're tired of seeing every square in the city flooded every time it rains. Whoever is supposed to fix this, should fix it soon."
From 1927:
"Yesterday it snowed and did anyone in the city board a tram from the front or indeed show any respect to their elders? It is with regret that we note how quickly the city forgets the polite rules of society that so few of our inhabitants knew in the first place."
Anyone who has been here will be able to vouch for that!

Monday, 12 May 2008

Frank Field

I'm getting very bored of Frank Field now. He's over-stepped the mark with his criticisms of the PM today.

And now Bryan Gould is being given a platform as well. Didn't he bugger off to New Zealand after being humiliated in a Labour leadership election by getting less than 10% of the vote in a two-way fight? Some voice of authority that.....

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Bobbies on the beat

Has anyone else noticed the phenomenal police presence in London in the last week? I must have seen up to twenty police officers of various types in London Fields on Friday evening. I can barely remember seeing more than the odd one previously. Is Ian Blair trying to show that he's responding proactively to a new Mayor?

The biggest political gamble ever?

I can't quite imagine how a politician could gamble more than Wendy Alexander has chosen to do on the question of Scottish Independence. The tactical manoeuvre was completely inept. Alex Salmond easily swatted away the call for an early referendum on Scottish Independence and now has a blank cheque of Labour support whenever he does decide to go for it. Scots are unlikely to go for independence as John Curtice explains here but given a straight yes-no question on independence in, let's run with a scenario, the context of a new Conservative government that Scotland hadn't voted for and a moderately or highly popular SNP Scottish administration, a 'no' vote, though unlikely, is far from certain.

What may have seemed like good Holyrood politics, wasn't. The SNP is now completely in control of the process and Labour will either have to fall in behind with some whining about the timing or sustain a huge political cost. This is insane.

Why not just get on with being a good and competent opposition, put together a coherent case for reform of the devolution settlement, then argue consistently and clearly for a devolution v independence v status quo referendum further down the line? Such a referendum would be almost certain not to result in a vote for independence. Again, nothing is certain but on an issue such as this you need to play the probabilities.

Finally, a word for the SNP. If you believe that independence would be anything other than a disaster for Scotland you are mistaken. This is not to suggest that Scotland couldn't survive as an independent country, of course it could. It is rather to argue that Scotland secures enormous benefits from the union as currently constituted.

For the whole of the UK, the independence of Scotland would be a complete national humiliation, it would diminish the respect and authority we enjoy in the international environment. That will harm our ability to secure the right international agreements on trade, the environment, and so many other areas that require international cooperation. Our ability to manage our own economy, society, and environment will consequently harmed.

Wendy, you've not only gambled your own stake, but you've gambled ours as well. Goodness knows what the consequences will be but I suspect we are now into damage limitation mode.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Hillary as Vice President?

Michael Tomasky runs through the negatives for Hillary becoming Obama's Vice-Presidential nominee: he would inherent her weaknesses, her foreign policy stance, they couldn't work together, and then there's Bill. I would add the negative of some of her comments and insinuations during the campaign about his ability to be Commander-in-Chief in particular. Republicans would have her comments on a loop during the whole campaign if she was VP nominee.

I guess it comes down to whether he thinks he can win over her voters. He will be fairly confident of achieving that and so won't risk the negatives that Hillary represents in my view. Also, he's in such a strong position now that he can avoid having a unity ticket foisted upon him by the party. If not Hillary then who? Well, I've always thought that Bill Richardson would make an interesting choice but let's see how the debate shapes up.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Obama takes lead in super-delegates

This is a critical turning point in the campaign. Obama now leads in super-delegates (party elders, representatives, and officials) according to ABC News. He already has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates (based on caucuses and primaries.) The party is rallying behind him.

Why Hillary Clinton shouldn't quit......yet

The result is now all but beyond doubt. Yet that doesn't mean that how this is resolved does not matter. The dignified retreat by Mike Huckabee should be the model for Hillary Clinton. She is still campaigning and that is absolutely right but how she campaigns matters.

The tone of this battle needs to be brought down. Right now, many of Hillary's supporters are smarting, especially in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and other recent states where she has won on the basis of a tough campaign against Barack Obama winning the white, blue collar vote in the process. Up to a third of her voters currently say that they wouldn't vote for Barack Obama. Hillary has to manage the upset down to give Obama every chance to reclaim those voters for the Democrats. That process is best achieved on the basis of Hillary seeing this race out to its conclusion but in a positive manner that unifies the party. She needs to start saying lots of very nice things about Obama.

A cynical viewpoint sees Hillary's strategy as a destructive one. There is a theory that she is trying to destroy Obama's candidacy with a view to running again in 2012. She has gone too far on a few occasions- by pouring petrol on the flames on a number of controversies, by suggesting that Obama had not been properly vetted, by suggesting that only John McCain and herself have the experience to be Commander-in Chief. I don't believe that is her strategy at all but we will see in the next few weeks.

Clinton is an exceptional but highly flawed candidate. She hasn't won this battle but boy did she turn it into a fight. Now is the time to show the political world her very best side. If the great divider in American politics can be the unifier of the Democrats she will do herself no end of good. And who knows, if Obama doesn't quite make it, she may get another shot in 2012 and this time she could win.

Postscript: Some good articles shamelessly pilfered from Real Clear Politics are linked below.

Joe Klein foresees an uplifting battle of ideas and personalities in the McCain v Obama race (Cindy McCain was also on MSNBC yesterday saying that her husband wouldn't go negative.....but his surrogates?) but the media needs to give that type of campaign the oxygen it needs. Klein's conclusion:
"A general-election campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama doesn't need any hype. It won't be boring. The question is whether we, politicians and press alike, will grant this election — and electorate — the respect that it deserves."
Dick Morris, a wily and utterly unsentimental political titan, doesn't see Hillary letting this defeat go lightly. Instead she will hang and chop Obama ready for display in the butcher's window.

And finally, David Ignatius discusses how the situation in the Middle East could project itself into the campaign over the coming months- continuing Iranian training of militia in Iraq and a potential US military response, a possible Israel-Palestine 'shelf' peace deal, and an interesting diplomatic initiative by Turkey to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

The missing link

I re-read the article in Prospect by Danny Kruger, one of David Cameron's court that was referred to by Jon Cruddas in his speech on Tuesday night. I have to say it was a brilliantly constructed piece, intellectually dense, but nonetheless felt a bit contrived when it moved from the theory to practice. Was David Cameron's attack on supermarkets really an example of 'fraternalism' in action or did it just make a good headline at the time?

Having said that, it is clear that a substantial amount of intellectual work is being done on the right of British politics in a similar way to the 'Third Way' and 'communitarian' debates that influenced New Labour thinking in the 1990s. In fact, Kruger takes Giddens' 'Third Way' as much of his reference point for the construction of a modern conservatism.

In a nutshell (with a lot of texture removed....) Kruger argues that both the left and right of British politics have been trying to free themselves from their historical positions in politics- the left grounded in 'equality' and the right 'liberty.' Modern conservatism is based on a liberty-loving fraternity. He defines 'fraternity' quite eloquently as the 'sphere of some.' It is about small groups, cooperatives, communities, families, and so on. In other words, it is the spontaneity of civil society that provides security and prosperity. Kruger doesn't mention Burke's 'little platoons' but he could well have done. Essentially, small is beautiful but this is not the same as Conservatives pursuing an individualist 'society' (if there is such a thing in the neo-liberal creed.) It is easy to see why the Conservatives have courted the voluntary sector so effectively.

Essentially, what Kruger is attempting to do is glue the incoherence of conservatism that has been at the root of its crisis. Thatcherism has also been described as 'liberal conservatism.' It is good term because it demonstrates the crisis quite clearly: liberalism is chaotic, radical, subversive whereas conservatism is about stability, continuity, and certainty. Thatcherism unleashed market forces and in so doing tore apart the very type of society that conservatives hold dear. That societal damage was the source of new Labour's intellectual and political opportunity.

So does fraternalism provide the glue? Is it the missing link between liberalism and conservatism? Well, let's just take what David Cameron has been saying about poverty. He wants to combat poverty but asserts that the old statist solutions have failed. So in a new alliance with the voluntary sector mixed with some conservative tax allowances to promote marriage, hard-core poverty will be tackled. But the problem with this analysis is that a lot rests on the ability of the voluntary sector to meet these expectations. The work of the voluntary sector is critical but its weaknesses are obvious: capacity, comprehensive coverage, and variable performance. I'm not saying that the state doesn't have some of these weaknesses also but there is a danger of relying too much on the voluntary sector to achieve enormous social policy goals.

Perhaps the Conservatives are aware of this? Perhaps that is why they have lowered the bar on the definition of poverty from 60% of median adult earnings to 40%?

So the critique of the new conservatism can't be that it's just superficial or it's not real. It is. The better criticism, and this was a line pursued by James Purnell on Tuesday, is that it is wistful and ultimately won't achieve the aims it sets for itself. It can't deliver in other words. To make that argument effectively, Labour has a great deal of thinking to do itself.

Iran: the diplomatic state of play

Given my spat earlier this week with hawkish neo-cons, it is worth keeping a track of the diplomatic state of play with regard to Iran. There is still no likely deal on uranium enrichment with Iran which it holds to be non-negotiable. Trust between the 5+1 (US, China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany) seems to be very low but at least there is a negotiation of sorts. Ultimately, Iran has a long way to move before an acceptable settlement is achieved with the international community that ceases its activities designed to destabilise Iraq, its continuing and unsanctioned uranium enrichment programme, and its overall negative role in Middle East security.

Perhaps it will take a new US administration early next year to unlock the deadlock. But while there is genuine dialogue.....there is no need to resort to irresponsible sabre-rattling a la Madame Clinton (the former Democratic Presidential nominee?)

Iran offers nuclear deal

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

What can Labour learn from the Democratic primaries?

An article that I have written for the new website Labour Outlook is available here:

What can Labour learn from the Democratic primaries?

Compass event

Compass put on a sizzling debate last night on Labour's future direction. Two contributions in particular stood out- those of Steve Richards and a devastating but completely constructive contribution by Jon Cruddas. Actually, I left the meeting feeling that if we don't win the next election it won't be because we lack ideas, conviction or talent.

First to Cruddas' contribution. He counselled that the Conservatives have changed, not just in terms of style but in terms of philosophy as well and Labour underestimates that at its peril. Moreover, and anyone who followed the London Mayoral elections can vouch for this, they have adopted a new emotionalism to their political language. Labour's language by contrast is managerial and aloof. Cruddas has read and absorbed 'The Political Brain' (which is emotional rather than rational) by Drew Westen and 'Words that Work' by Frank Luntz. He also pointed to Danny Kruger's article in Prospect on 'fraternity' and the new conservatism. I will re-read today but what it all amounts to is that Labour is confronting a formidable and new challenge which has to be fought with new tools and a new narrative (I'm going to ban myself from using this word soon.)

Cruddas explains how the new Labour coalition is fracturing. As someone who spent election day ward hopping in a typical English marginal seat, Rugby, I can vouch that he is right. The suburbs are moving away decisively. More worrying was the core Labour ward where I was knocking doors last Thursday afternoon. My colleague and I got to the end of one street and looked at each other in horror as we realised just how soft our vote was. We won the ward but only having put in an unprecedented amount of work over the previous six weeks (we normally just tread water there but this year we treated it as if it was a marginal ward.)

But Cruddas' analysis was by no means a counsel of despair. Labour can re-connect (another word I'm going to ban myself from using....) It needs to acknowledge the insecurities that people are feeling. Another American book that is worth a read is the 'The Great Risk Shift' by Jacob Hacker who explains how it is not just those at the bottom end of the income tree that are facing insecurity, it is the majority. A similar situation could well be happening in the UK but that will require further analysis. If my impression is right then therein lies an opportunity for a strong Labour argument.

There is no doubt that these insecurities exist and that is a natural corollary of globalised finance and corporate investment. And that is why, as Steve Richards eloquently argued, the prevailing political mood actually offers an opportunity for Labour. When your job, household income, housing costs are inherently unstable you then need active and interventionist government to counter-balance wider and unpredictable economic forces. Richards argued the fact that Northern Rock has been nationalised without obvious political cost demonstrates how the mood has changed. He's right and there is a discussion to be had about the appropriate level of regulation of financial markets and the need for consideration of how we can create more proactive financial watchmen.

Richards and Cruddas were on to something last night. Most importantly, the overarching messaging was that there is no clever set of tactics that will get Labour out of this. There needs to be a more fundamental re-think. And fast.

Wandering away from the event through Westminster Hall with a spring in my step, who should march in my direction? None other than the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron. If there was any danger of running away with the enthusiasm of the moment, this brought me quickly back down to earth. Game on.

Postscript: I also went to listen to James Purnell's lecture to the Fabian Society. His dismantling of the Tory argument on poverty as expressed in their 'Making British Poverty History' report was incisive and clear. His articulation of a more personalised, coordinated and responsive approach to eradicating child poverty was powerful. His analysis of where Labour is following last week's local elections was slightly optimistic about the current situation, resting as it did on the 'it's the economy' line but much of what he said chimed with what we heard later at the Compass event. There really is a way out of this.....over to you, Gordon.

Obama bounces back

It's been a rough few weeks for Barack Obama but last night's results are a big moment for him. To win North Carolina by a mile and to lose Indiana so narrowly has reclaimed the momentum for Obama. If he can now maintain the momentum once again the almost inevitable nomination will become inevitable.

The discussion about Hillary being his running mate has re-surfaced and it has some superficial attraction. It would re-unite the party and make Obama more appealing to some of those demographics that Obama has had relative difficulty in wooing. White, working-class voters is the demographic that springs to mind. It seems like a crazy idea in reality though. After all that Senator Clinton has said about and implied about Barack Obama it would be a difficult match to make work. Not only that, there is still the impression that Hillary and her cheer-leaders believe that Obama has stolen this nomination from them and she is the rightful nominee- a nomination that he has tactically deprived her of.

On top of that and more crucially, what may make some sense in the campaign most definitely will not make sense in the White House: there's two of them to contend with, all the baggage from the Clinton White House will return once again, the Republicans may be going easy on Hillary right now because they want to face her in the election (How do I know this? They keep on saying how she is the better candidate than Obama) but just wait until she's either on a ticket or in the White House itself. The logic of Hillary as VP nominee just doesn't stack up.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Iran hawks

Oliver Kamm (who has taken our debate onto his blog here), self-styled left-wing neo-con, is upset that I suggested that Hillary's threat to obliterate Iran (given this, given that....) was irresponsible.

I'll build my case on the argument rather than the more personal approach that Mr Kamm adopts in his response to my article on his blog. I based much (but not all) of my criticism of Senator Clinton on a US intelligence document, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. The conclusions (it's very short report so it's worth a read) are available here.

Just some highlights:

- Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme (as defined: For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.
- The DNI is 'moderately confident' that Iran could technically produce enough fissile material between 2010-2015. There is a 'possibility' that this will not be the case until after 2015.
- Iran halted the programme in 2003 in response to international pressure.
- It is 'moderately' confident that dissuading Iran from eventually developing a nuclear weapon will be difficult. Furthermore, it assesses with moderate to high confidence that Iran is keeping open the option of re-starting its nuclear weapons programme.
- It is 'moderately' confident that Iran would use covert sites to to develop high grade uranium. Such covert enrichment ceased in 2003 at the same time that the weapons programme halted.

So we have to be aware of the real possibility that Iran may still be pursuing a nuclear weapon by other means and will have the capability within a decade. We also have to acknowledge that, as things stand, its programme is halted and that there is enormous scope for negotiation and international pressure.

Mr Kamm, of course, reads a lot into my argument that wasn't there- I'd like him to show exactly where I assert or suggest that Iran is not a threat or a concern. Rather on the balance of the evidence contained within the NIE, a bellicose approach is just not justified.

And if you are a Presidential candidate who is asked ''if' Iran had a nuclear weapon and 'if' it attacked Israel what would you do?' and you respond 'we could obliterate them' then that is grossly irresponsible. The NIE suggests a more diplomatic and negotiated way forward. The scenario presented of a nuclear attack on Israel is just plucked out of the air.

You can see that Senator Obama responds in a very different way. See Meet The Press last Sunday. This must be why Mr Kamm groups Senators McCain and Clinton on these issues. He is right to. On the basis of recent comments both would constitute a continuation of neo-con foreign policy.

Of course, one major reason that you shouldn't threaten to 'obliterate Iran' is that it will actually be counter-productive. If you back Iran into a corner then any negotiated conclusion becomes less likely. Potential national humiliation is the enemy of progress on this threat. International support for our position will be diminished. Beyond that, be careful what you threaten you might just create a situation where you have to follow through....very quickly you can lose control of events.

Anyway, it's good to know that the hawks are watching over us....

Postscript: Hawks come in pairs it would seem. Stephen Pollard has repeated Oliver Kamm's points (for amplification presumably) mis-representing the argument all the way but that's a familiar tactic.

Of course, those silly Iranians won't hear Hillary threaten to 'obliterate' them. No one else will hear it either. It's just a political game. Has no impact. Hell, let's have some fun playing all sorts of scenarios through and issuing all sorts of threats. It's just deterrence. They don't know that the US has the biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet. So they have to be told....

It would seem that 'hearts and minds' still does not have a place in the neo-con's dictionary...

I do notice that Mr Pollard refers to Mr Kamm as the 'master.' Enough said.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Independent article: the dangers of the Iranian 'if'

I have a piece on The Independent's Open House today on Hillary Clinton's threat to obliterate Iran. It is below:

The dangers of the Iranian 'if'

Two teenagers on the 133 bus

I was on a bus going up Brixton Hill yesterday and found myself sat in front of an animated conversation about the Mayoral race between two teenagers. Two teenagers on their way out for the evening were discussing the new Mayor, Boris Johnson.

The young man, who supported for Boris, was gaining the upper hand, "Well he's gonna get rid of them bendy buses. They catch fire y'know. Whaddya call it? Spontaneous combustion innit? And Ken was a joke, man. The idea of of having a beach on the South Bank was nutty man. If yer from London why d'ya care about that? It's fine for tourists and that but what about Londoners? Y'know, the ones who are from 'ere."

His companion, a young lady of about the same age, was dumbfounded but spluttered, after a slight pause, "You need your 'ed testin'. You do know that Boris is a Tory don't you? I'm not saying I voted or naffin'. What's the point? But a Tory? What's wrong with you, man?"

The reply came, "Yeah but he's different to most of 'em. He's like a liberal more than a Tory. I'm not saying I voted either but if I did I'd vote for Boris."

"You need your 'ed sorted."

Make of the conversation what you will but there's no doubt the Mayoral race had an impact....

Sunday, 4 May 2008

The self-fulfilling prophet of doom

Well, our old friend Jeremiah Wright continues to make waves. I hoped that Obama's denunciation, rejection, repudiation, abhorrence, recantation, apostasy, and disassociation would be enough. But Obama is still very much on the defensive.

The Chicago Tribune sees the mad pastor as motivated by self-interest rather than pride. If America isn't the bigoted nation that Wright grew up in then what is his raison d'etre? It must be terrible to build a congregation on the basis of hatred and dispossession only to realise that your oppressors are not so scared and angry or so oppressive any more. I think this theory holds more than my frivolous Obi-Wan Kenobi metaphor.

In the same post, I suggested that Star Wars metaphors are cliched and geeky. They are. But this clip, linked to by Pickled Politics, takes the reference to a whole new level. Of course, Obi-Wan is Abraham Lincoln- that other gangly, skinny, Congresman from Illinois- rather than Jeremiah Wright. Enjoy.

It's not just the economy, stupid

So much, so much. Following the local election post mortem is like standing in the middle of the climax of a firework display. Every angle, every axe, every agenda is whizzing and fizzing around the pages of the Sunday press and TV studios. Gordon Brown must be reflecting on something wise that Tony Blair once said (not the only thing...) As you gain more experience, you learn to trust judgement over intelligence.

But the disagreements seem to be not just about 'where next?' but over 'what happened?' Two points to anyone who campaigned on Thursday are obvious:

i) It is not just suburban voters that are beginning to taste what it's like to vote Tory. It is traditional Labour support as well- in smaller numbers then their more affluent neighbours but significant nonetheless. Jon Cruddas' analysis in the Sunday Mirror is right. Ivan Lewis is optimistic in describing the elections as a 'suburban revolt.' Labour losses may have been concentrated in areas that had suburban characteristics but the quiet but significant switching of the traditional, working class could be just as corrosive to Labour's chances at the next election. Labour ignores this at its peril.

ii) It's not just the economy, stupid. Pocket book issues are hurting Labour, one of which, the abolition of the 10p tax rate, was self-inflicted. But this is more fundamental than that. The Government's achievement over more than a decade are tremendous but people are confused about the direction in which Labour is heading and they still feel that their lives and communities should be better. They are not wrong and the Government needs to answer their fears and insecurity.

So the best advice of the day? I think that has to go to Matthew Taylor, former Number Ten strategist. Define competence, tell people how it can be measured then focus exclusively on meeting the challenges that you've set for yourself.

Big policy documents and 'meeting long term challenges' are not the order of the day. Labour has two years, it is about reminding people what a Labour Government is about, why it is different to the Tories, why it is important, and showing that it can lead and deliver. So it's not just the economy, stupid. It is about showing that it is Labour that will make people's lives and communities better.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Some of the mist clears?

There's quite a bit of 'down and out' analysis this morning and there will be more of it over the weekend I'm sure. Martin Kettle and Matthew Parris both come to an apocalyptic conclusion.

John Curtice
in The Independent offers a more sanguine view. It's not over yet but boy does Labour have a job of work to do. My only quibble with his analysis is that he takes the economy as perhaps the overriding and predominant factor in voting motivation to the exclusion of almost everything else. There are broader factors at play here that Labour has to address.

One final analysis on the optimistic side by Hopi Sen is worth a read. Valiant and swash-buckling, Custer had nothing on Hopi. Cheered me up immensely. On one point in particular, I absolutely agree with Hopi- organisation is critical. In Rugby we were hit by the same factors as elsewhere (and yes the 10p tax abolition was an issue with white, working class voters in particular and, yes, many of them did vote Tory) but we didn't lose a seat as a result of some pretty keen targeting. That sort of targeting won't enable us to win back the Council but it keeps the Labour Group in tact and ready for better times. It was the equivalent of a defensive 0-0 away in the Champions League. But that is what was needed.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Boris Johnson wins

While I don't think this is very good news for London at all, I'm not going to leave the country as some are threatening. I hope Mr Johnson realises the huge responsibility that he has and conducts himself in a manner befitting this very important Mayoralty.

Ken was a very good Mayor in the main and that is worthy of recognition. His people dragged him down and he shouldn't have let that happen.

Local election aftermath

So the blood-letting begins. And already it has got off to a false start (and Mayoral results haven't been announced yet.) It has been characterised as the Progress line (don't forget the southern, middle-class) versus the Compass line (it's the core vote, stupid.) The reality is that if you read the Progress and Compass responses to last night's appalling results, they are basically arguing a similar and rather superficial point. Apparently, we have to assemble a winning coalition to win. Get it?

As Neal Lawson of Compass concedes, Labour has the to retain the support of both the working-class and middle-classes. The genius of Blairism is that it unified the interests of both. Now I don't see how a political strategy that achieved a majority of 64 in some the most trying of circumstances just three years ago can be described as 'dead' as Neal declares in his piece. My experience on the door-step yesterday is that Labour is hemorrhaging support from both the middle classes and the (white) working class. More worryingly than Neal Lawson suggests, the white, working class was often jumping straight to the Tories. The BNP were a fleeting concern and they have flatlined in this election with some local exceptions but it is the Tories who pose the major threat to Labour's core vote now.

Politics moves on and the priorities of the last ten years are not necessarily the same priorities of the next ten years. There is no doubt the Government has reached an impasse and only a new appeal will induce a recovery. This appeal can not be about sprinkling goodies on this group and that group as a desire to secure their allegiance. Instead Brown needs a clear vision, consistently and clearly communicated, and backed up by a political sensitivity.

What is that vision? Nothing I have heard so far is in any way convincing- 'big challenges', 'on your side', 'unlocking talents', it all sounds hackneyed and wan. We know we have to build a winning coalition. But how?